A Year In Review: 2014

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In many ways — continued warfare (declared or otherwise), the bleeding of the treasury, the erosion of civil rights — 2014 was a terrible year for liberty, at home and abroad. But it was a great year for Liberty Online! Check out some of our favorites from the year past, and let us know any we missed in the comments.

Thanks everybody for reading! We’ll be back with much more in 2015. And if you feel up to it, you can even donate to the Liberty Foundation—and your tax-deductible donation will go toward server costs, platform upgrades, and everything else that will help keep us going through the new year and beyond.



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The Broken and the Unbroken

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Despite our justifiable concerns regarding domestic surveillance (see my review of Citizenfour), electronic surveillance has served an important purpose during war time. Intercept the enemy’s plan of attack, and you can prevent that attack. During World War II, hundreds of Allied “ears” listened in on Axis radio communications, hoping to decode the embedded messages in time to thwart the Nazis’ plans.

However, this became nearly impossible after the Nazis developed a complex message-scrambling machine called Enigma. A group of genius linguists, logicians, and mathematicians was recruited to break the Enigma code, but the machine was so complex that it could generate an estimated 159 x 1018 possible codes. Making the task even more formidable was the fact that the code changed at midnight every day, giving the team approximately 18 hours from the time the first message was intercepted in the morning until they had to start over, searching for a completely new code. It would be easier for the miller’s daughter to spin flax into gold than for these geniuses to uncover the Enigma code. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians were dying minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Cracking the code could potentially end the war sooner and save hundreds of thousands of lives. They had to keep trying. Their story is told in an outstanding new film called The Imitation Game.

In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle.

The unlikely hero of our story is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a socially inept, possibly autistic mathematical genius who can break traditional codes in a matter of minutes but can’t interpret ordinary social codes created through facial gestures and tone of voice. “People never say what they really mean,” Turing complains quizzically, “and you’re just supposed to know.” For example, at one point another decoder says, “We’re getting lunch,” and Turing doesn’t respond. What the decoder meant, of course, was “Do you want to come with us?” But Turing can’t crack this simple code on his own.

Turing realizes the folly of trying to break the Nazis’ code in traditional ways; it would take 20 million years to go through all the possibilities, and they have 18 hours a day. So he turns his efforts toward building a machine that can run through all the possibilities automatically, in milliseconds. The other decoders resent Turing’s obsession with the machine, because it takes him away from their traditional decoding. One member of the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) believes in him. Clarke is a bit of a misfit herself, as she is the only woman on the team, and math is considered a “manly” pursuit. She teaches Turing how to play the social game that will give him the time and support needed to develop his “imitation game” — the computer.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing is spot on. Admittedly, he has experience with characters who are emotionally detached — he played, for example, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the title character in the TV series Sherlock (2010), and the forlorn boy whose best friend is a horse in War Horse (2011). In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle. While the other characters lean into each other, eyes aglow, faces expressing sorrow or concern or cheerfulness as they speak, Turing’s face is blank. His eyes focus just in front of the person to whom he is speaking; his face remains placid, his forehead unfurled. He is different, and because he is different he is unliked. We see this especially in flashbacks to his school experience, where all but one of the boys treat him cruelly. He is used to it, but he doesn’t like it. And he struggles to break that social code.

Turing developed his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think.

But there is more to Turing’s “imitation game” than the computer he longs to build. He is hiding a secret that, if discovered, could destroy his career and land him in jail — or worse, as it turns out. Winston Churchill heralded him as the greatest hero of World War II — responsible for ending the war two years early and saving hundreds of thousands of lives — yet because of this secret in his personal life he was arrested, convicted, and punished in the cruelest and most shameful way. For as long as he could, Turing lived an imitation life, hiding his true self and pretending to be someone he was not.

Turing’s story is an important one. He was a genius and a hero, yet he was shunned, bullied, and punished simply for being different, first by his schoolmates, then by his decoding team, and finally by the government he helped to save. Through all of this Turing continued to develop his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think. As Joan Clarke says, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do things no one could imagine.” Understanding and assimilating this truth makes this film well worth watching.

Another film set in World War II also focuses on an unlikely hero. In this case his actions did not affect the outcome of the war, but his endurance, strength, and faith became an example to many who heard or read his story. Unbroken is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about Louis Zamperini, who spent 45 days in a life raft after his plane crashed at sea and then spent the final two years of the war in a Japanese prison camp. His ability to survive both experiences and buoy the courage of his fellow sufferers is an inspiring story of individual heroism.

Zamperini did not start out as a typical hero. He was a hooligan — often in trouble with the law for petty theft and just as likely to end up in a local prison as a Japanese one. The son of Italian immigrants, he, too, was bullied for being different. The local sheriff encouraged him to turn his swiftness at running from the cops to a more productive pursuit, and he joined the high school track team, eventually competing in the Berlin Olympics. Had the war not started, he would likely have gone to Tokyo as an Olympic competitor rather than a prisoner of war. These early experiences helped Zamperini develop survival instincts and endurance that served him well during his those brutal two years.

The film opens with a thrilling dogfight as Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his flight crew ward off incoming flak in order to drop bombs on a Japanese target. After some expositional flashbacks to his childhood, it continues with the harrowing crash into the sea and Zamperini’s heroic leadership as he kept the three survivors motivated to stay alive in the life raft for an astounding 45 days. These scenes are the best in the film, capturing the teamwork, loyalty, and danger that are integral to the story.

Zamperini and his flight mates are rescued from certain death at sea, only to land in worse conditions within a Japanese prison camp. There they are isolated, starved, beaten, and threatened with beheading. Pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) is pitifully emaciated, and his ribs and hipbones stick out as though they could poke right through his tissue-paper skin. (Gleeson lost so much weight for the role that even his contact lenses wouldn’t fit.)

As told by Jolie and the Coens, the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import.

Camp Commander Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) takes a particular dislike to Zamperini, shown by the almost psychotic cunning in his eyes. He is often filmed over the shoulders of an American soldier, staring menacingly into the camera, which gives the audience the eerie sensation of standing within the line of POWs. The actor, composer, and guitarist, known professionally in Japan as Miyavi, has a strangely androgynous look that adds to the unsettling effect of his character. First time director Angelina Jolie has a good eye for composition throughout the film (or perhaps the credit should go to seasoned cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is known for such outstanding films as Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, A Beautiful Mind, andTrue Grit [2010]).

Unbroken is a good film, but it is not a great film, and it certainly does not live up to the quality of the book on which it is based (but then, few films ever do). The audience suffers the torment of the main character, and we admire his triumphant victory over horrifying circumstances — his ability to take whatever unfair treatment is meted out to him. Jack O’Connell deserves the accolades he has been receiving as most promising new performer. But the film falls strangely flat, especially in comparison to The Imitation Game. The story has no central conflict outside of the beatings and torture, giving it an oddly plodding pace.

Moreover, as told by Jolie and the Coens (who wrote the screenplay), the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import, and stops short of telling the lasting impact his experience had on others. While in the lifeboat, Zamperini made a vow to devote his life to God if he survived the experience, and he did — Zamperini joined Billy Graham’s crusade and told his inspirational story for many years as a way of encouraging people to face obstacles with courage and patience.

Unbroken had all the ingredients of an enduring film — outstanding, dedicated cast; seasoned, talented cinematographer; award-winning screenwriters; beautifully written book; and a heroic, uncompromising central character. It’s good. But it’s broken.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Imitation Game," directed by Morten Tyldum. Weinstein Company, 2014, 114 minutes; and "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie. Universal Pictures, 2014, 137 minutes.



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¡VIVA OBAMA!

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On May 4, 2009, President Obama greeted the Mexican Ambassador and others to the White House, saying “Welcome to Cinco de Quatro . . .”

Now, Cinco de Mayo is the holiday that celebrates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Quatro, on the other hand, means the something like “the Fifth of Four,” or maybe “Five from Four.” President Obama, with his usual aplomb, quickly corrected himself amidst friendly laughter and gave a nice speech that was very well received. Here it is.

That speech has given me the courage to write this piece. Should I make a fool of myself by stretching my limited knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history to the breaking point, it comforts me to know that I am not speaking on camera to Mexican dignitaries at the White House.

For much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.

This essay will begin with three colorful anecdotes that illustrate Latin American-style authoritarianism generally, and then survey the origins and history of Mexico’s presidency in particular. Next will come a biographical sketch of Jorge Ramos, the newly famous Univision news anchor. The recent decision by President Obama to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) is then examined with an emphasis on Mr. Ramos’ contribution to that decision. In conclusion, a modest proposal is made. It is hoped that this admittedly odd juxtapositioning will provide a vantage point from which we can gain a fresh perspective on the president’s historic initiative about immigration.

I

That Latin American heads of government have tended to be relatively more authoritarian than American presidents is not news. Where to start? Pinochet? Perón? Samoza? Batista? Trujillo? There are so many. I know, let’s start with Esposito.

In his 1971 film Bananas, Woody Allen imagines a revolution in San Marcos, a fictitious Central American country. Esposito, the leader of the guerillas, played by Jacobo Morales, gives a victory speech from a balcony in the capital square, saying, “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour! Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check!” The movie is a comedy. Here's the clip.

I read somewhere that Mr. Allen is not proud of his early work.

In February 2010, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela strode into a square in downtown Caracas with his entourage, the city’s mayor, and a TV crew. Standing in the square, he pointed to a building, asked a few questions about it, and then summarily ordered the building to be expropriated by the state. He did this over and over, with lots of buildings. He wasn’t kidding. This version is captioned in English.

Now, you tell me: Who was funnier, Esposito or Chavez?

Latin American authoritarianism is more subtly on display in the marvelous ESPN documentary, “Brothers in Exile.” It is the story of two Cuban baseball players who defected to the United States. In 1997, one of them, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, fled the country in a small fishing boat, leaving his family behind. In 1998, John Cardinal O’Connor sent a lay emissary, Mario Paredes, to Cuban President Fidel Castro with a letter requesting that Hernández’s family be allowed to join him in the US. When Paredes entered the president’s office, Castro was watching Hernandez help the Yankees win the World Series. Upon reading the letter, Castro told the emissary that Orlando was, “a good muchacho; one of the glories of Cuba.” Castro allowed the family to fly with Paredes to New Jersey the same day. Meanwhile, Mr. Juan Hernández Nodar, a Cuban-American baseball scout, was left to languish in a hellish Cuban prison for the remaining 11 years of his 13 year sentence for the heinous crime of unsuccessfully attempting to recruit “El Duque” in Cuba two years before. Nodar's story is worth reading.

Fidel Castro is affectionately known as “El Commandante.”

II

As the focus now narrows to Mexico, the question arises: What stirs this authoritarian impulse?

The pre-Columbian empires and societies of Mexico, it has been said, did little to prepare their people for participatory democracy, as they were less interested in human rights than human sacrifices.

The Spanish monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, some point out, weren’t fond of the notion of “the separation of powers.” They preferred the “top-down” model of governance.

It is also unlikely that the centuries-long Moorish occupation of Spain, the grueling Reconquista, and the Spanish Inquisition did much to create sympathy for the tradition of the “loyal opposition” or to enhance the practice of compromise in the governance of colonial or post-colonial Mexico.

The conquistadores and caudillos, others say, cared little for systems that included any significant “check” on their authority. The only real “balance” in the system was the usurper waiting in the wings. (The most frequent “balancer” might have been Antonio López de Santa Anna, the eleven-time President of Mexico. Yes, eleven.)

In Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto suggests that the “more or less continuous democratic development, constitutional propriety, and rule of law” in the US was possible because its revolution was fought before the Napoleonic Wars. The continuing “incapacitated political chaos” of Latin America he attributes, at least in part, to its revolutions being fought after “the French Revolution had dissolved the Enlightenment in blood and sanctified crimes committed in liberty’s name.” He may be right. It is certainly true that Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the same year that Napoleon died.

The theories that seek to explain the tendency toward authoritarianism are many, complex, and sometimes contradictory, but this much is clear: whether Left or Right, military or civilian, whether the result of a coup, an election, or a revolution, the government of Mexico has generally sported a robust executive branch and spindly and dependent legislative and judicial branches. There have been exceptions, of course, here and there, now and then, and things are changing, some say for the better, but the generalization stands: for much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.

While Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.

Enrique Krause’s book, Mexico, Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810–1996, tells the life stories of the leaders of Mexico from the War of Independence until 1996. He conceptualizes the history of Mexico as the struggle to achieve a true democracy in a country where, as the title suggests, the presidents have wielded enormous arbitrary power and, as a result, have had disproportionate personal influence on the uneven evolution of Mexican society. Much of the book details the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990 called “the perfect dictatorship.” Krause details endemic corruption, pervasive nepotism, massive expropriations, suicides, assassinations, mass atrocities, and elections rigged with live fire. He gives praise where he thinks it due but does not pull his punches in criticizing those who have thwarted the establishment of a real constitutional democracy.

To be fair, Krause’s book was published in 1997, and thus does not include the end of the PRI’s long run in 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency, nor the subsequent reelection of the PRI’s candidate in 2012. Fortunately, in an opinion piece in the December 11, 2014, New York Times, Krause updated his view of the presidency of Mexico:

The long rule of the PRI became a source of corruption that led, in the final decades of the 20th century, to the enrichment of politicians with ties to major drug traffickers. Many of us believed that all this would disappear with the advent of democracy in 2000, when the PRI fell from power after 71 years. We were wrong. The sudden limitations put on the near-monarchical powers of the president had the positive effect of liberating legal local powers (governors and mayors), but it also gave new strength to illegal local powers (drug traffickers and organized crime operatives), who recognized and utilized the weakness of control within the new democratic state to expand their national influence.

So, it seems that while Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.

III

Even the most patient reader must now be asking what in the world all of this has to do with what whitehouse.gov calls “the President’s Immigration Accountability Executive Actions.” Bear with me.

Who is Jorge Ramos?

Jorge Ramos was born in Mexico City in 1958. Tim Padgett, writing in Time (Aug. 22, 2005), explains that “as a 24-year-old reporter in Mexico City, Jorge Ramos felt choked by more than just the capital's notorious smog. Tired of censorship from Mexico's then ruling party, the PRI, Ramos bolted for Los Angeles in 1983.” Ramos himself said in his Nov. 26, 2014, speech accepting the Benjamin Burton Memorial Award, “I came to the U.S. after they tried to censor me in Mexico.” Hispanic Culture Online confirms that when he was a young reporter for Televisa in Mexico City, his stories were often censored to placate the PRI. By 1984 he had found work as a cub reporter for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles, an affiliate of the Spanish-language network, Univision.

Now based in Miami, Jorge Ramos has been the anchor for Univision since 1986 and is the most influential Spanish-language journalist in the country. It could even be argued that he is the most influential journalist, period, given that his English-only competition is fragmented and preoccupied with chasing ratings. After all, 17% of Americans are of Hispanic origin.

In political matters, Ramos does not pretend to be neutral. As he said in the acceptance speech, “When we deal with the powerful, we have to take a stand. Yes, we have to take an ethical decision and side with those who have no power.” In the December 1 issue of Time, reporter Michael Scherer writes that Ramos “is not just a newscaster, but an advocate and an agitator” More specifically, he is a leader of Hispanics in the US, especially the undocumented. As Ramos told Scherer, “Now, with the new numbers, we are being seen. Our voice is being heard.”

Again: who is Jorge Ramos? Here’s a composite portrait: one part Jesse Jackson, spokesman and advocate for an aggrieved minority. One part Sam Donaldson, whose tenacious questioning style annoyed many presidents. Maybe one part Zorro, the mythological figure who championed poor Californios in their struggle against Spanish tyranny. And perhaps a dash of Emiliano Zapata, the hero of the campesinos in their quest to recover their land, and even a bit of Miguel Hidalgo, the Mexican creole priest who first raised the banner of rebellion against Spain. Oh, and more than a little bit of César Chávez. In a sense, one could say that Jorge Ramos is an archetypal Mexican hero.

A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another.

When he interviews, he easily can be imagined as a matador, poised gracefully, awaiting the charge of the bull, his sword concealed in his muleta, his small red cape, ready to deliver the estocada, the death blow. For example, Padgett relates how Jorge Ramos once asked Fidel Castro if he ever planned to have real elections. Castro’s bodyguard slugged Ramos. Really.

The transcript and video of his acceptance speech at the Press Freedom Awards is here.

IV

On May 28, 2008, in Denver, presidential candidate Barack Obama said this to Mr. Ramos: “What I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.”

On September 20, 2012, in Miami, a disappointed Mr. Ramos pressed Mr. Obama, “At the beginning of your governing, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise.”

Ramos was undeterred by the president’s lengthy and somewhat unresponsive answer: “It was a promise, Mr. President. And I don't want to — because this is very important, I don’t want to get you off the explanation. You promised that. And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”

The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law.

Well. Let’s split a few hairs. Between those two interviews there was a global financial crisis and the start of what some have called the Great Recession. Dealing with those problems and the Affordable Care Act, the president had what might be called a full plate. Sure, the healthcare law was a choice but, in the end, the fact that there was no immigration bill that he could promote or support is really not so surprising.

It is the president’s answer to Ramos’ “broken promise” charge that is of greatest interest:

There’s the thinking that the President is somebody who is all powerful and can get everything done. In our branch of — in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature; I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done.

The quoted passages from the two interviews are in this video; the transcripts are from politifacts and whitehouse.gov.

The president’s response to the immigration question was unremarkable. There’s nothing in it that every high school Civics student isn’t taught. (But is Civics still taught?) He’d said it many times before and would say it many times more. In fact, on Nov. 19, 2014, Matt Wolking, a spokesman for John Boehner, compiled a chronological list of 22 quotations in which Barack Obama states that he does not have the power to reform the immigration laws on his own. Reading them is a bit like watching those old time-lapse photography sequences. At first, in 2008, like the constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago that he once was (OK, Senior Lecturer), he criticizes his predecessor for going outside the boundaries of the powers given to the president in the constitution. (“That’s what I intend to reverse when I’m president.”) Then, you can hear the frustration with Congress grow. (“I’m not a king.” “I’m not an emperor.”) The list is here. It’s worth the read.

And then, on Nov. 20, 2014, Obama expanded his constitutionally questionable DACA program to include parents, thereby deferring the deportation of up to 5 million illegal immigrants.

The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law. And on Nov. 25, 2014, he said exactly that to a heckler urging him to stop all deportations. Watch.

It is said that the president “misspoke.”

It is possible that the president had concluded months earlier that he had the power to change laws unilaterally. Here he is walking with French President François Hollande in February 2014. If you listen carefully, you will hear Obama say, “That’s the good thing about being the President: I can do whatever I want.” Listen.

This comment is sometimes called a “quip” — you know, like the time Louis XIV quipped, “I am the state.” Or when Mel Brooks quipped, “It’s good to be the king.”

Mexico is present within the life of the United States and it will be so more and more through the years to come. By coming to know Mexico, North Americans can learn to understand an unacknowledged part of themselves.” — Octavio Paz, 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature, from the dust jacket of Mexico: Biography of Power, by Enrique Krauze

V

A young journalist flees a land with an authoritarian presidency that censors his work to go to land that has a Constitution that actually protects his freedom of speech. He then uses that freedom to badger the president of his new home into overreaching his constitutional limits. He encourages the president to singlehandedly change a law that applies to millions of people. That the law needs changing is not the point. And it is not the fault of the now middle-aged journalist that the president succumbs to the goading. The journalist should know, however, that he has, perhaps inadvertently, even innocently, nudged the presidency of his new home in the direction of the authoritarian presidency of the land he once fled. A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law, you see, has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another. Who knows? He may even change the laws governing censorship.

President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.

In 1998, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison crowned Bill Clinton “The First Black President.” It’s sadly ironic that President Obama has disappointed so many African-Americans. The hope for change that filled them has largely faded. Poverty rates, home ownership, household incomes, and net worth have not improved during his first six years. Here are the sad facts.

On the other hand, President Obama did deliver real changes for undocumented immigrants, most of whom, like Mr. Ramos, came to the US from Mexico. President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.

In recognition of the good he has done for these immigrants and because he did it in a way that approximates the “near-monarchical powers” of the presidents of the PRI party in its heyday, it is hereby proposed that Barack Obama be crowned “The First Mexican President.”

¡Viva Obama!

***

Outtake: An interesting passage from the badgering Fusion / Univision interview of Barack Obama by Jorge Ramos, Nashville, on Tuesday, December 9:

RAMOS: But if you — as you were saying, you always had the legal authority to stop deportations, then why did you deport two million people?

POTUS: Jorge, we’re not going to—

RAMOS: For six years you did it.

POTUS: No. Listen, Jorge—

RAMOS: You destroyed many families. They called you deporter-in-chief.

POTUS: You called me deporter-in-chief.

RAMOS: It was Janet Murguia from La Raza.

POTUS: Yeah, but let me say this, Jorge—

RAMOS: Well, you could have stopped deportations.

POTUS: No, no, no.

RAMOS: That’s the whole idea.

POTUS: That is not true. Listen, here’s the fact of the matter.

RAMOS: You could have stopped them.

/em




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What’s in a Cliché?

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For a long time this column has been harping on the idea, or fact, that President Obama is a terrible speaker and writer. I have suggested that his style might improve if he tried reading books.

Back when this harper started harping on this harp, as the Bible puts it (Revelation 14:2), these ideas were radically revisionist. Even Obama’s opponents said such things as “Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric,” “Despite Obama’s eloquence,” “Despite President Obama’s gift for language,” “Despite the president’s professorial yet persuasive speeches . . . his programs stink. “ When the source of the smell was sought, no one considered the possibility that this president (as his professional fans often call him, as if he had to be carefully distinguished from the common run of presidents) had little talent and less learning.

Now, however, one seldom hears compliments either to his knowledge or to his literary ability. His best friends don’t speak in those terms. Even the theory that he authored his own books and speeches has evaporated. No one refers to his books as if they were useful in figuring him out, and his statements and attitudes are frequently attributed to “the White House.” And while this evaporation presents his defenders with the opportunity to separate the literary genius in the Oval Office from the literary hacks buried somewhere else in the West Wing, no one seems to be trying that means of excusing him. It seems to have occurred to others besides myself that a literary genius should, after all, be capable of detecting literary errors and absurdities in the words he recites from his teleprompters, and then firing the imbeciles and philistines who wrote that stuff. But Obama neither detects nor dismisses.

The literary problem may, in fact, be getting worse. In an attempt to mobilize liberal Christians in support of his pro-immigration program, the president has been going about citing Scripture, or what he thinks is Scripture. He has compared Mary and Joseph to illegal aliens, crudely half-modernized a familiar gospel verse (Matthew 7:3–5, Luke 6:41–42) by saying we should "make sure we're looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks' eyes," and claimed (folksier still) that "the good book says, don't throw stones in glass houses.” Please don’t ask me what that has to do with immigration. But I do know that “the good book” (now really, who calls it that?) doesn’t mention stones in glass houses.

It’s not a matter of the Bible’s “not exactly” saying that, as the Washington Post labored to show. It doesn’t say it at all. It couldn’t. There was no such thing as plate glass in the first century A.D. Like “cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Social Security is a great idea,” stones and glass houses are nowhere in the Bible.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably.

Well, you don’t expect presidents to have a photographic memory for books, do you? No, I don’t. But I do expect them to have some memory of books, especially the books they want to quote. And if they don’t remember, they ought to know that they don’t remember, or (in this case) know that they never read those books in the first place. If you’re a literary genius, or a genius of any kind, or just a normal person, you know such things about yourself. And there’s a way of dealing with them. Should you wish to quote a passage, you look the passage up. With the Bible, this is extremely easy. Innumerable websites (try, for instance, this one) offer concordances to the Bible. And if you are a stranger to the word “concordance,” you can still search the Scriptures with some probability of finding what you want. Just google the phrase. This is another thing “the White House” seems incapable of doing.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably. Try to think of an occasion on which Obama or his employees have betrayed the slightest skepticism about their own knowledge and judgment. Another, complementary, explanation is a total lack of curiosity about anything having to do with words — what words mean, where words come from, what words may suggest.

Consider Obama’s use of clichés. Now, without clichés we would not have politics. The great unwritten book is a study of the role of clichés in instigating, shaping, confusing, and sometimes destroying the political process. Alas, it is a book that may never be written, because anyone with the knowledge and taste to write it would be too disgusted to pursue the project. But if there were such a book, Obama would get one of the longest chapters. His entire career has been devoted to clichés (subspecies, buzzwords): change, community, middle class, race in this country, comprehensive reform, guilty of walking while black, transparency, facing broader challenges, people who want to shut down the government, draw a red line, draw a line in the sand, draw a red line in the sand . . . . They never stop. And without them he would have no career.

But often he can’t even get the clichés right. In the present instance, the cliché he was trying to use was, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” OK. Picture someone living in a glass house. Picture that person throwing a stone. What is the direction of the stone? Outward. He’s throwing the stone at a house inhabited by another person. The cliché implies that he should not do this, because that other person will then feel licensed to throw a stone back into the glass house.Now visualize this scene as Obama represented it when he said, “Don’t throw stones in glass houses.” What the hell does that mean? Don’t throw stones inside your own glass house? Well, no, I wouldn’t do that. But thanks for your advice — whatever it was. This kind of saying could never become a cliché. It isn’t even that good. In fact, it isn’t good for anything.

If you think none of this is significant, that’s your right. If so, however, I hope you weren’t one of those people who laughed themselves silly over the difficulties George Bush experienced with the pronunciation of “nuclear” (“newk-yoo-ler”) and thought that this kind of thing disqualified him from the presidency. Bush was, in my opinion, not a good president, at all; but he did read books. More importantly, he didn’t try to establish his intellectual credentials on the basis of stuff he had (supposedly) written.

The obvious question is: if it’s that “deeply rooted,” why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing.

But Obama’s way with a cliché becomes even more disturbing when he manages to quote a cliché correctly. In an interview released on December 7, he commented on the wave of protests over the deaths of two young black men, allegedly murdered by police, and he asserted that racism is “deeply rooted in our society.” The context made it clear that he was referring to white racism against black people. He was inviting the nation to participate in yet another spasm of soul-searching over “race in America,” with himself as priest and confessor. He was also trying to provide a rationale for people like Eric Holder to create new means of expanding the federal government’s mechanisms of control over thought and action throughout the country. From this point of view, protests are fine and useful, but only to soften up the territory for the federal police. If a problem is “deeply rooted,” then enormous power needs to be amassed to root it out, right? Obama’s cliché was an attempt to give a familiar, domestic tone, a tone of common sense, to new usurpations of power.

Very well. But when one looks at the other implications of the cliché, one soon sees meanings that were not in the president’s control. Why is white racism so “deeply rooted,” after so much effort to root it out? Perhaps because it’s in so deep that it’s hard to find the damn thing.

A story: I grew up a few miles from a small Midwestern industrial city with a sizable African-American population. I can tell you that in those times white racism was not deeply rooted — it was right on the surface. If an interracial couple dared to appear on a main street of town, everyone turned and noticed, and the mood was not friendly. There was a serious chance that violence would occur. The local paper ran wedding pictures of white brides but not of black brides. It called black preachers “reverend” and white preachers “the reverend.” But although I still spend quite a bit of time in small towns back in the Midwest, it has been years since I heard a racist comment of any kind.

A second story: a few years ago, a friend and I were eating ribs in one of those restaurants where the waitresses call you “hon.” This was in Southern California. Sitting in a booth near us was a pair of white guys. They were, I believe, construction guys, and they spoke with the volume and vocabulary appropriate to construction sites. They reviewed, in great, loud, and profane detail, the defects of their boss, their clients, and their associates, not to mention their ex-wives. No holds were barred (how’s that for a cliché?), and certainly there was no hesitation about the use of epithets. Then they turned to the behavior of a fellow worker who was African-American. They didn’t like him. They didn’t like anyone, and that included the black guy. But when they started in on him, they lowered their voices. Their noise dropped so low that my friend and I, suddenly interested, had to strain to listen. We expected to hear something really blistering. But what we heard was this. “I got nothin’ against his race,” one of them said; “I just got no respect for him.” “No,” the other one said, “not if he can’t come to work on time.” There followed a long discussion of punctuality.

You can say that “I got nothin’ against his race” is merely a clichéd cover-up for racism, but these weren’t guys who cared about covering things up. And anyone could see that at the moment there were no black people in the restaurant, so there was no need to conceal anything from them. The two guys might have worried that white people could take offense, but if so, they would just be recognizing the lack of racism among their fellow whites. Suppose, however, that these men were actually concealing something, if only from themselves. Suppose the something was their deeply rooted racism. The obvious question is: if it’s that deeply rooted, why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing. Leave it buried. Yet the president thinks that deeply rooted feelings are exactly what the government should be concerned with.

Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

“Words are the tools of the thinker,” a wise woman said. “If you saw a man chopping wood with a hoe and mowing with a shovel, would you hire him as a foreman?” Words are the tools of thought, and there are cases in which incompetence with words reveals an incompetence to hold power. This is one of those cases.

Would you like another example of linguistic and political incompetence in high places? Yes? Then you shall have it.

As I write, the nation is saying a long good-bye to Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, whose moronic use of language has long been a dependable source of entertainment. (Hagel resigned quite a while ago, but he hasn’t yet managed to find the door.) On November 24, Reid Cherlin, who knew Hagel well, published an eloquently mordant farewell in The New Republic. It describes the author’s arduous yet futile attempt to find anything sensible in anything that Hagel ever said. Among the remarks that Cherlin quotes is Hagel’s meditation on the situation in the Middle East:

Well, I just got off the phone with the defense minister of Israel. We have to stay very engaged with all of our allies and partners, specifically in the region. You know— I’ve said, and you know from President Obama and Secretary Kerry and others— we’ve been talking all the time with our allies and partners all over the world, but specifically in the Middle East. Any action carries with it risks and consequences. And as I said, inaction does, too. And so you have to assess all that, based on this scenario, based on this option, what might be a Syrian response or Iranian response or a Hezbollah response. Sure. That’s why allies are key to this. But as I’ve said, whatever action is taken, we feel very confident about that action…

Cherlin accurately characterizes this as “ragged chains of platitudes and caveats.” The Secretary of Defense (i.e., War) talked and talked, but Cherlin found it impossible to locate, in any of this babble, “his own philosophy about the use of force.” Of the proposed US attacks on Syria, Hagel said, “This is not going to war in another country, as defined probably by most wars.”

The more I look at that sentence, the sadder I am that Hagel will be leaving us. Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

At this point in our experience as a people (now there’s a cliché that can be used in almost any sentence) I have a sense of anticlimax. We see, at the end of 2014, an apparently endless vista of small, dumpy, incoherent yet fanatically talkative figures, men and women who have never read a book or thought that they needed to, graduates (in the main) of elite schools in which social attitudes were the sole text requiring close attention, beneficiaries of a political process in which literacy carries no premium at all. Bill Clinton, sage of the Democratic Party, who studied memos but never books. His wife, Mrs. Clinton, who hired people to write her “highly personal” accounts of her own life. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, that grossly unworthy successor of Henry Clay, James K. Polk, James G. Blaine, John Carlisle, and Thomas Reed — all highly literate men, whatever you think of their politics, and some of them masters of the English language. Jeb Bush, the intellectual lumpenproletarian, with all the lumps showing. Elizabeth Warren, the brainless social worker, straight out of Sinclair Lewis. Nancy Pelosi, the unworthy successor of Apple Annie. And there are more, many more.

In future editions of this column, their linguistic adventures will be chronicled, as thoroughly as you or I can stand it. But right now — I want to thank all readers of Word Watch for their warm and continuous interest in its attempts to turn farce into comedy. I hope that this year ends happily for you, and that the next year renews and multiplies your happiness, so that there is neither climax nor anticlimax, but only the continuous joy of free people.




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Do We Lack Impartial Media?

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Recently I saw a webpage that told the story of a veiled Muslim woman complaining, at the checkout counter of a supermarket in Canada, about Veterans’ Day and Canadian involvement in Iraq. The story ended with the cashier asking the Muslim woman to go back to Iraq, the place she had emigrated from. The cashier even offered to help her pack and finance her ticket back.

It took me no more than a minute to figure out that this was a fake story. The same story, with the scene changed to the US, Australia, and the UK, has been posted during the past eight years on many websites made for the gullible.

There are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting?

Within hours of its posting, a couple hundred thousand people had “liked” and shared the Canadian story. Responses, mostly from Americans and Canadians, spewed hatred for Muslims, with a strange combination of extreme arrogance and utter ignorance. “Leave my country. Just go,” said one. My feeling of unease was no different from what I get when I meet Muslim or Hindu fanatics.

Ten years back, I had lunch with a well-known public-policy analyst in Vancouver. In his view, nations have so many conflicts because people do not have access to full information. They are force-fed what entrenched interests in government and big media want them to believe. He told me that our job is to disseminate information in the most balanced way we can, to fight corrupt interests.

My argument was that there are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting? He went on arguing that the alternative channels are not popular enough for people to access; our job is to help these alternative media improve their standing.

His charisma and experience convinced me to agree with him.

On another occasion, however, I had a talk with a scholar in which I was able to present a different view. My idea was that there are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex. I had no exact number, for there are no statistics on it, but I claimed anything between 50% and 70% fell into this category. These guys don’t have bad intentions. They just want to carry on their lives unhindered. If not provoked and indoctrinated, they don’t have many views of their own. They normally do what the authorities tell them to. They believe what they are asked to believe. They go shopping and buy small cans of Coke — whereas, in their position, I would buy big bottles from Costco. I have nothing against them. Part of me even envies them, for their capacity to live in the moment without worrying about the future.

There is another perhaps 5% to 10% of the population that would have belonged to the above, except that they developed a sort of activist mindset and a high sense of the self and its “rights.” If they went to the university, they never studied; they spent all their time partying and drinking. They never really understood what research is. In a democracy, they have views and truly believe that they matter, irrespective of whether the people who hold them can produce a rational analysis or not. Soundbites are their philosophy. They never bother to look at the major contradictions that lie just below the surface of their ideas. Suffering from a sort of impotence, they also carry hatred toward people who are better off than they are. In an ideal world, none of them would have been admitted to the university. They would have saved resources and allowed the flow of wisdom to be less polluted. But the cocktail of their ignorance and arrogance allows them to speak up very confidently in public. They have the psychology of Marxists, even if they don’t call themselves Marxists. They are modern collectivists but ironically tribal, always with an enemy in mind. They are the ones who “liked” the above story of the Muslim woman in Canada. These are the kind I call fanatics, rabble-rousers.

The fanatics are the agents setting the theme and tone of society’s emotions. They decide who is next to be hated, based on simplistic soundbites of climate change, communism, capitalism, people in faraway places, etc. They don’t really get anything personally out of their unfocused, unexamined agitations; they are pawns in the hands of the warmongers, politicians, lobbyists, pursuers of corporate interests, and so forth, who contribute some of the 5% of clinical sociopaths in the population. Alas, they also agitate and affect the opinions of the 50% to 70% who are basically uninterested in politics and in philosophy.

The scholar convinced me that these people — sociopaths and fanatics — were mere products of their circumstances and that all we needed to do was provide them with love and understanding, to nudge them into a rational way of thinking.

And yet . . .

I grew up in the small city of Bhopal in India, under a socialist system. There were a couple of newspapers, both of them private but for all practical purposes controlled by the state, and two radio stations, both operated directly by the government. I had no concept of what television was until my last year of school. For all practical purposes the outside world did not exist. Our access to information was rare and so extremely difficult that we had developed extreme competencies in looking for rumors, analyzing them for inherent flaws, and filtering out what was likely the truth. After some event occurred, it was often days before we saw the official news reports, but we had usually worked out what was happening with a very high level of accuracy.

There are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex.

Today, despite hundreds of TV channels, smartphones, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc., the reality hasn’t changed much. In Bhopal, those who don’t care still don’t know. Those who think they know, but don’t know, look for information to rationalize what they want to believe in — as they did before. The proportion of those who really want to know the truth still know it, and this number hasn’t changed despite proliferation of information.

During the last decade, the situation in Vancouver hasn’t changed either.

I am back to my initial position on whether the media is responsible for our lack of information and our social conflicts. Depending on what our paradigms and worldviews are, we either look for the truth with curiosity to change our views, add to them, and give them more nuances; or we look for what helps us rationalize what we already believe in, unprepared to go through the pain of changing ourselves. Big media and big government may be crooks, but they are merely symptoms of our failure as a society to be eternally vigilant.




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To Praise or to Push?

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“No two words are more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job.’” So says Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) when asked why he humiliates and browbeats his students. Fletcher is the menacing, profanity-spewing, name-calling, face-slapping, chair-hurling, off-balancing dictator of the Shaffer School of Music, who also happens to be the most sought-after band coach in the most sought-after music school in New York — which, as everyone knows, is the same as saying in the world.

Fletcher uses tactics more common to a football coach or a drill sergeant than a musician. Members of his elite studio jazz orchestra cower beneath his scrutiny, stammer uncertain responses to such basic questions as “Were you out of tune?” and avert their eyes in terror as he surveys the group. Yet these are among the most skilled young musicians in the world! And not one would willingly yield his spot in the group. They have struggled and practiced all their lives just to be selected by this tyrant.

If someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing?

Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is a student drummer who has been tapped for the studio band by His Greatness, Sir Fletcher. But to maintain his spot, he must compete every day, every practice, every song, with the drummer he is trying to replace and with the drummer who is trying to replace him. This constant competition drives him to practice until his hands are bloody, his body is dripping with sweat, and he is as utterly exhausted as a marathon runner. And still he doesn’t measure up. The taunting, jeering epithets rain down on him from the pompous coach, daring him to quit, daring him to fight back, daring him to prove that he is the best.

This kind of pressure is typical in sports and elite military training, but if applied in the music world, it causes the viewer to contemplate the balance between encouragement and abuse. How much is too much? If “good job” and “self-esteem” can lead to complacency and mediocrity, won’t constant humiliation lead to discouragement and giving up? Fletcher would say that anyone who gives up never had the talent and the drive in the first place. But if someone does have the talent and the drive, does he need the humiliation? Won’t he drive himself to achieving his best work without the terrorizing? When is it time to push? When is it time to praise? These are important questions that every parent, teacher, and coach should consider.

Miles Teller certainly pushed himself to greatness for this role. A drummer in high school, he returned to training as he prepared for filming and practiced four hours a day, trained with a professional jazz drummer three days a week, and played until his hands were blistered and bloody (that’s Teller’s blood on the drum and the sticks in the film). His Andrew is timid around his new coach, just as the other band members are, but there is an extra spark in his determination to maintain the drum stool. He will not give up, no matter what. Teller’s scars (he suffered major cuts to his face and body when he was thrown through the window of a car as it crossed three lanes of traffic and then flipped eight times), though never mentioned, become a subtle metaphor for the psychological scars Andrew has suffered at the hands of family members who only value “manly” pursuits such as football and girls.

J.K. Simmons usually plays the gruff but lovable father types — the curmudgeon hiding his heart of gold — so it is terrifying and refreshing to see him in a role that is so completely vile and demonic. Fletcher revels in his power, his control, and his absolute belief in his own rightness. He is the perfect match for Andrew in this contest of wills as they battle for the same goal: to develop Andrew into a musician who will be remembered long after he is dead — the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.

As good as these two actors are, the music is the true star of this film. As Andrew takes a solo and builds it to a climax, his body sweating, his hands bleeding, his face “a look of agony” (to quote Dickinson) so focused that nothing can distract him, the performance becomes a sensual experience, almost erotic, and it practically explodes off the screen.

It’s even more impressive that a director so young could draw so much from his main characters.

Whiplash was written and directed by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle, who filmed it in 19 days of shooting and completed the entire work in just ten weeks. As a film festival director I always caution filmmakers not to rush post-production just to meet a festival deadline, but in this case it worked: Whiplash won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. It’s also worth noting that when Chazelle couldn’t get funding to make the whole movie, he made a short version, won the Jury Prize for best short narrative at Sundance (2013) and on the strength of that win was able to secure funding to make the full length feature later that summer. Sounds as though Chazelle has a bit of Andrew Nieman’s dedication and persistence himself.

Whiplash is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s even more impressive that someone so young could draw so much from his main characters, one of whom is a relative newcomer and the other is a seasoned pro who might have felt that he had nothing to learn from someone so inexperienced. Instead, Simmons threw himself into this character and could be practicing acceptance speeches in the next couple of months.

“Good job”? Oh, yeah.


Editor's Note: Review of "Whiplash," directed by Damien Chazelle. Bold Films, 2014, 107 minutes.



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Fracking Ferment and Malthusian Myths

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The revolution in American oil and natural gas production brought about by fracking continues to roar. Recently, the price of oil dropped to about $65 per barrel, and natural gas is still hovering around record low prices. In fact, as an article in Bloomberg suggests, it is entirely possible that oil may sink to $40 in the near future.

All of this was unthinkable before the last couple of years, but thanks to the miracle of fracking, it is becoming reality. It is Schumpeterian creative destruction with a vengeance. But as the theory of creative destruction emphasizes, revolutionary innovations typically bring deep disruptions in their wakes. And as a flood of recent reports illustrate, fracking is indeed a disruptive revolution.

On one side are the thieves that want to cut back on production to drive the world price for oil back to its recent high levels.

Let’s start at the level of geopolitics. With barely controlled glee I note a recent Wall Street Journal report that our fracking energy renaissance is fracturing OPEC. You remember OPEC, the cartel that drove our economy to the wall with the “oil shock” of the 1970s. As oil prices continue to fall, a split has developed among OPEC states.

On one side are the thieves that want to cut back on production to drive the world price for oil back to its recent high levels. Venezuela is the leader of this fraction, and for good reason. Its particular brand of socialism has devastated its economy (as socialism is wont to do), and it has been living off its oil imports. Well, it can’t now, and as the aforementioned Bloomberg story notes, the arrogant Mini-Me of Marxist Cuba is running out of hard currency and may have to devalue its money, raise domestic gasoline prices, cut oil subsidies to other leftist states (such as Cuba), and cut imports of consumer goods. In this socialist hell, crime is exploding as quickly as inflation, and the consumer goods shortages are growing as quickly as the rioting is.

On the other side of the OPEC rift are countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which oppose limits to production. These countries have indicated that they will respond to the drop in prices by exporting more oil. They appear to have several interlocking motives.

First, they are desperate to hold on to their worldwide market shares. The Saudis have been pushing existing customers — especially European ones — to commit to continued purchases of Saudi oil. Clearly, the prospect of the US loosening its ludicrous laws restricting the export of its own oil (which would put us in direct competition with the vile OPEC countries) is concentrating Saudi minds wonderfully. Moreover, Iraq has cut its prices to its existing European and Asian customers, desperately hoping to hold onto its global share.

Second, as a recent UK Telegraph piece explores, the Saudis clearly want to stall if not snuff out the fracking revolution. They want to force US shale production down from the current million barrels a day (bpd) to 500,000 bpd. As the article note, the last eight years of fracking have seen the US cut net its oil imports by 8.7 million bpd, the equivalent of what it was importing from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, combined.

We now know for sure that we have virtually endless supplies of oil and natural gas right under our own soil, resources that can profitably be extracted at prices from $40 to $80 per barrel.

To what extent the Saudis and other OPEC countries can really contain America’s frolicking frackers is a matter for considerable conjecture. As another report points out, the International Energy Agency notes that only 4% of fracked oil production requires that the market hit $80 a barrel if the production is to be profitable. Most of the oil from the Bakken field (the most productive field currently being exploited in America) would still be profitable even if the price were $42 a barrel. At that price, yes, American frackers would feel pain, but nothing like the pain the Russia and the OPEC states would feel.

As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard recently pointed out, the Saudis are playing a dangerous game: “A deep slump in prices might equally heighten geostrategic turmoil across the broader Middle East and boomerang against the Gulf’s petro-sheikhdoms before it inflicts a knock-out blow on US rivals.” He quotes Harold Hamm, the main genius behind fracking, as saying the most productive shale field is still profitable at $28 per barrel. And as Evans-Pritchard adds, quoting Citigroup, the break-even cost for oil is $161 for Venezuela, $160 for Yemen, $132 for Algeria, $131 for Iran, $126 for Nigeria, $125 for Bahrain, $111 for Iraq, $105 for Russia, and $98 for Saudi Arabia.

Remember this: even if all American frackers had to halt production tomorrow (say, if oil dropped to $20 per barrel), the shale fields, along with the technology now well developed to exploit those reserves, would remain, however long the Saudis and everyone else tried to keep the price low. We now know for sure that we have virtually endless supplies of oil and natural gas right under our own soil, resources that can profitably be extracted, with even today’s technology, at prices from $40 to $80 per barrel. As the technology develops, that strike price will only go down. Any possible “knock-out blow” would knock us out only momentarily.

The third reason the Saudis and other Arab states are so desperate to keep their revenues at present levels — even if it means precipitously pumping down their known reserves — is that the autocrats in charge have been buying their citizens’ passivity with lavish welfare spending. If that ever gets cut, the citizens would probably rise up and cut the heads off the pompous princes and egotistic emirs who have so greedily gorged themselves on the wealth of their lands. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Saudi Arabia needs oil to be at $99 a barrel to balance its budget. So the current low price of oil is making the Saudis use assets from their reserves of foreign currency — which, while extensive, are not inexhaustible.

Another geopolitical change that fracking has introduced involves the Mexican oil industry. A piece in a recent WSJ notes that Mexico is foreseeing a rebirth of its own oil industry, with the aid of US technology and investment. The new president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, did something last year that no president before him had done, since Mexico nationalized its oil industry 70 years ago. Nieto got the Mexican Congress to pass a law (actually, to change the nation’s constitution) allowing private industry, including foreign industry, to help develop new production. Until now, Mexico has jealously guarded its industry, out of an excess of nationalism. While enjoying its national pride, it witnessed a decline in national revenues; but with the rise of fracking as a tool to get old wells producing again, it now anticipates a resurgence of a lucrative industry. The national oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), doesn’t have any expertise in fracking, but US and other countries surely do. As Joel Vazquez, CEO of DCM, a Mexican-Canadian drilling company, put it, “A boom is coming. Not a week goes by without an oil company contacting us asking about making a joint venture, or saying they’re interested in investing here.”

The UK, like Germany, is discovering that so-called Green energy is grotesquely costly.

Mexico will shortly start auctioning off leases for oil exploration. One hundred sixty-nine blocks of Mexican land will be opened for outside development, with about a third of them within 70 miles of Tampico. Most will require fracking and horizontal drilling. It looks as if BP and Royal Dutch Shell will go after the deep-water sites, while Canadian company Pacific Rubiales Energy and a new Mexican startup will focus on the shallow-water and mature onshore sites. Mexico projects an increase of half a million BPD over the next four years.

Another geopolitical impact of our fracking revolution on other countries is the subject of another recent Journal story. The surge in US oil and natural gas production — we now produce more oil and natural gas than do either Russia or Saudi Arabia — is making the British rethink their energy policy.

British billionaire James Ratcliffe, head of the petrochemical giant Ineos, is urging that the UK push fracking. To overcome NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard, anti-development sentiment), the resourceful Ratcliffe plans to offer a generous 4% royalty to property owners and a 2% royalty to municipalities that allow his company to drill fracking wells on their land.

The logic for the Brits — a most logical people, indeed — is clear. Fracking has lifted American production of liquid petroleum products over the past ten years by nearly 60% (from 7.3 million to 11.5 million BPD) and has lifted natural gas production by 30%. But the UK’s own production (of its North Sea fields by conventional drilling) has plummeted, resulting in rapidly growing petroleum imports.

The UK, like Germany, is discovering that so-called Green energy costs a lot of green; in fact, it is grotesquely costly. Because of a Green scheme, one of the UK’s biggest power plants (one that supplies 7% of the country’s power) is converting to wood pellets imported from the American South. But compared to natural gas, wood is immensely productive of carbon emissions. And the switch to wood is going to increase the electricity rate consumers have to pay by — 100%!

Of course, the prescient Ratcliffe is already facing opposition from the same fatuous fools — i.e., environmentalists — that our own energy heroes have had to face. But my guess is that the Brits, after seeing their power and tax bills rise, will see the light and finally favor fracking.

Doubtless, however, the biggest geopolitical impact of the American fracking revolution is on Russia. This is leading to what can best be termed “the Russian rage.” The Putin regime is clearly distraught about the fact that our oil and natural gas renaissance is eclipsing Russia as an energy superpower. A number of articles explore aspects of this phenomenon.

It is now obvious why Putin has seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine: he wants to stop Ukrainians from becoming another major competitor in exporting natural gas to Europe.

One of them concerns the recent hubristic boast by the Russian oil tycoon and Putin puppet Leonid Fedun that OPEC’s decision to keep pumping oil and let the price drop will ensure the crash of the US shale industry. Fedun prophesied, “In 2016, when OPEC completes this objective of cleaning up the American marginal market, the oil price will start growing again.… The shale boom is on a par with the dot-com boom.”

Fedun’s claim was that when oil breaks $70 per barrel, most American fracking companies will become unprofitable and collapse, or will do so when their existing hedges (prior contracts to sell their crude oil at $90 per barrel) expire. But he made this boast when oil was still over $70 per barrel. We certainly don’t see any American fracking companies hitting the wall even with oil now in the mid-$60 range, and as indicated by the Evans-Pritchard article discussed earlier, other exporters believe most production from the Bakken field would remain profitable in the range of $40 or even lower.

Also amusing was an article in the Russian regime’s propaganda newspaper Russia Beyond the Headlines by Pat Szymczak. She writes about Ukraine, the country that the dictator Putin has invaded repeatedly and dismembered. Her argument is that Ukraine has tremendous shale gas reserves — the US Energy Information Administration estimates them at 42 trillion cubic feet, the third largest in Europe; and Ukraine’s Black Sea oil potential might exceed that of the North Sea. But these resources haven’t been developed, she claims — with evident crocodile tears! — because in the 20 years since it became independent, Ukraine has had only corrupt oligarchical regimes. And recently, when Shell Oil drilled some exploratory wells, fighting amazingly and mysteriously broke out nearby between the government and Russian separatists. This forced Shell to close out operations.

With smarmy alarm, Szymczak warns that, “Ukraine’s inability to get its act together and take advantage of its assets has created an opening likely to be filled by North America. The US has seemingly overnight moved from being an energy importer to a potentially massive exporter, at a time when Russia is struggling to maintain its position in the midst of a production decline in its prolific West Siberian fields.”

She adds that the US may be planning (as part of the sanctions) to divert to Europe some of its diesel exports currently bound for Latin America, and that the EU is apparently pushing the US to end its current ban on crude oil exports (about which more below). And one of Spain’s largest power companies has just signed a 20-year deal to import $5.6 billion in American liquefied natural gas.

Of course, this article is hilarious on many levels. It is uproariously hypocritical that this Russian propagandist should point to Ukraine as a corrupt oligarchy. What is Putin’s regime if not a corrupt oligarchy? And who does Szymczak think caused fighting to break out close enough to the Shell installation to force it to shut down, if not Putin himself? The Putin regime is funding and arming the ethnic Russian separatists. It is now obvious why Putin has seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine: he wants to stop Ukrainians not only from achieving oil independence but also from becoming another major competitor in exporting natural gas to Europe.

Indeed, yet another recent piece — a major New York Times article on the wave of anti-fracking protests suddenly sweeping Eastern Europe — touches on the attempt by Russia to stop Western oil companies from fracking development in Eastern Europe. The article recounts what happened in Romania, when Chevron leased land last year to explore for natural gas. Immediately, a large group of violent “protestors” (read: Putinesque paramilitary provocateurs) showed up and started fighting with the local police. The provocateurs — obviously well-funded — were able to portray the mayor who allowed Chevron in as a traitor to rural Romanians and a sellout to American capitalism. The protestors temporarily made him flee.

Reflecting on the fact that his town never before had demonstrations, and that the moment Chevron showed up, so did a horde of vociferous demonstrators, the mayor concludes that they were a rent-a-mob paid by Russia’s state-controlled oil company, Gazprom. (The Romanian prime minister agrees with the mayor’s assessment). The protestors are, in other words, Putin’s posse, aimed at keeping Western energy companies out of Eastern Europe, which is the former Soviet Empire Putin is eager to reclaim.

What is Putin? He is a megalomaniacal narcissist who wants to be another Stalin.

The story notes that this view — that Russia’s oil arm is funding and fielding anti-fracking armies — is shared by Lithuanian authorities, who saw Chevron chased out of their country by organized violent protestors. The departing secretary-general of NATO, Anders Rasmussen, has voiced the same view: “Russia, as part of their sophisticated . . . disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called nongovernmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain dependence on imported Russian gas.” The statement was echoed by Romanian industrialist Iulian Iancu, who sagely observed, “It is crucial for Russia to keep this energy dependence. It is playing a dirty game.” The rent-a-mob anti-fracking “protests” started three years ago in Bulgaria, which went so far as to ban fracking and cancel Chevron’s licenses.

Of course, both Gazprom and the so-called environmentalist groups heatedly deny that there is Putinesque collusion in all this. And Gazprom exec Alexander Medvedev adds the friendly warning to Europeans that they cannot possibly have a fracking revolution similar to America’s, because of the differences in geology and population density.

The NYT article’s author (Andrew Higgins) gives this view some credibility, pointing out that test wells have proven disappointing in Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. But one might reply that these were only a few wells, all drilled by Chevron, hardly the leader in the art of fracking. My advice to these countries is to ask Harold Hamm, the principal genius behind the fracking revolution, to come out and take a look.

What reasons are there to conclude that the Putin regime is behind these seemingly “spontaneous” demonstrations? Many, I would suggest. To start with, as the prescient Anca-Maria Cernea (leader of a Romanian nationalist group) noted, these “spontaneous” protests involved a coordination of groups that have no natural affinity or historical alliance, such as radical socialists and Eastern Orthodox clergy. Furthermore, the state-controlled Russian “news” media blanketed the airwaves with coverage of the protests over and over, along with warnings about ecological disasters caused by fracking.

Additional evidence is the obvious corporate interest of Gazprom. The Romans bade us ask, “Qui bono?” (“For whose benefit?”). If you want to ask why something is happening, ask in whose self-interest it lies. If Chevron (say) develops Eastern European shale fields, not only will Gazprom (and the Russian regime that controls it) lose out on that market. Eastern Europe could easily become the dominant supplier of energy to Western Europe, displacing Gazprom. Oh, and this could unify Eastern and Western Europe economically, putting the former out of reach by revanchist Russia.

Despite assurances from many of its backers that wind is so efficient that its subsidies would wither away after a few years, the subsidies are proving eternal.

Tied in with this point is another clue — a dog that isn’t barking. By this I mean that while Gazprom is itself exploring (through its Serbian subsidiary Nis) both Serbian and Romanian shale fields, there have been no demonstrations opposing Gazprom. The demonstrating dogs know who their master is. They can smell him even in the dark.

Further, as I noted in a piece not long ago, it’s old news that petro countries fund seemingly independent environmentalists to help stop America’s fracking development. The anti-fracking propaganda movie Promised Land was funded in large part by the United Arab Emirates. And Project Veritas investigative reporter James O’Keefe recently caught on tape a couple of Hollywood producers (Josh and Rebecca Tickell) and a couple of environmentalist activist actors saying they would be happy to work with Middle Eastern petro sheiks.

If American Green ideologues are willing to collaborate with those who want to keep their country energy dependent, why would anyone assume that Eastern European Green ideologues — many of whom were communists working to keep their countries part of the Soviet Empire before it collapsed — are unwilling to see their countries energy dependent? As Joan Rivers would say, “Oh, grow up!”

Finally, who controls Gazprom? Putin. What is Putin? He is a megalomaniacal narcissist who wants to be another Stalin. And what is Putin’s background? He was a career KGB agent who was trained in disinformation campaigns and in the suborning of foreign citizens to work against their own countries. Faced with the threat of the US — which he believed he had neutered because he cowed Obama and Hillary Clinton — becoming the dominant petro-power around the world, enabling the Eastern European countries to be energy independent from Russia, Putin, it is reasonable to assume, would use the tools he was trained to use.

And threatened the tyrant is. As political scientist Ian Bremmer put it recently, Putin has been “backed into a corner” by the drop in prices fracking has caused, “leaving him little option but to continue his aggression toward Ukraine and confrontation with the West.” Bremmer added, “I think that lower oil prices simply squeeze him harder, pushing him farther into a corner. He feels he has to fight as a consequence.”

The theme of Russian vulnerability is echoed by Allan von Mehren, chief analyst at Danske Banke, who said, “Russia in particular seems vulnerable [to dropping oil prices].” He notes that the big decline in oil prices in 1997–98 was a major cause of the subsequent Russian default. The reason for this vulnerability is obvious. Oil and natural gas constitute almost 70% of Russia’s exports, and fund half the country’s federal budget. The country has had to spend $90 billion of its foreign currency reserves to stop the utter collapse of the ruble, which has already dropped in value by over a third.

In sum, as fracking flourishes, look for Russia to become even more aggressive.

Turning from geopolitics to domestic policy, a recent WSJ article explains how the fracking revolution is forcing a long-needed change in America’s ban on oil exports.

Yes, believe it or not, since the Carter era of the 1970s we have restricted the export of our own domestic crude, under the delusion that by restricting the market that our domestic oil producers could sell to we would induce them — to drill for more. Despite calls from major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil for the government to end the moratorium, politicians have been reluctant to deal with populist fears that allowing our companies to sell into an international market will somehow drive up our own prices — as if there were just a fixed amount of oil in this country, and if we sold even a drop of it abroad, our own stash would be diminished.

As the fracking revolution has shown, there is no foreseeable limit to how much oil we can produce. But some oil companies are finding ways around the benighted ban. For example, BHP Billiton has made a deal to sell two thirds of a million barrels of “minimally processed” ultralight crude oil abroad without formal approval from the feds. It is selling the petroleum to the Swiss trading firm Vitol. This move — which is called “self-classification” — is likely to open the gate for many other companies to enter.

The amount of fossil fuel that lies beneath our feet is essentially infinite, and if it ever did reach a limit centuries from now, substitutions would be found.

The idea is clever. Under the decades-old law, the US allows the exporting of refined petroleum fuels (diesel and gasoline) but not of crude oil itself. However, some companies (such as Enterprise Product Partners and Pioneer Natural Resources) have prior governmental approval to export minimally processed oil (called “condensate”). BHP is classifying very lightly processed crude as “condensate,” exempt from the law. BHP is doing its light processing without explicit government approval, although the Commerce Department has been quiet about the practice.

It would be great if more companies followed BHP’s lead. That would encourage more drilling in the long term, and help stymie Saudi Arabia’s efforts to throttle our fracking industry, by making sure that our production can be sold abroad whenever we have an excess here. Of course, it would be even better if we just removed the ban on crude oil exports altogether.

As for the crony, corrupt Green energy industries (the so-called renewable energy producers, especially wind and solar), fracking is pushing them to the wall. Consider wind power. As another recent WSJ piece explains, American wind power has been subsidized for over two decades. Despite assurances from many of its backers that wind is so efficient that its subsidies would wither away after a few years — like the state in the old Soviet Union! — the subsidies are proving eternal. Wind power’s subsidy is a taxpayer gift to wind power producers. This subsidy handed these rentseekers over $7.3 billion since 2007 alone, and it will pay them an additional $2.4 billion next year.

With all subsidies accounted for, the Institute for Energy Research reckons that in 2010 (the last year for which conclusive data are available) wind power received $56.29 per kwh in subsidies, compared with only $3.14 for nuclear power and a meager $0.64 for natural-gas produced electric power. That is, wind power sucked up nearly 90 times the subsidies that natural gas power did.

In short, wind power has managed to shred billions of taxpayer dollars as quickly as it has shredded millions of birds. But this subsidy expired at the end of last year, and wind power producers are desperately trying to renew it before the Senate falls into Republican hands. It looks quite possible that in the face of plummeting oil and natural gas prices, the incoming Congress will end the subsidy once and for all. At which point, wind power will be — well, gone with the wind.

Also worth noting is a WSJ article reporting another possible target for fracking’s creative destruction. I refer to the (again) heavily taxpayer-subsidized electric vehicle (EV) industry. Its only real success has been Tesla, whose zippy, stylish cars have sold well compared to all other EVs. But as gasoline prices have dropped, so has Tesla’s stock. It’s down about 8% recently (after a dramatic rise during the last couple of years).

If oil prices remain low, or fall even further, the EV market will be threatened. And if the EPA manages to kill the coal industry, thus dramatically raising costs of electricity, the EV market will become moribund. It only exists now because of those enormous taxpayer subsidies, and it is unclear how much longer Congress will keep them.

As the Journal noted, we can already guess what the advocates of EVs and the other Green companies will start pushing for if gasoline prices continue to drop: massive new taxes on gasoline to force consumers to go Green. Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla) has already proposed taxing gasoline to make it $10 per gallon at the pump — not from self-interest, you understand, but only from a dispassionate concern for the ecosystem. He thus joins Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, ex-GM exec Bob Lutz, and others calling for steep gasoline taxes so that their preferred Green schemes (EVs, ethanol, biodiesel, etc.) will survive. We will see if the new Congress complies with their proposals. I rather doubt it will.

People aren’t bacteria. People consume resources, but they also produce them.

Lastly, however, I want to mention a non-material but very important effect of the fracking revolution: the creative destruction of a myth. The myth is the notion of “peak oil.” That phrase comes from the idea that any oil-producing area (be it a field, a state, or a country) will eventually reach a peak of production, then tail off, making something like a statistical bell curve.

The concept of peak oil has been around since the start of the oil era. Eminent energy analyst Daniel Yergin quotes the state geologist of Pennsylvania in 1885 as predicting that the amazing early production of petroleum was only a “temporary and vanishing phenomenon — one which young men will live to see come to its natural end.” But the notion was given a scientific patina by M. Kind Hubbard, a geologist for Shell Oil company, in an influential paper of 1956, predicting that American aggregate oil production would peak in the early 1970s, then decline forever after. It appeared that Hubbard’s theory was empirically confirmed when America’s oil production hit a peak of slightly less than 10 million barrels per day (bpd) in 1974, and started declining.

It is now clear that this theory is about to be refuted yet again. Fracking has pushed our production of oil past Saudi Arabia’s current level of 9.7 million bpd. And the International Energy Agency projects that we will overtake Russia’s production of 10.3 million bpd next year.

People still keep predicting peak oil — as Paul Krugman did in 2010, when he crowed that “peak oil has arrived.” With fracking, indeed, we will reach another peak; but very likely someone will come up with another technological improvement, maybe “smacking.” The amount of fossil fuel that lies beneath our feet is, almost surely, essentially infinite, and if it ever did reach a limit centuries from now, substitutions would be found — perhaps from the vast spread of methane hydrates that lie on the ocean floors.

The theory of peak oil is a myth, and it is just a special case of a bigger myth — Malthus’ myth. Malthus held that, sustained by resources, the members of any living species will incrp/prsquo;s federal budget. The country has had to spend $90 billion of its foreign currency reserves to stop the utter collapse of the ruble, which has already dropped in value by over a third.ldquo;minimally processedease their numbers exponentially, so that no matter how plentiful the resources, the species will soon exhaust it. So he held that while people may increase agricultural production, it will only increase arithmetically, while the population will increase exponentially, resulting sooner or later in mass starvation.

But as economist Julian Simon argued, people aren’t bacteria. People consume resources, but they also produce them. People have mouths, but they also have hands, minds, and hearts. They can find new ways of getting any resource, and new substitutions for it also, for time without end.




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Citizen Snowden

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Thanks to the generosity of a very thoughtful husband, I had the opportunity to attend the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with my figure skating daughter. Before we could enter any venue or even walk around the grounds outside the venues, we had to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. You probably don’t find that news particularly surprising or appalling; a dozen years later, we take it for granted that our bags will be checked before entering any arena, terminal, school, or public building. But at the time this was brand new. It angered me that strangers were looking through my purse and personal belongings every time I entered the area. The Marines provided aerial and radar surveillance of the event, and we learned later that all email and text communications were intercepted by the FBI and NSA, supposedly for a period of six months surrounding the event. This was the opportunity for the folks at Homeland Security to try out all their new toys and gadgets, and they reveled in it.

Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides.

The 2002 Olympics became a gateway moment for justifying indiscriminate snooping in the name of national security. I couldn’t help but remember that experience while watching Citizenfour, the documentary based on interviews last year with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that provides technology and security services to civilian and government agencies, when he became alarmed by the scope of surveillance being conducted by the NSA. He decided to take the story public by stealing top-security documents and sharing them with two journalists of his choosing: documentarian Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian.

Snowden has been called a patriot, a traitor, a dissident, a thief, a whistleblower, and even an accessory to the murder of those whose covers he blew when he revealed the contents of sensitive security documents. As I watched the film, all I could think of was the courage it took for this 29-year-old man to sacrifice his home, his family, and his relationships to warn you and me that Big Brother is watching and recording everything we say and write.

Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. Being selected by Snowden to tell his story was quite a coup. However, while the story is certainly important, I was not impressed with her filmmaking. Basically we watch Snowden talking in a Hong Kong hotel room, and we see clips of Glenn Greenwald being interviewed on the cable news networks after his stories were published in theGuardian. Most of this we have seen before, and Snowden is in complete control of the interviews; Poitras does what he tells her to do and says what he wants her to hear. We never see her onscreen, but she enters the documentary through elaborate typing of their email conversations recreated with white Courier on a black screen.

Poitras doesn’t do any digging for this documentary, and she doesn’t reveal anything beyond what Snowden wants to say to the camera. She doesn’t tell us what was in the documents Snowden stole and made public, and she doesn’t interview anyone about the harm those revelations may have caused. She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas because of an automated misinterpretation of something they’ve written in an email. She didn’t interview Snowden’s colleagues or parents or his longtime girlfriend, although she knew who and where the girlfriend was. Perhaps Poitras was worried about being charged under the Espionage Act herself, or perhaps it was just shoddy journalism; regardless, I found the documentary one-sided, incomplete, and full of the kind of technical jargon that suggests Snowden is either really really smart, or really really knows how to snow his audience. (Occasionally I felt as though I were listening to a Truther explain how Building Seven came down . . .)

Despite the gravity of the topic, Citizenfour is strangely unsatisfying and lacking in suspense. Yet there was plenty of suspense to be had: US authorities were trying desperately to find Snowden and extradite him here, before he could finish his interviews and secure asylum in another country; and undercover agents were scrambling to find safety as the contents of his documents were revealed.

She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas.

According to Snowden, the NSA engages in sweeping, indiscriminate collection of all telephone and email transmissions and then uses automated language analysis programs to search for suspicious conversations or Google searches. The NSA was tapping directly into search engines such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and others and making assumptions based on reports generated by automated analysis. (Think about this the next time you search to find out the schedule of Viola Davis’ new hit TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder.”)

Poitras includes some footage of congressional hearings about NSA snooping. Several other NSA employees turned whistleblower at the same time as Snowden, including William Binney, who sat down with documentarian Tricia Owen, just days before the Snowden story broke, for the short film Before Snowden: Behind the Curtain, which premiered at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July. Poitras also filmed a training meeting conducted by Jacob Appelbaum of Occupy Wall Street as background for Citizenfour. Watching Appelbaum explain to Occupiers how to avoid surveillance as they planned their sit-ins and protests, I thought of Voltaire’s famous line, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — and to say it without being surveilled.

Citizenfour is important as a piece of history, but it is not a good documentary. Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides. She had a powerfully significant story dropped into her lap, but she let Snowden call all the shots. Patriot? Traitor? Martyr? Simple thief? We may never know the truth. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is set to play Snowden in a biopic next year, and that film will of course have a point of view, determined by the bias of the filmmaker. Laura Poitras was the only one who had primary access to the actual source, and she blew it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Citizenfour," directed by Laura Poitras. Praxis Films, 2014, 114 minutes.



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Atlas on Woodward Avenue

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The great power outage that struck Detroit on Dec. 2 reminded me — did it remind you also? — of the way in which Ayn Rand and some of her disciples used to look for signs that “Atlas is shrugging.” They closely inspected every sign that scientists and engineers were withdrawing from the industrial grid and that the grid itself was collapsing.

The apocalypse never came. Jimmy Carter was kicked out of the White House. Stagflation went away. Capitalism kept producing wealth even faster than the government could devour it. Even in this Age of Entropy, Atlas is not so much shrugging as working harder than ever to pay his medical bills. He’s depressed; he’s ailing; but he’s still showing up at work.

Nevertheless, there is something emblematic, something that provides a startling reminder of the End envisioned in Atlas Shrugged, in the horrible fate of the former industrial capital of America. Detroit is bankrupt. It has lost almost two-thirds of its population. Large segments of the city have returned to wilderness. Along Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Elysées of the Midwest, every large business has disappeared. The avenue’s distinguished churches, each an architectural masterpiece, still raise their towers, but several have been abandoned, and all are struggling. A classic theater, a classic movie palace, a classic this and that have been heroically preserved, but the monumental beaux-arts building that used to be GM world headquarters is a nearly empty hulk in a crime-ridden neighborhood, a square mile in which only 3,000 people dare to live. A magnificent art deco skyscraper now houses the countless bureaucrats of the failed public school system. The Institute of Arts, one of the world’s most important museums, the gift of fortunes created by the automobile, has been supported by the state for many years. Its hours are limited; its parking structure has been closed because of structural decay.

A picture tells part of the story. It shows visitors standing in the museum’s central court during the outage. The court, which is lit by windows in the ceiling and is therefore not dependent on electricity, is decorated by murals made by Diego Rivera, a communist, and financed by Edsel Ford, an industrialist. The murals show the progress of industry and suggest that it can be used either to create or to destroy. Beneath the murals, people mill about, apparently oblivious to the art. Perhaps a few of them are reflecting on the process of cultural disintegration. Perhaps one of them is asking himself, Did Atlas shrug — or did he merely lose what made him Atlas?

rsquo;s still showing up at work.




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The Worm that Walked

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A nightcrawler is the news media’s version of an ambulance chaser. Armed with a video camera and a police scanner, these freelance pseudo-photojournalists rush to the scene of horrific crimes or accidents with the hope of being the first to film the most sensational stories and send them off to the highest bidding newsroom. On a good night they can make a few hundred bucks. On a great night, they can make a few thousand.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is down on his luck and looking for a job when he happens on an accident scene where he watches a nightcrawler (Bill Paxton) film a story and then negotiate a deal. Soon he has a camera and a police scanner of his own. He hires Rick, a homeless young man (Riz Ahmed), to ride shotgun, call out directions from the GPS and then stay with the car so Bloom doesn’t have to waste time parking it when he gets to the scene. He develops a knack not only for getting to the scene first, but for framing the shots and even, occasionally, staging the scene for more dramatic effect. The line between news and art soon becomes blurred as Bloom becomes more and more driven to “get the shot.”

With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy.

Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the late night news director for the early morning show on the lowest-rated news show in town. She is desperate for crime exclusives that will bring more viewers to her network. When Bloom brings her some particularly salacious footage and negotiates for a price, she reacts to the breaking story in the way an addict reacts when she’s in need of a hit. She will do anything to get Bloom’s footage on her show. Anything.

While this inside look at the seedy underworld of freelance videography is fascinating, the real draw of this film is Bloom himself. With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy. He’s a nightcrawler of a baser sort — the kind that might be lurking under a rock. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, but it’s his own sense of what is right — and you’d better not wrong him. At one point Rick observes, “You don’t understand people.” Bloom responds with his polite smile, “It isn’t that I don’t understand people. I don’t like them.” This detachment prevents Bloom from feeling the squeamishness normal people feel at the sight of blood, gore, and tragedy, and drives him to get better and better shots — the kind of shots normal people feel repelled by and drawn to at the same time.

In last year’s Prisoners, when he played Detective Loki, a policeman helping a father (Hugh Jackman) find two kidnapped girls,Gyllenhaal gave us a hint of the kind of work he is capable of producing. Through subtle means — excessive blinking, unexplained tattoos, sideways glances — he suggested that his character might have a past that made him unbalanced. With Lou Bloom Gyllenhaal has created a character devoid of compassion yet oh-so-polite and driven by his own sense of correctness. Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for the role, not just because he thought his character should look gaunt, but because he wanted his character to look hungry. It worked.

This is writer-director Dan Gilroy’s first film, and it’s a winner. His car chases are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially one thrilling shot that begins on the back license plate, pans around the side of the car, and ends up on the front license plate, all at race-car speeds. Gilroy’s brother Tony is known for his own spectacular car chases in the Bourne films, but Dan brings something so much stronger to the screen than just action and thrill rides. His characters are deep, dark, and dangerous in ways that have nothing to do with weapons or fists. Lou Bloom is a character you will remember for a long time. He might even remind you of someone you know — uber calm, uber polite, and uber creepy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nightcrawler," directed by Dan Gilroy. Open Road Films, 2014, 117 minutes.



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There Is No Such Thing as an Innocuous Tax

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On July 17, Eric Garner was accosted by police on the streets of Staten Island, suspected of selling cigarettes on which no tax had been paid. Garner complained, the police tried to arrest him, they got him in a chokehold, and he died as a result. His death has become an issue because he was black.

Do people really need charges of racism before they see how vicious the state can be — how vicious it routinely is — when it enforces its laws?




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Why Libertarianism Will End Poverty

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As a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, I have a fondness for clever, memorable aphorisms, on the model of his “All that which does not kill me makes me stronger,” which is one of my personal mottos. Another such aphorism (though not by Nietzsche) is: “Socialists believe that no one should own anything; libertarians believe that everyone should own something.” What this gets at, among other things, is the idea that both socialists and libertarians have an answer to the problem of poverty, but our answer differs sharply from theirs. This is an important point to hammer home to voters.

The leftists and socialists say that they want to help the poor and that the libertarians and conservatives are the enemies of the working class and we don’t care about the poor. This naturally drives working class voters to vote Democrat when they should be voting Libertarian. I can’t speak for conservatives, and I can’t speak for other libertarians either. But, speaking for myself, I can say that I do care about the poor, and my brand of libertarianism, which comes from a liberal-tarian or neoliberal strain, is very intently focused upon ending poverty.

Both socialists and libertarians have an answer to the problem of poverty, but our answer differs sharply from theirs.

My idea is to tell voters that libertarianism will end world poverty. That is a bold claim, and I expect most voters will reply: “Why? And how?” One answer can be found in my own reinterpretation and application of the business management philosophy called Six Sigma.

Six Sigma is a technique developed in the manufacturing industry and is widely credited with the high quality of electronics devices that are manufactured today. A mathematical approach to business management and products manufacturing, its basic idea is that hard math and statistics should be used to manage a business and control the work product of a factory. The key mathematical equation used by Six Sigma practitioners, which I would like you to understand, is: Y = f(X) + e, where X represents input, f(X) represents the process that is applied to the input, Y represents the output, and e represents the errors and imperfections inherent in human existence.

The core teaching of Six Sigma is that most business processes are inefficient and wasteful, and that vast amounts of money can be saved by redesigning the process to eliminate waste. The Six Sigma method analyzes the X and the f(X) in order to find the most efficient method of achieving the desired Y. The method uses math and science to find the best process to achieve efficiency, quality, and success. Six Sigma assumes that with the same input X, e.g. with the same amount of work, labor, effort, and raw materials, the output Y can be very different — if the process, the f(X), is different. What matters is the f(X), not the X, because you need a good process to get the most output out of your input.

Six Sigma is not mere abstract theory. It has been used in practical reality, for example by Motorola, Bank of America, and major car manufacturers in Detroit. The data suggest that when a Fortune 500 company implements Six Sigma, and when it does so correctly, and especially when it uses it on manufacturing processes and factories, average net profits increase by as much as 1 billion dollars a year.

The lower class and middle class bear a tax burden far worse than the taxes actually paid by the rich.

Now, let me get to the main argument in this essay. We can consider a national economy to be akin to a business or a factory. The work that people do, and the natural resources and raw materials that go into their work, are the input. The money they make and the consumable goods and services they produce are the output. And the political system, be it libertarian capitalism or socialist left-liberalism, is the process that takes inputs and creates outputs. My argument is that the process of heavy government intervention in the economy, pioneered by the New Deal and implemented by Obama and the Democrats today, is very wasteful. If Motorola could save a billion dollars by more efficient processes, then the United States of America could probably save trillions of dollars by a more efficient politico-economic process. And the trillions of dollars of added wealth would end up in the hands of the people, of the working class. I fully believe that if all the economic waste were eliminated in the USA, and if the rest of the world implemented free market economics, then the added wealth would be enough to end poverty, so that the vast majority of humans would achieve a middle class or upper class standard of living.

Why would capitalism be a more efficient economic system than Democratic left-liberalism? The answer to that question lies beyond the scope of this article. In my recent nonfiction book Golden Rule Libertarianism, I take 100 pages to explain why a system of money and prices and free choices among competing businesses is the best way to coordinate the diverse economic activity of billions of different producers and consumers in a division of labor economy. The arguments in my book can be called the Hasanian answer. There is also the Randian answer, the Rothbardian answer, the Milton Friedman answer, etc. Let’s take the Hasanian answerfor granted, for the sake of my argument, and leave the details for a different discussion.

Why would libertarianism put money in the hands of the poor and middle-class, as opposed to the rich? As a factual matter, the government spends trillions of dollars taken from the taxpayers, so if you end the tax-and-spend leftist policies, then that money will remain in the taxpayers’ hands, to be spent by the people. Of course, leftists claim that the rich are the ones who pay taxes, and that tax-and-spend helps the poor. In fact, however, the lower class and middle class bear a tax burden far worse than the taxes actually paid by the rich. This is because of the low tax rates for long-term capital gains and dividends, where the rich get their money, and the ability of the rich to hold their money in offshore tax shelters, which enable them to avoid paying taxes; and also because of the many taxes that target the poor, such as the property tax and the sales tax, and social security withholding. The high tax brackets for middle-class salaries also hurt. One thousand dollars is a ton of money for a working-class person or a middle-class person, whereas 1 million dollars is meaningless to a billionaire. So taxes hit the lower class with an impact far greater, proportionately, than their impact on the upper class. Tax cuts help the working class and middle class and often have minimal direct benefits for the rich.

A libertarian Six Sigma approach would eliminate the waste in government spending, creating huge savings for the American people. Government in the United States, including federal, state, and local governments, is the biggest spender of the people’s money, and the examples of bureaucratic failure, waste, and incompetence in government spending are too many for anyone to list. There are bridges to nowhere, statues built for no reason, railroad lines that nobody wants to use . . . mountains of waste, range upon range, all costing the taxpayers trillions upon trillions. The government is necessarily inefficient, because the government does not need to compete against anyone, and people are forced to accept what the government does. By eliminating waste at all levels of government, we could probably save $4 trillion of Americans’ hard-earned money annually — one quarter of government expenditures. Then, if you let people be free to be productive, and you unlock the money-making potential of every worker, especially the highly intelligent and creative people, and if you give them broad freedom to trade with others without regulatory controls, I believe that another $4 trillion would be added to GDP. $4 trillion plus $4 trillion is $8 trillion.

The US GDP was $16 trillion in the most recent estimate, and it is plausible to think that if we replaced a flawed f(X) with an efficient, waste-free f(X), then Y could increase by 50%. This is in line with what Six Sigma improvements have achieved for businesses that replace bad processes with good processes. In terms of Six Sigma using math and science to discover the correct process for a business, which is a core tenet of Six Sigma, I think that the work done by Milton Friedman, who completed an exhaustive, thorough scientific research using hard data and statistical math to show that capitalist-leaning economies generate more wealth than socialist-leaning economies, is true to the Six Sigma approach of statistical analysis. So my application of Six Sigma would take it as a given, proven by the libertarian economists, that the libertarian process is the right one to use to redesign the economy.

Libertarians are not the enemies of the poor and the working class; we are their best friends, with their best interests at heart.

Let us consider the number I mentioned: $8 trillion recovered due to libertarian policies. America has about 300 million citizens. Let’s assume that the poorest 90% comprises 270 million people. If we eliminated economic waste and saved or created $8 trillion, and divided that among 270 million people, then each poor or middle-class person would get an additional $29,600 a year. That would give a reasonable amount of money, enough to live a decent, happy life. This distribution would not be accomplished by means of a welfare system but by the normal, efficient practices of a capitalist economy, including simply letting people keep the money they would otherwise pay in taxes. And if we eliminate most regulations on the economy, almost everything will be cheaper to buy, allowing poor people to achieve middle-class buying power. Our policies would create new wealth for the poor to claim as their own private property. In other words, we could end poverty by using reason and logic, instead of the mushy illogic of the Left.

I conclude by repeating the point with which I opened: libertarians are not the enemies of the poor and the working class; we are their best friends, with their best interests at heart. The leftist, Democratic poor don’t understand this, but we would be well advised to teach it to its natural audience, working class voters. Remember this aphorism: socialists believe that no one should own anything; libertarians believe that everyone should own something.




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