Manufacturing Hubbub

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American manufacturing is in decline. It has been for decades, shrinking to half of what it was at its peak in 1979. During the 2000s alone, it lost one-third of its workforce — largely blue-collar workers who, without a college education, could still earn a middle-class wage — and, today, its output and employment remain below their pre-recession levels.

Who cares? We still make stuff. And we still have enough money to get the stuff we don't make — from countries such as China and Mexico, at cheaper prices. In an advanced, services-oriented economy like ours, so what if our trade balance (which was in surplus prior to the mid-1970s but has been in deficit since) has plummeted to -$508 billion (-$741 billion for manufactured goods) today? We can always borrow or print more money. Right?

By outsourcing critical engineering and manufacturing expertise, the US is frittering away its industrial leadership.

Indeed, politicians, especially liberal politicians, welcome the decline. America has the coolest companies (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, etc.), run by cool, billionaire geniuses. President Obama, our coolest president, uses them to run his campaigns, promote his polices, tweet his followers (a twitterati of 63 million), and post his selfies. America's future lies with these energy-efficient, planet-friendly, high-tech giants. To the liberal elite, America can do with fewer factories, even ones making things that America invented. Besides, factories pollute and warm the planet.

Except that America is now losing its high-tech manufacturing dominance as well. By outsourcing critical engineering and manufacturing expertise, the US is frittering away its industrial leadership, eroding what once was the world's font of scientific discovery, technological advance, and product innovation, and guaranteeing future decay. In a 2009 Harvard Business Review article (“Restoring American Competitiveness”), it was noted that "Beginning in 2000, the country’s trade balance in high-technology products — historically a bastion of U.S. strength — began to decrease. By 2002, it turned negative for the first time and continued to decline through 2007," reaching -$53.6 billion. Today, it has dropped to -$81 billion.

This development has even alarmed the Center For American Progress (CAP), which attributed the deterioration to "the dramatic difference between U.S. innovation policies and those of our global competitors." The high-tech trade deficit "finds its roots in the negligence of our innovation policy," claimed CAP, which, after deep liberal think-tank thought, recommended "a strong policy response." Maybe, liberals suggested, a Department of Innovation is what this country has needed all along — one with strong policies, not those negligent ones.

In President Obama's first Hub, a handful of highly paid computer engineers diligently work to develop machines that will eliminate countless blue-collar jobs.

CAP's prescription may have been what caused President Obama to spring into action with his Manufacturing Innovation Hubs, to "create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance America’s global competitiveness." The idea is to bring industry, academia and, of course, government together into a joint effort to convert scientific knowledge into jobs — "a steady stream of good jobs into the 21st century," said Mr. Obama.

The first such hub, America Makes, opened for business in October 2012 in the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio. It focuses on 3D printing, and will be used as a model for subsequent hubs. As many as 45 hubs are planned, with projects that are intended to have a multiplier effect: each job created will support 1.6 other jobs, outside the factory. A Reuters article described the facility as "a sleek new laboratory" housing "a Silicon Valley-style workspace complete with open meeting areas and colorful stools." Inside, "Several 3-D printers hum in the background, while engineers type computer codes that tell the machines how to create objects by layering materials." That is, a handful of highly paid computer engineers diligently work to develop machines that will eliminate countless blue-collar jobs.

As of March 2014, when the Reuters article was published, none of the six businesses participating in America Moves had hired new workers. But the government component, the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (an organization funded by the US Army, i.e., funded by taxpayers), which manages the project, had hired ten. At this rate, 450 jobs will have been created when all 45 hubs are operational, soaring to 1170 jobs once the multiplier effect kicks in.

To be fair, it’s too early to tell how much of a dent, if any, Obama's struggling Hubs scheme will put in the 5.7 million manufacturing jobs that have been lost since 2000. For example, at a similar stage, the success of Obama's green economy scheme could not be determined. But after spending billions of dollars on green manufacturing companies such as Solyndra (solar panels), Nordic Windpower (windmills), and A123 (lithium batteries), all of the green jobs that were created ended up in China — which now manufactures all of our high-tech solar panels, windmills, and batteries. Whoops, bad example. But at least the Hub jobs have not left America, yet.

In 2011, Mr. Obama — the man who said that he wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night thinking about jobs — held a “town hall” meeting at Facebook, to discuss his economic policies. To Obama, Facebook is especially cool. Its young multi-billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, wears a hoodie to work. Its 500 million users (at the time) were available to watch Obama pal around with Zuckerberg, who "offered questions submitted online that gelled with Obama's key talking points and victories."

To Obama, factories are hulking, dilapidated buildings where glum Americans used to work, producing goods the world used to buy from us.

No one asked why — if Mr. Obama cared about creating jobs, in general, or manufacturing jobs, in particular — he didn't choose a company like Boeing, which, in 2011, was comparable in value (about $50 billion) to Facebook? Boeing — which is the only remaining American manufacturer of large jetliners in our declining Aerospace industry — employed 160,000 workers. Facebook, which apparently manufactures little more than narcissism and low self-esteem, only employed 2,000, all of whom, no doubt, gelled with Obama.

Factories, on the other hand, do not gel with Obama. To him, they are hulking, dilapidated buildings where glum Americans used to work, producing goods the world used to buy from us. That is why the regulatory policies he supports are designed to ensure fewer factories. The annual cost to comply with federal regulations for the average US manufacturing company is almost $20,000 per employee, twice that of the average US company (manufacturers included). For a small (<50 employees) manufacturing company, perhaps an innovative startup firm inspired by an Obama Hub, the cost is almost $35,000.$35,000! So much for global competitiveness.

Factories provide middle-class jobs for blue-collar workers. And, at $77,506 per year ($37.26 per hour), the average compensation for US manufacturing workers, millions of jobless Americans would like to see more of them — and may have wondered why Mr. Obama chose an Amazon fulfillment center as a venue to pitch middle-class jobs. Amazon is where middle-class jobs go to die.

Most of Amazon's 150,000 employees are seasonal workers — 80,000 of them hired just last year — who make $10 to $11.50 per hour, when there is work. Known as "pickers," they scurry about "the massive warehouses plucking item after item for shipment" and are paid no more than Walmart's "lumpers," who scurry about loading and unloading trucks all day. A smattering of Amazon employees, the ones with the good middle-class jobs ("the skilled direct-hire positions, like supervisor or forklift operator — the sort of gigs hyped during a high-profile visit by the president") shared Obama's stage. The pickers were offstage, scurrying. The slowest scurriers are discarded at season's end, or sooner; the fastest are rewarded with full-time employment, where they can earn as much as $27,000 per year, for as long as it takes Amazon to find robots that are faster.

Of Obama's visit, the White House asserted, “The Amazon facility in Chattanooga is a perfect example of the company that is investing in American workers and creating good, high-wage jobs.” No wonder he brags about the record-breaking number of fast-food and service jobs that his economic policies have created. He thinks they are high-paying, middle-class jobs.

Obama thinks that a steady stream of $27,000 service jobs is thrusting the economy in the right direction.

High-tech companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook, as important as they are to our economic power and prosperity, are not the places to go for middle class job creation. The American manufacturing industry is a much better bet. Existing US manufacturing companies would export more products if they were allowed to compete on a level playing field with foreign trading partners. Subsidies and tariffs are not needed. They would hire more workers, if they expected higher profits — profits now eroded by excessive taxes and regulations. A steady stream of $77,506 manufacturing jobs would stimulate the economy, increase tax revenues, reduce the trade deficit, and do many other substantial things.

Despite almost seven years of economic stagnation and the rise of a vast underclass of Americans stuck with lousy jobs, Obama thinks that a steady stream of $27,000 service jobs is thrusting the economy in the right direction. US manufacturing, hobbled by his trade, tax, and regulatory policies, needs only a nudge from his manufacturing hubs.

But it's not clear that Obama's Hub program is the place to go for good manufacturing jobs either. After all, it is a scheme whose principal objective is to invent and develop machines that will eliminate manufacturing jobs. Then there is his bizarre fascination with high-tech companies that either employ a very small number of the high-wage, high-skill elite or very large numbers of the low-wage, low-skill drudge.

His Hub scheme may indeed help US manufacturers. They would certainly welcome any technology that increases their productivity and profits — especially if it was paid for with taxpayer money instead of company R&D funds. Companies such as Amazon may already have agents salivating in the demonstration areas of the robotics hubs, looking for faster pickers. But peering inside a future factory spawned by Obama Hub technology may surprise even Mr. Obama.

These factories will not create the "steady stream of good jobs into the 21st century" that he had hoped for. Rather, they will create a flood of lousy, underclass jobs — the scurrying human labor needed to feed parts and raw materials to Obama's deft, voracious machines, and relieve them of their prodigious yield. All the jobs in such a factory will be held by these pickers and lumpers, except for one: the cool job held by a geeky-looking guy from an elite engineering school, who runs the factory computer system and earns a six-figure salary. He wears a hoodie and fastidiously controls every function performed (by both scurriers and machines) for the entire operation, from his colorful stool. He gels with Mr. Obama.




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Collateral Damage

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In Honduras, a country whose murder rate is 18 times that of the United States, citizens kill one another with impunity. In El Salvador, bodies lie in the street and get only a nervous glance from passers-by. In Guatemala, as well as Honduras, gangsters attack buses, robbing and even murdering the passengers. Throughout these three countries — they make up the Northern Triangle of Central America — members of such proliferating gangs as MS-13 and Barrio 18 do battle, leading to the death or disappearance of innumerable young people. The gangs specialize in kidnapping, extortion, and contract killing and often form alliances with the drug cartels.

In Mexico, which is supposedly peaceful, there have been deeply disturbing signs. In 2011, in Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico, police found 59 bodies in a pit near the place where, earlier, 72 bodies had been found — all of them the remains of Central American immigrants. These humble souls were forced off buses and shot when they refused to work for the Zetas, Mexico’s most pervasive drug cartel. In 2014, in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos murdered 43 college students, burned their bodies, put the residues in plastic bags, and tossed them into the San Juan River. The students had commandeered buses to take them to a political rally. The police pursued and captured them and, for some reason, turned them over to the cartel.

This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually.

And in 2015, along the road between the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and the city of Guadalajara, a motorized police column rode into an ambush that killed 15 of the officers and wounded five more. The incident occurred in the southwestern state of Jalisco, home of the New Generation, yet another drug cartel. This attack upon the police is a reminder of the choice given government officials by magisterial drug runners — plomo o plata, lead or silver. In other words, take a bribe or take a bullet. And to further intimidate them, the cartel hitmen have been known to place their victims before the public. Thus, in 2011, on a busy highway in Boca del Río, their agents halted traffic long enough to arrange 35 corpses for viewing by travelers.

As for the street gangs that cooperate with the cartels and practice their own style of intimidation — the biggest had their beginnings in the United States. Barrio 18 and MS-13 (properly named Mara Salvatrucha) were organized on the streets of Los Angeles. Subsequent criminal deportations sent some members back to their native El Salvador, where they found fertile ground, reorganized, and now filter back into this country. Barrio Azteca began in Texas prisons and became allies of the Juarez drug cartel. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Sureños began in prisons north of the border. Why did these gangs arise? What sustains them? Clearly, they were organized, not only for status and mutual defense, but also to gain a share of the enormous illegal drug market. And their territorial expansion and growth in membership indicate that they’ve succeeded.

Indeed, the entire network of gangs and cartels sits on the bedrock of America’s War on Drugs. This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually. Their huge markups have kept street prices high in the United States, making criminals wealthy and powerful and encouraging larceny, robbery, and even murder by desperate drug users. Added to these troubles are the sufferings inflicted on the people south of the border. There, the authorities — those who have avoided corruption — have little means to face the enormous crime wave created by the drug cartels and their street allies, whose crimes include the wanton murder of innocent citizens, including women and children.

All that I’ve described leads me to the obvious question — to what extent is the “immigration problem” simply more fallout from our War on Drugs? Of course, many Latino gangsters, with their tattoos and secret hand signals, have been sneaking northward, heading for cities to get those illegal-drug dollars. And along with them have come wandering misfits and ne’er-do-wells. But I suspect that conditions in Mexico and especially in Central America have so deteriorated that the soundest citizens are fleeing, searching for safe havens for themselves and their families. Is it the lure of our welfare state that attracts them? Or is it the all too visible cynicism and violence in their own countries that repels them? I don’t have precise answers, but I do know that wars consistently produce refugees — noncombatants who flee the battlegrounds. I doubt that our War on Drugs is an exception.

 

Further Reading

Adinolfi, Joseph. “Six Things You Need to Know about America’s Illegal Drug Trade: Who’s Using What, Where, and at What Cost — ConvergEx Study.” International Business Times, 29 Oct. 2013.

AP “59 Bodies Found Buried in a Series of Pits in Northern Mexico State of Tamaulipas.” New York Daily News, 7 Apr. 2011.

Barrio Azteca.” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas.

Brecher, Edward M., and the Editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Carroll, Rory. “Honduras: ‘We Are Burying Kids All the Time.’” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2010.

Castillo, Mariano. “Remains Could Be Those of Missing Mexican Students.” CNN, 11 November 2014.

Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report.” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

Crime in El Salvador.” Wikipedia.

Crime in Guatemala.” Ibid.

Crime in Honduras.” Ibid.

Crime in Mexico.” Ibid.

Daugherty, Arron. “MS 13, Barrio 18 Rivalry Increasing in Violence in Guatemala: President.” Insight Crime, 4 Feb. 2015.

DrugTraffickingintheUnitedStates. Washington DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004.

Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. Fwd. Kurt L. Schmoke. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1994.

Dyer, Zach. “Costa Rica Saw ‘Important Increase in Violence,’ says OIJ Director.” The Tico Times, 17 Feb. 2015.

El Salvador.” Insight Crime.

Gagne, David. “Guerreros Unidos, The New Face of Mexico Organized Crime?Insight Crime, 9 Oct. 2014.

___. “Mexico Drug Cartels Arming Gangs in Costa Rica.” Ibid., 17 Nov. 2014.

___. “Mexico Captures Sinaloa Cartel Head in Central America.” Ibid., 13 Apr. 2015.

Grillo, Ioan. “Mexican Gangsters Send a Grisly Message in Crime.” Time, 21 Sept. 2011.

Hargrove, Dorian. “Sinaloa Drug Cartel Controls 16 Mexican States, Including Baja California.” San Diego Reader, 3 Jan 2012.

Hastings, Deborah. “In Central America, Women Killed ‘With Impunity’ Just Because They’re Women.” New York Daily News, 10 Jan. 2014.

Honduras.” Insight Crime.

How Safe Is Mexico: A Travelers Guide to Safety Over Sensationalism.

Kilmer, Beau, et al. “How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation. 2014.

 ____. “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation, 7 March 2014.

Nicaragua.” Insight Crime.

Pelofsky, Jeremy. “Guns from U.S. Sting Found at Mexican Crime Scenes.” Reuters, 26 July 2011.

Police Officers Die in Mexico Roadside Ambush.” Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2015.

Riesenfeld, Loren. “ICE Raids Suggest Mexican Organized Crime Expanding Reach into U.S.Insight Crime, 9 Apr. 2015.

Romero, Simon. “Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City.” The New York Times, 22 May 2007.

Romo, Rafael. “Is the Case of 43 Missing Students in Mexico Closed?CNN, 28 Jan. 2015.

Stanford University. “The United States War on Drugs.”

2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping.” Wikipedia.

World Report: 2012.” Human Rights Watch.




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The Bears and the Bugs

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James Bowman is a good writer, and he wrote a very good article about the recent British elections for the June issue of The New Criterion, which is a good magazine. In that article there are a number of memorable observations, such as the idea that politics is usually and traditionally a matter of “the orderly management of the hatred between social factions.” I’m not sure that’s strictly true, but it’s certainly relevant to the current state of American political affairs. It’s also well phrased. I like reading Bowman’s stuff.

So it’s a sad indication of the state of our language that even such a good writer as James Bowman should refer, in the same article, to “the problem that eventually sunk the [British] Labour campaign.” Sunk? The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” “Sunk” is the past participle. Bowman doesn’t know that?

But oh, what a small thing! Why pick on that?

I’ll tell you why. Look at it this way. You go to a picnic, and just when everyone is having fun, a troop of bears comes out of the woods and eats ten of the children. It may be the first time it ever happened, but it shows that you have a bear problem. Neglecting all caution, you turn up at the next picnic, and there are no bears. But the mosquitoes drive everybody crazy. That shows you have a mosquito problem. It’s not as bad as a bear problem, but it’s bad nonetheless.

If you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers.

This column is usually occupied with bear problems. This time, let’s think for a moment about mosquito problems, such as the difficulty that many professional writers of English have in getting nouns to agree with verbs. It generally doesn’t keep you from understanding what they mean, but it’s . . . annoying. And unnecessary. Thus, on August 19, CNN finally raised its eyebrows about Mrs. Clinton and reported, “There have been a constant stream of stories about Clinton's emails for the better part of five months.” I’m glad CNN isn’t ignoring those stories (provided by other news organizations), but can’t it make its subjects and verbs agree? “There have been a stream”? There have also been blunders.

Another mosquito problem is the one I started out with — the inability of English speakers to remember what strong verbs are like. A strong verb is any that does not create its past and perfect forms with an -ed ending. Originally, Indo-European verbs were strong. Then the –ed form became influential (“productive,” as the linguists say), partly to assimilate borrowings of verbs from foreign languages. It was easier to use, so it spread to other verbs. But strong verbs still sound, well, stronger, and they are very useful in poetic and generally emotive language. It sounds better to say, “She strove to succeed” than “She strived to succeed.” It would have sounded still better if Tammy Bruce, one of America’s most cogent spokesmen for liberty, hadn’t told Fox News (August 15), “Carly Fiorina has weaved that fact into her presentations . . .” Tammy! I love you! But haven’t you heard of that word woven?

The hitch is, you have to know what you’re doing. Imagine that! You actually have to know that a person not only strove to succeed, but having striven, he sang his heart out. These days, however, he will have strived, and it’s an even chance that he sung his heart out, while the hearts of his enemies sunk. It’s more than an even chance that he had fit himself for his role. Here is an opposite, though not an insuperable, problem. Fit is a normal weak verb; it’s fit-fitted-fitted. Strange but true. This doesn’t mean that last week somebody (in San Francisco, it would be hundreds of people) shit on the doorstep. Shit is still a strong verb; somebody shat on the doorstep last week — and isn’t that a more forceful way of describing it? People spat in the subway, too.

Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Why can’t people keep this in mind? Why can’t professional writers (distinguishing them, for the moment, from actual people) figure it out? Well, if you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers. If your kids are troublemakers, get them to ask the English teacher what the past tense of fit may be. Or shit. Then they can ask the teacher whether he has ever read the King James Bible. And if he hasn’t, they can ask him how he ever got to be an English teacher. Should be interesting.

Moving on from the inevitable after-school detention, oft visited on the overly articulate . . . You can tell that people aren’t reading anything, let alone the King James Bible, when their spelling reproduces what they hear, or think they hear, not what they’ve read. Witness the non-word alright. This has been with us for quite a while (which doesn’t make it good — remember the Dutch Elm Disease). It’s the product of people who have never seen all right in print, or if they have seen it, have never wondered whether those two mysterious words could possibly have the same meaning as the things you see on post-it notes: “Henderson party: parking in Alley alright tonite.” In this never-saw-that, never-noticed-that category you can also file all those people who write things like, “Invitees can signin for the conference now” and “To hookup/test software, turnoff browsers, then turnon.” I’m quoting the kind of communications I get in my academic email. Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Of course, reading is no longer a prerequisite for writing of any kind, even professional writing about professional writing. Consider an article in The Wrap (April 6) about the aftermath of (or “fallout” over) Rolling Stone’s smear story on a University of Virginia fraternity. The article cited an observation by Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren (whose own English is pretty good):

The Fox anchor invoked a former president’s infamous phrase to tie a bow on Rolling Stone’s missteps: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify,’” she told TheWrap.

If you read books, and you notice what you read, you know that infamous does not mean famous — no, not at all. And if you enjoy reading books, you usually have some interest in noticing how authors get their effects. A person rattling along in conversation may say, “Our first idea went flat, but that’s all water over the dam,” and this may have some effect. But it won’t work in print, because people who read actually have to take a moment to look at what they’re reading. If they’re conscious (which admittedly, many “readers” are not), and they see the word missteps, they probably picture steps, going the wrong way. They won’t worry about the picture of a magazine making missteps; they’ll accept that as a little imagistic oomph. But when you ask them to picture somebody tying a bow on missteps, they won’t do it, because they can’t do it. It isn’t colorful; it’s stupid. The best audience, the audience most likely to appreciate an effective use of language, will move on from trying to picture the bow to the easier task of picturing the author, smiling with self-satisfaction after having, shall we say, tied that metaphoricbow on his misstep.

Anyone familiar with letters written by average Americans a hundred and fifty years ago knows that they tied a lot of those bows. They also wrote alright, very frequently, and worse things, much worse things, all the time. And anyone who has read a typical sermon or political address from the same period can see how many lofty phrases could be expended on practically nothing. The difference between that period and ours is that back then, nobody mistook average, unmeditated English for anything you’d want to use when you really got serious. People expected serious writing to be literate. Literacy was something they not only appreciated but enjoyed. Perhaps they even overenjoyed it.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor was held in contempt by other politicians for his lapses from standard grammar. Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his refusal to master the like-as distinction, his success at filling sentences with uhs and ums (sometimes 30 to the minute), and his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about folks and dropping his final g’s.

It’s hard to say whether this year’s presidential candidates are better or worse with language than he is: are rotten apples worse than rotten oranges? Some are more literate, but is there one of them, any one of them, whose speeches you want to hear, as opposed to reading the one- or two-sentence news summary? Trump, I suppose — but that’s because it’s fun to hear him abusing the other candidates. The format of his speeches, if you want to call it that, is exactly the same as the others’: he makes a series of 50-word declarations, apparently unconnected with one another, “highlighting” the positions — or, more accurately, the slogans — he wants you to remember. In this sense, there’s not much difference between Trump and those two yammering old coots, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who are just as abusive, but stupefyingly dull at it).

Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about "folks" and dropping his final g’s.

Nor is this merely a problem of politics. When Clinton and her surrogates claim that Republicans are trying to block healthcare and are waging war on women’s health, when Sanders and his gang of Post Office retirees announce that, because the government takes no action, women are paid only 78% of what men are paid, there’s also a problem of language. If you saw that in a book, you’d be shouting at the page: “What do these words mean? Are Republican mobs blockading hospitals? Are all the statisticians lying? Are women paid $78,000 for the same jobs for which men are paid $100,000?” If the author didn’t explain his statements, you would dismiss the book as incomprehensible. You wouldn’t think, “Ah, that’s interesting — here’s the slogan these people are pushing today. Must be because of that poll about women going Republican.” You wouldn’t think, “Good move! Sanders is playing to the welfare crowd. He’s prying them away from Hillary.” You’d think, “This is a bad book,” and that would be the end of it.

This defines the difference between normal readers and members of the political class. One group is jealous of its intellectual health and safety; the other doesn’t mind going to a picnic and being bitten by mosquitoes or gnawed by bears. In fact, it prefers that kind of picnic.

On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in the United States Senate. It was about an issue of great importance: the attempt to reach a compromise between Northern and Southern claims to power. But although people could have read a summary in the paper next day, and it was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Senate chamber, the place was packed. Ladies stood for three hours to hear Webster’s remarks — because that was the length of his speech: three hours and 11 minutes. Webster closely reviewed the long history of legal provisions and political negotiations regarding the status of slavery. He analyzed the geography of the western United States, assessing the possibility that slavery might become a paying proposition there. He reviewed his own history of opposition to slavery. He then considered what would happen — indeed, what did happen — in the event of a Southern secession.

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No, Sir! No, Sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe . . .

Many people hated Webster’s speech. It earned him the scorn of powerful voters in his own state, agitators against compromise. Yet its words were continuously informative. They were continuously interesting. They were continuously entertaining. They were, by the end, exciting. They weren’t talking points. They weren’t spin. And they weren’t three hours and 11 minutes of subliterary, unorganized sounds.

The ability to give literary interest to political words wasn’t confined to the greatest orators. Even Warren Harding, who is, perhaps unfairly, regarded as a mere politician, a nothing among statesmen, had that ability. On May 14, 1920, Harding outlined his political program:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. . . .

Out of the supreme tragedy [of the Great War] must come a new order and a higher order, and I gladly acclaim it. But war has not abolished work, has not established the processes of seizure or the rule of physical might. Nor has it provided a governmental panacea for human ills, or the magic touch that makes failure a success. Indeed, it has revealed no new reward for idleness, no substitute for the sweat of a man’s face in the contest for subsistence and acquirement.

For the past 95 years, Harding’s reference to “normalcy” has been panned by the intellectuals. A few dispute his use of that word instead of the normal “normality.” More, alas, sneer at his idea that war, revolution, and the ambitions of the progressive state should not be regarded as normal parts of the American condition. You can judge between Harding and his foes. My point is that Harding, known as one of the weakest of presidents, could deliver a speech that has approximately 100,000 times the word power of any contemporary political communication. He knew that big things come of small — that “dispassionate” is a valuable word, although you see it only in serious books, and that it presents an interesting contrast to “dramatic”; he knew that a sentence containing not one but eight sharp but serious conceptual distinctions can be a contribution to thought and argument, and certainly to literary interest.

You want a good meal? Here it is. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado. Ketchup and mustard on the side. Fries, fruit, cottage cheese . . . right there at the end of the table. Rather have the roast beef? We’ve brought that too. This is survival food. No bugs, no bears.

So, how do I get to that picnic? Easy — all you have to do is read.




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Still a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird

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As a professor of English literature I’ve heard more than one colleague comment wryly that the only legitimate purpose of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that it introduces the character of Huck Finn. The same could be said of Harper Lee’s newly published novel Go Set a Watchman; its only legitimate purpose is that it introduces the characters of Scout and Atticus Finch, the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

The new book takes place nearly two decades later than the first, when the 26-year-old Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch, now living in New York, returns to Maycomb, Alabama, for a two-week visit with her family. There she reminisces about childhood adventures with her brother Jem and friends Henry and Dill. The adult Jean Louise views her family and neighbors through more cosmopolitan eyes and finds them severely wanting, particularly in their attitudes toward civil rights and racial equality.

Watchman's detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene.

According to interviews with her current publisher at HarperCollins, Lee wrote this manuscript in the 1950s, when she was in her twenties, and although it takes place after the events in TKAM, it was actually written several years earlier. Lee’s agent submitted it to publishers, and in 1957 Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, picked it up. However, Hohoff recognized that the book wasn’t ready for publication and that the flashback scenes were far more compelling than the main narrative. She recommended that Lee rewrite the book using six-year-old Scout as the narrator. Better advice was never given to a first-time author. Hohoff worked closely with her, guiding her through several versions until, three years later, Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird was published. It has been read and reread by admiring fans for over 50 years.

Meanwhile, Watchman had been sitting in a secure area of Lee’s Alabama home, attached to the original manuscript of TKAM, since at least 1964, but was uncovered only recently by Lee’s attorney — conveniently after Lee suffered a stroke that left her virtually deaf and blind, and just three months after Lee’s sister and executor had passed away. Permission was secured from Lee to publish the book, but controversy swirls about the question of whether the privacy-seeking author, who always maintained that she would never write a sequel, was competent to understand what she was being asked.

So what about the book itself? Is it good enough to sell out an initial run of two million copies and sit atop the bestseller list, which is what it has been doing?

Sadly, no. On so many levels! It just isn’t very well written. Its detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene to experience it in the way Scout would eventually do in TKAM. The book is didactic and preachy, full of long philosophical harangues between characters but without the episodic storytelling that would make TKAM’s lessons so bittersweet and lasting. Watchman is a valuable first draft, but Lee needed to mature and grow as an author.

As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge.

The themes of Watchman are certainly timely. Scout talks about white privilege (yes, she uses that term) when she confronts lifelong friend Hank Clinton about some of his compromising actions. She doesn’t see that privilege in herself, just as African-Americans today complain that whites don’t see it in themselves. But Hank, whose family is considered “trash,” tells her, “I’ve never had some of the things you take for granted and I never will. . . . You can parade around town in your dungarees with your shirttail out and barefooted if you want to. Maycomb says, ‘That’s the Finch in her, that’s just Her Way. . . . But let Henry Clinton show any signs of deviatin’ from the norm and Maycomb says not ‘That’s the Clinton in him,’ but ‘That’s the trash in him.’ . . . You are permitted a sweet luxury I am not. You can shout to high heaven, I cannot” (231–34).

More importantly, Watchman destroys the reputation of one of the most beloved civil rights heroes in American literature. As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge and the lesson to be learned — for Hank to be right when he said of Atticus, “He joined . . . to find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks. . . . A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them” (229–30). Lee does give a faint nod to the revolutionary battle cry, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” when Uncle Jack explains, “People don’t agree with the Klan, but they certainly don’t try to prevent them from puttin’ on sheets and making fools of themselves in public” (267). But this does not take away the bitter taste of hearing Atticus Finch saying, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia? . . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to fully share in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?  . . . You’d have Negroes in every county office. . . . Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” How can these words come from the mouth of the man who defended Tom Robinson so eloquently and taught his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird?

I don’t believe they could. As Harper Lee took the advice of her original publisher and returned to her manuscript, she came to know her characters better. I don’t think she quite knew them when she began writing. She had a sense of them, but she only knew them from their dialogue, not from their hearts. Her title, Go Set a Watchman, comes from a passage in Isaiah suggesting that Israel needed a moral compass. In her early twenties, Lee thought that she, through her character Jean Louise, was that moral compass. She even called herself “Scout,” the one who blazes a trail through the wilderness.

Many authors did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed.

But Hohoff recognized something more significant in a short flashback scene, where Jean Louise reminisces about Atticus defending a one-armed black man against a rape charge brought by a white woman. That was the real story. As Lee struggled through the editing process with Hohoff, she finally discovered that the moral compass was Atticus all along. Scout’s liberality came not as resistance to her father’s bigotry and paternalism, but from following her father’s example. Ironically, the younger Harper Lee in her twenties drew the old Atticus Finch through the eyes of a woman rebelling against patriarchy. But the slightly older Harper Lee, in her thirties, writing through the narration of a six-year-old girl, understood the father character with a maturity that allowed her to draw him exactly right.

Foreseeing their deaths, authors have often instructed their servants or their heirs to destroy their unfinished manuscripts. Adam Smith, Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and even Virgil are among them. We lament the loss of some treasured works (others, such as the Aeneid, were saved), but perhaps the authors usually knew best — they did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed. If Harper Lee had the mental capacity to realize what has happened to her beloved Atticus, I’m sure she would be ready to throw all two million copies of this printing into the fire. Already possessing more millions of dollars than she could possibly spend in the time she has left, she has been betrayed by the desire of her attorney, her agent, and her publisher to make money — a lot of it. They have discovered a new golden goose, but they have finally killed the mockingbird.


Editor's Note: Review of "Go Set a Watchman," by Harper Lee. HarperCollins, 2015, 278 pages.



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Cuba and the Yanqui Dollar

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Now that the United States has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, the communist government is insisting that the US pay reparations for the gigantic economic losses allegedly caused by America’s long refusal to trade with the island state. Undoubtedly the Obama administration is hard at work figuring out how to provide disguised subsidies to the communist regime and to crony capitalists who would like to make money on “free trade” with the kleptocracy. “I feel very much at home here. . . . We wish each other well,” proclaimed John Kerry, at his August 14 lovefest in Havana. When American officials say things like that, communists and their capitalist shills hear cash registers starting to ring.

It’s highly unlikely that “reparations” will be openly paid. Nevertheless, the demand for reparations illustrates some of the global Left’s most mesmerizing fallacies. These fallacies have nothing to do with the interesting question of whether economic embargoes ever “work,” in the sense of penalizing those whom they’re supposed to penalize. That’s a matter for empirical research, which no ideologue can bear to do, except to “prove” some pre-existing notion. I’m talking about the perennial war of faith — faith in the state — against logic.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty.

Every communist state has initially justified itself as an economic enterprise. That’s the point of communism, isn’t it? It’s an economic philosophy designed to deliver economic prosperity. Soon, however, there comes a surprise. Who woulda thunk it — communism turns out to be economically disastrous! But, this having been established, the communist state doesn’t slink off to the side and wither, demoralized by its failure to do what it proposed to do. Instead, it loudly justifies itself on opposite principles — heroic endurance of poverty, disdainful rejection of the good life, the prosperous society.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty. For Cuban communists and their sympathizers around the world, and for many unthinking noncommunists as well, the United States is the one to blame. First the US was to blame for ruthlessly exploiting Cuba, by trading with it and investing in it; then, and still worse, the US was to blame for ruthlessly refusing to trade with it or invest in it.

It’s useless to say that you can’t have it both ways. Of course you can, if you refuse to think. In fact, if you’re an American leftist, you can even have it four ways: Cuba is prosperous; Cuba is impoverished; isolation from capitalism made Cuba prosperous; isolation from capitalism made Cuba poor. With these comforting thoughts packed away in all relevant heads, pity for Cuban communism and outrage over US imperialism can continue, with no reduction of self-righteousness. They will come in handy whenever the New York Times notices that post-embargo Cuba is cursed (like pre-embargo Cuba) with that worst of all evils, income Inequality. Again we will witness the catastrophic effects of exploitative free enterprise.




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Doing Your Own Stunts

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In a film season marked — or marred — by sequels, remakes, and television upgrades, two films characterized by old-fashioned filmmaking provide the most fun to be had in a movie theater this summer. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation puts the superheroes to shame, with thrilling action sequences, snappy dialogue, satisfying storytelling, and palpable rapport among the cast members. Add to this director Christopher McQuarrie’s decision to have Tom Cruise perform most of his own stunts (and Cruise’s obvious glee in performing them) and you have easily the best big film of the summer.

Once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

This is the fifth in the Mission: Impossible series, each with a different director and each creating its own ambience. The original MI (1996) was dark and foreboding, while this one, although it has its share of menace and torture, is more lighthearted and campy, thanks in large part to the presence of Benji Dunn (comedian Simon Pegg), the techno geek who has been pulled reluctantly into field service in the last three films.

As this story opens, the Impossible Missions Force is being absorbed by the CIA for wreaking havoc around the world while trying to save it, and all IMF agents have been called in. MI fans will get a kick out of references to capers in earlier films as CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) makes his case before a congressional committee. However, Ethan (Cruise) is hot on the trail of The Syndicate, the ghostly supervillain organization that dogs him in every episode, and he refuses to come in. Yes, once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world (and his own skin) by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again.

His biggest quandary comes from beautiful and mysterious double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who helps him in one scene and tries to kill him in the next. Is she a double agent or a triple agent? Or a quadruple agent? We don’t know, and that keeps us engaged. Her name gives us a clue — has she indeed made a pact with the devil? A Swedish beauty who looks a lot like Ingrid Bergman and channels Bergman’s cool charm, Ferguson plays the role flawlessly, with just the right mix of passion, pathos, and power.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again, with stunts that are performed by the actors themselves, not by stunt doubles, and not by computer geeks in post-production. Yes, that really is Tom Cruise hanging sideways from the door of an Airbus A400 M, sans parachute or wires, while it flies at full speed as much as 5,000 feet from the ground. Yes, that’s him again speeding recklessly through narrow streets and down the steep steps of a foreign town while being chased by bad guys with guns. That’s him again, leaning so far into the curve from his high-speed motorcycle on a winding mountain road that his knee nearly skims the pavement. It’s so refreshing to see his face in these exciting scenes, instead of the telltale hat that actors usually don that signals “Here comes the stunt double” in most action films. It has been almost 20 years since the first MI episode, but Cruise still has it.

Add to all of this the soaring score of Puccini’s Turandot mixed with Lalo Schifrin‘s iconic Mission Impossible theme, and you have the perfect summer popcorn flick.

Another film that shines as much for its filmmaking as for its storytelling is Mad Max: Fury Road, which premiered in late spring and is still in theaters. It is easily my favorite film of the year so far. OK, the characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.

What you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre.

I reviewed Road Warrior for Liberty in March, after seeing a special screening of a remastered version hosted by director George Miller at the gigantic Paramount Theater at SXSW. I pointed out some of the characteristics that made RW so unusual, including its linear filming strategy (Miller filmed each scene in order, from beginning to end), crazy S&M costuming, and souped-up classic cars, live stunts that produced eye-popping heart-in-the-mouth gasps from the audience, and an implied but unstated mythology and backstory for the characters. The story couldn’t be simpler: a lone hero travels through a dystopian future searching for fuel, food, and survival while avoiding marauding bands of violent scavengers. He encounters a community of people who need his help. Will this humanize him, or will he continue on his isolated journey to nowhere?

I wondered: could a new version filmed more than 30 years later using CGI special effects and modern action-movie expectations possibly measure up to the live-action craziness of the original film?

Not to worry. Miller chose to eschew CGI and stay true to his original film process, including a heavily storyboarded linear film schedule, multiple homages to the original film and characters, and live action stunts, even in the most harrowing chase scenes. He did use a few computerized magic tricks, but they were reserved for things like changing Charlize Theron’s arm into a prosthetic device and air brushing the stunt rigging out of scenes. For the most part, what you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre, with wild characters swooping down on their victims by means of giant flexible poles, drivers spraying their mouths with chrome war paint, and a crazy electric guitarist riding on the front of the lead truck like a revolutionary drummer boy, spewing heavy metal and fiery flames all at once. The music inFury Road isn’t classic opera, à la MI’s Turandot, but its thundering soundtrack blares an anthem nonetheless.

Granted, Fury Road isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t take my mother. Heck, I wouldn’t even take my husband. But for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation," directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Bad Robot Films, 2015, 131 minutes; and "Mad Max: Fury Road," directed by George Miller. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2015, 120 minutes.



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Is Passably Principled Progressivism Possible?

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Try reading the title of this essay aloud. It sounds a lot like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” I like tongue twisters. But as much as I value a nimble tongue, I prize a nimble brain far more.

Libertarians are the only people with whom I can still have a satisfying conversation about politics. I no longer have much patience for talking politics with self-proclaimed progressives. Fatuously, my former faction has foregone factual fastidiousness. I know that if I ever want to change them into libertarians, I need to keep on trying; I only wish the challenge didn’t daunt me so.

Their logic does not exercise the intellect; it strangles it. I could point to a dozen examples from current events alone. A few especially make me want to run naked and screaming into the street. My natural modesty, my fear of being filled with holes by overzealous cops, and my reluctance to being laughed at, hold this impulse in check. But because most of my friends and acquaintances are progressive, I am tempted daily.

They are now in a state of high indignation because some people have replaced the slogan, “Black Lives Matter” with “ALL Lives Matter.” Now, since “all” is a more inclusive term than “black,” and progressives trumpet to the skies their commitment to inclusivity, one would imagine that replacing “black” with “all” would be more favorable to them. And if most actually believed in their own stated convictions, of course it would be. But because it is becoming increasingly obvious that for many of them, their convictions are little more than an affectation, everybody else sees their “progressivism” as a sham.

I could point to a dozen examples from current events alone. A few especially make me want to run naked and screaming into the street.

What a shame! As individuals, a good many leftists whom I know are quite sincere, but they are afraid to admit the absurdity of many of the positions their crowd expects them to take. When, in a group of them, I proclaim such things to be foolish, they look at me with something akin to envy. How dare I do anything that feels so good — without guilt or fear of disapproval?

Their enthusiasms are childishly faddish. One week, it’s operatic outrage against the Confederate battle flag. The next, their Facebook posts feature photos of yawning house cats that “roar for Cecil,” the lion killed by the dastardly, trophy-hunting dentist. I’m afraid to ask what’s next. Frighteningly soon, I’m going to find out.

Is there anything remotely progressive about the great majority of fads that tickle their fancy? I’ve come to believe that far from leading toward progress, these enthusiasms actually divert them from a quest for the genuine article. Worse, they may even lead them in the opposite direction.

As individuals, a good many leftists whom I know are quite sincere, but they are afraid to admit the absurdity of many of the positions their crowd expects them to take.

The police brutality now escalating in our society can’t be effectively dealt with if its two main causes — the irresponsibility of government and the corruption of police unions — are left unaddressed. Turning the problem into a racial shoving-match is yet another tactic designed to divide and conquer. The sooner we recognize that all lives do matter, and that police brutality threatens every one of us, the more likely we are to come together to solve the problem.

Solving the problem would, indeed, be progressive in any meaningful sense of the word. But the statist left isn’t really about solving problems to bring about progress. It’s about making those problems ever worse, so it can go on decrying them and putting itself forward as the heroic force that alone can save us from them.

As a libertarian, I very much believe in organized labor. If we’re going to let free market forces regulate commercial interactions, then we need to clear away the clutter of oppressive “workers’ rights” legislation. I believe that’s a very good plan. But it makes organized labor — at least in some industries — not less necessary, but more. Busting up all unions is not, in my view, the way to protect workers’ rights in the absence of legislation.

This means that the unions must clean house. It’s absolutely crucial to their continued survival. Statist progressives are leery of admitting that corruption exists in organized labor because they fear that anti-labor conservatives will use that corruption as an excuse to abolish unions. But if they continue to ignore corruption in those unions, this is eventually what will happen. To cite the two examples most often in the news these days, police unions must stop shielding bad cops from accountability for their actions, and teachers’ unions must insist on representing people who can actually teach.

The police brutality now escalating in our society can’t be effectively dealt with if its two main causes — the irresponsibility of government and the corruption of police unions — are left unaddressed.

When I discuss this calmly with progressive friends, away from peers whose wrath they’re afraid of incurring, I find they generally agree with me. It’s rather like reasoning with teenagers, when the rest of their crowd is not present. People can only be reasonably persuaded as individuals. Their behavior around their peers changes dishearteningly little, regardless of their age.

In their regular interactions with government at every level, my progressive friends experience little but frustration. They can point to no solid evidence, in their daily lives, that government makes their lives anything but worse. Yet they continue to believe that government action is the only means to make life better in society as a whole. To libertarians, this is as ridiculous as believing that Santa Claus comes down the chimney every Christmas Eve. But like small children who’ve been told all their lives that Santa brings their presents, statists can conceive of no other possibility.

I laugh at them a lot. I compare them to kids. Many of us think that’s funny, and recognize that it’s also true. But people can’t be persuaded of much when they’re being laughed at. Far from winning them over to our side, it only drives them farther away from it.

If we can bring them back to the principles that made them progressives in the first place, we may be able to show them that every worthy end deserves the best possible means to accomplish it. That “leaders” who keep proposing the same failing strategies do not deserve to be followed. That free people who are willing to persuade and earn trust are more trustworthy than arrogant know-it-alls who use force, fraud and intimidation to get their way. And that unless human beings can be trusted to run their own lives, they certainly can’t be trusted to run the lives of others.  

Really, I’m still a progressive. I simply persist in believing in the principles that made me a progressive in the first place. But I want to see results. I want to see actual progress. I’m kind of funny that way.

Why don’t we see any success from the things their self-proclaimed leaders keep doing? And no, “but the conservatives are worse” is not an answer, any more than “but Mary Jane’s grades were worse” was the answer when they got a bad report card. Mary Jane wasn’t the only other kid in the world, and conservatism isn’t the only other political philosophy.

People can’t be persuaded of much when they’re being laughed at. Far from winning them over to our side, it only drives them farther away from it.

Libertarianism is catching fire, as more and more people discover what it’s all about. Polls increasingly show that even people who don’t call themselves libertarians hold views consistent with our philosophy. Ours is not merely a third option — it is the best option. Now we need to talk to those on the statist left, one-to-one and one-by-one, and help them see why.

That’s a whole lot better than running naked and screaming into the street. We won’t get shot at, laughed at or arrested. And as we lose enemies, we will gain friends.

rsquo;t daunt me so.




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The Thrill Is Back

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The Gift is a gift to film lovers who have been yearning for a good old-fashioned psychological thriller. It’s set in an airy mid-century modern house with way too many picture windows and all the attendant spookiness that comes from knowing someone could be out there, looking in. The music creates mounting tension that convinces us — repeatedly — that something scary is about to happen, while the editing provides just the right balance between slow, tantalizing buildup of a scene and explosive delivery of the shocking payoff. First-time director and screenwriter Joel Edgerton, whose brother Nash Edgerton directed the Matrix series, did his homework in preparing for this film, and it has paid off with a first-class thriller.

As the story opens, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have just moved back to Simon’s hometown after having lived in Chicago for several years. We have the sense that they are starting over, but we don’t know why, or from what. While shopping for furnishings for their new home, Simon is approached by an acquaintance from high school whom he does not recognize, but who seems to remember him quite well. Soon “Gordo” (played by director Edgerton) is dropping by the house unexpectedly, always bearing gifts — a bottle of wine, decorative fish for the koi pond, speakers for the entertainment center — and always when Simon isn’t home. Gordon is nice, but he’s kind of creepy too. Something about the eyes. Simon wants to extinguish the rekindling friendship, but Robyn believes Gordo is harmless. He’s just socially inept, and trying too hard. Soon strange things begin to happen, and Robyn feels terrorized in her home while Simon is at work.

The Gift could just as easily have been called “The Secret,” for each of the principal characters is harboring a secret that could provide a clue to the motives behind the frightening events, and thus the true nature of what is happening in this small community. Contemporary issues introduced by these secrets raise the film above the level of a mere evening’s entertainment, providing food for thought and conversation long after the film has ended.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Gift," directed by Joel Edgerton. Blue-Tongue Films, 2015, 108 minutes.



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Internal Deliberations

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Here’s What’s Wrong About Price Gouging

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Here are some situations. See what you think of them.

You’re getting ready to drive to work when you turn on the radio and discover that an accident has closed two lanes of the freeway you usually take. Unwilling to spend two extra hours inching through horrible traffic, or to forfeit half a day’s wages so you can go to work at a later time, you decide to sacrifice four dollars and take the toll road.

Your friend has a birthday tomorrow, and you want to give him his favorite thing, which is a certain kind of Brazilian coffee. When you get to the store, you find that the cost has gone up. Several would-be customers are shaking their heads and turning away: they’re not buying at that price. “Bad season in Brazil,” one of them says. “Half the crop wiped out.” Hence the price increase. But you want to please your friend, so you pay the extra money and buy him a pound of coffee.

The first snowfall of the winter turns out to be a bad one. When you see the stuff clogging your driveway, you regret that you didn’t contract with the neighborhood snowplow guy to clear the drive whenever it snowed. You call him on his cell, and over the sound of heavy equipment you hear him say something about wanting to “do the customers with contracts first.” In fact, he’s got all the contract customers he can handle — but he’d be willing to help you out today, for twenty dollars extra, fifty dollars for doing it right away. You happily agree.

Do you see anything wrong about any of these little episodes? I mean, do you see anything contrary to common morality? Anything contrary to common sense? Anything contrary to normal economic reasoning? No? You don’t? I don’t either.

You would have paid a hundred dollars, if the snowplow guy had asked for it. It would have been worth it to you. But no, he’s not allowed to ask for more.

Now suppose the government decreed that no motorist should have to pay more to drive, just because there was some dumb accident on the freeway. Suppose the government therefore closed the toll road, just to make things fair, meaning that you would be required either to spend extra hours on the freeway or to forfeit some of your pay for a much delayed arrival at work, or both.

Or suppose the government decided that no one should pay more for essential foodstuffs (e.g., coffee), just because some unpreventable meteorological event occurred. Suppose the government therefore decreed that no one should be allowed to pay more for coffee than the price that prevailed before that event, meaning that all available supplies of coffee would be long gone before you went to shop for it — purchased by casual customers who would never have bought any coffee at the price it is worth to you.

Or, to go at this one more time, suppose the government refused to allow the snowplow guy to charge you extra just because there was a big snowfall and you hadn’t been prepared for it. Obviously, you wouldn’t get your driveway plowed, despite the fact that some of the people who got theirs plowed, at the ordinary price, had nothing better to do with their cars than drive to the convenience store for a bag of chips, whereas you needed to show up at the office to sign an important contract. You would have paid a hundred dollars, if the snowplow guy had asked for it. It would have been worth it to you. But no, he’s not allowed to ask for more.

What do you think of the morality and economics of that second set of situations? Not much, I imagine. Yet that is the morality and economics that is official in our country. That is the morality and economics that the people, as a corporate body, loudly applaud.

Consider what happens when some meteorological accident befalls an East Coast state. As soon as a hurricane is foretold, state and local officials decree that no one will be allowed to charge more for gas, food, or lumber than they do on a normal day. To charge more would be “gouging,” and an awful thing. The result? The economy grinds to a halt. Long lines form at stores and gas stations. People in urgent, perhaps desperate, need wait in line up behind people who have nothing better to do that day, and no one has a compelling economic interest in rerouting supplies to the weather-threatened region from other places; it’s a hassle, and the price would be the same anyhow. Besides, if you made a mistake in pricing, you could be arrested. Fat little Chris Christie, or some similar buffoon, bustles from one gas station to another, threatening to arrest “profiteers” and occupying the 6 o’clock news. And the people cheer.

It appears to be an article of the national faith that prices are determined by the law of supply and demand. But another article of faith is that the government can and should violate that law.

The other day, federal officials made headlines by announcing an investigation of airline companies because they allegedly raised prices on flights in New England after a government train had an accident that disabled the main line from New York to Boston. The idea of these high-level feds is that it would have been scandalously immoral for the airlines to charge more money for their seats, thereby allowing travelers who were willing to pay more to go ahead and pay it, and travelers who didn’t set so high a priority on getting to Boston right away not to pay it. Except on John Stossel’s show, no murmur of disapproval greeted the well-publicized announcement of this sanctimonious investigation, or witch hunt.

So this is the mystery of contemporary politics. Actions that would, in certain contexts, make almost all Americans shake their heads in wonder are welcomed, in other contexts, with pious approval. Why is that? I don’t know.

It appears to be an article of the national faith that prices are determined by the law of supply and demand. This idea is even taught in high schools, where realistic ideas almost never appear. But another article of faith is that the government can and should violate that law (which it constantly does), and that no one will pay a price for the government’s action: no one will spend hours waiting to buy something he’d prefer to pay a bit more money for; no one will find that the items he wants to buy have disappeared when he finally gets to buy them; no one will lose his life or livelihood because of an arbitrarily imposed “fair price.”

Americans believe that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. They also believe that the government can cook one up for you, at any time, and no matter what happens. No problem! Just make a law.




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