Rendering Caesar

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At first glance, it will appear to the reader that my title omits the word “unto.” The omission was intentional. There’s no “unto,” because my view of the familiar gospel story (Matthew 22:15–22) is unconventional. For most of my life, I read it in the way everybody else does. But although my religious convictions have changed little since early adulthood, I now see that story in an entirely different light, because of the change my politics have undergone.

The meaning I see: was it there all along? Purists may claim that I made it up, but I wonder. The feeling usually derived from the story is that Jesus was a crafty guy, because he really punked those Pharisees. I have a hunch that Jesus was even craftier than we realize.

For the scripturally uninitiated, some self-righteous types came to Jesus asking whether it was indeed lawful to pay taxes to Rome. They were always trying to trap him, and this time they really thought they had him in the bag. As the people of Palestine were subjects of the empire, they were forced to pay taxes to it. But the Jewish people regarded their overlords as tyrants, and cherished the dream of one day overthrowing them. As a rabbi, if Jesus were to say that these taxes were the empire’s due, he would stir up a hornet’s nest of resentment.

Government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source.

“Show me a coin,” Jesus tells his inquisitors. When they produce one, he asks them whose picture is on it. Of course they say it is Caesar’s. To which he responds, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” They went away disappointed, and perhaps a bit awed. Jesus had really gotten out of that one!

My purpose in retelling this story is not to force religion on anybody. My point isn’t particularly religious, but in my retelling of this story, it does have a moral, just not the one usually supplied.

From the time the gospels began to be circulated to the present day, the moral that has been understood is that there are some things that belong to us, and others that belong to the government. But it is precisely this moral that I wish to challenge. As a matter of fact, I challenge the very notion that government rightfully owns anything.

In truth, government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source. Everything it gets its hands on, it has taken from us. Or from whatever other nation it has plundered, or from which it has demanded tribute.

How, then, can government legitimately be said to “own” anything? It doesn’t earn; it simply takes. From others. Whether they want to give it or not. And for all that it takes, it gives astonishingly little in return.

Because I’m both a Christian and a libertarian, I’m sometimes accused of hypocrisy. How can I believe that taxation is theft, when — for crying out loud — Jesus himself told us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”? Whenever people remind me of this, they give me a smug smile, certain that they’ve punked me.

I used to get frustrated by this. But not so fast. Having now deeply considered the matter, I see the other side of the coin.

Jesus didn’t specify exactly what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God. Technically, he never really answered the Pharisees’ question. That aspect of the story almost always goes unnoticed. Actually he left us considerable leeway in deciding that for ourselves.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs.

Do we owe that coin to Caesar? Or do we “owe” Caesar anything at all? Those who call themselves “progressives” love to tell us that “we are the government.” If that is true — and I think that when they say it, understanding government as they do, it is the hollowest of lies — then where did “Caesar” get it in the first place? He neither made it, created it, nor earned it; he simply pulled out a sword and took it.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs. They didn’t want his picture on their money; he told them they would use that money or die for treason. Then he forced them to give up a crushingly sizable portion of the money they had earned — by the sweat of their brows — and give it to him. No part of how Caesar came about that coin was sanctioned by the law of the God they worshiped.

“I came not to destroy the Law,” said Jesus elsewhere in Scripture, “but to fulfill it.” Again, not to force religion on anybody, but even those who have no religion have a conscience that says what belongs to one may not be forcibly taken by another. Caesar owns nothing at all, beyond, perhaps, the image on “his” coin.

Were many, many more of us to recognize that fact, we could render Caesar powerless to demand anything from us at the point of a sword. We’d tell him what we wanted, and he would do it — because he’d serve us instead of the other way around. Every shekel and widow’s mite in this country belongs to us — the people who created it, worked for it, and rightfully earned it. It’s time for a reassessment of who owns what. And of who owes what unto whom.




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A Depression that Should Not Be Forgotten

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I liked The Forgotten Depression but did not love it.

Its subject is the depression of 1921 — a valuable subject because, as the author indicates, the depression went away without massive government intervention. Imagine that.

The author's brief history of the problems some big banks got into, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is excellent. Grant shows how the principals of the banks had their own fortunes tied up in the banks’ capital, which usually kept them prudent. Still, they made mistakes. For instance, National City Bank (“forerunner of today’s Citigroup” p. 18) for instance, invested in Tsarist Russia — just before the Bolshevik revolution. The firm had over 60% of its capital tied up in sugar investments in Cuba, when prices were high, then crashed. Guarantee Trust, another huge bank of the time, was considered "too big to fail," almost a hundred years before our present policies on that subject.

The author aptly characterizes the 1920–21 depression as the last major downturn to be "un-medicated" (by government stimulus policies), and makes telling comparisons with the activist Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt administrations. Notably, the earlier depression was of short duration, while the “medicated” depression of the 1930s and the recent Great Recession went on and on. Grant’s discussions of the various economists, bankers, and policy makers involved in the problems of the 1920s are challenges to today’s economists, policy makers, and historians.

Meanwhile, Grant adds texture and depth to his story with descriptions of the difficulties suffered by the various sectors of the economy during the Forgotten Depression: farming, steel production, the auto industry, construction, and even haberdashers (including one very famous and resentfully unsuccessful one). But be prepared for a massive amount and variety of statistics about earnings and losses, interest rates, unemployment rates, sales rates and amounts, etc., etc. The author is an expert who knows how to deal with statistics. His writing is not nearly as dry as it could be.

Notably, this earlier depression was of short duration, while the “medicated” depression of the 1930s and the recent Great Recession went on and on.

He is also basically sound on substantive economic issues. He provides a good explanation of the classic gold standard up to the 1920-21 depression, and then of the fake "gold exchange" standard thereafter. He understands market forces and government intrusions and distortions. His description of the anti-business, anti-market biases, or ideology, of the key figures in the Woodrow Wilson administration is appropriately sickening.

Unfortunately, Grant’s presentation of basic business-cycle theory is lacking, save for a discussion of people who believe in the market vs. people who think government competent to force “solutions” on it. His explanations of how government coercion usually has unfavorable, unforeseen, and mostly unacknowledged repercussions is good, but probably not good enough to convince those who believe in such things.

Two other matters need to be mentioned.

First, the book has a section called Acknowledgements, which is more like a bibliographic essay. I liked this section very much. It is moderately short, fun, and informative to read, and it gives a great commentary on Grant’s main sources, some of which I highly recommend. The Great Depression sources, which he uses to excellent effect throughout the book, are very important

Second, the "hero" of Grant’s story is wonderful. But I won’t give it away. It’s in the book.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash that Cured Itself," by James Grant. Simon & Schuster, 2014, 272 pages.



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The Great Debaters

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I feel that I should say something about the presidential debates. I don’t want to do it. Probably you don’t want to read it. But it’s as inevitable as someone going to a wake and saying, “Doesn’t he look natural?”

“Natural,” of course, would not be the right word for our current debaters. Most of them look deranged, and their talk confirms the impression. I think one sample will suffice. It’s the now-famous outburst from Bernie Sanders, standing next to his alleged opponent, Hillary Clinton, and screaming, “"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails. . . . Enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America.”

Can’t you just hear the Witch of the West cackling, “Helping the little lady along, are you, my fine gentleman?” In this case, the cackling was supplied by the little lady herself, who shrieked a series of those demented sounds that pass with her for laughter. But why would anybody say what Sanders said? It’s not the kind of thing you say if you actually want to beat your opponent.

Media speculation holds that Bernie wants a high position in a Clinton administration, and one can imagine many posts for which he would be qualified. As someone who doesn’t realize that the arguments for socialism were completely discredited over a hundred years ago, he’s suited to be Undersecretary for Historic Preservation. Maybe he could rise as far as Executive Director of the Steam Locomotive Bureau.

In this case, the cackling was supplied by the little lady herself, who shrieked a series of those demented sounds that pass with her for laughter.

My own speculation is that Sanders simply hates Republicans so much that he is willing to do anything to express contempt for them. Because that’s what his statement was — a mere declaration of contempt. No reasoning about the evidence, no consideration of the many problems that Clinton’s “damn emails” have brought up, and of course no interest in the, after all, very interesting question of why he thinks he can speak for “the American people.” The same populace that he pictures as alternately vomiting over the email scandal and trying to sleep it off (“sick and tired”) is depicted by the polls as actively concerned with the issue and actively engaged in revising its opinion of Hillary Clinton — downward. Why wouldn’t Sanders use this as a campaign talking point, or at least leave it lay, unless he was mastered by his vindictive spirit? The reason his campaign got traction is that even Democrats consider Clinton a hateful, dishonest person. But with his carefully plotted debate outburst, Sanders showed that for him, nothing is worth so much as reviling the Republicans. This is ordinary for Democrats. The family that reviles together, stays together.

But to do Sanders the justice he is never willing to do other people, we need to consider his own explanation of his motive — his belief that discussion of Hillary’s “damn emails” crowds out discussion of “the real issues facing America.”

(I like quoting “damn emails,” because it’s such a dumb thing to say. “Damn” is the default term of abuse. It’s what people say when they can’t think of anything else. It’s exactly what a dumb, befuddled, obnoxious old coot would say about any problem in daily life. “Damn junk mail! Why do they send me the damn stuff? Damn toaster! Burns the bread every damn time! Damn kids! I’m sick of the damn kids in this neighborhood!”)

As someone who doesn’t realize that the arguments for socialism were completely discredited over a hundred years ago, Sanders is well suited to be Undersecretary for Historic Preservation.

So let’s consider his belief. The essential idea is one he shares with most of the other candidates, Democratic or Republican — the notion that there is a giant pile of issues out there, as tall as Mt. Everest and just as gnarly, and that America has to face those issues,and would be busy doing so if Americans could only see them. The candidate’s mission is to reveal the existence of those issues, now cleverly concealed behind the opponents’ lying contemptible hateful hate-filled propaganda. No one else is willing to undertake this mission.

If this is true, it’s surprising that political candidates almost never initiate a dialogue about the issues that is remotely similar to anything that normal people do when they have a real issue to discuss. Normal people try to find the facts, and if the facts turn out not to be alarming, they are happy not to argue about solving a problem that no one can find. But if there is a problem, and it’s apparent enough to be a subject of debate, they try to sharpen their arguments and communicate them clearly and concisely. They entertain objections and attend to plausible counterarguments. And they present a clear plan of action. They don’t go on and on about how the door needs to be fixed; they say, “Tomorrow morning, I’ll call up Dave the Fixit Guy and see what he’ll charge to take care of that door.”

Political candidates address the issues in a different way. They declare, usually out of the blue, that they have discovered an issue that must be faced. Then they invent facts to support their statements, denounce anyone who takes a more optimistic view of the situation, declare that the problem must be solved instantaneously, and exclude any possibility of solving it except by taking all the money out of other people’s bank accounts. This is not what you or I mean when we urge other people to face an issue. Still stranger is the fact that the political discussion, or national dialogue, never reaches the level of argument. It’s all declarations and demands.

Sanders is a convenient, and hilarious, example. When, during the Democrats’ debate, Anderson Cooper asked him whether he was electable, given his history — he supported the Sandinistas, honeymooned in the Soviet Union, and bills himself as a socialist — Sanders replied by saying that in the last election “63% of the American people didn’t vote, Anderson. 80% of young people didn’t vote.” He implied that these people would vote for him. Some discussion.

As for his positive program, consider this masterpiece of argumentation:

And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1% in this country own almost 90% — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57% of all new income is going to the top 1%.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

Sanders has a remarkable ability to make things up — remarkable for a human being, that is, but not for a presidential candidate. Their custom is just to say things, convinced that their audience won’t even take the trouble to check with Wikipedia. Very well. When you do subject yourself to that enormous task and find the Wiki article “Wealth in the United States,” you will not discover that one one-thousandth of the American population owns “almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%.” That’s just something that Sanders goes around saying, or yelling. He yells a lot.

But suppose you don’t care about piddling matters of fact. Suppose you care only about mighty matters of morality. What is the argument that allows Sanders to get from the existence of income inequality to the claim that income inequality is immoral? What is the argument that allows him to go, for instance, from the idea that people who receive $11,000 a year in Social Security benefits should be recompensed by taking 15% of incomes over $118,000 a year and giving it to them?

Moral lectures come strangely to the lips of a speaker who has no moral sense.

There is no argument. He never presents one. He just says things. To go back to the Wiki article, why shouldn’t Sanders demand that families headed by people between 65 and 74 years of age surrender huge amounts of money to households headed by people under 35 years of age? After all, the median net worth of the former is $232,100, and the median net worth of the latter is $10,460. And how about childless couples? They have a median net worth of $213,730, which is more than twice that of couples with children, and about 15 times that of single people with children, or single people under 55 years of age, without children. Shouldn’t these culprits, these viciously immoral childless couples, be compelled to give their wealth to those less fortunate?

Moral lectures come strangely to the lips of a speaker who has no moral sense. If he had any, wouldn’t he hesitate to tell one lie after another? Wouldn’t he hesitate to say, for instance, that “we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth”? Ah, Haiti — famous for its medical and family paid leave. Burma — a paradise for early childcare. Is Sanders so stupid that he doesn’t know what life on earth is like, or is he so cynical that he figures he can say anything at all, and an audience will lap it up?

In either case, he shouldn’t be shouting about morality. Even if he does believe that his visible audience consists of mindless oysters, why should he assume that everyone else is? “When you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby” — as if mothers with newborns were as unwitting as Sanders’ followers, and simply allowed their offspring to be snatched away from their passive arms.

Most voters have something like free will. So if liberty and prosperity are snatched from them by the likes of Bernie Sanders, it’s their own fault. In the last sentence I originally typed “liberty and responsibility,” but “responsibility” may be the problem — that word is apparently so detestable to some of our fellow citizens that they’d rather hear Bernie Sanders bleating away, like the guy in the restaurant whom you ask not to be seated next to, than take a few moments to fulfill the duty of reflective thought.

Is Sanders so stupid that he doesn’t know what life on earth is like, or is he so cynical that he figures he can say anything at all, and an audience will lap it up?

Nevertheless, I doubt that many voters are as fearful of their own free will as are the media that attempted to fry Ben Carson for his answer to a question about what he would do if he were attacked by a mass murderer. He said he would try to take the guy down. He suggested that the targeted victims should act together to do that. In response, this headline appeared, typical of many:

2016 Contender Ben Carson Defends Remarks Criticizing Victims of Oregon Shooting

The preposterous idea was that Carson had criticized the victims for not having attacked the maniac who was assaulting them. He did no such thing. It seems that the media will settle for nothing short of “Carson Commends All Americans Who Plan to Cower and Be Killed.” Certainly the media were pleased enough when other presidential candidates suggested that the only acceptable options are (A) shivering like a sheep before any lunatic with a gun, and (B) keeping guns out of the hands of sane people.

I hope that if I am ever targeted by a lunatic, I will follow Dr. Carson’s advice. I know that if Carson happens to be with me, I can trust him to lead the charge. But I can never stand up to another Bernie Sanders debate. I’d rather be shot.




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The Honorable Profession of Spying?

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Americans love to hate lawyers, and I admit to having told a shark joke or two in my time. But many attorneys deserve our praise for their wisdom, their trust, and their integrity. James Donovan was one of them. Not only did he risk his own reputation to defend a despised Soviet spy, but he successfully negotiated the exchange of that spy for one of our own spies five years later, and then went on to negotiate the release of thousands of prisoners in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs disaster, exchanging them for food and medicine that would benefit the Cuban people rather than for money that would line Castro’s pockets. Bridge of Spies tells the story of his most famous exchange: convicted spy Rudolf Abel, a Soviet intelligence officer, for downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The film opens on Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), quietly painting a self-portrait in his small Brooklyn apartment. Abel might be a dangerous Soviet spy, but in appearance he is a sad sack who suffers from post-nasal drip. His mouth seems permanently downturned in a frown, and he walks with a determined but plodding shuffle. He speaks only when absolutely necessary, and not at all for the first 15 minutes of the film, as we follow him to an information “drop.” Even when American agents storm through his door, he remains unruffled and quietly cleans his paint palette. Later, when Donovan observes, “You don’t seem worried,” Abel shrugs pragmatically, “Would it help?”

It is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil — in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.

Before continuing this review, I have to say a word about Rylance, whom many consider the most gifted stage actor today. I am one of them. Liberty readers may recognize him from the TV miniseries Wolf Hall, where he plays Thomas Cromwell. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rylance was the founding artistic director of the New Globe Theater and has eclipsed even Kenneth Branagh as the premier Shakespearean actor of our time. But he is also a master of comedy and modern plays. Over the last decade or so he has established a pattern of creating a role for the West End in London and then bringing it to Broadway for the following year. I have seen all those plays, some more than once. He is a brilliant stage actor.

But acting for the stage is different from acting for the screen. On stage, the actor is smaller than the audience; he has to “play large” in order to fill the theater and reach the balcony. Emotions are conveyed with exaggeration and with the whole body, not just the face or the eyes. By contrast, a movie screen is maybe 30 feet high and 70 feet wide. Every twitch of the finger and blink of the eye is magnified, so acting has to be subtle and nuanced. Rylance has not performed in many films, but not to worry. He makes the transition to screen brilliantly.

Several attorneys refuse to defend Abel, worried about how it might affect their reputations and their families’ safety. But Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) accepts the case. He believes that everyone in America, not just citizens, deserves the same protections under the Constitution, and that “American justice is on trial,” with the whole world watching to see how this foreign spy will be treated. Donovan’s nobility reminds me of Atticus Finch, defending the African-American Tom Robinson despite his community’s outrage and threats. “What makes us Americans?” Donovan asks Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) rhetorically, when Hoffman expects Donovan to violate client-attorney privilege and tell the CIA what he knows. “It’s the rule book — the Constitution. That’s what makes us Americans.” He defends Abel all the way to the Supreme Court. Indeed, it is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil — in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.

To my mind, Donovan’s ethics deserve some scrutiny, however. For example, when a young boy asks him why he is defending the spy, he responds, “Because it’s my job,” as though that’s reason enough. But didn’t Nazi soldiers give the same excuse? Donovan also expresses admiration for Abel’s work ethic and steadfastness in not revealing any secrets, calling him “honorable.” And maybe he is. Such fortitude does reveal a strong character. But it also reduces spying to the level of a football game: just do your job, and do it with integrity, and we can all go home admiring one another. But defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.

Meanwhile, the Americans have spies of their own, and they are flying over Russia, taking pictures from 70,000 feet above the earth, using secretly developed camera equipment and a new top-secret plane — the U2. The pilots are told that if they are attacked they must detonate the plane and kill themselves rather than allow the Russians to have the information. Nevertheless, pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) manages to get himself captured, and Donovan is asked to broker a deal to get him home. (For dramatic effect the film gives the impression that these events take place at the same time, but they were actually five years apart.) Donovan’s dogged determination to negotiate the deal so that everyone comes out alive fills the remainder of the film.

Defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.

Despite our knowing the outcome in advance, the tension of the film is relentless, particularly in several exterior scenes set in East Berlin. The Wall is brand new and the German people are desperate to escape. Hungry young Germans surround Donovan like a pack of wolves, while others climb fences or drop from windows into the West in their eagerness to escape. These scenes belie the stance of moral equivalency that Donovan seems to adopt. All things are decidedly not equal between the two superpowers, no matter how honorably Abel conducts himself in maintaining his oath of secrecy.

Another powerful scene occurs as Abel’s trial begins, with a montage that leads from the bailiff’s “All rise” to school children rising to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the rising of a mushroom cloud in a schoolroom documentary about the atomic bomb. Spielberg has always been an artist, but in this film he surpasses himself. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who also worked with Spielberg in the award-winning WWII films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, deserves credit for much of the film’s success.

Bridge of Spies is the first film Spielberg has made without John Williams providing the soundtrack since The Color Purple in 1985, and while I’m a fan of Williams’ distinctive style, I think Thomas Newman’s darker tones are more appropriate to this film’s story.

Bridge of Spies is the first of the serious Oscar contenders to be released this year. Hang onto your popcorn — I think it’s going to be a great season.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bridge of Spies," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks, Fox 2000, Reliant, 2015. 141 minutes.



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The Coase Theorem and the Environment

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About 25 years ago, when I worked for a national bank in Europe, I had an interesting meeting. Three tall, redheaded representatives of the Icelandic fresh cod (as opposed to dried or salt-cod) fisheries cooperative were looking for a loan to expand packaging operations in France. To justify the loan, we had to learn about their business. How to get collateral from things that can swim away, for example.

The Icelanders confidently and proudly addressed every question. I learned a lot, much of it surprising. For example, I learned that the cooperative itself was not a corporation or association, but an entity created by special act of the Icelandic legislature (the Thing, or more precisely the Althing or General Assembly). I also learned that property rights were the key to the fisheries’ reliability.

For many years, I forgot about this meeting, then a friend of mine posted this link to a social media website. The story identifies a trend: young adults not buying cars. His comment on the story was, “We are renters on this planet, not owners.” That was meant as a conservationist statement to encourage good ecological stewardship of planetary resources.

If acting like a renter does not make for good ecological stewardship of planetary resources, what does?

I thought to myself that if exhortation would make us greener, the hot air coming out of Al Gore and many others would have restored the planet to Eden at least a decade ago. What I said online was, “Renters always trash the place. In economics, one version of this is called the tragedy of the commons. Ownership and property rights promote good management of natural resources. We drive on public roads, burn subsidized fuel, get fat on subsidized farm commodities.” But all of this made me remember the Icelandic fishermen and a certain Mr. Coase.

If acting like a renter does not make for good ecological stewardship of planetary resources, what does? Part of the answer is in the Coase theorem. (Here tip your hat to Ronald Coase, who died in 2013.) It suggests that clear and tradable ownership rights help people bargain to allocate resources efficiently.

The Wikipedia entry on the theorem offers alternative versions of it:

  • Version 1: A clear delineation of private property rights is an essential prelude to market transactions.
  • Version 2: As long as private property rights are well defined under zero transaction cost, exchange will eliminate divergence and lead to efficient use of resources or highest valued use of resources.
  • Version 3: The allocation of resources is invariant to the assignment of private property rights under zero transaction cost and zero income effect.

I think of it as the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. Overfishing is a big example of the tragedy. In most parts of the ocean, fish stocks are not owned but regulated (or not). People trolling through the waters are not owners. Instead they have some usage rights, like renters in an apartment, and they have rules to obey that are analogous to the clauses of a rental contract. But like a lot of renters, they don’t always obey the rules. They trash the place, as they would not if they owned it.

In fact, it’s even worse than that, because there is competition to trash the place. As an edible species of fish gets rarer, the price goes up and competitors vie to take as much as they can before the stock is depleted. They might know it’s a disaster in the making, but that does not change the incentives. If they moderate their catch, the depletion occurs anyway. There’s no owner to get the long-term benefits of fishing sustainably.

Property rights created by governments are attractive alternatives. Iceland, for example, for more than 25 years has been regulating its fisheries in a way that partly approximates ownership. Basically, license holders get quota rights that they can trade. In (Coasian) theory, the rights end up in the hands of the fishers who get the most value from the quota. I believe that the results have been good. In June of this year, Iceland Magazine reported that the country’s cod population was at historic highs and quotas would increase.

They might know it’s a disaster in the making, but that does not change the incentives. If they moderate their catch, the depletion occurs anyway.

My examples and observations here make for an extremely superficial treatment of ideas and phenomena that have been debated, studied, and written about for more than half a century. I intend them only as an initial antidote to the implications of vapid slogans like “We are renters on this planet.”




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The Karma of Flaming Cronyism

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In 2009, Vice President Joe Biden announced a $539 million Department of Energy (DoE) loan awarded by the federal government to Fisker Automotive. Fisker, a newly formed crony capitalist firm, would use the money (together with private funding from the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, whose partners include green crony capitalist and former Vice President Al Gore) to produce hybrid electric vehicles in Biden's home state of Delaware. The investment would create 2,500 American jobs, by 2014 produce an annual 75,000–100,000 "highly efficient vehicles," and by 2016 "save hundreds of millions gallons of gasoline and offset millions of tons of carbon pollution."

With gasoline prices below $2 per gallon at the time, free enterprise could not be counted on to produce planet-saving electric vehicles (EVs) and establish the US as the world leader in EV technology. Capitalism can only be counted on to produce what consumers demand. Then-DoE Secretary Steven Chu believed that the demand for EVs would not materialize until gasoline prices reached nine or ten dollars per gallon. In the interim, only crony capitalism would do.

The Fisker loan was considered a vital, timely investment for America: in 2009, thanks to years of US outsourcing of jobs and manufacturing expertise that propped up its emerging crony capitalist economy, China had become the world’s leader in green technology spending. “We are putting Americans back to work,” exclaimed Chu, “and reigniting a new Industrial Revolution that is paramount for the economic success of this country.” The loan was "seed money," heralded Biden, "that would return back to the American consumer in billions and billions and billions of dollars in good new jobs."

Fisker Automotive was founded by crony capitalist Henrik Fisker, in fall 2007, only to be sued by Tesla Motors, in spring 2008, for stealing design concepts and trade secrets that Fisker allegedly used to develop the Karma — a heavily subsidized vehicle that would compete with the heavily subsidized Tesla Roadster.

The true brilliance of Elon Musk, who is regarded by many as a genius, lies in his ability to hornswoggle governments and investors.

It was also in 2008 when fellow, and far superior, crony capitalist Elon Musk became CEO of Tesla. Barely one year later, Tesla received a $465 million DoE loan. Mr. Musk knows no other form of capitalism. According to the LA Times, he "has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars [Tesla], sell solar panels [SolarCity] and launch rockets into space [SpaceX]," with the help of a staggering $4.9 billion in taxpayer-funded government subsidies. Apparently, Musk will have nothing to do with any enterprise from which he cannot obtain "government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It [the $4.9 billion] also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars."

The true brilliance of Musk, who is regarded by many as a genius ("our generation's Thomas Edison"), lies in his ability to hornswoggle governments and investors. While ordinary crony capitalists are content with bellying up to the government trough for tax breaks and loans to help build their businesses, Musk has the government build businesses for him. He's "so adept at landing incentives that states now compete to give him money."

New York State, for example, is building a $750 million manufacturing plant for SolarCity. With property tax gimmicks, investment tax credits, and cash grants, the entire deal constitutes a $2.5 billion windfall for Musk — courtesy of the taxpayers. Without their coerced support, crony SolarCity, indeed, the entire solar industry, could not survive. Yet in June, New York crony capitalists prevailed over the use of drastically cheaper energy, derived from free market fracking, by officially banning the technology (and denying billions and billions and billions of dollars in lower utility costs for New York residents), ostensibly because of safety concerns: natural gas might leak from wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale bonanza that the state sits on top of, causing flames to shoot out of water faucets.

Inspired by Musk's promises to lead the world into a future without gasoline (he pledged to make millions of electric vehicles by 2025), investors have bid up Tesla stock from $16 per share, when it was first publicly offered in 2010, to $260 per share today. With this runup, Tesla was able to raise more than enough private capital to repay its DoE loan — an event that the DoE declared as "living proof" that "Tesla and other U.S. manufacturers are in a strong position to compete for this growing global market.” Only in the world of green cronyism is debt repayment celebrated as success.

At least the Model S doesn't burst into flames, as did Fisker's Karma, which had a few flaws.

Tesla, which sold 31,655 vehicles in 2014, is valued at $33.8 billion — more than half the value of Ford Motor Company, which sold 6.3 million vehicles during that year. And Ford made a profit, unlike Tesla, which has failed to do so since its inception in 2003. In 2014, Ford posted a profit of $6.3 billion; Tesla lost $294 million. Incredibly, even with its government side business of selling zero-emission-vehicle (ZEV) credits to its competitors, from which it made $217 million, Tesla still lost $294 million. But Musk promises profitability by 2020.

So confident is he of continued government largesse that he scoffs at competitors such as Toyota, which has developed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, that sells for $10,000 less than Tesla's $71,000 Model S. Musk's response: “Fuel cells should be renamed ‘fool cells’” — demonstrating a wit as sharp as his automotive genius.

Nevertheless, no one has done more than Mr. Musk to advance EV development in the United States, and, by all accounts, the Model S is a flawless vehicle that has exceeded the expectations of elite Silicon Valley and Hollywood car buyers. It doesn't burst into flames, as did Fisker's Karma, which had a few flaws.

The Karma — which was initially projected to ship in 2009 and to sell over 15,000 units built by 2500 American workers at a refurbished GM plant in Delaware — did not come to market until 2011. But, according to an ABC News investigation, by October of the year only 40 Karmas were produced, all of them assembled by 500 Finnish workers at a factory in rural Finland.

There was not a single US firm with the manufacturing expertise to produce the Karma. "We're not in the business of failing; we're in the business of winning," exclaimed Mr. Fisker. "That's why we went to Finland."

Less than a year later, Fisker Automotive failed — ceasing production in July 2012 and declaring bankruptcy in November 2013. Of the 2,450 Karmas that were eventually built, 1,600 were purchased by consumers, and 2,000 were recalled because of lithium-ion battery-related fire risks (including the possibility that, while parked and disconnected from a charging station, a Karma could mysteriously explode into flames, and burn to unrecognizable rubble).

Numerous reasons have been cited for Fisker's collapse: unrealistic sales goals, compressed launch timeline, insufficient funding, flaming rubble, etc. In the end, however, most subsidized green-technology companies simply find ways to lose money. They can't make a profit, even with government support. The most famous example is Solyndra (the recipient of a $535 million DoE loan), which went bankrupt selling solar panels for half of what it cost to make them. Then there is A123 Systems, Fisker's battery supplier and the recipient of a $249 million DoE grant. A123 sold batteries that cost the company $1.57 for each dollar of sales — leading to its bankruptcy in October 2012, and, in no small part, hastening Fisker's.

A123 might have charged Fisker twice as much, thereby returning a per unit profit of 43%. Why not? Couldn't Fisker absorb the cost increase? It was getting government money too, not to mention the $7,500 tax refund awarded to EV buyers. And, with the price of gasoline heading towards $4 a gallon, surely the demand for EVs was growing. Besides, anyone who could afford the $103,000 Karma might be willing to pay a little extra. Except that, on average, Fisker spent $660,000 for each vehicle produced. To make even a meager profit of, say 10%, Fisker would have had to charge $733,000 — a price that might have scared off early Karma buyers such as pop stars Justin Bieber and Al Gore.

Most subsidized green-technology companies simply find ways to lose money. They can't make a profit, even with government support.

The purpose of the DoE grant to A123 was to help America compete with China. "President Obama was determined not to let China run away with green energy technologies," said a Forbes article covering the bankruptcy auction, where A123 was unloaded for, one could say, a fire sale price. Guess who won the bidding (hint: it wasn't an American company). It was the Wanxiang Group, a Chinese conglomerate run by Lu Guanqiu, an auto-parts magnate with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Forbes characterized the business acumen of our green cronies as a triple irony:

The U.S. borrowed money from China to subsidize a battery company to compete with state-subsidized Chinese battery companies. The American company gets bought out by a Chinese company for about the same amount of money that the U.S. government gave it. The U.S. still has to pay the money back to China. The Chinese company buying the American company makes a lot of money by providing auto parts for the cars that Americans drive.

Perhaps of greater significance is the national security implication. The sale of A123 included US technology developed for advanced ultra-light lithium-ion phosphate batteries — technology that extends beyond powering EVs, to important applications for electricity generation and distribution, not to mention sensitive military applications. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Hillary Clinton vehemently opposed such sales, asserting the need for "ensuring that technologies . . . critical to U.S. national security are not sold off and outsourced to foreign governments." Yet Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, did nothing to interfere with the sale.

The Fisker bankruptcy snuffed out the DoE plan of "reigniting a new Industrial Revolution," as well as Joe Biden's hopes of "billions and billions and billions of dollars" for American consumers. It was followed by a DoE announcement that, instead, American taxpayers would get a bill for $139 million, the amount that the government lost in the Fisker debacle. Fisker was sold, in another fire sale, not only to a Chinese company but to the same one that bought A123.

Today, just one year afterward, Mrs. Clinton is running for president and Mr. Biden is thinking about throwing his hat into the race. Mr. Guanqiu is planning to resurrect the Karma with his new company, formed from the old Fisker and A123, businesses he picked up for a song: a measly $406 million. The amount is much less than the manufacturing assets and intellectual property he purchased. They represent a value that the DoE must have believed was significantly greater than the $778 million it invested in these companies. But that's life in the risky world of green cronyism: sometimes seed money leads to abysmal failure, especially when it is other people's seed money.

Mr. Musk is now getting into the battery business, building the world’s largest battery factory, a gigafactory, he says. That is, he bamboozled the state of Nevada into a $1.3 billion incentive package to build it. What crony could turn down a deal projected to generate $100 billion? With capitalist fracking driving gasoline prices down to less than $2 a gal (when $9 gasoline is needed for EV's to be competitive), any capitalist sees folly. But crony capitalists see only the delusion of billions and billions and billions of dollars — that, and taxpayer-funded subsidies for fellow cronies.

That's life in the risky world of green cronyism: sometimes seed money leads to abysmal failure, especially when it is other people's seed money.

And Mr. Fisker is planning to start another automotive venture. He is "intrigued with Millennials, their craving for new kinds of transportation and their fascination with all things digital." It would behoove him to rekindle his relationship with Al Gore, this time for marketing purposes. Who is better than Mr. Climate Change at pitching flimflam to Millennials? Whatever Mr. Fisker has in mind, he remains optimistic, believing that "the timing is right for something completely new."

But none of this is new. Under our current political system, the timing is always right for crony capitalism. And, unlike taxpayers, crony capitalists will profit from another completely new green auto company, even if it goes down in flames.

#39;s Thomas Edison




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Drugs Are the Least of the Problem

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The word “sicario” means “hit man” in Spanish, or more literally “dagger man.” Its use dates back to the Jewish Zealots who carried small daggers in their cloaks and assassinated Roman guards in the streets. A note at the beginning of the film Sicario informs us that these Zealots were “killers of those who invaded their homeland.” That would make them heroes with blood on their hands. The film presents two homelands, the United States and Mexico, that are invaded in different ways, and two sets of sicarios caught up in defending two ways of life that have been forever changed by the drug trade.

Drugs are the least of the problem in this film, which focuses instead on the collateral damage of the drug war. As the film opens, an FBI SWAT team led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invading a home in Chandler, Arizona, a quiet middle-class suburb of Phoenix 200 miles north of the border with Mexico. I have friends who live comfortably there. Kate’s mission is not a drug bust but a hostage rescue, and her team drives straight through the wall of the house with their Humvee in their surprise attack. They are too late for anything but cleanup duty, however, and the grisly scene they find causes many of them to vomit. This is the next step in the drug war — not just the physical effects of drug addiction, or the big-money corruption that goes with the lucrative trade, but the personal terror, torture, and murder that are used to maintain strict control. And it’s coming to middle America, the movie warns.

Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored.

“Pretty soon all of your crime scenes will be booby-trapped with explosives, and then how will you protect your team?” Kate’s superior (Victor Garber) warns her as he tries to recruit her for a riskier mission that involves tracing the violence to its source, a kingpin named Fausto (Julio Cedillo), by interrogating a lower-level henchman, Guilllermo (Edgar Arreola), in custody in Juarez, Mexico. Kate agrees to join the mission to extricate Guillermo from Juarez, although she doesn’t understand her role in the plot (and frankly, neither do we).

As the scene changes to Juarez, we see the ravages of the drug war in full force. Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored by occupants in the surrounding cars. A father eats breakfast with his son and then goes off to his job as a policeman and drug mule. This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters to shop for cactus lace and sombreros. And I hope it is not a precursor of the Chandler my friends may soon know if the war on drugs continues its relentless invasion.

Leading the hunt for Fausto is a mysterious Colombian named Alejandro (Benecio del Toro). Kate eyes him warily while they travel to Juarez and then to Nogales, and tension builds in the silence. Then, as they enter Juarez, the music begins — a downward chromatic slide in a minor key that starts softly and builds to a pulsing, crashing arpeggio of despair as they race through the city, jolting full throttle over speed bumps, surrounded by armed escorts with machine guns at the ready. The tension ebbs and flows throughout the rest of the film, accompanied by the riveting soundtrack, but it never disappears.

This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters.

This is not the kind of film you watch for entertainment value. It is appalling in its matter-of-fact portrayal of brutality. But it is an important story, led by the tour de force acting skills of Del Toro and Blunt. We’ve come to expect Del Toro’s steely-eyed reserve, his undertone of ruthlessness, and his skill at conveying character without saying a word. Blunt usually portrays her characters with kickass strength, even when they aren’t actually kicking ass. One would expect an FBI agent who has advanced to the role of team leader would have that same steely-eyed strength. But Blunt plays this character with an unexpected vulnerability and wariness. Her waif-thin slenderness contributes to the fragility of her character’s emotional state. She is a virtually powerless sicario, trying to protect her homeland from the invaders.


Editor's Note: Review of "Sicario," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Lionsgate, 2015, 121 minutes.



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Europe’s Migrant Crisis: Culture Matters

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Almost a decade back, at a Liberty magazine conference in Las Vegas, a speaker asked the audience what they see from the windows of their planes slightly after takeoff. He was alluding to the vast empty spaces in the US. Why not be more inviting to outsiders?

I shuddered. It had been a painful process to leave India and the last thing I wanted was the prospect of having millions of Indians living around me, again. I was even trying to run away from one Indian I couldn’t run away from: me.

It was not turning out to be easy to wean myself from the indoctrination. I had decided not to return to India for a few years, to avoid falling back into the old patterns of thinking and living that I had earlier succumbed to. Muscles have memories. Old habits don’t go away easily, even if the bad one can be recognized — for those living the bad patterns don’t see them.

Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of these migrants. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.

Most Indians I know in the US earn top salaries. They pay massive taxes. But alas, virtually all vote for things that contribute to making the US the mirror image of India. They vote for big, nanny governments. They vote for an increase in regulations to control the lives of others.

Culture matters. Our public institutions are nothing but a reflection of the underlying culture.

Indeed there is tyranny in Syria, Afghanistan, northern parts of Africa, and many other places. Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of migrants from there. They know what tyranny is. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.

A rational mind might easily conclude that such immigrants would fight for their liberties, and ours, once they were in Europe or elsewhere in the West.

But I still recall with anger and frustration the fact that when anyone among my colleagues from my engineering college in India — people who were elite students, having gone through an extremely competitive examination to gain admission — was abused, he almost never retaliated. Instead he looked for someone weaker to abuse. That was his release. I never managed to make even those proficient in math and science see reason.

Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa?

A man of faults projects his faults on others. A man of virtues projects his virtues on others. That second principle defines the erroneous zone of empathetic Europeans. The European thinks that any rational immigrant would feel grateful for new opportunities and would be a frontrunner in any effort to preserve the liberties that Europe offers. Such a European erroneously projects his rationality on others, assuming it to be a natural state of being. Alas, it is not.

A look at the videos of migrants offers a glimpse that very likely leaves a rational observer uneasy and confused. Why should these migrants, instead of feeling and showing gratitude, create an angry nuisance? Why should they destroy public property? Why should they steal from their kind hosts, and abuse them? Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa? A rational observer thinks that once in Europe, these people will give up the ways they have apparently been trying to leave behind. But that isn’t happening.

It is from rationality that morality emerges. It is from rationality that a society knows what is truly right or wrong, what is a virtue and what is a vice. The irrational society is immoral and incapable of respecting virtues. Irrational people see no need of being grateful or being virtuous in a thoughtful way. Rationality must be learned. But the European, nurtured in a culture of basic reason, thinks that rationality is a natural state of being. Certainly, they don’t always live up to it — but the claims of impartial reason, reason that transcends and judges the claims of tribe and superstition, do not have to be explained to them.

Unfortunately, the concept of reason has hardly made itself popular outside the West. These, the Rest — in Africa, in the Middle East and most of Asia — still exist in superstitions and tribalism. In a nonrational operating system, a person responds very different from the way in which a rational person would respond. The nonrational behavior you see on your TV screens in foreign news reports therefore comes across as strange, unbelievable, and uncomfortable in many ways.

They fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation.

The gem of analytical and skeptical reason is mostly and predominantly a Western phenomenon. Despite almost 500 years of trade and interactions with the Rest, and over the past decade, with immediate, worldwide access to knowledge through the internet, one would have expected wisdom and rationality to have percolated through to the Rest rather quickly.

It hasn’t.

The truth is that the concept of reason needed 2,500 years and the vehicle of Christianity, and a lot more, to come to the visible changes that happened in Europe in the past 500 years: the Reformation, the age of reason, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution.

But shouldn’t the culture of migrants change over time? Indeed, there are people who left their homelands because they were desperately tired of their irrational societies. These people appreciate the freedoms they experience when living in the West. They feel grateful for their hosts, for they have or at least had the inkling of the concept of reason before they arrived. But these are a small minority. Most modern day immigrants stay irrational, and never gain respect for their hosts. Moreover, processing their experiences — the compassion, opportunities and liberties they face in the West — but still using the operating system of the society they left behind, many immigrants learn to disrespect their hosts. They came not for freedom but for the material prosperity they had seen on TV. They are incapable of understanding what made the West what it is. They gravitate toward areas — Germany, for example — that offer the most welfare payments, for they fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation. They fail to see that when people continue Syrian or African ways of interaction they will evolve institutions in Europe that mirror what they ran away from.

Today in Europe there are many urban areas that are barred for visitation by those from outside the ethnic or religious ghettoes. When I lived in England, I had to pass through a Muslim area and then a Hindu area. I had made up convenient names for myself, rehearsed in my mind to tell them if I were accosted. This is not life lived according to reason. A rational person — projecting his virtues on others — would be in his erroneous zone if he expected that this predicament can change with time or with increase in prosperity.

It was in my early teens that I finally realized the cultural milieu that I was growing up in was utterly corrupt and irrational. Thirty-five years later — a span that includes a couple of decades spent in the West — I still feel envy when I see Western kids not suffering from habits and patterns that I still cannot shake off, after huge amount of work. Even a passionate person who realized his problems early on has found it almost impossible to surmount the problem of releasing himself from the shackles of his culture and indoctrination. When it is so difficult for someone keenly interested in changing himself to change, how difficult it must be to change those who don’t feel the need to change themselves! How doubly difficult it must be to change those who exist in a society, or ghetto, that won’t let them change even if they want to. Moreover, my indoctrination was Indian. A Syrian or North African indoctrination is probably much worse.

But isn’t the US a good example for Europe? Isn’t the US a cultural melting pot? Can Europe not do the same?

It pays to remember that virtually all the early immigration to North America was from Europe. The migrants were people who had Europe, and reason, in their genes, memes, and cultures. It is not necessarily the same with the new immigrants, either to Europe or to North America.

As a corollary, imposing what are products of enlightenment in the West — democracy, the nation state, public education — on culturally alien countries won’t work. It is for this reason that the removal of Saddam Hussein, after a lot of pain, chaos, and crisis, will end in a situation in which Iraq, some day, has to restart with a tyrant similar to Hussein. The same is the case in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.

Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change.

The US government, perhaps influenced by lobbies from the military-industrial complex, wants to be forever embroiled in conflicts abroad. In the meantime, the rational American, projecting his virtues on alien cultures, thinks that such institutional impositions can effect changes in such places as Syria and Iraq. Such a rational American very erroneously sees the individuals in Syria and Libya as isolated innocents — but they are, very unfortunately, part and parcel of the problem.

It is best not to destabilize other countries. Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change. This is the only possible way for a change in their societies, and Europe’s only chance to avoid getting too many migrants. Should the migration continue, it will almost certainly make an end, in Europe at the least, to the biggest achievement of humanity: the culture of reason, and hence the future of liberty.




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Marooned on Mars

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The final story in Ray Bradbury’s collection The Martian Chronicles is called “The Million Year Picnic.” In it, an American family escapes the nuclear destruction of the earth and lands on Mars, where the father tells his children, “Tomorrow you will see the Martians.” The next day he takes them on a picnic near an ancient canal, where they look into the water and see their own reflections. Simply by moving there and colonizing, they have become Martians. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes a similar point when he is stranded on Mars in Ridley Scott’s The Martian: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.”

The Martian is a tense, intelligent, and engaging story about an astronaut who is left for dead when his fellow crew members are forced to make an emergency launch to escape a destructive sandstorm. Knocked out rather than killed, he regains consciousness and discovers that he is utterly alone on the planet. Solar panels can provide him with renewable energy, oxygen, heat, and air pressure. But the next mission to Mars isn’t due for another five years, and he has enough food to last just 400 days. What can he do?

As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome.

There is something fascinating about this storyline of being marooned or abandoned and left entirely to one’s own devices, whether the protagonist be Robinson Crusoe on his desert island; The 33 (2015) workers, trapped in a Chilean copper mine; Tom Hanks, Cast Away (2000) in the Pacific; the Apollo 13 (1995) crew, trapped in their capsule; Sandra Bullock, lost in space (Gravity, 2013);or even Macaulay Culkin, left Home Alone (1990), just to name a few. These films allow us to consider what we would do in such a situation. Could we survive?

I well remember the time I was left behind at a gas station at the age of ten on the way to a family camping trip. I had been riding in the camper of the pickup truck while my parents and sister rode in the cab. I had stepped out of the camper to tell my mother I was going to the bathroom, but before I could knock on her window, my father shoved the transmission into gear and started driving away. I didn’t know where we were, where we were going, or how I would contact my parents after they left without me. I was even more afraid of strangers than I was of being lost. It would be at least 300 miles before they stopped again for gas, and even then, they might not look into the camper until nighttime, and how would they find me after that? All of this went through my mind in a flash. Then I leapt onto the rear bumper of the truck as it eased past me and clung tightly to the handle of the camper.

I was hidden from sight by the trailer we were pulling behind us. No one would see me there, and if I jumped off or lost my balance, I would be crushed by the trailer. As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome. I managed to pry open the door of the camper, squeeze through the narrow opening, and collapse onto the floor, pulling the door shut behind me. Instead of being frightened by the experience, I was exhilarated by my successful maneuver and problem-solving skills. I could do anything! My only regret was that no one saw my amazing feat.

One of the reasons we enjoy movies like The Martian is that they allow us to participate with the protagonist in solving the problem of survival. Rather than curl up and wait to die, à la Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (honestly — five years on a tropical island and he’s still living in a cave, talking to a volleyball? He hasn’t even made a shelter or a hammock?), Watney assesses his supplies and figures out how to survive until the next mission arrives. A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does. He makes the difficult decision to cut up some of his precious potatoes for seed, knowing that his only chance for survival is to grow more food. He figures out how to make water, how to extend his battery life, how to deal with the brutally freezing temperatures.

He also keeps a witty video journal, through which he seems to speak directly to the audience. This allows us to remain intensely engaged in what he is doing and avoids the problem encountered in Robert Redford’s 2013 castaway film All is Lost, where perhaps three sentences are uttered in the entire dreary film. Welike Watney’s upbeat attitude, his irreverent sense of humor, his physical and mental prowess, and his relentless determination to survive. We try to anticipate his next move.

A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does.

The visual effects are stunning. Many of them would not have been possible even three years ago, before the innovations created for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). The techniques used to create weightlessness as the astronauts slither through the space station are especially impressive; we simply forget that they aren’t really weightless. The unfamiliar landscape — the red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where the outdoor scenes were filmed — is a bit reminiscent of a futuristic Monument Valley. It contributes to the western-hero sensibility while creating a feeling that we really are on Mars. I’m not sure the science works in the dramatic ending, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The Martian is smart, entertaining, and manages to work without a single antagonist — nary a nasty businessman or greedy bureaucrat can be found. If that’s what our future holds, I’m all for it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott. Scott Free Productions, 20th Century Fox, 2015, 142 minutes.



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VW Bugs

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