The Year That Was

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For many, 2016 has become a byword for a bad year, an annus horribilis even, thanks to an interminable presidential race as well as threats to liberty both domestic and foreign. But for Liberty, it was a year of tremendous writing and libertarian thought. Here's my highlights—what were yours?

And that's not to mention Jon Harrison on whether "normal" is a thing of the past, Steve Murphy on New Deal nostrums, Ross Levatter on paradoxes and philosophy, Scott Robinson on the real lesson of Robin Hood, Bruce Ramsey on libertarianism and the bourgeoisie . . . and much more to discover in our Archive!

We look forward to bringing you more great stuff in 2017 and beyond. If you feel up to it, you can donate to the Liberty Foundation to support our work, and 100% of your tax-deductible donation will go toward the costs of bringing you more reflections, reviews, and feature articles of all sorts. But what we really hope is that you'll keep reading, and keep fighting alongside us for the cause of freedom. Thanks, and we'll see you on the other side!



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The Strange Case of Feelings Versus Facts

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Don’t tase me, bro, but I sometimes watch “Outnumbered” on Fox News. I do it mainly because I like the discussion leader, the always poised, always intelligent Harris Faulkner. She isn’t big on one-liners, but on December 13 she put a lot of truth into just five words. “Facts,” she said, “don’t care about feelings.”

That could provide a fitting introduction and conclusion to any discussion of political discourse in 2016, which consisted largely of lunatic ravings, followed by shrieks of joy or anguish that had virtually nothing to do with facts and almost everything to do with the writer’s or speaker’s mental condition. Particularly notable was a fleet (I was going to say “raft,” then promoted it to “ship,” then “battleship,” and so on up) of statements, based wholly on their authors’ authority, the content of which demolished that authority. These statements included Donald Trump’s continuous assurances that he would successfully perform various mostly impossible economic tricks, and Hillary Clinton’s continuous assurances that she had been vindicated by every investigation ever undertaken of her.

When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us.

Blame is not confined to those two notorious offenders. Throughout my life I’ve been bored and irritated by elder statesmen, pollsters, media commentators, religious leaders, and yes, college professors like me retailing their opinions as if everyone else were bound to believe them, in obeisance to the source. This year, I was alternately nauseated and entertained as I watched such people asserting their intellectual authority by rushing onstage, tearing off their costumes, setting fire to their toupees, and making obscene gestures at the audience. These were the people who considered themselves entitled to laugh like maniacs at the idea that Trump could ever be elected, because they understood American politics, or they had taken the pulse of the American voter, or they had high ratings among Americans in the prime demographic, or they were in touch with the spiritual longings of the American people. These were the authorities who then screamed and tore their hair at the sudden discovery that America had been — all along, and unknown to them — a nation of xenophobes and white supremacists.

The facts, of course, didn’t care about these people’s feelings, any more than they cared about Jill Stein’s feeling that somehow the election had been “hacked,” or about Hillary Clinton’s feeling that it was “Comey” who had done her in, or about her later feeling that it was the Russkies that done it (by the simple act of revealing her servants’ private correspondence), or about Donald Trump’s feeling that he, like Shakespeare’s Bottom, knows how to perform every part in the play.

Fortunately, libertarians have so far avoided this bad behavior, even when sorely tempted by the example of Stein. When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us. Years ago I attended a libertarian conference at which a resolution was presented. It said that such and such idea was contrary to reality, and that “reality always wins.” This might have been taken as a mere rhetorical flourish, but a lengthy debate followed among the many people who took that truth claim seriously. Some of them argued, passionately, that even false ideas are part of “reality,” while others retorted, with equal passion, that false ideas aren’t really real. After an hour or so of this, Bill Bradford and I walked out. We were laughing at the futility of the whole affair, which was simply a disagreement about two common understandings of a common word. But we were not laughing at the libertarian reverence for “reality,” and we certainly weren’t laughing at the egalitarian nature of the proceedings. If anybody had said, “I’m a college professor, and I know what ‘reality’ means,” or even, “I’m a libertarian, and this is how libertarians view ‘reality,’” the crowd would have gaped in wonder. What’s this guy talking about?

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock, or as Chelsea Clinton. He’s the former presidential candidate who became former when he announced during a debate that there were three federal agencies he would eliminate, one of which was the Department of Uhhhh. He meant the Department of Energy, but he couldn’t remember the name. His appointment recalls the ancient Athenian democracy, in which public offices were filled by lot. You or I could just as easily have received a call from the president-elect: “Hullo Stephen, this is Donald Trump. Oh, I’m doing incredible today, thank you. Look, Stephen, I’ve got this unbelievable job for you . . .”

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock.

Alas, I didn’t get the call. (If I had, I could have told Mr. Trump that there would, indeed, be one less federal agency.) Perry got it because he is a former governor. His appointment was an act of deference to the political class, which is known for its deep feeling and sensitivity, its tendency to brood over any apparent slight. By appointing Perry, Trump was undoubtedly trying to save him from a tailspin of grief about his apparent obsolescence, while relieving other senior politicians from similar fears.

Colin Powell may be one who needs reassurance. Like many of the rest, he feels that he deserves power, no matter what. A political general whose career was advanced by the Republican Party, he repaid the GOP by exposing its racism and disdaining its presidential candidate, not expecting him to be elected. Proven wrong about that, he still let it be known that he was “available for advice” to the winner. This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because . . . he’s an Elder Statesman.

You don’t have to be all that Elder to be accorded automatic hat-tips by the Establishment media. Any government employee — any employee likely to be a modern liberal — is an object of solicitous concern. Here are two Google News headlines from December 13: “Trump taps Exxon’s Tillerson as top US diplomat, lawmakers worried” (Reuters); “Energy Dept. rejects Trump’s request to name climate change workers, who remain worried” (Washington Post). Notice that in both instances the final emphasis falls on a status group (“lawmakers,” “climate change workers”), that the two groups enjoy their place in the sun because their members are paid by the government, and that their status is exalted enough to qualify them for euphemistic treatment. In place of the common yet arresting words one expects in a headline, Google hands us the very uncommon and unarresting “lawmakers” (a euphemism for “politicians” or at most “elected officials”) and “climate change workers” (a euphemism for “government bureaucrats concerned with, and probably advocating, the theory that the climate is changing, that human beings are responsible, that this is a bad thing, and that geniuses like themselves should be employed to stop it”). When prostitutes — literal prostitutes — start getting paid by the government, we will see headlines about “sex workers” being “worried” by requests to know their names.

This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because he’s an Elder Statesman.

The problem that supposedly justifies these solemn headlines is that the status group is worried. Well, as Scarlett O’Hara said to her worried sister: “Too bad about that!” If there’s a significant issue to be debated, sure, let’s debate it; but why should anyone worry about the mental condition of any particular group of people? Only in a status society are specific groups or individuals granted the right to sympathy.

As 2016 drew, slogged, dragged, or devolved to its end, one saw more clearly than ever that, in today’s America, this right is conferred by modern-liberal politicians and the media that serve them. Formerly, Democrats called attention to the frequent stupidity and chronic tyranny of the FBI and CIA; now they dwell upon the selfless heroism of the CIA, because a member of the Agency has whispered that Putin loves Trump and wants him to be president. About the FBI the “liberals” switch back and forth, like locomotives looking for a train, one moment extolling its “integrity,” because it allegedly exonerated Hillary Clinton, and the next moment excoriating it as “deeply broken,” because it allegedly caused her defeat.

The Electoral College has been on a sympathy rollercoaster all year long. Before the election, a lot of Democrats who couldn’t do arithmetic smugly assumed that their party had a lock on the electoral college, because it would deliver a large block of votes from such solidly Democratic states as California. The College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era, the members of which were mindless hacks, selected for a total lack of intelligence and responsibility. Then arose the movement to reverse the election by getting Electors to switch from Trump. Now the College was a great American institution and its members wise solons who needed only to be reminded of their power. When, thus reminded, they didn’t switch, they were again the objects of scorn. They were un-Americans who had no right to vote as they did. They were people who had “sold out the country,” people who “don’t deserve to be in America.” This was one of the things that protestors screamed at Electors; a protestor in Wisconsin added a monarchical “This is my America!”Not yours, you bastards.

She had a point. If facts really do respond to (my) feelings, then I really do own . . . everything. I am a divine-right monarch with the arbitrary power to say what shall be true. Monarchs themselves often start to believe the meaningless, self-serving things they feel. It is a symptom and a means of their fall. And that’s what we’re seeing now, in the spectacle of leading Democrats demanding sympathy for what they themselves did to their party, and doing so without a hint of embarrassment. On December 19, when William Jefferson Clinton was being quoted as blaming his wife’s defeat, not on her, but on angry white men, Tucker Carlson (whose new TV show is, unexpectedly, pretty amusing) asked the rhetorical question, “Does he include himself?” It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to Clinton.

The Electoral College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era.

Even more obtusely self-righteous was John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. He was the person whose computer provided many of the emails that damaged her campaign. In strict terms, those emails were probably not hacked, as people insist on saying, but were phished in the stupidest, most obvious way. But on December 18, Podesta tried to unelect Trump by saying, “It’s very much unknown whether there was collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies, in the matter of the emails. He called for the Electoral College to be informed about this very much unknown conspiracy.

I just can’t get my head around this. After everything Podesta did to lose the election, he wants some kind of do-over. Why? Because it’s unknown whether his opponent was involved in the revelation of his (Podesta’s) own stupidity. If you say things like that, you believe you have a natural right to boundless sympathy and respect, and even reparations, in the form of a delegitimized election.

In the December 22 Washington Post, Ruben Navarrette painted a suggestive portrait of Podesta and the org he managed:

Thanks to a combination of leaks and reporting, we now know just how poorly run the Clinton campaign was, how top campaign staffers dismissed the importance of working-class white voters, how Democratic leaders had contempt for their own supporters, and how the coziness between the news media and campaign officials turned to collusion and created a backlash.

And virtually all those storms have something in common: Podesta. In short, the campaign chairman was at the center of just about everything that went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

I wonder whether you noticed what I did: every critical comment that Navarrette makes about the Democracy can also be made about the modern state: it’s stupid, unreflective, badly managed, and sovereignly contemptuous even of its clients and supporters (with one exception: the supporters known as the mainstream media). The Clinton org was a state within a state, with its own departments of revenue, foreign affairs, enforcement, propaganda, etc. It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to William Jefferson Clinton.

In the Clinton machine one saw statism in a pure form. That’s why no one could figure out what Mrs. Clinton’s program was, or why, in the absence of any particular goals that she wanted to achieve as president, she kept running for the office. The state in its pure form is power; it desires no reason for its existence but the projection of its power. Hillary Clinton wanted that power and needed no other justification of her political life (which, horrible to say, is her whole life). Never once did she or her organization advocate an action that was not an extension of state power; never once did they propose or recognize the existence of any limitations on this power, or reflect on the fact that human knowledge would be limited even if human power were not. Identifying themselves so completely with an all-powerful, all-knowing state, she and her associates assumed that they had a right to be the state. They still do. If you think you have a natural right to unlimited power, and you somehow, in some way that you cannot understand, lose that power, your demand for sympathy will also be unlimited. It’s another rebellion of feelings against fact.

No one actually feels sorry for Hillary Clinton, but many people feel sorry for themselves, because their side lost, and they believe it had a right to win. So they try to see her as a sympathetic figure — a kind of Charles I, condemned and executed by a mob of cretins who could never grasp his greatness. In fact, Charles was an autocrat, and a stupid autocrat, and a deceitful autocrat to boot. As with Mrs. Clinton, if Charles said you had ten fingers, you would count your fingers to make sure. But when he was deposed and executed, the self-pity of the aristocrats who had despised him during his life was focused on him, and he became a Saint. I doubt that this process will go very far with the ludicrous Mrs. Clinton, but it is well underway with her former boss, President Obama. The funniest source is Fareed Zakaria of CNN, whose December 7 crockumentary about Obama suggested that America had failed its president: “It remains unclear if the country was ready for Barack Obama’s vision.”If you’re looking for a fact-free sentence, you have found it.

It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

In America, we have whiny, self-privileged classes, and whiny, self-privileged individuals. Now these have given us whiny, self-privileged issues, political positions that can get away with anything. Today, you are at least as likely to be fired for questioning inclusiveness, economic equality, public education, the environment, or the rights of undocumented workers — or even seeking definitions of these sacred concepts — as you used to be for taking the same approach to Americanism, our Judeo-Christian heritage, defeating the Reds, or the fight against illicit drugs; and before that, temperance, womanhood, our men in uniform, or purity of essence. (OK, I admit it: I took that last one from Dr. Strangelove.) One of the most privileged issues is, of course, common-sense gun control (i.e., elimination of the private ownership of firearms). So empty of fact and full of feeling is the anti-gun cause that The Federalist ran an absurd but accurate headline: “Progressives Demand Gun Control After Knife Attack at Ohio State University.” The article following the headline provided many examples of “progressives” who knew that any attack must be a gun attack, or caused by guns, or preventable by the prevention of guns, or something. Among millions of Americans, the very word “gun” (or even “knife”) is enough to cause hysteria. It makes them feel so insecure.

It has often been noted that the manners of the aristocracy are eventually transferred to the middle class and thence to the lower classes. It’s true; that often happens, and often it’s a good thing. I regret the fact that aristocratic reserve is no longer practiced in restaurants and airline terminals, or even museums and nature trails, where you can always depend on somebody showing up with a cellphone and a voice like Goebbels. But aristocracy is fully alive in another, quite unfortunate way. We are witnessing a transference of self-regard, self-privilege, and self-pity from the American political aristocracy to the issues they push and then to the pathetic voters who derive their own self-regard and their own demands for pity not from any fact but from their feelings about these mighty issues. That is how state power corrupts its holders, and how its holders corrupt everything.




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The More Things Change . . .

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I will confess that I found this past presidential campaign sheer hell. I detested both Clinton and Trump, and voted for neither. I hoped that both would lose, and my only consolation was that they both did lose: Trump was defeated decisively in the popular vote, while Clinton was defeated decisively in the Electoral College contest. My view was and is that Trump will transform the Republican Party into a populist one, pushing nativism, protectionism, corporatism, and isolationism. It saddened me to see writers I had previously admired — such as Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore — who have long argued against the populist siren call to the Republican Party, succumb to it at last, in the form of Trump — The Boss. They, along with a large group of other soi-disant free market commentators, have been seduced by populism. This group I call “the Herd.”

Now, when those of us who are classical liberals — i.e., believers in the free movement of products, of physical capital, and of human capital — expressed alarm at Trump’s explicitly expressed nativism, animus toward Mexicans and Chinese, sexism of the crudest sort, and obvious protectionist aversion to free trade, the Kudlow-Moore Herd mooed, “Oh, he’s just saying that to get the workers’ votes. Don’t worry — he isn’t serious — it’s just bait for the bubbas.” The Herd never asked why the rest of us would ever be attracted by the pitch “Vote for The Boss — he would never do what he says he will!”

Well, even before assuming office, The Boss has started making major decisions as if he were already in charge. It’s as if he couldn’t wait. And it seems he was serious in his campaign.

One highly touted decision The Boss made recently was to coerce Carrier, a division of United Technologies that makes HVAC units, to keep roughly half the workers who were slated to lose jobs when the plant was moved to Mexico. Under pressure, Carrier agreed to keep about 800 of the jobs here. (The Boss’ propaganda ministry said it was 1,150 jobs, but it turns out that included 350 support jobs that were slated to stay anyway.) Gregory Hayes, United Technologies’ CEO, gave in to The Boss, and The Boss and his myrmidons hailed this as a triumph. Indiana, veep-elect Mike Pence’s state, sweetened the deal by giving the company $7 million in tax incentives (read: taxpayer subsidies), but clearly Hayes was most concerned with the continuing bad publicity driven by The Boss and his Herd, and the threat of a 35% tariff on Carrier gas furnaces made in Mexico.

The Herd never asked why the rest of us would ever be attracted by the pitch “Vote for The Boss — he would never do what he says he will!”

The reactions to The Boss’ gambit have been fascinating, to put it mildly. Richly ironic was Sarah Palin’s denunciation of the deal as “crony capitalism.” She wrote ruefully, “When government steps in arbitrarily with individual subsidies, favoring one business over others, it sets inconsistent, unfair, illogical precedent. . . . Republicans oppose this, remember? Instead, we support competition on a level playing field, remember? Because we know special interest crony capitalism is one big fail.” This is rich, considering Palin was one of the Republican Party elite who came out in support of Trump. And she may come to rue her small speck of intellectual honesty, since she has been rumored to be under consideration for government positions and The Boss has shown he tends to appoint his supporters to administrative posts.

Moving now from the ironic to the surreal, the arch-free-market opponent Bernie Sanders also criticized the deal. Yes, socialist Sanders was angry that The Boss didn’t “save” all the jobs by immediately imposing a massive import tax on the products of any company that dares to offshore its operations. Sanders thinks that “United Technologies took Trump hostage and won,” by getting tax breaks in exchange for only half the jobs. In fact, Sanders holds that The Boss has endangered the jobs of countless American workers, because “he has signaled to every corporation in America that they can threaten to offshore jobs in exchange for business-friendly tax benefits and incentives. Even corporations that weren’t thinking of offshoring jobs will most probably be reevaluating their stance [now].”

Surreal indeed! The loopy old Stalinist tool can’t imagine any other reason why businesses would legitimately want to move operations abroad than to get tax breaks. Certainly not to escape our punitive corporate income taxes, currently the highest in the industrialized world, and about triple the rate of Ireland. Certainly not because of our dysfunctional common law system, the only one without the “loser-pay” (or “British”) rule that limits frivolous lawsuits. Certainly not to escape Obamacare, a law that saddles companies with the obligation to provide costly health insurance to their full-time employees whenever they have more than 49 of them. And certainly not because of the metastasizing cancer of regulation, which under Obama has simply exploded. Here the senile socialist Sanders complains that United Technologies made a profit last year of $7.6 billion, and its top execs received $50 million each. (Imagine that! Top execs being paid less than one tenth of one percent of the billions in profits they helped produce! Outrageously generous!)

The loopy old Stalinist tool can’t imagine any other reason why businesses would legitimately want to move operations abroad than to get tax breaks.

In a revealing interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer, United Technologies’ CEO Hayes explained his thinking. Nobody listening to the interview could doubt that Hayes is a decent and patriotic man, but also a man committed to running his company profitably and for the long term. He signaled that he caved to The Boss’ demands because he feared government retaliation against the other three United Technologies divisions — Pratt Whitney engines, Otis Elevator, and the aerospace division — no less than against Carrier. As he put it, “I was born at night, but not last night. I also know that about 10% of our revenue comes from the US government.”

Hayes outlined the reasons why his company had moved Carrier’s — but no other divisions’ — operations down to Mexico. While the skills of the employees at the other divisions are extraordinarily high, the skills at the assembly line for HVAC units are much lower. Moreover, Hayes noted, not only are labor costs lower in Mexico (80% lower) but the company’s existing Mexican plants, the absentee rate was only 1% and the turnover rate only 2%. These figures are much lower than those for the American plant.

Here Hayes touched upon two points I have to work to explain to my business ethics students — who, despite their choice of major, often incline to the Clinton-Sanders-Obama view of capitalism. First, besides intellectual virtues, employers have to consider moral virtues as well. And employees are often not “perfect substitutes” here: some are more inclined to show up for work reliably and work enthusiastically and conscientiously, because for them work is a moral prerequisite for being a virtuous person. Unfortunately, this attitude is more prevalent abroad than in heavily unionized American factories. (I attribute this to the unionization, not the Americanization, of the workers.) Second, what makes employees more valuable is their productivity, not their relatively low salaries. The top paid quarterback in the NFL is a lucky fellow named Luck, who earns $26.4 million a year from the Colts organization. Suppose I called the Colts management and offered my services for a mere 1% of that cost. Would the Colts jump at the chance to “snap up” an old, out-of-shape, overweight, nearsighted, clumsy, uncoordinated philosopher who has never played football in his ludicrous life? Hardly. But if the Colts management could find a man with the skill set of Mr. Luck for significantly less, then they might consider it.

What makes employees more valuable is their productivity, not their relatively low salaries.

Hayes explored this latter point when he noted that United Technologies sent 45,000 employees through their “employee scholar” program, with 38,000 receiving degrees. United Technologies spent $1.2 billion over the last two decades on increasing the skills — the intellectual virtue — of its workforce. And Cramer — an intellectually honest progressive liberal, which is as rare as a sympathetic fascist — pointed out for his CNBC audience (to wit, progressives who make money off capitalism even as they despise it) that United Technologies had early moved a plant from Nogales, Mexico to Florence, South Carolina — at a cost of $60 million in the first year. Notice that neither The Boss’ propaganda machine nor the Herd of establishment Republican apologists even mentioned the onshoring of the bigger Otis plant at great expense, nor the huge amount of money the company has put into improving the skills of tens of thousands of American workers. They mentioned only the 800 inefficient assembly-line jobs.

Hayes noted that United Technologies will now invest $16 million in the existing Carrier plant, to automate it as much as possible, to make it “cost competitive.” So the jobs “saved” by The Boss are not destined to last long. Yeah, the Mexicans won’t “steal them,” but the robots will. In short, don’t blame Juan — blame R2D2!

Hayes made one other point that one wishes The Boss could grasp: “The genie of globalization is not going back into the bottle. . . . Free trade is still essential to the growth of this country. This country was founded on two principles: immigration and free trade.” Boss, let me introduce you to Thomas Jefferson!

But the Herd was mightily pleased with what The Boss did to United Technologies. Larry Kudlow and Neil Cavuto, who should know better than to tout protectionism and cronyism, approved on air, with Cavuto adding the deft ad misericordiam touch that these jobs were saved just in time for Christmas — which rather makes The Boss the Savior.

The jobs “saved” by Trump are not destined to last long. The Mexicans won’t “steal them,” but the robots will.

One of the founding members of the Herd — Glenn Reynolds — chimed in his support for The Boss’ crony capitalism. Reynolds wrote an amazing — really, psychedelic — piece favorably comparing The Boss and his tweets with FDR and his radio “fireside chats.” Like, far out, man, America is in the Great Depression redivivus, and the Boss is here to save us!

Of course, as Reynolds himself concedes, FDR probably extended the Depression by seven years, but he certainly made economically illiterate Americans feel like he cared. And I guess it’s better to feel the pain you cause in others than to be oblivious to it, although I am more inclined to say you shouldn’t cause the freaking pain to begin with.

But Reynolds’ point is that The Boss, in “saving” these pathetically few jobs, showed more “compassion” than Obama, because when Obama was asked about saving jobs at this Carrier plant, the Prez said that the answer was improved job (re)training. That caused Reynolds to wax sanctimonious, saying that when a factory closes (from outsourcing, free trade, automation, or just plain producing a product the public doesn’t want), the people laid off and the local economy suffer. And the existing job retraining programs — including the Trade Adjustment Assistance program (TAA) — don’t work well. Here Reynolds quotes a study done by the Heritage Foundation that says the TAA doesn’t work — though considering the infamous hit-report the Heritage Foundation did some years back on the cost of immigrants to the nation, which cemented the organization’s turn from conservativism to populism, I no longer put any credence in its reports.

Now, readers of this journal over the last eight years will, I believe, not accuse me of being a blind Obama supporter — far from it. But in this case, Obama is correct and Reynolds, the Heritage Gang, and the rest of the Herd is wrong. We all learned from Joseph Schumpeter that economic progress is driven by “gales of creative destruction,” when old, less efficient ways of doing business are eliminated by newer, more efficient ones. Cathode ray tube TVs died rapidly when flat screens came out; VHS tapes died rapidly when DVDs became available. And human-piloted cars, trucks, and buses may soon be replaced by autopiloted ones. And we all know what Schumpeter pointed out, that this process is often a hardship on some workers as they undergo retraining for more productive jobs. No doubt, if truck, delivery van, and bus drivers, as well as cab and Uber drivers are all put out of work by self-driving cars, some people will find it hard to find other, more productive jobs over a relatively short period of time. But most will find other, more productive work, easily.

FDR probably extended the Depression by seven years, but he certainly made economically illiterate Americans feel like he cared.

For those workers who can’t make the shift easily, the answer is precisely to retrain them. What other options are there? To let them languish on food stamps? Or (as the lumpenprotectionists, Luddites, and nativists would urge) simply outlaw progress? Let’s face it: progress is a bitch!

Let’s consider this for a moment. No doubt many truck and cab drivers will oppose self-piloting vehicles. But we as a country lose roughly 38,000 people a year in auto accidents, more than we lost in the Korean War. Does Mr. Reynolds — so much more compassionate than we unpatriotic, cosmopolitan, hard-hearted, elitist, and egoistic globalists — really want to see those deaths occur forever, lest some cabbie in Queens can’t find work?

As to why the TAA and the other few dozen other government retraining programs don’t work well, they don’t work well for the same reason public schools don’t work well: when the government runs a monopoly, it fails just all other monopolies do. The answer (in both cases) is to separate the government funding from the service by voucherizing it.

Specifically, we should kill all the retraining programs, along with (say) the Department of Energy, and use all that money for vouchers for long-term unemployed so that they can go to a public or private community colleges to get retrained (or get the high-school diploma they should have gotten when they were young). I would allow trade unions and private industries to use these vouchers to expand their apprenticeship and training programs they already have, and to open full-fledged trade schools as well. For example, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America could run a chain of trade schools where people could come to learn the trades, paying the union with vouchers and perhaps by agreeing to be dues-payers for some period of time (say, ten years). Oh, and end the Obama Administration’s war on for-profit colleges, a war that killed so many hundreds of decent trade schools for no reason other than a desire to please the teacher’s unions. (The fall of the ITT college chain alone eliminated 130 campuses.)

There are several reasons why The Boss’ “victory for American jobs” is in fact disastrously bad.

First, it forces Carrier to keep paying high wages to its employees, thus ensuring that it will be unable to compete with foreign-produced products in the long term. This is the kind of “good deal” the US autoworkers received: ludicrously sweet contracts that drove two of the major American automakers into bankruptcy.

Government retraining programs don’t work well for the same reason public schools don’t: when the government runs a monopoly, it fails just all other monopolies do.

Second, it punishes American consumers, who will be forced not just to pay continuing high prices for Carrier’s products but also to pay higher taxes to provide the subsidies. The Boss’ “big-hearted” concern for the workers obviously did not extend to the consumers or taxpayers.

Third, as Bastiat would note, while the populace — with the Herd leading the cheers — hails the Boss for the 800 jobs saved, it will not see the many of thousands of jobs that will be lost. Any company, foreign or domestic, that is thinking of building new plants here knows that if any of those facilities turn out to be unprofitable — say, because the workers form a union as unreasonable as the UAW — and the company moves to close the plant, The Boss will punish it with whatever sort of sanctions he can dream up. As the French have discovered, the harder you make it to fire workers, the more reluctant companies will be to hire them in the first place, so you wind up with chronic high unemployment.

This is where the Herd may be miscalculating. Kudlow, Moore, Laffer, Cavuto, Reynolds, et.al. assume that with lower corporate taxes and fewer regulations, the economy will boom and job growth explode as companies repatriate foreign profits and open new plants here. But in the face of The Boss’ demagogic, autocratic governance, the companies may instead use the money to buy back stock in their own outfits or invest the money abroad. The good effects of The Boss’ more classically liberal policies may be trumped by the bad effects of his populist ones.

The harder you make it to fire workers, the more reluctant companies will be to hire them in the first place, so you wind up with chronic high unemployment.

In fact, the Herd’s admiring lowing in response to his bullying of Carrier may be confirming to The Boss that his protectionism is working. He moved on rapidly to attack another company — Rexnord Corporation — for daring to move a plant to Mexico and “viciously fire” 300 existing employees. So far the company hasn’t caved, leading The Boss to renew his threat to hit Mexican imports with a 35% tariff. Ford, which he threatened earlier, still appears to be moving forward with plans to build small cars in Mexico. So The Boss may well be forced to carry through with his threat.

This is all reminiscent of Obama’s first year, in which he started trade wars with Mexico and Canada, while engaging in crony capitalism with environmentalist companies. As the cynical but insightful French put it, the more things change, the more they stay the same.




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The Birth of a Nation

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On a clear and cool November morning, while accompanying my dog on our daily circuit of his considerable territory in this southern California suburb, I passed a house that had a flag hung above the garage door. It was at an angle, so I couldn’t see it very well, but then I got it: the Bear Flag, the official flag of California, which features a golden grizzly bear walking toward the left and, below the bear, the words “California Republic.” While it’s not unusual in this neighborhood to see the occasional American flag on display, this was the first time I’d seen the state flag being flown from a private residence, and it seemed odd.

What, I thought, is up with that?

* * *

Nestled snugly in the heart of Europe is 999 square miles of tidy, prosperous greenery called the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Surrounded by France, Belgium, and Germany, Luxembourg is a member of the European Parliament, where it enjoys the benefits of what mathematicians call degressive proportionality.

When considering the prospect of joining the EU, Luxembourgers had to face the possibility that their happy little land might just be swallowed whole.

In practical terms, this means that Luxembourg’s 540,000 or so people get six seats in the European Parliament, while the 80,000,000 or so Germans get 96. To be clear, that is roughly one seat for every 90,000 Luxembourgers and one for every 830,000 Germans. That’s right, each Luxembourger counts as more than nine Germans.

Why do the Germans put up with this? The unsurprising answer is self-interest.

When considering the prospect of joining the European Union, Luxembourgers had to face the possibility that their happy little land might just be swallowed whole. After all, any country that joins the EU, no matter how large, surrenders a hefty portion of its sovereignty and, given the Union’s immigration policies, invites substantial changes to its national culture and identity. For a small country like Luxembourg, joining up could mean disappearing down the maw of a supra-national leviathan forever, to put it colorfully.

If there were a strictly proportional European Parliament of 1,000 members, Luxembourg would get only one voice in the massive hall. This nightmarish scenario is probably what prompted the Duchy to ask for a few extra seats before they joined.

Although being in the EU is not without its costs, on balance, Germany benefits. It enjoys a tariff-free, nearly frictionless market of more than half a billion souls eager to buy German goods, a leading role in an effective collective counterweight to the power wielded by Russia, China, and the United States, and, after centuries of war and strife, relative peace and interdependent prosperity for an entire continent. A little degressive proportionality in the allotment of seats in the European Parliament must have seemed a trifle to pay for these considerable benefits.

And so, the compromise was made. Today, with something like 0.1% of the European Union population, Luxembourg gets 0.8% of the members of the European Parliament. It’s a pretty good deal, for Germans and Luxembourgers alike.

This nightmarish scenario is probably what prompted the Duchy to ask for a few extra seats before they joined.

Had the large countries not agreed to the compromise, the smaller countries probably would have stayed out, and the European Union as we know it would never have even been born.

* * *

The United States had arrived at a similar end by different means. By 1786, it was generally agreed that the Articles of Confederation, which gave equal weight to each state regardless of population, were not working well, so a federal convention was called to consider changes. The opening gavel came down in 1787 and the meeting soon morphed into the Constitutional Convention. The single most divisive issue was how to apportion power among the states. Things got a little heated.

On June 30, 1787, Gunning Bedford Jr., representing Delaware, made it clear that the less populous states were not going to be bullied into accepting strictly proportional representation in the central government, saying,

Will it be said that an inequality of power will not result from an inequality of votes. Give the opportunity, and ambition will not fail to abuse it. The whole History of mankind proves it . . . The Large States dare not dissolve the Confederation. If they do the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.

When things cooled down a bit, Mr. Bedford clarified that he was not making a threat. In this context, the threat that he was not making might have been something like inviting, say, the redcoats to help Delaware defend itself against, say, Pennsylvania. The notes of the Convention for that day are here.

Mr. Bedford’s speech marked a turning point in the deliberations. The large states gave up the demand for strict proportionality and moved in the direction of a series of compromises that incorporated the views of the less populous states in the draft of the Constitution that was presented to the states for ratification.

* * *

Let us imagine two friends, John, from Delaware, and Paul, from Massachusetts, discussing these compromises in 1787.

John: I fear that Delaware’s interests would be brushed aside by the more populous States if it were to join this Union.

When things cooled down a bit, Mr. Gunning Bedford Jr. clarified that he was not making a threat.

Paul: There are provisions in the proposed Constitution that prevent the interests of the small States from being ignored or their powers from being unjustly encroached upon.

John: Such as?

Paul: To begin with, the legislature has been divided into two chambers: the House of Representatives, in which the States are allotted seats in proportion to their populations, and the Senate, in which each State is allotted two seats, regardless of population. Any law must be passed by a majority vote of both bodies, or, if the President refuses to sign, by a two-thirds vote of both bodies.

John: Are the two equal in other respects?

Paul: Not quite. Any proposal dealing with taxation and expenditures must originate in the House, though the Senate must still concur for it to become law. The Senate alone, however, votes to confirm the appointments that the President makes to the Supreme Court and, while the President may negotiate a treaty, two-thirds of the Senators must agree with it before it can be ratified.

John: These provisions certainly give the small States more say than their numbers alone would warrant, not only in the legislative branch, but also in the judicial branch, and in foreign affairs as well. The role of the President, however, seems crucial in this Constitution. Is the President to be elected by popular vote?

In all likelihood, if the large states had not agreed to these compromises, the small states would not have ratified the Constitution.

Paul: No. Each state is to choose Electors, equal in number to that of its Representatives and Senators combined. Those Electors will then meet in their respective States and vote for a President. The candidate who wins the majority of the Electors’ votes becomes the President.

John: So, because each state will be granted an Elector for each Senator, the less populous states will have a disproportionate say in who becomes the President?

Paul: Exactly.

John: All these provisions are reassuring, but what is to prevent the more populous States from simply changing the rules once this new government is formed?

Paul: The rules for amending the Constitution are a part of the document itself. There are two methods. Under the first, two-thirds of both the House and the Senate must agree to any proposed amendment; then, three-quarters of all the State legislatures must agree, by a majority vote in each, to that proposed amendment. Under the second method, Congress must call for an amending convention when asked to do so by two-thirds of the State legislatures. Then conventions in three-quarters of the States would have to agree to the proposed amendment for it to take effect. .

John: So, a significant number of the representatives of the less populous States would have to vote twice, using either method, to change the very rules that gave them a disproportionate say in the affairs of the country in the first place?

Paul: Just so.

John: Could the Supreme Court change these provisions and impose proportional representation?

Paul: Should Justices of the Supreme Court attempt such a direct misinterpretation of the proposed Constitution, they would certainly be impeached. The proposed Constitution stipulates that, in the event that a simple majority of the House votes for impeachment, the Senate can, with a two-thirds majority vote, remove a Supreme Court Justice from the bench. Besides, the Justices are to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, both of which would be selected under these very provisions. The likelihood that a majority of the justices so selected would share such a fundamental disagreement with these provisions is remote.

Each Wyomingite counts as more than three Californians, not only in the Congress, but in presidential elections as well.

John: I am persuaded. I shall support ratification. But I must ask: why would you want to ratify a Constitution that grants less power to Massachusetts than its relatively large population would otherwise seem to warrant?

Paul: Oh, I don’t know — to establish justice, I guess. To insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense, something like that. And being united would really promote the general welfare, don’t you think? And maybe even secure the blessings of liberty, that kind of thing.

John: All of which would benefit Delaware as well.

Paul: Indeed.

In all likelihood, if the large states had not agreed to these compromises, the small states would not have ratified the Constitution and the United States of America as we know it today would never have been born.

* * *

If you want to understand the modern consequences of the American version of degressive proportionality that Paul and John discussed, Wyoming is a good place to start. This large, landlocked rectangle perched on the arid high plains and mountains of the American West is sometimes called the Cowboy State. Its official sport is the rodeo.

Wyoming’s roughly 600,000 people have three members of Congress, one in the House and two in the Senate, while the 39,000,000 or so Californians have 55 members of Congress, 53 in the House and two in the Senate. So there is one member of Congress for every 200,000 Wyomingites, while there is one for every 700,000 Californians. Yes, each Wyomingite counts as more than three Californians, not only in the Congress, but in presidential elections as well. Remember those Electors?

Why do the Californians put up with this? Well, they may not.

* * *

It is often pointed out that in the presidential election of 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, while Donald Trump merely won the electoral vote and the presidency. While the results in overrepresented states such as Wyoming account for Trump’s electoral victory, to understand Clinton’s popular vote triumph you need only look at one state: California.

On December 8, the California Secretary of State reported that state’s votes as Clinton, 8,753,788, and Trump, 4,483,810, giving Clinton 4,269,978 more votes than Trump in California alone. Let me repeat that: alone.

If you leave California’s votes out of the tally, Trump won 1,436,758 more votes nationally than Clinton.

On December 16, 2016, CNN reported the national popular vote totals as Clinton, 65,788,583, and Trump, 62, 955,363, giving Clinton 2,833,220 more votes than Trump nationally.

According to these figures, Clinton won the popular vote in California by 1,436,758 more votes than those by which she won in the country as a whole. To put this in another way, if you leave California’s votes out of the tally, Trump won 1,436,758 more votes nationally than Clinton.

Yes, you read that right.

It may have been at the exact moment when these results were released that degressive proportionality became something up with which some Californians would no longer, to paraphrase Churchill, put. They realized for the first time that they did not really care for this Electoral College at all.

Which brings us back to the flag.

* * *

On June 14, 1846, a scruffy band of what might be called illegal American immigrants in Sonoma, California, then part of Mexico, frustrated by what they saw as unjust treatment at the hands California Governor José Castro, seized the commandante of the town, retired Mexican General Mariano Vallejo, and declared that California would henceforth be an independent country.

One of the rebels fashioned a primitive flag featuring a leftward walking bear, below which, in bold Roman letters, he wrote the name CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC. The banner was raised over the barracks in Sonoma, the makeshift headquarters of the Republic. And thus was brought forth upon this continent a new nation.

Yes California has expedited its efforts to make California independent again because the election of Mr. Trump has generated such enthusiasm for secession.

Less than a month later, the 150 or so men in the new country’s army were absorbed into the US Army, the Bear Flag was lowered, the Stars and Stripes were raised, and with that, the Bear Flag Revolt was over. Unbeknownst to the rebels, the United States had been at war with Mexico since May. At the war’s end, Mexico ceded California to the United States. A few years later, in 1850, without ever becoming a territory, California became a state.

* * *

On November 11, 2016, Marcus Evans, Vice President of the Yes California Independence Campaign, delivered a letter to the Office of the Attorney General of the State of California. The LA Times article about this is here. The letter asked that the appropriate preparations be made for an initiative that, if successful, would put before the voters a measure that, if successful, would begin the formal process of the secession of California from the United States of America. As the article makes clear, Yes California has expedited its efforts to make California independent again because the election of Mr. Trump has generated such enthusiasm for the project, which some are calling “Calexit,” after “Brexit.”

My flag-hoisting neighbor shares this enthusiasm.

If you’d like to help the Yes California Independence Campaign gather signatures to put their measure on the ballot, you can contact them here. Just remember that the last time there was a serious dispute over the prenuptial agreement called the constitution, it was South Carolina that began the divorce proceedings. It was settled out of court.

* * *

A parting thought. If we accept that our goal is not only to ensure that the “one person, one vote” rule is enforced but also to ensure that each vote is given equal weight, then we must also accept that there are more egregious violators of this rule than the European Union or the United States. Both those unions look like models of proportionality compared to the United Nations, where India is a back-bencher and France has the power to veto.

What to do?

First, propose to the General Assembly that the UN Charter be amended to ensure that representation in the UN is strictly proportional to population.

If the number is set at 10 million then Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Norway, among others, would have to do without a seat.

There are about 7.5 billion of us now, so 750 representatives in the hall would mean one for every 10 million or so citizens. So far, so good. Let’s see: China would get 138 seats; India, 132; the US, 32; Russia, 14; Germany, 8; the UK, 7; France, 6; Canada, 4; Australia, 2; Belgium, 1; Portugal, 1; and Sweden, 0.

Wait. If the number is set at 10 million then Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Norway, among others, would have to do without a seat. Just mill around at the back, I guess.

So, second, when the first proposal is rejected, the US Ambassador to the United Nations should submit a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations asking him to make the necessary preparations for the United States of America to leave the United Nations, in the name of equity.

Can’t call it “Amexit” — sounds too much like a TV commercial. Mmmm. How about “Usexit?” No? What, then?




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Trio

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Three films opened this month that are very different but have certain characteristics in common: lush settings, larger-than-life characters, Technicolor dream sequences, and stories that ask us to consider the price of following dreams. Each of these films showcases the unrelenting demands of pursuing art, and is a work of art itself. A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition. Relationships often fall by the wayside. In these three films, dreams and relationships battle for the hearts of the protagonists.

The best of the three is La La Land, a modern take on the “I want to be a star” Hollywood musical; it will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar this year. The title offers a “la-de-da” to people who have the audacity to dream big as well as a nod to L.A., where dreams are often made — and broken. The film opens during a Category Five traffic jam on an L.A. overpass, complete with a splashy flash mob in which drivers in brightly colored costumes leave their cars, pirouette between the lanes, cartwheel across hoods, leap from highway dividers, and generally exude the joy of a drive to the beach rather than the frustration of traffic. This is Hollywood, where anything can happen. The scene is filmed in a single take, reminiscent of the demanding single-take direction of Fred Astaire as well as the opening scene of the star-studded film The Player (1992).

A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition.

Definitely not in a beachgoing mood during that traffic jam are aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who is late for an audition, and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who is late for a gig. Their paths will continue to cross throughout the film as each pursues the La La dreams of La La land. Mia is a gifted actress who can’t get casting directors to pay attention during her auditions. Sebastian is a gifted pianist who is stifled by the inane playlists demanded for the weddings, birthday parties, and restaurant gigs he takes to pay the bills. After several near-misses, when they finally meet it’s a symphony of romance as they break into numerous dances that echo such iconic pieces as Kelly and Charisse breaking into dance along the Seine in An American in Paris; Kelly and Reynolds dancing in the sky in “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain; and Astaire and Rogers “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat. Emma Stone is no Ginger Rogers, but Ryan Gosling is smooth and graceful enough for both of them, and Mandy Moore wisely choreographed steps that make the scenes magical even for non-trained dancers.

The chemistry between the two is touching and believable. But dreams are jealously demanding. On their first real date, Mia and Sebastian sit side by side in a movie theater, watching Rebel without a Cause. The camera closes in on just their two hands. His thumb leans toward hers. Her thumb leans toward his. They touch. His hand opens. Her hand fills it and their fingers intertwine. The camera moves to their faces, and their heads tentatively lean toward each other as well. Then just as he moves in for a kiss, the film they are watching snags and burns, and the lights go up. The moment ends. That small scene is a metaphor for La La Land, where dreams are filled with hope and anticipation in the privacy of the dark, but too often snag and burn in the cold light of day.

While the film is obviously a well-crafted paean to legendary movie musicals, it is fresh and modern in its presentation. Sebastian’s former bandmate Keith (John Legend) says about Sebastian’s purist view of jazz: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Writer and director Damien Chazelle doesn’t hold onto the past for this film but gives it wings to tell his story. Ryan Gosling also makes the film work, not only because he is such a skilled actor, but also because of his dedication to making it feel real. He reportedly spent two hours a day, six days a week, for two years learning how to play these piano pieces well enough to avoid having to cut to a hand double for the intricate musical scenes. His work is stunning throughout the film, from his graceful dancing to his powerful keyboard work to his poignant gestures and facial expressions.

If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness.

The final scene of the film is breathtaking and heart wrenching and oh-so-true. I went back to see the film a second time, just to experience that scene once more. La La Land lives up to all the hype the advertising has created. It’s whimsical, gorgeous, and deep. Young Damien Chazelle (only 31 years old!), who also wrote and directed the award-winning Whiplash (2014) about the painful path of a gifted drummer, is a gifted artist himself who seems to know a lot about the price of dreams. He’s one to watch.

Rules Don’t Apply is another film that focuses on the emotional price of pursuing dreams and the different paths to achieving them. Like La La Land, it’s set in Hollywood’s heyday, and music helps to tell its story. It also offers lush sets and costumes. But it is more quirky than whimsical, and it tells a more direct story. Warren Beatty plays the eccentric and mysterious Hollywood mogul and airplane innovator Howard Hughes, but this should not be construed as a Howard Hughes biopic. Hughes is a symbol of the choices and obstacles the main characters face as they try to get their first big breaks.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is an innocent ingénue in Hughes’ stable of innocent ingénues waiting for her first screen test; Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is employed by Hughes as Marla’s driver, but his real goal is to convince Hughes to invest with him in an undeveloped piece of land in the Hollywood Hills (we recognize from the view that this piece of land would become one of the priciest and most desirable in southern California). Levar (Matthew Broderick) also had dreams of personal achievement, but he has worked for Hughes so long that the dreams have been all but forgotten. Hughes, too, has had to forgo some dreams in order to pursue others that seemed more meaningful.

Adding to Hughes’s own fastidious eccentricity is the fact that Maria and Frank both come from strong religious backgrounds with archaic attitudes about premarital sex, and these attitudes contribute charmingly to the development of the plot. Not only must all of the characters decide which dreams are worth pursuing; they must also decide which values are worth most to them in the long run.

The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club.

Beatty wrote, directed, produced, and stars in Rules Don’t Apply. Although he plays Howard Hughes to eccentric perfection, Hughes seems to be a vehicle for Beatty to explore his own pursuit of stardom and the price he paid to achieve it. If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness. Rules are created from past experience and imposed from outside. As Sebastian discovered in La La Land, success comes from looking to the future and creating something new. Rules can be useful guides, but they beg to be broken by true artists. Still, there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules, and each of the characters in this film must decide which rules do apply, and which rules don’t.

The third film in my trilogy of dreamscapes is darker than the other two, more thriller than thrilling. Nocturnal Animals opens with a grotesque montage of extremely naked, extremely obese women dancing pseudo-seductively. The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club. It turns out to be the opening of an art show mounted by glamorous and successful artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) whose shtick is painting grossly obese women. As the camera pulls back to reveal the art gallery, several of the women are lying immobile and face down, making it feel as though the women should be surrounded by yellow caution tape, not picture frames.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes. The rest of the film is one of the most engaging I have seen this season. It comprises three intertwining stories, all featuring the gifted Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist.

When Susan returns to her luxurious home, she receives an advance manuscript of a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. Edward and Susan were married when they were both young and aspiring, she as an artist and he as a writer. She begins reading the manuscript immediately, and its plot becomes the main storyline of our film. In it, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) is embarking on a long road trip with his wife (Isla Fischer, who is often mistaken for Amy Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). In the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere, three crazed young men run them off the road, kidnap the women, and leave Tony for dead. The rest of his book is a tense and frightening crime thriller, which dominates the movie. The flow of that story is interrupted frequently by a return to Susan reading the book. Scenes of her life with her current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) and scenes of her earlier relationship with Edward create the other two interwining storylines, stories that often have an eerie resemblance to scenes that are unfolding in the novel.

Director Tom Ford is a fashion designer who also makes movies, and it shows. The storytelling is remarkable, but the cinematic effect is exquisite. His serene composition of women lying on a couch in matching scenes from different storylines is particularly beautiful and artistic. Nocturnal Animals is a story about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, dreams exposed, dreams achieved, and dreams destroyed. And redheads. There are so many characters in this film with long, luxurious red hair! This is a movie you will think about long after the final credits roll.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes.

The three stories in Nocturnal Animals intertwine in unexpected, artistic ways, and so do the three films reviewed here. Two are set in Hollywood. Two feature original jazz pieces whose lyrics highlight the theme. Two pivot unexpectedly on abortion. Two feature redheads. Two focus on the often-dogmatic demands of religion. All demonstrate the inexorable effect of choices.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, as choices are made “way leads on to way,” taking us further and further from alternative paths. Although the protagonists in all of these films freely choose paths less traveled to pursue what they value most, each film ends with a tone of regret for the road not taken. The path to glory is often a lonely one that ends with a sigh for what might have been.


Editor's Note: Review of "La La Land," directed by Damien Chazelle. Black Label Media, 2016, 128 minutes; "Rules Don’t Apply," directed by Warren Beatty. Regency Enterprises, RatPac Entertainment, 2016, 127 minutes; and "Nocturnal Animals," directed by Tom Ford. Focus Features, 2016, 116 minutes.



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Flyover Plates

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Standing Athwart Trumpism

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For libertarians, the time for schadenfreude is past. Satisfying as it has been to watch Hillary Clinton’s fatuous hack brigade flail about trying to explain why the voting public failed to give their heroine her due, we should now be content to let her wander the woods and float through gatherings of fellow millionaires. Politically at least, she is now an ex-person.

In looking over the commentary produced since the election, I worry that many libertarians are both underestimating and misunderstanding the nature of the threat Trump poses. Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton would have been an awful president, rivaling and probably surpassing the past two administrations for overall harm to the nation. But: what we as a nation have elected instead is a very different proposition. Donald Trump has no core beliefs other than in his own all-encompassing competence, and he recognizes no authority other than the one beneath his gilded combover.

The sole hope coming out of the campaign was Trump’s sheer manic variability, which saw him contradicting himself not just from day to day, but sentence to sentence. It was possible—barely—to measure his egregiously awful statements on policing, trade, and civil liberties against others taking on bailed-out bankers and US military failures in the Middle East, and hope that there was a better side of his nature that might yet win out.

Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton would have been a horrid president, rivaling and probably surpassing the past two administrations for overall harm to the nation.

A month later, that fiction is no longer sustainable. Trump has made clear he will govern by drawing on the worst of both the establishment GOP and the fringier elements who have swarmed around his campaign: an unholy union first appearing in the naming of past RNC head Reince Preibus to be chief of staff, while placing Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon in the role of “chief counselor and White House strategist”—an equal position that is, crucially, not subject to congressional approval. In one stroke, Trump coopted the establishment, installing the empty-headed Preibus to repeat talking points at press briefings while leaving Bannon free to plot in the darkness. Further, the arrangement takes away another fleeting hope: Trump, who is fickle even by the standards of small children, is often swayed by the last person he talks to; Bannon will make sure that person is him.

In many Cabinet positions, Trump has selected nearly the worst conceivable candidate. Jeff Sessions will be a nightmare as Attorney General, instantly silencing the crucial conversation about policing, prisons, and communities that had, at long last, emerged in the past couple of years. Retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis (no, really) will be well positioned as Secretary of Defense to carry out the war with Iran that neocons have been lusting after for decades—especially with the megalomaniacal Michael Flynn as national security advisor, and John Bolton, the man more responsible than any other single person for lying us into the disastrous war in Iraq, as deputy secretary of state. Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin as the secretaries of commerce and the Treasury, respectively, make sure the Wall Street welfare crowd keeps multiple seats at the table. And that’s not even to mention the grossly incompetent Rick Perry at Energy (a position generally held by, you know, an actual scientist), the ill-suited Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, the hopelessly compromised Andrew Pudzer at Labor and Betsy DeVos at Education, and the rumored but not yet confirmed Larry Kudlow as White House economist—you remember, the guy who insisted there was no economic bubble in 2008, right at the exact moment of its popping.

Trump, who is fickle even by the standards of small children, is often swayed by the last person he talks to; Steve Bannon will make sure that person is him.

Before even entering office, Trump has already caused an international incident, taking a call from the president of Taiwan. Though it appears he was gulled into it by, among others, Bob Dole (a paid lobbyist for Taiwan now for years), it’s of a piece with Trump’s inexplicable need to provoke China. The world economy right now is a thin layer of trade stretched over an enormous gulf of debt; Trump’s Smoot-Hawleyesque tariff plans would be just the thing to turn the coming post-Obama recession into a new Depression—and, in China, he has a perfect scapegoat for why his own economic plans (which, to judge from the whole Carrier incident, involve personally picking winners and losers) won’t do anything to fix it.

Trade war with China is only one of the many scenarios that Trump could blunder into that would lead to global conflict—there’s the entire Middle East, obviously, with special reference to either Iran or Syria; there’s Kashmir and the perpetual threat of Indian-Pakistani nuclear war; there’s Ukraine and Turkey and the limits of NATO—so many Archdukes, and all it takes is one bullet. Trump’s Twitter feed reveals a man fundamentally incapable of patience, diplomacy, or measured contemplation, a man so thin-skinned he’d be translucent if it weren’t for the fake tan. If even the tiniest of trolls can get his dander up, how will he respond when actual substantive criticism comes? To what lengths will Trump go to assert his authority?

Within the structure of the federal government as presently constituted, there are no effective checks on his power to do so. President Hillary would have broken the law, and egregiously so, but as with her emails she would have recognized that what she was doing was wrong and made an incompetent effort to cover it up. Trump’s illegal acts will occur in the open, as they have for decades; he will dare anyone to stop him, knowing that once he’s in power there really isn’t anyone who will.

The Democrats won’t: as they’ve proven time and again, they love power too much to allow it to dissipate. Obama had the chance to dismantle the post-9/11 security and surveillance state; he chose instead to ramp up both, prosecuting whistleblowers and leakers with a ferocity never before seen while wasting all his political capital on the narcissistic quest to get an already-disintegrating health plan passed. The 2020 hopefuls—be it odious busybody Elizabeth Warren, discount-store Obama knockoff Cory Booker, nepotism case-study Andrew Cuomo, or any other—will want to preserve whatever they can of the imperial presidency out of the belief, growing inexplicably stronger each time it is shown to be misguided, that they can fix everything on their next Oval Office turn.

Within the structure of the federal government as presently constituted, there are no effective checks on Trump's power to assert his authority.

The Republicans won’t either: for all the supposed “Never Trump” energy, they’ve all more or less fallen into line, accepting their ritual humiliations as the price for pushing their own agendas—just look at how Mike Pence flipped his economic views basically overnight once he saw the chance to take his social pathologies to a bigger stage. Even Paul Ryan, who remains near to power and could at least see principles on a clear day, has muted his opposition. The few exceptions, such as Sen. Rand Paul (who says he will lead the fight against Bolton) and Rep. Justin Amash, are isolated and ripe for the purge. It’s Trump’s party now.

And, of course, the establishment media won’t: as shown by their profiles of intellectual lightweights like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, all their supposed resistance will go out the door the second that fascism slicks back its hair and dons an off-the-rack suit. The media prizes respectability and access above any other principle; watch in the coming months how much attention CNN and the networks give to Trump’s lack of briefings and press conferences, versus how much they cover the deployment of the planned DHS police state, or the surveillance of Muslim communities.

Who, then? It doesn’t leave much, but it does leave us—as well as some groups that we might not be accustomed to pairing up with, but will have to if we’re going to survive this administration. Charts and statistics and lectures about sound economic theory didn’t cut it during the campaign, and they won’t cut it after the inauguration, either. We will need to remember how to protest; we will need to learn how to organize—not just in the comfort of our homes, or in the safe spaces of digital discussion, but in the streets and, if it comes to it, on the ramparts as well.

There is a tremendous opportunity here: if libertarians not only stick to their principles but demonstrate them at every turn, there is the chance to prove that libertarianism is not about protecting the powerful and the authorities, but rather providing the powerless the authority to live their own lives as they see fit. But balanced against this is an equally terrible prospect: if libertarians fail, either by cooption or purity testing or internecine squabbling, they will be subsumed—and there will be no coming back.



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It’s Ideas that Count

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Bourgeois Equality is the third book in Prof. Deirdre McCloskey’s trilogy, following Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010), on the rise of the modern economy. In Dignity, she knocked down rival theories of what made the modern world. Now she argues for her theory — that the modern world was started by ideas, rhetoric, talk.

It’s a better theory than it sounds. In Bourgeois Equality she defends it ably and with flair.

“Equality” has been the Left’s word. Libertarians have no interest in an equal possession of income or wealth, and we don’t believe that everyone’s voice has an equal claim on our attention. We do believe in equal liberty to strive for income and wealth, to talk and write and thereby attempt to win our attention. We forget, sometimes, how powerful that kind of equality can be, and rarely imagine what the world was like before people had it. A third of a millennium ago the Englishmen who dared proclaim it were smeared as “levellers” and put in prison.

That is when the modern world was just beginning.

Deirdre McCloskey is a libertarian and professor of economics, history, English, and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In Equality, her attention is on the development of “a business-respecting civilization,” with its seed in Venice and Florence in the 1500s, its sprouting in Holland in the 1600s, and its flowering in England in the 1700s. Since 1800, the result has been what McCloskey calls “the Great Enrichment.”

Libertarians believe in equal liberty to strive for income and wealth, to talk and write and thereby attempt to win our attention.

Everyone knows the world got richer, but they seldom reflect on the magnitude of it. Consider Afghanistan. People in villages there live on $3 a day, “which before 1800,” McCloskey writes, “was what the average human more or less everywhere expected to make.” In the rich countries, average income per person is about $100 per day. The earth carries vastly more people than in 1800, and life expectancy has doubled.

What started all this? It was not mere saving and investment, “piling brick upon brick” of the medieval economy. It was creating a new economy, over and over again, and destroying the old one.

The mental picture, McCloskey writes, “should not be nuclear fission, the reaching of a threshold — in which, with the creative people bouncing against each other, the reaction becomes self-sustaining. It was more like a forest fire. The kindling for a creative conflagration lay about for millennia, carefully prevented from burning by traditional societies and governing elites with watering cans. Then the historically unique rise of liberty and dignity for ordinary people disabled the watering cans and put the whole forest to the torch.”

Everyone knows the world got richer, but they seldom reflect on the magnitude of it.

The match was the idea that the aristocracy and established church had no right to rule. The alternative was the practical egalitarianism of accomplished commoners — merchants and artisans. These bourgeois had been around for centuries, but always had to bow to their betters. Then they stopped bowing and made a new world.

“No bishops,” McCloskey writes. “And at length no lords and kings. And then no central planning or expert regulation. Laissez faire.”

She calls the new idea “the Bourgeois Deal”: You are free to try something new. If it pays, you get to keep the money and push on.

The change had begun with religion. Printing had put the Bible in the hands of well-off commoners, who could interpret the Good Book in any way they liked — focusing on worldly works rather than an afterlife, for instance. This brought the Reformation, bloody war, and eventually a godly compromise: religious laissez-faire. An early apostle of it, when it was still new and strange, was the English Leveller John Lilburne, who wrote in 1649 that every person should be free “to exercise of Religion according to his Conscience, nothing having caused more distractions, and heart burnings in all ages.”

These bourgeois had been around for centuries, but always had to bow to their betters. Then they stopped bowing and made a new world.

Along with freedom to print Bibles came freedom to print other things. “By 1600 the Dutch had taken over from the Venetians the role of unrestricted publishers of Europe,” McCloskey writes, “publishing the books of heretics like Baruch Spinoza in Latin, John Locke in English, and Pierre Bayle in French, not to mention pornography in whatever language would sell.”

A marketplace of ideas — and other things.

Freedom also came to science, an event that some historians say created the modern world. McCloskey disagrees. “Science didn’t make the modern world,” she writes. “Technology did, in the hands of newly liberated and honored instrument makers and tinkerers.” The economic payoffs from elite science came later. The method of science, in her view, is what mattered first. A scientist was free to advance a claim, and other scientists were free to check it. Innovation, but a market test: the Bourgeois Deal.

“The only alternative to a marketplace of ideas,” McCloskey writes, “is a socialism of ideas.” Or an aristocracy of ideas, which amounts to the same thing.

The break from the aristocracy of ideas began with talk, much of it in the new coffeehouses of the late 1600s. “It is the habits of the lip that shape the habits of the mind and heart,” McCloskey writes. “Rhetoric therefore is fundamental. We can know the rhetoric of an age, the habits of the lip, by reading its literary and other written products.”

In Bourgeois Equality, McCloskey pays much more attention to words than numbers. In her hands, for example, Daniel Defoe’s pathbreaking novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) becomes an example of a commoner who demonstrates a “prudent calculation of costs and benefits” as he scavenges items from his wrecked ship. She also has a whole chapter on the word “honest,” and how it changed from its aristocratic meaning, “honorably high-class,” to its modern meaning, “truthful.”

The economic payoffs from elite science came later. The method of science, in McCloskey's view, is what mattered first.

Others have written that economic development has cultural roots. David Landes, for example, wrote in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), “Culture makes all the difference . . . What counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity.” Which at any point in time is true enough. McCloskey’s take is to specify that it is the attitude toward these things — “the rhetoric people presently find persuasive” — that comes first.

Can rhetoric really be more important than law and institutions? Yes, she says: “There is nothing weird or scary or unscientific or self-contradictory about claiming that rhetoric matters.”

As a Christian, McCloskey makes a few jabs at fellow libertarians who don’t care about the poor. She does care. She is accepting of the welfare state, as long as it stays within reasonable bounds. Her concern is that political, cultural, and economic life remain open to innovation, and always with that egalitarian regulator: a market test. Innovation should not mean giving power to experts and elites. “Engineers,” she writes, “are full of bad ideas, too.”

So are some economists and historians. Read Bourgeois Equality, and give it the market test.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World," by Deirdre McCloskey. University of Chicago Press, 2016, 787 pages.



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Gas Expands!

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An amazing and welcome development has been achieved. As the Wall Street Journal just reported, for the first time in six decades, America exported more natural gas than it imported. It has once again become a net exporter of natural gas, and this new export sector will grow rapidly.

The net export volume is starting modestly: in November we exported 7.4 billion cubic feet (BCF) per day, while still importing 7.0 BCF per day. But no one doubts that from this modest start the volume of exports will grow. American gas exports have gone up by 50% over the past six years, and the Energy Department projects that we will be the third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 2020 — behind only Australia and Qatar. Citigroup estimates that by 2020 the US will be supplying to the rest of the world about 20% of the natural gas it produces.

No one doubts that from this modest start the volume of natural gas exports will grow.

To cite one example of success: Cheniere Energy opened a facility in the Sabine Pass (on the border of Texas and Louisiana). It was originally intended to import LNG, but the fracking revolution so decreased the price of natural gas that the plant was quickly “reverse-designed” to export it. Since February, when the plant started shipments of LNG, its output has grown to an average of 1.5 BCF exported per day. Not surprisingly, Cheniere is expanding the Sabine Pass plant rapidly, and will open more export facilities over the next two years.

Three years ago, the Freeport LNG facility at Quintana Island, Texas, got approval to export LNG, and it will begin exporting massive quantities of LNG in two years. Next year, Dominion Resources will start exporting LNG to India and Japan.

The only way this US export industry won’t grow is if the government — intentionally or by simple bungling — stops it.

So this trend toward America becoming the dominant reliable supplier of LNG for the whole damn planet will not just continue — it will accelerate. Thank you again, free market: remarkably shrewd private individuals, acting primarily out of self-interest, came up with a way — fracking — to make domestic oil and natural gas plentiful again, and plentiful indefinitely. Government subsidized losers — technologies such as wind and solar energy — but the free market found the efficient answer.

In fact, the only way this US export industry won’t grow is if the government — intentionally or by simple bungling — stops it. The progressive liberal Democrats hate fracking, of course. Obama did everything he could to impede it — such as taking an unprecedented amount of land out of public use — although most of the land upon which fracking operations are happening is private. Hillary Clinton repeatedly stated her total opposition to fracking (not to mention coal), which likely was a major factor in her ignominious loss to Donald Trump.

Speaking of Trump, he may ironically set back the natural gas export boom brought by fracking. For while he certainly claims to support it, the largest customers of our natural gas are, outside of ourselves, our NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Together they are buying a record high of our total output. But Trump — a populist to the core — hates free trade, and has targeted NAFTA as a “bad deal” for America. His bungling trade policy could well get us into trade wars with the very countries that could become our biggest future energy export markets.




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President Blunderbuss

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I have a confession to make. Some of our readers won’t like it. In other quarters, it might lose me friends. But even though I didn’t vote for Donald Trump — in fact, I argued in these pages for a Libertarian vote — I’m glad he won.

On election day, I was downcast. All the self-proclaimed experts predicted a big win for Hillary Clinton. Under the current and blessedly soon-to-be-past Democratic administration, my financial prospects lurched from bad to worse. I wasn’t sure where I’d be after four to eight years of the Queen Presumptive’s rule.

Then came that rollercoaster evening of election returns. As more and more of the mainstream media’s pundits beat their breasts and wept, my mourning turned to gladness. Or, at the very least, to relief. The lesser of two evils may indeed, as the maxim says, still be an evil. But unlike the evil of a Hillary Clinton presidency, this one is unlikely to destroy our country.

On Facebook, I am happy to have many libertarian friends. Some, like me, are happy that Trump will be the next president. Others thunder that they warned us not to sully ourselves by voting, and that even rooting from the sidelines for either of the contending “Republicrats” gave aid and comfort to aggression. That being a thing to which any good libertarian must, by ironclad principle, stand opposed.

Well, I frankly disagree. In fact, I think these folks would do well to reexamine our cherished nonaggression principle in the cold light of present reality. Certainly it opposes the initiation of force against others. But it accords us every right to self-defense.

Do I want thugs to break into my house and brutalize and rob me? That’s what the Democrats have done for the past eight years. It’s what they would undoubtedly have continued to do, if the coronation of Hillary Clinton had gone on according to plan.

By every sane interpretation of the nonaggression principle, if I am sitting peacefully in my living room recliner, and thugs break through my door, I have every right to grab my gun. Now, my weapon of choice happens to be a Lady Smith .357 Magnum. But that particular Lady didn’t happen to run for president this year.

The weapon that ran, and won, is more of a blunderbuss. Donald Trump is noisy, crude, and uncouth. His buckshot singes the whiskers of everybody near him — friend as well as foe. When he takes aim, though he usually hits his target, it’s seldom with great precision. But in a pinch, when our backs are against the wall and our enemies are closing in, a blunderbuss is a mighty good thing to have handy.




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Manna from Heaven

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When we talk of economics, we often do it by means of labels and mantras. Discussing economic subjects in this way means that we do not fully discuss them; we just use words and phrases that suggest preconceived notions. I think this is because economics is predominantly political, and “political” is another way of saying “snake oil sales.”

One mantra that I often hear is people’s invocation of a Robin Hood morality, the morality of robbing Peter to pay Paul: Robin Hood cared for the poor downtrodden (Paul) with the wealth he stole from the fat cats (Peter). What is ignored about this fairy tale is that Peter is the lord of the land who uses his governmental authority to confiscate the property of Paul, the peasants. Robin is a hero because he fights the totalitarian government of Peter to return confiscated wealth to oppressed taxpayers.

What got me thinking about the labels that political commentators use in discussing economics was Hillary Clinton’s assertion that Donald Trump’s plan to cut taxes in order to revive the economy was just “Trumped up trickle-down.” “Trickle-down” is the label often used by the political enemies of leaving wealth in the hands of CEOs and others of corporate administrative rank. The “trickle-down” label comes from the idea that these people spend the wealth hiring workers to construct whatever their companies’ products may be. Thus, wealth “trickles down” from the wealthy administrators to the needy workers.

Robin Hood is a hero because he fights the totalitarian government to return confiscated wealth to oppressed taxpayers.

But what is the government’s economic system of high taxes and “wealth redistribution”? In its intention, the wealth redistribution system is also trickle-down. In this system, government takes the place of corporate administration. It accumulates wealth — by taxation. This wealth is then supposed to trickle down to the subjects of the government, by means of redistribution programs. So, why is trickle-down bad when wealth trickles down from company administration, but good when it trickles down from government?

The feudal system that I mentioned when talking about Robin Hood was actually a wealth redistribution system. But in such systems, does wealth really trickle down? “Trickle-down” is appropriate to the sales pitch used by politicians when they claim that they intend to do such things as pay for infrastructure, education, and retirement. However, the wealth redistribution system is, in fact, trickle-out. “Trickle-out” means that the government takes wealth from its subjects and distributes it to its preferred lobbyists. Think military contractors, Elon Musk, and Planned Parenthood. Those are a few examples. Does the wealth ever get back to the subjects? Well, some does, but the amount that the subjects get is inversely proportional to the number of lobbyists who get some of the wealth before it makes its way back.

Politicians claim the place of God: they sell themselves as all-powerful beings that you need to take care of you.

The lobbyists and their clients reward the government by giving back some of the loot they received, prompting politicians to increase their take by selling more and more “economic stimuli” to the public, as if they were actually providing some kind of free food.

In the book of Exodus, God gives the children of Israel a miraculous food called manna, which is meant to sustain them on their journey out of servitude to the king of Egypt. In the modern form of this story, politicians claim the place of God: they sell themselves as all-powerful beings that you need to take care of you. They prefer this story about themselves to the reality of “trickle-down,” which is how we truly get our bread from heaven. In every light rain, water trickles down from above; this water is the food for plants, and thus the origin of our daily bread. And I think this is why politicians hate trickle-down economics: our food comes from sources beyond their control. This kind of economics dethrones them from their delusion of almighty power; and it exempts us — if we reflect on it — from our dependency on them.




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