What Do You Make of This?

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Years since the war in Afghanistan began: 17

Percentage of Afghanistan currently controlled or contested by the Taliban (most favorable estimate to the US): 44

Years since the war on drugs began: 104

Percentage of Americans 12 years of age or older who use illegal drugs (2016 estimate): 10.6

Years since the war on poverty began: 54

Money so far expended on the war on poverty (2014 estimate): $22 trillion

Percentage of Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 13

Percentage of African Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 22

National debt, 1970, as percentage of GDP: 35

National debt, 2017, as percentage of GDP: 104

Years served in the House of Representatives (5 samples):

  • Don Young, (R-AK): 45
  • Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI): 39
  • Steny Hoyer (D-MD, minority whip of the House): 37
  • Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, minority leader of the House): 31
  • Maxine Waters (D-CA): 27

Years served in the Senate (5 samples):

  • Patrick Leahy (D-VT): 43
  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT): 41
  • Mitch McConnell (Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., R-KY, majority leader of the Senate): 33
  • Diane Feinstein (D-CA): 26
  • Patty Murray (D-WA): 25

Total years of service of politicians just mentioned: 347

Members of Congress proficient in practical mathematics: no known instances




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When You’re Right, You’re Right!

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I confess that I have been highly critical of our current president — as I was with the previous two. But as with them, I try to recognize when the right thing is done. So this is a shoutout to The Boss, our dear leader Trump. Trump has recognized a problem, and even suggested a way to deal with it.

The problem is that eternal boondoggle, that bureaucracy of a billion lives, the US Postal Service. If there is any business that should have been should have been blown away by the gales of creative destruction long ago, it is the post office. Really, who needs it in an internet-based world?

Of course, it is only its own employees who need it. The American Postal Workers Union, and the large number of past workers now drawing pensions, desperately want the Jurassic agency to keep going, and taxpayers must shell out billions of dollars a year to keep it going — $2.7 billion last year alone. While in theory the agency operates on its own separate budget, any shortfalls are covered by not funding the pension fund, which is entirely the responsibility of the Federal Government — i.e., you and me — to pay.

Really, who needs the US Postal Service in an internet-based world?

All this is borne so that the Post Office can keep distributing junk mail — advertising to homes not interested in reading the stuff — and delivering packages for bargain rates for Amazon and the other million retail companies that are doing business online.

Trump, after accusing the USPS of giving Amazon in particular “sweetheart pricing,” has now proposed that the USPS be reorganized, with the eventual goal of privatizing it, as postal services in other countries have been privatized. Trump has convened a commission that will review this idea next month.

The procedure would be to reorganize the agency to allow it to demonstrate that it can be profitable. This would probably involve cutting down the days it delivers, centralizing its delivery locations, and permitting it to charge higher rates and offer different services. It could then be sold off to become a private-investor-owned utility still subject to government regulation.

Bezos is a self-made man, unlike Trump, who built his fortune on the one his father gave him.

Trump is right, of course. And such is my admiration for his insight (in this case) that I want to offer him some helpful advice. No, please don’t thank me — it is merely my patriotic duty.

My suggestion grows out of his own words, and the facts about the target of his ire, Amazon, as explored in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. In one of his infinity of tweets, Trump attacked Amazon for allegedly using the USPS as “their delivery boy,” and getting USPS services at artificially low rates. He followed this up by ordering an audit of the Amazon-USPS business dealings. Now, it must be admitted that Trump seems to hate the owner of Amazon — one Jeff Bezos. The reasons are a bit obscure, but seem to boil down to three facts about Bezos that must infuriate The Boss. First, Bezos owns the Washington Post, which has routinely criticized Trump. Second, Bezos is about 25 times richer than Trump, who is so arrogant about his wealth. Finally, Bezos is a self-made man, unlike the Boss, who built his fortune on the one his father gave him.

As the article documents, it is certainly true that Amazon ships about half of the more than 1.2 billion packages it sends through the USPS. And if Trump gets rates to go up by a buck a package, it would cost Amazon about $1.8 billion in extra costs. However, few analysts believe that the USPS is losing money on Amazon’s business — indeed, that business (and the business the USPS does with the other retailers, such as Walmart, Target, and Costco) is a net benefit to the USPS. No, what is causing the losses for the USPS is the near extinction of first-class mail (brought about by the rise of email and online banking), plus the aforementioned Postal Workers union, which makes the firing of redundant or incompetent employees very difficult. Oh, and add, as a dead loss, the Federal Government itself, which allows members of Congress to mail their propaganda back home to the voters for free.

Amazon would probably outbid everyone else and wind up with the whole enchilada.

Amazon has been working furiously on building its own shipping outfit, “Shipping With Amazon.” The aim of this new captive shipping company is to deal with the spectacular growth of Amazon’s retail operations. The number of packages that Amazon ships annually has doubled over the last 5 years, and the projected growth exceeds what the current major players (UPS, Fed Ex, and USPS) can handle.

Amazon’s proprietary shipping arm already has more than 70 delivery centers, owns 7,500 tractor-trailers, leases more than 35 aircraft, and is expanding into ocean freight. It spends about 13.2% of its overall revenues, or about $22 billion, on shipping costs. Shipping With Amazon already delivers in dozens of American cities. And it is inviting entrepreneurs to set up small delivery companies that will be independent contractors for Amazon, leasing 20 to 40 Amazon vans, and allowing the drivers to use uniforms with its grey and blue logo. Amazon has started a service called “Flex” along the lines of Uber and Lyft, which allow private citizens to deliver its packages, and also contracts with many of the small delivery companies that exist in larger cities.

The taxpayers’ obligations to this enormous, rentseeking mob would be mitigated by the proceeds of the sale.

So here is a suggestion that The Boss — who views himself as an iconoclastic thinker — should consider. Why not simply and immediately offer up the USPS for sale to the highest bidder? My thinking is that Amazon would probably outbid everyone else and wind up with the whole enchilada. At that point, the postal employees would be Amazon’s problem, and it could make them productive by any means necessary. We might allow the USPS — now owned by Amazon — to keep its monopoly on first-class delivery for one year, only. Meanwhile, it would be allowed to expand into any business it felt it could profit from. For example, it could set up an actual bank, to expand its already large banking operations (such as the issuing of postal money orders).

To sweeten the deal for the postal workers, the president’s friends could put into the bill that authorizes the sale of the USPS the key clause that all proceeds from the sale would be put into a separate, locked-up pool of index stock funds reserved for the payment of Postal Employees pensions. The taxpayers’ obligations to this enormous, rentseeking mob would be mitigated by the proceeds of the sale — and capped.

Let’s hope the Boss follows this suggestion.




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The Debate About the Court

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Confirmation of a Supreme Court justice is a circus disguised as a graduate seminar. But amid all the pseudointellectual parading and posturing, there are real principles of constitutional interpretation at stake. From a libertarian point of view, I think that four basic schools of interpretation can be identified, each with its attractive and unattractive results.

1. The originalist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted according to the “original intent” of its writers. Predictably, the results are most attractive to libertarians where the freedoms explicitly mentioned in the Constitution (e.g., freedom of speech) are concerned, and least attractive where they are not (e.g., in most matters of local and state legislation).

2. The evolutionist or revisionist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted as “a living document” whose meanings constantly develop in accordance with judges’ attempts to “grapple with new conditions.” This is a very unattractive position for libertarians who want to preserve explicit constitutional rights (e.g., 2nd Amendment rights) from the social engineering of modern judges; it is more attractive to those concerned primarily with such contemporary issues as abortion and gay marriage.

Amid all the pseudointellectual parading and posturing, there are real principles of constitutional interpretation at stake.

3. The theoreticist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted, not according to its original intent, but according to its aboriginal principles, “the principles that inspired it.” For this school, the final meaning of the Constitution is found not in its words but in the theories that originally justified its words, and not in those theories as explicitly stated by, for instance, the words of John Locke, but in the system of ideas that can be found, undamaged by personal errors and contradictions, behind those words. Theoreticism sounds more abstruse than it is. It is an attempt to say that the framers worked with certain ideas of liberty; these ideas were their intellectual “intent”; and we must interpret their words as expressions of that intent, whether the words capture the whole of the intent or not. Theoreticism allows almost every constitutional controversy to result in a victory for traditional libertarian principles; it has therefore been very attractive to many libertarians. One of its unattractive features is that it allows judges with different ideas of “liberty” or the origins of “American ideas” to read the Constitution in that other light.

4. The proceduralist school is the dullest of all schools. It is not meant to be inspiring. It is meant to reduce the risk of constant judicial upheaval by demanding that judges follow orderly processes, paying due deference to stare decisis. We are hearing much of that principle these days, because modern liberals don’t want the Supreme Court to overturn past decisions that they favor. The decisions may have been reached hastily or arbitrarily, but if the results are favorable to what the liberals regard as liberty, they should stand. By the same token, conservatives challenge proceduralism — now. Proceduralism is a ball that anyone can kick. I imagine that few libertarians would want a Court that had no respect for precedent, continuity, and rules of judicial procedure; I also imagine that few libertarians would argue for the maintenance of decisions that they regard as contrary to their own theories, simply on grounds of precedent.

It would be absurd to read texts written by others without a governing respect for the authors’ choice of words.

In the battle over Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, all these schools of thought will be used and abused, though usually without reference to the names I have given them. It will be interesting to see what Kavanaugh does with them. It’s only fair, however, that I should state my own position. I am a supporter of the first school, the originalist.

Why? One reason is my belief that most of the rights that libertarians value are clearly and originally expressed in the words of the Constitution. Another reason is that I am a literary historian, and it would be absurd for me to read texts written by others without a governing respect for the authors’ choice of words, claiming that the texts mean something that their words don’t say.

But here’s where originalism is itself misinterpreted. Originalism is about interpreting what Hamilton called in Federalist No. 78 the “manifest tenor of the Constitution” — “manifest” meaning clearly evident in the original words. Originalism is about interpreting a document, not the psychology or social position or personal aims or philosophies of the authors. Shakespeare’s purpose was to make money, but King Lear is not about the importance of making money. Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott decision, thought that the authors of the Constitution, some of whom owned slaves, intended it only as a document for white people; unfortunately for him, that’s not what the document actually says.

A truly originalist reading would find little in the Constitution on which to base the vast and crushing edifice of the federal government.

To my mind, the best books on these subjects are still Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation, by E.D. Hirsch. You can see what you think of their arguments.

The originalist school of interpretation will be least attractive to libertarians who want to claim certain rights that are real enough but are not in the Constitution, or to accomplish ends that cannot be accomplished, right now, except through revisionist courts. I am thinking, for instance, about the death penalty, which has put constitutional interpretation farther from the manifest tenor of the authors’ words than anyone could possibly have imagined. If the death penalty is bad, an originalist would say, it would be worse to try to abolish it by revisionist interpretation.

The good thing for libertarians is that an originalist reading of the Constitution — a truly originalist reading — would find little in that document on which to base the vast and crushing edifice of the federal government. And that, of course, is why we will probably hear least about true originalism during the political debates about Judge Kavanaugh. If the debaters took it seriously, most of them would be out of a job.




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The Rod of Correction

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“I don’t want to find out one day that I’m at the end of someone else’s life.”
                                                  —Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), Out of Africa

I’ve been reevaluating my formerly rosy opinion of our nation’s youth. Over the past month, I have had to deal with millennial incompetence, indifference, and downright insolence on an almost daily basis. The effect it’s having on me isn’t pretty. Soon I will be sitting on the porch in my pajamas, brandishing my Lady Smith .38 special and shouting, “Get off my lawn!”

Just this week, I commiserated with a friend who’s my age. She and I were schoolmates from kindergarten through high school. We sat in the waiting room of my doctor’s office and grumped about those darned kids. Why are so many of them so irresponsible? And why do they — as Scripture would say — resist the rod of correction?

This news was delivered with fresh-faced innocence, as if such a snafu had been totally unavoidable.

Now, by “the rod of correction,” please be assured that I don’t mean my .38. I merely mean that many young people can’t stand criticism, however polite and constructive it might be. They appear incapable of making any connection between responsibility and potential improvement. To them, it seems to be a very nasty game of tag. At all cost, they want to avoid being “it."

My friend had driven me to my appointment for the first time several days before. We’d then been informed — only after our arrival — that the pretty young thing behind the desk had scheduled it for the one day of the week when the doctor was not in that office. This news was delivered with fresh-faced innocence, as if such a snafu had been totally unavoidable. When we returned for the rescheduled appointment, we were kept waiting for an hour and a half — this time with no explanation, and as if our annoyance were a major cross to bear. By then I had lost all confidence that things would turn out right this time, and couldn’t bring myself to believe I’d actually see the doctor until she and I were face to face.

A few days before my trip to the doctor with my friend, I called our local communications monopoly to cancel my telephone service. They informed me that for internet service alone, I would be charged over $90 a month. I complained about this, and asked the customer service rep to check and see if I might get a better rate. I don’t think I was especially harsh, but the little darling must not have liked my tone. While he had me on hold, he disconnected not only my telephone service — immediately — but also my call.

When he goes home to mother, perhaps she’ll sue the company.

Perhaps he believed he’d taught me a lesson, though I don’t know what it might have been. I called his supervisor on my cellphone and filed a complaint. She was a few decades older than the service rep. She readily agreed that his conduct had been unacceptable. Had I gotten yet another twenty-something, I probably would have been asked what I’d done to provoke it.

I don’t want to think too hard about the reaction the supervisor will get when she writes up the infraction. The service rep may take an early retirement in tears. When he goes home to mother, perhaps she’ll sue the company. I’m sure I’ll be accused of having done grave damage to his self-esteem. No one in his little world is likely to wonder why his self-esteem is so fragile in the first place.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that he could have simply gotten back on the line, told me that no specials or discounts were available, and had an end to the transaction. I would have been unhappy, but not unpleasant. It was what I expected to hear, but because I have to work for my money, I thought it worthwhile to ask. He evidently thought the danger that I might react unhappily too horrible a prospect to face.

Without the ability and willingness to take individual responsibility, no human being has any real power at all.

From a millennial’s perspective, I have two strikes against me. I am a middle-aged woman — a creature who, I can attest from my own years in customer service, is notoriously feisty. I am also a libertarian. Combine those traits and you get someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Of the political philosophies in currency today, only ours makes the connection between personal responsibility and power. We tend to see responsibility, in other words, not as a bad thing, but as at least a potentially good one. With responsibility comes the ability to learn, to change course, and to grow. Without the ability and willingness to take individual responsibility, no human being has any real power at all.

In shielding young people from accountability, parents and authority figures have done them no favors. Blame is treated like a hot potato — or a hand grenade. Feeling bad is not considered a possible prelude to feeling better. It’s avoided as if it were a deadly disease.

Deep down, they know they have no power over anything. Nor is their generation the only one wearing such shackles.

Young people today give every indication that they feel not only blameless, but powerless. For all their strut and bravado about taking power, their very vulnerability attests to the fact that deep down, they know they have no power over anything. Nor is their generation the only one wearing such shackles. Their parents — and often, grandparents — are similarly entrapped.

These trusting souls, of all ages, must believe that it’s nice of the mainstream media, and all those kindhearted politicians and academic experts, to tell them what to think and how to feel. It seems to relieve them of having to think, or to interpret their feelings, for themselves. Apparently they never ask themselves whether those who tell them what to think and how to feel have undertaken this task out of the goodness of their hearts.

They couldn’t possibly have an ulterior motive. It couldn’t be that they want power and control for themselves. For suspecting such a thing, I must definitely be a cranky old lady and a crazy libertarian. But as I inch nearer to the end of my life, I don’t need to worry that I’ll find myself at the end of anyone else’s.




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What I Learned from My Paper Route

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“Where have all the paperboys gone?” asked a subhead in a must-read Reason magazine cover story by Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt published last December, provocatively entitled: “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed.”

I had a paper route, from age ten to almost my 16th birthday. It was a remarkably valuable experience. In fact, it probably taught me more about myself, money, people, and business than anything I learned in grade school, high school, and college combined.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that everything I needed to know I learned as a paperboy — to paraphrase the title of a popular mid-’80s self-help book by Robert Fulghum, in his case extolling life lessons supposedly learned in kindergarten.

My paper route probably taught me more about myself, money, people, and business than anything I learned in grade school, high school, and college combined.

I learned what I was — reliable, diligent, deadline-oriented. And what I wasn’t — a natural-born salesman, a driven entrepreneur.

I ran a small business (more of a micro-business, actually). Six days a week, rain or shine, in snow or 110-degree summer heat, I delivered between 50 and 70-odd copies of the Redding Record Searchlight to my customers in my hometown in far northern California.

For starters, the papers that arrived every afternoon in a bundle on my driveway gave me an interest in current events. I read the headlines on the front page as I rolled the papers, and my hands turned black from the ink.

I was an independent contractor. At the end of every month I went door to door trying to collect from my subscribers. When I started, I think the paper was $1.75 a month and maybe $2.50 by the time I gave up the route.

One of the biggest deadbeats on my route — a surprise to me — was a well-to-do doctor who had a house with a pool.

The first money — the easy money — that I collected went to pay the paper for my product. The harder money to collect — which often required multiple trips to the homes and apartments of my customers — was my profit.

Apartment-dwelling college students frequently skipped town without settling up with me first. One of the biggest deadbeats on my route — a surprise to me — was a well-to-do doctor who had a house with a pool. It would sometimes take four visits before he’d answer the door, and then he’d either tell me to come back or make a big deal about scrounging for change to pay me.

But I’m not complaining. I was the richest kid in the neighborhood. Other kids had allowances; I had real money.

And that made me sort of popular. Neighborhood kids would often ask me to go to the local burger joint, and I’d usually end up paying. Over time it made me a bit cynical about money and friendships.

I had a bank account with almost a thousand dollars in it when I finally quit the route. And that was after buying a bicycle or two, a .22 rifle, and a lot of fishing gear.

I learned early on that cold-calling and rejection weren’t my thing.

I always had enough as a kid, and I’ve always had enough since. Never felt greedy or driven to get a lot more.

The local TV station and the high school were part of my route, as well as an apartment building. But I soon learned that people who lived in apartments were risky customers. And I learned early on that cold-calling and rejection weren’t my thing.

I could’ve probably sold more papers to the TV station if I’d contacted the reporters, news director, and ad salesmen directly, but one copy, delivered every afternoon to the receptionist, seemed enough. Ditto the high school, where I might have sold copies to teachers or even a whole civics class. But I wasn’t a hustler.

Besides not being terribly ambitious I was lackadaisical about doing my books — meaning matching my inventory to my customer count. I often had extra papers, which of course I had to pay for. But even at that I made $50 or $75 a month. Who needed more?

So I wasn’t surprised when, as an adult, I never went into sales, never worked on commission, never went into business for myself. That was all right by me. I knew it wasn’t who I was inside.

Adults took over that job in most places years ago. Motor routes were a much more efficient way to deliver papers.

That said, I have huge admiration for entrepreneurs who risk everything on an idea, bet on themselves and work however long and hard it takes, fail more often than not, and then do it again.

And as it turned out, I was ambitious and strategically entrepreneurial in my career. All that newsprint must have gotten into my blood. I had a journalism career that included stints as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo and then as a reporter and bureau chief at Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, before I left to do public relations work for Hawaiian Electric Industries in Honolulu and the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington D.C. I ended up in management, running a D.C.-based association of state securities regulators before retiring and returning to work, again, on my hometown newspaper.

I feel bad that kids today don’t have the opportunity that I had to have a paper route. But adults took over that job in most places years ago. Motor routes were a much more efficient way to deliver papers.

And now many newspapers — like the one in my hometown, where I got my start as a copyboy and cub reporter while still in high school — are facing extinction. Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” at work.

Looking back at it now, I’m grateful to have been a paperboy and for all the lessons it taught me. It was the highlight of my childhood.

And at least I didn’t have to get a government permit, like the kids these days with lemonade stands.




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