What So Fulsomely We Hail

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“It’s so insane,” said Sean Hannity at the start of his May 16 TV show, “there’s so much news; we’ll try to get it into an hour.” He followed this protest against the constraints of time with a summary of what he planned to say in his “opening monologue,” which itself turned out to be a summary of what was going to happen still later in the show: “we’ll have more of that in just a second.” His insane, or at least cockeyed, attempt to outline his remarks lasted 13 minutes, about one-third of the show’s noncommercial time.

Hannity is perhaps the biggest timewaster in “public life.” He is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question. If he seems to ask a question and they try to answer it, he breaks in to let them know what he would say if anyone put the question to him. The processional and recessional to every segment of these agonizing conversations is a list of the top ten crimes of the Democratic Party, often interrupted by the reminder that he’s “said this again and again.” Hannity could easily get the news into an hour, but there aren’t enough hours in anybody’s day for whatever he thinks he’s doing.

The subject of this month’s column is extras, add-ons, timewasters, and verbal extensions of all kinds. If you like today’s political and cultural discourse, you should be grateful for these things, because without them, that discourse would hardly exist.

Sean Hannity is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You’ve probably heard the famous story about Calvin Coolidge, who was noted for his brevity. Someone told him that she thought she could get him to say more than two words in response to her, and he replied, “You lose.” This story has taken many forms, in some of which the woman is Dorothy Parker, the writer. That is certainly untrue. What is true is that the story first appeared in public in a speech delivered at a lunch at which Coolidge was present, and that Coolidge immediately denied it. Whether he did so with a twinkle in his eye is not recorded, but I want to think he did, because this probably false anecdote is the only thing that many people know about him, and they like it.

We all like brevity — in other people. We feel, perhaps, that their verbal restraint gives us more time to babble, and that couldn’t be bad. But there is still the problem of how to hold their attention, or at least to make ourselves feel that we do.

Lord Chesterfield, in his immortal letters on social decorum, gives this advice to his son (October 19, 1748):

Talk often, but never long: in that case, if you do not please, at least you are sure not to tire your hearers. . . .
Never hold anybody by the button or the hand, in order to be heard out; for, if people are not willing to hear you, you had much better hold your tongue than them.

We no longer hold unwilling listeners by the button — partly because Chesterfield’s letters helped to improve people’s manners — but we have many other means of coercing attention. One is by being elected to public office. Every public official, from the president to the village chief of police, has or believes he has the right to talk a hundred times longer than he ought to.

We all like brevity — in other people.

How many times has your TV or radio enjoyment been interrupted by a press conference at which a police department spokesman introduces the officer in charge of the investigation, who introduces the chief of police, who elaborately thanks the mayor, sheriff, fire chief, county director of emergency services, and several other microphone-attracted worthies, not forgetting special words for all first responders, whether involved or not, and then, having congratulated them for their incredible and unbelievable performance, slowly reviews information already reported, finally refusing to answer any questions — because, after all, the episode is under investigation?

And how many times have you tuned into a congressional hearing on some issue of real importance (I know, that’s narrowing it down a bit), only to be treated to hours of partisan orations, pretending to be questions? If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will be so swathed in verbiage that it goes nowhere.

How do these people get elected? How do they get nominated? And why is Hannity, Baron of Blowhards, Prince of Pish-Posh, one of the most popular people on television? Even politicians have to compete for an audience, and these people succeeded. How?

If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will go nowhere.

The explanation is that some people who could never be held by a button are easily held by an attitude. They feel comforted by existential affinity. The rule of novel writing has always been: if they like 200 pages of this stuff, they’ll like 800 pages better — even if it’s pointless background, meaningless subplot, and purely rhetorical conversation. You may not care what happens to the Joad family, but people who do care, or feel they should care, don’t mind that The Grapes of Wrath is four times longer than it needs to be. They don’t need to be persuaded; they like it already.

In the same way, there are people who leap out of bed in the morning, eager for the endlessly repeated shriekings of The View, and cannot go to sleep at night without the endlessly repeated inanities of Stephen Colbert. I know an intelligent person who thinks that Hillary Clinton is “a brilliant public speaker.” Someone else I know claims that President Trump “goes right to the heart of things.” In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.

Such elective affinities have always been important. But at some times in human history there has been a general belief that a serious public utterance should have a broader appeal — an appeal, perhaps, to taste and insight. That’s not true of our time. Today the great controversial documents are hideous bores, sickening bores, Satanic bores — from Clinton’s speeches to Trump’s speeches to (worst of all) Bernie Sanders’ speeches, and finally to the recent work of Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz (and others), elaborately entitled A Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election. Already you can see that the authors have no trouble piling up words. They also seem to know that if you pile them high enough, no one will be able to find the topic. Which would be a problem, if that were your purpose — to discuss your topic. If not, so much the better. Reading that title, who would think the report had anything to do with the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails?

In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.

And who would think that people wanted to read it to find out whether the FBI conducted a biased investigation of Clinton? That’s the question everybody wanted the report to answer — but if you have enough words, you don’t need to answer anything.

The document frequently refers to bias, but this is the way it does it:

There were clearly tensions and disagreements in a number of important areas between [FBI] agents and prosecutors. However, we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative decisions we reviewed in Chapter Five, or that the justifications offered for these decisions were pretextual. (p. iii)

Pretextual? Where have you ever seen that word before? Does it have anything to do with those monkeys that hang by their tails? And speaking of animals, how do you decode that elephantine passage about “tensions and disagreements” and not finding “documentary or testimonial evidence” that bias “directly affected . . . specific [as opposed to nonspecific] investigative decisions”? I think it means that nobody wrote or spoke a confession about having made a biased decision. When you take the pillows off, this is a hard bed to lie in. Nobody ever takes out a piece of paper and writes, as testimonial evidence, “I let Hillary off the hook because I wanted to throw the election to her.”

But Horowitz may be smarter than he sounds. He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement. So, nine pages later, we discover this passage, buried in another mountain of words:

[W]hen one senior FBI official, [Peter] Strzok, who was helping to lead the Russia investigation at the time, conveys in a text message to another senior FBI official, [Lisa] Page, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it” in response to her question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”, it is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice. (p. xii)

Were you expecting the second half of that amazingly long series of words to say, “this indicates that the two investigations were biased”? Didn’t the first half reveal the documentary or testimonial evidence of biased investigation? But no, the second half identifies only a biased state of mind (which is evidently quite different from simple, two-syllable bias) and a mere willingness to take official action to impact the prospects. The climactic revelation is that this willingness was antithetical to the FBI’s core values. Well! I am so shocked! Who woulda thunk it?

He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement.

One of my favorite sayings is something I heard from a local preacher. He said he was a strong supporter of the First Amendment, because it lets “everyone talk long enough to show how much of a fool he is.” That’s the problem with piling up words, isn’t it? And that’s what we see in the official response of the FBI to the inspector general’s report. Here’s a highlight:

No evidence of bias or other improper considerations was found by the OIG in the [FBI’s] team’s: use of consent, rather than subpoenas, search warrants, or other legal process to obtain evidence; decisions regarding how to limit consent agreements; decision [sic] not to seek personal devices from former Secretary Clinton’s senior aides; decisions to enter into immunity agreements; decisions regarding the timing and scoping [sic] of former Secretary Clinton’s interview, or to proceed [did anyone proofread this?] with the interview with Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson present; and, the decision to obtain testimony and other evidence from Ms. Mills and Ms. Samuelson by consent agreement and with act-of-production immunity.

No evidence, then, except for this and that, and OK, there was also that, and then there’s that other thing. . . . Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.

But they have plenty of competition in official circles. You don’t have to live in Washington; you don’t have to be writing 500-page reports; you can be a blowhard without leaving the provinces, and in only a few ill-chosen words.

Here’s a typical political utterance, from some California potentate grabbing a mike to emit a series of sounds. This person is an advocate of “Title 10,” about which he states: “Title 10 has been a lifeline for about four million Americans in this country.” Never mind what Title 10 is. Never mind that “lifeline” is an image without a fact or definition, and therefore pointless. Never mind that politicians’ statistics are never right, and known never to be right. The idea is simply to make a sentence by throwing things into it. Length equals substance.

Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.

Consider the speaker’s time-wasting substitute for “people”: Americans in this country. (As distinguished from Americans outside this country.) Americans, of course, is better than people, because it drags in the conservative, nationalist attitude to complement the modern-liberal, throw-out-the-lifeline notion. But why in this country? One reason is that about 25 years ago leftist politicians started adding that phrase to every critique they made of America, as in, “There are 30 million people without health insurance in this country.” It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them. This phrase flourished so mightily that even conservatives now use it, and use it as obsessively as the liberals, and with no hint of satire or, indeed, of any purpose except maintaining a continuous sound. It’s an all-purpose timewaster, one of many phrases useful for bogarting air time: due diligence, first priority, path forward, moving forward, going forward, up for grabs, risk their lives for us every day, 20-20 hindsight, what’s at stake for us as a nation, dear to us as a nation, our values as a nation, never before in our nation’s history, revisit the issue, only time will tell, remains to be seen, nation of immigrants, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, tough road [sic] to hoe, thank you for your service. It’s there to take up space, to keep any other sounds from breaking in, to hold you by the button.

The dumbest of time wasters is the immemorial ya know, still popular after all these years and, I’m sorry to hear, even more popular than it was 20 years ago, when it was the chief verbal identifier of teenagers and illiterate sports figures. Now it’s everywhere.

The host of a morning talk show on one of my local radio stations recently lavished an hour on an interview with a young woman whom he identified as a former assistant superintendent of the school district. She was following up on a mother’s complaint about alleged mistreatment of her handicapped son by a special education teacher. I was stuck in traffic and got to hear almost all of this. Only my sense of duty as a reporter on linguistic developments kept me from turning it off, or killing myself in despair. The commercials were bliss compared with the interview — because of ya know.

It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them.

I couldn’t tell whether the ex-superintendent’s charges were justified. All my available energy was required just to figure out what she was saying — an attempt in which I failed. She was incapable of narrating any events that took place outside her head. She harped on how she felt, how greatly she was outraged, how greatly she continued to be outraged. She had innumerable ways of repeating her outrage. But what had happened? The host tried to lead her into saying what had happened by summarizing part of the story, but she refused to take the hint. Nevertheless, with the aid of “ya know” she talked continually. There was at least one “ya know” in every sentence, and usually more than one. Some sentence-like bits of debris consisted almost entirely of that phrase. I estimated that by the time I reached my destination she had used “ya know” about 400 times. This is a person whose profession is teaching, who once supervised and presumably trained teachers, and who made no mention of being fired because she was judged to be inarticulate. She was obviously hired despite that disability. What, I wondered, were the speech habits of the person who did not get the job?

Well, maybe that person is now in Congress. If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long. Faced with the choice of point in time or point or time, you always select point in time. No one has to guess whether you’ll say use or utilize; naturally, it will be utilize. Between single and singular, you will infallibly choose the longer one. And now you’re giving us fulsome instead of full.

The ubiquitous Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) may not have originated this brain-dead attempt to make full still fuller, but he popularized it. About May 4, before Horowitz published his report, Gowdy admonished him, “It is of the utmost importance that your review be as fulsome, complete and unimpeded as possible.” As you see, Gowdy is almost as good at this stuff as Horowitz. One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three: complete, unimpeded, full. And one syllable would be enough for full, but that must have sounded hasty, so he turned it into two syllables: fulsome. Unluckily, that word is not synonymous with full, and is almost always derogatory: “fulsome kisses” come to mind, as do William Congreve’s “fulsome lies and nauseous flattery.”

If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long.

Well, so Gowdy made a mistake one time. No, he didn’t. On May 11, on Tucker Carlson’s show, he repeated this illiteracy, twice, burbling about his expectations for a “fulsome report,” a report that would present a “fulsome picture.”

By June 7, Department of Justice hacks, who are Gowdy’s political enemies, had caught his disease. On that day, Sara Carter reported on the DOJ’s constant slow-walking of documents to congressional committees:

[A] DOJ official said with regard to not providing the documents on Thursday, “Although the Department and FBI would have liked to provide this information as early as this week [I’ll bet they did], officials have taken a little additional time to provide the most fulsome answers to the members’ questions as possible.”

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Carter’s source is the one person in Washington who knows what “fulsome” means and is accurately describing the way officials write. Remember Congreve’s words about “fulsome lies.”

The final word, for this month, on officials’ determination to turn blah into blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah comes from the aforementioned Peter Strzok, the secret police agent who wrote of Trump’s presidency, “We’ll stop it.” Whatever you think of the sentiment, the expression showed admirable restraint and perspicuity.

One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three.

But when confronted by congressional investigators with the evidence that he had, at least once, said something brief and to the point, Strzok haughtily denied the charge, implying that anyone who found a simple and direct meaning in anything he said in an email had committed a misidentification of genre similar to confusing Hitchcock’s Vertigo with a hand-written sign reading “Watch Your Step”:

To suggest we can parse down the shorthand like they’re [sic] some contract for a car is simply not consistent with my or most people’s use of text messaging.

In the Clinton era, parse started to be used as an effete synonym for “figure out what the president’s sentences really mean.” Strzok put a new (to me) spin on the word: parse down. Let’s try to follow this. He believes that it’s wrong to take a simple statement and reduce what is already in “shorthand” until you get something that is like a contract for a car — which, as we know is a long, long, redundantly long document — thus discovering meanings that are not consistent with the generic expectations of text messagers.

In this case, the something was a translation of “we’ll stop it” into “we’ll stop it.”

With many strange words Strzok demanded that his simplest declarations be given a meaning so complicated that it could be reached only by refusing to parse down the shorthand, thus producing, by not parsing, the real message for which the shorthand stood — a message, I assume, of approximately 100,000 words.




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My “Me Too” Is a “Walk Away”

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Social media places a priority on joining. Not merely a particular platform, such as Twitter or Facebook, but the movements generated on them. Most of them, I prefer not to get behind. I’m really not much of a joiner. But every once in a while, there rises a tide so irresistible that I get swept along.

As I stated earlier on these pages, I have chosen to sit out the #MeToo craze. Though it had some validity, it has quickly become exactly that: crazy. Instead of providing a forum for women to stand up for themselves against lecherous brutes, it’s degenerated into a man-hating witch (or wizard) hunt. When it stopped making sense, I had to disassociate myself from it.

Then I discovered #WalkAway, the brainchild of a gay New York City hairdresser named Brandon Straka. This young man has become the unlikeliest of conservative heroes. Having been a liberal Democrat most of his adult life, he grew disillusioned with being treated like a slave on the “progressive” plantation. And in his exodus to freedom, he’s determined to bring as many other former slaves as possible along with him.

We’re tired of being told what to think and how to feel. Of being pandered to, then taken for granted.

Having listened to his YouTube video and read several of his interviews, I find myself agreeing with nearly everything Straka says. Actually, much of what he says, I have already been saying for a long time. No longer do I feel as if I were shouting into a vacuum. Though I’m a very libertarian conservative — actually more of a classical liberal — I have found a kindred spirit. And in the movement Straka has begun, I’ve joined a growing army of thousands more.

We’re tired of being told what to think and how to feel. Of being pandered to, then taken for granted. Of voting for people who do nothing for us. In fact, of being expected to support a political faction that — far worse than merely doing nothing — works against every cause it claims to support. As many in our ranks have observed, it isn’t so much that we have left the Left as that the Left has left us.

Like most of the others who have walked away from the regressive Left, I have values and core convictions that really haven’t changed. I still believe in equality — though I now realize that only equality of opportunity is achievable, whereas equality of outcome is impossible. As a lesbian, I still hold dear the principle of equal treatment for all under the law — though I reject identity politics and special favoritism. My conception of religious freedom is not narrower than that of social conservatives, but broader still. Both as a gay conservative and as a gay Christian, I refuse to leave unchallenged the lie — perpetuated by many on both Left and Right — that I do not exist, or that my conservatism or Christianity are any less real than anyone else’s.

It isn’t so much that we have left the Left as that the Left has left us.

This is not, it seems to me, a simple matter of “Left bad, Right good.” The seeds of both salvation and destruction can be found on both sides. What makes both sides dangerous — particularly in their big league political party forms — is their insatiable lust for power. Taken to its inevitable conclusion, that drive leads to totalitarian government and to enslavement of the human spirit.

I have changed my party affiliation from Democratic not to Republican, but to Libertarian. The fact that all the GOP has figured out for certain is how to win elections isn’t nearly enough to make me want to join that party. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the reasons why I don’t want to join them. Regardless of party label, however, I believe that when the best and brightest defect from Left to Right, it will only improve both conservatism and libertarianism.

Leaving the statist Left behind means departing from a narrow perspective into a broader universe of ideas. I’ve found, from others’ experience as well as my own, that it seldom means hopping from one tiny rock to another. The Left’s loss is a gain for the rest of the spectrum.

What makes both sides dangerous — particularly in their big league political party forms — is their insatiable lust for power.

If the only way to fight statist leftism is to totally defeat everyone who supports it, the political Right will fall (to an even wore degree than it already has) into corruption and decay. A struggle for power inevitably turns into a race to the bottom. Those who dream of total conquest wish to rule unchecked and unopposed. If, on the other hand, the Right is replenished with defectors from the other side, it will become stronger. It will also be improved in ways that, despite their necessity for its long-term survival, it would otherwise be disinclined to approve.

Any political movement that abandons its own principles deserves to die. Both liberals and conservatives — the genuine sort — are necessary to a healthy society, so we can’t afford to let either die. Those who walk away from modern liberalism are its only hope. And because we will hold the Right to actual standards, we may also be its best hope of survival.




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The Great Panic

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I have long been a fan of the Panic of 1893, which is the usual name for the great depression of the 1890s. When I say “great” I mean it is comparable by all available measures (business losses, unemployment, political turmoil) to the Great Depression of the 1930s — with two exceptions. First, the depression of the 1930s lasted for more than ten years, ending only with the start of the Second World War in Europe; the depression of the 1890s lasted less than half as long. Second, in the 1930s the federal government intervened massively to try to end the depression, whereas the government of the 1890s did as little as it could.

These two exceptions are closely related. In 1893 and after, President Grover Cleveland had the political and above all the intellectual courage to allow prices to sink until recovery could begin. He devoted his best efforts to stabilizing the dollar, so that sound money and real prices could beget confidence, and confidence could beget reinvestment. This happened. But in 1929 and after, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were guided by the economic ignorance and sheer quackery of their times (and ours); they intervened to keep prices up and bail out bad investments — using money, of course, extorted from the people who had made good investments. Roosevelt’s subsidies extended to the destructive political ideas of his time; he encouraged political action to fulfill the borderline-crazy terms of his first inaugural address, in which he announced:

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

The result was not only chronic political turmoil but a failure of reinvestment caused by a chronic absence of confidence in the nation’s economic and political prospects. Money, as R.W. Bradford used to say, wants to be invested, but it didn’t during the 1930s, when for a series of years there was actually “negative investment” in the economy.

In 1929 and after, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were guided by the economic ignorance and sheer quackery of their times (and ours).

So you see one reason why I am a fan of the depression of the 1890s — it provides clear and persuasive economic, political, and, if you will, spiritual lessons. But another reason is that the economic and political controversies of the 1890s are a lot of fun. Communism is dull stuff, no matter where it appears, and in the 1930s it manifested itself in remarkably dull, stupid, pompous, and oppressive forms. Compared with that, the nostrums of the 1890s are bright, delusive rays of sunshine. You just have to smile at Jacob Coxey’s plan to save the country by a complicated scheme for the federal government to print tons of paper money and use it to give free loans to local governments so they could create jobs in public building programs — a plan he implemented in the first of the great marches on Washington, the march of Coxey’s Army. The march culminated in Coxey’s arrest at the Capitol, for walking on the grass.

And who wouldn’t have fun trying to follow the logical permutations of the Free Silver idea, the notion that the American economy would be perfected if the federal government would simply produce unlimited quantities of silver dollars (and paper instruments representing them), priced at 16 silver dollars for one gold dollar, when the market price of a gold dollar was much higher than 16 silver dollars? This was a recipe for outrageous inflation, yet in 1896 it captured the Democratic Party and could have led to the election of the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, he of the stirring Cross of Gold speech:

You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

It’s a good speech, and some of the books and pamphlets written in favor of Free Silver are immensely clever complications of an argument that is clearly wrong but has a way of starting to look right if you don’t take a step backward and remind yourself of what it’s really about.

Compared with the remarkably dull, stupid, pompous, and oppressive forms of communism that manifested in the 1930s, the nostrums of the 1890s are bright, delusive rays of sunshine.

Now comes Bruce Ramsey, author of the book I am reviewing and — all cards on the table — senior editor of Liberty and a good friend of mine. Bruce is a tireless researcher of the events, theories, and movements of the 1890s. He knows their importance. He knows they reveal important truths about the ways in which economies function, and in which people function within them. And he knows they’re fun. The only problem is that the vast majority of Americans have simply forgotten about the depression of the 1890s. They forgot about it almost as soon as it was over. (I have an essay about this in Edward Younkins’ Capitalism and Commerce in Imaginative Literature [Lexington Books, 2015].) In the popular imagination, the decade of desperation was soon transformed into the Gay Nineties.

There aren’t a lot of good treatments of national politics and economics in the 1890s. Allan Nevins’ biography of Cleveland (1932) remains the best. And there are few decent treatments of the effects of the depression on individual men and women, in their local communities. That’s the vital part of the story that practically nobody knows. And that’s what Ramsey gives us in his brilliant new book about the state of Washington during the Panic.

In writing such a book, Ramsey faced one of the hardest challenges a writer of history can encounter. A straight-line narrative of national political and economic events would capture only part of the picture. So would an exclusive concern with one particular locality, such as Bruce’s home state, Washington. So would concentration on certain personalities, as in the cheap, tangential approach to history that one sees in the Ken Burns films. What Bruce needed to present was the full tapestry of local people and local events, rippling in the strong winds of national affairs; he needed to capture not only the big patterns but the individual figures in the tapestry, and he needed to show those ripples of history too. But he was equal to the challenge.

The vast majority of Americans have simply forgotten about the depression of the 1890s. They forgot about it almost as soon as it was over.

Bruce Ramsey is a quick but colorful narrator. He provides the pungent detail and the suggestive episode and then moves briskly onward to the next significant picture, whether it’s the portrait of an interesting man or woman, an array of statistics, a sketch of political developments nationwide, or a tale of something that’s too ridiculous to be true, but is. Did you know that in 1893 the Populist governor of Kansas tried to use the state militia to oust the Republicans (who happened to be in a majority) from the House of Representatives in Topeka? (If Dorothy wanted adventure, she could have stayed right in Kansas.) This absurd drama — one of many in Ramsey’s book — offers some perspective on the absurd politics of the present era. To say that Ramsey’s political narrative is entertaining is itself absurd; it’s an absurd understatement.

Here are thousands of stories, small in the number of words that Ramsey, a thrifty narrator, allots to each, but large in drama and implication. We see people who are found talking gibberish in darkened hotel rooms because their bank deposits of $256 had been lost to the panic. We see government officials who steal money, and lose it, and then escape to Argentina, or to a place off the coast of Washington called Tatoosh Island, thence to change identities and be discovered working as mowers in Idaho. We learn of a government official who is acquitted by a jury that doesn’t believe that bribery is against the law. We listen to a contractor for the Northern Pacific railway who says he “had put white men at work at $2 and gradually raised their wages to $2.50, although there was no time when [he] could not have employed Chinamen at 80 cents” (p. 51). We meet mayors who work in shingle mills because their cities can’t pay them a salary, and unionists who resort to riot and terror to keep their salaries from being cut.

The sheer number of stories that Ramsey tells is remarkable; still more remarkable is his unfailing ability to integrate them into larger contexts of meaning. Here’s one of the general patterns he sees. Businesses and banks that made it through this great depression often did so because they backed each other up. Seattle, where the spirit of cooperation was strong, suffered many fewer losses than such competing communities as Tacoma and Spokane. Seattle’s bankers went so far as to refuse deposits from people who had withdrawn them in panic from other banks. This was individual action, but it was mutually supportive. It was a kind of spontaneous order, and it often saved the day.

We see people who are found talking gibberish in darkened hotel rooms because their bank deposits of $256 had been lost to the panic.

Here’s another pattern. Led by President Cleveland, the federal government disclaimed responsibility for helping individuals — whether bankers or street sweepers — get out of their financial jam. Most public opinion seems to have backed him up. Newspapers in the Pacific Northwest counseled their readers to take responsibility for themselves — and above all not to hurt business by fleeing to some place with a marginally better economy. Their message was “stay here and keep pitching.” A Baptist potentate cautioned against giving money to the poor indiscriminately; this was “a selfish act, done to make the giver feel good” (83). Some local governments acted in what they regarded as the spirit of community and provided employment on public works projects, and some of them went broke doing it. But charity ordinarily began at home. As Ramsey observes, very perceptively, “In a world with little free public food, people tend to be generous with their private food” (93).

A darker side of community spirit was the almost universal feeling that if anyone was going to be without a job, it shouldn’t be someone white. Everywhere Asians were fired from jobs or prevented from getting any, and mobs formed to destroy Chinatowns throughout the region. It was only a temporary rescue when the wife of a local missionary faced down a mob that came for the Chinese people of La Grande, Oregon: “She appeared with a Winchester and announced that the first man to enter the house would be shot” (79). Most of the Chinese left town anyway; and although 14 rioters were arrested, none was convicted. Oregon’s Progressive governor haughtily rejected President Cleveland’s request that he protect the rights of the Chinese.

A darker side of community spirit was the almost universal feeling that if anyone was going to be without a job, it shouldn’t be someone white.

Much of Ramsey’s book is devoted to racism and progressivism during the depression. It’s quite a story, and again, it’s a gift of perspective: then as now, the predominant individualism of America was too much of a burden for many Americans to bear.

Obviously, the implications of Ramsey’s stories go far beyond the Pacific Northwest. The stories of that region cannot be explained without reference to the bigger stories of the nation’s money policy, its “reform” and “progressive” movements, and its national elections. Ramsey devotes lively chapters to all these things. If you don’t know the 1890s, this is the book for you, wherever you live. If you do know the 1890s, you know a lot about America, and this book will help you learn even more.

The Panic of 1893 is beautifully illustrated, with fine contemporary pictures, and backed by years of patient research. It is a distinguished and compelling book.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s First Depression," by Bruce Ramsey. Caxton, 2018, 324 pages.



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A FreedomFest Report

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FreedomFest, LasVegas, July 2018: Fewer breakout sessions. Shorter hours. Only one special-event luncheon. What’s going on at FreedomFest? Are we losing it?

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Too much choice can be daunting. As first timer Walter Block of the Mises Institute and Loyola University told us, “I attended FreedomFest for the first time in 2018. It was a magnificent experience. Rarely have so many lovers of liberty gathered under one roof. The only ‘problem’ I had with the event was the concurrent sessions. I wanted to attend ALL of them!”

We wanted this year’s event to involve our attendees more directly — not just sitting in chairs listening to speakers, but participating actively in the discussion.

History professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University concurred, saying, “FreedomFest was one of the few conferences that I’ve attended in my professional career of which I could say, ‘I only wish that I could have attended more sessions.’ From start to finish, it was an inspiration.”Imagine the frustration of previous years, when we offered 30% more sessions from which to choose!

Sometimes “less” really is “more.” When presentations are tightened, only the best remain. That’s what we decided to do at FreedomFest this year, reducing the number of concurrent breakout session from 13 to ten and ending each day at 6:30 instead of 8.

We wanted this year’s event to involve our attendees more directly — not just sitting in chairs listening to speakers, but participating actively in the discussion. So we lengthened our Q&A times, reduced the number of breakout sessions, created a scavenger hunt that brought attendees more actively into the exhibit hall, and added “conversation circles” in the evenings where attendees and speakers could discuss thematic topics. We expanded our “FreedomFest after Dark” activities with Karaoke led by “Lady of Liberty” Avens O’Brien and clubbing at a local night spot. The result was a more vibrant, engaged experience for everyone.

The Mock Trial was back too, this year charging the Public School System with fraud. We even had a hint of scandal in the jury box.

Of course, not everything was brand new. Perennial favorite Judge Napolitano was back, reporting on the Constitution and the significance of President Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. And we followed his speech with a special-event luncheon moderated by Steve Forbes. But most attendees enjoyed the break time by visiting the exhibit hall, viewing one of our lunchtime movies, or buying a sandwich and visiting with other attendees in our lounge areas.

The Mock Trial was back too, this year charging the Public School System with fraud. We even had a hint of scandal in the jury box, when the foreman announced a tie of 6–6, even though the collected ballots were clearly marked 7 to convict, 4 to acquit, and one with both options marked. Was this an example of the New Math? Or the “everybody wins a trophy” mindset? We promise Price Waterhouse wasn’t tabulating the results!

Of course, FreedomFest is never without controversy. Our panel on “The Rise and Triumph of the Angry Voter” led to some testy anger among the panelists, and the debate between Newsmax contributor Wayne Allyn Root and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat over whether Trump is more like Reagan or Mussolini became predictably (for Root) loud. The debate between Douthat and Hugh Hefner biographer Steve Watts on whether FreedomFest should dedicate a room to the late Hugh Hefner was controversial as well — was Hefner a hero who liberated women from Victorian sexual mores, or a lecher who objectified women by turning them into sexual playthings? Interestingly, the debate on “Faith and Reason” between Dan Peterson and Michael Shermer was more popular than the Playboy debate, with standing room only.

Eli Whitney, John Deere, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Ray Kroc drastically changed the face and future of America, “and it did not begin at the ballot box."

First-timer George Will was another keynote speaker, delivering an inspiring speech about the power of entrepreneurship and innovation. Referencing Ted Kennedy’s declaration that “change begins at the ballot box,“ Will offered several examples refuting the claim; he reminded the audience that Eli Whitney, John Deere, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Ray Kroc drastically changed the face and future of America, “and it did not begin at the ballot box. It began with the spark of entrepreneurial genius. . . . It began in individualism, which is important to everyone in this audience.”

Financial speakers have always been part of our faculty, and this year attendees enjoyed the new “Fast Money Summit” sponsored by Eagle Publishing, with its shortened 25-minute breakout sessions featuring top financial experts such as Steve Forbes, Mark Skousen, Doug Casey, Jim Rogers, Gena Lofton, Alex Green, Peter Schiff, Keith Fitz-Gerald, Marin Katusa, Jim Woods, and many more. At FreedomFest we believe that financial freedom is just as important as political freedom; money makes it possible to support causes and live a fuller personal life. “One good tip is worth the price of your admission,” was Eagle’s promise.

Others found their way to the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival — and some never left. “I can buy the recordings of the speeches,” one woman told me. “Where else can I watch these great films and meet the directors afterward?” In all modesty, as the director of the world’s only fully juried libertarian film festival — I couldn’t agree more. We had the best films and the best attendance in our eight-year history, with four world premiere films, five SRO screenings, 11 hard-hitting panels, and films that inspired us even as they told stories that outraged us. Libertarian films can be depressing when they’re set in dystopian futures or focus entirely on the hopelessness of big government; what I loved about this year’s lineup is that they offered hope for a brighter future through greater freedom, greater courage, greater understanding, and greater technology. And the production values of our films this year were top notch.

Storytelling can be more powerful than a lecture because of the emotional connection it creates with the audience.

Our films focused on themes such as immigration, escape from communism, criminal justice reform, and technology. Their messages were often indirect and compelling. One of my favorites was the Best Comedy winner The Inconsiderate Houseguest (Rob and Letitia Capili), which offers a subtle (Rob claims “unintended”) and unexpected theme about immigration beneath its quirky story about an uptight, rule-oriented roommate. “Subtle” is the key here; messages don’t need to shout if they are presented well. Storytelling can be more powerful than a lecture because of the emotional connection it creates with the audience. In fact, at our Thursday night Master Class for filmmakers, one of the panelists credited the television show Modern Family with changing public opinion, and thus public law, regarding gay marriage because of its likeable gay couple and its reluctantly tolerant and loving family patriarch. “Everyone knows the message of a Michael Moore movie, but almost no one watches his documentaries. They just hear about it on the news,” another panelist observed. Engaging stories with nuanced messages have the power to move hearts and change minds. That’s the main reason we started the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival.

The $2,500 Anthem Grand Prize went to Skid Row Marathon (Mark Hayes, director), an inspiring documentary about L.A. Judge Craig Mitchell who, troubled by the outrageous mandatory sentencing he was forced to impose, started a running club to help former felons regain their self-confidence and restart their lives. Mitchell has taken the club to marathon competitions throughout the world. The club is financed through private donations and teaches the principles of choice and accountability. Club member Rafael Cabrera was on hand for the Q&A following the screening. The film also won the $500 AnthemVault Prize for Best Original Score, featuring music composed by club member Ben Shirley. I defy you to watch this film with a dry eye.

Saber Rock (Matt and Thomas Locastro, directors), about a young Afghan interpreter for the American military who was targeted for assassination by the Taliban when he began teaching children about the principles of freedom, won the Anthem award for Best Short Documentary. The real Saber Rock attended the festival and gave an impassioned opening night speech to the FreedomFest crowd. Rock was a festival favorite, taking selfies with numerous fans throughout the week. He was awarded Anthem’s Special Jury Prize for heroism and received a standing ovation from the audience.

The room was so packed that we had to bring in 50 more chairs, while many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor and at least 20 more brought chairs to sit five-deep in the doorway.

Festival judge Gary Alexander argued at the judges’ meeting that America Under Siege: Antifa was one of the most important films at the festival because it reveals the truth behind the rising violence against free speech. Meanwhile, the gentle tone of Off the Grid with Thomas Massie won the hearts of festival attendees, who awarded it the Audience Choice trophy. Director Matt Battaglia follows the brilliant MIT graduate and inventor around the Kentucky farm that he built and maintains with his own hands as he talks about the priorities in his life and why he went to Congress. In one memorable segment he describes his congressional lapel pin, which garners him deferential treatment wherever he goes in Washington, as “Precious” and describes how difficult it can be to keep “Precious” from corrupting one’s focus and integrity.

A second Audience Choice trophy was awarded to Jimmy Morrison for his film The Housing Bubble, which features interviews with FreedomFest regulars Doug Casey, Peter Schiff, Jim Rogers, Gene Epstein, Tom Palmer, and others. It offers a cogent history of money, interest rates, inflation, and how they affect each one of us. The room was so packed that we had to bring in 50 more chairs, while many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor and at least 20 more brought chairs to sit five-deep in the doorway. The post-screening panel included all of the speakers who were featured in the film. Said director Morrison of the experience, “After all the delays with my movie, I really needed to make a statement with my premiere. I can't thank you enough for all that you did to make last week so successful!” That’s why we do what we do. These libertarian films need a venue. We provide it.

The Anthem Libertarian Film Festival is one of the fastest-growing features of FreedomFest, and also the best kept secret. Film aficionados can purchase a FilmLovers Pass for all four days for just $149, less than a third of the FreedomFest retail price. It includes all the films, plus film panels featuring top FreedomFest speakers and entrance to the exhibit hall. You can’t attend the FreedomFest general sessions or breakout sessions with it, but come on — with films and panels like these, who needs FreedomFest?

Members of the Reason crew presented the libertarian position on drug policy, gun control, biotechnology, pensions, prison reform, Bitcoin, transportation, and more. It was a libertarian feast.

My husband, Mark Skousen, who produces FreedomFest, completely disagrees with me on this, of course! “Why would anyone go to a movie when they can hear these great speakers in person?” he often asks me. And he has a point. With nearly 250 speakers and over 200 sessions, it’s hard to choose. A good point, but only one point.

This year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Reason magazine, FreedomFest hosted six Reason Day breakout sessions, plus the Reason Media Awards at our Saturday night banquet. Reason notables Katherine Mangu-Ward, Nick Gillespie, Matt Welch, Bob Poole, Ronald Bailey, Jacob Sullum, Lisa Snell and others presented the libertarian position on drug policy, gun control, biotechnology, pensions, prison reform, Bitcoin, transportation, and more. It was a libertarian feast, culminating in presenting the Friedlander Prize to Steve Forbes at the Saturday night banquet.

But don’t just take me word for the success of FreedomFest 2018; here’s what Marc Beauchamp, former west coast bureau chief for Forbes Magazine, foreign correspondent in Tokyo, and trade association executive director in Washington DC, said about FreedomFest this year:

“For me . . . FreedomFest is where you hear things you don’t hear anywhere else.

“Like the foreign policy panel where it was pointed out that Russia’s economy is smaller than that of Italy or South Korea and Doug Casey said, ‘Russia is a gas station in a wheat field attached to a gun store.’

“You can get pretty glum watching talking heads on cable TV. The antidote is David Boaz’s optimism — that there’s never been a better time to be alive in the United States, and in almost any other country on the planet.

FreedomFest is an individualist’s dream (though admittedly, for those who arrange it, it can have its nightmare moments).

“FreedomFest is a movable feast. You never know what’s on the menu. I enjoyed Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer’s breakout session on the scientific search for evidence of an afterlife, and his conclusion that we should focus on living a full meaningful life rather than worrying about what might or might not happen in the afterlife.”

In sum, FreedomFest is an individualist’s dream (though admittedly, for those who arrange it, it can have its nightmare moments). As in those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels of the ’70s and ’80s, you can create your own conference as you circle your favorite sessions and decide what you’re going to hear and do.

We can’t wait to see all of our friends at FreedomFest 2019 where our theme is “The Wild West.” Escape the Deep State to Live Free! Come choose your own adventure in Las Vegas July 17–20. Hats and boots optional. Leave your horse at home.




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When Nobody Knew What a Dollar Would Be

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The Caxton Press has just published my book, The Panic of 1893, and I can now write for Liberty about it. Its topic is the final economic downturn of the 19th century. For more than three years, my head was in the 1890s — in books, articles, personal and official papers, lawsuits, and, especially, old newspapers, chiefly from my home state. The book’s subtitle is, The Untold Story of Washington State’s First Depression.

It is a popular history, not a libertarian book as such. But I have a few thoughts for a libertarian audience.

Many libertarians espouse the Austrian theory of the trade cycle, in which the central bank sets interest rates lower than the market rate, leading to a speculative boom, bad investments, and a collapse. In the 1890s the United States had no central bank. Interest rates before the Panic of 1893 were not low, at least not in Washington. The common rate on a business loan was 10%, in gold, during a period in which the general price level had been gently falling. Washington was a frontier state then, and it needed to pay high interest rates to attract capital from the East and from Europe. Credit standards, however, were low, sometimes appallingly low. Many of Washington’s banks had been founded by pioneers — optimistic patriarchs who lent freely to their neighbors, associates, relatives, and themselves. By a different road from the Austrians’ theory, the economy was led to the place it describes: a Hallowe’en house of bad investments.

The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was a sop to the inflationists, who wanted an increase in the money supply, and to the silver mining interests, who wanted the government to continue buying their silver.

The dollar was backed by gold, with the US Treasury intending to keep at least $100 million of gold on hand. But in 1890, at the peak of the boom period, Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, obligating the Treasury to buy up the nation’s silver output with newly printed paper money. It was a sop to the inflationists, who wanted an increase in the money supply, and to the silver mining interests, who wanted the government to continue buying their silver, which it had been doing to create silver dollars. Politically the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was also part of a deal to pass the McKinley Tariff, which raised America’s already high tariff rates even higher.

The problem with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was that the new paper money being paid to the silver miners could be redeemed in gold. The prospect of an increase every year in paper claims against the Treasury’s gold alarmed foreign investors, and they began to pull gold out. Two crises abroad also shifted the psychology of lenders and borrowers worldwide: Argentina defaulted on a gold loan from the Baring Brothers in 1890 and a real estate boom in Australia collapsed in 1893. These crises shifted the thoughts of financial men from putting money out to getting it back, from a preference for holding promises to a preference for cash.

By the time Grover Cleveland took office in March 1893, the Treasury’s gold cover had shrunk to $101 million. A run began on the Treasury’s gold — and that triggered the Panic of 1893.

In the Pacific Northwest, the four-year-old state of Washington (pop. 350,000 then) had 80 bank failures in the following four years.

Two crises abroad also shifted the psychology of lenders and borrowers worldwide: Argentina defaulted on a gold loan from the Baring Brothers in 1890 and a real estate boom in Australia collapsed in 1893.

Economists have listed the ensuing depression as the second-deepest in U.S. history. (One estimate: 18% unemployment.) But they don’t know. The government didn’t measure unemployment in the 1890s. And the rate of unemployment may not be the best comparison. America was less wealthy in the 1890s than in the 1930s, and living conditions were harsher. In absolute terms, the bottom of the depression of the 1890s was clearly lower than that of the 1930s.

The Left of the 1890s, the Populists and silverites, wanted cheap money. They blamed the depression on the gold standard. And gold is not an easy taskmaster; libertarians have to admit that.

The silverites wanted a silver standard. Most of them were “bimetallists,” claiming to favor a gold standard and a silver standard at the same time, with 16 ounces of silver equal to one ounce of gold. Their idea was that by using gold and silver the people would have more money to spend.

Free silver was a policy well beyond the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which compelled the Treasury to buy silver at the market price. In the mid-1890s, silver fell as low as 68 cents an ounce. At that price, a silver dollar had 53 cents’ worth of silver in it and the silver-gold ratio was 30-to-1.

In absolute terms, the bottom of the depression of the 1890s was clearly lower than that of the 1930s.

The bimetallists wanted 16-to-1. That was the ratio for U.S. currency set in the late 1700s when the market was at 16-to-1. Later the market shifted and Congress changed the ratio to 15 1/2-to-1. Then came the Civil War, and the U.S. government suspended the gold standard, and printed up its first “greenbacks,” the United States Notes.

The United States Notes were effectively a new currency, and traded at a discount from metallic dollars. In September 1896, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reminded readers of those times:

There never was a time from the beginning of the first issue of greenbacks down to the resumption of specie payments when the greenback dollar was ever accepted on the Pacific Coast for anything more than its market price in terms of gold.

The greenback was discounted, sometimes by 50 to 60%.

In 1873, Congress decided to define the dollar as a certain weight of gold, but not silver. The silver people in the 1890s called this “The Crime of ’73.”

Redemption of paper money under the gold standard began in 1879. To placate the silver interests, Congress had passed a law requiring the government to buy silver at the market price and coin it into dollars — the Morgan dollars prized by collectors today. At the beginning, the silver in a Morgan dollar was worth about a dollar, but by the 1890s, the value of silver had fallen.

In 1890, the silver-dollar law was replaced by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which created paper money. The government still coined silver dollars, and by 1896 had more than 400 million of them in circulation.

To placate the silver interests, Congress had passed a law requiring the government to buy silver at the market price and coin it into dollars.

The law did not require the Treasury to pay out gold for silver dollars, and it hadn’t. But the law declared all the different kinds of dollars (and there were five different kinds of paper money, at that point) to be equally good for everyday use except for taxes on imports. At the amounts an individual was ever likely to have, a silver dollar was as good as a gold dollar.

If you ask why a sane person would have designed a monetary system with gold dollars, silver dollars, Gold Certificates, Silver Certificates, National Currency, Treasury Notes, and United States Notes — Congress had designed it, one variety at a time.

Under the proposal for “free silver,” gold would be kept at the official price of $20.67 and silver set at one-sixteenth that price, or $1.29. Just as the world was free to bring an ounce of gold to the Treasury and take away $20.67 — “free gold” — the world would be free to bring an ounce of silver to the Treasury and take away $1.29. Free silver! The advocates called this the “unlimited coinage” of silver, but the aim was to create dollars, not coins. Most of the silver could pile up in the Treasury and be represented by crisp new pieces of paper.

The gold people argued that for the United States to set up a 16-to-1 currency standard in a 30-to-1 world was nuts. Essentially, the Treasury would be offering to pay out one ounce of gold for 16 ounces of silver. It would be a grand blowout sale on gold, and the world would come and get it until the gold was gone. The Treasury would be left with a Fort Knox full of silver, and the U.S. dollar would become a silver currency like the Mexican peso.

Surely the gold people were right about that. (And today’s ratio is 78 to 1.)

Milton Friedman argues in his book Money Mischief that two standards, with the cheapest metal defining the dollar in current use, would have worked all right. If the cheap metal got too expensive, the system would flip and the dollar would be defined by the other metal. In theory it makes sense, and apparently before the Civil War it had worked that way. But the financial people didn’t want a system like that.

The Treasury would be left with a Fort Knox full of silver, and the U.S. dollar would become a silver currency like the Mexican peso.

In 1896, America had a watershed election, with the silver people for Bryan, the Democrat, and the gold people for McKinley, the Republican. A third party, the People’s Party, endorsed Bryan. Its followers, the Populists, didn’t want a silver standard. They were fiat-money people. But Bryan was against the gold standard, and that was enough.

In that contest, the silver people were derided as inflationists. They were, to a point. They wanted to inflate the dollar until the value of the silver in dollars, halves, quarters, and dimes covered the full value of the coin. The silver people were not for fiat money.

Here is the Spokane Spokesman-Review of October 1, 1894, distinguishing its silver-Republicanism from Populism:

Fiat money is the cornerstone of the Populist faith . . . Silver money is hard money, and the fiatist is essentially opposed to hard money . . . He wants irredeemable paper money, and his heart goes out to the printing press rather than the mint.

The Populists and silverites argued in 1896 that the gold standard had caused the depression, and that as long as gold ruled, the nation would never recover. History proved them wrong. They lost, and the nation recovered. It began a recovery after the election settled the monetary question. Investors and lenders knew what kind of money they’d be paid with.

Milton Friedman makes a monetarist point in Money Mischief that starting in about 1890, gold miners had begun to use the cyanide process, which allowed gold to be profitably extracted from lower-grade ore. The result was an increase in gold production all through the decade. I came across a different story in my research. The increase in the supply of gold (about which Friedman was correct) was outstripped by the increase in the demand for gold. Prices in gold dollars declined sharply during the depression of the 1890s, including the prices of labor and materials used in gold mining. It became more profitable to dig for gold. Deflation helped spur a gold-mining boom — in the Yukon, famously, but also in British Columbia, in Colorado, and in South Africa.

The US began a recovery after the election settled the monetary question. Investors and lenders knew what kind of money they’d be paid with.

Under a gold standard, a deflation sets in motion the forces that can reverse it. This is a useful feature, but it can take a long time.

The recovery from the depression of the 1890s began not with a burst of new money but with a quickening of the existing money. What changed after the election was the psychology of the people. They knew what sort of money they held and could expect. The important point wasn’t that it was gold, but that it was certain. If Bryan had been elected and the dollar became a silver currency, people would have adjusted. With gold, they didn’t have to adjust, because it was what they already had.

The writers of the 1890s had a less mechanistic view of the economy than people have today. People then didn’t even use the term, “the economy.” They might say “business” or even “times,” as if they were talking of weather conditions. They talked less of mechanisms (except the silver thing) and more of the thoughts and feelings of the people. People today are cynical about politicians who try to manipulate their thoughts and feelings, and think that it’s the mechanisms that matter. And sometimes mechanisms matter, but the thoughts and feelings always matter.

Prices in gold dollars declined sharply during the depression of the 1890s, including the prices of labor and materials used in gold mining. It became more profitable to dig for gold.

Now some observations about the ideas of the 1890s.

The Populists, called by the conservative papers “Pops,” were much like the Occupy Wall Street rabblerousers of a decade ago: anti-corporate, anti-banker, anti-bondholder, anti-Wall Street, and anti-bourgeois, but more in a peasant, almost medieval way than a New Left, university student way. Many of the Pops were farmers, with full beards at a time when urban men were shaving theirs off or sporting a mustache only. More than anti-Wall Street, the Pops were anti-debt, always looking for reasons for borrowers not to pay what they owed. On Wikipedia, Populism is labeled left-wing, which it was mainly. It was also rural, Southern, Western, anti-immigrant, and often racist. In Washington state it was anti-Chinese.

In the 1890s traditional American libertarianism was in the mainstream. In the newspapers this is very striking, with the Republican papers championing self-reliance and the Democratic papers championing limited government. Democrats, for example, argued against the McKinley Tariff — which imposed an average rate of more than 50% — as an impingement on individual freedom. Here is Seattle’s gold-Democrat daily, the Telegraph, of September 10, 1893:

If it be abstractly right that the government shall say that a man shall buy his shoes in the United States, why is it not equally right for it to say that he shall buy them in Seattle? . . . Where shall we draw the line when we start out from the position that it is the legitimate and natural function of government to regulate the affairs of individuals . . .

Our idea is that the least government we can get along with and yet enjoy the advantages of organized society, the better.

Here is the silver-Republican Tacoma Ledger of Dec. 3, 1895:

Thoughtful men must perceive that our whole system of civilization is undergoing a revolution in its ideas; and we are in danger of gradually supplanting the old, distinctive idea of the Anglo-Saxon civilization — the ideas of the individualism of the man, his house as his castle, and the family as his little state, which he represents in the confederation of families in the state — by the Jacobinical ideas of . . . continental republicanism . . . The continental republican theory contemplates the individual man as an atom of the great machine called the nation. The Anglo-Saxon considers every man a complete machine, with a young steam engine inside to run it. The continental republican must have a government that will find him work and give him bread. The Anglo-Saxon wants a government only to keep loafers off while every man finds his own work and earns his own bread.

Contrast that with today’s editorial pages.

The Populists were anti-debt, always looking for reasons for borrowers not to pay what they owed.

Here’s a final one I particularly liked. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary — the same gent whose assassination 21 years later would touch off World War I — came through Spokane on the train in 1893. Americans, fascinated with him just as they would be a century later with Princess Diana, stood in the rain for hours to get a glimpse of the famous archduke — and they were sore because he never showed himself. On October 9, 1893, here is what the Seattle Telegraph had to say about that:

Why in the name of common sense should the people of this country go out of their way to honor a man simply because he happens to be in the line of succession to a throne . . . The correct thing is to let their highnesses and their lordships and all the rest of them come and go like other people. To the titled aristocracy of Europe there is no social distinction in America.

The America of the 1890s had some unlovely aspects. But in my view, the Telegraph’s attitude toward princes is exactly right. I recalled the Telegraph’s patriotic comment during all the blather over the wedding of Princess Diana’s son.

The 1890s had its blather, but after 125 years, sorting out facts from nonsense is easier. Silly statements, especially wrong predictions, don’t weather well. It makes me wonder what of today’s rhetoric will seem utterly preposterous in the 2100s.




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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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