Conserving the Body Electric

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My electric company, San Diego Gas and Electric, is a state-franchised monopoly that behaves in the weird way that has become natural for such entities. Obsessed with conserving our reputedly endangered resources, it is trying to get customers to buy less of its product.

Every month it sends me a discouraging report about my energy use. The damning data appear in three graphs.

One is a dull gray and shows the average kilowatt hours used by “90 similar homes an average of 1 mi.” from me. There’s nothing to say how these “homes” are “similar,” besides an indication that the company knows how many square feet I inhabit and whether I own or rent (as if that mattered). Clearly, it doesn’t know how many people live in my place, what their ages are, whether they work for a living, whether they are absent for months at a time, or, really, anything directly relevant to their energy use. And why is it “an average of 1 mi”? Why not within one mile? If my next-door neighbor is included in this similarity derby — which would make a lot of sense, since her home is physically identical to mine — I guess the statisticians will have to identify a corresponding someone two miles away, in a completely different neighborhood and population, to insert among the magic 90. Makes a lotta sense, don’t it?

So who are these efficient people? For all I know, they may be leaving their TV on all night, but they never use their stove.

Another graph is blue. That’s for my own energy use during the month. The third one is green. It represents my “Efficient Neighbors,” and it’s the one that has the enviable, top position in the grand display of stats.

So who are these efficient people? They are the “most efficient 20%” of the “90 similar homes.” So we’re back to that problem. Why these people? But if you’re wondering what “efficient” means, that’s not a mystery: the loaded word simply means that they use less total energy. For all I know, they may be leaving their TV on all night, but they never use their stove — because they go out to eat, thus transferring their inefficient use of energy onto other people’s bills.

I’m not as bad as the average, but I’m one hell of a long way from being “efficient.”

But I know you’re curious to discover exactly how inefficient I am. I’ll tell you. The average energy use of the 90 homes is 322 kWh. The average of the Efficient People (who, remember, are only “efficient” in relation to the 90 users sampled, all of whom, as far as I know, may be 20 times less “efficient” than normal people) is 159 kWh. I, environmental criminal that I am, sucked 303 kWh out of the ecology, all in a single month. I’m not as bad as the average, but I’m one hell of a long way from being “efficient.”

Yet somehow the notices from SDGE fail to make me ashamed of this Neronian orgy of energy use. They inspire me, instead, with two thoughts. The first is, “How much stupid energy does it cost these people to mail me this notice every month?” The second is, “Let’s turn on all the lights.”




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Will the LP Be Destroyed by Victories?

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The thesis of this reflection is simple: if the Republicans move to the right on economic issues, trying to attract fiscal-Right voters, and stay with the Right on guns, while the Democrats move to their social left by supporting legalization of recreational cannabis, sex workers, and gambling, then every Libertarian Party issue will be championed by either Democrats or Republicans who will have a better chance of winning elections. At that point, the LP will have no reason to exist.

The GOP recently passed tax cuts, and the current White House is aggressively deregulating. The LP can do little that the GOP is not already doing. The GOP is also extremely strong on gun rights and opposition to gun control, and, like the Democrats’, its foreign policy is veering toward military disengagement abroad.

The LP has won by forcing the two major parties to embrace libertarian issues in a way that would have been untenable and even unthinkable in previous generations.

Meanwhile, state and local Democratic parties are increasingly willing to reform criminal laws to legalize recreational cannabis. Right now it is also a vanguard or vogue position among far-left Democrats to support legalizing prostitution (a position that has long been championed by gay rights groups on the far left). There are whispers in New York that the Democrats in the state legislature intend to legalize both recreational cannabis and sex workers, a path that other state Democratic Parties are also treading.

The LP has won by forcing the two major parties to embrace libertarian issues in a way that would have been untenable and even unthinkable in previous generations. But take away weed, whores, guns, and tax cuts, and what is left for the LP to talk about? Nothing. There may be nothing more for the LP to do. But do not worry. I have a solution to this problem.

The one thing liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans cannot do is create a social space uniquely for libertarians. The Libertarian Party should essentially reimagine itself as a social club for liberty where running candidates is a hobby but the real purpose is building a community. The LP can organize meetings, sponsor online events, build forums for communication, assist the authorship and distribution of ideological content, and fund academic scholarships. The LP will probably never win elections even if it tries, so it has nothing to lose by moving in this direction.

But take away weed, whores, guns, and tax cuts, and what is left for the LP to talk about?

An organized movement built from LP grassroots community activism could then trickle down into the mass of mainstream voters, keeping the GOP on the far Right and forcing Democrats to defend the social Left. Other than providing services uniquely to libertarians, there may be nothing the LP can do that Republicans or Democrats could not do better in today's political climate.




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Phobe-o-Phobia

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Bigotry, these days, is a subject treated very much like a supernatural monster. Racism, sexism, and homophobia exert an outsized influence on the popular imagination. They are our vampires, werewolves, and zombies. And precisely because of their exaggerated power, while many people fear them, others deny their very existence.

To be accused of being a racist is little different from being charged with sorcery. Anyone so tagged becomes a pariah. Humanity recoils from such an individual as it once might have shrunk from one familiar with the devil. That this is true precisely because racism is no longer considered acceptable in decent society is largely lost on those who see a racist under every rock.

Racism is still, very sadly, real. So, too, are sexism and homophobia, though the latter two still lag behind racism in witching power. The problem develops when people are accused of these faults whether they’re guilty or not. As in colonial Salem, the charge alone is sufficiently damning and needs no proof.

To be accused of being a racist is little different from being charged with sorcery. Anyone so tagged becomes a pariah.

Most bigots don’t think they’re bigots. Their beliefs are misguided, but they’re based in something other than themselves. No one sets out to be a bigot. What sounds like prejudice to others sounds, to them, like the truth.

Racism, sexism, and homophobia — that unholy trinity — are said to simply exist, like the Blob. People in public life are branded, especially as racists, with no thought to their motivation. Any insensitive remark can be cited as proof. The Blob can strike anyone, anywhere.

Some people simply say stupid things. And sometimes, after they’ve said them, they change their minds. Finding a bigot under every rock casts doubt on the entire enterprise. Very often the motive to smear an individual shows more clearly than the motive to hate the members of a particular group of people.

What happens when the charge is factual? Do real bigots suffer much when they’re exposed? When, for every real bigot, there are 20 unjustly accused, which real bigots really suffer?

Free speech tends to show people in a true light. If people aren’t deathly afraid to say the wrong thing, genuine racists, sexists, and homophobes will say what they have to say; but when speech is chilled, everyone is careful. Real bigots can hide.

When, for every real bigot, there are 20 unjustly accused, which real bigots really suffer?

I want to know what people think about me. They shouldn’t need to hide. Not that it makes much difference to me that some may irrationally hate a group I’m part of. I’m an individual, and everyone whose opinion I value judges me as such. The free market will deal harshly with those who wouldn’t serve me because of any circumstance I can’t change — if I even wanted to.

A sort of hysteria has overtaken us. At any time, any one of us could be branded guilty of criminal thought. That’s what bigotry really is — thought. But only those who act upon their hate are truly dangerous. If they can hide, simply refraining from saying the wrong things, we’re defenseless against the actions they may sometime decide to take.

In the hierarchy of accepted speech, certain forms of prejudice are perfectly acceptable. At the other end of the ladder, some people are suspected of bigotry simply by circumstance. Now certain political views come under automatic suspicion. Even wearing a red cap is enough to evoke suspicion. We live in a frightfully irrational age, and the fright is visited on all of us. How many points do I have in the aggrievement Olympics? Two: I’m female and gay. Others will always outrank me. I have to watch my step.

Aggrievement isn’t power. It’s weakness. People obsessed with how badly they’re treated are not masters of their own fate.

The free market will deal harshly with those who wouldn’t serve me because of any circumstance I can’t change — if I even wanted to.

None of the vigilance against bigotry makes me feel safe. Our guards are trigger-happy. In their extremity and sheer irrationality, they’ve turned those who really hate me into heroes. Not surprisingly, standing up to a charge of bigotry has become an act of courage — a mark of integrity.

I think I’ll take my chances alongside those who resist the witch hunt. That sometimes puts me in strange company. But bigotry is on the wane, and the very atmosphere of hysteria — of unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims of bigotry — is proof that it is. Someday, sane people will realize that. When we’ve all been branded, branding will no longer loom as a threat.

In the meantime, I still don’t have enough points. Surely that ought to count as a handicap. May I have another point?




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Flying Down to Rio?

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While I am no President Trump fan — indeed, I regard The Boss as a deeply flawed president — intellectual honesty dictates that I should give him credit when credit is due. And I think that a recent meeting he had yielded some results that are worth reflecting upon. I refer to Trump's meeting on March 19 with Brazil's newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro. The two populist presidents appeared to get along well, as is perhaps to be expected from birds of a feather.

What was quite interesting was that The Boss announced he will designate Brazil a "major non-NATO ally" — interesting because the heralding of closer military ties, which is probably insignificant in itself, could lead to increased trade. Brazil is Latin America's geographically largest country, and its most populous (at well over 200 million people). Moreover, despite some poor performance during recent years, it is Latin America's largest economy, and the world's eighth largest, with a GDP of over $3.5 trillion.

Trump and Bolsonaro appeared to get along well, as is perhaps to be expected from birds of a feather.

The Boss even suggested that he would favor giving Brazil full NATO membership — totally bizarre, given his past skeptical remarks about the value of NATO and his seeming indifference to its cohesion and continued existence. In any event, NATO membership seems an unrealistic suggestion.

First, all the other 29 members of the alliance would have to agree, and clearly some of the current members — Germany and Turkey, to name but two — are run by leaders who hold Trump in deep disdain.

Second, Brazil currently spends only about 1.3% of its GDP on defense, and the requirement for a country being in NATO — albeit so far lightly enforced — is to commit to 2% of GDP to defense.

Trump has been good at raising tariffs and slowing free trade. The markets have not liked this.

Third, while Brazil's own erratic President Bolsonaro has expressed admiration for The Boss — no doubt a factor in the sudden warming of relations between the two countries — he has the Brazilian population to contend with. He is the first rightwing president the nation has elected in the 30 years since the military surrendered power. Since the US backed the military regime, many Brazilians are of course wary of American motives.

Still, this meeting and its results are a good first step toward a closer relationship with what is already an important international player with the potential to become a major power. The joke has been that Brazil has been and always will be a potential major power, but never an actual one. But perhaps the nation will finally eschew the sweet promises of socialism, settle into a centrist government with liberal economics, and thereby realize its true potential.

The real opportunity here, I would urge, lies not in the military but in the economic realm. We used to be Brazil's major trading partner. But China took that position a few decades ago, and still holds it. This is unsurprising, because China negotiated a free trade agreement with Brazil — something neither George Bush (who was quite good on free trade) nor Barack Obama (who opposed free trade until toward the end of his second term) even tried to do. This suggests an opening for The Boss, who half the time claims to favor free trade — although in the other half he bashes it, in gales of creative protectionism. He could at least open exploratory talks on the issue. Actually, there is probably a quick way to land a deal: ask for the same deal China got!

Perhaps Trump's ultimate desire to get a second term may lead him to not just talk about free trade, but to do something to actually advance it.

Brazil and America are a good fit for trading partners: we produce a lot of high-tech goods that Brazil needs, such as high-tech tractors and farm machinery. The Boss has been good at raising tariffs and slowing free trade. The markets have not liked this, and if the promised trade agreement with China falls through, the market will likely drop dramatically. And China, in retaliation to his tariffs, has switched buying soybeans and other agricultural goods from us to Brazil. This has made Brazil the world's largest exporter of soybeans, now eclipsing the US. The result — depressed prices for soybeans and other products, resulting in steep declines in many farm incomes — may well cost Trump crucial votes for his reelection. This — if it were combined with a stock market dramatically below what it is now — would likely cost him reelection.

So perhaps Trump's ultimate desire to get a second term may lead him to not just talk about free trade, but to do something to actually advance it. Who knows? Stranger things have happened, and The Boss is after all surpassing strange.




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“Pro-Choice” or “Pro-Life”?

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“‘Non-profit’ is a tax status, not a business model,” Planned Parenthood chief Cheryl (Robia Scott) barks at clinic director Abby (Ashley Bratcher) in the movie Unplanned, when Abby objects to Cheryl’s insistence that her clinics double their number of abortions in the coming months. Abortion services have become big business for the NPO, and Cheryl wants to increase profits even more. But Abby’s motive for joining Planned Parenthood was to reduce the number of abortions by reducing the number of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies through PP’s reproductive counseling and free birth control.

Unplanned is based on the memoir Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye Opening Journey across the Life Line, the true story of Abby Johnson’s journey from becoming one of the youngest ever clinic directors at Planned Parenthood to becoming staunchly pro-life. Surprisingly, the film does not preach or condemn; it simply shows one woman’s experience with the procedure, both as a patient and as a practitioner, and asks us to walk around in her literally bloodstained sneakers for a while.

First, the technical review: in terms of its production values, Unplanned is good, but it isn’t great. The acting is a bit self-conscious, particularly in the secondary characters. The perky character is a little too perky as she sits crosslegged on the breakroom counter; the morose character is a bit too morose; the sparkly little toddler a little too sparkly. The villainess who runs Planned Parenthood is cartoonishly icy. Most of the women are wearing newscaster makeup. And, at one hour, fifty minutes, the entire movie is a little too long.

The villainess who runs Planned Parenthood is cartoonishly icy. Most of the women are wearing newscaster makeup.

But these are piddling complaints. As a whole, the film works, and works well. It is emotionally disturbing, visually powerful, and ultimately a celebration of persuasion over force. And, in contrast to the supporting actors, Ashley Bratcher is thoroughly convincing as Abby.

Despite the fact that Abby’s parents, husband, friends and church community are strongly pro-life and share their views with her, none of them shun her, shame her, or offer ultimatums. They use persuasion and patience, act for themselves according to their own conscience, and allow her the same right to make her own choices. They do not withhold their love from her, even when they disagree with her.

This, to me, is what being “pro-choice” really means (or ought to).

Protestors Shawn (Jared Lotz) and Marilisa (Emma Elle Roberts) of the pro-life organization 40 Days for Life condemn the actions of other pro-life activists who jeer aggressively and crudely as patients and workers arrive at the clinic. Instead, they befriend Abby during the eight years they spend on opposite sides of the clinic fence and act with patience, persistence, and kindness.

Abby’s parents, husband, friends and church community do not withhold their love from her, even when they disagree with her.

As a result, Abby doesn’t have to fight with them, and she doesn’t have to overcome the obstacle of “I told you so” when she does decide to resign from the clinic. We are able to empathize with her experience and follow her gradual change of heart, even if we don’t completely agree with her — on either side of her journey.

The film is disturbing emotionally, but it contains not a single word of profanity, nor any nudity, sexual encounters, illegal substance abuse, guns or weapons (unless you count the medical vacuum aspirator). There is blood in a clinical setting and in a realistic bathroom miscarriage. Yet the film received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. I find it grossly ironic that a child under the age of 17 cannot view this movie about abortion without the presence of a parent or guardian, but she can get an abortion without her parents’ knowledge or consent. Could it be that the MPAA sides with Planned Parenthood on wanting to prevent young girls from seeing another perspective on abortion besides the one that is carefully crafted and presented by PP?

This is a hard film to watch and a harder film to review. While I wish abortion was never needed, I understand the difficult circumstances women sometimes find themselves in. Unless (or until) it can be definitively determined that life begins at conception, I would not overturn Roe v. Wade.

It’s personal.

So where should a good libertarian stand on the issue of abortion?

Many offer the private property argument to side with the woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body. If the fetus is an uninvited and unwanted trespasser, then she has the right to reject it from her property — her womb. The fetus’s right to live stops at the woman’s right to privacy and her right not to provide free housing for nine months — housing which puts her own life, happiness, and future at risk.

This is a hard film to watch and a harder film to review.

Others might counter with the life-or-death survival argument — a person who normally respects private property has the right to break into a stranger’s cabin in the woods in order to avoid freezing to death, or to commandeer a car in order to get a heart-attack victim to a hospital. Similarly, a fetus has the right to remain in a womb because it will die if it is kicked out. Whose rights have priority — the property owner, or the person who will die without protection?

I don’t think the government should be involved in this very difficult, very personal medical decision. My focus has always been to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, through proper use of both self-control and birth control. But if a pregnancy does need to be terminated, it should be decided between the woman, her doctor, and her conscience. She shouldn’t have to add hiding from the government to her list of stressors.

That’s Abby’s argument too, at first. She genuinely believes that the fetus is just tissue — well-formed tissue, but non-viable, non-living tissue nonetheless. I think a lot of people have felt this way.

But modern technology makes that argument harder to support. For a long time, it seemed as though life began sometime after the first trimester, when the embryo grew from being a blob of cells with the potential for life to a living being who kicked and moved. They called it “quickening,” and it seemed to happen at about the fourth month of pregnancy. Thus first-trimester abortion seemed justifiable. Now, through high-tech ultrasound, 3D imaging, and other modern devices, we can see that a baby is much more developed at a much earlier stage. It “quickens” long before we can feel it moving. It’s real. It’s alive. It just needs time to grow. The argument that “it’s just a blob of tissue” becomes harder to make.

If a pregnancy does need to be terminated, a woman shouldn't have to add hiding from the government to her list of stressors.

What about a woman’s right to privacy and property, to choose what she will do with her own body? What about the potentially destructive impact the birth of a baby might have on her financial, professional, personal life? It’s a fair question, with no easy answer. It brings us back to that original question: when does life begin? If preemies born as early as 26 weeks of gestation can survive and thrive through modern neonatal care, it might mean that a 26-week fetus’s right to life will have to be protected, regardless of inconvenience to the woman. If it can be determined scientifically that a fetus feels pain, or that it can think and react beyond mere reflex, as Abby Johnson believes she observed, we might have to ban the procedure altogether. At that point only the self-defense argument — my physical life is threatened by this pregnancy, and I have a right to protect myself from it — would justify abortion in the third trimester.

As I said, it’s personal. Intensely so. Unplanned is a film worth seeing, no matter on which side of the clinic fence you’re standing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Unplanned," directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon. Pure Fix Entertainment, 110 minutes.



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