Untruths Unlimited

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In his autobiography, The Prince of Darkness (2007), Robert Novak, a “Washington journalist” who could actually write, describes his weird encounters with former President Jimmy Carter. Early in Carter’s campaign for the presidency (1976), Novak caught him in several lies about his experiences and associates, and published a short column describing Carter’s “fibs.” Carter’s organization produced a refutation, and his press secretary told Novak that according to Carter, he was the liar.

The next time Novak talked with Carter, the sanctimonious politician — “who at every campaign stop said, ‘I’ll never lie to you,’” — told him, “Bob, you have done me a grave injustice and you may well have damaged my candidacy. But that’s not what bothers me. I’m just sorry that you have such a low opinion of me. That really hurts me.” Novak replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way” — only to be told that by the end of the day, Carter had been telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“After the Iowa incident,” Novak writes, “I became convinced I was too soft in my column by talking about ‘fibbing.’ Jimmy Carter was a habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his purposes” (pp. 285–87).

By the end of the day, Carter was telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“So what?” you may say. “Politics is full of untruth.” But it’s fascinating to see how many forms untruth can take — and do it with perfect innocence. I don’t mean that the people who create the lies — remember, truth just exists; untruth has to be created — aren’t aware of what they’re saying. They often spend hours and days and polls and counselors and, as the song says, “pretty maids all in a row,” laboriously concocting their nonsense. Yet they may still retain a Jimmy Carter air of naiveté. No one could have lied more, or more ridiculously, than Hillary Clinton in the matter of her illicit emails. Who can forget her riposte to the question about whether she had wiped her server? “What?” she laughed. “Like with a cloth or something?” She uttered this idiocy in the childlike enjoyment of saying something smart. Perhaps with her, as with Carter, the best thing about lying is the feeling of liberation that comes from knowing that, no matter what nonsense one foists on one’s friends and fellow countrymen, one is still pure and right and innocent and wise and clever, after all, and all at the same time. Ain’t I cute?

An old saying — a saying conjecturally attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli — holds that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But there are more, countless more. In the incident just cited, Jimmy Carter created what can be called a five-dimensional lie: first he lied, then he branded as a liar the person who discovered his lies, then he lied about his attitude toward the discoverer, then he falsely claimed that the discoverer had acknowledged his lie — and he did so in a way that would send this latest lie back to the person he was lying about.

Joseph Robinette (“Joe”) Biden, Jr. is a one-dimensional liar. He just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself. He has never filtered his statements for truth, except, apparently, to keep it out. In 1987 he was run out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination after it was discovered (easily) that he had plagiarized his statements about his personal history from some (odd) remarks of a leader of the British Labour Party about his own history. This disaster did not diminish Biden’s taste for lies. That taste continues, as shown in a report from June 12:

"Know what I was most proud of?" he said, in reference to former president Barack Obama's presidency. "For eight years, there wasn't one single hint of a scandal or a lie," he told a cheering crowd.

It’s not clear whether the crowd consisted entirely of mental defectives or of the kind of people who cheer a magician for falsely claiming to have sawed a lady in half. Maybe it was both kinds — because only a dimwit could mistake Biden for a magician.

Joe Biden just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself.

Still more dramatic evidence of his aversion to truth appeared on June 11, when he told a crowd in Ottumwa, Iowa:

I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America, we’re gonna cure cancer.

“The statement,” we are told, “drew applause from the [demented?] audience.”

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document. It’s not the kind of statement that can be interpreted in virtually any way and is therefore too meaningless to qualify as a lie. Donald Trump’s “We’ll make America great again” can mean almost anything except “We’ll make America not-great again.” “We’re gonna cure cancer” has a more restrictive and actionable meaning.

A striking characteristic of today’s Fair Field of Falsehoods is the fact that many of its obvious untruths go unnoticed, because most people assume it is immoral to see them for what they are. These are virtue falsehoods. Public schools, we are told, are failing because they aren’t given enough money. People live on the streets, we learn, because they can’t find affordable housing. Healthcare, we hear, as we receive our routine hip replacements and cataract surgeries, is broken.

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document.

In my town, a supermarket chain runs an ad for food donations, or some such thing, alleging: “One in six San Diego kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” A website provides the mess of “statistics” from which this alarming statement appears to come: it mixes “food insecure” with “at risk of hunger,” and both with “do not know where their next meal comes from,” meanwhile proclaiming rather than admitting that “36% of children at risk of hunger in San Diego County are not eligible for federal nutrition programs (free or reduced-price school lunch or breakfast).” So 64% are eligible, eh? Now, I’m sure there are some hungry children, somewhere in town. There are such things as neglectful parents — and tax-funded agencies to deal with them. But I don’t know what it means to say that “the estimated annual meal gap for Feeding San Diego’s service area is 61,524,500 meals.” I am sure that hungry people do not constitute one-sixth or one-sixtieth of the “kid” population. Where are these hordes of (potentially) starving children? No one sees them. Perhaps no one really, concretely, imagines that they exist. Yet virtuous people are supposed to ignore the evidence of their experience and piously go with the program.

Evasion of the truth need not be conscious. The unconscious mind works busily at the task. It has plenty of techniques for performing it. No professional writer has to focus very hard on the problem of getting through a story without stating a truth that may result in accusations of thought crime. You don’t have to lie; you just have to say things that will license a lie. Hence those saving clichés of journalism — only time will tell, some observers suggest, opinion is divided. “Some observers suggest that communist governments impoverish their countries, but opinion is divided; only time will tell whether this will happen in Venezuela.” Even when the time comes, it usually stays mum. Why be brutally honest?

How to write about this in a "serious" manner, without offending any unserious people?

Consider the clichés of evasion in a recent report on the Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett case. You will remember Smollett as the actor on the TV show Empire who falsely claimed to have been the victim of a racist attack on the streets of Chicago. You will also remember that the nation dissolved in laughter at the ridiculous nature of his story, the absurd manner in which prosecutors got him off the hook, and the baffled outrage of Chicago’s liberal establishment about this offense to the city’s amour propre.

But the problem arose: how to write about this in a serious manner, without offending any unserious people? Well, you can do it in this way (I quote from The Hollywood Reporter, June 3):

[Newly released court] documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered about the spectacle surrounding the Empire actor. . . . Whereas Smollett had garnered a loud and vocal base of support after the initial charges against him were dropped, those voices had started to dim even before the latest dumps, as the murkiness around his story continued to deepen.

Incidentally, how do you garner a base? Be that as it may; the murkiness didn’t deepen. There wasn’t any murkiness. But if some people want to believe, contrary to the facts narrated by the Reporter itself, that “the documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered,” these phrases may keep them from voicing their outrage with the hapless writer.

The degree to which social anxieties can license untruth is shown by the confession of a social media “influencer.” Cora Smith is a travel journalist on Instagram. She is called an influencer because that is how someone sees her role in society. Yet she is the one who was disastrously influenced to suggest that her stay in the Dominican Republic was a beautiful experience — omitting certain experiences that, she says, left her in constant fear of violence. She says that she was assaulted and nearly kidnaped, but she wanted to make nice with the Dominicans, or at least about them, for fear of her audience. She was “very worried about bashing anyone or anything. In all honesty, influencers are too scared to tell the truth and feel they need to show the beautiful side. Most people only want to hear the positive things. . . . You feel this obligation to be honest, but a fear of rejection if you are.”

Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay.

Worse, much worse, are the unctuous untruths of the licensed, accredited, endowed, and established influencers, especially those of the academic tribe. Examples are legion; some new ones appear in the annals of the Oberlin College case, in which a jury awarded tens of millions of dollars of damages against the college for its role in injuring the reputation and business of a local bakery that was accused, on no evidence at all, of racism. Oberlin officials maintained that they were just trying to help.

Throughout the affair, the 2,800-student college-of-third resort projected as much arrogance as if it were the last redoubt of the Romanovs. Yet the college knew it was in trouble, lots of trouble. Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay. Then the jury awarded $11 million for actual damage done to the bakery — and a second phase of the trial began, the phase to determine if there would be punitive damages as well. At this point, Oberlin tried to jolly the jurors with false suggestions of a change of heart:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have spoken,” Oberlin College attorney Rachelle Zidar told the jury Thursday before the larger award was announced, according to the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. “You have sent a profound message. We have heard you. Believe me when I say, ‘Colleges across the country have heard you.’”

The jury thereupon decided to fine Oberlin $33 million more. Perhaps it regarded the “we” in “we have heard you” as just as likely to be truthful as any other institutional use of the first-person plural. If you tried to make Ms. Zidar herself pay the bill for what Oberlin did, the “we” would immediately change to “they.”

But it was hard to stick “we have heard you” on anybody, because just a few days before, the college’s general counsel had passed out a statement disagreeing with the jury’s guilty verdict. Then, the “message” seemed anything but “profound.” The great academic institution deemed the verdict proof that the jury was paying no attention to “the clear evidence our team presented.” At this writing, Oberlin has yet to communicate the profundity that the jury spake unto its soul. The college has reverted to the idea of vindicating itself — presumably in a higher court. Eventually, it hopes, chin uplifted to the rising dawn, it will find the intelligent audience it deserves.

Here is an element common to many varieties of falsehood — the idea that what counts is not what you say, but whom you say it to. If you can find an audience that’s willing to put up with what you say — because you are a college, or a “statesman,” or an “activist,” or . . . whatever — then go ahead; say anything you want! Never mind that nobody with a brain actually believes you. That just means that opinion is divided.




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Climate Change Denier

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Part I

As the climate change End Time-ism appears to grow inexorably, I keep reading and hearing good debunking attempts. Most don’t do me lasting good, however, because they require me to know, or to gain knowledge of, rudiments of physics, and of other sciences of which I am mostly innocent. It seems to me that it’s not right, that it’s not fair even, that deciphering these technically expressed instances of skepticism must be a distraction for the average citizen, as it is for me.

After all, when I take my car to the repair shop, I don’t really have to know much auto mechanics. Similarly, I don’t study dentistry before I choose a dentist, or entrust myself into his hands. And when I had a pacemaker put in, there was no requirement that I know where the surgeon planned to place it, or why. Nevertheless, everything went fine. Both my heart and my car run well, and my teeth are in reasonably good condition for my age.

Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects.

Incidentally, the American citizenry has maintained for 230 years a fair version of representative government. We achieved this in spite of (or because of) the paucity of individuals with advanced political science degrees in our midst. We relied mostly on our ordinary intellectual and moral faculties. What I personally bring to all these crucial choices of a car mechanic, of a dentist, of a heart surgeon, of a president, is intuition fed by experience, sometimes a capacity for quick reasoning, a willingness to apply elementary logic to new situations, and all-round skepticism. I am pretty fair at assessing others’ credibility, thanks to my possession of a good detector of what they would call in French caca de taureau. I suspect that other ordinary citizens do more or less what I do. Specialized training should not be required to make the most important choices imaginable.

We Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. I think we still don’t want to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects. They have to convince us rationally that their positions are right. Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.

So it seems to me that there exists, upstream from scientific debunking, another potential critique of the general doctrine of apocalyptic climate change, one that relies on the same basic skills we use in everyday life. It seems to me also that skeptics who allow themselves to be drawn into the debate on specialized scientific grounds are falling into a kind of trap. I mean, for example, discussions of sunspots and controversies about the speed with which glaciers melt. By now, the dogma of climate change is so deeply and widely established, so many resources have been expended and continue to be expended to support it, so many careers are at stake in the media, in politics, in science, and in academia, that the only effective strategy of skepticism must start with a loud comment that “the King is naked.” I try to do this below.

Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.

A word of warning: at several points, my own comments may seem overly technical, thus betraying my self-awarded mission. I ask you to believe that they only seem technical. This essay, like most of my writing, is not intended for the technically trained but for the intelligently ignorant.

Although I am trying to reach a more general position, I have learned from several examples of climate change skepticism with a libertarian point of view. I am thinking, for instance, of “Global Village Idiots,” by Steve Murphy, and of Murphy’s vivid discussion of mindless and aberrant climate-change blaming, “Butterfly Police.” Others have commented on the astounding contortions climate change reformers perform to push their policy proposals. The Paris Accord would be an example. It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement it although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway. As Robert H. Miller has said, “But most of all, the dispute is about increasing government power.” (All in “Climate Change Wars.”)

Definition

The subject of this essay is the current idea of human-caused climate change. By this I mean the narrative that describes the global climate as changing more or less permanently, as a result of human activities, with severe adverse consequences for people and for the world itself, in magnitudes requiring immediate attention.

At the heart of this narrative is the so-called “greenhouse effect,” the release of gases that amplify the warming of the earth by the sun. Singled out among such gases in the versions of the narrative presented in mass media is carbon dioxide (  CO2).  

It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement the Paris Accord although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway.

Some other gases are also said to be responsible for the greenhouse effect, including methane burped and passed by cattle, but CO2 is usually considered the most worthy of attention. I am not sure if anyone makes the case that this gas is the main contributor to the greenhouse effect, or if it’s singled out because it’s the most convenient to manipulate (to decrease), or if it’s emphasized for some other reason.

My Credentials

I have previously discussed various forms of irrationality surrounding the climate change narrative. (See the list of links that follows this part of the essay.) Now it’s time for me to be more thorough than I have been so far. It’s also time to gather in a single essay the several sources of my skepticism. This isn’t going to be pretty! Here are my nonspecialist qualifications toward this endeavor.

I know as much about the physics of weather as the average observant person who pays attention to the daily weather forecast. I may know slightly more, because I was a sailor for 50 years, which implies an interest in winds and tides. Probably none of this adds up to much.

In addition, as a result of living for a long time, I know a lot about viciousness, ludicrousness, gobbledygook, inconsistencies, bad faith, and plain old deceitfulness. For 30 years I was a teacher, a good observation point. A few years in the graduate program of an expensive university gave me clear ideas about what constitutes good scientific design in general, and also about sampling. Finally, I gained from my past occasional service as a referee for American scholarly journals an exquisite sensitivity to measurement issues. Because of the malevolent inquisitiveness linked to the same past scholarly activity, I am keenly interested in what should logically be there but isn’t — what for all the world ought to be there but can’t be found. You tell me there is an elephant in a dark room; I grope for a trunk. If I don’t find one after reasonable effort, I begin suspecting there is no elephant. Then I ask myself why you told me there was an elephant in the room, when there is not.

I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime.

Excuse me if it sounds like bragging, but I think that’s quite a bit. Reminder: I am still innocent of “climate science,” whatever that is.

Let me add that I am a retired citizen and that I have much more time to remain informed that most other citizens. I do it routinely. I follow the media and I read daily. I travel on the internet, in two languages. I do it for six or seven hours a day. This is not by way of boasting. I am just building up the case that if something important escaped even my attention, other, less well-situated citizens are likely also to remain unaware of it.

The Scope of my Skepticism

My skepticism is only about global warming and more, generally, about the human-caused climate change (HCC) narrative as described above. I am much in favor of clean water and of pure air but for other reasons. Incidentally, I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime. I also think plastic trash in the ocean is a disgrace, but it’s a problem that could be solved at little cost: just make the discarded plastic valuable so that it either will not be thrown away or will be collected if it is. As for energy sources, I am taken by the sheer elegance of power production from sun, wind, tides, and waves. I also like the potential of the first two to separate individuals from the grid more or less at will. And it’s true that my wife and I, both old, don’t often need more than a hundred miles of transport autonomy. So I would sort of wish electric cars well, if only they did not require so much in public subsidies, a kind of admission of failure.

If you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period.

If I were young and starting off in life, I would do my best to give myself an energy-efficient house with some ability to produce power. That’s because I dislike both waste and dependency on public organizations, especially on organizations that are excused from competing in the market place.

So, all in all, I am not one of those who miss the good old days of LA smog, chemical rivers, and filthy beaches. I am acutely aware of the general economic problem of externalities: if you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period. Finally, and before the question arises nastily, I want to affirm here that I am not on any Big Oil payroll, at least, not yet. (I keep hoping though.) But I am casting a wide net in this essay. It’s possible that I am factually wrong on something or other. Please, draw my attention to any error of fact. I will be gracious and even appreciative.

The following is a systematic catalog of the reasons I am skeptical of the HCC narrative and the corresponding political agendas.

Breaches of Decency and Common Sense

The word “denier” was chosen deliberately to stigmatize skeptics like me by evoking “Holocaust deniers.” It refers to those who maintain that the mass assassination of Jews during World War II never took place. Holocaust deniers are underinformed, deliberately so in most cases, semi-literate, intellectually stubborn, and anti-Semitic. I am none of the above. This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.

I have to ask myself what would prompt such viciousness? Have I encountered it before, either personally, or in my broad reading? I have. More on this later.

“But,” other people ask me, “how can you deny the reality of climate change when 98% [or 95%, or 97%, same thing] of “climate scientists” agree that it’s real?” Between the lines: “Who TF do you think you are?”

This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.

Well, there is not a single instance, in the whole history of the world, of a survey returning 98% “Yes.” None; you can check for yourself.

There must be some confusion here with the presidential election results in some central African republic. If indeed, there were a 98% consensus, by anyone about anything, there is no way we would know about it. To be able to state this, you would have to:

  1. rigorously define the whole relevant population (in this case, I imagine, climate scientists, worldwide);
  2. actually circumscribe, delineate the population;
  3. gain access to all of it, or to a random sample of it;
  4. administer a clear and unbiased questionnaire that produces near zero unusable responses. (Or actively remedy the problems that unusable responses and non-responses pose for correct inference.)

Do the calculations in your head: suppose the survey produces 10% unusable responses, an excellent, low result by any standard. How then do you treat the 2% of disagreeing responses that are one-fifth of that figure?

The reality is worse than this. The published scholarly paper link from which the 98% figure (or 9X% figure) seems to come is referenced below in Note 1. The article admits to a whopping 86% nonresponse rate. Out of 8,457 persons identified as climate scientists whom the authors contacted, only 1,189 provided usable responses. Of those, nearly all said they believed in human-caused climate change. That’s the source of the 9X% figures. The question remaining is: what do the 86% who did not respond think of HCC? That’s a big 7,268 scholars whom the article’s authors, on their own, using their own freely chosen criteria, had determined to be real climate scientists.

The nonresponders cannot simply be considered irrelevant. Suppose that 20% of them, 1,454, are firm “deniers” who have not responded because they are gun-shy, suspicious of an ideological trap, or simply too busy to respond. Suppose further that the remainder, 80% of nonresponders, actually have no opinion. The percentage of those who have an opinion and believe in climate change is now 1,189/1,189+1,453 = 45%, instead of the astounding 98%, 97%, or more, when nonresponses are ignored.

There is no reason to think the survey sample is representative of the whole population from which it is drawn.

Now, obviously I chose nonresponding deniers to be 20% for my own demonstration purposes. I don’t know what the percentage of deniers among nonresponders is, any more than the authors of the study do. It might be much less than 20%; it might be zero percent. The percentage of deniers among those who are not represented in the article might also be much higher — 97%, or even 99%. I don’t know, and, again, the article’s authors don’t know either. It’s plausible that the percentage would be high, because of a common positive bias among survey responders in general. Those who are on the positive side of the answer to a survey question appear generally more motivated to answer than those who are on the negative side. So the climate change skeptics could easily be underrepresented among those who responded.

There is worse. The original 8,457 climate scientists contacted are, in fact, a sample of an unknown population of real, credentialed climate scientists that may be much larger, possibly several times larger. It’s a sample arrived at in a principled (and even ingenuous) manner well described in the article, but it’s not a random sample. There is no reason to think it’s representative of the whole population from which it is drawn. Thus, one conceptual problem piles up on top of the others.

The authors could have easily avoided this latest, unavoidable criticism. They could have simply asserted that the number 8,457 — all those contacted — constituted the whole relevant population. That would have avoided my second criticism of their sampling method. The fact is that they did not. I am guessing that they did not because they wanted to stake a much broader claim than their data legitimately allowed. What other explanation is there?

Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.

Here is the real finding expressed in traditional, nontriumphalist scientific manner: >97% of a possibly biased (possibly grossly biased) sample of a nonrepresentative sample of a loosely defined population of climate scientists affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.

I don’t fault the authors’ craftsmanship at all. They worked well with what they had. I blame their conceit, (or their unexamined zeal) and even more, the conceit of their nonscientist followers. Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.

The consumers of percentage-based pronouncements should always ask forcefully: “X% of what, exactly?” An earlier article in the respected peer-reviewed Organization Studies claims that fewer than 40% of geoscientists and engineers agree that humans are creating a global warming crisis. Change the population of reference, change the percentage! (“Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change,” Lianne M. Lefstrud and Renate E. Meyer, November 19, 2012.) That study was performed in oil-rich Alberta, which may, of course, have affected it. Other extraneous factors may have affected other surveys, in opposite directions.

One more issue of credibility with statements of the form, “9x% agree . . .”: someone — not necessarily me — has to have access to the list of all actually surveyed, someone relatively neutral, or better, someone a little hostile, to check that the list is clean, that it does not include, for example, 40% high school dropouts, 10% environmental activists with no scientific credentials, or all the mothers of the researchers and their activist friends. Normally, this kind of scrutiny is performed by scientific journals and by the referees or reviewers they appoint. (If you are not familiar with the way in which scholarly and scientific journals work, see my didactic essay on the subject.)

If there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.

I don’t know whether this precise degree of scrutiny has occurred in the survey we are examining, although the article of reference was apparently published in a peer-reviewed journal. My own limited experience says that only somewhat hostile reviewers can be solidly expected to perform thoroughly the kind of verification I describe above. And, no, I am not accusing the authors of cheating. I just think, again from experience, that one tends to be indulgent toward what confirms one’s viewpoint. I know this from having been brutally yanked back to reality by several peer reviews during my own research career.

As it is commonly used in the non-scholarly big media and on social media, the widespread appeal to a 95%, or 97%, 98 % consensus is simply ludicrous.

This is one of the many cases in which the rotten apple in a barrel concept may apply: if there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.

It’s tempting to move on. But by the way: science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin. (See his struggle against the consensus of his day in Adrian Desmonds and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution [2009].)

Lack of Clarity

Next, I will try to do my homework about what should happen, on a proximate basis, practically, to a belief in the HCC narrative. The semi-official spokesorgan for the climate change movement seems to be the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC or IPCC for short). That organization publishes periodic reports — some of them stained by little scandals. (Once, a photographer was found to have inserted his uninformed but firm opinion about the speed of glaciers melting in an allegedly scholarly summary.) I took the trouble on one occasion to read in its entirety the special summary of an IPCC report aimed at government decision makers. It was incomprehensible. I take the position that whatever I don’t understand will not be understood by most (or any) members of my city council. (Why, the former mayor is a former student of mine!) But those are the very people to whom the summary is addressed. I don’t know why the directive summary for decision makers was so poorly written, whether because of incompetence, or for some other reason. (Hold that thought.) At any rate, it was gobbledygook, exactly where clarity should have been expected.

Science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin.

The IPCC document is not an isolated case of opaqueness in HCC communications. In fact, it’s routine. HCC partisans habitually speak with the thick tongue of mornings after. Take the term “renewable energy.” It implies that barring the adoption of some restrictive HCC-driven environmental agenda, humanity will run out of natural gas, of petroleum, of coal, in some foreseeable future. None of this is true, of course. We have seen known reserves of petroleum grow prodigiously in our lifetimes, even as we were burning oil with abandon. And why would the modifier “renewable” be used at all, if not to imply forthcoming shortages?

Inconsistencies and Bad Faith

I believe that if I hate the way something is done, hate it so much that I want everyone to stop doing it whatever the cost, hate it so much that I am willing to use force to stop them from doing it, then I am first morally obligated to try to promote other ways of doing things.

So climate change advocates tell us that the greenhouse effect — fed by human produced CO2 — will raise global temperatures to catastrophic levels. Many add that this will happen very soon, that there is extreme urgency. Well, it turns out, there is a sure way to produce unlimited amounts of energy — including electricity to power electric cars — that results in zero CO2 emissions (none). I refer, of course, to energy produced by nuclear plants. The French have been getting more than 80% of their electricity that way for 50 years. Japan’s share was about 40% until 2010. A detailed record exists for both countries. So, climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants. In every locale, at the state and city level, they should be insisting on a simplification of many of the superfluous regulations that now obstruct such expansion. They should even demand the elimination of some of those regulations that currently make building nuclear plants artificially expensive. They are not doing this, to say the least.

The vague, and in fact seldom well expressed, objection is that nuclear energy is dangerous. That belief used to be plausible; it’s not anymore. The worst has happened, and nothing happened. Three Mile Island did not amount to much, although a good, dramatic movie was shown at about the same time (The China Syndrome). The Fukushima plant was hit in 2011 with one of the worst of unexpected forces: a full blast tsunami. The resulting nuclear accident did not amount to much in terms of fatalities, or in terms of anything. (“The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and World Health Organization reports that there will be no increase in miscarriages, stillbirths or physical and mental disorders in babies born after the accident”: Wikipedia.) Many people confuse the death toll from the nuclear plant with that of the tsunami itself — deaths by drowning, for example. That’s wrong, but I have not noticed any HCC advocates condemn the confusion. Maybe I missed it.

Climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency lists 33 serious incidents, total, for the whole world, since the beginning of nuclear energy production. The seriousness of only two merited its highest score of seven. The first was Chernobyl, naturally. The second was Fukushima, where this highest score seems to have been given by the Japanese government, for somewhat bizarre reasons. The plant itself was put out of commission, but the tsunami alone would have probably done that. Evidence of specifically nuclear damage, as opposed to destruction from flooding and the physical force of the tsunami, is hard to find.

Even the Chernobyl accident turns out, even on superficial examination, not to have been what it was cracked to be. Sixty-three people died directly from the accident. Beyond the 63, estimates of additional deaths, of deaths above and above the expected, of deaths above the number from the natural death rate, vary widely enough to cause me to dismiss out of hand the methodologies involved. Thirty-three years after the event, I see no evidence that anyone died of radiation effects. The large area around the entombed Chernobyl plant, prudently evacuated by the Soviets at the time of the accident, remains uninhabited by humans. It’s now the largest de facto game preserve in Europe. Animals of all kinds thrive there. Does this tell us anything about the safety of that area for homo sapiens?

Would you guess that nuclear safety techniques have improved since 1986? Since the demise of the shaky Soviet Union? That’s a good bet. But while you’re computing the few nuclear-related deaths caused by the Three Mile Island accident, the destruction of the Fukushima plant by a tsunami, and the Chernobyl disaster, you may want to consider how many deaths are due to the production of energy by other means, in amounts equal to those produced by the nuclear plants just mentioned. Would these traditional modes of energy production cost fewer or more lives? How many more or fewer? I am thinking coal, petroleum, natural gas. I am also curious — and open-minded — about the comparative lethal dangers of hydroelectric, wind, and solar power. In the meantime, even France is making confused energy production choices under the influence of the HCC narrative. (“La France fait de mauvais choix technologiques,” by Gérard Kafadaroff and Jean-Pierre Riou.)

Offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy.

Questions regarding the absence of nuclear solutions to alleged climate problems are worth asking, unless you care little or not at all about intellectual and moral consistency. Yet public figures identified with the climate change narrative are nowhere to be found when it comes to opining on the desirability of nuclear power. It makes me think that they are gravely flawed intellectually, or that they wish for something other than a reduction in CO2 emissions, or that the reduction of CO2 emission is only a means to some other end. Their absence in this matter is a major reason why I don’t trust HCC experts. At the very least, some of these experts should appear in the same media they inhabit day in and day out and explain, like this: “Some people think that nuclear energy production is a solution to global warming because it emits no greenhouse gases. However . . .” Their failure to appear, the fact that rank-and-file believers do not ask that they appear, makes me see the whole movement as existing in bad faith.

Failures to Intervene on the Side of Virtue and Reason

Bad faith is also demonstrated by omission. When loud voices insist that the world is going to come to an end in about 12 years unless we take radical measures, no audible contradiction comes from the HCC side. (Correct me if I am wrong; I will publish the contradiction right here, in bold letters.) When a newly-minted politician of no particular intellectual distinction affirms that we must eliminate jet-plane travel within 30 years or at least not much later, the silence of responsible HCC advocates is deafening. When multiple declared presidential candidates of the largest political party join her publicly . . .

More prosaically, there is not a day that goes by when I don’t read or hear in the media absurd and unsupported pronouncements attributing this or that untoward event to “global warming” or to “climate change.” Once I even heard a television weather reporter blame climate change for an (imaginary) increase in the frequency of . . . earthquakes. OK, this was on the international francophone television channel TV5 but, so? The HCC narrative seems to me to have further advanced toward uncontested truth in France and in Belgium than in the US. That might explain its mindless audacity. I paid much attention afterwards, and I think no correction was ever made on TV5. So, somewhere in West Africa, there may be some alert school kids who watch TV5 to improve their French and are now affirming that climate change causes earthquakes.

Before such stupidity, I expect climate scientists, the real ones with scholarly credentials, to reach down from their ivory towers to administer contradiction. They must know that unsupported and unsupportable statements like these give their cause a bad name among the thinking and the rational. They may not be able to do it often; transgressions of this kind are daily and probably worldwide. Yet offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy. If they don’t, it suggests to me that they don’t care to persuade the thinking and the rational. It might be that after a certain point, persuasion becomes irrelevant because there are other means, forceful means, to achieve their desired ends. Their inaction makes me suspicious.

Climate change narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar.

I am aware of only one case when contradiction was actually meted out, when a climate scientist with scientific credentials reached down to try and straighten out the record. In 2007, when Al Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize, the media made next to nothing of the fact that it was awarded jointly with the UN International Panel on Climate Change. One little known scientist from IPCC, maybe piqued for being left in a dark corner while Gore was bathing in the limelight, wrote a brief, timid, mildly corrective op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. That’s it! Some readers may have noticed other corrective interventions that escaped my attention. I would like to hear about them, too.

And by the way, HCC narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar. Just my opinion but, ask around.

Omitting the Good

The climate change narrative includes other striking sins of habitual omission. But there is little doubt that if the various scenarios linked to climate change — global warming specifically — are correct, some good things will follow, in addition to the bad ones. This matters, because rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions. Two significant such omissions come to mind.

The first concerns shorter polar routes linking Europe and East Asia to each other and to North America, as ice melts near the North Pole. This means cheaper transportation, cheaper goods and, besides, a decrease in fuel consumption and therefore an abatement in CO2 emissions! I think this has already happened. It seems worth the occasional mention.

Rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions.

The second omission is warmer temperatures, which would undoubtedly ensure that the global area where cereals can mature will push northward. More wheat, for example, will be grown in Canada and in Siberia. This will mean more food and cheaper food. Perhaps it will even delay the moment when we must stop raising cattle because of their gross gas-processing manners. The warming of northern regions of the Northern Hemisphere may also give humanity some agricultural flexibility. Areas where cereals are grown under conditions favoring CO2 emissions might be retired, to the benefit of new areas, less favorable to them. Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification. That they omit to mention the good side of the same coin looks simply like another form of bad faith.

And then there is the simple fact, which the moderate environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg pointed out in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, that many more people die of the cold than from the heat.

It would be fine for HCC publicists to omit the favorable stuff about global warming if we had a real adversarial debate going on. We don’t have one because the climate change proponents overwhelmingly insist that there is no opposite side, that there is only their side, and elsewhere there is simply a mass of uneducated, illiterate imbeciles who are probably also evil (“deniers”). After all, 98%, or 97% of climate scientists, etc. . . .

Deviousness and Nonchalance

And then, there is what looks like cheating and is at least devious. Let me say first that so many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest. So I am less interested in describing the liars and cheats than in gauging the response to dishonesty — or cutting corners, or manipulating data, or concealing data — of what has become, deliberately or not, a social movement.

Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification.

In 2009, hacked (stolen) emails sent by climate researchers at the University of East Anglia seemed to show coordinated attempts to suppress adverse research by deniers, by mere skeptics, and by simple rivals. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University were also implicated. See, for example: “From Phil Jones [University of East Anglia] To: Michael Mann (Pennsylvania State University). July 8, 2004: ‘I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!’” [Emphasis mine.]

About more suppression, see: “Climategate 2.0: New E-Mails Rock The Global Warming Debate,” by James Taylor, in Forbes, November 23, 2011. There was also an unexplained mass destruction of data, including publicly accessible data, after questions were raised about findings on which they may have been based; this, although keeping the same data involved little or no cost: “Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based. It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.” A government-supported outfit admitted to having thrown away a large amount of climate data because of a “lack of storage capacity.” This prevents others, of course, from trying to duplicate their findings.

Here is an articulate summary of what an alert and critical layman could have read about what came to be known as “ClimateGate” — I mean a literate interested person with no training in physics or related fields, a citizen, like me: “What’s Up with That”: “Men Behaving Badly — a Short Summary for Laymen.” See also another work by the same author, and yet another by Fred Pearse, in the British center-left Guardian. Note: Pearse was also sometimes a debunker of the climate change debunking.

So many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest.

So, it looked for all the world as if there were an international conspiracy of people with real scientific credentials — not publicists — to censor and to steer research in ways supportive of the HCC narrative. Soon, prestigious associations of scientists, their own universities, and some respected scientific journals responded by reaffirming the reality of climate change without, however, explicitly denying the apparent cheating or condemning the apparent cheaters. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, concluded: ‘based on multiple lines of scientific evidence that global climate change caused by human activities is now underway . . . it is a growing threat to society.’”

After following this complicated story for 15 years, I am left with the impression that no one with any public intellectual credibility has addressed the following: however correct many of the HCC findings are, no matter how real global warming may be, top climate researchers did repeatedly violate scientific and academic norms, as well as basic individual ethics. This speaks, of course, to future credibility, to the post-scandal credibility of the scientific basis of HCC.

Ten years earlier, another climate scientist and his colleagues had produced a striking graph showing an abrupt and dramatic rise in temperature for the period more or less from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to today. Thus, the “hockey stick”: from left to right, flat, flat, flat, and then steeply up (to the right side of the graph, the last hundred years or so). He excluded available data for the period immediately preceding his period of observation. Had those data been included — extending the period to earlier times — the graph would have represented global temperature change over time as a sort of shapeless U instead of the striking “hockey stick.” The resulting graph might still have been interpretable as supporting the HCC narrative, but much less spectacularly than the hockey stick. It would have made more room for honest doubt. The alternative graph, with full data, could have been used in the way graphs are intended: to make information readily available to others — including the untrained — so they may make up their own minds. For a hostile view of the hockey stick, read: “Climate change: this is the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” Christopher Booker, The Telegraph, November 20, 2009. “Our hopelessly compromised scientific establishment cannot be allowed to get away with the Climategate whitewash,” says Booker.

The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s.

The scientific transgression involved in the hockey stick graph is a subtle one, but the relevant rule is clear: researchers are supposed to include all the relevant data available, or they must say why they don’t. If they don’t follow this rule, they must at least signal clearly the existence of data they exclude so that others may try alternative formulations. (See note 2 below.) In their rebuttal of the widespread criticism accompanying their initial report, the chief creator of the hockey stick and his colleagues published a response with more complete data — through an interview with Chris Mooney of The Atlantic. The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s. They insist nevertheless that they were right all along.

The graph entitled “Reconstructed Temperature” (which uses several measurements) in the Wikipedia entry, “Hockey Stick Controversy” shows about the same thing.

This, the most relevant Wikipedia entry, gives wide coverage to the associated issues and it is abundantly referenced (to mostly scientific journals). It gives an impression of scholarly thoroughness. It must also leave the noncommitted reader with the view that after much back and forth, the controversy has now disappeared, to the benefit of the hockey stick creators’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, the last, concluding sentence in this long Wiki entry reads as follows: “Marcott et al. 2013 used seafloor and lake bed sediment proxies to reconstruct global temperatures over the past 11,300 years, the last 1,000 years of which confirmed the original MBH99 hockey stick graph.” (Italics mine.) So, the data before 1012 do not support the hockey stick graph? Pretty much the suspicion I started with.

The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data.

None of the above demonstrates to me that there is no HCC. There is however an unfinished controversy, a healthy debate around complicated issues of statistical analysis and of even more difficult issues of measurement. I think it’s far from over. The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data. They thereby drew unwanted attention to themselves and to their alleged conclusive findings. Why they would have adopted such a cavalier attitude toward good practice is anyone’s guess, but the fact makes this citizen consumer of such news suspicious.

Neither instance of academic nonchalance proves anything in itself, but both give us the right to wonder whether they are the tip of a giant iceberg of intellectual dishonesty. Personally, I can’t put these stories to rest because the critical examination by the legitimate upper scientific establishment was too weak, given the implied tremendous policy stakes. I feel as if the relevant credentialed persons had just closed the door instead of cleaning the room.

If the watchdogs are doing their watching indulgently, why should I — who am unable to perform my own watching — believe that what is being watched is legitimate?

The article continues in Part II.

Notes

1. “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”: To cite this article: John Cook et al (8) 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 024024 (7pp). I thank my friend and FB friend Vernon Bohr for the link.

2. I have performed this kind of longitudinal research myself. My old coauthored sociology articles on the history of the Irish press and of the Argentinean press would have shown different things, and possibly more interesting things if we had had the luxury of deciding which years of observation to include, which to exclude. Instead, we performed statistical operations on all data available, from the very first newspaper to be published in each country. This proper inclusion might have cost me tenure! No regrets here though; both articles were published in one of the best journals available (Jacques Delacroix and Glenn Carroll. "Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland," Administrative Science Quarterly, 228:274-291(1983); Glenn Carroll and Jacques Delacroix, "Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach," Administrative Science Quarterly, 27:169-198 (1982).

My postings on climate change:




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Muzungus in the Mist, Part II

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The first part of Robert H. Miller’s personal account of Rwanda appeared in Liberty on May 5. Here is the second and final part.

Part II: The Lone Cyclists

Our last day with Slow Cyclist began with a ride on a moto-taxi, something I’d been dreading. It was an innovative way to return us to the point on our route — a junction with an unmarked dirt road — from which we’d detoured for the gorilla trekking. For me it was a novel experience; I’d never been on a motorcycle before, considering them a needless risk. The Slow Cyclist support vehicle delivered our bicycles to the turn-off. Our destination was Gisenyi, 82 kilometers away, on the shores of Lake Kivu — and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I’d sooner walk naked through the South Side of Chicago with a toy gun than go anywhere near the Congo. Even worse, next door to Gisenyi, across the border, lay Goma, a hotbed of rebel activity and Ebola outbreaks — a combination that has caused many international relief and health agencies to leave. Yet it’s seen worse.

The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning.

Back in 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Kigali and Butare on the 4th of July, putting an end to the war and genocide, a million Hutus fled for Goma. The human wave was composed of Hutu Power extremists, remnants of the Rwandan army (FAR), and the Interahamwe — all in full retreat — herding ordinary Hutus whom they’d either coerced or convinced that the RPF would kill them. The génocidaires escaped fully armed, yet they were able to convince the international community that they were the victims, refugees from the Rwandan genocide. The génocidaires quickly established firm control of the nascent refugee camps that sprang up on the inhospitable lava fields of the Nyaragongo volcano on the outskirts of Goma.

By July 20 the FAR and Interahamwe in the camps, now — unwittingly or mistakenly — classified as refugees, were raiding emergency shipments of food relief meant for the real refugees: the Hutu civilians they’d forced out of Rwanda. That same day cholera broke out. More than 30,000 died in the three to four weeks before the epidemic was contained.

Nearly a third of Rwanda’s Hutu population had escaped into Congo (then Zaire), Tanzania, and Burundi and was camped close to Rwanda’s border, in contravention of UN guidelines. The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning. The Hutu Power hierarchy denounced them as RPF accomplices; some had their Achilles’ tendons cut so they couldn’t walk, and some were even killed by the militias. As Philip Gourevitch, in his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families concludes, “After all, if all the innocent refugees left, only the guilty would remain, and Hutu Power’s monopoly on international pity might be shaken.”

More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Raids by Hutu militants into Rwanda and retaliatory counter-raids by the RPF, by then become the Rwandan army, continued at least until 2012. In the interim, Kagame forced the closing of the camps, repatriated most of the real refugees, and eliminated many of the Hutu extremists. Today, President Kagame has extended an olive branch and invitation to the remaining expatriate Hutus to return to Rwanda. He avers that only the organizers of the genocide will be tried.

Yet the troubles persist. The March 9, 2019 Economist reports that the previous collaborative relationship between Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda has soured. Rwanda has taken retaliatory action against Uganda for supporting Hutu rebel forces in eastern Congo that are intent on overthrowing President Kagame.

* * *

We enjoyed a beautiful and varied bike ride to Paradis Kivu Lodge overlooking Lake Kivu. Along the way throngs of colorfully dressed women carrying impossible loads of tomatoes, potatoes, cassava, bananas, and other goods on their heads — some with small children tucked into shawls slung across their backs — headed for markets in Rubavu and Gisenyi, where many Goma residents often came to shop. More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Adding to the brooding specter of Goma, the hyperactive Nyaragongo volcano sits just 20 kilometers north of the city. It erupted in 2002, destroying two-thirds of Goma. Its superfluid lava can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, so it’s a miracle only 45 died. There was enough warning that 400,000 residents were evacuated to Gisenyi in Rwanda. The last eruption occurred in 2016.

The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow.

That evening while we were supping on beef, chicken, and fish brochettes at lakeside, the overcast skies glowed pink in one distant spot due north. It was the reflection of Nyaragongo’s molten crater on the cloud ceiling: Mordor on the equator — a sight I’ll never forget.

November 24 broke under heavy rain coming in from the Congo. Today we’d bidden farewell to our Slow Cyclist team and come under the guidance of Rwandan Adventures, an almost totally Rwandan enterprise. When the rain stopped, Roger, our Rwandan Adventures guide, showed up at Paradis Kivu Lodge to lead us to their headquarters in Rubavu and the lodging they’d arranged for us.

We’d hired Rwandan Adventures to book our lodging and provide a trail guide and translator. From the Gisenyi-Rubavu area, our route would follow the Congo-Nile Trail along the length of Lake Kivu down to Nyungwe National Park, after which we’d be on our own. The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow. With lodging options few and far between, and varying considerably in price and quality, Rwandan Adventures’ services were indispensable. The trail is very rural and takes about five days to traverse.

The route follows the precipitous divide that separates the Nile and Congo Rivers — in some ways the very center of Africa — hence the name. Steep, lakeside jungle and terraced land with banana trees, coffee plots, truck gardens, and small fishing communities line the route. Countless islets and peninsulas with dwellings and small-holdings give the shore a look-twice jigsaw puzzle appearance.

The lake itself was devoid of motorized traffic, except for the occasional African Queen-style utility steamer. We saw only dugouts and elegant, clinker-built paddle boats with upturned ends and long net poles for fishing. Lake Kivu is one of those not-so-rare lakes with dissolved gas at its bottom, about 1,000 feet down. It contains an estimated 256 cubic kilometers of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 65 cubic kilometers of methane. Much of the CO2 enters the lake from the volcanic rock beneath it. Bacteria in the lake then convert some of the CO2 into methane. If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode. To mitigate the danger, the Rwandan government is piping the gas up and using it for power generation.

The Congo-Nile Trail started off with a bang — literally. Backcountry bridges in Rwanda are built from logs, with the logs constituting the road surface and placed parallel to the direction of travel. Sometimes the log surfaces are planed with an adze, sometimes rounded. Just before lunch, after logging in a difficult and challenging 25 kilometers — with lots of uphill bike-pushing — we encountered one of these bridges. My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs, stopped only when the handlebars hit the adjoining logs. My face hit the road hard. I dented my helmet and glasses; rasped my forehead and nose; scraped a large area of skin on the inside of my thigh. My right shoulder pounded the ground so hard, three months later I still have yet to fully recover. Subsequent X-rays back in the US indicated no fractures. Roger and Tina ran up, helped me to my feet, and pulled the bike out of its slot. The bike was fine — only a broken rear-view mirror. My shoulder hurt like hell, but it was OK when extended in a riding position. Anyway, there was only one option out here: ride on. For the remainder of the ride I popped Ibuprofen like they were M&Ms (with the occasional painkiller to allow for sleep).

If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode.

It was a Sunday. The road thronged with women in strikingly colorful dresses with matching turban headdresses; men in white shirts, ties, and slacks, and kids in their Sunday finery, all headed for churches. For such a rural area the mass of worshipers was astounding — all walking. Passing by the churches, we heard entire congregations with voices in perfect unison pealing out of chests bursting with vigor, raising high the rafters with glorious a capella singing reminiscent of the old Missa Luba — sacred music sung in Congolese style. I wanted to forget my discomfort, and that helped.

Contrary to the perception (especially on the sidewalks of New York) that in crowded places people mind their own business and avoid eye or physical contact, in Rwanda everyone greets everyone, makes contact, talks, shakes hands, smiles — and we were included. Women don’t mind being looked at, stared at; they usually smile back.

Everyone in Rwanda, no matter how poor, seems to have a cellphone. Roger had called ahead for our lunch, a break I desperately needed. We stopped at a small mud-walled building in a tiny, nondescript hamlet. This was Mama Nelly’s, our sign-free lunch stop. There was no door, but laid out on a rough bench in the narrow foyer was a typical Rwandan meal: rice, beans, spinach, chips (French fries), fried plantains, stewed potatoes, and fried fingerling fish — heads and all — with Akabanga: Rwandan chili oil. All we could eat.

We soon realized that while the trail along Lake Kivu traverses commanding heights, lodging favored lakeside settings. The Kivu Rushel Lodge, a fancy tent establishment, was located three kilometers off-route down a hellish four-wheel drive “road” that sorely shook my shoulders. The welcoming attendant greeted us, helped carry our panniers to our “tent,” and showed us where to stow our bikes. He then asked where we were from. USA, I answered.

His eyes sparkled and he asked, “What do you think of Donald Trump?”

I caught his half-mischievous drift and responded, “I’ll trade you Trump for Kagame.”

He thought about it for a minute and, with a now fully mischievous glint in his eye said “No”. We all laughed.

My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs. My face hit the road hard.

Paul Kagame grew up in Uganda. His family fled to Uganda — with a Hutu mob right on their tail — during one of the periodic pogroms against the Tutsi. Paul was four years old. He would later become a military man through and through. A top student in high school, he opposed the Idi Amin dictatorship, while his best friend Fred Rwigyema joined the Ugandan rebels under Yoweri Museveni to overthrow Amin. When Amin fled into exile, Kagame joined the Museveni faction in the Ugandan army. In 1981, when former dictator Milton Obote again seized power, Museveni returned to the bush to fight some more. At the time, his army consisted of 27 men, including Rwigyema and Kagame. But it would soon grow.

Museveni overthrew Obote in 1986 with the help of Uganda’s Rwandan refugees. By then, his army consisted of 20% Rwandans, with Rwigyema as commanding general and Kagame as director of military intelligence. He went on to receive formal training at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Rwandans had joined Museveni with the tacit understanding that once Museveni was in power, he’d help the Rwandans free Rwanda of the Hutu dictatorship.

Kagame is a caricature Tutsi: over six-feet tall, with a long face, and so skinny that his bodily features are completely hidden by his clothes, which are always spotless and well-pressed. He’s been described as an intensely private public man, but a man of action with an acute human and political intelligence. Married, with four children, he likes dinner parties, dancing, shooting pool, and tennis. One informant told me that Kagame is known to appear unannounced at public events such as soccer games and join in, without security or with minimal security. He likes to mingle with Rwandans as just another citizen. Though he lacks any sign of haughtiness, his mere presence is commanding. He is very intense and focused, seemingly lacking in any sense of humor. His men adored him and composed many chants and songs honoring him. Today, Rwandans don’t just respect him, they revere him.

* * *

The following morning we awoke to solitary male plainsong accompanied by much birdsong — an enchanting combination and unique wakeup call. We were slated for a 60-kilometer day all the way to Kibuye — an actual city — where the tarmac road joins the Congo-Nile Trail. But it didn’t start well and only got worse.

By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as "mzee," old man.

The first three kilometers back to the main trail consisted of uphill loaded-bike pushing with a throbbing shoulder. Roger was indispensable. Then came 20 kilometers of very tough single trail, and then five kilometers of 20% uphill grade on a dirt road strewn with gravel marbles. There was no way we were going to make it to Kibuye by sundown. Roger called a rescue taxi, which was able to get to us — for the trail was no longer a four-wheel drive track — and drive us into Kibuye.

Over dinner at the Rwiza Village Hotel, A-frame chalets overlooking Lake Kivu, we watched the fishermen’s trimarans paddle out to fish as they sang paddling chanties to keep time.

The next day, another 3-kilometer uphill push into Kibuye proper followed by 27 kilometers of roller coaster tarmac with reasonable grades, on a road so perfect, it would shame many of our roads. By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as mzee, old man, as often as muzungu.

The day ended in by now typical fashion: an eight-kilometer downhill detour on an infernal four-wheel drive track to a luxury hotel on an island on Lake Kivu accessed by a causeway that may or may not have been manmade. We were the only guests.

At the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless.

Kivu Lodge is emblematic of Rwanda. Like many hotels in the country, it grows its own produce. Unconnected to the electricity grid, its generator runs at set hours or upon request by the guests. The lawns surrounding its helicopter pad were being mowed by a man squatting and clipping with hedge shears. I asked our host if the helicopter pad was for President Kagame. He smiled and declined to answer.

Rwanda is a third-world country with a first-world perspective. On our month-long, 700-kilometer ride we were never assaulted by any foul odors, hordes of flies, roadside dead animals, traffic accidents, or unsettling sights (other than frequent, local genocide memorials). President Kagame has concentrated the country’s development, Vision 2020, on infrastructure: potable water, sewage disposal, roads, 5G connectivity, electrification, the rule of law, an effective and honest police force and judiciary, health and education, agricultural production, and private sector development fostering a favorable business environment. The plan, developed in the late 1990s, has achieved phenomenal results. At one restaurant in Kigali we met a Taiwanese executive representing a consortium of companies exploring investment opportunities in the country. His enthusiasm was so infectious that both our dinners got cold while we discussed free market philosophy. Later on, at the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless. On the last day of our ride, going into Kigali, one informant pointed to an industrial park up on a hill and said that Volkswagen would break ground there for a factory in 2019.

But Kagame’s greatest success has been his insistence on eradicating the Hutu-Tutsi distinction, while at the same time bringing back — sometimes forcibly — disaffected Hutu expatriates who feared repression; and then successfully integrating them into the national bosom. Article 54 of the new Rwandan constitution states that "political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination.”

To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, the Belgians resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers.

Not that the Hutu-Tutsi thing is any of those specified above. The two groups shared the same national — not tribal — identity since before colonization, spoke the same language, shared the same faiths, lived intermingled throughout the country, intermarried, and in general look so much alike that the Belgian colonial administration issued identity cards so they could tell them apart. To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, they resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers: a long, narrow nose indicated a Tutsi; a wide, pug nose . . . a Hutu. The Belgians were partial to the Tutsi, for their supposed aquiline features and traditional positions of power. Before the issuance of ID cards, people were able to switch identities by acquiring wealth or becoming poor, making a unilateral declaration (subject to acceptance by their neighbors), or any number of other expediencies. Traditionally, clan affiliations overrode the Hutu-Tutsi divide; by the time of the genocide, economic class and entrenched political power were the greatest defining factors between the two.

In one of the strangest ironies ever (one that illustrates the flexibility of Rwandan identities), Jerry Robert Kajuga, national president and leader of the genocidal Interahamwe, came from a Tutsi family. While Jerry was still young, his father obtained Hutu identity papers for the family. During the genocide, while the Interahamwe were out decapitating Tutsis, Kajuga hid his brother (who presumably was still a Tutsi) in a hotel to prevent the family from being targeted as Tutsis.

The origins of the distinction are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the inference goes something like this: the aboriginal inhabitants of the densely forested Rwandan mountains were the Twa, or forest pygmies. Later Bantu agriculturalists moved in from the south and west, followed by — or coming at the same time as — cattle herders from the north and east. The herders were generally tall and lanky; the farmers, of normal girth and stature. With time they became one people, but the more warlike herders organized the land into a kingdom and came to rule over the farmers. Oddly enough, the Tutsi herders favored Twa (only 1% of the population) officers in their armies. By the time of German colonization, the Rwandan king ruled over not only today’s Rwanda, but also parts of Uganda and Congo. As the population densed up, conflicts for land between the farmers and herders intensified, creating the frictions that led to the troubles. These reached a boiling point when, first, the ruling Tutsis imposed onerous taxes on the farmers; second, the German and Belgian colonial governments promoted and favored Tutsis in administration; and finally, status was frozen by the imposition of identity cards.

* * *

Another Sisyphean push eight kilometers back up out of Kivu Lodge to rejoin pavement, followed by 52 pleasant kilometers that landed us at a $40-a-night motel in Kibogura. It was not our ideal choice — it was our only choice. Still, there was cold beer and the mattress was firm.

Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one.

On the day after, the 25 kilometers — all uphill (on tarmac) — to Gisakura and the entrance to Nyungwe National Park, went by fast and sweaty. We arrived at the $200-a-day Top View Hotel pushing our bikes up an extreme incline. It was over the top — individual bungalows with living rooms and porches overlooking the mountains of the park. Roger, our guide, left us here. We no longer needed him: all the way back to Kigali we’d be on main highways, with little chance of getting lost. That afternoon we were scheduled to do a canopy walk in the park and, the following day, chimpanzee tracking. Roger ensured that our permits and fees for both activities, the ranger escorts, four-wheel drive vehicle, and driver for the chimp tracking were organized, and rode off into the mists bearing a generous tip.

On the ride into the park, we spotted many Oyster and Blue monkeys — and one royal Colobus. Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one. Its strange-looking skull sits in the doorway of the visitor center. The 90-meter sky walk allowed us to rise out of the rainforest track and emerge over the canopy for a birds’ eye view down into the treetops and across to the distant mountains, thick with impenetrable green. It was good to be off the bikes.

Unlike many third-world or tropical countries where punctuality is not a value, Rwandans are promptly punctual — in appointments, opening times, and event schedules. Our 3 AM wakeup call (accurate to the second on satellite time) for the chimp excursion was barely effective. We dragged our reluctant bodies to the hotel lobby. There, a group of agitated Chinese mainlanders were loudly assaulting the concierge, who meekly tried to correct whatever wrongs the Chinese had perceived. They’d been our only companions at dinner — loud, uncouth, and with an assortment of Chinese comestibles they’d brought with them. It never occurred to us that they’d go chimp tracking. Some were past any prime they might have ever have had; others were comfortably overweight. Luckily, we weren’t sharing a ride with them. Outside, an old rattle-trap Toyota four-door pickup awaited us. Shadrack, our guide and ranger, and the driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads that would bring us to a distant corner of the park where a troop of chimps lived.

The driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads.

At the park’s far, subsidiary entrance, Shadrack set out the ground rules, and we set off hiking, at 6 AM — with the Chinese and two UAE tourists in tow. Shadrack set a good pace. Within 15 minutes half the Chinese, cigarette stubs hanging out of their mouths, dropped behind and returned to the secondary park headquarters. A mile or so later Shadrack warned of a dense column of fire ants crossing the trail, saying that their sting was intense and their ability to climb up shoes and inside pants cuffs impressive. While the rest of us ran over the column, one Chinese walked. After doing a spirited two-step, with his comrades swatting at his calves, he, too, turned back. By the time we spotted our first chimp, only two mainlanders remained in the group.

Chimps congregate in large, dispersed groups, on the ground and up in the trees. They react to the presence of humans by putting a respectable distance between themselves and us, mostly by disappearing into the canopy. The big males can be aggressive and mostly stay on the ground. Their hoots and hollers are endearing. We had to keep moving in order to prolong the encounters (which the chimps disdained). After a few middle-distance sightings, the remaining Chinese left. Shadrack appointed a tracker to escort them back.

Tina asked Shadrack how he dealt with the arrogance of his mainland Chinese visitors. He smiled and said, “We have our ways,” referring to his passive, polite strategies that day. But he said that a few days previously, a man from China had jumped on his back and demanded to be carried the rest of the way. That was too much for Shadrack. He unloaded the man at a fire ant crossing.

A few days later on the ride we ran into our Slow Cyclist driver, Emi, escorting two Americans to the canopy walk. We told him about our chimp tracking experience and the Chinese. Emi, who always sees a half-full glass as three-quarters full, responded that there are good and bad people in all countries. True! But I advised him that a lasting casualty of the Cultural Revolution was manners. Courtesy and politeness were declared bourgeois values in conflict with proletarian egalitarianism. We were reaping what Mao had sown.

Back at the park entry after the tracking we were greeted by a display of traditional Intore dancing and drumming by a group of about 20 local residents. They pulled us in to participate. Tina, the Arabs, and the one youngish Chinese female interpreter joined in. Not much of a dancer, I took photos and kept rhythm with a foot. The rest of the Chinese couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and proffered no tips. Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

Gisakura, where the Top View is located, is at the western end of Nyungwe Park. Between Gisakura and Kitabi, at the far eastern border — and our next destination on the bikes — only the main park headquarters, about halfway through, has any services: a campground, toilets, permit issuance, and a snack bar. The 61-kilometer distance across the park was devoid of traffic, people, or downhill stretches — except at the very end.

On the outskirts of Kitabi we experienced a “lumber mill.” Multiple sets of individual scaffold frameworks — each about nine feet tall — built out of skinny branches and topped with gapped planks stood off the road about 50 feet away. Atop each one, a shirtless man held the upper end of a giant rip saw. Below, another man held the opposite end. On the scaffold, between the planks, a big log extended all the way across the top. The men were ripping logs to create dimensional lumber by hand, with an up-and-down sawing motion. The finished boards, not varying in depth or width by more than half an inch, were stacked right next to the road, in bundles separated by lath for drying — boards we might label 2x4s, 2x6s and 2x8s.

Our Kitabi lodging, at $30 the cheapest yet, was delightful. The KCCEM Guesthouse is an outlying university research center specializing in nature and biological studies. It consisted of small, semi-detached brick bungalows interspersed by lawns. A resident troop of baboons, attractive but for their ischial callosities — and indifferent to humans — roamed the grounds.

The section of road between Kitabi and Butare, our next destination, was the only part of Rwanda’s main arterial highways that hadn’t yet been paved. Giant Komatsu and Caterpillar excavators and graders, along with asphalt pavers, were hard at work. Fortunately, the 60 kilometers to Butare trended generally down. By noon, we’d arrived at the Bonnie Consile Convent, our evening’s lodging.

Butare, home to Rwanda’s National University and many other institutions of higher learning, is Rwanda’s intellectual center. Many thought that at independence it would become Rwanda’s capital, but Kigali’s central location and its role as the colonial administrative capital won out. At the beginning of the genocide, Butare was the only province with a Tutsi governor. During the first two weeks of the genocide Butare became a haven for fleeing Tutsis from other parts of the country. But on April 18, 1994 the government dismissed the governor, later arresting and shooting him. On the 19th he was replaced by a Hutu Power loyalist, and the killings immediately began: 220,000 people were massacred, most within three to four weeks.

Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

We were now in the heart of historic Rwanda. Butare’s cobbled streets were made no softer by the shocks on our bikes. The National Ethnographic Museum, a few blocks away, conserved many precolonial artifacts and offered insights into traditional Rwandan culture — without getting too controversial: no colonial history or Hutu-Tutsi history. Oddly, it showcased Rwanda’s presidents but not its kings. That night was Tina’s birthday. We overcelebrated and slept in the following morning . . . without consequences. An easy 47 kilometers brought us to Nyanza, the seat of Rwanda’s kings. We checked in at a bustling hotel full of business people, families, and school groups, and then headed out to the Royal Palace Museum complex.

Before it became Rwanda the country was known as the Nyiginya Kingdom. Oral tradition traces Nyiginya kings back to the 14th century, but it isn’t until the 15th century, with the accession of Bwimba, Ruganzu I, of the first dynasty, that the dynasties, chronologies, and historical narratives become more reliable. Sixteen kings later, Rwabugiri, Kigeri IV, succeeded to the throne in 1867 (some sources say 1853).

Rwabugiri was the first king in Rwanda's history to come into contact with Europeans. He established an army equipped with guns he obtained from Germans and prohibited most foreigners, especially Arabs, from entering his kingdom.

The kingdom’s armies were composed of special warriors who’d taken an oath of celibacy while in service. Homosexual liaisons among the troops were not uncommon and if not widely accepted, at least widely tolerated. In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today — the legal consequences for being caught in flagrante delicto with a member of the same sex are stiff — being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime. Sex is considered a private matter — a view consistent with the conservative deportment and liberal attitude characteristic of the country.

By the end of Rwabugiri’s rule, Rwanda was a unified state with a centralized military structure divided into provinces, districts, hills, and neighborhoods administered by a hierarchy of chiefs, predominantly Tutsi at the higher levels, but with a substantial degree of participation by Hutus. But as population density increased, a Tutsi elite besotted with its unique Inyambo cattle faced a shortage of pastureland. Rwabugiri imposed more taxes and more corvee labor — both already onerous — on the mostly Hutu farmers. Additionally, Rwabugiri’s wars of conquest exacted a terrible price on the farming communities wherever his armies billeted. By the time of his death in 1895, the Hutu-Tutsi polarization had become entrenched.

In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today, being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime.

Rutarindwa, Mibambwe IV, Rwabugiri’s son, succeeded to the throne but was assassinated by his stepmother, who in 1896 put her own son, Musinga, on the throne as Yuhi V. Three months later the first German colonial officer arrived. The German administration was mostly content to let the kingdom’s hierarchy continue ruling. After World War I, the League of Nations turned Rwanda over to the Belgians. In 1931 Musinga was deposed by the Belgian administration for his resistance to conversion to Catholicism. He was succeeded by Rudahigwa, Mutara III, who converted in 1943 and dedicated the country to Christ.

After a visit to Europe, Rudahigwa decided to move out of his thatched-roof royal residence and build himself more European digs, buy a Volkswagen, and learn to drive. But he was so tall that he had to remove the driver’s seat and become a literal back-seat driver. In the late 1950s, Rudahigwa, wanting to keep up with the times, began construction on a real palace, which by the time of his death in 1959 — in Bujumbura, Burundi under mysterious circumstances — was still not completed.

Rudahigwa was followed by his brother, Ndahindurwa, Kigeri V, who only lasted until 1961, when Rwanda declared independence and abolished the monarchy. Ndahindurwa moved to Washington DC and died in 2016 at the age of 83.

* * *

The royal compound, atop the highest point in Nyanza, is a poignant evocation of an aspect of Rwandan culture and history that for most is not even a memory. The thatched-roof royal dwelling, with its satellite structures and subquarters for queen mother, high priest, and other officials (including a beer and a milk minister) is a careful and perfect reconstruction open to the public only with a tour guide. The best part is the remnants of the surviving Inyambo royal cattle herd and their quintessential Tutsi herder armed with a fly whisk for their comfort. Their horns are huge (forget Texas Longhorns), exquisitely and slightly oddly shaped. All are a rich brown hue with doe eyes. In Rwanda one of the sweetest compliments a man can give a woman is, “You’ve got Inyambo eyes.” They are tame — we didn’t tire of petting them — and pampered: one previous king forced a Hutu vassal to spread honey on their pasture.

Next door is the 1930s royal residence — in meticulous upkeep. One employee was busy on her haunches cleaning the brick grout joints of its semi-enclosed patio. Across the valley, the 1959 palace dominated the view. Not yet open to the public, it is slated to become an art museum.

We left Nyanza for Gitarama, only 47 paved kilometers away, late in the morning. Our destination was Jangwe Lodge, an off-the-beaten-path (by seven kilometers) guest house located just before one reaches the city and run by Georges Kamanayo-Gengoux, a Rwandan-Belgian documentary film maker and his Belgian wife.

Much later Bill Clinton admitted that his lack of response to the Rwandan genocide had been a “personal failure.”

As we neared Gitarama we expected to see a sign for the lodge at one of two right-hand branching dirt roads, but at both likely prospects there was no indication of a lodge anywhere down the side roads. However, the usual troupe of moto- and bicycle taxis hawked fares at the intersections. At the last turnoff before Gitarama we stopped and looked lost. Everyone offered us rides, but without the ability to communicate — “Jangwe” didn’t ring any bells — we felt truly lost. But one taxi biker whose English was structurally sound but nearly unintelligible, said he lived next door to Jangwe. Emmanuel offered to guide us the seven kilometers for 300 Rf, about 25 cents.

Again — tiresomely — Jangwe was “in the middle of nowhere,” off the grid and at the end of a spur track linked to a dirt road that braided and split unpredictably. Georges and his wife welcomed us warmly. The handsome, open brick compound with manicured lawns and an Olympic-size pool was completely isolated. I asked why the absence of signs. Georges shrugged his shoulders and said they didn’t want any “drop-ins,” that guests came by invitation only (they only wanted interesting people, not boring ones). Jangwes only had five guest rooms; today there were no other guests.

Over cold Virunga beers we discussed Georges’ projects. He’d met Bill Clinton and wanted to interview him further about America’s reluctant response during the genocide, but was given the cold shoulder when he followed up on Clinton’s initial invitation. A Belgian VTM channel colleague later asked Clinton why the US was missing in action during the genocide. The former president responded that “Rwanda wasn’t on my radar and CNN wasn’t there” — this in the context of American intelligence having advance knowledge of the genocide plans. Much later Clinton admitted that his lack of response had been a “personal failure.”

But the hale 70-year-old Georges had a more ambitious project in the works: a documentary of the RPF’s advance and liberation of Rwanda during the genocide. He’s already gotten a commitment from Paul Kagame to be interviewed.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more.

The RPF, numbering about 18,000 men at the time of the genocide, faced a well-armed Rwandan army twice its size, backed by militias and a great mass of civilians mobilized for “self-defense” — over 45,000 combatants. The “stopping the genocide” invasion (as it’s been dubbed) is an amazing enough story, but the real cliffhanger was the siege of parliament during the 100-day RPF offensive. The Rwandan Civil War, which had been simmering since 1990, was supposedly “settled” with the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993. The Accords called for a power sharing structure between the extremist Hutu government and the moderate Hutu and Tutsi RPF. As a confidence-building measure — and to protect RPF politicians — a 600-man RPF contingent was to be based in the capital until the Accords’ implementation, along with a 2,500 UN “peacekeeping” mission.

But as soon as President Habyarimana’s plane went down and the genocide began on April 6, 1994, Kagame ordered the Kigali contingent to muster at the defensive positions they’d established at parliament atop the highest hill in Kigali. At 8:30 pm that night, FAR forces stormed the parliament. But by then the RPF was ready and soon drove off the attackers, holding their positions until relieved three months later. On April 8, the main RPF forces began their pincer advances into central Rwanda from bases in Uganda and northern Rwanda.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more — all the while allowing access for both RPF and moderate Hutu parliamentarians to continue their jobs.

Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial.

A few blocks away, the UN peacekeepers billeted at the Amahoro sports stadium complex had been instructed not to interfere in the killing, but to engage only if attacked. Thousands of Tutsis and fearful Hutus, figuring they’d be protected by the UN, had sought refuge there. When the Rwandan Army forces and Interahamwe began forcibly extracting refugees from the stadium occupied by the unresponsive UN forces, the 600-man RPF battalion began, on April 7, a series of counterattacks to protect the Amahoro refugees. They conducted even more daring raids, in the dead of night, to more distant hideouts, saving many more people. By the fall of Kigali on July 4, nearly the entire battalion had survived.

* * *

Our last day’s ride into Kigali, a mostly flat and downhill coast of 62 kilometers, ended in a long, uphill, traffic-avoiding struggle into the capital under a heavy rain. We were accompanied by Olivier, our Slow Cyclist guide, now under contract to Rwandan Adventures, to ensure successful navigation through Kigali and arrival at our hotel without getting lost. Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial to the war against genocide.

After showering and introducing Tina — now that she was an “old Africa hand” — to gin-and-tonics, that favorite colonial tipple, we headed out to a nearby restaurant. Oddly, there was no traffic. At the corner, armed soldiers had stopped all vehicles at the intersections in both directions. And then, coming from the direction of the Hotel des Mille Collines — site of the real Hotel Rwanda, where many had sought refuge during the genocide — a phalanx of black SUVs with red and blue flashing lights turned the corner and headed our way. As they turned into the presidential residence’s driveway, I realized that Paul Kagame was coming home after a day’s work. I focused my eyes and tried to spot him through the tinted windows.

Envoi

It was a fitting end to a phenomenal adventure, but one that was constantly overshadowed by a nagging question: how could an atrocity such as the Rwandan genocide have occurred in a country with such wonderful people? I am no Hannah Arendt (no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil); much less am I Rwandan. But here is my attempt to identify the factors that led to this holocaust.

1. History. The historical trajectory already mentioned played a prominent part: German and Belgian favoritism towards the Tutsis, culminating in the issuance of identity cards. The Belgians came to Rwanda with an a priori premise, based on their own experience with Walloons and Flemings, that this was a multiethnic country. What ambiguous differences existed were exacerbated by colonial policies.

2. Obedience. The Rwandan people were accustomed to following government orders, having always lived under authoritarian — though not particularly oppressive — regimes, both colonial and post-independence. This obedient tendency was taken advantage of by the Hutu Power clique when it took control and ordered everyone to kill the “snakes” and “cockroaches,” as they called the Tutsis.

There was no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil.

3. Propaganda. Rwandans — mostly illiterate — lived by radio. Both the government radio station, Radio Rwanda, and the immensely popular RTLM, privately owned by President Habyarimana and his wife (as a lively alternative to staid government radio), spewed hatred of Tutsis through talk, pop music, and harangues long before the genocide and, later, to incite the population to the killings.

4. Terror. Using threats and intimidation, the Interahamwe, army, and Hutu Power extremists forced the population to kill friends, neighbors, strangers, and family — both Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too. If they didn’t kill their assigned victims — identified by identity cards at roadblocks and by lists previously drawn up — they or their loved ones would be tortured and killed as accomplices of the RPF.

5. France. In a misguided attempt to salvage what was left of Francophone Africa, France provided military and diplomatic support to the Habyarimana regime before and during the genocide, and continued to provide aid and succor to its remnants in defeat. On the other hand, the Tutsi and moderate Hutu expats — numbering about 350,000 — who had lived in Uganda for so long, spoke English. If the RPF won the Rwandan Civil War, English would become Rwanda’s second official language. (In fact, French and English both now enjoy official status. Still, Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth of Nations in 2009, one of only two countries to have done so that were never British colonies. Queen Elizabeth II is due to visit in 2019.)

The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too.

As early as 1990, when the RPF began the Rwandan Civil War — provoked by a variety of reasons — France intervened on the side of the Hutu government. Not only did the French supply the Rwandan army with weapons throughout the ensuing four years, they provided asylum to Agathe Habyarimana just a few days after the beginning of the genocide. Agathe was the wife of the murdered president and considered not only the power behind the throne but also, after the death of her husband, the head of le clan de madame, a powerful clique of northern Hutu extremists who were instrumental in organizing and carrying out the genocide. The French also gave asylum to 30 other members of le clan. (Madame was finally arrested in France, by French authorities, on March 2, 2010, but in September 2011, a French court denied her extradition to Rwanda.)

After the RPF’s victory in Kigali on July 4, the French — ever helpful — established Opération Turquoise, a safe zone in southwest Rwanda for the fleeing génocidaires and their wards, delaying the RPF’s total victory and helping to set the stage for the post-genocide East African wars.

6. The United Nations. The UN’s 2,500-man peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed lethal force only if fired upon — no intervention to save lives. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, commander of the mission, characterized the UN as, “an organization swamped and sinking under the dead weight of useless political sinecures, indifference and procrastination.”

Worse yet — in its role as mediator between the genocidal Hutu government and the RPF — the UN had to be neutral and treat both sides equally, inadvertently providing a fig leaf of respectability to the génocidaires.

The UN’s peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed no intervention to save lives.

But the worst abomination in the UN’s operation was its structure. By the unluckiest of coincidences, one of the rotating seats in the Security Council fell to Rwanda. Its Hutu Power sympathizer passed every communique Dallaire sent to the UN on to Theonéste Bagosora — the head of the Crisis Committee, Rwanda’s interim government during the genocide, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for his key role in the genocide — impeding any effective action by Dallaire through continuous foot-dragging and objections.

Today, Rwanda agrees to send troops on UN peacekeeping missions only if they can intervene to save lives.




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In Hong Kong, Carrying Signs

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The news from Hong Kong reminds me of lyrics of a song from my youth — “a thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs.” Except it wasn’t a thousand on June 9, 2019. It was a million. Repeat: a million. One-seventh of Hong Kong’s population.

Imagine one-seventh of the population in the city closest to you, out on the street demanding that legislators not pass a law concerning extradition of criminal suspects.

Years ago, I lived in Hong Kong. I was among the Hong Kong Chinese for three years. They were hard-working, versatile, street-smart. Proud, too. They regarded the British as weakened by the welfare state, the Singaporeans as rigid, and the Middle Easterners as religious fanatics. The Hong Kong people were not hotheads. They did not yell and shake their fists at one another in public, like the Italians. They did not go on strike for inscrutable reasons, like the French. They were not like the Indonesians, who celebrated the heroes who had fought for their independence and won, or the Filipinos, who celebrated the heroes who had fought for their independence and lost. The Hong Kong people did not grow up singing the national anthem, saluting the flag, and praising the military, like the Americans. They didn’t have a flag that was really theirs or a real military, either. When I got there in 1989, they had no political parties, though they were about to create one.

It was a million. Repeat: a million. One-seventh of Hong Kong’s population.

The first piece I ever wrote for Liberty (as R.K. Lamb, in the March 1990 issue) was about Hong Kong, where I was living along with 40,000 or so American expatriates. (More than double that, now.) The territory was governed by the British. They had cut a deal with China to turn it over in 1997. They hadn’t asked the Hong Kong people about that deal, and China hadn’t asked, either. On its face, the deal seemed all right. Under Deng Xiaoping’s formula of “one country, two systems,” China had agreed to let Hong Kong retain its legal system for 50 years, until 2047.

In those days 2047 was an unimaginably long time away, and 1997 was coming up. The question was, how was “one country, two systems” going to work? The Hong Kong press — one of Asia’s freest — was reassuring. Things would be fine. China has promised to let us be! Outside the spotlight, Hong Kong professionals were quietly “voting with their feet,” emigrating to Australia, Canada, the United States, and several countries in Southeast Asia.

I didn’t think “one country, two systems” was going to work. In 2006, I wrote a piece for Liberty admitting that I had been too pessimistic: China had done better by Hong Kong than I thought it would.

Overall it still has — so far. I have to give China credit for that.

The Hong Kong people did not grow up singing the national anthem, saluting the flag, and praising the military, like the Americans.

Milton Friedman had proclaimed in his Free to Choose TV series that Hong Kong had more economic freedom than any place on earth. The Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both of which annually survey economic freedom, verify that it still is. But an economy requires a foundation of politics and law, which Friedman well knew. Hong Kong’s legal foundation was, and is, British law, which is a product of centuries of the politics and history of the people of England. When I’d ask a Hongkonger why Hong Kong was rich, the answer was, “hard work.” Nobody ever said, “British law.” The Hong Kong people had worked hard to build their prosperity, but they hadn’t built the system of law that supported their personal and business freedom. They had inherited it. If they wanted to keep it after 1997 they were going to have to fight for it, and I wasn’t sure whether they would.

Well, they have. Whether they will prevail is another matter.

The British never gave the Hong Kong people political freedom, meaning the right to vote out their government and institute a new one. The handover in 1997 gave the people only a limited vote. They formed a number of “pro-Beijing” and “pro-democracy” political parties. In the 2016 elections, the pro-democracy parties got 36% of the public vote and the pro-Beijing parties (a weird mixture of pro-communist and “patriotic” business conservatives) 40% of the public vote, so the pro-democracy parties do not have a claim to rule. Hong Kong’s political system makes that nearly impossible anyway. Of 70 seats in the unicameral legislature, half are elected by public vote and half by the union federations, the chambers of commerce, the lawyers, the teachers, the social workers, and other “functional constituencies.”

When I’d ask a Hongkonger why Hong Kong was rich, the answer was, “hard work.” Nobody ever said, “British law.”

For more background, take a look at the Council on Foreign Relations report “Democracy in Hong Kong.” Under this hybrid system the pro-Beijing parties have held on to their majority for 22 years. Hong Kong’s chief executive has never been elected by the people; the current executive, Carrie Lam, was chosen by a select group of 1,200 Hongkongers acceptable to Beijing. The pro-democracy forces have been pushing for more than a decade to have the executive be elected by the people, but China will not allow it.

On to the current matter. I am no expert; I haven’t lived in Hong Kong since 1993, and I haven’t followed the story as it has been building these past four months. I have done my catching up on the Internet.

According to a report in the Irish Times, the matter began in 2018 with a 19-year-old Hong Kong man who went to Taiwan with his 20-year-old girlfriend, who was four months pregnant. The man returned alone and admitted to police he had strangled her, stuffed her body in a suitcase, and dumped it near a subway station. Under an extradition treaty, the man would have been extradited to Taiwan for trial for murder. Hong Kong has extradition treaties with some 20 jurisdictions, including the United States, but not Taiwan and not China, the sovereign power over Hong Kong.

In February 2019 the Hong Kong government said it needed to remedy this problem by amending its Fugitive Offenders Ordinance. The changes would allow the Hong Kong government to extradite a person to a non-treaty jurisdiction. This proposal is what a million people are in the street about. They are worried that the new law will allow innocent people to be extradited to China.

The pro-democracy forces have been pushing for more than a decade to have the executive be elected by the people, but China will not allow it.

The Hong Kong government says not to worry. The proposed law stipulates that no person can be extradited for the expression of political views, for a political crime, or for a political motive; that no person can be extradited in a case of double jeopardy or any crime for which the sentence is less than seven years; and that if there is a possibility of a capital sentence the destination country must promise not to impose it. (Hong Kong does not have the death penalty. China does.) The law says that any person extradited has the right to appeal to Hong Kong courts, and can be extradited only if the chief executive agrees.

I’m no lawyer, but on its face the proposal seems all right. The law is strong in Hong Kong. The courts have been good. And yet a million people are in the street. The story, I think, is not about what the proposed law says. It is about the fear of how such a law might be used, and the political consequences of its passage. The people of Hong Kong remember what China’s government did in 1989 to the protesters at Tiananmen Square, and they still do not trust the Chinese state.

One group that has come out against the law is the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. This is notable. The AmCham is not Human Rights Watch. It represents US corporations, which are primarily interested in commerce. But commerce and human rights are connected in ways AmCham is quite aware of. In its public statement, AmCham expresses the worry that “the new arrangements could be used for rendition from Hong Kong to a number of jurisdictions with criminal procedure systems very different from those of Hong Kong — which provides strong protections for the legitimate rights of defendants — without the opportunity for public and legislative scrutiny of the fairness of those systems and the specific safeguards that should be sought in cases originating from them.”

This proposal is what a million people are in the street about. They are worried that the new law will allow innocent people to be extradited to China.

What recent reasons are there to worry? Martin Lee, the Hong Kong lawyer who founded the territory’s first political party, wrote a piece for the Washington Post, naming some of the reasons. In 2017, mainland agents abducted Chinese Canadian billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who has not been seen since. In 2015, five Hong Kong publishers were taken; one of them, Lam Wing-kee, was forced to make a televised confession.

“Why were these people abducted?” Lee wrote. “Because there is no extradition law between Hong Kong and China. There is no extradition law because there is no rule of law in China, where the Chinese Communist Party dictates who is innocent and who is guilty. For the same reason, the United States has no extradition arrangements with China (though it does with Hong Kong).”

Lee wrote, “The Hong Kong government is poised to pass an extradition law that will legalize such kidnappings and threatens to destroy Hong Kong’s free society . . . Beijing could extradite Americans in Hong Kong on trumped-up charges . . .”

I remember Martin Lee from my time in Hong Kong, and later, when he came through Seattle and I interviewed him. Lee is an old-time liberal, dogged to the point of ouch. He sometimes cries wolf when the wolf doesn’t come — that is, he imagines things that don’t happen — but a smart lawyer may imagine various futures in order to protect his client. And that would be the Hong Kong people. They are worried about what might happen.

What to do, if you're China? You inhibit Hong Kong’s democratic institutions now.

And think about what the world looks like from their shoes. They have 28 years left of “one country, two systems.” After that comes one system — China’s. In 2047, Hong Kong’s British law goes away.

Poof.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Communist Party of China. You really didn’t like Deng Xiaoping having to grant that pushy Englishwoman, Margaret Thatcher, “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong’s system is alien, bourgeois-liberal, British. You want it to go away. You want Hong Kong to be Chinese — fully. But if Hong Kong’s British-derived law survives intact up to 2047, millions of Hong Kong people will demand that you extend their system for another 50 years. You don’t want that. You want to make sure that never happens.

What to do? You inhibit Hong Kong’s democratic institutions now. You stop any expansion of the number of publicly elected seats in Hong Kong’s legislature, and you do not allow Hong Kong’s chief executive to be publicly elected — ever. You don’t have to say “ever”; you just have to drag your feet, wave your arms, declare emergencies, make excuses, whatever it takes, to make sure full elections don’t happen by 2047.

For the Hong Kong people, accepting Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” was always a bet that China would change politically.

You also want to cut holes in the Hong Kong legal system — with a public security law, or a law requiring political content in public education, a law that allows you to extradite criminals to China, etc. The extradition law can promise not to grab anyone for political offenses, but some person decides what those are. And if people like you get to choose that person, then you’re fine.

As a Communist, you want to chisel away at Hong Kong’s British law until by 2047 it’s not worth anyone fighting for.

Defenders of China will say I am making things up, and they will be right. I am imagining things. I believe that’s what the Hong Kong people are doing — imagining their future.

For the Hong Kong people, accepting Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” was always a bet that China would change politically — that after 50 years, China would be enough like Hong Kong that the people living then could work things out. Economically and socially China has already changed a lot. Politically not so much — and the years tick by.

Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping cut the “one country, two systems” deal 13 years before Britain’s lease on Hong Kong was set to expire in 1997. They needed to do it then because Hong Kong people, and foreigners also, had to have some assurance about life after 1997 so they could make business investments, take out mortgages, start careers, and decide where to live their lives.

Thirteen years before 2047 is 2034. That’s a milepost to think about. And it’s coming up.

Unable to secure their future at the ballot box, they are attempting to do it, peacefully but urgently, in the street.

Most readers of Liberty live in jurisdictions in which the great political questions are settled. We argue over the remaining issues, and occasionally work ourselves into a lather about them — imagining that the next election is the most important in our lives, that Barack Obama is going to usher in socialism, that Donald Trump is going to suspend the Constitution, or that Bernie Sanders is going to hoist the red flag. It’s fun, you know, and some of the issues are important, but it all pales before the political questions faced by the people of Hong Kong.

Almost 30 years ago I wrote in Liberty that I thought the Hong Kong people had failed to take charge of their political future, being “too busy in Mr. Friedman’s capitalist paradise, making money.”

Not anymore. The Hong Kong people don’t have the British to protect them or anyone, really. Unable to secure their future at the ballot box, they are attempting to do it, peacefully but urgently, in the street.

How did the song go? “A thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying ‘hooray for our side’.”

Damn right, hooray for their side.




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Group Chat

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Cut Taxes, Save the Poor

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Usually the debate between tax-and-spend liberals and cut-taxes conservatives is a fight about raising taxes on the rich or lowering taxes for the rich. Instead of wading into those troubled waters, I would like to propose a policy of cutting taxes on the poor and the lower middle class. As a byproduct, the system would fund charity to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and provide medical treatment for the poor and mentally ill.

State and local sales and property taxes hit the poor hard, while the tax laws ensure that only the prosperous benefit (though not very much) from donating to charity. I would change this, as follows:

1. Congress should pass a law providing a federal income tax credit equal to the amount of sales taxes and property taxes paid at the state and local level. Sales taxes hurt the poor: the rich don't notice them, but the poor and the middle class feel them painfully. The rich can afford to pay property taxes, but they bleed other homeowners dry, meanwhile driving up rents and home prices. States and localities are involved in providing essential public services, but the federal government can cut taxes on the poor by defunding nonessential federal programs. For people too poor to pay income taxes, a cash tax refund should be issued in the approximate amount of their sales and property taxes. This would effectively repeal those taxes. Technology exists to track how much sales tax a poor or middle-class person has paid. To assuage the fears of privacy advocates, tracking sales taxes could be an opt-in feature chosen by people who want the rebate for it. Or people could keep their own records of what sales tax they paid and report it to the IRS.

Sales taxes hurt the poor: the rich don't notice them, but the poor and the middle class feel them painfully.

2. Add the charitable deduction on top of the standard deduction, thus drawing in people who don’t itemize deductions and encouraging everyone to give more to charity and less to taxes.

3. Limit eligible charitable deductions to charities that feed the hungry, house the homeless, or provide medical treatment to the poor or the mentally ill. This will funnel charitable dollars to the vulnerable and needy, lessening the ability of liberal politicians to exploit government power in the name of need. Within the realm of such vital services, remove all red tape to make it easy for any charity to gain IRS status for the right kind of donations.

4. By statute, eliminate liability for a charitable donor's honest errors in estimating the cash value of goods and services he has donated. Create a safe harbor so that if any reasonable person could have purchased the donated goods or services for $X amount, then the IRS may not challenge or litigate when the donor claims a tax deduction of $X. This will set the middle and lower middle classes free from the fear of using charitable contributions to avoid paying taxes.

Funneling charitable dollars to the vulnerable and needy would lessen the ability of liberal politicians to exploit government power in the name of need.

5. Institute a charity multiplier of 2x or 3x. For example, if someone donates $300 to a charity, he avoid paying $900 of federal income taxes. This will encourage people to donate to vital charities while achieving a massive de facto tax cut.

This policy package, if passed in its entirety, would help the poor by cutting taxes on both rich and poor. Congress should do this, and we libertarians should advocate it.




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Four Theories about the Great Depression

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More than most people, libertarians have beliefs about the Great Depression. Having spent several years studying the matter, I have some conclusions about four such beliefs: first, that what caused the depression was the Federal Reserve allowing a drop in the money supply; second, that what made it terrible was the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which collapsed America’s foreign trade; third, that the New Deal really began under Herbert Hoover; and fourth, that what lengthened the Depression was fear of what the New Deal government would do.

In addressing these questions, I am relying heavily on my hometown newspapers — the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Star — because newspapers are “the raw material of history.” They are not the only sources available, and they have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables. As sources for general research about a period, I like newspapers best. I know newspapers. I spent 37 years working for newspapers and magazines, about half that time on the business and financial pages.

The first of the four beliefs, associated with Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, is that the Federal Reserve was responsible for turning a recession into a depression — the deepest and longest in American history — by shrinking the money supply. It’s true that there was less money in people’s pockets, and that was a bad effect. But when economists talk about the Fed shrinking the money supply, they mean shrinking the money available to the banks — and during most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with money. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money in US Treasury bonds and local bonds and warrants (thereby helping to finance their local governments and the New Deal). Bankers talked about this on the business pages, and showed it in the year-end bank balance sheets presented in newspaper display ads. For those reasons I find it difficult to indict the Fed for starving the banking system of money.

Newspapers have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables.

A variant of this argument is that the Fed mistakenly turned a recession into a depression by raising interest rates.

Overall the Fed lowered interest rates in the depression. In the two years following the Crash of 1929, the Fed cut its rate on short-term loans to banks, going down from 6% to 1.5%. But to stop the outflow of the Treasury’s gold during the currency crisis of September 1931, the Fed temporarily raised the rate to 3.5%. This 2% bump is the “mistake” that the economists holler about. At the time the Fed did this, critics said it would retard recovery, and when recovery didn’t come, the critics pronounced themselves right. But at the time, the financial editor of the Seattle Times noted that the Fed’s supposedly stimulative 1.5% interest rate hadn’t done anything to stimulate recovery. (The Keynesians would later say the Fed was “pushing on a string.”) Investors weren’t holding back because of two percentage points. They were holding back because they were afraid to borrow at all.

I’m not a historian of the Fed, and am not claiming the Fed made no mistakes. But pinning the depression on the stinginess of the Fed to the banks doesn’t seem right. If it were true, the interest rates would have been higher. Also, there would have been furious complaints in the newspapers, even in Seattle. And I didn’t see it.

During most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with cash. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money.

The second belief is that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused the Depression by posting the highest taxes on imports in the 20th century. The figure usually cited is that the average tariff rate under Smoot-Hawley was 59% — a horrible rate. This, however, was the rate on dutiable goods, and excludes the many goods on the free list. The average rate on all goods was 19.8% — still bad, but something less than torture.

Free traders always reach for the Smoot-Hawley argument. I have heard it not only from libertarians but from supporters of the WTO, TPP, NAFTA, and the promoters of trade in my hometown. And politically, I am on free traders’ side. I agree that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, signed in June 1930 by Herbert Hoover, was bad medicine. And in this case, there was protest in the newspapers, with voices saying it was a terrible, self-defeating law, and predicting that other countries would retaliate. The newspapers ran stories when the other countries did retaliate.

Smoot-Hawley was also a contributing cause of the collapse in the international bond market in 1931, because it made it more difficult for America’s debtors — Britain, France, Germany, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and others — to earn the dollars to repay their debts. But this one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

I can think of four reasons why. First, the Depression was already on, so that by June 1930 imports and exports were already headed downward. Second, if you want to blame tariffs, put two-thirds of the blame on the tariffs in place before Smoot-Hawley was signed, which were an average of 13.5% on all goods. Third, in 1930 exports made up only about 5% of US output (versus 12.5% today), so that the shrinkage in trade, though dramatic in itself, was only two or three percentage points of the overall economy.

This one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

Finally, in September 1931, the British Commonwealth went off the gold standard. The British, Australian, and Canadian currencies were immediately devalued by 15 to 20%. Austria, Germany, Japan, and Sweden also went off gold, effectively devaluing their own currencies. The products of these fiat-money countries immediately dropped in price relative to the products of the United States. One example: Swedish wood pulp pushed US pulp out of world markets, so that almost all the pulp mills in Washington state shut down.

When Franklin Roosevelt came into office in March 1933, he ended the convertibility of the dollar into gold at the old rate of $20.67 an ounce. The reason for doing this was not a shortage of gold; the Treasury had stacks of it. The reason was to match the foreign devaluations and make American goods competitive again. And it did. Trade, the stock market, and the real economy jumped immediately when the dollar went off gold. From April to July 1933 there was a kind of boom, even though Smoot-Hawley was still in effect. (The boom ended because of the National Industrial Recovery Act and some other things, but that is another story.)

If you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more.

The third belief, that Herbert Hoover was an interventionist and implemented a kind of proto-New Deal, is a thesis of Murray Rothbard in America’s Great Depression. Rothbard recounts that after the Crash of 1929, Hoover called leaders of industry to the White House and made them promise not to cut wages. The theory at the time was that this would maintain “purchasing power” and thereby prevent a depression. That was a precedent for the New Deal. It was noted at the time by business columnist Merryle Rukeyser (father of Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS-TV’s “Wall Street Week” from 1970 to 2002). Merryle Rukeyser wrote in December 1929 of the Hoover meetings, “The old-fashioned idea of leaving such matters to the individualism of business leaders — known as the doctrine of laissez faire among economists — has been formally laid to rest and buried.”

So Rothbard had a point: in principle, Hoover was an interventionist. But if you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more. The larger fact is that the Hoover and Roosevelt regimes were hugely different in what the federal government undertook to do, what constitutional precedents they set, how many people they employed, how much money they spent, and how much they affected the world we still live in.

The fourth belief, that the New Deal prolonged the depression by frightening investors, is the thesis of libertarian historian Robert Higgs in his essay, “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War.” (Reprinted in Depression, War and Cold War, Independent Institute, 2006.) Higgs argues that the Depression lasted for more than ten years because of “a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns” during the later New Deal of 1935–1940.

I can’t comment on much past the beginning of 1935, because that’s where I am in my reading. But I can verify that “regime uncertainty” was real, and that I saw evidence of it beginning in mid-1933, when the initial Roosevelt boom faltered.

At first Forbes advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself.

In the newspapers I read, the best barometer of this is B.C. Forbes’ business-page column. Forbes — the founder of the eponymous magazine — was very much a pro-capitalist guy. (The magazine calls itself a “capitalist tool.”) Forbes once wrote that his job as a newspaper columnist was to explain the economy to ordinary readers by interviewing industrialists and bankers. Much of the time Forbes was a transmission belt of their doings, thoughts, and feelings along with his own.

It was predictable that Forbes would not like the New Deal. At first he advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself. But he quickly began choking on the two principal “recovery” programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA’s boss, Gen. Hugh Johnson, was a loud, imperious man who had been President Wilson’s boss of military conscription during World War I. During the early New Deal, Johnson helped to popularize two expressions: to chisel, meaning to lower one’s price below the government minimum, and to crack down, meaning to punish. In July 1933, Johnson went right to work, cracking down on the chiselers in American industry.

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator. In August 1933, Forbes called him “a Vesuvius, in epochal, thundering eruption . . . Not even Teddy Roosevelt in his most explosive days matched General Johnson’s Titanic energy and action — or his wielding of the big stick.”

And: “Mussolini has nothing on him in readiness to undertake multitudinous tasks and to swing the Big Stick.” (This was when Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was popular with many Americans.)

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator.

In the fall of 1934, when Gen. Johnson was replaced by labor attorney Donald Richberg, Forbes wrote: “Reason is expected to replace ranting swashbucklerism.” Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

In March 1934, Forbes quoted an anonymous industrialist (probably Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, whom he named elsewhere in the column): “No, don’t quote me as saying anything that would sound like criticism of the administration or any branch of it. It’s too dangerous. I don’t want to be cracked down on at this time when Washington has unlimited power to do what it likes.”

Later in the same month Forbes wrote, “The fear today is not of the law but of bureaucrats. Few employers regard themselves as in a position to stand up against dictation as Henry Ford has done.” (Ford had refused to accept the NRA’s “voluntary” price and production controls, and was not allowed to display the Blue Eagle and its motto “We Do Our Part.”)

One of Forbes’ October 1934 columns was an open letter to Franklin Roosevelt, titled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer “Mr. President, All Employers Aren’t Crooks.”

Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

Forbes is not the only wellspring of business angst. Here is Merryle Rukeyser, a man more sympathetic to the New Deal than Forbes, in September 1934: “Business men are in a timid mood because of lack of assurance as to their tax liability and as to the attitude of the powers that be toward business profits.”

A doubter might argue that a handful of newspaper columns aren’t enough to prove Higgs’ thesis. I suppose so; but how would you prove it? It is about a state of mind — “confidence” — and how do you demonstrate that except by considering what people say and do? In fact, investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment. And in fact, there were statements by Roosevelt and by Hugh Johnson, Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, and other New Dealers that might very well cause investors to lack confidence. And it was not only the New Dealers, but also their opponents on the left: Dr. Francis Townsend, who wanted every American over 60 to have $200 a month of government money (about $3000 in today’s terms); Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for governor who wanted to set up a socialist economy in California; Father Coughlin, a radio priest who ranted against the rich; and Sen. Huey Long, the “Kingfish” of Louisiana who called his program “Share the Wealth,” and who was stopped only by an assassin’s bullet. This was a different time — and newspapers give you a flavor of it.

Of the four beliefs about the Depression I mentioned at the beginning, I think Robert Higgs’ “regime uncertainty” is most clearly verified. (Read his essay!) The crucial fact about the Depression of the 1930s is not that America got out of it; it always gets out. It’s that the getting out took more than ten years, which was longer any other depression in US history, and that Canada, Britain, Germany, and most other countries got out sooner, and that it took a worldwide war and the eclipse of the New Dealers for America to get all the way out.

Investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment.

But I don’t think the depression of the 1930s — the onset of it, the depth of it, the duration of it — was caused by any single thing. The commercial world is more complicated than that. I think the Austrian theory of overinvestment, or “mal-investment,” explains much of the setup of the crash, because in the late 1920s and into 1930 there were a lot of bad investments in real estate, commercial buildings, holding companies, and junky stocks. The Crash in 1929 shrank people’s assets and, more important, their confidence — for years. The Dow Jones Industrials went down almost 90%. The reparations owed by Germany to Britain and France, the sovereign debts owed to the United States by Germany, Britain, and France, as well as by Brazil and other South American republics, all had something to do with it, because in 1931 this grand edifice of debt went down in a heap. The bond market was so thoroughly wrecked that counties, cities, school districts, and corporations were locked out of long-term borrowing for several years. Smoot-Hawley and the whole movement toward economic nationalism had a bad effect. The gold standard deepened the Depression because it imposed a discipline on government finances — heavy spending cuts — at a time when they were painful, and when some countries freed themselves of that discipline it shifted the pain to the other ones. Finally, the anti-capitalist political currents and the ad hoc, experimental, extralegal character of the New Deal frightened investors, whose long-term commitments were needed for economic recovery.

That’s the best I can do. I’m still reading old newspapers.




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I Need a Land Line!

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Don’t get me wrong — I’m into big tech. I use my pocket-sized computer about nine hours a day, according to Apple’s built-in surveillance report — which I never asked for and would be perfectly happy never to see again. It’s as bad as having to see the calorie count when I’m standing in line at Cinnabon.

But here’s the deal: my cellphone is no longer a phone. I can type on it, write articles on it, make lists on it, communicate with my family all over the world via text message and email on it, watch TV and movies on it – heck, I can even make movies on it. But try to talk on it? Like a phone? Forget about it. A phone needs a tower — a tower that communicates with the phone.

I haven’t been able to talk to my mother for at least five years because she doesn’t do texting or social media and my phone doesn’t do phone. Oh, it tries. But it doesn’t succeed. Halfway through a sentence it cuts out, leaving my mother to think that I just hung up on her. (Not only does she not speak text, she does not understand that cellphones don’t speak phone.) My sister, who lives in the 20th century with my mother, wrote me a scathing letter last year complaining that my kids keep hanging up on Grandma without saying goodbye. I tried to explain, but they don’t get it. Not enough cell coverage? They use a land line.

We want all our perks and benefits, but we want someone else to provide them.

It’s especially problematic in New York, where skyscrapers bounce signals off the walls, and in southern California, where the residents suffer from NIMBYism (among a multitude of other sanctimonious social ills). I have homes in both places, and it’s driving me crazy.

NIMBYism — Not In My Back Yard — is just one of many symptoms of the growing fascination with socialism. We want all our perks and benefits, but we want someone else to provide them. We want our cellphone reception to be clear and constant, but we don’t want an unsightly, and potentially dangerous, cell tower within ten miles of our darlings. (I find it ironic that people don’t want a cell tower installed within ten miles, but they give said darlings cellphones from infancy and sleep with their own phones under their pillows.)

Hence, I need a land line.

So here’s my offer to AT&T. You can put your cell tower in my backyard. I live at the top of a hill overlooking a canyon. People will benefit from my cell tower for miles around. And if you hide it inside one of my majestically towering juniper trees, no one will even see it.

People don’t want a cell tower installed within ten miles, but they give their children cellphones from infancy and sleep with their own phones under their pillows.

All I want in exchange is lifetime phone, internet, and cable service for me and my family in perpetuity. And a new phone every two years for free, as you used to do. That’s it, and you can have the top of my juniper tree. Deal?

I tried to call you with this offer, but my phone kept cutting out. So send me a text. Or better yet, let’s do lunch.




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More Trumpeterian Trade Follies

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President Trump is nothing if not consistent on the matter of international trade. The Boss has had few fixed positions over the years. He’s been a Democrat — and a generous financial party donor, even giving money to Crooked Hillary — then a Republican when it suited him; pro-abortion then anti-abortion; pro-immigrant before becoming the king of nativism; religiously indifferent before his newfound flourishing of faith; and so on. But his opposition to global trade has never wavered.

When pressed, of course, he will feign support for free trade if it’s “fair” — “fair” being what philosophers call a “weasel-word.” It allows the speaker to shift meanings to suit the context. If we are talking about China, Trump says its trade is unfair because it steals intellectual property and forces our companies to share technology with Chinese companies — both practices that, all economists agree, violate the World Trade Organization rules — and because it has a large balance of trade surplus with the US — something that most economists view as usually not a problem, because any trade surplus is invariably balanced by an investment deficit.

Trump has had few fixed positions over the years. But his opposition to global trade has never wavered.

But Trump’s virulent attack upon NAFTA was merely based on the fact that Mexico posted a modest balance of payments deficit with us and Canada an even smaller one. Neither country, please note, has routinely (or even occasionally that I have heard reported) stolen our technology or forced transfers of it as the price of doing business in its markets. El Jefe, who apparently cannot grasp the concept of comparative advantage, has never understood that in any free trade deal with Mexico, a fair amount of low-level manufacturing would shift there, but a fair amount of agricultural production would move from there to the US. Both things happened, but most American critics of NAFTA never noticed the shift of agriculture to the US, just as Mexican critics of NAFTA never noticed the shift of manufacturing to their country.

I recall a business ethics class in which one of my students — a gabacho like me — waxed emotional about “Mexicans stealing our jobs”, while another student — una Mexicana — waxed equally emotional about how gringo farmers were stealing the jobs of campesinos. I suggested that this is what the law of comparative advantage would predict: in the case of a country blessed with a grotesque amount of deeply fecund land trading freely with a country blessed with a grotesque number of deeply hard-working but low-skilled laborers (and less fertile land), low-level manufacturing moves to the labor-heavy country, while agricultural production moves to the fertile-land-heavy country — to the obvious general benefit of both sides. At this, the clearly puzzled students fell silent.

Several recent stories bring to light the economic consequences of Trump’s economic incomprehension. The first is about the debate over the USMCA — the new agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada that is intended to replace NAFTA. Our own International Trade Commission, a bipartisan body that is tasked with evaluating trade deals for Congress, has said that the effects of the new trade agreement would be limited, eventually raising the GDP of America by only 0.35%, while adding maybe 176,000 jobs. These are meager results compared to the benefits that the existing NAFTA has delivered. And the ITC found that (if the new agreement is ratified) the cost will be a considerable rise in prices for American-made cars — in great part because it requires Mexican companies to raise wages artificially to bring them closer to American unionized auto wages. Specifically, the agreement says that 75% of a car’s value must come from North America, 45% of the car must be made by workers earning $16 per hour or more, and more local aluminum and steel must be used.

He has never understood that in any free trade deal with Mexico, a fair amount of low-level manufacturing would shift there, but a fair amount of agricultural production would move from there to the US.

This is a great deal for Trump’s rentseeking union supporters, but a screw job for the American consumer. The ITC estimated that small American cars will rise 1.6% in price, leading to a 2.35% drop in sales — sales that are already shaky.

Worse yet, some economists predict that many auto industry companies will simply pay the tariffs rather than agree to the outrageous rules and regulations imposed by the unions’ catspaw Trump — ironically, a man who brags about eliminating regulations! This will again directly raise prices to consumers.

Another article reports on the aftermath of Trump’s reckless and thoughtless decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He figured that he killed the agreement when he announced that the US would drop out of the deal (negotiated under the Obama administration); however, the remaining 11 countries went ahead, renamed it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and ratified it in 2018. In its first year, it is already producing great results for the countries in it, though not of course for us.

For instance, the General Department of Vietnam Customs has reported that Vietnam’s exports to Japan are up by 11.2%, and those to Canada are up by 36.7%, in the first two months of this year compared with last year. Japan reported that last year its beef imports rose 25% from the same period. New Zealand has seen a rise of 133% in beef exports to Japan, and Canada a rise of 345% this year over last.

In its first year, the renamed Trans-Pacific Partnership is already producing great results for the countries in it, though not of course for us.

The rise in beef imports threatens to trigger a Japanese protection mechanism that will jack up tariffs on beef imports from an insane 38.5% to a truly absurd 50%. This will not affect CPTPP ranchers, but it will non-CPTPP ones. More generally, as the Asian region continues its rapid economic growth, the US will be at a distinct disadvantage in exports to the region, compared with the CPTPP ones.

As another article notes, Japan is willing to deal. It has indicated that to avoid tariffs on its cars, it will open up its agricultural market. If Trump simply can’t stomach joining the CPTTP, he can still do a bilateral deal. We can only hope that he does. And Our Oyabun seems to think that he can get better deals if they are bilateral rather than multilateral, apparently under the schoolyard-bully theory that he can use his personal power to force concessions out of the other side.

That’s the theory. So far it hasn’t worked out.

Two other articles point out the idiocy of Trump’s trade policy. The first reports the results of the steep tariff on imported washing machines he ordered a year ago. Faced with stiff competition from evil Asian competitors — you know, horrible people who work harder, for less money, and produce a superior product! — especially the companies LG and Samsung, domestic company Whirlpool got the president to impose a whopping 50% tariff on all imported washing machines. That was a year ago. A new research report written by economists at the Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago gives the results. Profits at Whirlpool have risen a stunning fourfold, to $471 million; but only a measly 1,800 jobs are owing to this high tariff. Samsung plans to open a plant here employing 1,000 people, LG one employing 600, and Whirlpool — the crony capitalist villain of this story — will add a risible 200 jobs.

American consumers were ripped off to the tune of $1.5 billion. That works out to $800,000 for each of the 1,800 jobs!

What is the cost of this “fair-trade” charade? Prices on imported washing machines went up $86 on average (that is, about 12%). Of course, Whirlpool did not keep its own prices low — it jacked them up 13% to 17%! Hence Whirlpool’s whopping half-billion-buck profit. The report estimates that American consumers were ripped off to the tune of $1.5 billion. That works out to $800,000 for each of the 1,800 jobs! That was your tax dollars at work.

Another article reminds us that while China’s trade with us has been flawed by its often dishonest trade practices, we ourselves don’t exactly have clean hands. Consider “anti-dumping duties.” In America, as in most other countries, domestic companies that can’t compete with foreign ones routinely claim that the foreigners are “dumping.” Dumping is the (alleged) practice of selling what is traded in the foreign market for less than what is charged to home customers, or below the cost of production. Most economists doubt that this routinely occurs — it would cost a company a lot of capital to sell below market in another country to get a monopoly, especially when you realize that such a monopoly would be impossible to sustain. When the “dumper” raised prices back up, domestic firms would just start making the product again.

Trump has systematically used dumping charges to protect chosen industries here. China has been the target of 40% of American dumping investigations, and the US imposes the heaviest duties on Chinese companies — duties that have been rising recently. These charges are often dubious. The US protects its own industries, often by comparing a foreign company’s prices here only with full prices in that company’s home market, disregarding discounted prices it charges at home. Moreover, price deductions for such things as overhead and salespersons’ salaries are capped for sales at home but not here. In other cases, where the home market prices are lower, our trade officials simply ignore them.

We keep pulling these stunts, even though the WTO has shot many of them down. Funny, President Trump never mentions how we stick it to other countries. No, he has demagogically persuaded a large part of the American public that we are pure victims in these trade games.

Trump’s tariffs will cost the average American family over $800 per year. The amount will rise dramatically if he applies those tariffs to all Chinese imports.

Two other articles put a nice cap on this discussion. No doubt to Trump’s amazement, the Chinese are playing hardball. Their tariffs on our agricultural goods have devastated many of our farmers. Brazil — which long ago negotiated a free trade agreement with China — has now replaced us as China’s major supplier of soy beans and other crops. In fact, Brazil is opening more of its lands to cultivation, in order to increase exports. In soybean production, US exports to China fell from $12.3 billion in 2017 to a pathetic $3.2 billion last year.

To counter the decision by the Chinese to buy more from Brazil, and to keep the support of farmers here, Our Great Protector just announced that he will give another $16 billion in aid to farmers (in addition to the $11 billion he gave them last year). This is the president at work: using billions of our tax dollars to keep the farm states on his side. It’s a great illustration of public choice theory, or venality in office.

While Trump makes the claim that the subsidies for farmers are coming from the tariffs the Chinese are paying, that claim is ludicrous on its face. Tariffs are taxes imposed on foreign goods — but paid by the American consumer. As noted by US News, Trump’s tariffs will cost the average American family over $800 per year. The amount will rise dramatically if he applies those tariffs to all Chinese imports, as he has threatened to do.

Yet another article informs us about another unseen group of Trump’s economic victims, namely, American farm equipment manufacturers. As the piece reports, companies that make combines, tractors, and other farm machinery are looking at a double-Trump-whammy.

Trump’s high tariffs for the steel and other metals that farm equipment manufacturers use will further hurt them.

First, they face a loss in demand as farmers under pressure from low prices for crops choose to defer buying new equipment. US agricultural exports to China in the first few months of this year are down 40% from the same period last year. And in 2018 we shipped to China less than half of what we shipped in 2017. So Deere will cut production 20% in the second half of its fiscal year. Lindsay Corp said its profits will drop by 31%, because sales have declined 16% in the last three months through February. CNH and AGCO also reported lower sales of their machinery in the first quarter of this year, compared to last year. Titan has reported a 35% drop in first-quarter profit in farm machinery sales.

Second, Trump’s high tariffs for the steel and other metals that farm equipment manufacturers use will further hurt the manufacturers. For example, Vermeer Corp., manufacturer of hay balers, said that it will lose $4 million in direct tariff costs in 2019. CNH expects tariffs to drive up its costs by $50 to $100 million, and Deere estimates the tariffs will cost it $75 million. Moreover, both Vermeer Corp. and Lindsay Corp. report paying more for costs because of the tariffs.

Especially worrisome for the American agricultural industry is this question: once China and all the other countries we have hammered get robust supply chains set up with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, and elsewhere, will they resume buying from us when we cease our tariff wars?

There’s no reason to think that Trump is open to a cessation of tariffs, which he seems to love, as an exercise in power.

Now, to this last point, one might cleverly respond that if a cessation of dumping would cause a quick resumption of competition, why wouldn’t a cessation of tariffs cause a quick resumption of competition?

Of course, there’s no reason to think that Trump is open to a cessation of tariffs, which he seems to love, as an exercise in power. But speaking to the general principle: if a country were truly to start dumping with an eye to putting its competition out of business, it would lose massive amounts of profit until it succeeded. Upon cessation of this dumping, the prior competition could just quickly reopen its factories. But when you tariff your own goods, your domestic producers lose market share as other countries create or expand facilities to meet the demand of satisfying your prior customers. But if you stop your tariffs, those other countries would still have their newly created or expanded production lines still in place.

In other words, this feeble reply is a false analogy. Dumping — a phenomenon most economists doubt really exists — would only temporarily shut down some of the pre-existing competitors’ facilities. But tariffs lead to the permanent creation of new facilities of competitors.

Even after any imagined cessation of tariffs, there will be an irreversible loss of trust.

Does anyone really think that after tariffs disappear — if they disappear — that the newly developed farmland in Brazil will just be converted back into rainforest? If you believe that, I have a high-rise Trollop Tower in Manhattan to sell you.

Finally, even after any imagined cessation of tariffs, there will be an irreversible loss of trust. If America, a loud exponent of free markets, private property, and free trade, from the end of WWII until recently, is now willing to wage tariff war for the most trivial of reasons, who will trust such a Republic of Lies?

The even more worrisome question raised above is this: will the tariff war end at all? Perhaps the Chinese have taken the measure of Trump and have concluded that he is a flawed and doomed president, and that they can just outlast him. Moreover, he has just announced that he will reattack — Mexico! His loopy proposal is aimed at getting Mexico to seal its borders, so Central Americans won’t keep coming here. He will start the tariff at 5% on all of Mexico’s exports immediately, and raise it 5% per month until it hits 25%. What a massive misuse of the tariff powers of the president! Trump seems to now view tariffs to be the ultimate skeleton key to open the door for any policy he wishes to achieve.

America will be increasingly consigned to third-rate status in world trade and influence.

Oh, and this just in: Trump has informed Prime Minister Modi (a man he professes to admire) that India — whose alliance we may need to counter a rising China — will shortly lose its designation as a beneficiary developing country. It will be removed from the Generalized System of Preferences, aimed at helping developing countries. We will now start jacking up taxes on Indian trade — starting with washing machines! To this, India has promised jacking up tariffs on American goods. In fine, a new front on the widening trades war.

This all raises the question of whether our standing in the world will recover any time soon. Color me skeptical. Trump’s widespread and indiscriminate use of tariffs, his refusal to join TPP, his upending of NAFTA, his failure to produce any new free trade agreements, his other bullying trade tactics — indeed, his whole crony capitalist betrayal of free market economics — mean that America will be increasingly consigned to third-rate status in world trade and influence.

Trump has made America small again. Quick — somebody order a bunch of “MASA” caps!




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Vivid and Explicit

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  • “As two masked and armed men broke in, Susan Gonzalez was shot in the chest.”
  • “When three armed intruders ... broke into the home of a single woman [Feng Zhu Chen] at 3:44 a.m., she dialed 911. No answer . . . [She] held a phone in one hand and took up her pistol in the other and began shooting. She fired numerous shots . . . After the shooting was over and two of the armed suspects got away and one lay dead, she did get through to the police. The home security camera video is dramatic.”
  • “Nothing in the Second Amendment makes lethality a factor to consider . . . The Second Amendment does not exist to protect the right to bear down pillows and foam baseball bats. It protects guns and every gun is dangerous.”
  • “In the late-15th Century, Leonardo Da Vinci designed a 33-shot weapon.”

These quotations are examples of how US District Judge Roger Benitez used unusually vivid language and illustrations in declaring that a high-capacity magazine ban in California is unconstitutional. The case, Virginia Duncan v. Xavier Becerra, began with a preliminary injunction in July 2017. It is an ongoing battle over banning high-capacity magazines. The latest news, as of this writing, is that his order of March 29, 2019 has been stayed pending appeal. So California can continue to prohibit buying and possessing magazines with a capacity greater than ten cartridges.

As far as I can tell, California first defined and regulated high-capacity magazines by the Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989. The act generally bans magazines with a capacity of more than ten cartridges. The law is absurdly complex, with exceptions for previously acquired weapons (grandfather provisions), for Olympic sport shooting, for active military moving to California, for film industry uses, for people traveling through California, etc. The same act imposes firearm-related rules relating to everything from the length of barrels to the use of shotshells in handguns.

If you did not get rid of your high-capacity magazines, you would become a criminal by simply keeping something that you had legally acquired and owned.

When this law went into effect you could no longer buy high-capacity magazines, but you could keep any that you already owned. The grandfather provisions allowed people who had lawfully acquired high-capacity magazines before the prohibition to keep them. In 2016 the state eliminated that exception. If you legally had high-capacity magazines, you would have to get rid of them. If you did not, you would become a criminal by simply keeping something that you had legally acquired and owned.

In May 2017, the plaintiffs sued in federal district court. They were people who owned high-capacity magazines and people wanted to own high-capacity magazines. The plaintiffs wanted to eliminate the ban entirely.

In June 2017, Judge Benitez issued a preliminary injunction blocking the change in the law that eliminated the grandfather provisions. You could keep your old high-capacity magazines and you could buy new ones.

In July 2018, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the preliminary injunction. You could continue to keep your old high-capacity magazines and buy new ones.

Heller was the first decision ever to recognize that the 2nd Amendment proclaims an individual civil liberty. The extent of that right will be fought over for a generation at least.

The defendants appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals en banc. In April 2019, District Court Judge Benitez stayed part of his own order pending appeal. The effect of the stay is that current law travels back to a time in 2016 before the grandfather provisions were eliminated. You can now keep your high-capacity magazines, but you can’t get new ones.

Be prepared to see litigation like this for decades to come. It’s surprising to realize that the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision, Heller, was the first ever to recognize that the 2nd Amendment proclaims an individual civil liberty. The extent of that right will be fought over for a generation at least. In California alone, two important cases, this one about magazine capacity and Peruta, about concealed carry permits, have been going on for years. Some jurists say that the Constitution is a living document. That has become code for doctrines that change with the times rather than hewing to original intent. The Heller opinion relied on original intent and historical analysis. Duncan v. Becerra refers to Heller and gives us a vivid and explicit 2nd Amendment with no need for a “living document.”




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