Manufacturing Hubbub

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American manufacturing is in decline. It has been for decades, shrinking to half of what it was at its peak in 1979. During the 2000s alone, it lost one-third of its workforce — largely blue-collar workers who, without a college education, could still earn a middle-class wage — and, today, its output and employment remain below their pre-recession levels.

Who cares? We still make stuff. And we still have enough money to get the stuff we don't make — from countries such as China and Mexico, at cheaper prices. In an advanced, services-oriented economy like ours, so what if our trade balance (which was in surplus prior to the mid-1970s but has been in deficit since) has plummeted to -$508 billion (-$741 billion for manufactured goods) today? We can always borrow or print more money. Right?

By outsourcing critical engineering and manufacturing expertise, the US is frittering away its industrial leadership.

Indeed, politicians, especially liberal politicians, welcome the decline. America has the coolest companies (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, etc.), run by cool, billionaire geniuses. President Obama, our coolest president, uses them to run his campaigns, promote his polices, tweet his followers (a twitterati of 63 million), and post his selfies. America's future lies with these energy-efficient, planet-friendly, high-tech giants. To the liberal elite, America can do with fewer factories, even ones making things that America invented. Besides, factories pollute and warm the planet.

Except that America is now losing its high-tech manufacturing dominance as well. By outsourcing critical engineering and manufacturing expertise, the US is frittering away its industrial leadership, eroding what once was the world's font of scientific discovery, technological advance, and product innovation, and guaranteeing future decay. In a 2009 Harvard Business Review article (“Restoring American Competitiveness”), it was noted that "Beginning in 2000, the country’s trade balance in high-technology products — historically a bastion of U.S. strength — began to decrease. By 2002, it turned negative for the first time and continued to decline through 2007," reaching -$53.6 billion. Today, it has dropped to -$81 billion.

This development has even alarmed the Center For American Progress (CAP), which attributed the deterioration to "the dramatic difference between U.S. innovation policies and those of our global competitors." The high-tech trade deficit "finds its roots in the negligence of our innovation policy," claimed CAP, which, after deep liberal think-tank thought, recommended "a strong policy response." Maybe, liberals suggested, a Department of Innovation is what this country has needed all along — one with strong policies, not those negligent ones.

In President Obama's first Hub, a handful of highly paid computer engineers diligently work to develop machines that will eliminate countless blue-collar jobs.

CAP's prescription may have been what caused President Obama to spring into action with his Manufacturing Innovation Hubs, to "create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance America’s global competitiveness." The idea is to bring industry, academia and, of course, government together into a joint effort to convert scientific knowledge into jobs — "a steady stream of good jobs into the 21st century," said Mr. Obama.

The first such hub, America Makes, opened for business in October 2012 in the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio. It focuses on 3D printing, and will be used as a model for subsequent hubs. As many as 45 hubs are planned, with projects that are intended to have a multiplier effect: each job created will support 1.6 other jobs, outside the factory. A Reuters article described the facility as "a sleek new laboratory" housing "a Silicon Valley-style workspace complete with open meeting areas and colorful stools." Inside, "Several 3-D printers hum in the background, while engineers type computer codes that tell the machines how to create objects by layering materials." That is, a handful of highly paid computer engineers diligently work to develop machines that will eliminate countless blue-collar jobs.

As of March 2014, when the Reuters article was published, none of the six businesses participating in America Moves had hired new workers. But the government component, the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (an organization funded by the US Army, i.e., funded by taxpayers), which manages the project, had hired ten. At this rate, 450 jobs will have been created when all 45 hubs are operational, soaring to 1170 jobs once the multiplier effect kicks in.

To be fair, it’s too early to tell how much of a dent, if any, Obama's struggling Hubs scheme will put in the 5.7 million manufacturing jobs that have been lost since 2000. For example, at a similar stage, the success of Obama's green economy scheme could not be determined. But after spending billions of dollars on green manufacturing companies such as Solyndra (solar panels), Nordic Windpower (windmills), and A123 (lithium batteries), all of the green jobs that were created ended up in China — which now manufactures all of our high-tech solar panels, windmills, and batteries. Whoops, bad example. But at least the Hub jobs have not left America, yet.

In 2011, Mr. Obama — the man who said that he wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night thinking about jobs — held a “town hall” meeting at Facebook, to discuss his economic policies. To Obama, Facebook is especially cool. Its young multi-billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, wears a hoodie to work. Its 500 million users (at the time) were available to watch Obama pal around with Zuckerberg, who "offered questions submitted online that gelled with Obama's key talking points and victories."

To Obama, factories are hulking, dilapidated buildings where glum Americans used to work, producing goods the world used to buy from us.

No one asked why — if Mr. Obama cared about creating jobs, in general, or manufacturing jobs, in particular — he didn't choose a company like Boeing, which, in 2011, was comparable in value (about $50 billion) to Facebook? Boeing — which is the only remaining American manufacturer of large jetliners in our declining Aerospace industry — employed 160,000 workers. Facebook, which apparently manufactures little more than narcissism and low self-esteem, only employed 2,000, all of whom, no doubt, gelled with Obama.

Factories, on the other hand, do not gel with Obama. To him, they are hulking, dilapidated buildings where glum Americans used to work, producing goods the world used to buy from us. That is why the regulatory policies he supports are designed to ensure fewer factories. The annual cost to comply with federal regulations for the average US manufacturing company is almost $20,000 per employee, twice that of the average US company (manufacturers included). For a small (<50 employees) manufacturing company, perhaps an innovative startup firm inspired by an Obama Hub, the cost is almost $35,000.$35,000! So much for global competitiveness.

Factories provide middle-class jobs for blue-collar workers. And, at $77,506 per year ($37.26 per hour), the average compensation for US manufacturing workers, millions of jobless Americans would like to see more of them — and may have wondered why Mr. Obama chose an Amazon fulfillment center as a venue to pitch middle-class jobs. Amazon is where middle-class jobs go to die.

Most of Amazon's 150,000 employees are seasonal workers — 80,000 of them hired just last year — who make $10 to $11.50 per hour, when there is work. Known as "pickers," they scurry about "the massive warehouses plucking item after item for shipment" and are paid no more than Walmart's "lumpers," who scurry about loading and unloading trucks all day. A smattering of Amazon employees, the ones with the good middle-class jobs ("the skilled direct-hire positions, like supervisor or forklift operator — the sort of gigs hyped during a high-profile visit by the president") shared Obama's stage. The pickers were offstage, scurrying. The slowest scurriers are discarded at season's end, or sooner; the fastest are rewarded with full-time employment, where they can earn as much as $27,000 per year, for as long as it takes Amazon to find robots that are faster.

Of Obama's visit, the White House asserted, “The Amazon facility in Chattanooga is a perfect example of the company that is investing in American workers and creating good, high-wage jobs.” No wonder he brags about the record-breaking number of fast-food and service jobs that his economic policies have created. He thinks they are high-paying, middle-class jobs.

Obama thinks that a steady stream of $27,000 service jobs is thrusting the economy in the right direction.

High-tech companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook, as important as they are to our economic power and prosperity, are not the places to go for middle class job creation. The American manufacturing industry is a much better bet. Existing US manufacturing companies would export more products if they were allowed to compete on a level playing field with foreign trading partners. Subsidies and tariffs are not needed. They would hire more workers, if they expected higher profits — profits now eroded by excessive taxes and regulations. A steady stream of $77,506 manufacturing jobs would stimulate the economy, increase tax revenues, reduce the trade deficit, and do many other substantial things.

Despite almost seven years of economic stagnation and the rise of a vast underclass of Americans stuck with lousy jobs, Obama thinks that a steady stream of $27,000 service jobs is thrusting the economy in the right direction. US manufacturing, hobbled by his trade, tax, and regulatory policies, needs only a nudge from his manufacturing hubs.

But it's not clear that Obama's Hub program is the place to go for good manufacturing jobs either. After all, it is a scheme whose principal objective is to invent and develop machines that will eliminate manufacturing jobs. Then there is his bizarre fascination with high-tech companies that either employ a very small number of the high-wage, high-skill elite or very large numbers of the low-wage, low-skill drudge.

His Hub scheme may indeed help US manufacturers. They would certainly welcome any technology that increases their productivity and profits — especially if it was paid for with taxpayer money instead of company R&D funds. Companies such as Amazon may already have agents salivating in the demonstration areas of the robotics hubs, looking for faster pickers. But peering inside a future factory spawned by Obama Hub technology may surprise even Mr. Obama.

These factories will not create the "steady stream of good jobs into the 21st century" that he had hoped for. Rather, they will create a flood of lousy, underclass jobs — the scurrying human labor needed to feed parts and raw materials to Obama's deft, voracious machines, and relieve them of their prodigious yield. All the jobs in such a factory will be held by these pickers and lumpers, except for one: the cool job held by a geeky-looking guy from an elite engineering school, who runs the factory computer system and earns a six-figure salary. He wears a hoodie and fastidiously controls every function performed (by both scurriers and machines) for the entire operation, from his colorful stool. He gels with Mr. Obama.




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Is Passably Principled Progressivism Possible?

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Try reading the title of this essay aloud. It sounds a lot like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” I like tongue twisters. But as much as I value a nimble tongue, I prize a nimble brain far more.

Libertarians are the only people with whom I can still have a satisfying conversation about politics. I no longer have much patience for talking politics with self-proclaimed progressives. Fatuously, my former faction has foregone factual fastidiousness. I know that if I ever want to change them into libertarians, I need to keep on trying; I only wish the challenge didn’t daunt me so.

Their logic does not exercise the intellect; it strangles it. I could point to a dozen examples from current events alone. A few especially make me want to run naked and screaming into the street. My natural modesty, my fear of being filled with holes by overzealous cops, and my reluctance to being laughed at, hold this impulse in check. But because most of my friends and acquaintances are progressive, I am tempted daily.

They are now in a state of high indignation because some people have replaced the slogan, “Black Lives Matter” with “ALL Lives Matter.” Now, since “all” is a more inclusive term than “black,” and progressives trumpet to the skies their commitment to inclusivity, one would imagine that replacing “black” with “all” would be more favorable to them. And if most actually believed in their own stated convictions, of course it would be. But because it is becoming increasingly obvious that for many of them, their convictions are little more than an affectation, everybody else sees their “progressivism” as a sham.

I could point to a dozen examples from current events alone. A few especially make me want to run naked and screaming into the street.

What a shame! As individuals, a good many leftists whom I know are quite sincere, but they are afraid to admit the absurdity of many of the positions their crowd expects them to take. When, in a group of them, I proclaim such things to be foolish, they look at me with something akin to envy. How dare I do anything that feels so good — without guilt or fear of disapproval?

Their enthusiasms are childishly faddish. One week, it’s operatic outrage against the Confederate battle flag. The next, their Facebook posts feature photos of yawning house cats that “roar for Cecil,” the lion killed by the dastardly, trophy-hunting dentist. I’m afraid to ask what’s next. Frighteningly soon, I’m going to find out.

Is there anything remotely progressive about the great majority of fads that tickle their fancy? I’ve come to believe that far from leading toward progress, these enthusiasms actually divert them from a quest for the genuine article. Worse, they may even lead them in the opposite direction.

As individuals, a good many leftists whom I know are quite sincere, but they are afraid to admit the absurdity of many of the positions their crowd expects them to take.

The police brutality now escalating in our society can’t be effectively dealt with if its two main causes — the irresponsibility of government and the corruption of police unions — are left unaddressed. Turning the problem into a racial shoving-match is yet another tactic designed to divide and conquer. The sooner we recognize that all lives do matter, and that police brutality threatens every one of us, the more likely we are to come together to solve the problem.

Solving the problem would, indeed, be progressive in any meaningful sense of the word. But the statist left isn’t really about solving problems to bring about progress. It’s about making those problems ever worse, so it can go on decrying them and putting itself forward as the heroic force that alone can save us from them.

As a libertarian, I very much believe in organized labor. If we’re going to let free market forces regulate commercial interactions, then we need to clear away the clutter of oppressive “workers’ rights” legislation. I believe that’s a very good plan. But it makes organized labor — at least in some industries — not less necessary, but more. Busting up all unions is not, in my view, the way to protect workers’ rights in the absence of legislation.

This means that the unions must clean house. It’s absolutely crucial to their continued survival. Statist progressives are leery of admitting that corruption exists in organized labor because they fear that anti-labor conservatives will use that corruption as an excuse to abolish unions. But if they continue to ignore corruption in those unions, this is eventually what will happen. To cite the two examples most often in the news these days, police unions must stop shielding bad cops from accountability for their actions, and teachers’ unions must insist on representing people who can actually teach.

The police brutality now escalating in our society can’t be effectively dealt with if its two main causes — the irresponsibility of government and the corruption of police unions — are left unaddressed.

When I discuss this calmly with progressive friends, away from peers whose wrath they’re afraid of incurring, I find they generally agree with me. It’s rather like reasoning with teenagers, when the rest of their crowd is not present. People can only be reasonably persuaded as individuals. Their behavior around their peers changes dishearteningly little, regardless of their age.

In their regular interactions with government at every level, my progressive friends experience little but frustration. They can point to no solid evidence, in their daily lives, that government makes their lives anything but worse. Yet they continue to believe that government action is the only means to make life better in society as a whole. To libertarians, this is as ridiculous as believing that Santa Claus comes down the chimney every Christmas Eve. But like small children who’ve been told all their lives that Santa brings their presents, statists can conceive of no other possibility.

I laugh at them a lot. I compare them to kids. Many of us think that’s funny, and recognize that it’s also true. But people can’t be persuaded of much when they’re being laughed at. Far from winning them over to our side, it only drives them farther away from it.

If we can bring them back to the principles that made them progressives in the first place, we may be able to show them that every worthy end deserves the best possible means to accomplish it. That “leaders” who keep proposing the same failing strategies do not deserve to be followed. That free people who are willing to persuade and earn trust are more trustworthy than arrogant know-it-alls who use force, fraud and intimidation to get their way. And that unless human beings can be trusted to run their own lives, they certainly can’t be trusted to run the lives of others.  

Really, I’m still a progressive. I simply persist in believing in the principles that made me a progressive in the first place. But I want to see results. I want to see actual progress. I’m kind of funny that way.

Why don’t we see any success from the things their self-proclaimed leaders keep doing? And no, “but the conservatives are worse” is not an answer, any more than “but Mary Jane’s grades were worse” was the answer when they got a bad report card. Mary Jane wasn’t the only other kid in the world, and conservatism isn’t the only other political philosophy.

People can’t be persuaded of much when they’re being laughed at. Far from winning them over to our side, it only drives them farther away from it.

Libertarianism is catching fire, as more and more people discover what it’s all about. Polls increasingly show that even people who don’t call themselves libertarians hold views consistent with our philosophy. Ours is not merely a third option — it is the best option. Now we need to talk to those on the statist left, one-to-one and one-by-one, and help them see why.

That’s a whole lot better than running naked and screaming into the street. We won’t get shot at, laughed at or arrested. And as we lose enemies, we will gain friends.




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The Rise of the Underclass

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If you are a working-age adult who is stuck in a low-wage job, or have no job at all, then you belong to the largest segment of the American labor force: a vast, sprawling underclass, with little, if any, economic value to the society that it burdens. Despite the ongoing monthly celebration of job growth, the number of working-age adults without a job is increasing rapidly and the jobs being created are, for the most part, of the subsistence variety, driving tens of millions of Americans into the lower reaches of the labor force.

During the recession that began in December 2007, 8.2 million American jobs were lost, 60% of which were middle-class jobs. The rest of the decline was split evenly among high-wage and low-wage jobs. Today, more than seven years later, the number of high-wage jobs has finally returned to its pre-recession level. But most of the middle-class jobs have not returned. They are being crowded out by low-wage jobs, largely the result of a stagnant economy, automation, and an enormous labor surplus.

The overwhelming majority of jobs are found in the two lowest wage earner quintiles. The bottom quintile, Q1, is 91.2 million strong, with an average income of $14,600; Q2 is 29.8 million strong, with an average income of $45,100. The other three quintiles, which I will call middle class (Q3), upper middle class (Q4), and upper class (Q5), include 19.1 million, 11.7 million, and 4.0 million, respectively, with average incomes of $70,100, $115,000, and $335,000. These three quintiles, which total only 34.8 million, have all the good jobs. The 121 million workers in the bottom two quintiles have the lousy ones.

As these jobs vanish, our already enormous labor surplus will grow ever larger, depressing wage rates still more.

Writing in the New York Times, Annie Lowrey reports that "the poor economy has replaced good jobs with bad ones." Most of the job growth has been in retail trade, administrative and waste services, and leisure and hospitality — the lowest paying sectors of the economy. Lowrey cited a National Employment Law Project analysis, which found that "fast food is driving the bulk of the job growth at the low end." To David Stockman, former Reagan budget director, the recovery has created a "Bread and Circuses" economy; he is not alone. To experts such as author and investment banker Daniel Alpert, it is a burger-flipper economy; "we have become a nation of hamburger flippers, Wal-Mart sales associates, barmaids, checkout people and other people working at very low wages.” Or, as Pulitzer Prize winning economics journalist Mark Whitehouse ("A Nation of Temps and Burger Flippers?") found, temporary burger flippers.

At least the burger flippers have jobs. With today's labor force participation (LFP) the lowest it's been in 37 years, there are 93 million working-age (16 years of age or older) adults who don't. This isn't to say that there are 93 million American who need jobs. Most retirees don't need them, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites "the aging of the baby boomer cohort" as the number one cause for the LFP decline. But in the 16–65 labor force age range, which excludes retirees, there are about 55 million chronically unemployed who might want a job. It's hard to whittle this number down much further. For example, the number two cause cited for the plummeting LFP is "the decline in the participation rate of those 16–24 years old." In other words, 16–24 year old Americans can't find jobs. They, along with many millions of others in this 55 million subset, are in the same boat as the 121 million with dead-end jobs — the underclass.

And it is growing fast. A recent Federal Reserve Bank study of eight major industrialized economies found that only the US has experienced a decline in LFP. Between 1997 and 2013, US LFP has decreased 4.6%, while Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom experienced increases. Then there is the so-called "Great Decoupling." Beginning around the turn of the century, employment gains, which have historically followed productivity gains, ceased. Job growth and wage increases have become decoupled from the economic progress produced by technological advance. While productivity increased linearly, employment remained flat through the Bush presidency, declining thereafter. Of today's 93 million work force nonparticipants, more than 13 million (3% of the 4.6% decline since 1997) have dropped out since President Obama took office.

Automation played a significant role in this exodus to the underclass, and will only augment its future contribution. Many companies have not rehired the people they laid off during the recession. Instead, they have adopted new technologies — hastening the return to pre-recession profits, at a lower cost — that automate tasks previously performed by humans, including high-skill, middle-class humans.

Automation is no longer confined to tedious, repetitive tasks. Jobs in services, sales, and construction, even jobs in management, science and engineering, and the arts will be vulnerable to takeover by machines. So says an Oxford University study, which concluded that 47% of US jobs are likely to be replaced by computerized machines. And a technology research firm, Gartner, forecasts that smart robots will replace one of every three jobs by 2025. As these jobs vanish, our already enormous labor surplus will grow ever larger, depressing wage rates still more.

Obama's policies have created a record-breaking number of shitty jobs, which he brags about, and now promises to make less shitty.

Yet, as if existing wages were not low enough, we add one million new legal immigrants annually. Politicians, Democrat, Republican, and libertarian alike, tell us that we need them: they start new businesses, they invent things, they help support our aging population. In 1970, with a population of about 200 million and 53% of all households in the middle class, Americans competently started new businesses, invented things (almost everything that mattered), and took care of the elderly. Economic prosperity was achieved through productivity increase, not population growth. Today, with a population of about 320 million, the middle class has shrunk to only 43% (along with its wages and net worth), and we struggle in an economic mire. It seems likely that, with more people (438 million by 2050, under our current immigration policy), the underclass will continue its relentless growth.

Meanwhile, there is no serious attempt by our political elite to help create good jobs — middle class, "breadwinner" jobs that can support a family and reanimate the American Dream. The Obama administration, apparently fooled (monthly) by the declining unemployment rate, is encouraged by an economy that systemically produces low-wage jobs, as long as the number is large enough to flaunt. Mr. Obama regularly brags about record-setting job growth, 12 million at his latest count, asserting that "the economy is headed in the right direction."

It is not. By instilling fear and confusion in American business, recent tax and regulatory policies (including immigration policies) are the chief contributors to underclass expansion. For example, there is a growing preference for companies to employ temporary workers instead of permanent ones. The use of employment services, observed Mr. Whitehouse, is "a practice that makes firing easier and reflects their caution about the economic outlook." Ironically, computer and management consultants, one of the few labor categories to have experienced job growth during the so-called recovery, consist of "people who help businesses figure out how to make do with fewer workers."

Capitalists believe that the way to reverse the trend is simply to reduce the taxes and regulations that have made businesses afraid to spend. Companies, then in possession of more capital and the freedom to invest it, would purchase new plant and equipment, create new products and services, develop new markets, etc., requiring better jobs and more workers to support the expanding operations. And with the increased demand for labor, wage rates would rise.

President Obama has different ideas. He is content with his Burger Flipper economy. Unlike his Green Economy, which briefly created a paltry number of green jobs, the Burger Flipper economy produces enough low-wage jobs each month (now 61 consecutive months) for him to gloat (now, it seems, 60 consecutive months). He apparently believes that this stream of lousy jobs will continue in sufficient quantity to accommodate the five million illegal immigrants that he wants to add to our existing labor surplus.

It is only the very wealthy who prosper, with the top 1% having reaped an astounding 95% of all of the nation's net income gains since Obama took office.

Hillary Clinton, likely our next president, is dismayed by his restraint. She "advocates expanding Obama's executive actions to allow millions or more undocumented immigrants to obtain legal protection and work permits." And if that does not expand the labor surplus enough, Clinton has said that she will "welcome back people who have already been deported."

With the labor surplus driving wage decline and "fast food" driving job growth, Obama has accordingly shifted his policies to help the burgeoning underclass. As Lowrey noted,

The swelling of the low-wage work force has led to a push for policies to raise the living standards of the poor, including through job training, expansion of health care coverage and a higher minimum wage.

Obama's new plan is to improve the quality of the lousy jobs that his old plan created.

Will it work? Those without a job will get no raise. That number, now at 93 million, will increase as businesses encounter the artificially increased labor costs. Those who have a qualifying job will be happy, at first — until they discover that (A) everything they buy will cost more, (B) they will pay more in taxes and receive less in benefits, and (C) at $10.10 an hour, they will still belong to the underclass.

To date, Obama's policies have been largely aspirational, and, for existing American citizens, lamentable. According to the BLS, only 6 million net jobs (not 12 million) have been created under his stewardship. And, according to a Center For Immigration Studies report, all of them have gone to immigrants (legal and illegal). "The number of immigrants working returned to pre-recession levels by the middle of 2012, and has continued to climb. But the number of natives working remains almost 1.5 million below the November 2007 level."

Given the immensity of the underclass, the thinking at the White House might be that Obama's plan will yield more bang for the buck than a plan, say, to help create high-paying jobs. Besides, they already think that the economy is headed in the right direction and expect that, in the burger flipper economy that their old plan created, nothing could possibly go wrong with a new plan designed to lift the wages of burger flippers.

Enter the Burger Robot, the fast food industry's answer to rising labor costs. The Burger Robot can make 360 sandwiches per hour (including gourmet sandwiches); it reduces liability, management duties, and food preparation footprint; it pays for itself in about one year (even at the existing minimum wage); and it doesn't need a hairnet. The machine is not designed to improve the efficiency of fast food workers; rather, says company cofounder, Alexandros Vardakostas, “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

The rise of the underclass is a glowing symptom of our decline. Today's politicians are singularly incapable of fulfilling their economic promises. Their glib, clumsy, overbearing laws and regulations have forged a pathetic burger-flipper economy offering little more than peonage and destitution to the majority of its labor force. After more than six years of feckless meddling, Obama's policies have created a record-breaking number of shitty jobs, which he brags about, and now promises to make less shitty. After more than six years of Obama's promises to help the poor and the middle class, it is only the very wealthy who prosper, with the top 1% having reaped an astounding 95% of all of the nation's net income gains since he took office. For everyone else, there is stagnation and decline — unless you are an immigrant or a robot.




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The Top Films Every Libertarian Should Know

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Film has the power to change minds, often by changing hearts. Libertarian films are about choice, opportunity, and knocking down obstacles — in any setting. They demonstrate the power of persuasion over the force of authority. Libertarian films often point out the unintended consequences of government intervention, but they are just as likely to present a protagonist's personal struggle for self-expression. They show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.

At this year’s Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, 18 films were screened to packed audiences. We also presented several panels on topics related to film. For one of our sessions I invited four film enthusiasts to present their recommendations of the top films that every libertarian should know. Then, as a follow-up to the panel, I asked each participant to send me his recommendations for this article. Here are their selections, from the messages they sent.

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Gary Alexander, who has served as an Anthem Libertarian Film Festival judge since its first season, is a music and movie historian whose weekly radio show provides insightful background as well as provocative music choices. He offered his top libertarian films in chronological order, presenting an historical look at the way freedom and individualism have been presented in film. He began with 1939, the year often called “the golden age of movies.”

Gary:

Last year I watched all the major films of 1939 because it was their 75th anniversary. My pick from that year is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, director). It was #3 in box office that year, behind only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It reveals political corruption in an era of idealism.

1963: America, America (Elia Kazan, director). This is the American Dream personified in a young man. The protagonist, an ethnic Greek living in 19th-century Turkey, is entrusted with the family fortune to start a carpet business in Constantinople, but he dreams of emigrating to America.

1965: Shenandoah (Andrew V. McGlaglen, director) was in the top ten for box office receipts in a year dominated by The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, and James Bond. Set during the Civil War but made at the height of the Vietnam conflict, it presents draft resistance in an honorable light.

1988: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, director). Tucker was a maverick car designer who faced crony capitalism as he tried to bring his revolutionary car to market.

2011: Atlas Shrugged 1 (Paul Johansson, director). This film has to be included for its pure libertarian theme. The film’s producer, John Aglialoro [who spoke at FreedomFest on “Wall Street Goes to Hollywood: The Risks and Rewards of Making Movies”], said that he wants to do a 13-week mini-series based on "episodes" within Objectivism, Ayn Rand's works, or even Atlas Shrugged, thoughnot based in a linear storytelling narrative, per se. This might provide a better way to present the overarching themes of Rand’s works. We the Living (1942, Goffredo Alessandrini, director) would be a superior Rand film, but I want to give Atlas a belated boost.

Libertarian films show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.

As an aside to the power of libertarian movies, I was just watching a taped Stossel show when a member of the audience asked Lawrence Reed [President of the Foundation for Economic Education and another speaker at FreedomFest] how he found the courage to spread freedom literature behind the Iron Curtain. Reed said, "It may sound corny, but it came from a movie." Stossel responded, "Yes, that sounds corny. What movie?" and Reed replied, "In 1966, when I was 14, my mother dragged me and my sister to Pittsburgh to see The Sound of Music. Then, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, I saw that Austria was next door and I wanted to help undermine the communists as the von Trapps did to the Nazis.”

So . . . I don't feel so silly bringing up musicals on the panel, including Sound of Music.

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Doug Casey, an entrepreneur and investment specialist known to libertarians everywhere, was one of the original judges for Anthem and always provides interesting insights for the film panels. This year he focused on genre rather than specific films.

Doug:

There are two genres that are overwhelmingly libertarian: westerns and sci-fi. That's likely because they both deal in frontiers, where the individual is responsible for a situation’s outcome. They tend, therefore, to be morality plays. And libertarianism is essentially a moral philosophy. One favorite Western is High Noon. And in sci-fi it's tough to beat V for Vendetta. Characters within films are very often libertarian as well, in particular Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, which is kind of a western. And Han Solo from Star Wars. It's odd, and counterintuitive, to me that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.

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Marc Eliot is known as “Hollywood’s biographer” because he has written biographies of many of its biggest names, including Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, and John Wayne. He has served as an Anthem judge for four years and is a popular speaker at FreedomFest. His choices run the gamut of Hollywood’s best films.

Marc:

1. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan, director). A premier libertarian film about, among other things (many other things), the insidiousness of big government, how it has tentacles in every aspect of our culture. It examines the link between politics-free entertainers and how they affect the popularity of candidates. A supremely important film, and highly entertaining.

2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel, director). One of the strangest and most intense love stories of the ’50s, set in a world where everyone is supposed to be the same. The loss of individuality here is a bold metaphor for the infliction of political correctness via big government. Should be seen by all. Love is the film's solution, and its shocking ending underscores that real love is the antithesis of imposed sameness. The tacked-on opening and closing were mandated by the studio, Allied Artists, after the film tested too frightening. It still is, filled with all the fear and paranoia of the glorious ’50s, Hollywood style.

3. The Best Years of our Lives (1947, William Wyler, director). The first and still the best film that looks at the way the Greatest Generation was treated after it helped save America and the world from Fascism. What was it like when the soldiers came home, and how difficult it was for them to readjust? What role did the government play, if any, in making their transition back to civilian society? The harsh way the three principal characters are treated is an eye-opener, and perhaps even more relevant today. Also, Wyler's use of deep focus allows the film to remain ambiguous in its depiction. One of the great ’40s Hollywood films.

It's odd, and counterintuitive, that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.

4. The Godfather (I and II, but not III) (1972, 1974, Francis Ford Coppola, director) is the story of a mob family that is the story of Corporate America ("It's business, Sonny, business"). One might wonder where the government is in all of this, apparently invisible because the Corleones are the government. Even in the second film, when the hearings into organized crime take place, the senators are already in the family's pocket. These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.

5. Modern Times (1936, Charlie Chaplin, director). The final appearance of The Tramp, caught in a world so mechanized that he becomes a living machine. Chaplin's vision of oppressive authority and an ever-increasing mechanical, or technological world, is well worth watching. One of the funniest and most profound films of the ’30s.

6. The Ten Commandments (1957, Cecil B. DeMille, director) deals with a higher authority even than big government, and one of the very few films to deal with Jews as victims. The film was made in the decade following the Holocaust and serves as both a memorial and a cautionary tale. Hitler was the ultimate non-libertarian, and this film reminds us that religion, faith, and righteousness will prevail over governmental enslavement. Still holds up; actually gets better with age.

7. The Searchers (1957, John Ford, director). The individual lost in a society that services the big government of the post-Civil War. Ethan (Wayne) was on the losing side of the war and as a result has lost everything. He returns home to retrieve the last of his life. Ford lets us know that Ethan's sister-in-law is probably his former lover, and that Debbie is not just his niece but, in fact, his daughter. When the house is burned down by the Comanches and they take Debbie, what follows is the ultimate chase film. Ethan tracks down Debbie to preserve his own past, or to destroy it. We don't know until the end of the film if he will kill Debbie or save her; if he will preserve the values of the union or make it, and him, slip into spiritual anarchy. A great film.

These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.

8. Vertigo (1957, Alfred Hitchcock, director). Not a libertarian film, but everybody should see Vertigo at least five times in life. The only film that treats lost love as something that is never truly lost. Hitchcock may have resembled Burbage but he was the 20th-century Shakespeare.Vertigo is the kind of deep, beautiful, and profound experience the Bard would have approved of. A lesson in repressed feelings, delusional love, fetishistic fatalism, and blind worship. There is simply no other film like Vertigo. I could teach an entire semester on Hitchcock and hardly scratch the surface. A Brit, he flourished in his American period, when British filmmaking came under threat of Nazi attack and much of the best talent fled to America. See it!

9. High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann, director). The granddaddy of Dirty Harry, this is a film that shows how the invisible hand of big government controls our lives. When it becomes known that the bad-guy Miller gang (led by Frank Miller, who has been pardoned from life imprisonment) are returning to town to seek their vengeance on Marshal Will Kane who arrested Miller, the judge who sentenced him packs his bags and flees, warning Kane that when tyrants who have been defeated return, they are always treated like heroes. Life is always better, for a while, when tyrants rule. Sure enough, the town fails to help Kane, because "the boys up north are watching, and they won't want to invest in a town that is still having shoot-outs in the streets." So much for friendship, loyalty, and support. When Kane throws his badge on the ground (an act that got the writer of the film, Carl Foreman, blacklisted), he turns his back on the town that left him to die. The best ride off into the sunset forever. A must-see. And a very libertarian film.

10. All The President's Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula). Film follows history; it is not avant garde. Here is the ultimate story of government gone crazy, and the power of journalism to help keep democracy intact. Not really a political film, more of a spy-type thriller. Enjoyable even if you've never heard of Watergate. Perhaps too liberal for libertarians, it nevertheless says that tyranny is vulnerable to a constitutionally protected free press.

***

Stephen Cox is editor-in-chief of Liberty and professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. He also is a film buff who knows the classics. He approached the panel assignment thematically.

Stephen:

Let’s begin with Rosalind Russell movies. If you want an uncompromising satire of (elected!) political power, His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks, director) is it. "Aw, go on, you'd hang your own mother to be reelected — and you know it" is one of my favorite lines. Auntie Mame (1958, Morton DaCosta, director) is the apotheosis of a free individual. Best of all, for libertarians, is Roughly Speaking (1945, Michael Curtiz, director). Roz is an entrepreneur whose investments, but not her individualism, always fail. She keeps coming back. "This is America!" she says.

I also like movies with challenging problems for libertarians. In Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles, director) Kane is simultaneously a power-hungry politician, of whom one of his friends says, “It seems we weren’t enough; he wanted all the voters to love him, too,” and an individualist who says, "There's only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do — and that's me." Red River (1948, Howard Hawks, Arthur Rosson, directors) is a story constantly concerned with problems of property rights. It’s also fraught with theological issues, although that's off topic: the Red River is the place where blood is sacrificed so that the protagonist can continue to the land of promise; the father figure resembles the judgmental Old Testament God and the son figure resembles the heroically self-sacrificing New Testament God; etc.

Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication. I would include The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, directors), which is the ultimate drama of ballet, and All About Eve (1950, Peter Sullivan), which is the ultimate drama of the theater.

***

And now for me, Jo Ann:

I was fascinated by the scope of films offered by our panelists, and I was pleased to see that they reached beyond the obvious films about opposing government. Libertarian heroes are not necessarily activists working for a cause. They are individuals who follow their own paths. They do not conform to the expectations of others. When something goes wrong, they fix it themselves. When something goes right, they give credit where it is due. Libertarian stories may occur within any family, community, or industry. They do not have to be set in a dystopian future! Here are some modern films that ought to become libertarian classics:

A perfect example from 2013 is 42 (Brian Helgeland, director), the movie about how Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) broke the race barrier in sports. It wasn't a government edict that integrated baseball; in fact, the cops tried to keep Jackie from taking the field in some venues. No, it was a businessman, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who recognized that he could sell a lot more tickets, win a lot more games, and possibly earn the World Series title, if he hired some talented African-American ballplayers. No one forced him to do it, and no one forced the other managers in the League to follow suit when they saw that they couldn't compete successfully without black ball players. It was just plain good business.

Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication.

Another great example appears in the Oscar-nominated movie Winter's Bone (2010, Debra Granik, director). The protagonist, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), is a 17-year-old girl living in the backwoods of Missouri and struggling to keep her family together after her father skips out and her mother becomes incapacitated. When her little brother notices the neighbors skinning a freshly killed deer, Ree cautions him, "Don't ever ask for what ought to be given freely." That night the neighbor brings over a shoulder of meat and some potatoes and onions. On her way out, the neighbor says, "I noticed your woodbox is low. You can use our splitter if you want." As the neighbor leaves, Ree says to her little brother and sister, "Who wants stew?" When they look up eagerly she adds, "Then get over here so I can show you how to make it."

This is the story of "The Little Red Hen" in action. Ree knows the importance of teaching her siblings self-reliance. The neighbor brings meat because the Dollys don't have any. She doesn't cook it into a meal, however, because Ree is capable of doing that herself. The neighbor lends the splitter but doesn't offer to cut the wood, because Ree and her brother can do that too. The neighbor helps the Dollys of her own free will and choice, but she respects Ree's dignity and character too much to offer her more than what Ree can't do for herself. What a great example of libertarian values.

Another unlikely libertarian hero appears in the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al Mansour, director, previously reviewed in Liberty. The title character (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons about the goodness of Allah.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to Western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean).

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. In many ways the bike represents what girls can do, given the same tools and opportunities as boys.

Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and, with a determined voice and a winning smile, convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes current gratification when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store in order to save for her big purchase.

Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through.

Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price. So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Koran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Koran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadjda presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.

But to return to our panel discussion — what happened then is what always happens: all too soon we were ushered from the room by the next event, just as our audience was warming up with selections and offerings of their own. So what are your favorite libertarian films? What did we leave out?




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PIGS: Only the Ruins Remain

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As I write this, I am in Rome. From this city, an empire once ruled a large part of the world. During its intellectually better days, Rome, building on the achievements of Greece, provided a way of perceiving the universe that distinguished human beings from animals and raised them from barbaric life to civilization. Greece and Rome showed humanity a way to reason and to understand causality.

Greece and Rome started an approach that could release humanity from quivering before the unknown, mysterious, and unpredictable forces of nature and the priest. In the late middle ages, Italy contributed enormously to the Renaissance and thus to the succeeding eras of massive, unprecedented material progress in the history of humanity. Geniuses such as Leonardo and Michelangelo lived here.

Decades of easy life and freebies have hardwired many people in PIGS countries to expect free stuff as their right.

In today’s world, a common narrative is that Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain — acronymically known as the PIGS — are freewheeling societies that provide a lot of personal freedom. They may not be rolling in money, but according to the narrative, their people seem actually to enjoy their lives, as compared with the workaholic North Americans. Their fashions attract people from around the world. Their public squares attract crowds of young people early in the evenings, arriving after their siestas and still partying in the mornings. PIGS countries are known for their deep social cohesion and close-knit families. It is believed that people there are social, and care for one another.

Scratch the surface, and the reality is very different.

Greece just voted “no” to reducing its dependence on free stuff. Decades of easy life and freebies have hardwired many people in PIGS countries to expect free stuff as their right. After many talks with people over the month since my arrival in Italy, I am struggling to recall anyone who may have suggested that it was not his right to expect Germans to keep on paying his bills.

PIGS are third-world countries in many ways and would be considered so, were they not proximal to northern Europe. Graffiti is everywhere. Public spaces are extremely dirty. There are always long line-ups at train stations and banks to get service, which is usually impolite and unhelpful. If you annoy an Italian auntie — who somehow assumes a superior position — every issue will be blown out of proportion. Even non-issues will crop up and then blow up.

A situation that is created by emotions cannot be undone by reason. You must know how to de-escalate, emotionally.

When I arrived late at night to the sprawling airport of Milan, there was no one at the information counters. In fact there was no one of any kind to answer questions. With 41% unemployment among young people, something just didn’t add up. Why weren’t they manning service counters? There was no ATM machine available — all were locked behind walls for the night.

Two millennia after the construction of the Coliseum, it gets far more visitors every day than it did when it was built. Cities are packed with tourists of all kinds, from museum visitors to northern Europeans on beach vacations. Museums, heritage sites, and so forth collect huge amounts of money. But what I experienced when I arrived at Milan airport — with no one to help — stood true even during daytime visits to historical sites. I usually saw no one monitoring the safety of historically precious things at the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, and the museums I visited. People who were supposed to act as guards mostly stood outside the buildings, smoking and chatting away.

There was no one of any kind to answer questions. With 41% unemployment among young people, something just didn’t add up.

People in PIGS countries suffer from a massive victim mentality, which by itself is enough of a vice to undo any civilization. On Bloomberg they seem to blame their plight on Germany, but if you encounter them in the street, they — not unlike Shias and Sunnis — blame all their problems on their nearest neighbor; Germany is too far away. Italians express displeasure about all things Spanish and Greek, Greeks about all things Turkish, Turks about things Armenian, and vice versa. The individual here is never wrong. Even questions about who created which kind of art, who invented the alcoholic drink Anis or the Greek-Turkish desserts can lead to disturbing confrontations and embarrassed faces among people who look well educated. An outsider shudders at their small-minded nationalism.

Pickpocketing is rampant in PIGS countries. Two weeks ago, my passport, money, camera, etc. were stolen from my bag while I watched the allocation of the platform of my train, right under CCTV cameras. Within minutes I was at the police station to complain. The people there all kept their seats, made me fill out a form, and waved me off. They had no interest in wasting time by going through the CCTV recording. Of course I missed my train, and the officials to whom I showed my ticket and the police report had no interest in helping me take the next one, despite knowing full well that all my money was gone.

In my subsequent conversations with people, they always assumed that the thieves were gypsies. If you are an African, a gypsy, or a Muslim you should not expect to get a job in these places. I have absolutely no sympathy for people who, having been given a better chance, should have exploited it, but did not. Where these particular people came from was far worse than the PIGS countries are. They should have been more grateful. Still, I find it strange that these groups cannot be granted opportunities and must always be looked down upon. Most people who would have been assimilated in North America remain outsiders and get blamed by those with a victim mentality. In my case, the thieves were likely white, Italian males; I saw one of them, and that was what he was.

If you encounter them in the street, they — not unlike Shias and Sunnis — blame all their problems on their nearest neighbor.

Compared with people in the US and Canada, people in Latin countries tend to be more apathetic toward their work (and more keen on partying), to spend more of what they have (and hence be more prone to indebtedness), and to be more tribal (and hence not really to care much about others, outside the tribe). Utter lack of respect for basic rules (as in driving, for example) does not necessarily translate into more freedom in society.

I am not sure how close PIGS families are, but how they do their jobs and how they look after their public spaces demonstrates a total lack of social cohesion. Rampant smoking and dislike for work does not show much about happy lives. It must be hard to spend your waking hours doing what you hate. Often pleasure-centeredness and neverending partying are nothing but an escape from what is regarded as the drudgery of normal existence.

So I am not sure whether the people of PIGS are as happy as the common narrative indicates. On the contrary, I believe that those who think the problems of the PIGS are merely about their debt look only at the surface. The problem of PIGS is the problem of their culture. They have lost reason. Leonardo da Vinci and the great Greco-Roman philosophers would feel completely out of place in their homelands today.




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Modi Demystified

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It has been a year since Narendra Modi was inaugurated as prime minister of India. During that year, he has spent a lot of time traveling around the world, including the US, Australia, France, and Canada. I was hoping against hope that one of these Western nations, seemingly so conscious of human rights, would arrest him for the role he is alleged to have played in the massacre of Muslims in 2002 and ship him off to the international court. They didn't.

Until early last year, several Western countries, including the US, had imposed travel restrictions on Modi for his alleged crimes. But Modi's sins have now been washed in the holy water of democracy. So much for those Western countries’ fervently declared position never to compromise on morals.

It is not possible for many Indians to imagine a future achieved by constructive, rational steps. As a result, they look for a magic wand to take India to a prosperous future.

During Modi’s visits abroad, local Indians gave him a hero's welcome. The Indian flag and anthem and a deep sense of togetherness, joy, and warmth dominated the proceedings. He attracted an historically unprecedented 18,000 people when he appeared at Madison Square Garden in New York. Meanwhile, Indians living in India are said to have found a new sense of confidence, vision, and hope. Investors, economists, journalists, intellectuals, and politicians around the world appear to be in awe of Modi, looking up to him to make India the next China. The Indian stock market has done very well. The IMF believes that India will soon exceed China in growth rate.

One out of every six human beings living in India, so a real change in India would be path-breaking for humanity.

Modi is the first prime minister in almost three decades who has come to power with a full majority, gaining the ability to institute legislative changes. He had already created an impression of competence by supposedly demonstrating his capabilities in Gujarat, the province he had headed before.

So, why am I so stuck on Modi’s alleged crimes of the past? Should we not let bygones be bygones? Why not worry about the larger good and let the hope that Modi has instilled in everyone carry us forward?

Let me explain.

Hysteria among Indians is a routine phenomenon. They latch on to some new hope or disaster, their feelings completely unsupported by facts or reason. It pays to remember that Indian society is not driven by or even understands the concepts of the sanctity of individuality or reason. It is a society based on a hodgepodge of beliefs, traditions, religions, and superstitions. Given this, it is not possible for many Indians to imagine a future achieved by constructive, rational steps. As a result, they look for a magic wand to do the job, to take India to a prosperous future. The result is that they forever look for a new deity to lead them.

People who operate only through emotions and feelings do not have to reflect on their past beliefs, to reason and dissect why their hopes proved erroneous.

It is not the backwardness of the poor people that worries me the most, but the utter failure of the middle class to unhinge itself from irrational thinking and provide intellectual leadership.

The last prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was rightly assumed to be a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic head of the Congress Party, which has run India for most of its so-called post-independence, democratic days. Singh was universally seen as indecisive and his ministers were considered corrupt. He was regarded as incapable of changing the course of India. Alas, this was the general perception when he left. In earlier days, however, he had been the hero of India. He was the person believed to have started the process of liberalization in India. In those early days he was seen as a genius technocrat.

People who operate only through emotions and feelings do not have to reflect on their past beliefs, to reason and dissect why their hopes proved erroneous. Almost every inauguration of a new prime minister within my lifetime has been met with massive euphoria, with everyone, particularly the so-called educated class, looking up to him as a magic wand. By the end of each term the memory of whatever they were so euphoric about at the beginning has been forgotten.

While it is true that Modi has the majority in Parliament, the first majority since 1984, the irony that the major media has declined to discuss is that his party got only 31% of the total votes, a result of the votes being split among too many parties. Modi derives most of his power from the middle-class, the so-called educated.

If they truly loved India or cared for its poor people, they would have seen India’s continual wallowing in irrationality, superstitions, and lack of enlightenment.

He has also given a new sense of identity to the confidence-lacking Indian diaspora. Its members have found new pride in Hinduism, so much so that fanatic elements are increasingly influencing curricula related to Hinduism in the US. They cannot stop talking about how great India is. My question for them is why they left India or why they don’t return if they really think India is such a great country. Why should they crave American passports or show off their American residency when on visits to India? Alas, in the absence of reason, not having done any introspection, they fail to realize that behind the facade of pride in India and Hinduism is a narcissistic craving for a sense of identity and a desperate plea for respect.

If they truly loved India or cared for its poor people — or if, again, they could reason, instead of supporting or rationalizing lies that look good about India — they would have seen India’s continual wallowing in irrationality, superstitions, and lack of enlightenment. The middle class in India is no different from other classes. Using WhatsApp, they send out religious hymns with Modi’s name in place of a god’s.

In practice there is not much change at the ground level, except for a palpable increase in religious intolerance and Hindu fanaticism, which some elements in Modi’s party share or support. Rumors about “love jihad” have recently been the talk of the town; the assumption is that Muslim youth have been systemically trained to seduce Hindu girls. There has also been an increased movement against the consumption of beef. Recently a relative of mine got a visit from one of the Hindu fanatic groups for supposedly insulting Hindu gods. The police prefer to be bystanders on such occasions.

One piece of legislation that Modi is after is called a land acquisition bill. A very large proportion of middle-class Indians have no problem with forcibly acquiring the land of poor farmers to enable India’s industrial development, helping corporations get cheap and easy access. This, in essence, is what the bill is about. The act might even speed up the process of infrastructural development, but at the price of individual rights. India's middle class — those who live in India and those who live abroad — are among the most heartless and apathetic people I have known. They claim to be for the free market, but what that means to them is actually seizing land from poor people for the larger good, where the larger good, in their imagination, is what helps the middle class.

Religious intolerance and fascist policies carry real risks of blowing up and becoming uncontrollable. Modi is a simpleton — and, like his middle-class supporters, he is prone to designing a society according to his own image, from the top down. He does not understand the concepts of “unintended consequences,” “uncertainty,” and “non-linearity.”

They claim to be for the free market, but what that means to them is actually seizing land from poor people to help the middle class.

Reason, justice, and respect for the individual must come to the forefront if India is to change. But the time for that hasn’t come. I never had any hope from Modi or his fanaticism. But, at the root, the Indian middle class — those who live in India and those who live abroad — have failed India. They have failed to educate themselves in critical thinking about India’s problems. What skills in argumentation they possess have been used for rationalizing the country’s backwardness. They have been a failure at leading India’s largely poor and superstitious society.

Indeed, for now, in the world arena, Indians have won respect. They have an increased sense of identity. They are a proud bunch. They have hopes. But this is all shallow; nothing real underpins it. Modi will most likely fade into oblivion in a few years. Eventually, as in the past, most people will forget the euphoria and will be looking for the next deity.

I await the day when the Indian will look for the hero inside himself.

But for now, India is not the next China, not even remotely.




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The Moonwalk & The Fish That Got Away

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I just watched an aquatic episode of Monster Quest on the History Channel. It reminded me of how I, like 600 or 700 million Chinese, missed the first walk on the moon. Yes, “Monster Quest.” Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone! And, yes, I know, that show has painted itself into a corner. It will pretty much have to produce a live sasquatch, or at least the carcass of one soon, or go off the air. But, don't worry, eventually this, my story, is going to turn into a fishing story, and also into a sex story.

The documentary examined a possible giant grouper attack on a child in Florida. It included good underwater footage of several Goliath groupers at close range. In the old days, some Goliath groupers were weighed in at over 500 pounds. Big fish! No need to lie if you hooked one of those.

I was about 26 and I was spending a whole summer on a small Mexican island off the Caribbean coast. I had only one purpose: to enact repeatedly a typical, recurrent fantasy of my French youth. I was there to spear sea creatures during the day and to cook and eat them during the warm tropical night. That was it. France is far to the north of most of North America, if you look at a map attentively. Paris, where I was raised, is even north of Montreal. It's also far from the ocean, but city people in France have deeply-anchored thalassotropism, an unreasoned attraction to the sea. Many spend summer at the seaside, where they learn to swim well. Even way back then, some people, like me, learned in their early teens to be comfortable underwater and to spear fish. French boys especially fantasized about tropical seas in the days when travel was expensive and it seemed there was little chance you would ever go there. Their dreams were purposeful and competent. They wanted to do something about them if the occasion arose, by some miracle. Well, the miracle happened for me. I emigrated to California, next door to Mexico.

In Mexico, I spent most daylight hours in the clear, clear sea, free-diving. That means up and down and up and down, holding your breath — no effeminate breathing apparatus (no scuba). With good training, under favorable conditions, if you are in shape, you can do that for hours on end. I never got bored, because I wasn't there for the sights; I was spearing fish right and left and I was also catching rock lobsters. (That's the red lobster with small claws, also called “spiny lobster.”) I don't wish to explain how I was catching the lobsters; I have a persistent fear of the Mexican constabulary, and I don't know what's the statute of limitation. The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the English Channel, where I had learned, that it was almost like moving to another planet.

For French spear-fishermen of that era, one kind of fish had legendary and mythical status: groupers. There were none in the Channel, and none in the Atlantic at those latitudes. There were only a few in the Mediterranean. Groupers were said to be elusive, secretive, and almost impossible to spear. Diving magazines reproduced endlessly the same photograph of the same champion of France posing with the same two foot-long grouper. I could not imagine, then, any change in my life's circumstances that would bring me within distance of such a trophy. To complete the picture, groupers were said to be excellent eating fish — not a small detail for the French, then or now.

The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the Channel that it was almost like moving to another planet.

Fast-forwarding my life story: that summer, I was right there on prime grouper territory. Once I had caught my three rock lobsters or my small barracuda for dinner, I would explore the reef cavities slowly, deliberately. I discovered that there were many groupers around but that they hid inside deep holes in the daytime. I devised a method to draw some of them out (the stupid ones, no doubt) where I could take a clear shot at them with my modest-sized rubber band spear gun. (I am sorry but I will not reveal the method until I am on my deathbed; it's like my secret chanterelles patch.)

Well, fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it. So I caught groupers worth catching several times and early on in my stay. And yes, the flesh was delicious, surprisingly refined in flavor and with a firm texture.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming American expedition to the moon had been the subject of a barrage of news, quasi-news, and speculations even in that remote part of Mexico. The night before the event, the locals were buying beer, and the few gringo tourists were right behind them. Some old women were even preparing Christmas tamales, way out of season. It was obvious there was not going to be any work done the next day, the planned date for the moonwalk.

We did not have access to a TV but my American girlfriend and I were going to join the festivities around a transistor radio with several other Americans. We were going to listen to commentators give the blow-by-blow. Incidentally, Mexican commentators of anything are better, more lively, more animated than their American counterparts. But grouper was on my mind. So, earlier than usual on the morning of the landing, I went into the water, close to town, with the modest objective of just doing a little exploration for later. Almost right away, I spotted a flat reef of old, smooth coral, shaped like a table, with many good-size perforations on its top.

Fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it.

Soon, the sun was at such an angle that I could see inside each hole right from the surface. I noticed something moving inside a hole and thought it might be a darting lobster. I dived down to investigate and immediately realized I was looking at the marbled skin of a large grouper with its head right under the opening. The atavistic assassin's reflex took over. Coolly, I told myself I would never have a better chance to shoot a large grouper in the head, where it counts, and at close range. One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

I shot as planned, right in the skull, and pulled on the line connecting the gun to the shaft in the fish, to bring it to the surface. There was resistance. I went down to investigate and found that the grouper was not dead, that it had inflated its body and braced itself inside the hole with its spiny dorsal fin. I dived about 15 or 20 times, and I was unable to budge it at all. Finally, I located a horizontal hole under the flat surface of the reef from which I could gain access to the struggling fish from a different angle.

I wrestled with the grouper for more than two hours, becoming prey to what economists know as the “sunk cost fallacy.” I had already invested so much time in that fish, I couldn't really let it go. In addition, one of my precious few shafts was embedded in its head and I would have to abandon it too.

Finally, the fish gave up or expired; it stopped resisting. I reached into the hole and grabbed it by the eye cavities, thumb in one eye, index finger in the other. I floated the fish up to the surface with no trouble and walked to town in the hot sun carrying on my shoulder a grouper the size of which I would not have even dared imagine ten years earlier, when I was still only a French spear-fisherman. I cannot tell you exactly how big that fish was, because there was no opportunity to weigh it, or even to measure it. Besides, fishermen are routinely accused of lying about measurements — because so many do, in fact, lie. I can say, however, that the next day, it fed eight young adults easily.

One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

By the time I arrived, the lunar show was over, the two guys had taken their little walk on the moon, everyone assured me, and the celebration was well under way. My girlfriend was miffed, but when she saw the grouper, she kind of understood my glee, although she was not a diver, and not even a woman of the sea. (She was just intelligent, and very hot!) At any rate, the moonwalk has always had a slight sense of unreality for me, because I did not watch it or even hear a description of the event in real time. As I mentioned, I am a little like the red Chinese who found out for sure only many years later. You might say, I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

There is a sequel to this story. The brain learns things it does not even know it knows. Every good fisherman will tell you he does not understand all his successes. So, the moonwalk fish subtly encouraged me to keep looking for grouper.

I explored a big pile of boulders, in shallow water, right across the narrow beach from the concrete cubicle where I lived. The top boulders almost broke the surface at low tide; the white sand on which they rested may have been 25 feet down, not much for an experienced free-diver with good, recent local training. Soon, I found a narrow space at the base of the boulders. With lots of air in my lungs, I did not hesitate to crawl inside. I ended up underneath the pile of rocks with just the tips of my flippers emerging.

I wasn't worried about wounding myself against the rocks, because I was wearing a light wetsuit. (I always wear a wetsuit when diving, even and especially in warm water. Warm water has coral. Any contact with most corals will inflict a thousand small cuts that will not heal if you submerge yourself in the salty sea repeatedly. And if you perspire even a little in the tropical night, the cuts hurt like hell.) I let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and discovered a black, glistening surface a couple of feet away from my face that did not look like rock.

I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

I came up for air and went down again to the same spot, through the narrow passage, which gave me exactly the same orientation to the light. The mysterious surface had changed color. After a dozen times going up and down and into the hole, my face suddenly confronted another face, right at the bottom. The other face had big thick lips and globular eyes. In spite of that striking description, it took my brain a few seconds to register what I was seeing, because of its sheer size. The face was several times larger than mine. The hole was nearly filled by a giant grouper.

That the fish did not scoot at my approach was not surprising. First, the narrow passage in which I had crawled may have been the only exit route. Second, large groupers have few predators. They are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

When I understood what was so close to me, my heart did not beat faster. I felt very calm and collected. I dived repeatedly to reassure myself that I was not dreaming. Several times I saw the characteristic lips and the round eyes; I observed that the dark skin was shiny; I saw parts of fins bigger than my legs.

Grouper are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

Remember that I had my little spear gun with me. Spearing the giant point-blank would have been child's play. Yet, I did not press the trigger. I wasn't afraid just then but something in my unconscious mind stopped me. I can't begin to say how big the grouper was because I never saw the whole thing. It was bigger than me. It might have been the biggest grouper anyone had ever speared. Certainly, it would have been the biggest grouper a French-born person had ever caught free-diving — or at any rate, any Parisian.

I went up and down for an hour, thinking, calculating from what angle to shoot, and then how to retrieve it out of its hole. As I was in shallow water, it seemed feasible. There was a very good chance I would be able to drag the fish out swimming backward in the narrow passage, if it were dead.

Soon, it became like solving an engineering problem. I got out of the water and walked back to my place to have lunch and do some more thinking. I was confident the giant would be there when I returned. I thought the boulders were its permanent dwelling.

But back at the grouper's cave, after 45 minutes or so, my disposition had changed slightly. I took yet another look at the fish. It dawned on me then that there was some real danger in attacking at close quarters, from a narrow space where I could not turn around, an animal bigger than myself, with sharp teeth, that could breathe in water. Then, another part of my brain began to feel that something was wrong about eating such a magnificent and, no doubt, old creature. Then, I told myself that having spent so much time in such close proximity with such a big grouper was enough of a trophy for a Paris boy. Besides, my hot girlfriend had been waiting for me with her imagination running on high rpm. She had, torrid, unspeakable plans for the rest of my afternoon. I abandoned the endeavor and went home with a light heart.

Many years later, the giant grouper that I spared, not speared, visits me in my dreams, but only when I am in a good mood, or when I am subconsciously plotting a small vacation to an exotic place. Fishermen will want to know if I ever felt fisherman's regrets over that huge catch I did not catch. The answer is that I do feel regrets, but I am sure I would have felt fisherman's remorse if I had taken the giant grouper and butchered it in the sun. There is a subtle issue of choice between two unequal ills here. Remorse will follow you forever although you can pretend you have forgotten its cause or causes. Regrets are, in principle, temporary. The goal you did not reach, the apple you did not pick may fall in your lap at any time before you check out for good; you never know. Even the one with whom you were pointlessly in lust when you were a junior in high school might go for you at the 20-year reunion. It's not what it could have been but still!

Postscript: Yes, I was diving alone. It's supposed to be dangerous. I am not recommending that divers who use scuba do the same. I am not even recommending the practice to other free-divers. It was just the right thing for me, at that time. The safe alternative is to have a diving companion who is a short fat woman who thrashes noisily in the water and swims too clumsily to escape anything.




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On Dogs, Cats, and Carnal Knowledge

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Reading the Drudge Report just after the House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have given President Obama fast track authority (or “TPA,” for “trade-promotion authority”) to conclude free trade agreements, I remembered a line from the first Ghostbusters movie. The busters (Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter) are explaining to the mayor that his city is headed for “a disaster of biblical proportions.” When the rather obtuse man asks what they mean by “biblical,” Ray says, “Real wrath of God type stuff.” Egon adds, “Forty years of darkness!” Winston chimes in with “the dead rising from the grave!” Whereupon the ever-arch Peter adds loudly, “Human sacrifice . . . dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!”

What happened on June 12 was that a bill to grant Obama the same power (fast track authority) that almost every other president since World War II has been given went down to defeat in a procedural vote, primarily because Democratic members followed their leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in opposing it. The maneuver was to join Republicans who oppose spending more money on work retraining programs — which are usually just boondoggles that don’t retrain anybody — in voting down a package deal that included the TPA and also increased retraining funds that had earlier passed the Senate.

Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

Fast track authority is the power Congress can (and almost always does) give any president to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) in confidence and without congressional meddling. If any FTA is concluded, it of course becomes law only if the Senate votes in favor of it. Naturally, the Senate can only vote the submitted FTA up or down — it cannot amend it, since amending it is renegotiating it, which the other side of the agreement would not accept. Without such power, you have 435 members of Congress playing president, making it impossible to get any treaty — free trade or otherwise — negotiated.

Despite Obama’s last-minute personal intervention, in which he tried to convince his own party members in the House to support his plan, or perhaps because of his intervention, the bill went down by a vote of 302–126. As one unnamed Democratic congressman put it, “She screwed this president.”

But a number of Republicans opposed the measure, too. Here we get to the dogs and cats getting it on together.

After the vote, Matt Drudge ran a large banner on his website. It screamed, “Brave Pelosi Says No!” Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

I won’t rehearse all the arguments about why free trade is economically beneficial. I have done so at length in these pages (“The Case for Free Trade,” Liberty, December 2010, pp. 33–41). And the case was made again, succinctly and well, in a recent piece by Larry Kudlow, Art Laffer, and Steve Moore. To economists, 90% of whom favor free trade, it is obvious that free trade is on balance economically good for countries engaging in it. Why is it that when 85% of climate scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming, it becomes “settled science,” but when 90% of economists agree that free trade increases wealth (the theory of comparative advantage), the matter is never considered settled?

The reason for Obama’s defeat is threefold.

First to be mentioned is the decline in free trade sentiment among Democrats. Coming out of the Great Depression and the devastating war it helped to spawn, Democrats agreed with Republicans that the protectionism associated with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs was and is economically counterproductive and geopolitically dangerous — for, as Frédéric Bastiat observed a century and a half ago, when goods cannot cross borders, soldiers will. That is why fast track authority has been given to all but one president since the end of the second world war.

While Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, any free trade agreement he negotiates will likely err on the side of suffocating regulations for both sides.

But the Democrat party has moved ever more toward the extreme left — progressive liberalism, as Solzhenitsyn observed, ever evolving into socialism — and fewer and fewer Democrats are willing to support free trade. Really, Bill Clinton was the last president to push for it, when he signed NAFTA into law. One of the most important of the core Democrat constituencies, Big Labor, loathes free trade. In this most recent vote, for example, when Pelosi and her myrmidons went against fast track for the president of their own party, Big Labor Daddy Richard Trumka (King of the AFL-CIO) praised her mightily, proclaiming that “she stood up against corporate interests.”

Second, despite the best efforts of House Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s to give Obama fast track authority, a portion of the Republican Party opposed the measure. The biggest reason is their distrust of Obama. That’s why websites such as Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report were bashing the bill mightily.

Now, as any more-than-casual reader of these pages knows, I have been unwavering in my opposition to and contempt for the Obama Regime. To put this simply, I regard Obama as the worst president in modern history. (When I said this not long back, one reader chastised me for not characterizing Obama as the worst president in all history, but I confess that my weakness on the history of 19th-century presidents restrains me from agreeing.) President Obama will have done more to harm this country in both domestic and foreign policy than any other modern president, and if we are lucky enough to elect a decent Republican president in 2016, he or she will have to spend most of a first administration reversing the damage.

But as the old saw has it, even a broken clock is right twice a day. More to the point, while Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, in fact really pathetic at it, any FTA he negotiates will likely err on the side of trying to saddle the other side with what he favors for our side too: suffocating regulations. While that is economically deleterious, I doubt that it will result in a net disadvantage to us. Moreover, any final agreement he negotiates must still be approved by Congress, so any grossly unequal deal — say, one that increases Japan’s access to our markets but protects its agricultural industry — can quite easily be voted down, forcing him back to the table.

A good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false.

The third, and in my view the most important, reason for Obama’s loss is Obama himself. Let’s put aside the personality issue, which is that Obama is a patently arrogant, distant, snarky, intellectually mediocre narcissist who doesn’t work or play well with anyone except complete stooges. This doesn’t help him, but it isn’t the biggest problem about his free trade initiative. That problem is his history.

Obama has never gone on a tour, selling the need for a trade agreement with Asia and answering the obvious populist arguments against free trade. In this, ironically, he is like George Bush — who, while he negotiated and signed into law more FTAs than any other president, didn’t explain them, argue their importance, or refute the economically ignorant but passionately tribal populist objections to them. Obama doesn’t explain, you see; he merely shows contempt for differing opinions and expects everyone just to see his colossal greatness.

Worse, his history is one of buying the same populist claptrap arguments against free trade that he is being met with now. He bashed Hillary because her hubby signed NAFTA, which, he claimed (parroting the Trumka types), cost jobs; though this was obviously false, as must have been manifest even to an intellectual lightweight such as himself. When in office, he quickly started trade wars against both Mexico and Canada, wars that ceased only when those neighbors fought back and kicked his ass. He stalled the three FTAs left over from the Bush era, only signing them late into his second term, in the face of the worst economic recovery in American history. Now this guy — out of the blue — advocates free trade?

The average American, like the average person anywhere else on this planet, basically has his scientific and moral views set by history. The physics that the average person believes, for example, holds that objects are completely solid, and that they fall at different speeds; that space is completely empty and infinite in all directions, and that it has but three dimensions. Tradition doesn’t make such ideas true. The economics that the average person believes maintains that while labor deserves to be compensated, the lending of money doesn’t; that it is better if all people do all things for themselves, rather than dividing up the tasks among many people, possibly people in different countries; that saving rather than spending hurts jobs, but protecting home industries promotes jobs; and many other things. Tradition doesn’t make these notions true, either.

In short, a good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false. But Obama can’t teach anyone about fallacious ideas. Indeed, he often simply accepts them himself — unless he was just lying (something he does with amazing frequency and ease) when he campaigned against Hillary. Either way, he’s not able to teach the public why hunter-gatherer myths are wrong.

Maybe the Republicans can save him from the anti-free-trade crowd, but it is unclear that they can. If not, the biggest loser will be the American public. But I believe in the precept that people get the government they deserve.




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Fakers and Enablers

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Last month, a UCLA graduate student in political science named Michael LaCour was caught faking reports of his research — research that in December 2014 had been published, with much fanfare, in Science, one of the two most prestigious venues for “hard” (experimental and quantifiable) scientific work. Because of his ostensible research, he had been offered, again with much fanfare, a teaching position at prestigious Princeton University. I don’t want to overuse the word “prestigious,” but LaCour’s senior collaborator, a professor at prestigious Columbia University, a person whom he had enlisted to enhance the prestige of his purported findings, is considered one of the most prestigious number-crunchers in all of poli sci. LaCour’s dissertation advisor at UCLA is also believed by some people to be prestigious. LaCour’s work was critiqued by presumably prestigious (though anonymous) peer reviewers for Science, and recommended for publication by them. What went wrong with all this prestigiousness?

Initial comments about the LaCour scandal often emphasized the idea that there’s nothing really wrong with the peer review system. The New Republic was especially touchy on this point. The rush to defend peer review is somewhat difficult to explain, except as the product of fears that many other scientific articles (about, for instance, global warming?) might be suspected of being more pseudo than science; despite reviewers’ heavy stamps of approval, they may not be “settled science.” The idea in these defenses was that we must see l’affaire LaCour as a “singular” episode, not as the tin can that’s poking through the grass because there’s a ton of garbage underneath it. More recently, suspicions that Mt. Trashmore may be as high as Mt. Rushmore have appeared even in the New York Times, which on scientific matters is usually more establishment than the establishment.

I am an academic who shares those suspicions. LaCour’s offense was remarkably flagrant and stupid, so stupid that it was discovered at the first serious attempt to replicate his results. But the conditions that put LaCour on the road to great, though temporary, success must operate, with similar effect, in many other situations. If the results are not so flagrantly wrong, they may not be detected for a long time, if ever. They will remain in place in the (pseudo-) scientific literature — permanent impediments to human knowledge. This is a problem.

But what conditions create the problem? Here are five.

1. A politically correct, or at least fashionably sympathetic, topic of research. The LaCour episode is a perfect example. He was purportedly investigating gay activists’ ability to garner support for gay marriage. And his conclusion was one that politically correct people, especially donors to activist organizations, would like to see: he “found” that person-to-person activism works amazingly well. It is noteworthy that Science published his article about how to garner support for gay marriage without objecting to the politically loaded title: “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality.” You may think that recognition of gay marriage is equivalent to recognition of gay equality, and I may agree, but anyone with even a whiff of the scientific mentality should notice that “equality” is a term with many definitions, and that the equation of “equality” with “gay marriage” is an end-run around any kind of debate, scientific or otherwise. Who stands up and says, “I do not support equality”?

The idea in these defenses was that we must see l’affaire LaCour as a “singular” episode, not as the tin can that’s poking through the grass because there’s a ton of garbage underneath it.

2. The habit of reasoning from academic authority. LaCour’s chosen collaborator, Donald Green, is highly respected in his field. That may be what made Science and its peer reviewers pay especially serious attention to LaCour’s research, despite its many curious features, some of which were obvious. A leading academic researcher had the following reaction when an interviewer asked him about the LaCour-Green contribution to the world’s wisdom:

“Gee,” he replied, “that's very surprising and doesn't fit with a huge literature of evidence. It doesn't sound plausible to me.” A few clicks later, [he] had pulled up the paper on his computer. “Ah,” he [said], “I see Don Green is an author. I trust him completely, so I'm no longer doubtful.”

3. The prevalence of the kind of academic courtesy that is indistinguishable from laziness or lack of curiosity. LaCour’s results were counterintuitive; his data were highly exceptional; his funding (which turned out to be bogus) was vastly greater than anything one would expect a graduate student to garner. That alone should have inspired many curious questions. But, Green says, he didn’t want to be rude to LaCour; he didn’t want to ask probing questions. Jesse Singal, a good reporter on the LaCour scandal, has this to say:

Some people I spoke to about this case argued that Green, whose name is, after all, on the paper, had failed in his supervisory role. I emailed him to ask whether he thought this was a fair assessment. “Entirely fair,” he responded. “I am deeply embarrassed that I did not suspect and discover the fabrication of the survey data and grateful to the team of researchers who brought it to my attention.” He declined to comment further for this story.

Green later announced that he wouldn’t say anything more to anyone, pending the results of a UCLA investigation. Lynn Vavreck, LaCour’s dissertation advisor at UCLA, had already made a similar statement. They are being very circumspect.

4. The existence of an academic elite that hasn’t got time for its real job. LaCour asked Green, a virtually total stranger, to sign onto his project: why? Because Green was prestigious. And why is Green prestigious? Partly for signing onto a lot of collaborative projects. In his relationship with LaCour, there appears to have been little time for Green to do what professors have traditionally done with students: sit down with them, discuss their work, exclaim over the difficulty of getting the data, laugh about the silly things that happen when you’re working with colleagues, share invidious stories about university administrators and academic competitors, and finally ask, “So, how in the world did you get those results? Let’s look at your raw data.” Or just, “How did you find the time to do all of this?”

LaCour’s results were counterintuitive; his data were highly exceptional; his funding was vastly greater than anything one would expect a graduate student to garner.

It has been observed — by Nicholas Steneck of the University of Michigan — that Green put his name on a paper reporting costly research (research that was supposed to have cost over $1 million), without ever asking the obvious questions about where the money came from, and how a grad student got it.

“You have to know the funding sources,” Steneck said. “How else can you report conflicts of interest?” A good point. Besides — as a scientist, aren’t you curious? Scientists’ lack of curiosity about the simplest realities of the world they are supposedly examining has often been noted. It is a major reason why the scientists of the past generation — every past generation — are usually forgotten, soon after their deaths. It’s sad to say, but may I predict that the same fate will befall the incurious Professor Green?

As a substitute for curiosity, guild courtesy may be invoked. According to the New York Times, Green said that he “could have asked about” LaCour’s claim to have “hundreds of thousands in grant money.” “But,” he continued, “it’s a delicate matter to ask another scholar the exact method through which they’re paying for their work.”

There are several eyebrow-raisers there. One is the barbarous transition from “scholar” (singular) to “they” (plural). Another is the strange notion that it is somehow impolite to ask one’s colleagues — or collaborators! — where the money’s coming from. This is called, in the technical language of the professoriate, cowshit.

The fact that ordinary-professional, or even ordinary-people, conversations seem never to have taken place between Green and LaCour indicates clearly enough that nobody made time to have them. As for Professor Vavreck, LaCour’s dissertation director and his collaborator on two other papers, her vita shows a person who is very busy, very busy indeed, a very busy bee — giving invited lectures, writing newspaper columns, moderating something bearing the unlikely name of the “Luskin Lecture on Thought Leadership with Hillary Rodham Clinton,” and, of course, doing peer reviews. Did she have time to look closely at her own grad student’s work? The best answer, from her point of view, would be No; because if she did have the time, and still ignored the anomalies in the work, a still less favorable view would have to be entertained.

This is called, in the technical language of the professoriate, cowshit.

Oddly, The New Republic praised the “social cohesiveness” represented by the Green-LaCour relationship, although it mentioned that “in this particular case . . . trust was misplaced but some level of collegial confidence is the necessary lubricant to allow research to take place.” Of course, that’s a false alternative — full social cohesiveness vs. no confidence at all. “It’s important to realize,” opines TNR’s Jeet Heer, “that the implicit trust Green placed in LaCour was perfectly normal and rational.” Rational, no. Normal, yes — alas.

Now, I don’t know these people. Some of what I say is conjecture. You can make your own conjectures, on the same evidence, and see whether they are similar to mine.

5. A peer review system that is goofy, to say the least.

It is goofiest in the arts and humanities and the “soft” (non-mathematical) social sciences. It’s in this, the goofiest, part of the peer-reviewed world that I myself participate, as reviewer and reviewee. Here is a world in which people honestly believe that their own ideological priorities count as evidence, often as the determining evidence. Being highly verbal, they are able to convince themselves and others that saying “The author has not come to grips with postcolonialist theory” is on the same analytical level as saying, “The author has not investigated the much larger data-set presented by Smith (1997).”

My own history of being reviewed — by and large, a very successful history — has given me many more examples of the first kind of “peer reviewing” than of the second kind. Whether favorable or unfavorable, reviewers have more often responded to my work on the level of “This study vindicates historically important views of the text” or “This study remains strangely unconvinced by historically important views of the episode,” than on the level of, “The documented facts do not support [or, fully support] the author’s interpretation of the sequence of events.” In fact, I have never received a response that questioned my facts. The closest I’ve gotten is (A) notes on the absence of any reference to the peer reviewer’s work; (B) notes on the need for more emphasis on the peer reviewer’s favorite areas of study.

This does not mean that my work has been free from factual errors or deficiencies in the consultation of documentary sources; those are unavoidable, and it would be good for someone to point them out as soon as possible. But reviewers are seldom interested in that possibility. Which is disturbing.

I freely admit that some of the critiques I have received have done me good; they have informed me of other people’s points of view; they have shown me where I needed to make my arguments more persuasive; they have improved my work. But reviewers’ interest in emphases and ideological orientations rather than facts and the sources of facts gives me a very funny feeling. And you can see by the printed products of the review system that nobody pays much attention to the way in which academic contributions are written, even in the humanities. I have been informed that my writing is “clear” or even “sometimes witty,” but I have never been called to account for the passages in which I am not clear, and not witty. No one seems to care.

But here’s the worst thing. When I act as a reviewer, I catch myself falling into some of the same habits. True, I write comments about the candidates’ style, and when I see a factual error or notice the absence of facts, I mention it. But it’s easy to lapse into guild language. It’s easy to find words showing that I share the standard (or momentary) intellectual “concerns” and emphases of my profession, words testifying that the author under review shares them also. I’m not being dishonest when I write in this way. I really do share the “concerns” I mention. But that’s a problem. That’s why peer reviewing is often just a matter of reporting that “Jones’ work will be regarded as an important study by all who wish to find more evidence that what we all thought was important actually is important.”

You can see by the printed products of the review system that nobody pays much attention to the way in which academic contributions are written, even in the humanities.

Indeed, peer reviewing is one of the most conservative things one can do. If there’s no demand that facts and choices be checked and assessed, if there’s a “delicacy” about identifying intellectual sleight of hand or words-in-place-of-ideas, if consistency with current opinion is accepted as a value in itself, if what you get is really just a check on whether something is basically OK according to current notions of OKness, then how much more conservative can the process be?

On May 29, when LaCour tried to answer the complaints against him, he severely criticized the grad students who had discovered, not only that they couldn’t replicate his results, but that the survey company he had purportedly used had never heard of him. He denounced them for having gone off on their own, doing their own investigation, without submitting their work to peer review, as he had done! Their “decision to . . . by-pass the peer-review process” was “unethical.” What mattered wasn’t the new evidence they had found but the fact that they hadn’t validated it by the same means with which his own “evidence” had been validated.

In medicine and in some of the natural sciences, unsupported guild authority does not impinge so greatly on the assessment of evidence as it does in the humanities and the social sciences. Even there, however, you need to be careful. If you are suspected of being a “climate change denier” or a weirdo about some medical treatment, the maintainers of the status quo will give you the bum’s rush. That will be the end of you. And there’s another thing. It’s true: when you submit your research about the liver, people will spend much more time scrutinizing your stats than pontificating about how important the liver is or how important it is to all Americans, black or white, gay or straight, that we all have livers and enjoy liver equality. But the professional competence of these peer reviewers will then be used, by The New Republic and other conservative supporters of the status quo in our credentialed, regulated, highly professional society, as evidence that there is very little, very very very little, actual flim-flam in academic publication. But that’s not true.




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World Government, or Smaller Countries?

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Some believe that we are rapidly moving towards a world government. The European Union was one of the most visible expressions of this motion. NAFTA, ASEAN, and other trading blocks were seen as small moves in the same direction. The UN was the dream of the mushy-headed, those living on intellectual welfare with no real-life experience of how wealth is created.

A world government would be unsustainable if it ever came to pass, for the kind of people who work in governments always take pride at backstabbing one another, as well as their competitors in other governments. People’s lives have changed tremendously, given easy travel and high technology, but the structure of governments has not changed.

The world is becoming increasingly complex, but the institution of the state has remained mostly unchanged, making large governments very brittle.

Duty-free shopping exists in every country, for each of these governments competes to benefit itself by helping travelers avoid paying taxes to other governments. The US, the world's self-appointed chief policeman, is among the worst (or best) in this respect. While governments in the Caribbean islands and many smaller nations — mostly termed tax havens — get bad reputations for secrecy (and hence, my own respect), Miami, New York, and London are probably the world's capitals for secrecy and tax avoidance as long as you are not the milk-cow of the US or England.

One might even ask how is it that such a large number of properties are bought by Chinese, Ukrainians, and Russians in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK. If these Western governments ensured that unaccounted money did not come from abroad, their hot property markets would crash.

The US makes almost no attempt to locate safety deposit lockers filled with US-dollar cash in jurisdictions outside the US. The government likes the convenience of interest-free loans in perpetuity from the cash holders. Using FACTA and all kinds of obnoxious enforcements on no other basis than American exceptionalism and its bullying power, the US gets the information it wants from other governments, but none dares to ask the US to reciprocate.

So far from world government being likely to happen, the future belongs to smaller states. But this will happen after a lot of turmoil.

Most banks comply with US bullying, although the cost of compliance is horrendous for financial institutions around the world. One day a breaking point will come and they will stop. Perhaps an alternative international currency will trigger this.

The US won’t be there forever

With every generation, glamour moves to a different jurisdiction. When I was growing up, it was France for fashion and snobbery, England for style, and Japan for the work ethic. A generation later, with all others having receded to the background, it became the US.

It is worth talking with today's teenagers in Asia. They follow Korean fashion, pop music, and soap operas. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is Indian music and movies. What the world looks up to will increasingly be Asia, while America recedes into the background.

If you find a Chinese girl with spectacles and no lenses in them amusing, you haven’t kept up with the fashion trends that originated in Korea or Japan. In Seoul, you will meet visiting teenagers from Malaysia who sing in Korean, and you can bet that they watch K-pop at home.

If you see girls wearing shorts that are a millimeter below the danger zone, but with the waist-band that does not end at the waist but much above the navel, you know where that fashion came from: from girls who worry about possibly having short legs. If you find men wearing tight pants, you know that the fashion is not from the West.

The bigger states will break

Before the world starts ignoring the diktats of the United States, America will become increasingly heavy-handed. Anything it doesn’t like will be considered "terrorism." For Americans, privacy will cease to exist. This is not based on prophecy, but on the history of how human civilizations have evolved and gone out of existence. The Roman Empire disappeared. So did the English and the French empires.

In other large countries — India, Brazil, France, the UK, etc. — the institution of government will come under huge amounts of stress, as heightened expectations of a populations hugely influenced by the modern-day welfare system can no longer be met. The world is becoming increasingly complex, with new technologies and cheap traveling, but the institution of the state has remained mostly unchanged, making large governments very brittle.

While all conventional religions are tribal in nature, they at least have elements of compassion, honesty, and other virtues. But statism thrives on hatred for other people.

To me the “Arab Spring” was the first visible sign of this. So was the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Behind the facade of higher vision and increased nationalism is indoctrination of a populace that is incapable of critical thinking, the kind of populace that in earlier generations would have stayed out of having an opinion on public policy. They have come to see democracy as a magic wand that delivers whatever one aspires for, merely through the vote. Nationalism is the emotional crutch for their failure to be self-dependent and their lack of self-confidence. None of these fake, irrational values can keep big nation-states glued together when the crunch time comes.

The result will be the possible breakup of many of the larger states. Would the US also break up? The irrational tribal slogan — “we are the biggest and the best” — can keep the US together for only so long. So far from world government being likely to happen, the future belongs to smaller states. But this will happen after a lot of turmoil, ironically made worse by the fact that in general, today’s populace is likely more statist and patriotic than the previous generations.

Central America: case studies on small countries

I have been very impressed with how well Hong Kong and Singapore are organized. In fact, I have become enamored with small countries.

I recently spent two months travelling in Central America, trying to understand its economy and people. I spent a fair amount of time in Boquete, Panama, a place where a large number of American expatriates live. When I was there, a girl with a flirtatious look (and from what I understood, based on my talks with the locals, her only competence) was elected as the local political representative. Alcohol was banned during the election days, but that did not stop restaurants from serving it, in coffee mugs.

The populace in Central America is not necessarily more awakened than that of the United States — perhaps much less. But does that matter? Mostly people are ambivalent about the existence of expatriates, if not grateful for their contribution to the economy. The state is alive and well there, but I hardly care about the state anymore. What I care about is how it affects me.

These small states recognize the economic importance of expatriates and mostly let them get on with their lives. Protecting property rights is their core competence. Nicaragua, for example, has become an attractive place for property investment, offering the cheapest options for those who can navigate this emerging country. In terms of expense, Panama is in between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Panama offers quality at a reasonable price. It also uses the US dollar, which is not the best way to run a monetary policy, for it is still dependent on a fiat currency, but this ensures that Panamanians cannot run their own printing press. Of course, they have no central bank of their own, and hence no cartel that comes with it.

Why is a place such as this, relatively conflict-free and wth enormous natural resources, not very rich?

Not only Americans and Canadians but also those from Ecuador, Venezuela, and other countries are finding safety in Panama. As a rule of thumb, small countries offer asset protection that big counties don't, for if these small countries stop respecting property rights, expatriates will fly away with their money.

Neither Costa Rica nor Panama has a military. This not only saves what would have been about 5% of the GDP in wastage but it sets a certain way of thinking among the citizenry. War is the health of the state, and statism is the worst religion. While all conventional religions are tribal in nature, they at least have elements of compassion, honesty, and other virtues. But statism thrives on hatred for other people. When you have the military solely for defence, narrowly defined (as is the case with Singapore and Switzerland) or have no military at all (as in Panama and Costa Rica), the social mindset is not about hatred for people who are different.

The repercussions are far-reaching. Less hatred also means fewer social conflicts within such societies, and hence a lack of civil wars within these countries. One must still be cautious about isolated crimes.

Incidentally, Central America is a unique place for nature lovers. This small piece of land separates two major oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, and hence is a channel for equalizing weather differences between the two oceans. I cannot think of another place where the forests change within minutes of walking, as you move from the area influenced by one kind of weather system to another, just on the other side of the ridge.

When traveling around in Costa Rica and Panama one must wonder — as I did — why a place that has been relatively conflict-free and has enormous natural resources is not a very rich place. Businesses tend to hire expatriates as much as they can. Locals are not known for their work ethic. Why this is the case, I am not sure. But that is why I travel, for it forces me to think about issues that would otherwise not occur to me. It hones my understanding of cultures, politics, and economics. Again, as an individualist, what I care about most is what affects me; and I doubt that the realm of One World Government would stimulate me much.




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