Clowns to the Left of Me

 | 

So many people on the Left want to embrace the COVID-19 pandemic as the validation of their world view. I don’t buy it.

In “Jokers to the Right,” posted here on March 31, I wrote that many people on my side of the political divide have been brushing off the pandemic as a minor thing. They’re doing it, I think, in order to save libertarian ideology, which doesn’t provide the best answers for fighting the spread of an infectious disease. People on the Left are having fun reminding us of that — for example, “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic,” posted on The Atlantic webpage, March 10.

The Left is proud that the public health authorities are proclaiming that “we are all in this together,” which is the Left’s principle about the whole society. The Left is making a we-were-right argument.

Many libertarians have been brushing off the pandemic in order to save libertarian ideology, which doesn’t provide the best answers for fighting the spread of an infectious disease.

We-were-right arguments are standard in political discourse, and both sides make them. In the current epidemic, for example, Liberty contributing editor Randal O’Toole, a critic of the public transit complex, argues in “We Were Warned Not to Bunch Up,” (The Antiplanner, March 18) that the virus shows the folly of transit modes that require people to bunch up. Of course O’Toole is right that buses and trains are dangerous during an infectious epidemic. (So are automobiles full of people.) But if you believe in massive subsidies to high-speed rail, O’Toole’s argument won’t move you. His we-were-right argument is cheeky but peripheral to the general question of mobility in normal times.

The Left is now making a we-were-right argument that is also peripheral but much more ambitious — and at our expense. Here is one such:

“A pandemic . . . makes clear that we need the state if we are going to survive,” writes Jedediah Britton-Purdy in “The Only Treatment for Coronavirus Is Solidarity,” in Jacobin, March 13, 2020. “Our alone-together world of individualist ethics and material interdependence didn’t just happen. It takes a vast and intricate infrastructure to keep us all running in one another’s service, and in the ultimate service of return to capital: from highways to credit markets to the global trade regime. The fact that these interwoven systems are tanking financial markets around the world at the prospect that people might need to spend a few months [sic!] sitting at home rather than hurrying around exchanging money shows how finely calibrated they are to profit, and how totally lacking in resilience to shifts in human need.”

The Left is now making a we-were-right argument that is much more ambitious — and at our expense.

Here is another:

The COVID-19 pandemic “and the inadequate U.S. response have laid bare the brokenness of neoliberalism,” write Jonathan Heller and Judith Barish in “How to Prepare for the Next Pandemic,” in The Nation, posted April 2. “The neoliberal worldview, which has dominated public policy-making across the world for the last 40 years, celebrates the liberation of a nimble market free from the oppressive constraints of the lumbering government,” they write. “Neoliberalism’s prescriptions are rooted in a radical individualism. In the words of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families’.”

(The Left loves to quote that statement of Thatcher’s. They have made it the most famous thing she ever said.)

The libertarian counterargument has been that the Left is attacking a straw man — that Clinton’s America, Dubya’s America, Obama’s America, and Trump’s America are not libertarian. In responding in this way, libertarians are comparing reality, as they perceive it, to the image of an ideal society in their heads. That’s exactly what the socialists at Jacobin and The Nation are doing. Focus for a minute on reality alone. What’s really going on here is that the Left is denouncing the classical liberal component of current society — and there is a large component — and demanding to replace it with socialism. These writers are attacking the idea of individualism — and that’s our idea.

In The Nation, Heller and Barish argue that our individualist society has ignored the alleged fact that wealth is “socially produced” — the Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren line that “you didn’t build that.” In Heller and Barish’s view, the rules of American commerce are set up to foster the production of wealth and not its fair distribution. The result, they argue, is “a competitive individualism that undermines community and destabilizes the social order.” And to them, this pandemic nicely shows they are right.

What’s really going on here is that the Left is denouncing the classical liberal component of current society and demanding to replace it with socialism.

For their part, supporters of the market have been arguing that capitalism has allowed people to create the wealthiest society that ever was, including fabulous medical services and drugs; that in this emergency, companies and individuals are making supplies available, sometimes with no profit; and that a socialist society would be much less able to do this. (Where would you rather be sick?) Supporters of the market further argue that American wealth was not “socially produced” but produced under the guidance of innovators and entrepreneurs, which our system encourages. In addition, the relatively low death rate from COVID-19 in the United States makes a strong argument that “individualist” America is not being outdone by countries with government-run medical systems.

I like those arguments a lot. We should keep making them. But my argument is different. It’s that if you’re thinking of the best principles under which to organize human life, you have to start with normal life. You don’t start with a global virus panic, distill the principle of “we’re all in this together,” and apply it, rubber-stamp-like, to everything from college campuses to grocery stores. You start with normal life, and derive principles from that. And that is what classical liberalism does. It starts with rational individuals who need to work to sustain themselves and their dependents. It declares that people in normal life should have the liberty to choose their work and make their own decisions about the use of their time and their stuff, and that they should own the gains and losses from their decisions. Over time, this rule will allow people to make themselves wealthier and happier than having some ruling power, democratically selected or otherwise, making these decisions for them. Individual responsibility also tends to make the people stronger, whereas socialism tends to turn them into whiners.

The classical liberal world will have different rules during emergencies. When the cruise ship is sinking, the captain does not auction off seats on the lifeboats. Likewise, in an epidemic of infectious disease, we’re all in it together. But an epidemic is an outlier, a “black swan.” The rules for an epidemic are special, and not relevant to the politics of normal life.

You don’t start with a global virus panic, distill the principle of “we’re all in this together,” and apply it, rubber-stamp-like, to everything from college campuses to grocery stores.

But to some people, they are emblematic. I remember people who lived through World War II who said it was the best time of their lives. It gave them a collective purpose. Suddenly I hear the thought that we have a collective purpose again, and that our society should retain some of it after this is over.

I do not hope for such a thing. Individual libertarians may want their lives to have a purpose, whether it be fighting disease, raising their children, building a company, or serving God, but we don’t want to be assigned a purpose. We want to choose our own. That insistence, that your life is your own, is our calling card.

On a web page called unherd.com, James Kirkup offers a piece called “Will the Panic Kill Off Libertarianism?” He begins: “I am not a libertarian, but I think libertarianism deserves some acknowledgement for its optimism about human nature. In short, this suggests that when people are left to their own devices, they will, in the end, do sensible, collaborative and even kind things.”

Suddenly I hear the thought that we have a collective purpose again, and that our society should retain some of it after this is over. I do not hope for such a thing.

Well, that’s nice. Then Kirkup goes on to observe that in the coronavirus epidemic, many people are doing stupid things. And they certainly are. Recently I’ve seen stories of people going to weddings and church services in defiance of “social distancing.” Kirkup argues that this shows that people need to be told what to do. And he concludes:

If people cannot be trusted to make decisions that can make the difference between life and death . . . where else should restraint be imposed by the state, for the good of the individual and society? Put it another way: once you’ve closed pubs and banned people from going outside, imposing, say, a tax to deter people from consuming sugary drinks is going to seem like a very small thing indeed.

It may seem a small thing, but it does not follow. During an epidemic the society may have to protect itself by quarantining an individual against his will, just as in a war the state may ask its soldiers to shoot and kill human beings. But neither epidemic nor war is part of normal life. Sugary drinks are. Asserting that government control of soft-drink cup sizes is a response to an “obesity crisis” is an attempt to apply the rules of emergencies to ordinary life. It is ridiculous. It should be laughed out of the public square. It is also dishonest: I live in a city that has put a tax on sugary drinks supposedly for the public health, but the net effect has been to take more of the people’s money for politicians to spend.

Libertarians should be fine with a measure of “we’re all in this together” during an epidemic. In some ways, we need that idea in organizing a society, especially in recognizing that everyone has equal rights under the law. But it cannot be the organizing principle for everything.




Share This


And Jokers to the Right

 | 

So many people on the Right want to brush off the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t.

Libertarians notice when government grows. And it is doing that. CNN, to which I have been listening, harasses Trump for having acted too slowly and done too little, no matter how much he does. On that channel, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, drones on and on like Fidel Castro, alternately demanding help and declaring that President Trump has not done enough. Trump, for his part, has considered the “quarantine” of New York, whatever that would mean.

Government is flexing its muscles. Politicians are showing off. But what I’m hearing from corners of the Right is more than that: the accusation that the government has cooked up a crisis out of a not-very-important flu bug in order to control us permanently. In other words, that the COVID-19 threat is essentially a hoax. This is absurd, but enough people on the Right are saying it that even the Washington Post has noticed it.

I’m embarrassed to quote some of these people. A commenter on my last posting to Liberty writes: “This is a government-initiated economic assault engineered to provide a disguise for the bigger collapse that was inevitably coming anyway due to the insane Keynesian policies practiced for decades. The flimsy ‘public health’ excuse was capitalized on to provide a more acceptable ‘cause’ for the subsequent debacle rather than their own guilty profligate irresponsibility.”

What I’m hearing from corners of the Right is that the government has cooked up a crisis out of a not-very-important flu bug in order to control us permanently.

In other words, the economy was heading over a cliff, so the lunatics in charge decided to wreck it first, so they could pin the blame on a virus. Does that make sense? Whose economy are we talking about, America’s? China’s? Italy’s? Who decided to blow it up, the Federal Reserve? The U.S. Public Health Service? The People’s Liberation Army? The Illuminati? And how would you know this?

The zanies who spout this stuff assume an air of all-knowing assurance. They have been cut in on the secret, and you, who have not, are a simpleton.

Somebody has to reply to these people.

Let’s start with Lew Rockwell, who runs the libertarian web page LewRockwell.com (“Anti-state, anti-war, pro-market”). His web page used to be mainly Austrian economics, a non-mainstream theory that has much to say about business cycles, interest rates, the role of entrepreneurs. and the impossibility of an efficient socialism. I’m sorry to report that Rockwell has allowed LewRockwell.com to become a Hyde Park Corner for coronavirus skeptics.

Who decided to blow up the economy, the Federal Reserve? The U.S. Public Health Service? The People’s Liberation Army?

Most of the articles are by others, but now and then Rockwell chimes in. His March 21 column on coronavirus and the economy is sarcastically titled “The End of Civilization?” In it, he starts out talking about Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and the division of labor, then moves on to microbiology. Rockwell dismisses the threat from COVID-19, writing that it has killed fewer than 100 people in the United States. As I write, nine days later, the US death toll is more than 2,950 and confirmed cases more than 160,000. You can read the current figures here.

President Trump now says it will be a “victory” if the American toll is kept to 100,000 dead.

In “The End of Civilization?” Rockwell takes on the Trump administration’s public-health leader, Dr. Anthony Fauci. “If anything,” Rockwell declares, “what people like Fauci and the other fearmongers are demanding will likely make the disease worse. The martial law they dream about will leave people hunkered down inside their homes instead of going outdoors or to the beach where the sunshine and fresh air would help boost immunity.”

Rockwell dismisses the threat from COVID-19, writing that it has killed fewer than 100 people in the United States. Nine days later, the US death toll was more than 2,950.

I live in Seattle, 20 miles from the first case of coronavirus in the United States, and in the urban area with the infamous coronavirus nursing home. There is no martial law here. Or anywhere in America, judging from what I see on the news. Why do right-wingers talk this way? And why would the proprietor of a free-market webpage challenge the public-health advice of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases? Where would Rockwell get the idea that we could all stop the coronavirus pandemic by flocking to the beach and lying in the sun?

I think he absorbed it from his favorite medical journalist, megavitamin guru Bill Sardi. Sardi is the author of In Search of the World's Best Water, The Bible Prescription for Health and Longevity, and How to Live 100 Years Without Growing Old. This year, Sardi has contributed more than 30 articles to LewRockwell.com.

When coronavirus first hit the news in January, Sardi wrote on LewRockwell.com that it was “just a common cold virus” and that, “all the advice to stay away from crowds, wear a mask, wash your hands, is silly.” On January 29, Sardi wrote that the spread of the new coronavirus was mainly caused by the lack of sunshine and could best be managed with Vitamin D. On February 1, Sardi called COVID-19 “a contrived pandemic, brought to you by the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and a committee that planned the whole event in order to gain public funding for a vaccine and to prime the global masses with fear for the first attempt of a worldwide vaccination campaign.” He declared that the photos of dead bodies lying on the streets of Wuhan, were “faked.” He later suggested that the stink in Wuhan of burning corpses was from the cremation of pigs. On February 19, he suggested that the pandemic was “political cover for a sour economy.” And on February 27 he recommended that people go out and catch COVID-19 on purpose.

In a piece on LewRockwell.com on March 23, Sardi continued to insist that the wearing of face masks and washing of hands were “meaningless,” and that reports of an increase in COVID-19 cases were a “ruse.” On LRC on March 27, Sardi quoted a Korean study that claims that COVID-19 is not contagious during its incubation period. And on March 28, he wrote, “The coronavirus is a planned distraction,” a “phony epidemic,” the “unfolding death of a nation.” On March 30 he suggested that the doctors treating coronavirus patients can’t tell the difference between COVID-19 and zinc deficiency.

Sardi declared that the photos of dead bodies lying on the streets of Wuhan, were “faked.” He later suggested that the stink in Wuhan of burning corpses was from the cremation of pigs.

OK, enough of this joker. Here’s another, Eric Peters, a man who does not even pretend to be a medical expert. His web page is ericpetersautos.com, where he writes about automobiles. That, and libertarian politics. In his March 23 blast of skepticism, “The Cat Leaves the Bag,” Peters writes, “Where are the people doubling over in the streets, coughing up blood? The stacks of bodies, ‘overwhelming’ the system. None such.” This isn’t a zombie flick. No coughing up blood. But look at Spain. In Madrid, the Spanish Army is collecting COVID-19 corpses and piling them in an ice-skating rink.

In his March 29 offering, Peters is asking the same question: “Well, where are the bodies?” He writes that he drove by his local hospital, Carilion Roanoke Memorial in Roanoke, Virginia, “and did not see refrigerator trucks of corpses or any sign that anything was out of the ordinary.”

Did he go in and talk to anybody? No. His local newspaper did, and found the staff preparing for battle. “First Coronavirus Death Reported in Alleghany Health District,” reported the Roanoke Times on the same day Peters posted on LewRockwell.com.

Now to the biowarfare thesis — the black-helicopter suspicion that somebody’s nasty government (maybe ours!) cooked up COVID-19 as a weapon. Larry Romanoff of Global Research, whatever that is, says in a piece republished by Lew Rockwell on March 24 that the Italians, South Koreans, and Chinese have been unable to identify an original source of the infection or a “patient zero.” Their failure to do this, Romanoff argues, is “virtually prima facie evidence of a pathogen deliberately released.”

This isn’t a zombie flick. No coughing up blood. But in Madrid, the Spanish Army is collecting COVID-19 corpses and piling them in an ice-skating rink.

This is what I call a von Däniken argument. Fifty years ago a Swiss fabulist named Erich von Däniken wrote a bestselling tract called Chariots of the Gods. In it he asserted that the earth had been visited by ancient astronauts who left behind the Nazca lines in Peru and the stone heads on Easter Island. I remember seeing a TV show about it. Von Däniken’s argument was that archaeologists could not explain how ancient humans made the Nazca lines or the stone heads (just as the Italians, et al., cannot identify who seeded the virus) and therefore it must be true that “ancient astronauts” had made those things. There was more to the book than that, but that was the argument that stuck in my mind. Ever since then, I have thought of a “von Däniken argument” as one in which the ordinary explanation is dismissed as impossible, thereby “proving” the extraordinary one. Essentially it is the setting aside of reality for a fable.

That the Italians, the Koreans, and the Chinese have been unable to find a patient zero proves nothing. It’s nearly impossible to track a disease that can be spread for more than a week by people who don’t know they have it and can infect others merely by touching door handles. And think also what is being asserted here: that someone cooked up COVID-19 as a weapon. What kind of weapon would that be? A weapon to do what? The new weapons of the past few decades — TV-guided bombs and drone-guided missiles — have been designed to aim at smaller and smaller targets with precision. COVID-19 would be a weapon that cannot be aimed at all — a weapon that hits you as well as the other guy. You pull the trigger and the whole world is infected, with a kill ratio of 11% (Italy), 4% (China), 1.5% (USA) and 0.5% (Germany). What would such a “weapon” be for?

And note that Romanoff’s “virtually prima facie evidence” is the absence of evidence.

That’s a von Däniken argument.

In “After the Lockdown: A Global Coronavirus Vaccination Program,” run on LRC on March 23, Professor Michel Chossudovsky, a Canadian promoter of 9/11 conspiracy theories, makes what seems like a von Däniken argument. Chossudovsky calls the panic over COVID-19 “a propaganda campaign” to implement a “global vaccine” being prepared by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a group funded by the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (This is what Bill Sardi was writing about.) There is, in fact, such a group funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, and it is working on vaccines, just as Chossudovsky says. If it develops an effective vaccine, Bill and Melinda want it given to people all over the world. I saw Bill on CNN and he said so, himself. He has been warning for several years of the threat from epidemics, and he is donating money to develop a vaccine to fight this one. To me, it’s a commendable thing that Microsoft’s founder and former CEO would devote the last half of his career to work with his wife to fight disease. Chossudovsky portrays Bill and Melinda’s motives as dark and conspiratorial. “What kind of twisted social structure awaits us in the wake of the lockdown?” he writes. “Can we trust the World Health Organization (WHO) and the powerful economic interest groups behind it? This is an act of ‘economic warfare’ against humanity.”

Think what is being asserted here: that someone cooked up COVID-19 as a weapon. What kind of weapon would that be? A weapon to do what?

Chossudovsky doesn’t bother giving reasons to doubt what Bill and Melinda Gates say they are doing. Chossudovsky just assumes that of course they are putting on a false front. Through a miasma of loaded words, he suggests that their real motives are twisted and weird, tied to “powerful economic interest groups.” Some people love stuff like that. They eat it up. The man who dishes it out doesn’t have to argue for anything. He just has to lower his voice and tell a creepy story.

This pandemic has prompted altogether too much talk of false fronts, fake news, hoaxes, and killer vaccines. The reasonable Right has got to disown this stuff and get real.

If the public-health professionals say a virus is a mortal danger, it pays to believe them. They know; you don’t. President Trump wasted two months downplaying the virus until his countrymen started dropping dead, and now the United States has the world’s largest number of confirmed cases. The countries with the most success are those that acted early and decisively. In China, the country where the pandemic began, the Communist government says the spread of infection is over. If you don't like China, consider Hong Kong. It has civil rights and a free press, which makes it tougher for governments to lie. Hong Kong reports four deaths out of a population of 7.4 million.

The Hong Kong people are packed together like bees, but they have holed up in their 480-square-foot apartments and have kept healthy. Part of it, no doubt, is that in Asia, people don’t kiss each other on the cheek, as the Italians do, or hug each other, like the lovey-dovey Americans. (Are we going to keep doing that?) But a big part of it is that Hong Kong lived through the SARS epidemic of 17 years ago, and they learned what they had to do.

Shutdown works. Social distancing works.

President Trump wasted two months downplaying the virus until his countrymen started dropping dead, and now the United States has the world’s largest number of confirmed cases.

Finally, on the Right comes a more respectable argument: that the disease may be bad but the cure will be worse. One of the readers responding to my previous post writes: “Make no mistake about this, folks, a depression is a far greater tragedy than less than 1% of the folks dying from the coronavirus.”

He may be right. I hope not; a 10-year depression like the 1930s would be terrible. But you can’t assume that a government order shutting down the airline, recreation, restaurant, personal-services, and manufacturing industries for a few months is going to create such a depression, because no depression ever began that way. Maybe it would, but if you think so, make your case.

A depression aside, to say, “Let’s let 1% of the people die,” is callous. I’m of an age and gender in which if I get this disease, I have a greater than 1% chance to be in that 1%. I’m not going to buy into an argument that drops me dead. I am willing to go through a few weeks of inconvenience not to be infected by COVID-19, and to support state-imposed inconvenience on you so that you do not spread it to me.

I’m not going to buy into an argument that drops me dead.

For a while. Not indefinitely. The money just approved by Congress and President Trump is the tipoff that at some point, the “not worth it” argument begins to ring true. The sum of $2.3 trillion is a hell of a lot of money — two Iraq wars’ worth. I argued on this page that the government didn’t need to blast out trillions of dollars, but it clearly intends to do so until the shutdown is over. The national debt was already $23 trillion (107% of GDP) and was costing interest payments of $600 billion a year. Those numbers now rise. If interest rates go up — and being practically at zero, where else can they go? — the burden of debt rises faster.

The shutdown will end. Like a tourniquet, you can’t leave it on. No economy can go month after month with all the productive people, or half of them, sitting at home producing nothing. At the moment it looks like we do this for the next six to eight weeks, but soon enough the shutdown needs to end whether it defeats the coronavirus or not. I’m hopeful it will work: I note that officials in China imposed home quarantine on Wuhan on January 23, and they say they’re going to lift the lockdown on April 8. America got serious (though not as serious as Asia) early in March. If what we’re doing is enough, by Memorial Day the epidemic should have subsided.




Share This


Fifteen Rounds, No Decision

 | 

The Democratic debate of February 19, 2020, in Las Vegas was a festival of cheap shots and irrelevancies. It made me glad I’m not a Democrat.

It was also the first chance for the other contestants to pile on former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — and they did.

Senator Elizabeth Warren went after Bloomberg’s legal settlements with women who had complained over the years — most of them in the ’90s — about his lewd and goatish remarks. He’d paid them off and they had agreed never to make their complaints public. On Thursday night, Warren dared Bloomberg to release the women from their promise of confidentiality — right then and there, on national TV.

Well, he wasn’t going to do that. “They signed the agreements and that’s what we’re going to live with,” he said. Of course she knew he wouldn’t dismiss the protection he’d paid for. Everybody knew it.

Senator Elizabeth Warren went after Bloomberg’s legal settlements with women who had complained over the years about his lewd and goatish remarks.

Bloomberg’s response was to talk about all the women he’d promoted to important jobs at his company and in his administration in New York. Warren paraphrased Bloomberg’s answer as, “I’ve been nice to some women.” It was a nasty way to put it. It did wound him, and she needed to do that.

Warren also tried to bring down Joe Biden, but with a rhetorical shot of less velocity. At some White House confab, Biden had said he hoped Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican, would be reelected so Biden could work with him. Biden complained that Warren had taken his comment out of context, which she clearly had. As Vice President, Biden had presided over the Senate when McConnell was Majority Leader. The two were in opposite parties but learned to work together. They became friends. That happens in the Senate. It doesn’t mean Biden was a bad Democrat. Warren knew that.

One of the moderators asked Amy Klobuchar why, as Hennepin County Attorney, 1999–2006, she hadn’t filed charges in two dozen shootings by police. The implication was that she didn’t care about citizens being gunned down by the cops. But how long would it take Klobuchar to explain two dozen police shootings of two decades ago? She had one minute, maximum. Her answer was that all the cases had gone to grand juries. Well, it was a question designed to elicit a lame answer.

Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are rival moderates (in Democratic terms), each with a reason to knock the other out. Buttigieg, the smarty-pants who’d worked at McKinsey & Co., tried to embarrass Klobuchar for being unable to name the president of Mexico. This reminded me of the 2016 Libertarian nominee, Governor Gary Johnson, who famously said, “What’s an Aleppo?” Back then, I thought that far too much was being made of the former governor of New Mexico’s failure to recognize the name of a city in Syria. Now I was inclined to excuse Klobuchar for not knowing the name of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

How long would it take Klobuchar to explain two dozen police shootings of two decades ago? She had one minute, maximum.

Buttigieg wasn’t cutting any slack. “This is a race to be president,” he said. She stared him down. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb?” she demanded. (Yup. That’s exactly what he was trying to say.)

Buttigieg, who had attacked Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from the right, repeatedly attacked Klobuchar from the left. She had voted to confirm Donald Trump’s appointee to head the US Customs. She had voted for some of Donald Trump’s judges. She had once voted to make English the official language. (Terrible!) Klobuchar replied by talking about all the work she’d done on comprehensive immigration reform, and accused Buttigieg of having “memorized a bunch of talking points.”

It did seem so. Buttigieg comes off as the quintessential focus-group candidate. When I first heard him talk, last year, I was inclined to appreciate his moderation. Now he seems merely calculating. His repeated statements that Sanders is unacceptably radical are, if you listen closely, mostly about strategy. “You can’t afford to alienate half the country,” Buttigieg said. He was arguing that Sanders can’t win, not that his ideas are wrong. Buttigieg also said of his fellow candidates, “I think at least in broad terms we’re largely pulling in the same direction on policy.”

Buttigieg was also a red-diaper baby, the son of an English professor who translated the books of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. Does that matter? The man is not his father, but I don’t recall him denouncing his father’s beliefs in the way that, for example, writer Theodore Dalrymple has.

Buttigieg comes off as the quintessential focus-group candidate.

Biden, in contrast with the others, seemed pathetic on Thursday night. In the midst of the Mexican president foofaraw, Biden jumped in to remind everyone that he had been there, done that. “I’m the only one who’s spent hundreds of hours in Latin America. I’ve met with this president. . . . I’ve spent hours and hours and hours.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I suppose it’s true and also important, but we’re getting really tired of Joe Biden telling us about it.

And tired of him.

The debaters generated acres of blather on the subject of energy. Biden touted a solar power station near Las Vegas that he said could be expanded to serve a city of 60,000 people. I assume he meant the five-square-mile mirrors-and-turbines Ivanpah plant built with federal loan guarantees when Biden was vice president. Ivanpah is the largest solar installation in the United States. It is a fairly reasonable use of the Mojave Desert, which isn’t good for much else, but it’s not something that can be duplicated across the country. Biden also likes trains, which he sees as 21st-century technology. “Invest in rail!” he said. “Rail can take hundreds of thousands, millions of cars off the road.” (Millions? Really? Google “Randal O’Toole.”) Biden was big, very big, on spending boxcars of government money. He said, “I have a trillion-dollar program for infrastructure that will provide for thousands and thousands of new jobs, not $15 an hour but $50 an hour plus benefits, unions, unions being able to do that.”

OK, Joe. You want the union vote.

Sanders has a neat way of shrinking a scientific, engineering, and economic problem into a matter of moral certainty.

Then there was Elizabeth Warren. The “I-have-a-plan” senator from Massachusetts announced that there is a global market of $27 trillion for Green. (“Green” is now a noun. Get used to it.) Under Warren, Green that doesn’t now exist will be brought into existence in America — “I believe in science,” she said — and, in a Warren presidency, will be manufactured in America. (With $50 labor?) To juice up the global market for Green, Warren would stop all US offshore drilling and all drilling and mining on public land.

Bernie Sanders would end all fracking. “We are fighting for the future of the planet,” he declared. “That is more important than the profits of the fossil fuel industry.” Sanders has a neat way of shrinking a scientific, engineering, and economic problem into a matter of moral certainty.

Michael Bloomberg brought it down to earth. “We’re not going to get rid of fracking for a while,” he said, and nobody argued he was wrong.

Sanders did not like Mike Bloomberg. The man is a billionaire, and Sanders had said that America should have no billionaires. “Real change never takes place from an oligarchy controlled by billionaires,” Sanders said in his closing statement. He also affirmed that he is a socialist.

Biden keeps sounding like he is pitching for the votes of life’s losers.

“It's ridiculous,” Bloomberg replied. “We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn't work.”

The audience booed Bloomberg’s red-baiting. Sanders said he was for a Denmark-style socialism. And anyway, he said, America is “in many ways a socialist country” now. “We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” (This argument was used by the Old Left in the 1930s, as was the derogatory term, “rugged individualism.”)

Several of the others weighed in. Amy Klobuchar said, “I believe in capitalism,” but added that government needed to be a “check” on it, with, for example, universal childcare. When asked whether she is still a supporter of capitalism, Warren said, “I am.” She added that American capitalism has an “entrepreneurship gap” for black and Latino entrepreneurs, and that she has a $7 billion program to fix that.

When asked about capitalism, Joe Biden said, “For 36 years and as vice president, I was listed as the poorest man in Congress. I made money when I wrote a book about my son and it surprised me how much it sold. First time I've ever made any money.”

The presidency, Bloomberg said, “is a management job. And Donald Trump is not a manager.” Just so.

Biden keeps sounding like he is pitching for the votes of life’s losers. He keeps saying that the middle class is being crushed. In his closing statement he said, “I’m running because so many people are being left behind.” He said, “I know what it’s like to be knocked down.”

It’s happening again, Joe. You’re being knocked down.

The man of the evening, I thought, was Mike Bloomberg. Libertarians have damned Bloomberg for his stop-and-frisk policy in New York, and maybe they are right about that, but I live in a city where the police follow the opposite policy — let bums camp on the sidewalk — and the result is not good. (The policy is not the cops’ fault.) Years ago, I ridiculed New York City’s ban on restaurant soda drinks greater than 16 ounces — a Bloomberg policy. Mike Bloomberg is not my guy, but in this debate, I rather liked the man. The presidency, he said, “is a management job. And Donald Trump is not a manager.” Just so.

One thing I noted in Bloomberg’s favor was Bernie Sanders scoring him for opposing an increase in the minimum wage. It was hard to believe that any Democrat would say a bad thing about the minimum wage, so I checked it out. It was true. In 2015, Bloomberg argued that an increase in the earned income tax credit would help low-income people more than an increase in the minimum wage, which was likely to wipe out entry-level jobs. Of course Bloomberg is for a $15 minimum now, because he has to be. In the debate, he didn’t dare answer Sanders’ accusation. But at least Bloomberg understands what the policy does.

Is this a low hurdle bar? Sure. But these are Democrats.




Share This


To Iowa and Beyond

 | 

The Iowa caucus is worth celebrating, if only for the reminder that we have once again managed to survive the year-plus of primary-season buildup. It is, of course, ridiculous that one state should always get this much attention; it is more ridiculous still that it is Iowa, where an interest in corn vastly disproportionate to the electorate as a whole ensures that presidential candidates’ ethanol pandering will never die.

Positioned a week or more ahead of the other early primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, and a full month ahead of the Super Tuesday slate, Iowa is a chance for candidates to lay down a marker. Whether they’re in the position of needing to win or not, those who underperform there often tip the weaknesses that will later end their campaigns. Campaigns who outperform expectations, meanwhile, often gain a boost that can propel them into the White House. Look no further back than 2016 for an instructive example: in a Republican field much more crowded even than the Democrats’ 2020 slate, Ted Cruz won the state for the GOP, but by a thin margin over an unexpectedly strong Donald Trump, while a third-place finish for Marco Rubio essentially began the winding-down of his prospects. Hillary Clinton meanwhile came in with overwhelming advantages but nearly lost the state to Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign; Sanders could not finish the job that year, but Clinton had already revealed the soft Midwestern underbelly that Trump would eviscerate in the general.

It is, of course, ridiculous that one state should get this much attention every election cycle; it is more ridiculous still that it is Iowa that gets it.

This year, of course, Trump comes in with all the advantages of an incumbent, with several states cancelling primaries outright rather than give Bill Weld or any others even the slim chance of stealing a delegate here or there. But the Democratic field seemed finely poised until the past week or so, when the polling shifted suddenly (or, perhaps, accelerated along the direction it was already headed). Let’s go through each of the candidates in turn and see where things stand for them, what hope they have, if any, and how libertarians should feel about the prospects.

For those who hate suspense, I’ll spoil it here: I believe libertarians have a lot to gain from Bernie Sanders gaining the nomination, and relatively little to lose, given how hemmed in he would be by a GOP Senate and the Supreme Court in its present composition. This is not an endorsement of Sanders’ candidacy or any particular policy of his, apart from driving the Democratic establishment bananas, which I think we can all agree is a noble pursuit. On with the candidates:

Joe Biden

Biden was supposed to be the Hillary Clinton of this race: the inside-baseball candidate with all the establishment bona fides, the moderate who can “work across the aisle” to “get things done,” the person above all who would “normalize” America, restoring all the unspoken rules and conventions that Trump broke and that only DC political junkies actually care about. But his campaign has been erratic at best: he can be engaging with voters one moment and then exaggeratedly confrontational the next. His foot is constantly in his mouth, especially when he’s asked to address any aspect of his lamentable political past. A slate of Trump-Biden debates would be something, no doubt — at the very least, an embarrassment of riches for Stephen Cox’s Word Watch columns — but the conviction has grown among Dem voters that whatever that “something” may be, it would not be salutary for the Biden side. Some of his support has gone to Warren, some to Buttigieg; he may yet lose some to Bloomberg. It’s beginning to look like Joe Biden may have botched yet another presidential primary.

Biden's foot is constantly in his mouth, especially when he’s asked to address any aspect of his lamentable political past.

Biden is still the default option for many voters, at least those who still seem to think of him as a sort of dopey uncle they remember from less fraught times. If he wins Iowa outright, especially if there’s daylight between him and Sanders, then a lot of the party’s worries about him will be hushed up and he will go on to get beaten fairly soundly in the general by Trump. But anything other than a strong second would be tough to overcome, especially ahead of New Hampshire and Nevada primaries he currently is on track to lose. Finishing third or even fourth is not out of the question.

Bernie Sanders

If (and that’s a proverbially big If) Bernie Sanders goes on to win the nomination, his primary campaign will have to go down as one of the most effective ever run. At least, despite a party system determined to keep him out, and despite personal issues such as his advance age and his suffering an actual heart attack, he is surging now at exactly the right time. It would take an almost overwhelming run through Super Tuesday to secure him the nomination, and there is still the potential for a coup at the convention, but for now Sanders is by polling and general consensus at least the co-frontrunner.

If he takes Iowa, and then as expected New Hampshire and Nevada, a respectable second in South Carolina would make him hard to stop, especially with California likely to go for him. Anything besides a win in Iowa, though, would significantly slow down that momentum and allow doubt to creep back in about whether he could actually bring out enough voters to win the general.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren seemed at one point to have everything going for her, to be the rational compromise candidate between Biden and Sanders. But somewhere — possibly when she started waffling on issues that mattered to more progressive voters, possibly when she failed to pull any voters off even a weakening Biden — her campaign lost its way. Certainly she was hampered by the sheer number of candidates; had she been the only female candidate in a less crowded field, she could have stood out more. But that wouldn’t have helped with the impression that she is ultimately, as I’ve heard her described, “Hillary Clinton, but weak.” A last-ditch effort to paint the Sanders campaign as irredeemably misogynist — after he had encouraged her to run in 2016, and only put himself forward when she declined to — fell as flat as Clinton’s attempt to do the same thing to Obama in 2008; Warren’s campaign seems destined now for a similar fate.

Warren was hampered by the sheer number of candidates; had she been the only female candidate in a less crowded field, she could have stood out more.

Iowa could accomplish that job outright, if Warren doesn’t finish at least third. But with her likely to lose her own state of Massachusetts on Super Tuesday, it seems more likely that Warren will stay in the race only so long as it takes to secure something in exchange for her endorsement; if she waits too long then she’ll end up with nothing at all.

Pete Buttigieg

In an odd election cycle, Mayor Pete’s campaign has been possibly the oddest. Although he’s tried to depict himself as tried-and-true Midwestern stock, his main base of support (certainly his entire donor class) is incredibly wealthy liberals in Manhattan and the DC suburbs. His past prior to mayorhood is shadowy at best, all consulting firms and tentative connections to the intelligence community. He’s never won so much as a statewide race, not even for the nonpartisan post of state treasurer; any national appeal he can claim is on the basis of general inoffensiveness rather than any personal charisma or other positive characteristic. The only way really to understand his polling numbers, I think, is as a backstop for Biden: he’s the one who would carry on as if 2016 never happened.

At times, Buttigieg has topped the polls in Iowa, but a second or third place finish in a tightly packed field wouldn’t be too bad for him. It’s tough to see where he picks up support beyond that, though — his utter lack of support among black voters will see him wiped out in the South, and it’s hard to imagine him pulling much in the West, the Northeast, or the Rust Belt either.

Amy Klobuchar

In another year, might have had a real chance. This time around, a non-entity, despite the desperate efforts of the media to make Klobuchar happen. The New York Times’ cack-handed dual endorsement of the two remaining female candidates — to the extent that anybody cares about what they think, by no means a certain thing — had the effect of weakening both, by pointing out that whatever appeal they still maintained rested largely on their anatomy rather than their appeal with a sizable enough chunk of voters to matter.

Losing next-door Iowa, and losing it badly, would be a clear sign that Klobuchar doesn’t have a base.

Klobuchar’s stronghold, if she had one, would be the Midwest. Losing next-door Iowa, and losing it badly, would be a clear sign that she doesn’t.

Andrew Yang

Sanders’ only real competition for college-age voters, and also the beneficiary of some scattered celebrity endorsements, but unlikely to cross the 15% threshold required to get any delegates, especially not under Iowa’s weird caucus rules. What will be interesting is how his backers break on the second ballot — in some jurisdictions even a handful could be enough to give Sanders a runaway victory, or to rescue Warren, or to enforce a three or four-way tie.

Whatever Yang hoped to accomplish through his run, he must have accomplished. The early states are a sort of victory lap for him before he drops out; he’s gained enough of a national profile that it would be a surprise not to see him involved in some way at the Democratic National Convention and beyond.

Tom Steyer

Another odd one, in that his campaign has been run entirely as a vanity affair, like a billionaire’s version of going to a fantasy spring-training baseball camp and mingling with the real athletes. He has spent an enormous amount of money to get blanket coverage in early primary states but it’s hard to imagine what constituency he could plausibly claim to represent. Has enough money to prolong this indefinitely; the only strategy that can be derived here is the hope to win via attrition, to be the one standing on the side to take on a frontrunner weakened by fending off the rest of the field. Alas for Steyer, he has been eclipsed in this role by an even wealthier interloper.

Michael Bloomberg

A campaign predicated on an entirely untested gamble: what if someone ignored the early states entirely and focused instead on buying every moment of everyone’s attention in all the Super Tuesday states? It’s almost impossible to imagine a candidate less well suited to appeal to the voters the Democrats will need to win in November: Bloomberg is the very image of the out-of-touch, unsympathetic coastal elite who knows better than you how your life should be lived, and is all too eager to put the force of law behind those prescriptions. And yet based on money alone, Bloomberg could steal the nomination — not through outright delegate count, but through chicanery at the convention.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a candidate less well suited than Michael Bloomberg to appeal to the voters the Democrats will need to win in November.

Bloomberg cannot win Iowa. But he will be waiting for whoever does. And that brings us to the overall arc of this campaign.

What Happens Next

While Biden was the clear frontrunner, all the other candidates could score points off him without worrying about losing too much ground. The Biden folks (and I include here almost the entire Democrat leadership) meanwhile tried to stay above the fray, acting as if he were the only viable candidate and trusting that Buttigieg would fade with time and Sanders and Warren would keep each other in check. What they didn’t expect was that Sanders would surge like this, and it is because they don’t understand how hated they are, or what people could possibly see in a candidate like Sanders (or, for that matter, Trump).

For as often as they’re compared, Bernie and The Donald don’t have much in common — a few bad economic policies, New York upbringings, age of course. But one thing they both can do is convince large numbers of people that they are talking to them instead of past them to other party leaders. And that, along with a few other factors, is why libertarians should welcome (however cautiously) a Sanders nomination.

For all their bleating about how Donald Trump represents some sort of unique danger to the American public and the world, the Democrats were all too glad to hand him control of the largest killing force the planet has ever seen.

Although libertarians generally distrust Democrats, it makes strategic sense to support them in the interest of dividing up power — as R.W. Bradford showed back in Liberty’s November 2004 issue (p. 19), government growth is checked most with a Democrat in the White House and the Republicans controlling at least one side of Congress. When the Republicans control everything, they tend to spend wildly, and have done so again this time. Only when they are frustrating a Democratic president do they suddenly remember principles like fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, so on. It would take a dramatic shift for the GOP to take the House (though see below) but they appear unlikely to have three Senate seats flip on them — four, if you count their likely recapture of Alabama. Any Democrat will have to go through them to get a budget passed, to get judges confirmed, to do much of anything. And thus not much of anything will get done.

So why Sanders then, and not one of the others? Because he is the only one who might actually cut away at our most bipartisanly bloated and expensive sector: our military and its utterly unnecessary foreign wars. For all the bleating of Pelosi et al. about how Donald Trump represents some sort of unique danger to the American public and the world, the Democrats were all too glad to sign off on military expenditures too vast to even properly imagine. If you truly believe he’s a dictator in the making, why would you hand him everything he needs to accomplish his takeover? And that money is just what’s on the books; the military has repeatedly failed audits for writing off billions upon billions of dollars they cannot account for, in the pursuit of goals that they knew were impossible to accomplish, all while lying to the American public to claim that victory was perpetually just around the corner.

If you need another reason, then Sanders is also the one most likely to legalize pot and to clear past convictions, a huge and humane first step toward ending the decades-long War on Drugs and beginning to check our out-of-control police and prison systems. But, back to the more strategic angle, here’s why the Sanders nomination is a win-win:

If Sanders wins the nomination and loses the presidency, then even the softened form of Euro-socialism he touts will be a non-factor for another generation.

If he wins the nomination and the presidency, then there is balance back between the parties, but a better balance than under any of the immediate predecessors. And between his age and the looming recession, he’d likely be a one-term president, so even if you’re a lesser-evil GOP stalwart, you can start practicing the coordination required to hold your nose while pulling the lever for Nikki Haley or whoever else gets the 2020 nod.

If he wins the nomination and loses the presidency, then even the softened form of Euro-socialism he touts will be a non-factor for another generation, and the Democrats might lurch toward a Yang-type figure for 2020. (Ocasio-Cortez will likely run eventually, but isn’t eligible till 2024, and it’s impossible to predict that far down the line).

If Sanders wins a plurality of delegates, but not an outright majority, then it’s possible that the nomination will be taken away from him and given to Bloomberg or whoever else comes in second place. Thanks to a rule change after the 2016 debacle, the DNC “superdelegates” don’t come into play until a potential second round of voting. But they all hate Bernie, so if they are called into action, they could carry out a coup that would irrevocably split the Democratic Party. This could very well lead to a Red Wave election, a disaster in the short term given that Trump no longer has any checks on his power, but a benefit in the long term in that something else — perhaps even a libertarian-friendly something else — will have to emerge from the ashes.

Again, I’m aware that this will seem counterintuitive or contrarian to many of our readers. And I’m open to considering other points of view for how we return to some sort of balance of power. But as is, we’re careening towards something unworkable and downright dangerous, and — glad as I’d be to be proven wrong — I don’t think anyone presently in the leadership of either party would be able or willing to change that course.



Share This


Two Small Steps in the Right Direction

 | 

In this journal I have repeatedly expressed my intense disapproval of President Trump, so it seems to me that intellectual honesty requires me to compliment his governance when it does something I consider right. Recently, the Boss’ administration took a couple of steps toward what I consider excellent policies, so let me so record the facts.

The first pertains to something I have written about in the past.[1] Movie studios had for decades both produced and distributed their films — often playing them in theaters they themselves owned. This meant that the producers of the films made money on everything from ticket sales to snack bar concessions. This in turn allowed producers enough of a profit to take chances with new actors and directors, new genres, and smaller audience “art” movies.

Once deprived of its lucrative distribution side, the filmmaking industry settled into producing predictable movies in predictable genres, with predictable scripts, and with a relatively few established stars.

However, in 1948 (in US v. Paramount Pictures), the US Supreme Court ruled that studios could no longer control distribution. That meant they could no longer profit from concessions or control what theaters could show. The 1948 ruling widely prohibited practices such as studios owning their own theaters, limiting how their films could be shown, and “block booking” (i.e., requiring theaters to play a group of their movies or else be forbidden to any of them).

If you look at independent film critics’ lists of the best films of all time, the lion’s share were produced before the ruling was fully implemented by the Justice Department (in the mid-1950s or so). Nevertheless, once deprived of its lucrative distribution side, the filmmaking industry settled into producing predictable movies — including remakes — in predictable genres, with predictable scripts, and with a relatively few established stars. In recent years, this tendency has taken the form of endless sequels and prequels — Spiderman 78, Saw 89, Star Wars 95. For actors we see few amazing talents, discovered by wide-ranging talent scouts, but just more and more children or nieces or nephews of existing Hollywood insiders.

The original ruling was dubious to begin with. When the Federal Leviathan came up with this “anti-monopoly” action, there were five major and several smaller studios producing hundreds of movies a year. Some monopoly! However, the independent theater owners’ desire for access to other companies’ property carried the day — perhaps to the benefit of the small theater owners, but surely to the detriment of the lawful owners of the content (i.e., the studios) and the consumers as well. This was classic rentseeking in action.

The 1948 ruling led to a decline in the number and quality of films, giving people more reason to stay home rather than visit the theater.

Well, the revolution in the entertainment industry wrought by the internet has resulted in the rise of major companies — Netflix, Amazon, and recently Disney — producing and distributing their own product directly to the consumers’ homes. As a recent article in the WSJ notes, the Department of Justice has now announced that it will remove the regulations restricting distribution by producers directly to theaters. As Makin Delrahim, Justice’s top antitrust attorney, put it, “As the movie industry goes through more changes with technological innovation, with new businesses and new business models, it is our hope that the termination of the Paramount decrees clears the way for consumer-friendly innovation.”

The article claims that the DOJ’s move is a blow to the nation’s diminishing number of independent theaters and small independent studios, because it will force them into a release calendar that is dominated by expensive productions of the major studios. Half the 40,000 screens in America are controlled by three chains (AMC, Cinemark, and Regal), so smaller theater operators are already nervous about being put out of business. They complain about not being able to afford the heavy distribution prices that big studios demand for major hits. Using this past year as an example, 27% of all North American ticket sales have been for just five movies — four produced by Disney, naturally. So the small theater owners (represented by the National Association of Theater Owners, aka “NATO”) not unnaturally fear the DOJ’s letting these regulations lapse. But I would suggest to NATO and the theater owners it represents that they are not seeing the whole picture, and that if they did, they wouldn’t fear the change.

First, let’s make the obvious point that despite the onerous and longstanding restrictions put on the content providers (i.e., the studios), movie houses have been closing anyway. From 1995 to 2018, the number of theaters dropped from 7,744 to 5,803 — a loss of 25%. And the reason is clear: it is the same reason that individual retail stores and whole shopping malls have been closing — the Amazon effect. In retail sales, the internet has made many trips to the local store or mall unnecessary; the consumer can get what he wants online and have it delivered to his house, saving all the time, expense, and hassle of driving around. Similarly, the rise of cable and internet streaming has allowed TV, which started its rise as a competitor to the movies in the 1950s, to explode in audience size.

If more theaters are lost in the near future, this will probably not be because the 1948 regulations are going to be removed.

Adding to this “Amazon effect” that TV has had since its inception (the effect of allowing entertainment content to be delivered to the consumer at home) is the amazing technological development of the medium itself. The development of cable, and then internet streaming — along with the creation of big screen panel TVs and home surround sound systems — has enabled a home theater experience to come closer to a real theater experience than was ever before imaginable. I suspect that not long from now, we will have walls in our homes that are TV screens, just as in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.

So to a large extent, the trend of theaters closing is an outgrowth of TV expansion. The 1948 ruling did not stop this; it just led to a decline in the number and quality of films, again giving people more reason to stay home rather than visit the theater. If more theaters are lost in the near future, this will probably not be because the 1948 regulations are going to be removed.

But this is just a negative defense of removing the restrictions. I think a positive case can also be made, that allowing producers to own theaters will likely increase the number and variety of them.

The experience of watching a film alone or with your family and friends is quite different from that of viewing it in the company of a large number of strangers.

Start with the idea that single producers — say, Netflix — could own their own theater chains to first present their own content. Recently, Netflix premiered a major production (The Irishman) on TV first, and only then to theaters — presumably because it was the way to maximize receipts upon release. With its own theaters, it could debut films in them for maximum revenue, and later make them available on TV. More revenue would mean more original films it could then produce. It could build a chain of new theaters to do this, or it could buy out a large number of independent ones, or even join them in a franchise arrangement. You can imagine Netflix, Disney, HBO, and so on having large chains running only their own productions, allowing for the showing of shorts, cartoons, and serials as well, along with the sales of large amounts of accompanying merchandise. Again, this would lead to even more revenue, which would support even more production.

Next consider the possibility of “mixed use” theaters. Amazon — already producing some of its own content — could put together a chain of theaters where people could pick up or return their on-line orders, and also see a flick. Other retail players — such as Walmart, which has a large internet presence of its own — might be tempted to start producing and distributing its own movies, perhaps by buying an already existing movie producer (HBO, Hallmark/Crown Media, or such) and expanding its operations.

The reason I am so optimistic about the future of movie theaters is simple. The experience of watching a film alone or with your family and friends is quite different from that of viewing it in the company of a large number of strangers. It’s called “social proof” — look it up.

Much of the data is dispiriting, but there is some comfort in it.

The second area where this administration deserves a compliment is in education policy. The WSJ reports that the Department of Education has released a large amount of new data showing what students are earning on average after graduation, and what their average student debt load is. What is novel about this mass of data is the granularity, the nice specificity of the information, which is provided by major and college.

We learn that one of the best returns on an education investment comes from getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from MIT. People with that degree averaged $120,300 in first year’s income, with an average student debt load of $8,200. That is perhaps no surprise, but the fact that bachelor’s degrees in business administration from Bismarck State College average $100,500 in initial salaries perhaps is.

Alas, many other programs are not so lucrative. Dentists graduating from NYU averaged $69,000 right after graduation, but had an average student loan debt load of $387,600. Bachelor’s grads in computer science from DeVry University-Illinois earned $37,800 on average while owing an average $53,400. (The same degree from Wichita State University led to $61,800 in average starting salary and only $31,000 in debt.) Graduates in rhetoric and composition from Columbia University earned a meager $19,700 upon graduation, but had a debt load of $28,500. Undergrad degrees in theater from the University of Alabama averaged $14,000 in first-year income with an average debt load of $25,000. And those who got their Master’s in Theater from USC averaged only $30,800 initially, but had a debt of $100,800.

Ironically, though, business ethicists are all college professors, and colleges have seldom if ever provided accurate data about how much their products really benefit their consumers.

This data set is gathered from a website first set up by the Obama administration called the “College Scorecard,” and covers over 36,000 programs at 4,400 colleges, using input from millions of recent college grads. It is limited in one respect: it covers only students who received financial aid, and it excludes debt that parents assume. Much of the data is dispiriting, but there is some comfort in it. Despite the recent inflation in college tuition (driven in great measure by the federal student loan program, which has allowed American students to rack up a collective $1.5 trillion in debt), in 85% of the programs for which data are available, grads earned more in their first year than their total debt — although this means that in 15% of programs, students had total debt greater than their first-year incomes. In 2% of the programs, the students’ debt load was double the initial incomes.

I agree with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that “the best way to attack the ever-rising costs of college is to drive real transparency.” Yet releasing data about schools, majors, incomes, and student debt levels isn’t merely good public policy. It seems to me a moral imperative. It is a truism of business ethics that for any purchase to be ethical, it must be possible for the consumer to obtain all materially relevant information about the product. Ironically, though, business ethicists are all college professors, and colleges have seldom if ever provided accurate data about how much their products really benefit their consumers.

My only concern is whether Trump will follow through on these policies. With the Boss, this is always an issue.


[1]See “The Rise of the Comic Book Movie” in Liberty, October 2008. For an extended defense of my claims in that piece, see “The History of Cinema and America’s Role in It” in Reason Papers (July 2014).




Share This


Shrinking Audience, Shrinking Stage

 | 

Americans are getting tired of the debates. Back in June, when so many Democrats itched to be president that the talkfests were spread over two days, 27.1 million people tuned in by live TV and streaming. Voters didn’t know some of these Democrats, and wanted to get a sense of them — who Pete Buttigieg was, for example, and how to pronounce his name. By the July debates, viewership dropped by half, and by November, half again; and in December to 6.2 million on live television.

That’s one of every 25 of the 153 million registered voters in the United States. So if you missed it, don’t upbraid yourself. This time I was going to miss it and go to a movie, but it snowed and I stayed home and watched the debate after all. So here goes . . .

Six candidates made the cut, which was based on polls and number of donors. Some of the excluded candidates and their supporters bellyached that all six who made the cut were white — which meant what? Those excluded were Michael Bennet, Michael Bloomberg, John Delaney, Deval Patrick, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang. The thing they have in common is not race, but failure to connect with voters. Then, during the debate, Bernie Sanders was confronted about a remark he supposedly made in a private conversation two years ago that Elizabeth Warren would have difficulty being elected because she is a woman. He denied it and she, by her response, essentially confirmed it. Which means — what? For once I felt sorry for the guy.

Some of the excluded candidates and their supporters bellyached that all six who made the cut were white — which meant what?

They piled on Sanders for another matter — all the taxpayer money he planned to unleash in his Medicare for All plan. The moderator asked whether his single-payer system would “bankrupt the country.” Sanders’ answer was that yeah, it would cost trillions, but Americans would be done with premiums, deductibles, and copays, and that those added up to more. Therefore, his Medicare for All would cost less. Perhaps this was another political lie, but the Vermont socialist clearly believes it. And I think he could be right about it. If Sanders designed a European-type system, and Congress accepted his version of it, it might well save money. The Canadian system is cheaper than ours, the British system is cheaper than the Canadian, the Cuban system is cheaper than the British, and probably the North Korean system is cheaper than the Cuban. Sanders even said that he might have pharmaceuticals manufactured by the government. Under such rules, it is completely possible for a single-payer system to cost less than the system we have now. The new system would feel Spartan, and Americans would hate it, and probably it would kill off innovation from the biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. But it is possible.

Warren, who had played the role of Sanders’ ideological sidekick, moved to differentiate herself. The federal government contracts out a lot of things, she said. Maybe it could contract out the manufacture of generic drugs. “This is a way to make markets work,” she said. “You don’t even have to use price controls.”

She believes in capitalism, remember?

One of the interviewers asked Sanders about his socialism, and mentioned a poll that said two-thirds of Democrats didn’t agree with it. He didn’t back down. Yes, he said. He was for healthcare as a human right, a takeover of the pharmaceutical and health-insurance industries, public college for all, a green New Deal, and a $15 minimum wage.

The new system would feel Spartan, and Americans would hate it, and probably it would kill off innovation from the biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. But it is possible.

No boos from the audience. A couple of other candidates made veiled comments — Amy Klobuchar talked about “grand ideological sketches” and Buttigieg talked of ideas deemed bold “based on how many Americans they would alienate” — but nobody followed up with an attack on Sanders’ socialism. Not the candidates, not the moderators, not the audience.

For the Democratic Party that is notable.

Mostly the performances followed worn paths, but occasionally there was a glimmer of the new. Buttigieg opined that Democrats really ought to talk about the federal deficits and the public debt — a topic they’d been ignoring in all the debates — and then he didn’t talk about it. Klobuchar, who opposes free college for rich kids, said the real problem will be to train more home healthcare workers and nurses. “We’re not going to have a shortage of MBAs, we’re going to have a shortage of plumbers,” she said. Which means — what?

Warren was for prioritizing climate change, but she would also ban fracking. Klobuchar disagreed. “I see natural gas as a transition fuel,” she said. But the Minnesota senator dared not say anything critical of wind or solar — nor did any of the others. Biden briefly mentioned his proposal to set up 500,000 charging stations for electric cars. No one asked him where he expected the electricity to come from — or the money, for that matter.

Buttigieg opined that Democrats really ought to talk about the federal deficits and the public debt — a topic they’d been ignoring in all the debates — and then he didn’t talk about it.

Biden’s point, which he inserted when he could, was his experience. Others talked; he had done it. He made this sound petulant, but really it was an important point. Ideas are not everything. The presidency is a job in which experience matters, particularly previous time in a high-level executive job. Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush had been governors of large states, Jimmy Carter had been governor of a medium-sized state, and Bill Clinton had been governor of a small state. Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush were former vice presidents, and each had other political positions before that. Herbert Hoover was a famous Secretary of Commerce who had led the US effort for to relieve the Russian famine of 1920–21. Dwight Eisenhower had been supreme commander of Allied armies in Western Europe. John Kennedy, probably the least qualified of the group, had been in the House of Representatives for six years and the Senate for eight years.

Standards have slipped since the 20th century. A couple of election cycles back, I raised the question of the experience of Ron Paul, who was carrying the libertarian banner among the Republicans. Paul was a backbencher in the House of Representatives. The most recent president I could find who had been elected out of the House was James Garfield in 1880 — and Garfield was a frontbencher who would have taken a seat in the Senate (courtesy of the Massachusetts legislature) had he not been elected president. Garfield had also been a major general in the Civil War.

Many libertarians supported Ron Paul because they agreed with him. Few of his supporters asked whether he was qualified to be president, which he really wasn’t.

People forget that in 2008 Barack Obama had been a US senator for only two years. His lack of qualifications would have been a big Republican talking point had John McCain not run with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. McCain’s decision gave the experience issue to the Democrats. Obama also defused it by choosing longtime Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

Few of Ron Paul's supporters asked whether he was qualified to be president, which he really wasn’t.

In 2016 Donald Trump ran for president as a real estate tycoon, but that was a generous characterization. Trump’s name was plastered on high-rise towers, but he didn’t own the properties. He’d been bankrupt. Really he was a promoter, a showman, a high-level bullshitter. Trump was intelligent enough to have earned an MBA from the Wharton School and to outwit his Republican rivals in 2016, but nonetheless he was unqualified to be president.

And he was not the only such candidate. Ben Carson, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2016, was a neurosurgeon, and in this cycle Democrat Marianne Williamson was a writer of self-help books who offered to beat Trump with a campaign of “love.” Democrat Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur of modest success, and Tom Steyer is an entrepreneur of larger success, but the government is not a business.

Consider the other five Democrats who made it into the January 14 debates. Joe Biden, with a long career in the Senate and eight years as vice-president, is obviously qualified. (Comments about qualifications are not endorsements.) Amy Klobuchar has been in the Senate for 13 years and Bernie Sanders 12 years. Elizabeth Warren has been in the Senate for 7 years and before that was a professor at Harvard Law. Not bad. Pete Buttigieg, who was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for eight years — he just stepped down — is the least qualified of the five.

Donald Trump ran for president as a real estate tycoon, but that was a generous characterization. Really he was a promoter, a showman, a high-level bullshitter.

Now to age. In today’s America we are constrained not to say anyone is too old to do anything, even to be president of the United States. It’s “ageist.” Well, to hell with that. I’m 68 years old, and I freely admit that I’m too old to do a whole bunch of things. President of the United States is a taxing job. Twelve years of it killed Franklin Roosevelt, and eight years of it visibly aged Bill Clinton.

Until the election of Donald Trump, America’s oldest president was Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 was inaugurated a couple of weeks before turning 70. I saw Reagan up close in 1984, when he was 73, and he looked terrible. He served for almost five more years, but was visibly in decline by the time he left office.

Are Sanders and Biden too old? I believe so. Trump is not exactly a marathon runner, either.

Trump would be 74 on January 20, 2021. Joe Biden would be 78 and Bernie Sanders would be 79. The red-faced Sanders recently had a heart attack. Biden mumbles his lines. Are Sanders and Biden too old? I believe so. Trump is not exactly a marathon runner, either. Elizabeth Warren would be 71, but she seems younger, and women live on average five years longer than men. Amy Klobuchar would be 60 — what in this group would qualify as early middle age.

The youngest presidents we’ve had were John Kennedy, who was 42 when he took office in 1961, and Theodore Roosevelt, also 42 when he took office in 1901, after the death of William McKinley. Bill Clinton was 46 and Barack Obama was 47. Pete Buttigieg would be 38, which is just three years past the minimum age set in the constitution. You might select a 38-year-old of striking accomplishments to be president of the United States, but the former mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana? Vice president, perhaps. He is a smart guy.

Finally, I look at the political tea leaves. As I write, it is less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Bernie Sanders is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has the highest poll numbers — barely — and the most committed base of support. I don’t think Sanders will win the nomination, because as his rivals drop out their support will move to candidates less radical than he. But this could be wishful thinking. In 2016 I thought there was no way the Republican Party would nominate Donald Trump. And it did.




Share This


Tyler Cowen’s “State Capacity Libertarianism”

 | 

Tyler Cowen recently posted an argument on his web page, Marginal Revolution, called, “What Libertarianism Has Become and Will Become: State Capacity Libertarianism.”

Terrible name, I thought. But I kept reading.

Cowen, who is professor of economics at George Mason University and director of its Mercatus Center, is probably the most prominent mainstream libertarian intellectual today. (In essence, “mainstream” means that nonlibertarians will listen to him.) His webpage shows a mind ranging from the history of the Marshall Plan to the economics of art to how globalization affects the way the world eats.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems.

He begins his piece as follows:

“Having tracked the libertarian ‘movement’ for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow. One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt-right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.”

The problem, he says, is that plumb-line libertarianism doesn’t address some 21st-century problems, starting with the effects of carbon combustion on the Earth’s climate. Smart libertarians and classical liberals, he says (with a nod to Adam Smith), “have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.”

(Entirely non-sticky: correct.)

We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems from global warming and traffic congestion. “State Capacity Libertarians,” Cowen writes, “are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.”

That’s right. We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone. One is the creation of public-health institutions that can protect the public from such scourges as smallpox, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola. Another is to make markets work better by requiring the disclosure of information such as the contents of processed food or the legal properties of stocks and bonds.

“Plumb-line” libertarians — the purists — will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so. In the world of opinion journalism Cowen’s opened door was wrenched off its hinges by Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen in a piece entitled, “Libertarianism Is Losing Its Grip on Conservative Thought. Good.”

To Olsen, libertarians are zealots who declare “government always bad, private action always good.” And there are people like that. Olsen argues that this means libertarians “are congenitally unable to present plausible answers to challenges that people want addressed.” As an example, he cites the economic gap in Britain between the prosperous South and depressed North, an ailment to which the U.K.’s prime minister, the “one-nation conservative” Boris Johnson, now promises to minister. Olsen also cites the push by Sen. Mario Rubio (R-FL), for federal intervention to shore up “hollowed-out” manufacturing industries. Olsen applauds these proposals. He favors a politics in which “democratic governments can legitimately define a problem and then use tax, spending and regulatory policy to try to accomplish a specific, publicly defined goal.”

The purists will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so.

Olsen goes on to argue that too many Republicans in Congress have been cowed by libertarians with their “government bad, private action good” mantra, so that the Republicans offer no solutions to such problems as health insurance coverage, climate change and “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor.” Olsen concludes, “Cowen’s essay is thus aptly timed, bringing a ray of sunshine into a long-darkened movement . . . The hard core will try to keep the rest of us in the shadows, but the days will lengthen as more and more conservatives break free from their frozen slumber.”

Shadows and dark forces aside, there is some truth in what Olsen says. Several of the Democratic presidential wannabees are pushing for the entire U.S. health insurance industry to be scrapped and replaced by federal officials. The Republicans oppose this, of course, but mainly by dragging their feet, which is not a strategy that ultimately wins. For years now, the Republicans in Congress have promised to repeal Obamacare, but when they had the votes to do it, they didn’t. They had nothing politically acceptable to replace it with. Now they are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

So Olsen has a point. If you are too doctrinaire you remove yourself from the discussion and you get nothing. But in defining his position, Olsen opens the door to state action much too wide. He wants government to take up “the challenges that people want addressed.” And that could be anything.

Libertarians seek to limit state action. Cowen is arguing, as am I, not to imagine limits too strict. To defend against an imminent threat to the health and safety of the people, state power may be used against foreign army or an infectious microbe, or to defend against a long-term threat like a warming planet. But the problem Olsen defines as “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor” is not such an imminent threat. Nor is the relative decline of manufacturing. These are social trends, not imminent dangers. The percentage of Americans employed in manufacturing has been declining since 1953 — and with the advance of robotics, employment in that sector, if not production, will continue to decline. Get used to it.

Now Republicans are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

To a libertarian, the market value of different kinds of labor is a background fact that you take into account in your private decisions. If you grow up in a low-wage area with few opportunities, you can move away. You can stay and start a company and thereby provide work. If you can’t make it in manufacturing, you can do something else. Go into the service industry. Become a university professor. Sell hot dogs. Whatever. To a libertarian, these are not government problems.

In today’s America, they are. Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless. Government is enlisted to eradicate poverty, inequality, racism, sexism and homophobia. Reacting to the crisis of plastic bits in the Pacific Ocean, the city where I live has banned plastic straws, and to address the obesity crisis (supposedly) it taxes the sugar content of canned and bottled drinks.

No libertarian can accept Olsen’s idea of a government unleashed in this way. You can, however, consider Olsen’s criticism. Some of the time, out of political necessity, it makes sense to accept compromise solutions. Charter schools are better than uniform public schools. A mandate to buy private health insurance is better than “Medicare for All.” A carbon tax is better than green socialism. As George Orwell once wrote, the sure sign of a zealot is an argument that half a loaf is the same as no bread.

Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless.

Consider some of the replies to Cowen from libertarians.

Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute was against him. “There is no political will or constituency for skillful technocratic state management of society . . . There is no third way between state and market.” Come on, Deist, don’t try to win by asserting theoretical categories. A society can have some state and some market — which is what we do have, here and in almost every jurisdiction on the planet, in various proportions. That’s what we’re talking about, and you know it. “Western states won't give up their sclerotic regulatory, tax, central banking, and entitlement systems no matter how many flying cars or hyperloops we want.” Yep, they probably won’t, just as Cowen says. “Climate change is not a problem or issue for anyone to solve.” Well, maybe not for anyone to solve, but perhaps for all of humanity to ameliorate — and intelligent amelioration might be good enough. “The environmental movement will quash nuclear (especially after Fukushima).” Maybe, but arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Deist also has his definition. “Libertarianism simply means ‘private.’ It is a non-state approach to organizing human society. It is not narrow or confining; in fact everything Cowen desires in an improved society can be advanced through private mechanisms.” Everything, eh? This reminds me of when I was a teenager and I wrote to Nathaniel Branden asking him how we would build highways without eminent domain. He replied that in a free society this would not be a problem, “nor has it ever been.”

Bryan Caplan offers a piece titled, “Worst Advice to Libertarians Ever?” He quotes Cowen’s lines, “We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.” Okay; Cowen didn’t say he liked growing government, but that he was willing to accept much of it. I don’t think this means, as responder Gabriel M. says, that Cowen “wants the next generation of libertarians to be social democrats.”

Arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Cowen replies to Caplan: “Bryan’s extreme rhetoric is a sign my points have hit home. I regularly debate these topics with him over lunch, I think Bryan is tired of being beat up upon in person. Note that in my essay I mention pandemics, global warming, and intellectual property as problem areas. There are plenty of facts on each topic. Bryan doesn’t mention one of these in response, instead shifting ground to the war on terror and resource pessimism, which he then punctures.”

When you argue against someone, rhetorical fairness requires that you take on their strongest points, not just their weakest ones.

At the Hoover Institution, economist David Henderson argues that “libertarianism, properly conceived, can handle almost all the modern problems that Cowen throws at it, whereas state capacity is fraught with danger.” Henderson argues that hardcore libertarians are right about recreational drugs, which maybe they are (meth, too?), and about the public schools. (Totally privatized schooling in one jump, or vouchers, or charters first?) He allows that on global warming, “if it is indeed a problem,” Cowen makes a good point. Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?) Henderson is right that there is some danger in Cowen’s position, but he also makes a crucial concession about global warming.

Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, argues that Cowen’s “spirit is on target” but that his “specifics are fundamentally mistaken.” He goes on to concede, however, that Cowen is mostly right about the movement not commanding new adherents. And concerning the necessity of compromise, Gillespie writes that a better, non plumb-line definition of libertarianism is “an outlook that privileges things such as autonomy, open-mindedness, pluralism, tolerance, innovation, and voluntary cooperation over forced participation in as many parts of life as possible." I like that definition a lot, and I think Cowen would like it. It seems to me that Gillespie accepts much of what Cowen says.

Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?)

Dan Hugger of the Acton Institute argues that Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism” “is actually a case for a politically pragmatic libertarianism tailor-made to a hostile audience.” Okay.

Several commenters describe Cowen’s position as left-liberal or social democrat — in other words, “liberaltarian.” These are sort-of libertarians who want to ally with Left in the hope of converting them. Read some of the comments from leftists on Olsen’s piece in the Washington Post.

  • “Libertarians are cruel,” writes Jetmechanic1. “Probably more so than republicans. They are overwhelmingly people who have money and status and don’t answer to anyone.”
  • “Libertarianism will never go away because Conservatives will always need a rationalization for ripping people off,” writes Blochead1.
  • “These people will eat you if they make a dime from it,” writes CountryMouse2.
  • “I’ve yet to hear of even ONE Libertarian of any stripe refusing to accept their Social Security checks,” writes CubbyMichael. (Isabel Paterson was one.)
  • From Domiba: “Tell a so-called libertarian to pave his own road.”
  • Then there is Kumit, who asserts that conservatism and libertarianism both are “just dog-whistle fascism.” (The “dog whistle” trope is a way of dismissing your opponents’ arguments without having to consider them.)

We are not allies of the Left. They don’t want anything to do with us. Cowen’s version of a compromised libertarianism is not “liberaltarianism” in any case.

Cowen’s positions are not plumb-line, but they are broadly libertarian. To me, the central statement of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love your family or your country or the green Earth, or that you accept no obligations to them. It means that you decide which ones to accept, and that others respect your decision. You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them. “Society” does not owe you food, shelter, housing, medical care and a free bus pass.

Our opponents accuse us of saying, “You are on your own,” as if we were cutting people off from humanity. And I think: No way. You are free to make all kinds of affiliations, and most people do. But you decide — what you believe, whom you love, whom you live with, where you live, what work you do and how you spend your money.

You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them.

In many of these things, we are essentially a libertarian society right now. Our politics is not libertarian, but even in our economic life, we are broadly more libertarian than not.

The case for liberty is also about the quality of the society. A society of private decisions is fluid. Freewheeling. Organic. Its direction is set by the sum of people’s choices, of which only a small part is how they vote. More important is what they do. It is the same in industry. The future of the medical industry, for example, requires that innovators constantly develop new drugs, new devices, new treatments and new ideas. A single payer will tend to roll a moldy carpet over all that. Regarding research and development spending, Terence Kealey wrote in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (1996), “Nationalization always lowers budgets, whatever the enterprise.” (p. 247). Especially when there is no competition — and that is what “single payer” means — government services tend to be not too good.

The political world of 2020 doesn’t want to hear this. The candidates vie with one another to offer free stuff and secular salvation. One is an avowed socialist, and none is a libertarian. Still we have a good case, and we can make it stronger if we are not so dogmatic about it. Life is complicated, and an entire political philosophy built on the nonaggression principle will not work and will not sell. But we can still promote a world of strong (if not absolute) self-ownership, self-reliance and individual rights. We can say what H.L. Mencken said of the freedom of the press, when asked how much of it he was for. His answer was, simply, “As much as people can stand.”




Share This


The Democrats’ December Debate

 | 

Seven of them! I was going to say, “Still too many,” but I think I’ll miss the ones that will be squeezed out next. Already I miss Representative Tulsi Gabbard. She is not going to be the nominee, but I note that she was the only Democrat in the House to vote “present” on the articles of impeachment. It would have been entertaining and maybe instructive to have the other seven Democrats light into Gabbard, and her into them. Gabbard had helped vanquish Kamala Harris — a net gain for the republic.

The rest of the candidates are becoming painfully familiar. Their spiels are not only memorized but burned into their neurons like the tracks on a DVD. They have conditioned themselves not to answer certain questions, but to select the question they wanted and press PLAY. The moderators, who know this, ask the wrong questions in the hope of unleashing a wobble of individuality. The first question of the night was to answer why, given that they all supported impeachment, did only about half of the American electorate support it?

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer all pressed PLAY and gave the prepared answer: Trump deserves impeachment because his administration is “the most corrupt in modern history” (Sanders), et cetera. Steyer one-upped the others by saying he began a public effort for impeachment two years ago — before Trump’s telephone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The candidates are becoming painfully familiar. Their spiels are not only memorized but burned into their neurons like the tracks on a DVD.

Yang was the only one who answered the question. Americans don’t agree on impeachment, he said, because they are getting their news from different sources, some of them pro-Trump and some rabidly anti-Trump that say he’s president only because of “Russia, racism, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, and emails.” The impeachment fight, Yang said, “strikes many Americans as a ballgame where you know what the score is going to be.”

Indeed. Yang is not going to be president, but it was good to have him there.

Moderators asked another “tough” question: given that the American economy is operating at full employment, how can they argue against Trump on the economy? Predictably, all who answered wallowed in gloom. Biden said, “The middle class is being killed.” Warren said, “The middle class is being hollowed out.” Buttigieg said, “This economy isn’t working for most of us.” Sanders said of an increase in average wages of 1.1% (Nov. 2018–Nov. 2019, after inflation, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics), “That ain’t great.” Yang joined in on the gloomfest, saying that average life expectancy in America has dropped for three years, largely on account of drug overdoses and suicides.

Yang is not going to be president, but it was good to have him there.

I checked that out, and it’s true. The drop came in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, from 78.9 years to 78.6 years. I didn’t know that, and I thank Yang for bringing it up, but what does it have to do with Donald Trump? What control does the president of the United States have over drug overdoses and suicides (including those that occurred before he took office)? And for that matter, what control does he have over the average increase in real wages?

One of the most annoying features of these long, gas-filled debates is that candidates offer solutions and “plans” for everything under the sun, from planetary climate to the worries of a diabetic in Nevada sharing insulin with his sisters. Never do you hear a candidate say, “The presidency is an office of limited powers, and I couldn’t help you with that.” The closest in this debate was on the question of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which all good Democrats are for. The question was then put to Biden, who was vice president for eight years when it was not done. And Biden said, “You have to have congressional authority to do it.”

Biden also said, regarding his support of the war in Afghanistan, “I was wrong.” I credit him for that. Politicians hardly ever say it.

On the matter of global warming, Steyer said he would declare a national emergency. So would Sanders. Declaring an emergency would allow the president to do — what? Buttigieg and Klobuchar supported a carbon tax, which would have to be passed by Congress. Biden wanted to offer Americans 550,000 electric charging stations and tax credits for solar panels on their roofs. (More free stuff!) One of the more interesting questions was whether the candidates would support nuclear power, because it emits no carbon. Warren, like the good progressive she is, said no more nuclear. So did Steyer. “We actually have the technology that we need,” he said. “It’s called wind and solar and batteries.” (Wind and solar and batteries?) Only Yang said he would consider nuclear, mentioning “next generation thorium reactors.”

What control does the president of the United States have over drug overdoses and suicides (including those that occurred before he took office)?

Does the president decide what sort of power plant utility companies build? They spoke as if he did.

The questioners repeatedly asked questions appropriate to a dictator, or a god. One of the questions was, what would you do to stop violence against transgendered people? An honest answer might have been, “I could condemn it vigorously.” Warren said, “I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, people of color, who have been killed in the past year.” It was a weak answer, but what could she say?

The one field in which the president is king is foreign affairs. There the Democratic thought was that America had to rejoin its allies and act in unison to support democracy and human rights. Several referred to Hong Kong, where protesters have been challenging Chinese hegemony — and China has, so far, held back. Yang had been to Hong Kong, and he has family there. He talked about the Hong Kong police’s use of facial recognition technology and the territory’s ban on facemasks. He didn’t suggest anything America could do about Hong Kong. Buttigieg talked about “isolating” China if it sent in the army. Biden talked about beefing up the Pacific Fleet to “protect other folks.” (What folks?) He added, “We don’t have to go to war. But we have to make it clear: this is as far as you go, China.”

I cut the candidates some slack here. They can be clear about the big policy things they can’t do by themselves, but foreign policy they can do, and it does not pay to show one’s hand in advance.

The questioners repeatedly asked questions appropriate to a dictator, or a god.

There were also some flashes of clarity. The questioners tried to pin down Sanders on why he’s for zero tuition at public colleges for everyone, and not just for those with, say, family incomes under $150,000 — Buttigieg’s proposal. Why would he cancel student debt for all, including the well-off, especially since he has it in for “the billionaire class”?

“I believe in the concept of universality,” he said, offering as examples Social Security and the public schools.

Warren was asked the same thing in regard to free tuition. Well, she said, she was going to pay for it with a tax on wealth — the implication being that the wealthy should not be excluded from free tuition. Universality, again.

And what would free public college mean for the private colleges? Nobody asked.

The one issue that heated up the debate was the one that means the most to the candidates themselves — paying for their campaigns. All candidates except the super-wealthy have to ask donors for money, and they hate doing it. The Democrats were all for getting private money out of politics — i.e., getting it from the government — but since that handout has not yet been universalized, they are in a bind. They can stand under a halo and accept only small donations, as Sanders and Warren are doing, or they can take big checks from those willing to write them and risk being called hypocrites.

Buttigieg was taking the big checks, and Warren called him out on it. Buttigieg had recently held a fundraiser in a “wine cave,” at which a bottle of inebriant went for $900. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," Warren said.

Democratic hopefuls can stand under a halo and accept only small donations, as Sanders and Warren are doing, or they can take big checks from those willing to write them and risk being called hypocrites.

This made me chuckle. Nine hundred isn’t a billion, and would billionaires pick Buttigieg? I didn’t think so. Buttigieg was not chuckling, He said Warren’s statement demonstrated “the problem of passing purity tests that you yourself cannot pass . . . Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.”

(Big cheer from the audience.)

“I don’t sell access to my time,” she said.

Buttigieg said her campaign is partly funded with money she raised in earlier campaigns and transferred to this one. “Did it corrupt you? Of course not,” he said.

This was the fourth or fifth Democratic debate I’d endured and I was tired of the pretense that they all mattered.

Klobuchar, who didn’t have a lot memorable to say this night, joined in and said, “I have never even been to a wine cave.” I recalled that in an earlier debate she said she had raised campaign money from old boyfriends.

A woman of the people.

Sanders bragged that he has more donors than anyone in American history, and that the donations average $18. Biden said his average was $43. Steyer, who has been donating millions to himself, wanted to change the subject. “We need to talk about prosperity,” he said.

I was tired of all the talking. This was the fourth or fifth Democratic debate I’d endured — I was losing count — and I was tired of the pretense that they all mattered. Steyer is not going to be the nominee. No way is the Democratic Party going to nominate a businessman. Ditto Yang, the entrepreneur. He even made a joke about this in his closing remarks: “I know what you are thinking, America. How am I still on the stage with them?” Yeah, I was thinking that. Yang is more of an individual, more “authentic,” than the rest of them, but he’s not going to be the nominee. Probably not Buttigieg or Klobuchar either. It will be Warren, Sanders, or Biden.

Well, let it be Biden. At least he knows the office, and he’s not a socialist.




Share This


Highway to Nowhere

 | 

In the annals of human weirdness Turkmenistan is top of the line.

Its capital is called Ashgabat, which in Modern Persian means City of Love. Ashgabat’s claim to fame is that it contains the world’s largest conglomeration — 5,000, according to our guide/minder — of white marble buildings. She asked us if we could guess why that would be the case. “Because Turkmenistan has a big marble quarry?” I posited. No, Silly, she seemed to think. “Because our president likes white marble.” The marble is imported from China and India and, in special cases such as the mausoleum of the first president, it’s genuine Carrera from Italy.

Along with the marble buildings, Ashgabat is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the tallest flagpole and the largest indoor Ferris wheel. The wheel is not set up in the oversized atrium of some hypermodern hotel, as I’d supposed, but is enclosed in a sheath that must make riding it feel very claustrophobic and, from a distance, gives the appearance of an outsized alarm clock, which our guide/monitor seemed unaccountably pleased about. The flagpole has been supplanted by a taller flagpole in Arabia but not to worry, she consoled us, it’s still the world’s tallest jet-powered flag pole. Because desert winds can’t be trusted to make a flag flutter, and nobody likes a limp flag, the government has installed a jet engine to keep the air moving 153 meters above the ground.

The president also likes white cars. You can tell this because all the cars in Ashgabat are white. He also closed the rural clinics so if you live in a rural area and get sick you have to hunt around for a white car to drive to Ashgabat. This could be quite a trip in a country that’s big enough to support an airline flying 737s between cities.

Because desert winds can’t be trusted to make a flag flutter, and nobody likes a limp flag, the government has installed a jet engine to keep the air moving.

The president disappeared this spring and everybody, at least everybody who knew enough to know, was hoping he’d died, but no such luck. A few days later he showed up doing doughnuts at the Darvaza Gas Crater. Or, maybe, he was doing donuts at the Darvaza Gas Crater. It was hard to tell. The video of the donuts was taken from a drone at something like three-hundred feet and showed somebody in an ATV doing donuts.

Could be it was him. Where else would the president of Turkmenistan go to take a few days off from brutally ravaging an entire nation? The Darvaza Gas Crater is the major . . . maybe the only . . . tourist attraction in the country. And what an attraction it is.

It’s a sinkhole in the Karakum Desert gushing huge amounts of natural gas into the atmosphere. Back in the Sixties or Seventies or, maybe, Fifties, nobody seems to know exactly when, geologists tossed in a match and it’s been burning ever since. Nobody seems to know . . . or want to say . . . why, exactly, geologists would do such a thing. The excuse is that they didn’t want natural gas wafting around what was then the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and killing goats. But if they wanted to protect their goats from gas, why didn’t they just gather it up and pipe it to some goat-free place that needed natural gas? Our guide/minder said the crater burns a million dollars’ worth of natural gas every day. She seemed proud of the fact.

Something else nobody talks about is why there’s a sinkhole in the center of the Karakum Desert in the first place. Apparently it just sort of opened up while geologists were innocently doing geology nearby. Given Soviet history with environmental stewardship, one suspects there is more to the gas-crater story than we’ve been told.

The president closed the rural clinics so if you live in a rural area and get sick you have to hunt around for a white car to drive to Ashgabat.

For whatever reason it’s there, the government is taking full advantage of the moneymaking possibilities. To accommodate the hordes of foreigners they intend to lure into the country they’ve erected six yurts so tourists can spend the night basking in the warm glow of what they seductively advertise as The Gates of Hell. To help with this project they have photos of the president sitting on a traditional rug in front of one of the yurts. He is attended by a smiling Turkmen woman in a traditional gown, a long black braid down her back. Long, black braids are de rigueur among ladies in Turkmenistan on the ground that “men like them,” meaning, of course, that the president likes long braids on pretty, dark-haired women. On the rug next to him is a platter mounded with fruit.

The night we stayed at the gas crater we didn’t find any mounds of fruit, or gorgeous women with long braids. Or ATV’s to do donuts in. But the yurts were there and the crater . . . well, the crater was really something. You’re not going to see anything like that anywhere else in the world. As ecological disasters go, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage class disaster although, as far as I know, UNESCO has yet to lend its name to this particular bit of heritage.

Another thing nobody seems to know is who, exactly, the president is. It’s not like they don’t know his name. Everybody knows his name. It’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Birdie-Muhammed-off) and, according to the official bio, he was Deputy Director of the Ministry of Health when the old president kicked off. Deputy Director of Ministry of Health seems like an unlikely platform from which to catapult yourself to the presidency so, perhaps, he was the old president’s nephew. Or, maybe, his son-in-law. Or a dentist, or somebody else. Everybody has an opinion. Nobody seems sure.

When the Soviet Union fell apart the old president turned the country into his private fiefdom and set about de-Sovietizing the place. Among the changes he made were the street names, which he replaced with serial numbers; the days of the week, which he renamed after whatever seemed to have popped into his head (First Day, Justice Day, Spirit Day); and the days of the month, three of which he renamed after himself, his mother, and the book he wrote. The book is the Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul) and is always referred to as THE Ruhnama, the way the Qur’an is THE Qur’an.

As ecological disasters go, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage class disaster although, as far as I know, UNESCO has yet to lend its name to this particular bit of heritage.

He wrote his book as a spiritual guide for the Turkmen people, and it has become a bestseller in certain circles. Those circles include everybody who owns a car, because the ability to recite passages from the book verbatim is required to pass the driver’s exam. The book’s being spiritual and all, he had its title carved into the side of the largest mosque in Turkmenistan, along with the words “Holy Book.” Then, in a kind of author-to-author comity, he had “Qur’an” inscribed on the opposing wall along with the words, “Allah’s Book.”

To bring the benefits of his spiritual teachings to the community at large, he placed an enormous statue of the Ruhnama, its cover a tasteful chartreuse and violet, in the center of a fountain in a park in downtown Ashgabat. At 8:00 every evening, the cover opens, a video starts to play, and a passage from the book is read aloud. By good fortune, I was never anywhere near that park at 8:00 in the evening.

In a separate park he built a 39-foot tall statue of himself, perched on top of a 230-foot tower. The statue had its arms outstretched, and it rotated so that the old president always faced the sun.

As part of his liberalization program, President Birdie changed the names of the streets back to street names, renamed the days and months back to days and months, and tore down the 230-foot tower with the statue of the old president . . . then thought better about what he’d done and had the statue replaced, this time atop a 290-foot triple arch thingy that looks like a rocket ship from a 1930’s pulp sci-fi magazine. He never had the rotator connected back up, though, so now his predecessor just faces north. Also, and I say this from personal experience, he placed a very grumpy guard to keep watch over the thing.

The ability to recite passages from the old president's book verbatim is required to pass the driver’s exam.

As becomes a second president, he had a more modest, egalitarian sort of golden statue made of himself, arm raised, looking heroic astride a horse on top of a 69-foot high cliff of white marble that was dragged in from somewhere and plunked down in yet another park in Ashgabat. The statue of the book remains in its fountain, still being squirted at with water.

The 5,000 marble-clad buildings derive from some kind of manic building program. Many are architectural fancies that would have made Disney drool: spirals and curves, gold and white, arches and domes and swirls and eight-pointed stars gleaming against the night sky because every building in Ashgabat gleams against the night sky. They are all lit up with spotlights. All five thousand of them. All night. According to our guide/monitor, folks in the know call the city Ash Vegas. From space, it must show up as a bright as Singapore.

Some of the domes are perched on top of skyscrapers and some aren’t domes at all, but spheres. One, set into the top of a white, soft-edged vertical structure, makes the place look like a stick of roll-on deodorant. And these are just the commercial buildings. At least they would be commercial if there were any actual commerce in Ashgabat. And if anybody used them. From the street they look as sterile and empty of people as every other major building in Ashgabat.

There are big, sprawling public buildings, too, all fitted out with gold and marble and tilework and pointed arches in garish, movie-set Muslim, some of which we were allowed to photograph, some not. “That one,” our guide/minder would say in tobacco-auctioneer English as we motored past, “not that one. No. No. Yes. No yes. Yesno. YesNoNonono. Yes.” She must have had to pass a very strict set of qualifying exams to get the job.

Every building in Ashgabat gleams against the night sky. They are all lit up with spotlights. All five thousand of them. All night.

Nobody seemed to be using these, either, which makes sense where Parliament is concerned, but not so much for the ministries and other government offices. The two-story and three-story high, gold-encrusted ceremonial doors were shut as tight as the doors painted on the backdrop of a DeMille Bible extravaganza. The side doors were closed, too. “Everybody uses the back doors,” our guide/monitor informed us.

The only people on the street, besides police, were occasional women sweeping the gutters with the kind of brooms that witches use in medieval fairy tales. Outside of town people were using donkey carts and picking cotton by hand. According to Human Rights Watch the people picking cotton did not volunteer for that job.

Along with the public buildings are enormous apartment buildings in duplicate and quadruplicate facing one another from opposite sides of intersections, or running to the vanishing point like medieval armies in a computer-generated sword-and-nipples epic. They’re fifteen or sixteen stories high with manicured lawns and welcoming colonnaded entrances, each at least as big as the Plaza in New York. And empty. No signs of life anywhere. No lights, no laundry draped on balconies, no shades half pulled, no plants in windows. Just vacant and lifeless, each with a huge, neon corporate logo on top flashing NOKIA . . . HUA WEI . . . TOYOTA into the desert night. The government had apparently sold the naming rights. Our guide/minder told us it was for the convenience of the residents, “so they can tell each other what building they live in.”

“But they’re empty,” I objected. “Nobody lives in those buildings.”

“You just don’t see anybody because they never have to come out. They have everything they need inside.”

“Like what?”

“Like swimming pools. They have swimming pools inside.”

Just vacant and lifeless, each with a huge, neon corporate logo on top flashing NOKIA . . . HUA WEI . . . TOYOTA into the desert night.

The odd part is, the swimming pool thing may be true. It was certainly true of the hotel we stopped at to use the bathroom. There it was, a beautiful, indoor pool fed by a gushing waterfall. A lovely, five-star swimming pool with the heat cranked up to Fiji, the waterfall gushing, the lights off, no lifeguard and not a single person swimming. The corridors were empty and darkened. There was a fully equipped gym, unused and unlit; a hotel shop, fitted out with local knickknacks, dark inside with doors locked; and a beautiful, sun-drenched dining room . . . tables set, wine and water glasses at the ready, napkins folded in complicated folds . . . all devoid of people.

A dimly lit clerk sat at the front desk but nobody was checking in or out. There was no concierge and no bellhops and nobody was lounging in the lobby. Off to the side through a gold-filigreed door I finally heard voices, many voices, and, peeking through the filigree, saw people. Scores of people in a darkened hallway on the wrong side of a locked door. Not hotel guests, just ordinary Turkmen in an unadorned, unlit corridor. What they were doing there and why they were locked out of the hotel part of the hotel remains unexplained. The street outside was lined with dozens of similar hotels, gorgeously clad in white marble, none showing any sign of life. It spooked me out.

The street itself was an eight-lane divided highway. President Birdie calls it an autobahn, and he’s not exaggerating. Paralleling it was a two-lane road. On each side. Twelve lanes of pristine motorway WITH NO CARS. No cars at all, not even white cars, at 8:30 on a Thursday morning in the middle of the capital city. Our guide/monitor said there really were cars, “Just not here.”

She was right about the cars. Later in the day we encountered some genuine traffic. Not much by the standards of small-town America, but there was a bit in the district where people actually live . . . old, shabby, overcrowded, cracking, stained, tumbledown Soviet apartment blocks with laundry hanging on balconies and lights in the windows and grass eroded away by foot traffic.

A lovely, five-star swimming pool with the heat cranked up to Fiji, the waterfall gushing, the lights off, no lifeguard and not a single person swimming.

Right now, you’re probably asking yourself, “How does one even get an indoor Ferris wheel into the Guinness Book of World Records?” Or the world’s tallest jet-powered flagpole, for that matter? It turns out there are records, and then there are records, and not to put too fine a point on it, some records . . . deepest dive underwater while holding your breath, highest number of apples held in your mouth while being cut in half with a chainsaw in one minute . . . are more highly sought after than others. I, for instance, hold a few of my own. Most people to ride in the backseat of my car (4, 19 Apr 2017) jumps to mind. It was crowded in there but worth it to become a world record holder. But proud as I am of this title, you won’t see it in the Guinness Book because I didn’t pay Guinness to certify it.

That’s the key. To get your name in the Guinness book, you pay Guinness . . . sometimes up to a quarter of a million dollars . . . to send somebody out and certify your record.

At the price, I decided to forego the honor and, next time, will just pay Uber to haul people wherever they need to go. But President Birdie is made out of sterner stuff. That is to say, he’s made out of money. In a country of almost 6 million people, he’s got most of it. Any time he’s willing to dip into his pocket for a new world’s record, Guinness is more than happy to send somebody out to certify it.

Here’s a record you won’t find in the Guinness Book because President Birdie didn’t pay to have it certified even though he had to beat out North Korea for the honor: most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Here’s another: world’s most repressive state.

President Birdie is made out of money. In a country of almost 6 million people, he’s got most of it.

Despite the fact that he has brought Turkmenistan to the edge of economic catastrophe, President Birdie recently announced plans to extend the autobahn into the desert, past the Darvaza Gas Crater, past all six yurts, all the way to the northern border where it will come to a dead stop in the Uzbeki part of the Karakum. If anybody actually lived in the Karakum, this might make it easier to get into Ashgabat for medical care. But nobody much does.

So if President Birdie wants to brighten the image of his country with another record, Guinness will be pleased to sell Turkmenistan the honor of having the World’s Longest Highway to Nowhere.




Share This


News from Washington State

 | 

A political milestone has been passed in the state of Washington: affirmative action has gone down. Voters have rejected Referendum 88, a measure to relegalize racial preferences in state employment, education, and contracting.

This is an issue that speaks directly to libertarians. We think in terms of individuals. In our view, justice requires that government treat individuals of different races by the same rules. To us, “affirmative action” is an Orwellian term for a policy of preferential treatment, which amounts to institutional racism.

Libertarians may disagree on a number of things, but I think we all agree on this.

In Washington, racial preferences in state and local government had been banned by law since November 1998. This is the way it happened. The state legislature, Republicans included, never would have passed the original law. They didn’t have the courage. But a couple of policy entrepreneurs, inspired in 1996 by California’s Proposition 209, started a signature drive to put the issue on the ballot. Their measure was called Initiative 200; it was opposed by all right-thinkers in government and the media, and in November 1998 it swept the state with 58% of the vote. Only King County, which contains Seattle, voted in favor of preferences.

To libertarians, “affirmative action” is an Orwellian term for a policy of preferential treatment, which amounts to institutional racism.

This time around, the defeat of racial preferences has been a much closer thing. The public vote was on Referendum 88, a measure to bring back affirmative action. As I write (November 12), 98% of the votes are in, and Referendum 88 is being rejected by 50.41% of voters. In only four of the state’s 39 counties are voters approving it. The highest percentages for approval are in King and San Juan counties — metro Seattle and the San Juan Islands — which are Washington’s two counties with the highest median personal income and the strongest propensity to vote left. (The third most leftwing county is Jefferson, which contains Port Townsend, the former home of Liberty. The magazine’s founder, Bill Bradford, would not be surprised that Jefferson County, 91% white, also supported racial preferences.)

Washington is a Democratic state. Our Democratic politicians believe deeply in the moral necessity of treating people of different races differently in the pursuit of equal results. They have wanted to bring back the practice for 20 years. For a long time they dared not do it, but in 2019 they slipped it through.

Apart from referendums (explained below), Washington has two kinds of voter-initiated ballot measures: initiatives to the people and initiatives to the legislature. Under the first kind, the people collect signatures to put a measure on the ballot, and if they pass it, it becomes law. Under the second kind, the people petition the legislature to adopt a law they propose. If they collect enough signatures, the legislature has three options. It can pass the measure into law, refuse to pass it and let it go to the ballot, or pass an alternative measure and let both of them go to the ballot.

The signature drive to bring back racial preferences, which was called Initiative 1000, was an initiative to the legislature. As a result of the “blue wave” of 2018, the Democrats hold both houses in Olympia. On the last day of the spring 2019 session legislators passed Initiative 1000 straight into law. All the Democrats except for one in each house voted for it, and all the Republicans voted against it. Initiative 1000 became law without a vote of the people.

Our Democratic politicians have wanted to bring back the practice for 20 years. For a long time they dared not do it, but in 2019 they slipped it through.

Washington also has the right of referendum, which allows the people to petition to put a brand new law on the ballot. Another political entrepreneur did just that, by collecting signatures for Referendum 88, which offered the voters the chance to vote “Accepted” or “Rejected” on the words of Initiative 1000.

That particular troublemaker was Kan Qiu, an immigrant from China. There was a reason the fight against preferences was being led by an Asian. In the state universities, Asians, whether immigrants or native-born, are the group most obviously threatened by racial quotas. Asians make up 7.8% of the resident population of Washington but 24% of undergraduates at the University of Washington. And that’s not counting foreign students. If racial preferences were allowed, the student body would probably not mirror the population exactly, but it’s a sure bet that “overrepresented” Asians would have to jump a higher hurdle.

Kan Qiu and his supporters wanted the people to vote “Rejected” on Referendum 88. Their argument in the Voter’s Pamphlet is clear: “Referendum 88 allows the government to use different rules for different races . . . That’s wrong. And it divides us further apart.”

But the description of Referendum 88 in the Voter’s Pamphlet, which is supposed to be non-biased, painted a different picture. It called Referendum 88 a measure to “allow the state to remedy discrimination for certain groups and to implement affirmative action, without the use of quotas or preferential treatment (as defined), in public education, employment and contracting.”

If racial preferences were allowed, it’s a sure bet that “overrepresented” Asians would have to jump a higher hurdle.

The red-flag words are “as defined.” The original Initiative 1000, and Referendum 88, which restated it for the voters, defined preferential treatment as using race or group identity “as the sole qualifying factor to select a lesser qualified candidate over a more qualified candidate.” Race could be a factor, but not the sole qualifying factor. In other words, as long as the state could point to one other factor, it could discriminate by race.

This is defining “preferences” as a box so small that nothing will fit in it.

The opponents of preferences pointed out this tendentious definition every chance they could, but it was in the Voter’s Pamphlet, approved by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Democrat. The supporters of preferences made the most of the official words, claiming over and over that Referendum 88 would not allow preferences. Those supporters included Washington’s leading newspapers and three former governors, including Gary Locke, who is Chinese American — and also a Democrat.

In Washington we have never had to register as Democrats or Republicans, so I can’t say how many of each there are, but the people do mostly vote Democrat.

Most of the rest of the candidates blew through the $150,000 donation limit. So Democracy Vouchers didn’t actually limit anything.

Not this time. This was a Democratic measure, and it failed — barely.

And barely counts.

Unfortunately, the same applies to municipal elections.

I had hoped to report to Liberty readers that the voters of Seattle had finally tossed out their Trotskyite councilwoman, Kshama Sawant. But Sawant, first elected in 2013, has been reelected again, along with most of the progressive-left candidates to the Seattle City Council.

Money was a big issue. Seattle has won praise (from Andrew Yang, for example) for its Democracy Vouchers program, which was supposed to “take money out of politics.” The program gives each voter $100 in vouchers to give to candidates that stayed within donation limits. But Sawant never signed up for Democracy Vouchers, arguing that she was going to be targeted by the corporations and would have to raise all the money she could. And most of the rest of the candidates blew through the $150,000 donation limit. So Democracy Vouchers didn’t actually limit anything.

I threw my vouchers away.

Sawant was right in her predictions about money from business. In mid-October, Amazon, which is based in Seattle, dumped $1 million into the city council campaigns. The Left had its union money and Sawant had her socialist money from around the country, but it was Amazon’s money on the other side that became the talk of the town. Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders tweeted from afar:

Jeff Bezos and Amazon think they can buy elections. They spent $1 million to stop City Council candidates @d1forLisa, @TammyMoralesSEA, @VoteSawant and @ElectScott2019. Show Amazon that they can't buy our democracy and that their corporate greed won't stand. Get out and vote!

They did, and the Left took every seat it wanted except one. In that one, the Left’s candidate was another avowed socialist, but without the name, the panache, or the district Kshama Sawant had. And he got 47.6% of the vote.

“Our movement has won,” Sawant crowed, “and defended our socialist council seat for working people against the richest man in the world.” Her next goal will be citywide rent control (which would require a change in state law) and another tax on business. The Seattle Times’ photo of her victory rally shows her supporters raising clenched fists behind a huge banner that reads, “TAX AMAZON.”

In mid-October, Amazon dumped $1 million into the city council campaigns.

The fight had started with a tax on Amazon. In 2018 the Seattle City Council voted to impose a “head tax” — a flat tax per employee — on large for-profit employers, with the money to be spent on the homeless. The Left made a point of saying that the tax would hit only the top 3% of employers, which was supposed to show how reasonable it was. The tax would have cost the city’s largest private employer, Amazon, tens of millions of dollars a year. When Amazon and other companies began bankrolling a voter petition to put the tax on the ballot as a referendum, and a poll showed that the voters would kill it, all but one of the Democrats on the council quickly voted for repeal. Sawant, the lone Marxist, condemned them as cowardly, which they were. She also led a public demonstration in front of Amazon’s headquarters and condemned CEO Jeff Bezos as “the enemy.”

In 2018 it did seem that the voters of Seattle were ready to sweep Sawant and her allies off the council. And this year, when seven of the nine council members were up for reelection, several of them declined to run. The council member in my district was one of them — but, alas, he has been replaced by another much like him.

The candidate chosen to run in Kshama Sawant’s district was a political novice named Egan Orion, a man best known for organizing PrideFest, a gay celebration. By any national standard he was pretty far left himself, but this is Seattle and Sawant’s district is the leftiest part of it.

Sawant, the lone Marxist, condemned them as cowardly, which they were.

There were things a nonleftist might like about Orion. Being known for a celebration made him less of an irritant than someone known for screaming at Jeff Bezos, or for the $15 minimum wage. Sawant was for rent control — and on Orion’s web page was an article about how rent control would hurt small landlords. In the county’s Voter’s Pamphlet, which has statements from all the candidates, Orion said he wanted to “expand all types of housing,” which was a politically correct way of saying he was not against builders of market-rate housing, which the Left blames for displacing the poor. Orion also said he wanted the city government to help women, gays, and people of color to start businesses. Passing over the intersectionality stuff, I perceived that he was in favor of people starting businesses. He also promised to “focus on outcomes, not ideology,” which seemed to be a nice way of saying he was not a fan of Leon Trotsky.

The state of Washington runs elections by mail, so that election day is really start-counting-the-ballots day. On the first count, Orion was ahead, with Sawant polling only 45.6%. Though she had come from behind and won in an earlier election, her supporters were worried. Socialist Alternative, the national newspaper of Sawant’s party, wrote,

Seattle is experiencing its own local variant of the right-populist wave which elevated Trump to power. Middle-class anxiety in the face of growing economic insecurity and social decay is exploited by big business and the rich, who are waging a ferocious struggle against the rise of socialist ideas and movements demanding limits to their wealth and power.

The chief evidence of a “right-populist” wave in Seattle was a local TV documentary about homeless encampments called “Seattle Is Dying.” (It’s on YouTube.) There are some right-wingers in Seattle, but you’d have to hire a detective to find them. In 2016 Trump got 8% of the vote here. Bernie Sanders could take this city easily. If he does, he will have a comrade on the city council who has just been reelected.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.