Countdown and Aftermath

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The bylaws of the Libertarian Party stipulate that, prior to the vice presidential election, the presidential nominee be granted five minutes prior to voting “for the purpose of endorsing or objecting to” any of the candidates. Gary Johnson only used four of those minutes, and he used them entirely to plead with the assembly to elect William Weld — even closing his speech on a note of desperation: “Please, please give me Weld. Please. Please!”

If any of the attendees didn’t realize by then that the Weld candidacy was in trouble . . . well, then they hadn’t been paying any attention whatsoever. But this was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback (and, yes, boring) demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.

Let’s back up a little bit to the VP nominating speeches, the first business after the assembly returned to order. The caprice of the 20-sided die determined that Weld would be the first candidate to speak, which meant all the others after him — in order, Judd Weiss, Derrick Grayson, Alicia Dearn, Larry Sharpe, and Will Coley — could take their shots after. The last two, in particular, had impressed in the debates a few nights previous for their passion and personal narratives; their alliance would determine whether the NeverWeld movement could deny Johnson the “running mate of his wildest dreams.”

This was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.

Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include the former Massachusetts governor? Johnson drew justified scorn for referring to Weld as “the original libertarian,” but the sentiment behind his infelicitous phrasing is apt: Weld was one of the few figures with a national profile who spoke in favor of gay marriage — about the same time Bob Barr was drafting, and Bill Clinton was signing (with Hillary’s outspoken support), the Defense of Marriage Act. Weld also called for a drawdown in the War on Drugs, and the legalization of medical marijuana in particular. Prior to his gubernatorial days, he went tough on white-collar crime, an increasingly popular position among Libertarians who see Wall Street and Washington DC locked in loving embrace.

The opposite case is easier to enumerate. First, whatever his previous inclinations, Weld had hardly even looked at the LP before (in 2006, he briefly considered seeking the Party’s nomination for governor in New York; another black mark in the minds of many). He backed Romney in 2012, and Kasich this year, before Johnson came calling; even when he could have backed a fellow Republican-turned-Libertarian in 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama instead (not that Barr was long for the LP . . .). Second, in 1990 he supported various restrictions on gun ownership, something which plays particularly badly in a group where Second Amendment rights may be more of a third rail than abortion or anything else. Third, Weld’s Massachusetts was hardly a model of fiscal prudence; admittedly, there was a great deal of bleeding to staunch after Michael Dukakis’ tenure, but like so many politicians Weld lost his nerve once actually in office. There’s more numbers to be had, but I’ll skip ahead: lastly, even now, he believes that Hillary Clinton, who has overseen a disastrous war in Libya, and who would gladly have added another in Syria (and probably still will), has been a “good Secretary of State.”

In his speech, Johnson emphasized what Weld would bring to the ticket: fundraising knowhow, and media access. The latter had already been proven on day one at the media credentials table, and underlined every day since with the numbers of reporters on the ground, many of whom acknowledged that they would never have been dispatched to Orlando if the dual-governor ticket weren’t a strong likelihood (and, of course, if the major-party candidates weren’t both so dreadful). Give me William Weld, he said, and anything is possible. Anyone else, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity would be lost.

Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include former Massachusetts governor William Weld?

It was a hard sell. Weld’s first nominating speaker, former Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, rang his endorsement of Weld, despite his disappointment at being eclipsed in the role. For that, he drew calls of “Statist!” from the crowd — something which is less true of Gray than possibly of any other single jurist in this country’s history. Things got tougher still with Marc Allan Feldman spoke as Weld’s second nominator — a speech which several of the anti-Weld radicals received as betrayal, though “backhanded” would be a mild way of describing the endorsement. Feldman felt that, with Johnson taking the top of the ticket, he should be given the running mate he pled for, and he agreed that a Johnson-Weld ticket would get far more media play than any alternative. That was it for the positives; the rest was taken up with every reason Weld shouldn’t get the post.

After some befuddled applause, and a few more boos, Weld rose and gave an animated, almost fiery speech, his best statement of the convention. While admitting his lack of familiarity with the LP and its workings, he nonetheless pledged to be “Libertarian for life,” and to work not only for his own campaign The party platform, meanwhile, which he had read two weeks before when considering Johnson’s proposal, he found elegant, “like the Declaration of Independence.” He noted that the whirlwind process had been “a learning experience,” that he would continue improving, and that he was “open to suggestion” as to how.

As Weld went to take media questions, Judd Weiss stepped up, not to make his case for vice president, but to pull out of the race. Weiss had been McAfee’s right-hand man, and with his boss out of the picture, he used his time to promote their video series and speak to the importance of supporting the grassroots and downballot candidates — noting that what he saw in the LP was a marketing problem; specifically, that the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”

Interestingly, he endorsed radical favorite Will Coley rather than McAfee’s preferred backup candidate, Derrick Grayson, who was an odd presence in several ways. First, he seemed to take issue with the speech McAfee gave before the VP nominations, in which the ex-candidate took the LP to task for the overwhelming (and visually verifiable) white-maleness of its ranks, even to the point of saying, “Shame on you, and shame on me,” for allowing the outreach effort to become so ossified. Grayson, a physically striking, smartly-dressed black Georgian with preacherly cadence, instead drew attention to the few people of color at the convention, before pivoting to say that, “When I enter this building, I don’t see race, I see people who love liberty” — which is great rhetoric for the mid-’90s, perhaps, but not ultimately convincing in an assembly that is whiter than Maine.

What Weiss saw in the LP was a marketing problem: the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”

Grayson had some memorable lines, though, including that the idea of nominating someone like Weld for media coverage and then fixing principle, rather than nominating someone for principle and then seeking media coverage was “butt-backwards.” It was almost enough for some to forget that this exact thing had been tried multiple times throughout party history — or, on an entirely different track, to forget Grayson’s campaign as a Republican, including having his primary challenge to US Sen. Johnny Isakson shut down by the FEC for failing to file campaign finance reports. Not everyone forgot, though: there were calls from the floor demanding to see Grayson’s party membership receipt, dated and timed, to ensure that he was eligible to run; unfortunately, the vehemence of these calls came off less as principled and more as unhinged, Birther-level conspiracy-mongering (especially when accompanied by calls to see the same for Weld, who was verified as a Life member).

After this, things got odd. Alicia Dearn, a St. Louis attorney who had done work for LP ballot access and the 2012 Johnson campaign (the fees for which she had later written off), had nonetheless been one of the major hopes of the Never Weld campaigners; Austin Peterson endorsed her in his own concession, and wore her sticker on his lapel. While other contingents didn’t mobilize around her, they did agree on a strategy to use the first ballot to establish the strongest competitor to Weld, and the second to band together and bring him down. But Dearn herself wasn’t convinced of the plan. After speaking on the importance of party unity, she posed a question to Weld: will you swear not to “betray” the LP?

It became clear she expected Weld to actually come up to the podium, which she relinquished to him when he did so. Weld wanted clarification, understandably: we’d already seen the very different definitions of what people in this audience counted as “betrayal.” But he said that he would never (unlike the specter in the background, Bob Barr) return to the GOP. “Is that sufficient?” he asked. “Yes!” cried some in the crowd, who may already have been supporters. “No!” shouted others, who never would be, no matter what he said. Still, the net result was Weld getting three extra minutes to stump, and a seeming endorsement from Dearn — except then she pulled back from that edge; she declined to withdraw, encouraging everyone to “vote their own heart,” even though she did not know hers yet.

That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc to survive even the first ballot. The two were a study in contrast: the former Tea Partier Coley relatively well-known from his radio show and his work with Muslims for Liberty, a forceful speaker with experience crafting talks for the liberty-curious; Sharpe an outsider not known for much of anything (certainly not his day job, a sales training course about as culty as others of its ilk), but with a genuinely inspiring life story and a winning manner. This life story was the interminable focus of his nominating speech, which included no speeches for the first ten minutes while a video played detailing Sharpe’s family history, the challenges he’d overcome, his leadership in the Marines and in Ivy League teaching gigs, etc. It was all fine enough, but a lot to ask of a crowd many of whose members had brought beers back with them from lunch. Coley was more traditional: several speakers from the Radical Caucus spoke for him, underlining the need to “balance” the ticket as well as the candidate’s ability to challenge Trump and Clinton on their biases against Muslims; then Coley himself spoke, promising to “inspire and electrify” voters, even though this speech was perhaps his most subdued on record. Then Johnson made his plea for Weld, and the ballots were distributed.

That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc.

As ever, it takes a while to hand out and recollect ballots, especially from the larger delegations like California and Texas. This left quite some time for the mood of the room to turn rowdy, and a little ugly. In the normal course of voting, there are speeches, there are parliamentary points, there are supporters of various candidates walking the aisles with the signs of their chosen. But now was added loud chanting, especially by a small Never Weld group, often making it impossible to hear points from the podium or floor microphone. Now was also the confrontation between several of these — including radical candidate for party chair, James Weeks II — and Feldman, as he defended his Weld endorsement as a chance to speak to the negatives, as well as to demonstrate the virtues of compromise, of “learning to live with people you hate.” But nothing spilled over into physical confrontation; the worst I saw was a visibly drunk 20-something guy yelling at a woman of similar age holding a Weld sign: “You hate Ron Paul! Hey, she hates Ron Paul!” He withered under her glare and, finding no support among those around him, bumbled on.

The vote count didn’t make anybody any happier. Weld couldn’t take the first ballot, bringing an initial cheer from the Never Welders that lasted about as long as it took to see the tally: the ex-gov took 426 votes; 49% of the total and single digits away from what he needed. The only hope would be to swing everyone behind Sharpe, who had gotten 264 — not just the Coley and Grayson totals, but also Dearn’s, and the NOTAs, and maybe even the spoiled ballots and write-ins.

As lowest votegetter, Dearn was granted time to concede, but could not be found — she’d left the event, and would have to rush back. In the meantime Coley went ahead and dropped, endorsing Sharpe as per their pre-vote agreement, but also reminding the delegates of Weld’s role in the past helping to shoot down Libertarian legitimacy. Dearn arrived in the meantime, and noted that she hadn’t even voted for herself; she and her husband both abstained from the first ballot. Now she completed the endorsement of Weld she had considered before, and earned lusty boos from pockets of the crowd for her perfidy.

Only after the second-round ballots had been printed did Grayson decide to withdraw. He also endorsed Sharpe, claiming those going Weld were “Kool-Aid drinkers.” This particular pedant must intrude here to note that the Jonestown massacre-suicide was through Flavor-Aid, not its better-known competitor, and besides that casting a vote in an LP VP contest is some distance away from killing yourself and your family. But the comment got under some delegates’ skins for other reasons, with one even trying with some vehemence to object to the point from the floor mic.

When Weeks kicked off his shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed.

Counting continued. With time running low on weekend and the use of the ballroom, the body moved as usual to allow candidates for party chair to speak during the ballot count. This meant incumbent chair Nicholas Sarwark handing off the gavel to prepare for his own speech — a fateful move. Sarwark had drawn the admiration of every other reporter I spoke with that weekend, many marveling at his ability not just to keep things moving, but to do so with grace and good humor. (An example: during a lull, one delegate asked for a point of information, which granted, said: “Mr. Chairman, is taxation theft?” Without missing a beat, Sarwark: “Yes, taxation is theft,” before acknowledging the next speaker.)

With Sarwark off the podium, podium duty fell to former LP chairman Jim Lark, a distinguished, almost august figure in the Party, but one not at all prepared to marshal a rambunctious group riding emotional and, in some cases, chemical highs. Lark could not effectively quiet the chanters, or get the aisles cleared, but what he was about to face may have been beyond the ability of any parliamentary chair to wrangle.

The candidates for chair were four: Sarwark, Brett Pojunis (Nevada state chair), Mark Rutherford (former chair in Indiana), and James Weeks II (former congressional candidate and county chair in Michigan). The debate between the former three a few nights earlier had been one of the most civil and well-mannered I’ve ever seen, even if the trio all substantially agreed with one another on most things. When the 20-sided die was cast, it was newcomer Weeks who would speak first, followed by the other three.

Weeks came to the stage with a nearly empty pint glass, which he deposited at the podium. Then he signaled for music to play, and started clapping in time, getting the delegates to do the same. He even did a little dance — nothing too odd, just getting the audience moving and on his side. And that was when he started removing his clothes. When he kicked off the shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed. Shirt and pants followed, leaving only black bikini briefs between the audience and full knowledge of what Weeks had to offer. After a brief dance, during which a couple friends of his (one hopes) rushed on stage to tuck dollar bills into his waistband, Weeks said he was withdrawing from the race, and the whole thing was on a dare; then gathering his clothes, he withdrew.

During all of this, I was about five feet away, right in front of the podium, probably closer than any other person in the room, and I could not stop laughing. It’s an odd thing, knowing with absolute certainty that what you are seeing is about to blow up online — the C-SPAN cameras and the internet’s appetite for novelty would ensure that. What I didn’t expect was the outrage from so many delegates about what was obviously a little bit of surrealist theater — and even that more Monty Python than Monster Raving Loony Party. But one should never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.

Delegates queued up to denounce Weeks, competing with each other on how best to punish him; one even suggested permanent expulsion from the Party. Another joked that Weeks’ presentation of his zaftig form constituted a “violation of the non-aggression principle”; at least a couple of observers took him seriously. Lark couldn’t handle the commotion; it took Sarwark, speaking from the floor this time, to calm everyone and get them to move on. (What didn’t get mentioned much, even in his local press, was Weeks’ Iron Cross tattoo, increasingly used by white supremacist groups in the US and elsewhere — though as often used by metalheads, bikers, or provocateurs of various stripes; conclusions are difficult to draw.) A later proposal to officially denounce Weeks failed, and the assembly returned to its business; though the striptease was widely reported (and how could it fail to be?), somehow it did not end up defining the LP’s weekend.

Never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.

Instead the focus remained on the LP’s ticket, and after the aisles were cleared of the indignant, the results of the second ballot were announced. Though Sharpe picked up nearly all the votes in play, “nearly all” wasn’t enough; by gaining only 15 more votes, William Weld was confirmed as the Party’s VP nominee. In his concession, Sharpe noted his admiration for Gary Johnson, saying the 2012 campaign was what brought him to the LP to begin with. Judging by his performance over the weekend, it’s not the last we’ll see from Sharpe within Party politics.

What struck me most, following the VP election, was what didn’t happen. The radicals may not have been represented on the ticket, but unlike in 2008 there was no immediate call to splinter off from the Party, or to abandon it to its new Republican masters. Instead of a mass gathering in the exhibition hall outside the convention ballroom, there was instead a small, only slightly downcast postmortem in the Petersen hospitality suite, with the door open to the adjoining McAfee suite. The candidates congratulated their operatives for good work against steep odds, and encouraged them to push on for the sake of the Party.

There’s not much chance Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen will ever be friends, but the latter will work for the former and wait for his chance down the line. John McAfee, who had planned to walk out if Johnson was nominated, said, “Nothing was lost today — this is just the beginning.” While some of the radical caucusers I spoke with were unsure about whether or not they could cast a vote for Johnson-Weld, they nonetheless were eager to dive into local downballots and grassroot-growing. (In the days after the election, Will Coley seemed encouraged by Johnson, if still wary of him, following personal phone calls in which Johnson sought guidance on how best to speak about ISIS, Iran, and Middle East politics generally.) And, to judge from the results of the officer elections, with Sarwark and vice-chair Arvin Vohra reelected handily, the Party as a whole seems content with its present leadership.

In the days after the convention, the media coverage was impressive: not only because there was media coverage, but also because it was generally sympathetic, or at least without the overt misrepresentation, scorn, or dismissal standard to accounts of American third parties. Even my driver to the airport had heard of the convention, and — as a self-described entrepreneur trying to "build his personal brand" so he can provide for his family — he's a natural for the LP's message, if only they can convey it to him and the millions of others who just want to be left alone to work hard and live as well as they're able.

It's on that basis that Johnson made his plea, and it worked: the Weld gambit is underway. With both major parties and especially their nominees deeply unpopular, everything is set for the LP to achieve historic highs in the election to come. What remains to be seen, as ever, is if they can keep from screwing it up.



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Presidential Prelude

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If you got a bunch of people together and asked them, in an average week, what day and time would be the best for picking a presidential nominee, chances are they wouldn’t say “Sunday morning.” Yet here we were, 9:30 ante meridiem, waiting in a hotel ballroom in Orlando resortland, waiting for the assembly to come to order and select a champion.

The candidates milled about shaking hands, checking in with allies, killing time without actually doing much — least of all Gary Johnson, refusing to get beyond generalities other than a specific, strong denunciation of the debate questions the night before. To be fair, the media questions weren’t much more inspiring; many of the outside reporters started coming to me and a couple of others who had been through the event previously to fill in details about what, exactly, was going on.

While the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure.

The Libertarian convention is a wholly different manner of thing from the Republican and Democratic versions. Because the nominee has almost always been established weeks beforehand, the entire convention gets bent to their caprice; backstage drama is not about who will or won’t head the ticket, but rather who will or won’t be allowed a speaking slot to address the convention — a must for anyone with present or especially future designs on party power. Thus while the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure. In large part, political beat reporters long for a contested convention for the sheer sake of having something to report on other than mid-level position jockeying and embarrassing ego stroking.

The beauty, and the danger, of the Libertarian model is that every convention is contested. Whatever your advantages going in, nothing can be taken for granted (as Bob Barr learned in 2008) and almost anything can happen (as the entire Party learned with Michael Badnarik in 2004). From an outsider’s view, there was no way that Johnson, with his higher profile, past political experience, and infinitely greater access to media outlets, could do anything but cruise to victory. I wasn’t so sure: while none of the competitors seemed likely to steal away the nomination, they might be strong enough together to make things difficult — if their coalition held. With Johnson straw-polling at about 35–40%, and the next three pulling between 13–15% each, we looked set for at least two or three rounds.

There was a motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master.”

With the ballots distributed, we hurried up and waited. The interim between voting and counting was filled, as usual, by a variety of speakers, most of them candidates for Congress or even state office. These are not the operators of the major-party scene; these are people who have entire lives outside of politics: hobbyists and dilettantes, certainly, but ones who care enough to devote their own time and money to a losing cause — whether that be standing up to an incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed, or calling out the tyrannies of opponents on either side. They’re also an incredibly mixed bag: among the convention speakers were Lily Tang Williams, a Senate candidate from Colorado who “grew up eating trapped rat meat in Mao’s China”; Kimberly Schjang, a black lesbian running for the Nevada state senate; Rick Perkins, a Texas candidate about as white as one man can be, who then called up to the stage a black teenager from Georgia who planned to start a “freedom club” at her high school upon returning home. “This is the future!” he said, lifting her hand with his — a great message for whatever TV audience was looking on, though unfortunately far from the defining image it should have been. (And it wasn’t all highlights: choice among the opposite number was Ernest Hancock of the Arizona delegation lambasting the “lame-stream media” for not “getting it,” in front of the largest mainstream media contingent the Party has ever drawn to anything.)

The remainder of the time was taken up with an incessant stream of questions from the delegates, in the parliamentary forms of points of order, information, inquiry and personal privilege. Though often just a guise to promote the Party’s website, phone number, and social media info, these moments can also serve as funny or surreal irruptions amid the more orderly business. Two stood out: one motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master” (and by the end of the series, one might note, no life either); and another lamenting the lack of an official song for the convention, which the speaker remedied for himself, at least, by playing a jaunty tune on his harmonica.

At last the tally was complete, and the chairs of each state delegation commenced the finest part of any convention: stepping up to announce vote totals and brag about their state. In the LP, this usually means highlighting defeats of overbearing legislation, or historical points of relevance; for instance: “The great state of Illinois, where we send our governors to prison, casts its votes as follows . . .” Others took a different tack: “Those of us from the state of New Jersey would like to say, We’re sorry . . .” New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help Granite Staters “survive the zombie apocalypse.”

Witty or otherwise, all the states took a turn; as each was announced, it became clear that Johnson could take the ballot, but it would be very, very tight. Johnson was polling better than 40%, but Petersen and McAfee scored in most states as well, and there was a small but surprising tally for Feldman off the back of his energetic debate performance. All of these appear to have drained a bit of support from Perry, who kept only the hardest core of the Radical Caucus, but still cleared the 5% necessary to carry on. Kevin McClintock came in last with nine votes, less than 1% of the total — which normally would have made him a non-factor, except that in the final count, Johnson lacked only five votes to win outright.

New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help NHers “survive the zombie apocalypse.”

By the time McClintock finished his two-minute concession, the campaign crews were hard at work. The McAfee and Petersen crews each expected to get the other’s support when they dropped out, and Perry’s as well (though Perry would personally have gone None Of The Above before Petersen) — but the three of them together would also have to pull votes from Johnson’s haul. Part of Petersen’s strategy was to stage a confrontation with Johnson outside the ballroom, breaking through the media scrum to accuse him of refusing to “unify the party” with a more conciliatory VP pick. But Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers. Really the governor was just serving as decoy; as Brian Doherty details, instead of waiting for the McClintock faction to drift in, the Johnson campaign was busy whipping Feldman voters, reminding them that it was the governor’s support that got him in the debate, and making the case that one tribute vote was enough.

The strategy bore immediate dividends: Johnson took the second ballot with almost 56% of votes cast; out of the 60 he picked up, 40 came from Feldman. McAfee held onto his count, and Petersen picked up a handful, but not close to enough; Gary Johnson would be the party’s presidential nominee for the second election running.

Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers

And yet, strange as it may seem, all the foregoing served merely as prelude for the real fight of the day, over whether or not former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld serve as the Party’s vice-presidential nominee. As soon as the victory was announced, everyone switched gears: Johnson, with Weld at his side, went to meet the press as nominee; Petersen quickly declared his endorsement of Johnson at the top of the ticket, but threw his own support behind Alicia Dearn’s campaign. McAfee left the floor entirely; given past statements that he would be LP for life except if Johnson was the nominee, some wondered if he was gone for good. Perry attempted to round up any outstanding VP tokens to see if he could get into the race — not actually to run, but to withdraw and urge support for either Larry Sharpe or Will Coley.

Over the lunch break, the “Anyone But Gary” coalition morphed into a “Never Weld” one. And, unlike with Johnson — who for all his drawbacks remained reasonably well respected, even liked, among the rank and file — this time, they would be going after a much more vulnerable target.



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Staging and Blocking

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Back in (comparative) reality — even in the main ballroom, the night’s event was ticket-only, reserved for top-tier donors, or those who had $20 to spend on being there. Despite that, people lined up early and eventually filled the room past seated capacity, with Johnson and Petersen supporters chanting out the names of their candidate — a mindset which I know I will never, ever be able to fathom: why invest so much in a person who, through the process of politics, will inevitably disappoint you in principle, performance, or both?

Moderating would be radio personality and self-styled “Sage of Southern California” Larry Elder, the same question in different wordings. Thankfully the debate format — 30 seconds to respond to any question, 30 seconds rebuttal to any rival mentioned by name — kept things mostly on track. But the questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why, between barrel-fish such as “What should we do about the Fed?” for the candidates to dutifully shotgun, and spring-load traps such as “Should driver’s licenses be required to operate a car?” for the candidates to either produce extreme responses, or get booed for their lack of extremity. And that’s not even to mention simply bizarre questions such as, “Do you think American intervention in World War I and World War II was justified?”, as if anyone could answer such a question in 30 seconds.

In the main ballroom there was introductory music from a man playing gently looping ambient guitar, with occasional lyrics urging hearers to "arm yourselves to the teeth."

Johnson had, in many ways, the hardest task, forced to play not only to the more radical crowd on the floor, but also the TV audience and the bumper crop of media. So he concentrated mostly on process: noting not the utopian ideals he would instill as president, but which bills he would or would not be prepared to sign should Congress put them on his desk. His economic plans were a buffet of conservative thinktank ideas: flat tax, vouchers for schools, states as labs for entitlement plans, higher retirement age and means testing for Social Security (huge boos here), privatized infrastructure, etc. Asked about Trump, he said he “didn’t want to talk about him,” before rattling off a long list of ways the Republican candidate is wrong, a rapid-fire preview of what a 2016 Johnson campaign could be.

He often returned to his experience as governor, but it got him in trouble once: when asked how or who he would appoint to the Supreme Court, Johnson brought up a bizarre hypothetical he used to vet candidates in New Mexico: if a law passed making graffiti punishable by the death penalty, would the candidate uphold an indisputable conviction under that law? It’s a strange thought experiment at best, but one that was never going to land in a roomful of people who earlier that day had committed the party to a platform plank against the death penalty, whatever the offense. More generally, Johnson has a strange catch to his voice when he talks off the cuff, so not only is it very clear which responses are practiced, it also makes the spontaneous ones less confident, or in the sharper words of a fellow reporter, “more pulled from his ass.” If he somehow manages to get a debate with the major-party candidates, Trump will pick him to pieces for that if it’s not dealt with. However, he showed that he’s not afraid to stick to his guns on answers he knows will draw disapproval, in particular in reaffirming that he would sign off on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning racial discrimination in both public and private establishments.

The questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why.

Johnson was on his strongest ground in asserting that he is the only candidate with even a narrow chance of getting to a national stage; several of his opponents were rhetorically smoother, if perhaps not more practiced, but their lack of name recognition or record of political accomplishments would make sure they never saw any media time, period. The only exception among the debaters was John McAfee, who can command media attention, but at the cost of no one having any idea exactly what he’s going to say at any given moment. He left open more room for government involvement (by Libertarian Party standards) than anyone besides Johnson; e.g., in transitioning Social Security and entitlement programs rather than just ending them outright, allowing a minimum role in repairing and maintaining interstate highways, and possibly in discouraging lawsuits, both because of the costs added to health insurance by malpractice suits, and similar; and because of personal experience — “I’ve been sued more than 200 times; lawyers are the hand of Satan.”

On other issues, though, he went out the farthest on the limb, such as being the only candidate to explicitly acknowledge climate change as a manmade phenomenon, even as he noted (as did Johnson) that government, and especially the military, is the biggest polluter, and it will take free markets to provide the necessary solutions. Despite this, he didn’t get booed as Johnson did — possibly because he wasn’t a Republican governor in the past, but possibly also because his magnetism in one-on-one conversations doesn’t really carry through to a debate format. McAfee was perhaps constitutionally unable to play a crowd; one can see why he’s out of step with the Silicon Valley hordes in the era of huckster-pattered TED Talks.

On the opposite spectrum was Darryl W. Perry, a New Hampshire-based anarchist with no problems filling the room with his voice. Perry’s extensive catalog of applause lines, honed on his radio show Free Talk Live, demonstrated both his greatest strength and weakness: the former his ability to riff on almost any question that could be put to him; the latter the sheer predictability of his answers — not even in content so much as in rhythm: start with a seeming tangent or even non sequitur, then bring it back to the subject by the end. Thus, asked about Social Security, Perry starts by asking the crowd “Do you love grandmas?” and how people will support grandmas through voluntary contributions if the program is eliminated. Asked about transgender rights and the North Carolina bathroom law, Perry introduces the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.

I had heard these same anecdotes from Perry in an interview the day before, almost down to the exact pitch and modulation (and, a bit unfortunately, nearly the exact volume as well, in a smaller space). Perry’s voice is a strength — “radio quality” as several media onlookers noted — though as he gets excited, he can lose command of it, with a tendency also toward destructive gestures such as podium-pounding. He has a sense of theater; he was the only candidate to liven up his obligatory “end the Fed” answer by ripping apart a dollar, noting that act was “probably a felony”; he also may have been the only candidate to quote literature or classical liberal philosophy, dropping in references to both Mark Twain and Frédéric Bastiat. None of which was likely to earn him a single vote outside the radical faction: many in the LP would applaud lines about conducting all government business via charitable contribution, making all drugs “as legal as tomatoes,” and eliminating the entire presidential cabinet in alphabetical order, but they weren’t going to make their speaker the face of the party.

Perry introduced the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.

Petersen put great faith in his face, and in polished image and presentation generally; it was only when the debate (or events off the convention floor) went off-plan that the cracks began to show. In the debate, he had the great advantage of being at Johnson’s right, meaning that for four out of every five questions, he responded immediately after the ex-governor. Whenever Johnson suggested an incrementalist approach to reducing the size of a government program or agency, Petersen was right there to suggest ending it immediately. If Johnson said the free market had bankrupted coal, Petersen retorted that it was government regulation and crony capitalism instead. If Johnson suggested user fees for the road system, Petersen broke out his best Back to the Future: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Amid all this needling, Petersen’s best moment was a reminder of the racist origins of the minimum wage, passed by union-backed white legislatures as a means of keeping black labor from entering the market. But Petersen lost some support elsewhere: in particular by responding to the question of when life begins (which Perry rightly called out as a trap meant to divide the audience), by asserting it’s at conception — though he wouldn’t be drawn on when, if ever, terminating a pregnancy would become a criminal act. Asked about the appropriate size of the military, he trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis: “Be professional, be polite, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” Petersen even got booed from some corners for suggesting that it would be reasonable to have laws preventing children from buying heroin or other hard drugs.

If Petersen profited by having Johnson at his left, he got himself into the red by having Marc Allan Feldman to his right. Feldman wasn’t exactly the breakout star of the event — as he reminded everyone, he was nobody before he began his campaign, and he encouraged them to vote for nobody in the ballots to come. He began by noting that he was passing up part of his son’s wedding weekend to be in Orlando; to judge from his performance, it was the correct decision. Here was a man having the absolute time of his life: with no need to attack anyone or defend any particular position, Feldman spoke with honesty and humor, handling even the thornier questions with grace as well as lines that meandered less than some others’. He sidestepped the religious question by noting that, for religious reasons, he didn’t believe in mixing milk and meat — yet he wouldn’t argue that cheeseburgers should be illegal. On the question of withdrawing from or ending NATO, the IMF, or the UN, he quipped that maybe the UN was fine, since it didn’t ever seem to do anything.

Asked about the appropriate size of the military, Petersen trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis.

I don’t mean to suggest that these lines were the height of wit, but rather to credit Feldman for selling them with his warmth and obvious sincerity. On every question where the candidates were largely in agreement — cutting government spending, opening up trade, easing or eliminating immigration controls (there was scarcely a word to be heard here for tight borders, all those voters evidently having gone to Trump) — Feldman offered at least a little joviality through his responses. For his final statement, the candidate who had run a video of himself rapping during his nomination speech went back to the well, running through a sort of slam poem with an intensity that brought the house down; he very nearly got carried out on the crowd’s shoulders.

After the debate, the candidates pressed the flesh while operatives scurried about trying to get rough counts for the next morning’s election. While Feldman was soaking up the well-wishes of debate attendees, he was also already getting pressured by both Johnson and Petersen campaigns to drop out after the first ballot and endorse the respective candidacies. McAfee and Perry had earlier worked out an agreement of reciprocal support, but now Petersen (whose campaign suite shared an interior door with McAfee’s) sought the same — though it would be uphill going, to judge by the several radicals I spoke with on the night who would vote McAfee, but preferred that old Libertarian standby, None Of The Above, to either Johnson or Petersen. Nonetheless, via various channels, the three campaigns began work in earnest on an “Anyone But Gary” coalition. As the candidate machine hustled, convention attendees moved in knots and bunches out to the pool, into the bars, and up to the various room parties. With the nominations and debate done, the true business of the convention could begin.



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The Libertarian vs. the Activist

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Last month I read a pair of little news stories about animals in German menageries and what people have done, and not done, about them. These stories suggested certain analogies to human behavior that, when they occurred to me, appeared far-fetched. They may be so. But the stories kept coming back to me — evidence, at least, that they spoke to some personal identification with the ideas they suggested. They may be suggestive to you, too.

One of the stories had to do with a pair of male penguins in a German zoo. They were brought there to mate with female penguins and help preserve the king penguin species. But “they only mated with one another.” The zookeepers gave up and let them enjoy themselves in their all-male love nest.

In the other story, humans just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Animal rights “activists” — what a peculiar word that is, “activist,” as if being “active” were some kind of profession — were inspired by the slogan “Free All Animals” to break into a small circus and “free” two ostriches and a goose. The goose and one ostrich were recaptured, but the surviving ratite might have to be executed, because German law requires ostriches to be kept in pairs and the other ostrich was killed by a car. It seems that fowl, once “freed,” still aren’t very good at negotiating modern streets.

Of course, the animals themselves are not a fair analogy to humans, who do indeed have rights and deserve to be free. What interests me about the stories is that they illustrate two different approaches to life.

What a peculiar word that is, “activist,” as if being “active” were some kind of profession.

The penguins benefited from the first approach. They enjoyed the tolerance and capacity for reflection that leads people to say, “Oh well. Our plan failed. I guess we don’t know everything. But go ahead; be yourselves. We’ll let you alone.”

This, as I take it, is the libertarian approach, and the truly libertarian mindset. But there is another mindset, one that sometimes masquerades as libertarian. This is the approach that destroyed the ostriches. It’s the approach that assumes, “I know everything, and what I know is that everything is a moral issue, and everyone has an obligation to be active in addressing all moral issues, and therefore no one should ever leave anyone or anything alone.”

I confess that this attitude disturbs me about as much as anything could, especially when it gets mixed up with the idea of rights and freedom. Even the notion that animals have rights strikes me as a fantasy originating in a refusal to leave anything alone.

The concept of rights, which is perhaps the most valuable concept that mankind ever discovered, is grounded in the observation that there are beings in this world that have the capacity to make their own moral decisions and take responsibility for doing so. A coherent conception of rights involves the notion that rights are guarantees and therefore must not contradict other rights or guarantees. My right must not conflict with your right.

College can cost a lot, and students often go into debt to finance their college education. There’s a real solution to this problem: do nothing about it.

The animal rights “activists” whom I have known — good people, well-meaning people, fine people in almost every way — have waged war on hunting, zoos, pet stores, and even municipal restrictions on the presence of wild animals in the hearts of cities. Yet they have kept their own cats, dogs, fish, and ferrets in close captivity, and they have had no moral compunction about killing them when they got old or sick. Surely there is a contradiction here. And surely there is a contradiction in thinking that a cat has the right to kill a bird, just as a bird has the right to fly where it wants, even if it’s into the jaws of a cat. The deeper problem is that none of these animals is capable of making a moral decision or accepting responsibility. None of them is capable of respecting other animals’ “rights.” And no wonder, because they don’t have rights. That’s why nobody, least of all the “activists,” wants to try Pudgie the poodle for killing Peter the possum.

Animal rights “activists” (who are often libertarians) believe in rights, which is good; and they believe — when it comes to animals — in kindness and tolerance, which are also good. But they can’t leave any of those concepts alone; they have to take them out of their proper context and let them run wild, to trample or be trampled, until there is nothing left but carrion.

And they aren’t the only ones. This is what you see when a libertarian calls you a racist or a fascist, a foe of all rights, because you place some value on borders and border security. These good people think that terrorism is merely a word invented by government to tighten its control on the populace. They believe that when religious zealots bomb a footrace, bring down a skyscraper, or shoot up a Christmas party full of friendly co-workers, they are merely responding to American aggression in the Near East. These intellectual activists are eager for everyone who has the price of a plane ticket to migrate to America, be supported on government subsidies for education, healthcare, transportation, and every other feature of the welfare state, and finally vote for a government that is exactly the opposite of libertarian. The abstract idea of “rights” is all that matters to them. And if you disagree, they cannot leave you alone in your ignorance and folly. No, they must attack.

If you can find this activist streak in libertarians, where can’t you find it? It is perhaps the major problem in America today. Here’s a topic, picked literally at random: student loans.

College can cost a lot, and students often go into debt to finance their college education. There’s a real solution to this problem: do nothing about it. Leave the young penguins alone. Don’t keep telling them that everyone must go to college. Don’t keep suckering them into government-sponsored loans. Don’t keep sending federal money to colleges, to make sure that everyone can and will attend them. It doesn’t lower student costs, although it does give administrators larger salaries and larger staffs and greater leverage in society. Let the colleges find out how to offer students something they value — actually value for itself, not for the notional status of having graduated from an institution (any institution will do) of higher learning. Let students go into debt, if they think their education is worth it because, for instance, they think it will qualify them for a good job, or because they may learn something in college that they wouldn’t learn anywhere else. If their decision was rational, they can pay off the loans, as other people pay off loans, considering them payment for value received.

Conservatives' problem is not so much with the concept of rights as with the concept of righteousness.

But the liberals won’t leave the idea of “college” alone. They insist all the more that everyone should be “free” to go to college, in fact should go to college, and that colleges should be so well subsidized by the government that most of them never need to attract students by lowering their costs. The liberals make sure to increase these costs by saddling colleges with every kind of social mandate they can devise, thereby doubling or tripling the total price of a college education. After that, the liberals insist that everyone in the country has a responsibility to pay off the loans that the students contracted — either that, or just pay everyone to go to college. College education — free at last! Here again we see the ostrich of “freedom” bolting wildly through deadly traffic.

Conservatives are justly famous for not being able to leave anything alone. Their problem is not so much with the concept of rights as with the concept of righteousness. Is it right that foreigners have corrupt governments? Is it right that some people’s lives are ruined by drugs? Is it right to spend every waking hour drinking, smoking, fornicating, and indulging an “addiction” to pornography? No, it is not right. But the conservatives, like the liberals, cannot stop with such an admission. They have to do something to make sure that, metaphorically, no penguin ever makes the mistake of mating with the wrong penguin.

Now picture the near future, part of which is already with us, thanks to conservative and liberal activism. In that future stands the great composite ideal of the liberals and conservatives: an 18-year-old Marine who is being sent to die in Afghanistan without ever having drunk a beer, smoked a cigarette, sniffed some coke, gone to a dirty website, owned a personal firearm, had sex without a condom, used a racial epithet, neglected to recycle, or expressed a doubt about global warming. And all this because he has been doing what he is told and required to do.

Please don’t write in to debate about whether these particular prescriptions are right or not. That young Marine is not right. He is an absurd deformation of the concept of humanity. He is one more ostrich on the loose, racing toward spiritual annihilation. But that’s what the activists always want. They want to maximize their favorite types of behavior. They often call that “freedom.” The results? Why worry?

Well, I said it was a far-fetched analogy. But is it? I hope so. But the point about the penguins is not far-fetched. Leave the penguins alone.




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The Green, Green Cane of Cuba

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Cuba has garnered a reputation for, and has been touted as, a model of green, organic, non-GMO sustainable production and consumption. According to the Organic Consumers Association (quoting Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, a study), many of the foods that people eat every day in Cuba are grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Some of this is true, but because the regimen has been adopted out of necessity and not out of ideology (unless you count the Communist ideology that brought this on in the first place), it is not rigorously adhered to in the way in which, for instance, an organic farmer in the US might adhere to it. It is expediency, with ideology added after the fact to capitalize on necessity.

At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail.

As USA Today reported in March, “Cuba once focused on capital-intensive, industrialized agriculture on large state-run farms, but was forced to change after economic support from the Soviet Union evaporated. Beginning in 1990, Cuban food production fell precipitously. The country shifted to a low-input agricultural cooperative model. Even so, it suffered serious food shortages in 1994, which prompted further changes.” It might be added that, changes or not, sugar production has fallen by 60% over the past 30 years.

Unable to import industrial fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba resorted to using horse, cow, pig, chicken, and even human waste for soil nutrition. And it tried to become self-sufficient in food production. At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail. And woe betide the gardener who broke a shovel — sabotage!

Into the breach stepped Uncle Sam, easing the embargo restrictions on exporting food and medicine to Cuba.

On my recent bike trip across Cuba, I was accompanied by a bourgeois socialist couple — retired on government pensions, upbeat about Castro’s “reforms,” berning-for-Bernie — who wanted to see the island before it was “ruined” by McDonalds, Walmarts, discount dollar stores, and other popular tendrils of free choice that might invade once the embargo is lifted. Fair-weather vegetarians (don’t mention bacon around them!), free-range egg fans, supplement-swallowing, sugar-hating, GMO-abjuring, organic-food faddists, they were also looking forward to eating “healthy” food in Cuba.

Well, Cubans don’t do vegetarianism. Castro pushed salads — mostly cabbage — on them during the “Special Period” in the ’90s; and, at least for tourists, greens remain a dependable staple, composed mostly of cabbage, tomatoes, beets, and cukes topped with canola oil and vinegar. But Cubans much prefer meat, beans, rice, and starchy veggies — yuca, malanga, and plantains, preferably fried — plus anything with sugar: rum (and any other alcoholic drink, such as the mojito, with an added dollop of sugar), guarapo (pure sugar cane juice), raw sugar cane, churros, cucurucho (a mixture of honey, nuts, coconut, and sugar), coffee brewed with sugar (traditional), malta (a thick, extremely sweet version of non-alcoholic malt stout), coke mixed with sweetened condensed milk, ice cream, and extra sweet pastries.

Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice it up.

On our visit to Cuba, my wife and I saw chickens everywhere, scrawny but free range. Every evening when arriving at our lodging, our host would offer us dinner, an always preferable alternative to eating in a government restaurant. I’d ask what was available and, knowing Cuban cuisine, would decide for the group. Initially I’d lean toward chicken out of respect for my “vegetarian” companions. Invariably, the chicken portions would consist of a giant thigh and leg with meat so white one could have mistaken it for a breast.

Aside: contrary to popular US perception, Cuba does have a fast-food restaurant chain — El Rapido, a state-run enterprise. Guidebooks and trip accounts tout it as dependable, with food quality varying from passable to good, especially the chicken — again, a thigh and leg combo. We never ate at a Rapido — but not for lack of trying. The ones we stopped at were either out of meat or not serving food because something had malfunctioned, or something else had gone wrong — but still open, with full staff just sitting around.

Riding with me in a taxi one day, Melinda, one of my progressive companions, wondered how the chickens we were served were so big when the ones we saw roaming about were so rickety. So I asked our driver. He said Cubans don’t kill their chickens, they’re for eggs. Eatin’ chickens are stamped with madinusa. Not familiar with the term, I asked him what it meant. He looked wryly at me, sideways, and then I got it: Made in USA.

When I told Melinda she gulped and said, “You mean we’ve been eating Purdue chickens? From now on let’s ask for pork; at least it’s organic.”

Pork is the ubiquitous Cuban meat. The only available roadside lunch snacks were in-season fruit stands and roast pork sandwiches consisting solely of pork and bread. (Cuba grows no wheat; it’s all imported, some of it possibly GMO.) Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice up the pork sandwiches (yes, it’s a strange combination, but delicious).

Beef was the least available meat, even though we saw lots of cattle in the central provinces. Apparently it’s reserved for the nomenclatura and tourists. Though not available in government ration stores, it can be obtained by anyone at convertible currency stores — if you have the money. At one B&B where the owner was tickled pink that I was a Cuban-American, it brought out her impish side. I requested ropa vieja, a traditional brisket or flank steak dish. She thought about it for a minute and said, “We can do that. And it’ll be the best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.”

I responded, “Remember, I had a Cuban mother.”

Without skipping a beat she retorted, “It’ll be the second-best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.” We both laughed.

Fish is widely available but of varying quality. Whenever it was offered as fresh and a good species, especially pargo, Cuban Red Snapper (nothing like it!), I opted for it. Yes, Cuba hasn’t overfished its stocks. But not for eco-ideological reasons; rather for “sugar cane-curtain” reasons: to limit small boat traffic along its shores, minimizing escape and infiltration attempts. Additionally, small-enterprise fishing businesses haven’t been allowed: the state will provide the fish. However, lobster is often available, and it is to die for — huge, cheap, and delicious.

Arguably, our best meal was at a paladar (private restaurant) in Playa Giron (aka Bay of Pigs). We were the only ones there. The menu, recited, not read, included a special trio of fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster, all for $15 each, including cheap imported Chilean wine and all the trimmings. When the waiter was through I asked him about caiman (the Cuban croc), which I’d heard was available for eating in the Zapata swamp area. He answered that yes, they served it but couldn’t announce it, as it was a protected species. Though I desperately wanted to try it and cock a snook at the Castro regime, we all opted for the special.

One of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — the source is nostril level and in-your-face.

One B&B owner, who’d been in the tourism business all through the Special Period, both legally and illegally (and had spent time in jail), elaborated on what food was like back then. He cooked us a typical dinner (as a side dish to the marlin and lobster he was serving us): boiled cabbage. I don’t know what he did to it, but it was surprisingly tasty. He added that breakfasts in the special period consisted of sugar water followed by labor in the cane fields — a dish he didn’t serve us.

You see a lot when you ride a bike through the countryside. At least once we saw someone spraying pesticides on crops. When I mentioned it to Melinda she despondently admitted that she too had seen it. But one of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — Cuba’s breezes dissipate that possibility, and there’s little heavy industry. The source is nostril level and in-your-face. All those old cars that look so charming have been retrofitted with diesel engines that have zero emission controls. Clouds of black smoke spew out of nearly every vehicle, to such a degree that one of our companions got sick. Riding for any length in one of those classic cars will make you sick. Floor holes funnel the poison into the cabs, which means that all windows must be open all the time. Our B&B in Havana closed all the windows facing the street, to keep the exhaust out. Though the problem is acute in cities and towns where traffic can be dense, even out on the highways we’d hold our breath and avoid in any way we could the passage of a bus or truck, the most common vehicles on highways.

Garbage, like many things in Cuba, is full of contradictions. Cubans are a very clean people. One informant told me that trash collectors are particularly well paid. In general, the streets are quite clean. But . . . every once in a while mounds of garbage dot cities, towns, and the countryside, almost as if they’ve been warehoused in discreet piles and then forgotten, only to make a sudden reappearance.

On the way to find my grandmother’s grave, I struck up a conversation with a street sweeper, about my age. He was pushing a two-binned pushcart and sweeping with a handmade broom. He had a very photogenic face and was smoking a cigar. Intermittently picking up trash — there wasn’t much — and sitting in the shade, he caught my eye. I asked if I could photograph him. He was proud to be so noticed. After some introductory remarks and typical Cuban give-and-take, he declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” I asked him to elaborate. He said things were much better before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

According to one person I talked to, the only municipal potable tap water in Cuba is in Baracoa, in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the far east end of the island. And it is delicious. Cool, free-flowing rivers fill Baracoa’s reservoir. Elsewhere, municipal water is a mess. In Guantanamo and in Havana, where I actually watched the process of getting tap water (and likely in other places too), it runs like this: Early in the evening, the water mains fill up. In a couple of hours the water level in the pipes gets high enough to reach the house branches. At this point, my two B&B owners turned on an electric or gasoline pump to get water from the mains into a cistern. Another couple of hours goes by; then, around 11 pm, another pump moves the water from the cistern up to a rooftop tank. Voila! Domestic water! — though not provided in the greenest way. Rural areas depend on trucked water and cisterned rainwater. Potable, government bottled water is also widely available. It is definitely not delicious. Though it has no actual repellent taste or smell, I have never tasted worse purified water. The consumer cost of both water and electricity is trivial — again, hardly an efficient or green approach to conserving resources.

Cuba’s organic farm production and the Obama administration’s trade overtures have caused concern among Florida’s organic farm growers. The March 18 issue of USA Today reports that

Florida farmers say the Obama administration’s plan to allow Cuban imports threatens their $8 billion-a-year business. Florida’s larger organic growers, already struggling to remain profitable, may be particularly hard-hit because Cuba has developed a strong organic farming sector.

Initially, Cuba most likely would export many of the same products grown by Florida organic farms, and the communist nation would enjoy the advantage of lower wages, state subsidies, cheap transportation and the novelty appeal of Cuban products.

It’s not just the subsidized competition that is worrisome. One American farmer asks, “When you buy Cuban products, are you helping the Cuban farmer — or the Cuban government?” He goes on to note that he worries about diseases, pests, and invasive species. Two-thirds of Florida farmers are against any deal. Bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers are the primary products of Cuban state farms, but avocados and more exotic produce such as guanabana (soursop) are in the running.

The street sweeper declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” Things were much better, he said, before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

USA Today adds, “Eva Worden, a Cuban-American organic grower in Punta Gorda, Fla., supports a resumption of trade between the U.S. and Cuba but wants to be sure the fruit and vegetable needs of the Cuban people are met before encouraging exports.”

Natural, organic, and even “genetically modified” terms have always been a minefield of imprecision and ideology. When politics is added to the mix, it’s anyone’s guess what government policy might turn out to be. Best to let the consumer decide . . .




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Western Institutions, Alien Societies

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While some might look at human reason as a given, it has been one of the most difficult endeavors of humanity. It took the West over 2,000 years for its slow and unsure infusion of the concepts of objective reason, critical thinking, and self-awareness. Germinating gradually through a plethora of traditions, religious practices, customs, beliefs, authorities, lies, self-deceptions, inherent reptilian impulses, and socially entrenched interests, all interconnected in an entangled mess, the discovery of reason had to be a slow dance of adjustments, readjustments, and ever-slow improvements, often with serious retracements. Then, about 700 years ago, the sprouts were starting to emerge, culturally and economically. The West galloped ahead of the Rest of the world.

The respect for nonpartisan, objective reason led to individualism, to the concepts of liberty, rule of law, legal equality, disinterested differentiation between right and wrong, virtues and sins, social compassion, etc. Indeed, there was no book handed down by God that convinced people about the right distinction between virtues and vices. There was no concept of natural rights implanted in people’s minds, only local ideas of particular rights. What came to exist in the West was a product of millennia of argument and reflection — often very painful, for you cannot influence the irrational mind by using reason. Society and individuals adjusted, slowly and subtly. The concept of reason came to be reflected in concepts of justice, community, politics, and education; and hence of the institutions associated with them.

Reason is the organizing principle that enables an accumulation of intellectual and financial capital, within the individual and within societies.

The concept of reason germinated and survived not just because it was accepted by philosophers but because it permeated, organically, the habits and worldviews of the larger society, of people who otherwise lacked any interest in philosophy. Had this not happened, the would-be philosophers would have lacked the ecosystem that nurtures reason. Without this, their education would have been slow, hesitant, imbalanced, and grossly lacking in self-confidence and wisdom.

What came to exist in the West was a product of millennia of argument and reflection — often very painful, for you cannot influence the irrational mind by using reason.

Reason chiselled in its image the organization of physical space, architecture, music, literature, and the working of institutions. It provided a vocabulary of images, experiences, and ideas that enabled the learning of rational concepts through osmosis — not only through mere words but also through every day, every moment living.

Reason cannot be imposed

But despite hundreds of years of the West’s interactions with the Rest, the concept of reason has failed to gain a foothold there. Perhaps, slowly and subtly, over many generations — perhaps over centuries or even millennia — the Rest will go through a change in philosophy and ethics that will effect a change in social organization, architecture, music, and art. Perhaps these cultures will change their attitude to quiet contemplation from one based on escapism. But even before all this can happen, they must get rid of basic irrational beliefs and evolve social habits — and everything surrounding them — compatible with reason. This is a very gradual, painful process.

While the Rest has copied technology and other fruits of western creativity, alas, it cannot copy the Western culture without comprehending the concept of reason. There are today many new cities in the Rest that are copies of western cities, built in the hope that creativity would somehow sprout from this top-down means. This hasn’t worked.

“Thank you” and “please,” while omnipresent in the West, are hardly to be heard in most of the Rest. One should not expect to hear them in simple transactions, and one is unlikely to hear them even when going out of one’s way to help other people. The custom of gratitude looks simple in the West, but it took centuries to acquire.

In the Rest, charity is almost always about building more temples and mosques and funding religious indoctrination — among Hindus and Buddhists as well as Muslims. This is done from the desire for a better afterlife for oneself, not to help fellow human beings. There is almost no counterpart of western missionaries in the Rest.

What looks simple to achieve to a rational mind, isn’t so, for it is often an organic part of the whole, a symptom of the larger culture, the tip of the iceberg.

Simple courtesies of driving, giving way and not cutting the other vehicle off, are hard to find outside the West. Those who want to end constant honking and avoidable pollution — even in wealthy neighborhoods — are asking for the impossible. In India, I fought for years against the custom of burning the contents of garbage bins and organic material — the biggest source of localized pollution in most Indian cities and something that can be handled without any cost. Then I gave up.

What looks simple to achieve to a rational mind, isn’t so, for it is often an organic part of the whole, a symptom of the larger culture, the tip of the iceberg. As one hacks away the tip of the iceberg, one eventually realizes that he is against a mammoth irrational cultural apparatus.

Irrationality has very slippery hands. It does not allow for the accumulation of intellectual and financial capital. No wonder large parts of the Rest, even if they haven’t had any war in recent memory, look like slums, as if they had recently been bombed.

If one hasn’t lost himself in multiculturalism, one comes to an insight, through the process of reasoning, that it is hard to change other people and virtually impossible to change cultures. Centuries ago, English colonizers understood how difficult it is to change a culture and the individuals living in it. They mostly engaged in trade and missionary activities. Both had a significant possibility of making the societies in the Rest more rational, and hence more ethical. They knew that any change would happen only slowly, from the bottom up. Indeed, whatever figment of liberty and reason one sees outside the West was usually initiated by missionary education.

Some missionaries even realized that if they must change the culture, they must remove children from their parents, because the belief systems and worldviews the kids were getting infused with — those very small, imperceptible things that happen at home — preempted them from becoming rational beings. This was a heartless thing to do, but it does show the experience that people who were doing the job at the front were facing.

Then all went wrong. The Rest today is in crisis. And so is the West.

Degradation in the West

Political correctness became a part of the West. Wealth made people intellectually lazy. They — across the spectrum of political beliefs — came to believe in top-down methodology: the US government believed in bombs and drones, the removal of dictators and the imposition of Western institutions on alien societies; and anti-statist libertarians believed in removing governments or reducing their size.

Western governments degenerated, having become increasingly populated by professional politicians and professional bureaucrats. Meanwhile, everyone eventually got the right to vote. At first, only experienced, successful people were invited to work for the government and only successful people or landowners had the right to vote — this had its many problems but it was better than what we have today.

Simpletons in government had a habit of putting the cart before the horse, a derivative of the Keynesian way of thinking: create demand, and supply will come.

Those who came to run public policy in the West were increasingly removed from real life. They went from Ivy League universities to safe jobs in the government, and their experience precluded them from understanding the complexity and volatility of real life. But real life, at the fronts, is the only source from which one learns wisdom and integrity. Even when they weren’t crooks or just seeking an easy life, those who went to work for the government were simpletons with simplistic ideas.

Not understanding how wealth is created and how creativity works, simpletons in government had a habit of putting the cart before the horse, a derivative of the Keynesian way of thinking: create demand, and supply will come; impose the institutions of the West and all will change for the better in the Rest; send people to universities and creativity will blossom; enforce democracy and equality of rights will develop. Such thinking invariably did no good, and significant harm.

Three institutions

Three major Western institutions — public education, the nation state, and democracy — were increasingly imposed on the peoples of the Rest. Once imposed, these institutions mutated into something completely different from their original intention, as they adjusted to the inherent irrationality of their new locations.

Public education in the Rest has absolutely nothing to do with developing the concept of critical thinking and objective reasoning, education’s prime purpose. Lacking the concept of reason, the student is unable to integrate new knowledge into a “whole,” but absorbs it as particular beliefs, dogmas, and alleged facts, through rote learning. Such education is sheer indoctrination. When I was a student in India, I was beaten for asking questions. In an irrational culture questioning is seen as a challenge to teacher’s authority. Because I was constantly ordered around, I gained no experience of amicable negotiation with others. I still cannot negotiate for myself, for the moment I do, a cloudy complex of shame and guilt hits me. Even when one learns to recognize these problems, they can take decades to remedy.

After almost 150 years of implementing Western-style education, Japan, among the most successful countries in the Rest, still specializes in the creation of human robots, with horrendous social consequences. Singapore is not very different, and its government is struggling to understand why it cannot engender creativity in one of the world’s richest countries. People who don’t know individual, critical reason just cannot see its importance.

The situation is much worse elsewhere. India today produces more so-called PhDs and engineers than any other country. Most of them are completely unemployable, for they are seeking only a degree, their colleges are seeking only money, and their teachers have no clue about what they are supposedly teaching. Bad habits are all these students learn. In front of me is a bunch of MBA examination papers that a relative is taking me through. In one, a student has misspelled “financial” everywhere it appears in his Financial Accounting paper. These lucky students end up driving taxis or working as manual laborers, and they feel very frustrated. They thought their degrees would change their lives.

Education becomes sheer indoctrination. When I was a student in India, I was beaten for asking questions.

But the harm is much wider and deeper. Their minds are now burdened by many more beliefs — for even correct principles accepted as beliefs are in fact mere beliefs — than they would have been burdened with, had they none of this fake education. The burden has made them more immune to imbibing the concept of reason. With so many beliefs, the last thing they want to do is to think, except to regurgitate and exchange slogans and soundbites, all for comfort. If they thought, they would destabilize themselves mentally.

The nation-state has been another major problem for the Rest. This institution, as originally conceived in the West, was about values that people held. It was not necessarily about political boundaries. In the Rest, which lacks the concept of reason and hence the concept of values, the nation state has mutated into an aggressive tribal concept, based merely on the existence, or idolatry, of political boundaries, flags, and anthems. Ask these people what their nation believes and stands for, and you should expect parroted empty words, if they actually comprehend the question.

While the nation-state is in no way a nimble institution in the West — for it is now run by professional bureaucrats who have no real-life experience and demagogues voted into power by people who have no understanding of public policy — it is something that rapidly ossified in the irrational and hence tyrannical societies of other regions. Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Thai, and Cambodian armies are ready to enter a war for nothing more than inches of worthless land. And they don’t know how to negotiate and end what are in fact trivial issues. Africa and the Middle East have the same problem. While there is open discussion in the US about its wars, in India there no discussion whatsoever about its boundary disputes.

In the Rest, democracy boasts of virtually no success, despite a widely accepted claim to the contrary. The only success stories happened in states that were not democratic: China, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Voting by those who are irrational, superstitious, dogmatic, and tribal has meant constant troubles in Africa, central Asia, and southeast Asia. The Middle East is in flames. Not too long ago, people were very romantic about the democratic revolution called the Arab Spring. But democracy has politicized their masses, and what masses always want is free stuff, bread and circuses. Liberty is not their passion. Now the Arab Spring has matured in Libya and Syria, which are blowing up, spreading their problems to Europe. Blame this on the imposition of democracy, an alien institution in the Rest.

One might ask how people in the Rest — in whatever form — still exist in anything like a stable society. Violence, except in some Confucian cultures, is an essential part of “negotiations” in the Rest, where stability is found through a kind of ceasefire agreement. Wherever a pecking order changes or needs to be reestablished, violence erupts, until a ceasefire situation can be created. A death in a family almost invariably results in fights between siblings. This does not mean that people kill and rape as a habit. But remove them from the strict institutional and social structures that keep them sane, civilized, and well behaved, and you must expect violence to erupt systemically.

This is the sad reality of life, in the Rest. The West must accept the blame for very simplistically imposing Western institutions on societies that cannot bear them. You cannot just remove their tyrants, enforce western institutions, and hope that progress will happen. The solution is to let them find their tyrants, allowing them to get the institutions their values create — nothing more, and nothing less. This is the only hope for relative peace, both for them and for the West. If you want to help, do what missionaries and traders did: infuse reason into these societies, from the bottom up. But today the West must worry more about the rapid erosion of its own foundations of reason, a process fraught with a sense of entitlement and victimhood, and hence with a slow mutation of Western institutions. It will be easy to lose reason, but very hard to get it back, for there is no reason why reason should win.




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Once Again, Spontaneous Order Beats the Dead Hand of Statism

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A number of recent reports on American energy illustrate anew the power of markets to deliver prosperity — rapidly — and the impotence of government to do the same. In short, spontaneous order has once again accomplished what the dead hand of statism could not.

The first report concerns the unsurprising demise of yet another solar power company. SunEdison is filing for bankruptcy, after seeing its stock price drop a whopping 98% in less than a year. Wall Street mavens such as David Einhorn (billionaire owner of a hedge fund called Greenlight Capital) and Leon Cooperman (of Omega Advisors) had considered the company a sure bet, but it proved to be a sure loser.

SunEdison is just one of an endless stream of solar companies that started, during the reign of the Obama administration, with the promise of giving us cheap power while healing the planet of global warming. Typically, they began with direct or indirect government subsidies — only to fail miserably.

Other stories tell us of better news. Just two months ago — in a nice piece of negotiation for which he received only vilification from the pestilent swarm of populist talk show hosts — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) reached a budget deal with the administration that once again (after a ban of biblical proportions — 40 years) allowed the exportation of domestically produced oil abroad. I have argued before that this is a major geopolitical game changer. We can now sell the fruits of our petroleum fracking revolution on the world market, thus ending, once and for all, the power of the oil cartel (OPEC) to gouge the rest of the world. Oil prices can now be kept low indefinitely. If Russia or the OPEC thieves try to cut back on production to extort more money from Europe and Asia in the form of higher prices, or if the demand for oil goes up because of a future worldwide economic boom, the Great American Frackers can just drill more wells, with no shortage for the foreseeable future.

SunEdison is just one of an endless stream of solar companies that started with the promise of giving us cheap power while healing the planet of global warming, only to fail miserably.

Less remarked upon, but no less remarkable, has been the flourishing of American natural gas production — driven again by the fracking companies. The miracle of fracking has dramatically reduced the prices of domestic natural gas — in fact, driven the price of natural gas to the lowest it has been in 17 years. Moreover, North America’s natural gas production is now about 450% greater than Africa’s, 80% greater than the Asian Pacific’s, 50% greater than the Middle East’s, and only 5% smaller than Eurasia’s; and it is set to grow apace over the next few years.

Why? Because the domestic price is now so low that American energy companies find it attractive to liquefy natural gas and ship it abroad. And that’s what is starting to happen. For example, just last month, the first shipment of American produced natural gas — ethane — left the Marcus Hook terminal in Philadelphia, headed for Europe. The purchaser of the liquefied natural gas (LNG), Swiss petrochemical company Ineos, plans to use it in its Norway facility. (Ethane is primarily a feedstock for plastic production. Methane is what is typically used for heating and power generation.) Given current trends, the US could become the world’s third largest exporter of LNG, right behind Qatar and Australia — in just four years.

Now consider the Cheniere Energy company’s Sabine Pass facility (located on the Gulf Coast), which aims to be fully operational in less than three years. By itself alone it will be able to export 3.5 billion cubic feet (Bcf) per day.

US producers have a key cost advantage: they can reconfigure import facilities to become export facilities relatively inexpensively. So as domestically produced natural gas replaces all imports, we can seamlessly start sending LNG abroad. The US Department of Energy has approved projects that will increase the potential exports of LNG to 10 Bcf per day, and is swamped with new applications that if granted could boost those exports another 35 Bcf per day. That is nearly the size of today’s global market.

Of course, already some people have raised worries that by exporting so much of our domestically produced natural gas, our own consumers will face shortages and see domestic prices soar. This is doubtful. For one thing, the US already has something like four trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas stored underground, and produces 30 Tcf a year. So even if the Department of Energy approves all the projects under submission, the effect on domestic prices will be limited. One recent estimate by the US Energy Information Administration is that an increase of 12 to 20 Bcf per day in exports would raise domestic natural gas prices by 4–11% per million Btu.

The miracle of fracking has driven the price of natural gas to the lowest it has been in 17 years.

Making the chance that increasing exports will raise domestic prices of natural gas even more remote is the fact that, with the colossal amount of American shale deposits of natural gas — not to mention our immense amount of conventional supplies — the number of fracking operations will grow dramatically as our exports increase. That will increase domestic supplies as well, and hold their price down. Moreover, because building out export facilities is costly, the rate of increase will be relatively tame.

Still, the excellent economic news is that we will have another great export market to exploit, providing hundreds of thousands of high-paying blue-collar jobs all over this country — jobs sorely needed, as our older manufacturing jobs are automated away. For example, it is estimated that America will need 100 more LNG tankers over the next 15 years, as our exports surge ahead.

American natural gas exports will soon be headed to Asia as well as Europe. China is increasing its own production of natural gas, in part because the pollution caused by all its coal-fired power plants is making city life intolerable, but developing its own shale resources is proving difficult. Japan is perennially in need of natural gas (and petroleum as well). The export route to Asia will be dramatically improved by the $5.3 billion expansion of the Panama Canal just being completed. This will cut an average of 11 days off the time it takes to ship oil from the Gulf Coast to Asia.

This is also great geopolitical news. We will be able to supply natural gas to Europe, which right now depends upon the thoroughly corrupt and evil Russian company Gazprom. Russia has shown a vicious propensity to price-gouge when it can, and it uses its supply as an instrument of state power in the revanchist quest to reestablish the Soviet Empire. That quest will be sharply curtailed by American natural gas exports to Europe.

The prospect of American natural gas liberating Poland, the Baltic states, and other formerly Soviet-controlled countries from Russian hegemony was the subject of another recent report. It notes that several countries are eagerly awaiting buying LNG from the United States, and some — such as Poland — are building import terminals in anticipation that American shipments will increase. Russia supplies about a third of all Europe’s natural gas. Some of the former Soviet countries (such as Bulgaria) get 90% of their supplies from Russia.

As Lithuania’s energy minister has said, “In Russia, gas always goes together with politics.” But he added, “Russia is extremely aggressive in gas pricing and the arrival of US LNG will change that.” Goldman Sachs estimates that the arrival of American LNG should drop the price by one-quarter in just two years.

The US will have another great export market to exploit, providing hundreds of thousands of high-paying blue-collar jobs all over this country.

Russia feigns unconcern about the arrival of American LNG. Alexander Medvedev, Gazprom’s deputy chairman, discreetly claimed, “We are very relaxed about US LNG, though very attentive.” Analyst Trevor Sikorski explains that while Russian gas currently costs about $4.60 per million Btus, American gas will cost about $3.60 (when the cost of shipping is included). So Russia could “chase out” the US (as Sikorski suggests) by, say, lowering its price to $2. But I think the Russians are merely whistling past the graveyard. For one thing, Russia has for several years funded European environmentalist organizations, enabling them to propagandize against fracking. If it were so easy for the Russians to undercut the price of gas produced by fracking, why does Russia so oppose it in other countries?

Second, there is a flaw in the argument that Russia can just chase the US out of the European market by dumping its own natural gas at (say) half what it currently charges. The problem with that argument is — against all “dumping” arguments — that the Americans would stay out only as long as Russia incurred that 50% lower revenue stream. But the reduction would severely limit Russia’s ability to continue upgrading its military and taking over more of Eastern Europe. Worse for Russia, the minute it decided to raise its prices back up, American oil companies would need only a day to start shipments to Europe, and only a couple of weeks for the oil to arrive.

It seems likely that Russia will simply lower its prices to match or slightly undercut the American pricing — say, pricing its natural gas at $3.50. But this will still be quite damaging to Russia’s revanchist goals, and therefore good news for the rest of us. Russia will lose 20–25% of its current revenue stream — a major hit indeed. More importantly, even if Russia charges approximately what American companies do, the former Soviet countries will probably still order American gas, the better to keep their freedom from Russian domination.

In sum, American LNG may forever free the Eastern Europeans from Russia’s paws. This is reason for rejoicing.

But there are two reasons for not rejoicing. First, both candidates for the Democratic nomination for president — Clinton and Sanders — have said that they utterly oppose fracking. No doubt whichever one wins the nomination will be lavishly, if covertly, funded by the Russians.

Worse, the two leading candidates for the Republican nomination — Trump and Cruz — would almost certainly lose to the Democrat in the general election. The Republicans are hellbent on losing the best shot they have had to take back the White House in eight years. Go figure that out.




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Closing the Circle

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We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.

Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their adventures here, we asked him if we could print parts of his work. Robert agreed. We are featuring it in several segments, of which this is the second. The first was published in Liberty in February.

The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting.

Part II begins with the reactions of Robert’s father (Pop) and mother (Mina) to Castro’s war against the Batista regime, which he eventually overthrew. — Stephen Cox

Part II

Mina was a skeptic; Pop was a fan. Optimistic about Castro, he was later to contribute money and property to the Revolution both before and immediately after its victory. But revolutions, no matter how well-intentioned, are inherently disruptive and unpredictable. This didn’t stop Pop. The urgency of his ambitions was fueled by the specter of the grim reaper. With the addition of rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling and disfiguring disease, his chronic malaria and angina pectoris became a threesome.

After the Bug took root, he partnered up with a German colleague from Volkswagen and launched a brand new enterprise in early 1958. Though he’d been Controller of the Oxford Paper Company for only a short time, back in 1940, he must have felt confident in opening Cuba’s first big paper products factories, Envases Modernos S.A. and Industrias Cello-Pak S.A. He wanted to give Dixie’s or Lilly’s (I don’t remember which) de facto monopoly a run for its money. When the paper cup assembly line became operative, he proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.

Less than one month after Castro’s victory, when euphoria and grandiose schemes still permeated the Cuban atmosphere, Fidel proposed planting a thousand trees along the avenues that had hosted the rebels’ triumphant procession. Pop immediately offered to donate 1,000 paper cups to hold the seedlings. He not only did not receive an answer, but no trees were ever planted.

Pop proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.

Nineteen fifty-eight also brought television to our home. Instantly it became hypnotic. Rin Tin Tin, Annie Oakley, Sea Hunt, Bat Masterson, Gunsmoke, all dubbed in Spanish, became staples, keeping us kids indoors in the evening, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

After Castro’s victory, however, all broadcasting became live news, 24/7, way before CNN. Though initially spellbinding, Fidel’s speeches soon tired us: the endless narration; the panoramic shots of crowds supporting this or that, or protesting this or that; the mass televised trials; and the endless coverage and speculation over the explosion of La Coubre in Havana Harbor in March 1960, a ship bearing an arms shipment — with Fidel’s endless rhetorical question, “Armas, para que?” “Arms, for what?” The arms were intended for the new revolutionary government, but Castro spun the sabotage to his advantage.

But to return to the events that put Castro in power: in May 1958, with three active guerrilla fronts operating on the island, Batista finally decided to get serious. He dispatched 10,000 troops to destroy Castro’s 300 guerrillas in Oriente Province, and the Directorio Revolucionario’s Escambray front, now also numbering in the hundreds. But it was not to be.

Throughout June, July, and August government troops suffered defeat after defeat, surrendered en masse, or switched sides. Huge amounts of equipment, including tanks, fell into the hands of the rebels. By September 1, the two Oriente fronts, one under Che Guevara, the other under Camilo Cienfuegos, had begun a two-pronged advance westward, toward the center of the island. It would be only a matter of time before they reached the capital.

With the steamroller now nearly unstoppable, Cubans began letting down their guard. No longer was Radio Rebelde listened to clandestinely; it was openly monitored and discussed. Young men — and some women — from all over the island rushed to join the advancing rebels, jumping on the bandwagon as it picked up momentum.

Headed over to the Castellanos’, in search of distraction, I ran into one of the young guys — related somehow to the ex-mayor — who were often there. He was a guy who had actually paid attention to me, shown friendship and kindness even — behavior that, to a young boy, instantly made him a role model. Now he was dressed in full olive green army fatigues, with backpack and sidearm, and was walking down the street nonchalantly. Since the regular army wore khakis, either this guy was foolish or fearless, or the risk was minimal.

Fidel's physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.

I stopped dead on the sidewalk in front of him, speechless, eyes bugging out. The only soldiers I‘d ever been this close to were my little toy soldiers. He said he was off to join the rebels. I asked if I could go with him, even though I knew that was impossible. He smiled, metaphorically (or perhaps actually) patted my head, and kindly said no, that I was too young. When I told my parents about the encounter, they shuddered, grimacing that his behavior was beyond foolish.

In September, Guevara’s and Cienfuegos’ troops, advancing separately, met up in Camagüey province and continued their westward march as one large force. Government resistance to the advance was mostly limited to aerial bombardment, intermittent at best because of the heavy rains of the fall hurricane season.

On October 7, the now-combined Castro forces crossed into Las Villas province and encountered the forces of the Directorio Revolucionario in the Escambray Mountains under the field command of Faure Chaumont. Though Castro’s 26 of July Movement and the Directorio Revolucionario had heretofore been completely independent enterprises, Chaumont agreed to a coordinated offensive. The news ignited Cubans; hundreds of men volunteered to join the rebels.

In November, government forces concentrated behind defensive positions in the cities of Las Villas province. Rebel forces, meanwhile, worked out operational plans for the new joint command, planned the next offensives, trained new recruits, and awaited drier weather.

Fidel himself remained ensconced in his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra, coordinating military and political strategy. His physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.

Nearly all the rebel forces sported beards and long hair, starting a sartorial trend, with philosophical implications, that would take the world by storm in the 1960s. Raul Castro, with his skimpy fuzz of a beard, gave rise to rumors that he was either homosexual or illegitimate — or both. Camilo Cienfuegos, on the other hand, hirsute as a Tolkien character in Lord of the Rings, with a beard that made one wonder whether it housed legions of unidentified critters, was beginning to upstage Fidel. Handsome, with a seductive and ready smile, and a twinkle in his eye under his black cowboy hat, he would later die in a suspicious plane crash in 1959 on a fool’s errand for Fidel.

On December 20, the final rebel offensive began. In quick succession, the cities of Cabaiguan, Placetas, Remedios, Cruces, and Sancti Spiritus fell to the onslaught. Two days later, Camilo Cienfuegos began an assault on the army garrison at Yaguajay; while Guevara’s and Chaumont’s combined forces attacked Santa Clara, capital of Las Villas province.

After nearly two weeks of intense combat and aerial bombardment, 250 government soldiers surrendered Yaguajay to Cienfuegos on New Year’s Eve, and 1,000 more surrendered to Guevara and Chaumont on New Year’s Day, 1959.

* * *

New Year’s Eve 1959 was a memorable one and not soon to be forgotten! Word passed around like wildfire that Batista and his cronies had fled, throwing in the sponge at last. The island had been cut in half at the now famous Bay of Pigs and the Escambray rebel troops were headed for Havana. On New Year’s day it became a reality and while many mobs roamed the streets seeking revenge against the hated dictator’s cronies who had not as yet left, we were not molested. I personally did not leave the house, carefully following the advice given over the local radio.

So begins my father’s account of those fateful days between Batista’s exit and the rebels’ arrival, an account he wrote for Time magazine but that was never published.

When Batista fled the country at 2 AM on New Year’s Day, 1959, Havana erupted into an orgy of celebration. The metropolitan police, technically members of the old regime, kept a low profile. We children weren’t allowed to get near the windows, much less leave the house. All the prisons were thrown open, and riotous mobs roamed the streets wreaking havoc on anything associated with the old regime, especially casinos. Another favorite target was parking meters, a hated source of government income. My sister Nani remembers one passing car peppering our living room with bullets. My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”

Days later, when Castro’s tanks rolled into the city, mobs lionized the long-haired, bearded rebels. Contingents of the olive-clad, Thompson-submachine-gun-wielding soldiers ringed all the embassies to prevent “enemies of the people” from escaping. With the Mexican ambassador’s residence only a block from our house, I couldn’t keep away. Armed with my pellet gun — for solidarity and fun — I’d hang out for hours with the militiamen, target shooting at birds and passing the time. For a 9-year-old kid, it just didn’t get any better. As I’d later say when I learned English in Mississippi, “I was shitting in tall cotton.”

My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”

CMQ, Channel 6, went to round-the-clock programming. Though I preferred outdoor activity, the novel, continuous TV coverage of events mesmerized us. Abuela, we kids, and the household staff — whenever they managed time between chores — gathered in the TV room to watch the Revolution unfold.

On January 2 Manuel Urrutia, the judge who had tried Castro sympathetically after his July 26, 1953 uprising, became President of Cuba. He was appointed to the post behind the scenes by Castro, no doubt because his reputation for probity and his spotless record wouldn’t cause any ructions domestically or internationally. Jose Miro Cardona became Prime Minister. Days later the US recognized the new government and appointed a new ambassador, Phillip Bonsal.

I asked Abuela how Urrutia became president without an election. She shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something I can’t remember. She’d seen so much. It would have taken too much effort and too long a time to try to explain it all to a 9-year-old kid.

Then on January 8, Fidel Castro, with his now-mechanized No. 1 Jose Marti Column slowly rolled into Havana amidst a stately procession of troops and army vehicles. It was beautifully scripted to appear spontaneous — which, to some degree, it was. Not riding atop a tank — as has often been reported — along Havana Harbor’s Malecon seawall and waving to the ecstatic crowds, Castro seemed to have turned out all of Havana — along with busloads of provincials — to line the streets.

Castro stopped in front of the Columbia Army Barracks and ceremoniously approached the podium and microphones that awaited him. It was the biggest crowd ever along the streets of Havana. After he’d begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild. Most thought it was a sign from Providence: Fidel was “untouchable.” We were glued to the TV, in spite of just being little kids listening to a politician.

Mina’s cousin Eddy, a mostly unemployed bon vivant, was there also. Afterward he set out to regale the extended family about the event, to little response. He’d make the rounds of relatives ingratiating himself and cadging what he could. Mina didn’t care for him and called him a Communist. Chuchu, just a kid at the time but later to marry into our family, got to watch the procession from the balcony of his nearby home.

After Castro had begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild.

In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!) This prime-time TV tableau vivant continued through January and into February, and trickled into March, with a break during Easter Week, by which time 483 “war criminals” had been executed — a little over half the total number of war dead on both sides during the two-year revolutionary war. Near the end of January, 100 “women in black” demonstrated against the executions. As many as 500 Batistianos — Batista partisans — were executed, with the US calling it a “bloodbath.” Had we not lost interest in the repetitive, propagandaish, and predictable drama, I sensed that Abuela might have tried to distract us with a game of cards.

In spite of this — after all, the nuances of the rule of law and due process were slippery to nonexistent in 9-year olds, and excused by most adults in the excitement of a well-intentioned revolution — all my family were middling-to-sympathetic Castro supporters. But one detail nagged me: Castro held no formal role in government. How did he wield so much influence? Perhaps it was a naïve question for a child, but it was prescient.

On February 16, Fidel replaced Miro Cardona as Prime Minister with himself. With Castro now holding a formal government post, things started to make sense to me. Kids just don’t understand power without position and titles. Twelve days after his appointment, Castro announced that “elections could not be held now because they would not be fair. We have an overwhelming majority at present and it is in the interest of the nation that the political parties become fully developed and their programs defined before elections are held.”

Revolutions, no matter how radical, always provide opportunities for profit. Sometime that winter or spring, the Felices Company, a sweets and canned guava producer, decided to sponsor a new idea — a set of 268 “baseball” cards that commemorated the Revolution and its leaders. The events depicted on the cards were rendered in colored line drawings, while photographs — like real baseball cards — depicted the Revolution’s leaders. Fidel was number 126; Raul, 127. The full collection, pasted into a bespoke album, traced the Revolution from 1952 to 1959. Production of the individual cards was dribbled out, both in time and quantity, to create a sense of drama and expectation. A flat slab of bubble gum accompanied each little packet of cards, the exact content of which was always somewhat indeterminate.

In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!)

This indeterminacy was a stroke of genius for the Felices Company. Kids might end up with many duplicates of the same card or a few hot-off-the-presses new cards. The resulting oversupply and scarcity created a hot trading market among kids, who were all racing to be the first to fill their albums and complete their set.

“I’ll give you two Almedias for one Che Guevara!”

“No way! Che is worth much more. One Almedia, one Chibas, and one Cubelas, and you can have Che.”

“OK, deal.”

Kids who had absolutely no interest in baseball — me included — became avid collectors of the Revolution cards. Recess at St. Thomas became a swap meet for cards. Fights and impromptu games ceased. I don’t remember anyone not participating. Even my nerdy, chubby, reclusive, almost-albino friend, Urzurrun — nicknamed bola de nieve for his glaringly white complexion — started collecting the cards and pasting them in his album.

But it was the educational (some might say propaganda) benefit that these cards provided that was most overlooked. Little kids don’t read much; and what they overhear adults saying about current events is discrete, discontinuous, out of context, usually boring, and often misunderstood. These cards made history and current events come alive. Some of us memorized the names of all 16 Rebel Comandantes. We’d argue about the cause and effects of the events depicted on the cards, marvel at the deeds and atrocities, and elaborate speculatively about the events given short shrift.

Some of us even went so far as to read Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech — his summing-up at the end of his trial in 1952 — that was printed in full on the inside back cover of the album. Had the speech been assigned reading for an eighth-grader, eyes would have glazed and rolled, homework would have been put off, and stern admonitions from teachers would have poured forth. But the Felices Company managed not only to make fourth-graders read and reread the speech, but to do it voluntarily and with enthusiasm.

I have no idea how much the Felices Company profited from this venture or even if they ever got to keep their profits, as money and property were confiscated bit by bit. But a recent Google search for Album de la Revolucion Cubana revealed that one leather-bound, mint condition, completed album sold for $100,000 at Sotheby’s. An old, ratty one like mine goes for about $1,500 on Ebay.

In mid-April Castro visited the US on a ten-day trip, where he was greeted everywhere by exuberant crowds. TV had more or less returned to normal broadcasting, but special events always received full coverage. Because the month before Castro had expropriated the properties of ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph Company) in Cuba and had taken over control of its affiliate, the Cuban Telephone Company (CTC), some of the reporters of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, his hosts, asked him outright whether he was a Communist. Castro publicly denied the allegations.

As the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.

Pop must have been somewhat reassured, in spite of owning 50 shares of CTC valued at $5,000 (about $50,000 in 2010 dollars). The Cuban Telephone Company was, after all, a public utility with a de facto monopoly — to many, an excusable target for government takeover. Telephone rates dropped.

But then, in mid-May, Castro signed the Agrarian Reform Act, which in a little over one year, expropriated nearly half the land in the country, forbade foreign land ownership, and nationalized cattle ranches. Farms were restricted to 13 km2 with other real estate holdings limited to 993 acres. The majority of expropriated property was retained by the government for state-run communes, while the remainder was redistributed to peasants in 67-acre parcels.

To implement the new law, Castro established the National Agrarian Reform Institute and named Che Guevara as its head. Expecting some resistance, Guevara created a special militia to enforce the reforms. Though he supported agrarian reform, Pop began to worry about the foreign ownership bit.

We owned a small 13.75 acre piece of rural land, Finca Leon, valued at $7,000. It was well below the maximum allotment and was not a farm, but it was definitely “foreign” owned.

By this time, Pop was hedging his bets — probably a strategy he would have used no matter how confident of the future he was. As a good businessman, he tended to minimize risk by not putting all his eggs in one basket. This took the form of creating diverse partnerships, limiting capital outlay, never becoming the official CEO of any enterprise, etc.

Meanwhile, President Urrutia, to allay growing fears of Communist infiltration of the government, declared himself a strong anti-Communist and began attacking the ideology. In response, Fidel Castro theatrically resigned as prime minister, demanding Urrutia’s resignation. In mid-July, Urrutia and his entire cabinet, pressured by Castro, newspapers, and a 500,000-strong protest march, resigned the presidency. A week after his own resignation, and in the presence of great public consternation, Castro resumed his post as prime minister, giving long speeches both when he resigned and again when he resumed the office. He replaced Urrutia with Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado, an obscure Cuban Communist Party lawyer, again without a vote.

Six months after gaining power, Castro made his first foreign revolutionary foray, in part to distract public opinion from the Urrutia cock-up: he attempted an invasion of the Dominican Republic. But it was an ill-planned, pathetically executed affair. Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator — and a truly sadistic butcher — was perceived in Cuba as the twin of the much more benign Batista. Castro proudly declared that it was his duty to extend his revolution to the sister republic. It was a wildly popular move, because Trujillo had helped Batista. But the real reason was revenge. Trujillo had done everything he could to derail Castro’s revolution and, as the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.

Castro’s expeditionary force of 200 men was wiped out by Trujillo’s army, which had been tipped off and was awaiting them. (The ancillary irony is that when Batista fled, he sought refuge in Santo Domingo from Trujillo; but Trujillo held him hostage for months until Batista paid him a ransom of many millions of dollars from his ill-gotten gains. Then the Dominican President allowed him to fly into permanent exile in Portugal.) Undeterred, a month later Castro launched an identical operation against Haiti’s dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier. There were practically no survivors.

More troubling than the Agrarian Reform Act was the establishment of the ironically titled Ministerio de Recuperacion de Bienes Malversados (MRBM), or Ministry for the Recuperation of Ill-Gotten Gains. Established in January 1959, it at first focused on the recovery of the previous regime’s illicit proceeds. But it didn’t hit full stride until later that year, when it began going after exiles’ property. Its remit extended over every type of private property, owned by just about anybody, down to personal jewelry and silverware. Historian Herminio Portell-Vila says that it “functioned capriciously, without the rule of law, anarchically, settling cases hastily . . . and without the protection of [the courts].” It even ransacked banks’ safe-deposit boxes — without warrants — for loot. By the end of 1959, the MRBM had confiscated $58 million worth of property, a figure that would, by 1961, rise to over $400 million.

Pop hadn’t quite become like the proverbial slowly boiled frog, but he decided to take a break from the increasingly bad omens in Cuba with an old-fashioned car trip in the US with the family, visiting the recently opened Disneyland in California before the start of the 1959–60 school year.

The most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.

Next to Fidel, 27-year-old Camilo Cienfuegos was the most popular Comandante in the Revolution — and he was probably more trusted, because of his unassuming, transparent demeanor. Che Guevara wasn’t even in the same league. Though popular, not only was he a foreigner, he was also an idealistic ideologue who wasn’t affected by the limelight. Not far down that line stood Comandante Huber Matos, who had been made military commander of Camagüey province.

Cuban military ranks had been subjected to curious political manipulations ever since 1933, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista led his non-commissioned officers’ coup against both the higher echelons and, by later, behind-the-scenes machinations, the government. He’d then promoted himself incrementally to colonel, then general.

Throughout Latin America, rank inflation since the wars for independence had gotten out of control, like incontinent old men engaging in a pissing contest. Titles such as field marshal, emperor, dictator-for-life, and most serene highness, all self-conferred and bandied about to a degree that relegated the rank of general to dogcatcher. Probably the most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.

Fidel Castro took a different approach, even though his rank of Comandante, Commander, was also self-conferred. Comandante was the highest rank in the rebel army. There were only 16 Comandantes including Fidel. It was a stratagem that implied humility and equality, a fiction that the primus inter pares didn’t take long to dispel.

In late October 1959, Comandante Huber Matos, along with 14 of his officers, resigned, citing the appointment of Communists to key positions of power in the government. Suspecting that Matos was organizing counterrevolution, Fidel dispatched Camilo Cienfuegos to arrest him. But after talking to Matos, Camilo didn’t want to arrest him. He argued with Castro that Matos was an honorable man and should be allowed to resign for reasons of conscience, that Matos was no danger to the Revolution, that he was not planning an uprising, and that he was a man who kept his word. But Castro wasn’t moved. So Camilo arrested the 15 men and had them incarcerated. Afterward, he boarded a plane for Havana.

The plane never made it back.

Some believe Castro ordered it shot down, perhaps because Camilo was becoming too popular or because he questioned Castro’s orders after talking with Matos. Others think it simply disappeared over the ocean during the night flight. A few days’ search yielded nothing but speculation; speculation that, to this day, has only caused both sides to reach for more tenuous extremes of supporting evidence.

Though others were questioning Castro’s intentions, it was the Cienfuegos-Matos affair that put the first doubts about the Revolution in my 10-year-old mind. Matos was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in the Carcel Modelo on the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Pines). He served his full sentence, 16 years of it in solitary confinement, subjected to multiple beatings and torture. Afterward, he joined the Miami-based anti-Castro CID (Cuba Independiente y Democrática).

I wasn’t the only doubter. Matos’ conviction marked the end of the “revolutionary coalition” between moderates and radicals, and put the great Cuban exodus that continues to this day into high gear.

By mid-December, only nine of the original 21 ministers of the revolutionary government remained. With Raul Castro as Minister of Defense, Dorticos in the presidency, Guevara in charge of the Central Bank, and himself as Prime Minister, Castro had concentrated all the reins of power in his hands.

Money, instead of being the root of all evil, is the tangible, distilled essence of a person’s best efforts, a repository that allows him to store his labor and talents in tiny bits of otherwise useless paper and metal for later conversion to food, housing, clothing, transportation, dreams, and even love. For safekeeping, once the reservoir exceeds, say, a month’s earnings, people resort to the safety of a bank, where funds are guarded and insured. It is a sacred trust.

How Che Guevara, an Argentine doctor, became head of the Cuban National Bank owes more to ideology than to expertise. Soon after taking power, Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session — according to a story Guevara told David Atlee Phillips (Pop’s CIA tenant) at a popular Cuban coffee house — Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him first, minister of industries, then Finance Minister, and finally, in November 1959, president of the National Bank.

The Argentine immediately began a series of draconian currency controls that, in effect, stole depositors’ money. But he did it incrementally, so that depositors wouldn’t withdraw all their money and run. Much later, between June and October 1960, these controls culminated in the nationalization of all the banks, and then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, the introduction of a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly shrank or even disappeared.

Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him head of the Cuban National Bank.

I cannot begin to imagine the stress Pop and Mina were undergoing towards the end of 1959, but I’m certain they were no longer at all sanguine about the direction the Revolution was taking. I seldom saw either one — not that they’d confide their worries and troubles to us kids. In his action against the Cuban government, filed under the International Claims Settlement Act of 1949, Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States, Pop would file a subclaim of $24,219 for “Impairment to health & loss of ability to work.”

It wasn’t just his immediate family that Howard was worrying himself sick about; it was also his employees, their families, their livelihoods. These were the people who depended on him and his businesses for a living. He was concerned about all of them equally. Pop came from a family who took in stray cats; who, upon encountering an upside-down beetle would stop to right it; who shooed away flies instead of killing them; who wrote poetry to pass the time — a family so shy, sensitive, quiet, and self-effacing that few of his siblings ever married, preferring to continue living together for the rest of their lives.

Christmas of 1959 revealed little of the brewing storm. The big public controversy was Castro’s suggestion that true Cuban patriots should decorate a palm tree for Christmas instead of an imported pine tree and should relegate Santiclos to the dustbin of history. We stuck to a locally grown pine tree.

Pop and Mina went all out. When we kids awoke at 5 AM and tiptoed down the stairs to see what Santiclos had brought, there were more presents under that tree than I had ever seen. But the pièce de résistance was the elaborate, full-scale Lionel train set with my name on it; one which, when it came time to leave the island, I was forced to leave behind.

I well remember New Year’s 1960. Alone, at the end of one of the streets that butted up to the Almendares Barranca, I reflected on my life thus far, and on the new decade and the changes that might come. As I sat on the inner barricade, when midnight struck I said goodbye to the ’50s, realizing in amazement that they were forever gone and would never return — their events now part of the past. And I wondered what the new decade, the ’60s, would bring. It was so curious, so concretely surreal, to stand at the exact threshold between my first and second decade. At the moment the clock struck 12 (not that I had a watch; the instant was marked by distant bells, bangs, and fireworks) I felt the pang of the irreversible passage of time, forever irretrievable.

A few minutes after midnight, I wandered home. No one questioned my whereabouts.

* * *

Not everyone welcomed the New Year as reflectively as I had.

Now that Che Guevara held the three most important economic portfolios in Cuba — president of the National Bank, minister of industry, and head of Agrarian Reform — he began rapidly extricating the Cuban economy from world markets and bringing it into dependence on the Soviet Bloc. His first moves, to sever Cuba’s ties with the Inter-American Development Bank and from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (aka the World Bank), were coupled with a sweetheart trade agreement with the USSR.

On February 6, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba and signed a preferential Trade and Payments Agreement worth $100 million in oil, petroleum products, wheat, iron, fertilizers, and machinery for . . . sugar. With the exits from the IADB and the World Bank, the Castro regime destroyed the traditional geopolitical ties between Cuba and the Western world. Full diplomatic relations with the USSR were established in May after having been severed by Batista seven years previously, after his coup in 1952. Ironically, it had been Batista who first established diplomatic relations with the USSR, back in 1943, and who had brought a number of Communists into his government, albeit without voting rights.

United States responses to these moves began as early as October 1959 with preliminary studies, and took actual form in January 1960. Concerned about the possibility of another attempted Soviet military base in the Western Hemisphere only five years after the overthrow of the Marxist Arbenz regime in Guatemala, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to create a Cuba Task Force to draft overt and covert response scenarios to the deteriorating diplomatic and human rights situation.

There are many misconceptions surrounding the US Central Intelligence Agency. Its basic remit is to gather information about foreign governments in order for the US to design an effective and appropriate foreign policy. Since the US cannot depend on CNN and Fox News for its information, it must depend on on-the-ground, on-the-spot sources abroad, along with satellite and electronic surveillance. This is called “spying” — an essential operation for a practical and engaged foreign policy. It is not a “government onto itself,” is not a military organization, does not have any law enforcement capabilities, took no part in Watergate, and is very limited in its domestic intelligence gathering. Its operatives have a GS 1-15 government employee rating and are subject to normal federal regulations.

The CIA, under specific executive branch orders, also promotes democracy in its wider sense: not just electoral democracy, but also individual rights and free markets. As to “overt” and “covert” actions, the first refers to US military operations; the second to aiding and organizing homegrown resistance against despotic regimes. Covert operations are impossible without credible and widespread domestic opposition within the target country. Since 1960, counterterrorism and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons have been added to the CIA’s priorities.

We kids had no inkling of the gravity of the impending changes until Nana, after playing at a neighbor’s house, came home one evening with trivial gossip. Marcia, her friend, had sat her down conspiratorially on the bed to confide something her mom had told her: that “everyone will soon be leaving Cuba by boat because of the Communists.”

Nana’s talk with Mina produced more of a shotgun shell of hidden queries than a comment: What did Marcia’s mom mean? How could everyone leave Cuba by boat? Were we going to leave Cuba in a boat?

Mamá approached her response slowly and thoughtfully, first saying that talking politics was impolite, but then, after a long pause, adding that it was “dangerous to talk politics.”

Whether 9-year-old Nana could make the connection between politics — as in elections and voting on the one hand — and leaving Cuba by boat on the other hand (this also being a kind of “politics“) is questionable, though she already had a healthy fear of Communism, not just from her catechism classes but from watching movies of the Spanish Civil War. At that age Nana was too slow and shy for followup questions. Nonetheless, Mamá’s response and the way she delivered it made a deep and lasting impression on Nana.

An even more blatant incident went completely over my own head. I had been assigned a poem to memorize and recite at an upcoming public forum at St. Thomas, celebrating something I can’t recall. When the day arrived, Mina was present, sitting with all the proud parents and attendees on movable bleachers. In between presentations, the St. Thomas Military Academy brass band played martial music. For a short while, I took center stage.

My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!”

I don’t remember being nervous or even the gist of the poem, but there was only perfunctory applause afterward, even though my recitation had been flawless. At the close of the ceremonies, Mina was nowhere to be found. I waited patiently by the car for her appearance. After a while I spotted her marching around the corner, headed for me, all four horsemen of the Apocalypse in one big bundle of angry woman. Steam was coming out of her head, but she said nothing during the drive home. I retreated into inconspicuousness, unwilling to experience any collateral damage from that critical mass.

Later, I overheard her and Pop discussing the incident. Mina thought the poem was un-American. But not just “un-American” — it was a load of scurrilous lies made to be delivered by a 10-year-old American kid to a Cuban audience. Mina took it personally. But she also didn’t take it as an isolated incident. She was connecting dots that led all the way up from a poem at St. Thomas through the new public policy ukases now filtering into education at even private schools, to Fidel Castro himself.

I was later to glean that it was this incident that, for Mina, sealed our exit. Trivial as it seemed, compared to the conflicts Pop must have been struggling with, forthcoming events were to indicate that he doggedly insisted on reconciling irreconcilable views. His concern for the family butted up against his optimism that everything would not turn out as bad as the Cassandras perceived. Mina’s insistence convinced him to leave, yet he remained frustratingly diffident. He took no concrete steps to divest himself of Cuban assets, thinking that his businesses and expertise would be beneficial to the new order — or, since I’m trying to delve into a mind long gone — he did not want to raise any red flags with the regime by appearing to think about leaving the sinking ship.

But a sinking ship it was. By March 1960 the New York Times had reported five serious anti-Castro groups operating out of Miami. Soon after, President Eisenhower initiated the by-now 55-year-old embargo. The embargo terminated US Cuban sugar purchases, ended US oil deliveries to the island, continued the arms embargo of 1958, begun so as not to take sides in the Revolution, and authorized a “Covert Action Plan Against Cuba,” which included the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro — what was to become the Bay of Pigs invasion.

One week after Eisenhower’s authorization, David Atlee Phillips, our old tenant, was appointed Director of Propaganda for the Cuba Operation. He immediately began the project to set up and run Radio Swan, the disinformation arm of the operation. This powerful CIA anti-Castro radio campaign was based on Swan Island, an uninhabited tiny dot in the Caribbean halfway between Nicaragua and Cuba, but claimed by Honduras. Starting out with 40 CIA operatives, nearly 600 noncombatants were to be involved in the Bay of Pigs operation — as trainers, organizers, technical experts, and all-round fixers.

Just before the Easter holidays of 1960, Castro ordered an island-wide strike against foreign-owned businesses. My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!” (Miller to the firing squad wall). He realized that it hadn’t been painted by his workers; he knew them all too well and shared a mutual trust and affection with them. To him, it looked more like Fidel’s handwriting on the wall — a much more troubling scenario. His diffidence disappeared.

Pop drove to the AIC offices downtown and told Hilda Navarro, his secretary, “I’ve got to leave.”

Hilda, a large, fun-loving, twinkle-in-her-eye woman, was incredulous. She responded, “Nonsense, I can live under any government,” and agreed to hold down the fort for what they both believed would only be a temporary interlude. Later, after the “temporary” became wishful thinking, she wrote to Pop asking for help in seeking exile. She successfully escaped from Cuba.

Two days later, under the guise of going on vacation, my father and mother and we three kids left for Merida, Yucatan, carrying a suitcase apiece and $25 each. My grandmother, Ana Maria Diaz y Otazo, stayed. She was too old and too Cuban to leave, and too parsimonious to abandon our grand mayoral residence to the clutches of Castro, as the new revolutionary law was very soon to require.

Over the course of the spring and summer, Cuba nationalized all US companies and properties, singling out oil companies and banks. Meanwhile, Eisenhower’s Covert Action Plan Against Cuba went into full swing. Work began on a 5,000-foot runway at an airfield at Retalhuleu in Guatemala to supply the Cuban exile force that was training in the nearby mountains on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest.

Although the entire operation was meant to be top secret, almost from the start it became an open secret, with Castro’s secret police and even journalists discovering and reporting on the operation. But I doubt that Pop was aware of it.

In a vain attempt to salvage some of his business interests, he flew back to Havana in the fall. He carried 5-year-old Patsy with him. Why, I can’t fathom. Either Pop was still in a state of partial denial as to the danger he was in, or it was a temptation to draw Abuela into exile with us. Either way, it was foolhardy.

On October 13 — virtually coinciding with his visit — the Urban Reform Act took effect. This legislation effectively outlawed the sale or rental of residential property. Existing rents that were not covered by the act were cut in half. Additional protocols stipulated ratios of inhabitants to floor space. To hang on to our big house — and to avoid eviction — Abuela invited the remaining servants’ relatives to move in with her. Most of Carmen’s immediate family took up the offer. Other, separate legislation nationalized nearly 400 Cuban companies.

Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest. Later, my father was to successfully lobby the Kennedy administration to pass legislation to allow the deduction of Cuban property losses through the federal income tax.

* * *

Uncle John was more bullheaded — in spite of Aunt Marta’s persistent nagging about the fact that Howard and Mina had left, that Howard was smart, that Mina wouldn’t do something stupid, that he didn’t want his sons to come to any harm, and that blah, blah, blah . . . But Uncle John was a tough operator and took pride in obstinately resisting Marta. In October he finally relented and sent Marta and his sons Johnny and Richard off to the US. He, however, stayed behind, hoping to salvage something of his rapidly disappearing life’s work.

Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.

What he thought of Operation Pedro Pan, I’ll never know. Over the course of the summer and fall, the Castro regime had closed all parochial schools and expelled the nuns and priests who ran them, taking over the operation of all primary and secondary schools. Cuban parents were aghast. They feared the indoctrination of their children by the government; they feared that the Castro regime would take away their parental authority. Remembering the airlift of Spanish children to the USSR during the Spanish Civil War for “safety and education,” and paying heed to the alarming rumors going about, over 10,000 worried parents, led by James Baker, the headmaster of our kindergarten alma mater, Ruston Academy, and with the help of the Catholic Church and the US government — to the tune of a million dollars and visa waivers — organized an airlift of 14,000 children to Miami the day after Christmas.

Their fears turned out to have been altogether too true. Under the guise of the Literacy Campaign of 1960 and School Goes to the Countryside, thousands of kids were removed from their homes for 45-day periods to camp with their teachers in farming cooperatives, combining education with productive work. According to Flor Fernandez Barrios in her book, Blessed by Thunder, the abuse and punishment for nonconformity at the camps was nearly as bad as having to eat your own vomit.

Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.

When, on January 3 of 1961, the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Uncle John finally left, in the vanguard of what was to become an exodus of over one million Cubans during the next two decades.




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Only Nostrums Need Apply

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The "Great Depression" began with the stock market crash of 1929. In all previous depressions, there was little, if any, federal government intervention to extricate America from economic travail. It was held that the federal government possessed neither the knowledge nor the constitutional authority to meddle with the free-market capitalist economy that had propelled America from a fledgling agricultural enclave to a global industrial power in less than 150 years.

Everything was about to change. The 1920s experienced at once the reckless expansion of credit by the Federal Reserve and economic thought by the liberal elite. The former produced an enormous margin-driven stock market bubble that burst in October 1929; the latter produced a remedy that burst any chance of recovery from economic distress. Unlike all previous economic downturns, the calamity in 1929 invoked intense federal government intervention; it also invoked the longest depression in American history. The days of limited government — so expressively and resolutely defined by the Constitution — would be gone for good.

Then-president Herbert Hoover transformed the ensuing mild recession (from which the economy was already recovering by June 1930) into a depression, which, in 1932, was delivered to newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With his Brain Trust of lawyers, journalists, and college professors and the freshly minted ideas of Keynesian scholars, he concocted an unprecedented grab-bag of nostrums known as the "New Deal" and parlayed Hoover's depression into a prolonged Great Depression. The American economy would not return to its pre-crash prosperity until 1946.

Unlike all previous economic downturns, the calamity in 1929 invoked intense federal government intervention; it also invoked the longest depression in American history.

In fairness, the bungling of both presidents was enhanced by the Federal Reserve System. The primary function of the Fed was to ensure that US banks could withstand "runs" by depositors attempting, en masse, to withdraw their assets during financial downturns. The Fed was established in 1913 to act as the lender of last resort (LLR) for banks. It replaced the private clearinghouse system that had successfully provided LLR services prior to 1913. But between 1930 and 1933, when stressed banks were desperate for liquidity, the Fed followed a tight money policy. This inexplicable neglect of its primary function contributed to the collapse of more than10,000 banks between 1930 and 1933. Then, in 1936 and 1937, its insistence on raising bank-reserve requirements (once again shrinking the money supply), contributed to the severe recession of 1937–38 — the recession within the Depression.

Unlike President Harding, who did not intervene in the depression of 1920, Hoover believed that not intervening in 1929 "would have been utter ruin." Accordingly, he increased federal spending 42% by 1932, boasting that his administration had embarked on "the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic." Hoover was then excoriated by FDR for extravagant spending and excessive taxing, for entertaining the idea that "that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible,” and for “leading the country down the path of socialism.”

FDR's public objection to Hoover's intervention was, however, merely a ploy to win the election of 1932. Privately, he believed that Hoover's most gigantic program was not gigantic enough. Roosevelt’s New Deal would put Hoover's reckless extravagance to shame. And while Hoover's intervention was to be temporary and limited, FDR's would become permanent and unlimited. FDR radically transformed government's role in the economy to "center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible" and "lead the country down the path of socialism."

By all accounts, the intentions of the New Deal were noble and praiseworthy. To an objective observer, little else can be said that is favorable. Although Democrats hail the welfare and regulatory state that FDR created, the establishment of a welfare and regulatory state was not a New Deal objective. Its objective was economic recovery — which was never achieved under New Deal programs. Unable to restore the American economy, the charismatic FDR gave only ironic hope to a nation in despair: the hope that it could endure the seemingly endless hardship that his policies inflicted.

Hoover believed that not intervening in 1929 "would have been utter ruin." Accordingly, he increased federal spending 42% by 1932.

If not for World War II, FDR's intervention "would have been utter ruin" for the nation. As economist Larry Summers, former director of President Obama's National Economic Council, admonished: “Never forget, never forget, and I think it’s very important for Democrats especially to remember this, that if Hitler had not come along, Franklin Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 with an unemployment rate in excess of 15% and an economic recovery strategy that had basically failed.”

The New Deal was the paragon of nostrums: a political fantasy whose probability of success was inversely proportional to the conceit of its exaggerated claims. Blaming both capitalism and his predecessor for the nation's economic plight, FDR felt compelled to rely on untested Keynesian concepts for stimulating the economy. What emerged was a haphazard torrent of elixirs, boondoggles, and utopian schemes ("a saturnalia of expropriation and waste," to H.L. Mencken) whose only centering force was a frenetic shove to expand federal power. Brain Trust professor Raymond Moley, a close FDR advisor who eventually became critical of the New Deal, found FDR a rank amateur in such matters. Said Moley in 1939, “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan, was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.”

Brain Trust professor Alvin Hansen (aka the "American Keynes"), who favored "highly centralized collectivism" as the optimal method to "command and direct the productive resources," also became frustrated. According to Hansen, "Every attempt at a solution involves it in a maze of contradictions. Every artificial stimulant saps its inner strength. Every new measure conjures out of the ground a hundred new problems."

FDR set the precedent for government by nostrum, and demonstrated that the only thing worse than a liberal nostrum is a well-funded liberal nostrum. Said FDR's Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau: "We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started . . . And an enormous debt to boot!"

The charismatic Roosevelt gave only ironic hope to a nation in despair: the hope that it could endure the seemingly endless hardship that his policies inflicted.

The spending continued until after WWII. Keynesian economists such as Hansen were beside themselves with fear that postwar budget cuts would drastically harm the New Deal goal of pre-crash prosperity. If the spending did not continue, warned Paul Samuelson, America would experience “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.”

To their intellectual dismay, once tax rates were cut and price controls removed, the private sector (i.e., capitalism) took over, and the American economy soared. According to economist Steven Moore, "personal consumption grew by 6.2% in 1945 and 12.4% in 1946 even as government spending crashed. At the same time, private investment spending grew by 28.6% and 139.6%." Unemployment dropped to 4% in 1946 and "stayed that low for the better part of a decade . . . during the biggest reduction in government spending in American history."

The Great Depression finally ended, when the spending finally stopped. It was not the New Deal that ended the depression. Nor was it WWII. It was the curtailment of the New Deal that ended the depression, 17 years after it started.

What has America learned from this tragic ordeal? Libertarians and conservatives have learned that there is no better argument for limited government than the New Deal. Prior to 1929, the federal government did not intervene in times of economic distress. Recovery was left to the forces of capitalism; individuals and businesses were left to fend for themselves, receiving relief primarily from private charities, occasionally from state and local governments. During that long history, the federal government nostrum was peddled only by snake-oil salesmen, and recovery from economic downturns averaged four years. It often occurred in two years or less. Capitalism did not produce depressions, and less intrusive means of intervention, including no federal intervention, produced far superior results.

After the Panic of 1893, President Grover Cleveland did virtually nothing, except to arrange the repeal of interventionist laws; the ensuing depression, which, according to many, was every bit as devastating as the Great Depression, ended in about four years. (On the contrast between the two depressions, see an essay by Stephen Cox in Edward Younkins, Capitalism and Commerce in Imaginative Literature.) After the Crash of 1920, in which the stock market fell further than it would in 1929, President Harding did less than nothing interventionist. He cut taxes for all income groups, cut the federal budget by almost 50%, and reduced the national debt by 33%. The ensuing depression ended in less than two years and was followed by eight years of unprecedented prosperity, the "Roaring Twenties." Harding succeeded where FDR failed. "Wobbly" Warren Harding!

From this evidence, libertarians and conservatives conclude that nostrums should be avoided at all costs. Chances are, that without nostrums, the Great Depression would have ended in four years, instead of 17. With its return to prosperity, America would have had more than enough money to finance all the roads, schools, parks, and bridges that were built under FDR's make-work programs. But it is critically important to understand that it wasn't the fact that it took 17 years for the nostrums to work. They never worked. The idea that the New Deal succeeded is a myth. The Great Depression did not start until after politicians intervened and did not end until their intervention finally stopped, after subjecting the nation to more than 17 years of want and despair.

Capitalism did not produce depressions, and less intrusive means of intervention, including no federal intervention, produced far superior results.

But liberals, who live in a world in which ideology trumps evidence, missed the tragically abysmal failure that was the New Deal. To them the lesson of the Great Depression was the power of the nostrum: once established, nostrums never go away; they stay and breed more nostrums. In the hands of liberals, a nostrum is a ratchet. While libertarians and conservatives are appalled by the failure of FDR's economic assistance programs, liberals are enraptured by the welfare state that they established: the vibrant, lucrative poverty industry and the languid, needy underclass that it services, both intractable, both agitating for more and bolder nostrums.

This is why the New Deal consumes liberal thought, and why a nostrum is modern liberalism's only thought. The New Deal spawned the "Great Society," Lyndon Johnson's New Deal. And today America endures Barack Obama's "saturnalia of expropriation and waste." Today's liberal can conceive of neither a problem that does not require government intervention nor a solution that does not require a nostrum. Liberals do not care that their nostrums do not work (if one did, it wouldn't be a nostrum). A nostrum's main value lies in its ratcheting effect. As noted historian and FDR worshiperArthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it, "There seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.”

When Republicans took power in 1953, even President Eisenhower, the architect of our victory in World War II, was afraid to scale back New Deal legislation. In 1969, President Nixon was afraid to cut back already failing Great Society legislation. He was warned by the friendly, and sincere, advice of Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “All the Great Society activist constituencies are lying out there in wait, poised to get you if you try to come after them, the professional welfarists, the urban planners, the day-carers, the social workers, the public housers. . . . Just take [the] Model Cities [program], the urban ghettos will go up in flames if you cut it out.”

FDR gave us Social Security, the largest and most popular program of his legacy — the “most successful government program in the history of the world,” as Democrat Senator Harry Reid exclaimed. Johnson gave us Medicare, an even larger program. In retirement, all but the wealthiest among us depend on the benefits paid out by these two programs. But both are colossal Ponzi schemes, on track to go broke by 2034. This is not to say that a "social safety net" is unimportant or unnecessary. But, despite their laudable intentions, such entitlement programs, as they have been formulated by pandering politicians, are nostrums that have created an unfunded liability of $90 trillion and threaten to bankrupt the nation.

Today's liberal can conceive of neither a problem that does not require government intervention nor a solution that does not require a nostrum.

Let’s review the history of intervention in another way. When the market crashed in 1920, unemployment increased from 4% to 12%. By August 1921, the economy began its recovery. When the market crashed in 1929, unemployment increased from 4% to 9%, where it lingered for one month, before gradually decreasing to 6.3% in June 1930. The economy was recovering on its own from a mild recession. But that June, Republican President Hoover and a Democrat Congress enacted the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, the first in a long series of heavy-handed federal interventions. Unemployment soared to 16% in 1931. Massive federal spending, debt financing, tax increases, the denial of liquidity (by the Federal Reserve) to failing banks, and numerous other forms of federal tinkering crushed US GDP growth for the rest of the decade. Throughout the 1930s, the median annual unemployment rate was 17.2%. Unemployment did not fall below 14% until the early 1940s, when 12 million Americans were hired by the military.

In June 1930, had the federal government pursued the limited-government policies of the Harding-Coolidge administrations, the depression would have been over by 1932. But the nostrums that were pursued instead prolonged the depression, and, in the process, writes Robert Higgs (in “The Mythology of Roosevelt and the New Deal”), revolutionized "the institutions of American political and economic life," changed "the country’s dominant ideology," and created a leviathan that is "still hampering the successful operation of the market economy and diminishing individual liberties." The New Deal agencies, whose supreme ineptitude caused America to suffer more than ten years longer than it would have under limited-government policies, remain today. Notes Higgs:

One need look no further than an organization chart of the federal government. There one finds such agencies as the Export-Import Bank, the Farm Credit Administration, the Rural Development Administration (formerly the Farmers Home Administration), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, the Rural Utility Service (formerly the Rural Electrification Administration), the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Social Security Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority — all of them the offspring of the New Deal. Each in its own fashion interferes with the effective operation of the free market. By subsidizing, financing, insuring, regulating, and thereby diverting resources from the uses most valued by consumers, each renders the economy less productive than it could be — and all in the service of one special interest or another.

Yet the myth — the pernicious myth — of the New Deal lives on. Today, as FDR blamed his predecessor and capitalism for America's economic plight, Mr. Obama, who won election waving the New Deal banner against the "Great Recession" of 2008, blames capitalism and George W. Bush. Obama even blamed Bush for adding $4.9 trillion to the national debt (money borrowed during eight years of Bush's tenure to finance establishment-Republican nostrums), calling it "irresponsible" and "unpatriotic" — just before he [Obama] went on to borrow $10.6 trillion for his nostrums, running up the national debt to an unprecedented $19 trillion.

With almost one year left for Mr. Obama to enlarge this staggering arrearage, both Democrat candidates for the 2016 presidential election propose the only thing that liberalism allows them to offer: more nostrums.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, ever ready to put taxpayer money where their mouths are, clamor for a new New Deal — no doubt to build on the success of Obama's New Deal. A new New Deal is needed, they say, because "for too long,” as one activist put it, “the federal government has tolerated and perpetuated practices of racial and gender discrimination, allowed rampant pollution to contaminate our water and air, sent millions to prison instead of colleges and permitted Wall Street and CEOs to rig all the rules." Correcting the deficiencies of existing big government nostrums calls for a new New Deal with bigger Big Government.

Sanders has a new New Deal for $19.6 trillion (paid for with a 47% tax increase). Clinton even has one for "communities of color" — perhaps to lock in the votes of Americans, who, with Job-like patience, have been waiting more than 50 years for the ruthlessly inept Great Society programs to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, reconcile immigration, and improve public education.

Both Democrat candidates for the 2016 presidential election propose the only thing that liberalism allows them to offer: more nostrums.

After almost eight years of suffering Mr. Obama's nostrums (the Wall Street bailout, the auto industry bailout, the Stimulus, Quantitative Easing, the Green Economy, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, Middle Class economics, the profligate regulatory morass . . . ), all of America waits, its economy in chronic stagnation— for bigger, better nostrums. We might as well wait for the Treasury Secretary finally to admit, "We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started . . . And an enormous [$19 trillion] debt to boot!"

Willfully oblivious to the evidence, we resign ourselves to a stifling federal patrimony, where no problem escapes a New Deal style nostrum and "every attempt at a solution involves it in a maze of contradictions. Every artificial stimulant saps its inner strength. Every new measure conjures out of the ground a hundred new problems."

* * *

Further Reading

Articles

1920: The Great Depression That Wasn't by C.J. Maloney
The Depression You've Never Heard Of: 1920–1921
by Robert P. Murphy
Great Myths of the Great Depression
by Lawrence W. Reed
The Great Depression
by Hans F. Sennholz
The Mythology of Roosevelt and the New Deal
by Robert Higgs

Books

FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression by Jim Powell
The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression
by Amity Shlaes
New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America
by Burton Folsom
A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960
by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz




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Pandora’s Book

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What would you do if you were told that something you believe is not true? It would depend on who was telling you, I guess. It would also depend on how important the belief was to you, and on the strength of the evidence offered, wouldn’t it?

Suppose the belief in question had shaped your career and your view of how the world works. What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?

Would you look at it?

In his 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Nicholas Wade takes the position that “human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.” Put that way, it sounds rather harmless, doesn’t it? In fact, the book has caused quite a ruckus.

What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?

The following is not a review of Wade’s book. It is, instead, more a look at how the book was received and why. There are six parts: a story about Galileo, a summary of what I was taught about evolution in college, a sharper-edged rendering of the book’s hypothesis, an overview of some of the reviews, an irreverent comment on the controversy over Wade’s choice of a word, and, finally, an upbeat suggestion to those engaged in the ongoing nurture vs. nature debate.

1. It is the winter of 1609. In a courtyard of the University of Padua, Galileo Galilei closes one eye and peers at the moon through his recently improved telescope. As he observes the play of light and shadow on its surface, there comes a moment when he realizes that he is looking at the rising and setting of the sun across the mountains and valleys of another world. He is stunned.

Galileo hurries to tell his friend and colleague, Cesare Cremonini, then drags him to the courtyard, urging him to view this wonder. Cesare puts his eye to the scope for just a moment, then pulls his head back, pauses, frowns, and says, “I do not wish to approve of claims about which I do not have any knowledge, and about things which I have not seen . . . and then to observe through those glasses gives me a headache. Enough! I do not want to hear anything more about this.”

What a thing to say.

A little context might help. Cesare taught the philosophy of Aristotle at Padua. Aristotle held that the moon was not a world but a perfect sphere: no mountains, no valleys. Furthermore, the Inquisition was underway, and a tenured professor of philosophy who started rhapsodizing about “another world” would have been well advised to restrict his comments to the Celestial Kingdom. The Pope, you see, agreed with Aristotle. To him, and, therefore, to the Roman Catholic Church, the only “world” was the earth, the immobile center of the universe around which everything else moved. Any other view was taboo. Poor Cesare! Not only did he not want to look through the telescope; he did not want there to be mountains on the moon at all.

The question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?

It would get worse. Soon Galileo would point his scope at Jupiter and discover its moons, heavenly bodies that clearly weren’t orbiting the earth. Then he would observe and record the astonishing fact that Venus went through phases as it orbited not the earth but the sun. So: Ptolemy was wrong, Copernicus was right, and Cesare Cremonini would go down in history as the epitome of willful ignorance. Galileo, of course, fell into the clutches of the Inquisition and became a hero of the Renaissance.

To be fair to Cesare, the story has been retrospectively streamlined into a sort of scientific morality tale. While the part about Galileo’s discovery is probably more or less right, Cremonini’s remark wasn’t made directly to Galileo. It was reported to him later in a letter from a mutual friend, Paolo Gualdo. The text of that letter is included in Galileo’s work, Opere II. And while those jagged borders of light and dark on the moon, imperfectly magnified, were certainly thought-provoking, to say that the case against Ptolemy was closed on the spot, that night in Padua, would be too neat.

It makes a good story, though, and a nice lens for viewing reactions to scientific breakthroughs. Changing our focus now from the moons of Jupiter to the molecular Rubik’s cube we call the human genome, the question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?

2. In an undergraduate course, taken decades ago, I was taught that human evolution had more or less stopped when the glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago. Evolution had been driven primarily by natural selection in response to a changing environment; and, as such changes had, for the time being at least, halted, so too had the evolution of man.

I was taught that races exist only as social constructs, not as meaningful biological categories, and that these constructs are only skin deep. They told me that the social behavior of an individual is not genetic, that behavioral and cognitive propensities just aren’t in our genes.

I was taught that the differences among social organizations are unrelated to the genetic differences of the populations that comprise those various organizations, and that social environments have no influence on human evolution.

3. To show how Wade’s book stirred things up, I will present his central hypothesis with an emphasis on the controversial parts. I’ll avoid scientific jargon, in an effort to make the meaning clearer to my fellow nonscientists.

Wade believes that humanity has been evolving rapidly during the past 30,000 years and continues to evolve rapidly today. It is not just our physical characteristics that continue to evolve. The genes that influence our behavior also evolve. (Yes, that’s what the book says, that our behavior is influenced by our genes.)

is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer is “yes.”

He also believes that humanity has evolved differently in different locations, most markedly on the different continents, where the major races evolved. (Yes, the book calls them races.)

These separately evolved genetic differences include those that influence behavior. (Yes, the book says that race is deeper than the skin.)

Furthermore, these genetic differences in behavioral propensities have contributed to the diversity of civilizations. The characteristics of any given civilization, in turn, influence the direction of evolution of the humans who compose it.

Oh, my.

We now know that the earth goes around the sun. But is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Does the particular set of alleles in an individual’s genome influence how that person behaves? Does the particular frequency of alleles in the collective genetic material of the people who compose a civilization influence the characteristics of that civilization? Do the characteristics of a civilization influence the direction of the evolution of the humans that compose it? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer to all these questions is “yes.” While he does not claim that all of this has been proven, he is saying, in effect, that what I learned in college is not true. Am I now to be cast as Cremonini?

4. There are those who disagree with Wade.

In fact, lots of people didn’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all. I’ve read about 20 reviews, few of them favorable. Even Charles Murray, writing in theWall Street Journal, seemed skeptical of some of Wade’s arguments.Most of the others were simply unfavorable, among them reviews in the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, Scientific American, the New York Times, The New Republic, and even Reason. Slate and The Huffington Post piled on. While Brian Bethune’s review in MacLean’s was gentler than most, it was gently dismissive.

The reactions run from disdain to anger to mockery. Nathaniel Comfort’s satirical review Hail Britannia!,in his blog Genotopia, is the funniest. Donning the persona of a beef-fed, red-faced, pukka sahib at the height of the Raj, he praises Wade’s book as a self-evident explanation of the superiority of the West in general and the British in particular. (I once saw a retired British officer of the Indian Army being told by an Indian government official that he had to move his trailer to a remote area of a tiger preserve to ensure the security of a visiting head of state. He expressed his reluctance with the words, “I’m trying to be reasonable, damn it, but I’m not a reasonable man!”)

There’s some pretty heated language in these reviews, too. That the reviewers are upset is understandable. After all, they have been told that what they believe is not true. And the fellow doing the telling isn’t even a scientist.Sure, Nicholas Wade was a science writer and editor for the New York Times for three decades, but that doesn’t makehim a scientist. Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.

Of course they’re angry. Some of these guys are professors who teach, do research, and write books on the very subject areas that Wade rampages through. If he’s right, then they’re wrong, and their life’s work has been, if not wasted, at the very least misguided.

The consensus is that Wade has made a complete hash of the scientific evidence that he cites to make his case: cherry-picking, mischaracterizing, over-generalizing, quoting out of context, that kind of thing.

Another common complaint is that, wittingly or not, Wade is providing aid and comfort to racists. In fact, the animosity conveyed in some of the reviews may spring primarily from this accusation. In his review in the New York Times, David Dobbs called the book “dangerous.” Whoa. As I said, they don’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all.

So, is Nicholas Wade just plain wrong, or are his learned critics just so many Cremoninis?

5. While the intricacies of most of the disagreements between Wade and his critics are over my head, one of the criticisms is fairly clear. It is that Wade uses the term “race” inappropriately.

The nub of the race question is that biologists want the word “race” as it applies to humans to be the equivalent of the word “subspecies” as it applies to animals. As the genetic differences among individual humans and the different populations of humans are so few, and the boundaries between the populations so indistinct, biologists conclude that there are no races. We are all homo sapiens sapiens. We are one.

Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.

Just south of Flathead Lake in Montana is an 8,000-acre buffalo preserve. One summer day in the mid-’70s, I walked into its visitors center with my wife and father-in-law and asked the woman behind the counter, “Where are the buffalo?” She did not hesitate before hissing, “They’re bison.” Ah, yes: the bison-headed nickel, Bison Bill Cody, and, “Oh, give me a home where the bison roam . . .” You know the critter.

Put it this way: to a National Park Ranger, a buffalo is a bison; to a biological anthropologist, race is a social construct. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a buffalo.

I don’t mean to make light of it. I’ve read the explanations. I’ve studied the printouts that graph and color-code populations according to genetic variation. I’ve studied the maps and charts that show the differences in allele frequencies among the groups. I’ve squinted at the blurry edges of the clusters. I get all that, but this much is clear: the great clusters of genetic variation that correspond to the thousands of years of relative isolation on the various continents that followed the trek out of Africa are real, and because they are genetic, they are biological. In any case, we are not in a biology class; we are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.” To criticize Wade’s use of the term “race” seems pedantic. Whether to call the clusters “races” or “populations” or “groups” is a semantic dispute.

Put it another way: If you put on your “there is no such thing as race” costume for Halloween, you’ll be out trick-or-treating in your birthday suit, unless you stay on campus.

Besides, use any word you want, it won’t affect the reality that the symbol represents. The various “populations” either have slightly different genetic mixes that nudge behavior differently, or they don’t. I mean, are we seeking the truth here or just trying to win an argument?

6. While Wade offers no conclusive proof that genes create behavioral predispositions, he does examine some gene-behavior associations that point in that direction and seem particularly open to further testing. Among them are the MAOA gene and its influence on aggression and violence, and the OXTR gene and its influence on empathy and sensitivity. (The symbols link to recent research results.)

What these have in common is that the biochemical chain from the variation of the gene to the behavior is at least partly understood. The chemical agents of the genes in question are L-monoamine oxidase and oxytocin, respectively. Because of this, testing would not be restricted to a simple correlation of alleles to overt behaviors in millions of people, though that is a sound way to proceed as well. The thing about the intermediate chemical triggers is that they could probably be measured, manipulated, and controlled for.

We are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.”

The difficult task of controlling for epigenetic, developmental, and environmental variables would also be required but, in the end, it should be possible to determine whether the alleles in question actually influence behavior.

If they do, the next step would be to determine the frequency of the relevant allele patterns in various populations. If the frequency varies significantly, then the discussion about how these genetic differences in behavioral propensities may have contributed to the diverse characteristics of civilizations could be conducted on firmer ground.

If the alleles are proven not to influence behavior, then Wade’s hypothesis would remain unproven, and lots of textbooks wouldn’t have to be tossed out.

Of course, it’s not so simple. The dance between the genome and the environment has been going on since life began. At this point, it might be said that everything in the environment potentially influences the evolution of man, making it very difficult to identify which parts of human behavior, if any, are influenced by our genes. Like Cremonini, I have no wish to approve of claims about which I do not have knowledge.

But the hypothesis that Wade lays out will surely be tested and retested. The technology that makes the testing possible is relatively new, but improving all the time. We can crunch huge numbers now, and measure genetic differences one molecule at a time. It is inevitable that possible links between genes and behavior will be examined more and more closely as the technology improves. Associations among groups of alleles, for example, and predispositions of trust, cooperation, conformity, and obedience will be examined, as will the even more controversial possible associations with intelligence. That is to say, the telescope will become more powerful. And then, one evening, we will be able to peer through the newly improved instrument, and we shall see.

That is, of course, if we choose to look.




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