Tort Reform vs. “Loser Pays”

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The concept of reforming the American legal system to adopt the “loser pays” system used in most foreign countries, by which the loser pays the winner’s attorney’s fees, is popular among libertarians. “Loser pays” is proposed as a means of deterring frivolous litigation and solving the problem of excessive lawsuits. When Texas recently adopted the system, it was championed as a victory for small business. I have seen John Stossel advocate it, and in Liberty I have seen Gary Jason endorse it in a comment on one of my essays. “Loser pays” is a policy that might seem reasonable to a non-lawyer layperson. To a lawyer like me, unfortunately, it looks like a policy with unintended and unfavorable consequences — and a policy that has little chance of accomplishing its purpose.

The idea that it will deter frivolous litigation hinges on the idea that the frivolous litigant will lose. Yet if frivolous litigants actually stand a good chance of winning, then “loser pays” deters nothing except poor people, who would find it riskier to access the justice system. In torts lawsuits, the laws are such that bad plaintiffs with bad suits often have a good chance of winning. For instance, Liebeck v.McDonald’s was a lawsuit in which a woman sued McDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee and burned herself, for which McDonald’s was held liable at trial for millions of dollars (mostly punitive damages) and ultimately settled the appeal. This is the quintessential bad lawsuit, and it was held up as a poster child for tort reform. Yet the plaintiff won at trial, on the argument that the coffee was excessively hot and the cup’s warning label was too small.

This lawsuit could have been stopped by reforming the law, that is, by creating a bar to punitive damages whenever there is a warning label. Because the case settled, it would have been unaffected by “loser pays.” Under “loser pays” the risk of having to pay McDonald’s’ legal defense fees if the plaintiff lost might have factored into her calculation of whether or not to sue. But she won the case at trial, and if cases like this happen, then who really expects plaintiffs with bad cases to be excessively afraid of losing? As I will explain below, you don't win a lawsuit because of the rationality of your claim but because of the emotions of the jury. So if a tort plaintiff can reach a jury, the jury trial system will be favorable to stupid lawsuits. The best solution is to reform the tort laws so that plaintiffs with ridiculous cases have no legal way to reach a jury.

You don't win a lawsuit because of the rationality of your claim but because of the emotions of the jury.

Meanwhile, “loser pays” is likely to scare poor people with valid claims away from court, by inspiring the fear not only of losing but also of paying the huge legal fees of a wealthier opponent’s high-powered law firm. The landmark civil rights litigation that helped to end Southern segregation might never have been filed in a “loser pays” system.

As for frivolous suits — There are already legal ethics rules and civil procedural rules that forbid and punish lawyers for bringing “frivolous”, “vexatious”, “abusive” suits, and there are provisions that enable judges quickly to dismiss baseless or groundless claims. “Loser pays” will add little to the tools that are already there to deal with the frivolous. In fact, the only way to prevent bad litigation is to eliminate the bad laws that form the legal basis of bad lawsuits.

Let me clear: I am an advocate of tort reform, just not of “loser pays” in particular. There are many tort reform policies to choose from that would reduce unnecessary or harmful litigation without toxic side effects. We could, for instance:

1. Reduce the percentage of the tort plaintiff’s contingent fees that are considered “reasonable.” Legal ethics rules ban lawyers from charging “unreasonable” fees, but a whopping 30% is considered reasonable, and 30% is the typical rate. I think a cap of 5% as “reasonable” would cut the amount of frivolous litigation in half. In this way, torts plaintiff lawyers would enter their practice with some other goal than becoming multimillionaires by exploiting the tragedies of their poor clients.

2. Eliminate class actions. The whole concept of class actions has always bothered me. To say that someone else has the right to litigate my claim without my consent or involvement, just because our claims are identical, is absurd, even if there are requirements of judicial consent and competent representation and the ability to opt out. Judicial efficiency, which is the valid motive of class actions, is not an excuse to let someone else litigate my case. Because class actions have millions of plaintiffs but only one law firm, the lawyers often make millions while the plaintiffs each get a few cents.

Now, there is already a rule in legal ethics codes that bans lawyers from representing multiple clients who have conflicts of interest with one another — something I believe most class action clients have, because each client’s claim is slightly different and might benefit from the case’s being tried differently. The conflict of interest rules are considered to be among the most important, yet class actions have a loophole. So instead of effecting a statutory ban, I propose simply to close the loophole and force class action lawyers to vet every member of the class for conflicts of interest. Any conflict would remove that class member. This would sharply reduce the volume of class action litigation.

3. Change the products liability tort standard from strict liability to negligence. Products liability cases are typically tried under a theory of “strict liability,” which means that fault (i.e. blame) need not be proven. Strict liability is an affront to logic, an abomination. While some see the purpose of tort law as deterrence, I see it as compensatory justice, which means that damages are supposed to restore a victim to the condition he or she would be in, had the defendant not made a bad decision. I view tort law and contract law as twin aspects of free will and personal responsibility, as recognized by law: contract law means that your choices will bind and control you, whereas tort law means that someone else’s choices will not be allowed to ruin you. If defendants have not made bad choices, there is no reason to make them pay.

If a tort plaintiff can reach a jury, the jury trial system will be favorable to stupid lawsuits.

Although a layperson might think of negligence as something that happened to cause an unintended accident, the better understanding is that it consists of the choice to be careless and risk-prone. The strict liability standard has been justified on the grounds that product defects are technologically complicated and it would be too difficult to prove negligence, but this is no excuse for bad law. We should force plaintiffs to prove negligence. Then everyone will benefit from cheaper prices, because manufacturers’ litigation costs will decrease.

4. Reform the standard of negligence for medical malpractice, so as to create a safe harbor. Medical fees skyrocket when doctors are forced to pay huge medical malpractice insurance premiums, and the practice of medicine is compromised when doctors based their decisions on fear of being sued, not the health needs of their patients. My safe harbor proposal is that if a medical practice or hospital had a written policy of procedures designed to prevent the type of malpractice that is at issue in a case, and the policy was implemented and regularly enforced and internally audited for compliance, then negligence cannot be proven. Similarly, if a surgeon or delivery obstetrician had a checklist of risks to prevent, a list that multiple doctors double-checked at the time of the surgery or childbirth, and the negligence at issue was on the list, then the doctor would have entered a safe harbor.

This is simply common sense: if the doctors were taking every possible systematic action to limit risk, then they were not negligent. Such precautionary policies would protect patients from accidents far more effectively than the tort lawsuits that drive up medical costs. Such a negligence test would cut frivolous lawsuits. State legislatures can codify my safe harbor rule, but clever judges could tacitly incorporate it into preexisting common law med mal negligence standards.

5. Put a statutory dollar limit cap on damages. My understanding is that a civil trial is really just a popularity contest in which the jury votes for the lawyer it liked the most. Instead of faithfully interpreting the judge’s instructions to the jury (which are often so technical that only a lawyer could properly apply them), the jury awards lots of money to the party it likes and punishes whichever parties it disliked, by making them pay huge damages. Usually poor old helpless plaintiff Mr. P, the janitor with a wife and five children who is suing because he broke his leg, is more sympathetic than the rich big business defendant Corporation D, especially when Mr. P’s lawyer slyly insinuates that D cut corners on safety in order to make a profit. This is the open secret, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, when people talk about tort lawsuits and tort reform. This is also one reason why “loser pays” is ridiculous: from a practical, pragmatic, no-nonsense point of view there is no reason to believe that the loser is the one who deserved to lose.

The right to a jury trial in cases that are “at law” (i.e. where the plaintiff seeks money) is constitutionally “inviolate,” and I leave for another essay the question of whether jury trials should be comprehensively reformed. However, at a bare minimum justice demands that we solve the problem of headstrong juries by removing jurors' discretion to award damages in excess of what the intent of the law indicates, simply because they happen to feel sympathy for one side or another. Activist judges who do not faithfully apply the law are a problem, but so too are activist juries. A legislative statutory solution to place reasonable, honest dollar value caps on each of the different types of damages, or to lower the caps that already exist, is one feasible fix.

In conclusion: “loser pays” is far inferior to the American Rule, in which each party pays his own attorney’s fees regardless of who wins or loses the trial;but there are tort reform solutions available if voters elect legislators and judges who will use them.




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In the Land of Blind Men

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I, like you, have become accustomed to the hypocrisies of collectivists established in politics and the popular culture. Examples are legion, but here are two that have stuck with me:

  • Sen. John Kerry, who once called Americans who avoid high taxes “traitors,” showed all the integrity you’d expect from a gigolo by docking his rich wife’s multi-million-dollar yacht in Rhode Island instead of his native Massachusetts to avoid paying some $500,000 in sales tax and other fees in the Bay State.
  • More recently, the past-his-expiration-date pop singer Bruce Springsteen grasped desperately at street credibility by claiming spiritual kinship with the Occupy Wall Street movement in between jaunts across the pond to watch his daughter jump horses in front of the Queen of England.

There’s a hardened cynicism to these charlatans that I can almost respect. They’re like the Soviet Union’s porcine apparatchiks, mumbling allegiance to the proletariat during the week before speeding off to their dachas for weekends of vodka, caviar, and ritzy mistresses. Decadent men, stewing in the karmic juices of false words and incoherent lives.

But I’m troubled by the paste-eating stupidity of younger collectivists. They’re too dumb to be cynical, too oblivious to be decadent. And they aren’t worthy adversaries.

Consider one Will Doig, a featured essayist for the online magazine Salon.com. The callow Mr. Doig’s beat is “Dream City,” which the mandarins of “progressive” politics at Salon.com describe as follows:

How should we build the cities of our dreams? How do we create the urban spaces which reflect our values and the ways we want to live? In cities around the world, the future is being created now — and Will Doig will chronicle the most exciting and innovative ideas.

Presumptuous use of pronouns. In the immortal words of Tonto: “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?” Or “our”? And these points keep coming up.

A recent Doig essay was titled and blurbed “When the 1 percent say no / Cities need public transit and affordable housing. But outdated laws make it easy for the wealthy to block progress.” I’m not going to fisk the entire thing — if you’re so inclined, you can read it yourself. But I do want to point out a few, instructive examples of its stupidity.

Both title and subtitle smack of search-engine optimization (SEO) — the Internet marketing discipline of writing in a way that increases a web page’s likely ranking on Google, Yahoo, etc. In a relatively short space come several phrases cherished by collectivists: “1%,” “public transit,” “affordable housing,” “outdated laws,” and, of course, “the wealthy.” These phrases have taken on totemic qualities — and have lost any real meaning to a broad audience. As George Orwell points out in “Politics and the English Language,” such clichés elicit emotional response in a few hearts but cease to mean any actual thing.

(A note: Doig probably did not write the title/subtitle himself. At most magazines, staff editors do that. That’s especially true when the titles are chock-full of SEO buzzwords.)

Mr. Dream City begins his essay by excoriating the burghers of Beverly Hills for using California’s environmental-impact laws to prevent a segment of subway from being burrowed under their homes.

Right off, Doig makes several lazy mistakes:

  • His characterization of Beverly Hills as an enclave of the wealthiest few is wrong. Most of the city’s residents are professionals, mid- to upper-level corporate managers, and small-business owners desperate enough for status to rent or buy homes in an overpriced — even by southern California standards — ZIP code. The 1% live closer to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Opposition to the subway in Los Angeles is not limited to the strivers in Beverly Hills. Property owners (both residential and commercial) in just about every affected neighborhood have objected to the nuisance of lengthy construction since the decades-old project’s earliest days. The focus on the latest stage of the fight shows considerable selection bias.
  • Doig shows a remarkable obliviousness to irony. The strivers of Beverly Hills are using the same tactics that environmentalist opponents of private-sector real estate development have been using in California for decades. As a man of the Left, Doig should recognize Alinsky tactics: the attorneys and VPs are making the state follow the same Kafkaesque rules that they have to follow.

This blindness to irony abounds in Doig’s essay. Some of his complaints sound more like Donald Trump or the owner of your local strip-mall than Le Corbusier:

The threat of lawsuits and endless public hearings have delayed the project. . . . public micromanagement has become such a problem that several cities are now trying to rein in the Not-In-My-Backyard crowd. “The current process does not work for anyone,” one urban design expert told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We want the Planning Commission to focus on big planning issues, not micro-design issues.”

Public micromanagement? Dude, who’s supposed to oversee public projects? Some urban design expert’s “we”? I, for one, don’t want Planning Commissions focusing on anything. In most situations, I’d like to see them abolished. Put all land in private hands and let the largest property-owners in an area decide among themselves whether they want to spend the millions — or billions — required to build a mass transit system.

Of course, Doig’s “we” is the same as Pauline Kael’s “anyone.” More a reflection of the limits of his worldview than a first-person, plural.

Dream City also fails to grok, or even acknowledge, the role of personal property rights in the social contract. You won’t find the word “property” anywhere in the essay. And, as Doig doesn’t understand personal property, he doesn’t understand takings — something that the founders of this country understood so well that they limited the government’s property-taking power in several ways.

Here’s as close as he comes to stumbling across the concept of takings:

. . . in 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act gave anyone in that state the power to stymie development by questioning its eco-friendliness, a right that’s routinely abused. These rules, designed to check the power of city officials, now perversely consolidate immense power in the hands of a few outspoken “concerned citizens.” . . . Worst of all, these rules have created a new norm in which individual residents just assume that their personal opinions should carry great weight in routine planning decisions.

A “new norm” where citizens assume their opinions carry weight? The stupidity of these sentences is so thick the passage reads like Swift satire. Sadly, it’s not. But it is an almost complete inversion of the reality of the last 40 years, when bogus public interest groups have stymied the plans of individuals and private entities to develop their own property.

To be clear, precious Will: the “personal opinions” of “individual residents” should carry great weight, especially when those residents own the land under which “we” would like to dig a massive subway tunnel. They are an important check against “our” taking or doing things that diminish the value of personal property.

The column ends up butchering the writings of several left-wing economists who study risk theory. The goal seems to be to set “anti-development activism” in the context of bad economic policy. But it fails because Doig doesn’t realize that most “development” is carried out not by some collectivist “we” but by individual private-sector entities. Even in Dream Cities.

I do like one of his conclusions, though: “if a proposed development’s impact is unclear, it’s crucial to take into account not just its unforeseen negative effects, but its unforeseen positive ones, too.” I’ll break out that quote the next time enviro-hipster carpetbaggers come to my county to protest the development of an empty lot into a golf course.

Salon.com isn’t a serious political magazine. Its business model seems to be to launch the TV careers of left-wing talking heads whose rising media profiles will result in clicks and advertising revenue. Bon chance. If its talking heads are as oblivious as Will Doig, we won’t have Salon.com to kick around for very much longer.




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Ron Paul and the Future

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Four years ago, when Rep. Ron Paul suspended his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, he would not endorse the party’s nominee, was not invited to the party’s convention, and held a counter-convention of his own. By all appearances, he’s not going to do that this year.

At Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo urged Paul to run as an independent, “because a third party candidacy will leave a legacy, a lasting monument to your campaign and the movement it created.” I can’t see a lasting monument in it, or the sense. I note that Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

In 2008, I wrote in Liberty that Paul ought to endorse the party’s nominee, John McCain. Paul wouldn’t have to campaign for McCain, I said, and he could remind people how he was different from McCain, but to preserve his influence in the party he’d have to endorse McCain as preferable to Obama. Well, he didn’t. Paul endorsed Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, a pastor and radio talk show host whom few Americans had heard of, and who received 0.15% of the general election vote.

Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

This year Paul turns 77. He is not running to keep his seat in Congress. His career as an elected politician is at an end. But since January 2011 he has had a son, Rand Paul, in the Senate. There is talk of the junior senator from Kentucky being Romney’s vice-presidential choice and more talk of him running for president in four years, or eight. Either way, for Ron Paul, having a 49-year-old son in the Senate changes the calculus about party loyalty and his movement.

Again, I say: endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s. It means there is a Republican label on you and your supporters. And that is important, especially regarding them.

Is an endorsement a betrayal?

What was the point of the Paul campaign? To put Ron Paul in the White House? That was never possible. In public, Paul had to pretend that it was, because those are the American rules, and his supporters have been pretending it even harder. But it was a fairy tale. Ron Paul’s purpose has been to advance the cause of liberty, sound money, and a non-imperial foreign policy. He could do this even if he fought and lost, depending on how he did it. He was introducing new ideas (or old ones) into political discourse, creating a new faction that aimed to redirect the mainstream of one of the two great national parties.

That is not a defeatist notion. It may be a task with a lasting monument, though it is too early to say.

A political leader changes the thought of a party by persuading people to embrace new ideas. To do that, he needs the media’s attention, and in politics, equal attention is not given an outsider. It has to be earned by such things as polls, the size and behavior of crowds, money raised and, ultimately, by electoral results.

Endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s.

Paul achieved none of these things in 1988 as the nominee of the Libertarian Party. He was nobody, and he went home with 0.47% of the vote. But in 2008, in the Republican Party’s primary campaigns, he did unexpectedly well, measured by straw polls, crowd behavior, and campaign donations. Unfortunately, the media pegged his support as narrow-but-deep (they were right) and mostly ignored him. He took 5.56% of the Republican vote — one vote in 20.

This year they still slighted him, though less than before. And he received 10.86% — one vote in almost nine. His support was still narrow-but-deep, but wider in almost every state. He was not the top votegetter in any of them, but he came close in Maine and garnered more than 20% of Republican support in six caucus states: Maine, 36%, North Dakota, 28%, Minnesota, 27%, Washington, 25%, Alaska, 24%, and Iowa, 21% — and in three primary states: Vermont, 25%, Rhode Island, 24% and New Hampshire, 23% (not counting Virginia, 40%, where his only opponent was Romney).

Paul’s support is not typical for Republican politicians. He is from south Texas, but seems to do best in states on the Canadian border. Most of his best states are Democrat “blue” rather than Republican “red.” He was the oldest candidate in the race, but exit polls showed in state after state that he had the youngest supporters. In New Hampshire, a Fox News exit poll showed Paul winning 46% of Republican voters 18 to 29 years of age.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top. Some believe that Ron Paul is the only man who can save America, and that anyone who opposes him is evil. They don’t see themselves as joining a party; they aim to take it over. In the unfamiliar turf of parliamentary procedure, they are quick to cry foul and sometimes are right. At the moment, their strategy in the caucus states is to outstay the Romney supporters and snatch the national delegates away from them.

And that makes for nastiness.

This is from a Politico story by James Hohmann, May 14:

Those close to [Ron Paul] say he’s become worried about a series of chaotic state GOP conventions in recent weeks that threaten to undermine the long-term viability of the movement he’s spent decades building. In the past few days alone, several incidents cast the campaign in an unfavorable light: Mitt Romney’s son Josh was booed off the stage by Paul backers in Arizona on Saturday, and Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Mary Fallin received similarly rude treatment in Oklahoma.

Booing is the public stuff. I know a political operative who crossed the Paul forces and received death threats — so many, he said, that he turned off his phone for two weeks.

Enthusiasm can become something else. (For more examples, google “Ron Paul supporters are”.)

Given the strength — and sometimes the immaturity — of his supporters, what is Paul to do? Endorse Romney or not, he will soon be a non-candidate and a non-congressman.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top.

What then? One poll asked Paul supporters whom they would vote for in November. The answer: Obama, 35%; Romney, 31%; Gary Johnson, 16%. The Paul movement splinters.

How they vote in November might change if Paul made an endorsement; and anyway, how they think is the more important thing in the long run. If a large number of the young ones went into one political party and stayed there, they might change that party — and that could be the lasting monument.

All this is something for Ron Paul to think about as he ponders whether to endorse, what to do with his 100-plus delegates, and what to say if the party gives him a chance to address the national convention.




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Green Grief

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Periodically I like to review the news from the gay world of Gaia worship — that is, to pass along the latest stories on all matters green. And there is a lot to report.

Start with some interesting news from the animal kingdom. Despite sad sagas of emperor penguins disappearing as Antarctica allegedly melts (allegedly because of our greedy species’ greenhouse gas emissions), a recent story reports that more studies — ones that use satellite imagery to count the nattily attired birds — reveal that the penguins are doing just fine. By former estimates, there are about 270,000 to 350,000 of the waddling beasts. Now it appears that in reality, there are 595,000 of them! The aerial survey discovered a whole flock of new colonies. If the ice is melting, it doesn’t seem to be harming these birds.

Moving quickly to the other pole of the Earth: polar bears are also in great demographic shape. The bears have been centerpieces in some of the most lurid global warming tales: remember the infamous shot of a miserable looking polar bear clinging to a tiny ice floe. Because of such tales, the US put polar bears on the endangered species list. This, in spite of the fact that the beasts are far from cuddly — they are one of the few predators with a taste for human flesh, especially the human liver (with or without Fava beans).

But another recent story reports that in the crucial Nunavut region of Canada, the polar bear population — which in 2004 had been estimated at around 935 (22% lower than estimates made 20 years earlier), and was projected to fall even further, to 610 animals by 2011 — has now been more accurately counted. The Canadian government did aerial surveys and found 1,013 cute but vicious carnivores in that region alone. The population, far from dwindling, seems to be thriving, despite global warming and illegal hunting. (polar bear pelts fetch up to $15,000 in Russia and China, and about 450 bears are illegally killed each year). Despite the heat and the hunters, the polar bear population now appears to have reached the highest peak ever recorded — something like 25,000 across the Canadian Arctic.

Reports such as these are continually coming in. They may be the reason that no less a green guru than scientist James Lovelock, the fellow who came up with the whole “Gaia Concept,” now admits that his earlier warnings about a rapidly heating, life-killing earth were alarmist.

Turning now to green energy, here too a slew of politically incorrect reports continues to gut the Great Green Narrative. Start with the fascinating news that a recent survey of hybrid car owners (conducted by R.L. Polk and associates) indicates that hybrid owners of any model are unlikely to buy another hybrid — either the same model or any other. These are not good tidings for the future growth of the hybrid car market, as it shows that actual experience with the product tends to make consumers dislike it. Hardly a good omen.

Despite the heat and the hunters, the polar bear population now appears to have reached the highest peak ever recorded.

The Polk data show that only 35% of hybrid owners of any brand bought another hybrid of any sort. At the high end was the Prius, but only 41% of Prius owners bought another hybrid (again, of any sort). At the other end of the scale is the Honda hybrid: only a pathetic 20% of Honda owners went on to buy another hybrid of any sort. And the aggregate numbers bear this poll out. At their peak in 2008 (when domestic gas prices hit their highest level ever), hybrid sales were only a miserable 2.9% of the American car market. Last year they dropped to 2.4%.

The problem is several-fold. First, regular internal combustion engines keep getting better and better gas mileage. The 2013 Nissan Altima is rated at 38 mpg, and the Ford Fusion is rated at 37 mpg — both quite close to what hybrids deliver. Second, hybrids are more expensive than similar internal combustion engine models. Indeed, it can take seven to ten years of ownership merely to recover the extra cost, and many Americans like to change cars more often than that.

And, by the bye, hybrids actually seem to get lower gas mileage than the EPA estimates. A recent piece reports that the EPA overestimated hybrid gas efficiency by 20% before 2008 and is still overestimating it now. This report also notes that as much as 40% of any real gas savings by hybrids is nullified by the extra driving done by the owners. The report reminds us that hybrids have batteries with lots of acid, lead, and other toxic crap, all of which requires enormous amounts of energy to mine and manufacture, and which subsequently fouls the environment when the batteries wear out and must be disposed of.

Finally — and this the article doesn’t note — most Americans view hybrids as cramped, clunky, slow, and butt-ugly.

Checking now on green power, we discover the great news that First Solar, maker of solar equipment, is cutting a third of its work force — over 2,000 jobs — closing a factory in Germany, halting another in Vietnam, and postponing the opening of yet another in Arizona. The company has lost 83% of its market capitalization over the past year, while losing nearly $40 million in the same period. The problem in this case is simple and clear. It is cheaper for power companies to buy solar panels from China. More importantly, countries around the world are cutting subsidies for solar power — and without government aid, solar is generally uncompetitive.

We confiscate money from taxpayers to build inefficient, wasteful plants that kill tortoises and birds — and we do it all in the name of ecology!

Grimly ironic is the report that BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar power project, located in the Mojave Desert, is killing desert tortoises — an endangered species! The Ivanpah project is huge: it will use 3,500 acres of public land — six square miles! — and cost $2 billion to produce only 400 megawatts of electricity at max (i.e., when the sun is shining overhead and no clouds are present). BrightSource says it has paid $56 million to help protect the environment, but tortoises are still dying. They die because even after BrightSource moved them out of the way of the construction, they still got crushed under truck tires or became vulnerable to predators. One research ecologist — Jeff Lovich, who has studied the impact of “renewable” energy projects on desert tortoises — notes, “What I determined is science is playing catch-up to energy concerns. . . . This is all a grand experiment and we need more research — both on the short-term effects and the long-term effects that projects like these are going to have on the wildlife and the ecosystem.” But he concludes ruefully, “For the desert tortoise, it really is death by a thousand cuts.”

So, surprise, solar power farms destroy flora and fauna. No surprise here, really — remember, wind farms also destroy massive amounts of wildlife — specifically, birds. American wind farms shred about 400,000 birds a year. The problem again is physics. Solar and wind power are just power derived directly or indirectly from the sun, and they collect only feeble amounts of solar radiation. Thus either form of energy requires a huge footprint — you need many acres of solar collectors or wind turbines to get appreciable amounts of power, compared to a small nuclear or fossil fuel powered plant. And bigness is bad for small animals.

About wind power there is a spate of bad news. Start with the report out of Nevada on the results of one of the state’s programs to get people to install wind turbines (especially outside of cities). The report points out that one of these programs, started five years ago, is already proving a costly, miserable failure.

Specifically, Rich Hamilton of the Clean Energy Center testified to the state Public Utilities Commission about the program’s problems. For one thing, the PUC gives rebates to customers who put up turbines, whether or not they actually generate appreciable energy. Under the 2007 law, the state has paid $46 million for 150 wind turbines. But in Reno, for example, the $416,000 it spent on wind turbines resulted in its receiving $150,000 in rebates but a laughable $2,800 savings in electricity costs. The bureaucrat who runs Reno’s renewable energy program, one Jason Geddes, had an amazing suggestion: accurately research wind patterns before building turbines. Obviously, this hasn't been done up till now.

The breathtaking brilliance of all this! We confiscate money from taxpayers to build inefficient, wasteful plants that kill tortoises and birds — and we do it all in the name of ecology!

Then there is the hilarious news that wind power may be harming the environment in a hitherto unsuspected way. We’ve known all along that wind turbines massacre birds. But it turns out that wind power actually increases ground temperature around the turbines. This is the result of a study published by Liming Zhou in the journal Nature Climate Change. Apparently the turbine blades pull down warmer air, displacing the cooler air on the ground.

The reason this is bad news is that heat can hurt crops and cattle, or the native ecosystem. This is especially troublesome for Texas (where the study was done), because it is already suffering from a drought and uses night irrigation, which may be affected by the action of the turbines.

Add to all that the Reuters report about Obama’s green energy jobs program. Despite his promise that his green energy push would create “millions” of jobs, it has been a costly failure. Since 2009, for example, during a period when the oil and gas industry created 75,000 high-paying blue-collar jobs — even in the face of a regulatory blitzkrieg by the Obama administration — the wind industry lost 10,000 jobs. Obama's $500 million green energy “job training” program was guaranteed to produce 80,000 jobs by 2013. So far, it has trained a miserable 20,000, to what lame standards we can only guess. Even the administration’s own Labor Department’s inspector general recommended last year that the department should end the boondoggle and give the unspent money back to the treasury.

The report gives figures that show a paradigm deflating. In 2008, Obama boastfully promised that if the taxpayers spent $150 billion on green energy, it would create five million jobs. A year later, VP Biden more modestly promised that the $90 billion in tax dollars then put aside for green energy jobs would buy 722,000 of them. A year after that (November 2010), the administration could show only 225,000 jobs created, and even that estimate appears to have been overly optimistic.

The green statist worldview faces a huge and swelling number of anomalies. That wouldn’t normally be so bad — every worldview faces some anomalies, after all. But the enviro worldview is the one being shoved down our throats. That is, it is the one that is being used by the state and federal governments to limit our liberties and prosperity, and to do so in a massive way.




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Elizabeth Warren and the Poison of Identity Politics

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Seven months ago, I considered Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren from a libertarian perspective. The establishment media darling and Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts didn’t offer much to like.

Since then, she’s become considerably more entertaining. And thought-provoking, though not in a way she would have intended.

During the past few weeks, Warren has been caught in a moronic controversy that has put her campaign on the defensive, led supporters to question her political savvy, and — perhaps most damaging — confirmed the impression that she’s a charlatan. The gist of it: for about 15 years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Warren listed herself in various academic professional directories as a member of a racial minority. Specifically, an American Indian.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Reporters from the Boston Herald asked Warren about her claims of minority status: why she’d made them, then stopped making them, and whether she’d “played the race card” when applying for teaching positions at posh law schools such as Penn and Harvard.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Then, faced with hard evidence from several directories (including the Association of American Law Schools’ annual directory of minority law teachers), she “clarified” her answer. What she’d meant to say was that she’d never made the claims while applying for teaching jobs.

But there were more rakes in the yard . . . and Warren promptly stepped on them. When reporters asked her to explain in detail her claim of Native American ancestry, she babbled:

My Aunt Bee . . . remarked that he — that her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do! Because that’s how she saw it. And she said, “And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.” She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. . . . I was listed [in the minority directories] because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up. And it turned out that’s — there really wasn’t any of that.

Note the passive voice of “I was listed.” By all accounts, she did the listing. Her nervous rhetoric betrayed her effort to shirk responsibility for the mendacious act of including herself among minority professors. And some pundits focused on the lazy, verging on racist, generalizations behind the dizzy professor’s words: “high cheekbones” are something “all of the Indians” have.

Not exactly Prof. Kingsfield.

Warren’s campaign rushed into damage control mode. Smoother spokespeople explained that, on a marriage license application in 1894, Warren’s great-uncle claimed that his grandmother — a woman named Neoma O.C. Sarah Smith — had been a Cherokee. The campaign then produced a Utah-based genealogist who confirmed that Neoma, Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother, was at least half Cherokee. (According to some, the initials “O.C.” meant native Cherokee; according to others, contemporary documents described Neoma as “white” which, by the practice of the time, could mean she was half Indian.)

If Neoma was a full-blooded Cherokee, Warren is 1/32; if she was half Cherokee, the professor is 1/64. A thin reed, but the campaign was determined to hang Warren’s robes on it. Staffers pointed out that Bill John Baker, the current chief of the Cherokee nation, has a similarly slight blood connection to the tribe.

Really, this is madness.

When I was in college, we read Mark Twain’s satiric short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, which rightly ridicules racial distinctions based on 1/8, 1/32, or 1/64 ancestry. The story is often dismissed as an angry product of Twain’s bitter late period — and it is angry. But it’s also a strong perspective on the games that identity-politics practitioners such as Warren play. And have been playing for more than 100 years.

Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma.

Warren’s handlers can spin the story — but the damage is done. On the Internet, ever merciless, the dismissive nicknames have started: Pinocchio-hontas, Fauxcahontas, Sacajawhiner. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson: in some cases, the substance of a charge isn’t important; the response — however skillful — is damaging in itself.

(Actually, what LBJ said was: “I don’t care if the story [that his opponent had sex with farm animals] is true. I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.”)

A few days after Warren’s campaign came up with the marriage license application, the story took an ironic turn. While Neoma’s provenance remains murky, her husband — a man named Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokees died on that “Trail of Tears.” So, even if she’s part Indian, Warren is also descended from an oppressor in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history.

Here we reach the logical end of racial identity politics — a muddle of conflicting conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory government documents. Statist bureaucrats love categorizing people; but their categories are usually false, so they don’t hold up over time.

And a mediocrity like Elizabeth Warren ends up being vilified by partisans both Left and Right.

The Boston Herald’s populist grievance merchant Howie Carr put Warren’s miscues in the disgruntled right-wing frame:

The problem the elites have understanding the power of this story is simple. They’ve never been passed over for a job they were qualified for because of some allegedly disadvantaged person who wasn’t. . . . [T]he upper classes have no comprehension of the “rottenness” of this system. . . . [S]omeone in the Harvard counseling office might sadly inform a young Trustafarian that he might have a problem getting into the law school. But then Someone who knows Someone picks up the phone and young Throckmorton suddenly bumps a kid from Quincy with higher LSATs . . .

In this worldview, Warren’s shenanigans cost a “real” disadvantaged minority person a slot teaching at a first-rate law school. But the problem with right-leaning populism is that it embraces rentseeking. It settles for asking that the corruption be administered equitably.

Carr comes close to the truth when he tells the story of the smart kid from working-class Quincy — but falls just short of real insight. He gives in to emotional paranoia about the corrupt phone call. The best solution isn’t to “fix” the crooked preference system; it’s to eliminate rentseeking entirely because it always leads to corruption. The kid from Quincy doesn’t need a redistribution system that spreads spoils equitably; he just wants to be evaluated objectively.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

On the Left, partisans voice contempt for “box-checking” by free riders like Warren. Last summer, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud. The resolution noted that “fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants.”

In a recent editorial, The Daily News of Newburyport wrote:

It seems clear that Warren’s “box-checking” on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefited by citing Warren as a minority faculty member at a time its diversity practices were under fire.

Warren’s claim that she checked the box claiming Native American heritage in her application for inclusion in the Association of American Law Schools desk book so that she could meet people with similar backgrounds is laughable.

This touches on a critical point: identity politics corrupts institutions as well as people. In 1996, when Harvard Law School was criticized by campus groups for a lack of racial diversity among its faculty, officials touted Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots. According to a Harvard Crimson story at that time:

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [spokesman Michael] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

These days, Harvard’s press office says that the university doesn’t make official pronouncements about employees’ ethnic or racial backgrounds. Which seems a bit . . . carefully . . . timed.

Of course, the whole story beggars belief. Warren skeptics are even showing up on Daily Kos, the left-wing political opinion web site that practically launched the professor’s political aspirations. Its Native American columnist Meteor Blades recently wrote:

What’s unclear is whether Warren checked the “Native American” box solely out of pride or because it might perhaps give her a one- or two-percent edge over some other job candidate without that heritage. She says she didn’t. . . . What Warren also didn’t do was step up in 1996 when it became clear that Harvard, under pressure from students and others about the lack of diversity on its law faculty, was touting her Native heritage. . . . What Harvard did was despicable. What Warren didn’t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

If she’s lost Daily Kos, Warren is in deep trouble.

Others on the Left are distancing themselves from Warren, frustrated that she was supposed to be a winner and now may not be. In the online magazine Salon, Edward Mason noted:

The story about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage refuses to die. . . . Some Democrats, haunted by the infamous meltdown of Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago, are wondering if it’s déjà vu all over again. “The people in Washington are saying, ‘The people in Massachusetts are a bunch of fuck-ups who couldn’t run a race for dog catcher,’” said one veteran Massachusetts Democratic insider.

But, to me, the most relevant material came in the reader comments that followed Mason’s cautious story. One commenter earnestly tried to make sense of the hullabaloo:

At no time on any census was OC Sarah Smith, nor any of her off-spring listed as anything other than White. . . . As a contrast, my Great Great Grandmother was listed on the Census and Marriage Certificate as White Indian (Cherokee) but even my relative may not have been full blooded. There is no actual evidence, other than family lore, that Sarah Smith was Cherokee, and zero chance she was full blooded Cherokee. At best, and there’s no evidence to support this, Warren could be 1/64 Cherokee.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

Identity politics is a poison that sickens people, intellectually and spiritually. It abandons them in a madness of paranoia, pettiness, and profanity. Ambitious statists like Elizabeth Warren believe that they can manage the poison more effectively than the little people whose support they assume they have. But they’re lying — to themselves first and to the little people eventually. And inevitably.

rsquo;t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.




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Closing Time

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The chaos in the chair’s election set off a night full of wrangling among LP power factions, with all sides attempting to broker deals that would maximize their own influence on the party’s next two years. Such a deal would save face for both sides, though also make for a potentially fraught leadership structure — though it’s an open question whether it would be more fraught than usual.

The morning dawned on a ballroom full of confused and regret-filled, yet strangely energized libertarians, who made their voices heard even before the chair’s vote was taken back up by refusing to seat a handful of new delegates who had presumably been brought aboard to shift the one-vote race. In the meantime, the Missouri LP took a more direct route, cutting loose the five of its delegates who had voted for Mark Rutherford instead of None of the Above (NOTA) on Saturday.

With Mark Hinkle recusing himself for the chair’s race, Bill Redpath had taken up the (still metaphorical) gavel throughout the previous day’s shenanigans; he started from his ruling of the previous day that the third round of voting would be between Rutherford and NOTA, just like the second ballot which Rutherford won, but failed to gain a majority. A challenge to that ruling, requiring a two-thirds vote from the floor, failed; however, a motion to open up the floor to new nominations succeeded. Because Hinkle had already been eliminated, he was ineligible for renomination, and thus retook the podium from a visibly relieved Redpath.

Reopening the floor had much the same effect as a NOTA win, except Rutherford still remained eligible for votes; likely this was the only compromise that could have forestalled full parliamentary breakdown. Among the new candidates mooted were Wes Wagner, the firebrand at the center of the ugly Oregon LP struggle (and hence much of the rest of this fooferaw); Redpath (again); Geoff Neale (also again); and Ernest Hancock, who wasn’t even there or paid up on his dues. Also nominated, but declining: Jim Lark, who many had viewed as a more-than-acceptable compromise candidate, endorsed Redpath in much the same spirit; Lee Wrights, who endorsed Neale while actively campaigning for vice chair; and Chuck Moulton, who endorsed no one. (Also, a motion came from the floor to overturn the first round of voting and put Hinkle, but he stayed well out of that potential parliamentary nightmare, ruling it out of order.)

Many delegates were scrambling to fill out their ballots and also check out of their rooms by the 11am deadline — like most other things in Vegas, late checkouts are available, but they’re going to cost you.

What the nominating speeches lacked in length — a limit of three minutes for each candidate — they made up for in fireworks. After Wagner used his few minutes to excoriate the party leadership and call for a clean sweep, Redpath tried to cool things down and take up the “compromise” mantle, appealing to his past experience in the role. Neale was having none of it: he used his time to “come clean” about his resignation as treasurer years ago, breaking the silence he had held since that time (in public, anyway) about how a previous LP chair — Bill Redpath, coincidentally enough — asked him to sign off on an unbalanced budget that effectively hid $500,000 in resources. With people still reeling from this, someone stepped up to speak for Hancock; probably would’ve been dynamite if he’d been there to deliver it, but it fizzled in his absence.

The first round of voting was especially frantic, with many delegates scrambling to fill out their ballots and also check out of their rooms by the 11am deadline — like most other things in Vegas, late checkouts are available, but they’re going to cost you. When all the delegations reported, the frontrunners were obvious: Rutherford with 153, Neale 149, Redpath 128. Wagner was low man with 9, while Hancock took 21, not quite enough to get him to the 5% safety line.

With time limits increasingly pressing upon the assembly, a motion was made (by Nick Sarwark, appropriately enough) to combine the successive officer elections into a single ballot, and then handle all at-large positions plus the Judicial Committee on a second ballot. From this point on, imagine everything running in fast forward. Put on the Benny Hill chase music if it helps.

The second round tallies were Neale 167, Rutherford 155, and Redpath eliminated with 119. While delegates were casting their ballots for a fifth round of chair voting, the floor was also opened to nominations for vice chair, secretary, and treasurer. With so much going on, delegates could almost — almost! — be excused for duplicating nominations. In the end, these were the names put forward:

Vice chair: Lee Wrights (who some speculated had been shooting for this all along), George Phillies, and Bill Redpath. Also nominated: Mark Rutherford, who declined to endorse Redpath; and Mark Hinkle, who considered it from the podium with a mighty “Ummm . . .” before declining.

Treasurer: Joe Buchman, Aaron Starr (open boos from some delegates), Tim Hagan, and George Phillies (declined).

Secretary: Ruth Bennett, Alicia Mattson (the incumbent, at the moment very busy working spreadsheet magic — even if at one point the sample VP ballot included Captain Caveman and Grape Ape), and Jeff Weston.

A further motion from the floor limited each candidate to two minutes for their nominating speeches; Bill Redpath was compelled to use his to respond to Neale’s accusations, noting that the amount in question was actually $250,000, and that the budget he asked treasurer Neale to sign off on was, in fact, balanced. Given the charges, the rebuttal was probably necessary, but it added to the unseemliness of the whole procedure. Or, if you’re a press vulture like me, it made the possibility of a Neale/Redpath LP executive pairing irresistibly juicy.

While all this was carrying on, the fifth round voting came in with Neale at 212, Rutherford at 205, and NOTA — previously hanging around 12 — resurgent with 29. As neither human candidate pulled a majority, the low man Rutherford was eliminated and Neale was left to defeat NOTA in a sixth and, gods willing, final ballot. At this point it was decided the chair vote would be combined with that for the other officers, and that during balloting nominations and speeches would proceed for LNC at-large positions.

The easiest course of action was to line them all up and move them through as if they were all speed dating the LP.

Here we entered full three-ring mode, with a show that would put Circus Circus to shame. (Although, really, anyone involved with Circus Circus in any capacity likely has more than enough shame to bear already.) Nominations flooded in. Presidential candidate Gary Johnson entered the fray to endorse both Bill Redpath and, to much wider consternation, Wayne Allen Root; Lee Wrights waded in to speak for Robert Murphy; Wes Wagner was nominated from some corner, and at least a dozen others were entered into the rolls, including stand-bys like Michael Cloud and Mark Hinkle, and wilder-cards like social-media svenghali Arvin Vohra, and the omnipresent, omnisexual Starchild, who on this day had foregone the bustiers and high heels for a rather fetching Lawrence of Arabia number. Everyone accepting an at-large nomination was granted a full minute to make their case to the remaining delegates, so that the easiest course of action was to line them all up and move them through as if they were all speed dating the LP. (Also similar to speed dating: many of the potential matches had no relevant social skills whatsoever.)

At this point, with Judicial Committee nominations in full swing — and, given the extreme pressures of time and hangover pricing for Las Vegas convention space, a motion approved to grant them no time whatsoever to address their would-be constituents — the officer results rolled in. On the sixth ballot, the party finally elected a chair, with Geoff Neale taking it 264 to NOTA’s 159. Opening with the line, “So it seems my master plan of running for national chair with no expenses worked,” Neale’s acceptance speech demonstrated a mix of humor and frankness that will stand him in good stead in the next couple of years. He made a special point of noting the surge in NOTA votes — many of them switching over to express disapproval of his decision to air his and Redpath’s dirty laundry in public — and promising that, on his watch, their voices would be heard. But the message he wanted heard was this: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. There has been a lot of rancor — we must be advocates for our viewpoints, not adversaries.”

Making this easier was the vote for the other officers, a clean sweep for the so-called radical wing of the party. Wrights took vice chair with 52% of votes, 228 to Redpath’s 179 (and Phillies’ 20), thus avoiding what would have been an extremely uncomfortable partnership. On a second ballot, Bennett won secretary, defeating Mattson, who nonetheless had to work through tears to enter results for the at-large and Judicial Committee races. And the biggest cheer went up for treasurer, with Hagan beating out LP bogeyman Starr (or, as one Hagan-supporting delegate infelicitously put it, the man “with the initials A-S-S”). When asked what we could take away from this weekend’s final turn, new vice-chair Lee Wrights responded that “You want to show people something different, you got to be a little different. And something a little different happened today. Now we just gotta make sure we don’t screw it up.”

The immediate fallout of Wrights’ victory was Mary Ruwart’s withdrawal from consideration for the Judicial Committee, fearing the same sorts of conflict-of-interest charges that dogged her in the past cycle when their positions were reversed. (Would that they had thought of that before the Oregon LP deliberations began!) But even with at-large positions confirmed for Redpath and Cloud, and yes, Wayne Allen Root, the “libertarian libertarians” still had much to celebrate, not least the spots for Vohra and Starchild — the latter, especially, surprised many; from my point of view though it was a recognition well-overdue one of the most intelligent, determined libertarian activists in the fold.

The 2016 nominating convention in Los Angeles has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match its three immediate precursors.

At this point, with all ballots in and many delegates bailing out for flights or the pleasures of the Strip, I admit I joined the throng headed for the exit. It’s not that the Judicial Committee results were unimportant — in fact, as we saw throughout this convention, in some circumstances the JC is all-important — but in an ideal party cycle, they will not be invoked at all. (Also, there was sushi to be eaten.) But, regardless, the 2012–14 Judicial Committee features Bill Hall, convention MVP (Most Visible Person) Nicholas Sarwark, Brian Holtz, and Rob Latham back for another term, and Rodger Paxton, Lou Jasikoff, and Rob Power filling out the seven. And with that, the Libertarian Party officially brought its 2012 National Convention to a close.

* * *

So what do we take from all of this?

First, despite a few stutters along the way, Gary Johnson seems genuinely to have won over the party — nowhere was there general dissent against his candidacy and those few voices holding out against him were heard in distant corners of the Red Rock Resort, or isolated comments on the more radical blogs. If he maintains this level of support, he’ll have no trouble achieving his goal of being the LP standard bearer again four years from now — but, as our upcoming interview with the former governor will show, there is still some distance between the former governor’s views, and those of many within the party.

Second, and also helping Johnson among the rank-and-file, the makeup of the LP executive committee went some way towards balancing out any perception of a “conservative” takeover. Even Wes Wagner seemed to acknowledge as much, in comments following the convention on Independent Political Report: “The elections have gone a long way towards mending wounds,” he noted, and elsewhere, “I have been in communication with [Chairman] Neale about this issue and am working with him to try to ensure that Johnson/Gray are listed” on the Oregon ballot. While there are, naturally, legal issues pending, it appears the biggest storm is past, at least until the lawsuit between would-be Oregon LPs finally comes to a verdict.

Third, the 2016 nominating convention in Los Angeles has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match its three immediate precursors. Then again, if the impromptu shouting match held on the veranda balcony between members of the San Bernadino County LP is any indicator, there will be no shortage of issues to work out between then and now.

Fourth, never underestimate libertarians’ ability to create drama out of seemingly nothing. I realize, all too well, that many of the eruptions that took place over the previous 24 hours have been simmering for quite some time — but at the same time, nearly everyone I spoke with before the convention, or even up to Saturday lunchtime, expected a boring weekend in Las Vegas . . . as if that were ever going to be the case.

Ultimately, if the LP is to move forward, it must look on this past weekend in the way Sarwark suggested the night before: as the painful cleansing of a festering wound. Unlike in 2008, when the specter of schism haunted the party from the moment Bob Barr announced his candidacy, there was much more to build on in 2012 than hallway rhetoric alone. Whether the party makes use of the new foundation, or just trashes it all again, remains — as ever — in the balance.



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None of the Above

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“The party is split. It is split right down the middle.”

How did we get to this point? After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound barely healed since the last time it tore open, in 2008. But unlike the Denver debacle, this fight wasn’t over the presidential ticket — it was over the LP chair, and the direction the party is likely to take over the next two to four years, and beyond that the next decade or more.

At the beginning of the day, such an outcome seemed unimaginable. The party started off by celebrating its past — paying tribute to David Nolan and John Hospers, and inducting Tonie Nathan, Roger MacBride, and Ed Clark into the “Hall of Liberty” — before looking towards its future, in the form of the next election. But in retrospect, even this retrospection pointed to the troubles to come: throughout its 40-year existence, the party has been anything but placid; rather, prone to deep and sudden rifts, and grudges carried for many years by people who want many of the same political ends, but have utterly incompatible ideas about the means used to get there.

But this was all well in the background when the delegations gathered to compile their votes for president. Four candidates were nominated: Gary Johnson, Lee Wrights, Jim Burns, and Carl Person, with the latter two making their token count overnight. (A motion from the floor was made to suspend normal rules and nominate Ron Paul. It failed spectularly.)

After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound.

The nominating speaker for Wrights took a roundabout way of getting to his candidate, going via Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul and not mentioning Wrights’ name for a full ten minutes. He passed off to Mary Ruwart to second, introducing her as “the woman who should have been our 2008 nominee.” (And he’s right, they should have — but their campaign botched it.) Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.” Speaking of Wrights’ ability to get “more bang for the buck”; she provided as evidence two laughable TV spots, one a half turn away from a used car ad, the next a parade of doughy, beardy white males talking about the wars they would end. Accepting the nomination, Wrights said: “I am not at war. And if we say that enough, they can’t have them any more.” Not sure that’s how that works, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

Carl Person’s speaker only used a few minutes of his time, and spent that explaining who Carl Person is. And necessarily so, since many people didn’t know or, in the bigger problem for his campaign, didn’t care. Person, in turn, presented himself to the assembled delegates first with a ramble about all the jobs he held in his youth, and then — in the most tangential of segues — explaining his jobs program, which seemed designed to produce someone that can teach him how to use the Internet, or possibly keep kids off his lawn.

Jim Burns, speaking for himself, gave Patrick Henry’s speech “Liberty or Death” speech as his own nominating statement. He did this in character, while wearing a powdered wig. Once done, he removed the hairpiece, and took a few minutes to beg for the tokens it would take to get him onto the VP ballot.

Gary Johnson’s speaker went straight to the former governor’s experience and his suitability to run against the two major-party candidates. “No one will ever confuse him for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.” His second picked up the torch, speaking of him as the “most qualified candidate we have ever had.” Johnson in accepting hammered on the resume again: mentioning once more his vetoes, but also his popularity in office: “People in New Mexico waved at me with all five fingers, not just one.”

He slipped only once, in bringing up the Fair Tax yet again in front of an audience hostile to any taxation. But wisely he went straight from that into his promise to end our wars in foreign countries, and on drugs too — neatly appropriating Wrights’ slogan as his own. He distanced himself from Bob Barr and the 2008 fiasco, and even more so from the two major parties: citing an NPR question where interviewer asked him, if you were on the torture rack, and required to cast a vote for Romney or Obama (and what a telling construction that is, NPR using as casual metaphor the torture they have colluded in normalizing) he says he would rather die than vote for either. Oh, and in case you didn’t remember, there was also that “climbing Mount Everest” thing.

Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.”

On the whole it was a great speech; according to at least one seasoned observer, his best as a Libertarian. Any damage done him by the previous night’s debate — likely minimal, if even that — was wiped away, making a first-ballot victory all the more likely. All it would take is 50% plus one vote — and as it was unlikely Burns or Person would be taking many, there was little standing in the way of Johnson’s coronation.

Little, that is, except nearly an hour of deliberation, tabulation, and state-by-state recitation of delegate votes, with each state of course tossing in their little tidbit about their libertarian past or present. In almost all cases, though, their libertarian future lay with Gary Johnson, who handily took the presidential nomination with 419 delegate votes, just over 70% of the total available. Wrights, as expected, was second best at 152; Burns and Person scraped a mere handful apiece.

In his acceptance speech, Johnson thanked his family first and foremost, even noting his daughter’s feedback on the debate: “Dad, you did great, but you got your ass kicked by Lee Wrights.” He paid tribute to Wrights’ campaign, and Wrights, graciously, said it was to come together as a party: “Let’s get this guy elected.”

Of course, R. Lee was hoping the party would come together in support of a Johnson/Wrights ticket. But Johnson moved on to endorse Judge Jim Gray from the podium, citing him as the perfect running mate. Gray announced only days before the convention, and his promotional materials had an unavoidably slapdash look to them — folders with a brief media release and a few pictures of the Judge against a blue sky, looking pensive and, presumably, vice-presidential.

In some ways Gray is a rarity. Usually the presidential losers end up contesting the VP — few come to the convention specifically speaking the second-tier nod. But as the presidential candidate’s handpicked running mate, Gray had the big guns (such as they are, in the LP) lining up behind him — including David Bergland in the role of nominating speaker. Gray himself emphasized the need, as a party, to win — “We are not a philosophical debate society. We are a political party.” — and encouraged audience to repeat the word “Win” whenever it’s said from the stage, which is not at all cultish or creepy.

In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

Wrights’ nominating speaker went on a bizarre tangent about Ron Paul, and again almost ten minutes passed before the candidate’s name was actually mentioned. The seconding speaker, Nicholas Sarwark — about whom much more below — made an actually coherent case for Wrights, noting he would providing balance to the ticket, and represent the “libertarian wing of the libertarian party.” There were about 15 other uses of the word libertarian tossed in there, but then tautology is the order of the day at political conventions. The line landed, at least, which wasn't the case with his Simpsons reference — it's a pretty damning indicator about the age of this crowd that next to no one seemed to know who Kodos and Kang were.

On to the balltoing, common sense intervened for the vote and the state-by-state roll call was suspended; when the dust settled Jim Gray had a comfortable first-ballot victory, taking 357 votes to Wrights’ 229. In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

The answer, of course, is plenty. The day’s business was set to conclude with the election of a new chair, a fairly straightforward affair between the present chair, Mark Hinkle, and LNC at-large member Mark Rutherford. But this discounts a serious candidate that built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Enter Nick Sarwark. He spoke in support of NOTA, laying out in brief the reasons he felt unable to support either candidate — both tied to the Oregon credentialing crisis of the first day, and the party’s overruling of a report on that matter by the Judicial Committee, on which Sarwark sits — but also reminding delegates of the power of NOTA as a political concept. As he summed up later: “It’s telling people, if you’re big enough assholes, we’re just going to go our own way, cut our own door, and go around you.”

But for Sarwark, the speech was primarily a rhetorical gesture, something he thought would get “10 or 15 votes” — not taking into account either the dissatisfaction that led to printed signs advocating “No One” for LNC Chair, or the opportunists who saw a chance to boot out both nominated candidates in favor of one not implicated in what they saw as the present board’s failings. Between the two, support for NOTA was strong enough at 101 votes to prevent either Rutherford or Hinkle from claiming a majority. Instead, with Rutherford beating out Hinkle 228–221, the latter was eliminated, and the final ballot would be between Rutherford and NOTA.

One serious candidate for chair built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Or so it seemed. Because when the votes were counted, NOTA had won 273–269, and accusations of vote tampering were immediately in the air. Acting chair Bill Redpath called for a revote, which ended Rutherford 278, NOTA 277, write-in Sam Sloan 1. Because Rutherford did not take a majority plus one, he could not be certified as victor. Usually in such circumstances the loser would concede, but NOTA was for obvious reasons unable to do so. As Rutherford also did not concede, and with time running out on the day’s session, Redpath ruled that Sloan, the write-in candidate, was eliminated, and the delegates would reconvene the next day to vote once again between Rutherford and NOTA, as well as all the other officer positions.

Tumult, chaos, anarchy — in the metaphorical, and not the medieval Icelandic sense. The ruling set up a night packed with exactly the sort of back-room meetings and opaque dealings that Sarwark had hoped to expose with his NOTA advocacy. “This was about ripping open a wound that’s been festering for a long time, getting in there and cleaning it out, and applying some Bactine to it. And that will make it heal up, but in the meantime Bactine stings like a motherfucker.”

So there was never any concerted attempt by any group — some observers even calling it the “family” wing of the party — to use NOTA as a way to force open the chair’s race? No, Sarwark said. There was no conspiracy — and the only reason those observers saw one was because, if the tables were turned, a conspiracy is how they would have handled it. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like — well, you know.”

The greatest worry at this point was that, with the chair’s election lingering to the next morning, time would run out before any of the other party positions — officers, at-large members, Judicial committee — could be decided on the floor, leaving them all (except the Judicial Committee, which couldn’t be handled this way) to be appointed by the newly-installed LNC board.

With all the manipulations in motion, however unintentionally, by Sarwark’s NOTA gambit, there was no lack of context for Ed Clark’s banquet talk about the challenges facing the Libertarian Party. Though he spoke mostly of the challenges overcome in the 1970s and ’80s, and of the rifts that periodically tore the party apart at that time, the applications for the present moment were clear: whatever the feud, whatever the obstacle, it must be overcome so that the fight for liberty could proceed.

Not until the next day would we see how well that message sank in — or if it even did at all.

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Pulling Punches

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Friday dawned bright with the promise of everyone’s two favorite parts of any LNC: the party platform and bylaws sessions!

Actually, Friday is about candidates trying to court delegates for the precious tokens they bear. In order to enter the Friday night debate, televised live on C-SPAN, candidates must secure 10% of the available tokens; with 528 delegates registered today, the magic number this year was 53.

Two candidates cleared the bar with ease: Gary Johnson would end up with fully 267, and Lee Wrights had a comfortable 127. But none of the others could muster hardly half so much: the next closest were Carl Person with 28, and Jim Burns with 27. Though either could (and would) collect further tokens and be nominated with a mere 30, neither was close to making the debate—and they were far out in front of the other also-rans. At least nine people received at least one token, and the LP wasn’t actually sure how many candidates they had running for president because a number of those who filed failed to correspond in any other way.

So when the lights came on and the C-SPAN cameras started rolling, the stage looked not totally dissimilar to any other American presidential debate: two speakers, both in suits, one wearing a blue tie, one wearing a red—though the latter, Wrights’ tie, had a bit of patterning mixed in that marked him as marginally the more casual. He would be far more so by debate’s end.

After a 12-year-old sang a histrionic version of the national anthem, the format was explained by moderator David Bergland. About halfway through it became clear that he’d been a poor choice; though both eminent and highly respectable, his questions never strayed from traditional libertarian talking points, and certainly never went into current events such as the student loan debt uprising, or the European Union crackup. What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Johnson went first, and delivered an opening statement heavy on constitutional rhetoric, applause lines. He made three promises about what he would carry out in his first year as president: first, submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013; second, veto any expenditures that outstripped revenue—the first chance of many to bring up his veto record as governor—and finally, throw out entire tax system, abolish the IRS, and establish a national consumption tax. He presented this last point, the much derided Fair Tax, as a means of moving toward zero tax—but many in the room only heard this as a plan to introduce a new tax, period. So any time he brought up the Fair Tax—and he did it seemingly every question, really ramming it down the throats of the audience—it got about the same response as a fart in an elevator.

What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Wrights played up his history in the Party: “It feels like I’m at a family reunion.” His first act as president would be to “declare peace” in wars on drugs, poverty, other nations. As he got excited, he got louder and drops deeper into his North Carolina accent, so that at times he is almost incoherent. But when not bellowing, he projected a genial, folksy image, well suited to delivering libertarian one-liners, if not substantive analysis. It was an approach better suited to this crowd than Johnson’s, which aimed beyond the immediate crowd and out to the C-SPAN viewing audience.

The early questions all concerned the candidates’ relationships with libertarianism. Wrights takes us back to family again, “born a libertarian from a libertarian father.” Johnson talks of his journey from Republican governor to Libertarian candidate as his “coming out of the closet.”

What is libertarianism? Wrights: “A life decision. A way of life. Making decisions for yourself rather than allowing them to be made for you by people hundreds or thousands of miles away.” Johnson: “Don’t tell me what to do.” He followed this up with the first and only Ayn Rand quote of the debate.

As Garrett Quinn of Reason noted, this “seems more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate between two candidates” for the nomination. Much policy discussion, little back and forth between the candidates even when there’s a chance to engage. On a question about immigration, Johnson adocated “easy as possible work visas,” and expressed a belief that the Fair Tax would solve taxation problems. Wrights could have attacked that, but settled for more talk about visas and the need to open borders.

Social security, bank bailouts, Medicare: meat and potatoes libertarian issues, but hardly ways to distinguish between candidates. The first even veiled attack was in a question on foreign policy, where Johnson nearly went off the rails by saying he wouldn’t be above pre-emptive strikes—back on a little bit by saying that even those would have to go to Congress for approval. Wrights insisted he would never deploy anyone, ever, but didn’t press his advantage much further.

Johnson’s constant mentions of the Fair Tax were impossible for Wrights to ignore forever, though, and finally, an hour and a half into the debate, he took his chance: asked about tax policy, he said, “There is no such thing as a fair tax. We need to abolish the IRS and have no tax at all.” The follow-up, for once, was the right one: how then would we pay for the essential functions of government? Wrights replied that if we got rid of whatever’s not essential—“which is nearly everything”—there wouldn’t be any problems. Johnson, meanwhile, went back to his 43% solution for a balanced budget—a cut that would be unimaginably radical for much of the American public, but wasn’t nearly radical enough for the sort of crowd that shows up at a Libertarian National Convention.

He was on stronger ground whenever he could move his answer toward his experiences as an actually elected executive official in New Mexico. A number of times he came back to his extensive veto record—“possibly more than the other 49 state governors combined”—though it was a bit odd to hear him talk proudly about vetoing a bill solely for being too long, and not having the time to read it. Not as weird, though, as when Wrights stated that the first executive order he would sign as president would be one invalidating all prior executive orders.

In closing, Johnson promised to stay a libertarian “for life”—“I really want this job.” Wrights, for about the hundredth time that evening, found himself once again in agreement with his opponent: “I really want this job too!”

On the whole it seemed a measured win for Wrights. Johnson didn’t entirely adjust to his audience—case in point, the unnecessary forcing of the Fair Tax, which was never going to play to the room. But it wasn’t a total loss for him: at no point did he go beyond the pale, and usually he succeeded in talking himself back to an applause line. And he certainly nailed home his experience in executive office.

Wrights though played the audience much better. Which, of course, makes sense: he’s been in the party and around these people for many more years than Johnson has; if nominees were selected solely for their skills at preaching to the choir, Wrights would take the race going away. But moving beyond the insular and, sad to say, rather small world of the libertarian hardcore, there are many other situations a candidate must navigate successfully. Wrights won tonight’s debate, but in doing so paradoxically showed himself a less rounded candidate than Johnson.

The nighttime brought events hosted by several states, including the justly famous Texas shindig, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Indiana affair, and a small but spirited crossover by Washington and Mississippi. But, conscious of the early start tomorrow, most called it in early tonight, postponing the true revelry for after the election Saturday night.



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Squabbles and Sorcerors

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As the official business of the 2012 Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention got underway, there was but one question on everyone’s mind: which group of people will be credentialed and seated as the official delegation from Oregon?

Actually, no, very few people cared about that, especially if you count out those with either a direct stake in the matter, or a fetish for obscurities of parliamentiary procedure. But the LP cannot do without drama, so lacking any at the top of the ballot it was left to the individual delegations to come up with some. Oregon came through in spades.

It’s never a good sign when there’s more than one “central committee” of anything, and Oregon brought two, the Reeves group and the Wagner group. The latter is the one recognized by the Oregon Secretary of State; the former is suing to contest this recognition. It’s of those thoroughly Byzantine LP procedural matters that simmers for months before exploding into floor debate that even Robert’s Rules is hard pressed to contain.

So once the proverbial gavel fell (only proverbial because the actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSA, no joke, would not permit it to be taken on a plane), things got ugly real quick. Between conflicts of interest, backroom (even bedroom) deals, and worst of all violations of parliamentary procedure, there were accusations aplenty. As one of the speakers, himself an involved party, noted when addressing the floor: there are “unclean hands on both sides of the dispute.”

Others settled for the fatal passive — “Mistakes have been made, things could have been handled better.” — before appealing to the LP’s “brand distinction” as the soc-called “party of principle.” “If we can’t follow our own rules,” one asked, “then how can we ask the American people for their votes?” Because of course the fight over who is seated as the Oregon delegation is going to be a campaign killer with the American people in the coming election cycle.

The actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSAwould not permit it to be taken on a plane

Hilariously low stakes aside, this dispute is not one that’s going away. The delegates’ decision to approve the credentials report and seat the Reeves faction, though pragmatically ending a fight that was already holding up the keynote address, leaves the status of the Oregon LP uncertain. Even party insiders cannot yet say which side will win out, or even whether the party’s nominee will be able to appear on the Oregon ballot. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth — as one Oregon delegate, new to the party and unknowingly swept up in this pissing match, said when addressing the floor: “It seems like the Libertarian Party is more concerned with preserving their own personal power than with promoting liberty in the United States.”

With that kerfuffle momentarily sorted, it was back to the same old, same old with Michael Cloud’s keynote speech. If there’s any libertarian idea you care particularly about, chances are he brought it up — but because he spent his time speaking to every possible issue, there was little focus on any single one of them. “Big government is the disease, and libertarians have the cure” is bumper-sticker stuff, practically defining boilerplate.

The list of the day’s speeches proved hardly more inspirational, showing, if nothing else, that the party is in urgent need of fresh blood. And to be fair, two of the speakers late in the day addressed that in particular: Alexander McCobin, president of Students for Liberty, which gathers college students to talk about liberty; and Andy McKean, founder of Liberty Day, a group that tries to raise constitutional literacy, especially in elementary schools. While neither speech exactly concealed its fundraising aim, it’s encouraging nonetheless to see a block of speech aimed at reaching a generation that, by my own admittedly anecdotal experience, they’re doing none too well with to date.

All of this, though, is a sideshow to the real business of the convention: nominating a presidential candidate. But unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march: Gary Johnson announced his intent early and entered the convention as overwhelming favorite to take the nomination; the only real drama in the process by now is whether the vote will go to a second ballot.

But there are other candidates: enough of them, in fact, that the LP itself isn’t actually sure how many of those who have filed to run for president will actually bother to show up and do so. But what is clear is that the field is nowhere near as packed as in 2008, where nine candidates made the debate stage. Reaching that point requires 30 delegate “tokens” (actually slips of paper); but it’s uncertain whether anyone other than Johnson and Wrights will reach even that total.

So why even bother? I asked Jim Libertarian Burns, a perennial candidate (and yes, that is his legal middle name). For him, it’s about making contacts — even friends — and getting the message out that the Libertarian Party is the best hope that the American people (and by proxy people worldwide) have for true political change. At the same time, the LP as presently constructed is “a pile of crap.” Burns has the hope of at least making the debate stage, which — if it did happen — would be far more as a reward to him for decades within the party, than for any particular strength of his campaign. But rest assured: if by some fluke he were to take the party nomination, he would not accept it, but would instead turn it over to Gary Johnson.

Unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march.

The same would certainly not be true of Lee Wrights, Johnson’s main competitor. Another longtime presence in the LP, Wrights has held a number of roles in past years, including vice chair; without Johnson around, Wrights’ campaign would be something like Andre Marrou’s: essentially, a lifetime service award, and one for which Wrights’ slogan “End All War” (e.g., foreign, Drug, On Poverty) would be adequate

With Johnson, however, Wrights has to focus much more on the issues where he and the ex-governor differ — difficult since they’re both anti-war, anti-drug prohibition, anti-entitlements, etc. So what does he have to offer? First and foremost, many more years of experience in libertarian politics, specifically — indisputable since Johnson just joined six months ago, albeit as a life member. Second, an economic plan that isn’t the Flat Tax. Third, a foreign policy farther in the direction of isolationism than Johnson’s non-interventionism. What would a Wrights campaign look like? A grassroots affair, reaching out to local libertarian candidates in a bid to make use of preestablished media relationships — relationships I’m not sure actually exist, or at least haven’t proven terrifically useful in the past. But the talking points are in place for the debate, and Wrights will at least be on the stage with a chance to make them.

But at this point it would take getting caught in flagrante delicto with half a dozen hookers, several farmyard animals, and a choir of castrati for Gary Johnson to lose the nomination. And while some of the above might be on the menu for other libertarian operatives once they get over to the Strip, there’s precious little vice (other than the obvious one) at the resort itself, even in the room parties that fill the convention’s nighttime hours.

The peculiar pleasure to be found in these hospitality suites is instead that of truly bizarre conversation — something like a perpetual Philip K. Dick story, where one comes to realize, again and again, that there is no firm ground to stand on, no intersection between a particular person’s mind and whatever passes for objective reality in the world around us. For instance, last night I spoke with a younger attendee who was absolutely convinced that the greatest problem facing American politics — nay, politics worldwide — was the workings of sorcerers wielding unimaginable arcane power. He supported a blanket ban on all sorcery, speaking approvingly of nations where such laws were already on the books, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. More specifically, any presidential candidate worth his salt must be willing to take on the leading nest of sorcerers in America, Yale’s Skull & Bones society, which has been responsible for many assassinations over the past half-century or so, most recently Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

After a few drinks and a swing across the dancefloor at Gary Johnson’s bumping election party (LMFAO soundtrack included), I called it a night. Tomorrow: candidates court delegate tokens and try to get on the stage for the C-SPAN televised debate. More anon.



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Lies, Damn Lies and the Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Wise men going back at least as far as the great George Orwell have pointed out that statists have little but contempt for objective facts, truth, or reality. In the present day, this contempt is proved most clearly by the parade of false reports and statistical manipulations issued by the Department of Labor. Headed by former congresswoman and current troglodyte Hilda L. Solis, the Labor Department has become — primarily through its Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Employment and Training Administration (ETA) — the real-world version of the Ministry of Truth. Every report is revised; every revision changes numbers to favor the state.

And reality goes down the memory hole.

Since the first of March alone, the Labor Department has revised three major reports on U.S. labor productivity, job creation and unemployment. There are several official explanations for these revisions; the main one is Solis’ intellectually dishonest commitment to making employment data “seasonally adjusted.”

In theory, seasonal adjustment is supposed to smooth statistical bumps like temporary retail hiring around the Christmas or summer holidays and make it easier chart trends. Fair enough. But, in practice, Solis’ staff of statistical manipulators uses perpetual revision to create the illusion that newer numbers are always an improvement over older ones.

When Labor released these cooked numbers, the mainstream financial press parroted the line that the number was the “lowest in four years."

I’ve done enough statistical analysis to know that even (or especially) the most honest analyst will occasionally revise results. And, to be sure, Labor isn’t the only federal bureaucracy that does so. But few other agencies do so, so systematically . . . or with such partisan willfulness.

Here’s an example of the revision game from the ETA’s most recent (April 19) report on new unemployment insurance claims:

In the week ending April 14, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 386,000, a decrease of 2,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 388,000. The 4-week moving average was 374,750, an increase of 5,500 from the previous week's revised average of 369,250.

See what Solis’ hacks did there? They claimed that the number of initial claims for unemployment benefits was a “decrease” from the previous week’s “revised” number. What they don’t say is that the revision to the previous week’s number was to increase it from the 380,000 they reported at the time to the new number of 388,000. So, they raised the previous week’s number in order to claim the new number was a decrease.

Keeping the four-week moving average for unemployment claims below 375,000 is important because that’s a common inflection point between a rising and falling overall unemployment number. Given the accounting trickery in which Labor engages, a number so close to the inflection point has to be taken with a large grain of salt. The real number may be higher — and overall unemployment may be rising.

Solis’ subordinates play the same sorts of games with the so-called “jobs created” numbers. According to the BLS, “total nonfarm payroll employment” rose by 120,000 jobs in March. This was perceived as a bad number — significantly lower than the jobs created in the previous few months. If then-current numbers held, the trend for the first few months of 2012 was bad, indeed: January, 284,000; February, 227,000; March 122,000.

Focusing only on people who’ve recently been laid off, are actively looking for work, or are applying for unemployment benefits hides the backlog of unemployed people who’ve stopped looking for jobs.

But the Labor staff had a plan for making the downward line on a graph of those numbers less steep. They revised the January and February numbers, moving some of the January jobs into February. The “revised” decline: January, 275,000; February, 240,000; March 122,000.

The net effect isn’t much different; but the optic is better. The graph looks more like a plane gliding to a landing than crashing into flames.

Here’s an even more extreme example, from the April 19 ETA report I quoted above:

The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending April 7 was 3,297,000, an increase of 26,000 from the preceding week’s revised level of 3,271,000. The 4-week moving average was 3,317,750, a decrease of 21,500 from the preceding week’s revised average of 3,339,250.

So, the current number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits was up. But the revised four-week trend was down. How could that be? Solis and crew used revisions to inflate the numbers at the back of the four-week chart.

They had used revisions to similar effect a few weeks earlier, on March 29, when it trumpeted a “decline” in initial unemployment insurance claims. It announced:

Initial jobless claims fell 5,000 in the week ended March 24 to 359,000, the lowest since April 2008 . . .

Later, in the fine print, the agency admitted that it had revised the previous week’s figure to 364,000 from an initially-reported 348,000. So, if not for the revision, the newer number would have increased by more than 10,000 new Americans on the dole.

Also in small type: the Department announced that it had revised weekly data on unemployment claims (and other key indicators) going back to 2007 — in part, to reflect seasonal adjustments. This caused all numbers in 2012 to rise about 4%. And cast the “since April 2008” part of the big announcement into doubt, too.

The guys from Enron went to jail or committed hara kiri because of tricks like this. Instead, when Labor released these cooked numbers, the mainstream financial press — including Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Associated Press — parroted the line that the number was the “lowest in four years.”

The numbers I’ve been considering so far aren’t the government’s formal unemployment numbers. Economists rightly consider the weekly unemployment insurance reports “additional data” and of less reliability than the BLS’ more formal unemployment surveys.

As you might already know, the BLS tracks six different measures of unemployment. These six unemployment statistics are:

  • U1: the percentage of the U.S. labor force unemployed 15 weeks or longer;
  • U2: the percentage of labor force comprised of people who lost jobs or completed temporary work;
  • U3: the “official unemployment rate” — people without jobs who have actively looked for work within the past four weeks;
  • U4: U3 plus “discouraged workers,” or those who have stopped looking for work because economic conditions make them believe that no work is available for them;
  • U5: U4 plus other “marginally attached workers,” or “loosely attached workers,” or those who “would like” and are able to work, but have not looked for work recently; and
  • U6: U5 plus part-time workers who want to work full time, but cannot due to economic reasons (underemployment).

These numbers give economists several different perspectives on the issue. Since all of the numbers are estimates, the combined perspectives are meant to offer a “three-dimensional” view of unemployment, more accurate than any single number. But even these more formal surveys are subject to manipulation and revision. During the Clinton administration, the BLS revised the formal stats — changing the “official” rate to U3 from a predecessor version of U5, which is always a higher number.

There were several problems with this cynical move.

The U3 statistic, with a methodology closest to the “additional data” numbers that Solis’ hacks manipulate these days, is the least reliable of the formal measures.

But there’s a more philosophical problem with the Clinton-era revision: focusing only on people who’ve recently been laid off, are actively looking for work, or are applying for unemployment benefits tends to downplay the number of able-bodied adults who are out of work. It hides the backlog of unemployed people who’ve stopped looking for jobs. A nearly-permanent underclass that includes the nation’s most incorrigibly unproductive people simply doesn’t appear in the U3 number.

Older unemployment numbers are revised upward; new jobs numbers are revised downward. Everything’s always getting better in this workers’ paradise!

So, Solis’ BLS can boast (as it recently did) that “the unemployment rate” fell to 8.2% in March 2012 from 9.1% in August 2011. But that headline ignores the fact that U5 unemployment was about 2 percentage points higher during that period — and U6 hovered above 15%.

This may be what statists want, though: to hide the economic effects . . . and very presence . . . of the hardcore unemployed. Who are, of course, the most enthusiastic supporters of big-government social welfare programs.

Throughout, the operatives continue to use seasonal adjustment to justify their manipulation of employment numbers. Here’s one example of a weasel-worded footnote explaining the spin:

Data in this release reflect the annual benchmark revision of BLS Current Employment Statistics program data on nonfarm employee hours, and revised seasonal adjustment of those data. . . . Quarterly and annual measures . . . for all sectors were revised back to 2007 to incorporate the annual benchmark adjustment and updated information on seasonal trends.

So much jargon, so little truth.

Solis’ hacks cling to seasonal adjustment because it serves as a blank check, an open-ended excuse for revising every employment report to show an illustrious victory for our valiant leaders. Under this administration, essentially every Labor Department employment survey or report that’s been revised has been so in a way that makes newer numbers look like improvements. Older unemployment numbers are revised upward; new jobs numbers are revised downward. So everything’s always getting better in this workers’ paradise!

Or, as one internet commenter noted: “We’ve got the Christmas season, summer season, and — most of all — we’ve got election season.”

Many politicians talk about abolishing the Department of Education; that’s become a kind of short-hand for commitment to limited government. But it might do more good to abolish the Department of Labor, whose truth-twisting under Hilda Solis has become so blatant.




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