The Bureaucrat and the Cellphone Ban

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About a month ago, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, called for a “first-ever nationwide ban” on “the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices,” including hands-free cellphones, while driving. In a prepared statement introducing the proposed ban, Hersman told the story of a fatal multi-vehicle accident that had recently occurred in rural Missouri, set in motion by a pickup truck driver who’d been using a cellphone while driving:

“And it was over just like that. It happened so quickly. And, that’s what happened at Gray Summit. Two lives lost in the blink of an eye. And, it’s what happened to more than 3,000 people last year. Lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.”

Quickly, critics of the Obama administration raised questions about that “3,000 lives lost” statistic. While some of these criticisms had a peevish tone, their basic point was valid. The 3,000 number was an exaggeration, based on an imprecise use of more defensible fatality numbers.

A few days later, the Washington Post published an opinion column under Hersman’s name that justified the NTSB’s proposal. (The Post’s opinion pages serve as a sort of free press-release service for columns supposedly written by high-level bureaucrats.) The column used most of the same language from Hersman’s earlier statement — but avoided specific figures:

“Washington residents remember well the 2009 Metro crash on the Red Line in which nine people were killed. The number of fatalities from distractions on U.S. roadways is the equivalent of one Metro crash every day of the year. . . . At the NTSB, our charge is to investigate accidents, learn from them and recommend changes. In Gray Summit and on highways across the United States, thousands of people were killed last year in the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.”

There was still plenty of mendacious rhetoric at work in the column. It went on to imply that fatal accidents caused by cellphone use are a growing risk. It stated that cellphones and personal digital assistants have become “ubiquitous”; and it cited a study suggesting that 21% of drivers in the Washington, D.C., area have admitted to texting while driving.

Taken together, these emotionally fraught passages clearly implied that some 3,000 people a year are killed in motor-vehicle accidents caused by sending or receiving cellphone text messages. But that’s not true. The “3,000 lives lost” number comes from an NTSB study of “distracted driving” in general. Based on data from that study, the NTSB estimated that fewer than a third of those deaths could be connected to cellphone use. To repeat for emphasis, even that number is an estimate. (Of course, bureaucratic fiefdoms like the NTSB often issue regulatory decrees based on slight justification and without regard to practicality, effectiveness or cost.)

So, Hersman exaggerated the risk of cellphone use while driving by a factor of at least three — and repeated the exaggeration with carefully calibrated verbiage. And, most important, she used the exaggerations and imprecise rhetoric to support an invasive regulatory action.

She may have figured the mendacity was needed because the general trend has been toward greater safety on American highways. In 1990, about 44,600 people died in car crashes in the U.S.; in 2010, that number had dropped to less than 32,900. This drop is even more striking when you consider that the total number of licensed drivers in the U.S. rose significantly over the same period. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 1.71 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles driven in 1994 but only 1.09 in 2010. That’s a major improvement — though you’d never know it from Nanny Hersman.

Hersman exaggerated the risk of cellphone use while driving by a factor of at least three, and used the exaggerations to support an invasive regulatory action.

In significant ways, Hersman resembles other current and former Obama administration apparatchiks. Like Julius Genachowski, she is a career Beltway insider whose slavish devotion to big government overwhelms any notion of private-sector economy; like Elizabeth Warren, her background speaks more to bureaucratic credentialing than education in the classical liberal sense.

Hersman’s December decree urged state governments to prohibit text-messaging and other electronic device use while driving. (It calls, specifically, for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban “the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices.”) But her urgency was unnecessary: 35 states already have such rules in place.

If “distracted driving” is a problem, why are cellphones a more urgent issue than other sources of distraction — watching kids in the back seat, eating fast food, studying a GPS map, applying makeup, etc.? A cynic might say that a cellphone ban gives state agencies a broad excuse to harass citizens…and a new source of cash flow for government coffers. But statist hacks like Hersman are too earnest for that.

A more likely answer is that a ban on cellphone use in the privacy of one’s own car is a preemptive regulation. And preemptive regulations have two distinctive traits: they are often misused — and, particularly, overused — by state agencies; and they are often based on shaky logical foundations that sound good on first impression but don’t stand up well to rigorous inspection.

That second trait explains why bureaucrats like Hersman use emotional manipulations to promote pre-emptive regulations.

An important point: The feds’ own research underscored the futility of Hersman’s gesture. An NHTSA report on accidents “involving” cellphones as the cause of fatalities stated that:

“Sixteen percent of fatal crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving and ... of those people killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995 involved reports of a cellphone as a distraction (18% of fatalities in distraction-related crashes).”

So, Nanny Hersman proposed banning cellphones in cars to reduce a risk that causes — at most — 2.9% of traffic-related deaths.

There may have been other factors affecting her thinking. A few months before Hersman’s proposal, the U.S. Senate considered a Department of Transportation spending bill that set up a $10 million grant program aimed at helping states combat “distracted driving” — and especially texting behind the wheel. According to the bill (S. 1596):

“While there is no definitive data as to how many distracted driving deaths and injuries are caused by cellphone use and texting, 20% of the drivers involved in fatal accidents in 2009 were either using or in the presence of a cellphone at the time of the crash, and there is reason to be concerned about whether the recent rise in distracted driving fatalities is linked to the increasing use of electronic devices.”

Admitting they had “no definitive data” to support their actions, the Solons would bribe states to prohibit citizens from operating a vehicle while in the “presence of a cellphone.” Maybe Hersman wanted the NTSB to administer the grants to the states.

If “distracted driving” is a problem, why are cellphones a more urgent issue than other sources of distraction — watching kids in the back seat, eating fast food, studying a GPS map, applying makeup?

The Senate bill also required $5 million to be set aside “for the development, production, and use of broadcast and print media advertising to support enforcement of State laws to prevent distracted driving.” Maybe Hersman wanted the NTSB to produce those ads . . . and its chairman to star in them.

The Obama administration has never been shy about manipulating numbers and emotions to support its various statist schemes and bureaucratic boondoggles. Specifically:

  1. According to the Census Bureau, more than 30 million Americans — one in every seven — live in poverty. And that number is growing, in part, because the Obama administration has expanded the definition of the word “poverty.” The administration has worked to delink the concepts of poverty and deprivation…and redefined poverty instead as being “about inequality.” Traditional metrics of poverty have focused on absolute purchasing power — how much food or durable goods a person can buy; the Obama administration’s metrics focus instead on comparative purchasing power — how much food or durable goods a person can buy relative to other people. This is a statistical trick designed to assure that a fixed portion of the population will always be poor.
  2. In the spring of 2011, Obama administration officials publicized the possibility that “82% of U.S. schools” could be rated as failing, according to metrics established by the No Child Left Behind program. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan repeated this statistic in numerous speeches — even though education experts called the number “unverified,” “likely exaggerated” and “meaningless to the schools that are being rated.” Even after several education policy groups challenged Duncan’s emotional rhetoric, he and other administration officials showed no inclination to make more precise statements. Some observers suggested the administration’s goal was, rather than issuing reliable numbers, to scare Congress into approving its spending goals.
  3. In the fall of 2011, a heated exchange between Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made clear that tension between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans over the president’s efforts to bolster the clean energy economy was getting worse. Mack scoffed at administration projections that counted drivers of hybrid buses as “green jobs.” (This dispute occurred during the height of public outrage over Department of Energy loan guarantees — funded through Obama’s $825 billion stimulus plan — to bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra.) Some lawmakers argued that the Obama administration exaggerated the impact that its “green energy” policies had on improving the economy and creating jobs.
  4. In late 2011, immigration policy groups noted that the Obama Administration had inflated statistics to suggest that it had deported a “record-high number of illegal immigrants with criminal records.” In fact, the real deportation figure was closer to an historic low. In October 2011, Obama’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director had announced that nearly 55% of the record 396,906 illegal immigrants deported in FY2011 were convicted of felonies or crimes. But the real figure was less than 15%, according to federal records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Specifically, the average rate across the four quarters for FY 2011 was 14.9%.
  5. In October 2011, the web site FactCheck.org caught the Obama administration exaggerating the impact of a proposed additional round of “stimulus” spending. (The administration had predicted that its previous stimulus plan would “save or create” millions of jobs. Those predictions turned out to be wrong — some 1.2 million American jobs had been lost during the two years following passage of the 2009 stimulus. In 2011, Obama claimed that “independent economists” agreed that a new stimulus package would “create nearly 2 million jobs next year.” But FactCheck.org countered that the “median estimate in a survey of 34 economists showed 288,000 jobs could be saved or created over two years under the president’s plan.”

Focusing on this or that political prevarication is easy and, on a reptilian level, fun (on this topic, I commend to you Vaclav Havel’s great New Year’s Day 1990 speech on statist lies). But there’s also a bigger point raised by the meddling of bureaucratic schemers like Deborah Hersman and Barack Obama. Specifically: what burden of proof should be borne by a party who proposes a law or regulation?

The feds’ own research underscored the futility of Hersman’s gesture.

The statists who support Obama argue that the answer to that question is “none.” They argue that bureaucrats are by definition well-meaning and laws or regulations they propose should be presumed virtuous and effective. According to this peculiar logic, the burden of proof falls on those who question the proposed laws or regulations. Here’s one commenter’s defense of Nanny Hersman’s decree:

“Ms. Hersman was appointed to the NTSB in 2004. I can’t for the life of me figure out what possible political (or other nefarious) agenda she could possibly have in recommending that states ban cellphone usage while driving. I don’t see why we can’t assume that she is a conscientious officer who has looked at the question and sincerely believes that the evidence supports her recommendation. . . . I challenge you to find any study that shows that texting or mobile phone use does not impair driving ability. You won’t find any.”

So, unless citizens can prove something isn’t bad, conscientious officers can ban that thing. This is sophistry. And, in the case of Hersman’s proposed cellphone ban, it’s threadbare sophistry.

A more coherent — and liberty-friendly — approach to government regulation would be that, if a state agency proposes restricting or banning some object or action, it must first prove that:

  1. the object or action accounts directly for some demonstrable economic loss, and
  2. restricting or banning the object or action will alleviate the loss.

If the agency can’t establish both points, then its proposal would be ignored.

And even if the agency can establish both points, citizens would demand a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed regulation that establishes with some confidence that it will save more in economic losses than it will cost to enforce.

This approach would reduce the amount of statist noise generated by the present administration. And future ones, too.

Back to the point: statists claim that bureaucratic drivel like Hersman’s proposed cellphone ban should be presumed valid. And that those who question it must prove the validity of their questions.

The fruitless search for zero risk fits well into this warped thinking. Whether the particulars involve texting on cellphones, smoking cigarettes, wearing seatbelts, eating Big Macs, or anything else, statist busybodies justify their requirements, prohibitions and other petty tyrannies with good intent. And they imply that their opponents are in favor of the bad outcomes of risky behavior — or are “against safety.”

But a quick text message sent home or to work while driving on an empty country road or stopped in traffic might be as effective a safety measure as wearing a seat belt. Because text messages are time-stamped, people who care about you can know where you were at a given time; this is important, if you don’t show up as expected.

Whether the particulars involve texting on cellphones, smoking cigarettes, wearing seatbelts, eating Big Macs, or anything else, statist busybodies justify their requirements, prohibitions and other petty tyrannies with good intent.

This sort of effective communication may have something to do with the overall trend toward safer U.S. highways. (And most of the existing state laws that restrict or prohibit cellphone use while driving specifically exempt emergency use — such as calls to the highway patrol to report dangerous conditions, etc.)

As I’ve noted, Hersman’s decree was unnecessary. Most states already have laws in place restricting cellphone use by people driving cars; and all states have reckless driving laws that apply to situations in which cellphone use causes dangerous results. But, as one online commenter noted:

“Enforcing laws is so boring. Not only is it work, you get little political benefit from mundane enforcement stuff as it rarely makes the papers. And enforcement of laws may even upset people, causing political problems. But passing laws, now that’s sexy.”

Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

The most damning indictment of the proposed cellphone ban comes from a statistical study conducted by researchers at the Colorado School of Mines. They note:

“On July 1, 2008, California enacted a ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving. Using California Highway Patrol panel accident data for California freeways from January 1, 2008, to December 3, 2008, we examine whether this policy reduced the number of accidents on California highways. To control for unobserved time-varying effects that could be correlated with the ban, we use high-frequency data and a regression discontinuity design. We find no evidence that the ban on hand-held cellphone use led to a reduction in traffic accidents.”

This study is preliminary and based on limited data — but it doesn’t bode well for the cost-effectiveness of Hersman’s futile gesture.

Bureaucrats promulgate regulations. It’s their lifeblood, the air they breathe. A bureaucrat isn’t fulfilling her statist destiny unless she banning or prohibiting something.

But free citizens need to keep in mind that the United States is a country built on the philosophical premise that everything not banned is permitted instead of the tyrannical axiom that everything not permitted is banned.

It’s right there, in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Nanny Hersman and her current boss should take a look.




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More Green Goblins

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The Great Green Energy Bust continues to accelerate, with new wrinkles on crony green capitalism showing up almost daily.

Let’s start with the far-from-sunny news regarding the Obama administration’s favorite industry, solar power. The Wall Street Journal reports that the whole solar industry is in trouble. The demand for solar panels is projected to be flat next year, and many of the players in the industry face plummeting stock prices or even bankruptcy.

In the last quarter of 2011, at least seven solar manufacturers hit the wall. These include the German firms Solar Millennium and Solon SE, and of course the notorious American firm Solyndra. Six of the ten biggest solar companies reported losses in the third quarter of 2011; six of the ten also showed corporate debts that exceeded their market capitalizations.

The solar industry as a whole experienced an average stock price drop of 57% during 2011.

Part of the problem is noted in the Journal article: a glut on the market of solar panels and other components, because China has expanded its solar manufacturing industry. Remember, China has the vast majority of known reserves of the rare earth minerals used in solar panels, and it still has relatively inexpensive labor.

But the article also notes that consumer demand for solar products has fallen off. During the last year, for example, German demand fell by 29%.

What the article doesn’t mention are the major reasons for the decline in demand, but these are important to understand.

First, more countries are cutting back on their massive subsidies for solar panels. Solar power requires much more subsidization than nuclear power, and vastly more than for fossil fuels such as natural gas.

Second, there has been a renaissance of fossil fuel energy, driven by the rapid rise of nonconventional fossil fuels — natural gas and oil extracted from shale and tar sand fields by such newer technologies as fracking and horizontal drilling. I have explored this renaissance elsewhere; suffice it to say that it has pushed natural gas in particular to such low prices that it is making green energy seem obviously stupid from any economic standpoint.

Next comes a report out of the Netherlands that the Dutch — for whom windmills have been part of the national ethos — are apparently starting to have regrets about wind as a power source.

Five years ago, in a burst of Green enthusiasm, the Dutch built three dozen huge wind turbines — each the size of a 30-story building — out in the North Sea. However, even the North Sea wind and the Dutch enthusiasm couldn’t change the fact that, like solar power, wind power is grotesquely inefficient, and so requires lavish taxpayer support. The Dutch had to pay $4.5 billion Euros last year to subsidize these windmills.

Consumer demand for solar products has fallen off. During the last year, for example, German demand fell by 29%.

The government there has just announced that it can no longer afford to pick up the tab. Naturally, it hopes to make consumers and businesses pick it up instead. In 2013, the government will start a billing scheme under which consumers will pay more for wind power, and investors will (supposedly) be lured into supporting it.

The government concedes, however, that the new arrangement will cover only about a third of the subsidy. So, as the article gently puts it, “The outlook for Dutch wind power projects seems bleak.”

The Dutch, those clever people — think of their achievements, from those enormous dikes to those quaint wooden shoes — have grasped the fact that land-based wind farms are hideous, costly, unsafe, and noisy, while offshore wind farms are even costlier and harder to maintain.

The Dutch government had planned to increase its current share of renewable energy (as a percentage of all energy used) from the current 4% to 14% by 2020. But that was just a green dream. The government now estimates that it will only be at 8% to 12% renewable energy by then. Of course, if it ended all subsidies, even the ones it passes on to hapless consumers, the industry probably wouldn’t grow at all — or even survive.

Let’s turn to another green energy boondoggle, one often overlooked because the scandals in solar and wind power have been so juicy and so damn numerous. Several recent reports show that the so-called “alternative biofuels” program is also rife with waste and corruption.

By the way, the misleading term “biofuels” refers to alcohol, diesel, or other liquid fuels created from plants. For many years, ethanol has been produced from sugar cane, and more recently from corn. Call that “standard biofuel.” Alternative or “cellulosic” biofuel is derived from other plants, such as switch grass, and plant wastes, such as corncobs. Now you know.

A WSJ article recounts the astonishing history of the whole biofuel program. It started as one of George Bush’s sillier ideas. So eager was he to show that he wasn’t the “oil boy” his critics accused him of being that he signed the Pelosi-crafted bill into law in 2007.

This abominable bill called for (shock and awe!) super subsidies for the super fuel. (Why do all these super energy schemes do that?) The bill provided a tax credit of $1.01 per gallon. Another Pelosi-Bush bill then required oil companies to blend this costly crap with their fossil fuels. The mandate started at 100 million gallons in 2010 and was supposed to hit 250 million in 2011, 500 million in 2012, and 16 billion in 2022. But already this preposterous program has stolen $1.5 billion from the taxpayers. I don’t need to tell you that Obama gave it his Chicago crony capitalist stamp of approval.

The Dutch, those clever people, have grasped the fact that land-based wind farms are hideous, costly, unsafe, and noisy, while offshore wind farms are even costlier and harder to maintain.

Would that Bush and Obama had both been oil boys, real ones. In that event we taxpayers would have been spared the billions of bucks pumped pointlessly into corn ethanol and cellulosic biofuels — not to mention the $70 billion Obama has pumped into the even stupider solar and wind programs.

As anyone could have predicted, cellulosic biofuel program has been a complete fiasco. Despite the billions in pelf that have been purloined from the citizenry to induce companies to produce the government-approved dreck, very little is being produced. The EPA (the agency with the power to revise the mandate) dropped the 2011 requirement from the original 250 million gallons to a risible 6.6 million. The EPA has just announced that it will set the level at 8.65 million gallons in 2012, significantly beneath the 500 million gallons called for, and will allow refiners to use corn ethanol to help meet the requirement. (Of course, corn ethanol is another corrupt boondoggle, as I have remarked elsewhere.)

The EPA thus acknowledges that the real production of cellulosic biofuels is infinitesimal. The feds are requiring refiners to buy a product that isn’t being produced in anywhere near the quantities necessary for them to comply with the requirement, and the EPA has been fining oil companies for not meeting the mandate.

The problem with alternative biofuels — indeed, all biofuels — is the same as that with solar and wind energy. As the National Academy of Science put it in a recent report on this so-called industry, it is cost, “the high cost of producing cellulosic biofuels compared with petroleum-based fuels, and uncertainties in future biofuel markets.” Read: uncertainty about how much longer a nearly bankrupt government will be able to fund such scams.

Scams? Yes, I said scams — “scams” in the sense of unworkable nonsense, at least, and sometimes “scams” in the sense of something worse.

Despite the prospect or reality of subsidies, about a half dozen of the firms that were supposed to produce alternative biofuels never got off the ground. And the company that was supposed to provide 70% of the cellulosic fuel to meet last year’s mandate, Cello Energy, went bankrupt last year.

The Cello story is cute. The company was found guilty in a 2009 civil case of making fraudulent claims. It reportedly overstated its production capabilities to investors, and — this is hilarious! — passed off some ordinary (i.e., petroleum derived) diesel as biodiesel. In fact, the company never produced much biofuel of any kind, standard or alternative.

Then there is the unsurprising news that crony green capitalism extends to biofuels as well as wind and solar energy. A recent story recounts how yet another Obama crony is at the center of yet another massive scam on the taxpayer.

It so happens that the Regime’s highly politicized Agriculture Department — you know, the one that has been waging war on non-conventional fossil fuel production — pushed the Navy to purchase nearly half a million gallons of alternative biofuels for their aircraft. This is the largest federal purchase of biofuel ever.

That’s just the beginning of the story. In an effort to create what it calls — dig this! — “the Great Green Fleet Carrier Strike Force,” the Navy is working with the Agriculture and Energy Departments to buy $510 million in biofuels, so that our seaborne fighting force, which earlier made the transition from diesel to nuclear power, can transition back to diesel fuel — but this time to biodiesel rather than fossil fuel diesel.

If that’s not funny enough, consider this: the biodiesel just purchased costs $16 per gallon, which is four times the price of normal (i.e., fossil fuel derived) diesel.

A key beneficiary of this price gouging of our Navy is a California company called Solazyme. Solazyme’s major “strategic advisor” turns out to be one T.J. Glauthier, who was a member of Obama’s transition team and crafted the energy industry section of the Obama Regime’s notorious 2009 “stimulus” bill.

Oh, and lest I forget, Glauthier made sure that Solazyme got $22 million out of that very bill.

Meanwhile, however, there is hope. The renaissance in fossil fuels, and the growing shortage of government funds to subsidize stupidly inefficient industries, is rapidly putting paid to the whole insane, overhyped, profoundly corrupt green energy program.

Thank God!




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Ron Paul at the Iowa Marker

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In Iowa, Ron Paul came in third. Four years earlier, he had come in fifth, with 10% of the party vote. Now he has more than doubled his support, to 21.5%. His new total suggests he has established libertarians as a significant faction within the Republican Party.

This is no certain thing. We will know when Paul retires, and the faction is led by someone else, perhaps his son. In either case, it is not a majority faction, and Paul is not going to be nominated.

Every time I write this, some Paul supporter rises in challenge: “Who gave you a crystal ball?” (My momma did.) When they are done hollering at me, they can holler at Intrade. As I write, on the morning after the Iowa caucuses, the gamblers on the news-prediction web page put odds of Paul’s nomination at between 2 and 2.4%, which is lower than the odds for Jon Huntsman.

In December 2011, Paul’s odds peaked at above 9%, about at the level he peaked four years earlier, in December 2007, regarding the nomination in 2008. After the Iowa caucuses then, and the New Hampshire primary, Paul’s quote fell to 1%. He is likely on the same trajectory now.

What has happened? Paul has been attacked. This was entirely predictable, and it is not just because the mainstream media is against him, though it is. The frontrunner is always attacked.

For months the national press had ignored Paul, treating him, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, like “an eccentric uncle.” Then it changed. In the last half of December anti-Paul columns appeared by Paul Krugman in the New York Times (Dec. 16), James Kirchick in the New Republic (Dec. 22), Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 22), former New York mayor Ed Koch on NewsMax.com (Dec. 29), Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (Dec. 30), and the editorial board of the New York Times (Dec. 27).

“Who gave you a crystal ball?” My momma did.

Much of this was a regurgitation of the story about the anti-black and anti-gay tone in Paul’s newsletters of the early 1990s. Kirchick had used these to accuse Paul of “hate” in The New Republic in January 2008, and the press corps knew about them. Wrote Shikha Dalmia of Reason, Dec. 25, 2011: “It seems no one wanted to bring them up again until Paul gained so much traction that ignoring them would have been a serious dereliction of duty.”

For some it seemed that way. Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head. They had dumped on Palin, Bachmann, Perry and Cain. They had just been trashing Newt. Then, in mid-December, Paul was leading in the Iowa polls, with 23–28% among a field of seven, and he still had a clean shirt.

Then came Kirchick, fanning the “hate” issue again; many Paul supporters, seeing their man as the least hateful of the lot, were inclined to dismiss it as more mainstream media bias. Some of it was, but in a presidential race a candidate cannot ignore charges like this.

And Kirchick had a new take on it. His piece was titled, “Why Don’t Libertarians Care About Ron Paul’s Bigoted Newsletters?” In it, he said Paul’s supporters “don’t base their support on the Congressman’s years-long record of supporting racism, homophobia,” etc. The problem with libertarians, he said, is that they shut these considerations from their minds, letting the free market trump “all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity.”

If they cared about these things, Kirchick argued, libertarians would have been supporting the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who “can boast executive experience and doesn’t have the racist and conspiratorial baggage.”

The public didn’t know Johnson. They knew Paul. He had run twice before. He had written bestselling books. He had built up a base of fans. He had mailing lists of donors for his “money bombs,” and an organization that in Iowa was stronger than any other Republican’s. He had a US senator to campaign for him: his son.

Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head.

He also has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses the Des Moines Register poll found that voters ranked Paul as the least ego-driven candidate. Andrew Sullivan writes of Paul’s “decency.” Dalmia writes of his “remarkable ability to generate goodwill.” Paul is more radical than Johnson. This makes him easier to attack, but also more appealing to the hardcore.

 The Republican leadership couldn’t stand either Johnson or Paul. For Paul, it didn’t matter; he had built his own party. Johnson hadn’t. At the end of 2011 he was so sore at the Republican leadership that he joined the Libertarian Party.

Back to Kirchick: he exaggerates, but he has a point. Paul’s fans liked him so much they were willing to overlook a bad thing on his record.

How bad was it? To Kirchick, as with many liberals, racism is the most important issue there is. If you’re touched by it, you’re dead. If you care about it, but you care about other things more, that’s not good enough. You’re still dead. Any denials are assumed to be false and (especially if they are against you anyway) any mea culpa from you istoo small.

The real issue is not what Paul was then. It is what he is now. You have to judge.

One commentator who tried to think this through is Andrew Sullivan. He had supported Paul for the Republican nomination, but said he would vote for Obama in November. He liked Paul’s stand on foreign war and executive power. To Sullivan, Paul was “the best medicine for the GOP, not the best president.” After Sullivan argued for this, some readers attacked him on the matter of Paul’s newsletters, and he reconsidered. On Dec. 24, he wrote:

“I sat down and re-read some of the Ron Paul newsletters last night. I don’t think he wrote them; I don’t think they represent who he is; I do not believe the man is a racist, although seeing into men’s souls is not something any of us is very good at.”

He has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans.

There are good reasons for believing Paul is no racist. Paul’s associates — even Eric Dondero, who became his political enemy — say he is not a racist. Paul has written a bunch of books, but never a racist book. He has engaged in numerous political campaigns, but never a racist campaign. He is deeply interested in economic and political ideas, but not ideas about race. And he is not an angry person, as so many racists seem to be.

If Paul is not a racist, then what do the newsletters say about him?

The story of the newsletters was told by Julian Sanchez in Reason four years ago. In 1988 Paul had given up his seat in Congress to run for president on the Libertarian Party. After he lost, he went back to his medical practice. But he had a valuable mailing list, and he kept a side business in newsletters. To produce these letters he had several people working for him. Lew Rockwell was one. Another was Murray Rothbard. Both were right-anarchists, radical free-marketeers. At that time, they had a theory, the “paleo” strategy, that libertarians should market their philosophy to the populist Right. For Rothbard, this wasn’t the first strategy of alliance; in the 1960s he had allied with the New Left. As communism crashed, he proclaimed an alliance with the “paleoconservatives,” which ranged from Patrick Buchanan to lowbrow populists. The Ron Paul newsletters were his vehicle; the nastiness towards black welfare recipients, Martin Luther King, gay AIDS patients, etc., was part of a calculated tone.

Exactly who wrote the stuff is unclear. Rockwell is blamed most often, but he says he mainly wrote promotional copy. Rockwell now runs the libertarian website LewRockwell.com, which can be nasty to pro-war Republicans and the “beltway libertarians” at the Cato Institute, but does not market racism. Rockwell is not interested in race. When the newsletter issue came up four years ago, his contributor Karen DeCoster made the same point about him that others have made about Paul: the newsletters didn’t sound like him. She wrote, “Those excerpts making light of immigrants/blacks etc. are way too snappy and attempt to be way too humorous to have been written by Lew . . . His personality is exactly the opposite.”

Rothbard died in 1995. He could be a snappy writer, and he loved to indulge in polemics. But writing like a redneck would have been striking a pose: he was a Jew raised in the Bronx and had a doctorate in economics from Columbia University.

The critics piling on Paul won’t accept his statement that he doesn’t know who wrote the offending copy. I don’t believe it either, but I accept it, and I respect Paul for not naming names. Why does anyone need to know? It was Paul’s newsletter. He is responsible for it, and the stain is on him.

The crucial question is what kind of a stain it is. Does it mean Paul judges people by their race and that one race is to be favored over another? Based on the rest of his life, particularly the last 15 years, you have to say no. It does suggest some other things, though, starting with the Kirchickian notion that libertarians just don’t care about this stuff. Politically it suggests tone-deafness and poor judgment.

The newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That’s not racism, but it’s not what most Americans look for in a president, either. Then again, Ron Paul is not going to be president. The reason to support him is not that he can win, but that the Republicans, who are America’s nationalist party, need to be reoriented away from war, executive power, deficit spending, money creation and debt toward a more peaceful, constitutional and financially sustainable vision — and the only person who has had any success in doing this is Ron Paul.

Wrote Sullivan: “I stand by all the things I wrote about Paul’s views, his refreshing candor, his happy temperament, his support for minorities, and his vital work to undo the war on drugs and the military-industrial complex. I don’t think he’s a racist; in fact, I think he’s one of the least racially aware politicians I’ve come across in a long while.”

And Shikha Dalmia: “I have never met Paul. But everyone I know who has likes him. They can’t believe that he is capable of harboring the kind of vile sentiments expressed in the newsletters. He seems just too mild and innocuous and decent and well meaning.”

He does. Maybe it’s a pose, but I don’t think so. I think the newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That he has racked up 21.5% of Republican caucus votes after challenging some of the ruling ideas of the party, means he has achieved something, and not only for himself, and not only for 2012.




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From Ayn Rand to . . . Edward Abbey?

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Libertarians of a certain age, when reflecting on their political odyssey, usually invoke Ayn Rand as the source of their epiphany — in spite of the fact that Rand herself repudiated the libertarian movement and labeled her philosophy Objectivism. Most libertarians weren’t persuaded: they continued the one-way lovefest, though many were beginning to feel embarrassed by the dogmatism, stubborn intransigence, absence of warmth or empathy, and cultishness of her aptly-nicknamed “collective.” Gagging on Objectivist correctness, Jerome Tuccille, a former Wall Street Journal writer and libertarian child of the Goldwater campaign, hastened the split between Rand and many of her erstwhile followers with the publication of his 1971 memoir, It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand, in which he lampooned Objectivists as zombie sycophants. Nevertheless, Rand remains the most influential libertarian of the twentieth century, though less and less so as more varied paths to libertarianism open.

Libertarians are radicals. Randian libertarians have especially radical expectations of the world. Relying on a philosophy so internally consistent that its dots nearly connect themselves, they continue to proselytize, believing that exposure to self-evident tenets will result in massive conversions. Next to the Bible, Rand’s philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged remains one of the best-ever-selling books in English. But while the Bible continues to make converts, particularly of the fundamentalist sort, Rand’s oeuvre is not nearly as successful.

Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize, on a smidgen of evidence from the Human Genome Project and other sources, that both religious inclination and political persuasion have genetic bases. Perhaps. On the other hand, I place libertarians smack dab in the middle of the left-right continuum (as does the "world’s smallest political quiz") — and there is some truth to that.

My father, founding CFO of what would later become AIG, admired Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — its attempt at eradicating poverty. My mother had favored Richard Nixon over John Kennedy — despite the fact that she was a Catholic. Before she died, she’d become a staunch Reagan supporter, despite the fact that she was opposed to the death penalty. Though both had read Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s other major novel, The Fountainhead, neither perceived them as particularly political.Their politically schizoid children became, in turn: a conservative turned Obama-backer with vague New Age inclinations (oldest brother); a seeker settling into religious-right Republicanism (older sister); a liberal attorney who later found Christ and conservatism (little sister); and a left-right flirter slouching into moderate libertarianism and radical atheism (myself). Go figure. It seems that unless chaos theory is resorted to, political hegiras are often unpredictable and the motives behind them inscrutable.

* * *

At first, Ayn Rand didn’t charm me.

Recently graduated from college, I’d joined a group of 14 friends who proposed to kayak the 600-mile length of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula — at the time, a nearly preposterous undertaking considering that back in 1972, kayaking, as a sport, didn’t really exist in the US, and Baja’s infrastructure consisted of widely dispersed fishing villages connected by 4-wheel-drive tracks. We resorted to ordering kayaks from Germany, carrying our own essentials, and fishing for protein.

It was almost more than we could handle. Averaging, at first, only ten miles per day because of winds, contrary currents, swell and some of the highest tides in the world, most of the group abandoned the expedition at Santa Rosalia, Baja’s midway mining town. Still, four of us decided to forge on. Those who departed left us whatever we could use to aid our success. Except for Tek. He insisted that we pay — if not market price, at least something,for his dry noodles, crackers, peanut butter, chocolate bars, rusty lures, and battered reading material. I stared at him incredulously and asked, “Why?”

Unless chaos theory is resorted to, political hegiras are often unpredictable and the motives behind them inscrutable.

Now, on any long expedition, reading material is essential. While I had taken John Steinbeck’s Log of the Sea of Cortez, Tek had taken Atlas Shrugged. “Because it’s my stuff and I don’t owe it to you,” he responded, adding that I’d understand once I’d read the book, which he ended up giving to me. I paid him a token price for his offerings but used the book’s pages as fire starters after reading the back-cover blurb. Not only was his arrogance insufferable, but that title seemed a pretentious conceit, and the book’s catch-phrase, “Who is John Galt?” (touted as cutting-edge slang somewhere — I don't remember where) seemed as catchy and pithy as a bad English-speaking foreigner’s attempt at neologising — which is exactly what it was. (Years later, when I finally got around to reading Rand, I appreciated her perspective, one I was already taking to.)

* * *

The strongest formative influences on my political development occurred around puberty. I grew up in Havana, Cuba, the son of a well-to-do capitalist entrepreneur who’d married his Cuban secretary. Not only had he established Cuba’s AIG branch, but he introduced Volkswagen to the island and opened Cuba’s first paper products factory.

In 1960, a year and a half after Castro’s revolution, my family was forced to abandon everything, pack one suitcase each and flee Cuba for Mexico. All of our property was expropriated. Unsure of their next move, our parents placed us children in boarding schools along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where we perfected our English and experienced the American Civil Rights movement up close.

By the time I entered high school, my political consciousness was being forged by the Vietnam draft and the presidential campaign of 1964. The Jesuit high school I attended in Phoenix, Arizona stressed critical thinking and public involvement, going so far as to hold mock Goldwater-Johnson debates for the entire student body. English classes included up-to-date reports and discussions of the goings-on in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, interspersed — at one time — with an in-depth study of Emerson’s “On Self Reliance,” a curious albeit insightful juxtaposition. I rooted for Barry, an unpretentious straight-shooter, with a solid grasp of the issues. But it wasn’t just his political values that attracted me. When I heard he’d mooned a censorious group that objected to the carousing at one of his campaign parties, he became my hero.

My friend EB and I decided to get involved. He joined YAF (Young Americans for Freedom) and introduced me to the John Birch Society’s nearby American Opinion Bookstore, which enabled me to buy and read None Dare Call it Treason. EB was sharp as a scimitar, a whiz at Latin and classical Greek, and unbeatable in debate, with a vocabulary that rivaled William F. Buckley’s. Together we joined the Model UN, a national high school mock UN project, where we hoped to be assigned to represent some important country — like France or Canada. We were assigned Ghana. Knowing nothing about Ghana — and just a tad disappointed — we decided to meet with President Kennedy’s ex-ambassador to that country, William P. Mahoney, who happened to live in Phoenix. Ambassador Mahoney was kind enough to grant us an interview just days before the conclave. True to form — and with EB’s command of parliamentary procedure — we brought little Ghana to the forefront by tabling some outrageously radical proposal in the General Assembly. That really got things going.

Later, I put together a presentation, complete with maps and photographs, on the Cuban Revolution and offered it to schools and interested groups. Nothing drives home an abstract news event to an elementary school audience like having a high schooler — only a few years older — recount how a revolution affected his family. Adult audiences, likewise, listened rapt and incredulous at what the kid lived through, always imagining the worst.

We brought little Ghana to the forefront by tabling some outrageously radical proposal in the General Assembly.

I was driven. Already president of my class, I decided to run for the Student Body Council — first for treasurer, then later for president. My libertarian inclinations were evident in my platform. I reasoned that since Student Body funds belonged to the students, my job was to maximize revenues and then return them to the students. The assembled student body had never heard such logical populism before. I could barely get through my speech for all the hollering and clapping, while the faculty members grinned nervously, wondering what their democracy had wrought. I won overwhelmingly. My opponent, Dick Mahoney (son of Ambassador Mahoney), who was later to become Arizona’s secretary of state and a Democratic candidate for governor, never stood a chance.

I kept my promise. To maximize Student Body revenues, I got the administration to fire the snacks and refreshments purveyor for varsity football games and, with a small crew of volunteers working out of the back of a pick-up truck outfitted with counters, ice chests and a till, took over the concession. The money poured in. Unable to convince the administration to issue rebate checks for each and every student at the end of the year, I decided to throw a big party with the funds. Between prom and graduation celebrations, I got Linda Rondstadt and the Stone Poneys — who’d just released their hit single “Different Drum” — to put on a dance-concert for the combined student bodies of my own Brophy Prep and our twin neighbor girls’ school, Xavier High.

* * *

EB and I ended up at different colleges, where we both broadened our horizons: me, in northern Arizona where I discovered girls, drugs, and outdoor adventure sports such as alpinism and kayaking, and acquired a knowledge base that instilled confidence in my developing opinions; EB at the University of Virginia, where he discovered boys, the law, and the power of big government to set certain injustices right. At first, EB was up to his old tricks. He and several right-wing buddies planned a takeover and subversion of the U of V branch of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a firebrand, radical left-wing organization that, by 1969, was already falling apart. As he recounts,

“Our strategy was to have some of ‘our people’ attend and cause a disruption and dissention. I, then, would emerge as the voice of reason. The ‘disruptors,’ as the plan called, made impassioned speeches, attacked me viciously (of course, we all reconnoitered later for a few beers to celebrate our triumph), and then called for a massive walkout. Many people followed them. Of course, that meant that the people left in the room would be easily convinced to elect me as their leader. (Others of my ‘planning committee’ remained to make and second the nomination.) From a tactical perspective, it was very successful. The local newspaper ran an article about ‘Young Turk EB.’ After that, I did nothing. I never attended another SDS meeting. The joy was in formulating and executing our plan. We had no intention of going further.”

While at the University of Virginia, EB (with his gay, black roommate) discovered that his tastes ran counter to the norm. Appalled at the social treatment his new friend was subjected to, EB came to the conclusion that it was only through the federal government’s efforts that racial bigotry would ever begin to be eradicated in as short a time as it ultimately was. So he pursued law, a skill that, by the time he passed the bar, he used to advocate gay rights. Today he describes himself as an anti-establishmentarian.

But I was still torn between Right and Left: on the one hand, debating the merits of Nixon’s Vietnam peace plan with fellow Prescott College students Tom and Randy Udall, scions of the Stewart and Morris Udall political dynasty (Tom is now US Senator from New Mexico); and on the other hand, convincing prospective conservative donors such as the Adolph Coors Trust and nascent Goldwater Institute (not today’s Goldwater Institute) that the small, private, liberal arts “hippie” college I was attending was worth supporting. I’d been handpicked for this PR fundraising job by the college’s president as an example of the caliber of student the college was training for "tomorrow’s" leadership role in society — in spite of my Mohawk hair-do, sometimes flamboyant dress, VW van pimpmobile, and of course my outspokenness.

At the trial, Sam defended himself by arguing that "it wasn't criminal damage, it was historic preservation." The jury acquited him after deliberating for 25 minutes. 

The outdoor adventure sports that Prescott College offered as an alternative to the more traditional football, baseball, and basketball at other colleges instilled self-reliance and initiative. They also imbued a passion for the natural environment and its wild places that, over the years, has only grown stronger for me. But it was the academic pursuits that were truly formative, intellectually. I majored in anthropology. Not your garden variety, Samoan-kinship-and-Arunta-fertility studies, but "processual" archaeology, at the time a new, cutting-edge approach to history that attempted to explain the nature and fabric of civilization.

While traditional archaeology collected potsherds, studied changes in art motifs, and concentrated on dating and categorizing sites, processual archaeology studied human adaptation — mostly technological — to changing environmental conditions and increasing population densities. Its corollary in cultural anthropology is known as the "ecological" approach (without the ideological baggage that term carries in common parlance). The specific question that gripped me was, “Why did the people who would become the American Indians, initially a homogenous population at the time of the Bering Straits crossing, develop high civilizations in the Andes and Mexican highlands but remain hunters and gatherers or incipient agriculturalists in the Great Basin and Amazon rain forests?” Today the synthesis this approach yields to the study of humanity is probably best — albeit only partially — exemplified by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and its sequel Collapse, and given more scholarly exposition in the works of Karl Wittfogel, Leslie White, Gordon Willey, Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service, among others.

One elementary conclusion from the "New Archaeology" was the correlation that government power and control increases as population densities thicken and civilization becomes more technologically complex. However, correlation is not cause and effect — much less destiny — and, though the association of the two makes intuitive sense at some level, to this incipient libertarian the challenge was to analyze and discover just how much government denser and more complex societies actually required.

* * *

After graduate school I became a Mother Earth News-subscribing, back-to-the-land homesteader on a 160-acre parcel of rural Arizona land where I built my own energy-efficient home (powered by a wind generator), raised cattle, and grew a garden and orchard. I earned money doing archaeological environmental impact studies, building homes and doing some outdoor guiding. My wife made cowboy shirts and managed the local commercial truck garden. It was then that I discovered the Libertarian Party, through Karl Hess’ seminal article The Death of Politics, Roger McBride’s A New Dawn for America, and one of David Nolan’s local screeds. My wife and I both joined and decided to become politically active.

Our nearest municipality, Chino Valley, had just hired its first town manager, deciding that its exponential growth was just too much complexity for its traditional mayor-and-council government. Academically trained professional town managers often have a statist bent. Our newly hired statuesque blonde bureaucrat (with hair tickling the dimples on the backside of her knees), prided herself on her ability to extract state and federal funds through her skill at writing grant applications. Nonetheless, she was young and hip, and found us kindred souls. She hired us to write a pamphlet guide to local government for local citizens, a task we tackled with a libertarian bent. Additionally, she sponsored an Economic Development Committee to attract businesses to Chino Valley. I joined, though as something of a Trojan horse. Our little town wanted a supermarket, such as a Safeway, to locate nearby while I — not averse to the new facility — was afraid our committee members would sell their souls by imposing liens on the taxpayers (such as tax breaks for the chain), issuing industrial revenue bonds, or resorting to any number of other unfair competitive practices — or worse.

He pounced on my uncertainty about eliminating the police force, asking, “What crimes have the police ever prevented?”

1982 was a threshold year for the Arizona Libertarian Party. The popular five-term Republican Congressman, Sam Steiger, an outspokenly colorful character, declared his candidacy for governor as a Libertarian. Sam was a rancher, journalist, and Korean War hero who had twice represented Prescott in the state senate. He was plainspoken in the Goldwater mold, had a contagious smile and an outrageous sense of humor. His very public debate with his new party over conscription and his subsequent flip-flop actually helped him; it indicated that he was amenable to reasoned argument and not afraid to admit he was wrong.

When I first met him, at the offices of thePrescott Sun, the newspaper he published (and for which my wife worked), he was wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots, and was chomping on a big, lit cigar. He shook my hand, twisted his head back — as if to get a better perspective to look me over — and baited me with repartee.

“I’m all for the little guy,” he declared, pausing dramatically. “There goes one now!” he blurted in mock surprise, pointing at the floor, and stomping on the spot with an exaggerated goose step.

Sam wasn’t popular with the intelligentsia. He was once stopped by a traffic cop and the verbatim transcript of the exchange appeared as a full-page article in Prescott’s other newspaper, thePrescott Courier. To every polite request from the officer, Sam responded with a “Fuck off” or some other expletive-laden insult or an accusation of harassment. Neither a reason for, nor a conclusion to, the traffic stop was mentioned — absolutely no explanation other than the implication that Sam Steiger was not a fit citizen. Oddly too, the article was accompanied by a large, close-up picture of Sam’s face — apparently snapped from the passenger side — sardonically yet patiently putting up with the ordeal,.

But he was an active citizen. When the City Council erased a mid-block crosswalk connecting the courthouse with the bars on Whiskey Row in downtown Prescott, because a state highway ran concurrent with that street, the citizenry raised holy hell. Sam took the matter into his own hands and personally repainted the white lines. He was arrested and charged with criminal damage and disorderly conduct. At the trial, he defended himself by arguing that "it wasn't criminal damage, it was historic preservation." The jury acquited him after deliberating for 25 minutes.

Sam lost his bid for governor but garnered over 5% of the vote, crossing the magic threshold that gave the Libertarian Party ballot access. It was a sweet defeat. Years later, in 1999, he was elected mayor of Prescott.

* * *

Ballot access electrified Arizona’s Libertarians. State and county chapters organized. Precinct committeemen were appointed, elected or volunteered. I attended my first Yavapai County Libertarian Party meeting — an intense mixture of misfits, cranks, anarchists, hippies, dropouts, and nerds from both Left and Right, kitted up extremely informally (if not outrageously) — all united by instinct, intellect, and outside-the-box thinking.

There, at the meeting, I ran into Mark Davis — a close friend from high school but the last person I thought I’d run into. He recognized me and gave me a warm hug. He was big — solid and powerful (an amazing Charles Atlas-like transformation) — with long and thick, unruly strawberry blonde hair; but still freckled with his distinctive nostril slit, a scar from a tussle with a dog when he was a kid.

The last time I’d seen him was at "24th & Van Buren," Phoenicians’ euphemistic name for Arizona’s hospital for the criminally insane. I’d visited him there when I heard he’d been committed. Sitting cross-legged on the ground across from him in the thrice-fenced outdoor commons, I’d asked him what landed him there. He said he’d killed someone.

I was speechless. Aghast. Though extremely intense, Mark was no murderer. He was a minor, in the nuthouse. Who knows exactly what he meant by “I killed someone”? He could have meant anything from murder to accident to he just felt responsible for someone’s death to . . . who knows? I assumed it had all been an unfortunate accident and that he’d feigned insanity to ease his plight. (If anyone could fool a bevy of psychiatrists, Mark Davis, with his sharp intellect and determination, could.) I didn’t question him further, fearing that covert eavesdropping might pick up our conversation. I didn’t want to blow his cover. I wished him well and promised to visit again, but never got around to it.

It was now apparent that he’d survived the ordeal. We caught up.

Much had happened. In 1969, he had cofounded Terros, an extremely successful — albeit, at the time, controversial (both for its unconventional methods and staff) — crisis intervention program in Phoenix and had received a citation from the mayor for talking a man out of suicide. (Today Terros is a multimillion dollar enterprise that specializes in drug rehabilitation.) He’d also taken up martial arts and become a Sikh. He'd taken to riding a Harley and trolling for rednecks that didn’t like his long hair, beard, and turban, so he could teach them tolerance. Afterward he’d married and was now raising two daughters, whom he supported as a master craftsman, building high-end, lacquered, exotic-wood, shoji-screened cabinets for rich clients in, among other places, Santa Barbara, California. While there, he’d taken up some sort of Maoist revolutionary ideology. Surprised, I asked him if he hadn’t had a bit of a conflict between his political views and his employment. He responded that he was volatile, his thinking was always evolving, and that his convictions followed his conscience. But now, he was a libertarian — and he was raring to act.

Abbey’s point is that compared to industrial magnitude pollution, which kills people and animals, empty cans along a roadway are not only harmless; they provide income for homeless scavengers.

We discussed political philosophy. Mark’s libertarianism burned with the faith of the newly converted — it gravitated toward anarchy. Mine, tempered by experience, was more moderate. He ran down the list of government functions that could be privatized or eliminated. Mark being Mark (and now a libertarian, a species whose propensity to cavil is only exceeded by Marxist theoreticians and Jewish rabbis), pounced on my uncertainty about eliminating the police force, asking, “What crimes have the police ever prevented?”

Mark could go from convivial to confrontational in the flash of a rhetorical comment — eyes popping out, spit flying, face too close for comfort. But I’d grown up with him, liked him, and could calm him by tactfully pointing out that my opinions were provisional, while subtly reinforcing my affection for him. Luckily, the party chairman called the meeting to order. He announced that he was stepping down. He’d taken a political preference test and discovered that he was more conservative than libertarian. The honorable course, he believed, was to resign. The chair of the Yavapai County Libertarian Party was open.

With only a moment’s hesitation, Mark grabbed the baton and volunteered me for treasurer, adding that my clean-cut good looks, conventional attire, and calm demeanor were a necessary face for the party. It was a done deal: he became chairman and I became treasurer.

* * *

Mark had grown up the son of an oilman, bumping around places like Indonesia and Libya. He was precocious and idealistic from the start, with a sharp mind and boundless energy. He had raged in one direction or another since he was a preteen growing up in Phoenix, with his hidebound father ineffectively attempting to corral the boy’s energies with beatings. By the time he was 16, he’d been in and out of so much trouble that he was put in the California Youth Authority’s Los Angeles rehab center for unruly kids. As Dean Kuipers, in his September 1989 Spin article quotes him, “There was a lot of fighting, rapes, attempted rapes. I’m this screwed-up, basically naïve, suburban white kid, and this is right after the Watts riots. I came out of there pretty crazy, pretty wild.” Swearing never to be taken advantage of, he turned to weightlifting, self-defense and extreme endurance.

After reconnecting at the Libertarian Party meeting, we started to hang out together. Mark loved to take long runs in the mountains near Prescott. At sunrise, he’d run barefoot two and a half miles and up 2,000 feet to 7,000-foot Granite Mountain Pass and back, cutting a maniacal figure as he hurtled over rocks, prickly pear cactus, and blazing decomposed granite. I accompanied him once — with shoes. For us, being far from the beaten track, up on a mountain, down on a river, out in the desert or at sea was a meditation, a challenge, and a love affair all rolled into one. At his cabinet shop, he had a "heavy bag," which bore the brunt of his kickboxing workouts or his frustrations, demons that could materialize unpredictably at any time.

In high school, we’d hit it off: he a misfit, me a BMOC (big-man-on-campus). We’d found what we thought was a discarded B-52 fuel tank and decided to convert it into an outrigger canoe — the perfect undertaking for two hyperactive teens uncomfortable with just hanging out. The project was a big deal for a couple of 15-year-olds; it took most of the year. But we worked well together, and by the time I got my driver’s license, we had successfully launched the canoe on nearby Lake Pleasant. After that we drifted apart. During senior year he either left school or was kicked out.

Somehow, something similar happened after a few ill-attended Libertarian Party meetings where no one but me, Mark, and the new party secretary (of whom I retain no memory) showed up. We drifted our separate ways: me, to teach at an Outward Bound-type school in Colorado; Mark, to apply his boundless energy in new, more radical directions.

* * *

When local author Edward Abbey published The Monkeywrench Gang in 1975, it became an instant cult classic — the Atlas Shrugged of the environmental movement. The novel revolves around an unlikely alliance of four wilderness lovers who wage a war of low-tech sabotage — “monkeywrenching,” as they call it — against mineral exploitation and development of all stripes. The group is composed of Seldom Seen Smith, a “jack Mormon”; Dr. Sarvis, a rich, angry surgeon; Bonnie Abbzug, his (of course) gorgeous nurse; and a Neanderthal Vietnam vet named George Washington Hayduke. While “Who is John Galt?” became the catchphrase of Rand’s followers, “Hayduke Lives!”, appeared on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and graffiti — an expression of solidarity with monkeywrenching.

Monkeywrenchers proliferated — not least in Prescott. At our local college, a small group of activists fired up a chainsaw and, in the wee hours of the morning, cut down a new billboard just outside of town. But the novel’s impact was national. As Kuipers recounts,

“In April 1980, Dave Foreman and four other radical environmentalists took a hiking trip in the Pinacate Desert. They had all read about Hayduke and the Monkeywrench Gang, so as they sat in a dark, rural bar in San Luis, Mexico, they weren’t surprised to find themselves creating an organization that would advocate widespread ‘ecotage’ — property damage used to free wilderness areas from the blight of mining, foresting and commercial development. They named the group Earth First! after the premise of biocentrism that John Muir and Aldo Leopold had put forth: Every species on earth has an equal right to exist, the planet is not meant to be exploited, and measures must be taken to assure this. Today [1989], Earth First! has a network of over 50 ‘bureaus’ worldwide guided by project organizers rather than a main office. Edward Abbey’s fiction has become reality.”

Five years later, Foreman published (as both editor and partial author) Earth First!’s field manual, Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching — a how-to book that details everything from foiling coyote traps to spiking trees to decommissioning heavy construction equipment to downing power lines.

Sometime between 1983 and 1986, Mark Davis discovered a new cause: saving the earth. He’d later say he was willing to die to prevent the rape of Mother Earth, yet — oddly — was unwilling to join Earth First! formally. Not only was he not much of a joiner; he viscerally disliked Dave Foreman, thinking him a poseur. Later, of course, he’d accept operational funds from him. Mark and the small group of Prescott-area activists that had coalesced for monkeywrenching operations dubbed themselves the Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy (EMETIC), deriving the name from the later-to-be-impeached, car-dealership-owning, hyper-conservative Arizona governor.

John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” I changed my mind about this particular government intrusion.

Meanwhile, my environmental consciousness was fine tuning itself. Though I had no patience for Abbey and couldn’t get past the first chapter of The Monkeywrench Gang, one contrarian point he made struck a chord — and he made it in a very Randian manner. In a scene in Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart, a railroad magnate and the novel’s heroine, is driving through endless, pristine forest. She’s terminally bored — until she spots a billboard. Her eyes light up, her lips curl into a smile, all her senses come alive, and she comments on the contrast between nature’s randomness and the billboard, an icon of the creative and purposeful effort of an individual.

Abbey, on the other hand, has one of his characters driving across a stunning Monument Valley-like landscape drinking beer and tossing the empties out the window — a monkeywrencher littering. His point is that compared to industrial magnitude pollution, which kills people and animals, empty cans along a roadway are not only harmless; they provide income for homeless scavengers. It got me to thinking about the difference between environmental aesthetics and environmental fundamentals, such as those with public health consequences, including air pollution — a subject first explored from a free-market perspective by Milton Friedman.

As a sometime land speculator, subdivider, and homebuilder, I faced a few decisions that helped focus my libertarian environmentalism — particularly in regard to zoning. At first I favored underground utilities, and was also instrumental in getting the county to institute a zoning ban on mobile and modular homes — both of these on aesthetic grounds. But when I received a cost estimate for underground utilities versus power poles for one project, I quickly changed my mind: the aesthetics were just not worth the price. The huge difference reflected a much greater expenditure of energy, time, and manpower. Aesthetics would have substantially increased the price of the finished product, thereby making it less affordable to more people. Additionally, underground utilities were costlier to maintain and repair.

One day a neighbor dropped by, worked up into a lather. He informed me that the state was planning to register all our wells with an eye, ultimately, to meter them, measure our water usage, and even charge us for the water from our own wells. My first reaction was outrage. But then the calmer strains of research took over. First, an overview of water policy, in libertarian author Terry L. Anderson’s Water Crisis: Ending the Policy Drought (Cato Institute & The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983). Then, a reading of the pending legislation.

The long and short of it was that some critical Arizona aquifers were being depleted at an unsustainable rate. And Chino Valley was smack dab in the middle of one of these. As Anderson had clearly pointed out, aquifer extraction is a "tragedy of the commons" phenomenon. His mitigating proposals were right in line with Milton Friedman’s insights, and, to my surprise, so was Arizona’s new law. The new AMA (Active Management Area) designations were meant to monitor water extraction, granting first-come-first-served rights to users in, as it seemed to me, an equitable solution to our homegrown tragedy of the commons. John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” I changed my mind about this particular government intrusion.

But it was zoning that, after one contentious, standing-room-only public meeting of the zoning board, really rattled me. One of my new neighbors (who had bought a 10-acre parcel from me) approached me one day requesting support for a zoning variance he was seeking. He was an elderly man of modest means, living out his dream of retiring to a wooded, rural homestead. He proposed to install a mobile home on his lot and live in it while building a log cabin around it to enclose it, thereby saving time, money and interior finishing materials. Even though, when the project was completed, there would have been no trace of a trailer; its invisible existence was still, technically, in violation of the zoning restrictions. Hence the need for a variance.

I agreed to support him.

His petition polarized the neighborhood. Ideological lines were drawn and factions formed, mostly by those whose visceral hatred of mobile homes was an integral part of their identity. Neighbors who had previously been on friendly terms now avoided each other. I breasted my cards: antagonizing people did not yield beneficial results. Since I’d sold most of the lots and helped establish the zoning restrictions, most people assumed I was against the variance.

When news of the sabotage reached the FBI offices in Phoenix, FBI headquarters in Washington, DC ordered an investigation opened immediately.

At the zoning board meeting the room was packed, the tension was thick and the tumult intimidating — particularly for the elderly petitioner and his wife. Visibly shunned by most attendees, they were so nervous that he stared straight ahead, stoic and impassive, clutching his notebook of prepared comments, while his wife stood beside him, cheeks wet with uncontrollable tears.

My heart went out to them. I approached them, shook their hands, encouraged them, sat with them. The meeting was called to order. For most of us, it was our first zoning hearing, so the chairman explained the procedure. First, the petitioners would present their request, along with their reasons for the variance they sought. Afterward, members of the public could offer arguments for or against the proposed variance.

Watching that man kowtow to the zoning board on its elevated dais with the factious audience murmuring hostile comments gave me a glimpse of what ‘struggle’ sessions in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution must have been like. Though already familiar with the political, philosophical, and economic arguments against zoning (see Land Use Without Zoning by Bernard H. Siegan, 1972 — a libertarian classic), I now became viscerally opposed to the institution.

After the old man presented his case and a dozen antis retorted, I spoke in his favor, surprising myself with such an eloquent supporting argument that the local newspaper quoted me and carried my photo.

All to no avail. The couple’s petition was rejected. I walked them out to their car. It was the least I could do.

* * *

In May 1986, three of the four sets of power lines leading to the Palo Verde nuclear power plant outside Phoenix were shorted with hemp cord and medium-gauge chain. The power plant’s lights flickered, the air reeked of ozone, and the technicians inside the control room scrambled to ensure that the backup generator would kick in. When news of the sabotage reached the FBI offices in Phoenix, FBI headquarters in Washington, DC ordered an investigation opened immediately. It was codenamed THERMCOM.

Though monkeywrenching continued throughout the next year, the FBI had few leads. Until October 5, 1987. That night, someone with a propane torch burned through bolts on several of the metal pylons supporting the chair lift towers at the Fairfield Snow Bowl ski area atop the San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff, Arizona. The peaks, the highest point in Arizona and visible for way over 100 miles, are sacred to the Navajo and Hopi Indian tribes living just to the northeast. EMETIC claimed credit.

On June 6, 1988, the FBI got its first break. Ron Frazier, one of the Prescott area eco-activists, became an FBI informant. He’d driven Mark Davis to a Phoenix welding supply store to purchase a torch, regulator, and hoses on September 29, 1987 — only one week before the torching. Unstable and jilted by his ex-lover, Ilse Asplund — who had then become Davis’ lover — he rationalized that he was protecting Ilse and her kids from the dangerous Davis. Mark could be arrogant and condescending and was oblivious to jealousy — traits that did not endear him to Frazier, a drug-addled stoner of modest intellect, once described as being a few neurons short of a full nervous system. The welding supply shop manager identified Mark Davis from a photo lineup. It wasn’t hard, given Mark’s distinctive split nostril.

Suspecting that EMETIC was somehow linked to Earth First!, the FBI assigned Michael Fain, an undercover agent, to infiltrate the group. Over the course of two years Fain, using the alias Mike Tait and the persona of a PTSD’d Vietnam vet, finagled himself into the group through the heartstrings of Peg Millet, half-sister of feminist author Kate Millet, an Earth First! activist and close confidant of Mark Davis. Some would say, later, that he was an agent provocateur. But he never gained the trust of Mark — who suspected he was a plant — until Tait accompanied him on his barefoot Granite Mountain run and “heavy bag” workouts.

In one instance, 28 power poles were cut three-quarters of the way through, and the last one finished off with a hacksaw, downing the entire power line when it toppled with an explosive flare of light.

On Labor Day, 1988, Tait, Millet, and a few other activists, hit the site of the proposed Mt. Graham observatory near Tucson, pulling out survey stakes lining the proposed access road to the observatory. Before the month was out, they struck again, cutting the power poles leading to the Hermit, Pine Nut, and Canyon uranium mines on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon. These mines disgorge thousands of tons of earth with radioactive tailings and release a fine uranium dust into the winds — all on the border of national park land. With the North and South Rim mines being separated by a five-hour drive, EMETIC displayed a greater degree of coordination and synchronization than it had ever been credited with before. The EMETIC people had been particularly creative with their sabotage methods. In one instance, 28 power poles were cut three-quarters of the way through, and the last one finished off with a hacksaw, downing the entire power line when it toppled with an explosive flare of light.

The event was front-page news for days. At the subsequent trial, it was revealed that the FBI had known about the uranium mine strikes but declined to act, hoping that later it could somehow snare Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!, whom it considered the ultimate kingpin.

A month later, on October 25, 1988, EMETIC hit the Fairfield Snow Bowl again, this time felling one of the chair lift’s main supports. EMETIC was getting bold. After the operation it sent communiqués to every radio and television station in Northern Arizona, warning the resort concessionaires to stop developing the San Francisco Peaks.

Now they had big plans, plans to do things that would stun the nation: cutting down the transmission lines leading from the Palo Verde (Arizona) and Diablo Canyon (San Luis Obispo, California) nuke plants, and the lines leading to the Rocky Flats atomic weapons facility near Denver. But the group needed a practice run.

The target was a transmission tower that supplied electricity to the Central Arizona Project’s (CAP’s) water-lift station near Wenden, Arizona. The CAP diverted Colorado River water to irrigate central Arizona. The commando team of Mark Davis, Mike Tait, Peg Millet, and Dr. Marc A. Baker, an ill-tempered botanist, was a nearly literal rendition of Abbey’s script.

After nightfall on May 30, 1989, they prepared to strike, with Mark as the ringleader bearing the torch. But so did the FBI — with a full SWAT team of more than 50 agents, H&K MP-5 sub-machine guns, helicopters with night-vision capability, and even bloodhounds. Davis and Baker were captured instantly. Tait disappeared. Peg Millet, 35 years old and a big woman, managed to elude capture, running into the desert, reaching Highway 60, and hitchhiking back to Prescott, over 60 miles away. She was apprehended the next day at work, where she showed up as if nothing had happened. Ilse Asplund, Davis’s girlfriend, and Dave Foreman were also arrested after the fact.

At the three-month-long trial, Gerry Spence, the celebrity attorney, headed the defense team representing Foreman. In a plea bargain, Asplund, Baker, Millet, and Davis pled guilty to one charge, involving about $5,200 worth of damage to the Snow Bowl ski lift. Foreman, who was thought to have funded part of the operations, got probation and a $250 fine and was forced to foreswear monkeywrenching. It was the end of Earth First!’s first incarnation. Baker served six months, while Asplund served one; each was fined $2,000. Millet was sentenced to 3 years and restitution of $19,821. Davis got six years and restitution of $19,821.

“I don’t want my species to die. I don’t want my kids to die. We are in the process of suicide. It’s all legal, but it’s suicide.”

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor wanted Davis to be remanded to jail immediately and to serve time without parole. But Davis had his say: “I have stood in front of men with guns and stopped them from beating women. I have stopped robberies. I have gone up a tower and pulled a man away from a 50,000 volt line,” he said, adding: “I don’t want my species to die. I don’t want my kids to die. We are in the process of suicide. It’s all legal, but it’s suicide.” Judge Broomfield was taken with Davis’ grandiloquence and gave him 17 days to report to prison. Furthermore, he gave Davis a sentence that would allow for parole at any time during his jail term.

* * *

In September 1991, four days before Mark reported to serve his time, the Los Angeles Times provided him with an editorial sounding board:

“An intelligent conservative knows some deep truths, including the illusory nature of free lunches and the inadvisability of taking irreversible actions without understanding the consequences. Our behavior is neither intelligent nor conservative . . . Growth by its very nature means an increase in the speed and efficiency of environmental destruction. Anyone who says aloud that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible is ridiculed. Denial has become official policy. . . . If what I and my three colleagues did has no effect other than to further damage an already tattered social contract, then I apologize. That was not the point. I acknowledge the necessity of courts and laws, and accept my prison term. But I am not sorry.”

In the late ’90’s I ran into Mark at a local hardware store in Prescott. He’d served four years of his six-year sentence at the minimum security prison in Boron, California. A severe claustrophobe, he had found the incarceration nearly unbearable — he’d lost 40 pounds in the two months of jail following his arrest — as he had found the separation from his two little daughters. Whatever his faults, Mark was a devoted and loving father.

The same month and year that the Los Angeles Times gave Mark a soapbox, Bill Bradford published my first feature article in Liberty. Ever since, realizing that nudging a left- or right-winger toward the libertarian middle is much more productive than attempting to badger him into libertarian purity, I’ve focused my political energies on writing and teaching, two fields where illiberalism cloaks itself in the language of liberalism — always mindful of the adage that “education is the road from obstinate ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.”




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Crony College Capitalism

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In several earlier articles in this journal, I began examining the theory and practice of crony capitalism — that peculiar form of statism that ostensibly embraces free enterprise, while arranging for government to control the major economic enterprises by means of its favored supporters (its “cronies”). I suggested that this form of statism is common in failed socialist states, such as Russia, and neo-socialist ones, such as the United States.

Much attention has been paid, by me and others, to the crony car and crony green energy capitalism so artfully practiced by the current administration. But there are many other flavors of crony capitalism. In a recent piece, for example, I touched on what you might call the Obama regime’s crony drug capitalism. Now let’s turn to a flavor that isn’t often noticed. It is what we might term “crony college capitalism.”

Besides studying Saul Alinsky, President Obama has apparently studied Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist theorist who urged his fellow Marxists to go into education, the better to turn regular schools into training grounds for future radicals. Since its earliest days, the Obama regime has been concerned with extending its power in the realm of college education, giving economic rewards to college teachers and students, who are overwhelmingly Obama supporters.

The working class was once a mainstay of the Democratic Party coalition. The new Democratic Party will consist of statist-inclined college educated groups.

Indeed, a recent piece in the New York Times suggests that Obama’s reelection campaign strategy now explicitly recognizes that it has to give up the white working class, except the tiny 7% that is unionized, hence able to contribute largely to the campaign. The working class was once a mainstay of the Democratic Party coalition. The new Democratic Party will consist of statist-inclined college educated groups such as professors, teachers, school and college administrators, therapists, lawyers, librarians, social workers, artists and designers, and their numerous dependents, along with key ethnic minorities.

You can see this calculation at play in Obama’s recent decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. The decision cost tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs, but it mightily pleased the environmental lobby, disproportionately college educated folks of statist mindset.

The tactics the Regime is using to corrupt higher education policy for its own benefit are the same it has used elsewhere: identify cronies, expand the size and scope of federal subsidies to them, and expand the size and scope of regulation to attack the cronies’ competitors. More succinctly, the Regime’s crony capitalist game in higher education is — as it is everywhere else — one of rewarding supporters and attacking their (and hence its) enemies.

Start with the rewards for the cronies. One of the Regime’s major “educational” initiatives was its socialization of the student loan industry, which happened just two years ago. A troika of key Regime players — Obama, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) — ended private funding of government-backed student loans (the most common student loans), under the theory that the private lenders (read: banks) were greedy, i.e., only after profits, and not truly interested in helping students achieve a decent education. Government, of course, is run by people incapable of greed, and motivated entirely by their concern for others.

The scheme included the usual outrageous accounting trick. Sympathetic congressmen claimed that by nationalizing student loans, they would “save” $87 billion over 11 years. In the same way, nationalizing GM and Chrysler has “saved” billions, and Obamacare will “save” even more. At the time, the CBO had dutifully scored the savings at $87 billion, but the Director of the CBO, Douglas Elmendorf, had signaled Congress (in a letter to Senator Judd Gregg) that the scoring did not reflect the risk that defaults could be higher than projected. But the Regime pushed its phantom “savings” with a straight face. It even used them to write down part of the costs of Obamacare and justify an expansion of educational Pell Grants (about which more below).

You can see this calculation at play in Obama’s recent decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline, a decision that cost tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs.

A posteriori experience from the student loan nationalization confirms what a priori economic reasoning would naturally suggest: the government generally runs things less efficiently than the private sector does. The Department of Education now reports that the default rate on student loans has surged by about one-fourth, from 7% in 2008 to 8.8% in 2009. Worse, because of another government accounting trick, these figures are deceptively low. The government loan program has options that allow some students to pay less that they really owe (these options are euphemistically called “income contingent” and “income based” repayment plans).

Besides rewarding its likely supporters with student loans, the Regime moved to expand the Pell Grant program — to double its funding, in fact. And it is resisting the efforts by the Republicans in the House of Representatives to rein in the program by requiring that recipients have a high school diploma or GED(!).

As a consequence of these policies, and the fact that in deciding who gets student loans the government doesn’t bother looking at the students’ assets or credit histories, the aggregate amount of college student debt has risen dramatically — up by 25% over the past three years, a time, please note, during which Americans generally reduced their personal debt load by 9%. Student debt now exceeds total consumer credit card debt. It now tops $1 trillion.

Of course, the Regime has revealed a solution for the problem it helped so much to create. It proposes to roll forward a law that helps college students mitigate and even get out of their student loan debts. Under current law, students must make monthly payments of 15% of discretionary income, with the balance of their loans forgiven after 25 years. (“Forgiven” means, of course, that the taxpayer eats the remaining cost of a college degree that mainly benefits the degree holder personally.) A law passed by Congress in 2010 and scheduled to take effect in 2014 will drop payments to 10%, with the balance of the loan forgiven after 20 years. Obama now wants this to take effect starting next year — which just happens to be his re-election year.

This is all on top of an existing program that allows students who enter “public service” (read: students who go to work for government or other nonprofit agencies — both areas in which employees tend overwhelmingly to vote Democrat) to have their loans forgiven after only 10 years. All of these “forgiveness” programs are projected to cost the treasury $575 million a year — quite unforgiving for the taxpayer.

Moreover, Obama is now proposing that students be able to combine their older (pre-Regime-takeover), federally-backed private loans together with the new government loans under a new lower interest as well as under the new rules.

All this is obviously aimed at buying the votes of all college students, but especially appealing to the ones whose degrees — say, in social studies, humanities, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and so on — make it likely they won’t earn high enough salaries to pay off the loans in 20 years.

Of course, complete student loan debt forgiveness is a prominent demand of the Occupy Wall Street protesters (those foot-soldiers of the welfare state so conspicuously embraced by the Regime), and a sizable proportion of students generally. One “We the People” petition on the White House website calling for total student loan forgiveness already has more than 32,000 signatures, and a similar petition on “SignOn.org” has garnered 640,000 signatures. You can bet Obama is after those votes.

Government, of course, is run by people incapable of greed, and motivated entirely by their concern for others.

How has the higher education business reacted to the increased amount of money it can now extract from students — because the higher education business can now extract more from government? The reaction has been predictable, from the economic point of view. Colleges have dramatically increased their tuition and fees. The costs of higher education have risen even faster than the costs of health care, which is widely viewed — even by the Regime — as out of control. Lavish funding for students has college administration and staff — another of the Regime’s core constituencies.

A recent report shows that just year, in-state tuition and fees for four-year public universities jumped by 8.3% on average, to a new high of $8,244. Private colleges saw tuition and fees jump by 4.5% on average to a new high of $28,500. (The state universities, at least, had to contend with a cutback of state support.)

The notion that increased federal funding of higher education has fueled its explosive growth in costs is the focus of a fine report by Neal McCluskey and Vance Fried, put out by the Cato Institute. The authors point out that profits at colleges — public and private, for-profit and non-profit — have escalated during the past three decades. They calculate the current costs in two different ways. They first is the “buildup" method, in which the researcher adds up all the input costs — professors’ compensation, administrators’ compensation, utility costs, etc. The second is the “internal accounting” method, which uses the actual accounting numbers furnished by colleges (numbers that few states make available, if you are talking about public colleges).

The authors find that both methods yield roughly the same result, about $8,000 a year at an average residential college.

Tuition figures are readily available. Using 2008 figures, tuition for a full-time student averages about $13,500 at a private 4-year college. This is a profit of $5,500 per student — or about a 40% margin. Add in charitable donations into the college endowment targeted for teaching, and the profit margin is even higher.

Moreover, they estimate that the margins at public universities are roughly the same, when you factor in the state subsidies (paid by the taxpayers) along with the tuition (paid by the students and their parents).

The high profit margins are the result of colleges jacking up their charges over the past 30 years. McCluskey and Fried note that even in constant dollars (i.e., correcting for inflation), average tuition and fees have gone up 300% during that time.

In what other industry do you see this sort of price inflation? On the contrary, in private industry, (real) price reduction is the norm. Prices of computers — even prices for laser eye surgery — have dropped dramatically over the years. But in the massively subsidized college business, which has seen its direct government subsidies — as well as the subsidies given to students — rise dramatically, price gouging has become the norm. The authors note that federal aid to students has gone up by an astounding 400% over the last three decades.

As the ever-prescient Glenn Reynolds recently put it, “When the government subsidizes something, producers respond by raising prices to soak up as much of the subsidy as they can. Colleges are no exception.”

Why is it not obvious to the average taxpayer that college costs are exploding precisely because of the generosity of that selfsame taxpayer? I confess that I find this psychological mystery even more interesting than the economic issues I have been addressing.

Certainly, part of the problem is the rational ignorance spoken about in public choice theory: ordinary citizens are being screwed by greedy rentseekers, but those citizens remain uninterested, because of the asymmetry of self-interest involved. Each one of them loses only a relatively small amount of assets, while the rentseekers in the higher-ed business stand to make out like bandits. Even now, after the massive increase in federal and state funding of our increasingly dysfunctional K-12 public schools system, and its colossal and consequent failure (as evinced on international tests), the public is reluctant to institute deep changes, such as universal school choice.

The default rate on student loans has surged by about one-fourth, from 7% in 2008 to 8.8% in 2009. Worse, these figures are deceptively low.

Besides the normal rational ignorance of citizens, however, I suspect another reason. People who are usually critically aware have their senses dulled by the very concept of “nonprofit” institutions. I notice this phenomenon in my business ethics classes. It seems almost analytically true to the average student (and by extension, the average person) that in a nonprofit business, there should be no “principal-agent” problem. That is, since the people who created the institution are not in it for profit — unlike the despicable money-grubbers in private industry — their employees must also be devoted solely to delivering the service that the principals intended, instead of ministering to their own self-interests.

In the case of public and nonprofit private colleges, the service to be rendered is primarily student education (and to a lesser degree, research for the benefit of the people generally). The principals are the founders (in the case of private colleges), the taxpayers (in the case of public colleges), the donors, and the students (and parents) who pay tuition. The principals expect the agents — the college professors, administrators, and staffs — to work to achieve the service goals of the principals.

But the principal-agent problem (which is the problem of getting self-interested agents to do what is intended by the principals) is no less acute when the principals are presumed to be altruistic (as are the taxpayers and donors) than when the principals are themselves clearly self-interested (as are the owners of a for-profit business).

What the agents of the nonprofits typically do is just what the agents of profit-seeking enterprises do — continuously seek to expand their compensation, while diminishing their workload. They try for smaller classes, higher salaries, better retirement packages, more grants, fancier equipment, plusher offices, more research assistants, more student aides, more secretaries, more assistant deans, more time off, more holidays, more sabbaticals, more time attending professional conferences, and easier tenure requirements.

I have noted elsewhere one manifestation of this phenomenon: the explosion of the number of college administrators. Not only has the number of administrators at nonprofit colleges gone up, their pay has, too. For instance, in a major piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that 36 nonprofit colleges had compensation packages well over $1 million in 2009. In its survey of 519 private nonprofit colleges, the Chronicle found that the median total compensation was $385,000.

This delusion that nonprofits are immune from greed helps explain the flip side of crony college capitalism, the Regime’s war against for-profit colleges, institutions that the Regime’s supporters in the academy universally despise.

The Regime has conducted a long, deliberate struggle with these colleges (especially chains such as Westwood College and National University). When the Regime controlled Congress, the attack took the form of “hearings” into the biggest chains. The “hearings” were essentially show-trials, exposing the for-profit colleges for being, well, profit-seeking. The people in charge obviously thought — or pretended to think — that the colleges were inferior, and sought out cases of consumers who claimed to have been harmed by being students there. These testifiers told sad tales of running up large loans getting worthless degrees.

In the massively subsidized college business, which has seen its direct government subsidies rise dramatically, price gouging has become the norm.

This sham show was just polemical tactics. The congressmen on the attack never once called students from public and nonprofit private colleges to testify about the student debts that they had run up while pursuing degrees that never got them jobs. I mean, it’s not as if we couldn’t find students who had accumulated big debts at, say, a California state university (where the presidents sometimes earn salaries in the $400,000 range) to acquire degrees in various unemployable subjects — women’s studies, say, or sociology. The Regime could have found plenty of such “victims,” of this I can assure you.

But a crony capitalist jihad — like any other jihad — is always directed at one group on behalf of another group, to wit, the cronies who inspire and sometimes fund the jihadists.

In crony college capitalism, these are primarily unions, especially teachers’ unions (and allied guilds, such as the American Association of University Professors). These cronies despise for-profit colleges, not merely on philosophic grounds, but because their faculties are non-unionized. To put this simply: they fear the growth of these enterprises in the way that Teamsters fear the expansion of Wal-Mart. For example, the AAUP has strongly attacked for-profit colleges, and called for dramatically increasing regulation of them.

The cronies don't care whether there is any greater pattern of "abuse" at for-profit colleges than at supposedly eleemosynary ones. If they wanted to find that out, they could do detailed observational studies that ruled out confounding variables (by correcting for ethnicity, income-level, and asset bases of parents, SAT scores, and high-school GPA), and see whether similar graduates from for-profit colleges fared any worse on the job market than graduates of nonprofits.

Also in the attack on for-profit colleges are trial lawyers. One notorious example is Florida attorney Chris Hoyer, who is suing Westwood College now, and looking at suing at least seven other for-profit colleges. Hoyer is a donor to the Regime, of course.

Naturally, however, the Regime’s Department of Education has plans to strengthen regulations governing for-profit colleges — yet another way of aggrandizing the federal government, at the expense of yet another part of the economy.

We can put an ironic cap on this discussion by noting a recent report out of the House of Representatives. It points out that over the past decade, while tuition has increased 4.5% at nonprofit private schools, and a whopping 8% at public colleges, it has gone up only 3.2% at for-profit colleges. This competitive edge would be reason enough for the Regime's desire to protect its cronies.

For the record, I think the government-backed student loan program should simply be ended. It is encouraging students to take on debt for degrees that have a dubious payoff, and creating thereby a massive moral hazard: a constituency of people who want to burn the taxpayer by not paying back the loans in full. Moreover, these government loans help inflate college costs pointlessly for all students.

Instead, let all college loans be between private lenders and individuals, with no tax dollars at risk, and with self-interested lenders using their judgment in lending money, knowing that if they loan to incompetent students or for unusable degrees, they may find that the students can’t pay and will discharge the debt in bankruptcy.




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Some Thoughts on Sharia Law

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I can’t say I’m in favor of dripping acid into peoples’ faces — but, given the right circumstances, I might appreciate the opportunity. I got to thinking about this back in the summer when Amnesty International called upon Iran to revise its penal code.

Sharia law provides for retributive justice and the retribution in question was made available to a woman named Ameneh Bahrami who’d been blinded when a creep named Majid Movahedi threw acid into her face after she refused to marry him. Outside of being a good judge of potential husbands, Ms. Movahedi holds a degree in electronics and held a job at a medical engineering company. She seems to be an accomplished woman who, even in the Islamic Republic, had a really bright future.

Now it seems that she doesn’t have much of a future at all. I hope I’m wrong about this, but it’s hard to imagine how any blind person could hold down a job in engineering, or how anybody as brutally scarred as Ms. Bahrami is going to have much luck finding a husband to take care of her. What she did have was the opportunity to visit Mr. Movahedi while he was strapped onto a hospital bed and pour acid into his eyes. For a long time, she wanted to do it, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have wanted to, also. Then Amnesty began to put the squeeze on her to back off, Ramadan and the time of forgiveness came around, she forgave and, from looking at the beaming pictures of her scarred face, it’s easy to see she feels pretty good about the decision. Think what would have happened in a similar situation in America.

For starters, the crime wouldn’t have been against Ms. Bahrami. It would have been against the State, and she would have been nothing more than a witness, if the judge had even allowed her to testify, because it’s easy to see a defense lawyer convincing a judge that the mere sight of her scarred face was too inflammatory for the jury to be allowed to see.

Even if she were allowed to testify, it’s not hard to imagine the same defense attorney convincing a jury to acquit on the ground that, since she was blind and all, her ability to identify her attacker simply wasn’t good enough to dispel all reasonable doubt that the guy who’d thrown the acid really was the same man sitting here in court.

Perhaps the prosecutor would be worried about getting a conviction, or just have too many trials to handle, and let Mr. Movahedi plea-bargain his way down to, say, second-degree assault and get off with time already served. No matter how things shook out, Ms Bahrami’s feelings would have had no bearing on the outcome.

I prefer the way the Iranians handle this. I like it that Ms. Bahrami is the one who not only got to decide what happened to Mr. Movahedi, but would have been the one to do it to him.

Or not. Either way, she was the one who got whatever emotional satisfaction there was to be gotten from the situation. I also don’t mind thinking about Mr. Movahedi spending something like the seven years he spent in prison waiting for Ms. Bahrami make up her mind about whether he got the acid treatment.

What Ms. Bahrami did have was the opportunity to visit Mr. Movahedi while he was strapped onto a hospital bed and pour acid into his eyes.

Or, take an example that’s a little closer to me, personally. A few years ago my nephew was riding home on his bicycle. He had just been licensed as a civil engineer, and he and his father were about to launch into business together. He was, when I think about him, the best that his generation, the best that America, had to offer. He was smart and hardworking; he had a beautiful bride, a winning personality, and a glorious future — all of which ended when a middle-aged driver fell asleep, ran onto the shoulder where my nephew was riding, and put a stop to everything except his life with massive brain damage.

The thing was, it was probably the worst day of the driver’s life, too. She showed up at the hospital, sick with grief. And wasn’t allowed to see him. The lawyers thought it was a bad idea. She showed up repeatedly and never got into the room. Always the lawyers.

The boy’s father is a kind, generous man who would have given comfort to the driver, if he had been allowed to. And she to him. But they weren’t permitted to meet. Instead, the only satisfaction he got was to drive out to the highway and look at his son’s blood puddled on the asphalt. And the driver had to watch her trial grind its way through the legal system with no concern for whether the boy she had hit, or his family, even wanted her to be on trial.

Now, imagine if something like this had happened to an American in Oman in the mid-Seventies. It did. To a good friend of mine, only he was the driver.

Three years earlier, no Omani who wasn’t either in the military or the royal family even owned a car. In fact, no Omani even owned sunglasses. The sultan was opposed to things Western. Then he was deposed and the next sultan began to modernize, so the road my friend was driving along was brand new. And the old gentleman standing on the side of the road was newer still to the whole concept of high-speed traffic when he stepped out in front of my friend’s car.

My friend slammed on the brakes, spun the wheel, fishtailed, caught the old man with the rear of his car, then rolled four or five times before coming to a stop. The court my friend had to explain himself to was Sharia: a single judge with a council of elders to advise him.

I mean it when I say that my friend had to explain himself. Nobody got to have a lawyer. The old man spoke, my frind espoke, the police told what their accident investigation had found, the judge consulted with the elders, the village sat in a semicircle and listened, and the judge announced his decision:

To the old man, he said, "Our country is changing and you need to pay attention to those changes. By stepping into the road in the way you did, you have embarrassed a guest in our country."

To my friend, the judge said, "It appears that there was nothing more you could have done to have prevented what happened. I instruct you to pay the old man three rials." Rials were worth about $2.50 at the time, so my friend was ordered to pay seven-and-a-half bucks.

Nobody thought the rials compensated the old man for whatever injuries he had received. That wasn’t the point. The point was dignity. Regardless of how it happened, the old man had been hurt and my friend had been involved. The rials were for honor and, I am almost sure, for my friend too. To clear the books in his conscience as well as to make the old man feel vindicated.

Clearly, the lady who ran down my nephew was a lot more culpable than my friend, but ask yourself. If you had been either driver, would you rather have hired an expensive lawyer to try to justify your actions to a jury chosen at random from voters’ lists and then, if you did get off, perhaps face a trial for civil damages until you were bankrupt from attorneys’ fees? Or would you rather have told your story to a council of wise old men? I know which one I would choose.




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The Bowels of the Occupy Movement

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According to its website, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a people-powered movement organized in "response to the Great Recession caused by our financial and political leaders." It vibrates with activity as people organize against corporate greed. Working groups pulsate, "planning actions, coordinating with community groups, engaging with the press, supporting each other, and strengthening solidarity within the movement." They intend to work tirelessly until inequality, injustice, poverty, and war are eradicated, all the while "refusing to be silenced," presumably by powerful movements clamoring for inequality, injustice, poverty, and war.

The early days of the OWS movement experienced rapid growth, its popularity boosted by media coverage and support from celebrities and Democratic politicians. In recent weeks, it has been joined by labor unions, community organizers, human rights groups, and the Communist, Socialist, and Fascist parties. Implying a form of automatic enrollment for everyone whom big business and big government has been sticking it to, the hope is that the "99%" name will increase membership to, well, 99%. There is also a small, but vocal, anti-Semitic faction, no doubt formed from the belief that Jews own all of the banks. And since OWS demands "indictments and prosecutions of all crimes committed by banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies," a very large legal faction is expected to develop soon.

Much of the anger is understandably directed at our democratic-capitalistic system. But a poll conducted for the movement by CUNY sociologist Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán found that 70.3% of OWS'ers are politically independent and 64.2% are under the age of 34. That is, most probably don't vote. The poll also found that 92.1% had some college, a college degree, or a graduate degree; 13.1% are unemployed; and 71.5% earn less than $50,000 a year. So most OWS'ers are highly educated and have jobs, but almost 85% (13.1 + 71.5) pay 0% in income taxes — in contrast to, for example, Tea Party members, who are old and uneducated, but pay 30% of their income in taxes.

In addition to Wall Street and the 1%'ers, OWS'ers hate big corporations, especially ones that make huge profits, ship jobs overseas, and "plunder the planet." During a working group debate, one protestor tweeted "X on sucks" to his followers by using his new $560 iPhone 4S. I assume he was talking about Exxon, a giant American oil company with a profit margin of 9.66%. Apple, which recently surpassed Exxon as the world's largest company, extracts a profit margin of 35% on iPhones, which are manufactured by Samsung in Taiwan. Evidently, big corporations that screw consumers can get an OWS protest exemption if they make cool products.

Similar logic applies to people. Corporate CEOs are demonized because of their sinfully high salaries. True, the top ten CEOs averaged $43 million in 2010. But the top ten celebrities averaged $100 million. Instead of castigating them, however, OWS'ers pay them tribute, by purchasing exorbitantly priced tickets to attend their bourgeois movies, concerts, and sporting events.

Despite numerous anti-capitalist signs (e.g., "End Capitalism" and "Smash the Pillars of the Pig Empire") and an equally large number of signs advocating socialism and communism, the OWS movement insists that it doesn't want to destroy business; it just wants to make a few changes. Specifically, it wants American business to hire more people, increase salaries and benefits, provide free health care and education, reduce the prices of products and services, and eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The profits (if any, after all the wealth-sharing) should be returned to society. So the new system would be a hybrid in which capitalists could own businesses but control neither their property nor their profits. Let's call it Marxalism.

Self-respecting socialists cannot be expected to carry their clever anti-capitalist signs while shivering and holding their noses at their own fetor.

Nationwide demonstrations by rebellious youth may annoy and disrupt American business, but they are unlikely to cause an immediate, voluntary switch to Marxalism. Nor will they result in a swift enactment of anti-greed laws. The real leaders understand the futility of such languid tactics. They are professional radicals, hiding in the bowels of the movement — deep thinkers for whom class warfare is a full-time job. They are the friendly statists from ACORN-like orgs, whose anti-capitalist outrage calls for social revolution. And they want it before ADHD and cold weather drive demonstrators back to their jobs and classrooms.

To ignite a revolution, the movement needs rebellious leaders with the ability to rouse and incite the masses. Who should be the provocative face of the revolution? Given the number of protestors wearing chic T-shirts imprinted with the image of Mao and Che Guevara (not to mention Marx, Lenin, and Stalin), it would be tempting to use modern-day versions of these idols. However, Che-like leaders would be demoralizing. The original Che denounced the “spirit of rebellion” as “reprehensible” and those who “choose their own path” as "delinquents." Chairman Mao has become a cult hero, perhaps more trendy than Che. California even has "Mao's Kitchen" restaurants. But it would be difficult for Mao-like leaders to explain the miserable failures of the original Mao — for instance, the "Great Leap Forward" to create a just, egalitarian society that ended up killing 45 million innocent Chinese men, women, and children. As with Che's idol, Stalin, justice and equality were evidently unimportant goals for Mao.

There are even problems with frontmen such as Michael Moore. On the plus side, he is highly visible and somewhat popular, has no history of supporting mass murder, and has never been seen in a Che T-shirt (although he has endeared himself to Fidel Castro). A recent convert to the OWS movement, Mike hates capitalism, which he regularly and vehemently denounces. He often alludes to violence in the streets if Wall Street doesn't pay back what it has stolen: our pensions, our money, and the futures of our children. But the spectacle of Michael Moore raging against corporate fat cats would hardly ignite a revolution. And a T-shirt image of a fat 57-year-old man, with bangs sticking out from under a goofy ball cap, is simply ridiculous.

In terms of the stated goals, two months of demonstrations have achieved nothing. As the OWS movement has grown and spread, so too has its proclivity for violence and revolution. Writing in the New York Post of a recent visit to Zuccotti Park, Charles Gasparino "found a unifying and increasingly coherent ideology emerging among the protesters, which at its core has less to do with the evils of the banking business and more about the evils of capitalism — and the need for a socialist revolution." Unfortunately, the latest recruits to the cause — for the most part, criminals, drug users, panhandlers, and the homeless — have produced little more than a stench pervading the carnival-like encampments. Indeed, the increasing violence and decreasing sanitation of the movement has begun to wear out its welcome in many cities. And with the onslaught of winter, many protestors plan to retreat, vowing to return with the fair weather of spring. Self-respecting socialists cannot be expected to carry their clever anti-capitalist signs while shivering and holding their noses at their own fetor. Besides, it is an image more ridiculous than that of a Michael Moore T-shirt.

In the bowels of the OWS movement lie zealous agitators who see themselves as its true leaders. Privately they regard the mainstream media, vocal celebrities, and shrill professors of socioeconomic equality as useful idiots. When it comes to money and power, they are as greedy and exploitative as any of their oppressors. By offering false hope and fomenting hatred and unrest, they seek to extort capital and usurp power for themselves. And with thousands of eager demonstrators at their disposal, they believe their moment is now (or next spring).

But there is an obstruction, a chronic irritation — the lack of charismatic demagogues to articulate the ideology. Some would say the movement has been stricken with irritable bowel syndrome. Alas, for this strain, no medicine seems to be available.




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Poisoning the Well

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Young people are getting an education on the free enterprise system that prejudices them against it.

Their educators tend to see its ethos as one of “dog eat dog.” They believe that fierce competition is its only feature, and that this competition must always be destructive. They believe that some will win and others lose, and that the winners must completely obliterate the losers.

Kids learn that lying in business is sharp and shrewd. That successful businesspeople use every dirty trick in the book to get ahead. That, given the nature of the system, they absolutely must do this to succeed. Dishonesty may be considered wrong everywhere else in the world, but in the workplace it is a skill necessary for survival.

Of course this is the detritus of Marxist philosophy. Even at its mildest, it is not what people who esteem the free enterprise system, who support it as the one most conducive to freedom and prosperity, believe. But youngsters who aspire to succeed in business tend to believe these things, because they’re what’s being taught. They carry such notions into the business world, and this accounts for the abysmal lack of ethics we see in all too many of them.

People who notice this bad behavior are often told that “that’s business,” and believe it. Thus they are vulnerable to the rhetoric of “progressive” political hucksters who preach warmed-over Marxist ideas such as the redistribution of wealth and the supposed necessity of government intervention in the marketplace. And thus does the vicious cycle perpetuate itself.

But among those who care about free enterprise, there is a sense of what, for lack of a better word, I might call sportsmanship. While at one level a business competitor may be a rival, in the larger scheme he is actually a partner. You might defeat him today, he might defeat you tomorrow, but next week you might succeed together. As for customers, they are not suckers to be bamboozled; they are every company’s greatest resource. A continuously profitable business doesn’t try to fool them once, then go in search for other suckers; it establishes a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship with them.

The economic chaos we face today didn’t spring full-blown from Obama and the Left. It is the product of both major parties, and the years of confusion over which they’ve presided.

An understanding of these principles is almost totally absent in the minds of many young folks in the corporate world. And this has opened a Pandora’s box of ills. It has much to do with why tycoons pay expensive lobbyists to get legislation passed forcing competitors out of business. It’s why big corporations gobble up struggling small fry and — with the help of bought and paid-for elected officials — strangle other entrepreneurs in regulations that keep them from building better companies. It’s how so many of them can thrive on taxpayer-funded subsidies, then congratulate themselves on their commercial genius. Such tricks are then described, by anti-free enterprise professors, as capitalism in action.       

What the young are not being told is that there is a beauty, balance, and wisdom to the free enterprise system. That it can thrive only in an atmosphere of trust, based on individual integrity and mutual respect. That it is up to each of us to keep that trust. It’s true, we all compete, but only so we can become our best. And if personal dishonesty becomes too widespread, it will undermine and erode our ability to trust one another.

The well is being poisoned right at its source. William F. Buckley raised an alarm about the fouling of this spring in his first bestseller, God and Man at Yale, more than 50 years ago. His warning is as timely now as ever. We are paying small fortunes to educate our sons and daughters, and they are being taught to distrust the very waters in which they must swim. They are being taught that the only way to clean them up is to pay self-designated geniuses to regulate the flow.  What will happen is that the pool will dry up.

I spent my early college years at public institutions, and I remember being taught that the system in which I had to survive was evil. Then I transferred to a small, private college, and for the first time I heard that the economic system developed in my country had become a blessing to the whole world. For the first time, from professors not beholden to socialist dogma, I was exposed to a gospel of hope. It was many years before I was able to sort through the confusion of those conflicting doctrines and find my way to the truth. Kids today are confused, too, but they are as salvageable as I was.

They won’t hear the truth from the GOP-led Right. That crowd preaches free enterprise, yet feeds into the corruption and calls the bitter sweet — at least until the Democrats are in charge. The economic chaos we face today didn’t spring full-blown from Obama and the Left. It is the product of both major parties, and the years of confusion over which they’ve presided. Most of our would-be leaders learned from the same kind professors who now teach our kids, so they are no less befuddled.

Competition can be healthy. It can make us grow. But it can also be sick and deranged, goading us to tear each other apart, which is what happens when people compete for money and economic privilege that are taken from others and given to them. Thus Solyndra enjoys half a billion dollars provided at the expense of taxpayers who are losing their own jobs and homes. But there are still examples out there of beneficial competition in action, of good people working to keep our country great. I suspect, however, that Washington DC is the last place we’re going to find them.

If we can be made to believe the bad press about free enterprise — whether it comes from academia, from Hollywood, from the news media, or simply from our friends—we will act according to such notions. We’ll lie, cheat, and try to rig the game, and no one will have any cause to trust us. This was how the well got poisoned to begin with. The economic system that made America great needs better public relations. But we can’t merely entrust the job to any self-styled expert. We must, each and every one of us, take it up ourselves.

We must stop subsidizing schools that sow destruction. There are good schools, and responsible professors, who still teach the principles that can save us. There are still candidates, and voters, who care passionately about liberty. This is no time for passivity or despair. It is time to speak up, and to practice what we preach with greater fidelity than ever before. Our kids are watching every move we make to see how closely it corresponds with our words.

In the break room at one of my many corporate jobs, there was a poster promoting carpooling. It showed a throng of cars packed into a traffic jam. In each was a single driver, and from every driver’s head came a thought-balloon saying, “I can’t make a difference.” Although this was government-funded “green” propaganda, and the phrase has, unfortunately, become a cliché, it carried a grain of truth.

Each of us can make a difference, because although we are individuals, we are not alone. But we are individuals, and we are each responsible for ourselves. The great cleanup of the well can only begin with us.




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End the Green Nightmare

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There is currently a maelstrom of news about costly failures in the so-called green energy industry. Of course, solar power is prominently featured, and the Solyndra fiasco is only one of the scandals. Rapidly rising to public consciousness is another crony capitalist solar company, SunPower, which looks like it too will go bust and cost the American taxpayer a fortune. Also in this club of losers are solar companies such as First Solar and Abengoa, both again the recipients of taxpayer dollars, thanks to the current administration’s rigid environmentalist ideological mindset.

But not to be overlooked are disappointments in the other segments of the green energy industry. Corn-based ethanol has proven to be such a wasteful boondoggle that even Al Gore has rethought his support of it. And wind power has come in for a good deal of scrutiny. Why, even geothermal companies are proving questionable. A recent report of three on the biggest such companies — Nevada Geothermal Power, Raser Technologies, and U.S. Geothermal — shows that they are all in financial difficulty or are just not profitable. All are recipients all of taxpayer loans or loan guarantees.

This has left the proponents of green power trying desperately to explain away its dismal failure — both here and abroad — to prove itself commercially viable without massive governmental subsidization, and without the corruption that governmental subsidies typically bring. But while we are witnessing the bursting of the Great Green Energy Bubble, we are also witnessing a renaissance of fossil fuels — the very fuels that Malthusian prophets of doom have for decades claimed are “running out.”

This renaissance has been caused by a technological revolution that is transforming oil and gas drilling. Because of it, oil and gas are far more plentiful here and in countries outside the Middle East and other hostile neighborhoods, such as Russia and Venezuela. I am thinking especially of two technologies, fracking and horizontal drilling. The rebirth of fossil fuel production was unimaginable a few years ago. It is completely beyond the ken of the Greens who constitute the Obama Regime, people who never anticipate revolutions that are not run from above, by them, but instead originate in the distributed intelligence of regular (read: creative) people.

We are also witnessing a renaissance of fossil fuels — the very fuels that Malthusian prophets of doom have for decades claimed are “running out.”

Start with fracking. It has certainly made some energy companies rich. For, example, Noble Energy has just paid a whopping $3.4 billion for a half-interest in the Marcellus Shale holdings of Consol Energy. Together they plan to develop a huge chunk of Pennsylvania and West Virginia (663,000 acres). Even after selling off half its holdings, Consol still expects to extract a massive 350 billion cubic feet of gas.

What is fascinating is that Conrol Energy is a Pennsylvania-based coal company — you know, one of those, well, fossils of the fossil fuel industry. It is nicely positioning itself for the inevitable shutting down of coal-fired power plants under the relentless pressure of the EPA. Consol and Noble are just two of the flood of companies moving in to develop the Marcellus Shale formation.

Fracking is also rewarding key players in the industry. Marcus Rowland, the CEO of the small but important player, Frac Tech International, earned a tidy $24.4 million last year. His compensation made him the highest paid CEO of any publicly-traded energy company. He is paid more than the CEO of IBM.

Frac Tech is beating many other energy companies by providing hydraulic fracturing services for big energy companies such as Chesapeake Energy and ExxonMobil. It brought in nearly $1.3 billion in revenues. In the world of fracking, only Halliburton and Schlumberger are bigger.

There is a very recent report about the development of a shale field of truly stupefying proportions. The Utica Shale deposit is an enormous geological formation stretching from Quebec to Kentucky. It may be an even more fertile source for oil and gas than the Marcellus Shale field. Ohio state geologists — a neutral source, please note — estimate that Ohio’s share of this field holds upwards of 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 5.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil (or roughly a third of the production of America’s largest oil reserve, Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay).

Then there is brilliant article discussing one of the unsung creative geniuses of American industry, Harold Hamm. In a week dominated by paeans to the fallen Steve Jobs — who rightly deserved recognition for his amazing success in making Apple what it is — it was nice to see a piece on the remarkable Mr. Hamm.

Far from welcoming the renaissance of the American fossil fuel industry and the jobs it would provide, the Obama Regime has fought it tooth and nail.

Hamm is the founder and CEO of Continental Resources. He rose from humble origins — the thirteenth child of Oklahoma sharecroppers — to become thirty-third on the current Forbes list of wealthy Americans. Yes, Virginia, there is a Horatio Alger. Hamm is almost certainly going to rise to a much higher place on the list, given how much oil he owns.

He made his early success as a wildcatter with a keen sense of where oil could be found. But his greatest contribution was his early employment and improvement of a second innovative fossil fuel technology, a method called horizontal drilling. This is a technique whereby the drilling company drills downward (up to two miles deep), then drills outward, horizontally. This technology has — as dramatically as fracking — allowed energy companies to exploit petroleum and gas reserves hitherto not commercially viable.

Hamm is the discoverer of the famous Bakken oil field that extends from Montana to North Dakota. So fertile has this field proven that it has helped put America back in third place in the world in oil production. He estimates the reserves in Bakken alone at 24 billion barrels — which if true is double our currently proven national reserves. Continental has seen its proven reserves go from 118 million barrels in 2000 to 421 million barrels this year.

One might expect that the Obama Administration would be delighted at the prospects of America’s becoming energy independent — and potentially millions of American blue-collar workers getting high-paying jobs.

But one would be wrong.

Far from welcoming the renaissance of the American fossil fuel industry, the Obama Regime has fought it tooth and nail. It is attacking shale oil and gas with every tool at its disposal. Its Department of the Interior has undertaken a jihad against them. It has locked away from exploration and development vast new areas of the Midwest and has waged a war against conventional offshore drilling. It is now doing its best to stop the new technological drilling, even in lands that have been drilled conventionally before.

The Green Regime’s SEC has entered the fray, demanding that companies like Continental follow new Sarbanes-Oxley requirements about reporting royalty and production figures, meaning that CEOs like Hamm face jail time if some low-level operator misreports production from a field.

Ironically, the feds never apply Sarbanes-Oxley to themselves. If Obama or any of his administration misreports taxpayer liabilities, say, for solar industry loans, nobody faces any consequences.

In addition, the Regime is pushing de facto tax increases for the oil and gas industry, by ending various tax credits the oil industry has long enjoyed. This — coming from an administration lavish in its subsidies to minor and expensive energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and ethanol — is from the point of view of physical science simply bizarre.

Finally, the Green Dream Team has brought its Justice Department into the jihad. It recently brought charges against seven oil companies in North Dakota for killing 28 birds. Continental has been accused of killing — one bird! But this is not a minor matter: the executives face six months in jail if convicted. (Note: The same Justice Department has never even once pursued any American wind power company, even though American wind power facilities kill on the order of half a million birds a year.)

But even as the Regime wages its jihad against domestic fossil fuel industries, other countries are moving ahead with the new fossil fuel technologies. As I noted in an earlier piece, Israel has set about using fracking to free itself from reliance on foreign sources of oil, which would mean changing the balance of power in the Middle East. Israel is using fracking to exploit some major fields, the most recent being a field (named “Leviathan”) which holds 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or about a century’s worth of gas at Israel’s current usage. This field is only part of the massive Levant Basin shale field, which holds upwards of 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or about eight centuries’ worth.

More recently, a small energy player in the UK has announced that the Bowland Shale field, in northwest England, contains an estimated 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This estimate (by Cuadrilla Resources) means that this one shale field contains enough natural gas for two-thirds of a century of the UK’s needs at present levels. And that is only one field.

The British boom is being echoed elsewhere in Europe, where other countries are also turning to fracked gas — except France, which has outlawed shale gas exploration altogether, one suspects to protect its nuclear industry from competition. But Poland, for instance, has an estimated 187 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. This is geopolitically game-changing, considering that Poland now has to import its natural gas from neighboring Russia, a country that historically has kept trying to incorporate Poland into its empire.

Note the extremism of Banks’ demand: don’t even explore, much less try to use, resources until they are proven, to her ilk, to be perfectly safe—something that will never happen.

This discovery in the UK comes just in time to stop its increasing dependence on natural gas from the Middle East and Norway. But — naturally — the British energy suppliers are facing the same kneejerk environmentalist opposition that Hamm and other American suppliers do. Soi-disant environmentalists in Britain are roused in furious opposition. Jenny Banks, the “energy policy officer” for the environmentalist group WWF (World Wildlife Fund) demands, “The government should at the very least halt shale gas exploration in Britain until more research can be undertaken on both the climate-change impacts and contamination risks associated with shale gas.” Note the extremism of her demand: don’t even explore, much less try to use, resources until they are proven, to her ilk, to be perfectly safe—something that will never happen.

What explains this visceral hostility to a product the human race desperately needs, and the pushing of forms of energy that have proven time and again to be commercial losers?

The answer is that much of the environmentalist movement consists of two groups: neo-socialists, and neo-Romantic pagans. The former profess a love of the ecosystem but are really animated by a hatred of capitalism. These are the people who never uttered a peep about environmental degradation when the Soviet Empire was cheerfully despoiling the ecosystem, but who now wax furious at the thought that a capitalist — a capitalist — should even explore for oil. Should Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chavez start using fracking, why, instantly, fracking would be fine.

The second group, even more bizarre, is populated by those I have characterized elsewhere as self-loathing hominids, i.e., people who are ideologically misanthropic. They view their own species as vile and disgusting, literally a blight upon the planet. The thing they fear most is precisely the discovery of inexhaustible, inexpensive energy. They fear it because such energy would allow the human race to flourish, and these self-loathing hominids do not want the human race to flourish. To them, rats and roaches are wonderful, but children are not.

You simply can’t please these worshipers of Thanatos.

But the rest of us should rejoice in the renaissance of fossil fuels. Unlike the green energy sources that have done so pathetically little to help humanity, it holds the promise of inexpensive energy on which our continued prosperity depends.




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Homes for Green Jobs

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It's difficult finding good green jobs today, even after $110 billion in stimulus money has been spent to help create them. Newly formed green energy companies such as Solyndra, Evergreen Solar, and Green Vehicles are going out of business and newly converted green energy companies such as General Electric are outsourcing manufacturing jobs to cheap-labor countries.

Nevertheless, many in government, especially the White House and the EPA and DOE, believe there will be plenty of future green jobs to go around — 5 million high-paying jobs, according to President Obama. The reason for their optimism may lie in the expectation that millions of Americans will soon make a transition to energy efficient homes. Although the parts and materials may be manufactured in other countries, the houses must be built and maintained here.

This optimism has, no doubt, been buoyed by the 2011 DOE-sponsored Solar Decathlon, a competition among collegiate architectural teams "to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive." The picture belowshows the excitement surrounding the program (all pictures: USDOE). To be fair, the Decathlon got off to a rainy start — good neither for attendance nor electricity generation. However, the inclement weather obviously failed to detract from the beauty of these earth-friendly, sustainable homes. A government source, who wishes to remain anonymous, exclaimed that he "envisioned entire communities of these cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive dwellings sprouting up throughout the land. The demand may exceed that of wind farms."

Such innovative designs underscore the wisdom of government programs spending hundreds of millions of dollars to train people for the coming green economy. Clearly, existing builders are not able to construct such ecological marvels, as advanced as they are beautiful. Indeed, to non-green tradespeople, even the new building codes will be incomprehensible. And remodeling companies and do-it-yourselfers will be sorely unqualified to handle renovations and repairs. But, a government source, who wishes to remain anonymous, predicted that "when millions of Americans begin to abandon their inefficient and wasteful homes for these cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive dwellings, a highly paid green energy workforce will be at the ready."

The offering in the forefront is from the California Institute of Technology, one of our most prestigious engineering schools. As can be seen in the enlarged, twilight view below, its parka-esque look (siding from LL Bean?) exudes warmth. And if the house becomes too warm (retains too much captured solar radiation), there's no better way to cool off than to luxuriate in the crisp (and now cleaner) sunset air whisking across your spacious deck. There, you can sink into an eco-friendly folding chair and ponder your energy savings while enjoying a panoramic view of our planet healing.

The Cal Tech house and the other contenders will seem diminutive and trifling to people with that antiquated "a man's home is his castle" attitude. But, as a government source, who wishes to remain anonymous,hastened to recall, "the goal of the competition is to demonstrate cost-effectiveness, energy-efficiency, and attractiveness." Consumers desiring bigger homes could simply purchase an enlarged version of their favorite design or integrate multiple units into a structure of the required size.

This latter option is more easily implemented with rectilinear structures such as the City College of New York design below. The CCNY offering is 750 square feet. A young couple seeking a starter home need only purchase two units and have them contiguously integrated into a 1500 square foot home, much like bolting together two double-wide mobile homes. The inherent flexibility of this modular approach permits end-to-end or side-to-side bolting. And, as the family grows, additional units can be readily attached. According to a government source, who wishes to remain anonymous, "this should be performed by properly trained, authorized and qualified green energy technicians."

There is no question that all the teams have done a great job improving energy efficiency. For example, the CCNY house is able to create up to eight kilowatts of free energy on sunny days. Purchasers of these homes will reduce their electricity bill by hundreds of dollars annually, thereby shrinking the time needed to recoup their solar investment.

The CCNY house costs $500,000 for materials. A conservative estimate of labor cost would be $125,000 (25% of the materials cost). With green labor, $200,000 (40%) is more realistic. Throwing in another $100,000 for the building lot and other expenses brings the total to $800,000. In this scenario, the young couple's 1500 square foot starter home would cost only $1,500,000.

Let's assume the couple comes up with the $300,000 (20%) down payment and can afford the monthly mortgage payments (perhaps by the time they are ready to buy, they will have high-paying green jobs). Further assume that their resulting energy savings are $2,000 a year. Their investment recovery time would therefore be only 150 years (for the down payment, of course). Imagine the recovery times of the designs from teams that failed to qualify for the Solar Decathlon.

Such calculations can be misleading because they fail to account for green goodwill, an intangible but saleable asset representing the value your investment contributes to saving the planet. It is saleable in that you can add it to the future selling price of your home. A government source, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained, "It is an additional amount that a prospective buyer, equally ignorant and gullible, would be willing to pay for your cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive solar home."

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