Confessions of a Sports Fanatic

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As a libertarian, and a nonfollower of sports, I often wonder why people get deeply involved in America's great community project of watching games, cheering for teams, keeping track of trades, remembering statistics, and all the rest of it. To be honest, I simply don't understand why anyone would follow sports. So I asked a libertarian sports fan, Russell Hasan, to explain it to me. Here's what he said. See what you think.

— Stephen Cox

Ancient Greece held the Olympics. In ancient Rome the Emperor held gladiator games at the Coliseum. In modern America we have the Super Bowl. Given the broad fan base of sports, from baseball and football in the USA to soccer in Europe and South America, to rugby and cricket in England, Australia, and Asia, there must be something about sports that appeals to a deep and fundamental need in human nature.

Why do people like sports? The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel. Being a fanatical fan of the New York Yankees, and also following the New York Giants football team closely, does several things for me. I’ll list them.

1. Enjoyment. Watching sports is fun. If you don’t enjoy watching sports, then you are never going to be an avid sports fan (unless you play sports, which is a different article altogether). I like watching baseball and football, so it is natural for me to be a sports fan. Having been born and raised in New York, I root for the Yankees and the Giants. Sports gives me something to do when I am bored. There are 162 games during the baseball regular season, and more games when the Yankees make the playoffs. The Giants play 16 games in the football regular season. When you enjoy watching sports on TV, there is always something to watch. Factor in parties to see a game or seeing a game at a sports bar, and one can build an entire life out of watching the Yankees.

2. Tension. But why do I enjoy watching my Yankees play against another team, especially against the accursed, vile, rotten, Red Sox (their division rival)? Well, if you don’t see what I see then this might be like describing music to a deaf person, but something articulable can be stated about what it is like for a sports fan to see a game. I would describe a good game as “tension, adrenaline, excitement, and suspense.” Baseball and football are designed so that the games are usually a close contest between the two teams. A few crucial plays can determine who wins. When the Yankees are ahead by one run, and a fly ball goes to the outfield, I root for the Yankees outfielder to catch it. He does so 99% of the time, but there is a little sting of excitement to see the ball shoot over to him, and then a small but pleasurable sigh of relief when the baseball is caught.

The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel.

When I root for a team it means I want them to win, so I am happy when my team scores. I am elated when the Yankees win, and I feel horrible when they lose. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of being in a nerve-wracking high-stress situation when my team is in a key situation in a close game. To feel that, and then to see my team make a play and win the game, is thrilling.

3. Personality. So I enjoy games because I get to see my team win and the other team lose. But why am I a fan of the Yankees and Giants particularly? Each sports team has its own personality, which can only be seen when you follow the sport as closely as I do. For example, the Yankees are the equivalent of a rich successful businessman who dominates his competition and buys mansions and yachts, while the Red Sox are the equivalent of lovable loser underdogs who have recently changed their bad luck and become winners after decades of being horrible. The Mets (and also the basketball team the New York Knicks) are the pathetic loser that you feel sorry for and root for because of a deep, committed passion to be there for them no matter what, even though they constantly lose despite having every opportunity to win. It’s as if the Mets were your alcoholic brother who puked on your bathroom floor on a regular basis.

In football, the New York Giants’ personality is defined by their quarterback, Eli Manning, who once stood in the shadow of his more successful brother Peyton but later emerged and developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the game, crowned by two victories over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, victories that gave New York bragging rights in the perpetual New York vs. Boston sports feud. That sort of success story can be found at some point in the history of most teams. The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers. The personality of a team comes from its players and its fans, but it grows into a spirit that surrounds the team; and team personality is a great basis upon which to choose whom to root for. In the 2014 Super Bowl, the personality of the two teams is easy to see: the Broncos are Peyton Manning’s team as he fights to be recognized as the greatest football player of his era, while the Seahawks seek to give Seattle sports fans their first championship in a major American sport and reward Seattle’s fan base, which is known as the “Twelfth Man” because it is so loud that it’s like another member of the 11-man Seattle defense.

4. Regional Pride. Sports teams bring together a city or region and provide a bonding experience. The Yankees and Mets give New Yorkers something to talk about. I have had experiences at the dentist and the grocery store in which someone saw my Yankees cap and I had an interesting talk with a total stranger. In ways like this, sports gives a community something to discuss, something in common. Each city and region has a team that it is passionate about. New York has the Yankees and Mets, Boston has the Red Sox, Dallas has the Cowboys, Seattle has the Seahawks. These teams give regional identity and cultural flavor to an area, and this is good for the community.

The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers.

5. Discussion. As I mentioned, sports give people something to talk about. Every day of the year, I suspect there are a multitude of conversations about sports, and in the absence of sports these would be mere awkward silences between people who have nothing to talk about. There are millions of Yankees fans across America, and if I need to chat up any of them, I immediately have something that provides content for a friendly conversation. I can talk about the recent Yankees seasons for hours, and make intelligent observations about the team. I can talk about the decline of pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s arm strength, the ineptness of general manager Brian Cashman’s minor league talent scouting system, Robinson Cano’s greed, Babe Ruth’s stats (interesting fact: Babe Ruth has some of the best stats as a pitcher in baseball history, despite being better known for hitting over 700 home runs), and I could pull a dozen other conversation topics out of my Yankees hat. People need something to discuss when making friendly small talk, and sports is an easy, fun, enjoyable topic for them to discuss. I have found this to be true even among libertarians; for example, the famous Objectivist philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra is as avid a New York Yankees fan as I am.

6. Bonding. Sports brings friends together, and it brings families together when they share the same favorite team. Watching a baseball game together, or playing baseball in the backyard of your house, is a common father-son bonding experience. In my own case, if not for the fact that I and my mother and father are all Yankees fans, I would have very little in common with my parents, neither of whom are lawyers and both of whom are liberal Democrats.

7. Achievement. Sports, particularly baseball and football but also tennis, soccer, hockey, basketball, and most other sports, are almost unbelievably difficult for the athletes to play. Coaches and players require a chessmaster-like grasp of strategy, especially at the quarterback position in football. The quarterback needs to identify the defense’s scheme in about three seconds and find the right hole through which to throw the football. Major League pitchers need to be smart in deciding which pitch to throw to fool the batter. Intelligence is necessary. But athletic prowess is obviously also needed, and today’s professional athletes have almost unbelievable muscles. Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods. It is fun to watch people be good at something very difficult and challenging.

Also, a lot of success in sports is psychological. As Yogi Berra remarked: “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” To me, it is motivating and inspirational to watch the players on the team that is losing cope with the challenge of a deficit in the score and overcome their problems for a come-from-behind win. Both times the Giants beat the Patriots in recent Super Bowls, the Giants were the underdog and rallied to defeat a New England team that had more talent and was supposed to win. Stories like that are heartwarming. I was ecstatic when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and especially the second time they did it, when at the end of the game the Giants defense made a play against New England quarterback Tom Brady, who is probably the single most dangerous player in the NFL.

Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods.

Why do I like sports? I like sports because I enjoy watching the Yankees and Giants play. Why do I like watching them? Because it is fun to root for the home team. Why do I root for them? Because I am a Yankees fan and a Giants fan. Why am I a fan? I guess it really all reduces to a personal decision about how you choose to express yourself and what sort of personality you want to create for yourself as a human being, and what you enjoy in life. If I wanted, I could be a “foodie,” obsessed with sushi and sashimi. Then I would be writing about Japanese food instead of sports. But that isn’t who I am. Who I am is a New York Yankees fan and a New York Giants fan. And a lot of other Americans feel the way I do.




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Why I Worry about Global Warming

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When I was in college, Margaret Mead came by and told me I wasn’t getting enough sex. Not that I needed an important scientist to point out anything so obvious, but it was nice to have official validation. And in the how-much-sex-I-should-be-having department, nobody could validate like Margaret Mead.

Margaret Mead had been in Samoa, watching from behind bushes as the improving hands of unfettered sex turned would-be hoodlums into loving, productive members of society. In Samoa, there was almost no interpersonal violence, very little crime, and no juvenile delinquency. The only reason juvenile delinquency happened in America was because juvenile Americans weren’t getting enough sex. Who could argue with Margaret Mead about something like that?

Mead had credentials. She was curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham, fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, chair and also president of the executive committee of the board of directors of the American Anthropological Association.

Chuck’s jailbirds didn’t sound like the peaceful, sexually contented bonobos Ms. Mead had made them out to be.

With that one speech, Margaret Mead transmogrified a whole auditorium-load of us randy college guys into future productive members of society, every one of us on the prowl to spread peace and love all over whichever girl we ran into next. And when we ran into girls who clung to patriarchal values linking sex to marriage or, for that matter, to guys who turned them on, we had Margaret Mead and those fine-sounding credentials to corral her into the sack with.

The first glimmer that there might be more to the laid-back life in Samoa than Margaret Mead had led us to believe came years later when I occupied the office next to Chuck Habbernigg’s. Chuck had been attorney general for American Samoa, which meant he was on a first-name basis with just about everybody in the Pago Pago prison. And the people he was on a first-name basis with . . . well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Chuck’s jailbirds didn’t sound like the peaceful, sexually contented bonobos Ms. Mead had made them out to be.

The second inkling that something might be wrong came when a New Zealand anthropologist named Derek Freeman did what none of my classmates had ever done, or anybody else, apparently. He went to Samoa, checked out la Mead’s research, and discovered that she hadn’t been as rigorous as she let on. Hard as it was to imagine how such a thing could even be possible, it turned out that young Samoans got even less sex than young Americans, because Samoan parents made a bigger deal out of virginity than our parents had. And as for things like crime and social discontent . . . murder, juvenile delinquency, sexual violence, and suicide were higher over there than here. In the case of murder, much higher. The rate in Samoa was twice that of some of our inner cities.

For decades people had swallowed what Margaret Mead ladled out because nobody had the chops to call bullshit. It would have been worth the career of any anthropologist to claim that somebody as powerful as Margaret Mead, with all her chairs and important committees, was spectacularly, laughably wrong, especially an anthropologist who hadn’t gone to Samoa and done the fieldwork himself. And who’d want to do that? She had already done that fieldwork. If you wanted to go study a tribe, you’d go somewhere that hadn’t already been studied. So Freeman did the obvious thing, he waited until Mead had shuffled off to that great steering-committee in the sky, before he published.

Mead wasn’t the only famous scientist to hitch herself to a cartload of half-baked science, sink her teeth into the bit, and take off running. And to get millions of otherwise sensible people galloping along behind. The year after I graduated from college Paul Ehrlich came out with a book called The Population Bomb. It was a scary book that explained in a scary, scientific way how there were so many people in the world that entire societies were on the brink of being torn apart by food riots, hundreds of millions of us were going to die, and it was too late to do anything about it.

For decades people had swallowed what Margaret Mead ladled out because nobody had the chops to call bullshit.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” announced Mr. Ehrlich in his most scientific way. “In the 1970’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash program embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate . . .”

Ehrlich wrote this in 1968, and his credentials were positively Meadian, they are so impressive. During his long, destructive career, he’s been president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the United States Naval Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Credentialwise, there’s no doing better than Paul Ehrlich.

By way of illustrating how serious the population thing had become, he included a hockey-stick graph proving just how far down the broad highway to destruction we already were. Hockey-stick graphs have become de rigueur lately with the scare-you community, and they’re pretty much all the same: a horizontal line running from the Pleistocene to the Industrial Revolution indicating not much going on until, along about your great-grandparents’ day, the line shoots upward and, voilà, the planet is pucked, Armageddon is upon us, we’re all going to die and it’s your fault.

If what you actually remember from the ’70s has less to do with food riots in the Imperial Valley and more to do with the Green Revolution and hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians and Africans lifted out of starvation, bear in mind that the Green Revolution wasn’t something that got talked about a lot at the time. At the time, socially aware people who considered themselves scientifically literate . . . along with 58 academies of science that considered themselves socially-aware . . . became so alarmed over the fact that the rest of us weren’t willing to strangle our own children in order to save the planet that they began to think it was their duty to do something about us. Paul Ehrlich said so himself:

We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries . . .

I don’t know whether Deng Xiaoping read The Population Bomb, but the Paramount Leader wasn’t some wimpy university professor who could only rant about saving people from themselves. Deng Xiaoping was Paul Ehrlich with an army, and he had the power to see that pretty much anything he came up with happened. What he came up with was China’s one-child policy . . . and all the forced abortions, sorrow, and murder of girl babies that haunt the Chinese to this day.

In the ’30s, the issue du jour wasn’t that we had too many people in the world. In the ’30s, the issue was that we had too many of the wrong sort of people. Eugenics is the scientific name for doing something about too many of the wrong sort of people; and millions of the right sort, millions of concerned, socially-aware people, people with only the purest of motives, people who considered themselves scientifically-literate, jumped on the eugenics bandwagon. In our country, this led to anti-miscegenation laws and forced castration. In more socially-committed places, politicians used their political power in ways that sound positively Ehrlichian . . . and ensured healthy genes with gas chambers and murder squads.

All of those people who kept telling us Something Has To Be Done thought of themselves as scientifically literate, but none of them were.

In the ’70s, scientifically literate people discovered that if the rest of us — meaning me and you — didn’t clean up our industrial ways, and soon, glaciers were going to come down and scrape Manhattan off the map. Before we even had the chance to decide whether this was something we might want, famous scientist Carl Sagan — who’d spent part of his career on television and part of his career figuring out the way things are on other planets — jumped in on the side of the glaciers. Sagan was a lot smarter than you and me put together, and the debate about the glaciers was over: they were on the march, and the time had come to head down to the community college and sign up for adult-education classes in blubber chewing and igloo making.

All of those people who kept telling us Something Has To Be Done thought of themselves as scientifically literate, but none of them were. Not even Carl Sagan. Sagan was scientifically literate about television shows and atmospheric chemistry and dust storms on Mars, and the physics of particles bumping together in the rings of Saturn, but he didn’t know squat about glaciers. There aren’t any glaciers on other planets, at least not any of which the news has reached our planet. Or large, metropolitan areas waiting to be scraped away, for that matter. On most scientific matters, only three or four people in the world have enough actual knowledge to be scientifically literate.

Or not.

For the 40 years between the time young Margaret Mead returned to New York and started gathering up all those chairs, and the time Derek Freeman set out for Samoa, Margaret Mead was the only scientist in the world qualified to have an opinion about sex in Samoa. And her science was so botched, she wasn’t qualified either.

Whatever Paul Ehrlich may actually be qualified to talk about, telling people that the world is going to starve to death just as the Green Revolution was kicking into high gear wasn’t it.

No geneticist in the ’30s, a quarter century before DNA was discovered, could possibly have been qualified to say that entire groups of people should be flushed out of the gene pool. And those guys, and Paul Ehrlich, and Margaret Mead weren’t alone. They were just noisier than most. Here are some other things that socially aware, scientifically literate people have told us:

  • Tomatoes aren’t really tomatoes, they’re love apples and they will kill you.
  • Poinsettias will kill you, too, so keep poinsettias away from kids.
  • If you swim after a meal you’ll catch stomach cramps and drown.
  • If you hide under your fourth-grade desk, atom bombs can’t hurt you.
     
  • Go easy on the spaghetti because spaghetti is the kind of trash food that makes poor people fat. This advice was replaced by:
  • Eat lots of spaghetti because spaghetti contains complex carbohydrates, which was replaced by:
  • Don’t eat spaghetti because spaghetti is nothing more than empty calories, which was replaced by:
  • Eat lots of spaghetti because spaghetti is part of a Mediterranean diet, and Mediterranean people live to very old ages.
     
  • A glass of wine with dinner is good for the nerves, which was replaced by:
  • A single sip of alcohol leaves whole mountainsides of clear-cut brain cells in its wake, so never drink anything alcoholic, which was replaced by:
  • In spite of scarfing down unplucked songbirds, and sheep pancreases, and things even the Chinese won’t eat, French people drink lots of red wine, and they live longer than you do, so drink red wine, but not because you enjoy it, which was replaced by:
  • It’s not the alcohol that makes the French live a long time, it’s the grapes their wine is made out of. So drink grape juice, instead, which was replaced by:
  • It’s not the grapes, it’s the alcohol. Alcohol clears your arteries. Skip the red wine, chug down the hard stuff, and you can live as long as a Frenchman without the sulfites.
     
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away, which was replaced by:
  • Modern-day factory farmed apples come coated with Alar. Alar is the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply, so don’t even think about touching an apple unless you are wearing a hazmat suit, which was replaced by:
  • Alar is nothing more than an apple growth-regulating hormone and doesn’t have anything to do with people, so go on, eat apples.
     
  • Bumblebees can’t fly. But that one was based on a faulty mathematical model, which brings us to mathematical models in general. In general, researchers fall back on mathematical models when whatever they’re trying to figure out is too complicated for them to understand.

Nowadays scientists run their mathematical models through computers when they want to figure out something that’s too complicated to understand. Sometimes the computer models are so complicated, nobody understands them, either . . . especially where weather and supercomputers are involved. Which, now that global warming is à la mode, leads to questions nobody has answers to.

When people mention that we just had the hottest summer in half a century, they never say what happened 51 years ago to make things even hotter, because the computer wasn’t programmed to tell them.

When you ask why, if the oceans are beginning to boil away, is there so much more sea ice around Antarctica than there used to be, all they can answer is that the science is complicated, and they’re right. The science is complicated. It’s too complicated for the scientists who do that kind of science to understand. It’s way too complicated for scientists who do other kinds of science to understand. And as for the people who don’t do any science at all, such as the ones trying to persuade you that the whole thing is too complicated for you to understand, they don’t understand it any better than you do.

When people mention that we just had the hottest summer in half a century, they never say what happened 51 years ago to make things even hotter.

The very best that anybody can do with questions like these is to compare what the computer spits out with what seems to be going on in the real world. That’s easy with bumblebees. When your model tells you bumblebees can’t fly, you know something’s wrong with the model. When the model tells you summers should have been heating up for the past 15 years, and they haven’t been, maybe the computer hit a patch of short-term bad luck involving natural variations in weather patterns, and things really will heat up when the computer’s luck changes and the weather gets back on track.

Or, maybe, the sun ran out of spots for a while, the way it did in the Little Ice Age. And global warming is the only thing between us and freezing to death.

Or an increase in forest litter in the tropics is soaking up the carbon dioxide.

Or, maybe, all the sulfur compounds that Chinese coal-burning plants have been dumping into the air are shielding us from the solar gain we’d be getting if the Chinese were running their factories on natural gas.

Or the sudden, rapid growth of trees in the Siberian and Canadian sub-Arctics is swallowing up carbon dioxide as fast as the Chinese can generate it.

Or calcium in the ocean is turning carbon dioxide into limestone.

Or it’s all part of some long-term cycle having to do with Ice Ages. Carl Sagan was right, and the glaciers are coming for New York after all.

Or . . .

Or . . .

Or, could be, something is wrong with the model.

My money says we’re having a Margaret Mead moment: the science isn’t good enough, and nobody knows what’s going on. Not the computer programs. Not the people who write the computer programs. Not the scientists who study global warming. Certainly not the scientists who don’t study global warming. Or the hordes of socially aware laymen who consider themselves scientifically literate. And, most of all, not the politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals who built their careers on global warming.

The difference between me and these folks is, I know I’m scientifically illiterate. I am to science what a student at a madrassa is to the imam. All I can do is rely upon him to repeat the sacred texts to me. But with all the nonsense that’s been spoon-fed to us in the past, I’m going to ask questions before I get stampeded into doing something that doesn’t agree with the way the world looks to me. So, when someone who fancies himself scientifically literate tells me bumblebees can’t fly . . . and I look out my window at a whole gardenful of bumblebees buzzing around, I’ll need an explanation I can understand before I start claiming those bees aren’t flying.

When your model tells you bumblebees can’t fly, you know something’s wrong with the model.

Could be the global warm-mongers are right. Could be that God really does have an emerald palace all fitted out with rivers of non-alcoholic wine and six dozen amnesiac maidens waiting to be deflowered just by me so they can forget about it the next morning and start over again as virgins . . . if I’m righteous about not running the air conditioner. But I’d need more than the word of somebody who hasn’t been any closer to Paradise than I have before I turn off the AC on a summer’s day.

When the kid sitting cross-legged on the mat next to mine stops bobbing his head as he memorizes yet one more sura, and tells me that if I don’t quit driving my car the ocean will swell up and wash away Denver, I’m going to want to know what happened in Colorado a thousand years ago when the weather was so warm that Vikings were homesteading in Greenland.

Could be there’s an explanation for that, but I’d need to hear it before I start passing laws to force people to raise their children in squalor because the things they need to do in order to lead decent lives are too wasteful and antisocial for the rest of us to countenance.

I’d need better proof than Margaret-Mead-knows-best before I recommit to the silly personal values of the ’60s. And I’d need a lot better proof before I start castrating people I don’t think are as smart as I am, or forcing young mothers to have abortions, or condemning entire populations to gas chambers . . . or millions of people here, and billions in other places, to lifelong poverty because I don’t think they should burn coal or gasoline or nuclear energy.




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Bhopal, 1984

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The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world. It was caused by the accidental release of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant located in the city of Bhopal, capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. UCIL was a joint venture between Union Carbide USA and a public-private consortium of Indian investors.

When the gas leaked, all safety devices — water spray, scrubber, and alarms — failed to function. None of the employees of UCIL were affected, but there was no evacuation plan or mechanism to alert the citizens of Bhopal; and there was no suggested “antidote.” The leak killed thousands outright and injured between 150,000 and 600,000 others, at least 15,000 of whom later died from their injuries. Some sources give much higher numbers of fatalities. Tens of thousands and their next generations continue to suffer.

When constructed, the UCIL factory was in an area exclusively earmarked for industrial development and was a considerable distance away from the populated part of Bhopal. As time went by, slums developed in what had been a “green zone.” A few months before the incident, Arjun Singh, chief minister of the province, had given legal titles to those slums, which were his vote-bank. The slums were small, and were constructed of mud walls and tin roofs. No water or sewage facilities existed. The people who lived in these slums were the most affected by the gas leakage.

Very early in the morning of December 3, 1984, I was awakened by incessant honking and sirens.

As I write this, 29 years after the incident, the factory, now in disrepair, has been under the direct control of the government for over 15 years, but it has yet to be dismantled and cleaned. To research this article, I visited the factory. I entered the premises, with no barriers or security to stop me. Children were playing around. The roofs were falling apart. There were still bags of substances lying there. As one of the documented victims, I even tried to collect the money due to me, just to experience how the system was working. I did that five years ago but procrastinated about finishing my article, for reasons I will explain.

A lot has been written about the conduct of UCIL, but little attention has been paid to the conduct and character of the state and people of Bhopal. It is clear to me that the state washed its hands of all responsibility. So did the people.

A superficial observer might see the tragedy as merely one of the most visible features of a land of catastrophes. Yet its origin was in the human mind and its development depended on the specific defects of a collective worldview.

Dystopian 1984

My parents’ house is only a block away from the highway in suburban Bhopal. Very early in the morning of December 3, 1984, I was awakened by incessant honking and sirens. Noise and lack of personal space are an essential part of life in India. My brain would have flawlessly filtered out the noise and let me sleep, had it not identified an unusual flavor in it.

We had recently been witnessing horrible riots. About a month earlier, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been killed by her Sikh bodyguards. Early in the year, Indira had sent army tanks and commandos into the Sikhs’ most sacred temple, although their mission could have been achieved by simply disconnecting the water supply. Indira had run a brutal and murderous regime in separatist Punjab, a predominantly Sikh state, but she had the "moral" support of most Indians. What followed her murder was a pogrom against Sikhs around the country, organized by the ruling Congress Party. Sikhs were raped and burned alive in Bhopal. Their properties were destroyed. The servile armed forces and police were mostly silent spectators.

My acquaintances affirmed that the Sikhs deserved what they got. When the stories came out that the police had pulled the fingernails out of some people, against whom there was no evidence, most of my acquaintances seemed to have no moral qualms about it.

Asking myself what new was happening on the morning of December 3, I went to the rooftop of my parents' house to check. There were thousands and thousands of people on the highway. Cars jammed the roads. I had never seen so many cars; there weren’t many in the city, and those that existed were mostly owned by the government. Every self-respecting bureaucrat had a siren on his car. The cars were all going in one direction, and with a very strong sense of purpose: out of the city, as fast as they could. This was clearly an exodus. Winter mornings in India are very smoggy, from biomass burning for heating, cooking, and Indian cities’ preferred way of disposing of roadside garbage. What I smelled, however, was not the normal smoke, or the ever-pervading smell of India, which has scores of sources, including the rotting feces of the majority of Indians who still go out in the open.

Only many hours later did All India Radio announce a minor, insignificant gas leakage in Bhopal. By this time, hospitals were overflowing, hundreds had died, and human and animal corpses littered the streets.

A cold sweat broke out on me. My legs felt numb. This too was something we experienced quite regularly in life. Even under normal circumstances, nerves were at the breaking point, particularly the nerves of those who tried to live by reason and evidence and a sense of causality and who did not have the warped instinct of relieving tension by perpetuating it. Each premonition of something bad evoked a blurry sum of earlier, unpleasant memories. Human beings have an amazing capacity to block such memories, but the crux of the incidents still survives in the subconscious, influencing much of our behavior and personalities all our lives.

That cold morning of December, standing alone on the rooftop, I knew something terrible was afoot. Normally, however, such challenges would never lead us to live by the alien concept of a more fulfilling and productive life. The challenge was to preempt personal destruction in a society in which nearly everyone considered it his duty to run other people’s lives, a society in which reason and objectivity had absolutely no place. It was a life of tug-of-war, of wasted energies and unnecessary sufferings. The mode of discussion offered “expediency” as a supreme “moral” value. It was based on rhetoric and soundbites. Anything could be rationalized away, for nothing was held by philosophical anchors. The mindset of the people was rooted in the medieval period and incapable of communicating on the grounds of logic, reason, and evidence.

And now a very major crisis was in progress.

Gas leak!

I woke up my parents and took their radio — an unlicensed, smuggled one — to see if Mark Tully of the BBC, or the Voice of America, or Deutsche Welle had some news. These were our only sources of real news. Alas, Bhopal, a city of a million people, was then relatively unknown, and the international organizations did not have their tentacles there. All India Radio (AIR) was playing the music of state-funded musicians. Only many hours later did AIR announce a minor, insignificant gas leakage in Bhopal. The announcement was lumped together with irrelevant and marginal items. By this time, hospitals were overflowing, hundreds had died, and human and animal corpses littered the streets.

A half-dead family of six, friends of my dad, arrived from their place very close to the Union Carbide factory. They brought in the first news, about a gas leak. In the afternoon, we heard a rumor that the factory had been set on fire by the families of the victims and was leaking a much higher quantity of the gas, and that the fire was spreading to the nearby, massive petrol tanks of the state-owned companies. I thought that something akin to a nuclear bomb was in the making. This rumor made logical sense. The conduct was what one might expect from the people of Bhopal: their first instinct would be to set Union Carbide on fire rather than help their families or remedy the problem. Another exodus began, one far larger than the one that occurred in the night. We had no other choice but to join the herds.

AIR did not have any news in the afternoon, for the “irrelevant” news had already been announced once. By this time, our political leaders were safely in the higher-altitude resort town of Pachmarhi, about 200 km away, where all hotels were owned by the government. Earlier in the night, when I was watching from our rooftop, it was to this town that the cars with sirens and flashing lights were taking our utterly spineless and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats. They had hijacked whatever small emergency services we had. It is important to note that ambulances mostly did not exist, as they don’t even today.

The conduct was what one might expect from the people of Bhopal: their first instinct would be to set Union Carbide on fire rather than help their families or remedy the problem.

Once settled down in Pachmarhi, the official class started issuing self-righteous, brave instructions. They decided that there was no need for the people of Bhopal to evacuate, so they issued orders to petrol stations to close. Our telephones, as usual, were not working. Moreover, all out-of-the city phone calls had to be made manually, using an operator of the state-run telephone company. Even on a normal day, he was difficult to find. That day and for several weeks thereafter, he had gone missing. Tens of thousands of people were now arriving, sitting on the rooftops of trains, hoping to get information about their relatives. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong in that overcentralized system.

For months thereafter, the government was administered from the distant resort town. Even after our rulers returned, their food and water continued to be imported from faraway places. For over a year, the state continued to give us minimal information, if at all. We lived like helpless victims in a war, ever cautious and ever nervous. I am confident that this incident would have stayed out of the news were there no multinational company involved and had the state not realized that there was a opportunity to benefit from it.

For a couple of decades from that day, the sound of sirens would make my heart pound and my palms and armpits sweat. Indeed I am finishing this article after much procrastination, with my psyche revolting against my efforts to relive those days.

The immediate aftermath

For many days after the incident, I worked as a volunteer in government hospitals. There was a serious shortage of doctors, as most had run away. Hospitals were manned by student doctors. Every space was occupied, with several people on the same bed, people on the floors and in the corridors, on the roads leading to the hospitals, and in the parks outside. There was no one to look after them; they were dying miserable deaths.

We were given a bunch of different tablets to distribute to those dying. I asked a doctor on duty how I should decide what to administer. He responded with complete equanimity, “Give whatever.” Later we ran out of them all. Either way, except for a couple of VIP rooms with dedicated resources for the well-connected, these were hospitals in name only. The VIP rooms were empty, because the VIPs had escaped the city unscathed.

The Bhopal incident would have stayed out of the news were there no multinational company involved and had the state not realized that there was a opportunity to benefit from it.

For a few days I worked to collect information about those missing. What struck me most was that so often if someone’s daughter was missing she was not even mentioned. Indians at that time had no concept of getting compensation for a calamity like this. The state-owned insurance companies hardly paid anything, even to victims of road accidents. A few days after the incident, when people got to know that there might be compensation involved, they started mentioning their missing daughters. It took me many years to understand this attitude. For the same people, a daughter missing for a night was suspicious and not acceptable to the family. We collected the people’s information on scraps of paper, which I am sure never went into any official records.

What went deep into my teenage heart during those initial days was that most people behaved deplorably. People of Bhopal had killed and raped Sikhs. Of course, only a small minority had actively participated, but not for lack of interest, only for lack of “courage." As I have said, most that I knew gave their intellectual support to the anti-Sikh pogrom. That day in Bhopal when the gas was leaking, drivers ran their cars over other people without blinking their eyes. I wondered how, for those in such misery, thought of a possible illicit relationship their daughter might have had during the night as more important than her wellbeing.

Our utterly spineless and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats had hijacked whatever small emergency services we had. It is important to note that ambulances mostly did not exist, as they don’t even today.

My "help" at the hospitals was a complete waste of time and energy, and emotionally draining. Disgusted, I stopped volunteering. It was obvious in my mind that given the individual mindsets, the culture, and the institutions, what was happening was nothing exceptional. The Bhopal gas tragedy was a product of our karmas.

I had never known a life without fear. I still vividly remember the fear that the blackouts during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 generated in us, when I was only four years old. Then came famine. Through most of the 1970s, even our relatively well-off, well-connected family had to depend on rationed sugar and oil or on the black market. Indira appointed herself a dictator in 1976 and instituted emergency powers in the hands of the police. My elders lived in constant fear of the warrantless arrests the police could make. One of my relatives had to pay several thousand dollars in bribes for the crime of owning an imported cigarette lighter. Our family and others had to melt away precious gold coins of major historical value, the only alternative being to deposit them at a government office for no compensation while taking the risk of possible arrest. Then the problems of terrorism started in Punjab, in Kashmir, and in the northeastern provinces. There was a constant state of tension with Pakistan. We lived a life of continual, amorphous, chronic anxiety.

Were the people of Bhopal going to reflect on their deeds and thoughts, their irrationalities and superstitions and their worldviews that had placed a huge brigade of rude and uncultured pests in positions of power? Would they see the causal link between their worldview and the spontaneous emergence of extremely corrupt institutions? Would their medieval thinking give ground to rationality? A major tragedy has a possibility of focusing people’s minds. Was the gas tragedy going to make people see how their dependency, totalitarianism, lack of pride and self-respect, their expediency with no moral underpinnings, and their lack of respect for others had generated nonstop catastrophes and had created fissures for sociopaths to rise to positions of power?

Extreme distrust of the state

Eventually it became clear that the Union Carbide factory would cease to exist. It was time to empty some of the bigger chemical tanks. When the time came, the state told us that the process was going to be flawless. The “brave” politicians and bureaucrats, of course, went to the resort-town of Pachmarhi, to watch the event from a safe distance. But on this occasion, people refused to trust them. Bhopal, a city of over a million people, was a ghost town for several days. The Indian army, which has a major base close to Bhopal, and which did show up during the aftermath of the gas tragedy, was brought in to police the streets.

My elders lived in constant fear of the warrantless arrests the police could make. One of my relatives had to pay several thousand dollars in bribes for the crime of owning an imported cigarette lighter.

The Union Carbide tragedy shook people up. They had seen, with all the nakedness, the harms that the state causes, harms that in the West are usually hidden behind a softer façade. People in Bhopal had seen the utterly irresponsibility of a state that had monopolized the crisis management machinery and then hijacked it when the crisis erupted. Society realized that behind all the brave sounding talk of the state were extraordinarily spineless and timid people, with absolutely no sense of individual responsibility. “They are worse than animals,” people would say.

Over those months, I saw people becoming increasingly anti-statist. There were open discussions about making bribery legal, making it a mere transaction cost rather than a huge impediment. People frequently discussed the possibility of privatizing not only industries but particularly law and order, and crisis management machinery.

More of the same

Within months Bhopal faced another wave of social turmoil. On this occasion, the Indian government increased the scope of its affirmative policy for lower caste people in educational institutions. Riots erupted in Bhopal and in the whole of the province. The increase was designed not only to distract but to offer stolen crumbs to those who had suffered most, to make them cling to the idea of government as their savior. In the meantime, the opposition political party, BJP, was strengthening its political position by calling for construction of a Hindu temple at the exact location of a mosque in the town of Ayodhya. This was to lead to another series of nationwide riots. When I was living in the UK in 1992, one of the top news items I watched on the BBC one day was Hindu gangs freely roaming the city of Bhopal. On this occasion, Sikhs were on the side of Hindus! The people of India were extremely gullible and could be manipulated in whatever way desired by the sociopaths running the country.

Bhopal was fortunate that the UCIL was owned by an American company. Had it not been a foreign company, not a penny would have been paid to the victims. To get compensation from Union Carbide USA, making an utter mockery of the sovereignty of India, the Indian government took the case to an American court. The American court (figuratively) threw the papers to the floor. Social pressure against Union Carbide in America was the impetus for the payment. An amount of $470 million dollars was paid to the Indian government, which accordingly passed a law, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act of 1985, to usurp all the money, appointing the state as the trustee of all the claims and at the same time taking away individual people’s notional right to file cases against Union Carbide. Only a part of the money was to be distributed.

The state insisted that the people of Bhopal line up outside its dirty offices, manned by abusive and repulsive bureaucrats, to collect about $4 every week. The total paid was about $500 to those who did not suffer significant physical, visible injuries. I did not want to humiliate myself and did not see the worth in lining up to collect a mere $4 a week. But in an attempt to understand the state of affairs, and in order to write this article, I went to that office to claim my money. The office proved itself by far the worst I had ever seen in my life. Given that hundreds of thousands of people had walked that space, begging and groveling, for $4 a week, it had developed a Stalinist aura, perhaps worse. When the head of the department entered the office, it was as if a curfew had been declared. Everyone was expected to stand up and stand still. I stayed sitting.

After much cajoling the babu looked at my document. But in his file my name had been erased and someone else's had been overwritten. The corrupt office had stolen my due. Despite valid documents in my hand, I had no chance of getting my money unless I paid a bribe. (I have no intention in using this article to claim my $500. If however this article leads to an investigation, I will donate twice as much to an organization that looks after the gas victims.)

Bhopal was fortunate that the UCIL was owned by an American company. Had it not been a foreign company, not a penny would have been paid to the victims.

It seemed at one point that the people of Bhopal would fight for a smaller, more responsible state. But given their groveling character and readiness to sacrifice any values for small scraps of money, the state, ironically, became only bigger. They now had a monstrous new Department of Gas Tragedy. The guy on the street, alas, does not rebel, because he lacks integrity. When he is victimized, he does not challenge those in power. His instinctive reaction is to get into a position of unearned power where he himself can victimize others. It is the triumph of a deeply embedded psychology of “might is right” and the absence of a sense of justice.

India continues to be a land of catastrophes. In 2012, over 143,000 people died on Indian roads. In India’s mostly non-moving traffic, there are 100 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles; in China there are only 36, and in the US, only 15. On average, seven people die each day on the railway tracks, just in the city of Mumbai. Only recently, 115 people lost their lives in a stampede not too far from Bhopal.

Rationality has no place here. The state will not change until the medieval mind has changed. Despite our overt claims that we would like it small and free of corruption, the state will never go away until we realize our own personal contribution to feeding it.




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A Step Back From War

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On November 24, an interim agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions was reached between the P5+1 powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the US) and the Islamic Republic. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to:

  • stop enriching uranium beyond the 5% level, and take steps to downgrade its stockpile of uranium already enriched to the 20% level (at 20% it can be quickly converted to weapons-grade material)
  • allow inspectors better access to its nuclear sites, including daily inspections of the important facilities at Natanz and Fordo
  • halt development of the Arak heavy water plant, which upon completion would be capable of producing plutonium
  • build no new enrichment facilities
  • install no new centrifuges at its current facilities, or start up any centrifuges not currently in operation

Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium to the 3.5% level, as is its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the US interprets the NPT differently, but apparently has agreed to disagree with Iran on this, in effect conceding de facto that Iran has this right). Under the agreement Iran is also allowed to keep all of its existing centrifuges.

In return Iran will receive limited relief from the international sanctions regime which has crippled its economy. Some $6–7 billion worth of sanctions will be eased or lifted. Over $4 billion of this will come from the unfreezing of oil revenues currently held in foreign banks. No new sanctions will be imposed on Iran during the next six months (the lifetime of the interim agreement), so long as the Islamic Republic adheres to the terms of the agreement. The most crippling sanctions affecting Iran’s oil and financial sectors remain in place under the interim agreement.

There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

The US sanctions that will be removed can be lifted by presidential action — a key point, given that majorities in Congress remain suspicious of Iran. (Or, to put it another way, Israel and Saudi Arabia wield considerable influence over American legislators, while Iran has none.)

Is it a good deal? Yes, assuming that both sides are acting in good faith. The deal is an interim one with a six-month lifespan. Lacking progress on a comprehensive agreement, the US and the international community as a whole will quite likely ratchet up the sanctions pressure once more. We have not witnessed a “new Munich,” as some Israeli and neocon commentators have averred. It is quite simply the beginning of a badly needed dialogue between Iran and the West, one in which the interests of both sides may perhaps be found to dovetail. There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

This analyst feels certain that the P5+1 want to settle the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully, with Iran’s nuclear program at least frozen if not rolled back. Iran, it would seem, has been brought to the table by sanctions, particularly the very tough ones imposed since 2010. Self-interest rather than goodwill has brought the parties together, and self-interest is a much better foundation than goodwill to build a comprehensive agreement upon. Goodwill may follow in time.

There is little doubt that Iran has long sought, if not an actual nuclear weapon, at least the capability to produce one relatively quickly. Given the hostility that Iran has faced from the US, Israel, and the major Sunni Arab countries since 1979, its desire to become a nuclear power is understandable. Israel’s possession of a formidable nuclear arsenal (probably 200 or perhaps even 300 weapons) makes Iran’s effort seem puny by comparison. But again, it is Israel and not Iran that has widespread influence over the US Congress and American public opinion. On this issue the American viewpoint has been badly slanted in favor of both Israel and Saudi Arabia (two nations which are, in effect, allies when it comes to Iran), irrespective of US national interests. With this interim agreement the Obama administration has made a small beginning in redressing that dangerous imbalance.

In fact, it really isn’t the terms of this agreement that have disturbed the Israelis and the Saudis, but the very fact that an agreement was reached at all. The fear in both Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that an American-Iranian détente will follow, diminishing their influence over Washington. Would that it prove so! These two “friends” of ours have done considerable damage to America over the years. Our unconditional support for Israel has warped our relationship with the Islamic world, to our cost both economically and in terms of our national security. Saudi Arabia, by exporting radical Wahhabism (in an effort, so far largely successful, to deflect the fanaticism and violence of that movement away from the House of Saud), cost us dearly at 9/11 (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) and thereafter. It is not too much to say that our interaction with these two countries laid the groundwork for the disasters of 9/11 and the Second Iraq War, and much else besides. The time is long overdue for a rebalancing of US policy toward the Middle East.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam. The Iranian people, unlike the majority of Arabs (and particularly Sunni Arabs), are actually pro-Western to a great degree. This is quite evident to anyone who actually studies the country and its people, rather than relying on soundbites provided by cable news. It is true that the Islamic regime in Tehran has supported terrorist acts against the US in places such as Iraq and Lebanon. But it is equally true that this terrorism was motivated by raisons d’état, rather than religious fanaticism and anti-Occidentalism. A reorientation of US policy would bring such acts to a halt, whereas our frenemy Saudi Arabia is unable to prevent (indeed, has at times even secretly encouraged) Sunni terrorism against the US.

The US, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, put the Shia majority in power in Iraq, by means of war. Having embarked upon such a policy, we should, logically, extend it by demanding majority (i.e., Shia) rule in Bahrain. The next step, from the perspective of realpolitik, would be a US-Iranian condominium over the Shia-majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which coincidentally is where almost all of the Saudi oil is located. But of course we lack the statesmen or women capable of charting such a course.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam.

To return then to the real world. This interim agreement opens the possibility of preventing a nuclear Iran without war. A US war against Iran would be a difficult proposition under any circumstances. Given the strain of a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a real danger of the US military cracking during an operation that, to be successful, would entail the commitment of considerably more resources than those devoted to the Iraq war. The economic consequences of such a war (including a major increase in the price of oil, and the choice between borrowing money or raising taxes to pay the war costs) would be devastating.And an attack on Iran, as former Sec. of Defense Bob Gates commented during the Bush administration, would create a wave of terrorism that might persist for decades. There is in fact no alternative to a diplomatic solution.

Will diplomacy succeed? As already mentioned, both sides appear committed to reaching an agreement. The West needs peace and quiet in the Persian Gulf; Iran desperately needs relief from sanctions. Therefore it would seem this interim agreement will be succeeded by a more comprehensive one. Even so, it may be that in the end we will find ourselves containing an Iran that retains a “breakout capability.” But if we could contain a Soviet Union bristling with nukes, then surely we can contain a power that may have the capacity to produce one or two or even a dozen bombs. The alternative, war, is a far bleaker prospect.

Its logic aside, I regard a successful diplomatic outcome as a 50-50 proposition at best. Very powerful forces, both inside the US and beyond our borders, are committed to keeping the US and Iran apart. They are prepared to do almost anything to prevent a US-Iranian détente. And I fear they will.




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Obamacare by the Numbers

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Let's say you were put in charge of Obamacare. It sounds like a daunting business — to provide affordable healthcare insurance for 30 million uninsured Americans. But what if you didn't have to make a profit and were handed $940 billion for giving your product away free to some customers and selling it at steep discounts to others? Throw in $5 billion more for web site development and a $700 million marketing budget to lure reluctant customers.

Too timid to give it a try? OK, let's double the size of the slush fund to $1.8 trillion, pass a law forcing everyone to buy health insurance, and write a regulation that makes the existing policies of perhaps 100 million Americans illegal. I know what you are thinking: even an idiot could sell healthcare insurance, at a discount, to people required by law to buy it. There must be a catch.

And you would be right. But the catch is not the intransigent website problems or greedy, uncooperative insurance companies or bitter Republicans with their feeble attempts to defund the program. The catch is Obamacare itself — an immense, overreaching, already tottering Rube Goldberg contraption that cannot possibly succeed, no matter how much money is thrown at it.

True, most of us would do a better job at salesmanship than President Obama, at least those of us with a couple of years of high school under our belts. We certainly wouldn't have lied to our customers, at least not as often. None of us would have botched the website. We would have had it working like a charm, on time, and for a small fraction of the cost of the three-year, $600 million hack job that still crashes regularly at every whim of its spaghetti code. The frugal among us would have had the insurance industry do it for free. Why not? Look at the profits insurance companies will receive from inflated Obamacare premiums — not to mention the revenues from more than 30 million new customers to be sent goosestepping their way.

Millions of people who thought they would get subsidies earn too little to qualify — another awkward messaging problem for Obamacare navigators.

Nevertheless, we too would fail. A secure, fully operational website will not help. Indeed, it will simply expose and magnify the defects of Obamacare more quickly. Delays to fix the rollout or extend the individual mandate will only postpone the inevitable. When Obamacare is finally deemed open for business, with its shiny, new "tech-surged" website at the floodgates, the deluge of customers qualifying for subsidies and free health insurance will no doubt be flawlessly processed. So too will be the trickle of paying customers. The numbers — provided by the government (the White House, Health and Human Services, the Congressional Budget Office [CBO]) and the insurance industry — are bad. They have always been bad; intentionally hidden or obscured, only to be dismissed as insignificant when becoming visible or clear. And, as emerging enrollment data and insurance cancellation notices reveal, they are getting worse. Much worse.

The paltry enrollment to date provides a mere glimpse of the actuarial havoc to come, as predominantly high-cost customers — the old, the sick, the poor, the unemployed, the desperate — flock to enroll, while the low-cost, young, and healthy customers stay away, as they should, in droves. For a plan purporting to rescue the uninsured by giving 51% of them free medical care and 39% of them subsidies, this should not be unexpected; nor should the shock that $1.8 trillion (already twice the estimate of the $940 billion celebrated only three years ago) is woefully inadequate. Always surprised, always last to know, Mr. Obama will soon be asking for more.

According to the CBO, Obamacare will reduce the number of uninsured by 14 million in 2014. This will be accomplished, courtesy of the individual mandate, by moving nine million uninsured into Medicaid and five million uninsured into the Obamacare exchanges. In addition, two million with "substandard" individual health insurance policies will be switched to the exchanges, creating a total of seven million Obamacare customers. With incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL), they will receive subsidies (averaging $5,290 in 2014) to make their new, government-mandated, "quality" health insurance "affordable." These seven million "partial-payers" will become America's next entitlement class. It will grow rapidly to 24 million by 2023. The average subsidy will also grow (to $7,900), costing taxpayers well over $1 trillion.

Of this initial seven million, 2.7 million must be healthy, in the 18-34 age range, and undaunted by the exorbitant premiums they will be charged to defray the cost of insuring the older and sicker. Snaring them will be no small feat. Apart from rate shock, there is the Obamacare provision that allows them to stay on a parent’s plan until age 26, shrinking the young Obamacare customer pool roughly by half.

People in the other half of the desired customer pool are told that they should be happy paying high rates today; they too will pay lower rates later, when they are old and need the benefits. Medicare is cited as a successful program exemplifying the beneficence of such inter-generational subsidization. It's an excellent example, ironically. Medicare is a program that pays benefits to the old, using taxes paid by the young, which is on track to become insolvent by 2026. This statement clearly applies to Obamacare, except that Obamacare premiums are extraordinarily higher than Medicare taxes and Obamacare will go broke long before 2026. Unfortunately, this poses a difficult messaging problem for Obamacare navigators, who will persuade few with the "Hey kid, sign right here. Sure you'll get screwed by Obamacare, but you're already getting screwed by Medicare" angle.

The nine million uninsured who are ushered into Medicaid are mostly childless adults living in poverty. They reside in the 26 states employing the Medicaid Expansion. When applying for Obamacare, they will be given Medicaid, right after being informed that they won't get a nickel in subsidy money. Alas, millions of people who thought they would get subsidies earn too little to qualify — another awkward messaging problem for Obamacare navigators, who, for example, must explain to an individual making $11,500 per year why he won't get a subsidy, while an individual down the block, making $24,000 a year, will get $1,500.

In apologizing for lying about the ability of people to keep their healthcare providers and plans, Mr. Obama lied again.

For residents of the 24 states that have not expanded Medicaid, HealthCare.gov blithely points out, "you may not have as many options for health coverage." If you are poor, your total number of options is one. And it's not good. For example, an Alabama resident with an annual income of $11,400 (99% FPL) must buy an Obamacare policy costing $3,030 per year, offset by a subsidy of $0.00. Where did the Obamacare wizards think that people with an annual income of $11,400 could come up with $3,030 for Obamacare, when even the $95 fine for declining it is beyond their reach?

The Obamacare Medicaid Expansion, projected to cost federal taxpayers $709 billion, will add 13 million Americans to Medicaid by 2023 — all nonpaying customers. Furthermore, it is likely that this group will consume its "free" healthcare at a much higher rate than normal. That is, the cost will be much greater than $709 billion.

Many of the two million previously insured are people who thought they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, if they liked them, period. They may find solace in not being the only ones to be fooled — as they are joined by millions of other individuals who have recently had their "substandard" health insurance plans cancelled. And let's not forget President Obama, the Democrats in both houses of Congress who passed Obamacare in March of 2010, and the tens of millions of other Americans who thought that Obamacare would also reduce the deficit, "bend the health care cost curve down," and shrink health insurance premiums by $2,500.

Amid the furor that he repeatedly and knowingly misled Americans with his incessant if-you-like-it-you-can-keep-it-period incantations, Mr. Obama submitted a most spurious apology (exquisitely characterized by Stephen Cox, in “What? When? Why?”). He expressed sorrow for those "finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me," right after dismissing the people receiving cancellations as "a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged."

But in June of 2010, the Obama administration knew that "66% of small employer plans and 45% of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013” and that 40 to 66% with individually-purchased plans would suffer the same fate. For three and a half years, therefore, the White House has anticipated that as many as 100 million could lose their policies — hardly a "small percentage of folks." That is, in apologizing for lying about the ability of people to keep their healthcare providers and plans, Mr. Obama lied again.

To date, over five million individuals have already received cancellation notices. Together with millions more who will receive them by the time the Obamacare website is fixed, they will rush to the Obamacare exchanges, which have subsidy money for only two million. Where will Mr. Obama get the money for this "train wreck"? Then there is the second, much bigger, wreck arriving next year, when the employer mandate kicks in. And how much money will be needed to bail out health insurance companies, whose profits will shrink or vanish if Obama's youthful fan base doesn't show up in numbers large enough to prevent the so-called adverse selection "death spiral"?

The fallout from this follow-on wreck will peak just before the 2014 elections. What then will Mr. Obama and Democrat candidates have to say about the disruption and premium increases caused by Obamacare? With the Obamacare rollout last October, outrage was expressed by Republican and independent voters, while Democrat voters were silent. But their support was only apparent; they were in a sullen Obamacare transition from infatuation to familiarity. Next October they will be among many of the 100 million new and angry Obamacare customers clamoring for subsidy money. Many will be employed by insurance companies clamoring for bailout money.

How surprised will President Obama be when he is finally notified of the anger and unrest of more than "a small percentage of folks"? Whom will he blame for the mess this time? Doctors and hospitals, for charging too much? The old and the sick, for being too old and sick? What will be his solutions? What will he say they will cost? Will anyone believe him, or care about anything he has to say?




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Kennedy and Communism

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On November 22, it will be 50 years since I sat in my typing-for-infants class and heard a radio voice coming over the PA system. “There are reports,” it said, “that shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas.” My teacher, a model of business efficiency, concluded very plausibly that someone in the principal’s office was playing around with the equipment. Unfortunately, she was wrong.

I can’t say that I regard Kennedy’s death as a world-historical event. He was a brighter and, to me, a much more interesting and sympathetic personality than his kinfolk or most of the other political figures of the time. Several times in his life he faced the virtual certainty of death, and faced it with courage and cheerfulness. He learned enough about economics to advocate a large tax cut that vastly increased the nation’s wealth. He also helped to get us into the Cuban missile crisis — and then rather skillfully got us out of it. I don’t know what he would have done about Vietnam. I do know that he fostered a cult of military masculinity (fifty-mile hikes!) that produced some very sorry thinking and acting. He believed that Robert McNamara was a real smart guy; he had a soft spot for can-do fools like that. The scion of a gangsterlike family, he plotted to make his brother Robert and then his brother Edward presidents after him. He lied habitually and outrageously about almost every aspect of his own life. He accepted the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write, and became angry when people suggested that he hadn’t written it. There is reason to believe that in 1960 he was able to defeat his good friend Richard Nixon because his allies in Texas and Illinois stuffed the ballot boxes for him. Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

About the assassination I have little to say. To my mind, David Ramsay Steele made a conclusive case for Oswald as the sole assassin; see his article in Liberty in November 2003. Since then, no evidence has been discovered that threatens Steele’s argument, and much analysis has confirmed it. I am bothered, however, by something closely connected with the assassination (but not with Kennedy himself), something that appears not to bother anyone else. It is a strange idea: the idea that communism was never of any significance in America; that either there weren’t any communists or they never really did much of anything (such as killing President Kennedy). Even intelligent and well-disposed people believe this.

Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

But of course there were communists, and they did lots of things. They were very busy bees. It’s not for nothing that the 1930s were once called the Red Decade in American intellectual life, or that a ton of intellectual autobiographies were written from the standpoint of “I was a communist although later I quit.” About communist influence in the popular media during the 1930s and 1940s, take a look at Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald and Allis Radosh — and even the Radoshes couldn’t get all the red influences into a book. In 1948, the Democratic Party was split by a conflict between anticommunists, communists, and communist stooges; out of it came the Progressive Party, an outfit managed by communists and their friends. Its presidential candidate was the former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace. In 1956, there were still American intellectuals fighting it out over the issue of whether Khrushchev should have trashed the memory of Stalin.

How does all this connect with Kennedy? The connection is that the person who shot him, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist activist. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and upon returning to the United States became a professional defender of Castro. He denied being “a communist” but proclaimed himself “a Marxist.” He had his picture taken holding a gun in one hand and militant literature in another; his wife wrote “Hunter of fascists” on the back of it. Oswald lay in wait for and attempted to murder Edwin Walker, a rightwing general. When the fervently anticommunist President Kennedy came to Dallas, Oswald succeeded in murdering him. Now, why do you think he did that? Do you think that communism might not have had something to do with it?

According to most conspiracy theories, however, Oswald either didn’t shoot Kennedy at all, or he was the least important member of a murder group that had nothing to do with communism. The theorists believe that Kennedy was murdered by rightwing CIA operatives, or rightwing oil companies, or rightwing militarists — anyone on the right will do. Even sensible people have trouble with the simple notion that Oswald was a freak for communism. Consider Fred Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post on November 14. Kaplan says that he himself, in his callow youth, accepted various conspiracy theories, only to discover that they weren’t decently based on fact. (I can say something similar about my own intellectual development.) But then he says:

The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives — and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read — first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air) — is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved.

“Really”? Do people talk this way about Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley because Czolgosz was an anarchist and McKinley wasn’t? Do people talk this way about Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield because Garfield failed to gratify Guiteau’s insane idea that he deserved to be appointed ambassador to France? Do people talk this way about John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln because Wilkes was a supporter of the Confederacy and Lincoln had just destroyed it? Do people talk this way about . . . oh, why go on? If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

The real mystery is why even well-meaning, well-educated Americans can’t just accept communism for what it was (and is): a political movement capable of interesting people and inspiring them, even inspiring them to violent action — which it has often praised and rewarded. Oswald killed Kennedy because Oswald was a communist, and acted up to it.

So silly is the cover-up-the-communists routine that the hosts of movies on my beloved Turner Classics are always alleging that someone was “blacklisted” or otherwise injured by “accusations” of communism, without ever wondering — just as a subject of curiosity, now that we’re discussing old so-and-so’s difficult life — whether he or she may actually have been a communist.

And speaking of cultural authorities, I recently (don’t ask me why) looked up the Wikipedia article on Ed Sullivan, the prune-faced impresario of early television song-and-dance shows, and discovered that its account of Sullivan’s life occupies itself mightily with the question of whether Sullivan excluded communists from his program. I have to admit that I am an agnostic on this grave moral issue. If I were Ed Sullivan, maybe I’d have had communists on my show, and maybe I wouldn’t have. I probably would have, if they were good enough dancers — but if you substitute “Nazis” for “communists” in this thought experiment, fewer people would say that my decision should be obvious. But look at what the Wikipedia entry says: “[A] guest who never appeared on the show because of the controversy surrounding him was legendary black singer-actor Paul Robeson, who . . . was undergoing his own troubles with the US entertainment industry's hunt for Communist sympathizers.”

If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

All right; I guess so. But Robeson didn’t need to be “hunted”; everybody knew where he was on the ideological spectrum. And his politics ensured that he had other troubles, of the intellectual and moral kind, troubles far worse than not getting on the Ed Sullivan show. The facts are simple. Robeson had a great voice. He could even act. He was also America’s best-known communist. He was proud of this morally repellent role. Accepting the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, he said, among many other things:

I have always insisted — and will insist, even more in the future on my right to tell the truth as I know it about the Soviet peoples: of their deep desires and hopes for peace, of their peaceful pursuits of reconstruction from the ravages of war, as in historic Stalingrad; and to tell of the heroic efforts of the friendly peoples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, great, new China and North Korea — to explain, to answer the endless falsehoods of the warmongering press with clarity and courage.

For Robeson’s tribute to the “deep kindliness and wisdom” of Joseph Stalin, go here.

Wikipedia’s own page on the “Political Views of Paul Robeson” does its best for him, but it concludes, “At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his beliefs in socialism or the Soviet Union nor did he ever express any disappointment in its leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Moreover, only a few sources out of hundreds interviewed and researched by two of his biographers Martin Duberman and Lloyd Brown agreed with the claims made in the mainstream media of Robeson's supposed embitterment over the USSR.”

Why bring these things up? Mainly because there’s a significant historical question at stake: were there communists or not, and were they important or not? That’s enough, but there are political reasons too. The abolition of communism from American history has been a way of arousing sympathy for the authoritarian Left and any ideas or people associated with it. It has been a way of keeping the Left from self-criticism, the kind of criticism that, one is given to believe, would automatically lead to such excesses as “witch-hunts” against “alleged communists.” Denying the presence of communism has been a way of obeying the old slogan, “No Enemies on the Left.” There is a danger here, similar to the danger of forgetting the sometime appeal of fascism.

This month witnessed another anniversary besides that of the Kennedy assassination. Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a man named Jim Jones engineered the murder-suicide of more than 900 people, mostly Americans, at Jonestown, Guyana. People think of Jones as some kind of offbeat Christian who got a little more offbeat. What he did is regarded as a warning against religious cultism. But he wasn’t, and it isn’t. Jones was a political agitator who used a pretense of religion — and it was a pretty feeble pretense — to sell what he called “revolutionary communism.” This approach enabled him to become a major player in San Francisco politics. Some of his fellow politicians covered up for him, ignoring or denying his communism; others were actually inspired by him — by his politics, not by his “religion.”

If you go to yet another Wikipedia page — “Peoples Temple” — you will learn a lot of things about this, although you won’t learn why the Jonestown episode isn’t seen as Americans’ most impressive and also most disastrous attempt to build a communist utopia. Yet the take-home message can still be found. It appears in the clichéd slogan that was posted behind the speaker’s stand from which Jones delivered his death decrees: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.”




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Lessons from November 2013

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Let’s look at three of the elections held on Nov. 6, and try to discern what they could be telling us about 2014 and ’16.

Virginia

In the Virginia gubernatorial race, a “DC swamp slime” (Democrat Terry McAuliffe) defeated a “crusading prude” (Republican Ken Cuccinelli). McAuliffe got 1,065,000 votes (48%) to Cuccinelli’s 1,010,000 (45%). The Libertarian Party candidate, Robert Sarvis, garnered 145,000 votes, or almost 7% of the total. Sarvis, a young and very well-educated man with business experience, stood head and shoulders above the two major party candidates in terms of policy, personality, and integrity. Given the cankerous quality of the two leading candidates, Sarvis ought to have done even better. His distant third-place finish reinforces the already well-established fact that American voters are pretty much addicted to the two-party system. If the Virginia electorate won’t rise up against the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli choice presented to them by the two established parties, what hope is there for the LP becoming a national force? (Equally telling is the fact that Rand Paul went to Virginia and campaigned for Cuccinelli, not Sarvis.)

Sarvis took more votes away from McAuliffe than from Cuccinelli. He did best among young voters (18–29 age group), taking 15% of that vote. He won 15% of independents, and 10% of self-described moderates. It’s unlikely, however, that 15% of Virginia’s young voters will continue, as they age, to support the LP. The thirties and beyond bring new life burdens and responsibilities such as parenthood, mortgages, and paying for college. Some and perhaps most of those young LP voters will morph into persons who look to government for help with their adult responsibilities. It’s easy for young people to vote LP when they have a social safety net — their parents — to fall back on.

The youth vote in Virginia should give Republicans pause. Cuccinelli won only 40% of voters 18-29. Advocating state intervention in people’s sex lives, as Cuccinelli has (on this see Andrew Ferguson’s Oct. 3 Liberty article, “Two Evils”) is not the way to win the votes of young people. Keeping social issues to the fore is a sure recipe for helping Democrats win elections in most parts of this country.

McAuliffe won among all income groups, with the single exception of those making between $50,000 and $100,000 (this group, of course, is the one that is most squeezed by taxes). McAuliffe’s margins were highest among those making under $30,000 per year (65%–28%), and those making over $200,000 (55%–39%).

Cuccinelli carried the male vote, 48%–45%; McAuliffe won women by 51%–42%. These figures mirror national trends. Cuccinelli, however, won a majority of married women. McAuliffe won handily among unmarried voters; he carried single men by 58%–33%, and single women by 67%–25%. These are worrisome figures for the Republican Party.

Cuccinelli won the white vote, 56%–36%, yet still lost the election. Whites make up 72% of the Virginia electorate. That percentage will continue to decline in Virginia as well as nationally. McAuliffe won 90% of the African-American vote.

Virginia is of course something of a special case. McAuliffe won big in northern Virginia. The Washington, D.C. suburbs, which contain a large number of government employees, carried him to victory. He also won the Tidewater region by a large majority. This area includes a sizable military population, and in the past has been kinder to Republicans than it was to Cuccinelli. Almost one third of Virginia’s voters said that someone in their household had been affected by the government shutdown. These people voted heavily for McAuliffe. Government employees and their dependents have turned Virginia from a red state into a purple one.

Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists.

But the problem for Republicans goes deeper than this. Demographic trends are turning the Old Dominion blue. Older white voters from rural areas no longer decide the winners in Virginia elections. Women and nonwhites are now the deciders, and Republicans in Virginia and across the nation are increasingly viewed with disfavor by both groups.

For the first time in 40 years, Virginia has elected a governor from the same party as the sitting president. The governor, the lieutenant governor, and both US senators are Democrats. Had the Republicans run a moderate against McAuliffe, they probably would have taken the governorship. But had the Democrats run just about anyone other than McAuliffe, that Democrat would have beaten any Republican. Republicans in Virginia should be worried — very worried.

New Jersey

Governor Chris Christie rolled to reelection with 60% of the vote. It’s surprising that he didn’t score even higher, given that the Democratic Party did little for its candidate. Christie got the attention of some analysts by carrying 57% of women and 50% of Hispanics. He even took 21% of the black vote. In the wake of the election, journalists and political junkies began speculating anew on the prospects of a Christie presidential run in 2016.

Yet the fact remains that Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina. A strategy based on New Hampshire-Florida-California doesn’t get Christie the nomination. Even if he somehow won the nomination, his prospects in the general election would be much iffier than most analysts appear to realize. His penchant for insulting people may work well for a New Jersey governor, but it’s not what most people want in a president. There are personal and ethical issues lurking in the background as well. A series of negative ads featuring Christie being Christie could have a devastating effect. The Democrats may have taken his measure already, which would account for their failure to try to drag down his majority in the election just past. Even New Jersey voters favor Hillary over their governor by 48–44. Christie may very well take the plunge in 2016, but one way or another his fate is likely to be the same as that of another New Jersey blimp — the Hindenburg.

Alabama: the establishment strikes back

A special Republican runoff election was held in Alabama’s 1st congressional district (the incumbent Republican resigned to take a position in the University of Alabama system). It pitted Chamber of Commerce-backed lawyer Bradley Byrne against Tea Partier and businessman Dean Young. The two candidates were neck and neck in the polls going into election day, but a late blizzard of spending by Byrne carried him to victory with almost 53% of the vote. National Tea Party organizations largely ignored the race, a tactical error that could mean the ebbing of Tea Party fortunes in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

The Chamber and other business organizations, as well as leaders of the establishment wing of the GOP, were energized by the government shutdown debacle. Since 2010 they had largely avoided confrontation, hoping to channel the radicals’ passion and energy into promoting establishment policies and goals. Prior to the shutdown, this dual track hypocrisy wasn’t working very well. Maintaining the dual track became impossible when Ted Cruz and Co. brought the federal behemoth to a halt for 16 days, a move that alienated wide swathes of the public, including many Republicans.

It remains to be seen whether the financial clout of the establishment can bring the Tea Party definitely into line. If the establishment fails in this the GOP will remain hopelessly divided between pragmatists and radicals, with electoral doom the result. Should it succeed, the Tea Partiers may just take their ball and go home, with electoral doom the result. To put it in another way, will the Tea Party accept more moderate policies in return for winning elections and gaining power? Centuries of political history tell us the answer is yes. But so far at least this grassroots movement has defied logic and convention. The GOP’s ability to remain a viable force in American politics is, therefore, uncertain.

What comes next?

Are the Democrats also staring into a pit of their own making? Just a month ago, things seemed to be going their way. The shutdown had obscured the botched rollout of Obamacare. The polls indicated widespread public disillusionment with the Republicans, who themselves seemed hopelessly divided. The October jobs number looked pretty good. Then came the second blow to Obamacare: several million people learned that the president’s promise, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it,” was a bald-faced lie.

The ripple effect was immediate and profound. Obama’s favorability rating, and that of his party, plummeted. Democrats in Congress started peeling off and calling for changes in the Affordable Care Act. Public faith in government action as a force for good took yet another hit, and a big one — something that can only hurt the party of government. Obama himself appeared pathetic as he tried to explain his playing fast and loose with the truth. Does this portend an unraveling of the Democratic Party, with major consequences for 2014 and ’16?

Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina.

Probably not. The Obamacare storm is likely to blow over. A return to the pre-Obamacare healthcare system would not mean healthcare bliss for most of the uninsured, for people with pre-existing conditions, for parents whose children are unemployed (official youth rate unemployment is currently around 15%) and therefore dependent upon them for healthcare. Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists. They want a certain amount of protection from the cold, cruel world and the powerful forces that inhabit it. The Republican Party, which is the party of less (though still big) government, has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Although it has a majority in the House of Representatives, it actually lost the total vote for Congress by five percentage points in 2012.

The Democrats have certainly been hurt to some extent. While they had very little chance of recapturing the House in 2014, any hopes in that direction have now been definitely dashed. The Senate, which appeared safe only a few weeks ago (despite many more vulnerable Democrats than Republicans being up for reelection), may now be in play again.

2014 may then turn out to be a better than expected year for Republicans, though by no means a repetition of 1994 or 2010. How much success the GOP has will depend largely upon whether its two wings can come together to fight the common enemy. Of course, many Tea Partiers view the establishment wing of the GOP as the other enemy; at this moment it seems doubtful that many of them will choose unity over ideological purity. To the extent that this proves true, Republican gains will be limited.

And so to 2016. Republican strategist Mike Murphy sees three strong (i.e., electable) presidential candidates in the Republican stable for 2016 — Chris Christie, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. I’ve already discussed the likely outcome of a Christie candidacy. Walker is not a national figure; he lacks the personality, drive, and money that would be required to make him one. This analyst would be flabbergasted if Walker made a splash outside the Great Lakes region.

Which leaves Bush. Should he run, the whole weight, financial and otherwise, of the GOP’s establishment wing will be behind him. His conservative credentials are superior to those of the two previous nominees. He has an attractive family, including a Mexican-American wife. Polls show that the public is gradually coming to have a more benign view of his brother’s disastrous presidency. All this indicates to me that he can win the GOP nomination for president, if he chooses to run.

An insurgent candidate representing the Tea Party wing — that is, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz — could score some surprising victories in the caucuses and primaries. He could even go all the way, in the absence of a heavyweight establishment candidate. But in that case the general election would end in Goldwater fashion.

The problem for the Republicans, even if united, is that their base of support is shrinking because of demographic trends. Voters who are white, married, and making between $50,000 and $150,000 per year will elect Republican candidates again and again and again. But this demographic is shrinking, while Democrat constituencies are growing. Attempting to combat this trend through voter suppression, as the Republicans have sought to do in many states, is both wrong and impractical. Somehow the GOP must broaden its appeal if it is to survive and prosper.

Hillary is probably the next president, unless she decides not to run. Any other Democrat could be vulnerable, depending upon how badly the Obama administration ends. In the absence of Hillary there is a small chance that Democrats will turn to a far-out candidate, such as Elizabeth Warren. A Warren candidacy would breathe new life into the Republicans.

It seems to me that either Hillary or Jeb will take the crown in 2016. Should both stand aside, we will be in for a very interesting campaign. In any case we should recognize that the best people rarely seek office, while government continues to grow bigger and more intrusive. This is a recipe for more bad things in our future. The decline of the Republic, which began in the mid-1960s (or, more precisely, at Dallas in 1963), will continue.




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Clueless in Seattle

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My hometown, Seattle, has probably elected a Marxist to the City Council.

I write more than a week after election day, and the outcome is still not certain. Washington votes entirely by mail, and counting ballots goes on for days. But the outcome seems more and more likely.

Seattle is the “bluest” part of King County, which is the bluest county in a blue state. The city’s longtime representative in Congress is Jim McDermott, apostle of single-payer health insurance. The city votes 85% Democrat.

Seattle does have a hard-left heritage, if you go back to the General Strike of 1919. More recently, it was in Seattle that anti-capitalist protesters tried to shut down the 1999 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, though not all the demonstrators were from here. They chanted the slogan, “This is what democracy looks like,” but it was a false claim. Democrats were what Seattle looked like, for years and years and years.

This is a city of mandatory recycling, of bike lanes and a ban on plastic bags. It was the center of Washington’s push to legalize marijuana. It tried, against state law, to ban guns in city parks. It has just elected as mayor Ed Murray, the Democratic leader in the state senate who pushed through the state’s same-sex marriage law and subsequently married his partner.

None of this quite prepares the city for a councilwoman the likes of Kshama Sawant.

Sawant appeared on the political radar a little more than a year ago. An immigrant from India, she was teaching economics at Seattle Central Community College, which had been a hotbed of anti-WTO activity in 1999. She filed for office as a Socialist Alternative candidate against state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, Democrat.

She held out the egalitarian ideal, he would hold out moves toward it, which she would depreciate as crumbs from the corporate cupboard.

Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, picked up her cause, suggesting that she also run as a write-in against the other representative in that district, Frank Chopp, Democrat. That was a brassy move: Chopp is the speaker of the House in Olympia, and at the time (when we had a female governor) he was the most powerful man in Olympia. He had a totally safe seat; Republicans had given up running candidates against him.

We have a top-two primary in Washington. Anyone can file for office and identify himself as “preferring” a party, or no party. The top two votegetters, however they identify themselves, go on to the November ballot.

Sawant made the top-two cut against Pedersen and Chopp. The law didn’t allow her to run against both, so she chose the speaker.

She challenged him to a debate. At this debate she blamed him for presiding over all the cuts to social programs the legislature had made during the recession. Chopp is a defender of those programs, and he responded that he had done his best to protect them. He had saved the funding for this one and that one; it was because of him, he said, that 95% of the children in the state had health insurance. Sawant replied that the speaker shouldn’t boast until all children had health insurance. Chopp invited the audience to work with him to provide for that 5%. On it went: she held out the egalitarian ideal, he would hold out moves toward it, which she would depreciate as crumbs from the corporate cupboard.

Chopp debated as a gentleman, an older white man careful of what he said about the younger woman. She was edgier. She had a brassiness alien to Seattle’s let’s-be-nice politics. Her followers, who dominated the debate audience, loved it.

Seattle has no Socialist party that amounts to anything. “Socialist” was a label she pinned to herself. Against the Speaker she took 29% of the vote, which is better than any Republican had done in several decades.

That was 2012. In 2013 she filed against Councilman Richard Conlin. It was a citywide race, because all council seats were at-large (though that has just changed).

Conlin has been a progressive. City government has an Office of Sustainability and Environment largely because of him. He pushed the ban on free plastic bags. Recently, though, he was the one holdout against the city’s ordinance mandating paid sick leave in private-sector employment — not because he disagreed with it in principle, he said, but because he disagreed with the details of it.

Council seats in Seattle are nonpartisan, but everyone knew Conlin was a Democrat; they were all Democrats. Conlin had the backing of most of the important unions, including the politically active Service Employees locals that were pushing a $15-wage ballot measure in the airport city of SeaTac. Conlin was backed by the Asian paper, the black paper, and the Seattle Times; by the Washington Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club; by just about every elected Democrat in the city.

Sawant’s most prominent endorser was Dan Savage, sex columnist at The Stranger. She had a few union locals (postal workers, school employees) and some organizations that sounded like unions (e.g., Transit Riders Union).

And she had grassroots support.

It wasn’t the socialism. Seattle has had plenty of socialists run for office — three others this year, if you count the communist who ran for the Port of Seattle commission. Mostly they just file and sit, raise no money and lose.

I talked to the communist. He said he had gone to hear Sawant speak, and was disappointed that her message was “pure populism.”

“She’s a Marxist,” I said.

“She says she is.”

Sawant wasn’t marketing workers’ revolution. She was advocating specific things: rent control, a tax on millionaires’ incomes (in a state with no income tax), and a $15 minimum wage.

In the richest county in Washington state, she raised more than $100,000 for her campaign. Of her largest donors, the most common occupation was software engineer. Her donors included engineers and other tech types at Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and F5 Networks.

Conlin more than doubled her amount. His war chest was to be expected. Hers wasn’t.

Her red yard signs far outnumbered his. An old political rule is that a yard sign should have no message other than the candidate’s name — a rule that never made sense to me, because such a sign would give no reason for supporting the candidate. Sawant’s signs broke the rule. They said, “$15 minimum wage.”

The gap between top and bottom earners makes a political difference, whether you think it does or not.

Washington already had a $9.19 minimum wage with a cost-of-living provision that would push it to $9.32 on Jan. 1, 2014. This is the highest minimum wage of any state. But the Seattle metro area also has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any US city and some of the highest costs. The economy is strong here. Median house prices have been rising strongly since the beginning of 2012, and have almost cracked $500,000 again. In the neighborhood of the Amazon headquarters a new studio apartment costs $1,500 a month. Obviously, prices are that high because some people can pay them, but there are many who cannot.

The income-equality issue doesn’t ring loudly to libertarians, who are content to respect whatever the market says. But the gap between top and bottom earners makes a political difference, whether you think it does or not. If that gap is not too wide, people will accept it. But it widens, decade after decade, and neither Republicans and Democrats do anything to stop it. The progressives talk about the middle class going away, which a gross exaggeration, but the proportion of new jobs that are middle-income is less than it was. Among recent graduates the technical ones do fine, some of them better than fine, but the political science and English lit grads are working in coffee shops and grocery stores, and they resent it.

They look to the left for political rescue, and in Seattle, the Democratic Party is not the left. It would feel like the left to most Americans, but here the Democratic Party is the establishment. Kshama Sawant is the left. Her cry is to “break the Democratic Party’s corporate domination of Seattle.”

Apparently, she has.


Editor's Note: On November 15, Sawant was declared the winner, with just over 50% of the vote.



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The Problem of “Voter Ignorance”

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At Cato Unbound, libertarian academics Jeffrey Friedman and Ilya Somin argue over the reason for voter ignorance. They agree that voters know pitifully little of political candidates and questions. Somin says it’s because voters are making a rational decision not to learn more. Friedman says it’s not a rational decision, but because voters think they know more than they do.

Both say it’s either-or. I don’t think it is, or that it much matters.

In the classic manner of debaters, each wants to define the other’s position narrowly and leave the indeterminate territory to himself. For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error.” For Friedman, Somin’s position is that voters are “deliberately underinforming themselves.”

Start with Somin. “Inadvertent” is a loaded term. It implies a voter who is trying reasonably hard but just messing up, again and again. That’s not really Friedman’s position.

If voter ignorance were “inadvertent,” Somin writes,“We could probably [reduce it] simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information.”

The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing.

Actually, the kind of political information Somin would want voters to have is complicated and detailed, whereas the information people absorbed about tobacco and AIDS was bumper-sticker simple: Quit smoking. Use a condom. The comparison is not apt.

On to Friedman. His terms “deliberately” and “underinforming” for Somin’s position are loaded, implying a voter who is consciously choosing to do what he knows is a poor job. And that’s not really Somin’s position.

Friedman tries to sink Somin’s “rational ignorance” with pure logic. He writes:

If voters can plug into Somin’s formulae even a vague estimate of the benefit of their party’s or candidate’s victory, then they must think that they know enough about this benefit to be able to base their vote on this knowledge. Somin and other political scientists may think that voters should know a lot more than they do, but voters seem to think, even in Somin’s account, that they know enough that they can roughly guess who to vote for. And that’s all they need to know if they are to falsify rational ignorance theory, for, according to the theory, they should be deliberately underinforming themselves. But if they did indeed deliberately underinform themselves (by their own standards), then, of necessity, they wouldn’t be able to calculate the benefits of voting, because they wouldn’t think that they could predict the benefits of a given candidate’s or party’s victory.

In other words, “rational ignorance” is an oxymoron. Friedman, too, is drawing a sharp line around his opponent’s position, making sure that common sense is outside it. But he is trying to win by definition.

This isn’t about definitions. It’s about why people do what they do. Well, think about average voters. It’s true that they make decisions on limited data (as do we all). They often don’t maximize the use of the data they have. I knew a journalist who made his livelihood thinking about public questions. He voted against John Kerry because Kerry reminded him of stuck-up frat boys. (At least that’s what he told me.) That’s not much of a reason to choose a president, but it’s common enough. Pollsters will tell you that many Americans vote for the candidate they think “cares about people like me” or is “not phony.”

That voters engage in this sort of Holden Caulfield-style ratiocination is not going to change. Is it “inadvertent”? To a certain extent. Is it “rational”? In the way Somin uses that word, sometimes. Most people know far less about public policy than the candidates they’re electing will need to know, and it’s not worth it to them to learn more, because they have other things taxing their brains. Do they know they don’t know a lot, as Somin says? Yeah. Do they think they know more than they do, as Friedman says? Probably, and for some of them, certainly. Are they “deliberately underinforming themselves”? Deliberate overstates it for most of them, just as rational does. Remember what the choices are: Kerry or Bush? Obama or Romney?

Friedman argues that Somin’s position requires that people understand their vote won’t decide the election, and that most voters don’t understand this. I think just about anyone will admit this if you corner them. But they don’t think of voting in those terms and they resent you cornering them about it. They are small-d democrats, proudly part of a country where the collective voice of the voters does count. As Friedman points out, they have been told since kindergarten that voting is good and that good people vote. It is part of who they are.

Does the Friedman-Somin dispute matter? Friedman says you can make a better case for a libertarian society if voters are ignorantly ignorant. If they’re rationally ignorant, he suggests, maybe you could make the state more powerful, and give voters more reason to pay attention to politics. In other words, people are not paying attention to A, B, C, and D, so let’s pile on E, F, G, H, and I.

Makes no sense to me.

Somin’s argument, above, that the ignorance Friedman posits would be easier to fix does not move me, either. It’s not going to be fixed either way. It’s a permanent condition.

Here is where I end up. The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing, like why he drove to the grocery store at 11 p.m. Thursday night. Here you are trying to explain why he did not do a thing, and there are a million reasons. He never thought of it. He was tired. He doesn’t like to read. He does, but he wanted to read up on the marijuana trade, or disposable razors, or the new trucks instead. He was rationally ignorant. He was irrationally ignorant. He was stoned. He assumed wrongly that he knew enough. He didn’t care whether he knew enough. His wife got sick. His dog got run over. He ate refried beans.




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Sand Shortage

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Milton Friedman's notion that "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there'd be a shortage of sand," has been borne out for decades in US energy policy. Sitting on top of the world's most prolific supply of oil, coal, and gas, every president since Richard Nixon has promised energy independence. The result: an energy dependence that led to the September 11 attack by Osama bin Laden.

With terrorism financed by oil revenues (Saudi Arabian, for the Sunni variety, and Iranian, for the Shiite variety), fretting terrorists evidently anticipated an oil shortage. Who could blame them? When the oil ran out, they would be left with sand. Disconcerted, therefore, by America's voracious energy appetite, bin Laden complained, "Muslims are starving to death and the United States is stealing their oil." That, and our military presence in the Arabian peninsula, provoked his famous 1998 fatwa, exhorting God-fearing Muslims "to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

But Muslims were not starving because of US oil theft. We paid a fair market price of untold trillions (plus an annual premium of $30–60 billion in taxes to protect the Persian Gulf, even before 9/11). Hunger — along with poverty, ignorance, disease, violence, and despair, to name a few other maladies common to the region — was the result of Muslim governments put in charge of the oil fields.

In the early 1900s, when oil was first discovered in the Middle East, the Muslim world had been in decline from its former greatness for over 100 years. Defying the principles of free market capitalism, and at least a few laws of probability, Muslim political leaders managing Muslim oil — the greatest single source of naturally conferred, easily accessible wealth in the 20th century — extended the decline for another 100 years.

Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500?

The descent of Muslim military power, economic strength, and scientific leadership began, ironically, around the time the American republic was born and Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. The subsequent adoption of democracy and capitalism by the US and European nations produced immense prosperity and an ever-widening gap between the West and the Muslim world. Today, by any meaningful measure of achievement, Muslim countries lag dramatically behind the West. During a 2010 interview on Al-Arabiya Television, Saudi scholar, Ahmad bin Baz (the son of the former Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Baz), explained,

We Muslims have found ourselves at the tail end of the world's progress. The Muslims are always on the receiving end, and their only role in life is to receive from others. Western society has become the society of innovations. It is Western society that produces and adapts itself to the changes of life, whereas we Muslims have become passive recipients of all these innovations, and all we do is sit down and ponder whether these innovations are permitted or forbidden by Islam.

Muslim leaders are no doubt perplexed by their abysmal failure to rejuvenate Islamic civilization. Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500? Why has the terrorism of Islamists (i.e., religious tyrants from organizations such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nation of Iran) been so slow to advance the Muslim cause? What other strategy might invigorate Muslim innovation, should corruption, cronyism, intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny fail?

Give up? Here's a clue: it involves neither democracy nor capitalism. Instead, some Islamist intellectuals have decided that the future of Islam lies in a global Caliphate. They even have annual conferences for indulging in the fantasy. A promotional video for "Caliphate Conference 2012" proclaimed that "the Islamic Caliphate is the only social and political system that has the right solutions to the political, social and economic problems of humanity" and asserted that "the relentless decline of Capitalism has begun. The time has come to fight against poverty. Time to obliterate the injustices. Time for the correct system."

While the precise architecture of the "correct system" is a little sketchy, many of its core concepts — common bonding tenets, mandatory for all self-respecting Islamist intellectuals — are well known. These include (a) totalitarianism, masquerading as religion, (b) absolute rule by Sharia law, the legal codification of the Quran, (c) hatred of Jews, (d) blame to Jews (for caliphate failures), and, of course, (e) death to Israel.

When (or if) the Caliphate begins its transition from a pan-Islamic state to a global empire, the failures produced by the spreading dystopia and cultural havoc will be too numerous and varied to indict Jews alone. Thus, Islamists can be expected to add Christians and other infidels to (d) above.

As a surprise to Israel (not to mention the residents of cities such as Mecca, Damascus, and Cairo), Jerusalem will be the capital of the Caliphate. And as a surprise to capitalism (not to mention the billions of people it has lifted from poverty, more people than any other economic system in the history of mankind), it will be blamed for the world's poverty. Add “Capitalism” to (c) and (d).

A Sunni (al Qaeda) version of the Caliphate is scheduled to be victorious by 2020, right after four years of the "final battles against nonbelievers." However, given the pace at which Iran is developing its nuclear weapons, a Shiite version may be established sooner — unless, of course, al Qaeda steals its nuclear capability from a crumbling and sympathetic Pakistan. Picking a winner is troublesome, as is the idea of a Shiite theocracy having a nuclear bomb among its weapons and a “Death to America Day” among its holidays. Foreign policy experts tell us that Iran seeks its nuclear capability to gain a seat at the table of power. On the other hand, says former CIA director James Woolsey, al Qaeda simply wants to "blow the table up." It's a safe bet that “America” can be added to (c), (d), and (e).

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region.

America's hedonistic culture mocks the "purity" of Mohammed-era ideals. The conspicuous progress of American capitalism undermines Islamist efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity. To the more eager Caliphate builders, the salve for this incessant irritation might be an EMP attack. A small (1 KT) nuclear weapon or two, detonated at an altitude of as low as 40 km, would destroy our infrastructure (power, communications, transportation, etc.) and, as a bonus, instantaneously fry our blasphemy-spewing smartphones, TVs, radios, and other electronic devices. According to the 2008 “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack,” its effect would be “something you might imagine life to be like around the late 1800s" — not the 7th century, but a start.

If the Islamists prevail, their caliphate will be the first since the previous Islamic Caliphate was dissolved by Kemal Atatürk in 1924, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Islamists are nothing if not ambitious, and patient.

That patience is about to be tested. Thanks to capitalism, America is now in the early stages of an oil and gas boom, despite all efforts by our federal energy intellectuals to stifle fossil fuel production. As Gary Jason pointed out in A Totally Fracked Planet, "We will reach energy independence in the not too distant future, thanks not to any corrupt crony green energy industry (solar, wind, ethanol, or biodiesel) but to the vast resources of shale oil and gas made available by advanced fracking technology." Privately owned US companies, employing innovative drilling techniques and private capital, on mostly private land, have made the US the fastest growing oil and natural gas producer in the world. The US is expected to be independent of all foreign oil, except for oil imported from Canada, by 2018.

During the last ten years, capitalism has been turning our long dependence on Middle East oil into little more than a bad memory of the 40 years of feckless policies concocted by our federal energy stewards. And it will turn the dream of Islamists into a nightmare. Try running a totalitarian state on oil revenues, when Brent crude drops from today's price of $110 per barrel to $70 by the end of the decade. What will Caliphate Conference 2020 have to say about world domination when dwindling Saudi Arabian and Iranian terrorism contributions squeeze prospective caliphate budgets to nothing?

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region. He may have pondered over the use of sand when the oil beneath it ran out. Perhaps he recognized that excessive reliance on oil was the real source of the Middle East plight — that all the while, Muslims were more dependent on their oil than Americans. If Muslim leaders meted out freedom and opportunity, instead of crumbs from the table of oil revenue, economic diversity would result. Industries such as manufacturing, banking, tourism, and agriculture would expand and thrive. Who knows? As America becomes the new Middle East, the Middle East could become the next Silicon Valley, creating thousands of companies, millions of jobs, billions in tax revenues, and trillions in profits to shareholders— as it did here, in capitalist America. Why not? Unless you are an Islamist, there is no reason to believe that Middle Eastern Muslims are not as intelligent, industrious, and ambitious as American Muslims.

Meanwhile, according to an NBC News series on the economic and political ramifications of the American oil and gas bonanza, things will be looking up in America. Lower energy costs are making American businesses more profitable and competitive. New and better jobs are being created. With lower product prices and rising incomes, our standard of living will increase. And we will buy unprecedented quantities of any blasphemy-spewing, Islamist-mocking semiconductor devices Silicon Valley can invent. Semiconductors, by the way, are made from silicon, which is, in turn, fabricated from silicon dioxide — aka, sand.




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