Two Evils

 | 

In odd-numbered years, there’s rarely much at stake electorally. One of the very few races of note in 2013 is in Virginia, where the gubernatorial race pits Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli against former Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe. Both are odious; even among loyal party-line voters there will be very few unheld noses at the polls.

It was McAuliffe, you may recall, who pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to the most toxic corporations and associations — arms manufacturers, polluters, real estate shysters — for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors down the line. It was McAuliffe, as well, who masterminded the infamous “Buddhist temple” (read: Chinese government) fundraisers for Clinton’s reelection, as well as brokering face time with the president and first lady, even sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom — for the right price.

After a public falling-out with Al Gore over the latter’s botched 2000 campaign (one of McAuliffe’s few good points is seeing Gore for the sanctimonious hypocrite he was and always had been), McAuliffe took over at the DNC as the party received its biggest gift in years: the presidency of George W. Bush. However, despite his undeniably effective, undeniably dirty fundraising, he could not oust Bush from office. After running Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid into the ground, McAuliffe was out of national politics; “the best fundraiser in history” — as Gore himself had said in happier times — had lost his touch. Since he clearly had no intention of just going away, that left only one option: state politics.

In 2009, McAuliffe ran for governor of Virginia — though “ran” is probably the wrong phrasing; more accurate to say “fell flat on his face.” McAuliffe tried to ingratiate himself with the electorate by visiting “every corner” of the state, but he was only ever going to be regarded as a creature of the DC suburbs, a potentate of the despised northern counties. McAuliffe didn’t even make the general election; instead, he got thumped in the primaries by a state senator, Creigh Deeds, who would go on to lose handily to then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

McAuliffe pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to toxic corporations and associations for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors.

And yet, despite all of this baggage, McAuliffe is running again in 2013, and to this point with a slight lead (4 to 6% in most polls) over his Republican competitor. Certainly McAuliffe hasn’t become any better of a candidate in the last four years. What could explain this shift in fortunes?

A few things. First, there is the ongoing, literal shift in fortunes toward the DC suburbs. Much of the wealth extracted by the federal government in recent decades has sloshed into northern Virginia, drawing lobbyists, bureaucrats, and other parasites who make their living off of others’. According to Forbes, half of the richest counties in America, as measured by per-capita income, lie in northern Virginia. The prosperity of these communities (not to mention their extravagant school systems, lavish pensions, and gold-plated healthcare plans) depends on the continuing bloat of the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and any number of other agencies situated there. They are as establishment as it is possible to be; they will support anyone and anything that maintains their privileged position — and McAuliffe is all about privilege and position.

Second, the Virginia Republicans are much weaker and more fragmented than they were last time around. In 2009, Bob McDonnell benefited from the ongoing recession, building a successful campaign around a pro-business message and, in the process, bringing the state’s social conservatives (who were behind him no matter what) together with its fiscal ones. However, once in office McDonnell quickly became enmeshed in corporate kickback scandals, culminating in criminal investigations into the governor’s alleged acceptance of gifts totaling upwards of $140,000. McDonnell also alienated the social libertarians among his base by breaking sharply right on several social issues, especially abortion (requiring an ultrasound prior to the procedure) and gay rights (blocking legislation extending health coverage to same-sex partners). With McDonnell blocked from running for reelection by Virginia statute — and potentially also by criminal conviction — the task of keeping the coalition together now falls to AG Cuccinelli.

Which brings me to point the third, Ken Cuccinelli himself. A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion. He’s fought rearguard battles in favor of anti-sodomy and even anti-adultery laws, opposed any attempt to end discrimination against gays in public (note: as opposed to private) hiring, created a human trafficking taskforce with the intent and effect of cracking down on prostitution, pushed abstinence-only sex ed, and tried to give police and school administrators the power to search students’ cellphones to prevent sexting.

He has also — and he wasted his own money on this, so it’s in no way unconstitutional, but nonetheless telling — made up his own version of Virginia’s state seal, which features the Roman goddess Virtus, a personification of virtue, wearing a tunic that leaves one breast exposed, as she stands victorious over the vanquished Tyrannus. Never mind that a single exposed breast is often taken to signify modesty — even unobtainability. Never mind that the state’s own description for the seal states that Virtus is dressed in “Amazon” style; i.e., semi-robed. No, for Cuccinelli, as for all prigs, all flesh is prurient; therefore, he devised a seal with a breastplate to conceal the offending teat. If virtue is to conquer tyrants, she better do so in a PG manner.

As with any ideological conservative, Cuccinelli has his good points: he’s fought against eminent domain abuse, and he’s staunchly anti-tax, even leading the fight against a generally bipartisan gasoline tax increase. But stack against that his anti-immigrant stances, such as support for a “papers, please” law allowing police to investigate the residency status of any suspected illegal, as well as for language tests for laid-off workersseeking unemployment benefits. And add in also his embarrassing lawsuit against the University of Virginia relating to research performed on global climate change: Cuccinelli asserted that such research amounted to “fraud” against the taxpayers. Whatever your views on the subject, the prospect of a state’s attorney general wasting huge amounts on court costs in order to meddle with university research should prove chilling, and would have provided a fearsome precedent.

A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion.

So Virginia’s voters must choose between the DC swamp slime, and the crusading prude — and these are the images that are drilled into their heads, over and over again, during every television and radio broadcast, on every website, in every newspaper, on every street corner, on and on and on and on. Huge amounts of money assure that this saturation will only get worse: McAuliffe’s taken in $20 million, Cuccinelli more than $13 million; every dollar’s being put to use in shouting at voters, telling them in so many words how the other guy is a scumbag, a misogynist, a bigot, a stooge; certainly unfit to take on the job presently occupied by a(n alleged) crook, and by many other crooks before him.

And the thing is, they’re each right about the other’s unworthiness.Little wonder that the two are polling between 80 and 85% combined in most polls, with huge portions of the electorate undecided, or at least unwilling to commit to either one.

What’s interesting is that, when Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is included in these polls, he regularly pulls 8–10%. Sarvis’ campaign has been run on shoestrings: by the end of August he’d raised about $60,000, and spent only $45,000 of it. But I’d wager that by the next count, that number will have at least doubled: Sarvis is making good use of his intermittent time in the spotlight, hovering around the showing off his photogenic family, making a case for libertarianism both socially (gay marriage, drug reform) and fiscally (anti-tax, anti-subsidy and other manifestations of crony capitalism).

Sarvis has elaborated these positions while hanging around outside the interminable statewide series of debates between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, debates to which he, as a third-party candidate, has not been invited. But that may change. On October 24 there is a debate scheduled in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech, with a ground rule that any candidate polling 10% in “major independent statewide polls” can participate. Cuccinelli, showing himself an abject coward, has requested that this bar be raised, to make it in effect impossible for Sarvis to participate. McAuliffe, knowing full well that Sarvis will take more votes out of the Republicans’ hide than the Democrats’, has already signed on, and I would speculate might even provide background support to help Sarvis reach or maintain the required numbers, and then dare Cuccinelli to back out of an event that the attorney general himself requested.

I don’t know what kind of debater Sarvis is, especially when placed up against two able manipulators of rhetoric. But he starts with the advantage of not being either one of them, so there’s every chance his message could be heard. On the other hand, Cuccinelli could prevail, succeeding in getting Sarvis barred from the event with the usual tack of snobbish bluster. If so, then Sarvis will definitely continue to get interviews — McAuliffe will make sure of that — but will lose the chance at a live audience.

Whatever happens, Sarvis has succeeded in injecting something approaching interest into this most dire of elections. Where once the only enjoyment available was looking forward to either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe losing, and savoring the schadenfreude of the concession speech — and there still will be that; my God, how I’m looking forward to watching one or the other spit out the words of defeat while having to drum up at least the pretense of respect for his opponent — now there is also the hope that a message of freedom might make its way into at least a few new hearts and heads.



Share This


Critical Thinking

 | 

Government is the froth that floats on the surface of a fluid. That fluid is the culture. The dirtier it is, the dirtier the froth it generates.

As a kid growing up in India, I always found that local goons, tyrants, sociopaths, and freeloaders emerged spontaneously, almost in direct proportion to the quality of the social environment in which they appeared. If you got rid of them, they soon reemerged. There was no way to avoid the emergence of goons, unless the underlying culture was addressed. This was invariably true, even if a vast majority of people opposed those goons, for the existence of goons is correlated not with people’s conscious views about them but with people’s own character, with the general culture.

As American society degenerates, its politics degenerate in direct proportion. Improvement in culture must precede any improvement in the quality of our politics. I have no prescription for how to improve the culture, but I do have an opinion about how people are mentally enslaved.

I have been to about 60 countries and have lived in four of them. Other people travel the world to see the world. I travel the world to use it as a mirror, to understand myself. Twenty-three years ago, when I left India for the first time, I decided to stop eating Indian food. I stopped having Indian friends. I did not want to have anything to do with India. I hated it.

Alas, I have left India but India hasn’t left me. I am still recovering from the indoctrination, conditioning, and irrationality of the culture I grew up in. This has been the case despite the fact that I have revolted against authority and irrationality for as long as I can remember. That is the grasp of indoctrination on the psyche.

Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

People often think that the problem of India is its government. Sane investors and Western institutions keep insisting that India should focus on some very simple, basic issues: build up infrastructure, make the bureaucracy more responsive, control inflation, remove unnecessary regulations, provide better schooling and primary healthcare, and better law and order. They believe that addressing these issues would have an extremely high-leveraged effect on the Indian economy. But while these policy suggestions appear simple and rational, they never stick.

Even in these days of technology, more than 50% of India’s population has no access to toilets. People must go in the open to defecate. A rational investor might think that investment in some very basic communal sanitation would yield significant results in months, if not weeks. But this never happens. The same rational person has been saying for over two decades that given democracy and an English speaking population, India will eventually overtake China. The reality is that not too long back India had a higher per capita GDP than China. Today, an average Chinese is four times richer than an average Indian. And the Chinese economy continues to grow much faster than the Indian.

The problem is that the so-called rational person, often blinded by political correctness, looks at India in a very superficial way. He fails to understand the philosophical underpinnings that guide the Indian society.

The situation is not too dissimilar to that of a health fanatic suggesting to an obese person that he must reduce his sugar consumption and smoking. To the fanatic, the prescription looks easy and simple; to the obese person, it does not. It is hard for the prescription to stick unless the obese man addresses his deeper problems. Moreover, if the fat man does stop consuming sugar and smoking, the health fanatic will soon be likely to discover that the target of his advice is now consuming other bad things — more alcohol, more carbohydrates, more something. For the problem truly to be addressed, one must go to the source. Similarly, what look like simple policy prescriptions that India must follow consistently fail to produce results.

The problem of India is not its government. Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

A lot of what you and I perceive as corruption is not what the Indian society sees. Morality is relative, and mostly based on expediency. There are common expressions in India such as “you can only scoop butter with a crooked finger,” which is basically a rationalization for crookedness. Another is that “Dharma [religion] is for the temple.” This suggests that you can forget about morality once you are outside the temple precincts. Indeed, India has never been through the age of reason or the age of enlightenment. In many ways the mindset is still very medieval. It is grossly lacking in rational philosophical anchors. To top it all, Indian culture seriously discourages critical thinking, thereby ensuring that dogma and superstition stay in place.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions.

In a relatively capitalist country such as America, rational people can see what causes what effects. The more socialist a society becomes, the more the path from causes to effects becomes convoluted and difficult to understand. The minds of those who grow up in such a culture are an entangled web, embedded with corrupted instincts. If you become aware of your own mental tangle — which is very, very unlikely — and you try to undo the damage, you cause yourself more mental difficulties, because every thinking pattern that you try to straighten out conflicts with several others, and you must suffer for decades dealing with it.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions. During the winter season, my school, instead of starting later in the morning, started even earlier. In winter I had to wake up at four in the morning, for no apparent reason. If we enjoyed any particular subject, the teachers ensured that the enjoyment would not last. They would beat us for exactly the same reason that led them to praise us on another day. If one kid did something wrong, the teacher would beat everyone. To avoid this, if you told the teacher who was the wrongdoer, she would beat you for snitching. And then of course we could be beaten for not snitching, on a later occasion. This is not just about the teachers but about how people in the surrounding society interacted with one another.

You grow up utterly confused and cloudy in your thinking, with an uncertain sense of causality. Your mind then becomes capable of absorbing all sorts of garbage, irrational and contradictory beliefs, and superstitions. Your eyes and senses no longer experience the truth as they are designed to see it.

You are forced to respect authority, not virtues; and the result is you become incapable of differentiating between right and wrong. You become extremely gullible. You speak what sounds good, not what is true. Speaking the truth for the sake of speaking the truth was a revelation to me when I arrived in the West. Our elders told us always to speak the truth, in the same way in which they gave us the concept of not worrying about the concept of morality outside the temple, and we parroted the saying, because it sounded good. But it had no significance apart from making us hypocritical. Critical thinking was washed away in dogma and authority.

The system cripples you mentally. Even if a vast majority of superstitious and hypocritical people consciously oppose the state and how it is run, it will still exist, for the anti-nutrients that feed the state do not come from people’s vote but from their character.

Adults face the same system as the children. A collectivist system — as in India — detaches people from the consequences of their actions. The feedback people receive in their interactions with society contradicts the truth of how the world works, because the costs get socialized while the gains do not. Trickery and heavy handedness seem to work, with those at the receiving end having no recourse to retribution. Bad behaviour goes unchallenged and never registers in the core of one’s being as “bad.” Real wealth creation in such a system feels like an unnecessary hassle with little economic advantage to be gained from it. From an individual’s point of view, time and capital may be better spent elsewhere. Political connections and “bribes” look like much more efficient ways to make money.

You become dull, apathetic, and mostly non-thinking. A trillion fights keep happening in your brain, with no rational means of resolving them. You are left with no confidence, because everything you see or believe is a floating abstraction, often in conflict with what your senses appear to tell you.

Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

It is important to distinguish the collectivism of Mao’s China from that of India. In China, the individual and his survival was in conflict with the state. In contrast, in the case of India, collectivism has been made a part of the individual’s DNA. In such a society, what individuals tend to do is exactly more of what created the original problem. Indians are very impervious to rational suggestions, and one must expect to face massive verbal attacks if one tries to extricate them from their mental slavery.

Judging from the way in which societies have historically worked, at one point India must collapse under the weight of its irrationalities and break into smaller pieces. Of course, this transition will not be easy and not without huge strife. Some of it has already been seen in the religious strife that rent the country at independence, and that still manifests itself, sometimes in acute forms.

Some might think that what happens in India will never happen in the US.

To respond to that I must again go back 23 years, to the time when I first arrived in the West. The airport was a happy place. The immigration officer addressed me as “Sir.” I looked around to make sure that he was addressing me. How could a government officer not treat me like garbage? In those days airport security was courteous and prompt for most Western people. But what would have been impossible to imagine then is now common and acceptable. Security now has no inhibitions about asking even old ladies to strip off their clothes. And alas, people gladly do that. In Canada, where you don’t have to take your shoes off before going through scanners at airports, most people do anyway. In just 23 years, I have seen North Americans increasingly groveling before the ever-more-mindless bureaucrats.

Western people endlessly worry about real or perceived discrimination. They worry about segregating their garbage and about ensuring that they buy so called fair trade coffee. They discuss the issue of sweatshops in faraway countries, about which they have absolutely no clue. “Everyone should have the right to free healthcare and a living wage,” they say. Political correctness forbids Americans to discuss any possible fallacies in these one-dimensional views.

How the Indian grows up muddled in thinking is different from how the American psyche is being muddled — but assuredly it is being muddled. In India we were made unreasonable by fear, irrational feedbacks, and mental self-numbing. In America, the self-esteem movement wants adults to provide “positive feedback” to kids even if they are not doing well. Doesn’t this confuse their understanding of causality? Aren’t they made irrational, in a feel-good way? Through love and warmth, kids in the West are, for instance, induced to swallow politically correct positions on the environment — something they don’t have the data or the competence to understand. Doesn’t this impede critical thinking? Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

Orwell’s 1984 is likely the later stage of collectivism, as is the case with India, but Huxley’s Brave New World is likely the earlier stage, as is the case in the West. The mental virus that afflicts Indians now increasingly afflicts those in the West.

Apathy has rapidly sunk its deep roots here. What is happening to Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning has been reduced to an orgy of public entertainment. Irrespective of the merit of their cases, should Snowden return to the US to face “due process” when Bin Laden was killed and dumped in the ocean and when the prison at Guantanamo Bay continues to run? Similar cases a few decades back would have probably have brought a change in the US government. Even civil libertarians talk about why the NSA should not be spying on American citizens or why the president should not have the right to pass executive orders to kill Americans. But, what about non-Americans? Are they not human beings? Are their lives and privacy not important? Try discussing these issues, and Americans will start going around in circles and start responding irrationally, not unlike the way Indians do. “Due process” and “the rule of law” were seen as very fundamental to the Western civilisation. In an era of expediency, they are still much talked about but are getting increasingly diluted in their moral essence.

Americans are impressed when they hear that many women in the poor parts of the world do not have a sense of self or of an independent existence. They do not reflect that they themselves are slaves for more than half of their lives, paying taxes and following stupid regulations. They fail to see any connection. It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Collectivism is increasingly present in the DNA of those in the West. Individuals in the West are likely to keep doing more of exactly the same things that created the initial problems, slowly retracing their steps, back to the medieval period. Will the West become another India? I would not be surprised at all.

It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Obama and Bush, however criminally minded they may be, are only symptoms of problems. The problem lies in the current state of the Western culture. In my view the danger is not the tens of trillions of dollars of Western governmental debt but the process of cultural degeneration in which reason and evidence are replaced by dogma and unverified belief systems are protected by a lack of critical thinking.

Lack of liberty is the result of a lack of freedom within our minds. Our conscious search for liberty will be futile if we fail to address our deeper mental constructs. Only a rare human being would claim not to want to be free, yet many people who claim to want freedom exist in wretchedness and slavery. The good thing is that bureaucrats and politicians, the purveyors of collectivism, are often lazy and stupid. They have no power that the culture does not give them. They will wither away or take to begging on the streets if we as people give up the virus of irrationality and take to critical thinking.




Share This


Obama’s Syrian Folly

 | 

President Obama is about to ask Congress to endorse military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Over the past week momentum has been building against the Obama policy of airstrikes to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians. It’s not that the case against the Assad regime is weak. On the contrary, it is clear that sarin was used by regime forces at Ghouta near Damascus on August 21, killing hundreds of civilians including children. (It is not known whether Assad personally ordered the use of gas, but it is virtually certain that his forces, and not the Syrian rebels, are responsible for the August 21 attack.) But a war-weary American citizenry simply sees no compelling reason to start yet another war in the Middle East. The atrocity in Ghouta does not rise above the many ghastly events that occur around the world on an almost daily basis. I have mentioned before in this space that some 7 million people have been killed in the Congo since civil war broke out there in 1996, and yet America has done nothing to stop the killing. Why then is Obama so keen to avenge what in comparison is a small-scale atrocity in Syria?

We should be clear that the president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility. In 2012 he foolishly called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that al-Assad must not cross. At Ghouta his bluff was called. Undoubtedly he now feels that he must strike in order to restore respect for himself and the nation he leads. He has in recent months been dissed by China (over hacking and other matters), Russia (over Edward Snowden), and Britain (where Parliament voted down a government proposal to join the US in attacking Syria). As Obama sees it, to do nothing would only further erode what remains of the respect he commands on the world stage.

A second reason for the strike is the misguided humanitarianism of the president and his closest advisors, particularly National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry. This past weekend Kerry bloviated ad nauseam about Bill Clinton’s regret over not intervening to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. Rice is known to believe in military action to fulfill humanitarian goals. Leaving aside the fact that there are more humanitarian crises in the world than we have forces to deploy on such missions, there is in fact no reason whatsoever to believe that lobbing a few cruise missiles into Syria will alleviate the suffering there. It may, in fact, increase suffering by intensifying and spreading the conflict. Al-Assad’s Shiite allies in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon have indicated that US and other targets in the Middle East and perhaps beyond will be hit if we act against Syria. Are they bluffing? Perhaps. But do we want to find out, given that we have already exhausted ourselves fighting terrorists and others over the past dozen years?

The president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility.

Russia has said that it will provide advanced weaponry to Syria in the event the US goes to war. Such a move could lead to additional US strikes to knock out Syria’s augmented defenses. A spiraling escalation of the conflict, while unlikely, should not be discounted. Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

The US and the new government in Iran have been talking behind the scenes about negotiating an end to the nuclear issue that has divided them for years. The prospect of ending the danger of war in the Persian Gulf, of avoiding yet more American blood and treasure spent, will be thrown away if we attack Syria.

In recent days world opinion as well as opinion here at home has turned decisively against the idea of US intervention in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the US Congress will find the courage to stand up to the president. Obama shrewdly asked Congress for authorization to strike, which places the burden of responsibility equally on its shoulders. The leadership of both parties appears to be “on board.” A certain amount of obfuscation has been used by the administration to persuade the leadership to support war. House Speaker John Boehner and others have been told that the strikes will be limited, that we will basically be sending Assad a message. At the same time, Senate hawks were told that the strikes will be more extensive and punishing. Its prestidigitation may come back to haunt the administration in the near future, assuming that Congress does vote for war.

We will soon know whether members will follow the leadership down the primrose path. At present, members see their constituents opposing war by 10-to-1 and even 100-to-1 margins. Most of them will await the president’s speech to the nation on Tuesday to see whether the political winds shift. Opponents of war on the far Left and far Right will vote their consciences; most of the rest will vote according to what’s best for them politically. Much therefore rides on Obama’s performance Tuesday. If his speech is well received, congressional authorization will be assured, and the missiles will fly soon thereafter. For what it’s worth, this analyst is convinced that Congress will vote to authorize war.

One hopes that the strikes will be limited, and that we will then declare that Assad has been taught a lesson, followed by a return to the status quo ante. Syria’s allies will choose not to act, and the war will not spread. But in the past few days the Defense Department has expanded its list of targets, some of which will require attacks by strike aircraft. An air campaign stretching out for days or possibly even weeks could be in the offing. Such an expanded campaign is more likely to provoke a response from Syria and Syria’s friends. A longer, messier intervention by US forces could conceivably devolve into a regional war. If events spin out of control, the possibility of boots on the ground cannot be excluded.

Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

It’s pretty clear that the military dreads such a possibility. On Sept. 5 Major General Robert Scales (ret.) published a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post opposing Obama’s march to war. Within the last two days I have spoken to a retired Army colonel and a captain in the Army Reserves. Both feel Syria would be the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The colonel in particular, a former brigade commander, spoke passionately about the need for the Army to recuperate from a dozen years of war. He told me that in his opinion, the Army is “broken,” pointing to the rise in suicides and the epidemic of sexual assault as sure proof of this. He would not exclude the possibility that another war now might end in defeat and a complete breakdown of the force.

A certain feeling of dread overhangs the movement toward war. US public and world opinion are strongly against any US action, allies are falling away, and enemies seem prepared to retaliate. The Congress is likely to endorse the war nonetheless. And the administration seems determined, come what may, to strike. Perhaps the event will prove less dramatic than one fears — a few days of bombing accompanied by shrieks of protest and threats from Assad and his friends. In that case, Obama and his friends will feel vindicated; presidential credibility will be, at least in part, restored. But nothing will have changed on the ground in Syria. The killing will continue. And there remains the possibility that we will become involved in a new war, a war that may extend beyond Syria. All this because the president chose to cavalierly lay down a “red line” he thought that a tinpot dictator wouldn’t dare to cross. Helluva way for a great power to conduct foreign policy.




Share This


October Angst

 | 

Obamacare is upon us. Uninsured Americans will begin enrollment at health insurance exchanges this October. The floodgates will be open to 57 million uninsured American citizens and legal residents, who will finally have the opportunity to purchase affordable, high quality healthcare coverage. It comes with Obamacare discounts, in the form of subsidies and tax credits, that are quite generous and widely available, even for foreign students and guest workers. They can be obtained by families and individuals with incomes up to four times the federal poverty level; the average amount of the subsidy, just to get things started in 2014, is $5,290 a year.

At last there is manna for our forgotten poor, our reckless youth, our promiscuous women, and our income-challenged aliens. America will no longer deny them healthcare. Their benefits, too numerous to count, are listed in the 2,000-plus pages of the Obamacare law, which, according to ObamacareFacts.com, is chock full of "really impressive and long-overdue reforms." When Obamacare enrollment opens for business, many people, such as Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, expect "unexpected success." To such advocates, come October the biggest Obamacare worry will be crowd control.

But the 2,000 pages of bold promises has become a 20,000-page (and rapidly growing) monstrosity of officious bewilderment, provoking fear, disappointment, and confusion in the hearts of the uninsured, not to mention distrust, despair, and anxiety among taxpayers and business people. An astonishing two-thirds of the uninsured do not know whether they will purchase healthcare insurance by the January 1, 2014 deadline. Many fear that they will have to pay more than they can afford, even after getting their subsidy checks and tax credits. Some, including those who have enthusiastically waited for their chance to get Obamacare, worry that they may not qualify, and be shuttled instead into Medicaid.

Still others are troubled by the prospect of losing their jobs or having their hours reduced. A poll of 603 small businesses found that 19% have laid off workers specifically because of Obamacare; 41% have suspended hiring; 55% believe Obamacare will lead to higher healthcare costs. Businesses, from small to large, are circumventing Obamacare with part-time jobs; in labor-intensive industries, the new work week is 29.5 hours. Even altruistic organizations such as school districts and state and local governments are employing this strategy.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the number of uninsured people will never fall below 30 million, even by 2023.

Then there is the troubling spate of recent news decrying the Obamacare implementation delays, missteps, unmet milestones, and special treatment (waivers, exemptions, and exceptions) of politically favored groups. Public support is eroding, with 63% of voters believing the Obamacare law must change. Similar dissatisfaction has been expressed regarding the clumsy rollout, with 57% referring to it as "a joke."

Mr. Obama believes that these attitudes have been shaped by his adversaries and by people who do not understand Obamacare — as if the layoffs, work week reductions, benefit cuts, and cost increases (insurance rates and the 18 new Obamacare taxes and penalties) were merely rumors spread by Fox News and angry Republicans. According to Obama, the number one priority of the entire Republican Party is to ensure "that 30 million people don't have healthcare." But according to the Congressional Budget Office, the number of uninsured people will never fall below 30 million, even by 2023 — after ten years and $2.6 trillion of Obamacare. Looks like Obama wins the uninsured contest.

Republicans certainly revel in Obamacare's inherent flaws and design errors (what Obama calls "glitches and bumps"), but after all, they played no role in writing it, and not a single one of them voted for it. Republicans have not caused what one of Obamacare's senior authors, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), called a "huge train wreck coming down." The cause of the inevitable wreck is the tricks, gimmicks, and false promises that were stuffed into the bill to get it passed — that, and the Byzantine regulations written by Obamacare lawyers, lobbyists, and bureaucrats who now, in frantic futility, struggle to implement the law.

It is Obamacare itself, at least the grand version sold to the public, that troubles Obama. As he observes its slow, painful, horribly costly implementation, he seems to have come to understand that the public will not see the real version for years (if ever), let alone by October. Consequently, his objective is not to make Obamacare succeed but simply to keep it alive long enough for it to take root (i.e., for the Obamacare insured to become dependent on its handouts). To achieve this, the administration must (a) convince enough people to turn out to enroll in October and (b) ensure that the Obamacare Data Hub will be ready to process them.

Obama has decided that the objective can be effectively accomplished with a $700 million marketing campaign.After all, campaigning is what he does best. And the people he must reach are the same people who voted for him (twice). Bamboozling some of them should be easy, but conscripting the so-called young invincibles, not all of whom voted for him, or anyone, is critical. The premiums paid by the young and healthy are needed to defray the cost of insuring older, higher risk individuals and pay the subsidies for the 30 million heretofore denied health care.

Obama’s marketing blitz will promote the idea that health insurance is necessary, affordable, and "cool" to have. "Don't be left out," reads one pitch. Expect a barrage of ads containing various "guiltless" lures of handouts (similar to the SNAP marketing of food stamps, and hoping for similar success). Although we can expect ads ranging from the most condescending (e.g., wealthy celebrities extolling Obamacare for the poor) to the most shameless (e.g., 21 year-olds fraught with fears of sudden, crippling accidents or early heart disease and cancer), the underlying theme — aimed at the poor, the young, the uneducated, the disengaged — is that health insurance will make you feel good, like a winner. These are exciting times to be temporarily uninsured.

Many states have launched similar campaigns. For example, Minnesota recently announced that Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox will be the faces of its Obamacare exchange. The equally banal creative director of Minnesota's $9 million Obamacare web-based marketing campaign enthusiastically said that the Paul and Babe angle is "great news for those that are uninsured." He was looking for something "easy to work with" and "unique to Minnesota." Presumably, the coolness will be provided by the campaign's motto, "The Land of 10,000 Reasons to get Health Insurance." (Minnesota may be, as it calls itself, “the land of 10,000 lakes,” as if someone were counting, but Michigan and Wisconsin would challenge the uniqueness claim about the pseudo-mythology of Paul Bunyan.)

We will continue to "find out what's in it,” as Nancy Pelosi said — through more discoveries of unforeseen problems, unintended consequences, and the "bumps and glitches" of moral hazard.

When October arrives, many tens of thousands of “navigators” will be available to guide applicants through the steps in the Obamacare enrollment system. They will be paid $20–$48 per hour; a high school diploma is not required, nor is a criminal background check. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tells us that Navigators must take a 20–30 hour online course (to learn about a 1,200 page law with over 20,000 pages of regulations) and that Americans "can trust that information they are providing is protected." That should quash any quality or privacy concerns.

Integral to the enrollment system looms the Obamacare Data Hub — a colossal database system storing unprecedented reams of applicants' personal information. To determine eligibility and subsidy size, navigators and other government officials will use the hub to evaluate applicant records at various government agencies. These include, for starters, the IRS, the Department of Justice, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the Peace Corps, the states' Medicaid systems, and, of course, the HHS.

The Obama administration is confident that it can persuade the young and healthy. But most who show up to enroll will likely do so under the duress of the Individual Mandate. The Obamacare Data Hub is another story. Although the administration insists that it will be open for business on October 1, it has been plagued by development problems. One difficulty, in particular, stemmed from the Employer Mandate (requiring that employers provide coverage to full-time workers). The complexity involved in verifying people’s income and employment status threatened the timely development of the Hub, which cannot tolerate delays. Thus, the Employer Mandate was delayed for one year. Administration officials gave large employers a one-year break, but they let the Individual Mandate stand, certainly annoying many from the critical target group (the young and healthy) whom they must somehow hornswoggle. Brilliant! And as if to demonstrate the essence of Obamacare, they wrote a new regulation for the delay in the Employer Mandate. Quietly released on a Friday (the Friday following the Fourth of July, no less), the regulation was 606 pages long. (Would a two-year delay be 1,212 pages?)

The massive public relations campaign will have some success. The same team and strategy (targeted messaging) that got Obama reelected should not be underestimated. Obamacare advocates will improve their messaging and they will never miss an opportunity to blame Republicans. They will convince many young invincibles to purchase insurance they don't want and many others to purchase insurance that they still cannot afford, even with their subsidies. So despite Obamacare's growing disfavor, campaign leaders remain optimistic, at least in public. But will the sizzle in their messaging entice enough enrollees to require October crowd control?

The vast majority of the uninsured may stay home. Along with most of the 157 million who already have health insurance, they may be and remain skeptical about the Obamacare PR campaign (a marketing blitz for a product so wonderful that it must be required by law), confused by the complexity of the program (mandates, rules, options, taxes, fees, penalties, waivers, exemptions, exceptions, etc.), and frightened before the vision of a $2.6 trillion house of cards in which we must now reside. Peering in from its rickety porch, we will continue to "find out what's in it,” as Nancy Pelosi said — through more discoveries of unforeseen problems, unintended consequences, and the "bumps and glitches" of moral hazard. What else could be found in a 20,000 page regulatory labyrinth of specious minutia, concocted by unscrupulous lawyers, venal lobbyists, and smug bureaucrats, all of whom possess at once the utmost lack of any practical medical or business experience and the utmost disdain for free-market capitalism?

As October approaches, anxiety over the turnout will shift to the Data Hub. But the Hub will not be ready, at least not to the extent Obama expected. He will worry that it will be unable to process enough applicants for the financial sustainability of his prize legislation. And worry he should. If the American public comprehends the capabilities of his Hub, not to mention what it could become, they will burn the entire operation to the ground, if only to keep the NSA from getting its hands on it.




Share This


Paul Versus Christie

 | 

Kentucky senator Rand Paul and New Jersey governor Chris Christie had words recently over their differing views of the federal government’s warrantless surveillance program. Paul is critical of the snooping; Christie supports it. While each man is undoubtedly sincere in his beliefs, politics is at the heart of the argument. Both men would like to be president. Each sees the other as a major obstacle to his presidential ambitions. An interesting question, to me at least, is whether Christie actually believes that he can become his party’s nominee for president. I see no chance of this happening, certainly not in 2016. On the other hand, the second spot on the ticket could be his under certain circumstances. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back for a moment to the Rand-Christie split over domestic surveillance.

In late July, Christie fired the opening salvo in the surveillance debate with remarks made during an Aspen Institute panel discussion featuring four Republican governors (Christie, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Mike Pence of Indiana). He assailed the “strain of libertarianism” running through the two major parties with respect to both foreign policy and the War on Terror, calling it “very dangerous” for the country. “President Obama has done nothing to change the policies of the Bush administration in the War on Terror,” he continued. “And you know why? ’Cause they work.” He went on to criticize Senator Paul by name, for engaging in “esoteric, intellectual debates” on the subject. “I want them [i.e., Paul and those who support his views] to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and orphans [of 9/11 victims] and have that conversation. And they won’t, ’cause that’s a tougher conversation to have.”

Paul responded to Christie’s remarks in an interview with Sean Hannity:

You know, I think it’s not very smart . . . I would remind him [i.e., Christie] that I think what is dangerous in our country is to forget that we have a Bill of Rights, to forget about privacy, to give up on all of our liberty, to say “oh we’re going to catch terrorists, but you have to live in a police state” . . .

We fought the American Revolution over the fact that we didn’t want a warrant to apply to millions of people. The Fourth Amendment says it has to be a specific person, a place, and you have to name the items and you have to go to a judge and you have to say there’s probable cause. . . . And so people like the governor, who are, I guess, flippant about the Fourth Amendment and flippant about the Bill of Rights, they do an injustice to our soldiers, our soldiers who are laying their lives on the line for the Bill of Rights.

Bravo, Rand! After harpooning his whale, Paul tried to make peace, inviting the governor down to Washington for a beer at a pub near the Senate. But Christie rebuffed the offer, claiming he had too much to do in New Jersey. Paul said that he wanted to dial back the rhetoric on both sides, lest the Republicans descend into internecine warfare that can only help the Democrats. He told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto that he would support Christie if the latter became the Republican nominee in 2016. Christie responded by calling Paul’s initial remarks “out of whack” and “childish.”

The Kings and McCains of the world cannot conceive of an America disinterested in the Middle East: they are bound by mindsets and constituencies that demand our involvement there.

There’s no question that the “strain of libertarianism” Paul represents has establishment Republicans in a tizzy. John McCain, the senator who’s never seen a war he wouldn’t like to get into, has called Paul a “crazybird.” New York Congressman Peter King, a fervent supporter of the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq, told CNN that Paul “wants us to isolate ourselves, go back to a fortress America.” These men are indulging in scare tactics, comparing Paul and his supporters to the America First movement of the 1930s. They are wrong on two counts.

First, Paul has never advocated retreating into a fortress America. See for example his Feb. 6, 2013 speech to the Heritage Foundation. Second, of course, is the fact that no existential threat comparable to Nazism or Communism exists in the world today. The present bogeyman, radical Islam, is a danger only so long as we continue to meddle in the affairs of Islamic lands; absent that interference it would confine itself to infighting across the Ummah. It has no serious pretensions to world conquest (despite the nonsense put out by people such as William Federer); more importantly, it does not have the means to reach a position in the world comparable to that of Nazi Germany in 1940, or Soviet Russia in 1950.

The war with radical Islam is in reality a war of choice for us, though few Americans recognize this. The Kings and McCains of the world cannot conceive of an America disinterested in the Middle East: they are bound by mindsets and constituencies that demand our involvement there. The Paulistas face an uphill battle — actually, an impossible one, given the biases of the politicians, the national security apparatchiks, and the media — in persuading the nation that radical Islam’s war on America is largely of our own making. In the current environment it’s fairly easy for the interventionists to convince the citizenry, or a majority at least, that living in a proto-police state is the only alternative to devastating attacks like 9/11. The Paulistas are caught in a Catch-22. If they tell the truth to the American people, they will be smeared as isolationists. If they go along with the idea that radical Islam is determined to make war on us no matter what our policy in the Middle East may be, then it is all but impossible to attack the Patriot Act and programs such as the NSA’s blanket surveillance of Americans’ telephone and email communications. Only a fool would argue that lowering our guard against those who seek to kill us is a sound policy. Yet to persuade Americans that their country, through its actions both past and present, has played a major role in creating terrorism is a daunting task.

Only if we are stupid enough to launch a war of our own in the region — in Syria, or on Israel’s behalf in Iran — will radical Islam remain preoccupied with us.

My own view is that the Muslim world will become more and more involved in its own internal struggles — Sunni vs. Sunni as in Egypt, Shia vs. Sunni as in Bahrain, perhaps Shia vs. Shia at some point in Iran. Some of these struggles may erupt into actual warfare, as in the sectarian conflict (Sunni vs. Shia) now occurring in Syria (and extending into Lebanon and Iraq as well). The War on Terror will wither away eventually, as the Muslim world descends into chaos. Only if we are stupid enough to launch a war of our own in the region — in Syria, or on Israel’s behalf in Iran — will radical Islam remain preoccupied with us. The Muslim world should be left to work out its own destiny. Only be interfering do we endanger ourselves.

Of course, even if the War on Terror does end at some point, there’s no assurance that the US government will dismantle the domestic spying empire it has created. Certainly it’s unlikely that we will see a radical change in the War on Terror or the structure of the surveillance state by 2016. The US is not going to withdraw from the Middle East. Massive surveillance of US citizens’ communications will continue. The situation both here and in the Middle East will probably differ little from that which prevails today. Some cosmetic reforms of the surveillance state may be enacted. Bloodshed in the Middle East may increase. But fundamentally we will be stuck in the same mud.

There is no doubt that Rand Paul’s views on foreign entanglements resonate today with an electorate weary of spending its blood and treasure in far-off lands. According to the polls, over 60% of Americans are opposed to US intervention in Syria; over 70% want to keep hands off Egypt. But as we near the time for casting votes, a drumbeat of criticism will resound in the media and the halls of Congress, characterizing Paul’s views as out of the mainstream and dangerous. We will be told that the safety of the American people will be put at risk if these views prevail, and the volume will be turned up to whatever level is necessary to scare the voters. With Iraq and Afghanistan receding from the public memory, the concept of “better safe than sorry” will come increasingly to the fore. Paul will find himself opposed from left, right, and center when he tries to articulate his foreign policy views.

For it is certain, I believe, that he will run. Personally, I wish him well, despite the differences I have with him on some issues. But I fear that his effort to reach the presidency will be a quixotic one, perhaps even harming the cause he seeks to further.

What are Paul’s chances of winning the Republican nomination? First, let’s look at the competition. The names most bandied about, besides Paul’s, are those of Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, and of course Governor Christie. To this I would add Rick Santorum, who after all finished second to Romney in the battle for the 2012 Republican nomination. Neither Marco Rubio nor Ted Cruz will run, in my opinion. Neither is seasoned enough to be a serious presidential candidate (neither, though, was Barack Obama). Rubio would face opposition from the anti-immigration reform constituency, an important bloc of Republican voters. Some governors other than Christie may enter the race, but none can mount more than what would in effect be a favorite son candidacy.

If Rand is the standard bearer in 2016, the Goldwater experience will be repeated. Better to let Jeb and the Republican establishment take the hit.

Should both Ryan and Santorum enter the race, they will be competing for the same voters, mainly social conservatives, which would help Paul. But if only one of them chooses to run, then it becomes more difficult for a libertarian to win primaries and caucuses in a party that teems with social conservative activists. Paul can never get to the right of Ryan or Santorum on social issues.

The party establishment dreads the idea of either Paul or Santorum at the head of the ticket. It doesn’t believe Ryan can actually win. Are establishment thoughts then turning Chris Christie’s way?

You’d think so if you pay attention to the mainstream media, which loves the outspoken New Jersey governor. Reporters and analysts ensconced in offices from New York to California (but nowhere in between) seem to think Christie is a serious contender. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s Republican Party is not about to nominate a Northeasterner who slobbered over Barack Obama at the height of the 2012 campaign. Christie can win Republican primaries in the Northeast, and perhaps on the West Coast, but in the heartland he would find little support. If he runs he will come to the convention with a bloc of delegates, but one too small to give him the nomination.

Many in the Republican establishment — the leadership in Congress, big donors, globalists and national security honchos — would like Jeb Bush to run. Many Republicans believe that he alone can unite the party in 2016, and give them a reasonable chance of beating the Democrat nominee. And they’re almost certainly correct in their belief. Christie slots in as their choice for vice president. With Christie in the second spot it might be possible to pick off New Jersey and New Hampshire, states otherwise reliably blue in presidential years. That Christie would take the second spot, with Jeb at the head of the ticket, is certain. It’s his only real hope of becoming president some day.

If Bush seeks the nomination, and the field includes several candidates, he probably wins, just as Romney did in 2012. His conservative bona fides, though imperfect, are certainly better than the Mittster’s. At the same time he’s probably the one candidate with broad enough support to give the Republicans a shot at winning the presidency.

Paulistas should also remember that federal disaster relief is quite popular with the great majority of voters. So are other federal programs that many Republicans of the Tea Party variety would like to do away with.

What if, however, it’s a two-man race for the Republican nomination? Say Ryan and Santorum decide not to run. Say Christie cuts a deal with Bush to be his veep. Say Rand Paul is the one candidate out there competing with Bush for Republican votes. In such a scenario I can see the possibility of an insurgent Paul beating the establishment candidate. If Paul found himself battling Christie instead of Bush, his victory would be even likelier (to my mind, certain). Mind you, Paul needs to ratchet up his game. In the recent Paul-Christie debate, Paul made some rather foolish missteps, such as taking Christie to task for his “gimme gimme gimme” attitude toward federal dollars. Unfortunately for Rand, New Jersey sends more money to Washington than it gets in return, while in Rand’s home state of Kentucky the situation is the reverse. Paulistas should also remember that federal disaster relief is quite popular with the great majority of voters. So are other federal programs that many Republicans of the Tea Party variety would like to do away with.

Rand Paul is the most interesting politician in the country. He is intellectually superior to the next most interesting pol, Chris Christie. Christie’s views, however, are more easily understood by, and more palatable to, the majority of the electorate. If Paul runs for president in 2016, as I believe he will, he will enliven the debate to a far greater degree than his father did in 2012. He is a better speaker than his father, and better grounded in political realities. He could, under certain circumstances, sweep the Republicans off their feet and gain their nomination for president. But as interesting as that would be, I hope it doesn’t happen. If Rand is the standard bearer in 2016, the Goldwater experience will be repeated. Better to let Jeb and the Republican establishment take the hit. If healthy, Hillary Clinton will run, and she will defeat anyRepublican, be it Bush, Christie, or Paul. Sad to say, but Paul would fare worst of the three in a race against Hillary. The Paul agenda, if it is to advance, must do so incrementally. A resounding defeat in the 2016 presidential election can only hinder the progress of libertarian ideas.




Share This


Why India Doesn’t Change

 | 

Recently, a federal cabinet minister in the Indian government, Pawan Kumar Bansal, was charged with taking a bribe of $160,000, via his nephew. The bribe was allegedly paid by an official of his own ministry. Were Bansal, within his own limited sense, rational, he would have started mobilizing his friends and bribing the news agencies, to avoid legal entanglements. Instead, he was found feeding a goat that was about to be sacrificed. It was a ritual to seek divine intervention.

To be elected a member of Parliament, Bansal must have been well perceived in his constituency, which is among the richest and most educated in India. The voters must have found him rational enough to be their representative. To be elected a top-level minister, he must have found acceptance among the majority of his political party, which rules the lives of 1.2 billion people. The prime minister must have found him charismatic, influential, and intelligent enough, or at least powerful enough to be a top-level minister, working daily on issues with serious influence on the direction India may take. Rising to the top in politics requires one to pass through umpteen filters. The fact that Bansal attained such a high position gives a glimpse of the psychology and character of the Indian body politic, its irrationality and medieval thinking.

I have almost never met a public official in India who did not ask for a bribe. But only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck. The investigative agencies are themselves totally corrupt, so they must find themselves cornered before they do anything. Even when the evidence is obvious, court cases simmer for several decades: eventually people die, or forget; witnesses change their stories, either because they are tired and want to end their court visits or because they lose their sanity under the pressures of an insane system; and prosecutors and judges keep changing. This is not just a result of financial corruption. The roots go much deeper.

There were riots in India in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The cases against the alleged culprits are still going on. Among people in government, there is apathy and lack of passion for what one does. Most of the job “satisfaction” public servants get is not from doing their job but from showing off their power, using it to obstruct and create problems for people. It is a very warped mentality that is not just about bribes (which in a narrow way is still a rational expectation) but is mostly a result of deep-rooted irrationality and the demands that irrational minds create. Indeed were bribes the only problem for India, it would have merely added a layer of cost to society, not made it stagnate or simmer in perpetual wretchedness.

Only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble in India, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck.

I believe that the state is simply a visual symptom of the deeper social problem. The “anti-nutrients” come from the surrounding society. The underlying morality of this society — seen from the perspective of my own experience — is not that of “right or wrong” based on reason and evidence. Instead, motivations are often driven by astrology, circular thinking, superstitions, narrow tribal affiliations, and a completely erroneous understanding of causality, an understanding that results from medieval thinking with little or no influence by the scientific revolution. When I was in engineering, it was not uncommon for hordes of students to travel long distances to visit exotic temples or enact weird rituals to help them pass examinations. One must ask what happens elsewhere in society, when the top engineering students are so superstitious.

Industrialization was imposed on India before the country had time to go through a phase of the age of reason and enlightenment. Partial acceptance of reason has made Indians extreme rationalists, solidifying their superstitions. For example, a very good electrical engineer recently told me that touching the feet of the idol in a temple results in a flow of electricity through your body that is extremely beneficial to you, transferring to you the wisdom of the god by electrically changing the connections of your neurons. Educated people often take extreme pride in how our ancestors — the ancestors of Indians as expressed in Indian mythologies — had airplanes and time machines.

What about Indian spirituality and religiousness? Don’t they control people’s corrupt behaviour? I am an atheist, but I do understand those who see religion as a means of spiritual solace. But for Bansal, and a lot of other people in India, religion has nothing to do with philosophy or spirituality. It is about rituals conducted for material benefits, either in this life or in the next. It is about materialism, materialism, and materialism.

Recently a group has gained very high visibility in fighting against corruption. This group has been asking its followers not to pay their electricity and water bills, to force the government to reduce the charges. No thought is given to where the loss-making public sector company will get its money from. These people should have fought for the public electricity company to be privatized and to allow competition to work. But that is too much for their feel-good fight against corruption, in which some obscure fountain of wealth will provide for the shortfall. Visible, financial corruption is truly the tip of the iceberg. It is deep-rooted irrationality that is the true problem.

Most of my Indian acquaintances talk against corruption. But in their private lives not only do they pay the bribes they have to pay to conduct legitimate business, but they are more than happy to pay to get an unjust advantage over others. Despite the rhetoric, financial corruption has actually increased in India. And it has much deeper roots than most people realize. If he were truly rational, the hapless Bansal would certainly not have wasted his time on the goat, but the age of reason has not touched his thinking.

India’s problem is not just a lack of personal ethics among those in government. By itself, financial corruption would add only a certain, limited cost to the economy. It is the fundamental irrationality that keeps India from gaining traction, from being able to build its way out of wretchedness.




Share This


Detroit

 | 

I was born and reared in the state of Michigan, and its affairs remain very interesting to me. I regard Detroit’s bankruptcy as the virtually inevitable result of events I’ve been witnessing throughout my life.

First there was the triumph of modern labor-management relations, which kept the price of labor sky-high, as long as junky cars could be unloaded on a market largely free of good-quality foreign goods. With the help of union-friendly politicians, labor disputes were settled amicably, usually with an enormous increase in benefits for labor. When there actually was a strike or layoff, which happened so rarely that it was regarded as a kind of natural disaster, challenging the existence of God, Michiganians were treated to constant interviews with baffled assembly-line workers, who informed the 10 o’clock news that if this thing continued for even a day longer, they couldn’t meet the mortgage on the house at the lake, and they might even have to sell the boat. It was hard, really hard, to meet the payments on three cars. As for savings, who could keep money in the bank, considering all these expenses?

Such were the rewards of unskilled labor. So why should anyone learn any skills? Then came the nervous collapse of both labor and management, once genuine competition took hold.

But something else had happened, simultaneous with the monopoly of the Big Three automakers and their inseparable companion, the United Auto Workers. This was the triumph of Great Society liberalism and the new class of managers and planners who purveyed it. Many of the big chiefs came from auto company management. Remember Robert McNamara? He’s a sample. These people demonstrated that they could be failures in civic planning as well as business planning. After the 1967 race riots in Detroit, they backed every sorry, money-losing civic improvement project they could think of, applying social engineering to the city’s problems. You can guess how well that worked.

Tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes.

The logical product of the Great Society was the flight from Detroit of everyone, white or black, who could possibly escape and buy a home in the suburbs. The city’s population went from 1,850,000 (1950) to 701,000 (2010). The escapees left behind them an inner city that was poor in productive workers but rich in people who voted for a living. The natural product of that was a chronically corrupt political class, keeping itself elected by class warfare and racial resentment.

Now the city of Detroit is so poor that it is letting large areas of formerly choice real estate go back to the fields and forests. It is arranging not to keep the streets open, not to keep the power running in whole sections of the city. The people I feel for most are the African-American families who have hung on, kept their modest houses and modest jobs, survived the violence and criminality of their neighbors, and now find that their own jealously guarded homes are to be abandoned by the city they struggled to keep in operation. Looking down Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Élysées of the Midwest, I see block after block of emptiness — or worse: wonderful early 20th-century housing, places to live that would be worth a fortune to almost anyone, anywhere else, but that are now hopelessly derelict.

I suppose that most people understand these things, in general. But one factor that should be emphasized, and almost never is, except in a way that contrasts with the truth, is the influence of that mundane but vicious thing, the tax. It is oft lamented that Detroit’s taxes can’t keep up with its expenditures. The problem is that the taxes existed at all.

Right now, Detroit’s municipal income tax is 2.4% for residents and 1.2% for nonresidents who work in Detroit (if that be not a contradiction in terms). Before 1999 these taxes stood at 3.0 and 1.5, respectively, and were authorized by a special provision in the state tax law allowing cities with populations of more than 600,000 (of which Michigan has only one) to exceed the statewide cap of 1.0 and 0.5%. In 1999, Detroit began slowly and minutely reducing tax rates in accordance with a deal, politically extorted from the state, that gave the city a whopping special subsidy from the revenues of Michigan as a whole.

I say “special,” not just because Detroit was getting a deal that, say, Muskegon didn’t get, but because Michigan had already, for many years, been subsidizing major Detroit projects and institutions — something that did not prevent Detroit politicians from erecting giant signs in front of them, bearing their own names.

Anyhow, in 2011, which is about the time when the probability of a Detroit bankruptcy became common talk in Michigan, the Detroit income tax represented about $230 million out of the city’s $1.2 billion general fund revenue. This means that the average man, woman, or child connected with this impoverished town was somehow generating over $1,700 in revenue for the city alone, about $330 of it from income taxes. Overlapping with the income tax, of course, are many other taxes, including property taxes, which generate several hundreds of millions of dollars and would generate more if the owners of half the land parcels in the city were still paying their property taxes, which they aren’t.

Then there’s the income that the city gets from government-licensed gambling and, ah yes, the income it gets from corporate taxes. In 2012, the city council doubled the corporate income tax rate, taking it from 1 to 2%. The excuse was a threatened 10% pay cut for municipal workers. “I can't in good conscience,” said one council member, “ask city employees to give back 10% and not ask the corporate community to share in the sacrifice by raising their taxes." Oh. OK. I see the logic.

Meanwhile, the state of Michigan has been cooperating with Detroit in attempting to create a new stadium for the Red Wings hockey team, a stadium that, its advocates insist, will generate “as much as $1 billion in economic development over 30 years.” It won’t, of course. People will just keep driving into Detroit to see the games, then driving out again. But over the same 30-year period, the taxpayers of Michigan will have to pay $444 million for bonds to subsidize this scam. Let’s see . . . if there were a billion dollars of economic development (over 30 years, of course), and it were highly profitable (which it won’t be), it might possibly earn, say, 10% on investment, which means an average profit of maybe $22 million a year (it can’t all happen at once), from which the taxpayers of the state of Michigan would receive, in taxes from the grateful beneficiaries of their subsidy, something less than $1 million a year.

So that’s the way — not bread and circuses, but welfare and hockey. Isn’t there an old saying about castles being erected on the ruins of cottages?

The more Detroit taxed, and the more Michigan taxed and subsidized, the worse things got. And continue to get. But why oh why? Because, as Isabel Paterson explained long ago in The God of the Machine, tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes. The things it builds may simply be dead weight, from an economic point of view, and will therefore have to be supported by continued taxation. Or, more likely, they will be institutions devoted to extracting yet more money from the productive members of society.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir.

These may be institutions such as the welfare industry. These may be institutions such as Detroit race politics, which long defended and empowered every crook in the city government, so long as he or she was an African-American, and is currently demanding that Detroit’s debts be “canceled,” thus neatly averting the consequences of bankruptcy. Or these institutions may be government-“stimulated” businesses, erected by subsidies and continually devoted to extending them.

But two things are certain. The beneficiaries will not “give back.” And they will never, never be the productively working black, white, or Asian population of anywhere. These are the people who are tricked into voting for the money-extraction industry, told that more taxes are needed to support the schools or the police or the fire department or something, or defeating the hated Republican Party, and then, mysteriously, find that every increase in taxes is turned into more guns aimed against them.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir. If you had any thoughts along those lines, the social history of Detroit will show you that it isn’t. The illness has also been blamed on mysterious “changes” in the auto industry. That’s not the cause either. Business and labor that aren’t on the take from subsidies — subsidies in the form of bailouts, friendly legislation, and noncompetitive labor laws, all of which the Detroit auto industry got, and fattened on, and sickened on — can “change” without doing grave damage to their communities. And the illness has been blamed on “massive corruption,” as if corruption could be massive without the profits it derives from laws and taxes.

Enough. Just look at who’s taking money from whom.




Share This


Passing the Promethean Torch

 | 

The affinity between science fiction and libertarian thought is longstanding (think Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson — or, for that matter, Ayn Rand), so that when the Prometheus Award was created in 1979 to honor the best pro-freedom science-fiction novel of the year, it was an acknowledgment rather than an establishment of a trend. Each year the Libertarian Futurist Society gives out the Prometheus Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and if the quality of the winners varies widely, year to year, well, that's a problem faced by all yearly awards. (To give the LFS full credit, "None of the Above" is always an option, but has carried the ballot only once.) Although this year's winner has now been announced, I beg the reader's indulgence for a few paragraphs; please endeavor to retain a certain feeling of suspense as I review this year's five nominees.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian. Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, is a well-crafted technothriller set in a near future in which unmanned drones are just a bit more scarily effective than they are today — and just a bit more scary is very scary indeed. The novel uses the tried-and-true technique of beginning with a broad selection of seemingly unrelated scenes, each well-described, and zeroing in on two main characters. In skilled hands, there is probably no thriller formula more satisfying. The mostly veiled but realistic villains, the horror of swarming drones, a satisfying dose of real science (including passages on "one of the few extirpator species on earth," weaver ants), all enhance this well-paced and ultimately quite thrilling thriller. Kill Decision is certainly a cautionary tale about the abuses of power in a technological age, but as most of the good guys are working for the government, and the bad guys are probably representative of one or more multinational corporations, it would be difficult to see it as reflecting libertarian ideas. But pro-human it certainly is.

The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

The other technothriller on the list, Arctic Rising, does, late in the novel, lay in a sudden vision of libertarian conclaves at the North Pole. But the vast majority of the novel's pages revel in nonstop action sequences that leave little room for reflection. Arctic Rising is told in the first person by Anika Duncan, an airship pilot; the action begins as she is shot out of the sky, for reasons unknown. Her narrative voice, though neither sophisticated nor literary, is fully adequate to the job, with just enough self-reflection to avoid dullness. The near-future setup is fun and intriguing — global warming has melted the ice caps to the point where Greenland and Baffin Island boom with development — and the action occurs in the newly thawed northern waters of the Northwest Passage. Author Tobias S. Buckell delivers a surfeit of action as well as an appropriately complex climax. An added pleasure is the pair of contrasting villains, one surprisingly sympathetic, the other the reverse, but equally convinced he is right. The bare bones of the thriller formula do for some reason show through the constant dangers, reducing the desired illusion of reality. But then thriller aficionados are known for their willingness to suspend disbelief.

Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, the only young-adult novel among this year's nominees, is also the only one that does not depend on violence to provide its kicks. Kudos for that. Pirate Cinema is set in so near a future it is just barely science fiction at all. Like most of Doctorow's recent novels, it pits freedom-loving youths against an alliance of evil corporations and intrusive government.

Copyright issues are central to Pirate Cinema, and it's not hard to discover what Doctorow's own position is: he's a supporter of (and former participator in) the Creative Commons initiative, and his approach is to make his novels available digitally for free, but to continue to publish and sell both print and ebook editions in the ordinary way.

For the most part, the novel focuses narrowly on the plight of 16-year-old Trent McCauley, whose crime is sampling old movies in order to assemble his own pastiches. It might seem hard to muster the necessary moral self-righteousness on this issue; the right to sample copyrighted material for non-commercial use is not exactly a candidate for the Bill of Rights. Incredibly, though, according to Doctorow's foreword, Britain's new Digital Economy Act "allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement." That definitely raises the stakes, in today's interconnected world.

Doctorow is a skilled writer, and he manages to make Trent McCauley's first-person narration both authentic and mostly interesting — no mean trick. The plot winds and twists appropriately, with first love fitting nicely with political considerations. The ending follows Doctorow's established formula, but that's all right; the reader would be disappointed with any other denouement.

We jump now to the farther future for two sequels to previous Award winners. It is so very hard for sequels to live up to their progenitors . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, which won the Prometheus Award in 2011, is an unusual genre-blending mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Most of the fun of this, the original book, lay in its imaginative worldbuilding, complete with a portrait of an advanced, stateless society. But in its sequel, Darkship Renegades, the worldbuilding is done, and the reader is left with a first-person narration of the heroine's ongoing perils. Athena Sinistra's immaturity and lack of self-restraint, her obsession with looks and sexual attraction, soon turn what was space opera into something more like soap opera. And the stateless society itself seems to have also lost its balance, being unable to cope with the emergence of a monopolistic "Energy Board." The climax of the novel features a shootout in a crowded meeting hall, hardly the most appealing portrait of problem-solving in a supposedly advanced libertarian society.

Dani and Eytan Kollins' novel The Unincorporated Man, Prometheus Award winner of 2010, told the story of Justin Cord, a self-made billionaire who, on being reawakened three hundred years in the future, refuses to go along with the personal incorporation that is part of the new society's norms. The conflict is made more interesting because this incorporation of the individual, in which outsiders (including the state) come to own more shares than the person, seems in many ways a less onerous burden than the open-ended taxation that exists today. The "bad guys," defending a relatively benign status quo, elicit the reader's sympathy, even as we root for Cord's intransigent stand.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian.

No such nuance disturbs the black-and-white spacescape of The Unincorporated Future, the fourth and last in what turned out to be an "Unincorporated" series. (I have not read the intervening two novels, The Unincorporated War and The Unincorporated Woman.) Whereas the first novel was the story of a fight for freedom, the fourth is mostly just a fight. The unincorporated trend, though banned on Earth, has flourished on the asteroids and beyond, and the novel begins in the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war as Earth tries to subdue their rebellion. It is now a given that the Outer Alliance represents the good guys, and Earth the bad guys, and with that backdrop let the space opera begin.

War is of course a great destroyer of freedom (my son maintains that the opposite of war is the free market), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes that animated the first book are missing here. Instead we have strong leaders, making on the one side painful decisions, on the other cold-blooded decisions, with both kinds costing millions of lives at a time. The ensuing space opera is entertaining enough, and the sequel is perhaps more consistent in tone and smoother in plot than the first novel in the series. But the issue of freedom has been left well in the background.

***

In the past, the Libertarian Futurist Society has shown a commendable willingness to honor novels that are not overtly libertarian. The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

This year's Best Novel award-winner, to be presented on August 30 at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas, is Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has won the award once before, in 2009, for his novel Little Brother, in which the villain was the bureaucratic Department of Homeland Security run amok. Although Pirate Cinema is a more narrowly focused work, libertarians should enjoy its youthful, anarchic spirit, part of Doctorow's ongoing novelistic campaign against conformity and coercion.

Easily beating out "None of the Above."




Share This


Athena 4, Gaia 0

 | 

From the start of the industrial revolution to the present day, many Green critics have decried the rise of technology. Gaia (Mother Earth) worshipers — Green neo-pagans — have viewed with alarm the dramatic rise in human flourishing, and the key determinant in this flourishing, which has been the development of plentiful energy. From the year 1800 to the year 2000, the world’s average per capita income rose tenfold (in real terms), while the world’s population rose sixfold, thanks to this productive and peaceful revolution. But the Gaia cult has resisted every step of the way.

During the past half century, the Gaia groupies have achieved tremendous political power in America and Europe. (They have yet not been able to dominate in Asia — one big reason Asia is so rapidly rising economically.) It is a struggle between those who embrace technological progress and those who reflexively and viscerally oppose it. The struggle can be viewed as a contest between Greek goddesses: Athena, goddess of wisdom and technology, is fighting Gaia, and Athena keeps winning — thank goddess!

Four recent reports of technological progress in energy production are worth noting. The first is about the fracking revolution, which I believe will be viewed by future historians as one of the major turning points in the evolving industrial age. It conveys the news that the largest American railroad, BNSF, is planning to test the use of natural gas as power for its locomotives. Currently, BNSF uses diesel fuel exclusively, and by its own estimates has the largest diesel-burning American fleet, second only to the US Navy.

It is not because but in spite of the neo-pagan policies of the Oval Office that we have the natural gas miracle.

The reason BNSF is considering the move is that because of the fracking revolution, natural gas is getting very cheap. Under current pricing, while a gallon of diesel fuel costs about $4, the same power can be produced for less than 50 cents worth of natural gas — though there are additional costs when you compress or liquefy it.

This is leading BNSF to follow other industries in moving toward natural gas. Utility companies are rapidly abandoning coal for gas, and manufacturers are moving toward it as well. Many municipal bus fleets have been using compressed natural gas (CNG) for years, and other commercial vehicle fleets (such as garbage trucks) are looking into switching to CNG. Already, tugboats are being fitted to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG). And long-haul freight companies are looking at LNG as well — in fact, Shell is planning to provide LNG in Ontario and Louisiana and distribute it at 200 truck stops.

The hurdle that BNSF faces is that it costs upwards of $1 million to retrofit a diesel locomotive to run on LNG as well, and BNSF has almost 7,000 locomotives to retrofit. So this conversion likely will take time, but given that the cost advantage of natural gas shows no sign of going away anytime soon, the conversion seems inevitable.

Lest anybody be addlepated enough to thank the current Green regime for this flourishing of clean, low-cost energy, let me disabuse him now. The crony-capitalist administration has placed all of its — oops! I mean, the taxpayers’ — money on solar and wind power, bankrolling numerous projects (headed by various Obama donors) that have gone nowhere but bankrupt. The EPA and the Department of the Interior have gone out of their way to stop drilling on federal lands. This is documented in a recent report from Marc Humphries of the Congressional Research Service. The report documents the fact that the fracking revolution has increased American natural gas production by 20% over the past five years alone — a total of 4 trillion additional cubic feet of natural gas pumped into the nation’s supply. But this overall increase hides a revealing disparity: while natural gas production on non-federal (mainly private) lands is up by 40% over this period, production on federal land has plummeted by 33%.

In short, it is not because but in spite of the neo-pagan policies of the Oval Office that we have the natural gas miracle.

But the miracle just might become even more miraculous. The second story about technological advances in energy production is a news release from the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals Corporation, which notes that it is preparing the first test of commercial production of natural gas from methane hydrate layers under the ocean. Essentially, methane hydrate is natural gas (methane) trapped in ice crystals along the ocean’s floor. This source of energy is estimated by some experts as potentially exceeding all of the world’s existing coal, natural gas, and petroleum reserves — combined! Developing the resource will be tricky, given the instability of the layers that have to be processed, but then, the minds of self-interested creative individuals are tricky as well.

The third technological development in energy production worth noting is the advent of a new type of nuclear (fission) reactor.

Nuclear power, of course, can’t get no respect from nobody. Despite its exemplary safety record in the US and other advanced economies (which always excluded, of course, the Soviet Union), people fear it. These fears were only intensified two years ago when a Japanese earthquake led to the destruction of four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Actually, the quake — a massive magnitude 9.0 one that moved Japan’s main island eight feet to the east and shifted the Earth’s axis by six inches — didn’t destroy the reactors. They were ruined by the tsunami it generated (a tidal wave that destroyed 300,000 buildings and killed 20,000 people). Despite the fact that the reactors’ disaster killed nobody, sickened nobody, and is likely to cause few health problems in the future, organized pressure led to the shutdown of the country’s 53 other reactors. These reactors jointly produced 30% of the country’s electric power. As a consequence, last year Japan ran a record deficit ($78 billion) because it had to import more energy, increasing the cost of its manufactured goods, and reducing exports accordingly.

But nuclear power is by no means dead. There is a new company, Transatomic Power, that is perfecting a design for a molten-salt reactor — a design that may well cut in half the cost of future nuclear reactors. It is the high cost of building reactors, especially in the face of the dramatically dropping price of electricity from natural gas plants, along with the Green Regime’s preference for solar and wind power, that has been holding up the expansion of nuclear power in the US over the past few years. But this new reactor will probably reignite that expansion.

Molten-salt reactors were explored as long ago as the 1960s in the Oak Ridge Lab, but the design now being worked on would produce 20 times the power for the same size reactor. It would allow reactors smaller than the 1,000 megawatt behemoths currently running. Besides the smaller footprint, the reactor under design would save money because it could be factory-built (as opposed to being custom-built on site).

Its chief advantage, though, would be the use of molten-salt rather than water as a coolant. Water is the coolant used in all present reactors. The problem with water is that it boils at 100o C, whereas the fuel pellets in the core operate at about 2,000o C. So in the event of an emergency shutdown, unless water can be continuously pumped over the core to cool it, the water will vaporize and the core will melt down (as one did at Fukushima).

But the salt, which is combined with the fuel, has a boiling point much higher than 2,000o C. So if the reactor core starts to overheat, the salt will expand but not evaporate, separating the pellets and thus slowing the core reaction. In a complete shutdown, a stopper at the bottom of the core container would melt, and the molten fuel and salt would flow into a holding container, where the salt would solidify and encapsulate the fuel.

If global warming is real — as all good, pious Gaia supplicants believe — then it’s either nukes or solar and wind power, and the latter is clearly not economically viable.

The clever pups behind this innovative design are the cofounders of Transatomic Power, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, who are still only Ph.D. candidates at MIT. These two are Schumpeterian entrepreneurs of the best sort. America is lucky to have them, as the Chinese are also working on a similar design.

This all comes at a crucial time for nuclear power. For as a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, the fracking revolution has lowered natural gas prices so much that gas powered electrical plants are driving both coal-fired plants and many nuclear plants (especially the smaller ones, and the ones facing expensive repairs) out of deregulated markets.

For examples, Excelon has announced that it will soon close its Oyster Creek, New Jersey nuke, ten years before its license expires. And Dominion Energy has announced that it will soon close its Kewaunee, Wisconsin nuke, a full 20 years before its operating license expires.

Pricing makes the reason for this clear. The fixed costs to run a nuke are $90,000 per megawatt; the fixed costs for coal fired plants are $30,000; for natural gas fired plants, only $15,000. And, of course, existing nukes require intensive security and safety costs, precisely because of the risk of meltdown. In the first 11 months of 2012, natural gas plant output rose by 24%, while the output for nuclear powered plants dropped by 2.5%.

This all presents an interesting dilemma for the Gaia communicants. As natural gas prices continue low, gas will, absent extensive subsidies or other protection for other forms of energy, supplant nuclear power. Now, natural gas emits just half the carbon that coal does, but nuclear plants emit none. So if global warming is a hoax, we could easily go all natural gas. But if global warming is real — as all good, pious Gaia supplicants believe — then it’s either nukes or solar and wind power, and the latter is clearly not economically viable. All this is clear except to the blindest Gaia devotees (and the greediest Green crony capitalists).

And indeed, there has been an interesting schism in the Green faith. In a recent piece, the excellent science writer Robert Bryce calls this “the rise of the nuclear Greens.” He notes that an increasing number of Gaia votaries now support nuclear power. One prominent convert is British environmental activist George Monbiot, who has now admitted — belatedly, to understate it massively — that solar energy (in the UK, and by extension everywhere else) is “a spectacular waste of scarce resources,” and that wind power is “largely worthless.” Referring to the Fukushima disaster, he concludes, “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

Wow.

Monbiot now joins other Gaia disciples Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Mark Lynas, James Lovelock, and Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace) in favoring nuclear power. This is nauseatingly ironic: it was the environmentalist zealots who stopped the growth of nuclear power 40 years ago. But the pro-nuke Gaia devotees are still a distinct minority. Most of the cult still lights candles in front of wind and solar power.

The fourth interesting development concerns an energy source that has been tantalizing but elusive for many decades: fusion power.

A news report out of Europe indicates that an important international project is moving forward. The “Iter” (Latin for “the way”) project is a collaboration of 34 nations working on building a pilot fusion nuclear reactor. Nuclear fusion is, of course, what powers the sun and other stars. In principle, it offers a chance to provide virtually unlimited supplies of reliable, consistent energy at the levels needed to power an industrial economy. And it would provide that power from clean, nontoxic fuel (extracted from water), with no possibility of any kind of core meltdown.

The new Iter experimental reactor has received an operating license. It is projected to be the first fusion reactor (“tokamak”) to generate more power than it uses — ten times more, in fact. The Iter design would serve as the prototype for the first generation of commercial fusion power plants.

The foundations for the reactor are now being laid, but the work of putting together the million or so components (made at factories all over the world) will take a long time. The tentative date for firing it up is about 15 years in the future — though with a project of this enormity, it will probably be longer. And it has cost about $20 billion. However, it signals that by the second half of this century, commercial fusion power will be a reality.

That would be nothing less than the crowning achievement of the industrial revolution. It would be the human mind harnessing the power of the stars to secure permanent prosperity for our species.

In spite of the Gaia cult, Athena is ascendant.




Share This


The Egyptian Mess

 | 

Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed . . .
                                                                                   —Isaiah 36:6

No one should be surprised by the recent events in Egypt. Indeed, this analyst foretold them here. A people unable to rule itself or even get its living without foreign assistance is bound to wind up in a bad place, and right now Egyptians are in a very bad place indeed.

The history of Egypt is well known, so I will touch on it only briefly here. The valley of the Nile was home to one of the earliest and greatest civilizations created by man. That civilization eventually declined, and Egypt became the booty of foreign conquerors — Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; the bounty of the Nile fed the Roman mob for centuries. Egypt’s population has been overwhelmingly Muslim since the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE. About 10% of its people are Coptic Christians.

Egypt enjoyed brief renaissances under the Fatimid dynasty (969–1171 CE) and then in the early 19th century under Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805–1848), an able military commander who nearly brought down the decaying Ottoman (Turkish) empire. Muhammad Ali’s descendants were the nominal rulers of Egypt until 1952, though from 1882 until the end of World War II it was Great Britain that actually ran the country. In 1952 the Egyptian Army seized power, which it held until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the popular revolution of early 2011.

We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic.

Mirabeau referred to Prussia as an army with a state. That description would aptly fit modern Egypt. The Army is the ultimate arbiter of politics in Egypt. It also plays a large role in the Egyptian economy, operating businesses and farms that account for a significant portion of Egypt’s GDP. Its businesses pay no license fees or taxes, and all profits disappear “off budget” into accounts under Army control. On top of this, it receives over $1 billion per year in American military aid. Its position in the state is comparable to that of the People’s Liberation Army in China — except that its political influence is probably even greater than that exercised by the PLA. The Egyptian Army projects itself as the guardian of the state and the people, but in reality it is a semi-parasitic organism whose primary goal is self-perpetuation.

The main counterweight to the Army is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, it has survived persecution first by the British and then by its bitter rival, the Army. For decades it too has been a state within a state, operating clinics and schools generally regarded as superior to those provided by the government, and dispensing aid to widows, orphans, and others. Indeed, the social safety net created by the Brotherhood was not only tolerated but partly funded by the government, which came to see the Brotherhood’s work as a pillar of social stability. In part, the poorest of the poor in Egypt survive because the Brotherhood has been there for them.

Of course, the Brotherhood is first and foremost an Islamist organization. Its ultimate goal has been and remains the creation of an Islamic society guided by sharia law. After the revolution of 2011 and the Army’s withdrawal from direct governance, the Brotherhood sought to fill the power vacuum thus created.

The revolution of early 2011 was not instigated by the Brotherhood, but rather by Western-oriented and social network-connected young people, more secular than religious in outlook, who wished to see Egypt become something like a European social democracy. That the revolution occurred just as European social democracy was beginning to crumble is ironic but beside the point. We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic. Even American-style political economy is incomprehensible to most Egyptians.

The young revolutionaries won out in 2011 because the Army had no desire to shoot people down in the streets. Moreover, repression might have forced America to rethink its relationship with the Egyptian military, thus jeopardizing that $1 billion in lucre for the Army’s coffers. Better to stand aside, the Army calculated, and sacrifice one of its own (the dictator Mubarak) to protect its corporate interest. It could wait upon events and intervene later if necessary.

Democracy had come to Egypt. . . Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution.

After the revolution the “liberal” forces swiftly fell into disarray. The various groups differed among themselves; they lacked both organizational ability and an agreed-upon program. They frittered away the goodwill they had had garnered in the heady days immediately following Mubarak’s fall. When the interim military government relinquished power in 2012, the liberals were unprepared to govern or even mount an effective political campaign.

Enter the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time of the revolution the Brotherhood had downplayed its political ambitions, even claiming that it would not offer a candidate for president. But its rallies were attended by large and enthusiastic crowds, and as it saw its liberal rivals fragmenting, the prospect of power proved too alluring. With the military partially discredited by its past association with dictatorship, the Islamists (including the Brotherhood and the very conservative al-Nour Party) were free to jump into politics with both feet. In 2012 they won a majority in the new parliament and then elected Mohamed Morsi to the presidency with an absolute majority of 52%. A constitution promulgated by the Islamists was ratified by 64% of Egyptian voters. Democracy had come to Egypt.

Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution; many non-Islamists refused to vote on a document that had been shaped along Islamist lines by the majority in parliament. Meanwhile, extra-constitutional steps were being taken against the judiciary and the media. This brought the secularists together again in opposition. The Brotherhood even alienated its Salafist allies in al-Nour, who found themselves marginalized as the Brotherhood’s arrogance grew.

Perhaps most important, the Brotherhood failed to grapple effectively with Egypt’s enormous economic problems. Forty percent of the population survives on the equivalent of $2 per day. Corruption is rife at all levels of society. Services as basic as electricity are often unavailable. It was certainly too much to expect that any man or party could correct these problems in a year’s time. But the Egyptian people were impatient. Many who had voted for the Islamists turned against the government when it failed to deliver basic improvements. Morsi and his supporters understandably took umbrage when the military warned them to compromise with the opposition forces. The president had been elected to a four-year term; surely he should be given that time to work out his plans for Egypt. That he had gone beyond constitutional bounds in some respects was not particularly unusual in the context of Egyptian politics. Nevertheless, when millions upon millions of Egyptians turned out across the country demanding his fall, the Army was bound to act. And the result was the recent coup.

When is a coup not a coup? When American law says that a country in which the military overthrows a democratically elected government cannot receive American aid. And so for the last few days we have witnessed the contemptible performances of the president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they wrestle to avoid the obvious. The ongoing massacre of language and truth being perpetrated by these men is prompted by the inexorable demands of empire: the Suez Canal remains a vital link for US forces deploying to the east. And the SUMED oil pipeline that crosses Egypt is vital to the transportation of Gulf oil to Europe. Already the current troubles in Egypt have caused West Texas intermediate to spike above $100 a barrel. If Egypt descends into chaos, that price could go to $140 or $150 a barrel, with terrible consequences for the American economy. So the servants of empire practice the art of obfuscation, and hope for the best.

Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

What is the best that can come out of the current crisis in Egypt? It is important to recognize the naked truth: Egypt is not a functioning society. Its problems are insurmountable. To declare that something cannot be fixed is discordant to American ears. But Egypt is a basket case that lacks even a basket. Consider the following facts:

  • Two-fifths of the population lives in great poverty, surviving on that $2 a day. Necessities are subsidized by the state; how long this can continue, given the increasing wariness of international lenders, is an open question.
  • The official unemployment rate is 12.5%, but likely much higher, and youth employment is higher still.
  • The country’s principal source of hard currency is drying up as tourism declines.
  • Egypt would in fact be bankrupt were it not for the money it receives in the form of handouts from the US and the Gulf States, and from Suez Canal tolls. National debt is approaching 100% of GDP.
  • Business is mired in bureaucracy and corruption and suffers from a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship (despite recent reforms), not to mention unfair competition from state enterprises.
  • The population has tripled in the past 50 years. It is expected to double again by 2050. Self-sufficient in food as recently as 1960, Egypt now imports over 40% of its total food needs, and 60% of its wheat.
  • Domestic oil production is declining while domestic consumption is increasing.
  • Egypt has virtually no tradition of self-government. The Egyptian people certainly failed to exhibit any real talent for democracy in the 18 months just past.

Egypt is in reality a fellahdom; its people, aside from the small middle class, are a fellah-people. In other words, they are an undifferentiated mass, a rabble incapable of governing or even sustaining itself. As it happens, this fellah-people occupies a strategic piece of real estate; therefore it will continue to receive enough in handouts from outsiders to keep starvation at bay. Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. Left to its own devices, it would undergo cataclysms that would probably kill millions. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

The principal actors in Egypt remain the Army and the Islamists. It should be noted that on July 6 the al-Nour party imposed a veto upon the appointment of the liberal, pro-Western Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister. Nevertheless, the Army, by drawing the secularists to its side, can guarantee continued support from the West. But if Western support should end — the result perhaps of a future crisis in the West itself — then the Islamists might again come out on top. The cry of “Islam is the answer” could resonate once more with the poor and disenfranchised. A descent into religious fanaticism would likely follow. What sort of Egypt would finally emerge is anybody’s guess.

I don’t pretend to know precisely what “solution” will be found for the present, short-term crisis. A patched-up one, no doubt, assuming civil war is avoided. But the long-term trend is clear. There is no way out for Egypt as it is presently constituted.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



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

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