A Few Things We Can Do Without

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A new year is always hopeful — until you notice that it’s only the calendar that has changed; none of the problems has gone away. Word problems can be especially sticky visitors.

As 2017 changed to 2018, I was thinking about that old expression back in the day. I heard it once or twice when I was a kid. I thought it was charming, in a daft way. (Not that I knew the word “daft.”) It gestured vaguely toward some unspecified moment in the past on which something of vague, unspecified significance had occurred. It was quaint and silly. Then, about 1998, I heard the expression again — this time from college students, who had heard it from other college students, who had picked it up from somewhere. These students were saying it about anything that had happened before, well, 1998. “When I was in high school, back in the day . . .”

I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Soon the expression was everywhere. It was a fad. I thought that fads went away; they’re supposed to go away. But this one hasn’t. I hope that it will, eventually — although many other hoary old youth expressions — cool, hot, weed, hittin’ on, even hip, as in hipster — won’t give up their lease. Perhaps (who knows?) you can hasten the exit of back in the day by saying, the next time you hear it, “Pardon me . . . which day do you have in mind?”

And here are some other things, few of them as innocent as back in the day, that have overstayed their welcome. I’ve arranged them alphabetically, starting with:

All about, as in, “Libertarianism is all about freedom.” OK, I understand that statement, and there’s nothing especially wrong with it; it’s just a way of heightening an effect: instead of saying that “libertarianism is about freedom” you say “all about freedom.” Maybe it’s a little childish: you wouldn’t say, “War and Peace is all about the Napoleonic wars.” But it gets, and has gotten, worse. Usually, nowadays, it involves the pretense that human beings have themes, just as books and movements do. I recently told a colleague that something should be kept confidential. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m all about discretion.” I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Bible fakery. This is a perennial medium of political disinformation. Somewhere in history, there must have been a politician who used biblical references with some respect for their source, but I can’t think of one. Christmas is a dependable venue for Bible fakes. At Christmas 2017 the most popular type was the equation of illegal immigrants with the Holy Family. A few blocks from my home there’s a church that’s still flying a banner depicting Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem and proclaiming, “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome Here.” If any immigrants or refugees turn up at the church door, they’ll find out how much this kind of “welcome” is worth. But never mind; here’s something sillier. Martin O’Malley, decayed Governor of Maryland, whose campaign for the presidency was a ludicrous flop, has not ceased his quest for the limelight. On December 22, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s TV show to say, “Merry Christmas. And remember that Jesus himself was a refugee child. What would you do if he came to the borders of your country?”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France?

Carlson’s comment was: “That’s so stupid, it’s hard to respond.” So I will respond. Jesus and his family were not immigrants, and they were not part of some “refugee” movement. They never crossed the borders of their “country,” which was the Roman Empire. According to one of the gospels, they came to Bethlehem by government order, to fulfill a tax regulation; according to another, they fled, a couple of years later, to another part of the empire, but soon returned. Notice, however, what Bible fakery depends upon: an audience that is impressed by “Bible” ideas but is unwilling to ask “What is this guy talking about?” — and then open the book and find out what it says. It’s easy. A child could do it. Millions of children have done it. It is not a good sign that churchgoers and media gatekeepers (there’s another term we can do without) can’t be bothered to do it. Tucker evidently did, but in the program that aired on Fox News just before his, it was assumed without contest that Jesus’ parents took him illegally across a border.

Culture of, toxic culture of. An online journal devoted to the topic of eating has become alarmed about reports “of a male-dominated ‘boys’ club’ environment that, in some ways, has become synonymous with restaurant culture as a whole. The restaurant world is known for late-night, loose, sometimes wild culture, but staffers told Eater,” the online journal, that so and so “epitomized the archetype of rich, powerful restaurateurs who party hard with beautiful women and celebrities, and indulge in what several former employees called the most debaucherous behavior they had ever witnessed.”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France? This stuff is pretty hard to take. But culture, used in an anthropological and yet judgmental way — that’s even harder. When it’s used about realms of lifethat I’ve had anything to do with, I feel like a native of New Guinea who is suddenly being “studied” by a bunch of ignorant people from America. I feel that these people are full of crap. I know that they’re full of crap. Since I don’t cook, and I have some money, I have visited many provinces of the restaurant world; I am fairly well acquainted with restaurant culture. I’ve had good friends who ran expensive restaurants. The most debaucherous behavior I ever saw was a waiter flirtatiously kissing his (male) manager. That’s restaurant culture for you! Was it toxic? I don’t know, but no hospitalizations were reported.

Grab. This word has traditionally, and rightly, been reserved for instances of haste, rudeness, or criminality: “Dude! He grabbed my wallet!” During the past year, however, I have seldom heard a waiter or barista or person in a store respond to a request by saying, “I’ll get that for you.” What I hear is, “I’ll grab that for you.” Right; first grab me a steak; then you can grab me my check; after that, I can grab my car and leave.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions: people who work in them need to communicate essentially the same information, hour after hour, day after day; they look for new ways of communicating it; they find them. Then they say these new thingsover and over, until even they get sick of them. In the meantime, multitudes of other people have heard the cute new things and have passed them along. This is what happened, for example, with the vile “You still workin’ on that?” The result is similar to the one we see when explorers introduce some quickly multiplying rodent to an island populated by a diversity of interesting but unprotected species. Now every person who intends to get something, find something, provide something, reach for something, or pick up something is saying, “I’ll grab that for you.” Our only recourse is to take the word seriously and reply with the appropriate warnings: “Watch out! You don’t want to spill that check!” “Don’t grab it too hard! Those Big Macs are delicate!” “If you grab your data like that, you’re just lookin’ for trouble!” “Be careful how you grab it; those salads can get violent!”

Historical fakery. On January 20, Eric Trump talked to Fox News’ renowned legal expert, Judge Jeanine, and confided inside information about the president: “My father’s workin’ like nobody ever worked before. . . . He’s gotten more done in one year than arguably any president in history.” “Arguably” is the weasel word, but it isn’t enough, unless nobody in his audience ever heard of Washington, Jackson, Polk, Roosevelt (both of them), Truman, Johnson (Lyndon), Nixon, Reagan . . . I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant, so ignorant that it amounts to fakery. A guy who writes you a check for a thousand dollars without bothering to find out whether he’s got a thousand dollars in his account — if he’s not faking you, he’s faking himself.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions.

In history is something the country should have tired of four decades ago, when Democrats in Congress endlessly reiterated the notion that Watergate was “the worst crisis in our history,” at least “since the Civil War.” But that was a true and moderate statement, compared with such recent claims as that of Trump fils, or that of a would-be Trump nemesis, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), who is reported to have said that Trump is the first “racist” president in US history. By Gutierrez’ standards, if he has any, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and many others were all racists; and other presidents were racists by any standard. Depend on it: any public figure who uses the phrase in history knows nothing about the subject.

Knowledge is power. This phrase is submitted for your consideration by Mehmet Karayel, who says that he’s tired of hearing it — as well he might be. Knowledge is power is one of the Western world’s oldest clichés (it goes back to the Renaissance, anyway, though it smells like the Romans), and one of its most harmful. Every expert in ichthyology or Sumerian mythology treasures this silly aphorism, regarding it as his license to loot the world’s moral bank account: “I have knowledge; you are now required to give me power.” You see the fallacy, but the possessor of knowledge never does. So knowledgeable is he that he swallows the statement whole and spends the rest of his life in vengeful disappointment with the ignoramuseswho will not give him power. It never occurs to such wisepeople that their absolute trust in their own knowledge (of something or other) is itself a decisive refutation of their eligibility for power.

Legendary. We see examples of this one every day. The following happens to come from Mediaite (December 21), but it could be from anyplace: “Legendary anchorman Tom Brokaw took a hard swing against Fox News this morning . . .” Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw. And, if memory serves, Paul Bunyan could occasionally talk so as to make himself understood.

I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Eric Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant.

How does legendary get attached to people who are not even memorable? The reason is that it’s too hard to find another adjective for them; they just aren’t worth the effort, so to be nice, somebody makes them legendary. Notice that no one ever refers to “the legendary Abraham Lincoln.” It’s always “the legendary Meryl Streep” or someone like that.

Litigating, relitigating.This is a low-grade form of political flimflam. It’s the substitution of a high-class term that many people do not understand for simple terms that everyone uses all the time, in order to make simple events appear too complicated to be understood. Thus CNN, last November, on the goofy ways in which goofy Senator Alan Stuart (“Al”) Franken dealt with allegations of goofy sexual misdemeanors:“What Franken is doing here is obvious. He is letting the statement he released last week in the wake of the first allegations stand. He's not adding to it, re-opening it or relitigating it.” You’re an intelligent person; you’re a good reader; you know what litigate means. So tell me: how can someone litigate, let alone relitigate, a statement, let alone relitigate his own statement? The simple word, the word that relitigating has been used to replace, is “changing.”

Much worse than the passage just quoted is Senator Elizabeth Warren’s statement to the Boston Globe about her bizarre claim to be an American Indian:

These issues were extensively litigated in 2012 [when she ran for the Senate] and I think the people of Massachusetts made their decision. I think what the people of Massachusetts and what voters are concerned about is the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.

No, an election is not a litigation. And if it were, its purpose would not be to decide the issues of whether Elizabeth Warren and her employer, Harvard University, falsely claimed that she was an American Indian. Neither, unfortunately, would it be held to pronounce judgment on the illiterate syntax of Dr. Elizabeth Warren, darling of liberal “intellectuals,” a woman who says such things as “the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.” Diagram that, if you can. Her underlying idea is simple: she got elected, so she must be right, either about being an American Indian or about the morality of falsely claiming to be an American Indian. This idea is ridiculous, and that’s why she’s trying to make you feel that the situation is too complicated for you to understand.

Nation of immigrants. Everyone — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, whoever — constantly recites this article of the American Creed. That’s sufficient reason, in itself, to send nation of immigrants to the retirement home. But there’s another reason. It isn’t true that we are a nation of immigrants, and it hasn’t been true since the 17th century. The vast majority of Americans were born right here in America; they are native Americans in the true sense of those words. But even if we were a nation of immigrants, so what? What inference could possibly be drawn from that? It wouldn’t mean that more or less immigration should occur. The only thing it might suggest is that the original native Americans, the Indians, should have done more to prevent the growth of a nation of immigrants, in which they would become a small and persecuted minority.

Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw.

Perch. I mentioned Al Franken (boo!, hiss!). I mentioned Tucker Carlson (hurrah!). Here they are again, but not in a good way for either. During his December 6 TV program, the latter referred to the former as “a powerful person knocked from his high perch” by a sex scandal. That would have been all right, if Tucker hadn’t been echoing one of the media’s insta-clichés. During the past six months, every prominent social position has become a perch, and while it pleases me to picture former Senator Franken as a fat yellow parakeet being knocked from its little plastic swing, this cliché is like all the rest of them: it usurps the position of other expressions, many of them more exact or vivid or imaginative, that might be useful for the occasion. The plague of perch will get worse before it gets better, because it only started recently.

Tone deaf. Discussing the execrable behavior of federal prosecutors in the Bundy case, “Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor at University of Nevada Las Vegas, said he's struggled to understand what led to the prosecutors' ‘tone deafness’ to their obligations.” Contrary to current popular opinion, you can’t be tone deaf to something that’s not a tone. Obligations, for instance, are not a tone.

Under investigation. Here’s another phrase marked for condemnation by Mehmet Karayel. He notes its constant use as a charm to keep the peasants from storming the palace — in plain terms, to keep the public from learning anything about the government it pays for. Whenever some particularly atrocious official deed is perpetrated, the first response of every government agency is to begin an investigation. Of course, if something is under investigation, no information can be divulged. If, however, the investigation has been concluded, well, the investigation has been concluded — case closed; go away. The next thing you’ll hear is that the matter has been fully litigated, and this is no time to relitigate it; i.e., bring it up again.

These are sayings, by the way, that you will never hear from Word Watch. This column never refuses to give out information, and the public can stay just as long as it wants.




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State of the Moral Union

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On January 6, the state of Hawaii was panicked by a message mistakenly sent to cellphones by an employee of the state’s Emergency Management Agency:

Missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.

As a consequence of this enormous error, the government worker — name concealed, of course, because revealing it would be so wrong and hurtful — has been “temporarily reassigned.” Not fired. Reassigned. To what job, we are not told.

“He feels terrible,” management says.

So would I. But why, after such an event, should I go on being paid by the people whose lives I jeopardized?

We live in a country in which you can make one of the worst errors that a human being can possibly make and still retain your job, your benefits, and the sympathy of a grateful government.

This is not some fine point of morality. It is morality — the morality of a society in which government is the servant, not the master.

As usual, the government’s spokesman intoned, “We’re not going to take action till we have all the facts.” And as usual when such statements are made, the facts are already known and obvious to all. This was confirmed by the same government spokesman: “The reality is, he made a fairly simple mistake.”

We live in a country in which you can make one of the worst errors that a human being can possibly make and still retain your job, your benefits, and the sympathy of a grateful government. But if you talk dirty to a coworker, serve booze to someone 20 years and 364 days old, take a toy pistol into a school, lie to the FBI about things that aren’t crimes, spank your child, or name your car the General Lee, you will suffer all the shame and ostracism that can be inflicted by an outraged state and society.

That’s where we are right now.

Years ago, prostitutes in San Francisco founded an organization to protest government persecution. The org was called C.O.Y.O.T.E. — “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.” Not a bad slogan.




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Healthcare: More Is Less

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There was a time when insurance companies focused on actuarial tables while physicians focused on diagnosis and treatment. But not any more! Now insurance companies are raking in the premiums — double what they were five years ago for many customers — while doing everything in their power to reject claims. Patients are more afraid of the insurance agent than they are of the disease.

In the past month alone, my daughters have had four hefty medical claims rejected, including a medication prescribed to control chronic seizures and a gallbladder removal that was deemed “elective” by the insurance company! What is the point of buying insurance if you can’t use it? And how can the market respond to customer dissatisfaction when government regulation gives insurance companies so much power?

Insurance companies are raking in the premiums — double what they were five years ago for many customers — while doing everything in their power to reject claims.

I raised five active, rambunctious, rough-and-tumble children across three decades, and while I worried occasionally about their health and safety, I never worried about how I would pay for their healthcare. My relationship with insurance companies was straightforward and consistent. Our copay was consistent. Our deductible was consistent. If one of the kids was injured, I could call my favorite orthopedic practice without worrying that the claim would be rejected on the grounds of some esoteric technicality. When my daughter developed epilepsy, I was proactive in finding the right doctor, the right diagnosis, and the right treatment that has kept her virtually seizure-free for 15 years — until her current insurance company decided that the medication her doctor has prescribed for those 15 years will not be covered.

In the past five years, everything has changed. Suddenly it’s the insurance agent, not the physician, who decides what the patient needs by deciding whether it will be covered. Insurance premiums are so high that few families can save enough to cover out-of-pocket expenses, yet everything is becoming an out-of-pocket expense. My daughters find themselves owing nearly $15,000 in uncovered medical expenses in a single month — and they have insurance!

In the past month alone, my daughters have had four hefty medical claims rejected, including a medication prescribed to control chronic seizures and a gallbladder removal that was deemed “elective."

American healthcare, once the best in the world, is collapsing under the weight of over-regulation and crony capitalism that favors the insurer over the healer. Rand Paul, the only actual physician in the US Senate, has been locked out of discussions about healthcare reform. Let’s hope it all collapses soon, so the free market can rebuild from the ashes.




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Responsive Government

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Libertarians are of two minds about government.

To some, the state is a system of entrenched powers and interests unwilling to yield a particle of authority. Evidence: even the president can’t make any significant change in the power structure.

To others, the state is a vast assemblage of freeloaders and influence peddlers, perfectly willing to assimilate anyone or anything — even you or me — because it is confident in its ability to survive and grow, no matter what. Evidence: the 535 members of Congress, living proof that anyone can become part of the state.

The mayor tearfully apologized, claiming that he knew nothing of the important honor granted by his office.

The first theory pictures government as an endless web of armed DMVs, the second as an endless series of doors that can be accessed, eventually, by anybody. If even a Maxine Waters or a Mitch McConnell knocks on enough of those doors, eventually one of them will open. There are policemen in the state of California who get paid $550,000 a year. They found a door that opened.

The city of Cincinnati has provided fresh evidence for the second theory. It appears that if you ask the people in the mayor’s office, they will give you a day, a special day, just for you, or for anyone you know, no matter who you or either of you may be.

In 2015, a police officer named Sonny Kim was ambushed and killed on the streets of Cincinnati by a man named Trepierre Hummons, who was then killed. This year, Hummons’ father contacted the city asking that a day be set aside to honor his son. His intention, it is reported, was “to raise awareness of child abuse and mental illness” — two things that something called the Trepierre Foundation — a GoFundMe venue — exists to fight. In any event, the father’s intention was soon honored, and the city declared June 1 “Tre Day” in honor of the cop killer, whose “sacrifice,” the proclamation said, would “save the lives of children for generations to come.”

If you ask the people in the Cincinnati mayor’s office, they will give you a day, a special day, just for you, or for anyone you know.

This action finally leaked into the knowledge of someone outside the mayor’s office, and protests were lodged. “Tre Day” was ousted from the calendar, and the mayor tearfully apologized, claiming that he knew nothing of the important honor granted by his office, which allegedly did not recognize the distinctive name of the person it was honoring. So much for Tre Day. But the awful extent of government is indicated by the fact that it does millions of things like this without its actions even being noticed.

And let me tell you, Tiw, Woden, Thor, Freya, and Saturn are really pissed off.




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Manna from Heaven

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When we talk of economics, we often do it by means of labels and mantras. Discussing economic subjects in this way means that we do not fully discuss them; we just use words and phrases that suggest preconceived notions. I think this is because economics is predominantly political, and “political” is another way of saying “snake oil sales.”

One mantra that I often hear is people’s invocation of a Robin Hood morality, the morality of robbing Peter to pay Paul: Robin Hood cared for the poor downtrodden (Paul) with the wealth he stole from the fat cats (Peter). What is ignored about this fairy tale is that Peter is the lord of the land who uses his governmental authority to confiscate the property of Paul, the peasants. Robin is a hero because he fights the totalitarian government of Peter to return confiscated wealth to oppressed taxpayers.

What got me thinking about the labels that political commentators use in discussing economics was Hillary Clinton’s assertion that Donald Trump’s plan to cut taxes in order to revive the economy was just “Trumped up trickle-down.” “Trickle-down” is the label often used by the political enemies of leaving wealth in the hands of CEOs and others of corporate administrative rank. The “trickle-down” label comes from the idea that these people spend the wealth hiring workers to construct whatever their companies’ products may be. Thus, wealth “trickles down” from the wealthy administrators to the needy workers.

Robin Hood is a hero because he fights the totalitarian government to return confiscated wealth to oppressed taxpayers.

But what is the government’s economic system of high taxes and “wealth redistribution”? In its intention, the wealth redistribution system is also trickle-down. In this system, government takes the place of corporate administration. It accumulates wealth — by taxation. This wealth is then supposed to trickle down to the subjects of the government, by means of redistribution programs. So, why is trickle-down bad when wealth trickles down from company administration, but good when it trickles down from government?

The feudal system that I mentioned when talking about Robin Hood was actually a wealth redistribution system. But in such systems, does wealth really trickle down? “Trickle-down” is appropriate to the sales pitch used by politicians when they claim that they intend to do such things as pay for infrastructure, education, and retirement. However, the wealth redistribution system is, in fact, trickle-out. “Trickle-out” means that the government takes wealth from its subjects and distributes it to its preferred lobbyists. Think military contractors, Elon Musk, and Planned Parenthood. Those are a few examples. Does the wealth ever get back to the subjects? Well, some does, but the amount that the subjects get is inversely proportional to the number of lobbyists who get some of the wealth before it makes its way back.

Politicians claim the place of God: they sell themselves as all-powerful beings that you need to take care of you.

The lobbyists and their clients reward the government by giving back some of the loot they received, prompting politicians to increase their take by selling more and more “economic stimuli” to the public, as if they were actually providing some kind of free food.

In the book of Exodus, God gives the children of Israel a miraculous food called manna, which is meant to sustain them on their journey out of servitude to the king of Egypt. In the modern form of this story, politicians claim the place of God: they sell themselves as all-powerful beings that you need to take care of you. They prefer this story about themselves to the reality of “trickle-down,” which is how we truly get our bread from heaven. In every light rain, water trickles down from above; this water is the food for plants, and thus the origin of our daily bread. And I think this is why politicians hate trickle-down economics: our food comes from sources beyond their control. This kind of economics dethrones them from their delusion of almighty power; and it exempts us — if we reflect on it — from our dependency on them.




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Give Up Your Guns

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A few years ago, there appeared online a satire of an American religious group, written by a disaffected member. This group — the name doesn’t matter — believes that because the present world is wicked, God will soon destroy virtually all its people in an apocalyptic war against his own creation. The satire, which unfortunately I can no longer find, went something like this:

Problem: Crime is rampant in our society.
Solution: Kill 7 billion people.

Problem: Violence plagues many countries of the world.
Solution: Kill 7 billion people.

Problem: Sexual immorality continues to increase.
Solution: Kill 7 billion people.

Etc.

I was thinking about this on December 2, as the chorus of modern liberal shrieks went up about the events in San Bernardino. The president and Mrs. Clinton started shrieking even before the crimes had ended, and they have continued in the same way, as if the addition of facts and information meant, and could mean, absolutely nothing. And indeed, they can’t mean anything to the shriekers, because their solution to every problem is the same: end the right to bear arms.

To them, it makes no difference who was using the guns, or whether the guns were legally acquired, in a state that has some of the toughest gun laws in America. It makes no difference that the terrorists were obviously dedicated enough to acquire guns, no matter what laws existed to prevent them. It makes no difference that . . . But why expand the list? Nothing makes a difference to the gun controllers’ apocalyptic worldview. It’s their religion, and it cannot change. It can only be preached at a higher volume.

Certainly it makes no difference to them that normal Americans have pretty much stopped caring what these particular prophets of doom are saying. We’ll see how much difference it makes to normal Americans that a sizable number of their leaders are religious lunatics.




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So, What Did You Do All Day?

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In the company I run, my partner and I have over 70 employees. Crazy. Business is good but stressful.

I just finished the latest meaningless HR task that small business owners must do: creating a “safety binder” for every single chemical in the office, with printouts of the numerous-page Safety Data Sheets from each product’s manufacturer, and with first aid information. “Every chemical” includes printer toner, dish soap, dry erase markers, WD-40, glue sticks, antibacterial wipes . . . the list is long, and the SDS sheets can be up to 11 pages. The Safety Data Sheets list such things as toxicity to fish and what to wear if you are in a plant that manufactures the dangerous item.

And this means he won’t sue us? Of course he will sue us. But maybe we will be spared the guillotine.

So, if an employee squirts hand sanitizer in his eye, he can get the safety binder and flip to the page that tells what to do if you have hand sanitizer in your eye. Or if he eats Windex, he can likewise turn to the safety binder. And this means he won’t sue us? Of course he will sue us. But maybe we will be spared the guillotine because we have shown such caring by having a bright red safety binder.

On a more practical note, I’ve bought three fire extinguishers, a huge first aid kit, and those continuous charge flashlights that plug into walls. Next on my list is choosing safety officers, devising a fire drill, and conducting it. My partner wants to get some of those bright orange vests. I’m thinking about it.

By the way, I have not done anything even remotely related to our product in a very long time.




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Rendering Caesar

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At first glance, it will appear to the reader that my title omits the word “unto.” The omission was intentional. There’s no “unto,” because my view of the familiar gospel story (Matthew 22:15–22) is unconventional. For most of my life, I read it in the way everybody else does. But although my religious convictions have changed little since early adulthood, I now see that story in an entirely different light, because of the change my politics have undergone.

The meaning I see: was it there all along? Purists may claim that I made it up, but I wonder. The feeling usually derived from the story is that Jesus was a crafty guy, because he really punked those Pharisees. I have a hunch that Jesus was even craftier than we realize.

For the scripturally uninitiated, some self-righteous types came to Jesus asking whether it was indeed lawful to pay taxes to Rome. They were always trying to trap him, and this time they really thought they had him in the bag. As the people of Palestine were subjects of the empire, they were forced to pay taxes to it. But the Jewish people regarded their overlords as tyrants, and cherished the dream of one day overthrowing them. As a rabbi, if Jesus were to say that these taxes were the empire’s due, he would stir up a hornet’s nest of resentment.

Government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source.

“Show me a coin,” Jesus tells his inquisitors. When they produce one, he asks them whose picture is on it. Of course they say it is Caesar’s. To which he responds, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” They went away disappointed, and perhaps a bit awed. Jesus had really gotten out of that one!

My purpose in retelling this story is not to force religion on anybody. My point isn’t particularly religious, but in my retelling of this story, it does have a moral, just not the one usually supplied.

From the time the gospels began to be circulated to the present day, the moral that has been understood is that there are some things that belong to us, and others that belong to the government. But it is precisely this moral that I wish to challenge. As a matter of fact, I challenge the very notion that government rightfully owns anything.

In truth, government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source. Everything it gets its hands on, it has taken from us. Or from whatever other nation it has plundered, or from which it has demanded tribute.

How, then, can government legitimately be said to “own” anything? It doesn’t earn; it simply takes. From others. Whether they want to give it or not. And for all that it takes, it gives astonishingly little in return.

Because I’m both a Christian and a libertarian, I’m sometimes accused of hypocrisy. How can I believe that taxation is theft, when — for crying out loud — Jesus himself told us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”? Whenever people remind me of this, they give me a smug smile, certain that they’ve punked me.

I used to get frustrated by this. But not so fast. Having now deeply considered the matter, I see the other side of the coin.

Jesus didn’t specify exactly what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God. Technically, he never really answered the Pharisees’ question. That aspect of the story almost always goes unnoticed. Actually he left us considerable leeway in deciding that for ourselves.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs.

Do we owe that coin to Caesar? Or do we “owe” Caesar anything at all? Those who call themselves “progressives” love to tell us that “we are the government.” If that is true — and I think that when they say it, understanding government as they do, it is the hollowest of lies — then where did “Caesar” get it in the first place? He neither made it, created it, nor earned it; he simply pulled out a sword and took it.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs. They didn’t want his picture on their money; he told them they would use that money or die for treason. Then he forced them to give up a crushingly sizable portion of the money they had earned — by the sweat of their brows — and give it to him. No part of how Caesar came about that coin was sanctioned by the law of the God they worshiped.

“I came not to destroy the Law,” said Jesus elsewhere in Scripture, “but to fulfill it.” Again, not to force religion on anybody, but even those who have no religion have a conscience that says what belongs to one may not be forcibly taken by another. Caesar owns nothing at all, beyond, perhaps, the image on “his” coin.

Were many, many more of us to recognize that fact, we could render Caesar powerless to demand anything from us at the point of a sword. We’d tell him what we wanted, and he would do it — because he’d serve us instead of the other way around. Every shekel and widow’s mite in this country belongs to us — the people who created it, worked for it, and rightfully earned it. It’s time for a reassessment of who owns what. And of who owes what unto whom.




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India: Great Expectations

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In 1991, under pressure from the IMF, India opened some industrial sectors to private companies and removed several licensing requirements. Private cellphone operators, banks, and airline companies started to appear. Soon, private banks were so customer-friendly that they would send someone to your home to help open an account. If you wanted more than $400 in cash, they delivered it free of cost. If you had a complaint, an employee would come to meet you in person within hours — wearing a tie, even in sweltering heat. Mobile phone companies provided outstanding service and, within years, at an enviable price. They delivered my SIM card to my home. If you wanted a new car, you did not have to worry about going to their showrooms. They came to you. Local airlines served great food and drinks, and were manned by bubbling youths full of passion for success. Foreign companies looking for competitive, English-speaking young people set up their operations in India.

Today, much of this lies in ruins. You have to keep chasing these private banks. Their websites are unfriendly, and they deduct money from your account without first informing you what they are about. An account holder stays away from credit cards, unless he really needs them or must show off; yet he still gets credit cards sent to him with yearly fees charged to his bank account, all without his approval.

The Indian government is a vicious, insensitive, passionless, totally corrupt, utterly stupid, and spineless organization, made up partly of psychopaths and partly of crooks, from top to bottom.

Airlines are marginally fine — with sulky services — as long as your baggage doesn’t go missing or a delay doesn’t make you miss your connecting flight. When my baggage went missing, so did the sleek-looking customer agents, for no one wanted to take responsibility. I recently discovered that the biggest mobile company now has no customer service number where you can talk to a live person. You must visit their office. If you deposit cash after your SIM was slated for disconnection (which of course you would not have been informed about), it will have disappeared into a black hole, from which a refund is virtually impossible unless you waste a horrendous amount of time. If the front-line agent has some figment of humanity (which is quite a rarity), he will tell you not to try getting your money back, for he might see the pain you would suffer trying.

Meanwhile, foreign companies started to realize that the costs of doing business were much higher than they had anticipated. They found that looks were deceptive. The English-speaking employees lacked skills, productivity, work ethic, and curiosity. Call-centers started to move to the Philippines. India stayed at best a back-office hub.

On earlier occasions, when I faced problems with Indian companies, I would report them to consumer forums, or write in to the complaint sections of the media. But I soon realized that despite any compensation I received, I spent so much time fighting the insensitive ears of these private companies that the project was cost-prohibitive. These days, if the money involved isn’t much, I forgive and forget, a sign of greying hair and loss of idealism. If what is involved is substantial, instead of fighting in consumer courts, I look for the most efficient strategy. If the Indian company is a subsidiary of a foreign company, I start by calling their CEO's office. When the Indian arm of a Korean refrigerator company refused to do anything about a problem, by calling their Korean office I got a new refrigerator. When a subsidiary of an American company gave me a faulty air conditioner and did nothing about it, I called their CEO in the US. I told his secretary that I would call twice a day to ensure that I got to speak with the CEO. Then their Indian arm worked so well that even the best anywhere in the world would have been impressed. But I have digressed.

In a mere few years, private companies became more like state-owned companies. In some cases one prefers state-owned companies, where at least a bribe does the job. Why?

In general, the "profitability" of Indian companies, particularly the big ones, is a reflection not so much of wealth-creation but of political backing, of their ability to find loopholes in regulations, and of outright theft, often from the poor section of society.

How things go wrong

The Indian government is a vicious, insensitive, passionless, totally corrupt, utterly stupid, and spineless organization, made up partly of psychopaths and partly of crooks, from top to bottom. Most have very numb or dead brains. They exist in dirty, unhygienic, and terrible environmental conditions, for it is they who do the cleaning. I can recall very few encounters with bureaucrats or politicians in which a bribe was not demanded. Moreover, you must grovel and beg in front of these (figuratively and literally) diseased people. Even then there is no guarantee that they will do the job.

I remember that on many occasions the bribes were not about approving something, but just to release my files so that I could take them myself to the next diseased creature. Only a citizen whose mind has not been destroyed and numbed would not feel humiliated by what he goes through at government offices. Not only is the bureaucrat after money, but he relishes the act of demeaning citizens, in a corrupt attempt to make up for his deep-rooted inferiority complex and self-hatred.

Demeaning others leaves the Indian bureaucrat feeling good about himself, at least for the moment. The irony is that all this makes him seriously sick, physically, mentally, and spiritually. His children go astray and he never understands why. As you discover reading The Lord of the Rings, in a tyranny, there is no single tyrant. Everyone is tyrannized by everyone else; everyone's spirit is subdued by everyone else’s. A bureaucrat must sit with people of his kind, who scheme against one another, forever wallowing in the rotting sewage of envy, hatred, and a strange kind of showmanship. In reality, however, they have nothing to show but impotence, for they never create anything useful or productive. They, their wives and kids, and even name-dropping relatives, show off their status in an exaggerated way, through noise, heavy-handedness, armed goons in costumes, and big cars with sirens.

Not only is the bureaucrat after money, but he relishes the act of demeaning citizens, in a corrupt attempt to make up for his deep-rooted inferiority complex and self-hatred.

A casual observer might believe that all you have to do is get rid of such bureaucrats. All you have to do is to change the party in power and streamline regulations and remove corruption through an empowered constitutional authority that politicians cannot touch.

Why then why did private companies fail to sustain their proper character?

The problem is much deeper than an observer might imagine. It is a problem that cannot be reached by the typical libertarian prescription of reducing the size or composition of government. When the prescription is applied, things don’t not turn out much better; and the improvement certainly does not last.

What most people fail to understand is that the state is little more than the sum total of the collective mind.

In India, even a perfectly created product has a very short half-life. My new gym has grown old within months. The dust piles up; the equipment rusts, rather rapidly. My new car earned a big dent, the day I bought it. Every vehicle gets smeared with dents. I don't know anyone who hasn't had several injuries and close calls with death. Day-to-life faults happen with amazing regularity, a frequency that could never have been imagined or statistically expected. The most resilient equipment burns away if you do not think of using a surge protector, for the electricity company will increase the voltage by misconnecting the wires at the main poles. Normal cars need to be redesigned to ensure that they work because, for example, there is almost universal adulteration of petrol. Refrigerators that are designed to keep working as long as they are plugged in stop cooling when water condenses and freezes in their air-pipes as a result of frequent electricity cuts.

Every time you take anything for repair, even a minor one, you get a patch-up job. You are looked upon with amusement if you ask for a good, clean job. No self-respecting workman would want to have anything to do with you, irrespective of the money you offer. Expediency is the mantra. If ever there is a serious repairman, he needs immense cognition to isolate the problem. The others patch whatever they can get away with patching. When you tinker with a system or an individual piece of equipment, trying to correct the problem, you often create more problems, for your tinkering — however innocent it may be — undoes the other patches. This situation exists not just with equipment but with absolutely everything in life. Most Indians waste a very large part of their day putting out existential fires. My five hours of no electricity today, in what is among the best neighborhoods and those most catered to, are one of my smaller worries, for at least I know what the problem is.

So what is the deeper problem?

Unfortunately, but predictably, the bureaucrat described above is merely a reflection of the larger society. He is the tip of the iceberg. This is always the case, but what most people fail to understand is that the state is little more than the sum total of the collective mind. The visible state — the government — and its tyranny is a symptom of the underlying problem: a society that breeds and sustains the statist poison. Individual Indians will decry corruption, but virtually everyone will pay a bribe to gain an unfair advantage over others or take bribes by rationalizing it away. Even written contracts have no value. It is considered fair game if someone steals your money and gets away with it. Most people will not rent their property, for they fear it will not be returned. Most people, even the guy on the street, have a perfect prescription for how I should live my life and will offer it to me unabashedly. Respect for others as individuals and their properties is a completely alien concept. This, combined with fatalism (a product of a superstitious mind that is immune to the concept of causality), is the reason behind the chaos on the roads and every other area of life. I contend that the Indian road is a visual representation of how the Indian mind works.

You cannot have a small government in a society in which everyone wants to control everyone else's life, where no one can be trusted to do a job properly, where the concept of how to make money is not wealth-creation but manipulation and theft. You cannot avoid building a large and corrupt police force in a society where the individual cannot be trusted. You cannot stop a complicated structure of regulations and government in a society in which individuals cannot think straight, clearly, or rationally.

If someone wants a real, sustainable change he should work in the arena of critical thinking and individualism, not on imposing superficial Western ways.

A tyrannical government is a product of a tyrannical, corrupt, and statist society. Even before the society changes, it is the individual who must change. A free society is unsustainable without free-minded individuals. Those who want real change must work on the root: the individual.

The general totalitarianism, indolence, dishonesty, lack of work ethic, confused thinking, irrationality, superstition, and lack of respect for other people have too much momentum on their side to let private companies stay good. The initial euphoria, mostly of a drunken kind, a catharsis, lasted for no more than a few years. What you culturally see in India is not different from what the West was like perhaps 500 years back. India's problems cannot be dealt with unless the society has gone through the reformation, enlightenment, and scientific revolution that happened in the West.

What differentiates the West from "the Rest"

For vices to be replaced by virtues — the way in which a rational individual perceives them — the concept of reason must take precedence. For those who do not think by means of reason, for those whose culture is not based on it, the vantage point from which vice and virtue are considered is very different. For such people, touching a low-caste person to help him might be a sin, and forcefully occupying the property of a poor person to build a temple might be a virtue.

Lacking appreciation of all this, the US government — assuming it was well-intentioned — spent many years lavishing its resources in attempts to bring democracy, the rule of law, etc., to societies where such constructs have mutated back to what they originally were. Those truly interested in bringing a change must understand that outside the West, the mainstream's way of thinking and conceptualizing the world, its way of imagining and perceiving the world, and its resultant aspirations and motivations are driven by undercurrents that are essentially pre-rational. It is the undercurrents that must be changed. They must, indeed, be replaced by reason and individualism.

The problems of India are extreme, but they aren’t just India's problems.

In my travels around the world, I am reminded of this again and again: there is the Western civilization, which values the individual and the concept of reason; and there is the rest, the area of the world in which most people haven't a clue about what individualism means or, if they have a clue, abhor it, even after hundreds of years of interactions with the West and even after the advent of the internet, easy information, and cheap traveling.

Reason and individualism are a rare fruit, a very expensive one. Without it, democracy, the rule of law, and regulations against excessive state power have limited and mostly unfavorable effects. That is the problem of India today.

And not just India. Most places outside the West are in a mess, living a contradiction, having some material development but lacking the necessary basis in reason and individualism, and hence of ethics. Even the West has increasingly lost these concepts. This might be making the world an extremely unstable place. But, again, I digress.

If someone wants a real, sustainable change he should work in the arena of critical thinking and individualism, not on imposing superficial Western ways, trying merely to reduce regulations or reduce the size of the public sector.

The future of India

With China slowing down, Russia failing to impress, Brazil in stalemate, and the economies of the West in stagnation or decline, the focus of those looking for economic growth has moved to India.

Despite producing some of the largest numbers of so-called scientists, engineers, and so forth in the world, India is an extremely wretched country. Relatively speaking, a huge amount of economic growth has taken place since 1991, when it is believed that India started to open up — from GDP per capita of a few hundred dollars then to $1,625 today. In my view, the date when India started to change economically was a decade earlier. India had started opening telecommunications to impress visitors during the hosting of the Asian Games in 1982. This in turn opened channels for an easy import of information and technology through the telecommunications cable. Things developed from there. But now that the low-hanging fruits of imported technology have been extracted from the tree, India is stagnating again.

The mainstream media disagree, strongly. During the past year, the euphoria of the old days has returned to India. The stock market has recently been the highest ever. Foreign institutional investors are flocking again. They see India as the next China, ignoring the fact that India is one of the rare countries that hasn't had an event to shake off entrenched interests, social habits, and patterns of thinking during the past many centuries.

How Modi can change a country of 1.25 billion is something that no one really wants to think about, for these are times of euphoria.

Deaths of hundreds of thousands every year in avoidable calamities of course haven't triggered any shakeup, and hence cannot be called revolutionary. Also, it pays to remind ourselves that the so-called independence movement in India was a political event. As a rule of thumb, a political event is an active avoidance of introspection. India's certainly wasn't a cultural movement or even a shakeup. In a way, it was the antithesis of a shake up. Before that, entrenched interests had participated in the revolt against what came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance, which the English supported. Democracy allowed the basest of elements to rise to the top, making entrenchment worse and a possibility of a shake up more remote and entangled.

India's newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, is behind today's grand hopes. Everyone is looking at him. Alas, Indians are so badly trained (and unable to think straight and clearly from the perspective of reason) that supervising a mere few of them often feels impossible. How Modi can change a country of 1.25 billion is something that no one really wants to think about, for these are times of euphoria. Hence, the cycle starts again.

There are far too many hopes about this deity. Modi's deification is perhaps the most visual symptom of India's problems: the society looking up to someone or something external to bring salvation. Today's youth have far too many material expectations, taught them by the TV, but not enough productivity. This might be a very dangerous cocktail in the making. Even if it isn’t, I see no way for India to experience meaningful change unless it gives up its irrationality and superstition. I see nothing on the horizon that is capable of teaching critical thinking to the youth.

For those who care to imagine, India may be, culturally and intellectually, where China and Russia were in the late 19th century. Then, India was indeed going through its own renaissance — the Bengal Renaissance — until it was nipped in the bud by half-baked, uneducable people (Gandhi, Nehru, etc.) who went to study in England and learned nothing more than what their irrational minds could accept: intellectual rationalizations for socialism. They neither got nor were capable of getting even get an inkling that what had made England great was reason and individualism. A bottom-up renaissance was corrupted into a top-down design to change India, the so-called independence movement.

At some point, India has to pick up the threads where it left them, with the premature end of its renaissance. Would that require it to suffer what China and Russia suffered in the early 20th century? It shouldn't, and I would hate to see that happening, but is there any other possibility that human history shows?




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Here’s What’s Wrong About Price Gouging

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Here are some situations. See what you think of them.

You’re getting ready to drive to work when you turn on the radio and discover that an accident has closed two lanes of the freeway you usually take. Unwilling to spend two extra hours inching through horrible traffic, or to forfeit half a day’s wages so you can go to work at a later time, you decide to sacrifice four dollars and take the toll road.

Your friend has a birthday tomorrow, and you want to give him his favorite thing, which is a certain kind of Brazilian coffee. When you get to the store, you find that the cost has gone up. Several would-be customers are shaking their heads and turning away: they’re not buying at that price. “Bad season in Brazil,” one of them says. “Half the crop wiped out.” Hence the price increase. But you want to please your friend, so you pay the extra money and buy him a pound of coffee.

The first snowfall of the winter turns out to be a bad one. When you see the stuff clogging your driveway, you regret that you didn’t contract with the neighborhood snowplow guy to clear the drive whenever it snowed. You call him on his cell, and over the sound of heavy equipment you hear him say something about wanting to “do the customers with contracts first.” In fact, he’s got all the contract customers he can handle — but he’d be willing to help you out today, for twenty dollars extra, fifty dollars for doing it right away. You happily agree.

Do you see anything wrong about any of these little episodes? I mean, do you see anything contrary to common morality? Anything contrary to common sense? Anything contrary to normal economic reasoning? No? You don’t? I don’t either.

You would have paid a hundred dollars, if the snowplow guy had asked for it. It would have been worth it to you. But no, he’s not allowed to ask for more.

Now suppose the government decreed that no motorist should have to pay more to drive, just because there was some dumb accident on the freeway. Suppose the government therefore closed the toll road, just to make things fair, meaning that you would be required either to spend extra hours on the freeway or to forfeit some of your pay for a much delayed arrival at work, or both.

Or suppose the government decided that no one should pay more for essential foodstuffs (e.g., coffee), just because some unpreventable meteorological event occurred. Suppose the government therefore decreed that no one should be allowed to pay more for coffee than the price that prevailed before that event, meaning that all available supplies of coffee would be long gone before you went to shop for it — purchased by casual customers who would never have bought any coffee at the price it is worth to you.

Or, to go at this one more time, suppose the government refused to allow the snowplow guy to charge you extra just because there was a big snowfall and you hadn’t been prepared for it. Obviously, you wouldn’t get your driveway plowed, despite the fact that some of the people who got theirs plowed, at the ordinary price, had nothing better to do with their cars than drive to the convenience store for a bag of chips, whereas you needed to show up at the office to sign an important contract. You would have paid a hundred dollars, if the snowplow guy had asked for it. It would have been worth it to you. But no, he’s not allowed to ask for more.

What do you think of the morality and economics of that second set of situations? Not much, I imagine. Yet that is the morality and economics that is official in our country. That is the morality and economics that the people, as a corporate body, loudly applaud.

Consider what happens when some meteorological accident befalls an East Coast state. As soon as a hurricane is foretold, state and local officials decree that no one will be allowed to charge more for gas, food, or lumber than they do on a normal day. To charge more would be “gouging,” and an awful thing. The result? The economy grinds to a halt. Long lines form at stores and gas stations. People in urgent, perhaps desperate, need wait in line up behind people who have nothing better to do that day, and no one has a compelling economic interest in rerouting supplies to the weather-threatened region from other places; it’s a hassle, and the price would be the same anyhow. Besides, if you made a mistake in pricing, you could be arrested. Fat little Chris Christie, or some similar buffoon, bustles from one gas station to another, threatening to arrest “profiteers” and occupying the 6 o’clock news. And the people cheer.

It appears to be an article of the national faith that prices are determined by the law of supply and demand. But another article of faith is that the government can and should violate that law.

The other day, federal officials made headlines by announcing an investigation of airline companies because they allegedly raised prices on flights in New England after a government train had an accident that disabled the main line from New York to Boston. The idea of these high-level feds is that it would have been scandalously immoral for the airlines to charge more money for their seats, thereby allowing travelers who were willing to pay more to go ahead and pay it, and travelers who didn’t set so high a priority on getting to Boston right away not to pay it. Except on John Stossel’s show, no murmur of disapproval greeted the well-publicized announcement of this sanctimonious investigation, or witch hunt.

So this is the mystery of contemporary politics. Actions that would, in certain contexts, make almost all Americans shake their heads in wonder are welcomed, in other contexts, with pious approval. Why is that? I don’t know.

It appears to be an article of the national faith that prices are determined by the law of supply and demand. This idea is even taught in high schools, where realistic ideas almost never appear. But another article of faith is that the government can and should violate that law (which it constantly does), and that no one will pay a price for the government’s action: no one will spend hours waiting to buy something he’d prefer to pay a bit more money for; no one will find that the items he wants to buy have disappeared when he finally gets to buy them; no one will lose his life or livelihood because of an arbitrarily imposed “fair price.”

Americans believe that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. They also believe that the government can cook one up for you, at any time, and no matter what happens. No problem! Just make a law.




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