The Quest for Perpetual Motion

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In an apparent attempt to establish its identity as a boatload of busybodies, ExxonMobil has been running ads in which a series of adolescents tries to convince other adolescents to become engineers. The young’uns, most of whom come across as pushy and unpleasant, if not positively unbalanced by somebody’s good intentions, ask the mighty questions of our time:

Who’s gonna do it? . . .
Design cars that capture emissions?
Build bridges that fix themselves?
Get more clean water to everyone?

The answer, according to the scripted kids, is: “Engineers! That’s who! Be an engineer!

I wouldn’t mind if more kids became engineers, but I hope that someone will let them know that engineers don’t just think up a trendy “problem” and then fix it.

Consider the idea of “bridges that fix themselves.” Even I can imagine a bridge with some contraption attached to it that could make some kind of repairs on the rest of the bridge. But how much would that contraption cost? How much would it cost to construct? Who would pay for it? With what? Earned in what way? Who would maintain it? Who would supervise its operations? Who would fix it when it needed to be fixed? Who would pay all these people? Again, with what? What would the engineer who designed the “self-fixing” bridge — or the people who constructed it, or the people who are supposed to run it — have been doing if some do-gooder hadn’t commissioned him to work on such a structure? Would he have been designing something more useful, perhaps?

I have some other questions, too — larger, and almost as obvious. What kind of society makes possible the existence of engineers and the situations in which they are able to devise whatever they devise? On what assumptions, institutions, and practices is that society based? If, for example, everyone doesn’t have clean water, why is that? Is it because enough ambitious young people somehow failed to become engineers? Or is it because of some broader problem, some problem that may involve authoritarian government, superstitious resentment of “Western” science, a static, anticapitalist economy, “the tragedy of the commons” (i.e., communal ownership), a lack of respect for “women’s work” (washing, cooking, getting water) . . . Is it possible that these are problems, and that they won’t be solved by clean little TV kids who want to “fix” all the “issues” their teachers mention?

How do you find the answers to these questions? Who’s gonna do it — who’s going to study the economic history and political philosophy and social practices and moral concepts that may shed light on them? If society provides a good environment for our young engineers, how can that environment be maintained? If society goes bad, who will fix it? How? And at what price, financial and intellectual? Or will social conditions fix themselves, because some social engineer devised a political contraption to make that happen? And will it work — or will it be the kind of thing that engineers used to call, derisively, a perpetual motion machine?

Because that is what the Exxon ad promotes: the idea, already far too prominent in our society, that there are self-fixing, frictionless, cost-free solutions for every problem — the idea that there is, in fact, such a thing as a perpetual motion machine.




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Their Gamble, Our Win

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A recent news piece in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention. Entitled “Germany’s Expensive Energy Gamble,” it reports on that country’s new grand energy plan, the “Energiewende” (“Energy Revolution”). This is now at the top of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic agenda.

Under this plan, Germany will spend a projected trillion euros — and we all know how government projections tend greatly to understate final costs — laying out a massive new network of high-tension lines to carry power from wind plants in the North Sea to the country’s heavily industrialized southern region. Merkel’s government is gambling that this titanic investment will pay off with cheap, inexhaustible energy.

So far, the dream of renewables replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power has delivered only nightmarish results.

While the EU has a set of rules requiring its member states to achieve a goal of 35% of their electricity from so-called renewables by 2025, Germany has set its goal to hit 40–45% by then and to exceed 80% by 2050. Again, this is without using nuclear power.

If achieving this does cost the German economy a trillion euros (about $1.4 trillion), that would equal about half the country’s annual GDP.

So far, the dream of renewables replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power has delivered only nightmarish results. Despite Germany’s history of no major problems with nuclear power, Merkel virtually shut down the nation’s nuclear industry after the Fukushima disaster. Today, only nine nukes remain open, and they are due to be shut down in about seven years.

The result is that over the past five years, electricity prices in Germany have skyrocketed 60%, because the subsidies for the highly inefficient wind farms are passed on to the consumer. German electricity is now over twice as expensive as America’s.

Even riskier for the German economy is the strain this is placing on the manufacturing sector, one of its key components.

As Kurt Bock, CEO of BASF — the world’s biggest chemical company and one of Germany’s biggest companies of any kind — put it, “German industry is going to gradually lose its competitiveness if this [energy revolution] isn’t reversed soon.

BASF, by the way, has every right to be frightened by Merkel’s energy scheme. The company’s main plant employs 50,000 people in Germany, and consumes as much power as all of Denmark. And Bock is not alone in his concerns. A recent survey by the Federation of German Industry and PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that three-fourths of executives at small- and medium-sized industries feel that the rising energy costs threaten German productivity. A survey by the US Chamber of Commerce showed that a similar percentage of American company executives with operations in Germany felt that the Energiewende made Germany less attractive as a place to do business.

While the unfavorable opinions of the manufacturers, either German-based or with German operations, should worry the German government, even more worrisome are the attendant industry actions.

BASF has announced plans to cut investment in Germany by 8.3% of its world total, shifting it elsewhere. SGL Carbon, another German manufacturer, has decided to triple its $100 million investment in its Washington state plant rather than expand its domestic operations, for the reason that electricity costs only one-third as much in Washington state as it does in Germany. And basi Schöberl GmbH will turn to France rather than Germany as the site of its new plant. (France, note well, has kept its nuclear power plants at full strength.)

As Daniel Yergin has put it, the Germans enthusiastically embraced so-called renewable power, viewing themselves as trailblazers, “But now the Germans look back and see there aren’t many people behind them.”

Meanwhile, as another WSJ piece documents, our own energy revolution continues to flourish — even in the face of an administration downright hostile to it — because ours is based on fossil fuels.

The article notes that while naysayers wrote off our fracking revolution under the theory that shale wells don’t produce for long and must be replaced with ever more wells, the fracking revolution enters its tenth year in fine shape. Shale wells have become far more productive.

For example, in 2013 the most fecund shale well produced, at its peak, 5.9 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. But last year — a mere decade later — the best shale well delivered an amazing 30.3 million cubic feet a day — a fivefold increase! And fracking oil wells have seen similar productivity increases over the last decade.

We have a grotesquely obtuse president, so we will no doubt squander this opportunity to get our manufacturing base to the heights it could reach.

In fact, the focus of the American oil and natural gas industry — which has become the world’s largest energy producer — is now on finding ways to get more from existing wells, as opposed to looking for new shale fields. So while the number of wells has remained roughly constant, the production has jumped.

All this has kept American natural gas prices at historic lows.

This would suggest to a shrewd president — if we only had one! — a national strategy for renewing our industrial sector.

The strategy would be to embrace the American energy renaissance. Take back the regulatory agencies, as well as the Department of the Interior, from the environmentalist activists. Return to issuing leases to develop resources, both offshore and on land, leases dramatically curtailed by the Obama administration. Return to selling public lands — the federal government still owns 28% of the 2.27 billion acres that comprise our national territory. And allow our oil and gas to be exported freely. At the same time, reinvigorate our nuclear energy power industry.

In other words, aim explicitly at allowing the market to drive our energy prices, both the price of fuel and the price of electricity. This would create a cornucopia of benefits.

It would add a massive number of new jobs, first in the energy sector, then, as that wealth spread, in every other sector as well. It would drive down the amount of money that vicious dictators such as Putin and terrorists such as ISIS use to maim and murder free people around the world. That would lessen the probability that young Americans will die to protect our interests.

But we have a grotesquely obtuse president, so we will no doubt squander this opportunity to get our manufacturing base to the heights it could reach.

Elections have consequences — alas! But people get the government they deserve.




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Don’t Label — Just Do

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Americans are frustrated.

We all know it, and to prove it, we captured it on film.

Our documentary, 100 Signatures, follows the story of the "All Day Breakfast Party" campaign for Congress while exploring the challenges that independent and third-party candidates face while seeking office. The film explores the obstacles of a "two-party system" and the tools necessary to succeed in it. While producing the film, we spent a lot of time speaking with citizens. From coast to coast, north to south, the majority of people we spoke with say their concerns are not being represented in Washington DC.

Ballot Access News editor and founder Richard Winger said it best, "We aren't solving our problems in this country."

In an age of IRS scandals, NSA spying, and threats to our country's safety and economic security, the average voter is now expert at identifying the problems. In today's economy, trouble seems in excess supply, with an unmet demand for answers. Solutions, after all, take work — real grit.

We showed our own grit (or at least, endurance) with the half-decade of interviews we conducted for our film. Then, when we’d finished it, we started a new conversation about third parties and ballot access. But that's just one issue. What about all the others plaguing the state of liberty?

We were thinking about that when we went to Las Vegas for this year’s FreedomFest. We were there to exhibit our work in the Anthem Film Festival. But we found that it’s at FreedomFest that the thinkers and the doers convene.

The libertarian FreedomFest offers a refreshing break from the usual political rhetoric: real and workable solutions to improve the state of healthcare, education, the economy, and national security with presenters qualified and brave enough to innovate necessary changes. We learned that libertarians are united in a fearless desire to make the US better for all of us.

And talk about representation — we had the chance to meet people from many different ideological positions within the general “libertarian” category. There is actually something for everyone within the group that wants liberty for all. Certainly there is a lot of disagreement, not to mention eccentricity, within that group. But while it's easy to label our challenges, we must be careful not to label and discount the source of solutions.

There's a weird dichotomy in American culture today. Stereotyping is a sin, but if you ask ten Democrats to define a Republican, you're likely to get the same answer, and vice versa. There's a sports team mentality among the supporters of "Team Blue" and "Team Red." After FreedomFest, however, we can say for sure that it's impossible to stereotype libertarians. Maybe that's because instead of clamoring to become a political caricature, they're busy working — building businesses and supporting fair ideals.

Yes, Americans are frustrated today. That's why, as we tried to express in our film, it's important to empower citizens to consider alternatives at the polls and seek their right to run for office. But that’s also why the range of solutions offered by real, working people, real problem-solvers, must never be restricted by stereotypes.




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Techno-Fascism

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In January 2014, for one month, I held a job as a document review attorney in Manhattan. I was a member of a team of 30 attorneys, and we each reviewed about 500 documents a day. This means that 15,000 documents in total were reviewed each day. One day, out of those 15,000, my supervisor (who only had two assistants and was very busy herself) found one document on which I had made a serious mistake, and gave me a talking to about not making that mistake again. I was very embarrassed and promised to do better. But my initial thought was: how did she find my one wrong document out of 15,000? Then I realized: all the documents were stored electronically, and she simply ran a computer search that notified her of which documents contained the error.

My point is simple: there are no needles in haystacks anymore. One document out of 15,000 can be detected using a computerized search, because a computer can read 15,000 documents in a few seconds. If a computer search can find that, what else can it find? A search of every email in the Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook email systems with the word “libertarian” in it? A search of the internet for a list of every libertarian Meetup? Given a set of names from a libertarian mailing list, a list of all addresses? Can you see where I’m going with this? How difficult would it be for a socialist government to round up all the libertarians? Using computers, a government could find us. Using computers, it could monitor every email and every phone call, so that we could never organize any resistance. Using computers, it could even do profiling to identify the people whose personalities would make them sympathetic to liberty, and add those supporters to a list before they made a move to act or even knew what libertarianism is. What Ellsworth Toohey said about “future Roarks,” namely, that they will all be destroyed, comes to mind.

Look at your smartphone. Does it have a webcam? Yes. Is it GPS enabled so it can give you driving directions? Yes. But how easy would it be for a government to turn on that webcam and direct a permanent video feed from your device to a government monitoring station? And to keep a constant record of where you go, every minute of every day? And could the government do it by issuing secret orders to Google and Apple, and to Microsoft, which controls the smartphone operating systems, so that your own device spied on you without your knowledge? I can tell you that your smartphone could easily be turned into a chain around your leg. If 300 million smartphones were so converted, the data could be sent to computers that, as I described above, could analyze the data for trends useful in detecting rebels — for instance, by listening for a conversation including such keywords as “freedom” or “rebel,” or noticing when you go to a place where libertarians are believed to meet in secret. 1984 is a real possibility, though a little late in 2014.

The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment.

Advances in technology bring great joy. But they also bring danger, especially when the advancement of politics lags far behind. Einstein’s work revolutionized physics; it also led to the nuclear bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Similarly, I fear that the rise of computer technology, in the hands of a dictator, could lead to “techno-fascism.” The dictator would not need spies, because cameras and sensors, analyzed by computers, would detect all traces of resistance, and tell the secret police exactly where to go to crush rebellion before it started. Under all dictatorships of the past, rebels could meet in secret, make plans, and try to revolt, because spies could not be everywhere. Now they can be.

The fact that there are no needles in haystacks anymore was actually visualized in Batman: The Dark Knight, where, toward the end of the movie, Batman uses the Bat Computer to hack into Gotham’s cell phones and eavesdrops to locate the Joker. If, in this way, the government spied on people in the name of safety and fighting crime, then the public might let it happen, until it was too late to reverse the practice.

Well, if doom awaits, what do we do? The technology for techno-fascism already exists. Its only real impediment is the Fourth Amendment. Read it. In the modern era, no charter of civil liberty is more crucial. We must fight to protect the Fourth Amendment, and to use it in courts.

Meanwhile, we can expect spies to spy on other spies. Because there are no needles in haystacks anymore, every side can see what the other sides are doing. The techno-fascist wants to spy on others while remaining invisible himself, but this is impossible; everything is visible in the world of Big Data.




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Legal Predation

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Alabama has not escaped an abuse suffered elsewhere in the country, one reminiscent of lawyers’ trolling for plaintiffs in their nightly TV ads. The Opelika-Auburn News has carried stories about a form letter (copied online by the newspaper) that local businesses have received from a law firm in Montgomery. (I have also had a brief conversation with an attorney for some of the victims.)

The letter threatens a federal lawsuit on behalf of not-yet-specified plaintiffs for not-yet-specified violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act unless the targeted firm agrees to an out-of-court settlement. The letter expressly says that a suitable settlement would cover legal fees. The amount later suggested, typically a few thousand dollars, apparently turns out to be small enough to persuade some victims to settle to avoid risking further and possibly great expense and trouble.

Such predation is one more example of using or threatening government power to redistribute wealth away from its real producers. It is also an example both of quasi-deception and of regarding business firms as fair game that just exists, almost automatically, to be exploited in various ways as might occur to somebody.




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ISIS and the Anarchists

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Some of our best friends at Liberty are libertarian anarchists; others are libertarian supporters of minimal government. I’m in the second camp. (Long-suffering people can refer to my articles in the July 2013 and December 2013 issues of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.) So I wonder what anarchists think about the ISIS affair.

Here is a private religious organization that raised its own military force, and then devoted it to murdering and torturing all who failed to obey its creed. Such things are not unexampled in Islam; recall the great Mahdist revolt in 19th-century Africa. Some religions waited hundreds of years to take over a state; the original Muslim movement erected a state at once, and that is what ISIS has been doing — transforming itself from a private movement into “the caliphate.”

I imagine that in analyzing this metathesis of private organizations, anarchists will do what they usually do: retell the long story of state aggression, comparing its horrors to the benefits of private organizations that remain private. They will emphasize that ISIS intervened in a situation destabilized by the United States and other governments. They will observe that ISIS acquired its weapons from those left in Iraq by the United States government. So any way you look, it will just be state, state, state.

But that’s my own point. Even if a state is destabilized, other states will take its place, and its resources. Some of them (including once-private organizations, such as, for instance, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the radical Islamists) may be shaped by the worst private emotions — intolerance, sadism, the desire to kill and torture. To a regrettable degree in human history, the gratification of these emotions has taken precedence over the libertarian desire to mind one’s own business, participate in trade, and learn interesting things from one’s neighbors. How do you protect yourself against such vicious but popular passions, except with your own state? Ask the Kurds.

Nevertheless, I’d like to know what anarchists really think about this ISIS thing.




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Dishonest Impositions on Business

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In “Lying as a Research Tool” (Liberty, April 2013) I cited a study of employers’ possible discrimination by race as suggested by fictitious applicants’ names on fictitious résumés. Because such studies are remote from my own main interests, I was not then fully aware of how numerous and respected they have become.

One new example, not yet published in an academic journal, has received prominent and enthusiastic attention in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend issue of 17–18 May 2014 and in Auburn University’s online media. The researchers responded to job announcements by emailing thousands of phony résumés of recent college graduates. The fictitious applicants differed in college majors, recent employment or unemployment, internships, prestigiousness of home address, and typically white or typically African-American name. One conclusion was that experience as an intern before graduation improved one’s chances of being invited to a job interview.

The Southern Economic Journal of July 2014 publishes a similarly conducted study of landlords’ possible discrimination according to whether a prospective tenant’s name and writing style suggested (to use the authors’ categories) a white person, a well-assimilated Hispanic, or a recent immigrant from Latin America.

The authors of such studies cite dozens of similar ones, commenting on the particular questions investigated and on the effectiveness of the particular deceptions employed — but little if at all on their dishonesty. I discussed one of the studies mentioned above by email and then in person with one of its coauthors. What happens when an employer offers a job interview? Answer: the fictitious applicant replies that he or she has meanwhile accepted some other job. Apparently unabashed by the lying that pervades the study, the coauthor excused it with the remark that the end justifies the means, using those very words.

Sissela Bok’s Lying (1978) included a chapter on “Deceptive Social Science Research.” Bok expressed dismay at her examples (though not, of course, at the not-yet-familiar deceptions described here). One reason such deceptions are objectionable is that they create noise in the job and rental markets, possibly disadvantaging genuine applicants. They suggest unconcern about the additional burdens, slight in the individual case but significant in the aggregate, imposed on business, especially small business. The authors presumptuously call such studies, done by correspondence or occasionally with hired actors, “audits” (an “audit” being an official or formal investigation of someone’s accounts or activities to uncover possible error or worse).

Apparently unabashed by the lying that pervades the study, the coauthor excused it with the remark that the end justifies the means.

But why do they consider business firms fair game for such targeting, almost as if they just existed automatically? Actually, no one is obliged to be in business at all and hire employees or offer rental housing, let alone to endure just anyone’s intrusive impositions.

One ground for hope is that such experiments will destroy their own effectiveness if they become familiar enough to arouse the suspicion and noncooperation of the unwitting guinea pigs. By then, sadly, the general presumption of honesty and trustworthiness essential to a free society and market economy will have become further eroded. Many TV ads and the assertions and promises of politicians are already doing damage enough.

At least in their own profession, academic researchers should uphold standards of honesty.




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What Obamacare Did for Me

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In January I was kicked off my health insurance and forced to buy an Obamacare plan through my state’s health insurance exchange. Let me tell you about it.

My monthly premium is now $315. I am poor and struggle to pay this bill. In fact, the $1,500 I have paid so far this year would torture the poor working class people Obama promised to help. My premium on my old health insurance was roughly the same. I thought the whole idea of Obamacare was that if everyone bought health insurance then premiums would go down. Why, then, is an Obamacare plan still so expensive?

Here it is worth noting that what I pay is $315 a month, but my premium is officially $385 per month, lessened by a $70 per month “tax credit” that the government pays because I bought an Obamacare plan. I would not complain if Obama gave me poor coverage but at least paid my premiums for me (although when I say this I choose not to engage my readers in the lengthy debate about whether fully socialized medicine would be even more horrible than Obamacare). But $70 is little enough, compared to what I pay each month. So I am still getting price-gouged and I don’t get free health coverage, either — when free healthcare is what the liberals and socialists thought Obamacare would lead to.

If I catch a cold, my health insurance is useful. If I get seriously sick, I am totally screwed.

Obamacare is actually the worst of both worlds, because meanwhile, I’m not getting the quality of service that would have come from a true free-market product. For my $315 monthly premium, I get a plan that has a deductible of $3,000 for in-network hospitals and $6,000 for out-of-network doctors and out-of-network hospitals. (The deductible for in-network doctors is also $3,000, but it’s waived for in-network doctor’s office visits, which require only a $30 copay. But see below.)

Which poor people have $3,000 or $6,000 to spare? I certainly don't. If I catch a cold, my health insurance is useful. If I get seriously sick, I am totally screwed.

In the interests of fair and balanced journalism, I will tell you that I had a respiratory infection in March for which I saw a doctor and took an antibiotic, and I guess my doctor's bills and medicine costs would have been much higher if not for Obamacare. This does not alter the fact that I now live in chronic fear of getting very sick. Nor does it alter the fact that if I had saved up my $1,500 of premium payments instead of paying it I might have been able to bear the cost myself.

My plan is with Anthem Blue Cross, the biggest Obamacare provider nationwide. When I call them I am kept on hold for over an hour. This has happened a dozen times.

When I bought this plan the policy disclosures said the deductible was waived for visits to certain types of specialists, so in those cases I would be liable only for a $30 copay. I saw such a specialist in February and promptly sent in a claim. I heard nothing for a month, called to follow up, and was told they had lost it. I resubmitted the claim. They lost it again. I followed up yet again, and was told that because my specialist is out-of-network, the deductible was not waived. This is not what the plan had said. But it turned out not to matter, because they rejected the claim anyway, because of my doctor's bad handwriting on an Anthem form.

Anthem has told me that I may resubmit my claim for the February office visit, but the hassle of dealing with them has scared me away. And I hesitate to bother, anyway, because if the claim is allowed the only result may be $150 going toward a $6,000 deductible. At some point I may try to submit the claim a fourth time, but I don’t expect anything good to come of it.

This is a true story.

I tell this to my liberal mother and she says all insurers are greedy.

The plan was designed by Obama. But for political partisans, blame is always better to give than receive.




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Sugar Daddies, Sky Fairies, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters

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America’s self-appointed sophisticates like to ridicule religious believers as devotees of the “Sky Fairy,” or of an entity of cartoon-superheroic magnificence they call “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Those too enlightened for such foolishness assure us that they are the grownups in the country, and therefore above silly superstitions. Yet curiously, many of them retain absolute, childlike faith in big government as the solver of every problem and the savior from all evil.

Statists on both sides of the spectrum tend to a blind trust of information they get from their official propagandists. To borrow a wonderful phrase from our editor, Stephen Cox, they gobble it up like fish food. Many of the same people look down their noses at those silly Christians, whose core beliefs come from the Bible. But Fox, MSNBC, and NPR have only been around for a few decades. The Bible has endured for thousands of years.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing.

This is not to say that, in my opinion, people don’t get some odd ideas from Holy Writ. We see these notions floating around in the cultural atmosphere, like leftover bubbles from The Lawrence Welk Show. I get as much pleasure in pointing, laughing, and popping bubbles as anybody else. But to suggest that the basic ideas are less credible than this week’s talking points by the rah-rah media strikes me as nothing short of absurd.

The big story last month was the donnybrook between Hobby Lobby and the Obamacare cops. The Green family, who own majority interest in the Hobby Lobby corporation, caused widespread sophisticate outrage. In their fidelity to the dictates of their “Imaginary Friend,” the Greens sought an exemption from providing certain forms of birth control in employees’ health plans. Our president meanwhile seeks to bestow healthcare on the huddled masses, but certain people’s benighted religious views keep getting in the way!

The concept of a Supreme Being who created the cosmos and has abided since the beginning of time strikes the enlightened ones as laughable. But the competence of an elected official not born until 1961, and only elected in 2008, cannot — dare not — be questioned. The Obama Administration and its minions Know Best. How can we be sure of this? Because they care about the right things.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing. But surely I am deluded. The Sky Fairy has blinded me with sparkle-dust.

My general impression of those who seek political power, particularly high office, is that they aren’t very nice people. They appear, to me, to be concerned with little more than self-promotion and blind ambition. They have an amazing propensity to say exactly what they think their “base” wants to hear. But no matter what they say, they always end up doing what serves themselves and their own glorious careers. I don’t know why that makes me gullible, or any sillier than those who “ooh” and “aah” over the Great Enlighteneds’ every utterance as if it thundered down from Mount Olympus.

The god of the so-called sophisticates is something even loftier than our exalted leaders. It is Sugar Daddy, the all-knowing, all-seeing, infinitely powerful bringer of all that is right, good, and utterly unquestionable. “We’re not worrrrthy! Pray forgive us if we ever — for a millisecond — questioned your wisdom. In your divine awesomeness, call down no drones to smite us!”

Now, that sounds pretty out-there to me. But then again, I’m no sophisticate. Clearly I’m incapable of understanding.

Trusting the government to fix its own messes seems, to me, a prospect considerably more dubious than relying on Gomer Pyle to fix the family car. Goofy as he was, Gomer usually knew how to get that vehicle humming again. Too bad he isn’t running for president. With his cousin Goober as a running-mate, he’d be at least as credible as the geniuses we’ll undoubtedly have to choose from in 2016.

Yet all will be presumed, by their legions of fans, to know what they’re doing. In fact, to know better than everybody else. The Rube Goldberg contraption of the state grows to ever more monstrous proportions, but the gruesome sitcom of power piled upon power continues to entrance many Americans. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is dismissed as hoary, tired, and in need of retirement; but Sugar Daddy is ever young and virile. In his present incarnation, he even wears cool sunglasses and shoots hoops with NBA stars.

Our politicians are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

I believe I’ll sit out this enthusiasm. I can’t get worked up about the controversy over whether the First Lady has buff arms or a big butt. Nor do I get teary-eyed thinking about the First Daughter’s high school prom, or outraged because she and her sister attend private school. They are just human beings like the rest of us. When the Presidential Family became our version of the Windsors, they were not elevated to the Heavens, but merely added to the cast of the sitcom.

When I was in high school, the Student Council candidates divided themselves into two parties: Kiss and P-Nut. At the time I found it absurd. Us kids, pretending to be real politicians! Now I see the Democrats and the Republicans morphing, more and more, into Kiss and P-Nut. They are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, I think that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

Too bad, however, that they’re not wrangling over whether ice cream should be served in the cafeteria, instead of waging wars, jeopardizing our future, and taking our money to pay for their grand schemes. At least on the Student Council, they wouldn’t be out of their league. Nor would we be expected to pay them endless tribute and trust them with our lives.

The Sky Fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are looking better all the time.




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Peak Obama

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"We tortured some folks."

Set aside the occasion — a weekday afternoon speech during the middle of crises both foreign (Gaza, Ukraine) and domestic (border control, CIA surveillance, sluggish economy, et cetera). Set aside also his inexplicable support for CIA chief John Brennan, who lied openly and unabashedly to the Senate about his agency spying on members of Congress. (And potentially, of course, all other United States citizens; the senators naturally only care when such tools are turned against them and their offices.) Set aside all else about the inadequate performance of this president, so lukewarm that all but his most ardent supporters are prepared to spew him out of their mouths. Just savor these words:

"We tortured some folks."

Years of Stephen Cox's Word Watch coverage of Obama's misuse of language can be summed up in those four words. The condescension and arrogance of his affected folksiness, the coerciveness of his forced plural pronouns, the maddening vagueness of his utterances — all wrapped into one short burst of faux sincerity.

"We tortured some folks."

These four words stand as President Obama's most representative contribution to US political rhetoric. God help us all if he manages to top them.



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