They're Coming for Your Internet

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In a thinly-veiled message to Internet users throughout the US and beyond, the FBI today (Jan. 19) shut down the file-sharing service MegaUpload.com, seizing the company’s domain name along with its headquarters. With this raid, the feds clearly meant to show that they were the bosses of the online world, laws and legislation be damned. As usual, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

Back up a couple days. On the eve of January 17, Internet sites all over the world were preparing to “blackout” to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) then under consideration in the House of Representatives (in the Senate, as the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA). The bill would give the government power to seize any website that was reported to be hosting pirated material, or even providing links to such material.

Those doing the reporting, of course, would be the media companies themselves — thus giving them, essentially, a kill switch for sites they don’t like. So if you pan a big-budget movie — or break off a relationship with a studio exec — or really just in any way piss off anyone connected to a lawyer in the entertainment industry — your site could get shut down without due process and without recourse.

But the possibilities for petty revenge are far from the worst thing about the bill. That would be instead its potential to crush political dissent. Under SOPA, the presence of any link to “pirated” material would be sufficient to kill a site — even if the content is provided by anonymous commenters. Hence, the easiest way to silence dissidence online would be to spam the offending site with dubious links.

Even the biggest sites would be susceptible to such tactics; hence why even the behemoths of the Internet, such as Google and Wikipedia, signed onto the protest. With such sites as these “blacked-out” (usually redirecting to petitions or email-your-congressman forms), even casual Internet users found themselves confronted with the ramifications of the government’s latest lunatic notion. For once the people spoke, and many Congressmen reversed position.

The feds couldn’t let such a demonstration go unpunished, but lacking the power to shut down Google and Wikipedia (for now, anyway), they did the next best thing: publicly target and destroy a site like MegaUpload, as a way of announcing that they would shut down whomever they felt like. What they always forget, though, is how little they know about computing and networking, compared to the people who put together the kinds of sites they want to shut down. The response from the actually competent sector of the online world was swift and brutal: within two hours, the hacker collective Anonymous (previously best known for taking down the Church of Scientology site) had attacked and temporarily killed off the sites for the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the US Copyright Office, and assorted major film studios and record labels.

These sites will all come back, obviously: only the government would claim the right to banish a site for good. But the mere fact that they could go down at all shows their vulnerability to attacks from very loosely affiliated networks of competent individuals. And that is a weakness that, try as they might, the DoJ, the FBI, the MPAA, et al., can never come to grips with: their very existence is predicated on massive, centralized, bureaucratic incompetence. To give that up would be to begin their own dismemberment.

It will be fascinating — and a bit worrying — to see how the government and major media companies will respond. Certainly SOPA and PIPA will come back in new, more insidious forms, probably as riders on unrelated bills. Though President Obama bucked his industry pals and came out against the bills this time (only, of course, once the online campaign against them was in full cry), there is no guarantee he would in a second term. Meanwhile, among the Republican candidates, only Ron Paul (natch) has denounced the bills; a President Romney, Gingrich, or Perry would probably sign them into law. [Edit: in the evening's Republican primary debate in South Carolina, candidates Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul all spoke out against SOPA — though Romney and especially Santorum still appeared to leave space for future censorship of the internet.]

Until then, what is required of us is vigilance — vigilance, and an unyielding determination not to let a few hundred computer illiterates in Washington DC legislate away our cultural future.



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Government-Grown Lemons

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A flurry of recent reports brings us up to date on GM — now known as Government Motors, after its nationalization by the Regime. The news is less than inspiring.

First is the report that GM is recalling nearly 4,300 Chevrolet Sonics — because they may be missing their brake pads! The incredible news is that workers at the Orion Township, Michigan assembly plant left off inner or outer brake pads on many of the Sonics manufactured there.

The funny thing is that the same Regime Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood who told Americans to avoid Toyotas in a bogus brake scare is totally silent about this real brake fiasco.

Then there's the news that came out on the “legendary” Chevy Volt — you know, the EV green machine car of our future. For one thing, it appears that the damn things are costing American taxpayers about $250,000 for every vehicle sold. This to subsidize a car purchased by people whose average income is $170,000 a year.

That’s the estimate provided by James Hohman, economist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He analyzed the 18 government deals that were involved in setting up the Volt line — all the loan subsidies, taxpayer-funded rebates, tax credits, and government grants at the federal and state levels that were arranged for this car. The thing is indisputably green in one sense: it takes taxpayer dollars to keep it alive.

Hohman's estimate does not, by the way, include the bailout money that has been shoveled at GM as a company. Nor does it include municipal support.

The deals Hohman reviewed included $690 million of support by the state of Michigan and $2.3 billion in federal support. That’s a total of $3 billion in for the 6,000 Volts actually sold. As Hohman puts it, “This might be the most government-supported car since the Trabant” (the infamous piece of junk manufactured by East Germany).

Worse, it turns out that GM is calling back all Chevy Volts because of a fire hazard. Seeing several Volts catch fire after crash tests showed that electrical shorts in the battery can ignite the coolant, GM is going to try to fix the problem by strengthening the battery compartment. Just in time!

But the Volt isn’t the only EV that is prone to battery-induced fires. Fisker Automotive has announced that it is recalling its entire line of luxury plug-in hybrids (which sell for over $100,000 each!) because of fire hazards.

I mention the Fisker, because even though it builds its cars in Finland, it received $529 million in American taxpayer-backed loan guarantees. The Regime assured us that the American taxpayer would be paying to provide American jobs, but that was just another lie.




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How Unpatriotic Can You Get?

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One of the classic attacks by leftists on rightists is the assertion that people on the right typically question the patriotism of their opponents. In my experience, it is typically the leftists who resort to that particular ad hominem trope.

We have no better illustration than our current National Healer, Barack Obama. Obama, a master of the ad hominem attack, famously called Bush “unpatriotic” for running up nearly $4 trillion in national debt. (That included TARP, which was repaid by the banks with interest, early in Obama’s reign.)

Now, however, Obama has quietly requested another $1.2 trillion rise in the national debt ceiling. That would raise the current national debt to $16.4 trillion. In his three years in office, he has already added $4.6 trillion to the debt, far more than Bush did in eight years. Obama makes Bush look like a miser — no easy feat. He is increasing the national debt at an average of $4.24 billion a day, and will have added $6.2 trillion to the debt in his first (and, I hope, his last) term.

That would mean that Obama will have added more to the national debt than all the presidents preceding Bush — from Washington to Clinton — combined. To use another epithet he hurled at Bush, his spending has been nothing short of “irresponsible.”




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Tim Tebow's Secret Handshake

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This weekend, the Denver Broncos face off against the heavily-favored New England Patriots in the second round of the NFL championship playoffs. The game is worthy of note because it means another week of pop culture fixation on Denver quarterback Tim Tebow.

Even if you don’t follow professional football, you’ve probably heard of Tebow. The former University of Florida star has crossed over into mainstream culture reference. Some of the popular interest focuses on his unconventional mechanics and style of play; most of it focuses on his devout — and conspicuously proclaimed — Christian faith. His practice of kneeling in prayer before and after games has been copied (and mocked) widely.

As long as he keeps any jihadi impulses to himself, I care little about another man’s religious beliefs. Nor do I share the contempt that some atheists have for the faithful. Generally, I agree with the spirit of Pascal’s Wager: lacking conclusive data, I would be arrogant to assert or deny the existence of an omnipotent diety.

Musing on the metaphysical qualities of God isn’t the point of this reflection, though. The strong reaction to one football player’s public shows of piety renders my diffidence . . . insufficient.

Tebow doesn’t mind proselytizing. In fact, he — like many of his coreligionists — believes that promoting God is essential to serving God. His logic goes something like this: God gave Tebow athletic talent and charisma not because He cares who wins a given game but because fame on the football field creates a bigger platform for Tebow’s message of devotion. So, Tebow believes he is obligated to use his media access to reach out to others more effectively than conventional preachers can. Doing so, he plays into the biases and neuroses of the statist Left . . . and neither side seems to mind.

The establishment Left has had many cultural victories; one of these is the effective blurring of people’s personal and political lives. This blurring is a major reason that Tebow shoulders more political connotation than any other sports celebrity in recent years. But “the personal is political” trivializes and cheapens political discourse. It reducesto stale cliché debates that should be vibrant and essential.

Tebow courts this clichéd response. While still a college player, he filmed a television ad for an anti-abortion advocacy group. The ad was sophisticated and avoided strident words or tone. The already-famous athlete and his mother talked about health troubles she’d experienced while expecting him; she implied that another woman might have chosen to have an abortion. And they ended by making a pitch for choosing life.

The usual gang of idiots in the popular media — the execrable Bill Maher, the fey Jon Stewart, the undeservedly self-impressed Rachel Maddow — rose to the bait and have taken turns pillorying Tebow. But all of this is a kind of Kabuki ritual. The outrage is canned, the excess seems calculated. The TV people make cheap points with their core audiences; the Christian athlete gets a red badge of courage with his.

I’ve long been interested in the “secret handshake” that some public figures signal — perhaps instinctively — to the public. Whether that public is adoring or loathing. To me, Bill Clinton remains the master signaler of our times; he conveyed loyalty to the statist Left, even though his actions sometimes betrayed their faith. The pop singer Madonna does it, too; she conveys much more than she actually delivers on stage.

The current president has some of this — but seems more passive and less masterful than Slick Willie or the Material Girl.

Tebow is very good at this signaling. His recent success on the football field is, as he says, only part of a more-ambitious agenda. His opposite number on the Patriots — future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady — may be better at his job. But Tebow’s playing a bigger game.




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Hurting the Poor, Helping the Rich

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Coming from Randian roots, I have a deep appreciation for the virtues of business, and of wealth that has been earned. I do not consider myself to be a liberal-tarian. I usually agree with the Right and disagree with the Left. But the more I look around, the more I see that socialism is really a tool by means of which millionaire elites keep the poor masses from rising up. Libertarianism or “classical liberalism,” on the other hand, can accurately be described as the friend of the poor and the enemy of the rich. I have already written in Liberty (January 2010) about how capitalism helps the poor. What I want to focus on in this Reflection is how statism helps the rich, especially the old money aristocracy, the metaphorical James Taggarts of the United States.

The evidence is overwhelming. Look at education. Rich people send their own children to expensive private schools, which put them on track for Ivy League universities and white collar jobs; meanwhile the political establishment makes sure that the only choice available to poor children is a horrible public school system that teaches nothing and trains students only for low-income jobs. The public schools are controlled by teachers' unions that oppose merit-based pay and favor a seniority system, which is a terrible model for achieving high educational excellence. The modern liberal reply is to say that the system is broken but could be fixed by raising taxes to give more funding to public schools. The real solution is to use school vouchers so that poor children can attend the rich children’s schools — a prospect that few wealthy parents care to consider.

Or look at business. Statism helps wealthy corporations in many ways — not by giving them tax breaks as the modern liberals complain, but by giving them rentseeking handouts such as farm subsidies and defense contracts. Ending all subsidies and all pork barrel spending would be a huge loss for rich people with political connections, yet the modern liberals have bamboozled the poor into thinking that statism actually helps the poor and hurts the rich. On Wall Street, the SEC’s maze of rules makes legal compliance so difficult that it is virtually impossible for newcomers to compete with the old established investment banks. Established businessmen use taxes and regulations to stifle competition from start-up entrepreneurs and up-and-coming small businessmen who can’t afford to hire compliance lawyers and tax consultants, as their old money rivals can. Yet small business is precisely the engine of opportunity for hard-working ambitious people from poor backgrounds.

Now look at the professions. Affluent professionals in the medical and legal fields enjoy salaries that are artificially increased because the AMA and the ABA maintain systems of doctor licensing and lawyer licensing that restrict the supply of new doctors and lawyers. I predict that if ObamaCare does lead to a socialist single-payer national healthcare system, that system will be run by AMA-approved bureaucrats whose inefficiency and nepotism will drive up the price of healthcare, allowing doctors favored by the state to make more money than they would have in a free market. In the ObamaCare nightmare the rich will probably be able to afford to obtain treatment from high-quality doctors, but the poor will be faced with no alternative to the low-quality healthcare that the system is certain to produce. ObamaCare will be a disaster for the working poor.

In every situation mentioned, above socialist measures help the rich and hurt the poor, creating a caste system in which vast fortunes can be inherited but cannot be built up from scratch. The instances described above have all been justified on the ground that they benefit society as a whole or protect the whole public from the dangers of free markets — in itself a distinctly socialist justification. But a logical person would expect socialism to favor the wealthy, because it vests tremendous economic power in the class of bureaucrats and government officials, and one would expect the upper class to have the means to exploit that power. The rich are the ones most likely to be able to afford to run for office and to purchase influence among politicians by means of campaign contributions and special interest lobbying.

Socialism favors the wealthy because it vests tremendous economic power in the class of bureaucrats and government officials, and it is the upper class that has the means to exploit that power.

What I am offering is not an empirical claim but a deductive argument: the wealthy are inherently better positioned than the poor to exploit the state’s power; therefore, the more powerful the state becomes, the more advantage the rich have over the poor in terms of the opportunity to make money. Ayn Rand hinted at this idea when she contrasted “the aristocracy of money,” that of people who earn wealth, with “the aristocracy of pull,” that of people who exploit the state to obtain wealth. But in the end I think Rand loved the rich so much that she failed to see how socialism may actually be a plot by the rich against the poor.

My criticism is directed mainly at wealthy members of the socialist or extreme-leftist wing of the Democratic Party. It is no coincidence that many of the most famous Democratic politicians who preach that they are the champions of the poor graduated from Ivy League universities that most poor people could never get into because they could not afford to attend the most prestigious private high schools. Many of these millionaires could not possibly imagine what it is like not to have enough money to pay your bills or to have to work two shifts to make ends meet.

Consider Democratic presidential candidates, past and present. President Obama comes from Harvard Law. John Kerry has the Heinz fortune. Bill and Hillary Clinton were products of Yale Law. And the members of Joe Kennedy’s clan have vast amounts of wealth and several Ivy League degrees behind them. Looking farther back, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the champion of the socialist New Deal, was a man of wealth and privilege; the Rockefeller family inherited an enormous fortune, yet produced many left-leaning politicians, one of them a presidential candidate. People like the ones just mentioned have no right to say that they speak for the poor and underprivileged. Such people are merely exploiting leftism to maximize their already substantial influence.

It is true that the higher taxes championed by modern liberals would hurt the rich. But the bottom line is that in the American capitalism-socialism hybrid, the leftist rich retain the ability to own their vast fortunes while also exploiting the advantages of socialism to prevent ambitious poor people from competing with them. While socialist interference in the economy drives up prices and eliminates jobs, the rich retain their connections, their ability to land good jobs, and their ability to pay for what they want to buy. By contrast, the poor have no choice other than to accept whatever goods and services the government-ruined markets have to offer, and they must desperately seek jobs in a market crippled by taxes and regulations.

The socialist wing of the Democratic Party thinks that decades of the welfare state have made the American poor so lazy and dependent upon government charity that they can be controlled like dogs and trained to bark at capitalism whenever the leftists blow the whistle. This twisted scheme has worked to some extent: common sense and conventional wisdom now hold that lower-class economic interests are aligned with the welfare state.

Libertarians would be well served to focus our ideological energy on fighting this myth. The working poor in the United States have enough trouble to worry about as it is, and it’s not fair to them to tolerate a political system that hurts the poor and favors the rich.




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What's in Your Wallet?

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Am I the only one troubled by so-called loyalty cards — those wallet-fattening, discount-generating, grocery store-checkout minor irritants? When the cards were first introduced at my local Safeway I was urged to sign up, with the slogan, “The savings are in the card!”

Well, I was skeptical, but I decided to look into it. Right from the start, I was turned off by the information required on the application. It also seemed to me that — as The Economist pointed out in its November 5 issue — the expense of setting up and running rewards programs increases a retailer’s overhead. So I asked the attendant (usually busy manning a checkout till, but now temporarily signing up rewards card customers instead) how increased overhead could generate discounts?She stared at me blankly.

One chief executive from a Canadian firm that runs a card scheme explains, “The real value-added (from loyalty cards) is the data.” As The Economist further elaborates, “By cleverly using the information collected when customers’ cards are swiped at checkouts, the companies can offer them well-targeted discounts. Even small shifts in buying habits, multiplied by very large numbers of customers, can provide a welcome boost to profits.”

I’m not convinced. And neither is Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, which proclaims (through Asda, its British subsidiary): “No Clubcard. No gimmicks. Just lower prices every day.”

Unwilling to sign up at Safeway, I switched to buying groceries at Albertson’s, which at the time had no loyalty cards. But it wasn’t long before both Albertson’s and Fry’s (Kroger’s) — the only other alternatives in Prescott, my home town — also jumped on the bandwagon. What to do?

Club cards come in two forms: a credit card-sized rendition and a key chain-tag mini-card. One day, through sheer luck, I found a dropped mini-card in the Albertson’s parking lot. Voila! Now I could cash in on discounts without revealing personal information.

On my next trip to the grocery store, my favorite checkout gal noticed I’d acquired a loyalty card. She kidded me about capitulating. I told her I’d found the card. So she asked me what the big deal was. I told her I was very skeptical about the whole card concept, explaining that I couldn’t understand how additional overhead could generate discounts, and that I objected to providing personal data and purchasing habits. I summed it up by saying, “Adolf Hitler would have loved to find out who was buying kosher food.”

She responded diplomatically: “I never thought of it that way.”

Then, just as suddenly as it had adopted them, Albertson’s dropped its loyalty card program in Arizona. However, they continue the scheme in Nevada — a sure sign of corporate ambivalence.

Somewhat defeating the purpose of the program is another fast-spreading policy among card issuers: complementary card swiping. Many chains, including ones in Canada, now authorize checkout attendants to swipe loyalty cards for tourists, visitors, and folks who forget their card. All a customer needs to do is ask.

When Wal-Mart finally opened up a supercenter in Prescott, it was a mixed blessing. The city council threatened to use eminent domain to evict recalcitrant lease holders from their property to make room for the Wal-Mart. One council member condemned the abuse of eminent domain but justified the council’s actions by rationalizing that eminent domain would not actually be used — just threatened.

But that’s another story. At least now Prescott has some card-free choices.




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What’s Interesting about Iowa

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By the time the Iowa caucus finally happened, even political junkies were sick of it. It was a contest of doubtful influence on anything, and this year it was virtually impossible for anyone to “win” the thing. (A “win,” I believe, should constitute something more than 25%.) CNN and Fox News kept saying that “excitement” was “building.” Right. One Lego block at a time. And those debates — Good God! Why? How many dull parties must you attend? I say none.

But I was surprised and amused by the circus animals who were paraded through the streets of Sioux City, each with its own fleet of trainers and guard of clowns. It wasn’t the greatest show on earth, but it was a show.

Michele Bachmann, who demonstrated that illiteracy need be no handicap to a person’s self-esteem.

Newt Gingrich, who consistently delighted me with his screwiness and bitchiness. Every one of his “new ideas” had me rolling in laughter. (My favorite was the one about summoning local juries to determine whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in this country. As you probably know, I am no friend of open immigration, but if ever there was a court invented by a kangaroo, Gingrich’s immigration jury was it.) I loved the perfect zingers he scored on the other candidates. When an outraged Bachmann demanded to know whether he had called Mitt Romney a liar, Gingrich calmly asked, “Why are you so horrified?” I’m going to miss Newt.

Herman Cain, a good orator, and an intelligent person, who somehow lacked the rare and peculiar kind of intelligence that’s necessary to recall embarrassing incidents in one’s personal life. Of course, this is the kind of intelligence that almost everyone else possesses, but why should it be expected of a presidential candidate?

Jon Huntsman, the candidate from the New York Times.

Rick Santorum, the former Senator from the Roman Catholic Church. Who else would have complimented George Bush, a Methodist, on his performance as a politicized Catholic? “From economic issues focusing on the poor and social justice, to issues of human life, George Bush is there. He has every right to say, 'I’m where you are if you're a believing Catholic.’” The surge that Santorum experienced in Iowa was initiated by conservative Catholics who realized, at last, that this hapless, obscure person was actually a Knight of Magistral Grace of the Knights of Malta.

Mitt Romney, the man who everyone loves to hate. You’ve got to appreciate a candidate whose aides run a Mittness Protection Program.

Rick Perry. You’ve got to love a guy who, being revealed as an ignorant fool, funded an ad campaign in which he admitted to being an ignorant fool, yet urged everyone to vote for him.

I’m going to miss these acts — the acts that go away, of course. The ones that keep going inspire no such nostalgic feelings.

But what of Ron Paul? I am sorry to say, from the dramatic point of view, that I was not surprised by anything that happened with him. I expected him to suffer attacks. And I expected him, notwithstanding the attacks, to achieve about 20% of the vote. He got 21%. That’s about what he usually gets from Republicans (and independents acting as Republicans, as in Iowa) when noses are counted or buttons are pushed.

Believe me, I would rather see myself as part of Paul’s 21% than as part of the less than 1% in which I am placed whenever Libertarian Party registration or voting is measured. But — call me a traitor if you want to — I’ve never believed the results of the Nolan survey or any other questionnaire purporting to show that more than 20% of people in America are really libertarians. They aren’t. If they were, they’d have plenty of opportunities to show it, but they don’t. What they are is people who believe in legalizing drugs and raising taxes on “the wealthy,” or lowering taxes and pursuing a bellicose foreign policy, or some other combination of views that seems, from libertarians’ perspective, incoherent and ridiculous. But America has always been an essentially libertarian country without a libertarian population. It’s the triumph of structure over “the people.”

Would Paul attract more voters if he recognized this? Here’s my reason for asking that question. Paul is a preacher, and he preaches largely to the choir. His rhetoric assumes that “Americans want” what he wants. He seems honestly surprised that anyone should care that Iran has an atom bomb, or worry about his desire to dismantle the Federal Reserve system. But even I care that Iran has the bomb, and I well remember having to be convinced that the Fed was a bad idea. Every libertarian can say the same about his or her experience with libertarian ideas. But Paul has the preacher’s style, not the educator’s, or the conversationalist’s. He talks to people, not with them.

So could he attract more votes if he were a different kind of campaigner? The good thing and the bad thing is that it’s hard to tell whether he could or not. I want to believe that the libertarian philosophy can be conveyed with even greater effect. Yet Ron did very well at holding his 21%, no matter what. And twenty-one percent isn’t a percentage to scorn. There’s leverage in that.




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Why Choose Less?

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A recent story in the WSJ caught my eye, since it bears on a topic that is of much practical importance but hasn’t been much investigated. The issue is: why do college students choose the majors they choose?

As I have reported elsewhere, there is now a detailed economic study about what students of various college majors earn later in life. Not surprisingly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors do better financially than, say, humanities majors. But this study only confirmed what was widely understood all along. It’s not as if students (and parents) hadn’t already understood the disparity of incomes, ranked by major.

But this recent WSJ piece reports that students are picking the easier majors, even though they know that those majors offer lower financial payoffs. It tells the tale of one young Chinese American who enrolled at Carnegie Mellon as an electrical and computer engineering major, only to switch to a major in psychology and policy management (whatever the hell that is!). Psych majors average about $38,000 a year less than computer engineering grads. She explained her decision by saying, “My ability level was just not there.”

The authors raise the issue of whether the continuing bad economy will persuade more students to major in the STEM subjects. But the trend hasn’t been good in that regard. From 2001 to 2009, while the number of college grads increased by 29%, the number of engineering grads only increased by 19%, and those with computer science degrees actually dropped 14%.

In fact, the full stats are even grimmer. As the estimable Sol Stern has recently noted, over the last 50 years, technological innovation was responsible for over half of all American economic growth. However, bachelor’s degrees in engineering (awarded to American students, not foreign nationals) peaked in 1985 and have dropped ever since. We are now down 23% from that peak. Only 6% of American college students major in engineering, compared with 12% in Europe and Israel, not to mention the 20% level in Japan and South Korea. We are near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to the percentage of college grads with STEM degrees.

Returning now to the WSJ article: it notes that one problem is the perceived disparity in difficulty between STEM courses and those in the humanities and social sciences. Ms. Zhou found that she went from earning C’s and B’s in engineering to A’s in psychology. There is nothing new here, of course. Students have noticed for decades how much easier it is to score much higher grades for much less work in non-STEM majors. Science and math majors average three hours more per week in study time. That difference may seem trivial, but students are increasingly less inclined to work. The article notes that the average time students spend studying has dropped by half since 1960.

It also notes, with evident approval, the efforts of some STEM departments to stem attrition by “modifying” their classes to make them — what? more palatable? — to students from other majors. In his class for liberal arts majors, one computer science prof cut down on the theory component in favor of practical programming. Now 85% of the students pass. What his pass rate was before this, the story doesn’t say. Presumably lots, lots lower.

Whether any of this constitutes dumbing down the subject, the story also doesn’t say.

It is also silent about what to my mind are the biggest issues here.

First, to what degree are humanities, social science, education, and other non-STEM departments inflating grades to attract students, or — given the pervasiveness of leftist thought in those departments — out of a loopy egalitarianism? Grade inflation, no less than monetary inflation, is a profound pricing problem.

Hayek and Kirzner urged us to understand pricing as a language. In a free market, if something fetches a low price, it tells the producer not to produce so much of it. I think that grading is pricing. If a student has to work and winds up with low grades, the grades are telling him that he may need to work still harder, or find another major. The STEM instructors are just doing their jobs and telling the truth to students.

But if (as I suspect) the grading standard has been inflated by many non-STEM professors, they are doing something immoral: they are lying to students about their real abilities. If I give A’s to all my philosophy students, I’m telling them that they are excellent at a subject, when most are not. I may encourage them to pursue a career when they shouldn’t, or — more to the point — not pursue a career they should.

Second, to what extent is this problem another example of the dismal failure of America’s public K-12 educational system — a failure that ramifies into the post-secondary educational system? I have suggested elsewhere that part of the reason many employers look to hire college grads for jobs that really require only a high school education is that a high school diploma from most urban public school districts no longer means a thing in terms of basic educational competence.

If students are switching to easier subjects, might that not be because so many of even the most technically talented young people were so badly instructed in math and science during K-12 that they face extra challenges learning the introductory college-level material? Similarly, if these students were never forced to work diligently in grade school or high school, might this not be the reason why they flee majors that require hard work, and in fact are studying less than ever before in college?

All of this is as disquieting as it is ignored by the mainstream media.




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Gary Johnson for President

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December 28 marked an important day in Libertarian Party history — the day that the party gained a presidential candidate, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, capable of smashing its previous high in any presidential election, and perhaps even making the LP marginally relevant for once (or, at least, gaining the party's second-ever electoral vote). Johnson as standard bearer would be something of a perfect storm for the LP — which, though unavoidably also a tempest in a teapot, would nonetheless make a bigger splash than the Party has ever been capable of before.

Flash back to the last election cycle. No, go back two, to 2004, when the LP, still reeling from Harry Browne’s machinations, nominated a complete unknown as its presidential candidate. The list of “missed opportunities by the Libertarian Party” is a long and tragicomic one, but surely the choice of Michael Badnarik must be at or near the top: in an election evenly split between the military-statist Bush and the eco-statist Gore, the LP could’ve had a healthy cut of the excluded middle — but Badnarik’s was not the name to draw those voters.

In 2008, with that swing-and-a-miss behind them, the LP whiffed with the opposite approach, nominating a big name who was a, shall we say, imperfect fit with party ideals. I’m not one to deny the place of pragmatism in politics, but the man who authored the Defense of Marriage Amendment and fervently prosecuted the Drug War was a strange choice for the supposed party of freedom. No matter how hard he pushed his Road to Damascus narrative, a large chunk of the LP base (namely, donors and state and local party poobahs) was never going to buy into his campaign.

As a result, Bob Barr’s failure was utterly predictable — the rift in the party in 2008 was clear for all to see — but more to the point, just as utterly inevitable. In Barack Obama, the Democrats found a candidate who could reach out to the same undecideds the LP tries to make its own — those looking to cast a vote in dissent, anything so long as it has nothing to do with the party in power. Empty as we now know (or always knew) his promises of “Hope” and “Change” to be, they were nonetheless effective in closing off any change the Libertarians had of playing a role in the last cycle.

All of which is to say, the LP screwed up by getting its candidates backward — if anything, the off-the-ranch Republican with name recognition would have fared much better in 2004, serving as an alternative to two unpalatable statists. Meanwhile, 2008 would have been the time to run an outsider, someone who could elucidate a libertarian point of view, in the rare moments he (or she — vide Mary Ruwart) was called upon to do so.

But in 2012, the LP has the opportunity to pitch a candidate to an electorate seemingly sick of the whole process. Obama’s broken promises, aforementioned, have alienated a small but substantial portion of his base — those who cannot overlook our nation’s ongoing, unnecessary, and inhumane foreign wars; the continued attacks on the constitutional rights of the citizenry; the all-enveloping secrecy in which the government carries on its affairs; the gulag archipelago we are building up in our modern prison system . . . in short, all those left-leaning pundits and bloggers not in step with the all-conquering Obama line foisted upon us hourly by the power-loving, bootlicking establishment media outlets.

Who will these people turn to? Certainly not the Republican Party, at least not once Ron Paul again is defeated by, or cedes way to, a far inferior challenger. Despite moments in the sun for the laughable Herman Cain and the odious Newt Gingrich (not to mention Rick Perry’s campaign, brought to you by Tom of Finland), this nomination has from the first been Mitt Romney’s to lose. Only trouble is, Romney and Obama are, as The Root recognized long ago, nearly the same person. And more recently, one of Romney’s chief advisors was heard loudly rattling the saber for war with Iran — something that seems increasingly inevitable whichever party ends up with its finger on the button.

Hence, there is a chance that an experienced, eloquent Libertarian Party candidate — one capable of making, forcefully, the case against war, whether against other nations that pose no threat to us, or against those of our own citizens whose only crime is to ingest federally frowned-upon substances — could steal a sizable chunk of the vote, and not just from the college crowd (who, as we all know, don’t vote — I should know: I am one still). And that’s where Gary Johnson comes in. He’s an experienced pol who has the benefit of gaining his experience in a somewhat out-of-the-way state, allowing him both to get away with more than he might elsewhere (witness the in-progress crucifixion of Chris Christie in New Jersey), and to get raves from both Right and Left at different times for his handling of budgets and various other crises.

Additionally, Johnson has a legitimate beef with the presidential process, which effectively killed his campaign before it had hardly started by the simple expedient of refusing to let him speak alongside other candidates. By switching over to the LP, Johnson can present himself as a true outsider, one unbeholden to the major-party machines and their media purse-chihuahuas. His strongest issue, the legalization of marijuana (and decriminalization of other presently illegal drugs), will find supporters all along the political spectrum, especially those who for some reason expected Obama to live up to promises to back off medical dispensaries, rather than double down on the persecution. And he is glib enough (and has the voting record, besides) to avoid the typical traps laid down for third-party candidates: disaster management, education and child safety, national security. Likewise, he lacks the baggage some others do — most particularly, he has no history of orgazinational racism or anti-gay bias in his past. And — though this ought to be by far the least important thing about him — at 58 and in good shape, he remains telegenic and does not come off as a coot or a crank.

To close, I note that this is not an endorsement, either for Liberty or for myself, personally. It is, instead, a recommendation. If the Libertarian Party wishes to be relevant in this cycle, then it should gather round Johnson early on, kick the fundraising into gear, and come May’s national convention, launch his candidacy with as much money and PR as can be mustered. If, instead, the LP’s members wish to continue as they always have, then they should quibble and cavil and play up faults in Johnson’s record, and ensure that he is hobbled heading into the general election.

The choice is there, and with it a rare opportunity. But with things finally breaking the LP’s way, what remains to be seen is whether the party is capable of taking advantage.



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Seventh Grade Revisited

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Junior high was fun. I was not one of the beautiful people — I was a nerd. But I enjoyed being a nerd, liked my geeky friends, and relished the self-discovery of figuring out where I fitted in. And the relief of accepting where I didn’t.

Perhaps that’s a stage we mustn’t miss, however painful it can be. If we don’t go all the way through it, maybe we sort of get stuck there. And if we aren’t willing to accept what we learn about ourselves as teenagers, we may spend the rest of our lives snubbing the icky kids and angling for a seat with the cool kids in the cafeteria.

It’s also possible that nobody makes it entirely through that phase in adolescence. I must admit there were certain aspects of it I had to revisit when I was mature enough to process them as an adult. Coming out as a lesbian was something I couldn’t bring myself to do in the Anita Bryant years, while I was still in school. Coming out of yet another closet — as a libertarian — happened even later.

Libertarian philosophy is enjoying an upsurge these days. Government has become so oppressive, so menacing to nearly every aspect of our lives, that everybody not totally under the spell of statist witchery is giving it a look. That also means it is under attack from those who are under the statist spell. Now that I’m an out-and-proud libertarian, I find myself under attack from many more quarters than I ever was for being gay — especially because I refuse to stay obediently on the gay-leftist reservation.

“Eeeewww,”I often hear, “how can you associate with those libertarians? They don't care about the poor. And they don’t care about morality, either." The latter charge, of course, comes not so much from the Left as from the social Right. Both sides agree that I’ve got cooties; they merely disagree about the sort of cooties I have.

Am I a grumpy Scrooge who doesn’t care if the poor suffer? Or am I a get-naked-and-go-crazy libertine, who thinks people should copulate like bunnies under every bush? I’m not sure how I could possibly be both, as the two don’t necessarily go together according to any logical scheme. But then again, those who desperately lob every bomb they can throw at libertarians don’t seem to need no stinkin’ logic.

There are some libertarians with whom I disagree. I may think they are callous toward those less fortunate, or that they don’t care as much as they should about morality. The hostility some seem to have toward religion grates on this particular devout Episcopalian. But I don’t regard political affiliation as a social clique.

Where did so many people get the notion that they can’t associate — ever — with those with whom they sometimes disagree? That’s the way kids think, but I was under the impression that grownups eventually learned to rise above it. Who said life had to be pleasant every minute of every day, or that we’d never need to work with those we wouldn’t care to play with? I wouldn’t want to sit in the cafeteria with everybody I know. But if I share their convictions on matters of importance to us all, I am willing to work with them to make the world a better place.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes. Or, as the Founder of my faith said, “Those who are not against us are for us."

Those of us who have truly graduated from junior high school understand that we can’t simply go with the flow, that however we were made, and however we got here, we do not exist merely to conform. We have voices so they can be heard. I appreciate that as a libertarian, my voice is being heard. And I appreciate all who will listen — even when they disagree.

Perhaps that’s when it matters most.




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