Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

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It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




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The Great Regressives

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Like most other libertarians, I am not a trusting friend of democracy. I think Thoreau was right when he said, “That government is best which governs least.” Democracy is a means of putting limits on government, and providing the legitimacy of consent for the few state functions that remain. One reason I am not a progressive democrat (small or large “d”) is that the progressives’ century-long demand for people to use democracy to “control the conditions of their own lives” would mean, if it meant anything, the power of every momentary majority to control the conditions of life — or death — for everyone else.

It is therefore not surprising to me that leading advocates of progressive democracy have been self-willed, dictatorial personalities who systematically confused their own whims with the will of the people. Consider Rousseau. Consider the early 20th-century progressives with their lethal mixture of socialism, racism, and prohibition. Consider Bernie Sanders.

Progressives had invented the recall, a hundred years before, but as usual the progressive power structure resorted to every possible means to keep a recall from actually reaching the voters.

Further irony is provided by the fact that the progressives’ specific schemes have always taken a socially antidemocratic form. Socialized medicine means a monopoly that can be challenged only at the risk of your life. Laws providing for collective bargaining mean a corrupt and self-perpetuating union leadership. Empowerment through education means the oppression and banality of compulsory schools.

But if you try to use the means of redress that the progressives themselves came up with, they will call you undemocratic.

Such was the case in the late campaign to recall Josh Newman, a Democratic state senator from Orange County, California. I could tell you a lot about Newman, but it’s sufficient to say that he was a party hack who won election by a few votes in a district characterized by moderate politics and then proceeded to vote for every extreme measure of the state’s Democratic leadership. One of the things he voted for was a giant increase in the gas tax, an increase that will cost the average household $800 a year. Further, he provided the two-thirds majority necessary for the extremists to pass any other bill they might wish to pass.

When he voted for the gas tax, a movement arose to recall him. Progressives had invented the recall, a hundred years before, but as usual the progressive power structure resorted to every possible means to keep a recall from actually reaching the voters. They used lawsuits, union goons, and a sudden legislative change in the rules to put off the fatal day when Newman would appear on the ballot. The anti-Newman forces spent about $2 million; the Newman forces spent about $8 million.

These sentiments were shared and preached continually by the state’s political leadership.

Now here’s the joke. Newman’s campaign dwelt on two issues: the appalling cost of a recall election (about $3 million, allegedly, and you can compare that to the billions of dollars that Newman’s votes were pulling out of Californians’ pockets); and the undemocratic nature of the recall. After all, as Newman proclaimed in his terminally self-righteous speeches, he hadn’t done anything immoral; he had voted for the tax “in good faith.” The people therefore had no right to remove him. These sentiments were shared and preached continually by the state’s political leadership and by such supposed purveyors of news as the Los Angeles Times (now virtually bankrupt, but going down with all its false colors flying).

Newman’s last move was a legislative attempt to ban “bounty signature gathering,” his phrase for paying people to solicit signatures for recall petitions and ballot initiatives. Of course, the only way you can collect the multitude of signatures that progressive law demands is by paying people to get them — and why shouldn’t you? You know why. It’s because your use of the progressives’ democratic mechanisms would cost the progressives their power.

Now comes election night, June 5, and Newman is losing by almost 20 points, and here is what happened, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Newman spokesman Derek Humphrey said in a statement that "the early numbers are not what we were hoping for," but did not concede the loss in what he termed "an undemocratic special interest power grab."

Even a late endorsement by former presidential candidate and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wasn't helping Newman. Sanders recorded a 30-second Facebook ad urging voters to back Newman while praising his support for single-payer health care, education, the environment and immigrant rights.

Well, so much for Newman; he was recalled. This episode is just a footnote to the history of “progressives” and “democracy,” a history writ large in the bloated figures of the university presidents, tech CEOs, state-supported activists, and dynastic politicians who occupy the commanding heights of today’s political economy — progressives all, and despots as far as you permit them to be, each one of them exercising the power that can only be obtained by an undemocratic special interest power grab.




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Ex Cathedra

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I apologize. I’m treading on Word Watch’s territory. But I can’t help myself, so I’ll go ahead and step in the mire: President Donald J. Trump’s pronouncements.

Does Trump lie? That is the question.

According to the Washington Post, as of May 1 the President has amassed 3,001 lies or “misleading claims.”

Really?

Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly.

Every politician lies. Stephen Cox hit the nail on the head when he stated in April’s Word Watch that, “The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.”

In spite of his hailing from Chicago, the Alamogordo of old-time political mendacity, Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly. Three examples immediately come to mind: “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history.” And the immensely more consequential — and extremely ill-conceived (especially to a libertarian) — threat he made on August 20, 2012, that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us.”

Well, that red line was a mirage on shifting sands. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry decided that they’d rely on that paragon of probity, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to ensure the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Not only did that never happen, but Putin used the opportunity to join the fray in Syria. What the hell — both Putin and Assad now knew that the US would do nothing. In quick succession, Assad and Putin targeted Aleppo, an opposition stronghold, destroying hospitals and massacring civilians, including fleeing doctors evacuating the wounded. The US had lost all credibility.

Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health.

What could be worse? Considering that the primary responsibility of the president of the United States is national security, a responsibility based on credibility, it’s hard to imagine anything worse in the diplomatic arena.

Obama’s excuse for not enforcing his red line ultimatum was twofold: One, he believed he was speaking from Mount Olympus . . . speaking for all of the free world without first consulting the rest of it. Two, he was in the thick of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and didn’t want to imperil it by attacking Assad, an Iranian ally.

Really?

Why not do the right thing: enforce his completely undemocratic red line and let the chips fall where they might. Was the deal worth dumping US credibility? After all, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as it is so eloquently known) was only a stopgap measure (and Trump has just withdrawn the US from it).

But the best part of that entire red line debacle was Vladimir Putin’s Obama moment. Immediately following the latest Assad Bunsen burner experiment on his people (the second in a two-part series), Vlad “The Impaler” threatened “severe consequences” if the US retaliated. So the US, this time actually consulting France and Britain and getting them to join, let loose a barrage of missiles on April 14, 2018, that proved particularly effective.

Putin’s response? “If the US does that again, there will be severe consequences!.” One month later, we’re still waiting for those consequences.

The fine print that nearly everyone misses is that papal infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals.

Donald Trump turned Obama’s lie into truth, however belatedly. And since the subject was the credibility of our national security, that puts it in a completely different category from, say, Trump’s assertion that he “unequivocally” is “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

There are lies, damn lies, spin, wishful thinking, statements of fervent intent, hyperbole, and artful irony. I’d put Trump’s health statement in those last two categories. For one, the portly septuagenarian fools no one — especially in this BMI and health-obsessed country — as to his athletic abilities. Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health. Mrs. Wilson took over for Woodrow during his near total incapacitation by a stroke from September 1919 to the end of his term in 1921, during the first five months of that period keeping the country in the dark.

As to FDR, the Associated Press claimed that “Roosevelt’s disability was virtually a state secret during his presidency.” Though he never denied he was a paraplegic, FDR did his damnedest to conceal it, virtually never allowing his wheelchair or his struggles with other aids to be photographed.

Ditto for JFK. According to The Atlantic, “the lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history — no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed.” I don’t know whether Trump was aware of those deceptions and decided on a post-ironic, “fascinating way” to indulge in hyperbole; or whether Trump just hit a “colorful” bull’s eye through sheer chutzpah and luck. I’d be tempted to put his assertion on a par with Obama’s “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history” — except that Obama was certainly serious while Trump may well have had his tongue in his cheek.

The press and the public misunderstand Trump’s pronouncements — much as they misunderstand Pope Francis’ pronouncements. The widely held belief that the Catholic Church considers the pope infallible is based on dogma declared in 1870 at the First Vatican Council. But the fine print that nearly everyone misses is that his infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals. Additionally, his infallibility only kicks in when he makes a declaration ex cathedra, “from the full authority of his office.”

Trump's brand of lying may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

When the press reported that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell or that “capitalism is terror against all of humanity” it didn’t make a distinction between whether the pontiff was speaking ex cathedra or off the cuff, perhaps using the ambiguity for its own sensationalist ends (or maybe they’re just stupidly ignorant). But the pope is also at fault. While he always specifies when he’s speaking ex cathedra, he never clarifies his other statements as informal or just personal opinions. Needless to say, the ambiguity serves his purpose.

Ditto for President Trump. Whether in tweet, press conference, base rally, or state of the union address, the president never specifies whether his statements are hyperbole, aspirational declarations, firm US policy, or just a needling dart at his opposition. But they are all — in the mind of the uber-deal maker — potential negotiating tactics. MSNBC and the Fox Five will interpret these statements in radically different ways — in ways that push their own agendas. It may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

Hell, if it works for the pope, why not for Trump?

The press and the public should stop treating every Trump pronouncement as if it were ex cathedra when he might just be P.T. Barnuming it.




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Out of Whack

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"War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe."

 — Dorothy Sayers          

Like those of most libertarians, my views cause widespread confusion. Friends often ask my opinion on the political brouhahas of the moment. Because I don’t come down, with the brute consistency of a sledgehammer, on the same side every time, they tend to accuse me of being inconsistent.

They may be right about that, though I happen to think that the libertarian philosophy is the only truly consistent one in currency today. But I also hold a value I consider at least as important. I believe in balance.

Most of the choices we face from day to day don’t lend themselves to “conservative” or “liberal” solutions.

The ancients regarded balance as a primary virtue. A person of sense and reason was one of balanced mind. As was a responsible citizen. But 21st-century society has gotten perilously out of balance, out of whack.

It is virtually impossible for an individual human being to be either totally conservative or totally liberal. We wouldn’t even attempt it in everyday life. And most of the choices we face from day to day don’t lend themselves to “conservative” or “liberal” solutions. Will you buy this “liberal” tie at the clothing store? Will I squeeze myself some “conservative” grapefruit juice for breakfast?

In their behavior as citizens, however, most people feel they must always run in the same direction. They are less like adults than like middle-schoolers. They distrust their own opinions, or simply can’t be bothered to form them. Instead, they join a gang.

Every healthy society needs both conservatives and liberals. Nobody is infallible. We need each other, even if we don’t like each other.

Inevitably, the gang swells into a mob. All too easily, it may then metastasize into an army. Therein lies the peril.

When they get frustrated because they can’t figure me out, my friends will demand to know just where I stand. Am I a liberal or a conservative? One of “us,” or one of “them?” And when I reply that I am both — a very libertarian answer — they either tell me that’s impossible, or they get so frustrated that they never mention politics around me again.

If they give me a chance to explain, I say that I don’t consider liberalism and conservatism to be mutually exclusive. Sure, we’re always being told that they are. But every healthy society needs them both. Nobody is infallible. We need each other, even if we don’t like each other.

We can’t make sound decisions if we must follow one strategy all the time. In politics, as in the governance of our individual lives, one size never fits all, nor does one approach solve every problem. Too often, politics attempts to govern all of our lives. But we can’t make good choices even for ourselves, much less for others, if we ignore common sense and the balanced perspective necessary to maintain it. Surely neither Left nor Right can be correct every time.

We can’t make sound decisions if we must follow one strategy all the time. One size never fits all, nor does one approach solve every problem.

Now, when we tell our friends we think they’re right some of the time and at least occasionally wrong, it disarms them. It invites them to think instead of automatically reacting. In our refusal to be drafted into either army, we retain our own power. We stand firm as conscientious objectors in a totally unnecessary and wasteful war, waged on behalf of tyrants.

Divide-and-conquer tactics are useful only to conquerors. Those who would rule over us cherish one value, and only one: power. They are totally consistent. They are brutes. And unless enough of us refuse to cooperate, the sledgehammer they wield will crush us all.




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Regressive Education

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Amid the current idolization of teenagers’ political activity, it may be interesting to consider the latest report on American students’ intellectual proficiency. It’s the results of tests conducted on the reading and math skills of eighth graders for the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the US Department of Education.

One reason the dismal results of these tests have received little attention since they were announced on April 10 is that people just don’t seem to care what their tax money is doing, or not doing. Another reason is that the data are presented in on the NAEP website in a bafflingly complicated way. One useful summary appears in an item on the conservative news site CNS. There’s no conservative spin in the story; there doesn’t need to be. The fact is as simple as CNS puts it: “Sixty-five percent of the eighth graders in American public schools in 2017 were not proficient in reading and 67 percent were not proficient in mathematics.”

There follow graphs of the performance of students in various states and public school districts — reading proficiency in Los Angeles, 23%; in Detroit, 7%; and so on.

One reason the dismal results of these tests have received little attention is that people just don’t seem to care what their tax money is doing, or not doing.

But what does reading proficiency mean? In terms used by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, “Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to provide relevant information and summarize main ideas and themes. They should be able to make and support inferences about a text, connect parts of a text, and analyze text features. Students performing at this level should also be able to fully substantiate judgments about content and presentation of content.”

I should note that this standard is far too high for the Washington Post. But it does seem appropriate for students who are about to enter high schools where they are encouraged to become political activists; i.e., encouraged to think that because of their ability to read and reason, they can start telling other people how to live.

Well, but maybe something good happens to them between grade 8 and high school? No. Even the Voice of America’s bland presentation brings disturbing news on this front. It indicates that proficiency tends to decline with schooling:

About 40 percent of 4th graders were found to be proficient in reading and math. The report found just 25 percent of 12th grade students had math proficiency, while 37 percent reached that level in reading.

In science, 38 percent of 4th graders were rated proficient, while about 34 percent of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency.

It costs something to promote this ignorance. The NCES data show that California (to cite one example) spends $70.5 billion on its public schools, or about $11,300 for each student. The result is that only 32% of its eighth graders are proficient in reading, and only 29% are proficient in math.

But maybe something good happens to them between grade 8 and high school? No.

So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the students are smarter than their elders, after all. The elders pay their useless taxes without demur, but I doubt that even the student leaders would be willing to plunk down 11 grand a year for the education that fits them for their public roles.




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The Perils of Mexico-Bashing

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As I have noted before, in a number of ways President Trump resembles President Obama. Both hate free trade, oppose immigration (Obama covertly, Trump ostentatiously), favor unions over consumers, and so on. Trump’s mania against free trade is on display in its most virulent form in his war on NAFTA.

NAFTA was a truly bipartisan accomplishment. Conceived and promulgated by President Reagan, the free trade agreement (FTA) between Canada, Mexico, and the United States was negotiated under Bush the Elder, approved by a large, bipartisan vote in the Senate, and ratified by Bill Clinton. And it has seen trade blossom: as of last year, US trade exports to Mexico and Canada were four times what our trade exports are to China.

But even in the primaries, Trump singled out this one FTA for a torrent of abuse, accusing both Canada and Mexico of cheating, because we have a balance of trade deficit with each. Along the way, Trump’s heavy-handed and accusatory style has helped drive Canadian and Mexican opinion of him — and the rest of us, since we elected the bird — to new lows.

NAFTA has seen trade blossom: as of last year, US trade exports to Mexico and Canada were four times what our trade exports are to China.

The renegotiations have dragged on, mainly because America keeps trying to impose onerous restrictions on its neighbors. This is another trait shared by Obama and Trump: disdain for our own allies. Love Russia, hate Canada and Mexico — how daffy can you get?

A recent Wall Street Journal article reports the latest on the NAFTA fight. The chief American negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, is introducing new absurd demands. He now wants to require that at least 40% of the content of all cars crossing the American border must come from workers earning at least $16 per hour. This is at least double the existing wages of auto-assembly workers, and four times that of Mexican auto-parts workers! Cars that don’t meet that criterion will be heavily tariffed at the border.

Trump’s intention is crystal clear: pay off his union supporters by forcing Mexico to surrender its comparative advantage (lower cost labor). This is his populist-autarkist idea of “fair trade”: make the other party do things as stupidly as you do, rather than doing things smarter yourself. Add to this his demands for a periodic renewal vote on staying in the agreement, and you have a one in-your-face-F-off-and-die populist ultimatum.

Trump’s intention is crystal clear: pay off his union supporters by forcing Mexico to surrender its comparative advantage.

This ultra-protectionist ploy is arousing opposition, both here and (more ominously) in Mexico. Free-trade Republicans — what pathetically few of them are left — are not amused. In a piece he wrote for the WSJ, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) expressed annoyance with the Trumpian tactics. Trump has told the Senate — in true bossman style — which had lawfully ratified the NAFTA agreement during Clinton’s term in office — either to ratify a new, eviscerated NAFTA or see him unilaterally withdraw the US from it. Toomey says that if this ultimatum is put to him, he will vote against it and oppose in federal court the cancelation of the treaty.

Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Iran deal negotiated by the feckless Obama. That’s constitutional, because that deal was explicitly not put forward as a treaty. But NAFTA was, and as Toomey rightly observes, the Constitution delegates the framing of trade policy expressly to Congress. The rare prior cases of a president unilaterally withdrawing from a ratified treaty never concerned a commercial treaty. I would observe that the Declaration of Independence should be consulted. I refer to the parts in which the king is accused of “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world,” not to mention “obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners” and “refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

Trump and his foolish followers clearly want to stick it to the Mexicans, and have done so since his first campaign appearances.

Holding out an olive branch, the estimable Toomey suggests that Trump focus on correcting obvious problems, such as ending Canada’s tariffs on cheese, and solidifying Mexico’s recent moves to open up its energy sector to US fracking investment. Add to that correcting a (relatively minor) sin, the current Mexican practice of putting low caps on duty-free sales of American stuff, and you pretty much have perfected the agreement; and have done so quickly, without arousing countervailing populist rage.

But Trump and his foolish followers clearly want to stick it to the Mexicans, and have done so since his first campaign appearances. The countervailing rage is rising in Mexico, where the frontrunner for the next presidential election is a populist leftist — one Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), close friend of Britain’s leftist Jeremy Corbyn.

Mexico is clearly being driven to its own populist extreme — AMLO now leads by 18%, much better than he has registered before. A radicalized Mexico could easily allow Russia to set up naval bases in its waters, and allow Chinese troops to move in to help “train” Mexican troops. The Russians have shown every desire to extend their world influence, and Mexico would be an even better vehicle for that than Cuba. As to the Chinese, their recent building of bases in the South China sea, their behavior on the Indian border, their rush to build a blue-water navy, and their clearly strategically planned moves to increase their influence in Latin America all indicate a long-term game plan that is anything but tame.

A lot of good a wall would do then.




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Trump: Right on Iran?

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On May 8 President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). By doing so he isolated the US diplomatically (only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some small states in the Persian Gulf support US abrogation of the agreement), and drew the ire of globalists, liberals, and the establishment media. But was Trump in fact right to pull out of the agreement?

I should mention that I have advocated détente with Iran since the 1990s. I even published an essay on the subject in Liberty back in March 2007 (“Engage Iran: A Way out of Iraq"). I still look upon the Iranian people as potentially our best friends in the Middle East. Iranians in general are more pro-Western than any of the Arab peoples. Sadly, we derailed Iran’s progress toward a western-style democracy when in 1953 we and the British overthrew the first and only democratic government in the country’s history. The Islamist tyranny that took over Iran in 1979 and still rules there today is the result of the coup d’état staged by the CIA and MI6.

The Iranian people are still potentially our best friends in the Middle East.

Obviously, we can’t turn back the clock. But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome. We did something like this with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, by denying it credits and technology transfers, and by luring it into an arms race it could never win. Trump, by abrogating the 2015 nuclear accord, has begun to take Iran policy in a similar direction.

Despite Trump’s fulminations against the 2015 accord, the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration wasn’t really a bad deal. It ended Iran’s covert program to develop a nuclear weapon. Some 97% of Iran’s nuclear material was removed from the country. The inspection regime was adequate, even robust in some respects. The main weakness of the agreement was that it allowed Iran to resume enriching uranium for peaceful purposes after a 15-year hiatus. Objectively speaking, however, this was not a sufficient reason for us to withdraw from the agreement only three years after it was signed — and particularly so since the other signatories had no intention of leaving with us.

But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome.

A secondary purpose behind the agreement, as the Obama administration saw it, was to promote a thaw in US-Iranian relations, with the hope that before 15 years had passed we would witness the end of the Islamic Republic and the evolution of a moderate, pro-Western regime. It has to be said, however, that the current leadership of Iran has shown no signs of softening its anti-American views. At the same time, the lifting of most sanctions on Iran after the agreement was made provided the regime with some economic relief (the Iranian economy and financial system were definitely hurt by sanctions) — and political relief, too, in that the people felt that their lives would improve once sanctions were removed. The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Moreover, Iran has continued to expand its influence in the region — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as supporter of the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Iran’s activities threaten to destabilize the Middle East generally, and are particularly worrisome when it comes to Saudi Arabia, its rival across the Persian Gulf and our most important ally in the Arab world. Although the US no longer needs to import Middle East oil, a crisis in the Gulf or, worse, the collapse of the pro-American regime in the world’s largest oil producer would roil energy markets and indeed the world economy.

Equally important is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated a program of reform in the kingdom that holds out the prospects of, first, bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century and, second, ending the plague of Sunni jihadism that has infected Saudi society and large swathes of the Muslim world. If Prince Mohammed is successful in this, he will have rendered a service not only to his country and the region, but to humanity as a whole. The West has a big stake in his ultimate success.

The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Containing Iran is good for almost everybody – including, ultimately, the Iranian people. The only loser would be the Iranian regime itself. Supporting a reformist Saudi regime against Iranian mischief may help damp down Islamic radicalism and terrorism worldwide. And re-imposing sanctions on Iran, as Trump has done, may be the final straw that breaks the back of a regime beset by enormous economic problems.

I could never be a Trump supporter. His personality, behavior, and many of his policies are anathema to me. He has shown no real understanding of the nuclear agreement that he decided to tear up. That said, abrogating the agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran seems to me a legitimate geostrategic play which, if it succeeds, will have enormous benefits for the US, the world, and, it is to be hoped, the Iranian people. With his dramatic move on May 8 Trump may very well have stumbled into the right policy.




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The Enduring Mojo of “Roseanne”

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I have always loved Roseanne. It binds me pleasantly to a very important time in my life: my last year of college and the years immediately thereafter. Long before I knew there would be a reboot — something practically unheard-of in prime-time television — I liked to go to YouTube and revisit my favorite scenes from the original, nine-season run of the program. When I needed a lift, I’d watch Roseanne, her husband Dan, and sister Jackie stoned out of their minds on an old stash of weed they’d discovered, or daughter Becky’s humiliating episode of flatulence at a school assembly (she actually got a sympathy card for this), or — my personal favorite — Roseanne accepting a dare to do a topless flash of her husband in the backyard, not realizing that at that moment he happened to be welcoming a new neighbor. This was a genuinely funny show, full of spirit and heart and brutally honest, and when it went off the air, I missed it.

Nothing even remotely like it ever came along, until it came back. I would have eagerly greeted the reboot, regardless of how the real Roseanne Barr felt about President Trump. Discovering that its reincarnation is every bit as funny and thought-provoking as the original has been an added bonus. The popularity of its return is well earned. Although it probably won’t last another nine seasons (even the kids from the original series are looking slightly long in the tooth), I hope it stays around a good, long while.

This was a genuinely funny show, full of spirit and heart and brutally honest, and when it went off the air, I missed it.

The brouhaha in the media about the program’s political implications is something I choose to ignore. There is no reason to politicize absolutely everything — except for people who want to control absolutely everything. Those of us who do not believe that every aspect of our lives should be regulated by our self-appointed betters still appreciate quality entertainment for its own sake. We know it doesn’t need to justify itself by making some politically-relevant statement.

All the same, I can’t help but appreciate that Roseanne Barr has taken a stand. Her program could not possibly be honest if it didn’t deal frankly with the ways people have struggled during the past 20 years, under a plutocracy that no longer even bothers to pretend it cares about us. If the people who are so viciously attacking the program actually liked it, I probably wouldn’t. They would be telling me that I’d been reading it wrong.

Those of us who do not believe that every aspect of our lives should be regulated by our self-appointed betters still appreciate quality entertainment for its own sake.

But I haven’t. The characters in this program endure in their love for each other. They mourn those who have passed on and lovingly embrace the new arrivals. They deal with everyday life in a way the show’s viewers recognize as authentic. They call us back to life lived simply as human beings, totally apart from membership in any political tribe or any allegiance in a political war. The anti-Republicrat libertarian in me loves this.

The mojo of Roseanne is back, and in however trivial a sense, America is better off for it. If we, as a nation, ever get to the point where we can no longer accept honest and humane entertainment, we really will be finished. That the Roseanne reboot has been enormously popular is a sign that — however it may sputter — the pulse of this country keeps pumping on.




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Bitcoin Blues

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Enthusiasts expect bitcoin to become a new privatized money, perhaps even replacing government money. The system will keep track of cash balances and transactions in such a way as to prevent fraudulent double-spending of the same units. Operating without any centralized recordkeeping (as by a bank or government), it will enhance financial privacy. It will employ an advanced technology called blockchain. As the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (first quarter 2018) said, to really understand bitcoin and its many imitators requires combined knowledge of cryptography, computer science, and economics.

I lack this knowledge. Some points, though, are clear enough. A workable monetary system requires a unit of account and a medium of exchange. Prices, values, debts, claims, and cash balances are expressed, and accounting is conducted in the unit. The medium is something routinely used for receiving and making payments; in the United States it is currency and bank accounts denominated in dollars. Each transactor needs to hold some of the medium of exchange because receipts and expenditures are uncertain in exact timing and amount and are not closely synchronized.

The bitcoin unit goes undefined by anything and lacks redeemablity.

A suitable unit of account has an at least roughly stable value, which may be achieved in either of two ways. First, the unit may be defined by a quantity of some good or basket of goods, with the definition kept operational by two-way convertibility between money and the defining good or basket. Under the gold standard the US dollar was defined as the value of 1.5046 grams of pure gold. Under such a system the money supply adjusts almost automatically to the defined value. Alternatively, the value of the unit may be managed by central control of the money supply. The price level then adjusts to rough proportionality with the money supply, as explained by the quantity theory of money.

The bitcoin unit goes undefined by anything and lacks redeemablity. Its quantity grows in a strange way called “mining.” As a reward for taking part in the system’s decentralized record-keeping and especially for solving increasingly difficult mathematical problems, miners obtain new bitcoins. Their final amount is limited to 21 million. Who knows what happens then? Meanwhile, bitcoin-mining destroys real wealth by consuming vast amounts of electricity to operate huge computers.

Wild fluctuations in bitcoin’s undefined value rule out its use as unit of account and so, almost completely, as medium of exchange. Who wants to hold amounts of such an unstable asset for receiving and making payments? The occasional business firm “accepting” bitcoin promptly sells it for standard money rather than adding it to its transactions cash balance. A video by a Wall Street Journal reporter shows the great effort and extra costs of buying a pizza with bitcoin in New York City.

The final amount of bitcoins is limited to 21 million. Who knows what happens then?

Why, then, does anyone hold bitcoin? Some libertarians hold it to express disgust with government money and a hope for some kind of private and privacy-preserving alternative. (But other and academically respectable proposals for privatized money are available.) Some enthusiasts buy it as an investment or speculation. (Saying so in no way denies that speculation generally serves sound economic functions and that the distinction between it and investment is fuzzy.)

Prudence recommends that anyone considering an investment should ask how the desired gain might come as a share of real wealth — desired goods and services — created by his own and others’ investment. Even a gambling casino creates wealth in the perhaps questionable form of hopes, excitement, and entertainment. Gain on an investment or speculation with no prospect of creating wealth must come as a transfer from losers.

Meanwhile, bitcoin-mining destroys real wealth by consuming vast amounts of electricity to operate huge computers.

How, then, might promoting bitcoin create wealth? The advantages of a sound nongovernmental monetary system could count as wealth, but as a “public good” in the technical sense of something whose benefits cannot be withheld from people not paying for it — such as national defense or policing. Furthermore, competition from bitcoin’s surviving imitators would dilute any profits. More optimistically, experience with bitcoin might spur profitable improvements in its blockchain technology, which is already being extended beyond monetary uses.

Bitcoin might even evolve, after all, into a workable privatized money, quite in contrast with our current system. But how? Ayn Rand would dismissively reply: “Somehow.”

A final comment may be unfair, but I cannot resist making it. Excitement over bitcoin reminds me of the dotcom boom of the 1990s and even more so of the British South Seas bubble of 1720. For little more reason than that stocks kept going up, speculators drove prices still higher — until the crash came. Meanwhile, stock in dubious new enterprises sold readily. Charles Mackay (Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1848) writes of one promoter who disappeared with the proceeds of successfully issuing stock in something described as “A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.”




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In Our Guts, We Know They’re Nuts

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I’m not old enough to remember Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. But because the late senator is a hero of mine, I have read quite a bit about what happened. I am, therefore, well aware that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s people put out a TV ad implying that if the Republican challenger triumphed in the 1964 election, he would blow up the world. Reportedly the spot only aired once, but that was all it took. A nuclear bomb doesn’t need to go off twice.

“In your heart, you know he’s right” was Goldwater’s campaign slogan. This was changed, by the Democrats, to “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” The political Left has a long history of smearing those it doesn’t like with accusations of insanity.

During that tumultuous campaign, a now deservedly defunct magazine called Fact put out an article whose headline screamed, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!” If facts really mattered to this publication, one detail might have given it pause. Absolutely none of those 1,189 self-proclaimed experts ever actually examined the senator.

The political Left has a long history of smearing those it doesn’t like with accusations of insanity.

Goldwater sued the magazine’s editor, Ralph Ginzburg, for libel, and won $75,000 in damages. Though that was, at the time, a lavish sum — the equivalent of approximately $592,000 in today’s funds — the case exerted an influence that was larger still. It resulted in what has come to be known as the “Goldwater Rule.” Officially designated paragraph 7.3 of the Principles of Medical Ethics by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (and still in effect today), the rule reads as follows:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

Of course the same president whose campaign accused his challenger of insanity is the one who accelerated US military involvement in Vietnam. It was outside his White House that the protestors chanted, “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” The nation didn’t need to wonder whether President Johnson’s abuses of political power would lead to the deaths of massive numbers of people, because they undeniably did.

But like every other ethical constraint in 21st-century politics, the professional responsibility we might expect from media shrinks is probably not long for this world. Now that Donald Trump is president, his adversaries have the Goldwater Rule in their crosshairs. Some know-it-all in the psychiatric industry rises up to tell us, almost on a daily basis, that if the present occupant of the Oval Office is not a raving maniac, he is, at the very least, teetering on the brink.

The nation didn’t need to wonder whether President Johnson’s abuses of political power would lead to the deaths of massive numbers of people, because they undeniably did.

Though I think the former assessment is extreme, there are a lot of days when I agree with the latter. The Donald often strikes me as an oversized and very spoiled child, who’s been indulged with dangerous toys. Unlike Little Ralphie in A Christmas Story, he probably never had grownups in his life with the nerve to tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” But then again, I don’t regard politicians in general as the most stable or mature specimens of humanity. It could be credibly argued that no mentally healthy adult would ever run for president of the United States.

What really seems to set Donald Trump apart from the rest of the field is the undisguised, boyish glee with which he lives his presidential dream. He’s Big Ralphie, and his BB gun is apocalyptically yuge. He lacks the veneer of sophistication and glibness — an aura of helmsmanship that is probably never more than tissue-thin — that we’ve seen in almost every other aspirant to high office. I suspect, however, that far from making him more destructive than any potential rival, Trump’s weird childishness makes it easier for a majority of us to keep from trusting him overmuch.

Yet the armchair headshrinking is threatening, as well as unethical, because when such “professional” conduct is treated as legitimate, everyone who disagrees with the “experts” runs the risk of being branded as “crazy” — a term that has long been synonymous not only with “dangerous” but also with “evil.” A phony diagnosis is evil in itself. And it subjects people who actually suffer from mental problems to stigma, isolation, and, potentially, far greater dangers than the vast majority of them pose to anyone else.

It could be credibly argued that no mentally healthy adult would ever run for president of the United States.

Thus does the quest for political power threaten to obliterate the very line between sanity and insanity. An insatiable lust for power is coming to be accepted as mentally healthy, and the belief that there are more important things in life is widely dismissed as a disease of moral irresponsibility. But to those who love liberty, tyranny is insane. If liberty is to be preserved, that line must continue to be sharply and clearly drawn.




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