When Pigs Fly

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There is an old adage in which I find considerable wisdom: “When a pig flies, you don’t criticize it for not staying up very long.” I take the meaning of this saying to be that when someone who has a habit of making poor choices finally makes a moderately good one, you ought to praise the success, even if you feel he could have done more.

Well, a pig has flown. President Obama, who for his first two years ran the most anti-free-trade administration since the days of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, has managed to salvage a free-trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, after stalling it for two years and being snubbed in Asia when he tried to strongarm a new deal. He managed a minor renegotiation, getting some relief from Korea’s environmental regulations on our cars and a slowing of our phase-out of tariffs on the Koreans’ trucks. He did this, however, at the cost of keeping Korea’s tariffs on our cars in place for five more years, and of an extra two years of Korean tariffs on American pork products. Hardly worth the wait on a deal that was already well negotiated in 2007.

But the good news is that Obama will finally let the deal proceed, and that 95% of all US and South Korean tariffs will be eliminated within five years. The deal also opens up greater trade in services, allowing (for example) more Korean banks in America and more American banks in Korea. That’s all good.

Now that Speaker Pelosi is finally history, chances are good that Speaker Boehner (“Blubbering Boehner” to his chums) will get the FTA with Korea through the House — and also the FTAs with Colombia and Panama, which have been languishing on the sidelines since Bush left office. It would be helpful if the pig could stay aloft long enough to help get these deals past Congress. So far, Obama hasn’t bothered to do that. He has shown a touching deference to the unions that oppose them, and that gave so much to his presidential campaign.

Yet it seems to be dawning on the exceptionally obtuse Obama that it may be far more useful to his 2012 reelection (gag!) campaign to have lower unemployment than to have higher union contributions poured into his campaign coffers. Perhaps the pig isn’t just flying; perhaps he has had an epiphany.

If for that we are hardly ecstatic, we can at least be satisfied.




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The New Landscape of Libertarianism

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New York magazine published an article called “The Trouble With Liberty” in its January 3–10, 2011 issue. I was intrigued by a line on the magazine’s cover. It asked, “Are we all libertarians now?” And what I found in the essay was very interesting.

The author, Christopher Beam, presents a brief yet wide history of libertarianism, ranging from Ron and Rand Paul and Paul Ryan to David Boaz to Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. Beam explains that libertarianism has elements from both the Right and the Left and does not fit easily into either mode, and he outlines the various attempts to promote a libertarian country — from those that would enlist the Republican Party or the Libertarian Party, to Brink Lindsey’s Liberaltarianism, to the Free State Project and the Seasteading Institute.

Beam pegs libertarians as crazy old uncles or Dungeons & Dragons players, but his history of libertarianism is quite complimentary. He says that the Founding Fathers and the Constitution were actually more libertarian than anything else. The gist of the essay is that with the Tea Party movement and the rise of Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, libertarianism is on the rise and our moment has come.

But halfway through, Mr. Beam changes his tone and gets to the heart of his essay, which is a critique of libertarianism and an explanation of why he thinks it is a bad policy for the United States. His arguments aren’t theoretically sophisticated and are designed to appeal to a mass audience: if there are poor people, and charity can’t provide for them, then we need welfare or else they will steal from us; we need public education in case the free market can’t educate everyone; we need a central bank in order to print a uniform currency. He mentions “asymmetrical information” and “public goods,” and argues that if the bailout had not happened then innocent investors and homeowners who innocently misunderstood the riskiness of their loans would have been punished. “There’s always a tension between freedom and fairness,” he says, and we libertarians “pretend the tension doesn’t exist.”

We must shift the alignment of America’s political discourse so that socialism no longer sounds like common sense, and our proposals seem like the new common sense.

Libertarianism can never succeed, he claims, because politicians must compromise and libertarians refuse to compromise or cooperate. One of the overarching criticisms in the essay, and perhaps its most obnoxious, is the subtle implication that libertarians have such a hard time accomplishing real change because we know that our theories are mere impractical abstractions unsuitable for pragmatic flesh-and-blood reality, so we would be revealed as idiots if we ever achieved political power.

The refutations of Beam’s arguments are so obvious that I need not detail them. What is more significant is the mere existence of his essay. It is, in my opinion, one of the early post-Tea Party attempts by the Left to come up with an ideological response to people with open minds from taking libertarianism seriously. I strongly doubt that libertarianism has reached the peak of its popularity, but what this essay signals to me is that people who ten or twenty years ago might never have known what libertarianism is are now hearing the word “libertarianism” and asking what it means. Beam provides a leftist answer to that question. But he also cites surveys showing that more people now define themselves as libertarians than ever before, and that this poses a threat to the liberal-conservative establishment.

If the Tea Party phenomenon grows and Rand Paul’s career continues, we should expect to see many more such essays. I think that they will all follow Beam’s pattern. “The Trouble With Liberty” shows what two challenges we must overcome in order to be taken seriously.

First, there is something, call it “common sense” or the “social imagination” or whatever, but there is a set of simple political ideas that, whether true or false, permeates a culture. We need to introduce arguments into the American intellectual culture to refute the “common sense” arguments for statism, such as the argument that we need a welfare state to rescue the poor. We must shift the alignment of America’s political discourse so that socialism no longer sounds like common sense, and our proposals, which Beam skewers as extremist, seem like the new common sense. This is similar to what Glenn Beck claims the socialists did to us with the Overton Window – shifting cultural common sense by gradually introducing extreme ideas until they become mainstream  — but it works in reverse.

Second, we must prove that libertarianism can work in practice as well as in theory, and we must call upon our libertarian politicians to show the American people that it is possible to have noble ideals while still being pragmatic and getting things done. In my opinion the danger is not that Rand Paul and Paul Ryan will make too many compromises; it is the opposite: they will be too idealistic and take an all-or-nothing approach to change, and thus will be unable to work with their Republican colleagues. In that way, they will confirm the fears that Beam would like to promote.

“Libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics,” Beam writes. It is only natural for the liberal-conservative establishment to oppose us by laughing at us so loudly that nobody will take us seriously. That is, after all, right out of Ellsworth Toohey’s playbook. The question is how we will respond to the laughter — by behaving like weird extremists and impractical idealists, or by showing that we deserve to be taken seriously and that our abstract theories really will work in practical reality.




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Not Gittin' Outta Gitmo

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One has to think that the libertarian Obamanistas — libertarians who supported Obama, thinking that he couldn’t spend more money than the Republicans, and would at least end the war on terror and dramatically reduce the military posture of the country, must feel some uncertainty about their guy.

Certainly, in terms of spending and deficits, he makes Bush look like a fiscal hawk. In his two years in office, Obama’s yearly deficits have been over four times the size of Bush’s largest. And in terms of state control of the economy — the socialization of the medical system, the nationalization of the auto industries, the massive increase in regulations, the dramatic increase in the size of the federal bureaucracy, and the expansion of environmentalist hegemony over natural resources — he has explored a whole New Frontier of statist economics.

As to the war on terror, he hasn’t ended it, or even diminished it appreciably, much less brought in a new era of isolationism. We are still in Iraq — though scheduled to exit, but no earlier than Bush’s plans called for — and are fairly well stuck in Afghanistan. Virtually all of Bush’s executive orders on the war on terror remain essentially unchanged.

A recent Reuters report (Jan. 7) underscores this point. While Obama was in the Senate, then on the campaign trail, then during his first two years in office, he relentlessly bashed Bush for holding prisoners outside the regular court system, detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Obama promised to give the Gitmo detainees fair trials in our regular court system, though he also promised they would all be convicted and jailed — well, indefinitely!

But quietly, on a Friday when news coverage is guaranteed to be minimal, Obama signed a law that prohibits bringing the remaining 175 Gitmo prisoners here for court trials.

He said he had no choice but to sign the bill — the defense authorization act for fiscal 2011 — because the military funding was necessary, even though the bill contained that provision banning domestic civilian trials for the terrorist detainees. And he vowed to fight to get the provision repealed — although the ban was put in the bill by one of the most left-wing Congresses in American industry, so it is hard to see why he thinks he can get it through a more right-wing Congress.

Obama’s claim that he had to sign the bill is just a lie. He certainly could have vetoed it and made it clear to Congress that he would not sign any future bill that included the provision. But he didn’t, and this raises a dilemma about him.

Perhaps he still wants to give the Gitmo guys domestic civilian trials, and has merely decided that trying those prisoners here would be too politically costly. Certainly, the public opposes such trials by a large margin. But if that is the case, he is not much of a man of principle.

On the other hand, perhaps he has changed his mind on the matter, and no longer views such trials as worthwhile. After all, the showpiece of the Obama policy of domestic civil trials for terrorists was the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, the Gitmo guy who was involved in the 1998 bombings of US embassies. The trial ended late last year with the jury finding Ghailani not guilty on 279 of the 280 counts Obama’s Justice Department brought against him, finding him guilty on only one count: planning to destroy US property. He was not found guilty of even one of the 224 murder counts against him. Hardly bracing for the prospect of keeping the other Gitmo guys safely away from society.

However, if Obama has changed his mind, what does that say about his judgment — compared to, say, George Bush’s?




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The Serious and the Buffoons

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I like to congratulate countries that, unlike ours, take energy policy seriously. Serious energy policy simply means that you seriously try to find and exploit new energy sources, using reality-based rather than delusional thinking.

Our present administration, which cherishes the delusion that noisy, ugly, and inefficient windmill farms and costly, ugly, and inefficient solar panel farms will allow us to dispense with oil, gas, and coal, is the paradigm case of unserious (i.e., joke) policy makers.

For being serious, kudos should go to Israel. As noted by the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 30, it has encouraged extensive exploration for fossil fuels off its shoreline, and the search has paid off prodigiously. The most recent discovery may tip the Mideast balance of power in Israel’s favor. A huge field of natural gas, aptly called Leviathan, apparently contains 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (according to Noble Energy, the American firm developing it). That field alone could supply Israel’s gas needs for a century. It might even make Israel a net energy exporting country.

Leviathan was found in the vicinity of smaller fields discovered earlier in the Levant Basin, an area of Mediterranean seabed off the coasts of Israel and Lebanon. The first two fields, Noa and Mari, discovered in 1999 and 2000 respectively, together contain about 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Tamar and Dalit fields, both discovered in early 2009, together contain about 9 trillion cubic feet.

The US Geological Survey estimates that the Levant Basin holds a total of 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, not to mention 1.7 billion barrels of oil. To put that in perspective, the Levant Basin’s estimated gas reserves are nearly half of what America’s entire natural gas reserves are thought to be.

These huge fields, together with Israel’s laws favoring energy exploration and development, caused the Israeli energy sector stock index to soar 1,700% in 2010. They also led to Lebanon’s passing laws to develop its share of the Levant Basin.

A second story appeared in the Journal on Dec. 31. It reports that even as our unemployment rate hovers near 10% and the price of gasoline continues to rise, the harlequins in the Obama administration have issued a directive sealing off even more lands from productive exploration. This directive requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to search its huge holdings to find “unspoiled” back country that it can then decree to be “wild lands” and lock away from development of any kind.

This may block from use many millions of acres of land in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, and everyplace else where the feds own land. (The BLM supervises 250 million acres of land!) You can just forget about the uranium, oil, natural gas, and other valuable resources of the areas the BLM shuts down.

The BLM used this power freely back in the 1970s and 1980s, but in 2003, after a lawsuit from the government of Utah, it relinquished the power. Now Obama, having lost his legislative power, is trying to build up the executive power necessary to carry out his jihad against carbon energy, and reverse the 2003 decision. He seems to think that shortages of — and high prices for — energy are the keys to economic prosperity.

All this inclines me to say “Mazel tov!” to the Israelis, and “Go to hell!” to the Obamanista environmental extremists, who are trying to choke off this nation’s energy.




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The Dangers of Diagnosis

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“Nearly 1 in 5 Americans had mental illness in 2009.” This recent CNBC online headline captured my attention.

The brief article that followed was based on a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency (oas.samhsa.gov). The article repeats highlights from the agency’s report entitled “Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings,” available in PDF form.

The article states that an estimated 45 million US residents had a mental illness, and 11 million had a serious mental illness, and that these numbers reflect increasing depression among the unemployed.

The article’s intention — to create alarm — is loosely veiled. If people do not have access to interventionist and preventive treatment, any number of woes can follow: “disability, substance abuse, suicide, lost productivity and family discord.” Lost employment equals lost health insurance equals a lack of access to treatment equals a crisis. The insinuation is that government should step in to close the treatment gap.

Finding this article was fortuitous. Only days before I had read an article in Skeptic magazine about the “foibles of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V” — the diagnostic guide for mental health practitioners. (For details, see “Prognosis Negative” in Skeptic, volume 15, number 3 [2010], by John Sorboro, himself a licensed, practicing psychiatrist.)

The state of the psychiatric arts today, complicated by increased government control over our nation’s healthcare industry, should alarm all citizens, not just libertarians.

According to Dr. Sorboro, the upcoming version of the DSM will have a marked increase in diagnosable psychiatric disorders, which may include “compulsive shopping” and “Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder.” But the problem with the DSM has to do with the validity of what it says.

To rectify the unscientific nature of prior versions of the work, the third version was intended to “increase reliability by standardizing definitions.” Still, critics maintained that “the rhetoric of science — rather than scientific data — was used by the developers of the DSM-III to promote their goal, and science did not support [their] claims.” In 1994, the DSM-IV was published, listing 297 disorders. The latest revision is set to increase that list. Yet according to Dr. Sorboro, almost “every major psychiatric construct is seen as being of questionable validity by a vocal group within the field itself[,] or outside it.”

Psychiatric disorders are supposed to be pathological constructs, as Parkinson’s disease is a pathological construct. For a construct to be valid, Sorboro states, it must differentiate itself from other pathological constructs and provide a theoretical framework for prediction and specific intervention. He likens psychiatric pathological constructs to the construct for fibromyalgia — “a loose collection of non-specific complaints.” Fibromyalgia lacks an underlying, identifiable pathology. So do psychiatric constructs.

Critiques of the DSM include claims that it’s a collection of “the moral objections of a group within power [who] desire to medically pathologize another group for self serving purposes,” and that it is “a-theoretical and purely descriptive.” Evidence in support of the former critique is that homosexuality was not entirely removed from the DSM’s list of mental disorders until the latter half of the 1980s!

A diagnosis based on the DSM is not a divination of pathology. The DSM is tautological. It describes. It does not explain. Thus, diagnosis is subjective, not objective. Sorboro uses bipolar disorders to illustrate. Bipolar I disorder appeared in the DSM-III in 1980, followed by Bipolar II Disorder, Bipolar Disorder NOS (not otherwise specified — that’s worrisome), and cyclothymia. There has been a correlative rise in the diagnoses of such disorders — one statistic that Sorboro cites is a 4000% increase in bipolar disorder diagnoses in children during the past decade, despite the fact that mental health practitioners know “hardly anything more of real scientific significance about bipolar disorder than we did in 1980.”

Soboro states that medical disease classification evolves in a messy and inconsistent way, “and often has to do with politics and not just compelling scientific fact. It’s just much worse in psychiatry.” For example, contributors to the DSM-V include “health care consumers”; and as Sorboro says, no other branch of medicine would ask consumers for advice in defining pathology. Moreover, the American Psychiatric Association taskforce handling this revision is conspicuously closed and non-transparent — task force members must sign confidentiality agreements and cannot keep written notes of their meetings.

Hmm.

I have been skeptical of the DSM since I first read it. I was a judicial clerk, and my judge kept a copy of the DSM-IV on one of his bookshelves. He used it for reference during sentencing hearings and when he presided over mental health hearings. During lulls in my clerkship tasks, I read several large chunks of the DSM-IV. My initial thoughts were: there certainly are some people with severe mental problems, but this is bullshit. Symptoms of the indicated mental “conditions” were so encompassing that anyone and everyone could be classified as having some type of mental disorder.

My best friend from high school is a psychiatrist, and after reading the DSM-IV, I asked her about it. She said that it gives a practitioner guidelines for diagnoses. But don’t guidelines have to guide? I asked. Isn't a diagnostic process that has no conceptual limits wholly subjective? The flu is marked by symptoms that make it the flu and not a common cold or pneumonia. But even a brief reading of the DSM shows that mental illnesses are not marked by unique symptoms. Why? My friend had a few forgettable justifications, but no answers.

Homosexuality was not entirely removed from the DSM’s list of mental disorders until the latter half of the 1980s!

Many Liberty readers are familiar with libertarian criticisms of the mental health industry. But the state of the psychiatric arts today, complicated by increased government control over our nation’s healthcare industry, should alarm all citizens, not just libertarians. Psychiatric abuse by states against citizens is well documented; psychiatric imprisonment for dissidents in the Soviet Union is just one example.

The dangers are clear. In the legal realm, when a criminal statute is overbroad, behavior otherwise constitutionally protected is criminalized, subjecting more citizens to state control. Overdiagnosis of overinclusive mental disorders will subject more citizens to treatment — which, under Obamacare, means subjection to more government control. This should be enough to give anyone an anxiety disorder. Considering the political nature of mental “disease” classification, I wonder if a disorder marked by “irrational fear” of a “benevolent government” might be among the disorders included in the new DSM.




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Your 401k Is a Sitting Duck

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In Liberty some time back (“Pension Peril,” March 2009), I reflected on President Kirchner of Argentina, who helped fund her country’s failing public pension system by simply stealing money from the private pension savings accounts that many of her countrymen had managed to accumulate. Her government expropriated (“nationalized”) the $24 billion private pension funds industry in order to save the public system, forcing citizens to trade their savings for Argentinean Treasury bills of dubious creditworthiness. I suggested then that such a thing might happen in the US, where Americans have many billions put aside in various retirement vehicles — a tempting target for any cash-starved government.

I think that dark day is growing closer. My feeling is confirmed by some troubling news, recently reported by the Adam Smith Institute’s wonderful website. The author of the report, economist Jan Iwanik, notes that a number of European countries are shoring up their tottering public pension plans by the Peronista tactic of stealing from those who have prudently put aside some extra money for their retirement.

Bulgaria, for example, has put forward a plan to confiscate $300 million from the private savings accounts of its already impoverished citizens and put those funds into the public social security system. Fortunately, organized protest has cut the amount transferred to “only” $60 million — for now, at least. And Poland has crafted a scheme to divert one-third of all future contributions that are made to private retirement savings accounts, so that the money flows instead to the public social security scheme. This will amount to $2.3 billion a year stolen from frugal people to shore up the improvident public system.

The most egregious case is that of Hungary. This state, which has been teetering on the verge of insolvency for years, has taken a drastic punitive step. Under a new law, all citizens who have saved for their retirement face a Hobson’s choice: either they turn over their entire retirement accounts to the government for the funding of the public system, or they lose the right ever to collect a state pension, even though they have paid and must continue paying contributions to the state system. The Hungarian government thus hopes to pocket all of the $14.2 billion that the hapless Hungarians have managed to squirrel away.

As our own national insolvency grows nigh, it is just a matter of time before the feds take a swing at the enormous pot of private retirement savings held by Americans. If you think you’ve heard nothing but class warfare rhetoric from this administration, just wait till it feels the need to take your 401ks, IRAs, and so on. The demonization of the productive and the prudent will be loud and shrill.




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Snow White and Mayor Dork

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On Sunday December 26, 2010, the blizzard of 2010 hit the northeastern United States. I, for one, enjoyed watching the snow fall. If we can’t have a white Christmas, a white day-after-Christmas is the next best thing.

But in New York City things were not so merry. Upwards of two feet of snow fell in New York. Clearing the roads after a snowstorm seems a relatively simple challenge, one for which Mayor Michael Bloomberg should have had ample time to prepare. The mayor’s absolute failure reveals him as an absolute incompetent.

For years Bloomberg has opposed libertarian freedoms in New York City, from gun rights to the right to smoke cigarettes in bars. (This was a pet peeve of mine, back when I used to smoke and drink.) But at the very least, he has tended to handle emergencies well — at least, one always saw him on the evening news at the scene of the disaster, once the mess had been cleared up. But not this time.

I spoke with my father two days after the blizzard. He lives in eastern Queens, and he was still snowed in, with the roads outside his house unplowed, the piles of snow too high to get past, and bus and subway lines in his area not running. His fate was shared by most people in Queens and Brooklyn.

I am spending my winter vacation at my mother’s home in southwestern Connecticut, and here I get New York TV news channels, which showed that the city was in a state of devastation. It was reported that the day after the snowstorm it took eight hours for ambulances to respond to 911 calls because of the condition of the roads. The next day, the news said that the mayor blamed his inability to plow the roads on drivers who had irresponsibly abandoned their cars in the middle of the street. TV reporters are consistent in saying that New Yorkers are outraged. The City Council plans to respond to this emergency by… holding a hearing.

What New York City needs is men of action, not windbag politicians. If the city is too incompetent to clear the roads after a snowstorm, it is only because politicians and bureaucrats have no accountability and suffer no monetary loss from the failure of state-owned infrastructure. Needless to say, two feet of snow is not the worst crisis that the city may face in the future. The only way to prevent a future disaster is to stick our hand into our magical bag of libertarian wisdom and pull out an idea whose time has come: privatize the roads.

If the streets of New York City were under private ownership, the owners would make certain that snow removal happened efficiently; if they failed then they would go bankrupt and someone else would buy the roads and operate them to the satisfaction of consumers. One TV news story showed a Brooklyn family with a newborn baby. With an oil truck trapped in piles of snow just a few streets away, their heat had gone out for lack of oil, and ambulances had trouble reaching them. Their baby’s death should weigh on the conscience of every statist who fights against allowing free market competition to improve upon the nightmare of state-owned infrastructure.




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Your Recovery Dollars at Work

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About three months ago, a curious sign appeared at one end of my street. It reads, “Putting America to Work. Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” It depicts a hard-hat-wearing stick figure digging into a pile of dirt — as if this jaunty cartoon of a “shovel-ready” project would soothe my anger at the wealth confiscation that funds such ridiculous endeavors.

Not much goes on in my small, East Coast rural enclave. The acquisition of “city” sewage by the nearest two towns was a big deal around here. So the government sign was the talk of our street. There was no explanation of why the sign appeared, no explanation of what project was in the offing. This was strange.

Then, roughly two weeks after the sign was erected, road crews appeared on both ends of our street and started tearing up the asphalt. The re-paving project was completed two weeks later.

Some neighbors speculated that the project was inflicted on us to predispose us to vote Democratic in the upcoming local election. But elections here are the smallest of small potatoes. It wasn't logical that federal funds would be spent to influence local voting. One neighbor speculated that the road was being prepared for a utility development set to occur in the next few years; but another road is slated to be built specifically for that purpose, at the opposite end of the nearest big town. None of us could come up with a reasonable answer. I suppose I could have attended a township meeting to divine the reasons behind this project, but I don’t have the time to waste and it’s highly unlikely that the simple folk, and by that I mean simpletons, who make up the township committee would have a credible answer.

As I said, this is a rural area. Roads need only be passable  — pickup trucks and tractors do just fine. Given that my street is only one section of a decently long through road, this paving project does not qualify as a “road to nowhere”; but it is very strange that the project was limited to one section of the road. Even stranger, there was nothing wrong with this part of the road in the first place. Nary a pothole! There is no meaningful difference between the street in its pre-recovery- dollars condition and the street in its post-recovery-dollars state. The road is now black. It used to be to gray.

In short, the project was a colossal waste of money. The dollars devoted to it should not have been printed, let alone spent. The workers involved in it did not achieve sustainable employment; they simply received unemployment subsidies by another name. No one was “put to work” in the sense that the designers of the Recovery Act intended the populace to believe.

Increased employment results from increased demand for goods and services. Allowing taxpayers to keep the majority of our dollars is the best option for “Recovery and Reinvestment” in all areas. Greater disposable income spurs demand as well as mitigating the risk of investment in small ventures. A person can spend his or her own dollars on any number of goods or endeavors that would contribute to sustained economic activity. More dollars in the hands of the citizenry will “put more people to work” than dollars in the hands of government ever will.

The first step to an actual recovery is limiting government spending. How do we achieve this?

We can apply my friend’s sound advice on dealing with young children: give them only very limited options. For example, instead of asking, “Where would you like to go for your birthday dinner?” ask, “For your birthday dinner, would you like to go to Friendly’s or McDonald’s?” Young children are ill-equipped to handle unlimited discretion. Governments are too.

With the country in its present mood, severely limiting government’s spending discretion is an attractive and realizable goal. We already have the set of tools necessary to do this. It’s called the Constitution.




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The Simple Life

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Remember calculators? How simple. Even my three score and ten year-old brain could use a calculator without the benefit of a 12-year-old associate offering advice on the sidelines. Naturally, this was B.C. (Before Computers). Then the computer came along and with much difficulty — much cursing — much advice from mocking 12-year-olds who found an activity they loved, besides obnoxiousness and noisemaking — my stressed brain learned to operate the device. So I thought.

Then “they,” the strange pointy-headed people who lived in the woods and emerged to design software, somehow discovered that even I could use 30% of the functions on the computer. No good. They changed it.

Why, oh why, are they obsessed with change? No sooner do I learn X than they change it to Y.

Highly intelligent but aged minds hate change. “Leave it alone,” says the home page of my 15-year-old Mac, to those people who live in the woods.

It all reminds me of the mania to modify a product just to make it different — to stimulate sales, not efficiency. “Hey look, I’ve got the new whatchamacallit - newest model, makes popcorn, too. Bet your iPad or Raspberry can't make popcorn.”

Thank goodness, for the moment, we still live in a capitalist society. Companies like profits, and change is often the engine of profit. That’s OK, just give me a choice. If I don’t need to track the

number of passengers with green shirts flying out of Kennedy, don’t build it into the “M” key on my keyboard. And don’t ring bells and flash green naked women on my screen so I remember to upgrade to this bizarre requirement.

Because of those technical wood nymphs, change becomes religious. It doesn’t always bring improvement, but it does always bring complication. There ought to be two streams of development. The first would be like your car. You bought a 2010 Ford; it remains a 2010 Ford. The accelerator never moves from its floorboard position. The instrument panel still indicates miles per hour, not feet per second. My kind of device. The second would be a test of your mental flexibility. Here, everything changes. The accelerator is now the brake. This is for users who like puzzles and are intrigued by how the device operates, not by what it does.

But in the computer world, even if you stick with the same computer, it’s always bugging you to update this or that. And it has clever little tricks. While you’re playing tennis, it swaps out your operating system so you have to call that smart aleck 12-year-old just to send an email. This is a world that worships change — for better or worse.

My pet remembrance of the “fix it even if it ain’t broke” philosophy is the battery-powered watch. Yep, I’m convinced that’s when it all started — a pivotal date in the history of uselessness. Now, I’m not a watchmaker, but batteries cost money and add an item to your “to do” list. And I swear they’re dying sooner and sooner. How long will it be before it’s a daily ritual? And few stores will change a battery.

How hard was it in the old days to give that little stem a few twists? Free twists, I might add. Think about it.

Gotta go now — my computer is groaning, which means that if I don’t install the popcorn app, it’ll erase my files of all stories that contain the word “popcorn."




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Good News, for a Change

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Little noticed in all the year-end political hysteria has been the good news about fossil-fuel energy production in the US and Canada. Unfortunately, the good news could have been better, if only we had better leaders.

The Globe and Mail (Dec. 8) reports that in 2010 the U.S. will end up having produced 140,000 barrels of oil a day more than it did in 2009. That’s incredible, when you consider Obama’s jihad against deepwater drilling. October, a banner month, saw 5.5 million barrels a day produced from American wells. Indeed, the US Energy Information Agency (the EIA) reports that our proven reserves of petroleum are now 22.3 billion barrels, up by 9% last year, in part because of the newly explored Green River shale oil field straddling Colorado and Utah.

America has even more bracing news about natural gas. The US now leads Russia in natural gas production. Again, this is in great measure because of expanding reliance on our extensive shale fields. We have the four largest natural gas fields in the world, and the EIA now puts our proven natural gas reserves at 284 trillion cubic feet, up 11% last year alone, and now at the highest level since 1971.

No doubt this is why China’s state-owned energy company CNOOC has cut a deal with Chesapeake Energy, according to which CHOOC will cover three-fourths of development costs and pay Chesapeake an up-front $1.08 billion for a one-third interest in its Texas natural gas project, a project that will produce the natural gas equivalent of half a million barrels of oil a day.

Our ally to the north, Canada, has also been doing well in fossil fuel energy production. Canadian oil sands production has increased dramatically; it now delivers more oil to North America than does Saudi Arabia. And while the Canadians may not love us, they don’t hate our guts. Young Canadian men don’t strap bombs around themselves and blow Americans apart. This is clearly preferable to the example of other countries.

Also exciting is the prospect of exploiting methane hydrates — essentially frozen water containing gas, found in stupefying abundance beneath ocean floors and the northern permafrost. This is something that the US and Canada can exploit when the time comes. How much of that stuff is there? The US Geological Survey estimates that even with a miserable 1% recovery rate, America could cover all of its present natural gas needs for the next century. And the UN Environmental Program hails methane hydrates as “the most abundant form of organic carbon on Earth.” Canada has been the leader in field-testing this form of gas extraction, and plans to exploit it commercially within a decade or so.

So we are doing fine in terms of resources. What is hurting us is our environmentalist-controlled leadership. We have at the federal level an administration that is hostile to fossil fuels in general and petroleum in particular, and has done its best to push us toward grotesquely costly and inefficient alternatives, such as solar and wind power.

Even at the state level, success in domestic fossil fuel production often happens in spite of, rather than because of, government help. Consider a Wall Street Journal piece (Dec. 16) about New York Governor David Paterson’s decision to issue an executive order imposing a virtual ban on drilling for natural gas within the state.

We don’t normally think of New York as a place like Texas, a petroleum-rich state. But the huge Marcellus shale formation, all 65 million acres of it, stretches from Ohio and West Virginia to Pennsylvania and upstate New York; it’s a repository of vast amounts of natural gas.

Natural gas can be readily extracted from this shale by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — injecting a mixture of water and sand, together with miniscule amounts of various chemicals. Fracking, used now for over 60 years, is used in about a third of our oil and natural gas extraction. Even the EPA has published studies concluding that it’s safe.

But New York environmentalists — among the most devout in the nation — naturally oppose fracking, and the legislature there recently banned it. Paterson vetoed the bill, but put a moratorium on horizontal fracking until the New York Department of Environmental Conservation issues new regulations. This will take at least six months, and will likely manage to keep the ban in effect.

Pennsylvania — hardly a bastion of redneck petroleum lovers — saw $4.5 billion in investment in the massive shale field, creating about 44,000 jobs and $400 million in state and local taxes last year alone. Between July 2009 and June 2010, the 632 Pennsylvanian Marcellus wells produced 180 billion cubic feet of gas, doubling the state’s production.

The American Petroleum Institute reckoned that if New York allowed its shale gas to be tapped, it would provide $15 billion in economic output and $2 billion in state taxes. But New York apparently couldn’t care less about great-paying blue-collar jobs that add to the nation’s energy supplies and lessen our dependence on foreign tyrannies bent on our annihilation.




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