New Grit

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The story of True Grit is as simple as a classic western and iconic as a Greek drama — a tale of revenge and redemption, told with wit, grit, and a dash of cathartic poignancy.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed Frank Ross in cold blood. Frank's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), is determined to see Chaney hanged for murder. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a murderer of a different sort: as a U.S. Marshall, he has a license to go after outlaws and bring them back, dead or alive. More often than not, he brings them back dead.

Mattie is looking for a marshal with "grit" to help her find her father's killer. The trigger-happy Cogburn is her choice. But the title of the film could just as easily describe Mattie herself. Smart enough to outnegotiate a horse trader, well-versed in the law, plucky enough to tame and ride a new mustang, and tenaciously persistent, she is a girl with true grit. Cogburn is at first irritated by this young whippersnapper, but as he sees her determination, irritation gives way to grudging admiration. Eventually he grows to love her with the protective ferocity of a mother bear.

As they travel together, Cogburn slowly reveals his past to her. He has two failed marriages behind him, as well as a son who, he admits, "never liked me very much." With her unflinching courage and impressive education, Mattie becomes both the son and the daughter Cogburn did not raise. Gradually she comes to represent his opportunity for redemption as a father.

Comparisons to the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, are inevitable. After all, the Duke won his one and only Oscar for this role. Many critics have complained that Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is a grizzled old coot, barely visible behind his whiskers and eye patch. Nevertheless, Bridges sells it, supplying what I consider the original film’s missing ingredient: the growing emotional connection between the precocious yet vulnerable young girl and the old man who has buried his personal life in a whiskey bottle. The chemistry simply didn't exist between Kim Darby and John Wayne, who openly complained about his costar's lack of experience and depth.

Darby's Mattie was bent on reforming the irascible, hard-drinking, cynical Cogburn, but Steinberg's Mattie simply accepts him for who he is and takes care of him when he needs it. When she removes Rooster's tobacco and rolling paper from his fumbling hands and deftly produces a tight cigarette, she does it without condemnation or flourish; it's apparent that she has rolled cigarettes for her father many times before. The gesture symbolizes a subtle transfer of Mattie's affection and signals the beginning of Cogburn's redemption. By contrast, in Kim Darby's hands the cigarette is an unspoken accusation of his immorality.

The Coen Brothers are probably the most versatile moviemaking team in the business. They defy any attempt to place them in a genre box, unless that box is just labeled "Good." It has been said that paper is cheaper than film, and the Coens have taken that axiom to heart, beginning with a great script that leads inevitably to a great story and a great film. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the starmaking Fargo to the sleazy The Big Lebowski to the sublime O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, they’ve known how to make movies the old fashioned way: with great stories, great acting, and great cinematography. True Grit may not be their quirkiest or most original, but it is a true winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "True Grit," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Skydance, 2010, 110 minutes.



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The Case Against the Corporate Tax

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As the new Congress gets set to liberate America from the stranglehold of the freshly defeated Red Congress, hopes for change are arising. One is the hope for a lowering of the US corporate tax rate.

This rate is a hefty 35%, second highest among the developed economies of the world. It seems obvious, just considering basic psychology, that lowering the corporate tax will be economically beneficial. It is a truism of behaviorist psychology that if you punish (negatively reinforce) a behavior you get less of it, and if you reward (positively reinforce) a behavior you get more of it. Corporate taxes punish business activity, resulting in less business — great if you are a leftist, but lousy if you are anyone else.

The Heritage Foundation has released the results of a study by economists Karen Campbell and John Ligon that spells out the case for lowering corporate taxes, called The Economic Impact of a 25 Percent Corporate Income Tax Rate. Campbell and Ligon ran a simulation of the economic impact of lowering the corporate tax from 35% to 25%. The results are eye-opening.

Their simulation (which covers the period 2011 to 2020) estimates that under the lower taxes, GDP would grow by an extra $132 billion annually, creating over 530,000 new private-sector jobs per year. The average family of four would see its after-tax yearly income go up by nearly $2,500. Gross private investment would rise by over $57 billion annually, and foreign assets in the US would rise by 4% annually. American capital stock would grow by $240 billion more a year, and real after-tax corporate profits would increase by an average of $124 billion a year over the current projected levels.

Notwithstanding all this, it is questionable whether Obama will ever allow a drop in corporate tax rates. He is instinctively anti-business, and although the economic case is compelling, he is the most economically ignorant president in recent history.




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What's in a Brand?

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People often complain that the tea partiers confuse socialism, fascism, and communism.  These people argue that the three have distinct definitions and different ideologies.

Well, Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac are not the same car. They are, however, different nameplates on similar products, with many parts manufactured by the same people.  They'll all take you to the same place, though some will do it faster.




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Jolly Old Elves

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Never Play Monopoly with Uncle Sam

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On December 13, 2010, U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson ruled in Virginia v. Sebelius that the individual mandate included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act  (PPACA), popularly known as Obamacare, is unconstitutional. (Hudson’s ruling is available as a PDF here.) Does the government have the power to compel people to buy private health insurance? The answer to that question will soon be in the hands of the Supreme Court.

That Judge Hudson did not refer to United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Association (S.E.U.A.) in his decision struck me as odd, probably because I have not studied law. It is likely that Judge Hudson did not refer to the 1944 ruling because it had no bearing on his decision. Still, as it was the only Supreme Court case that the drafters of the PPACA cited in the part of the law intended to make the individual mandate seem constitutional, my curiosity was piqued.

What follows will review: (1) the part of the PPACA that addresses the constitutionality of the individual mandate, (2) how the mandate might function if the courts waive it through, and (3) the S.E.U.A. case. Only then will 1944 ruling and the 2010 law be examined together. The focus will not be on legal precedents, but on an aspect of the matter with which I am more familiar: bittersweet irony.

Imagine a group of congressional staffers pulling an all-nighter, drafting the healthcare reform legislation. “We can’t use that! Look at the facts!” “Get real! Of course we can! Nobody’s going to read the damn thing!”

The PPACA says the mandate is constitutional because “most health insurance is sold by national or regional health insurance companies, health insurance is sold in interstate commerce and claims payments flow through interstate commerce.” (PPACA, Subtitle F, Part I, Section 1501, (a) (2) (B)).It goes on to say, “In United Statesv. South-Eastern Underwriters Association … (1944)the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that insurance is interstate commerce subject to Federal regulation,” (PPACA, Subtitle F, Part I, Section 1501, (a) (3)). (The consolidated version of the law, after reconciliation, is at ncsl.org.)

Briefly, then, unless the Supreme Court agrees with Hudson, the PPACA will, beginning on January 1, 2014, compel otherwise uninsured people to buy health insurance policies. Such policies will not be crafted to meet the needs of those being compelled to buy them. Instead, they will be “one size fits all” policies crafted to meet the government’s funding needs. For example, there will be no high deductible, catastrophic care policies, nor will there be policies that exclude such things as mental health care.

Additionally, the premiums for these policies will not be based on the real risk factors of the person being insured, but rather on a modified community rating that will compel low-risk purchasers to pay many times more than what would be justified using an actuarial table. The prices that companies charge for the policies will be regulated by the government as well, ensuring that they are steep enough to pay for the services that the high-risk policy holders require. Planned government subsidies notwithstanding, should someone choose not to purchase the mandated policy at the regulated price, he will be saddled with a hefty fine, attached to his tax bill. Should he refuse to pay the fine, he could, under existing tax law, be jailed. (For a good overview, read Hazards of the Individual Health Care Mandate at cato.org.)

Now, what was the South-Eastern Underwriters Association case about? Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, describes a group of insurance companies (the S.E.U.A.) violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by conspiring to “restrain interstate trade and commerce by fixing and maintaining arbitrary and non-competitive premium rates” on fire insurance policies. These companies “not only fixed premium rates and agents’ commissions, but employed boycotts together with other types of coercion and intimidation to force non-member insurance companies into the conspiracies, and to compel persons who needed insurance to buy only from S.E.U.A. members.” In addition, Black tells how the companies saw to it that those who were “not members of S.E.U.A. were cut off from the opportunity to reinsure their risks, and their services and facilities were disparaged; independent sales agencies who defiantly represented non-S.E.U.A. companies were punished by a withdrawal of the right to represent the members of S.E.U.A.; and persons needing insurance who purchased from non-S.E.U.A. companies were threatened with boycotts and withdrawal of all patronage.” (Openjurist.com has the entire ruling.)

So. The only Supreme Court ruling cited in the healthcare law to support the notion that the individual mandate is constitutional upheld the lower court decisions to: (1) break up a conspiracy to monopolize and otherwise control what had been a free insurance market, (2) punish conspirators for fixing premiums instead of allowing free-market competition to determine price and product, and (3) bring an end to the use of coercion and intimidation to force customers to buy the cartel’s insurance policies and to force companies to join in a scheme to control the insurance market.

Of course, those who drafted the PPACA cited the 1944 case because Justice Black was, for the first time, placing insurance companies under the sway of the interstate commerce clause, which gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce … among the several States” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3). But ask yourself, Did these drafters read the facts of the S.E.U.A. case? If they did, citing it in the law was an act of legislative chutzpah. After all, Justice Black was on the side of the intimidated, the coerced, not the conspirators doing the intimidating.

Imagine a group of congressional staffers pulling an all-nighter, drafting the healthcare reform legislation. “We can’t use that! Look at the facts!” “Get real! Of course we can! Nobody’s going to read the damn thing!” Only a handful of people did. How many read the 2,700-page bill prior to the vote? Surely it was many more than followed up on passing references to ancient fire insurance disputes.

Forgive my obtuseness, but as it was the drafters themselves who placed the 1944 antitrust ruling in Section 1501(a)(3) of the text of the PPACA, would not the Supreme Court be free to raise the facts of that case despite the fact that Judge Hudson made no reference to it? And if the court is free to raise these facts, might there not be an opportunity to ask the defenders of the individual mandate how it is that they see the ruling as supporting their cause, when, practically speaking, Justice Black was condemning exactly the kind of power-grab that they are championing.

After all, now it is the United States government itself that is playing the part of the South-Eastern Underwriters Association, forcing the health insurance industry into a government-controlled cartel, essentially monopolizing what was once a free market, fixing both the product and the price, and using coercion and intimidation to gain the compliance of people and companies alike.

I never thought I’d say this, but this is one trust that is ripe for busting.




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The Mother of All Unintended Consequences

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A number of unanticipated consequences of Obamacare have appeared, even before the major provisions take effect.

Thousands of elderly people have lost their Medicare Advantage plans, insurance companies have been forced to jack up their rates to cover the myriad of new mandates, many insurance companies have eliminated child-only policies, and over a hundred companies and unions — many of them supporters of the Obama administration — have been given waivers from the disastrous bill by the selfsame administration that inflicted it upon the nation.

But the mother of all unintended consequences of Obamacare may be coming down the pike in 2014. That is the year when the healthcare plan dumps 16 million people (and even more, if illegal aliens aren’t excluded) on Medicaid. Medicaid is the program that already covers at least 62 million poorer Americans.

Medicaid is partly funded by the federal government, but almost half the costs are paid by the states. It is a heavy burden on them even in the best of times, and some of them now border on insolvency.

Rick Perry of Texas was the first governor to talk about withdrawing from Medicaid and substituting a less expensive alternative devised by Texans, following the tastes of Texans. But now similar ideas are being discussed by officials in Nevada, South Carolina, Washington, and Wyoming.

Will this group of free thinkers regarding Medicaid swell as we get closer to 2014, the Year of the Great Dump? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “You betcha!”




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Which Is the Real One?

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This seems to be the season of Black Swans. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable spent 17 weeks on the bestseller list and is still being discussed as an explanation for what is happening with the economy. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake returned to New York this fall with its menacing all-male corps de ballet bringing a sizzlingly dark interpretation to this most-beloved of ballets. And now we have the much-anticipated release of the movie Black Swan. The film stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as ballerinas competing for the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a company headquartered at Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Swan Lake is Tchaikovsky's iconic folktale about Odette, an innocent young girl whom a wizard transforms into a swan. As in many fairy tales, only true love can restore the heroine to her original form. Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, but before he can marry her, the wizard substitutes his own daughter, Odile. Odile attends a ball given by Siegfried and tricks him into believing she is Odette, seducing him with her more passionate charm. Traditionally the parts of both women are played by the same ballerina, suggesting to some modern interpreters that the White Swan and the Black Swan are actually warring parts of a single psyche, the Angel and the Whore.

This psychological dilemma figures prominently in the new film. In its version of the story, Nina (Portman) is a member of the corps de ballet who hopes to earn a principal role in the company's upcoming performance of Swan Lake. Lily (Kunis) is a new member of the corps who also hopes to earn the role. Nina is timid and innocent, like the White Swan, while Lily is confident and daring, like the Black Swan. Nina doesn't know what to make of Lily: is she friend or foe?

Black Swan is a traditional backstage movie with a sinister twist. Instead of learning to inhabit the role of the black swan, Nina is horrified to find the swan entering her own exterior world. She must deal with her jealous, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) who has given up her own career in the ballet so she can have Nina. The mother is reminiscent of the queen in Snow White, who becomes so jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty that she wants her to be killed. Nina also has to contend with an evil stepsister of sorts, as Lily manages to become Nina's alternate and seems determined to sabotage her chance to star as the Swan Queen.

Actors often talk about the goal of becoming so immersed in a role that they turn "seeming into being," as Emerson wrote in his journals. Nina is technically capable of dancing the choreographies, but she lacks the passion to become the seductive Black Swan convincingly. Her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel) tries to help her by seducing her himself. Lily tries to help her by making her angry. What seems lacking in this film, however, is a Prince Siegfried character, someone for whom Nina could feel honest love and genuine passion.

Instead, the audience must endure several explicit scenes of masturbation and oral sex that is rendered more as an unemotional attack than as lovemaking. Apparently, the purpose of these scenes is to show how Nina gets in touch with her inner passion, but the scenes are gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic. They mar what is otherwise an exciting and fascinating film.

Both Swan Lake and Black Swan are stories of transformation, but the film is deliberately ambiguous about what happens. Is the transformation in this film metaphoric, metaphysical, or merely hallucinogenic? We never really know, and it doesn't really matter. Ultimately the film is about the ecstasy of a perfect performance, demonstrated on several levels both on and off the stage.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Swan," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Cross Creek Pictures/Fox Searchlight, 2010, 108 minutes.



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Wait ’Til Next Year

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John Maynard Keynes is the Chicago Cubs of economics. In both cases, repeated failure has been rewarded with undying fanatical devotion.

Meanwhile, I am weary of watching our "brilliant” president blame his predecessor for the economic woes the nation still suffers. True genius confronts adversity. Thomas Edison never once blamed the darkness.




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Stimulate This

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As stories pile up about how the money from Obama’s massive stimulus bill was spent, it is becoming clear why the money stimulated few jobs. Two recent stories illustrate this.

First is the report from Randolph, Massachusetts, on how that city spent $4.6 million in scarce taxpayer dollars from the stimulus funds.

The lucky district took its windfall cash and repaired — a horse bridge! Yes, the horseshit project connected two parts of the 238-acre “Blue Hills Reservation,” making it easier for horseback riders and pedestrians to wander freely therein.

An owner of a local equestrian center was of course delighted at this pork project: “I was psyched. I thought, Whoo-hoo, new bridge!” Her defense — standard for anyone who has never read Bastiat — was, “How many other misappropriations have been given through the state for financial funding?” In other words, it benefits me, and the state has approved other senseless projects, so what’s the big deal?

A local bureaucrat, one Wendy Fox, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, said that the bridge was popular and often used, though she couldn’t give any numbers. The horses on the farm on one side of the bridge total 30, and those on the other side total 20  — which averages about $92,000 per horse to build the bridge.

Then there is the happy news that nearly 90,000 people who got “stimulus payments” were either prisoners or . . . corpses. The thinking must have been that the cash would go beyond stimulation and into the realm of resurrection.

Yes, 72,000 stimulus checks (each for $250 of loot stolen from taxpayers) went to deceased people, in anticipation of one last blast. Seventeen thousand more payments were sent to prison inmates. And only about half the money has been returned.

Your tax dollars at work.




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The Epistemology of Christmas: Advanced Course

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Congress' Last Good Deed

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Inspired by a zeal for liberty, and by some very large political contributions, Congress has finally voted to stop the military’s harassment of gays. It would be churlish not to congratulate our legislators for doing this. Therefore, congratulations, legislators.

While burning this incense, I would like to recall some other good thing that the 111th Congress has done. I don’t mean a good thing with a lot of bad things attached, such as temporarily maintaining lower tax rates for people who are actually paying taxes, while increasing the amount of tax money diverted to people who aren’t. And I don’t mean failing, from sheer incompetence, to do a bad thing, such as passing out billions of dollars in gifts to congressmen’s friends, hidden in an “omnibus spending bill.”

I just mean something good.

Something that lets people live their own lives.

Something that lets people plan their own futures.

Something that lets people spend at least one day of their existence not worrying about what the government may do to them.

I’d like to think of something good like that, something that this Congress has done.

Well. I’m trying.

Still trying.

Can you think of anything?




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Bush's Revenge

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I have always felt somewhat better about George Bush than many libertarians apparently do. Two recent events have reinforced my feelings.

The first is the very recent ruling against Obamacare in the U.S. District Court. When pressed for things I think Dubya did right, I have had two quick replies: “Sam Alito” and “John Roberts.” He should be proud of his two appointees to the Supreme Court; they have been superb. Without them, it is doubtful we would have an explicitly recognized individual right to keep and bear arms. But I now have a third quick reply: “Henry Hudson.”

U.S. District Court Judge Hudson was the one who ruled that Obamacare’s key provision, requiring all people not covered by health insurance to purchase it (called the “Minimum Essential Coverage Provision”), exceeds the commerce clause of the Constitution. He was placed on the court in 2002 by Bush.

As Hudson put it, “The unchecked expansion of congressional power to the limits suggested by the Minimum Essential Coverage Provision would invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers. At its core, this dispute is not simply about regulating the business of insurance — or crafting a scheme of universal health insurance coverage — it’s about an individual’s right to choose to participate.”

If Obamacare is ruled unconstitutional, it will be largely because the judges Bush put on the Supreme Court uphold the ruling of one of the judges he put on the district court.

This just seems obvious. It is one thing to regulate interstate commerce, it is quite another to mandate it universally, i.e., to require individuals to engage in commerce (here, buying insurance) if they don’t want to. The argument given by proponents of the bill, that people who don’t buy health insurance wind up requiring the public’s support when they get sick and have to go to the emergency room, is very feeble. Hospitals can and often do bill people without insurance directly. And if Congress had been worried about those who can’t afford health insurance, it could have passed a voucher scheme for healthcare. In that way, anyone who wanted to participate could accept the voucher and go buy at least minimal health insurance, and anyone who didn’t could just refuse the voucher.

Moreover, if you take the pro-Obamacare argument seriously, there is no end to what it would sanction the feds to force us to buy. If I refuse to purchase a car, I will have to use public transportation, so doesn’t that mean that the government can make me buy an American car? No doubt Obama, who nationalized GM and Chrysler to pay back his financial supporters in the UAW, would love that idea. But it is sheer moonshine.

It now seems likelier than not that this issue will make it to the Supreme Court. And it is quite possible that the Court will side with Judge Hudson on the mandate issue. Considering that the wise solons who passed Obamacare forgot to include a severability clause, it is even possible that the Supreme Court could declare the whole bill unconstitutional. If that happens, it will be largely because the judges Bush put on the Supreme Court uphold the ruling of one of the judges he put on the district court.

The second area in which Dubya’s ghost haunts Obama is tax policy. During the present lame-duck session of Congress, Obama reached a surprising last-minute compromise with the Republicans — a compromise that renews Bush’s tax rates for two years. Obama had spent more than two years bashing Bush’s tax cuts “for the obscenely wealthy” and blaming the cuts for our lingering economic difficulties, but he was finally forced to compromise.

He did so very ungracefully, claiming that the Evil Republicans were holding middle class tax cuts hostage, and that while he normally wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, he had to save the hostage. This was as ludicrous as it was infantile. What was held hostage was the rest of Obama’s presidency, which would have been annihilated had the rates gone up, tumbling the economy back into recession. Obama had to pitch his leftist supporters and his congressional myrmidons on the merits of tax cuts as a way to stimulate the economy, after denying that claim all through his presidency.

But perhaps the most farcical turn came when Obama had to call in Bill Clinton to lead a news conference justifying the compromise to outraged congressional Democrats. Farce devolved into pure camp as the ex-prez, who had jacked up the tax rates to begin with, endorsed the compromise that would preserve the lower rates his successor managed to enact. Dubya must have laughed at that one.




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Pen and Paper

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I love reflecting on stories that seem to confirm my admittedly quirky personal preferences. It’s the egoist in me, I suppose.

One such quirk is that I don’t feel I am writing unless I actually put a pen to paper. Yes, I will use a word processor to put the final version in order, but there is something about seeing words on paper that enhances my composition skills — which, Lord knows, need all the enhancing they can get.

A report in the Wall Street Journal by Gwendolyn Bounds, “How Handwriting Boosts the Brain,” discusses some new research by cognitive scientists using MRI technology and other tools. There is rapidly growing evidence that teaching children handwriting helps them not just to learn letters and shapes and develop motor skills but also to improve their ability to compose and express their thoughts.

One study tested children in the second, fourth, and sixth grades and found that they wrote more quickly, using more vocabulary, and conveyed more ideas when writing by hand than when word processing their essays. Adults who learn new symbols (such as Chinese characters) by writing them by hand seem to master the recognition of these symbols more quickly. Some doctors now recommend handwriting for aging patients as a way to ward off dementia.

Prof. Virginia Berninger (an educational psychologist) notes that when writing by hand, people have to execute “sequential strokes” in forming letters, as opposed to selecting whole letters by pushing keys on a keyboard. In so doing they activate large areas of the brain associated with thinking, language, and working memory.

But there is bad news for me in this flurry of research. One ed psych researcher notes that “people judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.” Beautifully scripted letters are presumed to convey beautiful thoughts. As someone who was unceremoniously ejected from parochial school by angry penguins for both bad handwriting and impiety (the two failings thought to reinforce each other, I suspect), I must confess that to this day my penmanship is virtually indecipherable.




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Climate Change — from Slagle's Slant

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Climate is always changing, but telling us how much of the change is attributable to human activity is one spot where science is woefully inept. By extension, there is no way to predict what effect climate change legislation will have on the climate.

To date there has been no legislation proven effective in mitigating climate change. If such legislation were labeled medicine, the FDA would never approve it, nor would any legitimate scientist endorse it. Yet there is a great clamor inside the scientific community to get it passed. Power, like any other seductive influence, renders most mortals incapable of rational thought.

 

Representative John Shimkus recently created a stir by saying that he's not worried about global warming, because God promised Noah he would never flood the earth again.

I don't share Shimkus’ faith, but I understand his intention. Some people believe that God has a plan for us all; others believe in a fable about a big boat and pairs of animals; others simply believe that the earth is too enormous for mortals to destroy. These are all different versions of the same basic idea, one with which I agree.

People who believed in the literal version of the fable ran this nation for the better part of the past 234 years, and I don't see it doing any harm now. Atheists had the chance to demonstrate their superior governing abilities during the last century, and it really didn't work out so well.

 

According to Reuters, Al Gore recently admitted he was mistaken in his support for ethanol subsidies. He explained that he supported the original program because of his political ambitions.

Great. How many other things did he support for such reasons? Did he lie about the effects of global warming because of his ambition to win an Oscar and a Nobel Prize?

Vanity is a sin that is rarely committed only once.

 

Are environmentalists considering the depletion of forests and the production of toxic ink involved in manufacturing all the money required to keep Green Energy subsidized?

/p




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Very Green, But Not So Jolly

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Several recent stories indicate anew just how green the Obama administration is, and how much harm it is prepared to inflict on the country to further its environmentalist agenda.

First is the report that the administration is yet again reversing course on offshore drilling. Back in March, weeks before the BP oil spill, Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the administration would finally open the eastern Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Atlantic coast (in particular, the coast of Virginia) to oil and gas exploration. This marked a change of position for Obama. While campaigning for the presidency he said he would allow expanded coastal exploration and development (this as McCain was getting traction in the polls with “drill, baby, drill!”); but once elected, he reversed his position and refused to allow it.

So now we are back to no new offshore drilling (and a continuing moratorium on deepwater drilling). Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, put the situation aptly: “The Administration is sending a message to America’s oil and gas industry: take your capital, technology, and jobs somewhere else.”

The absurdity of this policy is underscored by the fact that gasoline nationwide is edging back toward $3 a gallon, and by the news that unemployment just went up to 9.8% nationwide, marking the longest period of over 9% unemployment since the Great Depression.

The second story is a study in contrast. It’s a report that China plans to spend over $500 billion to build 245 new nuclear power plants. This would mean adding nearly two and a half times as many as the U.S. has in total. As Zhao Chengkun, vice-president of the China Nuclear Energy Association, put it, “Developing clean, low-carbon energy is an international priority. Nuclear is recognized as the only energy source that can be used on a mass scale to achieve this.” While our administration dithers about constructing just one new reactor, the Chinese barrel ahead.

A third story concerns the ever-frisky EPA. It has just announced a dramatic increase in regulations on energy industries aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. Among the new EPA diktats is the requirement that the maximum allowable ground-level ozone level be dropped by up to 20%. Hundreds of American municipalities are struggling to comply with the existing maximum level, so tightening the standards still further will just bury those places financially. The Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI estimates that this new EPA regulation will cost America on the order of 7.3 million jobs and about a trillion dollars in regulatory costs within a decade.

It is doubtful whether this reduction in ambient ozone would result in any measurable gain in public health, much less in a gain big enough to justify the huge economic and human costs. But the Obama administration is full of green ideologues for whom such considerations matter little.

To be green means that you worship all life forms — except human beings.




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Terror at 30,000 Feet

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The old joke about the statistician who drowned in a lake with an average depth of one foot is a reminder that while the mathematics of probability theory are rock solid (er, within a certain range of error), the questions that the numbers attempt to illuminate are a bit more slippery. To put this in another way, a statistic is only as valid as the manner in which the question it tries to answer is framed. And there’s the rub: a question can be spun in such a way that the answer will confirm any sophistry.

This insight was recently brought home to me by Tyler Cowen’s wonderful Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting and Motivate Your Dentist. But even libertarian economists can fall prey to their inner biases. (I haven’t discovered whether Cowen calls himself a libertarian or not, but following Rush Limbaugh’s opinion that all economists worth their salt are libertarian, I suspect he is.)

At one point, Cowen briefly discusses fear of flying, citing various statistics that “prove” that flying is, hands down, much safer than driving a car. When one compares mortality rates per mile traveled and per passengers involved, the conventional figures decisively prove their point.

So why am I not scared of driving? As Ayn Rand famously stated, “Check your premises!”

Having taken flying lessons (and having had to land a single-engine plane that lost power), I have a slightly different take on the matter. A Cessna 150 with a perfectly centered dead engine practically lands itself, slowly gliding down at the proper angle, needing only a steady hand to keep it from diving into a stall. By comparison, a multi-engine jet with the reduced glide ratio that results from swept-back wings, and the out-of-balance weight and thrust from an off-center, suddenly faulty engine, almost requires a miracle to land safely.

Cowen, along with many others, believes that fear of flying is irrational. Now, I consider myself a rational empiricist, but when facing a flight, I gird my loins and make sure my affairs are in order. And I don’t think my fear is irrational. Yet I had never really tried to work out the problem until I read Tyler Cowen, who skewers popular fallacies as only a libertarian economist can. My conclusion is that he may have embraced a popular fallacy himself.

A stalled car engine is an inconvenience for, perhaps, half a dozen people at the most, while a stalled jet engine is a likely death sentence for hundreds of passengers. Having a pigeon fly into a car’s grille is startling, but it has far from the same consequences as having a pigeon fly into the cowling of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine.

The questions I would pose to determine the safety of flying vs. driving would be: What percentage of mechanical malfunctions in cars result in fatalities? And how many fatalities? But what percentage in planes? I’m willing to bet that mechanical malfunctions (or operator errors) in an airplane cause way more fatalities than the same problems in a car. Different premise, different conclusion.




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Clever, Not Cutesy

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Last week, producers at CBS's perennial bottom feeder, The Early Show, decided to shake things up with a clean sweep. Out went veteran anchor Harry Smith, co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez, and weatherman Dave Price. In came an astounding new idea to boost the ratings: The team of benchwarmers who used to host the Saturday version of The Early Show are now moving up to the majors. Say what?

As the New York Times pointed out in its article about this little revolution, CBS News might as well give it up. Humans are creatures of habit, and never more so than in the morning. Hit the snooze, stretch, scratch, shower, brew, and flip on the TV to hear the banter of familiar voices while getting ready for work. GMA, Today, and Fox & Friends already have a lock on the morning shows, and nothing short of something completely different from the competition — infomercials, game shows, or reruns of Mary Tyler Moore — will bring them back to CBS. Say . . .Mary Tyler Moore. Now there's an interesting idea!

Fittingly, a film about the inner workings of a morning news show hosted by geriatric veterans Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), opened the same week in which the anchors of The Early Show were given the boot. Morning Glory presents the story of Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), the young executive producer of a morning show for the thinly disguised "IBS" network, calledDaybreak. Daybreak's ratings are so low that it is about to be cancelled. Becky has six weeks to turn the ratings around.

Despite being young, perky, prone to babble, and endearingly klutzy, Becky is totally focused on her job and has an inborn knack for successfully producing a morning news show, with its mix of entertainment and hard news. She directs the weatherman to engage in daredevil stunts and encourages the anchorwoman to let loose as well. Her only holdout is Pomeroy, a curmudgeonly Dan Rather-type who has been demoted to the morning hours against his will. He refuses to banter.

Becky's biggest problem is not the show, however. It's the lack of balance in her life. Like many newspeople, or any young professionals for that matter, she can't let go of her BlackBerry or her TV remote. Her nose is always in the air, sniffing for a story. Even when she gains the romantic interest of Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), a hunky producer from another show on the network, the relationship is more physical than social or emotional. In a gender role reversal that seems to be growing in popularity (watch for my reviews of Love and Other Drugs and No Strings Attached later this month), it is the modern woman who wants a "Slam, bam, thank you, man" relationship. It makes me sad just to watch.

Morning Glory is cleverly written without being cutesy, and reflective without being preachy. It offers several honest moments to ponder the importance of balancing work, play, and friendship, and redefines family in an uplifting way. A definite yes for a date night movie.


Editor's Note: Review of "Morning Glory," directed by Roger Michell. Bad Robot, 2010, 107 minutes.



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Pride and Prejudice

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A theme has been growing steadily in the statist-liberal media that the recent congressional election results were the effect of Americans’ ignorance. Examples easily come to mind.

In the recent issue of The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg rationalized Barack Obama’s various political fumbles and concluded: “Another part of the problem, it must be said, is public ignorance.”

On the cover of its November-December issue, Mother Jones continued the fetishizing of Sarah Palin, photoshopping her face into the iconic poster for the B-movie classic Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and slapping on the subtitle “A Confused and Frightened Citizenry Votes Against Its Own Self-Interest.”

This line of thinking traces back to the 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas?, which offered the thesis — compelling to self-appointed elites — that Americans are stupid peasants, easily mesmerized by right-wing lies and distortions.

It’s inconceivable to statist twits that the peasants in flyover country might have an intuitive sense that overzealous government programs are bankrupting the United States (an intuition shared by a growing number of our lenders in Berlin and Beijing). That buncombe about “confused and frightened” may be more projection than analysis.

Recently, I spent a couple of days in Chicago in the company of my 8-year-old daughter. Near the end of our trip, we went for a walk and some window shopping along Michigan Avenue. The Holiday Season vibe was just beginning. Sidewalks and stores were fairly full. But something seemed different. Outside the American Girl store (in what used to Marshall Fields’ flagship location), a chic-looking woman having a smoke studied my daughter, looked up at me, smiled shyly, and said “hübsch” (“pretty”). I smiled back and led the 8-year-old in to gawk at hundreds of Kit Kittredges.

The woman’s compliment clarified the change for me. The urban white noise — agreeable, in small doses — didn’t just include foreign tongues; it was dominated by them. German. Spanish. French. Even some dashes of what sounded like Russian. Our currency is weak, so coming here is cheap.

America’s decline doesn’t affect the peasants living in the outlying villages so much. If they are simple, they’ve always been so; their concerns are for basic security and stability. They’re skeptical about silver-tongued promises, but they’re susceptible to moral hazard — if everyone else is elbowing up to the public trough, they will too. If everyone else minds his own business, they’ll mind theirs.

The “confused and frightened” ones are people like Hertzberg and Mother Jones. They pretend to welcome a cosmopolitan world in which American shopgirls promote nostalgic dolls to middle-aged women from Dusseldorf. But really they fear it. Bien pensant strivers are terrified of America being reduced to shopkeepers peddling kitsch. They don’t realize why, but the truth behind their fear is simple. A second-rate economic power doesn’t have much need for brainy magazines and precious pundits.

Fearful people who condescend to their fellow citizens for being fearful are the ugliest Americans of all.




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Toy Story 4

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Sunday night I saw Toy Story 3, the year’s No. 1 hit, with more than $415 million already earned at the domestic box-office. When the movie was over, my first thought, apart from how wonderful it was, was that it had a political message. There were other messages about loyalty, about not being deluded, about sticking up for yourself, and even about the proper attitude toward death. But being interested in political messages, I saw one of those as well.

I wondered what other people had seen in the film. As I read the articles and blogs, it seemed that lots of people saw a political message. Those on the Right tended to like the movie’s message, but those on the Left either viewed it unfavorably or denied there was any message at all. And as you might expect, the message was described very differently at the two ends of the spectrum.

Start with the hard Left. Here is Carl Nyberg, writing on July 1 at PrairieStateBlue.com about the plight of the toys, the major characters in the story,now that their friend Andy has grown older and is about to leave for college:

“The dilemma facing the toys is the dilemma facing industrial workers in the era of globalization. . . . Andy represents the capital class. Andy is going to college. The capital class is moving on to new investments that don't need the quantity of American labor they formerly needed.”

This seems goofy to me, but then, so do most of the views of the hard Left.

Continuing, this author declares that the message of Toy Story 3 “is that the working class squeezed by economic globalization needs to stick together, but not turn to socialism. The working class should continue to stay loyal to its political leaders, but press them to address the issues American society faces.”

The idea of Andy as a capitalist and his toys as workers never crossed my mind. Their relationship is not economic. They aren’t workers. The toys can be very energetic, but only when Andy’s not looking.

Here is another leftist, Owen, posting on Aug. 1 at TheThirdEstate.com. In a post called, “Why Toy Story 3 is evil,” Owen sees the toys as slaves of the capitalist bosses:

“You’re bought and sold, and your duty is to stay loyal to your owner, no matter how badly he treats you, how many of your friends and loved ones he gets rid of because they no longer interest him, or how long he neglects you for. If he wants to abandon you in the attic, you should be grateful — he could be throwing you out, after all. Oh, and if anyone tells you that this isn’t the way things have to be, if they tell you that maybe if you had some autonomy then you’d be able to live a decent life not dependent on the whims of those more powerful than you, then that person is a lying wannabe Stalin who’d imprison and torture you without a second thought. The continued goodwill of your private owner is the only guarantor of happiness and security. There is no freedom. There is no alternative. There is no hope.”

I guess Owen would have liked a story in which the toys revolt against the capitalistic boy, escape his oppressive house, and maybe set it on fire besides, and join the daycare center, which is really a worker’s cooperative. That wasn’t Toy Story 3.

I also found a conservative Christian interpretation. On June 20, Drew Zahn argued on WorldNetDaily that the toys represent humans and Andy represents God, and that Andy’s plan to put them in the attic “leads them to doubt Andy’s faithfulness,” which is a “parallel to people in trials doubting God’s faithfulness and love.” And when the toys are donated to a childcare center instead, and the boss toy says, “We don’t need owners; we are our own owners, masters of our own fate,” to Zahn it’s “the Snake” speaking. This promise of freedom, Zahn says, is “the so-called ‘freedom’ of atheism and/or hedonism.”

I guess you could see it that way.

A few conservatives and libertarians loved the movie so much that they went over the top. Novelist Andrew Klavan, writing on Nov. 2 in the Los Angeles Times, was one. He started his commentary with an obvious attempt to hook readers on election day:

“If indications hold true, voters Tuesday will deliver a powerful rebuke to the Obama administration and its plans to transform America. Also, ‘Toy Story 3’ will come out on DVD. These two events are not unrelated.”

That was a stretch, and the progressives lost no time in hooting about it. Wrote John Cole that same day at Balloon Juice: “The reason I am a lowly blogger and not a big time columnist is because I am not creative enough to make this shit up.”

All right; Toy Story 3 is not a political movie as such, and it is silly to tie it to the election. But when the progressives argue that there is no political message in the film, they are wrong.

If you can get past Klavan’s first paragraph, he has a strong argument.

First he recognizes that the leaders among Andy’s toys “are two iconic figures of American culture, a cowboy and an astronaut,” each of them embodying traditional American values. At the child-care center, “they meet the modern American paradigms: Lots-o'-Huggin’ Bear, Big Baby and the shallow, metrosexual Ken doll.” These promise an egalitarian society in which the toys have no owners, but “own themselves.” But the toy society is quickly revealed to be a dictatorship — and feels very much like a leftist dictatorship.

Klavan notes that at one point the shallowest of the characters — the Barbie doll — says, “Authority should be derived from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!”

John Boot of PajamasMedia.com called this the “single funniest joke” in the movie. I guess it made him laugh. But it isn’t a gag line. It sounds artificial coming from Barbie, and I’ll bet that some of the moviemakers argued against putting it in the script. But clearly somebody wanted it in, and I’ll hazard it was for a political reason.

It is possible that it wasn’t — that the moviemakers picked up these ideas without thinking about them. Maybe — but I don’t think so. Toy Story 3 could easily have been done a much different way. The toys could have arrived at the daycare center and fomented a revolution there, creating a world kinder and more toy-centric than Andy’s.

Toy Story 3 doesn’t end that way. It ends on a theme of loyalty to the private family as a place where toys have owners and can be what they’re made to be. It is an implicitly antisocialist movie — which both sides of the political divide quickly perceived.




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127 Hours: It’s Not What You Think

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If you've been avoiding 127 Hours because you're squeamish about the subject matter, wait no longer. Yes, it does tell the story of Aron Ralston, a 28-year-old mountaineer who had to amputate his own forearm after being trapped by a huge boulder that fell on his hand in a canyon in southern Utah. But this is not a film about a man who cuts off his arm; it is a film about a man who stops at nothing to figure out a way to release himself from a life-threatening situation.

The film opens as Aron (James Franco) prepares to go bicycling in Utah’s canyon lands. As he tosses supplies into his backpack, his hand reaches for, and just misses, the Swiss Army knife stored at the back of a cupboard. Later in the day, that loss will come back to haunt him.

Riding his mountain bike at full speed toward a canyon, he hits a bump that sends him flying over the rocks, but laughingly picks himself up and gets back on the trail. Pounding techno-music at the beginning of the film mimics the throbbing adrenaline rush he seems to crave as he barrels pell-mell through existence.

But he is not a jackass adrenaline junkie. He simply has a zest for life. He is equally thrilled by the quiet spiritual rush he receives when surveying the canyon from atop a plateau (accompanied by an appropriate switch to a gentler acoustic guitar), and by the playful serendipity of meeting a couple of girls and showing them around. Entering the slot canyon that would nearly become his tomb, he caresses the smooth stone. Clearly, he feels at home. And after plummeting down the canyon wall and discovering that his hand is pinned by a huge boulder, he issues a gigantic expletive — then sets to work.

Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for "someone" (read: the government) to fix them. But the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out.

Resourceful and self reliant to the core, he doesn't just wait for someone to save him. His two greatest assets are hisindomitable will and his problem solving instincts. Quickly he opens his backpack and sets its contents on a rock, assessing his assets. How can they become tools for his release? Soon it becomes obvious that the film is more like Apollo 13 (1995) than like the claustrophobic Buried (2010) or Saw (2004).

One of Ralston’s most urgent needs is support — physical support. The boulder didn't set him neatly on the canyon floor; he is suspended a few agonizing feet above the ground and has to press his feet and body against the canyon wall in order to keep from dangling by his trapped hand. After several futile attempts, he manages to use his climbing ropes to create a hammock that allows him to rest. At night, he wraps his bungee cords around his arms and neck to create a kind of blanket from the cold. In the morning he leans his face and body into the rocks to gather warmth from the sun that briefly enters the narrow canyon and then passes on its way. Even his dexterous toes are used as assets, foreshadowing his "new normal."

Aron's decision to give up his arm is not an example of giving up in general. Instead, it is a powerful example of his resourcefulness as a problem solver. He has calculated how many hours he can exist without water; he has accepted the fact that no one is going to come for him; he realizes that the hand is already dead and useless to him, whether it is attached or detached. He doesn't give up his arm so much as he lets go of the thing that is holding him back from his goal of going home.

Two stars emerge in this dynamic film. The first is James Franco as Aron Ralston. Franco throws himself into this role the way Aron Ralston throws himself into the canyon: with total commitment. His alternating expressions of agony, fear, determination, joy at little victories, and even ironic humor create dramatic action in a tiny, static space. Despite the horrifying story, what one remembers most about the film is Franco's plucky, exuberant smile.

The other star of the show is writer-director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"). He's never on camera, of course, but he enters every scene with his creative camera angles and storytelling techniques. For example, he will focus in closely on Franco's gritted teeth or bloodshot eyes, and then pull out to remind us of the desolate yet beautiful scene that is his living tomb. Tilted camera angles, dreamlike flashbacks, overwashed processing (to indicate Aron's videotape of himself), and split-screen projection of multiple realities convincingly portray Aron's mental state as the hours melt into days. The film could have been a tedious, claustrophobic trudge to the finish line, where Aron makes the gruesome decision to amputate his arm. Instead, it is a thrilling, uplifting, agonizing, and even joyous retelling of a man’s heroic determination to live.

In many ways, this film is a powerful metaphor for life in the new millennium. We hurtled our way through the go-go ’90s, pumped up by a soaring stock market and roaring real estate investments, only to get pinned down by boulders that were, as Aron philosophizes, "there all along, just waiting to meet me in that canyon." Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for "someone" (read: the government) to fix them. But as Aron Ralston's story clearly demonstrates, the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out. Instead of worrying about the Swiss Army knife you don't have, assess the tools you do have. Keep a positive spirit. Be resourceful and self-reliant. Be a problem-solver. Remember to thank the people in your life and tell them that you love them. And don't be afraid to let go of the thing that is holding you back, even if it is as precious as an arm.


Editor's Note: Review of "127 Hours," directed by Danny Boyle. Fox Searchlight, 2010, 93 minutes.



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The Other Battle for Britain

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One of the crucial decisions in American culture was to keep broadcasting mostly out of the hands of the government. That was not the decision in the United Kingdom.

Death of a Pirate is about the long struggle to modify that decision. The word “pirate” refers not to brigands but to unlicensed broadcasters; the death is about the killing, on June 21, 1966, of one of them by another. It was not a typical event but a shocking one, and it provided the Labour government in Britain with a convenient excuse to shut down the “pirate” stations. But the stations had made their point about the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Johns, a Briton employed at the University of Chicago as a professor of history, does two big things with this book. The first is to tell the story of the BBC and the long fight against its monopoly by free-market economists, business people, music promoters, and ordinary Britons. The second is to use documents unsealed in 2001 to tell the story of the killing of Reginald Calvert by Oliver Smedley.

A British reader of my generation may appreciate this part, because he will remember the story. An American is less likely to care about all the details. The reader of Liberty will be attracted to the story of classical liberal ideas and bold entrepreneurial moves in the struggle for private commercial radio in Britain.

The BBC was created in 1927. It was a new thing, a state-owned corporation. As the national broadcaster, writes Johns, the BBC was imagined by its political creators as “autonomous from both the state and private industry.” It was to serve “the common good in a domain that it dominated, free of the inefficiencies of competition.”

The market-based relay company quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture.

Critics objected. Britain never had a British Newspaper Corporation to publish all newspapers or a British Books Corporation to publish all books. It didn’t have it, and it didn’t want it. So why have a single corporation own all broadcasting?

The answer is: because people were led to believe in it.

The BBC had a more elevated mission than any mere private broadcaster’s. Its mission was “to improve British culture through broadcasting.” It would not simply aim at the mass market but would offer “balanced programming,” a mix of such things as “string quartets, educational talks, sports commentaries and dance music.”

This was not meant as background music while the subscriber was washing dishes, weeding the garden, or fixing the plumbing. Radios were of large size then — the precursors of TV sets — and you had only one. The BCC supposed that you sat in your living room and paid attention. You were also supposed to pay cash for the privilege — a license fee equivalent today to $60 to $100 a year.

Politically, this conception of the BBC won the day. In the marketplace, it did not. Commercial stations, denied a place on British soil, set up shop in France and elsewhere and broadcast British content and British ads back to the people of Britain.

The market also offered “relay.” We would call it cable radio. This was popular in working-class districts. The customer paid a monthly fee, and the relay company provided a line and a set. It was cheaper than buying a radio set on installments, and usually the reception was better. The relay company received broadcast signals and chose which ones to pipe to people’s homes. The company could tell when its customers were switched on, and it quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture. By the mid-1930s, relay had more than 200,000 subscribers.

The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

In 1935 a parliamentary committee recommended that the relay companies be nationalized. It wasn’t done; the Conservatives were in power. After World War II, however, Labour took over and vowed to create a socialist Britain. The BBC looked to be in an invincible position.

It wasn’t.

A thing had happened at the London School of Economics. The school had been set up by socialists and dominated by critics of laissez-faire. But it had hired a few critics, and in 1930s three of them became a kind of “anti-Keynesian party.” They were Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, and Arnold Plant.

Johns devotes some attention to Hayek, his battle in the 1930s with Keynes, and his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Of the three professors, however, the key person for the radio story was Plant. His specialty was the economics of monopoly and information. He was opposed not only to having radio in the hands of a state corporation, but also to the patent and copyright laws that created monopoly power. As Johns says, “Plant quietly became Britain’s most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open-source software movement.”

In 1938 Plant set out to find out about Britain’s radio listeners. Researchers knocked on thousands of doors and asked people what they had switched on. He found that many were listening to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and the other Continental stations. The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. Smedley was acquitted of murder, but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

Plant’s other contribution was the training of Ronald Coase, who half a century later would win a Nobel Prize in economics. Plant set Coase to work on issues of broadcasting. The eventual result was a book, British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), which Johns characterizes as “the ‘Road to Serfdom’ of the modern media.”

Coase argued that there was no economic reason, and no technical reason, for the BBC to be a monopoly. Those were smokescreens. The BBC had been granted monopoly status for a cultural reason: to support the claim by political elites “to determine on behalf of the listener which broadcast material he should hear.” To Plant and Coase, the issue was control of information. Freeing that from the state, Johns says, “reflected imperatives buried deep in the heart of neoclassical economics.”

Coase’s book influenced the debate. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power and began using his arguments to push for commercial television. By 1954, they had it, at least in a small, one-channel way. But Britain still did not allow commercial radio. In the 1960s, entrepreneurs responded with “pirate radio” — commercial radio stations operating not from foreign jurisdictions but from stateless space: the seas. They used ships and abandoned World War II antiaircraft platforms outside the British state’s three-mile limit.

It took unusual people to do this. The ideologue of the group was Oliver Smedley. He was a classical liberal who in 1955 had been one of the founders of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s preeminent free-market think tank. He thought of pirate radio as a political attack on the British state — which it was. Another was Kitty Black, a theatrical agent who, Johns writes, was “contemptuous of government intervention in the arts.” Another was Reginald Calvert, a promoter of pop musical acts. There were others.

Death of a Pirate goes into much detail about who did what. Several of the ventures were half-baked, but at their peak the “pirate” stations had a large audience. Some offered 12 hours a day of pop music at a time when the BBC was limited by law to just 28 hours of music a week — a law designed to protect the musicians’ union.

The British government didn’t act, Johns says, partly because the stations were popular and partly because “nobody wanted to take charge.” Labour, which won the election of 1964, was not sympathetic to commercial broadcasting. Labour’s idea was to use state radio to create a “university of the air” to uplift British workers. Prime Minister Harold Wilson even appointed a bureaucrat — Jennie Lee, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the National Health Service — to accomplish this. Meanwhile, the British public was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, often on transistor sets and car radios tuned to unlicensed stations.

Then came the killing. Calvert’s company had appropriated an abandoned antiaircraft fort — “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs” — eight miles offshore. Calvert had a used radio transmitter of Smedley’s that he had not paid for. Smedley wanted it back. He couldn’t get help from the police — the tower was outside the British state — so he hired a crew to take it. They stormed the platform and knocked Calvert’s radio station off the air. This led to Calvert bursting into Smedley’s house and Smedley's killing him with a shotgun.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. This had a political effect similar to the one in America when Timothy McVeigh killed government workers in Oklahoma City: it generated a revulsion against people with an anti-state point of view. Smedley was acquitted of murder (self-defence), but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

The broadcasters had, however, made their point. Labour responded by creating the BBC’s first pop station. In the next Conservative government, under Edward Heath, the British state licensed commercial radio.

It’s a fascinating case in how to break the hold of a state monopoly.


Editor's Note: Review of "Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age," by Adrian Johns. Norton, 2010, 305 pages.



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The Other Half

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I’ve heard from a lot of people about last month’s Word Watch. That column was supposed to be the final and definitive commentary on word use in the 2010 political campaign. It was supposed to be the end of the story. But ungrateful readers now insist that it didn’t do half the job it was intended to do. It omitted at least half the tale.

So fine, here’s the other half. Positioned here before the readers’ firing squad, I will proceed to condemn even more of the linguistic sins they’ve complained about. I hope this penance will gain Word Watch a reprieve.

First, the president. Readers wanted much more about him. For example, they wanted more about something he said in the closing days of the campaign, when he was interrupted by hecklers in Connecticut. The hecklers were yelling, “Fund global AIDS!” — which shows how much time these people devote to thinking about the words they use. What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize (“fund”) a dreadful disease (“AIDS”), and spread it everywhere (around the “globe”).

Obama’s response showed how carefully he himself considers the words he chooses. He reacted by repeating the protestors’ stupid slogan. “We’re funding global AIDS!” he said. “And the other side is not!” Then he did it again. Addressing the protestors, he intoned: “I think it would make a lot more sense for you guys to go to the folks who aren’t interested in funding global AIDS and chant at that rally, because we’re trying to focus on figuring out how to finance the things that you want financed, all right?”

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Diagram that sentence, please. That’s what you get from Obama when he isn’t relying on his teleprompters — all right?

I’m not sure why I want to drag facts into a thing like this, but the biggest funder of the campaign against “global AIDS” (AIDS in foreign countries) was the last President Bush. Obama’s abuse of the Republicans was therefore just as vulgar as his abuse of the language. Yet he continued: “We’re not going to be able to do anything unless we get the economy fixed, unless we can put people back to work, unless folks feel more confident about the future. It’s going to be hard to move forward on all these initiatives.”

What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize a dreadful disease, and spread it everywhere.

You might ask, “Why must the ‘folks’ feel more confident about the future before Obama goes after AIDS?”, but if you did, you would have a long time to wait for an answer. Everything the president said, like everything the protestors said, was completely nonsensical.

There was something in the president’s remarks that irritated Liberty’s readers even more than the general senselessness. It was Obama’s increasing reliance on that chummy old monosyllable “folks.” During the latter stages of the election campaign our readers heard "folks" constantly from him, and it didn’t take them long to become heartily sick of it. I’m sick of it too. I got sick of it when Bill O’Reilly started claiming that he was “looking out for the folks.” I’m much more sick of it now that Obama has adopted it as his trademarked way of talking down to voters — the invariable accompaniment of his dropped final “g’s” and pseudo-demotic images of common folks tryin’ tuh buy clothes for the kids an’ havin’ trouble payin’ the mortgage.

The most grating of Obama’s folksy images was his constantly reiterated picture of the Republicans drivin’ the car intuh the ditch an’ then expectin’ folks tuh let ‘em back in the car an’ even give ‘em back the keys. I’ve mentioned this silly image before, but readers wanted me to emphasize the way Obama grinned with pride every time he used it, as if it were the climax of his career as an intellectual. Well, maybe it is. And maybe it will be the only locution for which this man of “soaring rhetoric” is ultimately remembered. When the next generation of politically interested kids picks up a handbook of Famous Presidential Sayings, this president may get credit for nothing except that stupid business about the car.

What people insist on saying over and over again defines both them and their view of their audience. Obama’s thing about the car demonstrates how shallow he is, and how shallow he thinks we are.

As several readers suggested, however, if you want evidence of Obama's power as a political analyst, nothing tops a statement he made in his post-election press conference. On that occasion, he alluded to his vast expansion of federal power: “We thought it was necessary, but I’m sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach.”Hmm . . . People looked at what he (we) had done and said that this was looking like potential overreach. It wasn’t overreach, exactly, or even loosely; it was just something that some folks believed or felt might possibly turn into or look like overreach. And looking at those folks and sensing their vague emotional reactions, Obama contributed his own vague emotional reaction: he was sympathetic. How many boxes within boxes do you count in that weird non mea culpa?

Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors? Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America.

But everyone (even Liberty’s readers) would like to take a break from Obama at some point, so let’s take one now. Readers remain disgusted by a lot of things besides Obamaisms. Some of these folks believe that there may have been some potential overreach in the media’s constant use of the phrase “up for grabs.” “The election may have been a political football,” one reader pointed out, “but it was not a basketball. Still, every time it was mentioned in the papers or on the air, we were told that such and such a Senate seat was ‘up for grabs,’ or there were 435 desks in the House of Representatives that were ‘up for grabs,’ or some state election was so close that it was ‘up for grabs.’ Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors?”

Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America. It would, however, be nice to see whether the media could struggle on for just a few moments without these crutches.

Readers also indicated that there are many other political expressions of which they have had enough. A brief list: “grow the economy,” “put America back to work,” “energize the base,” “hope and change,” “double down,” "out-source," "foreign money," “a way forward,” “a roadmap to,” “man up,” and the current favorite, “triangulate.”

I share our readers’ shuddering aversion to these junk expressions. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my own nominee for worst set of words from the 2010 election season. There’s too much to choose from, but what sticks in my mind is a remark made by Florida Governor Charlie Crist, one of the most repulsive personalities of a political year in which repulsive things abounded.

This Crist, of whom we shall probably hear no more, was a Republican, but when he tried to get his party’s nomination for US Senator, he found himself far behind. He then decided to run as an independent, but he had minimal success in enticing Republican support. To win, therefore, he needed to gain huge numbers of Democratic votes. He worked hard on that. A self-styled “Reagan Republican,” he veered crazily to the left, accusing the conservative Republican nominee, Marco Rubio, of every kind of extremism. But Crist was still behind, so he tried to get the Democratic nominee to leave the race. To do that, he suggested (which was undoubtedly true) that Bill Clinton and, by extension, the White House, had so little confidence in the Democrat that they wanted him to withdraw from the race and endorse Crist.

This was a nutty move for Crist to make. It succeeded only in alienating core Democratic voters. Still, he avidly sought television interviews in which he could discuss backroom maneuvers designed to eject the duly nominated Democrat and throw the election to himself. Grinning with delight at astonished interviewers, he displayed his conviction that everything he did, and everything that might possibly be done for him, was not only right but noble, merely because it aided him. If this doesn’t sound surreal enough, add the fact that Crist possessed an angelic little face and snowy white angelic hair, and that he constantly discussed himself in the third person: “This is a Florida decision for Floridians to decide what they want — if they want an extremist like Marco Rubio or if they want a common-sense candidate like Charlie Crist.”

I hate it when people talk like that. But there was worse to come. Asked whether he had leaked the story of the backroom negotiations in order to score a political advantage, Crist adopted the plural of majesty and intoned, “We’re not causing trouble. We’re causing freedom.”

Causing freedom. The man was causing freedom.

Plato believed that there existed in the eternal Mind the “forms” or blueprints of everything that exists on earth. If I were to pick the Platonic form of the contemporary American politician, it would be Charlie Crist. That sounds bad, but there’s a good thing, too: Crist lost the election. Maybe, sometimes, the folks are smarter than the Platonic Mind.




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Sorry, I'll Take the Plane

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If a freight train leaves Brewster at 9:25 traveling east at 70 miles an hour, and another train leaves Stanton at 9:45 traveling west at 50 miles an hour on the same track, how long will it take before a 98-minute movie becomes suspenseful?

Unfortunately for the viewers, about an hour.

Unstoppable, a movie about a driverless runaway train barreling toward another train full of schoolchildren, ought to be fraught with tension. Add to the out-of-control train several freight cars full of toxic, combustible chemicals that could contaminate whole towns along the way, and the adrenaline should start gushing.

Oddly, however, the tension never mounts. This film has its moments, but that's part of the problem: they are only moments. If a train traveling 70 miles an hour in one direction passes a train slipping onto a side rail going the other way, just in the nick of time, how long does the moment last? A few seconds. In this movie, trains always manage to pull onto the side rails just in time, leaving the audience with all the excitement of playing a game of Snakes on a cell phone. And since the filmmakers give us almost no backstory about the people whose lives are in danger, we feel no cathartic worry or relief until the last half hour of the film, when we finally learn a few things about Frank (Denzel Washington), the 28-year veteran driving a rescue train, and Will (Chris Pine), the rookie on his first assignment as a conductor. Ultimately this is a film about a rookie becoming a man, and that's a pretty good theme. But it takes too long to get there.

The filmmakers want us to regard their work as a metaphor for the BP disaster, blaming the crisis on corporate greed, but it doesn't quite work. The film's initial crisis is caused by driver error, not cost-cutting: when a bloated, bumbling engineer (Ethan Suplee) jumps off a slowly moving train to switch the rails, it gathers speed and gets away from him.

The crisis seems to become more corporate-driven when the VP of Operations (Kevin Dunn) rejects the local yardmaster's suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. "We aren't going to destroy an entire trainload of cars," he barks, obviously worried more about the bottom line than about avoiding human injuries.

Adding to the sense of corporate greed and insensitivity, the company's owner (Andy Umberger) is reached on the golf course, where he gives instructions and goes back to his game. Oh, these dirty, greedy capitalists! Selfish to the core! It's clearly a reference to BP President Tony Hayward's decision last summer to attend the annual sailing regatta around the Isle of Wight while millions of gallons of crude were gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

But isn't it wise and prudent for a company to examine all its options before derailing an expensive asset and possibly releasing toxic elements into the environment, even if that environment is outside the city limits? Doesn't every company have to balance the costs of safety and employee benefits against consumer prices and profits? If costs outweigh profits, the company will simply cease to function. Moreover, one has to wonder why the seasoned VP of Operations would trust the judgment of a young, nubile, strangely glamorous yardmaster Connie (30-year-old Rosario Dawson), whose employee caused the problem in the first place.

The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems — the switching of the rails to change a train's course, the dead man's automatic braking system (unavailable in this case because the same bumbling engineer hasn't taken time to connect the air brakes), the use of external locomotives to slow a runaway train, and even frontage roads that allow access to moving trains. All of this makes the film interesting, if not fascinating.

Denzel Washington worked with director Tony Scott last year on a taut, suspenseful runaway train movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), so they should know how to build suspense: Make us care about the characters. That 2009 film is more about the cat-and-mouse interplay between Washington's character and John Travolta's crazed antagonist than it is about the train, and it works. By contrast, this film feels almost like a made-for-TV documentary reenactment, and it doesn't work.

Watch for Unstoppable in your local television listings. It will be there soon. But it isn't worth the price of a theater ticket when so many better fil

#39;s suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems


Editor's Note: Review of "Unstoppable," directed by Tony Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010, 98 minutes.



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Go, and Sin No More

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Frantically focused special interest groups have a habit of defeating their own goals, hurting their own self-interest by an excessive pursuit of it. Labor unions are a classic instance: they have often been so greedily intent on exacting every concession from the companies they are bargaining with that they put the companies out of business, and their own members out of work.

Environmentalist groups are another classic case. They have routinely pushed programs that allegedly benefit the environment, but in reality do not. For example, they helped stop nuclear power 30 years ago, an act that exacerbated the very problem — global warming — that so concerns them now. A number of prominent Greens now realize their error.

A recent instance of this phenomenon is none other than the Green giant himself, Al Gore. He just came out against the federal government’s subsidy of ethanol. As he remarked to a green energy conference in Athens, “It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first generation ethanol. First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.”

More surprising still was his admission that his original support had been based on his presidential ambitions, specifically, his desire for the support of corn farmers in Iowa and Tennessee. But one wonders what took Gore so long to wake up. Subsidized corn-derived ethanol has been a dubious program from the day it was first conceived.

The American ethanol program began in 2004 when Congress established a subsidy of 51 cents per gallon for gasoline containing 10% ethanol. (In 2008, the subsidy was lowered to 45 cents per gallon.) It did this in spite of the obvious drawbacks of making ethanol from corn. Ethanol is the alcohol derived from fermenting sugar, and corn is only 40% sugar to begin with.

Very rapidly, corn that was being used to feed animals and people was diverted to the ethanol boondoggle, until the U.S. ethanol industry used, as it does today, over 40% of all the corn grown in the United States, and fully 15% of the corn produced worldwide. One unintended consequence was rapidly discovered —  shortages in cattle feed and human food. This was folly incarnate: taking perfectly good food and trying to use it to derive fuel. As a consequence, food prices increased, especially in countries (such as Mexico) where corn, or meat derived from animals fed on corn, is a staple of the average person’s diet. By 2008 food prices stood at record levels.

The ethanol subsidy program was questioned from the start. In 2005, a major study by Pimental and Patzek (the first a professor of ecology at Cornell, the second a professor of environmental engineering at Berkeley) argued that ethanol actually requires 29% more fossil fuel energy to produce than the energy it delivers.

The reason ethanol advocates didn’t realize this is that they didn’t count the unseen cost of the energy needed to produce the fuel, such as the energy used to make the fertilizer required to grow the crops, the energy used to power the farm equipment required to plant, irrigate, and harvest the crops, and the energy used to transport and grind the crops and distill the alcohol from the mash.

While many pro-ethanol spokespeople have attacked the work of Pimental and Patzek, it still seems clear — now even to Gore — that the input-yield ratio from ethanol is disappointing at best.

Besides the inefficiency factor, there are other drawbacks to ethanol. It is hard to keep water from mixing with it, which makes shipment hard. And it can be destructive to the rubber components of automobile engines.

Worse yet, a major study published this year by the Congressional Budget Office — hardly a right-wing source — revealed that the use of ethanol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions runs about $754 per metric ton of CO2. That’s about 38 times the average price, on the European Climate Exchange, that a European company would pay to be allowed to emit a ton of emissions over its allotment.

The ethanol subsidy program expires at the end of the year. Perhaps the Republicans, bolstered by their support in the recent election, will work to end this pointless program for good. Ending it would save $5 billion a year, and show some common sense about environmental and energy policy.

And maybe they could call Al Gore to testify.




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