The Passing Paradigm

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The latest much-ado-about-nothing crisis passed, with a result that should seem familiar. In 2008, Americans were told that if the TARP bill (a $787 billion taxpayer-funded welfare handout to large banking institutions) wasn’t passed, the stock market would crash and massive unemployment would follow. After an unsuccessful first attempt to pass the bill amid angry opposition from constituents, the bill passed on a second vote. Subsequently, there was a stock market crash followed by massive unemployment.

This time, our political-media cabal told us that if Congress was unable to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling, the government would not be able to meet its short term obligations, including rolling over short term bonds with new debt. US debt would be downgraded from its AAA status, and a default would be imminent. After the melodrama, Congress passed the bill raising the debt ceiling. Standard and Poor’s subsequently downgraded US Treasury debt anyway, and deep down everyone knows that a default is coming as well, one way or another.

We are seeing the end of a paradigm. Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that anomalies eventually lead to revolutions in scientific paradigms. His argument holds equally true for political paradigms.

A paradigm is a framework within which a society bases its beliefs. For example, people at one time believed that the forces of nature were the work of a pantheon of gods. Sunlight came from one god, rain from another. The earth was a god, as was the moon. With nothing to disprove the premises of the paradigm, it persisted. People went on believing that sunlight and rain were the work of sunlight and rain gods because there was no compelling reason for them to believe otherwise.

However, within any paradigm there are anomalies. Anomalies are contradictions — phenomena that cannot be explained within the framework of the paradigm. People have a startling capacity to ignore or rationalize away these anomalies. While it may defy logic to continue to believe that rain comes from a rain god even after evaporation and condensation has been discovered and proven, people would rather ignore the anomalies and cling to the paradigm than face the fact that the paradigm is false.

There is at least one thing that will be quite obvious: centralized government is insane.

But once there are too many anomalies, the paradigm fails, and a new one must take its place. This new paradigm renders the old one absurd, even crazy. At some point in the future, people will look back on the political paradigm of the 20th and early 21st centuries. There is at least one thing that will be quite obvious to them: centralized government is insane.

Consider the premises upon which this present paradigm relies: all facets of society must be planned and managed by experts. The judgment of the experts trumps the rights or choices of any individual. The choices made by the experts will result in a more orderly society and greater happiness for the individuals who compose it. There will be better results from one small group of experts controlling everyone than multiple groups of experts controlling smaller subgroups of society.

Of course, libertarians reject every one of these assumptions on its face. A free society does not tolerate “planning” or “management” by anyone. All choices are left to the individual, as any attempt to plan or manage his affairs amounts to either violation of his liberty, looting of his property, or both. However, let’s assume that the first three assumptions of the present paradigm are valid and merely examine the last. Even that does not hold up to scrutiny.

Suppose an entrepreneur starts a business. At first, his market is local. He opens retail outlets that are overseen by store managers. The entrepreneur is the CEO of the company and manages the store managers. Even at this point, the CEO must trust day-to-day decisions to his managers. He has no time to make everyday decisions as he tries to expand his business. The managers do this for him and he concentrates on strategic goals.

His business is successful and soon he begins opening outlets outside of the original market. He now has a need for regional managers to manage the store managers. He manages the regional managers and leaves the details of how they operate within their regions to them.

The business continues to expand. With retail outlets in every state, there are now too many regions for the CEO to manage directly. The CEO appoints executive directors to manage larger regions, each composed of several smaller ones. There is an executive director for the West Coast, another for the Midwest, and another for the East Coast. Of course, the CEO has the assistance of his corporate vice presidents who manage sales, operations, human resources, and other company-wide functions from the corporate office.

Now, suppose that one day the CEO decides to fire the executive directors, the regional managers, and the store managers. He will now have the salespeople, stock clerks, and cashiers for thousands of retail outlets report directly to him and his corporate vice presidents. Would anyone view this decision as anything but insane?

As silly as this proposition sounds, this is a perfect analogy for how we have chosen to organize society for the past century. The paradigm rests on the assumption that every social problem can be better solved if the CEO and his corporate staff manage the cashiers and the salespeople directly. As in all failed paradigms, anomalies are piling up that refute its basic assumptions.

This paradigm assumes that centralized government can provide a comfortable retirement with medical benefits for average Americans, yet Social Security and Medicare are bankrupt. It assumes that a central bank can ensure full employment and a stable currency, yet the value of the dollar is plummeting and unemployment approaches record highs (especially when the same measuring stick is used as when the old records were set). It assumes that the national government’s military establishment can police the world, yet the most powerful military in history cannot even defeat guerrilla fighters in third-world nations. It assumes that the central government can win a war on drugs, yet drug use is higher than at any time in history. It assumes that experts in Washington can regulate commerce, medicine, and industry, yet we get Bernie Madoff, drug recalls, and massive oil spills.

Hundreds of years ago, the prevailing medical science paradigm assumed that illnesses were caused by “bad humors” in the blood. Operating with that assumption, doctors practiced the now-discredited procedure known as “bleeding.” They would cut open a patient’s vein in an attempt to bleed out the bad humors. As we now know, this treatment often killed the patient. Most rational people today view the practice of bleeding as nothing short of lunacy.

Ironically, this is a perfect analogy for the paradigm of centralized government. The very act of a small group of experts attempting to manage all of society drains its lifeblood. It is the uncoerced decisions of millions of individuals that create all the blessings of civilized society. It is the attempt by a small group of people to override those decisions that is killing society before our very eyes. Someday, people will look back on our foolishness and laugh as we do now at the misguided physicians who bled their patients to death. The present paradigm is dying. The revolution has begun.



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The Huddled Masses Leaving En Masse

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As it happens, business brings me to my favorite American travel destination, New York City. As an L.A. dude, I like Los Angeles’ great weather and more laid-back attitude. But Manhattan is something L.A. can never be, namely, a walker’s paradise. Happily ensconced in a very modest hotel in Midtown, I can take off in any direction and just walk, seeing the sites and working up my appetite, which can be sated at any number of superb (if somewhat spendy) restaurants.

So I couldn’t help noticing a Wall Street Journal piece about the exodus of New Yorkers from the state in general and the Big Apple in particular.

The US Census data show that over the last decade, about 1.6 million New Yorkers moved out of the state. The biggest chunk of these émigrés was from the city itself: 70% of New Yorkers moving out of state were from NYC, and another 10% were from Westchester and Nassau Counties, which are essentially suburbs of NYC.

These losses were offset in part by an influx of 900,000 foreign immigrants. But there was still a net loss of nearly 700,000 residents, and the number of foreign immigrants was the lowest in about four decades.

The three most popular destinations for fleeing New Yorkers are Arizona, Florida, and Nevada. This suggests that the desire for warmer weather may be a factor in peoples’ decisions to move. But two of those states have no state income taxes, which suggests that NewYork’s notoriously high taxes may be a powerful reason as well.




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The Missing Link

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Alien creatures threaten civilization as we know it, and humans must band together to defend themselves. Is this another review of Cowboys & Aliens? No — it's a review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the iconic 1968 film Planet of the Apes that is earning praise from critics, moviegoers, and even PETA, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, who sent picketers out to show support for the film when it opened. Now there's a switch!

The original Planet of the Apes was sort of a space age Gulliver's Travels: an American space crew, headed by Charlton Heston as the Gulliver character, discovered a planet populated by intelligent apes instead of Jonathan Swift's horsey Houyhnhnms. In both cases, humans in the strange new land have no language skills by which to prove their intelligence, and are used as breeders and beasts of burden. Interestingly, Jonathan Swift coined the word "yahoos" to describe the morally bestial humans in his fantasy world.

No one who has seen Planet of the Apes can forget the gasp of horrified realization that happens when Heston, trying to escape the topsy-turvy planet and return to Earth (he's riding a horse, in a deliberate nod to Swift's story), discovers the top of the Statue of Liberty submerged in sand.  This scene has been immortalized through allusion and satire for nearly half a century. The message is clear: we cannot escape the future we create for ourselves on this earth.

The new film has its own gaspworthy instant, although it occurs midway through, not at the end. I won't tell you what causes the audible gasp in the audience, but I will tell you that I've asked everyone I know who has seen the movie if that gasp happened during their screening too, and all have said yes. It is a powerful moment, made more powerful by the astounding acting of Andy Serkis, an unsung hero of CGI technology. Serkis is the body behind Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002); the ape in King Kong (2005); and now the chimp, Caesar, in Rise. His movements, especially the expression in his face and his eyes, bring sensitivity, pathos, and life to what could have been flat computer generated characters.

Don't you just get so tired of the predictability of Hollywood movies blaming greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers for all our problems?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes creates a possible backstory for how the apes became the cultured, speaking, master race, while humans devolved into brutish creatures. I say "possible," because I'm not convinced that the film's premise works. The idea is that scientists, experimenting with chimps to discover a cure for Alzheimer's disease, inadvertently create the master race of apes and destroy the humans at the same time. The story is smart and engaging and ties up all the loose ends satisfactorily. But it blames the mutation on a single manmade event, completely changing the premise of the first film, which suggested that evolution and devolution will lead to the rise of apes and the fall of humankind.  The sand-covered Statue of Liberty at the end of the 1968 film suggests that the transformation happened over the course of many centuries, not in one generation.

Not surprisingly, capitalism (rather than science itself) is portrayed as the ultimate enemy to mankind. While research scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is motivated by a desire to cure Alzheimer's, the company he works for is owned and directed by the obligatory greedy capitalist who uses and abuses the chimps in his quest for profits. (Don't you just get so tired of the predictability of Hollywood movies blaming greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers for all our problems?) This film goes a step further, however. For some reason I shudder to contemplate, the casting agent chose Nigerian David Oyelowo to play the brutish bad guy with a British accent. Not sure what the message of this decision might be, but it's hard to believe that the casting was accidental. Enough said about that.

Ironically, despite the filmmakers' obvious distaste for profits, they inadvertently acknowledge the power of money as a motivator when Caesar, the chimp who has been transformed by the chemical trials, wants the other primates to follow him: he buys their loyalty with Chips Ahoy cookies instead of fighting each one of them into submission. And it works! Now there's a message worth sharing.

A message that does not work, however, is the one that PETA especially liked — the portrayal of chimps as misunderstood neighbors who should not be feared. When Caesar makes his way outside to play with a neighbor child, the little girl's father picks up a baseball bat to protect her. He is portrayed throughout the film as a man with a bad temper (although he's an airline pilot; have you ever known an airplane pilot to be anything but calm and comforting?), and we are supposed to take the side of the chimp. However, the memory of the Connecticut woman whose face and hands were torn off by one of these animals two years ago makes it hard to sympathize with the man-sized creature and its lion-sized canines. Even if he does wear pants and a sweatshirt.

Several subtle moments add to the classy styling of this film. At one point, for example, Caesar sadly observes Will kissing his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), creating a poignant allusion to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the creature's longing for a woman like himself. Caesar is like Frankenstein's "monster" — too smart to be an ape, but too much an animal to be a human. Where does he belong? Another example: the primate house where Caesar and dozens of other apes are caged overlooks San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island, where the notorious prison was located. And a third: a brilliant moment of self-parody occurs with the musical motif that begins when the apes start escaping from the primate house. We hear an undercurrent of the "Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius" melody from The Simpson's musical parody of the original Planet of the Apes. How's that for aping one's apers?

All the Planet of the Apes films can be seen as cautionary tales, warning viewers that power and authority are ephemeral. Although the specific catalysts and destructive philosophies are subject to change, the impending doom — transference of power —  does not. On a weekend when the credit rating of the United States was downgraded for the first time in a century, this film is a timely reminder that there may, indeed, be real threats to our comfortable styles of living.


Editor's Note: Review of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," directed by Rupert Wyatt. Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment, 2011, 105 minutes.



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A Call to Repentance

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Are there libertarians who still regard President Obama with affection?

I understand that some people voted for him because they wanted to punish Bush and his fellow Republicans. The Republicans were warlike, and they were spendthrifts.

Well, if punishment is on the agenda, I want to be first in line to give some. Plenty, in fact. I’ll never get over George Bush’s ability to lie, lie, and keep on lying. But did you expect something better from Obama, you who supported him?

You did. I know you did. I heard you — at length.

As you said, Bush went to war, twice. But Obama continues running both wars, and he started a third one, the marvelously useless war in Libya. If he doesn’t get us involved in Somalia or Haiti, it will be a wonder.

As you said, Bush spent too much money. But Obama started off by spending a trillion dollars on a feckless economic program. He instituted a healthcare scheme that, basically, nobody wanted, which will cost at least half a trillion more and will give us notably less effective healthcare.

On August 8, Obama addressed the nation’s economic problems by demanding higher taxes and accusing those who don’t (such as you) of having caused the present economic distress. While he was talking, the stock market dropped like a rock. It lost 634 points that day.

But perhaps those who expected something libertarian out of Obama were right in one respect. His presidency has been wonderful for the gold market.




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The Perfect Ending

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After an agonizingly protracted battle, congressional leaders and the president reached an agreement to raise the debt limit, with some minor cuts in spending now and supposedly more cuts in the future, cuts that will be determined by a bipartisan panel.

There has been considerable rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. But really, the agreement probably captures the mood of the majority of Americans.

As I have noted before, people are only just beginning to see the entitlement spending iceberg towards which the nation’s economy has been sailing for decades. But polls show that the public — including self-described Tea Party members — still strongly support the major culprits in the fiscal follies with which the country is beset: the entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare.

In sum, the public is beginning to see the problem, but remains clueless — or, to wax Nietzschean for a moment, deliberately blind — to the real cause of the problem.

The agreement had immediate effects; though not ones, I daresay, that were comprehended by the supercilious solons who spawned it. And I’m not talking about the Standard & Poor’s downgrade.

First, as the US Treasury reported, the national debt immediately shot up $238 billion to a grand total of $14.58 trillion, officially hitting the mark of 100% of GDP. We as a nation have hit that mark only once before, right after World War II, the biggest foreign war we ever fought. We are now there again, in a time of comparative peace. As the report drily notes, this debt level puts us in the league of countries such as Italy and Belgium.

The second effect was not a stock market rally created by the exuberant joy of investors, relieved that disaster had been averted, but instead a massive sell-off, caused at least in part by the recognition that disaster looms.

All this brings to mind the old adage: a country gets the government it deserves.




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Investment Opportunities

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Walking in the downtown area of the small city where I live, I came upon a raggedy man engaged in a heated conversation with a man and woman sitting in a slightly less raggedy sedan. The man alternated between leaning into the car to hear what the man or woman was saying and then standing up to yell what he had to say — so that everyone in the vicinity (which meant just me, at that moment) could hear his end of it.

“This is fuckin’ ridiculous. It’s such an easy thing. Such a fuckin’ little thing.”

He was thin, in a sickly way. His face was flushed and deeply lined; his teeth, few and gray. He moved and sounded like a junkie. The downtown area is full of them: men, mostly, who in previous generations would have worked in the timber business, displaced by the Endangered Species Act and warped by years of unemployment and welfare into Gollums of entitlement. Crystal meth is usually their drug of choice . . . but marijuana or cheap booze will do.

“I can’t believe you’re doin’ this to me. Settin’ me up like this. Settin’ me up to fail. Fuck.”

The sedan and the junkie were idling in front of a bank. It was pretty clear that the “this” the people in the car were doing — or not doing — involved money.

I tried to get a clear look at the people in the car. They were older than the junkie but it was hard to tell how much. Junkies age badly; and, even when they aren’t junkies, working-class people in the Pacific Northwest don’t age well. The people in the car might have been his parents. Or a sibling and spouse. Something about the junkie’s sense of indignation suggested a family connection.

“I mean, look. It’s a fuckin’ investment. Investment. That’s what it is.”

And so language is ground into oblivion.

In our state, people on the dole usually have to sit through various educational meetings or sessions as a part of getting benefits. My guess: on his stumble down the socioeconomic ladder, the junkie had waited impatiently while many, many government employees repeated threadbare lines about their agencies’ “investment” in job training or cheap housing or troubled people. He’d retained it as a powerful word, a money word.

But he had no sense of what “investment” actually means. No sense of the return that investors expect on their money. No sense of the responsibility that comes with accepting investment. To him, “investment” was just a fancy word for handout — and he used it in the same way that a deadbeat asks for “loans” that he doesn’t intend to repay.

Many observers, from George Orwell to Liberty’s own Stephen Cox, have noted that collectivists use euphemisms in an effort to strip actions of meaning. And, particularly, to strip bad actions of their badness. It’s a pernicious process that robs people of moral agency.

Many of the same goodie-giving government agencies that talk about welfare as “investment” describe welfare recipients as “clients.” The misuse of each word has similar effect. The word “client” usually refers to the paying customer of some kind of professional service. Someone receiving a good or service for free is not a client; but, if he hears himself called a “client” often enough, he may lose the ability to make that distinction. And expect to be treated like a client wherever he goes.

I went into the bank to do some business and, when I came out a few minutes later, the junkie was leaning near the window of the raggedy sedan. He wasn’t saying anything. Neither of the people in the car was saying anything, either. They were all just staring at each other. Unmoored from meaning, frozen in their indignation.




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A Big Fish May Slip the Net

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Last year, Illinois bucked the national trend and voted for a very leftist governor — Pat Quinn, who had assumed the governorship in 2009 after Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office.

Despite winning by only a narrow margin, Quinn has governed as any devout leftist would. He has pushed wind and solar initiatives, signed a law eliminating the death penalty, and increased taxes like crazy. In the face of a $15 billion budget deficit, he raised the personal income tax from 3% to 5%, and increased corporate taxes from 4.8% to 7%. He also instituted a sales tax on internet sales (the “Amazon tax”). Businesses let it be known that they would consider leaving the state if his tax increases passed, but he went ahead anyway, laughing in their faces.

Now businesses may get the last laugh. They are indeed beginning to leave. Especially illustrative is the recent announcement by the CME Group that it is "evaluating” whether to move some operations to other states. It is currently in talks with Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. What do these states have in common? Hmm . . . let me think. Wait . . . Oh, I know. They don’t have state income taxes, and they are notoriously pro-business.

CME is a pretty big fish. It is the parent company of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the New York Mercantile Exchange (which includes COMEX, the New York Commodity Exchange). With 2,300 employees and revenues of between $2 and $3 billion, CME would be a real loss to Illinois’ economy if it departed. But Illinois would, quite frankly, deserve it.

As for Quinn, he probably doesn't care. He probably expects that if Obama passes another “stimulus” bill, money will be shoveled Chicago’s way — in the Chicago way.




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End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End?

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After much huffing and puffing, the barons on Capitol Hill have reached a deal that prevents the US government from defaulting on its debt. At the same time they staved off, for the time being at least, a downgrade in America’s credit rating. The president, our Othello, was offstage as the deal was struck, and now finds himself a diminished actor, even as he prepares for his most challenging role as a candidate for reelection.

What in fact has occurred? The United States government has been pulled, kicking and screaming, into taking its first baby step toward fiscal responsibility. Elections, we find, do matter. For, love them or hate them, it is the Tea Party Republicans elected to Congress in 2010 who compelled Uncle Sam to stand up and walk. They and they alone managed to force the issue over the debt ceiling. Of course, they got nothing like the deficit reduction they were looking for. But they have both changed the debate in Washington and achieved a modest first step toward fiscal sanity.

The squeals of distress emitted by Democrats and their supporters in the media (most notably the New York Times) make plain just how much the tide has turned in Washington and, perhaps, the country at large. The consequences of spending beyond one’s means were brought home for the average American in the Panic of 2008. As a result of that financial meltdown, it became common wisdom that out-of-control government spending must, at some point, lead to disaster. It was this realization, as much as opposition to “Obamacare,” that led to the Tea Party sweep in 2010.

Nevertheless, great dangers remain for the Republicans. The second round of spending cuts mandated under the just-passed legislation amounts to a drop in the ocean of American debt. We are still looking at trillions of new debt being added over the coming years — an unsustainable level of deficit spending and borrowing. To solve this problem, revenues must indeed be on the table. The Republicans should come out strongly for real tax reform, with a lowering of both personal and corporate rates tied to the elimination of loopholes and other steps to broaden the tax base. If the Republican Party’s plan is to allow General Electric, for example, to continue to reap billions of dollars in profits without paying any federal tax, they will be signing their own political death warrant.

Additionally, some Republicans are clearly opposed to major cuts in the defense budget. That the people will accept austerity except in defense is an illusion. The United States is not seriously threatened militarily by any power on earth. We currently spend about the same amount of money on defense as the rest of the world combined. The global commitments of the United States must shrink. When Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, as he emerged from the Senate vote on the debt ceiling, that America must finance Egypt’s transition to democracy, he revealed himself as doubly out of touch, for it is equally absurd to believe either that American dollars can create democracy in the Arab world, or that the average citizen is willing to throw away his hard-earned money on such a will-o’-the-wisp.

Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, are acting as if they have solved the deficit-debt problem, and are talking about moving on “to what Washington does best — creating jobs and opportunity for Americans.” If this is what they truly believe (and it certainly appears that many of them do think this way), then they too are barreling down the road to self-destruction.

The president is talking about a balanced approach, but does he mean it? He ignored the opportunity to move toward a balanced budget in the wake of the Bowles-Simpson commission’s report and the mandate for fiscal responsibility given to Congress by the voters in 2010. And even if he is serious, does it matter? He overreached himself in pushing for revenues in his one-on-one negotiations with Speaker John Boehner, and was then reduced almost to a cypher as Congressional leaders forged a deal largely on their own. His poll numbers are down and his political relevance is in question. The mediocrity of the Republican presidential field is his one comfort.

There is, of course, a dirty secret out there, unspoken but quietly acknowledged by many thoughtful people. It is that nothing the politicians can do will prevent another serious economic crisis, one perhaps much worse than 2008. The debt and deficit issues are not resolvable without draconian cuts and revenue increases, which taken together must derail any prospects for sustainable economic growth and job creation. Resorting to the printing press, as in 2008, is impossible given the level of government indebtedness. In any case it would only postpone the day of reckoning. A Keynesian jobs program was tried in 2009 and largely failed, at a cost of nearly a trillion dollars. Vast numbers of people lacking the education or skills needed in an economy that has been transformed by globalization will be left with nowhere to turn. The private sector cannot use them; the public sector will no longer be able to support them. Therefore we face . . . what? We certainly seem fated to live in “interesting times.”




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The Cliché Crisis

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I don’t know about you, but for me the worst thing about this year’s budget “crisis” was the gross overspending of clichés.

No, I’m not crying wolf. I am not holding America hostage. Neither am I rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Nor am I gleefully informing my close friends and colleagues that their favorite proposals will be dead on arrival when they hit my desk. Hopefully, I am acting more responsibly than anyone in the nation’s capital. I hold no brief for revenue enhancements (i.e., taxes), or for throwing grandma under the bus. I consider myself the adult in the room.

Nevertheless, I can’t claim that I cared very much about the budget emergency. I knew that I wouldn’t get what I wanted — even a small attempt to reform the federal government’s fiscal racket — so I couldn’t be disappointed by the spectacle that took place during the last week of July.

You can’t feel very bad because some Nigerian spam artist didn’t send you the $15 million he promised “in the name of God.” In the same way, you can’t feel very bad about the two political parties for failing to fulfill their promise and impart economic health to the country. But you can feel bad about how everyone with a microphone kept insisting, night and day, that we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

An older cliché informs us that actions speak louder than words. I deny it. Often words speak much louder than actions. We all do a lot of impulsive things that don’t say much about who we usually are. But the words we carefully marshal to impress people in argument: those words are us. If not, what are they?

Here’s a way to measure a mind. Does it invent interesting means of saying things, or does it just repeat what others have been saying, thousands of times over? Does it use words, or do words use it? Is it working with words, or is it just . . . kicking the can down the road?

By this standard, nobody in Washington turned out to be very smart during the great budget embarrassment. Nobody said anything original or interesting. It was too much trouble. Take the cliché I just mentioned. The political geniuses thought about it for a while, then decided to picture themselves standing like idle boys on a country road, gazing balefully at a can that was begging to be kicked — and refusing, in an access of self-righteousness, to kick it. Dennis the Democrat was itching to give it a boot. So was Randy the Republican. But they controlled themselves. They did nothing — a very complicated nothing, but nothing nonetheless. Unfortunately, the can had a life of its own. It vaulted down the road and lodged in weeds from which it will be very hard to extract it.

Well, so much for that cliché. It didn’t work. But the horrible thing was that all these people thought they were being extraordinarily clever when they talked about the can.

This shows you what is so awful about clichés. They stay with us because people keep thinking that these are the words that make them clever. President Obama smiled at his cleverness when he urged Americans to sacrifice some never-specified largesse of the federal government. “Eat your peas,” he said, and smiled. He was being clever, he thought.

An older cliché informs us that actions speak louder than words. I deny it. Often words speak much louder than actions.

Today, it is considered very clever, when responding to some request for a serious opinion, to say, “It is what it is.” That’s what one of the Casey Anthony jurors said, when asked about the possibility that, although he voted “not guilty,” in the legal sense, Anthony might not have been “innocent,” in the moral sense. He wasn’t interested in reflecting on the question. “It is what it is,” he replied. Is that what John Galt meant to say when he suggested that A equals A? Or was the juror paraphrasing some dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre? In any case, I’ve heard that expression four times today, and it’s barely past noon. Last night, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), said in support of the budget compromise, the provisions of which she had not yet read, “it is what it is.”

Daring souls who venture beyond it is what it is have many other choices of clichés. One of them is to emphasize the idea that, no matter what idiotic decisions they make, they have done their due diligence, just by showing up. A whiff of legalese makes any choice legitimate. Sheer laziness, as we know, can always be justified as an abundance of caution, or a pious respect for what will emerge at the end of the day. At the end of the day the jury may reject the obvious and irrefutable evidence. At the end of the day the Republicans may (and probably will) sell out their voters. At the end of the day we’re all dead. Such things are, apparently, good, because they happen at the end of the day.

That’s a lax, supine, virtually inert locution. Somewhere toward the opposite end of the spectrum is a cliché as old, and as batty, as the House of Ussher. The expression is raves, as in “The New York Times raves.” Have you ever seen a movie trailer that didn’t use that cliché? It’s possible that the thing has become a self-reflexive joke among the producers of these silly ads — a reflection of their knowing superiority over the audience they are hired to manipulate. That’s us, the boobs in the theater — the mindless herd that is supposed to be taken in by the image of the newspaper of record screaming and frothing at the mouth. Of course, that’s what the Times actually does, every day, on almost every page; but why imply that there’s something special about its movie notices?

Speaking of clichéd images, how about the face of? This is another advertising cliché, closely related to poster boy for. Every time I turn to a cable news channel, I see the same old codger in the same ad for the same ambulance-chasing law firm, proclaiming, as if in answer to outraged objections, “I am not an actor. I am the face of mesothelioma.” Who could doubt it? And who could doubt that Casey Anthony is the face of jury imbecility? So what? I am the face of Word Watch. So, again, what? Advertising is intended to convince you to feel something extra about the obvious (or the nonexistent). That doesn’t mean that it’s clever.

Well, let’s escape. Let’s refuse to cast ourselves as the faces of anything other than ourselves. Let’s be individuals. But even then, clichés will pursue us. If we’re successful, we will probably be regarded as a breath of fresh air. And that’s not a good thing. The prevalence of this expression shows how easy it is to turn individualism into something quite the opposite.

Let me put it this way: have you ever met a breath of fresh air who wasn’t either a lunatic or a bore of Jurassic proportions? Or both? And no wonder, because the people who look for breaths of air are usually the stuffiest people around — the biggest conformists, dominators, and fools, in whatever group or institution you encounter them. In my experience, they tend to be people who think that Marxism is the newest idea in town. They are always people who welcome change because they’ve got theirs and know they will keep it, whatever damage their radical protégés may inflict on others. (Recall the late Senator Edward Moore Kennedy.) With the aid of progressive clichés, establishments maintain their existence.

Let’s escape. Let’s refuse to cast ourselves as the faces of anything other than ourselves. Let’s be individuals.

Here’s another one: “she [or he] is a very private person.” We hear that constantly. I heard it the other day on CNN, in reference to Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s chief aide, and wife of the disgraced Congressman Weiner. The expression evokes the whole range of faux-individualist dogmas about privacy and the right to privacy (a cliché invented by a Supreme Court impatient with the stately and accurate language of individual rights provided by the constitution). The implication is that there’s something good about being “private,” meaning “sheltered,” as opposed to being a real person and not giving a damn what the rest of us think of you, or whether we think enough about you to want to take your picture. A sheltered person is someone who cares very much what you think about him, and what the picture looks like; therefore he becomes very private, until he thinks the camera may offer a flattering angle. The people acclaimed as private are almost always celebrities and politicians — creatures of the media, who then resent (or pretend to resent) the media’s incursions into their affairs. Private person is a particularly dangerous cliché, a cliché that distorts reality, a cliché that turns American values upside down.

Someone out there is counseling straightforward thieves and murderers to portray themselves as the compassionate Buddha. But why would you want to be the Buddha’s penpal?

The same kind of expression, though one that generally appeals to a different social group, is compassionate. A couple of years ago, when I was writing The Big House, my book about prisons, I looked at a lot of convict penpal sites. Almost without exception, the prisoners seeking correspondents described themselves as compassionate. Now, I’m not one to shy away from convicts. All the convicts and ex-convicts I interviewed treated me very well. I’m grateful to them. And I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world to have a prison record. But compassionate shows all too clearly that the televised clichés of the middle class are seeping even into the prisons, polluting and corrupting everything they touch. Someone out there is counseling straightforward thieves and murderers to portray themselves as the compassionate Buddha. But why would you want to be the Buddha’s penpal?

One of the worst things about clichés is that they establish themselves as immortal statements of values. No matter how skewed the values are, the antiquity of the clichés attached to them implies that they are worthy of grave respect. This is a major problem with the insufferable clichés of the 1960s, which now, half a century years later, are reverently prescribed to hapless youth, as if they were the cadences of the Latin Vulgate. Hence the young denounce apathy, long to speak truth to power, idolize movements, embrace social justice, declare themselves for peace and global cooperation, commit themselves to the environment, the balance of nature, and (something quite different) change, and haven’t a clue that they are using the cunning vocabulary of the Old Left, c. 1935, and the birdbrain lingo of spirituality, c. 1900. Like a breath of fresh air, long-discredited phrases were transmitted by the Old Left to the New Left of the 1960s, to people (of the whom I am one of which) who had no idea that the words in their mouths had been put there by generations of silly old fuds. They (we) had no idea that even empty clichés can be repulsive and dangerous.

The other night I finally got a chance to see The Spanish Earth (1937), a famous movie that almost nobody who talks about it has ever seen. It was cowritten by the crypto-communist Lillian Hellman; Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos also participated (before they learned better). The film is a “documentary” about the Spanish Civil War, presented from the communist point of view, and it has about as much to do with the truth about that war as Triumph of the Will, from which it freely borrows, has to do with the truth about Hitler. I got a special kick out of the movie and its communist heroes constantly denouncing their enemies as rebels. Take that, you ring-in-the-nose college Marxist! You never realized it before, but the mission of the working class is to quell the rebels.

The most wonderful thing was the survival of so many wretchedly misleading political clichés, the kind of phrases that have soldiered on from Marx to Hellman to Rigoberta Menchú to the presidential aspirations of John Edwards and Barack Obama.

“Why do they fight?” the narrator asks about the Spanish people. Most of them didn’t fight, of course; and those who did took many sides, from Stalinist to anarcho-syndicalist. But never mind; a clichéd question deserves a clichéd answer: “They fight to be allowed to live as human beings.”

Human beings. How many times have we heard that, since? It’s an “argument” for every political program you can imagine.

“How ya doin’ today, Mr. Voter?”

“Uh, I dunno. Not so good, I guess. I think I’d feel more, like, more human if I owned a house. I’d feel more like I was living the American dream. Too bad I come from a working family.

“But that’s good for you — very good indeed! Working families are the meaning of America. So how much do you make?”

“Well . . . nothin’, right now. I been on disability these past few years. Ya know, this acne’s really actin’ up . . .”

“No problem! That’s why there’s a government! No reason why you can’t get a loan. As a working man, it’s your right.

“Damn! Really? Thanks, Congressman!”

“So, anything else I can do for you?”

“Well, uh, I guess I’d feel more human if I could retire at 60 . . .”

Most clichés aren’t deployed to answer questions; they’re meant to anesthetize them. So, if you say, in regard to The Spanish Earth, “Wait — I’m confused. Exactly who are these people who fight to be allowed to live as human beings?”, the film will tell you that they are “the men who were not trained in arms, who only wanted work and food.” These are the people who, we are told, “fight on.”

So at the end of the day, it’s the pacifists who inherit the earth — the pacifists who take up arms. Are you confused? I am. I’d like to know more about these people who are fighters because they don’t want to fight. But what I’m given is another cliché. I’m told that they are people who only want work and food.

Most clichés aren’t deployed to answer questions; they’re meant to anesthetize them.

It sounds good. Modesty is becoming. But one thinks of succeeding clichés, logically deduced from wanting only work and food: “It’s the economy, stupid.” “This election isabout one thing: putting America back to work.” “They work all day long, many of them scraping by, just to put food on the table. And . . . they see leaders who can't seem to come together and do what it takes to make lifejust a little bit better for ordinary Americans. They are offended by that. And they should be.”

That last remark is President Obama’s. The first remark is James Carville’s, back in the election of 1992. The one in the middle is sadly common at all times and everywhere, left, right, and center. Each remark suggests that ordinary Americans want only one thing — work and food. And that is why they vote the way they do.

Consider this the received wisdom, the grand cliché.

I’m offended by that. And ordinary Americans should be too.




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George Soros: Transparent Hypocrite

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George Soros is the notorious leftist billionaire who has spent lavishly to push this country (and others) in a statist direction. His preferred mechanism is quiet subversion: he funds front groups such as Media Matters (which aims at squelching speech by conservatives and libertarians on radio and television) and MoveOn.org (which aims at electing leftists to office). Ironically, he made a big chunk of his money collapsing the currency of a statist government (the UK) in 1992.

Well, he’s back in the news. He has now closed his hedge fund to outside investors. Why? Because of the new “transparency” financial regulations laid down by the SEC under the monstrosity that is Dodd-Frank. The new rules require that by early next year, large hedge funds (i.e., ones with asset bases over $150 million), such as his own, must register. Any large hedge fund will now have to disclose who invests in it, who works for it, whether it faces any conflicts of interest, and what it owns or invests in.

As the deputy chairmen of his fund (and, coincidentally, his sons), Jonathan and Robert Soros, so sadly put it, “An unfortunate consequence of these new circumstances is that we will no longer be able to manage assets for anyone other than a family client as defined under the regulations.” Accordingly, the fund will return all outside (non-family) capital to the investors — to the tune of $750 million.

Other hedge fund managers, such as Carl Icahn and Stanley Druckenmiller, have done the same with their funds. So why single Soros out for attention?

He deserves all the attention we can give him, because his megamillions helped elect the Red Congress that enacted Dodd-Frank, as well as the statist American president who pushed the bill and signed it into law. Soros wanted this country run by neo-socialists. He spent lavishly to ensure that it would be. But now he doesn’t want to have to live up to the spirit of the regulations this regime is inflicting upon the nation.

In short, Soros is a hypocrite. Not to mention a schmuck.




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