Who Axed the Lorax?

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It’s no secret that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) leaned a little to the Left. His delightful, whimsical books often had an underlying tone that was anti-war, anti-tyrant, and anti-pollution. Or, to spin it more favorably, he wanted peace, freedom, and cleanliness.

Seuss' The Lorax (1971) made a strong case for cleaning up the environment. It tells the story of a zealous young businessman, the Once-ler, who comes across a pristine forest of “Truffula Trees” and immediately begins chopping them down to use their silky leaves to make “thneeds” (the Seussian equivalent of an all-purpose Widget). His irresponsible use of natural resources damages crops, dirties the air, and mucks up the water, causing the original inhabitants — the bear-like Barbaloots, birds, and fish — to move away in search of cleaner climes.

There is nothing subversive or socialistic about this charming little story. Libertarians, in fact, should welcome a story that privileges property rights (the critters, after all, were there first) and individual responsibility (the book ends with “unless someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.”) Basically Dr. Seuss is saying, “Play nice. If you make a mess, clean it up. If someone was there first, wait your turn. Be responsible for your actions.”

Now Disney Studios has turned this gentle story about personal responsibility into a diatribe against individuality, free markets, and the entire capitalist system, with its animated version of the tale. They call it Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, but that's a misnomer. This is Hollywood's The Lorax, through and through. And it's an insidious shadow of the original story. The only thing missing from this indoctrination piece is a Five Year Plan.

In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

The film version begins 50 years after the books ends, in the community of Thneedville, which is run by a crony capitalist named O’Hare (Rob Riggle). The new story is reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998); the residents of Thneedville live inside a bubble city, oblivious to the desolation and pollution that exist just outside their city walls and ceiling. Inside, "everything was plastic and fake and they liked it that way." Somehow, they manage to enjoy a happy middle class standard of living, despite the fact that no vegetation exists and no one seems to work or produce anything. This is probably the most puzzling part of the film: if life is so bad, why does it seem so good? Apparently, ignorance really is bliss.

O’Hare controls the town, although he doesn’t seem to be an elected official. (We can’t have a government figure as a bad guy in the new Disney universe!) Apparently O’Hare simply owns the town, as well as everyone and everything in it. In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

When a pretty young girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift) yearns to see a real tree, a lovestruck young boy named Ted (Zac Efron) determines to find one for her. That means going outside the town's bubble to the desolate place where trees used to grow. There he meets the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who tells Ted the sad story of how capitalism, greed, and materialism led to environmental destruction.

What follows should be a textbook example of how the free market works to provide jobs, goods, and higher standards of living. Fifty years earlier, the Once-ler had an idea for a versatile invention: a "Thneed" made from the renewable leaves of the Truffula tree. At first no one is interested in Once-ler's invention, but when they see one on the head of a stylish young beauty, everyone has to have one. This is Say's Law in action: supply creates its own demand. Consider the fact that no one demanded a handheld device that could store 5,000 songs until Apple invented the iPod. Then everyone had to have one. Similarly, Once-ler's Thneed creates its own demand. To keep up with production he enlists his family members and pays the Barbaloots to harvest the Truffula leaves, using marshmallows as money.

But in this bizarro world, the free market becomes a tool of destruction. The product Once-ler has invented is clearly an unnecessary accessory (in the eyes of the filmmakers), and as we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if it isn't fundamentally functional, no one should have it. The "money" Once-ler pays the critters (marshmallows) become a seductive drug that saps their will and good sense. He doesn't pay them for doing an honest day's work; he bribes them to stay out of his way. Once-ler's family members turn out to be vile, redneck imbeciles who treat everyone with contempt — including Once-ler. Impatient to reach the treetops, Once-ler speeds up the harvesting process by cutting down the trees, cutting off his supply as well.

The film completely ignores the principle of property rights. The trees and the land on which they grow belong to the critters and the Lorax. Without their permission, Once-ler has no right to take the tree silk, to build a factory on their land, or to cut down their trees. But in a film whose point is that everyone (and thus no one) owns the land, this would sidetrack the communal message.

The fact is that people take care of property that belongs to them, and they tend not to take care of property that belongs to someone else. When loggers were awarded grants to cut trees on national land, they chopped indiscriminate swathes through forest after forest. But when they were allowed to own the land, they became tree growers as well as tree cutters. In fact, most of the deforestation in the United States took place nearly 200 years ago. Since then, forest cover has increased steadily, partly because national forests are protected, but also because companies replant what they harvest.

Perhaps the most insidious scene of the movie is the lively, jivey, upbeat song, "How bad can I be?" Dressed in a money-green suit, the Once-ler sings joyfully and mischievously, "How bad can I be? I'm just doing what comes naturally / How bad can I be? I'm just following my destiny / . . . All the customers are buying . . . And the money's multiplying . . . And the PR people are lying . . . And the lawyers are denying. . . . Who cares if a few trees are dying? How bad can I be? / A portion of proceeds go to charity." The song is bouncy and catchy and chillingly fun. The message is clear: humans are naturally bad, and their badness has to be governed. Even when they do something good, such as giving to charity, they must have a devious, ulterior motive.

As we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if a product isn't fundamentally functional, no one should have it.

Ironically, the film ends on what really does come naturally: operating the invisible hand of the free market. After telling Ted his story, the now repentant Once-ler assigns him the task of taking the final Truffula seed and planting it in the center of town where all will see it and want a tree of their own. Again, if that isn't Say's Law in action, I don't know what is: supply creates its own demand.

Seuss' book ends here, with a gentle reminder to be responsible for your own little piece of the earth. Disney keeps going, however. O'Hare and his henchmen follow Ted on a frolicking chase through town. Why must they stop the tree planting? Because trees will produce oxygen, and oxygen will clean up the air, and clean air will destroy O'Hare's bottled air business. As always, the greedy capitalist destroys the planet for his own gain.

What has happened to a country — and a movie studio — that once praised the virtue of lemonade stands and paper routes? Hollywood — center of one of the nation’s largest capitalist businesses — has long been disdainful toward business and capitalism. But with the G-rated Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, even Hollywood has hit new lows. The Loraxis a pleasant, entertaining movie with a vile message. When I asked my 8-year-old grandson whether he liked it, he smiled brightly and nodded his head. He loves Dr. Seuss! Then he added, "But it's all propaganda!" A smart cookie, that grandson of mine. His parents have taught him well. But he's just as attracted to fluff as those critters were attracted to marshmallows.

Since this is a movie about the bottom line, here is the bottom line from this movie: money is bad. Homes, food, and entertainment are good. But where do homes, food, and entertainment come from if we don't earn money? The government, of course. And how do we get people to work and produce without money? Mandatory volunteerism, I guess. Hmmmm. Hard work. No money. Food and shelter provided. . . .Wasn't that called communism in the last century? And slavery in the century before that?

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dr. Seuss's The Lorax," directed by Chris Renaud. Disney Studios, 2012, 86 minutes.



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Breaching the Perimeter

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The Grays Harbor County Superior Court building in Montesano, Washington, has a stately profile that you can see from Highway 12 as you drive past. The vibe of the courthouse is low key. It wasn’t so very long ago that petitioners and respondents could represent themselves in civil disputes. As long as they showed respect for the proceedings, litigants could count on some help from the clerks and judges; and everyone would work to craft reasonable solutions to disagreements.

In recent years, the approach has become more formal. A growing number of methamphetamine-related drug cases has made the place more tense; and the growing role of state agencies in the affairs of troubled families has made the proceedings more bureaucratic. But the clerks are still friendly. And, if you’re not sure where you’re supposed to go to file paperwork or pay a fee, the person who shows you the way to the proper office might be one of the judges.

On the morning of Friday March 9, a man named Steven Kravetz was hanging around on the first floor of the courthouse. He was dressed “business casual,” in slacks and a blue button-down shirt; and he was carrying a briefcase, so some of the courthouse staff assumed he was there on business and went about theirs. Eventually, though, one of the judge’s secretaries thought the man was acting a little strangely and asked the county corrections officer working security that morning to find out why Kravetz was in the building.

If reports be true, and there’s no reason to doubt them, this is what happened next. The officer, a woman named Polly Davin, approached Kravetz and asked his name and whether he had business in courthouse. He gave her a false name and mumbled something about a hearing. Davin pressed for more details — and Kravetz lashed out, stabbing her repeatedly with a small knife he’d been hiding in one hand.

Kravetz lashed out, stabbing the officer repeatedly with a small knife he’d been hiding in one hand.

County Judge David Edwards, whose secretary had first noticed Kravetz, saw the scuffle from his office on one of the building’s upper floors. He rushed downstairs to Davin’s aid — separating her momentarily from Kravetz. This infuriated Kravetz, who stabbed Edwards several times in the neck and shoulder.

Davin drew her service weapon, a .45 semiautomatic pistol, and ordered Kravetz to stop. He didn’t. Having disabled the judge, Kravetz climbed back toward Davin and grabbed her pistol. He fired twice, hitting her once in the shoulder, and fled the building.

Courthouse staff responded quickly. Paramedics arrived in minutes to tend to Davin and Edwards and moved them to the country hospital a few miles away. Sheriff’s deputies and local police assembled to search the surrounding area for the shooter.

There were a few early missteps in the manhunt. At one point, the cops and deputies got a tip that Kravetz was hiding in a private home a few streets away from the courthouse. They surrounded the house, flooded it with teargas, and entered forcibly. It was empty.

Then, working from a report that included the false name Kravetz had given Davin, sheriff’s deputies in nearby Thurston County arrested a man named Michael Thomas. It quickly became evident that he had nothing to do with the shooting.

Back in Montesano, the cops ordered lockdowns of local public schools because someone had suggested that Kravetz might be a domestic terrorist, bent on attacking public buildings. Initial media reports on local radio and online picked up on this excitable theme, stating that “several people” had been shot and that the violence might have been politically motivated.

Rather than a method of last resort, courts have become the front line determining what the state can do and how it can do it. And they are overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, Kravetz had walked from the courthouse to a nearby lawyer’s office, where he asked to borrow a phone to call his mother — with whom he lived, about half an hour away in the suburbs of Olympia. While law enforcement agents were following SWAT procedures and ordering school lockdowns, the shooter’s mother came and picked him up in her late-model Ford Focus. She was unaware that her son had done anything wrong.

At the hospital, the news for Davin and Edwards was good. Their injuries were not life-threatening. The knife wounds weren’t deep and Davin’s bullet wound had gone “through and through” soft tissue near her shoulder. Both were examined, stitched up, and released by the early evening.

Local law enforcement eventually pieced together Kravetz’s real identity from the courthouse staff who’d seen him. Some remembered seeing him in the courthouse before. He had a history of minor run-ins with law — mostly related to his reputed bipolar disorder and a few episodes of petty violence against himself or his mother. During one hearing on his mental condition, Kravetz had submitted a 50-page “manifesto” that raved about the collapse of society and the inherent inferiority of women.

Friday evening, having muddled through the earlier miscues, the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s office posted a picture of Kravetz (who was 34 years old but looked and moved like a man at least a decade younger); they confirmed he was the main suspect in the attacks.

Kravetz’s mother saw the pictures the next morning and immediately contacted the authorities to cooperate. Her son was arrested without incident later Saturday.

In the wake of the attacks, several media outlets noted that Judge Edwards had previously warned the Grays Harbor County Commissioners that the courthouse lacked sufficient security systems to protect staff from the growing number of defendants, convicts, and other troublesome sorts being processed every day. He’d even filed a lawsuit — on behalf of himself and his two fellow judges — to force the county to reconsider state-mandated budget cuts that would deny the courthouse basic security.

In his lawsuit, Edwards had made the point that the court was stressed by the growing number of complex cases involving issues like drug distribution, domestic violence, heated custody battles, mental health disorders, etc. Specifically:

Within the past two years, two attorneys were physically assaulted in the Superior Court: A defendant charged one of the judges in a courtroom; a man came to the courthouse armed with a knife and asking for directions to the office of a judge; and there was inadequate security protection available when a judge received a death threat during a trial. . . . The Superior Court is the only superior court in Washington state with more than one judge that is totally without courtroom security.

The judge’s stab wounds and the deranged man who’d caused them would certainly underscore that argument. In the days after the incident, the County Commissioners agreed to move courtroom security to the top of its budget priorities list. They were said to be looking into metal detectors and closed-circuit video systems.

This story brings together two troubling trends in public policy, which conflict with each other — and will likely conflict with each other more intensely as this country’s finances grow weaker.

The first trend is the use of litigation as the ultimate tool of public policy. This trend serves as a kind of ideological parent to its subset, the criminalization of broad categories of private behavior. When the U.S. legal system was first developed, criminal cases were relatively rare things. Most legal actions were civil; and they were designed to serve as a formal process for resolving disputes that couldn’t be resolved informally by free citizens and their local . . . non-governmental . . . institutions.

This has changed. Rather than a method of last resort, courts have become the front line determining what the state can do and how it can do it. And they are overwhelmed.

Because our courts are, by design, the branch of government least responsive to the whims of the voter, feckless legislators and executives pass the buck to the judges. They pass laws and promulgate policies that are often imprecise, internally contradictory, and intentionally vague — all capped with the cynical qualification that “the courts can decide” the final outcomes.

In some of these cases, with no other father figure to rebel against, damaged people like Steven Kravetz lash out against officers of the court.

This pass-the-buck mentality trickles down to all levels of the statist bureaucracy. Faced with impossible or conflicting orders, some government agencies sue — literally, file lawsuits — for permission and instruction on how to proceed. This means job security for the armies of lawyers (specifically exempted from ethics rules against lying) employed by government agencies; but it’s bad news for everyone else.

Just as the Grays Harbor courts have become more bureaucratic and stressed, so has the entire American court system. Simply said, we count on courts to do too much: review (and, in some cases, finish writing) thousand-page laws; settle intensely personal family problems like domestic violence, divorce, and child custody; enforce poorly-conceived legal prohibitions against drug use and other behaviors; allocate dwindling resources among ambitious government agencies.

A side note: as a result of this overreliance, courts and judges become the main authority figure in the lives of some of our weakest citizens — the criminals, lunatics, and impaired ones who cannot fend for themselves and no longer have nongovernment institutions to look after them. In some of these cases, with no other father figure to rebel against, damaged people like Steven Kravetz lash out against officers of the court.

The second trend is the looming insolvency of the American government.

As I’ve noted above, one of the major responsibilities weak legislators and executives have ceded to the courts is allocating dwindling public-sector financial resources. As the federal government’s debt soars and the dollar loses value, the fight over scarce money inside the walls of the state will get fierce. Broke public-employee pension plans will sue to get money instead of underfunded welfare agencies . . . which will sue to get money instead of over-committed regulatory agencies.

Here, Judge Edwards’ suit against the County Commissioners over security resources for the courthouse is a harbinger.

Judges tend to be smarter than most government employees — they see the coming battles over government money. They know that they’re going to have to make hard and unpopular decisions. And what then? If nutters and irate divorcees are grievous security threats to the men in robes, what will we call hundreds of public-school teachers and government-employee unionists whose promise of gilded pensions has been reduced to a reality of threadbare 401(k)s? There aren’t enough metal detectors and CCTV systems in the world to secure against that threat.

Judge Edwards’ suit is also something like an M.C. Escher drawing. It’s an example of the very sort of action that will create more security risks courts in the future. Americans have lived by the sword of rampant litigation as our economy expanded; we may very well die by that sword as our economy contracts.

Edwards is a decent man (and I say that with some insight; he’s one of my neighbors) in an impossible situation. He tried to do the right thing when a deranged man attacked a courthouse staffer; and he’s trying to do the right thing by demanding additional resources to secure his courthouse.

When he grappled with Steven Kravetz, Edwards underestimated the violent capacity of a lone madman. As he fights the County Commissioners for more security budget, the judge may be underestimating the violent capacity of a growing line of angry litigants passing through the hard-won metal detectors.

Americans have lived by the sword of rampant litigation as our economy expanded; we may very well die by that sword as our economy contracts.

Security is a difficult thing to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. It’s situational — and can be lost when circumstances change even slightly; in times of social upheaval, it’s practically impossible. This is one reason that some experts argue security is most effectively established for individuals, not large groups or institutions.

Maybe judges should be armed in their courtrooms. As they were a hundred years ago, when the Grays Harbor County courthouse was built.




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A Step in the Right Direction

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When there is good news, I will report it. In our mathematically “challenged” country, when people add 2 and 2 and — finally! — get 4, I will celebrate. I’m just that kind of guy.

To the idiocy of recent American energy policy — to the extent we have ever had one — I have devoted considerable attention in these pages. I’ve criticized it under Bush, and even more under Obama, because while Bush’s policy (which was to encourage both fossil fuel and “green energy”) was partly idiotic (the green part), Obama’s (which has been to end fossil fuels and substitute only green energy) has been completely, insanely idiotic.

But the free market, led by entrepreneurs (as opposed to academics, bureaucrats, or other parasites), working primarily on private property (as opposed to public lands, which this administration has locked away), and using private capital (as opposed to taxpayer money), has created a Renaissance of oil and natural gas production.

Even as solar, wind, and biofuel energy has generally proven economically unviable even with massive taxpayer subsidies, the new, unconventional, fossil fuel production — from sources such as shale formations and oil sands deposits, by hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling — has proven very viable, commercially. It has proven viable, please note, despite a firestorm of new regulations created by the Obama administration, which is eager to choke it off.

That's good news. Here's more.

The symbol of our idiotic energy policy is surely the Chevy Volt, produced by a socialized auto company but poorly received by almost all of society. It has been so poorly received that Government Motors has announced that it is suspending production of the “Sparky Lemon.” Even with massive federal and state subsidies, the whole EV concept has been a flop.

But a recent article in the WSJ reports some good news. A number of car makers are producing cars and trucks that can run on compressed natural gas (CNG), that now inexpensive and clean-burning fuel.

Start with Chrysler. It is announcing plans to build a line of bi-fuel (gas and CNG) powered Ram trucks. And GM is announcing that it will build bi-fuel Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Siena pickups in the fourth quarter of this year.

Honda Motor Company (not being government-run!) is nimbler. It has been selling CNG Civics since 1998 at 200 dealerships spread over 36 states. The starting price for these cars is about $26,600.

Ford, which already for several years has been offering CNG conversion kits for some of its cars, has announced that it will start offering some of its pickups with the option.

CNG-powered vehicles make great sense (as I have argued elsewhere). We can get all the natural gas we need from domestic sources, and it is relatively cheap. Indeed, you can buy conversion kits for any car, and gas compressors for your garage. But it makes most sense if the automakers make the cars powered by CNG right on the factory floor. First, that saves money — pure CNG cars don’t need catalytic converters, for example. And there are economies of scale.

Widespread conversion will take years, because people will move to CNG vehicles only when there is a widespread network of gas stations with CNG pumps. Still, it is a welcome development.

If Obama were sincere when he says, “My administration will take every possible action to develop this energy [natural gas],” he would merit some praise, and I would be happy to supply it. The problem is that in this matter (as in many others), he is lying through his teeth. He has bitterly fought fracking, using every tool in his administration — the Department of the Interior, the SEC, the Department of Energy, and even the Department of Agriculture — while locking away as much public land as he could.

Let’s hope a Republican administration (should we be lucky enough to see it replace the current, benighted one) would truly encourage the transition of vehicles to natural gas, and this country to energy independence. Most of the Republican candidates at least get energy, whatever else they don’t get.




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The Coming Anti-Mormon Rage

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In a recent article, I reflected upon the shape that the presidential campaign against Romney will take. I suggested that the Obama administration cannot easily defend its record, and so will focus on attacking the Republican candidate — who, after Super Tuesday, is likely to be Romney. But the problem for the Obama regime is that Romney has no obvious flaws: messy divorces, past affairs, tax dodging, DUIs, misdemeanors, or what have you. So the Regime will be reduced to hammering away at the fact that Romney is rich, white, and Mormon.

The attack is already well underway.

The administration’s war-machine has three phalanxes. First is the direct reelection team, funded by perhaps a billion dollars. The second is the Obama “independent” super-PACs, funded by all those wealthy people to whom Obama gave billions in taxpayer subsidies for their "job-creating" businesses. These super-PACs, which are already being staffed by Regime members, will probably net another billion bucks to reelect their guy. Labor unions alone have pledged $400 million for the upcoming race; 96% of all union contributions go to Democrats.

But let’s not forget the third phalanx — the mainstream media. The soi-disant “journalists” of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CNN, and so on are outright whores for this administration.

No, I retract that: I don’t want to insult hookers. At least they get paid in honest money for their services. By contrast, the pseudo-journalists with the MSM cheerfully service this administration pro bono, or for some motives less creditable than money.

The Obama regime will be reduced to hammering away at the fact that Romney is rich, white, and Mormon.

You can expect the attack on Romney’s wealth (“He’s rich, so he cannot relate to you common folk!”) will be the one openly directed by the administration’s reelection committee. The race card will be played by the Regime’s allies . . . indeed, Obama just set up an “African-Americans for Obama” group to advance that attack. The open attack on Mormonism, however, will not be carried on directly by the Obama campaign, but by super-PACs and especially by the media.

The anti-Mormon card is being dealt even now, in a sudden rush of news “stories” about Romney’s faith.

Let’s start with leftist comic Stephen Colbert, who stepped up to the anti-Mormon plate with his spoof on the Mormon practice of baptisms for the dead, a religious custom that has irked some people (some prominent Jews in particular). Colbert mockingly “converted” all dead Mormons to Judaism. Isn’t that hilarious? But is it purely coincidental that Colbert has only now found this obscure Mormon practice worthy of national notice? Perhaps he will next make fun of the Catholic practice of having masses for the dead. Oh, but wait — JFK, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and many other liberal icons have been — Catholic!

John Turner is concerned to appear more balanced. In a recent piece, he doesn’t say Romney had to answer for Mormon baptismal practices, although he discusses them in lavish detail. But he does say Romney should address the Mormon ban on admitting men of African descent to the priesthood, a ban that Turner notes didn’t end until Romney was 30 (in 1978). Of course, Turner never tells us what Romney could have done about the ban. But Turner got his chance to play the race card, because this issue reminds African-Americans that Romney is white.

At least hookers get paid in honest money for their services. The pseudo-journalists with the mainstream media cheerfully service this administration pro bono.

Also miming some degree of neutrality is one Randall Balmer, who recently wrote an article that obliquely warns us of the Mormon menace. Balmer is an Episcopal priest, and one usually expects Episcopal priests to have better manners. Still, prejudice drips from every line of his article. He construes the fact that only Mormons in good standing are allowed in Mormon temples as a sign of "the Mormon penchant for secrecy" and insinuates that Romney, by refusing to belabor the public with his religious beliefs, is being secretive about their nature. In fact, Mormon beliefs and practices are as well known as those of mainline Christian denominations. If you don't know about them, you're just not interested, that's all.

Balmer says that Romney’s “quest for the White House” will be “buffeted by questions about his religion.” Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy! I haven’t heard many ordinary people who care about it one way or the other, outside of the mainstream media, truth be told. Romney will be buffeted on his faith only by the likes of Balmer, to whom the “essential question” is the very “nature of Mormonism,” an “upstart” religion from — New York state! But wait — isn’t Episcopalianism a variety of Protestantism — from England? From the Roman Catholic point of view, Balmer's denomination is an “upstart” religion. And from the perspective of Judaism, isn’t Christianity itself an “upstart” religion? These are questions clearly beyond Balmer’s capacity to address.

Balmer — the very model of tolerance — moves on to note that Mormons refer to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.” But then, Jews refer to non-Jews as “Gentiles” — which seems to be OK with Balmer. Yet, Balmer intones gravely, “many Americans doubt" that Mormons are Christians, because they accept the Book of Mormon as scripture. What this means, of course, is that most Americans don't believe in the Book of Mormon. This passes for news — in the context of a presidential campaign.

Of course, Balmer reminds us that the Mormons “only” ended polygamy in 1890. But let me expand on this a bit. The Mormons allowed polygamy until 1890. Some Muslims, I believe, practice it to this day. But hasn’t America, at least since the Great Society craze of the 1960s, openly and completely embraced polygamy in practice? I mean, don’t our welfare laws allow — nay, encourage — a young man to impregnate as many young women as he can, secure in the knowledge that the taxpayer will pay for the children? Isn’t the first of the month, when welfare checks arrive, derisively called “Father’s Day” in the inner city? And don’t sperm banks allow many women to impregnate themselves from the same “donor”? I guess what I’m asking is — why all the brouhaha about Mormons allowing polygamy more than a century ago?

It doesn’t seem to occur to Bruni that the reason Romney’s faith is not a big deal in this primary fight is precisely because it is old news.

Balmer notes archly that Mormons believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired. He says that Romney should be asked how that affects his view of it. Why? I daresay many non-Mormons believe that as well. Even nonbelievers such as I think that it is, in some sense, inspired. What does it matter? The president is supposed to execute the law, not make it. He is sworn to uphold the constitution. What is Balmer's view on this? Does he think that reverence for the constitution is a vice?

Another suspicious thing about Romney, according to Balmer, is that Mormons believe they have the true faith. Strange indeed! If they didn't believe that, they would be members of some other faith.

To Balmer, Romney seems “cagey” for answering questions about his religion by saying such things as “I’m not a theologian” and “I don’t speak for my church.” What would he say if Romney proceeded to lecture everyone about the church's theology? Then Romney would be a nut or a weirdo, right? Balmer compliments Joseph Lieberman for having "patiently answered the [very few] questions [asked about his religion], declaring, for example, that he was an observant Jew, not an Orthodox Jew, and explaining the difference." However, if we consistently apply the standard that Balmer applies to Romney, shouldn’t Lieberman have gone into detail about why he is not a (mainstream) Christian, and the political implications of all that?

But after all, Lieberman ran for office on the Democratic ticket. So Balmer naturally does not apply the same standard.

So much for the Reverend Mr. Balmer. Then there is Frank Bruni, New York Times columnist and general attack dog for Obama. His recent snark-piece, “Mitt’s Muffled Soul,” went after Romney for not mentioning in his debate in Florida that his father was born in Mexico because Mitt’s grandfather had fled there to avoid the ban on polygamy that the Mormon Church had instituted. Bruni’s complaint apparently is that there is less discussion of Romney’s Mormon faith than there was four years ago. It doesn’t seem to occur to Bruni that the reason Romney’s faith is not a big deal in this primary fight is precisely because it is old news. That is, everyone on the planet now knows that Romney is a Mormon, because that was thoroughly explored in the last primary campaign. And the fact that Mormons once allowed polygamy is also old news, centuries old, in fact.

Bruni has decided that since most Americans seem indifferent to Romney’s religion — what with $5 a gallon gas and the prospect of our economy going the way of Greece’s — he is personally going to “home in on Romney’s religion.” Bruni’s claim is that the Mormon religion has left a “cultural, psychological and emotional imprint on” Romney. Are his “guardedness” and “defensiveness” due to his belonging to — get this! — a “minority tribe”? Does his stamina reflect his years as a Mormon missionary?

It never occurs to Bruni that his target has every reason to be defensive, given the attacks he and all the members of his faith have had to endure — not least from snarky journalists. The idea that maybe Romney’s stamina reflects a healthy lifestyle seems beyond Bruni's ken.

Of course, Bruni plays the race card, reminding us that the Mormons' ban on blacks in the priesthood lasted until 34 years ago.

The most extended and vitriolic hit-piece on Romney and his faith ejaculates from that monarch of snark, Frank Rich, formerly of — what else? — the New York Times, now of New York Magazine. Reptilian Rich is in a fury about Romney. (But then, he would be in a fury about any Republican — his self-appointed mission being to throw acid at anyone who dares oppose the current Regime.) In his meandering, self-contradictory screed on Romney, he is obviously frustrated at the total lack of real dirt he can find.

Rich never considers why a devout, middle-aged Mormon, trying to raise a large family, might not want to go out boozing it up at Hooters with the other Masters of the Universe.

For example, he quotes unnamed fellow Bain Capital coworkers who say that Romney was a great guy to work with, bright and good at what he did — but, “Still, whenever the rest of us would go out at the end of the day, we’d always find ourselves having the same conversation: None of us knew who the guy was.” The obtuse Rich never considers why a devout, middle-aged Mormon, trying to raise a large family, might not want to go out boozing it up at Hooters with the other Masters of the Universe.

With Rich, no Republican can ever win, no matter what his lifestyle. If he is known to have been a partier, such as Dubya was when younger, that will be used to attack him as a drunk. If he doesn’t party, as Romney doesn't, the Republican will be bashed for being aloof and self-contained.

Then there’s physical appearance. If the Republican candidate is out of shape or unattractive, Rich will attack him for that. If he is good looking, Rich will take the opposite approach: “Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. . . . Even at Mitt’s most human, he resembles George Hamilton without the self-deprecating humor or the perma-tan.”

So Rich wants us to believe that Romney’s so good looking he’s not human! This is weird stuff — Rich comes across here like a jealous schoolgirl with an unrequited crush on the school’s quarterback.

Of course, Mitt’s whiteness becomes important: “Romney is in some ways more exotic and removed from ‘real America’ than Obama ever was, his gleaming white camouflage notwithstanding. Romney is white, all right, but he’s a white shadow.” Budding bien pensant writers please note: this is what passes for witty writing in progressive circles. Romney’s white skin camouflages what? A black interior? So if he is elected, will he be our third black president, after Clinton and Obama? In the oxymoron department: "a white shadow”? What the hell is a “white shadow?”

Rich dismisses Romney as a man of no real accomplishment — unlike Rich’s messiah, Barack Obama: “Aside from his ability to build Bain capital and pile up profits there, Romney has remarkably few visible accomplishments to show for his 64 years.”

Really? Yes, Romney’s accomplishments are truly feeble. He has only done such things as:

  • Graduated from BYU with highest honors.
  • Graduated from Harvard with both a JD and an MBA, again with honors, but — please note — without affirmative action.
  • Built a quarter-century career of distinction in the management consulting business, earning about a quarter billion dollars along the way, while helping such companies as Burlington Industries, Corning, Domino’s Pizza, Monsanto, and Staples become successful.
  • As head of Bain Capital for 14 years, helped get investors a average yearly return of 113% , and saw to it that the profits were widely shared within the company.
  • Helped these companies succeed without a nickel of taxpayer support.
  • While getting his education and then pursuing a business career, helped raise a large family.
  • Ran against Ted Kennedy for his lifetime Senate seat, giving Kennedy his closest run, and losing only after Kennedy was forced to spend a fortune in negative ads.
  • Was called to rescue the floundering, deficit- and scandal-plagued 2002 Olympics, and did so, making the games successful and financially profitable.
  • Was elected in 2002 as governor of Massachusetts, where he eliminated a $3 billion deficit and greatly improved the state's business climate.
  • Provided tens of millions of dollars to charities both secular and religious.

Reluctantly, Rich acknowledges that two reporters (Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, of the ultra-liberal Boston Globe) who set out to dig up the dirt on Romney, and published a critical biography, really couldn’t find any “bombshells.” This, however, is somehow “revealing” — revealing of more oxymoronic crap.

Rich is left to fill his piece with anti-Mormon slurs. The title tips us off: “Who in God’s Name is Mitt Romney?” Then the attacks start coming: “The big dog that has yet to bark . . . Romney’s long career as a donor to and lay official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” “That faith is key to the Romney mystery.” “Romney is not merely a worshipper sitting in the pews but the scion of a family dynasty integral to the progress of an American-born faith . . .”

Naturally, Rich feels obligated to remind to remind us that the Mormons once practiced polygamy, while pretending to say it is irrelevant: “The questions [about Romney’s faith] are not theological. Nor are they about polygamy, the scandalous credo that earlier Romneys practiced even after the church banned it . . .” No, Rich wants to know whether Romney “countenanced or enforced [the Church’s] discriminatory treatment of blacks and women.” Does he also wonder whether Nancy Pelosi has done her part to make the Roman Catholic Church ordain women?

This is weird stuff — Rich comes across like a jealous schoolgirl with an unrequited crush on the school’s quarterback.

Rich is able to get in a dig at Romney’s wealth (yes, yes, Romney is rich) while continuing his bashing of Mormonism: “Much as the isolating cocoon of Romney’s wealth can lead him to dismiss $347,327 in speaking fees as ‘not very much’ . . . so the demographic isolation imposed by his religion takes its own political toll.” And on and on. Rich obviously wants readers to share his disgust about Mormons.

Perhaps the most blatantly bigoted attack on Romney’s religion came from Charles Blow — what else but another New York Times columnist? As the aptly-named Blow listened to Romney on the CNN Republican primary debate, he tweeted his followers the constructive comment, “Let me just tell you this Mitt ‘Muddle Mouth,’ I’m a single parent and my kids are ‘amazing’! Stick that in your magic underwear.” Blow was referring in this derogatory way to the Mormon belief that certain garments are of religious significance. One wonders if Blow has derogatory ways of talking about yarmulkes, or nuns' habits.

It is amazing that nobody at the Times has demanded Blow’s resignation — considering how famously sensitive the paper is when it comes to certain kinds of slurs. Amazing, that is, until you remember that a Mormon is running against the paper's chosen messiah. Notice also that the media hypocrites I have mentioned never seem to have never uttered a peep about the religion of Harry Reid — the buffoon who shoved Obamacare down the nation’s throat. Reid is also a Mormon, but nobody asks him to explain his church’s history, theology, or religious customs.

It is even more hilariously hypocritical that none of these people are busying themselves about Obama’s religion. As far as I know, they have not demanded that Obama explain why he stayed so long in a church that held, for example, that AIDS was created by white people and deliberately inflicted on black people. When this came out in the counter-media, and Obama dropped his affiliation with Reverend Wright, the mainstream dropped what little notice it had paid to the matter. Can you doubt that, had Obama been a Mormon (for there are black Mormons), the media would never have discussed Mormonism at all?

My suggestion to the Romney campaign — not that they are looking for suggestions — is to be under no illusion about what is coming at them. Obama’s minions will attack Romney without mercy, or religious grounds.

How should he handle these attacks? Well, when they come from the press in the form of persistent questions about his faith, he should reply in the same way every time, a la Senator Lieberman: “I am an observant Mormon. Which is irrelevant to my candidacy. If you want to learn about my proposals for fixing what Obama has broken, ask me about them. But if you want to learn about my faith, may I suggest that you go to the library and check out a book?” He should avoid at all costs the media trap trying to get him to discuss any aspect of Mormon theology. Why? Because non-Mormons will then be drawn into disputing it, and then will confuse disagreement with his theology with disagreement with his policy proposals. The mainstream media is hoping that the public will be tricked by this irrelevant association.

In any election, you try to do two things: get your voters out to the polls, and get your opponent’s voters to stay home. It is likely that the Obama super-PACs will run anti-Mormon ads, especially in areas of heavy evangelical Protestant concentration, with the intention of making the evangelicals stay home, under the theory that many evangelical Protestants dislike Mormonism — which, in fact, many do.

Countering this will be a job for the pro-Romney super-PACs. Here’s my suggestion for them: tape some homilies delivered by Romney’s pastor, and play parts of them juxtaposed with the juicier parts of Reverend Wright’s rants (“God Damn America!” comes to mind), with an announcer asking in the background which is more disturbing. Rely on the fact that evangelical Christians are invariably deeply pro-American. Run these ads wherever and whenever the Obama super-PACs run their anti-Mormon propaganda.

So that the reader will know exactly what is motivating me, let me state for the record that I am completely agnostic in matters religious. I was exposed to religion early on, and it didn’t take, whereupon the nuns dropkicked my posterior out of St. Mel’s Catholic School. (They were quite within their rights so to do, and I have never blamed them for it.) Ever since, I have oscillated between total unconcern and complete indifference to religion. I believe no more in Mormonism than I do in Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam, or anything else. I just hate intolerance, and I profoundly despise hypocritical intolerance.

Harry Reid is also a Mormon, but nobody asks him to explain his church’s history, theology, or religious customs.

Unless one finds a religion whose practices pose a clear threat to society — say, a crazed Kali cult, setting fire to people’s homes — I see no reason to fear it or demand of its adherents that they explain and justify their faith, to me or anyone else. It’s their business.

While I am far from an expert on Mormon theology, my own eyes tell me that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are far from dangerous citizens. In general, they appear to work hard and avoid harming others. In this respect, they seem exemplary citizens.

That should be an end to it.

Sadly, it won’t be.




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Obama and the Harvard “We”

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When I attended Harvard Law School, just before Barack Obama and at the same time as his wife, it was (surprise) a place steeped in a particular sort of elitism. I think there are two kinds of elitism, a good one and a bad one, and that President Obama may have been corrupted by the latter during his time at Harvard. I don’t suppose that the Harvard of my and Obama’s generation intentionally aimed to produce the bad kind of elitism, but it soaked its students in a bad elitist culture. Even the vocabulary of the students changed to accommodate elitism. The best example is what I call the Harvard “we.”

You have heard the editorial “we,” as in “we believe that HLS promotes insidious elitism.” In that case “we” means “I,” because the editorialist thinks that “I” is bad style. You have also heard the nursing “we,” as in “have we had our daily enema?” The nursing “we” means “you,” and I think might be derived from baby talk. Further, you have heard the spousal “we,” as in “we need to take out the trash,” which actually means “we,” but as between the two of us, it’s really your job. And you have heard the royal “we,” as in “bring us our scepter and our breakfast.” The royal “we” means “God and I,” because the king’s power derives from God. In addition, you have certainly heard the Harvard “we,” and I’m going to tell you what it means.

The Harvard “we,” as in “we need to make a rule prohibiting home schooling,” means “we” but not just any “we”; it means we who know better than you. It means we who have power, or should have power.

The “we” speakers themselves often are unaware of this, but any sentence in which the Harvard “we” occurs refers to the uses of state authority. It’s sort of the obverse of “they,” as in “they just passed a new law that says you can't drive and talk on your phone,” or “they say we don’t have enough information to make our own health insurance decisions,” or “check this out: they made somebody put a warning label on a toilet brush: ‘do not use for personal hygiene.’”

The Harvard “we” means we who know better than you. It means we who have power, or should have power.

(By the way, when “we” elites become the all-powerful “they” of whom regular folk speak, you become an inferior “them” as in candidate Obama’s notorious observation, “It's not surprising then they get bitter. They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”)

At Harvard, the professors constantly use the elite “we,” and most of the students pick it up within the first month or two. Like their professors, they become the mighty “they,” at least in their own minds; and so when referring to the powerful “them,” they say “we.” The students don’t openly admit it; they simply assume that they are fit to make decisions for other people. The Harvard “we” is a paternalistic “we.”

Right now, unkempt, spotty geeks who got better grades than you did are sitting in Harvard (and Stanford and Princeton and Yale) lecture halls saying things like, “We should deconstruct the bundle of property rights into its constituent parts and eliminate the strands that impinge on legitimate community rights” — which when translated means, “The government should have the power to take your property in the name of certain social interests that my classmates and I consider to be worthy.”

By the end of the first year, the habit is ingrained. The students have become the “they” and have lost the natural fear of being told what to do by bureaucrats, agencies, and policemen — because they assume that they will now be making the rules. They no longer see any humor in Ronald Reagan’s famous line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’”

By the end of the first year, the students assume that they will now be making the rules.

I’m happy to say that when I was at Harvard Law, I didn’t go in for that “we” business. Despite my own snobbery and angry-young-man ardor, I didn’t want to be part of an elite class that would beneficently lord it over the little people. I still don’t.

The Harvard “we” is an elitist “we.” I admit that elitism isn’t always wrong. People in the good elite stand for good values and set an example that encourages good behavior. People in the bad elite use power to dictate your behavior, because they know better than you. Meanwhile, they exempt themselves from the constraints of values, because they think that their ends justify their means.

Barack Obama is the greatest living practitioner of the Harvard “we.” To understand that is to understand his presidency.

How would the elitist-in-chief govern? He would seek to expand his rule, intervening in important areas of life, without respect for process or checks or balances.

Are there examples?

Certainly there are. One is the fact that “we” want much more power over financial transactions, so “we” — that is, Obama — put Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren in charge of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau without the inconvenience of a Senate confirmation or any other kind of open political process. She probably would not have survived a confirmation hearing. Even the left-liberal Senator Chris Dodd warned Obama that she might not be confirmable and objected to his nomination maneuver. Naturally, she is one of “us,” having been a professor of Obama’s at Harvard.

This new bureau can grant itself its own budget and has independent rulemaking authority. It is not subject to the oversight involved in congressional appropriations. But it will largely determine how credit is extended by banks, other financial firms, and even small businesses that grant credit to consumers. It will be a huge office with extensive powers. Its director is an important officer of the government. What about the advice and consent clause? Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution says the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . Officers of the United States.” The Wall Street Journal put it this way: “To deflect this question, the president’s lawyers have cobbled together yet another legal fiction. The trick is to give her [Warren] a second appointment. In addition to serving as President Obama's special assistant, she will also serve as a special adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. This allows her to pretend she is Mr. Geithner’s humble consultant when she and her staff come up with an action plan for the new agency. This legalistic gambit serves as a fig leaf for a very different reality: Mr. Geithner will never reject any of Ms. Warren's ‘advice.’ The simple truth is that the Treasury secretary is being transformed into a rubber stamp for a White House staffer.”

Of course “we” also want power over the businesses of medicine and health insurance. By use of a recess appointment and without a debate in the Senate, Obama put Harvard professor and Harvard alumnus Donald Berwick in charge of Medicare. Under ObamaCare, Medicare has extensive new powers to reshape the business of medicine.

Obama and the man he chose to run the newly empowered agency don’t seem to see any difference between actual government-mandated rationing and the “rationing” that occurs through individual cost-based decisions resulting from a market for services. Berwick said, “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care — the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.” And the White House, according to the Wall Street Journal, issued an internal memo with this talking point: “The fact is, rationing is rampant in the system today, as insurers make arbitrary decisions about who can get the care they need. Don Berwick wants to see a system in which those decisions are transparent — and that the people who make them are held accountable.”

Stunning spin. That really is the same as my saying that Ferraris are being unfairly rationed, because I can’t afford one.

By the way, don’t ever think that Obama’s Harvard “we” means “my constituents and I” or even “my supporters and I.” To know how he really thinks and acts, observe him in a tight spot. My definition of “character” is how you behave under pressure. By October 2010, with midterm elections coming up and his party on the ropes, President Obama was under some pressure. So he said it would be “inexcusable” for Democrats to sit out the November 2nd elections, given the stakes for the country and the potential consequences for their own agenda. He went on to criticize the enthusiasm gap between energized Republicans and members of his own party. Asked about his party’s political troubles, he said, “And so part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does [sic] not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared, and the country is scared, and they [sic] have good reason to be.”

That really is the same as my saying that Ferraris are being unfairly rationed, because I can’t afford one.

What a linguistic nightmare. Trying to explain why so many of his supporters were abandoning his party, he used another “we” — we the lame-brained human animals who were not admitted to Harvard. Not for a second, though, did he sincerely include himself in the class of great apes not smart enough to “think clearly” when fear strikes. No, he made that very clear. In the same sentence, he ungrammatically shifted to the second person plural, saying, “They have good reason to be [scared].” There, I have to agree.

The idea is that the president is right and rational and, if you voted Republican in 2010, you are scared and irrational. But don’t worry. The president will take some falsely modest blame for the election results. As he told a reporter for the New York Times, “Given how much stuff was coming at us, we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing even if short-term it was unpopular.” Allow me to translate that into Obama’s Harvard-we voice: “We spent all of our time figuring out how to make you do what is best for you, and not enough time telling you fairy tales.”

Obama’s own aides, it seems, learned a little wisdom and humility, unlike their boss:

"It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. "‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident." (New York Times, October 17, 2010)

Yet the question remains: what were they “overconfident” about? What did they want to “change”? All the evidence indicates that these apparatchiks, as well as their boss, were overconfident about their ability to change “they” into “we,” to turn a set of blinkered, bigoted, undereducated elitists into a committee with absolute power over everyone else. Pardon me if I fail to sympathize.




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They Shoot Owls, Don’t They?

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Some years ago, I wrote a piece in these pages about the infamous spotted owl. Under the misguided Endangered Species Act of 1990, the spotted owl was declared "endangered" (meaning, of course, "endangered by man"). As a result, the logging industry in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California was severely curtailed to “save” the bird. Tens of thousands of jobs were killed off, rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide spiked in the logging communities where formerly productive and proud loggers were reduced to living off the dole. Communities died.

But it turned out that the primary reason the spotted owl was dying was that another owl — the barred owl! — was moving in and taking over the wimpy spotted owl’s niche.

In short, it was natural biological evolution at work. As I noted then, 90% of all species that ever existed on this planet went extinct before hominids ever existed.

You would have expected hearings on this. You would have expected Congress investigate the bureaucrats who made a cold-blooded decision to terminate the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of victims. You would have expected that Congress would then grill the biologists who decided that it was the timber industry and not ordinary evolution that was to blame for the spotted owl’s plight. You would have expected panels of economists to testify about the cost to society of this stupid mistake.

But government almost never investigates its own mistakes and frauds. It prefers to investigate mistakes and frauds by private industry.

Indeed, when government makes a policy mistake, not only doesn’t it investigate itself, it just keeps pushing the policy further. A recent dispatch illustrates this with complete clarity.

The AP reports that even after shutting down much of the logging industry, the spotted owl continues its die-off. Its population in the Continental US has fallen by 40% in 25 years. The more aggressive barred owl just keeps taking over.

So the Obama administration, led by hardcore environmentalist Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, has taken the next “scientific” step.

It has ordered the shooting of barred owls!

Yes, in the name of wildlife preservation, the Interior Department will start slaughtering wildlife! I mean, Kafka couldn’t have dreamt up this daffiness.

So the hard-ass, kick-ass barred owls are facing execution for daring to win the evolutionary race with the sensitive, limp-taloned spotted owls. No doubt Darwin is spinning in his grave.

Since these damned rodent-munchers are spread over 24 million acres of forest, we are talking about a hell of a lot of shooting.

What is even more absurd is that this administration — which intends to gun down the gangsta owl — is totally anti-gun.

Maybe Obama and Salazar could contact the Mexican drug lords whom Ken Holder's Justice Department helped to arm, and have them do the killings. It might be enough for Salazar to spread the rumor that the barred owls are importing drugs, thus challenging the hoodlums in their own ecological niche.

Just a thought.




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Love's Language

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If you’re reading this, you survived Valentine’s Day. I almost didn’t. I made the mistake of shopping for Valentine’s cards.

I love those cards. I’ve loved them ever since I was in second grade and we were encouraged to make them out of construction paper and exchange them anonymously with fellow students. I discovered that under the right circumstances you can learn, or at least imagine, that some unknown, mysterious person actually loves you. I still like getting Valentines, and sending them. I even sign my name.

The problem is that over the years, the cards themselves have been going downhill. Steeply. I now have to shop in four or five places before buying my annual quota of four or five. This year was the worst so far. In fact, I can hardly imagine a year that could be worse, unless Valentines start saying “I hate you and I want to kill you.”

The contemporary language of love is almost always treacly, sloppy, and sappy, with more than a tinge of creepiness.

The current problem isn’t the threat of violence. It’s the threat of serious illness, induced by the contemporary language of love. It’s almost always treacly, sloppy, and sappy, with more than a tinge of creepiness. And often (let’s face it) it’s just plain insulting.

Love used to be a personal emotion. Now it often comes at you in its most generic form. Here’s an example — a Valentine’s card that first announces that February 14 is, indeed, Valentine’s Day, then explains what you’re supposed to do about it: “Treat yourself to your very favorite things [whatever those may be], and celebrate all the happiness and love you have in your life.” Thanks, sweetheart, for telling me that someone, somewhere, probably loves me. That gives me “happiness.” And thanks for inviting me to spend Valentine’s Day by myself, “celebrating” my own life.

Actually, I plan to spend the next Valentine’s Day doing one of my very favorite things — tearing up cards like that.

But now I’m looking at another card, one that gets personal, but not in a good way. “Okay,” it starts, “so here’s the truth about us. Our relationship is not perfect.”

Please! On Valentine’s Day, couldn’t you permit me my illusions? Nevertheless, the truth must be told: “We drive each other crazy.” I guess that’s so. Anybody who sends me a card about how imperfect “we” are must be telling the truth. Of course, the “we” means me, but never mind.

But wait! Open the card, and you’ll find “the other truth” about “us”: “I love us — just the way we are.” Aw! Now that really warms my heart. We have a mediocre relationship, but at least we are the mediocre people who enjoy it that way. Wouldn’t change a thing!

Shortly, I’ll return to this inspiring theme of “just the way we are.” Right now, it occurs to me to specify that none of my friends was tasteless enough to send me the cards I’m discussing; I bought them myself, so I could put them in this column. That’s the way I am.

Here’s a third card. It’s various shades of pink, with flowers all over it. Yet its subject isn’t hearts and flowers; it’s ethical teaching, of a peculiarly earnest kind: “You’ve taught me so much . . . about relationships – the importance of respect, compromise, and . . . what a true, deep, unconditional connection feels like.”

In the words of old Ben Jonson’s love song,

The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine . . . .

Yes! And the vintage is . . . Respect! Compromise! A connection to someone whose standards are non-existent (unconditional)!

H.L. Mencken, reporting on a political convention, described one of the delegates as “the kind of woman who makes you want to burn every bed in the world.” I feel that way about these Valentine’s cards.

The closest thing to the anaphrodisiac Valentine genre is, of course, the genre of wedding vows. I mean write-your-own vows, the public oaths that are always supposed to be such unique and thrilling invocations of love. They have been with us for a long time. They first became popular at the end of (guess what?) the 1960s, when every one of America’s unique personalities (including me) was busy coming up with new and special things in which everyone could participate. Like all the other inventions of the 1960s, they now have a tattered, dog-eared quality, yet they retain their power to stun.

Everyone who reads these words has witnessed the agonizing scene: a man and woman standing at the altar, or under the palm tree, or at the beach, or at the zoo, muttering, giggling, and weeping through the recitation of their profoundest feelings — private “vows,” publicly delivered. Well, the feelings are allegedly profound. And allegedly their own — because these self-concocted acts of self-display have become exactly as routine and predictable as any traditional vows. They’re just not as literate.

Like all the other inventions of the 1960s, write-your-own wedding vows now have a tattered, dog-eared quality, yet they retain their power to stun.

The inspiration behind traditional wedding vows was the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I quote from the 1928 book: “I Mary take thee John to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”

That’s only 53 words, but it carries wedding promises about as far as any sane person would want them to go. And note: no odd stories are proffered; no private jokes are told; no incense is wafted toward the loved one, as if the whole thing would fall apart if he or she weren’t assured that “you are everything that’s good and pure and true and I worship you with my mind, body and soul.”

Those are the needy words of a sample wedding vow I found on the web today. There are hundreds of sites that offer such samples. Evidently there are many people here among us who cannot rest until they hear someone stand up in public and say, “May our hearts and very breath become one as we unite this day.”

“Our very breath”: that’s putting a lot of pressure on a relationship. But some people aren’t content with that. They’ve got to bring a lot of other things into it too. They’ve got to make the loving couple swear to solve all the political, ethnic, and “cultural” problems they can think of:

We will honor each other's cultures as we join customs to form a trusting relationship. We will protect, support, and encourage each other through life's joys and sorrows as we create a loving future. [Question: Does this mean you don’t have a loving present? Well, never mind. None of these words actually means anything.] We promise to establish a home for ourselves and our children shaped by our respective heritages; a loving environment dedicated to peace, hope, and respect for all people.

Imagine, if you will, growing up in a household where that promise was fulfilled. “Johnny, I’m sorry to say that by failing to eat your broccoli you are showing that you have not been shaped by the respective heritages of your parents, and that you have respect for neither the Estonians nor their neighbors, the Finns, nor any of the other diverse peoples who make up this world. I hope you will become more loving in the future. Peace out, Johnny.”

Even when international relations are not at stake, it’s quite a struggle, this quest for love and happiness — and contemporary brides and grooms are duty-bound to tell us all about it:

We have been together since the first day we met. We were so shy and scared back then, who knew our love could grow this strong. Freshman year i [sic] met you, you took my breath away. When your hand touched mine my heart fell to the ground.

You can almost hear the thud. Yet every up-to-date wedding-vow site assumes that no one will be happy unless a wedding ceremony includes enough good stories to stupefy the audience:

Write 2-3 of your favorite times together - the times when you laughed so hard you cried, or when s/he was there for you, or an inside joke, or something that happened long ago that you haven't thought about it in a long time.

That’s good. You’ve almost forgotten it, but it will be good enough for your wedding vows. And no joke can be too “inside,” if other people are being forced to overhear it.

You might also tell a dirty joke — sort of dirty, and sort of a joke. For instance: “May all our ups and downs come only in the bedroom.” While this is more amusing than “I promise to wipe away your tears with my laughter and your pain with my caring and compassion,” it’s sad to think that so many wedding speeches require standup comedy for their justification.

Sadder is the fact that so many brides and grooms find it necessary to spend their “vow” time complimenting each other. Sadder still, what they find to compliment.

“Compassion” is a favorite virtue. The general impression is that these people are mating with a therapist, not a partner, and that they badly need a therapist, if only to ensure that someone will always be around to feel sorry for (have “compassion” on) them. Another favorite quality is our old friend “unconditional” acceptance — a quality that therapists are paid to show, but that spouses often find difficult to work up, the third time the other person comes home drunk at 4 a.m.

The general impression is that these people are mating with a therapist, not a partner.

It’s interesting that this wedding psychobabble, which has been around a lot longer than most brides and grooms, should seem fresh and individual, special and personal, moving and inspiring, to anyone; that brides should wear away their evenings on the computer, looking for just the right sample jargon, and that grooms should then recite it with trembling lips and watering eyes.

One of my favorite wedding sites observes that you can either “rely on the traditional wedding vows, which by the way are cliche, or you can write your own wedding vows!” But in case you can’t find your very own words to express your very own, wholly unclichéd, emotions, the site offers such “romantic” formulas as this — a masterpiece of modest expectations:

I promise to give you the best of myself and to ask of you no more than you can give. I promise to accept you the way you are. I fell in love with you for the qualities, abilities, and outlook on life that you have, and won't try to reshape you in a different image.

People whose hearts are warmed by contemporary Valentines will find this heartwarming too. It must be easy for two mediocre people to vow to be mediocre together. That’s the “best” of themselves.

Mediocre is next door to generic. It is characteristic of our time that serious psychological difficulties are regarded as normal: predictable, common, even healthy — generic in the best sense of that word. Try this sample vow, which addresses problems that, though obviously severe, must also be normal, since they can easily be reduced to a fill-in-the-blanks format:

I used to be afraid of falling in love, of giving my heart away. How could I trust a (man/woman) to love me, to give to me all that I wanted to give to (him/her)? (Name), when I met you, I realized how much we could share together. You have renewed my life.

Life renewal? Window 2A. Fill in Form C.

But that’s an idea that Hallmark can use in next year’s Valentine’s cards. Why not this:

I used to be anxious/afraid/terrified about love/closeness/compassionate relationship (choose one from each list). But (Name), when I met you, I realized I would have a sweetheart/wife/husband/sex buddy for the rest of my life/this afternoon/as long as it all remains unconditional. So happy Valentine’s Day, you beautiful/adorable/sexy/hunky/trusting woman/man/friend/panda bear/whoever. I love you!

This edition of Word Watch, however, offers no such multiple options. It isn’t even equipped with plastic hearts. It is a belated Valentine, to boot — if you’ll accept it. But I hope you will. It’s very simple:

Dear Reader, I love you.




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The Metamorphosis

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When the Cuban people awoke last April 2011, they did not find themselves transformed into giant insects. That change had already occurred. Over the course of the previous 50 years, Fidel Castro had transformed the island into one giant beehive or ant colony laboring single-mindedly for his vision of a Caribbean utopia. What they did wake up to find was something entirely novel: a vibrant options market in 1950s vintage Detroit automotive classics.

In “Cuba: Change We Can Count On?” (Liberty, December 2010), I reported the passage of enabling legislation by the Cuban government to guide the Congress of the Communist Party in implementing far-reaching reforms to the economy. Though the fine print of implementation had yet to be worked out, a big change was decreed. It included the legalization of self-employment in ”dozens” of areas, the privatization of many small state-owned businesses as cooperatives, and the establishment of limited property rights in real estate and some bits of movable property such as cars, boats, and appliances, many of which can now be bought and sold.

The impetus for all this hope and change was money. Cuba’s economic and fiscal health was dire. The reforms hoped to eliminate one-fifth of the government work force (thereby cutting expenditures); incentivize former government employees into joining taxable petit-capitalist enterprises (thereby raising revenue); and — along with liberalized foreign investment reforms — stimulate the economy and improve Cuba’s fiscal prospects.

In April 2011 the details of the new legislation were announced. In a recent paper entitled “Economic Impact of New Employment, Tax and Financial Policies in Cuba,” presented at the XXI Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (Miami, August 2011), Luis R. Luis, former director, Latin America Department, of the Institute of International Finance and chief economist at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, applied macroeconomic analysis and a crystal ball to predict the effects of the reforms.

To a populace that has never paid taxes, much less dealt with the fine points of business expense deductions and tax accounting protocols, the entireexperience must have been far from “liberalizing.”

Given the market sophistication of the Congress of the Cuban Communist Party — akin to that of the Creation Science Institute, sequencing the malaria genome — the reforms are still a work in progress. They aim primarily at improving state finances, but the use of price controls, size limits on firms, confiscatory tax rates, complicated monthly payment requirements, and petty regulatory activity “could result,” as Luis drily observes, “in even larger evasion than is usual in developing countries by single proprietorships and the self-employed, [and] will also result in many activities taking place wholly or partially underground, limiting tax revenue and fostering operation of undersized and inefficient activities.”

The very first modifications to the April bill were made a scant few weeks later, following a strike by cocheros (horse cart drivers) in Bayamo, Granma Province (née Oriente Province). The provincial capital is immortalized in Cuba’s national anthem as the birthplace of independence. It is a place redolent with symbolism, and a situation best handled with care. Bayamo cocheros, members of one of the newly privatized occupations, discovered that when they added their new tax liability to their clients’ bill, demand plummeted. So they went on strike.

The new self-employment taxes consist of four categories: social security tax, personal income tax, sales tax, and payroll tax. Let’s look at each.

1. The social security tax is levied at 25% of the tax base (in the US, it’s about 13% — with half paid by the employer). So far, so progressive.

2. The personal income tax gives a whole new meaning to “taxing the rich.” Marginal rates rise to 50% for annual incomes of $208! When combined with the social security levies, the personal tax nears 60%. Mindful of the reader’s attention span, I will skip all the qualifying fine print, ceilings, and permutations that complicate the base tax rate — except for business expenditures, aka deductions. These are limited to 20% or 40%, depending on the enterprise.

As Luis notes: “These rates discriminate against enterprises whose cost of inputs exceed[s] 40%, which will lead to curtailment of activity, firm creation, and widespread tax evasion.” Cocheros, for some unknown reason,were limited to a 20% business expenditures deduction.

To a populace that has never paid taxes, much less dealt with the fine points of business expense deductions and tax accounting protocols, the entireexperience must have been far from “liberalizing.” It was reminiscent of a farcical zarzuela, the Spanish version of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, with a dose of Monty Python thrown in for gravitas. The Congress responded by raising cocheros’ allowable deductions from 20% to 40%.

3. Sales taxes for all products are levied at 10%, except for farm products, which are taxed at 5%. Simple enough.

4. The new payroll taxes are not only complex; they (along with the other taxes) actually, as Luis observes, “pose a formidable constraint on employment.” The following summary — through no fault of Luis — is beyond this author’s ability to make intelligible, much less fun:

A new 25% payroll tax is instituted. The base of the tax is the overall wage bill except that there is a minimum taxable amount equal to a multiple of the average wage for specific workers calculated by the appropriate local labor office. The base is made progressive as the minimum taxable amount increases with the size of the payroll. Thus for firms with 1 to 9 workers, the minimum equals 1.5 times, rising to 2 times for those between 10 and 15 workers and to 3 times for those firms that have more than 15 employees.

So much for the new taxes. Will Cuba’s vision of self-employment provide the fiscal salvation the government so desperately needs, or is it just a tempest in a teapot?

If the government succeeds in shifting 250,000 government workers into self-employment, and they pay all their taxes, Luis estimates a $40 million revenue windfall for the government (not to mention all the supplies and material that would not be pilfered or stolen from state companies and offices, as supplements for employees’ meager salaries — a point important enough that Luis footnotes it in his report). But so far, no more than 50,000 state employees have taken the bait.

The eminent French art critic and father of surrealism, André Breton, visiting Cuba in the late 1920s, observed that, “Truly, Cuba is too surrealistic a country to be livable.”

Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict the tax compliance rate, which, worldwide, is low for the self-employed. “However,” Luis observes, “it is expected that the fiscal authorities will enforce the tax code with some vigor. Undoubtedly, the high tax rates will act as an incentive to evasion and to a reversion of business to the underground economy. Sizeable underreporting of revenues is to be anticipated.”

In 2011, Cuba’s population was 11 million. As of mid-May 2011, about 300,000 people were self-employed (excluding farmers); or (with slightly different numbers), never more than 3.5% of the labor force. Though the passage of the new legislation doubled the number of self-employed, a large percentage of them were people who came out of the black market closet and hope to become legal.

Luis’ analysis bears some contextual elaboration because, as Miguel Bretos, author of Matanzas: The Cuba Nobody Knows, has stated, “Those seeking to understand Cuban history in conventional ways are doomed to frustration.” He was referring to the eminent French art critic and father of surrealism, André Breton, who, visiting Cuba in the late 1920s, observed that, “Truly, Cuba is too surrealistic a country to be livable.”

What makes the details of the reforms so surreal is their schizophrenic set of objectives. When first proposed, the reforms were compared to the Chinese model: an infusion of capitalism to build wealth, with the Communist Party retaining absolute power. But, as the Chinese are discovering, when laissez faire markets infect a regime of total power, the liberty virus proves hard to cure.

The Chinese are a practical people with few Maoist ideologues left among them. No one, from the highest party apparatchik to the lowliest peasant, objects to becoming richer. Meanwhile, power is being incrementally ceded through a phenomenon usually foreign to absolutist regimes: limited but sensitive responses to popular dissatisfaction with corruption, judicial arbitrariness, environmental degradation, out-of-control eminent domain, and even — very slightly — the transfer of some political power. (For example, provincial officials in Wukan, Guangdong Province, are allowing local elections to take place.) Moreover, the Chinese are rather comfortable with duality; witness the Taoist concept of yin and yang.

It’s not quite so simple for Cubans.

The competing objectives of raising capital through economic liberalization while retaining absolute power are — in Cuba — complicated by a third factor that tips the reforms from the bipolar into the surreal: an anti-capitalist idealism so fervent that it equates private employment with involuntary servitude, profit with depravity, and self-employment with crimes against society. These attitudes not only saturate the nomenklatura — with their source and apogee in the moralist-in-chief, Fidel — but also pervade the majority of the Cuban population. Cubans are poor and unhappy; they sense that something is wrong with the system; they are starving for change. Yet they idolize St. Fidel’s idealism and venerate him as the conscience of the Revolution.

As the Chinese are discovering, when laissez faire markets infect a regime of total power, the liberty virus proves hard to cure.

National character, along with its kinfolk — ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial character — has fallen into disrepute as a way of defining a population. Whatever validity it might once have possessed has evaporated. It has been dismissed for its oversimplification, unscientific methodology, racist undertones, and complete absence of political correctness. But it retains a great deal of insight and literary utility, when considered informally. Hedrick Smith was definitely onto something when he described the Russian character as a cross between German and Mexican temperaments.

Cuba was ruled by Spain for over 400 years — longer than any of its other colonies. During the Latin American wars of independence in the 1820’s, Cuba remained staunchly Spanish. By the time it won its independence in 1902, it was considered an integral part of Spain. That date is so recent that in 1966 the last surviving Afro-Cuban general of the War for Independence, Generoso Campos Marquetti (by then living in the US, in exile from Castro’s revolution), was asked to testify before the US Congress during hearings investigating the nature of the Castro Revolution. It’s as if Nathanael Greene or Henry Knox had still been alive within our living memories, to comment on US current affairs.

The Cuban character is a diversely spiced mélange. Settled by immigrants from Galicia, Asturias, Catalonia, and the Basque Provinces in northern Spain, Cuba was infused with a strain of rigid, dour, doctrinaire, and humorless temperament. Fidel Castro is a second-generation Galician — he can’t dance, carry a tune, or tell a joke. Though he would reject the comparison (in spite of his early flirtations with Falangism and Fascism) Castro has much in common with the long-lived and long-ruling Francisco Franco and his Minister of Propaganda, José Millán-Astray — both Galicians.

General Millán-Astray was a serious parody of himself. Founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion and a decorated war hero who’d lost an arm and an eye, he personified Spanish fascism. He was obstinate and ruthless, yet impulsive; flamboyant, reckless, and self-aggrandizing. At rallies he resembled the mad Dr. Strangelove. Wearing one white glove and a black eye patch, he would exaggeratedly throw out his one arm in the Nationalist salute, while shouting his telltale mottoes, “Viva la muerte!” ("long live death") and “Death to intelligence!” ("death to the intelligentsia").

Cubans are poor and unhappy; they sense that something is wrong with the system; they are starving for change. Yet they idolize St. Fidel.

Ladino and Canary Islands immigrants added cunning, perspicacity, and some levity to the Cuban national character; Andalucians, Valencian gypsies, and West African slaves tempered the whole with rhythm and a wry sense of humor. Provincial and (in the case of the West Africans) tribal clubs, mutual aid societies, and other ethnic affiliations lasted well into the 1960s.

The Spanish component of the Cuban character alone suffices to explain the paradoxes inherent in holding multiple contradictory perspectives. Pepe Azcarraga, a 91-year-old Spaniard from a small village in Aragon (but now a retired college professor living in the US), personifies this Weltanschauung. He recounts that once, as a teenager, he accompanied a friend to the dry goods almacén to buy towels. On the way back, he helped her carry the goods, stacked on his doubled arms. As he passed by his own house, his mother, perched on the second-floor balcony, spotted him on the cobbled street below supporting the pile of towels in front of him as if they were the Blessed Sacrament and he was leading an Easter procession. She beckoned to him angrily. Puzzled, he detoured into his house.

Once inside, she asked him what the diablo he thought he was doing carrying a pile of towels for all the world to see. Before he could answer, she walloped the fear of propriety into him, moaning that “the whole town will think the Azcarraga family needs towels!”

Pepe tells the story without a hint of irony, as if his failure to anticipate the finer etiquette of towel buying in a gossipy small town were an obvious sign of his stupidity. At different times, depending on the context of the conversation, he’ll call himself a socialist, a capitalist, a libertarian, or simply a man of the left. He and his immediate family sided with Franco during the Civil War — for the sake of order and stability. Yet as members of the local militia guarding the frontier against infiltration from Republican guerrillas holding out in the French Pyrenees after the war, Pepe and his friends, when off-duty, would cross over and (avoiding politics) socialize with the enemy, many of whom were friends, family, and acquaintances. They shared snacks, smokes, stories, and beer. A devout Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday, he is nonetheless skeptical of the existence of an afterlife — and he harbors a sense of unworthiness that keeps him from communion.

Pepe stands on the shoulders of giant, original, way-outside-the-box thinkers: surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, whose melting clocks epitomize the persistence of memory; philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who introduced doubt to faith, and found that they got along just fine; writer Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote — the patron saint of hopeless causes — made tilting at windmills not only intelligible but honorable; and Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada (literally, twist and burn), whose auto da fés melted heretics in order to save them. To an Anglo-Saxon who can only shake his head in perplexity, like a mental centrifuge spinning to separate the conflicting strains, little of this intellectual anarchy makes sense.

Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist Party, and their recent economic reforms embody this cognitive dissonance. Luis’ assessment is not sanguine: “It is evident from the multiple constraints, prohibitions, regulations and high taxes involved in the new measures the authorities are striving to maintain tight control over the liberalization process. These controls will dampen or even fully contain the output and consumption gains from market opening.”

And the controls are extensive. One-hundred-and-seventy-eight self-employment occupations have been legalized (up from 157); most require little or no capital (animal caretaker, hairdresser, locksmith, plumber, mason, mattress repairman). A few others, such as room renting (though not to foreigners, and no subletting) and transportation services (truck and taxi driving) imply greater use of property or equipment. Restaurants are now allowed 50 tables, up from 20. Capital investment is capped at $800.

Even the most touted reform, the buying and selling of real estate, is less than meets the eye. Ownership is limited to domiciles — one residence and one vacation home — and possession is limited to citizens or foreigners permanently residing in Cuba.

Additionally, the domestic portion of the reforms requires that all transactions take place in nonconvertible pesos. (Cuba has dual currencies: convertible and non-convertible pesos — one for tourists, the other for Cubans — both highly controlled.) Foreign investment in the newly allowed enterprises is forbidden; as are family and personal remittances (also subject to taxes), which must only be used for personal consumption. Wholesale activities, inter-provincial trades, and most intermediation among firms are also forbidden.

“Intermediation” — a fancy word to describe the place that banks (among other entities) hold between savers and investors: they take deposits, then lend them out to entrepreneurs. Cuba’s (official) private savings rate for the last six years is about 2% of income — not an important source of financing for new enterprises, though probably understated because of non-bank and in-kind savings. As Luis again drily notes, “Most bank loans are made to state enterprises. A vibrant self-employment sector would be helped greatly by access to credit from the banking system. This would require building-up a credit system, with an important role for micro-credits by local branches of banks with appropriate credit expertise . . . [as in] Asia.”

Fidel Castro is a second-generation Galician — he can’t dance, carry a tune, or tell a joke.

Any reforms along those lines are unlikely, because they would undermine the institutionalized apartheid system that attempts to minimize economic fraternization between Cubans and foreigners. Very few of the newly approved occupations affect the export or tourist sector, and the government monopoly on labor for joint venture and foreign enterprises has not been affected. It is surprising that the new employment and tax measures do not address Cuba’s external accounts, even though more foreign investment — under the pre-existing framework — is being attracted.

Luis boldly sums up his report with an estimate of the impact of the reforms on Cuba’s GDP. He admits he’s on shaky ground — with disclaimers, caveats, weasel words, and the assumption that many more black-market enterprises will come into the open. Despite the effects of government controls, he broadly predicts a 2% GDP increase as a low estimate, with a 6.4% GDP increase if all the hoped-for 250,000 state employees become successful entrepreneurs, make lots of money, and pay all their taxes.

The Cuban reforms are a tug-of-war among various conflicting objectives: on the practical level, increasing state revenue while maintaining total state power; on the philosophical level, allowing enough “human action” (in the Misesian sense) without diluting the “social justice” objectives of the Revolution by introducing greed, ambition, and a subversive focus on individuality.

On that last point — to paraphrase Charles Darwin, who, at the conclusion of The Origin of Species, foretold that “light will be thrown on the origin of man” — the Cuban reforms will shed much light on how far the capitalist goose that lays the eggs of prosperity can be starved, strangled, and robbed, without killing it.




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