The Brain, Explained

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"Don't think, feel!" Bruce Lee's character exhorts his young son in Enter the Dragon (1973) as he teaches him to trust his instincts while learning to fight. By contrast, Ayn Rand favored "Don't feel, think!" when she wrote, "People don't want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think." Like Plato, Rand proudly privileged reason over emotion. But which is the better approach for making decisions, Lee's feeling intuitively or Rand's thinking rationally?

According to Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide, they're both right. We humans would make better decisions if we understood how the brain reacts to various stimuli. The frontal cortex accesses different tools within its complex regions and uses that knowledge to choose when we should react intuitively and when we should figure things out rationally. Using fascinating real-life stories, studies conducted by respected psychologists and neuroscientists, and an entertainingly accessible style, Lehrer explains how the uniquely human frontal cortex sorts it all out and helps us decide.

For instance, Lehrer considers how quarterback Tom Brady surveys the position and forward direction of 21 moving players on a 5,000-square-yard playing field, anticipates where everyone will be next, and decides where and how fast to throw a football, all in less than two seconds, while other players are bearing down on him. Brainwave studies have shown that there isn't time for him to process the information and make a rational decision. The neural synapses aren't that fast. A quarterback's decision is made intuitively, through the part of the brain controlled by emotion. As Lehrer quotes Brady, "You just feel like you're going to the right place."

Lehrer also demonstrates what causes athletes, performers, public speakers, and everyday humans like you and me to "choke" on tasks for which we are perfectly prepared and skilled. He tells the stories of opera singer Renee Fleming, golfer Jean Van de Velde, and others to demonstrate the point. The problem comes from overthinking a task that the body has learned to perform instinctively. In short, the brain gets in its own way, as the reasoning synapses block the path of the emotional synapses. "A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind," Leher concludes (15).

Of course, mere feeling isn't sufficient for making the right decisions. A potential juror who says, "I can tell if someone's guilty just by looking at him" is more dangerous than a crook with a gun. Lehrer provides equally fascinating examples to demonstrate when the rational part of the brain needs to be in control. For example, he tells the compelling story of firefighters who tried to control a raging forest fire in the Rockies in 1949. When the blaze jumped a gulch and began racing toward them, most of them tapped into their brain's emotional side and tried to outrun the fire.

The captain, however, evaluated the situation rationally. He quickly took into account the dryness of the grass, the speed of the wind driving the fire, the slope of the hill they would have to run, and their unfamiliarity with the terrain on the other side of the crest. While his emotions screamed "Run!" his reason said, "Stop. Build a fire. Destroy the fire's fuel, and then hug the ground while the fire passes over you." He was the only man to survive. None of his young firefighters followed his lead. Today, building a firebreak has become standard training procedure because of this incident. But at the time, Captain Dodge's brain created the escape route entirely on its own.

Modern scientific tools, such as the MRI, electronic probes, and EEG, have made it possible to see exactly what the brain does when faced with a choice, a risk, or a dilemma. "Every feeling," Lehrer writes, "is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can't be accessed directly" (23). This means that you and I will make better choices if we understand which parts of the brain to access for different tasks, and how to satisfy or tone down conflicting stimuli.

For example, one study asked subjects to memorize a list and report to someone in a room at the end of a hallway. On the way the subjects passed a table where they were invited to take a snack. Those who had a long message to remember — one that required them to remember seven things — usually chose a piece of chocolate cake, while those who only had one or two things to remember tended to take a piece of fruit. The practical application? When the rational brain is working at capacity (and according to psychologist George Miller's essay, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," memorizing seven things seems to be the capacity), the emotional brain takes over, and the chocolate cake is irresistible. When the rational brain has less to remember, it can overrule emotion and make a wiser choice. No wonder we overeat and fall prey to other temptations when we have too much to do.

So when should we think rationally, and when should we act impulsively? Lehrer ends his book with several practical suggestions.

First, simple problems require reason. When there are few variables to consider, the brain is able to analyze them rationally and provide a reasonable decision. But when the choice contains many variables — as when one is buying a new house — "sleep on it" and then "go with your gut" really is the best advice. Overthinking often leads to poor decision making.

Second, novel problems also require reason. Before reacting intuitively, make sure the brain has enough past experience to help you make the right decision. Creative solutions to new problems require concrete information and rational analysis.

Third, embrace uncertainty. Too often, Lehrer warns, "You are so confident you're right that you neglect all the evidence that contradicts your conclusion." This is especially true in matters such as politics and investment decisions. He offers two solutions: "always entertain competing hypotheses . . . [and] continually remind yourself of what you don't know" (247). Certainty often leads to blindness.

Fourth, you know more than you know. The conscious brain is often unaware of what the unconscious brain knows. "Emotions have a logic all their own," Lehrer says. "They've managed to turn mistakes into educational events" (248–49). The reason superstars like Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Renee Fleming can rely on instinct is that they've been there before. Tom Brady has surveyed thousands of football fields and thrown thousands of passes; Tiger Woods has made thousands of putts; Renee Fleming has sung an aria hundreds of times. For them, the brain knows what to do, and thinking just gets in the way.

Fifth, think about thinking. Before making a decision, Lehrer warns, be aware of the kind of decision it is and the kind of thought process it requires. "You can't avoid loss aversion unless you know that the mind treats losses differently than gains," he explains. Knowing how the brain works will help us make better decisions in everything we do.

How We Decide is a book full of real-life stories, scientific experiments, and practical applications. It will help you understand how you make decisions, and will guide you to make better decisions in the future. Returning to Bruce Lee and Ayn Rand's conflict between thinking and feeling, Lehrer makes a strong case for "Think sometimes, feel sometimes. And make sure you know when to do which."


Editor's Note: Review of "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer. First Mariner Books edition, 2010 (Harcourt Brace, 2009), 302 pages.



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Memo to Obama: Here’s How the Market Works

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President Obama is running a political campaign as predictable as it is despicable. It is based on attacking capitalism. “Markets never work, government always does” appears to be his meshuggeneh mantra. As it happens, two recent Wall Street Journal stories illustrate the free market (disparagingly called “capitalism” by its opponents) in action. Obama might want to reflect on them, though it is doubtful that he often reflects on anything — he seems to be the epitome of a reflexive instead of a reflective person.

The articles, appearing on the same day and the same page, report on the impact of the fracking revolution in natural gas production, a revolution that has dramatically decreased the price of natural gas — by nearly half in the last year alone.

The first article reports some good news about the rock-bottom prices for natural gas. The price is inducing companies with trucking fleets to switch from diesel to natural gas (NG) — either compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG).

For example, Waste Management is now buying NG trucks. It plans to make 80% of the new trucks it buys over the next 5 years NG trucks. The NG trucks cost about $30,000 more than ordinary diesel trucks, but save more than $27,000 a year in fuel expenses. Ryder Systems, a truck leasing company, is making the same move, with one of its vice presidents saying, “The economics favoring NG are overwhelming.”

Other corporations shifting their truck fleets to NG include such huge players as UPS and AT&T.

The article notes the standard problems facing fleets looking to convert to NG, such as the need for bigger tanks, and especially the lack of CNG or LNG fueling stations nationwide. But as the fracking gas revolution continues apace, it is likely that the price of natural gas will remain extremely low compared to diesel, so will tempt more and more gas stations to offer NG fueling pumps. And the article doesn’t note how much cleaner NG is than diesel, which means that as air pollution laws continue to tighten, the cost of diesel trucks will go up. Nor does the article note that as more fleets convert to NG, the price of NG trucks will start to fall as production of them cranks up.

On the bad news side, the companion piece reports that natural gas “giant” Chesapeake Energy has been beaten up by the low price of its product and is now investing heavily in unconventional drilling for shale oil. Specifically, Chesapeake is focusing on the huge Utica shale formation lying under the state of Ohio, betting billions to buy leases for drilling rights to about 5% of the state’s land.

This is either ballsy or balmy, depending on your tolerance for risk. The Utica field is estimated to contain between 1.3 and 5.5 billion barrels of oil, but the company has drilled only 59 wells, and of the nine about which it has released data, the information shows that oil is but a third of what is provided — the rest being mainly that damned cheap natural gas!

All this simply illustrates the view of pricing that Hayek and Kirzner enunciated: that pricing is an information transmission mechanism — more simply, a language. The price of a product tells both producers and consumers how to alter their behavior and plans for the future. When the price of natural gas went up not so long ago, it told producers to produce more, and they did — in spades! Now that it has plummeted while the price of oil has remained relatively high, it tells consumers to switch to it, and it tells producers of natural gas and oil to shift capital from producing the former to producing the latter.

All this would be illuminating to Obama, were he a man capable of illumination. But he isn’t, so it won’t.




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Should the Bank's Loss Be the Law's Gain?

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The great thing about laws is that they protect us when we are unwilling and unable to do so on our own. Laws are great because they make sure no harm is done. So when it came to our attention that JP Morgan Chase just lost $2 billion because of risky investments and hedging, it may have seemed that what was needed was more and better laws, not personal responsibility.

Of course this isn't true.

Laws are necessary but not sufficient. Laws will never be able to keep pace with new developments in the financial sector, or anywhere else, which is why laws will never prevent problems but only react to them. And being reactionary instruments, laws cannot prevent the next wave of risky financial instruments or clever schemes to make money off of money.

In addition to not being able to anticipate problems, laws have unintended consequences that are sometimes worse than the problems they were designed to correct. Look at the laws that led to the housing bubble. For a time, the government, through various policies but primarily through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, infused more money into the housing sector than the market would have on its own. By making loans easy and affordable for people who would have otherwise not been able to secure home loans the government encouraged a misallocation of resources that drove up home prices.

Making loans available to people who would not have qualified without government interference pumped more money into the housing market than the market demanded. This drove up demand, which in turn drove home prices beyond market levels. Housing prices fell because the market corrected itself. This correction is what we recognize as the bubble bursting. The bubble and the burst were unintended consequences of the government getting involved in the housing industry.

In the banking and finance industry the government also distorts risk assessment, thereby forcing a misallocation of resources. Keeping interest rates low discourages saving and encourages investing. Low interest rates make putting your money in the bank an unattractive option if you want a return on your investment. So if you want your money to make money, you put it in the stock market. The government is essentially affecting the supply and demand of money rather than letting the market set interest rates and therefore determine where capital flows. This forces money into circulation that would otherwise not be there.

The banking laws we have in place encourage risk taking in other ways as well. First, banks the size of JP Morgan Chase know they will get government bailouts when they bet wrong, which means they can take whatever chances they want, and there is no risk involved. Second, the FDIC insures traditional deposit accounts up to $250,000, which means that no matter what kind of investments a bank makes with your money, as long as your account is below the $250,000 threshold, no one loses. Banks can fail in any number of ways without anyone involved failing to make money. The unintended consequence of government interference is an increased willingness of banks and their investment arms to take greater risks, which become no risks at all.

Certainly FDIC insurance has many benefits, as did the Wall Street and automotive bailouts, but there are unintended consequences that may have counteracted the favorable effects, if not encouraged the sort of risky behavior that created the need for the laws in the first place. The only solution is for individuals to take responsibility for their own actions. In view of our attachment to laws, this is an unlikely solution, but it is the only one with any promise.

Laws allow us to relinquish personal responsibility. When we make a bad investment that we did not understand entirely, or get into too much credit card debt because we failed to control our spending habits, it is easier to blame the lack of sufficient laws than to blame ourselves. If we were not motivated to make money we would have no reason to enter the stock market or make risky investments. But if we are motivated to do these things, the least we can do is spend some time understanding what we are getting ourselves into. If we don't understand what others are doing with our money, or understand the risk involved, then we shouldn't get involved. And if we do get involved with something we don't understand, we have only ourselves to blame. Laws can't help this; only we can. More time and energy should be directed toward cultivating character than toward crafting laws.




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Outsourcing: The Inner View

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Many years ago a woman wrote a letter to Ann Landers, asking whether she should go back to school to get a college degree. She worried that it might be a waste of time so late in life, ending her letter with this: “If I go back to college, I’ll be 62 in four years.” I’ve never forgotten Ann’s cogent reply: “And how old will you be in four years if you don’t go back to college?”

We all have choices. We have no control over the amount of time we have in this life, but we do control what we will do during that time. Life is what we make of it. No matter how old we are.

This is the message of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where a dozen or so fellow travelers have stopped for a while to share their stories, and their lives, to varying degrees. It is a poignant and funny Canterbury tale, Indian style. The young innkeeper, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), serves as host and philosophical guide. Bubbly and bumbling, he is an optimistic and likeable fatalist. When the travelers express horror at his falling-down hotel, he tells them, “In India we have a saying: everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not the end!”

The best exotic hotel is exotic, but it certainly isn’t best. The phones don't work. The roof has holes. Some rooms don't have doors. The courtyard is cracked. But Sonny doesn't see it as it is; he sees his hotel as it can be. As it will be. Because if it isn't all right now, it just means it isn't the end yet.

The travelers have come to the Marigold Hotel for different reasons, most of them having to do with money.

Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) invested their retirement funds in their daughter’s startup company, and it didn’t start up. In their native England,they can’t afford more than a cramped bungalow for old folks, so they have come to the Marigold for cheap rent.

Recently widowed, Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has discovered that her husband mismanaged their money and left her deeply in debt. She embraces the Indian experience, blogging about it for readers back home and finding a job training telephone operators in an outsourced information company (yes, those infernal IT people you reach when your computer is on the fritz. But here they are earnest and likeable — as, I suppose, they really are).

The film gives us an unintentional inside look at socialized medicine, and what we see isn't pretty.

Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) has traded on her good looks all her life. Now those looks aren't so good any more, and she must face the possibility that she has had her final love affair. She is looking for love, but she is also looking for a lasting sugar daddy. She likes nice things.

Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is an old-school racist, and by that I mean she is confident and self-assured in her belief that everyone around her shares her bigotry, including the people whom she considers inferior. As the film opens she is on a stretcher in a hospital hallway, complaining that she wants a “proper English doctor,” not the black man who has just tried to touch her. Because we understand she is an unhappy product of her cultural upbringing, we cut her some slack and enjoy her crotchety rantings, knowing that she will have a change of heart before the film ends. (And if she doesn’t, it will only be because it isn’t the end yet!)

The film gives us an unintentional inside look at socialized medicine, and what we see isn't pretty: cots in the hallways because there aren't enough examining rooms, months-long waits for necessary surgeries because there aren’t enough surgeons. "Six months!" Muriel exclaims. "At my age I don't even buy green bananas!" (I know, it's an old joke — but it always reminds me of the dear friend who first said it to me — just weeks before he died, as it turned out.) When Muriel’s doctor tells her she can have the needed hip replacement surgery immediately in India, she goes there, then repairs to the Marigold Hotel to recuperate.

Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is the only character who has come to India for non-financial reasons. He is trying to find the love of his life, whom he met 40 years earlier while stationed in India, and from whom he was forced to part. He spends his days in the registry office, trying to track down the friend, and in the streets, playing cricket with young boys. Through him the characters learn the meaning of true love.

Despite the heat, the unfamiliar foods, the smells, and the “squalor,” as Jean describes it, India is still, in this film, a land of exotic wonder and happy faces. When asked what he likes about it, Graham responds, “The lights, the colors, the vibrancy. The way people see life as a privilege and not as a right.” Camels, elephants, and cows line the roads, along with rickety buses and colorful “tuk-tuks,” the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis. These folks have “come to a new and different world,” as Evelyn writes in her blog, with voice-over narration. “The challenge is to cope with it. And not just to cope, but to thrive.”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is filled with similar upbeat aphorisms and quotable quotes. “The person who risks nothing, does nothing. Has nothing,” Evelyn tells her readers.“The only real failure is the failure to try. And the measure of success is how well we cope.”

“Most things don’t work out as expected,” she concludes, “But what happens instead often turns out to be the good stuff.” With an outstanding cast of veteran actors portraying couples in various stages of love and marriage, an important message about taking charge of one’s choices, and a point of view that says old age doesn’t have to be outsourced (but it isn't so bad when it is), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is indeed the “good stuff.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," directed by John Madden. Participant Media/20th Century Fox, 2011, 124 minutes.



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The New Normal

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Science is the inspiration of those techno-libertarians who hold that evolutions in technology will ultimately lead to revolutions in political freedom. A commitment to the virtues of small business and entrepreneurs is a major inspiration for the ideals of free market capitalism. So it is easy to think that libertarians might feel that our values were being mocked by two primetime comedies, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls — the first of which is about scientists and the second about two poor girls who start a business. Yet these sitcoms are deeply touching, hilarious, and also well-intentioned shows — because the audience laughs with the characters, not at them.

The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007 and has now become ubiquitous, with reruns on TBS and new episodes on CBS, is the story of four scientists (two theoretical physicists, an astrophysicist, and an engineer) who work at Caltech. These four scientists are as close to the stereotypical nerd or geek as you can get. They constantly hang out at the local comic book store, play video games, enjoy Star Trek, can’t get girls to date them, and are beaten up by jocks. They constantly make reference to things that only scientists think about. One of them, for instance, dresses for Hallowe’en as the Doppler effect. The producers try to make the science on the show, of which there is a lot, completely accurate, and some episodes feature inside jokes that only scientists can understand.

The characters’ world is turned upside down when Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment down the hall. Penny is an attractive, normal, “popular” sort of girl, who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. Leonard (Johnny Galecki), the protagonist, instantly falls in love with her. Much of the comedy in the show’s early years focused on Leonard’s feelings for Penny, and the jokes frequently involved the science nerds being totally ignorant of what Penny takes for granted (e.g., the rules of football, the names of such popular bands as Radiohead), or Penny being ignorant of the world of science and geek culture (e.g., online role playing games, the Klingon language). Leonard eventually started dating Penny, and they had a cute, adorable romance for about one season. But their relationships was sundered by the scheming machinations of Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton (who plays an evil version of himself). Leonard and Penny just recently got back together, which makes the show more enjoyable.

The real comedic gold, however, comes from Leonard’s roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons, who won an Emmy for the role), a brilliant, supremely arrogant physicist with strong doses of OCD and Asperger’s syndrome. Sheldon constantly, and hilariously, insults everyone around him; at the same time everyone else perpetually makes fun of his arrogance and total disconnect from reality. In one episode Leonard calls Sheldon a sphincter, to which Sheldon replies, “The sphincter? A much maligned muscle; did you know there are over twenty different sphincters in the human body?”, and illustrates with an anatomical drawing from the internet.

The writing is usually clever. An instance: Sheldon and Penny are having a fight. Sheldon (threateningly): “You’re playing with forces beyond your ken.” Penny: “Yeah? Well your Ken can kiss my Barbie!” I said “usually.” In a few episodes each season the writing falls flat. This was especially noticeable during the episodes that immediately followed the end of Penny and Leonard’s dating.

But the show is always light-hearted, never serious. It was introduced with the tag line “smart is the new sexy,” yet it never says anything serious about science, or politics, or anything else. The extent of the show’s commentary on religion is Sheldon’s disdain for his Texan Christian mother’s creationism, and Sheldon’s lecturing Penny on the origins of Christmas as a pagan holiday. But the love-hate relationship between Penny, who represents the “normal” popular world, and Leonard, who represents the nerd-geek-science world, is central to the show. Their romance is premised on the idea that the normal, ignorant masses might eventually be able to appreciate the true value of science and technology. The conflict is not precisely between religion and science. It is about the conflict between pop culture and geek culture.

Business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class.

And, yes, true to its tag line, “The Big Bang Theory” makes it cool to be a geek; it turns smart into sexy. Science has not gotten PR this good since the genre of science fiction was first invented. The show goes a long way toward teaching the public about the details of the type of thinking behind science and what scientists do, so that people won’t just see the magical moving pictures on television and may instead actually get a taste of where the wires and circuit boards inside the TV come from. If Leonard can get Penny to date him, even for a while, then there is hope that all the nerds out there (and the scientific attitude they embody) can find acceptance in this world.

Two Broke Girlsstarted this season, so there is less of a body of work by which to judge it, but every episode I have seen has been hilarious. This show is designed as a microcosm of the Great Recession. Caroline (Beth Behrs), a wealthy heiress and Wharton Business School graduate, is thrust into poverty when her father loses their fortune and goes to jail for running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Caroline is hopelessly naïve about how to cope with low-income life. All she has left is her pet horse. Somehow a Wharton degree does not help her to get a white-collar job. She is taken in by Max (Kat Dennings), a young, snarky, sassy, wisecracking waitress who lives in Brooklyn. Caroline becomes Max’s roommate and gets a job as a waitress at the Brooklyn diner where Max works.

Poverty is the constant undercurrent in the show, which lists an update on the amount of money in the two girls’ bank account at the conclusion of each show (it fluctuates between $200 and $800). But the episodes help the audience, nervous about its own finances, laugh at life and not get beaten down by financial worries. After all, Max and Caroline always find a way to survive. The show is remarkably raunchy (one episode had a running joke about the diner’s horny, seedy chef asking the girls’ Polish friend [Jennifer Coolidge], who runs a cleaning business, to “come to my apartment to clean,” and her replying, “You cannot make me come, I will not come”). Max always has a wise-crack or an insult to shoot at someone. Both actresses are superb in their roles.

What do two broke girls do to cope with the Great Recession? One thing they don’t do is wait around for the welfare state to pay their bills. They start a small business instead. Max bakes cupcakes; Caroline sets up a cupcake business and promotes the sale of cupcakes. Much of the plot involves the girls’ desperate schemes to raise money to fund their cupcake website or find new places to sell their cupcakes. It is just good old-fashioned American effort — people trying to rise from poverty by being productive and selling a product to people who want it.

Unfortunately for the audience’s economic education, nowhere to be seen are New York City health inspectors grading their kitchen, or the IRS auditing their financial records, or any of the goon squad of federal, state, and city bureaucrats who in real life would try to regulate and tax the life out of their startup. The show is not political at all; aside from the implicit feminism of two single girls being very assertive and self-sufficient, it has no explicit message. But the simple yet touching portrayal of two tough, smart-alecky girls, who constantly poke fun at the people around them and use their sense of humor as a way to cope with the sorrows of economic disaster, is an inspiration that everyone stricken by the Great Recession can learn from.

A lot of people are talking about “the new normal” in connection with the Great Recession. But what do The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls say about American mainstream culture? These shows are on CBS, which touts itself as “America’s most-watched network,” not a niche market like Fox Business Network. Both shows have consistently received high ratings (although Two Broke Girls had some unfavorable reviews). A show about nerds coping with the world of pop culture has become a symbol of the world of pop culture assimilating nerd culture. From World of Warcraft to urban fantasy novels such as Harry Potter and Twilight, to the popularization of social media on electronic devices, to the omnipresence of the internet, the technology-obsessed geek world of the techno-libertarian has become, well, how shall I say it . . . normal. And a realization that poverty is the new normal, but it is necessary to take a can-do attitude to rise out of it — that is also catching on.

The libertarian angle is clear: business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class. Inspired by these two shows, I dare to speculate that if technology continues to evolve and shape the world in which we live, and if prolonged financial desperation forces America to wake up to economic reality and embrace free market principles as the path to recovery, then maybe a few decades from now libertarianism will also be . . . dare I say it? the new normal.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Big Bang Theory," CBS, Thursday, 8:00pm; and "Two Broke Girls," CBS, Monday, 8:30pm.



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Social Insecurity

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I feel remiss in not reporting lately on the most recent news concerning the crown jewel of the progressive liberal welfare state: Social Security. It is the ur-program from which all the other major programs (such as Medicare) were spawned. Over the years, I have periodically reported on its looming fiscal crisis, but I haven’t said much during the past year.

So it’s time to check up on the program that has elected so many generations of Democratic politicians. Surprise, surprise — it is accelerating downwards!

Start with that cesspool of fraud, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). A report in the estimable Investor’s Business Daily informs us that Obama has set another new record. Not only is he the Debt President (having added more to the federal deficit in his short time in office than any other chief executive — nearly $5 trillion, more than the big-spending Bush spent in 8 years), the Food Stamp President (having added to the rolls of food stamp recipients more than twice the number of new recipients per year — over 4 million — than even the prior record-setter, Bush, who added 1.84 million yearly), and the Emigration President (having presided over a political economy in which a record number of Americans renounce their citizenship — nearly 1,800 last year, compared to about 200 in 2008). In addition to those titles, Obama is now the Disability President.

Yes, a record number of people have gone on SSDI during Obama’s benighted reign — a whopping 5.4 million. And the number is growing at a rapid clip: from January of this year through last month, an astonishing 540,000 more have been granted disability, and more than 750,000 have applied. Of the total (10.8 million) now on SSDI, half joined under Obama. America’s seemingly endless high unemployment is clearly taking its toll. Doubtless this will hasten the projected day of SSDI’s insolvency, scheduled already for 2018.

Turning to the Social Security retirement program (i.e., the main one), the news is grim again. As recently as 2007, the Social Security program ran a surplus of $186 billion. This dropped to a mere $3 billion the next year, and became a $49 billion deficit in 2009, in the depths of the recession. However, last year — a “recovery” year — Social Security ran a deficit of $45 billion. The program’s trustees now forecast a deficit of about $66 billion on average for the next six years. After that, the trustees project triple-digit billions in deficits. In 20 years — three years earlier than projected last year, the so-called trust fund (a bogus pile of IOUs from the federal government to itself) will be gone, at which point benefits will have to drop by 25%.

Strange to say, the Obama administration is far more concerned about whether Romney engaged in a mean prank half a century ago than about Social Security’s lack of solvency. Obama’s economic record is so wretched that one can see why he refuses to discuss the entitlement crisis. But why do the mainstream media refuse even to mention the government’s own report? Surely this report should be of immediate and vital concern to all the public. . . Oh, yeah — I forgot. The mainstream media, formerly noted for “investigative journalism,” has become the Amen corner of the Church of Obama.




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Ron Paul and the Future

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Four years ago, when Rep. Ron Paul suspended his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, he would not endorse the party’s nominee, was not invited to the party’s convention, and held a counter-convention of his own. By all appearances, he’s not going to do that this year.

At Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo urged Paul to run as an independent, “because a third party candidacy will leave a legacy, a lasting monument to your campaign and the movement it created.” I can’t see a lasting monument in it, or the sense. I note that Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

In 2008, I wrote in Liberty that Paul ought to endorse the party’s nominee, John McCain. Paul wouldn’t have to campaign for McCain, I said, and he could remind people how he was different from McCain, but to preserve his influence in the party he’d have to endorse McCain as preferable to Obama. Well, he didn’t. Paul endorsed Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, a pastor and radio talk show host whom few Americans had heard of, and who received 0.15% of the general election vote.

Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

This year Paul turns 77. He is not running to keep his seat in Congress. His career as an elected politician is at an end. But since January 2011 he has had a son, Rand Paul, in the Senate. There is talk of the junior senator from Kentucky being Romney’s vice-presidential choice and more talk of him running for president in four years, or eight. Either way, for Ron Paul, having a 49-year-old son in the Senate changes the calculus about party loyalty and his movement.

Again, I say: endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s. It means there is a Republican label on you and your supporters. And that is important, especially regarding them.

Is an endorsement a betrayal?

What was the point of the Paul campaign? To put Ron Paul in the White House? That was never possible. In public, Paul had to pretend that it was, because those are the American rules, and his supporters have been pretending it even harder. But it was a fairy tale. Ron Paul’s purpose has been to advance the cause of liberty, sound money, and a non-imperial foreign policy. He could do this even if he fought and lost, depending on how he did it. He was introducing new ideas (or old ones) into political discourse, creating a new faction that aimed to redirect the mainstream of one of the two great national parties.

That is not a defeatist notion. It may be a task with a lasting monument, though it is too early to say.

A political leader changes the thought of a party by persuading people to embrace new ideas. To do that, he needs the media’s attention, and in politics, equal attention is not given an outsider. It has to be earned by such things as polls, the size and behavior of crowds, money raised and, ultimately, by electoral results.

Endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s.

Paul achieved none of these things in 1988 as the nominee of the Libertarian Party. He was nobody, and he went home with 0.47% of the vote. But in 2008, in the Republican Party’s primary campaigns, he did unexpectedly well, measured by straw polls, crowd behavior, and campaign donations. Unfortunately, the media pegged his support as narrow-but-deep (they were right) and mostly ignored him. He took 5.56% of the Republican vote — one vote in 20.

This year they still slighted him, though less than before. And he received 10.86% — one vote in almost nine. His support was still narrow-but-deep, but wider in almost every state. He was not the top votegetter in any of them, but he came close in Maine and garnered more than 20% of Republican support in six caucus states: Maine, 36%, North Dakota, 28%, Minnesota, 27%, Washington, 25%, Alaska, 24%, and Iowa, 21% — and in three primary states: Vermont, 25%, Rhode Island, 24% and New Hampshire, 23% (not counting Virginia, 40%, where his only opponent was Romney).

Paul’s support is not typical for Republican politicians. He is from south Texas, but seems to do best in states on the Canadian border. Most of his best states are Democrat “blue” rather than Republican “red.” He was the oldest candidate in the race, but exit polls showed in state after state that he had the youngest supporters. In New Hampshire, a Fox News exit poll showed Paul winning 46% of Republican voters 18 to 29 years of age.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top. Some believe that Ron Paul is the only man who can save America, and that anyone who opposes him is evil. They don’t see themselves as joining a party; they aim to take it over. In the unfamiliar turf of parliamentary procedure, they are quick to cry foul and sometimes are right. At the moment, their strategy in the caucus states is to outstay the Romney supporters and snatch the national delegates away from them.

And that makes for nastiness.

This is from a Politico story by James Hohmann, May 14:

Those close to [Ron Paul] say he’s become worried about a series of chaotic state GOP conventions in recent weeks that threaten to undermine the long-term viability of the movement he’s spent decades building. In the past few days alone, several incidents cast the campaign in an unfavorable light: Mitt Romney’s son Josh was booed off the stage by Paul backers in Arizona on Saturday, and Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Mary Fallin received similarly rude treatment in Oklahoma.

Booing is the public stuff. I know a political operative who crossed the Paul forces and received death threats — so many, he said, that he turned off his phone for two weeks.

Enthusiasm can become something else. (For more examples, google “Ron Paul supporters are”.)

Given the strength — and sometimes the immaturity — of his supporters, what is Paul to do? Endorse Romney or not, he will soon be a non-candidate and a non-congressman.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top.

What then? One poll asked Paul supporters whom they would vote for in November. The answer: Obama, 35%; Romney, 31%; Gary Johnson, 16%. The Paul movement splinters.

How they vote in November might change if Paul made an endorsement; and anyway, how they think is the more important thing in the long run. If a large number of the young ones went into one political party and stayed there, they might change that party — and that could be the lasting monument.

All this is something for Ron Paul to think about as he ponders whether to endorse, what to do with his 100-plus delegates, and what to say if the party gives him a chance to address the national convention.




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Model Citizen

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Bernie Tiede was a model citizen in the small city of Carthage, “behind the Pine Curtain” in eastern Texas, as one resident calls it. As an assistant funeral director, Bernie took gentle care of the deceased. As a member of a local Protestant congregation, he taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, and made people weep with his lovely tenor solos. As an amateur thespian, he directed local musical revivals. As a trusted friend, he escorted a recently widowed curmudgeonly dowager to concerts, dinners, and even trips abroad. He was generous and kind. Everyone loved Bernie. Even after he killed the curmudgeonly dowager. By accident. Oops.

Bernie is a dark, deadpan comedy in the style of the Eugene Levy-Christopher Guest mockumentaries. But this is no mockumentary; the people being interviewed for this film are real citizens of Carthage, Texas, all dolled up for their close-ups and spouting colloquialisms you couldn’t get away with as a scriptwriter. “She had her nose up so high in the air, she would have drowned in a rain storm,” one snippety resident says about Marjorie Nugent, the deceased dowager. Another gives a detailed explanation of the five sections of Texas, ending with “I sort of skipped over the panhandle — but everyone does.” “The Gossips” (as director Richard Linklater affectionately calls them in interviews) do their best to support their friend Bernie and explain his motives. No one could ask for a better jury of his peers.

Linklater has carefully crafted a combination documentary and fictional bio-flick about this famous (at least behind the Pine Curtain) case. He interviewed dozens of people who knew Bernie Tiede, and then used their stories to write a script about it. Jack Black is perfect as Bernie, inhabiting the role with a distinct waddle, a beneficent smile, and a sincerity that invites endearment. You just want to reach out and hug him, or be hugged by him. Early in the film we join Bernie in his car as he drives through the town, singing a country hymn about his walk with Jesus. That long cut, interspersed with occasional interviews, tells us everything we need to know about his personality.

Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is the kind of nasty, critical, overbearing old woman whom everyone wants to avoid. Her own grandchildren haven’t seen her in four years, and for good reason. At first she is charmed by Bernie’s attention and becomes charming as a result, but eventually she reverts to type, assailing Bernie, too, with her browbeating and criticism. MacLaine is wonderful in this role, tapping into her ingénue days to charm Bernie and then digging deep into her nastiness. But she never revels in the role or tries to steal a scene — she is convincingly Marjorie throughout. Wisely, MacLaine has resisted the Hollywood collagen-botox mania, so she can still move her face. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but she doesn’t need it. Her body language and facial expressions tell us what Marjorie is thinking and feeling without words.

Bernie is one of those unexpected little gems that surprise and delight us in every scene, despite its macabre subject matter. It asks us to sympathize with someone who should be utterly unsympathetic — and we do. Linklater’s melding of actors and townspeople is brilliant — actors could never have convinced audiences to empathize with Bernie, but these real residents who know and love him do. Moreover, the actors seem to have taken their cues from the interviews, matching their cadences and movements to the local residents. The result is a seamless blending of fact and fiction. Matthew McConnaughey is particularly good as Danny Buck, the preening peacock of a prosecutor. The film is a delightful piece of work, with a delightful protagonist. Too bad about Marjorie. Oops.

The film also inadvertently highlights a growing problem with the criminal justice system: the tendency for prosecutors to overcharge, with the hope of forcing a plea bargain. Let’s suppose a young man gets into a fight, and someone ends up dead. The fight may have been premeditated, but the killing was not. The prosecutor charges him with first degree murder and scares the bejeezus out of him with the maximum sentence of 25 to life. A plea bargain to manslaughter would get him a sentence of 8–10 years. Frightened about the potential risk of a jury trial, he takes the deal.

But what if he isn’t guilty at all? What if he has been wrongly accused? He already doesn’t trust the system; after all, they got the wrong man, and he knows it. Nevertheless, facing a potential sentence of 25 to life, and knowing that juries are wont to convict poor kids like him who have been assigned an overworked public defender, he might be convinced to plead out. If he does go to trial, he’s facing the higher charge of first degree, even though the prosecutor knows it should be manslaughter or, at most, second degree murder.

Any film that causes us to take a closer look at the criminal justice system is a good film in my book. And Bernie is a very good film. Don’t miss it!


Editor's Note: Review of "Bernie," directed by Richard Linklater. Millennium Entertainment (2011), 104 minutes.



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Green Grief

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Periodically I like to review the news from the gay world of Gaia worship — that is, to pass along the latest stories on all matters green. And there is a lot to report.

Start with some interesting news from the animal kingdom. Despite sad sagas of emperor penguins disappearing as Antarctica allegedly melts (allegedly because of our greedy species’ greenhouse gas emissions), a recent story reports that more studies — ones that use satellite imagery to count the nattily attired birds — reveal that the penguins are doing just fine. By former estimates, there are about 270,000 to 350,000 of the waddling beasts. Now it appears that in reality, there are 595,000 of them! The aerial survey discovered a whole flock of new colonies. If the ice is melting, it doesn’t seem to be harming these birds.

Moving quickly to the other pole of the Earth: polar bears are also in great demographic shape. The bears have been centerpieces in some of the most lurid global warming tales: remember the infamous shot of a miserable looking polar bear clinging to a tiny ice floe. Because of such tales, the US put polar bears on the endangered species list. This, in spite of the fact that the beasts are far from cuddly — they are one of the few predators with a taste for human flesh, especially the human liver (with or without Fava beans).

But another recent story reports that in the crucial Nunavut region of Canada, the polar bear population — which in 2004 had been estimated at around 935 (22% lower than estimates made 20 years earlier), and was projected to fall even further, to 610 animals by 2011 — has now been more accurately counted. The Canadian government did aerial surveys and found 1,013 cute but vicious carnivores in that region alone. The population, far from dwindling, seems to be thriving, despite global warming and illegal hunting. (polar bear pelts fetch up to $15,000 in Russia and China, and about 450 bears are illegally killed each year). Despite the heat and the hunters, the polar bear population now appears to have reached the highest peak ever recorded — something like 25,000 across the Canadian Arctic.

Reports such as these are continually coming in. They may be the reason that no less a green guru than scientist James Lovelock, the fellow who came up with the whole “Gaia Concept,” now admits that his earlier warnings about a rapidly heating, life-killing earth were alarmist.

Turning now to green energy, here too a slew of politically incorrect reports continues to gut the Great Green Narrative. Start with the fascinating news that a recent survey of hybrid car owners (conducted by R.L. Polk and associates) indicates that hybrid owners of any model are unlikely to buy another hybrid — either the same model or any other. These are not good tidings for the future growth of the hybrid car market, as it shows that actual experience with the product tends to make consumers dislike it. Hardly a good omen.

Despite the heat and the hunters, the polar bear population now appears to have reached the highest peak ever recorded.

The Polk data show that only 35% of hybrid owners of any brand bought another hybrid of any sort. At the high end was the Prius, but only 41% of Prius owners bought another hybrid (again, of any sort). At the other end of the scale is the Honda hybrid: only a pathetic 20% of Honda owners went on to buy another hybrid of any sort. And the aggregate numbers bear this poll out. At their peak in 2008 (when domestic gas prices hit their highest level ever), hybrid sales were only a miserable 2.9% of the American car market. Last year they dropped to 2.4%.

The problem is several-fold. First, regular internal combustion engines keep getting better and better gas mileage. The 2013 Nissan Altima is rated at 38 mpg, and the Ford Fusion is rated at 37 mpg — both quite close to what hybrids deliver. Second, hybrids are more expensive than similar internal combustion engine models. Indeed, it can take seven to ten years of ownership merely to recover the extra cost, and many Americans like to change cars more often than that.

And, by the bye, hybrids actually seem to get lower gas mileage than the EPA estimates. A recent piece reports that the EPA overestimated hybrid gas efficiency by 20% before 2008 and is still overestimating it now. This report also notes that as much as 40% of any real gas savings by hybrids is nullified by the extra driving done by the owners. The report reminds us that hybrids have batteries with lots of acid, lead, and other toxic crap, all of which requires enormous amounts of energy to mine and manufacture, and which subsequently fouls the environment when the batteries wear out and must be disposed of.

Finally — and this the article doesn’t note — most Americans view hybrids as cramped, clunky, slow, and butt-ugly.

Checking now on green power, we discover the great news that First Solar, maker of solar equipment, is cutting a third of its work force — over 2,000 jobs — closing a factory in Germany, halting another in Vietnam, and postponing the opening of yet another in Arizona. The company has lost 83% of its market capitalization over the past year, while losing nearly $40 million in the same period. The problem in this case is simple and clear. It is cheaper for power companies to buy solar panels from China. More importantly, countries around the world are cutting subsidies for solar power — and without government aid, solar is generally uncompetitive.

We confiscate money from taxpayers to build inefficient, wasteful plants that kill tortoises and birds — and we do it all in the name of ecology!

Grimly ironic is the report that BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar power project, located in the Mojave Desert, is killing desert tortoises — an endangered species! The Ivanpah project is huge: it will use 3,500 acres of public land — six square miles! — and cost $2 billion to produce only 400 megawatts of electricity at max (i.e., when the sun is shining overhead and no clouds are present). BrightSource says it has paid $56 million to help protect the environment, but tortoises are still dying. They die because even after BrightSource moved them out of the way of the construction, they still got crushed under truck tires or became vulnerable to predators. One research ecologist — Jeff Lovich, who has studied the impact of “renewable” energy projects on desert tortoises — notes, “What I determined is science is playing catch-up to energy concerns. . . . This is all a grand experiment and we need more research — both on the short-term effects and the long-term effects that projects like these are going to have on the wildlife and the ecosystem.” But he concludes ruefully, “For the desert tortoise, it really is death by a thousand cuts.”

So, surprise, solar power farms destroy flora and fauna. No surprise here, really — remember, wind farms also destroy massive amounts of wildlife — specifically, birds. American wind farms shred about 400,000 birds a year. The problem again is physics. Solar and wind power are just power derived directly or indirectly from the sun, and they collect only feeble amounts of solar radiation. Thus either form of energy requires a huge footprint — you need many acres of solar collectors or wind turbines to get appreciable amounts of power, compared to a small nuclear or fossil fuel powered plant. And bigness is bad for small animals.

About wind power there is a spate of bad news. Start with the report out of Nevada on the results of one of the state’s programs to get people to install wind turbines (especially outside of cities). The report points out that one of these programs, started five years ago, is already proving a costly, miserable failure.

Specifically, Rich Hamilton of the Clean Energy Center testified to the state Public Utilities Commission about the program’s problems. For one thing, the PUC gives rebates to customers who put up turbines, whether or not they actually generate appreciable energy. Under the 2007 law, the state has paid $46 million for 150 wind turbines. But in Reno, for example, the $416,000 it spent on wind turbines resulted in its receiving $150,000 in rebates but a laughable $2,800 savings in electricity costs. The bureaucrat who runs Reno’s renewable energy program, one Jason Geddes, had an amazing suggestion: accurately research wind patterns before building turbines. Obviously, this hasn't been done up till now.

The breathtaking brilliance of all this! We confiscate money from taxpayers to build inefficient, wasteful plants that kill tortoises and birds — and we do it all in the name of ecology!

Then there is the hilarious news that wind power may be harming the environment in a hitherto unsuspected way. We’ve known all along that wind turbines massacre birds. But it turns out that wind power actually increases ground temperature around the turbines. This is the result of a study published by Liming Zhou in the journal Nature Climate Change. Apparently the turbine blades pull down warmer air, displacing the cooler air on the ground.

The reason this is bad news is that heat can hurt crops and cattle, or the native ecosystem. This is especially troublesome for Texas (where the study was done), because it is already suffering from a drought and uses night irrigation, which may be affected by the action of the turbines.

Add to all that the Reuters report about Obama’s green energy jobs program. Despite his promise that his green energy push would create “millions” of jobs, it has been a costly failure. Since 2009, for example, during a period when the oil and gas industry created 75,000 high-paying blue-collar jobs — even in the face of a regulatory blitzkrieg by the Obama administration — the wind industry lost 10,000 jobs. Obama's $500 million green energy “job training” program was guaranteed to produce 80,000 jobs by 2013. So far, it has trained a miserable 20,000, to what lame standards we can only guess. Even the administration’s own Labor Department’s inspector general recommended last year that the department should end the boondoggle and give the unspent money back to the treasury.

The report gives figures that show a paradigm deflating. In 2008, Obama boastfully promised that if the taxpayers spent $150 billion on green energy, it would create five million jobs. A year later, VP Biden more modestly promised that the $90 billion in tax dollars then put aside for green energy jobs would buy 722,000 of them. A year after that (November 2010), the administration could show only 225,000 jobs created, and even that estimate appears to have been overly optimistic.

The green statist worldview faces a huge and swelling number of anomalies. That wouldn’t normally be so bad — every worldview faces some anomalies, after all. But the enviro worldview is the one being shoved down our throats. That is, it is the one that is being used by the state and federal governments to limit our liberties and prosperity, and to do so in a massive way.




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Not-So-Secret Service

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Elizabeth Warren and the Poison of Identity Politics

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Seven months ago, I considered Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren from a libertarian perspective. The establishment media darling and Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts didn’t offer much to like.

Since then, she’s become considerably more entertaining. And thought-provoking, though not in a way she would have intended.

During the past few weeks, Warren has been caught in a moronic controversy that has put her campaign on the defensive, led supporters to question her political savvy, and — perhaps most damaging — confirmed the impression that she’s a charlatan. The gist of it: for about 15 years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Warren listed herself in various academic professional directories as a member of a racial minority. Specifically, an American Indian.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Reporters from the Boston Herald asked Warren about her claims of minority status: why she’d made them, then stopped making them, and whether she’d “played the race card” when applying for teaching positions at posh law schools such as Penn and Harvard.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Then, faced with hard evidence from several directories (including the Association of American Law Schools’ annual directory of minority law teachers), she “clarified” her answer. What she’d meant to say was that she’d never made the claims while applying for teaching jobs.

But there were more rakes in the yard . . . and Warren promptly stepped on them. When reporters asked her to explain in detail her claim of Native American ancestry, she babbled:

My Aunt Bee . . . remarked that he — that her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do! Because that’s how she saw it. And she said, “And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.” She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. . . . I was listed [in the minority directories] because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up. And it turned out that’s — there really wasn’t any of that.

Note the passive voice of “I was listed.” By all accounts, she did the listing. Her nervous rhetoric betrayed her effort to shirk responsibility for the mendacious act of including herself among minority professors. And some pundits focused on the lazy, verging on racist, generalizations behind the dizzy professor’s words: “high cheekbones” are something “all of the Indians” have.

Not exactly Prof. Kingsfield.

Warren’s campaign rushed into damage control mode. Smoother spokespeople explained that, on a marriage license application in 1894, Warren’s great-uncle claimed that his grandmother — a woman named Neoma O.C. Sarah Smith — had been a Cherokee. The campaign then produced a Utah-based genealogist who confirmed that Neoma, Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother, was at least half Cherokee. (According to some, the initials “O.C.” meant native Cherokee; according to others, contemporary documents described Neoma as “white” which, by the practice of the time, could mean she was half Indian.)

If Neoma was a full-blooded Cherokee, Warren is 1/32; if she was half Cherokee, the professor is 1/64. A thin reed, but the campaign was determined to hang Warren’s robes on it. Staffers pointed out that Bill John Baker, the current chief of the Cherokee nation, has a similarly slight blood connection to the tribe.

Really, this is madness.

When I was in college, we read Mark Twain’s satiric short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, which rightly ridicules racial distinctions based on 1/8, 1/32, or 1/64 ancestry. The story is often dismissed as an angry product of Twain’s bitter late period — and it is angry. But it’s also a strong perspective on the games that identity-politics practitioners such as Warren play. And have been playing for more than 100 years.

Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma.

Warren’s handlers can spin the story — but the damage is done. On the Internet, ever merciless, the dismissive nicknames have started: Pinocchio-hontas, Fauxcahontas, Sacajawhiner. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson: in some cases, the substance of a charge isn’t important; the response — however skillful — is damaging in itself.

(Actually, what LBJ said was: “I don’t care if the story [that his opponent had sex with farm animals] is true. I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.”)

A few days after Warren’s campaign came up with the marriage license application, the story took an ironic turn. While Neoma’s provenance remains murky, her husband — a man named Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokees died on that “Trail of Tears.” So, even if she’s part Indian, Warren is also descended from an oppressor in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history.

Here we reach the logical end of racial identity politics — a muddle of conflicting conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory government documents. Statist bureaucrats love categorizing people; but their categories are usually false, so they don’t hold up over time.

And a mediocrity like Elizabeth Warren ends up being vilified by partisans both Left and Right.

The Boston Herald’s populist grievance merchant Howie Carr put Warren’s miscues in the disgruntled right-wing frame:

The problem the elites have understanding the power of this story is simple. They’ve never been passed over for a job they were qualified for because of some allegedly disadvantaged person who wasn’t. . . . [T]he upper classes have no comprehension of the “rottenness” of this system. . . . [S]omeone in the Harvard counseling office might sadly inform a young Trustafarian that he might have a problem getting into the law school. But then Someone who knows Someone picks up the phone and young Throckmorton suddenly bumps a kid from Quincy with higher LSATs . . .

In this worldview, Warren’s shenanigans cost a “real” disadvantaged minority person a slot teaching at a first-rate law school. But the problem with right-leaning populism is that it embraces rentseeking. It settles for asking that the corruption be administered equitably.

Carr comes close to the truth when he tells the story of the smart kid from working-class Quincy — but falls just short of real insight. He gives in to emotional paranoia about the corrupt phone call. The best solution isn’t to “fix” the crooked preference system; it’s to eliminate rentseeking entirely because it always leads to corruption. The kid from Quincy doesn’t need a redistribution system that spreads spoils equitably; he just wants to be evaluated objectively.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

On the Left, partisans voice contempt for “box-checking” by free riders like Warren. Last summer, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud. The resolution noted that “fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants.”

In a recent editorial, The Daily News of Newburyport wrote:

It seems clear that Warren’s “box-checking” on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefited by citing Warren as a minority faculty member at a time its diversity practices were under fire.

Warren’s claim that she checked the box claiming Native American heritage in her application for inclusion in the Association of American Law Schools desk book so that she could meet people with similar backgrounds is laughable.

This touches on a critical point: identity politics corrupts institutions as well as people. In 1996, when Harvard Law School was criticized by campus groups for a lack of racial diversity among its faculty, officials touted Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots. According to a Harvard Crimson story at that time:

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [spokesman Michael] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

These days, Harvard’s press office says that the university doesn’t make official pronouncements about employees’ ethnic or racial backgrounds. Which seems a bit . . . carefully . . . timed.

Of course, the whole story beggars belief. Warren skeptics are even showing up on Daily Kos, the left-wing political opinion web site that practically launched the professor’s political aspirations. Its Native American columnist Meteor Blades recently wrote:

What’s unclear is whether Warren checked the “Native American” box solely out of pride or because it might perhaps give her a one- or two-percent edge over some other job candidate without that heritage. She says she didn’t. . . . What Warren also didn’t do was step up in 1996 when it became clear that Harvard, under pressure from students and others about the lack of diversity on its law faculty, was touting her Native heritage. . . . What Harvard did was despicable. What Warren didn’t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

If she’s lost Daily Kos, Warren is in deep trouble.

Others on the Left are distancing themselves from Warren, frustrated that she was supposed to be a winner and now may not be. In the online magazine Salon, Edward Mason noted:

The story about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage refuses to die. . . . Some Democrats, haunted by the infamous meltdown of Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago, are wondering if it’s déjà vu all over again. “The people in Washington are saying, ‘The people in Massachusetts are a bunch of fuck-ups who couldn’t run a race for dog catcher,’” said one veteran Massachusetts Democratic insider.

But, to me, the most relevant material came in the reader comments that followed Mason’s cautious story. One commenter earnestly tried to make sense of the hullabaloo:

At no time on any census was OC Sarah Smith, nor any of her off-spring listed as anything other than White. . . . As a contrast, my Great Great Grandmother was listed on the Census and Marriage Certificate as White Indian (Cherokee) but even my relative may not have been full blooded. There is no actual evidence, other than family lore, that Sarah Smith was Cherokee, and zero chance she was full blooded Cherokee. At best, and there’s no evidence to support this, Warren could be 1/64 Cherokee.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

Identity politics is a poison that sickens people, intellectually and spiritually. It abandons them in a madness of paranoia, pettiness, and profanity. Ambitious statists like Elizabeth Warren believe that they can manage the poison more effectively than the little people whose support they assume they have. But they’re lying — to themselves first and to the little people eventually. And inevitably.

rsquo;t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.




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Closing Time

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The chaos in the chair’s election set off a night full of wrangling among LP power factions, with all sides attempting to broker deals that would maximize their own influence on the party’s next two years. Such a deal would save face for both sides, though also make for a potentially fraught leadership structure — though it’s an open question whether it would be more fraught than usual.

The morning dawned on a ballroom full of confused and regret-filled, yet strangely energized libertarians, who made their voices heard even before the chair’s vote was taken back up by refusing to seat a handful of new delegates who had presumably been brought aboard to shift the one-vote race. In the meantime, the Missouri LP took a more direct route, cutting loose the five of its delegates who had voted for Mark Rutherford instead of None of the Above (NOTA) on Saturday.

With Mark Hinkle recusing himself for the chair’s race, Bill Redpath had taken up the (still metaphorical) gavel throughout the previous day’s shenanigans; he started from his ruling of the previous day that the third round of voting would be between Rutherford and NOTA, just like the second ballot which Rutherford won, but failed to gain a majority. A challenge to that ruling, requiring a two-thirds vote from the floor, failed; however, a motion to open up the floor to new nominations succeeded. Because Hinkle had already been eliminated, he was ineligible for renomination, and thus retook the podium from a visibly relieved Redpath.

Reopening the floor had much the same effect as a NOTA win, except Rutherford still remained eligible for votes; likely this was the only compromise that could have forestalled full parliamentary breakdown. Among the new candidates mooted were Wes Wagner, the firebrand at the center of the ugly Oregon LP struggle (and hence much of the rest of this fooferaw); Redpath (again); Geoff Neale (also again); and Ernest Hancock, who wasn’t even there or paid up on his dues. Also nominated, but declining: Jim Lark, who many had viewed as a more-than-acceptable compromise candidate, endorsed Redpath in much the same spirit; Lee Wrights, who endorsed Neale while actively campaigning for vice chair; and Chuck Moulton, who endorsed no one. (Also, a motion came from the floor to overturn the first round of voting and put Hinkle, but he stayed well out of that potential parliamentary nightmare, ruling it out of order.)

Many delegates were scrambling to fill out their ballots and also check out of their rooms by the 11am deadline — like most other things in Vegas, late checkouts are available, but they’re going to cost you.

What the nominating speeches lacked in length — a limit of three minutes for each candidate — they made up for in fireworks. After Wagner used his few minutes to excoriate the party leadership and call for a clean sweep, Redpath tried to cool things down and take up the “compromise” mantle, appealing to his past experience in the role. Neale was having none of it: he used his time to “come clean” about his resignation as treasurer years ago, breaking the silence he had held since that time (in public, anyway) about how a previous LP chair — Bill Redpath, coincidentally enough — asked him to sign off on an unbalanced budget that effectively hid $500,000 in resources. With people still reeling from this, someone stepped up to speak for Hancock; probably would’ve been dynamite if he’d been there to deliver it, but it fizzled in his absence.

The first round of voting was especially frantic, with many delegates scrambling to fill out their ballots and also check out of their rooms by the 11am deadline — like most other things in Vegas, late checkouts are available, but they’re going to cost you. When all the delegations reported, the frontrunners were obvious: Rutherford with 153, Neale 149, Redpath 128. Wagner was low man with 9, while Hancock took 21, not quite enough to get him to the 5% safety line.

With time limits increasingly pressing upon the assembly, a motion was made (by Nick Sarwark, appropriately enough) to combine the successive officer elections into a single ballot, and then handle all at-large positions plus the Judicial Committee on a second ballot. From this point on, imagine everything running in fast forward. Put on the Benny Hill chase music if it helps.

The second round tallies were Neale 167, Rutherford 155, and Redpath eliminated with 119. While delegates were casting their ballots for a fifth round of chair voting, the floor was also opened to nominations for vice chair, secretary, and treasurer. With so much going on, delegates could almost — almost! — be excused for duplicating nominations. In the end, these were the names put forward:

Vice chair: Lee Wrights (who some speculated had been shooting for this all along), George Phillies, and Bill Redpath. Also nominated: Mark Rutherford, who declined to endorse Redpath; and Mark Hinkle, who considered it from the podium with a mighty “Ummm . . .” before declining.

Treasurer: Joe Buchman, Aaron Starr (open boos from some delegates), Tim Hagan, and George Phillies (declined).

Secretary: Ruth Bennett, Alicia Mattson (the incumbent, at the moment very busy working spreadsheet magic — even if at one point the sample VP ballot included Captain Caveman and Grape Ape), and Jeff Weston.

A further motion from the floor limited each candidate to two minutes for their nominating speeches; Bill Redpath was compelled to use his to respond to Neale’s accusations, noting that the amount in question was actually $250,000, and that the budget he asked treasurer Neale to sign off on was, in fact, balanced. Given the charges, the rebuttal was probably necessary, but it added to the unseemliness of the whole procedure. Or, if you’re a press vulture like me, it made the possibility of a Neale/Redpath LP executive pairing irresistibly juicy.

While all this was carrying on, the fifth round voting came in with Neale at 212, Rutherford at 205, and NOTA — previously hanging around 12 — resurgent with 29. As neither human candidate pulled a majority, the low man Rutherford was eliminated and Neale was left to defeat NOTA in a sixth and, gods willing, final ballot. At this point it was decided the chair vote would be combined with that for the other officers, and that during balloting nominations and speeches would proceed for LNC at-large positions.

The easiest course of action was to line them all up and move them through as if they were all speed dating the LP.

Here we entered full three-ring mode, with a show that would put Circus Circus to shame. (Although, really, anyone involved with Circus Circus in any capacity likely has more than enough shame to bear already.) Nominations flooded in. Presidential candidate Gary Johnson entered the fray to endorse both Bill Redpath and, to much wider consternation, Wayne Allen Root; Lee Wrights waded in to speak for Robert Murphy; Wes Wagner was nominated from some corner, and at least a dozen others were entered into the rolls, including stand-bys like Michael Cloud and Mark Hinkle, and wilder-cards like social-media svenghali Arvin Vohra, and the omnipresent, omnisexual Starchild, who on this day had foregone the bustiers and high heels for a rather fetching Lawrence of Arabia number. Everyone accepting an at-large nomination was granted a full minute to make their case to the remaining delegates, so that the easiest course of action was to line them all up and move them through as if they were all speed dating the LP. (Also similar to speed dating: many of the potential matches had no relevant social skills whatsoever.)

At this point, with Judicial Committee nominations in full swing — and, given the extreme pressures of time and hangover pricing for Las Vegas convention space, a motion approved to grant them no time whatsoever to address their would-be constituents — the officer results rolled in. On the sixth ballot, the party finally elected a chair, with Geoff Neale taking it 264 to NOTA’s 159. Opening with the line, “So it seems my master plan of running for national chair with no expenses worked,” Neale’s acceptance speech demonstrated a mix of humor and frankness that will stand him in good stead in the next couple of years. He made a special point of noting the surge in NOTA votes — many of them switching over to express disapproval of his decision to air his and Redpath’s dirty laundry in public — and promising that, on his watch, their voices would be heard. But the message he wanted heard was this: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. There has been a lot of rancor — we must be advocates for our viewpoints, not adversaries.”

Making this easier was the vote for the other officers, a clean sweep for the so-called radical wing of the party. Wrights took vice chair with 52% of votes, 228 to Redpath’s 179 (and Phillies’ 20), thus avoiding what would have been an extremely uncomfortable partnership. On a second ballot, Bennett won secretary, defeating Mattson, who nonetheless had to work through tears to enter results for the at-large and Judicial Committee races. And the biggest cheer went up for treasurer, with Hagan beating out LP bogeyman Starr (or, as one Hagan-supporting delegate infelicitously put it, the man “with the initials A-S-S”). When asked what we could take away from this weekend’s final turn, new vice-chair Lee Wrights responded that “You want to show people something different, you got to be a little different. And something a little different happened today. Now we just gotta make sure we don’t screw it up.”

The immediate fallout of Wrights’ victory was Mary Ruwart’s withdrawal from consideration for the Judicial Committee, fearing the same sorts of conflict-of-interest charges that dogged her in the past cycle when their positions were reversed. (Would that they had thought of that before the Oregon LP deliberations began!) But even with at-large positions confirmed for Redpath and Cloud, and yes, Wayne Allen Root, the “libertarian libertarians” still had much to celebrate, not least the spots for Vohra and Starchild — the latter, especially, surprised many; from my point of view though it was a recognition well-overdue one of the most intelligent, determined libertarian activists in the fold.

The 2016 nominating convention in Los Angeles has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match its three immediate precursors.

At this point, with all ballots in and many delegates bailing out for flights or the pleasures of the Strip, I admit I joined the throng headed for the exit. It’s not that the Judicial Committee results were unimportant — in fact, as we saw throughout this convention, in some circumstances the JC is all-important — but in an ideal party cycle, they will not be invoked at all. (Also, there was sushi to be eaten.) But, regardless, the 2012–14 Judicial Committee features Bill Hall, convention MVP (Most Visible Person) Nicholas Sarwark, Brian Holtz, and Rob Latham back for another term, and Rodger Paxton, Lou Jasikoff, and Rob Power filling out the seven. And with that, the Libertarian Party officially brought its 2012 National Convention to a close.

* * *

So what do we take from all of this?

First, despite a few stutters along the way, Gary Johnson seems genuinely to have won over the party — nowhere was there general dissent against his candidacy and those few voices holding out against him were heard in distant corners of the Red Rock Resort, or isolated comments on the more radical blogs. If he maintains this level of support, he’ll have no trouble achieving his goal of being the LP standard bearer again four years from now — but, as our upcoming interview with the former governor will show, there is still some distance between the former governor’s views, and those of many within the party.

Second, and also helping Johnson among the rank-and-file, the makeup of the LP executive committee went some way towards balancing out any perception of a “conservative” takeover. Even Wes Wagner seemed to acknowledge as much, in comments following the convention on Independent Political Report: “The elections have gone a long way towards mending wounds,” he noted, and elsewhere, “I have been in communication with [Chairman] Neale about this issue and am working with him to try to ensure that Johnson/Gray are listed” on the Oregon ballot. While there are, naturally, legal issues pending, it appears the biggest storm is past, at least until the lawsuit between would-be Oregon LPs finally comes to a verdict.

Third, the 2016 nominating convention in Los Angeles has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match its three immediate precursors. Then again, if the impromptu shouting match held on the veranda balcony between members of the San Bernadino County LP is any indicator, there will be no shortage of issues to work out between then and now.

Fourth, never underestimate libertarians’ ability to create drama out of seemingly nothing. I realize, all too well, that many of the eruptions that took place over the previous 24 hours have been simmering for quite some time — but at the same time, nearly everyone I spoke with before the convention, or even up to Saturday lunchtime, expected a boring weekend in Las Vegas . . . as if that were ever going to be the case.

Ultimately, if the LP is to move forward, it must look on this past weekend in the way Sarwark suggested the night before: as the painful cleansing of a festering wound. Unlike in 2008, when the specter of schism haunted the party from the moment Bob Barr announced his candidacy, there was much more to build on in 2012 than hallway rhetoric alone. Whether the party makes use of the new foundation, or just trashes it all again, remains — as ever — in the balance.



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Think First, Talk Second

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On April 10, I published in this journal an anguished protest against indiscriminate use of the word “legendary.” The occasion was the lavish application of this term to the dead television personality Mike Wallace. If I had been more assiduous in research, I would have brought up the other 235,000,000 uses of that word, as currently indexed by Google. Few of them, I think, are related to Beowulf or The Golden Legend.

The reward for my strictures on “legendary” was a mailbox full of plaudits — all the libertarian equivalents of “right on, brutha man!” — and execrations. From the latter I learned that I was petty, hypercritical, and without respect for the dead.

My response to both parties is this: “Well, somebody’s got to do it.” But I want to salute everyone who’s willing to debate questions of language. If there were more people like my boosters and detractors, the English language might be saved. Salvation comes not from indifference but from vigorous and candid reflection.

One kind of comment puzzled me. It came from a friend I ran into on the street. This person said, “I liked your comments, but I kept wondering, what words would you use instead of ‘legendary’? I mean, there must be some reason why people keep choosing that word.”

My answer is that people keep choosing that word because they hear other people using it; in other words, because they’re too lazy to think for themselves.

But if you want a list of alternative terms (“what would you use instead?”), no problem: you can generate a list of your own in about 30 seconds — which is about how long it took me to come up with the list below. The terms proceed in rough order from the nicest ones to the ones you never expect to see in an obit, for Mike Wallace or any other media darling:

  • Idolized
  • Beloved
  • Celebrated
  • Acclaimed
  • Esteemed
  • Distinguished
  • Respected
  • Famous
  • Nationally recognized
  • Well known
  • Familiar
  • Once famous
  • Now forgotten
  • Notorious
  • Infamous

(Note the difference between “famous” and “infamous.”)

So, here’s a case in which a minimum of reflection can yield significant results. Most language problems are like that. But let’s proceed to another case — quite different — that exemplifies the same idea, by highlighting the lack of reflection.

Whenever you force yourself to read what politicians or public officeholders say, you naturally ask yourself, “What the hell was he thinking?” The answer is usually: “Nothing.” In support of that assertion, I could cite such astonishing recent instances as that of Al Armendariz, who was, until his resignation on April 30, a regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Why did this little warlord leave his perch? Well, a video from 2010 had surfaced, in which a grinning Armendariz lectured a friendly audience about the strategy he used to persecute business people. He indicated that he believed in acting as the Romans allegedly did in “Turkey,” as he called it: when they moved in, they grabbed a bunch of people and crucified them, after which the place was easier to govern.

So when Almendariz laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

It’s hard to think of a more revolting thing to say. And it’s interesting to note that Big Al was a college professor, so he can’t claim total ignorance of words and meanings. But as if his speech weren’t bad enough, when his sickening remarks — and the even more sickening attitude that accompanied them — were finally revealed, and when he finally resigned, he said, “I regret comments I made several years ago that do not in any way reflect my work as regional administrator." So when he laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

So much for the self-crucified Al Armendariz. But my main target isn’t the circus of stupidity he was running. It’s the steady, unobtrusive seepage of bland amorality from public officeholders into American public discourse. All without a moment of reflection — as the following case will illustrate.

On the morning of April 2, a fat 43-year-old man with the wonderfully Joycean name of One Goh walked into the offices of tiny (100 students) Oikos University, located in an industrial park near the Oakland, California airport. Goh’s original name appears to have been Su Nam Ko, but sometime after coming to the United States from his native Korea, he changed it, thinking it too girlish. This was one sign that there might be something wrong with One Goh. There were others. He was paranoid and obnoxious; he had welshed on a variety of debts; and at the moment he was intending to kill a school official against whom he had been nursing a grievance. (All right, he was allegedly intending. Please remember that everything I say about Goh is a mere allegation; it has never been proven in court.)

Arriving at Oikos University, and discovering that the official was not in her office, Goh decided to kill other people instead. He went into a classroom, told the students to line up, and shot 10 of them. Seven of them died. Then he went out to the parking lot, stole the car of one of his victims, and fled to a shopping mall, where he surrendered to police.

That is the sad, repulsive story of One Goh. Now let’s see what the head of local law enforcement, Chief of Police Howard Jordan, had to say about it, in interviews on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and other venues.

Jordan said that the police had “learned” a lot: "We've learned that this was a very chaotic, calculated and determined gentleman that came there with a very specific intent to kill people, and that's what his motive was and that's what he carried out."

Well. How interesting. Goh, a man who burst into a classroom and proceeded to shoot 10 people at random, was a gentleman. I wish that Jordan were the only “law enforcement official” who used this term. Prison guards routinely use it for the convicts they’re processing into their domains. “All right, gentlemen, you will now remove your clothing . . .” And no, that isn’t just sarcasm. The next time you hear a cop giving the news-conference version of an arrest, see if he or she doesn’t refer to the alleged suspect as the gentleman that allegedly fired the fatal shot. In the amoral vision of the well-trained public official, even being a mass murderer doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re still a gentleman like everybody else. To put this in another way: like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

That’s bad enough. But I’m sure you’ve noticed some peculiarities about Mr. Jordan’s expert psychological analysis. Did you mark that weird movement from chaotic to calculated to determined? Of course, this makes no sense. A calculated action may be wicked, but it can hardly be chaotic. So the Chief’s account of events is no different from other expert analyses; it’s a piece of junk. Observe, however, where the sequence ends. It ends in determined. The gentleman was determined.

Like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

Determined used to be a good word, a word reserved for people who had a purpose and courageously pursued it. No more. Now everybody gets an even break. Entering the ring on one side — Howard Roark! On the other side — One Goh! It’s a fair fight: these contenders are both determined.

One Goh surrendered to the cops without putting up a fight — an action that could be described in a number of ways. One would be to note that he was determined when he slaughtered a bunch of defenseless people, but not so determined when he confronted armed policemen. That would be the moral way of representing it. But another way would be simply to note that he surrendered without putting up a fight. And naturally, that’s the way Jordan put it: “We don't believe he intended on having a confrontation with police.”

Thank God for good intentions.

But why am I picking on a public official who doesn’t happen to have a gift for words? There are a number of ways of replying to that, too. One is to say that if you don’t have a gift for words, you shouldn’t volunteer to go on television. Another is to say that the chief has a gift for words — the wrong words.

He was eloquent in suggesting sympathy-provoking causes for One Goh’s crimes. Referring to Goh’s fellow students, Jordan said the following: "They disrespected him, laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students." This explanation was presumably supplied by Goh who was said by the chief to be not especially remorseful about his crimes (oops, actions).

So this is what you do, if you’re a police chief. Curious about the motives for a mass murder, you accept the mass murderer’s account, never noticing that it blames the victims. Meanwhile, you assume that someone who is crazy enough to shoot up a classroom should not be isolated or disrespected. Odd, isn’t it? By giving such significance to the currently atrocious crime of dissing someone, you end up dissing whoever does the dissing. Gosh, isn’t that a puzzler? What should we say about that? Or about the fact that these people who supposedly made Goh feel isolated were students at a college attended almost entirely by men and women whose first language is not English, a college founded by an Asian pastor to help Asian students feel comfortable in their new environment. But so what? One Goh didn’t feel comfortable. Someone must have made him feel uncomfortable.

That’s where amorality creep always goes. It doesn’t pause before such weighty matters as the good and bad; it slithers around them. At the end, it’s hard to tell the culprits from the victims.

Now consider what Dawinder Kaur, a 19-year-old Army reservist who was shot by One Goh, had to say about the student who was absent from her nursing class for months, then suddenly turned up and started shooting. Her brother reported her remarks: "She told me that a guy went crazy and she got shot. She was running. She was crying; she was bleeding, it was wrong."

Do you have anything to add to that? I don’t. It accounts for everything — including the fact that it was wrong.




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Broadway Is Back!

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Once in a decade a show comes to Broadway that redefines what we mean by "Broadway musical." Once is the show of this decade. It has choreography without dance, show-stopping music without belting, laughter without jokes, central figures without names, and a love story without a single kiss. Once you've seen Once, you will have a completely different idea of what a Broadway musical can be.

Once upon a time in Dublin, a guy met a girl. The guy was a busker, the girl was a Czech immigrant. Once upon a time his music soared, but as this show begins, he has given up on music, and given up on life as well. He is headed for the bridge over troubled waters when the girl stops him and tells him that his music has value. What she means is that his life has value. Once she comes into his life, his life changes. For once, and always.

Onceis based on an independent film of the same name whose central song, "Falling Slowly," won the Academy Award for Best Song in 2007. Those who saw the award show will remember the humble, unbridled joy of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who wrote the music and directed and starred in the film, as they accepted the Oscar. They were so overjoyed that host Jon Stewart brought Marketa back out after the commercial break to finish her speech, which had been cut off by a thoughtless timekeeper. Class act, Jon.

As good as Hansard and Irglova were in the film, however, they can't hold a candle to the performances of Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti as the guy and girl onstage in the Broadway production of Once. Milioti is particularly earnest and charming as the girl, who elicits gales of laughter from the audience even when she is simply reminding the guy, "I am serious. I'm Czech." Tiny but powerful, she seems to personify the word "hope."

The score by Hansard and Irglova is pure Irish folk, but this is no "Riverdance." The songs convey a deep, plaintive resonance that matches the plaintive, unrequited longing of the guy and the girl. Unlike typical Broadway shows in which people suddenly break into song in the middle of a conversation, the music here is an integral part of the story. Characters sing because that's what they are doing — on a street corner, in a recording studio, at a pub or a family gathering. Music is as natural to them as speaking or breathing, and as essential. In this show, music doesn't interrupt the flow of the story; it is the story.

The music is played onstage by a crew of talented "buskers" who weave seamlessly into roles as minor characters in the story and back out again as street musicians performing at a pub or on a sidewalk. The effect is mesmerizing. It's intensified by the fact that the set is an active onstage pub where audience members can buy drinks and mill around with the musicians before the show and during intermission. Everything else is created through imagination — a chair becomes a living room; two tables create a bedroom; several tables become an apartment. All of this occurs in the blink of an eye and the whirl of a table as the busker-musicians act in carefully choreographed unison to move the furnishings and props on and off stage. There is no dancing in this show, but there is some stunning choreography.

The dialogue is modern Irish too, and by that I mean it is peppered with the f-word. But the way they use it, as an adjective and an interjection, is somehow gentle and not at all offensive. It is just part of the Irish accent, as anyone knows who has spent much time in Ireland recently. They use it almost caressingly, with a soft vowel to match their soft personalities.

Once a Broadway musical had to end with a wedding. In fact, it would often end with two or three weddings, as the oft-mismatched couples in the story finally sorted themselves out into appropriate pairings. Audiences sighed with cathartic relief and left the theater smiling. But life isn't a fairy tale, and relationships more often end in the reality of unrequited love; the mismatched couples are already matched with someone else, and those previous entanglements simply won't be sorted out. What resonates in Once is that the relationship between the guy and the girl celebrates a true love that transcends romance. It is deep, whole, and pure. Like the music.

Eleven Tony nominations. Every one of them richly deserved. If you are in New York this year, even once, don't miss the chance to see Once.

Once,directed by John Tiffany. Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, New York City. Discount tickets usually available through broadwaybox.com.

/em




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Move Away from the Window!

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Horror has been a staple of filmmaking since the earliest days of cinema, when the Lumiere brothers (perhaps unintentionally) terrified audiences with the sight of a train seeming to rush straight toward them (1896) and when Lon Chaney made audiences shudder as the first creepy Phantom of the Opera (1925).

The best horror films of the ’50s and the ’60s — such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) relied on psychological tension rather than blood and gore to develop an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. In fact, Hitchcock deliberately filmed Psycho in black and white to reduce the vividness of the blood one sees in the famous shower scene. Then along came Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and the bloodfest was on.

Humans seem drawn to the cathartic effect of intense fear followed by a flood of relief — especially when that fear remains within the safety of a darkened theater. Once we could go home laughing merrily, knowing that the vampire had been vanquished with a silver bullet or the devil had been destroyed. Then the unvanquishable villain was introduced — Rosemary decided not to kill her devil baby (1968); Freddy Krueger refused to stay dead. Chainsaws and meat hooks increased the gore and reduced the catharsis.

Just when it seemed that the genre had completely saturated itself with mindless gore and predictable stereotypes, Scream appeared (1996) and iconized the genre, adding a new stock character (the likeable nerd) who explained the "rules" of horror movies to his terrorized friends while they were being terrorized. Acting as the chorus in a Greek play, this character participated in the drama and simultaneously narrated it, providing a bridge between the people on-screen and the people in the seats.

Randy (the Greek chorus): "There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie! For instance, Number One: You can never have sex. (Crowd moans and cheers.) Sex equals death, OK? Number Two: You can never drink or do drugs. (Crowd moans and cheers.) No, it's the sin factor, it's a sin, it's an extension of Number One! And Number Three: Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, say 'I'll be right back,' 'cause you won't be back."

Stu: "I'm gettin' another beer, you want one?"

Randy: "Yeah, sure."

Stu: "I'll be right back!!!!"

This insider narration turned the story into a kind of film class and elevated the Scream franchise intellectually above typical slasher films. Yes, it still had buckets of blood, but it also challenged viewers to consider the film as an artform with distinct features and expectations. As audience members we were drawn into the film with a knowing nod of our heads. Yes, we too were intellectually superior to these knuckleheads who don’t know enough to stay together, look behind the door, and MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOW, IDIOT!

The Cabin in the Woodstakes this insider narration a step further, suggesting that, if there are rules, then there must be rulemakers. Rules like "the slut dies first" and "the virgin makes it out alive" aren't just the observations of classroom teachers of literary criticism; in The Cabin in the Woods the rules are positively diabolic. Two distinct storylines develop side by side, one scary and intense, the other droll and detached. Throughout the film, just when the tension seems almost unbearable, “reality” intrudes, reminding the audience that this isn't real — or is it?

It all lends the film a bizarre sense of humor and camp, as zombies with buzzsaws (and even a crazed unicorn!) terrorize the quintet of beautiful, robust teens who just want a quiet weekend of beer, weed, and sex at an idyllic cabin in the lovely woods. There are watchers in these woods, watchers who are intentionally controlling the action, for reasons that don't become apparent until late in the film.

As horror films go, this one is pretty basic, but the framing device of having a story within a story sets it apart and gives the audience something meaty to consider.Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are particularly amusing as the bland, unemotional, white-shirted IT men-behind-the-scenes in the external frame story.

Despite its campiness (and it does have moments of delicious humor) and its intimations of mythic significance, The Cabin in the Woods is still a horror film at heart. If you go, expect to see throat stabbings, arm hackings, blood spewings, and lots of eerie music to pump up your heart and curl your toes. So don’t go alone. Stay together. And MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOW!!!


Editor's Note: Review of "The Cabin in the Woods," directed by Drew Goddard. MGM/United Artists, 2011, 95 minutes.



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None of the Above

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“The party is split. It is split right down the middle.”

How did we get to this point? After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound barely healed since the last time it tore open, in 2008. But unlike the Denver debacle, this fight wasn’t over the presidential ticket — it was over the LP chair, and the direction the party is likely to take over the next two to four years, and beyond that the next decade or more.

At the beginning of the day, such an outcome seemed unimaginable. The party started off by celebrating its past — paying tribute to David Nolan and John Hospers, and inducting Tonie Nathan, Roger MacBride, and Ed Clark into the “Hall of Liberty” — before looking towards its future, in the form of the next election. But in retrospect, even this retrospection pointed to the troubles to come: throughout its 40-year existence, the party has been anything but placid; rather, prone to deep and sudden rifts, and grudges carried for many years by people who want many of the same political ends, but have utterly incompatible ideas about the means used to get there.

But this was all well in the background when the delegations gathered to compile their votes for president. Four candidates were nominated: Gary Johnson, Lee Wrights, Jim Burns, and Carl Person, with the latter two making their token count overnight. (A motion from the floor was made to suspend normal rules and nominate Ron Paul. It failed spectularly.)

After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound.

The nominating speaker for Wrights took a roundabout way of getting to his candidate, going via Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul and not mentioning Wrights’ name for a full ten minutes. He passed off to Mary Ruwart to second, introducing her as “the woman who should have been our 2008 nominee.” (And he’s right, they should have — but their campaign botched it.) Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.” Speaking of Wrights’ ability to get “more bang for the buck”; she provided as evidence two laughable TV spots, one a half turn away from a used car ad, the next a parade of doughy, beardy white males talking about the wars they would end. Accepting the nomination, Wrights said: “I am not at war. And if we say that enough, they can’t have them any more.” Not sure that’s how that works, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

Carl Person’s speaker only used a few minutes of his time, and spent that explaining who Carl Person is. And necessarily so, since many people didn’t know or, in the bigger problem for his campaign, didn’t care. Person, in turn, presented himself to the assembled delegates first with a ramble about all the jobs he held in his youth, and then — in the most tangential of segues — explaining his jobs program, which seemed designed to produce someone that can teach him how to use the Internet, or possibly keep kids off his lawn.

Jim Burns, speaking for himself, gave Patrick Henry’s speech “Liberty or Death” speech as his own nominating statement. He did this in character, while wearing a powdered wig. Once done, he removed the hairpiece, and took a few minutes to beg for the tokens it would take to get him onto the VP ballot.

Gary Johnson’s speaker went straight to the former governor’s experience and his suitability to run against the two major-party candidates. “No one will ever confuse him for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.” His second picked up the torch, speaking of him as the “most qualified candidate we have ever had.” Johnson in accepting hammered on the resume again: mentioning once more his vetoes, but also his popularity in office: “People in New Mexico waved at me with all five fingers, not just one.”

He slipped only once, in bringing up the Fair Tax yet again in front of an audience hostile to any taxation. But wisely he went straight from that into his promise to end our wars in foreign countries, and on drugs too — neatly appropriating Wrights’ slogan as his own. He distanced himself from Bob Barr and the 2008 fiasco, and even more so from the two major parties: citing an NPR question where interviewer asked him, if you were on the torture rack, and required to cast a vote for Romney or Obama (and what a telling construction that is, NPR using as casual metaphor the torture they have colluded in normalizing) he says he would rather die than vote for either. Oh, and in case you didn’t remember, there was also that “climbing Mount Everest” thing.

Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.”

On the whole it was a great speech; according to at least one seasoned observer, his best as a Libertarian. Any damage done him by the previous night’s debate — likely minimal, if even that — was wiped away, making a first-ballot victory all the more likely. All it would take is 50% plus one vote — and as it was unlikely Burns or Person would be taking many, there was little standing in the way of Johnson’s coronation.

Little, that is, except nearly an hour of deliberation, tabulation, and state-by-state recitation of delegate votes, with each state of course tossing in their little tidbit about their libertarian past or present. In almost all cases, though, their libertarian future lay with Gary Johnson, who handily took the presidential nomination with 419 delegate votes, just over 70% of the total available. Wrights, as expected, was second best at 152; Burns and Person scraped a mere handful apiece.

In his acceptance speech, Johnson thanked his family first and foremost, even noting his daughter’s feedback on the debate: “Dad, you did great, but you got your ass kicked by Lee Wrights.” He paid tribute to Wrights’ campaign, and Wrights, graciously, said it was to come together as a party: “Let’s get this guy elected.”

Of course, R. Lee was hoping the party would come together in support of a Johnson/Wrights ticket. But Johnson moved on to endorse Judge Jim Gray from the podium, citing him as the perfect running mate. Gray announced only days before the convention, and his promotional materials had an unavoidably slapdash look to them — folders with a brief media release and a few pictures of the Judge against a blue sky, looking pensive and, presumably, vice-presidential.

In some ways Gray is a rarity. Usually the presidential losers end up contesting the VP — few come to the convention specifically speaking the second-tier nod. But as the presidential candidate’s handpicked running mate, Gray had the big guns (such as they are, in the LP) lining up behind him — including David Bergland in the role of nominating speaker. Gray himself emphasized the need, as a party, to win — “We are not a philosophical debate society. We are a political party.” — and encouraged audience to repeat the word “Win” whenever it’s said from the stage, which is not at all cultish or creepy.

In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

Wrights’ nominating speaker went on a bizarre tangent about Ron Paul, and again almost ten minutes passed before the candidate’s name was actually mentioned. The seconding speaker, Nicholas Sarwark — about whom much more below — made an actually coherent case for Wrights, noting he would providing balance to the ticket, and represent the “libertarian wing of the libertarian party.” There were about 15 other uses of the word libertarian tossed in there, but then tautology is the order of the day at political conventions. The line landed, at least, which wasn't the case with his Simpsons reference — it's a pretty damning indicator about the age of this crowd that next to no one seemed to know who Kodos and Kang were.

On to the balltoing, common sense intervened for the vote and the state-by-state roll call was suspended; when the dust settled Jim Gray had a comfortable first-ballot victory, taking 357 votes to Wrights’ 229. In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

The answer, of course, is plenty. The day’s business was set to conclude with the election of a new chair, a fairly straightforward affair between the present chair, Mark Hinkle, and LNC at-large member Mark Rutherford. But this discounts a serious candidate that built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Enter Nick Sarwark. He spoke in support of NOTA, laying out in brief the reasons he felt unable to support either candidate — both tied to the Oregon credentialing crisis of the first day, and the party’s overruling of a report on that matter by the Judicial Committee, on which Sarwark sits — but also reminding delegates of the power of NOTA as a political concept. As he summed up later: “It’s telling people, if you’re big enough assholes, we’re just going to go our own way, cut our own door, and go around you.”

But for Sarwark, the speech was primarily a rhetorical gesture, something he thought would get “10 or 15 votes” — not taking into account either the dissatisfaction that led to printed signs advocating “No One” for LNC Chair, or the opportunists who saw a chance to boot out both nominated candidates in favor of one not implicated in what they saw as the present board’s failings. Between the two, support for NOTA was strong enough at 101 votes to prevent either Rutherford or Hinkle from claiming a majority. Instead, with Rutherford beating out Hinkle 228–221, the latter was eliminated, and the final ballot would be between Rutherford and NOTA.

One serious candidate for chair built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Or so it seemed. Because when the votes were counted, NOTA had won 273–269, and accusations of vote tampering were immediately in the air. Acting chair Bill Redpath called for a revote, which ended Rutherford 278, NOTA 277, write-in Sam Sloan 1. Because Rutherford did not take a majority plus one, he could not be certified as victor. Usually in such circumstances the loser would concede, but NOTA was for obvious reasons unable to do so. As Rutherford also did not concede, and with time running out on the day’s session, Redpath ruled that Sloan, the write-in candidate, was eliminated, and the delegates would reconvene the next day to vote once again between Rutherford and NOTA, as well as all the other officer positions.

Tumult, chaos, anarchy — in the metaphorical, and not the medieval Icelandic sense. The ruling set up a night packed with exactly the sort of back-room meetings and opaque dealings that Sarwark had hoped to expose with his NOTA advocacy. “This was about ripping open a wound that’s been festering for a long time, getting in there and cleaning it out, and applying some Bactine to it. And that will make it heal up, but in the meantime Bactine stings like a motherfucker.”

So there was never any concerted attempt by any group — some observers even calling it the “family” wing of the party — to use NOTA as a way to force open the chair’s race? No, Sarwark said. There was no conspiracy — and the only reason those observers saw one was because, if the tables were turned, a conspiracy is how they would have handled it. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like — well, you know.”

The greatest worry at this point was that, with the chair’s election lingering to the next morning, time would run out before any of the other party positions — officers, at-large members, Judicial committee — could be decided on the floor, leaving them all (except the Judicial Committee, which couldn’t be handled this way) to be appointed by the newly-installed LNC board.

With all the manipulations in motion, however unintentionally, by Sarwark’s NOTA gambit, there was no lack of context for Ed Clark’s banquet talk about the challenges facing the Libertarian Party. Though he spoke mostly of the challenges overcome in the 1970s and ’80s, and of the rifts that periodically tore the party apart at that time, the applications for the present moment were clear: whatever the feud, whatever the obstacle, it must be overcome so that the fight for liberty could proceed.

Not until the next day would we see how well that message sank in — or if it even did at all.

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Pulling Punches

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Friday dawned bright with the promise of everyone’s two favorite parts of any LNC: the party platform and bylaws sessions!

Actually, Friday is about candidates trying to court delegates for the precious tokens they bear. In order to enter the Friday night debate, televised live on C-SPAN, candidates must secure 10% of the available tokens; with 528 delegates registered today, the magic number this year was 53.

Two candidates cleared the bar with ease: Gary Johnson would end up with fully 267, and Lee Wrights had a comfortable 127. But none of the others could muster hardly half so much: the next closest were Carl Person with 28, and Jim Burns with 27. Though either could (and would) collect further tokens and be nominated with a mere 30, neither was close to making the debate—and they were far out in front of the other also-rans. At least nine people received at least one token, and the LP wasn’t actually sure how many candidates they had running for president because a number of those who filed failed to correspond in any other way.

So when the lights came on and the C-SPAN cameras started rolling, the stage looked not totally dissimilar to any other American presidential debate: two speakers, both in suits, one wearing a blue tie, one wearing a red—though the latter, Wrights’ tie, had a bit of patterning mixed in that marked him as marginally the more casual. He would be far more so by debate’s end.

After a 12-year-old sang a histrionic version of the national anthem, the format was explained by moderator David Bergland. About halfway through it became clear that he’d been a poor choice; though both eminent and highly respectable, his questions never strayed from traditional libertarian talking points, and certainly never went into current events such as the student loan debt uprising, or the European Union crackup. What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Johnson went first, and delivered an opening statement heavy on constitutional rhetoric, applause lines. He made three promises about what he would carry out in his first year as president: first, submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013; second, veto any expenditures that outstripped revenue—the first chance of many to bring up his veto record as governor—and finally, throw out entire tax system, abolish the IRS, and establish a national consumption tax. He presented this last point, the much derided Fair Tax, as a means of moving toward zero tax—but many in the room only heard this as a plan to introduce a new tax, period. So any time he brought up the Fair Tax—and he did it seemingly every question, really ramming it down the throats of the audience—it got about the same response as a fart in an elevator.

What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Wrights played up his history in the Party: “It feels like I’m at a family reunion.” His first act as president would be to “declare peace” in wars on drugs, poverty, other nations. As he got excited, he got louder and drops deeper into his North Carolina accent, so that at times he is almost incoherent. But when not bellowing, he projected a genial, folksy image, well suited to delivering libertarian one-liners, if not substantive analysis. It was an approach better suited to this crowd than Johnson’s, which aimed beyond the immediate crowd and out to the C-SPAN viewing audience.

The early questions all concerned the candidates’ relationships with libertarianism. Wrights takes us back to family again, “born a libertarian from a libertarian father.” Johnson talks of his journey from Republican governor to Libertarian candidate as his “coming out of the closet.”

What is libertarianism? Wrights: “A life decision. A way of life. Making decisions for yourself rather than allowing them to be made for you by people hundreds or thousands of miles away.” Johnson: “Don’t tell me what to do.” He followed this up with the first and only Ayn Rand quote of the debate.

As Garrett Quinn of Reason noted, this “seems more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate between two candidates” for the nomination. Much policy discussion, little back and forth between the candidates even when there’s a chance to engage. On a question about immigration, Johnson adocated “easy as possible work visas,” and expressed a belief that the Fair Tax would solve taxation problems. Wrights could have attacked that, but settled for more talk about visas and the need to open borders.

Social security, bank bailouts, Medicare: meat and potatoes libertarian issues, but hardly ways to distinguish between candidates. The first even veiled attack was in a question on foreign policy, where Johnson nearly went off the rails by saying he wouldn’t be above pre-emptive strikes—back on a little bit by saying that even those would have to go to Congress for approval. Wrights insisted he would never deploy anyone, ever, but didn’t press his advantage much further.

Johnson’s constant mentions of the Fair Tax were impossible for Wrights to ignore forever, though, and finally, an hour and a half into the debate, he took his chance: asked about tax policy, he said, “There is no such thing as a fair tax. We need to abolish the IRS and have no tax at all.” The follow-up, for once, was the right one: how then would we pay for the essential functions of government? Wrights replied that if we got rid of whatever’s not essential—“which is nearly everything”—there wouldn’t be any problems. Johnson, meanwhile, went back to his 43% solution for a balanced budget—a cut that would be unimaginably radical for much of the American public, but wasn’t nearly radical enough for the sort of crowd that shows up at a Libertarian National Convention.

He was on stronger ground whenever he could move his answer toward his experiences as an actually elected executive official in New Mexico. A number of times he came back to his extensive veto record—“possibly more than the other 49 state governors combined”—though it was a bit odd to hear him talk proudly about vetoing a bill solely for being too long, and not having the time to read it. Not as weird, though, as when Wrights stated that the first executive order he would sign as president would be one invalidating all prior executive orders.

In closing, Johnson promised to stay a libertarian “for life”—“I really want this job.” Wrights, for about the hundredth time that evening, found himself once again in agreement with his opponent: “I really want this job too!”

On the whole it seemed a measured win for Wrights. Johnson didn’t entirely adjust to his audience—case in point, the unnecessary forcing of the Fair Tax, which was never going to play to the room. But it wasn’t a total loss for him: at no point did he go beyond the pale, and usually he succeeded in talking himself back to an applause line. And he certainly nailed home his experience in executive office.

Wrights though played the audience much better. Which, of course, makes sense: he’s been in the party and around these people for many more years than Johnson has; if nominees were selected solely for their skills at preaching to the choir, Wrights would take the race going away. But moving beyond the insular and, sad to say, rather small world of the libertarian hardcore, there are many other situations a candidate must navigate successfully. Wrights won tonight’s debate, but in doing so paradoxically showed himself a less rounded candidate than Johnson.

The nighttime brought events hosted by several states, including the justly famous Texas shindig, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Indiana affair, and a small but spirited crossover by Washington and Mississippi. But, conscious of the early start tomorrow, most called it in early tonight, postponing the true revelry for after the election Saturday night.



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Squabbles and Sorcerors

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As the official business of the 2012 Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention got underway, there was but one question on everyone’s mind: which group of people will be credentialed and seated as the official delegation from Oregon?

Actually, no, very few people cared about that, especially if you count out those with either a direct stake in the matter, or a fetish for obscurities of parliamentiary procedure. But the LP cannot do without drama, so lacking any at the top of the ballot it was left to the individual delegations to come up with some. Oregon came through in spades.

It’s never a good sign when there’s more than one “central committee” of anything, and Oregon brought two, the Reeves group and the Wagner group. The latter is the one recognized by the Oregon Secretary of State; the former is suing to contest this recognition. It’s of those thoroughly Byzantine LP procedural matters that simmers for months before exploding into floor debate that even Robert’s Rules is hard pressed to contain.

So once the proverbial gavel fell (only proverbial because the actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSA, no joke, would not permit it to be taken on a plane), things got ugly real quick. Between conflicts of interest, backroom (even bedroom) deals, and worst of all violations of parliamentary procedure, there were accusations aplenty. As one of the speakers, himself an involved party, noted when addressing the floor: there are “unclean hands on both sides of the dispute.”

Others settled for the fatal passive — “Mistakes have been made, things could have been handled better.” — before appealing to the LP’s “brand distinction” as the soc-called “party of principle.” “If we can’t follow our own rules,” one asked, “then how can we ask the American people for their votes?” Because of course the fight over who is seated as the Oregon delegation is going to be a campaign killer with the American people in the coming election cycle.

The actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSAwould not permit it to be taken on a plane

Hilariously low stakes aside, this dispute is not one that’s going away. The delegates’ decision to approve the credentials report and seat the Reeves faction, though pragmatically ending a fight that was already holding up the keynote address, leaves the status of the Oregon LP uncertain. Even party insiders cannot yet say which side will win out, or even whether the party’s nominee will be able to appear on the Oregon ballot. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth — as one Oregon delegate, new to the party and unknowingly swept up in this pissing match, said when addressing the floor: “It seems like the Libertarian Party is more concerned with preserving their own personal power than with promoting liberty in the United States.”

With that kerfuffle momentarily sorted, it was back to the same old, same old with Michael Cloud’s keynote speech. If there’s any libertarian idea you care particularly about, chances are he brought it up — but because he spent his time speaking to every possible issue, there was little focus on any single one of them. “Big government is the disease, and libertarians have the cure” is bumper-sticker stuff, practically defining boilerplate.

The list of the day’s speeches proved hardly more inspirational, showing, if nothing else, that the party is in urgent need of fresh blood. And to be fair, two of the speakers late in the day addressed that in particular: Alexander McCobin, president of Students for Liberty, which gathers college students to talk about liberty; and Andy McKean, founder of Liberty Day, a group that tries to raise constitutional literacy, especially in elementary schools. While neither speech exactly concealed its fundraising aim, it’s encouraging nonetheless to see a block of speech aimed at reaching a generation that, by my own admittedly anecdotal experience, they’re doing none too well with to date.

All of this, though, is a sideshow to the real business of the convention: nominating a presidential candidate. But unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march: Gary Johnson announced his intent early and entered the convention as overwhelming favorite to take the nomination; the only real drama in the process by now is whether the vote will go to a second ballot.

But there are other candidates: enough of them, in fact, that the LP itself isn’t actually sure how many of those who have filed to run for president will actually bother to show up and do so. But what is clear is that the field is nowhere near as packed as in 2008, where nine candidates made the debate stage. Reaching that point requires 30 delegate “tokens” (actually slips of paper); but it’s uncertain whether anyone other than Johnson and Wrights will reach even that total.

So why even bother? I asked Jim Libertarian Burns, a perennial candidate (and yes, that is his legal middle name). For him, it’s about making contacts — even friends — and getting the message out that the Libertarian Party is the best hope that the American people (and by proxy people worldwide) have for true political change. At the same time, the LP as presently constructed is “a pile of crap.” Burns has the hope of at least making the debate stage, which — if it did happen — would be far more as a reward to him for decades within the party, than for any particular strength of his campaign. But rest assured: if by some fluke he were to take the party nomination, he would not accept it, but would instead turn it over to Gary Johnson.

Unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march.

The same would certainly not be true of Lee Wrights, Johnson’s main competitor. Another longtime presence in the LP, Wrights has held a number of roles in past years, including vice chair; without Johnson around, Wrights’ campaign would be something like Andre Marrou’s: essentially, a lifetime service award, and one for which Wrights’ slogan “End All War” (e.g., foreign, Drug, On Poverty) would be adequate

With Johnson, however, Wrights has to focus much more on the issues where he and the ex-governor differ — difficult since they’re both anti-war, anti-drug prohibition, anti-entitlements, etc. So what does he have to offer? First and foremost, many more years of experience in libertarian politics, specifically — indisputable since Johnson just joined six months ago, albeit as a life member. Second, an economic plan that isn’t the Flat Tax. Third, a foreign policy farther in the direction of isolationism than Johnson’s non-interventionism. What would a Wrights campaign look like? A grassroots affair, reaching out to local libertarian candidates in a bid to make use of preestablished media relationships — relationships I’m not sure actually exist, or at least haven’t proven terrifically useful in the past. But the talking points are in place for the debate, and Wrights will at least be on the stage with a chance to make them.

But at this point it would take getting caught in flagrante delicto with half a dozen hookers, several farmyard animals, and a choir of castrati for Gary Johnson to lose the nomination. And while some of the above might be on the menu for other libertarian operatives once they get over to the Strip, there’s precious little vice (other than the obvious one) at the resort itself, even in the room parties that fill the convention’s nighttime hours.

The peculiar pleasure to be found in these hospitality suites is instead that of truly bizarre conversation — something like a perpetual Philip K. Dick story, where one comes to realize, again and again, that there is no firm ground to stand on, no intersection between a particular person’s mind and whatever passes for objective reality in the world around us. For instance, last night I spoke with a younger attendee who was absolutely convinced that the greatest problem facing American politics — nay, politics worldwide — was the workings of sorcerers wielding unimaginable arcane power. He supported a blanket ban on all sorcery, speaking approvingly of nations where such laws were already on the books, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. More specifically, any presidential candidate worth his salt must be willing to take on the leading nest of sorcerers in America, Yale’s Skull & Bones society, which has been responsible for many assassinations over the past half-century or so, most recently Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

After a few drinks and a swing across the dancefloor at Gary Johnson’s bumping election party (LMFAO soundtrack included), I called it a night. Tomorrow: candidates court delegate tokens and try to get on the stage for the C-SPAN televised debate. More anon.



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Arrival at Red Rock

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In some ways it’s all so familiar — traveling westward to cover a Libertarian National Convention where a (relatively) high-profile former Republican office-holder is expected to sweep away a field of Libertarian sidelights and gain the party’s presidential nomination.

And yet, it is also all so different. For starters, Gary Johnson is no Bob Barr. In his time as governor of New Mexico, Johnson never postured as a drug warrior or tried to “defend” marriage by legislation or other means — in fact, legalization of marijuana and support for gay marriage are probably the two positions of his most likely to attract any voters hesitating between the Romney rock and the Obama hard place.

Thus far his approach has been about as different from Barr’s as can be; where the latter marched through the convention areas with a flock of operatives keeping away the riffraff, Johnson has been approachable, and his staffers friendly and accommodating, within reason (and the ability to make that last distinction is vital for anyone attempting to navigate any large gatherings of libertarians). Johnson’s team has clearly also learned another lesson Barr failed to: recruiting a VP long before the ballots get filled out. Hence he can welcome onto his prospective ticket the highly respected Judge Jim Gray, and not risk the baggage of an intolerably chipper huckster or other, even less sane second.

All of which means precisely zero, at this point. No matter the outcome of the convention or the general election though, it’s hard to imagine Johnson ever saying that libertarians ought to vote for Newt Gingrich for anything. And if nothing else, that is already a change worth celebrating.

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One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is airport security. It's far past cliché by now, and yet the TSA keeps finding ways to top themselves: this time it wasn’t just ludicrously inefficient layout or mufull-body scanners, not just the removal of belts and shoes and the ritual offering of the clear plastic bag of fluids—no, this time they added, at the end of it all, a sign that read “RECOMBOBULATION AREA.” Ostensibly this is the place where you put your clothes back on, reassemble your luggage, get everything back together, but it’s also as close we'll ever get to a direct admission that the goal of the checkpoint is not to stop terrorists, but to discombobulate everyone coming through.



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From Russia, with Oil

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While the Obama administration continues to stifle fossil fuel production in the hope — the delusional dream, actually — of replacing it by wind, solar and biofuel, other nations continue to act rationally. In particular, Russia is working assiduously to become the world’s major energy supplier. A recent WSJ article illustrates this.

The story reports that Russia’s state oil company Rosneft (rhymes with “raw theft”) has cut a huge deal with Italian energy firm Eni to exploit oil fields in the Arctic. In exchange for access to the huge Russian Arctic fields, Eni will give Rosneft stakes in Eni’s projects in Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

Eni is getting a third share of a big pie, or more exactly, pies. The Fedynsky field (northwest of Murmansk) alone contains 19 billion barrels of oil. The total estimated recoverable reserves are about 36 billion barrels.

This deal is on top of an agreement that Russia signed last week with Exxon Mobil, which gives Rosneft a 30% share in development of fields in Canada, the Gulf of Mexico, and West Texas.

So Russia is wasting no time in developing the Arctic, while we block oil and gas drilling and funnel our state resources into solar projects that go bust. Thank God we have such enlightened leadership.




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