The Cruelty of the ASPCA


A recent report concerning the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was simply too delicious not to comment on.

The ASPCA has a very nice sounding name, no? I mean, who is for cruelty to animals? Or even people. I certainly am not. But it should concern everyone that like so many other NGOs (nongovernmental nonprofit organizations, ostensibly devoted to the public good), it masks its agenda behind its euphemistic name.

In the case of the ASPCA, the agenda is one of a strident animal rights advocacy.

One of the projects that the ASPCA (along with fellow animal-rights groups such as the Humane Society, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, and others) has pursued is ending the use of animals in circuses. Not content with, say, urging its supporters simply not to patronize circuses, the ASPCA (along with several of its NGO fellow-travelers) waged a “litigation war” against Feld Entertainment, owners of America’s biggest circus, long-famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. It found a disgruntled former Ringling Brothers employee, one Tom Rider, to use as a plaintiff in a case the ASPCA and its allies filed against the circus, alleging that the circus routinely abused the elephants omnipresent in the shows. (The allegedly aggrieved pachyderms were not plaintiffs in the suit.)

The circus, a family-owned enterprise, fought the case, and won in 2009. In the trial, it was revealed that Rider, the alleged witness to the alleged mistreatment of the animals (which allegedly caused him extreme emotional injury), never complained while he worked for the circus, had no proof to back up his assertions, and had been paid a whopping $190,000 by the ASPCA and its fellow-travelers — his sole source of support — during the period of litigation.

So Feld Entertainment sued the animal-rights groups that were tormenting it, for malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and violating the RICO statute.

Late last year the ASPCA caved like a box crushed by an elephant. It will pay Feld Entertainment a jumbo-sized award of $9.3 million to settle all claims.

Feld is still pursuing the Humane Society, the Fund for Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Animal Production Institute United with Born Free USA, along with the moneygrubbing plaintiff Tom Rider and the posse of lawyers. I hope Feld wins across the board.

As the CEO of Feld Entertainment proudly said, “These defendants attempted to destroy our family-owned business with a hired plaintiff who made statements that the court did not believe. Animal activists have been attacking our family, our company, and our employees for decades because they oppose animals in circuses. This settlement is a vindication not just for the company, but also for the dedicated men and women who spend their lives working and caring for all the animals . . .”


Leftist NGOs routinely use the same tactics to further the agenda: lure people into giving financial support with moderate-sounding names, then use the money to fund propaganda campaigns and endless legal harassment of people or organizations they oppose.

It’s nice to see them smacked back for a change. It would be good if the media paid one one-thousandth as much attention to refutations of charges in cases like this as they did to the charges themselves.

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Fatal Mistakes


America was founded on the idea of individual liberty — that free men are rational individuals whose interests are vastly more harmonious than antagonistic. As such, it was the first moral society. All previous systems of social order were based on coercive forces that subordinated individuals to the demands of society — demands defined by a favored, ruling class. In America, society existed to support the orderly and voluntary pursuits of free individuals. And, in these pursuits, individuals enjoyed the fruits of their own labor, earned through free trade in a free market. How could a fledgling nation of disparate individuals — motivated by self-interest, defiant of authority, and governed by personal morality and the laws of capitalism — prosper?

To make matters worse, many of the individuals to whom this extraordinary task of self-government had been entrusted were the dregs of European society.It was Europe's poor and uneducated who ventured forth to America, undaunted souls who came to create their own employment. Those from the upper classes, unwilling to abandon their jobs as superior intellects, stayed home. As P.J. O'Rourke once remarked, "The Mayflower was full of C students."

In his famous essay, “What Is An American” (Letter III in Letters from an American Farmer, 1781), J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote of this unruly lot,

Alas, two thirds of them had no country. Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and starves, whose life is a continual scene of sore affliction or pinching penury; can that man call England or any other kingdom his country? A country that had no bread for him, whose fields procured him no harvest, who met with nothing but the frowns of the rich, the severity of the laws, with jails and punishments; who owned not a single foot of the extensive surface of this planet?

Arriving in America, these people were "united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself." Crevecoeur elaborated that for each American, "the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?"

It was Europe's poor and uneducated who ventured forth to America, undaunted souls who came to create their own employment.

The rest was history — in two parts. Part One extended from the time of Crevecoeur through the "Roaring Twenties”: a period of unprecedented prosperity created by the visions, labor, inventions, innovations, scientific discoveries, and technological advances of free individuals persevering through the tribulations of free markets, largely unassisted by government. Part Two was the period since: a period of continued, but more limited and increasingly precarious prosperity, a prosperity constrained by the authoritarian state that emerged during the meddlesome FDR years toextricate us from the throes of the Great Depression — by dismantling the social, economic, and political apparatus underlying almost everything that succeeded in Part One.

The "silken bands of mild government" were quickly removed by FDR's Brain Trust — the intellectual descendants of elite Europeans who came here after our revolution, when it became safe for them to work and rule. United in their disdain for individualism and capitalism, they believed that what had worked superbly in the past was accidental and, in any case, inadequate for the grand plans they had for the future. By concentrating immense political power and unlimited borrowing capacity (not to mention their self-evident genius) in Washington DC, they created a Leviathan that, through political will and money (i.e., coercion and bribery), would eliminate the mistakes of individuals and businesses. Their marvelously noble and compassionate programs — promising social justice, economic equality, academic excellence, financial security, etc.; the contrivances of Democrats and Republicans alike — have plagued us since, with painful failure.

Normally, it is the pain resulting from mistakes that brings success and prosperity. Individuals and businesses, even state and local governments, feel such pain when they ignore natural social and economic forces. They use it to correct their errors; it guides them on a path to their justifiable goals. But the government created in the 1930s does not feel the pain of its mistakes. Its errors simply propagated themselves through its programs — uncorrected, magnifying failure — and onto the economy. Over 80 years earlier, the French economist, Frédéric Bastiat, understood this inherent flaw when, in Economic Harmonies, he wrote of authoritarian intervention:

[E]vil . . . follows upon error, but it falls upon the wrong person. It strikes him whom it should not strike; it no longer serves as a warning or a lesson; it is no longer self-limiting; it is no longer destroyed by its own action; it persists, it grows worse, as would happen in the biological world if the imprudent acts and excesses committed by the inhabitants of one hemisphere took their toll only upon the inhabitants of the other hemisphere.

We reside in the hemisphere of falling evil. Medicare, a system in which retirees receive 2.32 to 6 times more in benefits than what they contribute, threatens to bankrupt the country. But this is not a lesson; "it persists, it grows worse," with the grander mistake of Obamacare. We endure the War on Poverty, a Lyndon Johnson, Great Society plan to eradicate poverty — in ten years! It persists today, almost 50 years later, with the government annually doling out over $60,000 per “poor” household, in effect, bribing some to stay in “poverty” with money stolen from others. Spending $3,000 per student, our public education system was the envy of the world, when, in 1965, the federal government stepped in to improve it. Driven by federal requirements, spending today is almost $15,000 per student, and our "improved" system is at best mediocre.

Failure has become the norm; worse, it has become acceptable. Other than the Interstate Highway System and the early, but brief, success of the EPA (now a tyrannical citadel of scientific fraud and political corruption), there is no federal program that is not a costly, feckless, ongoing failure.

The War on Poverty persists today, almost 50 years later, with the government, in effect, bribing some to stay in “poverty” with money stolen from others.

Acceptability of failure began with the New Deal, as it anesthetized capitalism and domesticated individualism. This paved the way for the technique of using failure as an opportunity for reward and, when executed properly, even praise. The Federal Reserve, which was responsible for the banking crisis of 1930–33, was thereafter rewarded with expanded control over banking. The federal government grew in power as FDR's Keynesian demand management policies took 16 years to bring the economy out of a downturn that should have lasted only four. Yet FDR is praised for the recovery. Today, president Obama uses the very same policies, with the very same result: immense debt and prolongation of the economic slump they are designed to remedy. And financial regulators, who failed to prevent the financial crisis that caused the slump, were rewarded with the vast powers of Dodd-Frank financial reform.

Why do we tolerate these mistakes? To a large extent, it is because of what de Tocqueville called a "soft despotism" of paternalistic government, a government made despotic by citizens happy to relinquish their individuality. In Democracy in America (1835), he spoke of "an immense, tutelary power" that renders us compliant and submissive to a government that keeps us "in perpetual childhood."

Then, there is our regulatory system — a morass of overbearing rules that controls every industry in our economy and almost every aspect of our lives. This is the system that de Tocqueville exquisitely anticipated when he wrote:

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd . . .

We (not you and I, of course) have become timid and industrious animals. We are afraid to hold the federal government accountable for its chronic failures. This is not to say that it should have no meaningful role in solving our social or economic problems. But government, especially our central planners and our regulatory supervisors, should feel the pain of their mistakes, just as we industrious animals do ours — swiftly, and by means of demotion, termination, or jail time. Conversely, they should be rewarded for success. Better yet, delegate most of those shepherd jobs to state or local government, or even to the private sector, where mistakes are less painful and successes are more likely.

Or, perhaps, success is but a whimsical notion, as quaint as the ideas of freedom, individualism, and self-reliance that brought prosperity in pre-Leviathan days. Besides, who knows if the poor and uneducated of yesterday would prosper in America today? However, it is painfully ironic that today's poor and uneducated are not up to the task, as they are "met with nothing but the frowns" of our modern welfare system — a towering monument to despair, erected from the mistakes of an all-giving federal government.

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Bench Bugs


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More Environmental Extremism


A recent report out of England is a perfect illustration of the thesis that a major component of the modern environmentalist movement consists of religious worshipers of a decidedly peculiar pagan proclivity, to wit, worshipers of Thanatos, the god of death.

The story is about the famous BBC broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, brother of the famous British actor Richard Attenborough. Sir David is a fixture of British TV, hosting various nature shows, including the acclaimed series Life on Earth.

Sir David has just put forward the simply lovely view that human beings are a disease afflicting the planet. He is greatly perturbed by the bête-noirs of the environmental movement: global warming and overpopulation. “We are plague on the Earth,” he cried piteously, adding, “It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Need I add that Sir David is a big supporter of the Optimum Population Trust, an NGO devoted to curtailing growth of the population?

With folks like him, Thanatos is God and Malthus was His Prophet.

Citing as an example Ethiopia, the “compassionate” Sir David averred, “We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and that’s not an inhuman thing to say.”

No, Sir David, it isn’t an inhuman thing to say — just a stunningly simplistic thing to say. The endemic famine in Ethiopia — like all famines in the last century — is mainly the consequence of a bad government and economic system, merely triggered by natural calamity. In the case of Ethiopia, it was most recently a drought, a natural weather cycle that has happened throughout recorded history. In fact, as the brilliant Bjorn Lomborg noted just recently, there hasn’t been any significant increase in drought worldwide over the last 60 years. There has been more drought in southern Europe and western Africa, true enough, but there has been less in northwestern Australia and central North America.

And by the way, if you do want to limit population growth, what you need to do is limit government and promote free enterprise, which invariably results in higher living standards. As the middle class increases, population growth declines. Depend on it.

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The Anatomy of Drivel


“How long does this drivel go on?”

That’s what Edward Everett Horton, impersonating an angel, says about the romantic conversation between Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes that he is forced to overhear in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). It’s a good way of letting at least half the audience know that the moviemakers share their feelings, and won’t let the drivel go on much longer.

During the past year, as I dutifully followed the linguistic adventures of my fellow Americans, that line kept coming back to me: “How long does this drivel go on?” Unfortunately, no angels appeared to keep the story moving. The drivel never stopped.

“Drivel” isn’t a random term of abuse. It is almost scientifically accurate. A dictionary defines it as “(1) saliva flowing from the mouth, or mucus from the nose; slaver; (2) childish, silly, or meaningless talk or thinking; nonsense; twaddle.” Drivel is language that flows out naturally, no matter how ugly and stupid it is. The difference between verbal drivel and biological drivel is that people usually wipe the second kind off; the first kind they publish to the world, without a hint of self-criticism — and sometimes with more than a hint of pride.

If Jackson had any sense, wouldn’t she know that “make a difference” includes the possibility of “make things worse”?

We saw this in the president’s second inaugural speech. What can you say about “affirm the promise of our democracy,” “bridge the meaning of [old] words with the realities of our time,” “never-ending journey,” “America's possibilities are limitless,” “the love we commit to one another must be equal,” and “awesome joy”? That’s all drivel. Drivel on stilts, perhaps — although “awesome” is nothing more than surfer babble — but drivel nonetheless.

Now what can you say about EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who resigned her post, saying that she was leaving for "new challenges, time with my family, and new opportunities to make a difference"? You can say:

  1. It appears that she was fired. If she wasn’t fired, and she left for new challenges and opportunities, why wouldn’t she give us even a hint about what they were?
  2. Whether she was or wasn’t fired, shouldn’t she know that officials who claim they are quitting to spend time with their families have been the butt of jokes for the past 20 years?
  3. If she had any sense, wouldn’t she know that “make a difference” includes the possibility of “make things worse”?

Clearly, these thoughts, though obvious, are too much to expect from high-placed government officials. Jackson’s statement was drivel, pure drivel.

But drivel isn’t confined to government. What can you say about an ad for a concert that promises “a legendary night of music”? Many such pre-legendary ads appeared during 2012 — and this despite the fact that Americans already possessed, by their own account, the largest legendary in the world. By 2012, every celebrity, past celebrity, and would-be celebrity whom anybody could remember (admittedly, American historical thought has its limits) had been proclaimed a “legend.” Every second banana from a ’60s sitcom had become Hercules or Hiawatha, or at least Elvis Presley. That was bad enough. But to treat a one-night show, a show that hadn’t even occurred, as if it were a living legend in its own time — that’s drivel. As I write, news arrives of John Travolta’s receiving an award at the 10th Annual Living Legends of Aviation festivities in Beverly Hills, California. Congratulations, John! I’m sure you deserve every bit of it.

Anyone who uses such terms is either a fool or a political swindler.

More drivel — but perhaps not really important drivel. More serious is the drivel that is used to “argue” for political positions and public expenditures. Notice: I’m not referring to wrong ideas — that’s a whole ’nother category. I’m referring to childish, silly, or meaningless talk. One example is the sounds we hear about “the environment.”

First there was “global warming.” This “warming” may or may not be happening; if it’s happening, it may or may not be bad; and if it’s bad, it may or may not be caused by human beings. I suspect that it isn’t happening, and if it is, it isn’t caused by us. But whether I’m right or wrong, “global warming” isn’t exactly drivel. It means something. Something vague and maybe silly, but you can still detect a meaning.

“Warming,” however, wasn’t the end of the line. Far from it. Its successor was “climate change.” Whether this phrase originated as drivel is a subject for debate. It didn’t flow spontaneously out of somebody’s mouth or nose; it originated as a conscious cover-up of perceived flaws in the “warming” theory. You may not be able to show that the whole planet is heating up, but you know that climate is always changing, locally, in one way or another. But whatever its origin, the phrase itself is drivel. It is “meaningless talk,” in the sense that the words have no specific meaning. They are used as a synonym for “global warming, with bad effects, caused by man,” but that is a long, long way from “climate change,” which could just as easily signify “temporary changes in the weather of Boston, with good effects, and attributable to the sunspot cycle.”

One interesting thing about “climate change,” which is used to imply the necessity of resisting change, is that it is a platitudinous reversal of other platitudes. I refer to those nasty stews of syllables that authority figures start dishing up whenever they decide to do something you don’t like. “Life is change,” they tell us; “change is a constant,” “we all [i.e., you all] must adapt to change,” et cetera. But whether it’s feel-good drivel or feel-bad drivel, pro-change drivel or anti-change drivel, it’s drivel, that’s for sure. You can bet that anyone who uses such terms is either a fool or a political swindler. “We have always understood that when times change, so must we” (Barack Obama, second inaugural address). Question: How is it that our understanding is “always” the same, despite the fact that “times” are always changing? Has there never been a “change” that convinced us not to change?

But to return. During 2012, we witnessed the third float in the grand parade of environmental claptrap. Just as “global warming” once engendered “climate change,” so “climate change” now engendered “sustainability.” The word had appeared long before 2012, of course, and for all I know it once possessed a meaning. In 2012, however, it started flowing from every public orifice, on every possible occasion; and its meaning, if any, could no longer be established. Yet billions were expended in its name. Buildings became sustainable. Foods became sustainable. Septic tanks became sustainable. Any absence of plastic qualified for admission to the Sustainability Hall of Fame. Energy itself became sustainable — or was denounced as wicked, abominable, and subject to outlawry.

I can see, in a way, why fossil fuels might be regarded as nonsustainable. Someday, under some circumstances, those fossils may run out. I’m sorry to say, however, that by this standard our lives are much less sustainable than fossil fuels. In one hundred years, we will all be dead, unless we die even sooner, perhaps from attempting to eat only sustainable foods. Yet enormous resources of coal and oil will still exist. They will long survive us. Depressing, isn’t it?

But you see the true idiocy of “sustainability” when you notice that wood products have become “nonsustainable.” Wood products. Now, what is more sustainable, renewable, all those things, than trees? Trees, unlike coal or oil, grow back. And they grow back right away, unless you spend a lot of money keeping them off the property. Thinking in this way, however, is not ultimately sustainable.

It’s true that children are often exploited for emotional effect, but when else have you seen children’s funerals exploited in this way?

Are you still with me? I think you are. Now will you follow me into the world of “gun control” (that is, abolition of all guns not owned by government)? This, I believe, was the number 1 source of drivel during 2012, and in December of that year this drivel nearly drowned the nation.

By December 17, three days after what it called the “unthinkable massacre” at Newtown, Connecticut, USA Today was already proclaiming in a banner headline: “Gun Debate at Tipping Point.” In case the people who were allegedly “tipping” the debate didn’t know which way to tip it, the paper told them, in a subtitle: “Newtown Victims’ Age May Be Key.” “Victims’ age”: cool! That will whip up the mob. Meanwhile, “may” will establish journalistic fairness.

Next day, the big headline was “Calls for Change; NRA Mum.” We know that change is good, unless it’s climate change; but “mum” is such an old, oldword, so that must be bad. Above the headline: a picture of “young mourners” going to “the funeral of their friend”; above that, a headline reading, “Tiny Coffin Rendered Me Speechless.’” Do you detect a political bias here?

Would that USA Today had rendered itself speechless. It’s true that children are often exploited for emotional effect, but when else have you seen children’s funerals exploited in this way? When an airplane crashes, when a schoolbus goes off the road, when 500 people, many of them children, are murdered in Chicago in a single year, do tiny coffins appear above a banner headline? No, they don’t; because there is no political purpose for the exploitation. And in the absence of a design to manipulate, normal manners, normal standards of respect prevail, even in the media.

But for USA Today (and many other media outlets) normal standards aren’t moral enough. The paper was morally disappointed, morally frustrated, morally aggrieved, morally enraged that four whole days after the Newtown maniac used his gun, guns had still not been outlawed. Perversely, the debate refused to tip. Clearly, more talking points had to be provided. And they were. The banner headline on December 19 read: “Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook . . . Names Only Hint at Mass Killing Crisis. One Every Two Weeks.”

This isn’t pure and refined drivel — it’s still too calculated — but it’s an outline for drivel. It’s the passage from which drivel is supposed to flow. “Mass Killing Crisis?” Might this be a crisis even larger than the “crisis of obesity” — another gift of 2012? But “Mass Killing Crisis” isn’t just another hysterical politicization of a chronic human problem. Falsehoods about dead people aren’t the same as falsehoods about the overuse of French fries. They’re a hundred times more disgusting. In this case, they’re also more flagrant. Anybody who stopped to think would realize that if “mass killings” took place that often, they wouldn’t be news. But that’s not the point; it was never the point. The anti-gun propaganda wasn’t news; it was intellectual, or at least verbal, marching orders for people who never stop to think or realize.

The stuff provided almost irresistible. One knew, as surely as one knows that someone at an open-casket funeral will have to say “Doesn’t he look natural?”, that the emerging “debate” would involve a constant outflow of the question, “If it could save only one life, wouldn’t you be for gun control?” This is literal nonsense. More than one life would be saved by banning red meat, chocolates, staircases, swimming pools, snow shovels, films about sex, and automobiles of any kind. Yet this was the mighty question insistently posed by the egregious David Gregory in his famous interview with Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association. Gregory ordered LaPierre to answer the question, answer the question, just answer my question: if it could save only one life, wouldn’t you be for gun control? To his shame, LaPierre didn’t mention the fact that the question was drivel. Nobody ever does. But every thinking person should.

When I watch Fox News, regarded by the White House and my academic friends as an outlet for insane rightwing propaganda, I am startled by its ability to emit the same drivel as the modern liberal outlets If it weren’t for John Stossel and Greg Gutfeld, Fox would be in serious intellectual trouble. Here’s Karl Rove, commenting about the Newtown disaster on Fox News’ “Special Report” (Christmas Eve): “This is a horrific event. It has torn at the soul of America, that so many innocent lives were snuffed out.”

Public and effusive “mourning” is the pastime of politicians, newsmongers, and sadists, who have no real feelings about death at all.

Define “torn at.” Define “soul of America.” One would think that Nazis had invaded the country. I don’t demand that Rove say the simple truth, which is that many, many innocent lives are snuffed out every day, and that every innocent death merits mourning and reflection. And I certainly don’t demand that Rove, or anyone else on TV, say the more complicated truth, that whether we should or not, we ordinarily do not care about deaths that do not personally involve us; that the deaths at Newtown are truly mourned only by some extraordinarily empathic people; that public and effusive “mourning” is the pastime of politicians, newsmongers, and sadists, who have no real feelings about death at all; and that if these “mourners” were sincere, they would give the murders of the 500 people in Chicago (median family income $52,000) at least as much thought as the 26 victims at the school in Newtown, Connecticut (median family income $120,000).

As I say, no one should be required to enunciate these truths. But why go out of your way to avoid them? Why insist on discussing “the soul of America”? This sort of thing is drivel. Actually, it is worse than drivel. It is false and indecent.

It is false because it wantonly denies the essential terms of human life, which include the fact that some people become unbalanced and as a result do horrible things. In 1927, in the insignificant community of Bath, Michigan, a man burdened with some grievance, or set of grievances, or Satanic inspiration, or whatever, laboriously planted explosives under his home, his farm buildings, and the local school. When he had planted enough of them, he murdered his wife, blew up his house and farm (he had hobbled his horses to make sure they would be burned to death), and, by means of timed explosives, blew up the school. After that, grinning, he drove his truck to the ruins of the school, observed the behavior of the anguished crowd, called the school superintendent over to the truck, shot into it, and detonated the explosives he had put inside. He and the superintendent were killed. A total of 42 other people were killed, and 58 were injured. Most of the victims were young children.

A horrible, sickening event. But it did not tear at the soul of the nation. To say so would be drivel. As long as human beings are human beings, some of them will find ways to do such things. To be startled about this fact is false and futile.

But indecent — why?

It is one thing to assert that you have feelings when you do not have them; it is another to exploit the deaths of innocent people in order to advance some argument of your own, or (as in the case of Mr. Rove) to avert the arguments of other people.

What do I mean by “exploit”? Good question. If I believe that my fellow citizens should surrender their guns, because guns sometimes kill innocent people, and these deaths can be prevented by laws, there is surely nothing immoral about stating how many innocent people are killed by guns in a given year. And it is not exploitation to emphasize any new gun deaths that are reported. Exploitation happens when deaths occur and you are willing to say anything, no matter how ridiculous, to display your supposed regret and sympathy, your “thoughts and prayers,” and make other people look hardhearted if they refuse to follow suit.

Is it possible that such exploitation is engineered without pleasure and satisfaction? “Aha! More corpses! Now they will listen.” No, it is not possible.

This, I hold, is indecency — the behavior of moral vultures, hovering over the countryside, waiting for deaths on the highway. Vultures, I hear, are often seen to drivel.

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Obama’s Second Inaugural


President Obama has a reputation for eloquence. Even many of his political opponents acknowledge this supposed fact. In 2008, I was inclined to moderate agreement with the general consensus; although it would have been a stretch to say that his speeches had any literary value, neither did they contain patently hackneyed expressions, awkward sentence constructions, or offensive jingles. His second inaugural address, however, fails spectacularly on all counts.

Listening to his speech was nothing less than an ordeal. Although I could say much more about the performance (in particular, about his habit of switching in and out of falsetto as a substitute for genuine emotion), I will limit my criticism to the words themselves. This does not reflect my opinion about his policies — some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t — unless you stretch the meaning of “policy” broadly enough to include hiring a new speechwriter.

“Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.”

This is a bizarre image: politicians at a committee meeting, determining what kinds of technology and institutions are necessary to sustain a “modern economy.”

“Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.”

I was not aware that the national character of the American people was reducible to a mathematical formula. I hope he follows up on this claim by telling us whether or not the function observes strict concavity and whether or not it is defined on a compact set.

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”

America’s “possibilities are limitless”? Talk about a hackneyed expression. I’m also alarmed by the idea that Americans have an “endless capacity for risk.”

“We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

Besides the awkward grammatical mismatch between “every person” and “their work,” this sentence stands out because of the curious notion of being “liberated from the brink.”

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

I was not aware that it was possible to betray people who haven’t been born.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

I’m imagining Obama’s speechwriter sitting at his desk with a portrait of his fourth grade homeroom teacher on the wall, remembering the teacher’s inspirational claim that adjectives are the literary equivalent of a sparkling rainbow. I can also imagine this speechwriter giving up on finding a good adjective to describe storms and settling for “powerful.”

“We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise.”

I’m baffled by the idea that green technology will drive future economic development. As far as I can tell, this technology is inefficient and therefore unprofitable. The only way it could be profitable would be if the government passed legislation making it impossible for companies to avoid using this technology without running afoul of federal regulations — wait, Sherlock, maybe that’s the idea!

“Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright.”

How exactly does joy inspire awe?

“With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

Another curious image: someone carrying light. A torch can be carried; light cannot — unless our understanding of physics has radically changed since I was in junior high school.

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Why Not Keep the Talented?


As we head into the New Year, there are signs that Congress may finally allow an increase in legal immigration. Specifically, it now appears that Congress is becoming increasingly aware that it is folly to kick out foreign students who achieve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees.

In fact, both Republicans and Democrats have now sponsored bills to reform immigration laws to encourage STEM workers to immigrate here. And a very recent report by the Information Technology Industry Council, the Partnership for a New American Economy, and the US Chamber of Commerce provides ample evidence that the time is ripe for reform.

The report, “Help Wanted: The Role of Foreign Workers in the Innovation Economy,” looked at three questions: Is there a STEM worker shortage? If so, how bad is it and in what fields is it the worst? Does hiring foreign STEM workers take jobs away from native-born workers?

Take the issue of whether there is a general STEM worker shortage. A number of the report’s findings indicate there is indeed such a shortage, and that it is pervasive across the various STEM fields. Remember that economists typically hold that an overall unemployment rate of about 4% represents essentially full employment (with people who are out of work being mainly in transition between jobs in a fluid market). Our current national unemployment rate has hovered around 8% for four years, which is high by recent standards (those of the 1990s and 2000s).

Well, the report notes that the unemployment rate for American citizens with STEM PhDs is only 3.15%. For those with STEM MS degrees it is only 3.4%.

As to whether foreign-born STEM workers are taking jobs from American-born workers, the data the report surveyed show no such effect. While only 6.4% of non-STEM workers with PhDs are foreign-born, 26.1% of STEM workers with PhDs are foreign-born. (For workers with Master’s degrees, the figures are 5.2% of non-STEM versus 17.7% of STEM.) But even though a higher percentage of STEM than non-STEM workers are foreign-born, STEM workers still have a lower overall unemployment rate.

The job market is not a zero-sum game. There is no set-in-stone number of jobs, so that if an immigrant takes one, there is one less for you or me.

In some STEM fields, the figures are especially dramatic. While 25% of medical scientists are foreign-born, medical scientists generally have a 3.4% unemploymnent rate. In fact, the unemployment rate is lower than the general STEM average of 4.3% in 10 out of the 11 STEM fields with the highest percentage of foreign-born workers.

Moreover, the data indicate that immigrant STEM workers on average earn $3,000 per year more than equivalent native-born workers, putting paid to the myth that they “drive down wages.”

The reason none of this should be surprising is that the job market is not a zero-sum game. There is no set-in-stone number of jobs, so that if an immigrant takes one, there is one less for you or me. No, talented immigrants create jobs, by starting new companies, creating new products, or making our industries more competitive than foreign ones.

In this regard, the study argues that every foreign-born student who graduates from an American college and stays here creates an average 2.62 jobs for native-born workers. At the top 10 patent-producing American universities, more than three-fourths of all patents awarded last year were invented or co-invented by an immigrant.

Why can’t the Republicans and Democrats at least agree on removing the obviously counterproductive caps on foreign students who graduate from American colleges with STEM degrees and who want to remain here to work?

In short — why send the most talented and innovative students home — to start businesses that will only compete with ours?

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Democrat Rep. Chris Murphy: Obama's Measure Is "Revolting"


On January 16th, Obama released a slew of executive orders supposed to "fight gun violence." Most of these orders are either tepid measures begging bureaucrats to actually do their job, or pledges to provide more guidelines to said chairwarmers. A few represent more paperwork and hassle for legitimate gun buyers (background checks, mental health checks). One calls for predictably condescending, belittling propaganda targeting gun owners, called “national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.”

One order, however, stands out. It promises to give $150 million of taxpayers' money to school districts and law enforcement agencies so that they can hire "1000 new school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers, and counselors."

School psychologists, social workers, and counselors are just more of the nonteaching staff that inflates the US cost of education while doing nothing to raise the country's pitiful international ranking in standardized tests. However, the first category, "school resource officers," should catch the reader's attention. This, ladies and gents, is a euphemism for "armed guard." (Ominous thunder roll.)

If politicians surround themselves with Secret Service agents, it's presumed to be safer, and not just because they enjoy the sight of burly guys with dark suits, sunglasses, and a penchant for South American whores.

In case there is any doubt, Obama's press release helpfully explains that the term designates specially trained cops posted in schools — in short, armed guards in schools. This was a measure proposed by many, including the NRA, after the December Newtown school shooting. The general ideais only common sense. After all, if politicians surround themselves with Secret Service agents, it's presumed to be safer, and not just because they enjoy the sight of burly guys with dark suits, sunglasses, and a penchant for South American whores.

California and Ohio, to cite only two examples, already allow schools to employ armed guards, a measure that finds favor among the public. A December 18 Gallup poll shows that 87% of respondents think increased police presence in schools would be "somewhat" or "very" effective to deter shootings, while 64% support the idea of having one or more school officials in every school carry a gun. To support this notion, Larry Sand, a retired teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, cites a couple of shootings which could have been much worse if not for an armed "good guy":

In 1997, at Pearl High School in Mississippi, 16-year-old Luke Woodham shot nine students and staff, killing two, before Joel Myrick, the school's assistant principal, confronted and subdued him with a pistol he retrieved from his truck. In 2001, senior Jason Hoffman opened fire on the attendance office of Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, California. Hoffman wounded five people before being shot and incapacitated by an armed school cop. (Source: City Journal)

We can add the aborted attempt of a San Antonio man who started shooting near a movie theater, then ran inside, where he continued to shoot. He was himself shot and wounded by an armed woman, a security guard who cornered him in the restrooms and took his gun. No one was killed.

In all these cases, police arrived and did their job, but for precious minutes, the armed "good guy" on location was the only help.

Naturally, it is absurd to start a new federal program to pay for these things. Schools can do it themselves, if they want to. But armed guards in school are a logical measure backed by cases proving its worth. It is thus unsurprising that Democrats howled and screamed at the proposition, calling the NRA "crazy" and frothing with outrage. Not that the NRA was the only outfit backing the idea, mind you, but the NRA is the target that the Alinskyites are currently trying to freeze and isolate. Connecticut Representative Chris Murphy went so far as calling the proposition "revolting" and "tone deaf" in a tweet.

That's a pretty hefty accusation. You see, Rep. Murphy is credited with helping the creation of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, and claims to support "independent, non-partisan ethics." If such a paragon of ethical virtue calls an idea revolting, it must be quite loathsome, right?

Alas! As we have seen, Obama has now quietly endorsed the notion, even putting our money where his mouth is. So, Mr. Murphy, bad news for you: you have just called the Dear Leader revolting and tone deaf. But the Lightworker will forgive you. After all, you were just slavishly parroting the slogans of the day. Ethically and independently, of course.

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Nude No More


The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday that it will begin removing the full-body X-ray scanners that have been in use at US airports for the past three years. It's about time. Europe outlawed them long ago for being too invasive. Overzealous TSA guards have used them as an excuse to get vicious with travelers who simply want to get to their planes on time, without having to provide a nudie show for the screeners hidden away in a darkened room somewhere with their hands on who-knows-what. I'm all for security when I travel, but these scanners have done little to thwart terrorism.

I love how the TSA announcement blames the decision on business instead of owning up to the fact that the things don't work and aren't necessary. Here's their official reason: "The maker of the scanner failed to meet a deadline for new software." Ha! It's never the government's fault.

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More on Buying Votes


In a recent analysis of President Obama’s fabulous reelection victory, I argued that one of the reasons he won was his unprecedented use of existing (and new) federal governmental giveaway programs — he played the game of buying votes with taxpayer dollars like no one before him. But the extent of this gargantuan giveaway spree is only now becoming clear.

Take just two of the programs he expanded. First, food stamp programs exploded in size — by 15 million people. The record was set in the year of his reelection. During fiscal year 2012, the main food stamp program — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP” . . . a snappy name, indeed!) — spent a record $80.4 billion, up a whopping $2.7 billion from the year before. (SNAP was spending “only” $55.6 billion when Obama took control, so he raised it by nearly two-thirds.)

When you add in all the other nutritional programs — such as the $18.3 billion spent on the second main food stamp program, the “Child Nutrition Program” — total food stamp spending hit a total of $106 billion.

In the year before the election, the Obama administration aggressively advertised these programs, to increase the number of recipients — no doubt under the theory that people who get the freebies would gratefully vote for the regime that gave them. This was public choice economics of the crudest variety.

Left unexplained by the Obama administration is why such a massive increase in food stamp usage was necessary, given the vibrant, no, glorious economic recovery brought on by its stupendous spending programs.

Also left unexplained is why if people are really needy you need to advertise to them. Everyone has surely heard of food stamps, so is the advertising here intended to amplify the demand?

Another recent report out of New York informs us that at least our tax dollars are being well spent. Welfare recipients are using their Electronic Benefit Cards — really, they don’t so much get welfare checks anymore as pre-paid credit cards — at some fun places, such as bars, porn video stores, liquor shops, and strip clubs. Yes, the cash assistance program of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has a “cash assistance” program (programs within programs, like Russian dolls) that allows recipients to pull as much as $668 in food stamps, and $433 in cash, each month. The cash can be spent at bars, booze shops, and sex shops.

Finally, let’s turn to the Federal socialist student loan program, nationalized under the Obama administration, so that 93% of all student loans are in effect given out by this administration. The program ballooned by 4.6% in the last quarter before the election, a whopping $42 billion rise — in just three months. Now standing at over a trillion bucks, student loan debts exceed those for auto loans, credit cards, and home equity loans.

This debt is beginning to get problematic for those holding it — delinquency rates are way up. Loan payments that were 90 days past due recently hit 11%, higher than the percentage for credit cards.

But all this has served the purpose of electing Democrats, so the administration has good reason for its current fit of self-congratulation.

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Not Just Another Gangster Film


Did we really need another big, bloody, blockbuster of a gangster film?

Well, we may not need another one, but I'm mighty happy to have this one. Gangster Squad is smart, classy, brilliantly acted, creatively conceived, and surprisingly fun. It tells an important story, too, about how gang bosses build their territory and why it is so difficult to get rid of them.

The film is set in postwar Los Angeles and tells the mostly true story of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) — a high-profile gangster from New York and Chicago who wants to make L.A. his exclusive territory — and the cops who go after him. Cohen trades in drugs, women, and gambling. A former prizefighter, he is brutal in his punishment of anyone who fails him or crosses him. He is determined to become the kingpin of the West Coast, and Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), an honest cop and World War II vet, is just as determined to stop him. But to do that, he will have to fight half the cops in L.A., because most of them are on Cohen's payroll.

I believe in the power of the free market, but I ask you: how can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up. The bad guys will always have more money than the good guys to buy the cops' loyalty. Cohen says cynically, "A cop that's not for sale is like a dog with rabies. There's no medicine for it. You just gotta put 'im down."

Honest cops have to be motivated by more than money. They have to care passionately about the people and the town. O'Mara and his gang have that kind of passion. Fresh out of the war, they have the military mindset of men who believe in their cause and are willing to die for it. They risked their lives to defend America's honor and her way of life, and then they came home to a city facing corruption. One of them muses, "A bright future — that's what we fought for, right? I'm not gonna let Mickey Cohen take that away from us."

Can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up.

That kind of honor-driven determination makes the members of the gangster squad very dangerous to criminals. And to themselves. They take risks no one would accept for a paycheck alone, and they do things no cop oughta do without a warrant, a trial, and a sentence. After one particularly deadly shootout, O'Mara says, "War taught us how to fight, and now that's all we know how to do. We don't know how to live, only how to fight. We might as well be Mickey Cohen."

In many respects Gangster Squad is a classic mission movie in the style of The Magnificent Seven or The Dirty Dozen. As O'Mara assembles his team of honest cops turned rogue assassins, we get to know their personalities and strengths. Ryan Gosling is the Steve McQueen of the group. Even the way he smokes is cool, sexy, and smart. So is the stylized way he shoots. He has the sly smile and enigmatic eyes that tell us his character is as unpredictable as nitroglycerin. Giovanni Ribisi is the family man whose expertise is communications technology — sort of the "Radar" of this group. Robert Patrick is the anachronistic cowboy, a sharpshooter and soothsayer rolled into one.

Director Ruben Fleischer has a great eye for style. He uses his sets, colors, costumes, gorgeous cars, and cinematic magic to suggest a graphic novel brought to life. O'Mara has the strong jaw, steely squint, and classy fedora of a Dick Tracy. Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) with her deeply colored lips, sultry movements, and sideswept hairstyle suggests Veronica Lake — or perhaps Jessica Rabbit. Side characters such as Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) and Lt. Quincannon (Jack McGee), with their distinctive noses and gruff bravado, look like the supporting characters in a Spiderman comic book. The script, written by first-time screenwriters Will Beall and Paul Lieberman, almost falls into parody at times, but the actors carry it off without cracking a smile. The dialogue is witty and sophisticated, while the story is deadly serious. It's a winning combination.

If President Obama wanted a poster movie for his war on automatic weapons, this one is it. The film was supposed to be released in September, but after the shooting in an Aurora movie theater in mid-July, they had to pull it from distribution and rewrite the climactic scene, which originally took place in a crowded movie theater. The scene now happens on a crowded street in Chinatown, but its veiled allusions to Graumann's Chinese Theater and the film Chinatown, which was considered very violent when it was made in 1974, serve as reminders of what the scene originally entailed. I'm not so sure the change of venue makes that much difference — civilians are still being gunned down in droves in a public square — but the move seems to have made director Fleischer and the rest of the cast feel better about the film. I wonder if a similar sense of social consciousness will prompt Quentin Tarantino to remove the climactic theater massacre from Inglorious Basterds, or cause TNT and others to edit out the ending when they show it on TV. Somehow I don't think that will happen . . .

Gangster Squad is a bit bloody for some tastes, but it's easy to know when to look away if you're the squeamish type. Meanwhile, the fine acting, engrossing story, witty script, and artistic cinematography make it worth the effort.

Editor's Note: Review of "Gangster Squad," directed by Ruben Fleischer. Warner Brothers, 2013, 114 minutes.

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What Football Teaches about a Planned Economy


The growing gap between the poor and the rich (at least the very rich) is reason for concern. With wealth concentration at the top, and an apparently shrinking middle class, no nation can thrive economically, politically, or culturally. But the path forward is not through a centrally managed economy. An economy controlled by the government cannot eliminate economic disparity. If you don’t believe me, look at professional football.

This weekend we saw the divisional playoff round unfold. On the AFC side of the playoff bracket every team that appeared in the divisional round last year appeared this year, and three of the four teams — Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, and Denver Broncos — have been playoff regulars for more than a decade. A similar story is told on the NFC side. The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were once again in the second round of the playoffs, and each is a storied franchise with regular appearances in the playoffs and Super Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks made their second appearance in three years, and the Atlanta Falcons made their third trip in a row to the playoffs — their fourth in five years.

The winners from this weekend further illustrate the idea that the best teams in the NFL remain relatively the same over time. The 49ers, seeking their sixth Super Bowl appearance, are in the NFC championship game for the second year in a row. The AFC championship game is a repeat from last year and it is the third time in four years the Ravens and Patriots have faced one another in the championship game.

We should not expect this sort of regularity in professional football, and we should see more parity — if centrally planned economies work as expected.

Professional football is a centrally planned economy, with rules to help the worst teams and keep the best ones from always winning. Two of these rules are especially obvious and powerful.

First, the worse a team is, the better draft picks it gets. It is thus, theoretically, able to improve at a faster rate than the teams that pick behind it.

Second, there is a salary cap that keeps teams from spending as much as they might on players. This keeps the most talented players from concentrating in the biggest markets, such as sometimes happens with the Yankees or Red Sox in baseball, where there is no salary cap. In football every team has the same amount of money to spend on players.

In the planned football economy, we should see a more random playoff picture year to year, but instead the gap between successful teams and unsuccessful teams is growing.

In football, then, we should see a more random playoff picture year to year, but instead we get regularity. Such teams as the Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs find it difficult to win consistently — and the gap between successful teams and unsuccessful teams is growing. The reason: rules may not be crucial, so long as they are applied fairly. If rules are applied fairly, the better-run organizations will come out ahead on a regular basis. They will separate themselves from the pack. There will be aberrations, but over time, the best will win more regularly.

This little sports experiment indicates that if a centrally managed economy is installed, and rules applied fairly, there will still be winners and losers, and there will still be a disparity between the haves and have-nots. After all, the Dallas Cowboys are worth over $2 billion and the Jacksonville Jaguars just sold for $760 million. And this in a league that has rules aimed at producing competitive and economic parity.

But what we know of politics and business is that the rules don’t always get applied fairly. The more money and power one has, the more access and leverage one can get within the political apparatus. Just ask the National Rifle Association or AIG. Thus, it becomes paradoxical to think that government policy, shaped as it is by lobbyists and special interests, will be equitable and fair. Turning to government to fix economic disparity is turning to the proxy for those at the top of the economic food chain. Those who want the government to intervene in the economy to correct economic disparities miss this paradox.

We have seen the government play favorites during the 2008–09 Wall Street bailouts. We have seen it play favorites in the subsidization of companies such as Tesla and Fisker (makers of $100,000 electric sports cars). Smaller banks, and companies without political influence, are left to sink or swim on their own, while larger ones, and ones that promote a government policy, are naturally aided by the government and use it to maintain an advantage.

Ideally we would see a free market solution adopted because people recognized the paradox and the futility of relying on the government. But a wholesale remake of the political economy is likely not going to take place. This isn’t to say that people are right to compromise their principles, but like a good quarterback, people tend simply to take what the defense will give them and enjoy small victories along the way.

The only feasible solution to this problem is to have simple, transparent government policies for regulations and taxes. The complexity of the tax code and the policies regulating business make it nearly impossible for anyone without a team of attorneys and accountants to chart a successful path. The federal tax code alone is so complicated that it’s not clear whether the fiscal cliff bargain raised or lowered taxes.

If simplicity and transparency were instituted, however, anyone who cared to pay attention would be qualified to do so, thus making it far more likely that the rules would be fairly written and fairly applied. The average citizen would no longer be at the mercy of politicians or pundits when struggling to decipher what the government had actually done.

Of course, simplicity and transparency would not generate economic equality either; but that's not the goal. Inequality is going to exist. Our primary concern ought to be with inequality generated, or exacerbated, by government intervention.

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O Canada!


“Canadians are the only people who take moderation to an extreme.”

— H. L. Mencken

Cross the border into Canada circa 2005, and the convivial pleasantries of the immigration official would only be interrupted — almost apologetically — by the requisite formalities. “Are you bringing in any liquor, beer, wine, or tobacco?” An honest declaration inevitably rendered a generous individual exemption.

No longer. Today Canadian immigration agents have taken a page — the third-degree page — from US Customs and Immigration: all obdurate business without a hint of foreplay.

“Are you carrying any self-defense devices such as guns, pepper spray, or mace?” The eyes narrowed down suspiciously, homing through the response to detect revealing body language.

We were. Pepper spray.

My wife and I were embarking on a mountain bike ride across Canada along the Trans Canada Trail (TCT), a dedicated, mostly back-country route for walkers, skiers, horseback riders, and bikers that crosses the country and which, in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion, incorporates every province and territory. Our plan was to ride from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic, camping out along the way. Instead of lugging the more traditional panniers to carry our gear, we were pulling single-wheel BOB (beast-of-burden) trailers each loaded with tent, sleeping bags, cooking kit, etc.

British Columbia, with its accordion folds of Coast Mountains, Rocky Mountains, and subsidiary ranges, is teeming with bears. And pepper spray, the provincial parks’ wardens’ (rangers in the US) preferred bear deterrent, was our only legal protection. Curiously, although capsicum aerosols are legal, they must be labeled “for bears.” Ours were not, so they were confiscated. Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say? We later forked out $80 for two Canadian-made capsicum bear repellents with the proper government labels.

Not one question about drugs or suspicion about illegal stowaways. Canada’s priorities are obvious: first, a mirror image of the US concern over terrorism expressed by the immigration officer as a lack of civility; then a concern about liquor and tobacco smuggling (not only are vice taxes an important source of Canadian revenue but they embody a long tradition of reformist social policy that discourages unhealthy habits); and, finally, handgun prohibition. Canadians are proud of their civil society and deathly afraid of contracting what they perceive as a US epidemic of handgun violence.

Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say?

But a demand for handguns persists. Jock Bigjaw, a Dogrib First Nations (not his real name or tribe) leader and self-styled warrior, wanted a .357 Magnum. Jock was a big-rig hauler, a job that allowed him plenty of time to pursue his real passion — alpinism. We’d met on the flanks of Aconcagua in Argentina and hit it off, laughing ourselves into indignity at the 14,000 foot base camp. Politically, he believed in self-reliance and the Canadian government’s duty to adhere strictly to its treaties. Jock fought many of his fellow Indians’ sense of aimlessness, despair, and alcoholism by setting an example of achievement. He dreamed of being the first Native American to summit the Vinson Massif — the highest peak in Antarctica — and toured Canada’s Indian Reserves giving inspirational presentations at schools and community conclaves. In the world of Canadian indigenous peoples, Jock was a hero.

After the climb he asked me if I’d be willing to buy him a handgun in the US, meet him in Idaho during one of his cross-border forays, and sell it to him. Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada. I agreed.

* * *

In spite of NAFTA, “free trade” remains an elusive concept — particularly at entry levels. After completing a guidebook (see About this Author) to sea kayaking the Inside Passage (three-quarters of which traverses the BC coast), I submitted the manuscript to Rocky Mountain Books, Canada’s premier outdoor guidebook publisher. They wanted it. However, because of my US citizenship, it did not qualify for certain subsidies offered by the federal and provincial governments — in effect, a quota system for Canadian authors that makes it hard for non-Canadians to compete (which is its intention). So, in the end, they declined it.

Just before crossing into Canada to start our bike trip, my wife and I stopped at Smith Rocks State Park in Oregon to do a little rock climbing. For this sport, Smith Rocks is a world-class destination. It is the birthplace of “sport climbing”, a relatively safe technique that in the 1980s allowed standards of difficulty to be pushed way beyond what anyone ever imagined.

Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada.

Lacking a guidebook, I approached a large group of young climbers in the campground to get “beta” — route information. They were from NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, an outgrowth of Outward Bound. NOLS teaches outdoor wilderness and survival skills. These kids had signed up for a month-long rock climbing course that was to take place at Squamish Chief, BC — Canada’s Yosemite. But a Canadian immigration officer had different ideas.

When asked the purpose of their visit, the instructors responded innocently and honestly. Although tuition had been paid in the US — and was already a done deal — the martinet declared that the NOLS program would unfairly compete with Canadian guide services. He refused entry into Canada to the two trailer-hauling vans with 24 kids and instructors. Smith Rocks was their consolation destination.

* * *

In spite of the border crossing unpleasantness and the high prices, it is alwaysa pleasure to be in Canada. A leisurely civility and understated formality barely conceal an endearing earnestness — about the most trivial of life’s minor curiosities — that disarms even the most irascible visitor. Canadians are patient, tolerant, and egalitarian to the core. While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.” As Pierre Trudeau once belligerently declared, “We are in the extreme centre, the radical middle. That is our position!”Nonetheless, to the average American, Canadian politics are an irrelevant baffle mired in minutiae.

Perhaps what makes Canadian politics so unintelligible, frustrating, and yes, even boring to Americans, is the more than usual lack of congruence between political parties and any sort of principled political philosophy. Consistency has been sacrificed to national unity, growth, and development, which — in such a geographically sprawling and climatically extreme country — all parties promote through vigorous federal intervention and subsidies to make settlement and development of its inhospitable extremities more attractive.

While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.”

This was all the easier because, unlike the US, which attempted to design a government from scratch based on the latest Enlightenment philosophy hot topic, Canada simply continued being a part of Britain, developing the same structure of government as the mother country, and following its lead in foreign and domestic policy.

Each election seems to be contested by politicians with a big wish-list of concrete promises that expediency and the demands of a fractious confederation often reverse 180 degrees within days of victory. Canada dodged the 2008 financial crisis through fiscal health and well-capitalized banks, with the “Loonie” shooting ahead of the US dollar for the first time ever. The Economist, however, avers that the housing market is frothy and likely to pop.

But we had more practical matters to consider. We drove to a West Vancouver marina and found a safe place to park our van for the duration of the bike ride, spending the rest of the day packing camping gear, tuning up the bikes, and making the myriad arrangements requisite for our trip — with Canadian talk radio in the background.

The controversy du jour was emblematic of Canadian attitudes, politics and the rise of China. A handful of young Oriental men (some of whom couldn’t speak English) had been arrested drag racing on a Vancouver street in Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Alfa Romeos and other such jet engines on wheels. The police had released them without filing charges. Speculation focused on the idea that wealthy and influential parents had pulled strings. Besides the predictable indignity over favoritism, suspected pay-offs, and police malfeasance, callers and host alike were incredulously outraged that common standards of Canadian propriety had been so contemptuously flaunted by drag racing on a staid city street.

Canada, with British Columbia in particular, has had a huge influx of rich Chinese immigrants — crony capitalists and rent seekers who have made fortunes in a changing China that lacks a rule of law and are using every trick availableto get their money out of the country. Unsurprisingly, China has currency export controls. With its lax immigration policy, passports that are virtually given away, comparative economic freedom, and relative proximity to China as a Pacific Rim neighbor, Canada is a preferred destination for Chinese oligarchs.

Our first day out covered 70 muscle-grinding miles through Vancouver and its suburbs, followed by a torrential downpour the following day. We took a rest day. By the end of the second week, we’d hit our stride and required a rest day only every 5 or 6 days. Much of our way was on “rails-to-trails”, old railway beds reclaimed for recreation. When present, these wilderness throughways profiling no more than a 3% grade made pedaling over BC’s mountain ranges a transcendent experience.

I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of “O Canada.” She smiled and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

One of the first small towns we passed through, Gray Creek (pop. 125), had a refreshing libertarian flavor. The welcoming sign at the town limits proudly announced, “Gray Creek, still metric free.” When I groused about the $38 one-night, one-tent camping fee and the over-priced stale groceries, the good-humored campground and store owner-manager glibly blamed it all on the government.

Canada’s metric system is a bit of a Potemkin village — but with one real cannon that occasionally lobs a ball and messes things up. For one (as in Gray Creek), revanchists stubbornly adhere to the ergonomic English system. Yet, more fundamentally, the Dominion, surveyed by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, is stuck with the mile-based Range & Township sectional land division, which rears its head nearly every time a property survey is necessary. In agricultural areas, rural roads retain a mile-based nomenclature (“Mile 154 Road”) and are located according to the old distances.

At Castlegar, a town of nearly 8,000 people located in the Selkirk Mountains at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, we decided to splurge on an extended rest at a B&B. When we inquired at the tourist office, the attendant — without a hint of irony — informed us that Castlegar had suitably good motels, two campgrounds, but no B&Bs. Since British Columbia is the most British of Canada’s provinces, and B&Bs are a British invention, and they are common in Canada, I sensed something was amiss.

According to a café owner we befriended, a few years before — during an economic development spurt — the city fathers had invited a large, upper mid-range lodging chain to open a unit in town. In the US, when towns come calling for a local franchise, the chain, knowing it has an advantage, is not beyond asking for tax breaks or demanding a location it covets through the use of eminent domain. In Castlegar the quid pro quo took more of a Canadian turn — the elimination of an entire segment of the competition. In return for a fancy motel, the city council banned B&Bs.

An American can never spend much time in Canada without bumping — one way or another — into its famed health care system, usually (at the very least) as one of the first topics of conversation after an exchange of basic pleasantries. We’d heard of doctors going on strike and actually seen nurses striking (all of them are now public sector employees). In Castlegar, signs urging the government not to close 24/7 emergency medical services at the local hospital because of budget constraints were prominently displayed. These were nearly always twinned with another sign, hung by the firefighters’ union expressing opposition to theproposed closure.

As uninvolved tourists, we were entertained to observe another country’s political minuets without directly being involved. They gave us fodder for discussion as we pedaled up the Selkirk Range — but not enough to get us up the western slopes of the Rockies into Banff, where every breath up the technical single track was so precious it precluded conversation.

The town of Banff (Canada’s Aspen, Estes Park or Crested Butte, take your pick — but better), on the BC-Alberta border, is the center of Canada’s oldest national park: Banff National Park, the anchor for a series of parks that straddle the Rocky Mountains. Typical of such quaint alpine villages, it struggles to balance demand and development with retention of the picturesque ambiance that attracts tourists.

No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence.

According to the August 30 issue of the Rocky Mountain Outlook, “Banff’s politicians are poised to revisit the controversial issue of setting quotas to control corporate chain stores and restaurants in the national park tourist town,” not only to preserve the community’s character but also because some homegrown businesses had already gone belly-up due to competition from recently opened national chain stores. Banff is already home to Starbucks (of course), Tim Hortons the coffee-and-doughnut chain(it wouldn’t be Canada without Tim Hortons), McDonald’s (which everyone abuses but patronizes), The North Face (it wouldn’t be a mountain town without The North Face), Tony Roma’s, The Gap, and others.

As with any scheme that preferentially treats one business over another, the details of this one are devilish to draw up and subject to corruption, with arbitrary choices that are based on aesthetics but that fundamentally affect livelihoods. As the newspaper reports:

The question of what level to set the quota is a challenging one. Options include back-casting the quotas to reflect the mix that existed during the 2008-2009 period when visitor surveys were done, capping at current levels or allowing a cushion, like 10% more. Banff’s senior planner said a quota below current levels creates instant pressure on existing situations, including the creation of legal, non-conforming uses, while a quota set too high doesn’t achieve the regulatory goals and becomes a zoning “paper tiger.”

So as not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg — not completely, at least — service stations, hotels and banks are not included in the proposedquota system.

Out of seven Banff City Councilors, only one declared unequivocal support for the free market; while the Mayor — like a good politician — concurred with him, but artfully hedged her position.

* * *

We took another multi-day rest at a friend’s home in Canmore, less than 20 miles from Banff and in just as stunning a location, to attend the annual Canmore Highland Games, an event Canadians take very seriously. It is absolutely nothing like the ersatz, corn-ball, out-of-tune bagpipe-screeching “highland games” not uncommon south of the border, attended by pot-bellied old men with giant calves in tams and kilts who can talk at length about Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie and what Mel Gibson doesn’t know about Robert the Bruce.

Attendance in the thousands, in spite of a prohibitively expensive admission fee; way over 100 pipe bands from all over the country, with electronically tuned bagpipes played by top-notch musicians of all ages, genders and colors; full-sized telephone poles that few men could even get erect for the caber toss; endless imported tap bitters, ales and stouts; more single malt whiskeys than you ever thought existed; haggis to die for (really!) and fish-and-chips with cod, haddock, salmon, and halibut choices. Even the step dancing competitions, from schools from all over Alberta, were top-notch. All on a perfectly turfed, quadruple-size football pitch ringed by giant, blindingly white campaign tents topped by Canadian flags — the whole surrounded up close by the crenelated limestone summits of the Fairholme and Rundle Ranges.

The festivities opened with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police regiment, an infantry division, and its 50-member pipe & drum band marching to the fore under the skirling strains of Scotland the Brave. The M of C then asked the crowd to stand for an a cappella rendition of O Canada, a composition I’d read much about but never heard — so I was particularly curious. Although the young lady did her best, the anthem was underwhelming. I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of O Canada. She smiled, posed as if she were step dancing, and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

Descending the Rockies was a roller coaster ride. Nevertheless, we were concerned that once we were on the prairies, the ride would get boring over the flat, featureless terrain buffeted by endless winds. But when one expects the worst, things can only get better. And so it turned out. Our west-to-east direction virtually guaranteed a tail wind, and the artful design and routing of the TCT avoided traffic and kept our interest at ADD levels.

The prairies are cut by water courses carved through deep declivities and bordered by sirenic glens peppered with deciduous and evergreen copses. Quaint, colorful Hutterite colonies and Mennonite and Eastern Orthodox settlements, complete with metallic onion-domed churches incongruously plopped down in the middle of nowhere, enthralled us.

Even the imported oil-boom labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — can get mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules.

Still, we were concerned about a couple of routing questions. The TCT — again in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion — was designed to go through every provincial capital. Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, is halfway up the province — far from the southern alignment we’d been following. The TCT then heads east and (back) down to Regina (rhymes with vagina, source of many a snicker), capital of Saskatchewan. Additionally, urban bike riding, especially with fully loaded BOB trailers, can be very trying. No worries — the TCT tied into extensive riverside urban trails through Calgary and Edmonton that displayed the best of both cities, slicing through downtowns and suburbs with equal aplomb.

We’d taken to eating breakfasts at fast food joints and cafes where the portions — and the clientele — were gargantuan (giving the lie to the old nutritionist’s tale that eating a healthy breakfast inhibits weight gain). The ubiquitous “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” signs posted in US cafes were nowhere to be found — probably too confrontational for Canadians. They were replaced by “Abuse will not be tolerated” signs that seemed to serve the same function — more politically correct, I suppose. These were sometimes coupled (at one Safeway, for example) with a poster of smiling employees — a black, a Caucasian, an oriental, an Indi…er, First Nations member, a Latino, an Inuit, an Indian or Pakistani-origin Muslim (you could tell from the forehead dot or the Muslim kufi), and of course, both sexes — touting diversity in employment practices.

Every one of these establishments in the Edmonton area carried the morning’s The Edmonton Sun with daily reports on the firing of Lynden Dorval, aka “the zeros teacher.” The Ross Shepard High School (part of the Edmonton Public Schools system) physics teacher had been fired after he gave a student a zero for not handing in an assignment.

“If students don’t do the work, they don’t deserve (a grade) and I stand by that,” Dorval was quoted as saying. Students, parents, the principal and even Edmonton Schools Superintendent Edgar Schmidt sported “Real heroes give Zeros” T-shirts in his support. But it was Schmidt, caving in to demands by the school board, who made the final call, stating that the firing was for “insubordinate, unprofessional” conduct.

The Sun, quoting Dorval,claimed that the firing was “for going against school policy by assigning students with a zero, rather than using the code system the school uses to evaluate work.” Both the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the union) and the school board were conducting investigations. Unstated but suspected is that the “code system” assigns some value to all work — including its absence. Perhaps, these people must reason, there is merit to merely being present — like Forrest Gump — when homework is assigned.

Political correctness (PC) run amuck? Definitely. We mustn’t ruin the students’ self-esteem.

I once argued with a couple — both teachers, one in the Pennsylvania Public School System, the other an Outward Bound instructor — about the consequences of failing students. The public school teacher, a union member, supported her school’s policy of never failing or expelling a student. Since “bad” students were usually “at risk” kids, failing or expelling them would just make an already bad situation worse, she argued. Her husband, the OB instructor, agreed.

So I asked them to imagine applying the same logic to instructing in rappelling (a technique for descending a cliff by zipping down a rope). In other words, telling a student who hadn’t mastered the technique that he was actually proficient at it. I said, “If he went out and tried rappelling on his own, the well-intentioned lie could cost him his life.” They couldn’t muster a reply.

The core problem with PC is that it wishfully reverses the order of cause and effect. No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence. Moreover, it is condescending and patronizing — visibly signaling that the recipient can’t handle the truth. In fact, PC functions primarily, as David Foster Wallace has so eloquently expressed, “to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker — scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language — and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups” who are the recipients of it. It is hypocrisy legitimized.

What’s more, many ofthe“at risk” kids (previously known as JDs — juvenile delinquents) are sharp, with well-developed BS antennae that can see right through the hypocrisy of patronizing, deceptive schemes. And they learn from them, using their new insights to game the system, while losing all respect for adults that are complicit in such manipulative behavior. That’s why they supported Dorval, who, by the way, was soon hired by a private school.

We didn’t run short of conversational topics when we turned east out of Edmonton and headed for the Saskatchewan border. Although the architects’ primary reason for this route was running through each province’s capital, there was a bonus: Edmonton’s latitude approximately coincides with the limits of agriculture.

North of the line, farms and roads disappear and the great northern Canadian wilderness rules. This made for a stunning ride. In places, giant combines were harvesting wheat and rape seed, the source of canola oil (Canadian oil) on farms run by Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. In others, hills studded with evergreens alternated with picturesque lakes surrounded by deciduous trees turning red and gold in the mid-September cold.

Peppering both the fields and the glens were “nodding donkeys” (oil pump jacks) and drilling rigs, while the occasional convoy of “thumpers” (seismic prospectors) tested the road shoulders for underground paydirt. Canada has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves — most of it in northern Alberta’s oil sands — and 3,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its shale beds. BC residents who live near the border nip over to Alberta for a cheaper fill-up.

The new discoveries, advanced drilling and fracking technology, and, as one oil-industry booster puts it — referring to less politically salubrious climes — “no bribes or body bags” are driving a boom no one is able to keep up with.

Several factors are holding back the bonanza. For one, there is no easy way to transport the thick crude out of northern Alberta. The US section of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas has not yet been approved by the Obama administration; while the Northern Gateway pipeline, proposed from Edmonton to Kitimat, BC, on the Pacific Coast (for exports to Asia) is being held up by environmental concerns and First Nation objections. The pipeline would cross aboriginal reserves.

“The other big bottleneck,” the November 17 issue of The Economist reports, “is human capital.” Hardly anyone lives near Fort McMurray, the closest city, and fewwant to move there in spite of the high wages and attractive incentives. Even the imported labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — gets mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules. “An Irish worker in Fort McMurray,” The Economist continues, “complains of having to fly to Calgary to sit a test of English proficiency. It’s her native language, and the test is online.”

* * *

When our canteens began freezing overnight, we decided it was time to go home.

At St. Paul we cadged a couple of discarded cardboard bike boxes from Canadian Tire, a megastore that combines aspects of Wal-Mart, Checker Auto and Sears (and whose business model still escapes me), to pack up our bikes for the Greyhound bus trip back to our van.

Next year — in Saskatchewan.

And, perhaps, another report.

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More Ironies of the Left


As Gary Jason recently noted in his Reflection "Galt’s Gulch: Somewhere Near Moscow?", some high profile people are leaving France after the latest round of tax increases. In particular, the new 75% income tax rate created by President Hollande hit a nerve. Well-known actor Gerard Depardieu settled in Belgium, publicly denouncing this tax, which kicks in at about $1.2 million a year. He was offered a passport from Russia, and he expressed admiration for that country, which, incidentally, also offers a 13% flat tax rate.

But ironically, Depardieu has firmly rooted leftist opinions.

In the ’80s, he campaigned for François Mitterrand, the head of the French Socialist Party, who became president in 1981. In 1993, he publicly supported the French Communist Party, which was disintegrating after the end of Soviet Union. In 2002, he made a large donation to a fund created for rebuilding the Party — with little success, fortunately. Later, he supported president Sarkozy, a "conservative" who picked many socialists for key positions of his government and continued the statist policies of the Left.*

Depardieu more or less willingly cultivates an image of an uncouth, rustic drunkard, and is prone to excess that raises some eyebrows even in France. Especially in 2011, when he got kicked off a plane, charged with pissing on the carpet. Needless to say, this doesn't make him less popular; au contraire, the paparazzi love him.

However, the man isn't a simple-minded boor. A highly paid actor, Depardieu invested wisely and has enjoyed for years a sizable income outside of the movie industry. He owns vineyards, restaurants, a media production company, and other profitable assets.

It is therefore obvious that his sudden interest in low-tax countries is entirely because of his personal financial interests. Sadly, I didn't find any article pointing out Depardieu's hypocrisy. When they criticized the actor, journalists merely deployed a tired class warfare rhetoric.

Depardieu is not an exception. Other left-leaning French showbiz celebs have said adieu to France, which was a taxpayer abattoir even before Hollande took over. Their favorite destination is Great Britain, where PM Cameron has announced he will roll out the red carpet for this exile of French notables. Many of the French nouveaux riches already live in Switzerland or Monaco, where streets are safe and taxes are low — two things that are now a memory to Parisians. However, the discreet exile of all this French talent and money never really caught the attention of the media.

Depardieu is not a role model. But his noisy, cantankerous escape from overtaxed France had the merit of drawing attention on the disgusting duplicity of rich leftists who cannot stomach the policies they wished for. High taxes for thee, but not for me.

*See this report from the French desk of the Huffington Post, and also this from the newsmagazine L'Humanité.

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An Education in Perspective


Perspective. We've all seen those optical illusions in which two identical circles seem to be of different sizes when they are juxtaposed against smaller or larger squares. It's all about perspective.

That's one of the points made by the film The Impossible, the true story of a family caught in the devastating tsunami that hit the Asian coast on the day after Christmas, 2004. As the Belon family fly into Thailand on Christmas Eve, they worry about normal things. Henry (Ewan McGregor) is certain that they have forgotten to set the security alarm as they left their house, and he worries that their belongings might be gone when they return home. Maria (Naomi Watts) and young son Thomas (Samuel Joslin) panic as turbulence makes the plane bounce. Sons Lucas (Tom Holland) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) squabble as young brothers are wont to do. Later that day Henry confesses to Maria that his job is threatened by an up-and-coming coworker. "How will we survive if I lose my job?" he wonders.

It's natural to worry about these kinds of things, of course. Under normal circumstances, people would be foolish not to worry about protecting homes and jobs. And children, for that matter. When Maria mentions to a hotel worker, "I'm a doctor, but right now I'm staying home to raise the boys," the worker responds with a smile, "Oh! You've been promoted."

But when the circles of financial insecurity and airline turbulence are pictured beside the gigantic squares of a 9.1 earthquake and its raging tsunami, perspective changes. Suddenly the circle of family is the only one that matters.

The Impossible is emotionally intense, ranging from gutwrenching to heartbreaking to heartwarming as the tale of devastation and survival unfolds. The Belon family is relaxing beside the hotel pool on a sunny day when the debris laden flood suddenly engulfs them, sweeping them in different directions. Underwater scenes of the flooding are dramatic and claustrophobic, conveying well the sense of panic one would feel while drowning. Miraculously, Maria and Lucas emerge from the flood near one another, and they frantically struggle to stay together as they are pushed forward by the rushing water. Maria is badly hurt when her leg and chest are gashed by debris. When the water finally subsides, we see that the back of her leg is torn to the bone and the skin of her thigh is hanging like a slab of meat. She needs help. But so do thousands of others. And they are the lucky ones. They're alive. We see scenes of survivors looking desperately for loved ones at hospitals and makeshift refugee camps, even searching through piles of corpses. Just to know.

Other values change as well. Certain commodities cannot be replaced. Cellphone juice, for instance. In a disaster like this, everyone wants to call home, hoping that other surviving family members will have done the same thing. By leaving messages with family back home, they might be able to locate those others who survived. In this film, several people have cellphones, but no one has a way to recharge the batteries. Consequently, cellphone power becomes irreplaceable — and irreplaceable commodities become priceless. Money becomes virtually useless, because money's only true value is in the commodity or service for which it can be traded. So how can one obtain necessities?

After the tsunami subsides, Henry meets a couple near the hotel who have not been hurt by the flood or separated from their loved ones. They just want to get home. When Henry asks to use the man's phone to call his father-in-law and see if Maria has tried to contact him, the couple refuse. "We only have a little power left, and we need it for ourselves," the man says. And he's right. Under the circumstances, I might react the same way.

Later, however, Henry meets Karl (Sonke Mohring), whose family is also missing. Both of them are desperate, lonely, and afraid. Karl has a phone with a small charge left. He offers Henry his phone. Money is useless, but trades are still made: Karl offers compassion, and Henry pays with gratitude. It seems to be a fair exchange for both. Meanwhile, those who were least hurt by the tsunami needed neither compassion nor gratitude. They could afford to hoard their juice, and no one commandeers their phones.

In the end this is a film about what matters. And what matters is not home security alarms or jobs in office buildings but family. The bond between Maria and young Lucas as he becomes the caretaker of his badly injured mother is tender and heart wrenching. The desperation felt by Henry as he searches for his missing family, and the grief expressed by others whose families are lost forever, is intensely moving. Bring a hanky. In fact, bring several.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Impossible," directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Apaches Entertainment, 2012, 114 minutes.

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The Tea Party House Roller Coaster


So Speaker Boehner decided that the danger of the fiscal cliff destroying the economy was a graver risk than letting Obama and the Democrats collapse America into a statist nightmare of never-ending deficit spending and ever-higher taxes. Tea Party darlings Paul Ryan and Grover Norquist both supported the fiscal cliff deal, and they had some legitimate arguments: taxes were permanently lowered for most Americans, taxes went up only on the rich, and the Tea Party House can use the automatic sequestration, in March, and the coming debt ceiling showdown in February, as leverage to extract spending cuts from the Democrat-controlled Senate and Obama.

But what does it all mean? I think there is no reason why the showdowns to come later this year will be any different from the fiscal cliff, New Year's Day drama. We are headed for a hellish roller coaster ride on which we face dangerous, potentially disastrous duels between the president and the Tea Party House over whether America is headed toward bigger or smaller government.

Obama's ultimate goal is a less free, more state-controlled economy, of which Obamacare was only the beginning. The Tea Party was our best chance at stopping his socialist agenda. But because anxiety and fear are always resented, and the Obama vs. Tea Party House confrontations are portrayed as scary by the mainstream media, the American public will probably come to hate the Tea Party House, and the Tea Party may pay a steep price for brinkmanship in the 2014 Congressional elections.

Who will win in deciding America's future? I think Obama has already won. The Democrats will always use the scarecrow of the supposed disaster that will happen if the federal government shuts down to pressure the House into raising the debt ceiling and ending sequestration. Speaker Boehner, by bringing the Senate deal to a floor vote over the Tea Party's objection, has already proven that he buys this argument. If the federal government's vastly bloated bureaucracy is viewed as "necessary," then the debate over America's future is over before it has begun. Look forward to a coalition of the House Democrats and the “moderate” House Republicans, with the Speaker's help, neutralizing the Tea Party-conservative alliance for the next two years, with truly disastrous results for the United States and our economic policy.

The Tea Party may be able to get some spending cuts, but can it seriously alter the structure of American statism? I doubt it. At this point only a series of electoral victories by the Libertarian Party to give the LP legitimacy would pose a true challenge to the dominance of the American Left, and that seems implausible. The Tea Party consists of good people, but the Republican Party as a whole is too soft to win this duel, and the Tea Party has not yet been able to realize its goal, taking control of the GOP from within.

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Galt’s Gulch: Somewhere Near Moscow?


I confess that I have been following the saga of the great French actor Gerard Depardieu with considerable fascination. I won’t rehash the entire tale, as I have written about it at some length elsewhere, but it has reached a surprising culmination.

In brief, the outstanding (if controversial) actor, who has appeared in about 170 films, and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Cyrano de Bergerac in the eponymous 1990 film, decided to leave his native country after the Socialist Party won the recent French elections. Specifically, the Socialist government carried through with its threat to hike the taxes on the rich from the current 41% to a staggering 75%. The Socialists also jacked up taxes on total wealth, on middle-class incomes, and on capital gains, and imposed an “exit tax” on any entrepreneurs — a group already not well represented in France — who are enterprising enough to flee the confiscatory taxes.

The Socialists obviously regret that they can’t build a wall and shoot citizens who dare to depart the New Socialist Paradise. When Depardieu announced he was leaving, he touched off a firestorm, with key Socialist government officials excoriating him, while other actors came to his defense. He sold his Paris mansion, returned his passport to the French government, and moved his possessions to a town in Belgium. But the question then was — what nationality would he adopt?

The most recent report is that he has decided to become — a Russian! Yes, just recently President Putin signed a citizenship grant giving the hefty star a new home.

Why would a French actor be drawn to Mother Russia?

Certainly, he has a huge following among Russian film-lovers. In 2011 he went to Russia as part of the filming of Rasputin (ever notice that the last part of the name Rasputin is Putin?), in which he played the lead. And he is a familiar face on Russian TV, famous for his commercials for Sovietsky Bank and various consumer products.

But I suspect that the fact that Russia has a flat income tax of a mere 13% may be part of the reason.

All this has led to some delightful tension between the French and Russian governments. The — what? defection? — of a French star to Russia has embarrassed France and allowed Putin to advertise the fact that Russia is a low-tax state. But the fact that Depardieu has been chummy with Putin has angered some Russians critical of Putin, and led the French Green Party to suggest that France grant honorary citizenship for the girls in the band Pussy Riot, who were thrown in the clink after criticizing Putin in a performance.

Now, as the neosocialist Obama jacks up taxes on the rich (on top of neosocialist Governor Jerry Brown’s increase in California), it may be that our own successful citizens may also start considering moving to Russia. My only warning is that they should be prepared to work hard to master the language. It is a notoriously complex tongue . . .

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Capitalism 2013


Capitalism, once lauded as the proud foundation of America's success, has had a bad rap lately. Free-market capitalism has been blamed for everything from the collapse of real estate and the stock market to the widening gap between haves and have-nots and even the onslaught of terrorism. Capitalists are the bad guys in nearly every movie, every classroom, and at least half the political speeches — or so it seems.

But there is nothing free about American markets today. Government intervention has led to a Bizarro world of crony capitalism that mimics free enterprise while tying its hands. John Mackey calls it "the intellectual hijacking of capitalism." Regulations intended to protect the consumer and the employer create unintended imbalances that limit competition and inadvertently encourage unfair practices. Capitalism gets the black eye, while government goes in for the sucker punch. But it's the consumer and the employee who end up on the canvas, knocked out.

Mackey, founder of Whole Foods Markets, and Raj Sisodia have written a book, due to come out on January 12, to counter this false impression of the business person. With the subtitle "Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business," Conscious Capitalism is a handbook of great business practices told through the anecdotes of highly successful and highly conscientious business people. Mackey and Sisodia demonstrate that business owners can be compassionate and successful. In fact, the "conscious capitalist" will be more successful by following the leadership advice outlined in this book.

What is a conscious capitalist? One who is fully aware. Conscious capitalists make deliberate decisions based on the longterm consequences of their actions. They are aware of the impact their actions have on customers, suppliers, shareholders, the community, and the environment. They recognize that when they consider the needs of others and act fairly, others will probably do the same, and everyone will benefit.

Government intervention has led to a Bizarro world of crony capitalism that mimics free enterprise while tying its hands.

Mackey is the ideal person to write a book like this, because he has himself embarked on a philosophical journey that allows him to see the problems from one perspective and the solutions from another, uniting philosophies in what he sees as a "win-win" relationship. He describes the "progressive political philosophy" he espoused in young adulthood, when he saw problems in the world and believed that "both business and capitalism were fundamentally based on greed, selfishness, and exploitation." His personal life is grounded in the kinds of causes usually embraced by anti-capitalists, including his vegan diet, his Eastern meditation techniques, and his deep concern for animals and the planet. He is a gentle man in every way. But he has also become a fierce defender of free market capitalism. Through his experience as an entrepreneur he discovered "that business isn't based on exploitation or coercion at all. Instead . . . business is based on cooperation and voluntary exchange . . . for mutual gain." Bringing the spirit of cooperation and caring to the forefront of business management is the purpose of this book.

Throughout the book, Mackey and Sisodia return to the theme that "business is not a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. It is a win-win-win game." They demonstrate how the conscious capitalist creates a symbiotic relationship among several stakeholders, including the business owner, the workers (or "team members," as Mackey prefers to call them), the consumers, the shareholders, the suppliers, and the community. Working together for their own betterment, they make each other's lives richer as well.

One of my favorite sections of the book focuses on worker motivation. The authors identify three main principles of motivation: job, career, and calling. A "job" is a transaction: if you put in a certain number of hours, you go home with a certain amount of money. A "career" can be more satisfying: it requires a certain amount of training and skill, and it brings a greater sense of responsibility, as well as respect and money. A "calling," on the other hand, "offers value and satisfaction beyond the paycheck." Work that feels like a calling may be time-consuming and even exhausting, but there is seldom a distinction between being "at home" and being "at work," because it is simply who we are. Many people devote their lives to a calling and earn no money for it at all.

Since, on a normal day, most people spend more waking hours at their place of employment than they do at home, a sense of purpose is essential for satisfaction and happiness. One way to instill the sense of calling, according to this book, is to broaden that sense of purpose for the people who earn a paycheck. A team member at Whole Foods, for example, is not just a grocery clerk; as Mackey sees her,she is part of a team that provides nutritious and delicious food to people who live in the community. She is proud of the charitable work provided by Whole Planet (a charitable organization sponsored by Whole Foods) and enjoys the employee benefits that she herself participated in selecting, including a health plan that should be a model for the nation. She also enjoys the trust that management exhibits toward her; Whole Foods has a policy of encouraging team members to "use their best judgment" when something unusual occurs or a particular rule or practice seems not to fit a particular incident.

Conscious capitalists exhibit this attitude of partnership and respect toward the suppliers of their companies. Negotiations with suppliers can often turn into adversarial relationships whereby one side ends up with a disproportionate amount of the benefit, and the other with a disproportionate amount of resentment. Mackey and Sisodia recommend treating suppliers as one would treat consumers. Treat them fairly, pay them on time, understand their needs, and recognize that they have to make a profit while doing business with you. In so doing, you will create an atmosphere of loyalty and favored status that could be very important when supplies are limited. And it's good karma, too.

Conscious Capitalism is full of anecdotes not only about Whole Foods but also about such successful companies as The Container Store, Southwest Airlines, Walmart, POSCO (formerly Pohang Iron and Steel Company), 3M, UPS, and many others. A lot of them adhere to one or more of the four "categories of great purpose" described in the book. The great purposes include:

  • The Good: services to others that include improving health, education, communication, and quality of life
  • The True: discovery and furthering human knowledge
  • The Beautiful: excellence and the creation of beauty
  • The Heroic: courage to do what is right to change and improve the world

These stories about modern businesses that are providing goods and services that are good, true, beautiful, or heroic in a conscientious manner bring the book to life and give the reader a buoyancy of spirit. Capitalism is good. Entrepreneurship is honorable. Businesses do contribute to the overall good. Managers do not have to demean or mistrust those whom they supervise. In fact, everyone benefits when workers are trained and trusted to "use their best judgment." Conscious Capitalism is a book you will want to share with every business owner, manager, and worker you know.

Editor's Note: Review of "Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business," by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia. Harvard Business Review Press, 2013, 322 pages.

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Democracy: A Western Religion


On November 21, a Mumbai political goon, Bal Thackeray, died. His party, or gang, is so formidable that the state has, for decades, bent its rule to accommodate its members. If they want the city closed, the police take the lead in closing it, to avoid violence. If you challenge the gang, the police put you under “protective custody.” For decades his gang has extracted protection money. You cannot speak his name without showing the highest possible respect, unless you want to get beaten up, sometimes very ruthlessly.

When Thackeray died, his gang instructed the city to be closed. Everyone who was someone in Mumbai — actors, sportsmen, businessmen, politicians (even of the opposing parties) — had to go to his funeral to pay his condolences. If any had not, he would have had to explain to the gang or leave Mumbai and see his career destroyed.

One girl posted this message on her Facebook page and another “liked” it:

With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.

The two Facebook girls were arrested, their faces covered by the police, and the court asked them to be imprisoned. Unless they want to be raped and then beaten up, they are unlikely to return to Mumbai. Even their extended families might have to leave Mumbai now. Not easily given to tears, I had some. These girls deserved the respect of society. For me they are heroes despite the fact that they erroneously believed they were “free-living Indians.”

These were two cute, educated, middle-class girls, so their case came out in public. In rural India, however, events like these are non-events. There the normal guy lives in utter fear of the police and the local strongman and must grovel. He talks with folded hands and bent head. He has no sense of his rights. He accepts what he can get away with. He concedes what the local strongman wants.

Those Westerners who visit only Mumbai and who can never stop comparing India’s democracy (with some mystical favorable connotations) to Chinese dictatorship (with only evil connotations) should have seen that India is not a country of the rule of law, unless you employ million-dollar lawyers.

Really we see what we want to see, what fits in with our pre-conceived notions. Given that Western people fanatically believe in their religion of democracy, they will rationalize the Mumbai incident as a case of India’s “aggressive” democracy. There are hundreds of recorded protests in China every year. The same people who have very romantic opinions about India call protests in China a sign of the fragile nature of its “dictatorship.” Then they proceed to contradict themselves by saying that there is no freedom of speech in China. They find reasons why China’s economic progress is not real or why China is not a free country, as it would be, were it a democracy.

Recently in China, a very well-known, successful businessman, who was taking me around rural places, told me why he did not want his country to become a democracy. He said that if local democracy were encouraged in China, it would very rapidly make China a place run by strongmen. He described how this would void whatever “rule of law,” predictability, and stability now exists. China is not a perfect country, and I do recognize that my guide wants dictatorship to continue for his personal interests, but I couldn’t agree with him more.


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Main St. vs. Wall St.


The defeat of Romney and the victory of Obama in a disastrous economy which should have crushed the incumbent shows that most people still associate themselves with "Main Street" and view "Wall Street" as the enemy. Only an ideological movement to shift this perception can save the GOP — and such a shift could also help to empower the Libertarian Party.

So let me debunk the myth right now. A look at the Forbes annual list of the richest American and international people shows that many billionaires are not "old money." Many of them are "new money": either self-made rich or the immediate heirs (wives, children, grandchildren) of the self-made rich. Also, many billionaires are women or members of non-white ethnic groups — e.g. the Mexican billionaire Carlos Helu and the women billionaires such as Steve Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, and the self-made billionaire Sara Blakely. Thus it is clear that the rich are not an "aristocracy" ruling over the poor and middle class, as leftists and Marxists assert. The rich are merely those people whose merit — hard work, intelligence, and good choices — earned them vast fortunes.

Let me also explain that trickle-down economics is not voodoo; in other words, why the rich being rich helps the poor and middle class. It helps because the rich do not spend all their money on yachts and mansions and caviar (although even their expenditures on luxury create jobs for other people). They need to make their wealth keep pace with inflation, which forces them to invest most of their money. Who do we want to make business decisions about investing in small businesses and entrepreneurs, to decide who receives society's investment capital: people who know finance and economics and take personal responsibility for their decisions, or government officials lost in a mess of bureaucracy and red tape, who experience no personal accountability from gains, losses, and the profit motive?

Capitalism is merely a system in which capital is invested by private people, as opposed to the state. "Wall Street," that much-maligned entity, is the process followed by rich people — and the financial managers who invest money for them — as they make decisions that fund the talented and hard-working middle class. Small businesses are carefully chosen by Wall Street’s investors because they have the capacity to succeed and expand, thus creating more jobs for the poor.

Wall Street is Main Street's best friend, even though most people don't see the complicated economic relationships that form the substructure of a trip to buy a loaf of bread at the local grocery store. Someone made a decision about which grocery stores to invest in, and which bakers to invest in, and the success of those decisions helps determine whether you pay $1.50 for bread, as we can today, or $15.00, as we might in the socialist nightmare of tomorrow. The socialist-leftist-modern liberal dogmas that the rich are a few crusty old white men locked away in the towers of distant mansions, counting gold coins like Scrooge, and that the corporations have enslaved us and the only practical thing is for “working people” to rebel, is totally contrary to the way the world works.

Shatter the leftist myth, and the people won't view another Republican nominee with envy, hatred, and malice, as they viewed the GOP candidate in 2012. It is too late to save the Romney campaign, but the Rand Paul 2016 campaign could benefit from the argument presented above.

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Killing bin Laden


It was a great and dreadful day in American history. A man was dead, hunted down and executed in his own home in front of his wife and children without extradition, trial, or sentence. The news was greeted in America by rejoicing. Within hours the terrain from Times Square to Ground Zero was the site of a boisterous springtime New Year’s Eve party, filled with people whooping, cheering, and singing American anthems. My daughter and her husband were among them. Osama bin Laden was dead.

Zero Dark Thirty is an intense, gripping film about the decade-long hunt for bin Laden. It is surprisingly apolitical, presenting the facts of the story in an evenhanded way. The film is told through the perspective of the young CIA agent (Jessica Chastain), identified only as "Maya," who tenaciously investigated a particular lead until she discovered convincing evidence of where bin Laden was living — not in isolated wilderness caves, as we had been led to believe, but in a well-protected compound in the middle of a large city.

That "particular lead" was uncovered through "enhanced interrogation," a sanitized phrase for what amounts to little less than torture. As the film opens, Dan (Jason Clark), an American "intelligence officer," is using severe tactics to elicit the date, time, and location of an expected terrorist attack from a detainee (Reda Kateb). The detainee's face is badly bruised, and he is clearly in distress. Over the next few days he is chained, threatened, thrown around, waterboarded, deprived of sleep, and enclosed in a tiny box. As he resists, Dan tells him, "When you lie, I have to hurt you." Dan appears to enjoy his work.

Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent? I understand the argument that "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and music torture instill fear without causing actual injury; I recognize that breaking bones and cutting off fingers is worse. If there can be such a thing as "humane torture," the American intelligence community seems to have discovered it. Nevertheless, it still feels wrong, and degrading to the Americans who inflict it.

The next scene brings a different perspective. A group of al Qaeda terrorists opens fire on dozens of non-Muslims and Americans in a public mall, gunning them down mercilessly. Suddenly, getting that vital information from the detainee seems worth any cost in human dignity. Director Kathryn Bigelow provides many similar juxtapositions in the film, demonstrating the difficulty of finding the moral high ground, let alone maintaining it.

Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent?

Maya is convinced that someone named Abu Ahmed knows where bin Laden is hiding, based on information gleaned from several detainees who have mentioned this name. Others, however, believe that Ahmed is dead and the lead is a dead end. Much of the film focuses on Maya's indefatigable hunt for this mysterious Abu Ahmed, and her determination to continue with the lead even after her superiors have told her to move on.

Although Zero Dark Thirty is set in a war zone and culminates in an intense 25-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound, this is not a traditional war or spy movie. It is not about big burly men carrying big burly weapons, although there are plenty of big burly men in the cast. But in this film the military and the intelligence community play supporting roles. It is really Maya's story, and in a way it is Bigelow's story too — Maya is a woman working in what is traditionally a man's world, and she manages to pull off the coup of the century. (Bigelow was the first woman to earn an Oscar as Best Director, for her film The Hurt Locker [2008], beating out the front runner Avatar, which was directed by her former husband, superstar James Cameron.) Maya is amazingly young, too, to have this much grit and authority. Recruited by the CIA just out of high school, she is in her twenties as she tracks down her lead.

The film ends with success — the Mountie gets her man — but it does not end with triumph. Too many people have been killed, and too much hatred continues to exist, to suggest that the killing of bin Laden was much more than a symbolic gesture. But it is a powerful film, one that will keep you thinking and talking for a long time. It is likely to garner many well-deserved nominations as this awards season heats up.

Editor's Note: Review of "Zero Dark Thirty," directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Annapurna Pictures, 2012, 157 minutes.

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