Beware the Incredible Shrinking Deficit!

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As reported by the Congressional Budget Office, the federal budget deficit is shrinking – and fast. From a high of $1.4 trillion (10% of GDP) in fiscal 2009, it has shrunk to an expected $642 billion (4% of GDP) for fiscal 2013. In other words, the deficit has fallen by about 60% in only four years. Moreover, the CBO sees the deficit declining to about 2% of GDP by 2015. Good news, right? Well, let’s look a bit more deeply.

The brightened fiscal picture is the result of a recovering economy. In February the CBO estimated the deficit would be about $200 billion higher than it now projects. Better than expected revenues caused the CBO to revise its forecast in May. About $100 billion is accounted for by increased individual and corporate tax receipts. The other half comes from payments to the Treasury by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the result of an improving housing market. A continued slow to moderate expansion of the US economy, together with the tax increases and spending cuts enacted earlier this year, will, the CBO says, get us to a deficit that’s only 2% of GDP by 2015.

Obviously, an annual budget deficit equal to 2% of GDP is preferable to one that equals 10% of GDP. But we will still be borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars every year, even during a time that is expected to be relatively peaceful and prosperous. The CBO has trimmed some $600 billion dollars from its ten-year (2014–2023) deficit projection. Under this rosy scenario we will still be borrowing a total of over 6 trillion dollars to keep the federal government running. That’s on top of the 16 trillion or so of government debt (federal, state, and local) that we have already accumulated. All of it is money that our children and grandchildren will have to pay back.

Already voices can be heard crying out that fiscal restraint has gone too far; that there is in fact no deficit or debt crisis; that changes in entitlements are not required; that more public spending, not less, is needed.

Worse, the CBO sees the deficit growing in the latter part of the next decade, reaching 3.5% of GDP by 2023. Rising entitlements and higher interest rates (which make it more expensive for the government to borrow) will cause deficits to expand in the future. Indeed, the current low cost of borrowing is responsible for both the economic recovery (tepid though it is) and the government’s ability to continue living beyond its means. Even a modest increase in rates would likely snuff out the recovery and cause deficits to soar once again.

We are, so to speak, temporarily becalmed, with a fiscal tempest on the horizon. Yet already voices can be heard crying out that fiscal restraint has gone too far; that there is in fact no deficit or debt crisis; that changes in entitlements are not required; that more public spending, not less, is needed if America is to sail into a brighter future. These voices are coming from the port side of the ship, with the irrepressible scribbler Paul Krugman shouting loudest.

The Krugmanite argument is not merely a call for steady as she goes, but an appeal to stoke the fires and sail full speed ahead into that tempest on the horizon. Steady as she goes is probably a justifiable short-term policy, given the iffy nature of the recovery. But stoking the deficit fires is a course pointed at eventual shipwreck. The Krugmanites see government, and specifically government spending, as the solution to our economic and fiscal problems. More spending, not less, is their mantra. But in reality we need to free up the American economy to promote growth and innovation. And that can only be done by shrinking government.

I’m no anarchist. I believe there are certain functions that government must perform in a civilized society. Moreover, I’m not opposed to any and all government spending to stimulate economic activity. For example, I would favor major spending on infrastructure, a crucial and long-neglected component of our economy. But such spending should be offset by major reductions and restructuring elsewhere. Entire government departments (Energy, Commerce, and Education, for example), should be radically modified or abolished. Entitlements must be means-tested. The tax code requires thoroughgoing reform, with rates lowered for both individuals and corporations, deductions capped, and loopholes and accounting gimmicks abolished completely, or almost so.

Finally, while we should not simply retire within our own borders, we must shrink the warfare state. We currently have bases in over 100 countries, and account for three-quarters of the NATO alliance’s military spending. A minimum 25–30% reduction in the US Defense budget, implemented over a five to seven year period, with concomitant changes in outlook and mission, would be most desirable. We have managed to ignore the crisis in the Congo, where some 7 million people have died in a civil war that began in 1997. If we can ignore those millions, why should we be exercised about the Syrians or the Afghans? No, the time has come (indeed, is well past) to admit that we cannot right every wrong in the world, that interventionism is too expensive and only rarely successful.

To continue as we have will almost certainly lead to fiscal and economic ruin in the 2020s or 2030s. The short-term shrinking of the deficit is an unexpected gift that we must not squander. We are being given a brief span — a few years only — to correct the errors of the past half-century. If we listen to the Krugmanites we may not become Greece writ large, but we will doom our descendants to less prosperity and a burden of debt that they had no part in creating, and that may, eventually, crush them.




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Whence Comes This Evil?

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On the night of December 16, 2012, a couple boarded a bus in Delhi. There were already six men on the bus. They allegedly raped the girl, using an iron rod to torture her. She died of fatal injury in her abdomen, intestines, and genitals. A minor among the six men may have been the most brutal rapist. He allegedly inserted the iron rod into her vagina and ripped out her intestines, only 5% of which were still inside her body when she was thrown on the roadside. She died a few days later in a hospital in Singapore.

The response has been massive, nonviolent protests in most Indian cities. The protestors — men and women — blamed the government for not providing enough security to women. They asked for death sentence for rapists. The incident was widely covered in media around the world. Government was forced to provide her with top medical care. She was flown to Singapore at public expense. The case was transferred to a fast-track court. Two police commissioners were suspended for their failure to prevent this gang rape. New Year celebrations around the country were cancelled.

For some, this rape was a turning point in India. For them, India is now leading the way for the world in fighting against the violence against women. The US government posthumously awarded the 2013 “International Women of Courage Award” to the raped girl. Intellectuals praised Indians for staying non-violent during their protests. Recently Indian government promulgated a law that provides the death penalty for rapists.

Has India finally awakened?

A minor event in the scheme of things?

Honestly, I am not sure what is supremely significant about this case. Violence is an inherent part of the Indian cultural fabric. Poor people get openly beaten up by the police. Even well-off people must be obsequious when dealing with those in the government — a crime against their sense of self, a poison to their humanity and integrity.

A few months back, in Bhopal, I saw a kid being very badly beaten by a bunch of policemen right in the middle of the main square. They had circled him and were slapping him so hard that he was almost flying around from one policeman to another. Other kids had been forced to stand and watch while this was happening. People continued to walk around, enjoying their ice cream without the slightest — not the very slightest of slight — strain on their faces. Some of the kids who were forced to watch were giggling. Was a criminal, insensitive, unsocial, numb future in the making? I bet it was.

The circle of violence is far, far wider and deeper and much more irrational than people would like to think.

The sad irony about India is that even animals are scared of you — children pass on the torture they receive to those less capable of defending themselves. The circle of violence is far, far wider and deeper and much more irrational than people would like to think.

Should I blame these kids if they rape when they grow up? Or should I blame the policemen who were behind the future rapists? Or should I blame the normal people who were too numb to feel any strain? But were they themselves the product of abuses in their homes while they were growing up? Should I just blame men in general, as feminists demand? Or should I blame women, who in India are mostly responsible for bringing up children and forming their character? Or should I blame the culture — which has huge medieval, superstitious aspects — a culture that through its rationalizations and justifications and discouragement of critical thinking carries the ingredients that do not allow for a break from the cycle of violence and drudgery?

Hypocrisy and apathy

In the past I reported to legal authorities about such abuses — and once in a while still do — along with evidence. Mostly nothing happened. Instead I was made an utter fool. People laughed at me. In a very rare case when the victimizer was cornered, the abused compromised for pennies in bribes or for the satisfaction of torturing the weaker. But talking about this would be too much of a digression for now.

Anyone who has been in India knows full well that you don’t have to search for crimes. You see abuses all around you, nonstop. At the Delhi airport, in full view of everyone, conmen operating out of booths provided by the airport rip off newly arrived tourists. I once went to the head of aviation about this, pointing out that it could easily lead not only to financial troubles for the tourist but also to sexual risks for female tourists (they face many, and most go unreported). He put me on a conveyor belt of such horrendous bureaucracy that I gave up. Nonstop troubles persist for tourists from the time one’s plane comes in until one finally departs. And of course, Indians face the same, self-inflected problems. Bribery and corruption are so open that you hardly need to look for news on the TV to feel horrified. But Indians need the TV to feel horrified, in the safe confines of their houses.

About 135,000 die on Indian roads each year. If you spent a day driving around in India, you would see at least a couple of dead bodies lying on the streets or highways. As the traffic speed is rather low in India — because of the chaos that exists — immediate fatalities are rare. A lot of people could be saved. But they die of slow bleeding and trauma. People just stand and watch. Ambulances never arrive. China is well known for bad driving, but in comparison to India, it has only about one-ninth as many fatalities per vehicle.

Apathy and desperation, two characteristics that are common among the lower class elsewhere, are common even among the middle class in India. I can understand that if poor people cared or had long time-preferences, fear and anxiety would dominate their moment-to-moment lives. To exist they must stay numb. But why apathy and desperation have never left the middle class in India, as any student of sociology would expect, is a mystery to me. Is it that Hinduism or some other aspect of the local culture preempts individuals and the society from self-analysis or thinking beyond material well-being? I don’t know, but at best those becoming richer seem to be moving from apathy to debauchery, at best.

If you spent a day driving around in India, you would see at least a couple of dead bodies lying on the streets or highways.

When a crime happens in India the first reaction of most people I know is to want to keep the police out of the picture. They know that the police would rape them again (figuratively, if not literally). Every Indian whom I know, knows this. But what is surprising is that as soon as they think in terms of groups, they want police control over people to increase. And really, how could police have stopped rapes unless they converted the society into an Orwellian surveillance state? To make a real, significant change in society, people should have looked at the underpinnings. In essence, the protests did not come out of a passion to stop crime but from something else.

Who were the protestors?

I was extremely curious about these people protesting so vociferously against the rape. I have hardly ever met such individuals. Were they protesting for entertainment? Or is this something they have recently copied from the West? I do find the way they light candles on the photographs of victims a bit out of place, for India has had no such custom. Or maybe protesting is their way to feign that they care? Or maybe they watch too much TV and want to adopt Western ways of showing care, or to feel that they have arrived? Or maybe they feel so isolated socially that the crowd gives them a feeling of catharsis? Or maybe this was just another of series of hysterias that Indians are prone to suffering, now made much worse by television, which make the non-thinking gyrate at the same rhythm with increasing frequency?

Protestors have accused the alleged rapists before due process and want the minor to hang as well as the others. (According to the law he could be walking free within the next three years.) Indians don’t understand that it is only the due process that can give integrity to the legal system. One of the accused rapists has already died in an alleged suicide. No one wants to know how he actually died. Another ended up in the hospital after being beaten. If people care about justice, they should care most about those in the frontline of dealing with the law. It is exactly these alleged rapists who should get a very fair trial. What if those arrested are not really the rapists? Would the courts tell the true story behind the circumstances, given the nature of public opinion? And will we ever hear the story of why the rapists became such vicious people? Of course, one must understand that what these men did was not just sex. They had a huge amount of hatred for society bubbling inside them.

Is the issue over-feminized?

Crime is crime. Trying to show rape as a crime that one subgroup commits against another leads to faulty understanding of the issues. Nevertheless, over the years, law and social pressure have increased the age at which people can marry. Feminist movements have been vociferously behind this. No thinking has gone into the fact that premarital sex is still a major taboo in India. Prostitution is illegal. Of course, not getting sex gives men no justification for rape! But does it not create conditions for it? It would have been far better if poor Indians had been allowed to marry earlier if that is what they wanted.

India’s legal structure is weak to nonexistent. But the feminist movement has encouraged women to go out and do whatever they want, without letting anyone add a word of caution that even when the pedestrian light is green it is worth taking a glance on both sides. Some Indian laws unfairly favour women, leading these laws to be hugely misused. New laws would of course be used for political purposes, and sane men would be scared of interaction with women. Would the death penalty stop rape? Only a naïf can believe that the thought of capital punishment acts as an adequate restraint on prospective rapists, their blood full of sex hormones.

In the blame game in which men as a subgroup are isolated as standalone culprits, no one dares bring up the fact that in India women have the responsibility for raising children. In today’s world, suggesting to women that they might be abusing children at home or forming a wrong character in them is no longer allowed.

Of course, rapists should get severe punishment. But if Indians are serious about meaningfully improving their society, they need to start some serious introspection.




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Stealth Stars

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The Stealth Star motto is, “Safety does not exist, but courage does.” While I sit in my space pod, about to land on what the Concord of Trading Star Systems has designated as Rediscovered Unknown Planet Omega 12774, I repeat that motto to myself, because I cannot afford to feel any fear right now. Fear is a nervous reaction that gives energy to the muscles at the expense of taking energy from the thinking centers in the brain — and I will need my mind to be at its sharpest when I face these potential hostiles. The planetary scan of Omega 12774 showed signs of electronic technology, but no star ships or long-range communications. It is possible that the humans of this planet might have that unpleasantness which every Stealth Star loathes: a mix of technological progress and political retrogression which is the precondition for hostile soldiers capable of taking on our star technology.

The space pod penetrates the atmosphere; I jerk back in my seat and then slam forward as I crash into the ground below. I open my pod and see a vast stretch of stagnant brown fields around me. The brown extends outward in all directions, like a sea of mud. A few faded, half-alive trees sprout in the distant horizon, their frail green branches sagging down like the skin of an old woman. I am several miles from the perimeter of what showed up as the largest collection of life-forms on the planetary scan. My hope is that it is the capital city; I also hope that the leaders of this society’s social cooperation (assuming that the natives cooperate, and have leaders) will reveal themselves as kind, benevolent, freedom-loving organizers who will welcome the opportunity to trade with other planets — there’s nothing wrong with being naïve enough to wish for good luck, is there? I set my visual scanner on long range and begin to run toward the city on my technologically enhanced legs.

Fear is a nervous reaction that gives energy to the muscles at the expense of taking it from the thinking centers in the brain — and I will need my mind to be at its sharpest when I face these potential hostiles.

I come to the top of a hill and the city is spread out before me. It is not what I had expected. The planetary scan detected sophisticated electronic technology, but this city looks like something out of a picture book of Origin Earth’s dark ages. The wooden buildings have thatched yellow straw roofs, a few squat structures are built from red stone bricks, and various open squares dot the streets. The city blocks are broken up by narrow unpaved dirt roads laid at random. Humans, hundreds of them, bustle about in the streets, and a crowd of people fills some sort of marketplace beneath rainbow-colored tents on the western side of the city — but the goods they are trading appear to be live animals, mainly chickens, pigs and goats, as well as bags of corn and wheat, and the most valuable goods up for sale are small iron tools or jewelry made of glass and crystal. The people are dressed in clothes that are little more than rags. The colors are dull shades ranging from midnight black to smoke gray. These people are emaciated, dirty and haggard-looking, their skin stretched tight across hungry bones and their eyes sunken into their faces. I see no energy, no excitement, no smiles. Nowhere do I see anything resembling electronic technology — but wait!

At the far side of the city, on the other side of a series of building-covered hills, I can see a massive stone castle. Its shadow cuts across the city like a knife. I see glittering red lights emanating from the small windows in the castle’s upper towers — bright lights, unmistakably electric lights. I run a visual scan and see that the castle is full of technology; there are laser guns mounted on turrets around the castle’s outer walls, the scan detects the electromagnetic outline of super-computers, and small nuclear generators are buried in the castle’s lower levels. So! This civilization is ruled by someone who takes the technology for himself and gives nothing to his people. I sense that a conflict between the Stealth Stars and the ruling power inside that castle is inevitable.

I use an optical mirage device to make my star armor look like peasant’s rags, and I descend into the city. The computer in my brain quickly decodes the language of these people, which is derived from the Post-English that was spoken in this part of the galaxy before the Apocalypse. I walk into a building with a sign above the door proclaiming “Bet’s Inn and Tavern.” Inside I am greeted by an attractive young woman with long blonde hair that shimmers as though it were made of gold; her healthy glow has not been dampened by the dirt in her hair or her missing teeth or the numerous stitches desperately holding together her moon-gray dress.

“Hello, good sir. A traveler, are we? Yes? Well, if you’ve got the gems to pay for it then there ain’t no better place than Bet Matil’s Inn and Tavern. A bed and a good meal will be three blue gems, yes? And you, well, have the gems? Good, good!”

“I am from distant lands,” I say to this woman, presumably Bet, “and I would like to talk to you, to educate myself. What is the name of this city, and this land? And who lives in that castle? I might like to visit there and meet the leaders of your city.”

Three men sitting at a nearby table playing some form of dice game hear me, and the men laugh heartily.

“Don’t no one gets to go into that castle, what?” one of the men says with a grin. He has a long copper-red beard and a face so round and red that it reminds me of an apple. “Nobody,” he continues. “That castle is the home of our beloved leader, Prince Regisoph. That’s the Prince’s Tower, Tower Regisoph. This city is Rej, and our lands and farms, as far as the eye can see, that’s Rej too. Where do you come from, good sir, the fairy tale lands across the ocean, not to know this? One of the fair folk, are you?”

“Rej” appears to mean “power,” and “Regisoph” “wise and powerful.”

“I’m a human being, same as you,” I reply in a friendly tone. “So, this Regisoph is a Prince? And his father is King, I presume?”

“Father?” one of the men says, and they explode in raucous, wheezing laughter. This man who just spoke smiles at me with mirth; his teeth are yellow and rotten. “Prince Regisoph has been Prince for hundreds of years. It’s been so long that nobody around here can remember the time before he ruled. Ah, legend says that those were dark times, before the Prince’s enlightened rule. Bah! Let’s not dwell on the horrors of legends. You rolled a four so you owe me four, Jerem!”

“He has ruled for centuries? Then the Prince is not human?” I ask. No known alien species inhabits this part of the galaxy. And anti-aging technology capable of extending human life beyond 150 years is virtually impossible for people at the level of technology detected by my scan of the castle.

“Oh, he’s human, all right, although no one really knows for sure since he never comes out of the Tower and the public isn’t allowed to go inside his Tower. We haven’t seen him for over a hundred years,” Bet says. “But everyone knows that he’s human.”

“The Prince remains hidden,” I muse. “And what makes him such a great man, in your opinion? What is it about his rule that is so enlightened?”

“The Prince’s greatness?” Bet replies. There is a strange intensity in her pale grass-green eyes, a look of glowing exuberance, and I suddenly realize to my horror that she is proud to be among those ruled by her Prince. “Why, he’s made everyone equal! We all get the same number of gems at the start of each month, as our allowance, regardless of how much work we did, so that the farmers up north can’t hog all the gems just because they produce so much and we artisans and shopkeepers and innkeepers of the south aren’t so lucky. We get our gems, and we trade them during the month, and then at the end of the month they go away and we get a clean slate and a new set of gems. Some of the ones up north grow mighty rich in the later weeks, but it all goes away — pow! — it all goes up in smoke at the end of the month. It isn’t fair for the north to be rich while the south lives in poverty. Why shouldn’t we take their gems away from the northerners, at least after they’ve had an entire month to play with them? They say that equality is a great thing, so why shouldn’t the north suffer along with us southerners? Why shouldn’t I share my pain with you and with everyone else? We are all given enough gems to buy the things we need to survive — and really, do we need any more than that? The Prince’s way is better than the unrestrained greed of our ancestors, or so the legends say. And if you can’t trust the Prince and his wise men’s legends then who can you trust?”

The space pod penetrates the atmosphere; I jerk back in my seat and then slam forward as I crash into the ground below.

“Um, yes, the Prince certainly seems to be wise,” I reply in a voice that hides my revulsion. So, the land of Rej is ruled by a technology-hoarding tyrant named Prince Regisoph who has enacted a scheme of socialism to keep his peasants from acquiring enough wealth and technological progress to challenge his rule. The people live in misery and poverty and filth, while the Prince (and his soldiers, I’m sure) have all the benefits of modern medicine, entertainment, and the other wonders of electronics — and the Prince’s propaganda has his people believing in the justice and virtue of being ruled. These people seem like good-natured, hearty folk, who could prosper and trade with the rest of the galaxy if they were allowed to know the miracles of capitalism and free trade. But for the people to be freed I must defeat Prince Regisoph. Can one single Stealth Star agent do it? To be a Stealth Star you really do need to have a death wish.

Bet tugs on my arm. “Come, good sir, I’ll show you to your room. And what did you say your name was, by the way?”

“Anth Benj,” I reply, translating my name into its rough equivalent in the Rejian language.

“Anth,” she says, as if to see how my name feels upon her lips. She guides me up a narrow, creaking wooden staircase and into a small room with a straw mat for a bed on one side across from an open window. A warm, soothing wind is blowing in from outside. The window has a view of a few wooden hovels across the street, but above it I can see a wide cloudless emerald-green sky with four white-gray moons visible. Then Bet motions for me to sit down on the bed, and I comply. She smiles at me with a strange, mysterious, purposeful look.

“I listen better than those men down below, and I can tell that you’re not keen on the Prince,” Bet says. “You might be dressed like a Rejian, but your face don’t look like us and your voice don’t sound like us. You are . . . different. I know you must be an ambassador or herald from the lands beyond the ocean, sent to parlay with our Prince. But before you go storming into the Tower, there’s something about the Prince that you should know.”

I am shocked that this woman so easily decoded my disguise. The Rejians are surprisingly clever. We can always use clever people in the Concord, and there are special jobs reserved for people who can think and analyze new situations quickly. In fact, when I look at Bet I can almost picture her cleaned and clothed in the crisp white uniform of a star pilot. But then I smell the odor of horse manure wafting in through the window and the daydream fades.

“What?” I ask.

“There is no need for you to hate the Prince, Anth Benj, because, you see, I am Prince Regisoph,” Bet says.

“I think I’m having a translation problem. Say that again?”

“That’s right. I am the Prince,” Bet says. “So please, don’t oppose me. I am willing to listen to you. Rej can reach an agreement with the lands beyond the ocean.”

“How is that possible?” I ask. Could I have been so lucky as to stumble upon the ruler here, so that I can duel her one-on-one right now?

The planetary scan detected sophisticated electronic technology, but this city looks like something out of a picture book of Origin Earth’s dark ages.

“I keep my identity a secret, but I am the ruler who sits in the Tower,” Bet says. “I rarely even enter the Tower now, but my desires are the law in Rej. So stay in my city for a while and see what it has to offer, and look at our good things and what works before you condemn me for my problems and my flaws. Quick to judge is quick to die, as the wise men say. Don’t be reckless in changing everything to suit the tastes of some strangers from across the sea.”

“Well…” I say. “Then I assume that you know where I really come from?”

“Yes, of course,” she says. She heads for the door, but then looks back over her shoulder and gives me a coy smile. “You come from the fairy world beyond the ocean. I serve chicken stew for dinner at the eighth chime, so be sure to come down, Anth. I look forward to seeing you!” Bet vanishes down the stairs.

This is weird! Is Bet really the Prince, or do these people have some sort of psychological complex in which they become insane and identify with their ruler? I must learn more. I search the rooms next to mine, and in another room I find one of the men who had been playing dice downstairs, the man with the apple-red face. He sits at a table, counting his winnings from dice — a set of small gemstones, some green and some blue, and one red. He holds the red gem in his hands, a look of intense pride lighting up his eyes.

“Excuse me? May I come in?” I ask.

“Ah, the stranger!” the man says when he notices me. “My fellow traveler. I am Jerem, and yes, come in, come in, more is happier! I too am a stranger in this city, you know. I am from a northern farm, here to sell our chickens, but, ah, yes, lady luck, what? Lady luck has blessed me as much as the chickens! It seems so wrong that these gems will all be gone so soon, so soon, so soon . . .”

“Yes, it is a shame,” I agree.

“Shame, yes, but it is what we want, after all,” Jerem says. “I feel greed, yes, but it wouldn’t be fair to all the other good people for me to own too many gems and for them to have none. Wouldn’t be right.”

“Yes,” I say, continuing to observe the brainwashing effect of the Prince’s propaganda. “Speaking of which, could we talk about the Prince? I have some more questions that Bet didn’t quite answer.”

Jerem’s eyes become secretive and shifty. He coughs nervously. “The Prince? Why would you want to talk about the Prince with me? It’s not like I am the Prince in reality and I pretend to be a farmer.”

“No, of course not,” I say. Then a thought occurs to me. I do a quick visual scan of Jerem with the scanner implanted in my left eye, and my fear is confirmed: a small neuro-computer is implanted in Jerem’s brain with an internet feed broadcasting to a remote signal. I adjust my scanner to scan through the walls and sweep the entire building, and everyone here, all the Rejians, have brain jacks. But they seem oblivious to the computers in their brains, just as they seem ignorant of all the technology in the Prince’s Tower. What is going on here?

"Ah, legend says that those were dark times, before the Prince’s enlightened rule. Bah! Let’s not dwell on the horrors of legends!"

“Well, what? What? You seem like an honest chap, so I have a confession to make,” Jerem says, and my scanner detects activity in Jerem’s brain computer. “I am the Prince. Yes, I am Prince Regisoph. Best not to hide it. But don’t tell my wife, she’d be furious. Anyway, this is my city and my land and my Tower, and I’m bloody well proud of it. So don’t mess it up. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

I say goodbye to Jerem and return to my room, sit on my uncomfortable bed, and think things over. Clearly this used to be a society of sophisticated electronic technology. But their ruling class, led by someone named Prince Regisoph, took away all of the technology, barricaded themselves in the Tower, and left the people to starve in poverty. In order to ensure that the public would not revolt and storm the castle the Prince installed computers in all the peasants so that he could centrally control their thoughts and preempt any dissidence. The neural interference from the Prince’s brain computers manifests itself as the peasants’ insane belief that they are really in control of the society, that they are the Prince. The rulers in that Tower are absolutely, incorrigibly evil. I cannot tolerate the thought. I must set the people free.

You don’t become a Stealth Star unless you have a love of freedom that burns like a wildfire, unflinching bravery in the face of the unknown, and a mastery of modern star technology — and also (I am afraid to admit) a tendency toward performing acts that border on suicide. Because when the Stealth Star Corps sends you out as the spy-scout on a mission to see what has become of the humans on a rediscovered planet that hasn’t been heard from since the Interstellar Apocalypse, 10,000 years ago . . . you might never return.

We Stealth Star scouts explore to see if newly rediscovered planets have evolved economic and social freedom or decayed into tyranny and dictatorship, and to evaluate whether the newly explored planets might become trading partners and join the Concord. Some of the time the humans are peaceful and happily sign up with the Concord — but most of the rediscovered planets are primitive and barbaric. I lost my best friend Charl when he was dropped onto a planet that turned out to be the home of a society of cannibalistic cyborgs. I also led the team of Stealth Star soldiers who wiped that planet out after Charl’s final broadcast warned us that the cyborgs were developing star ships and planning to become space pirates. I am primarily a scout but I do have experience as a warrior.

Stealth Stars are spies and soldiers, but we’re not an army. We are not affiliated with any government, and we are staffed entirely by volunteer recruits. We believe that everyone has the right to freedom. The interplanetary trade associations (mainly the Concord but also some of the smaller groups) donate to us happily enough, because we keep space clear of the space pirates and planetary dictators who like to blockade trade routes. But our real motive is not economic; it is political. We aim to spread the ideals of freedom to every planet so that everyone can enjoy the reality-given rights of life, liberty, and property. Our critics within the Concord call us crusaders, but we believe that every war we fight is a war of self-defense. We are like soldiers hired by oppressed peoples to free them from dictatorship, except that we work on credit and take payment once they join the Concord. No, they didn’t actually tell us that they wanted us to rescue them — but how could they while their voices were silenced by their rulers? We give to the peoples of the outer planets precisely what they want, what they would choose if they were free to make choices.

I send a long-range communication to the local Stealth Star mother ship and wait for night to fall. Soon the city of Rej is enshrouded in darkness and illuminated only by the four pale moons and a nearby constellation of stars in the night sky. I set my star armor in stealth mode and sneak up to the outer wall of the Prince’s Tower. With the protection of my stealth mode and its cloaking device the castle’s cameras cannot detect me as I scale the outer walls. I use a laser-razor to cut a hole in the stone wall and slide myself through.

The inside of the Tower is as amazing and resplendent as the city below is ugly and base. The place is a spider’s web of interconnecting rooms and hallways, and each room is filled with banks of super-computers from floor to ceiling which blink with constantly changing red and blue lights. The rooms buzz and crackle with electrical energy. Floating guard robots hover up and down the halls with laser rifles at the ready, but the guards cannot see through my stealth cloak and they float past me, oblivious. I see no humans anywhere in these rooms. I scan the area and detect the largest source of electromagnetic energy, which I assume is the central control station where the leaders will be. It is at the top of the highest tower.

For the people to be freed I must defeat Prince Regisoph. Can one single Stealth Star agent do it?

I snake my way up the various stairs and ramps that riddle this Tower, and eventually I reach a set of double doors. Their gold lettering proclaims “Prince Regisoph.” My scan reveals that the door is made of solid plastic-steel laced with synthetic diamond — difficult to make and impossible to cut. Clearly the Prince does not want to be interrupted by unexpected company. It is a shame for him that Stealth Star technology is up to this challenge and I am about to ruin his day.

I clamp an antimatter mine to the double doors and retreat around the corner of the nearest hallway. The mine goes off; the physical matter in the doors is destroyed by the antimatter and implodes into nothingness. I run down the hall, exit stealth mode and enter attack mode, and draw a laser gun in each hand. I am about to face the worst military power that the Prince has to offer. If I die, my death will be worthwhile. I switch on my attack scope and activate the cameras in the back of my head so I can see in three hundred and sixty degrees. My body armor can withstand most armor-piercing rounds and my lungs have implants to filter most poisonous gasses, but there is no telling what deviltry the Prince may have waiting. I run into the middle of the room, my heart racing and my nervous system at its peak, ready to fight and willing to die . . .

There is no one in here.

“Hello?” I ask.

“Hello,” a strange, hollow, mechanical voice answers.

I look around and see that the word “Hello” is lit up on a large computer monitor on the far side of the room. A huge bank of super-computers fills the other side of the room — the electromagnetic activity I picked up. But my scanner detects no human beings. I am alone.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I am the Project Prince Regisoph computer interface operating system. Please state your identity, user.”

This society was able to achieve what we of the Concord, even with all our scientific marvels, could not: artificial intelligence. “So, you are Prince Regisoph!”

“Negative,” the computer replies. “User, are you an integrated user with a damaged integration device? Please state yes or no.”

“Integrated? What do you mean?”

“Invalid response. Background presentation loading. Please wait.”

This computer is not talking as if it could think. It is speaking like a mindless automaton. What in the Universe is going on here?

Suddenly the screen is lit by the image of an old man dressed in fancy green robes. “Greetings, people of the future,” the image says.

His robe is various shades of deep green, and he wears a spiked crown glittering with accents of diamonds and gold. He has a triumphant, fanatical gleam in his little brown eyes, almost like a young man recently converted to a new religion, but his face is aged with the wrinkles of years of thankless toil. “I am Grego, Prime Chancellor of Rej — or, at least, up until now I was, as soon there will no longer be any need for me. It is to be hoped that nothing has gone wrong and we have created the utopia we wished for. But to meet any problem that may arise, we are encoding this message explaining Project Regisoph, so that repairs can be made by people who understand the plan.”

“What plan?” I ask. But of course the recording of Grego cannot hear me.

“In order to create a truly democratic society we must have a system that counts the votes of the public’s desires and enacts the will of the people into law. Our politicians have become hopelessly corrupt and inefficient, so we are automating the process of politics. As an infant, each human will be fitted with a mental interface connection. The interface will examine the person’s desires and count them as one vote. The Tower computer will tabulate all votes from the integrated brains of the voters, and the robot drones will then act out and enforce whatever is the political desire of the majority. If the people want capitalism, then there will be capitalism; if they want socialism, then the Tower will provide socialism. If the people want all the technological advances that we have discovered then technology will be distributed; but if they grow weary of technology and long for a simpler, more natural era, then technology will be taken away from them.

We give to the peoples of the outer planets precisely what they want, what they would choose if they were free to make choices.

“The system has no limits and will do whatever the public wants it to do. We leave it to the people themselves to decide the substance of the ideal society. We today are merely giving them the procedural form of that ideal. For all our faults, at least we will know that the people will get what they desire; the world of tomorrow will be what everyone wants.”

This is ghastly. Bet and Jerem and all the others really are Prince Regisoph — but it now seems apparent that if everyone is the ruler then everyone is the slave. Democracy is a Concord ideal, but only a republican democracy in which the rights of individuals are held sacred and inviolate against the will of the majority. The Rejian people want their stone-age socialism, so they get it, but what they want is bad for them. I laugh for a minute, realizing the irony: the socialist dissidents within the Concord often complain that they know what’s best for the planetary citizens and that therefore the socialists should make everyone else’s economic choices for them — yet here I am thinking with absolute certainty that I know what is best for the Rejians and I should make the choice of capitalism for all of them. Still, irony aside, that is what I believe — isn’t it? I had thought that I wanted to kill Prince Regisoph. But Prince Regisoph is Bet Matil. I want to save her, not kill her. So what do I really want to do?

“Computer, deactivate. Terminate Project Regisoph.” It’s still my job as a Stealth Star to bring freedom to the planet. This is worth a shot.

“Negative. Project Regisoph can be terminated only by a majority vote of the integrated users. User, you have been identified as a threat. Activating protection procedures.”

My calm is immediately replaced by panic: the walls slide open and swarms of guard robots rocket into the room. I drop attack mode and return to stealth. The robots lose me on their scanners and can’t detect me. They sweep across the room and go right past me. I consider shooting a missile into the Regisoph super-computer control center, but I hesitate . . . there are probably backups throughout the Tower, and my sensors detect self-destruct nuclear mines hidden in the command center that, once activated, might destroy the entire city, or continent.

But what really stops me is this: if the people want to be ruled by Prince Regisoph, if that is actually what the majority of Rejians desire, then I could raze the Prince’s Tower to rubble and they would simply rise up and build another Tower in its place. Maybe you can’t force people to be free when they want to be slaves, any more than you can force a people to be ruled when they insist upon freedom and give their lives to win it. The battle for the freedom of this people will be won out there, out in the streets and in the minds and hearts of individual men and women, not here in the Prince’s Tower. Prince Regisoph will die once the Stealth Stars convince the people down in that city that capitalist freedom, ownership of property, and free trade are superior to their socialist nightmare. It’s my new job to educate the Rejians about the happiness that comes from trade and technology. To try, anyway. I had thought that when the Stealth Stars liberate a planet, we give the people precisely what they want — but now, in retrospect, I realize that the truth may be a bit more complicated.




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The Threat of Impact

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I’m delighted by the news about the Benghazi memos. It seems that the CIA, the State Department, and the White House subjected those brief statements to more than a dozen revisions. Thank God — someone has finally learned the secret of good writing: revise, revise, revise.

That was sarcasm, what I just said.

But seriously, folks: people can do too much revising. In the words of Alexander Pope, “There’s a happiness, as well as care.” President Obama was not in the happiest vein when, on May 16, he entertained a question about when the White House found out about the persecution of rightwing groups by the Internal Revenue Service. He delivered an answer that probably took a battalion of White House counselors all night to produce: “I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the I.G. [Inspector General’s] report before the I.G. report had been leaked through the press."So he didn’t know about the report? I assume, from this answer, that he knew about the thing. After all, Republicans had been complaining about it for years.

Anyway, this is more good news for Word Watch. If the president and his friends keep making statements like that, there’s going to be a lot more hilarity ahead. I just wish that Steven Miller, interim grand sachem of the IRS, had stayed in office a bit longer. Seldom have petulance and stupidity been so lovingly joined as they were in his congressional testimony. If Miller speaks, I will listen.

But Word Watch itself can bear some watching. The last column had issues. . . . And I guess that’s all you need to know.

Just kidding. If I were a government official or a corporate “spokesman” (an odd word — most appropriate, perhaps, for a potentate of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy), issues would be the word I’d use to tell you, “Move along; there’s nothing to see here.”

Issues, as I mentioned last time, is the universal word. It can mean anything, and nothing. Usually nothing. It’s a word that shuts off debate. Arguments, controversies, contentions, dissensions, everything but a burial at sea — issues will obscure them all.

When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?

But let’s move on. Let’s get beyond that . . . I usually don’t respond to readers who have issues with what I write. I figure that after I’ve had my own say, which is plenty, they deserve to have theirs. And God bless them for noticing what I say. But Paul Bartlett was kind enough to respond at length to the last version of this column, and to respond in a way that strongly invites my own response http://libertyunbound.com/node/1045. He picks up on the fact that I condoned the use of “tweet” but “castigate[d]” the use of “snuck.” So, he asks,

Why is the former acceptable, but the latter not? Language changes. Yes, as a child in the stereotyped little red brick semi-rural schoolhouse in the 1950s, I learned intensely prescribed usage, and there are many morphological, syntactic, and orthographic errors today which still give me the willies. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that whether the good professor and I like it or not, language changes. Chaucer is dead, however delightsome his poems.

Historically, undoubtedly, in English far more strong verbs became weak than vice versa, but I cannot discern that there is Some Law Writ Large In The Nature Of The Cosmos which prohibits a hitherto weak verb to become strong. Yet again, language changes. To me, "snuck" is an entirely valid, useful, and acceptable verb form. I now encounter it far more often than "sneaked." Shall we now say that one may never use "impact" as a verb?

Controversial words! Thanks, Paul.

Sure, language changes. So does the weather, but I’d rather have a cloudless sky and 70 degrees Fahrenheit than a blizzard bearing down on me. And the fact that Chaucer is dead (he died in 1400, which is helpful in remembering what’s what in literary history) doesn’t signify. Vice President Biden is alive — do you want to talk like him? As opposed to John Dryden (who died in 1700)? Or Oscar Wilde (1900)? You see what I mean.

But those are easy examples. Chaucer, Dryden, and Wilde were among the greatest wits who ever graced our language; the current vice president is a mere buffoon. When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?

One consideration is the connotations of a word. If you want to sound like a backwoods character, sure, use “snuck,” because that’s its ethos and connotation, the bowl in which it swam (not swum) until quite recently. It’s never really left that bowl. It can’t leave, because whenever it tries to do so, it blunders into “sneaked,” which means the same thing, except that it’s associated with a more educated group of speakers and listeners. “Sneaked” is not arcane; it’s not like “sware” as the past tense of “swore,” or “bare” as the past tense of “bear.” But it was universally employed in formal writing and speaking until approximately 2008. There is no reason to replace it.

“Impact” is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction.

Thomas Jefferson, no mean judge of words, said that “necessity obliges us [Americans] to neologize.” He also said, “Certainly so great [and] growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”

Tell me, what variety of climates, of productions, or of arts, what new circumstances impel us to say “snuck” instead of “sneaked”? Or “impact,” instead of all the things that would be better in its place?

And that is another consideration — not just the existence of a traditional word with established and appropriate connotations, but the existence of a variety of words that are obliterated by some new and brutal imposition.

Your boss sends you a memo. It says that your company is being impacted by something. It could be anything: the annual test of the fire alarm, the arrival of federal investigators, the news of China’s ability to market a 50-dollar widget for 50 cents (notice: I said “market,” not “sell”; “sell” is the older verb, but it has slightly different connotations). The “impact”could be serious or trivial. So why the hell doesn’t he say what he thinks it is?

Impact connotes violence. It’s a word appropriate to the sad results of a sudden lane change, or the landing of an asteroid on downtown Dayton. But here is a partial list of words for which impacted is regularly forced to substitute:

  • affected
  • influenced
  • attracted
  • allured
  • motivated
  • inspired
  • helped
  • hindered
  • shaped
  • ruined
  • devastated
  • destroyed

Impacted covers and obscures the individual meanings of all those words, and more. Often it’s intended to do so, by people who don’t want to specify their meanings, by people who have contempt for their readers’ intelligence or curiosity. But when that’s not the intention, impacted still prevents your audience from understanding what you mean to say — if you mean to say anything, instead of simply emitting some syllables that will relieve you of thought. Like issues, impact is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction. As such, it is to be rigorously opposed and mercilessly eradicated by all people friendly to language in its true and vital forms.

So much for pseudo- and degenerate neology. Unfortunately, I have other business left over from the preceding Word Watch — the peculiar affairs of the very peculiar Tsarnaev family, and what is turning out to be the very peculiar business of reporting on them.

Plenty of stuff has now appeared about how the elder of the Boston bombers was shellshocked (victimized by post-traumatic stress syndrome) because of whatever went on in Chechnya (a place where, by the way, neither of the brothers ever lived), so naturally he had to become anti-American(!) and start blowing people up at the Boston Marathon. Not the Moscow Marathon, mind you, although you might have expected that, given the scunner that Chechens have against Russians. No, it was the Boston Marathon — as if anyone in Boston gave a damn about Chechnya. But I guess that’s where victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome flock, from all over the world — to Boston. They don’t stop on the way, in some Islamic country. No. They’re like all the other victims of American imperialism: they seek shelter in America. I heard an expert on the psychology of people under stress refer to the younger bomber as “this beautiful young man.” I’m not sure he’s as cute as all that, but so what? And this was on Fox News, the world headquarters of patriotic American anti-terrorism.

But let’s get to the intellectual and religious meat of this subject. On April 28 I found online an AP report on the mother of the Boston bombers. http://news.yahoo.com/mother-bomb-suspects-found-deeper-spirituality-224317582.htmlThe title attracted my curiosity: “Mother of bomb suspects found deeper spirituality.” Really! I thought. Is this the same woman, the woman who goes on television, spewing hysterical accusations against the United States? Indeed it was. But what was the evidence of this deeper spirituality, of its “finding,” and of its interesting effects? Was it a new conception of the cosmos, such as the Buddha attained at his moment of enlightenment? Was it a recovery of the Sufis’ bliss? Of the ethical vision of Muhammed? Was it something like St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ? Or Sojourner Truth’s responsiveness to the call of God? Or the nobility of Jefferson’s oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man"?

Interest increases when one recalls that “deeper” is a comparative term. This spiritual discovery — it was deeper than something else. Deeper than what? Deeper than the spiritualities just mentioned? Doubtful. Then perhaps it was deeper than the subject’s former spirituality? So what was that?

Well, forget it. It was nothing but a bunch of syllables in a press report. (And, you may ask, why is that any different from anything else the AP hands out?) It seems that Mrs. Tsarnaev was just a woman who “went to beauty school and did facials at a suburban day spa.” Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with that — many followers of Martin Luther King were people of humble occupations, though of deep religious conviction, when they risked their lives and livelihoods in his campaign for a moral ideal. But in the case of Mrs. Tsarnaev, that was it. That was all. There wasn’t any more. That was the end. Period. You now know everything. There was no spirituality whatever in Mrs. Tsarnaev’s past.

Well, all right, never mind the comparative. At some point, she was hit by a deeper spirituality. You might say it impacted her. And what was that point? According to the article, it was the point at which she “began wearing a hijab and cited conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a plot against Muslims.” Again, that’s it. That’s the deeper spirituality. She changed her clothes and started babbling nonsense.

Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Tsarnaev says she found a deeper spirituality: “Tsarnaeva insists there is no mystery. She's no terrorist, just someone who found a deeper spirituality. She insists her sons — Tamerlan, who was killed in a gunfight with police, and Dzhokhar, who was wounded and captured — are innocent. ‘It's all lies and hypocrisy,’ she told The Associated Press in Dagestan. ‘I'm sick and tired of all this nonsense that they make up about me and my children.’”

St. Francis couldn’t have said it better.

As far as I’m concerned, Mrs. T can say anything she wants. There are plenty of crazy people in this world, and several of them on my street at any given moment. But for a news organization to project this particular crazy person’s claims as valid — that’s another matter. It’s not just a question of fact; it’s a question of values. Calling her ideas “spiritual,” because she asserts they are, suggests an attitude toward spirituality that is roughly equivalent to a rural pastor’s concept of sex among the ancient Romans — it’s just as ignorant, only more contemptuous about the topic under discussion.

And worse, at least from a journalistic point of view — ignorant and contemptuous about the audience. If you publish a news report in which you examine the philosophical thought of Mickey Mouse and speculate about how he would have married Minnie, years ago, if he hadn’t been a victim of Hollywood’s traumatic impact on young stars, you are showing contempt for your audience. But even that would show less contempt than publicizing the notion of Mrs. Tsarnaev’s spirituality, or entertaining the idea that terrorism comes from stress, or — to recall another recent instance — taking seriously the claim that when the Internal Revenue Service selected hundreds of nonprofit orgs for administrative torture because their names included such terms as “Patriot” and “Tea Party,” this was simply a rogue, low-level, unauthorized training experiment and attempt at efficiency.

We meet this on every side: the assumption that we can be fooled. Political discourse is routinely motivated by that assumption. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. Just try to have your computer fixed. Eventually, the fixers will call you with incomprehensible news about what went wrong and what they need to do about it, something that is invariably expensive, inconvenient, and mystifying. If you ask what they mean by the terms they use, they become offended. If you ask for an explanation, they tell you, “I just gave you one.”

But keep asking questions. Keep track of how long it takes the people on the phone to say they need to talk to their Chief Technician and get back to you. Then keep track of how many questions you need to ask the Chief Technician before he or she reveals a need to read the diagnostics. (What? Is this the Mayo Clinic?) “Oh,” you say, “you haven’t had a chance to read them yet?” Now observe the reluctance with which your collocutor responds. There was nothing behind that curtain of words.

Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value. This isn’t true of my carpenter, who tells me that he “just likes to fix stuff.” But it’s true of the millions who are employed to communicate. Some are hired by government, others by private organizations that seem, almost inevitably, to ape the style of government. But these millions can’t actually communicate much of anything, because they don’t know anything, and they assume that everybody else is as dumb as they are. Dumb — or dumber.




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A Presidency Imploding

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Since the beginning of the modern presidency under Franklin Roosevelt, every chief executive elected to a second term has suffered disaster during that term. FDR provoked a major political crisis when he tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, after which he guided the economy into a severe recession, undoing some of the economic gains of his first four years in office. Truman had Korea. Eisenhower faced Sputnik and the recession of 1958–59 (the worst in 20 years), followed by the U-2 incident and the collapse of a planned summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Lyndon Johnson suffered through Vietnam and widespread race riots. Nixon became embroiled in Watergate, was impeached and resigned. Reagan nearly lost office in the Iran-Contra scandal. Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” eventually led to his impeachment, though he was acquitted by the Senate. George W. Bush had Iraq, Katrina, and the financial meltdown of 2008. Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn.

Obama roundly defeated Mitt Romney to win reelection in 2012. Yet today, not even six months into his second term, he is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so. After deciding to push gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre, he failed to secure congressional passage of even his minimum program for universal background checks. Immigration reform, expected to be the signature domestic achievement of his second term, is hanging fire in the Senate, and faces questionable prospects in the House. The implementation of Obamacare is fraught with problems (on this see David Brooks’ column “Health Chaos Ahead,” in the April 25 New York Times). Foreign policy, normally a presidential strength when the nation is not actually at war, seems increasingly in disarray. Relations with Russia are fraying. No progress has been made on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The possibility of US intervention in Syria’s complex civil war seems to be increasing, with planning underway for an air campaign in support of the Syrian rebels, and a forward headquarters of the US Central Command already on the ground in Jordan. Add to these problems the troika of scandals currently roiling Washington (Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s secret spying on the Associated Press), and a picture of an administration nearing collapse begins to form.

Let’s examine briefly the three scandals just mentioned. The 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, came about as a result of mistakes made by the Obama administration and the Republicans in Congress (who in 2011 turned down an administration request to provide more funds for embassy security). The administration made the scandal all its own by putting out misleading talking points that claimed the attack was not terror-related. It clearly did so for political purposes, seeking to preserve Obama’s reputation as a successful fighter of terrorism during the election campaign. The web of lies about Benghazi woven by the administration since last September will not bring it down, but the political damage is likely to be significant and lasting.

Today, not even six months into his second term, President Obama is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so.

The IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status probably won’t destroy the Obama presidency either, but it could. We don’t yet know just how high up the rot goes. If it can be shown that people in the White House encouraged the IRS campaign (or simply knew about it and did nothing), then the scandal rises to Nixonian levels. The betting here is that Obama and his people aren’t that stupid, but we’ll see. Don’t hold your breath for impeachment, but do expect a long drawn-out series of investigations that will bog down the administration for much of 2013.

The AP spying scandal is merely a continuation of the quasi-authoritarianism instituted by federal authorities after the original 9/11. One of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon was based in part on his use of wiretapping without a court order. Today the Department of Justice conducts warrantless wiretaps as a matter of course, thanks to the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2012, which Obama signed into law after his reelection. This particular scandal has legs because journalists were the target. But it’s really no more than business as usual in our Orwellian Republic. The administration may take some hits, but the damage will not be mortal.

Nothing that has happened so far in Obama’s second term rises to the level of Watergate. Yet, taken together, the mistakes and lies of the past eight months have this administration reeling. It truly is in danger of imploding — which for many on the Right would be good news. A crippled presidency, however, tends to breed uncertainty and malaise, with bad consequences for the economy. And there is the further danger that a crippled president might seek to redeem himself in foreign lands — Syria, for example, or Iran.

The second term woes of Obama’s predecessors were largely the result of hubris (or, in Ronald Reagan’s case, incipient senility). Obama on the other hand suffers principally from aloofness. He is under the impression that elections are all that matter. But we do not live in a plebiscitary democracy. Successful governing involves schmoozing with people you may secretly detest. It involves coming down from your pedestal and actually engaging other human beings who also have supporters and power. Obama has never wanted to do this. He prefers to stand alone, believing that the adoration of his supporters guarantees success. As a result he has few real resources to draw upon in times of trouble. And he is in trouble now. No single problem (the IRS scandal possibly excepted) can bring him down, but he faces the prospect of a slow political death from a thousand cuts. While he undoubtedly will seek to place blame for his troubles on those who have always opposed him, his foremost enemy dwells in the mirror.




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What Did You Know, and Why Didn’t You Know It?

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To me, the funniest part of the administration’s current travail is its entrapment between the devil of activism and the deep blue sea of ignorance.

President Obama has pursued an aggressively state-socialist policy. The belief of his church militant is that government knows best about healthcare, that government knows best about the economy, that government knows best about the environment, race relations, the nature of Islam, the legitimate leadership of Libya, the price of microchips in China. Well, a socialist government has to know these matters, because it has to plan and rule everything. But to any evidence of failure, the president’s response is, “I’m completely ignorant.”

The Benghazi affair? None of us was clear on the facts (but we made announcements, anyway). We’ll find out, after the investigation. The IRS’s persecution of Obama’s critics? I just know what I read in the papers; I’ve ordered an investigation. The secret raid on the Associated Press? I just know what I read in the papers; I can’t comment on matters under investigation.

So either the all-knowing leadership doesn’t know enough to conduct even its own political business, or it knows what it’s doing, and it’s lying about it, to preserve its own power. Take your pick. Either way, it doesn’t look good for state socialism.

Told that President McKinley was going to visit his town, Mr. Dooley, the Irish bartender who was given immortal life by Finley Peter Dunne, made this remark: “I may niver see him. I may go to me grave without gettin’ an’ eye on th’ wan man besides mesilf that don’t know what th’ furrin’ policy iv th’ United States is goin’ to be.”




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A Letter to a Cousin in France

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My dear cousin Gérard,

Thank you for giving me news from the old country. Congratulations on your acquittal! To whom do you owe the favor of the court's providential misplacing of these evidence files? Wait, on second thought, don't answer that question.

As for me, I have been totally aboveboard since I immigrated to the United States. As you remember, I left our profitable little organization because I was sick and tired of helping politicians pluck the country like a gullible goose. I wanted to leave behind the dirtiness, the lies, the posing.

I came to the US with some reverence, and, dare I say, a bit of awe. Yes, laugh me up. Nevertheless, you have to admit that the US was founded on principle and deeds quite above the bloody chaos that gave birth to many European republics. Take France, where people still think so highly of themselves in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. Its line of absolutist kings was toppled by a demented slaughter calling itself a revolution, which gave birth to an emperor, more kings, another emperor, and a series of unsteady, depraved governments. Compare the rabid, bloodthirsty revolutionaries of Paris with the thinkers who authored the Federalist Papers — look it up online. It's obvious that the depth of thought that went into America's founding principles has few equivalents in Europe.

Not that we didn't have our moments of fun back in the old country. Remember when that guy wanted to found an anti-corruption opposition party? How we were called to handle it? I supervised the state's "security interventions" to cut power to the buildings the guy rented for his conventions, and you manufactured the rioting protests that destroyed the cars of the attendees while the national police watched. After a few weeks, nobody dared to attend the guy’s speeches. Good times, good times. And well-paid, too.

But it was becoming as painful as watching a pit bull ripping a kitten to shreds — over and over again. So I left home. I left the grime, the dishonesty, the corruption, and I started an honest business in this still mostly honest country. All these years, you told me, "You just wait." I didn't want to believe you.

But you were right, damn your cynical hide.

You probably have not heard of it — hell, even the American media barely mentioned it. But it started. The rot is taking hold. We — the USA, I mean — are becoming just like the old country.

It always starts when politicians get government employees to persecute their opponents. I'm not talking about finding dirt on the challenger in an election No, I'm talking about using the tax system to harass and suppress political opponents. I know, this is old news in France or Italy, but here, it was unheard of.

Yet that's exactly what Obama's IRS just did. The Federal tax administration singled out constitutional-government organizations and used tactics that I'm sure you'll find interesting: intimidation, extreme indiscretion, dereliction of duty, abnormal delays, and plain harassment. For example, the IRS (that’s what the tax outfit is called) was asking Tea Party chapters to provide the full biographies of all the officer's family members, their plans, their income past, present, and future, the works! They also wanted the news clippings that mentioned them, information about future meetings during the next two years, financial information on officers and their families. Better, they planned to make all that information publicly available! This, in a country where a Social Security number is enough to open a line of credit. And this abuse went on for years.

It’s so gross that even the leftist MSNBC television channel mentioned it. To give you context, this is a channel on which anchors interviewing leftists ask for their autographs. On the air.

Of course, the IRS pretends that this is all a regrettable mistake made by lowly clerks at a single IRS center in Cincinnati, that it was nothing political. That's a lie, obviously: discrimination against opponents was dished out by several IRS offices. And the IRS announced that there will not be a single slap on the wrist to punish this unbelievable abuse, which confirms that it was an operation led from the top.

This shattered my illusions about this country, and with them, my hopes for a republic as a form of government that could succeed somewhere. Yes, Gérard, I am naive. I am glad I am telling you this in writing. It will save me the trouble of slapping that annoying smirk off your face.

Which brings me to a business proposal. Obviously, the US is ripe for the next step. They have these amateurs in the Chicago "machine" that do more or less the same job as you, but lack the polish, the experience that you can bring to your operations. Why don't you open your "political consultancy cabinet" here? I'll help you, as I did in the past, for the same percentage. You will find it appetizing: a country of 300 million wide-eyed yokels, most of whom still believe what the media tell them.

Oh, and don't bother with a work visa. I heard they're going to have a big amnesty anyway.

Reluctantly yours,
Cousin Jacques




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R.O.C. On!

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We were nearly out of money.

Taiwan, a small country, controls its foreign exchange. Not for nefarious purposes (think Venezuela and Zimbabwe), but because — when it comes to monetary policy — size has consequences. Though fiscally and economically sound, Taiwan is vulnerable to currency manipulation from a multitude of sources.

Our guidebooks recommended changing money at the airport kiosks. But George, our Taiwanese contact in Taipei, told us not to fret — ATMs were everywhere and banks exchanged currency at will without a commission. Since we’d arrived at midnight, were thoroughly jet-lagged, and still faced an hour’s ride into Taipei, we followed George’s advice.

The following day, with George translating and easing the procedure at his bank, we changed only a portion of our funds — mostly because of my innate conservatism and the ease of the transaction. However, we weren’t run-of-the-mill tourists or business visitors to Formosa, as the Taiwanese still proudly, and often, refer to their country.

Tina, my wife, and I were planning to bicycle Taiwan’s perimeter — about 850 miles — eating at street stalls and night markets, and sleeping in modest lodgings such as B&Bs. But what we hadn’t foreseen caught up with us. Taiwan’s banks stick to the big cities and, while ATMs are everywhere, they rejected our US cards like an organ transplant gone bad. Moreover, only big hotels and fancy restaurants accepted credit cards.

Riding through Neipu, two-thirds through the trip, I spotted a bank and yelled to Tina to pull over. We carved out a parking space between the road and the wall-to-wall buildings, among the throng of cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and dogs milling about or settled. It was the kind of place that in the US usually contains official parking spaces, a sidewalk, driveways, and front set-backs in the form of lawns, patios, porches, or business foyers, but in Taiwan is a chaotic jumble of all of the above, along a narrow strip — with the addition of street vendors and wall-less, brick-and-mortar businesses fully exposed to the hubbub. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the bank closed at 4:00, and we were still 20 kilometers from Pingtung, our day’s destination. So we had plenty of time.

The bank’s door guard welcomed me and asked my business.

Now, Mandarin is so radically different from the Indo-European languages that the Taiwanese compensate for the difficulties with acutely tuned inferential antennae and artfully adept sign language. It’s not that Chinese has a difficult grammar (like German); it has none that seems like grammar to us. Simply string words together and you can make sense. It’s the tones, four in most instances, that to someone who is tone-deaf are impossible. And the pronunciation of some of the consonants. The differences betweent’s and d’s; b’s and p’s; ch’s, zh’s, q’s, s’s, ts’s, x’s,and jh’s, plus others — in Roman pronunciation transcriptions — are so subtle that it was like trying to speak French with a mouthful of pebbles.

On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

If I want to ask a question in an unfamiliar language when traveling abroad, I’ll enunciate the key word with a rising tone to indicate a question. That’s nearly impossible in China. Once the tone of a word is fiddled with, the meaning changes unpredictably. In China, one must use a complete phrase so that, if one’s tone isn’t just right, the listener can infer the gist of one’s query from its context.

I hesitate to try to explain written Chinese with its 8,000 or so characters. Memorizing the key characters in important words such as “men” and “women” — for going #1 and #2 — or “hotel” on a sign — for going #3 — was a distraction that we turned into a game. It’s a very unpretentious language, almost prosaic, with — mostly — descriptions instead of actual names. “China” in Chinese literally means “Middle Country”, a reference to its central location between India and Japan, and Russia and the Malay Archipelago. The character for “middle” is a rectangle with a vertical line through its middle. Months don’t have “names”; their “names” are “First Month”, “Second Month”, etc.

So I asked George how my name, Bob Miller, would be rendered in script. “Bob”becomes bo, or ‘knowledgeable’; “Mi”is ‘rice’; and “ller” becomes lo, meaning ‘joy’ — a propitious rendering, according to my friends.

Everyone in the bank turned to look at the westerner with the biking helmet. In response to the door guard’s inquiry, I pulled out a US $100 bill to indicate I wanted to change currency. The entire staff rolled their eyes and threw up their arms — not in an off-putting manner, but rather in an inclusive “we’re-all-going-to-share-a-root-canal-at-closing-time-and-we’re-going-to-pull-together-and-actually-have-fun.”

A teller ushered me to a seat, placed a cup of tea in my hands, and indicated that I should wait. Two minutes later the manager brought me a snack and tried to engage me. Placing my fists close to each other, I rotated them to duplicate the motion of pedaling a bike, uttered “Taiwan”, and signed an oval in the air to say that I was biking around Taiwan. The staff erupted in smiles, hung haos(very good), and thumbs up. More tea, more snacks, more encouraging glances, more waiting.

Twenty minutes later, only the foreign exchange teller was engaged — with what looked like an Indonesian lady. When she stood up, he motioned me over. I handed him my passport and counted out $400 US in $50 and $100 bills. He scrutinized the passport, including the tourist visa stamped in the back, and then the US money, first separating the denominations, then collating the bills. He rejected three $50 bills: two that were well-worn and one that was brand new, saying in English, “too old.” So I gave him one more $100 bill, which he accepted. He counted the money — twice — wrote down the amount, and asked for my confirmation. Then he stood up and approached the vault.

I got the impression that this bank branch had little experience with US money and had never seen a US $50 bill. While waiting for his return, various tellers brought more tea, more snacks, and more friendly attempts to communicate. One snack consisted of dry, pickled prunes, the pits of which I needed to spit out. The attractive teller who’d offered them to me was well aware that she might be pushing the limits of a westerner’s tastes, and so was expectantly attentive to my reaction. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse, put it on her palm and indicated that I should spit the pit onto it. Apprehensive that spitting into her hand might cross some sort of intimacy line, I hesitated. She understood perfectly well and reassured me by repeating “is OK, OK.”

The foreign exchange teller’s cubicle had a small poster touting remittances to Vietnam and Indonesia, thus serving two populations — along with Filipinos — that regularly seek work in Taiwan. Another laminated, placemat-sized poster portrayed various denominations of Renmimbi, the currency of the mainland (People’s Republic of China, or PRC; as opposed to ROC, Republic of China, or Taiwan), with highlights and closeups showcasing what to look for in counterfeit Yuan (Renmimbi notes).

In 2008 President Ma Ying-jeou (reelected in 2012) negotiated a liberalized trade deal with the PRC that included an easing of travel restrictions for mainlanders, the first time since the Communist victory that they would be allowed to travel to Taiwan. The island was seeking an economic boost, while China was hoping that contact between travelers and locals would help lead to eventual political unification with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. Mainlanders refer to Taiwan as “Treasure Island”: for its fabled beauty (as did the Portuguese: Formosa means “beautiful”); its trove of historical treasures brought over by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949; its democracy; and, most importantly, its shopping.

Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong, nearly always greet the mainlander tour buses at their scheduled stops.

The demand is overwhelming. If every mainlander who wanted to visit Taiwan were allowed in, the island would sink. So the numbers are strictly controlled and relegated to organized tour groups. In many respects Taiwan is considered more Chinese than China. On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

And there are other restrictions, lately further liberalized in 2011 (such as allowing a small number of mainlanders to travel by themselves). Though the mainlanders are indeed an economic boost, the social disruption they cause would be catastrophic, were they given free range. We were advised to visit popular tourist sites early in the morning, before mainlanders’ tour buses arrived. Taiwanese scuttlebutt is that they’re uncouth slobs who litter, spit and urinate willy-nilly; foul the bathrooms; are rude and unwilling to queue; and dress inappropriately — either like hillbillies or like ne’er-do-wells. So they’re limited to two-week visits. Roadside rest stops for their tour buses have temporary, purpose-placed bathrooms (Taiwanese bathrooms, both public and private, are spotless). Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong (a religious sect outlawed on the mainland), nearly always greet the tour buses at their scheduled stops. Most Taiwanese doubt the efficacy of the placard exhibits and displays in making conversions; but the mainlanders never fail to gaze in wonder at the mere fact that such demonstrations occur at all.

At 4 PM the door guard closed the bank. No one got up to leave. My teller returned with my passport, two photocopies of it, and a form to fill out. He was stumped by my name. In Chinese, the first name is the family name; the following two, hyphenated, names are given names. So I wrote out “Chiang Kai-shek” and “Miller Robert Howard” and drew arrows between the equivalents. He smiled, and then asked for my phone number by pointing to his cell phone. I responded bushi dianhua (no phone).

The whole staff turned to look at me, amazed and incredulous. Taiwan is the Silicon Valley of Asia. The Taiwanese can no more conceive of an individual without a cell phone than they can imagine a meal without rice. My teller grimaced and looked lost. I started to sense that the lack of a phone could be a dealbreaker. Then I remembered that Tina had one, loaned to us by Jorie, George’s wife. It had proved useless, however, because all the displays were in Chinese script. I motioned the teller to wait and went to fetch Tina outside where she’d been babysitting the bikes.

Her wait hadn’t been boring. The next-door juice stand had refused payment for the smoothie she’d ordered. A nearby resident had let his house-broken pet piglet out for a pee, after which the pig nuzzled the man’s ankle with overwhelming affection, which the man returned with scratches to its head as they both ambled back inside. Passers-by stopped to ask her about us and our trip. Tina dug out the cell phone, brought it inside, and handed it to the teller, who quickly retrieved its number. Another teller brought her a cup of tea and snacks while the door guard indicated that he’d keep an eye on the bikes.

Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred.

My teller then began writing the serial numbers from each of the US bills on the form. When he was finished, he asked me to check his work and initial it. I did, and he wrote down the exchange rate for me: NT$28.60=$1.00 US (later confirmed independently). My 2011 Lonely Planet guidebook reported an exchange rate of NT$32.20 to the US dollar and stated that rates were very stable, because of Taiwan’s fiscal probity. Nonetheless, this was either an 11% devaluation of the US dollar or an equivalent appreciation of the Taiwan dollar, in one year. Guess which one.

He went back to the vault and came back quickly with my New Taiwan Dollars (NT$), placed them in a bill counter, and then hand counted them twice. Finally, he wrote their serial numbers on the form and placed the wad in front of me without counting it, along with a copy of the completed form. He looked at me, awaiting my counter-count of the NT$s. It was 4:30 PM.

I picked up the wad, waved my other palm in front of me, and said in English, “I trust you.” The whole staff broke out laughing; my teller smiled — broadly. The reasons for the laughter were both ironic and post-ironic.

The Taiwanese are honest to a degree that beggars credulity. Bikes are parked outside without locks; street vendors leave their stalls out overnight, fully stocked, with only a blue tarp to keep rain off. We saw two separate instances of million (US) dollar jewelry displayed in regular glass cases without added security or guards; one instance of a lost Malaysian’s wallet full of cash returned whole; and two instances of returned tips, one from a woman who was both cook and waitress. She was so proud of her dish and our appreciation of it that she insistently pressed the gratuity back into my hands. In Beipu, Tina got into a gesture argument with a street vendor, which soon drew a crowd of adjacent vendors. Apparently, she’d inadvertently paid too much for her purchase and the vendor was attempting to return her overpayment. Tina adamantly refused. The vendor won. To top it off, we saw no beggars or homeless people; no graffiti or evidence of vandalism; and we were never warned away from any neighborhood, anywhere on the island.

After 20 days of uniformly guileless and transparent interactions and transactions, I instinctively trusted the teller. The irony is that his superiors took a formalprecautionary approach — doubtless necessary to the banking business — that required an assumption of no trust. My teller had to perform tasks associated with my transaction that — other than running a grease pen across a bill — we usually find unnecessary in the US. I understood why they laughed.

It was nearly 4:45 PM when we mounted our bikes and headed for Pingtung. The bank’s staff wrapped things up, gathered at the door to wish us a good trip, waved us goodbye, and headed home.

Taiwhat?!

The Taiwan Tourism Board’s ad in The Economist had caught my eye because ittouted the island’s biking opportunities. Biking in Taiwan? That overcrowded and industrial corner of Asia that not long ago inherited Japan’s post-war reputation for mass-producing cheap and tacky stuff? I read on: “gorgeous scenery . . . dense forests . . . 22 National Parks & Scenic Areas . . . hundreds of kilometers of bike trails . . . more than 500 species of birds . . . a food-lover’s paradise . . .” Further research revealed that the heaviest population density is concentrated along the flat plains of the west coast, with the rest of the country resembling Vancouver Island, but with even taller peaks.

As to biking, with Taiwan manufacturing the world’s share of decent-end bicycles — Giant, Merida, Surly, Schwinn, Cannondale, et alia — a biking craze had grabbed the country about seven years ago and never let go. In cities, bike rental and loaner kiosks are ubiquitous. Nearly every road hosts a bike lane, and politicians run on campaigns to build even more bike paths. Some sections of the highway along the precipitous east coast offer more bike paths than car lanes. On days off, entire families from two-year-olds to grannies in coolie hats, take to their bikes. Police stations provide bikers with air, water, tools, flat-repair kits, and free camping (an indication that Taiwan is as crime-free as it gets). There are even plans to build a dedicated, circum-Taiwan bike trail.

I’d always wanted to visit Asia, where the real 99% live. However, Japan is too expensive, mainland China is a health hazard, the Philippines are crime-ridden, and Indochina is too third world. Taiwan, fully first world yet affordable, seemed perfect, especially for the sort of adventure tourism my wife and I have become addicted to: crossing or circling a country by human power alone, either biking, walking or paddling a boat. These methods provide for an intensive immersion into the country, people, and culture. Still, communication in a strange, tonal language with an ideographic written form seemed an insuperable obstacle. Until I remembered George Yen.

Our acquaintance replied that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

George, one of my dormmates in college, was Taiwanese. Though he’d only been an acquaintance and at that, 45 years ago, I decided to look him up in a not-so-old alumni directory. There he was with a Taipei address and a “.tw” email postfix. I wrote him hoping he remembered me, and asked for his thoughts on biking around Taiwan.

Not only did he answer that, yes, he remembered me, but that he was an avid biker, would put us up, lend us a cellphone for on-the-spot translation, and even ride a few days with us to ease our transition into the Taiwanese milieu.

In the 45 years since I’d seen him last, George had done well. He is President of Toastmasters International — what he calls his real passion — and has done the “Taiwanese Big Four”: climbed Mt. Yushan, at 12,966 ft, Taiwan’s highest peak; circled the island on a bike; swum across Sun Moon Lake; and climbed Taipei 101, the world’s third tallest building. But his day job is Chairman of the Board of Great Sequoia Corporation, an international trading company based in Taipei, and he’s managed three international joint ventures. He speaks four languages and holds an MA ininternational relationsfrom the Wharton School, along with having spent a night in a Texas jail during the ’70s (but that’s another story).

George and his wife Jorie threw out the plushest red carpet I’d ever curled my toes in. He owns the nine-story building where he lives, in one of Taipei’s nicest districts. Two stories are underground parking, accessed by a rotating car elevator. The first ground floor is his mother’s home (at 91, she still works); the second floor he rents out; the third floor is their Filipino housemaid’s digs; and he and Jorie inhabit the fifth and sixth floors (there is no fourth floor for reasons similar to Americans’ not having a thirteenth floor). The seventh floor is the family shrine and the family pug’s hangout. The eighth is a patio. Tina and I got the fifth floor.

Our first day of biking was a warmup along the Tamsui River and its tributaries’ (and distributaries’) many bike paths through Taipei to its old downtown. To rephrase the old saw, we were hippies in a head shop. Our first rest stop was next to an imposing standing stone inscribed with careful red calligraphy in a small manicured garden. When we asked its meaning, George took a Platonic approach, giving us hints about the characters in hopes we’d infer the full meaning. We could recognize the script for “two,” and he pointed out the script for “water”. While Tina and I were thinking along profound and contemplative lines, George smiled and said it was the sign for the Taipei Water District’s second water pump. We all had a good laugh.

The next stop was Taipei’s night market — not quite as bustling during the day. We were looking for lunch. Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred, opting instead for fresh coconut water and deep-fried, ground pork dumplings at another stall.

On the way back we stopped at a large Taoist temple, the first of many temples and shrines we would pass, whose contrast with Christian churches in the west was almost too much to absorb, much less digest on a first encounter. While the baroque architectural elaboration — including gargoyles — riot of color, intricate carving and painting, main and subsidiary altars, candles and incense, icons and statues of cathedrals all had analogues — albeit radically different — it was the gestalt of the place that was striking.

There was no overarching atmosphere of awe and human insignificance, no hushed solemnity. Real or ritualized forms of abasement such as silence, a dress code, the donning or removing of head coverings or shoes, or “donations” were not required, and cameras were not prohibited. Functionaries such as monks or nuns — when present — didn’t stand out; nor did they exude an air of authority or officious sanctimoniousness so much as recede into the background like lowly maintenance staff. Individualism ruled: while some visitors performed obeisance, knelt quietly in prayer, left offerings on tables, or threw divining blocks, others conducted business, visited with acquaintances, ambled aimlessly, photographed, or just hung out. Some laughed, some sobbed, and some were inscrutable.

Taiwanese temples are not only spiritual centers; they’re community centers, marketplaces, recreation centers, parks, and museums. There are over 15,000 registered temples in Taiwan, or about one for every 1,500 people, not counting unregistered temples and roadside shrines. And the number is growing. Mosques, synagogues, and Christian churches, on the other hand, serve less than 5% of the population, with the latter catering mostly to aboriginal tribes along the east coast and up in the mountains.

Cash My-check

We headed out on our rideabout on a clear, warm day along the Tansui River bike path toward the northwest coast. George had arranged to have his cousin, Dr. Yang, a family practice M.D. and an avid biker, accompany us on the first day. Dr. Yang gave us a map of Taiwan labeled in English and Chinese script: in case we needed to ask directions, it would be legible to a local. In Tansui town we lunched on tuna hot dogs, BBQ’d squid, and sugar cane juice. An hour later George stopped at a convenience store, saying this was the last likely bathroom stop for a stretch, since we’d be heading into a more rural area. Recalling the American custom of declaring that “restrooms are for customers only,” I asked him if it was alright to use a business’s facilities without patronizing it. He answered that Taiwanese can’t conceive of refusing a bathroom to someone who needs it; in fact, we later experienced that all businesses’ bathrooms are hospitably available to anyone.

The Taiwanese are strong free marketers and proponents of private property, but they’re neither defensive nor insecure about it. In a recent poll by The Economist, people from various countries were asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Capitalism is a system that works well and should be preserved”. Only 13% of French respondents agreed, and only 52% of Americans. While 65% of mainland Chinese agreed, no separate figures for Taiwan were reported. Given the mainlanders’ responses, Taiwanese figures were doubtlessly much higher.

We saw no “No Trespassing” signs. When we were asked whether we were camping out during our ride, we answered no, because there were few campgrounds on the island, and decent lodging, in many cases, was actually cheaper than Canadian campgrounds. Our acquaintance replied — rather glibly, I thought, but echoing attitudes about bathrooms — that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

Our first night’s lodging was at the Chinshan Youth Activity Center, an over-the-top, towering, Fascist-architecture edifice built on splendid grounds in 1960. The accommodations were Japanese style: impeccable and tasteful, with shoji screens demarcating space, an elevated bedroom floor supplied with tatami mats, hard pillows and a comforter. Not accustomed to sleeping on the floor, Tina piled as many mats as the cupboard supplied to make us a bed.

Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945 as an integral part of Japan. Though forcibly imposed, the occupation wasn’t brutal, except towards those who resisted — in particular the aboriginal tribes, who held out against the Imperial Army for seven years to retain their independence. The Japanese built roads and railways, modernized the bureaucracy, developed an industrial base, and treated the rest of the population as fellow citizens. Though many Taiwanese were drafted into a losing cause during WWII, today perceptions of the occupation remain mixed, with many Japanese customs surviving.

The Youth Activity Center was built by Chiang Ching-kuo (brother of Chiang Wei-kuo, and Chiang Kai-shek’s elder son) when he ran the Youth Activity Corps, long before he followed his father as president of Taiwan. Chiang pere had a yin-yang relationship with his two sons: Ching-kuo was to be taught; Wei-kuo — the adopted one — was to be loved. The Chiangs were Machiavellian, stubborn but practical, misunderstood and polarizing — while being polarized among themselves — and, ultimately, survivors all at the same time: a bit like China itself.

Until 1911, China had endured centuries of more-or-less stable, dynastic Imperial rule, the preceding 40 years or so under the Empress Dowager Cixi, a vain but cultivated woman. She was an obstinate reactionary and murderous despot who amassed a fortune in Swiss banks. History had dealt her a bad hand, which she tried to make the best of; but in the end, her malfeasance provoked insurrection.

The inspiration and intellectual catalyst for the upheaval was Sun Yat Sen, an American-educated medical doctor. Dogged, but impractically idealistic and politically naïve, Dr. Sun failed a dozen times to ignite the spark of revolution before the blaze finally caught in 1911 — ironically while he was in exile.

Back in China, he tried to guide unfolding events by founding the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, in 1912. But he was thwarted by remnants of the old order, provincial sectarianism, and internal factionalism. He rolled with the punches. When he sought help from abroad but was rebuffed by the democracies’ noninterventionist policies, the newly established Soviet Union came to the rescue, sending money, advisors and materiel. This aid and Sun’s declared belief in “government ownership of the means of production” fired up his leftwing base, composed of students and peasants who, with some professional help, founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1923, but alienated landlords and business, who hadn’t yet organized themselves. Enter Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang had studied military science in Japan — which he admired — and in the Soviet Union — which he didn’t, except for its strongarm methods. After once risking his neck to save Dr. Sun’s life, he first became the doctor’s right-hand man, then leader of the Kuomintang upon Sun’s death in 1925.

Chiang covered his cards well. Not only did he manage to raise funds from opposing interests (he would acquire the nickname “Cash My-check”) — internationally from Stalin, the US, and Hitler, and internally from the moneyed classes (including China’s mafias) — but he artfully turned up the heat on the Communist frog, boiling it out of the Kuomintang in two years’ time. Afterward he embarked on a 22-year effort to annihilate the Reds, preferring to muster his resources against Mao Zedong while appeasing Japanese aggression in the belief that the Japanese would overstretch themselves in the immensity of China and finally collapse. Moreover, to Chiang the “rebels were a disease of China’s vitals, the barbarians an affliction only of the limbs.”

Disenchanted with (or perhaps not understanding) his father’s policies, Chiang Ching-kuo, left revolutionary China in 1925 to study in Moscow, a move his father did not approve, but accepted. One of his classmates there was Deng Xiaoping, the future Chinese Communist Party leader. Both would, much later, reform each of their Chinas.

Chiang Ching-kuo had the unfortunate but transformative experience of becoming a Trotskyist just before Trotsky was purged, and being in Stalin’s grasp during his father’s purge of the Chinese Communists. Nonetheless, he was allowed to marry a Russian and remained in the USSR for 12 years. Some speculate that Stalin kept him as a hostage. However, Chiang Kai-shek had absolutely no intention of stopping the war against the Communists, declaring, "I would rather have no offspring than sacrifice our nation's interests."

Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek sent his other son, Chiang Wei-Kuo, to study at the Munich Military Academy. There he distinguished himself and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. He commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938 but was recalled to China just before Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

After WWII Taiwan was returned to China. On the mainland, the balance of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists was tilting towards the Reds. The increasingly beleaguered Nationalist government, acting like a jealous husband, treated the island like a violated woman who had “enjoyed” the experience of Japan’s occupation, by unleashing a bloody crackdown that took at least 28,000 lives and initiated 40 years of martial law known as the “White Terror.” With massive aid from the Soviet Union, Mao finally defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and drove the remnants of the Kuomintang army and anti-Communist refugees — two million in all — across the Formosa Strait to refuge in Taiwan.

Years ago, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously.

In 1978, following Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo assumed the presidency of the ROC at the ripe age of 68. His character having been forged in a cauldron of extremes, Ching-kuo’s wisdom had reached Confucian and Taoist proportions. In power, he undertook a series of radical changes, including lifting martial law and tolerating opposition, reforming land tenure, and — most importantly — laying the groundwork for the Taiwan Miracle with free market policies. His hand-picked successor and vice-president, Lee Teng-hui, fully democratized Taiwan during his 1988-2000 tenure.

Chiang Wei-kuo, on the other hand, commanded a tank battalion against the Japanese and Chinese Communists during WWII and the Chinese Civil War. In Taiwan, he continued to hold senior positions in the R.O.C. Armed Forces. He was promoted to Major General in 1975, and served as president of the Armed Forces University. In 1980, he became joint logistics commander in chief; then in 1986, he retired from the army, and became National Security Council secretary-General.

Christmas in Kenting

We rose at 6 AM and breakfasted on a buffet of steamed buns, scrambled eggs with corn, pork and noodle soup, salad, hard tea-boiled eggs, cabbage with extra-fatty bacon, rice gruel, green beans, and fried rice — with sesame oil, vinegar, scallions, peanuts, chili paste, and dried pork shavings for toppings (no soy sauce). The Chinese don’t care for salty food: neither salt nor soy sauce was available as a condiment; this was a bit problematic during hard, sweat-inducing exercise. Rice is consumed at every meal, though the portions are tiny. Chicken and fish are seldom boned or skinned, while meats are served with their full complement of untrimmed fat and gristle.

With its fish heads, chicken feet, whole miniature crabs, snake semen, scorpions, and countless other gag-inducing (to a westerner) ingredients, Chinese cuisine is a consequence of centuries of poverty and famine. During times of want everything remotely edible was tried and consumed. Years ago, after the People’s Republic cracked open the door to foreigners, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously. But like the trend in utilitarian clothing fashions, survival food moved upmarket, becoming — like bird’s nest soup and hundred-year-old eggs — expensive delicacies of the elite. It is all, however, impeccably prepared.

We rounded the top of the island in two days, once stopping to visit the preserved Kinkaseki forced-labor prisoner-of-war camp, where British and American servicemen mined copper for the Japanese. Before us lay the wild and precipitous east coast, home to Taiwan’s 14 aboriginal tribes, and traversed by a narrow and tunnel-studded road subject to landslides. One of them had occurred just a few days previously, closing a 15 km section. Luckily, it had not affected the railroad, which at that point ran through a long tunnel. Before leaving us, George gave instruction on using the train, and a pep talk reassuring us that we’d be all right without him. It didn’t bode well that winter’s winds and rains had returned in force and that we got lost on our first day without him.

On our fifth day we reached Taroko National Park, Taiwan’s crowning natural beauty and most visited park. In the Taroko Gorge the Liwu River has cut an extremely deep, narrow fissure through the limestone bedrock. Most of the road that traverses it has been bored through sheer rock faces like a tunnel but with one side missing, making for a spectacular ride. Picturesque shrines, waterfalls, and hanging gardens dot the wide spots and tributaries. High up in the mountains, the Taroko aboriginal tribe runs top-notch lodgings modeled on its traditional villages and serves traditional Taroko food. No way were we going to pass that up.

The ranger at the National Park information desk referred us to another ranger whose English was better. After answering our questions, she befriended us, engaging us in discussing just about everything imaginable. After an hour of conversation, she gave us gifts — DVDs, books, and souvenirs — finally hugging us and thanking us for visiting and letting her be of service to us. She was about to invite us to lunch but hesitated — I sensed — so as not to make us feel obliged.

She wasn’t unique. The rangers at Kenting National Park and the Maolin National Recreation Area were cut from the same mold, with the ranger at Maolin even bidding us goodbye with a kiss — all this from a people otherwise reputed to be shy in the display of physical affection. Can you imagine that at Yosemite?

Taiwan, as its branding logo says, had already “touched our heart.” We found somewhat wanting the otherwise misanthropic WWII US Military Attaché “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell’s description of the Chinese as “the smartest, in many ways the most civilized, in general the most charming, and certainly on the average, the best looking people in the world,” and his assistant David Barnett’s dittos to their “innate dignity and self-respect, humor, stamina, quickness of mind, and lovely women with exquisite figures.” To that list we’d add ”generosity, forbearance, patience, tolerance, hospitality, and industriousness.”

These traits are not limited to the adult population. Teenagers, sometimes edgy in the best of places, are not just polite in Taiwan; they’re warm and deferential, as well as industrious. We were mobbed by high schoolers on a field trip who wanted to practice their English. Convenience store staff — all teens and twenty-somethings — greet customers, microwave purchases, constantly scrub the floors and the use-surfaces, provide free cups, and bend over backwards to ensure a pleasant experience. In one instance they even requested a photo with us. One attendant, who’d worked at a hotel in Canada, praised his Canadian coworkers’ personalities but bemoaned their slacker work ethic.

The run down to Kenting at the southern tip of the island was relaxed, lightly populated, and brushed by Pacific winds. Near the end we were again blocked by a landslide. But this time, an alternate and very comely single-lane road, crossing over Taiwan’s central mountains through aboriginal villages, provided a welcome change of pace.

Halfway through the trip and with Christmas the following day, we took three days off to rest and see the sights in Kenting. No problem finding lodging: an enterprising B&B owner on a scooter led us to her nicely apportioned digs — only $20 per night. On Christmas day we toured the National Park with Beatriz, a 29-year-old soccer and swimming coach from Galicia. With Spanish unemployment at record levels, she’d moved to Shanghai, where wages were adequate, to work as a teacher. She was on a short holiday break, had had a bellyful of the mainland, and was hungry to speak Spanish.

Up the backside

Our strategy for the return ride up the west side of the island was to avoid the densely populated and industrial western plains by hugging the foothills of the central massif. Though the riding would be a tiring, up-and-down, rollercoaster ride across high ridges and deep river valleys, it would meander through quiet villages, medium-sized towns, tidy agricultural areas, and forest preserves — and minimize traffic.

Not that traffic was much of a problem. Stilwell’s observations applied equally to Taiwanese drivers. On the face of it, Taiwan traffic is congested and anarchic — a bicyclist’s nightmare — with vehicles sometimes going up on sidewalks or even going against the designated flow. But look deeper, and another pattern emerges. Traffic conventions are followed as rules-of-thumb, not immutable laws. In general, only speeding and turning-on-red-light violations are enforced. Accidents are usually negotiated on-the-spot, without police. Traffic is aggressive yet polite and very sensitive, giving way once you nose or step out into it. Drivers don’t honk petulantly but gently, often adding a thumbs up and a hen hao (very good). Most amazing of all was that bicyclists are not only respected but actually liked!

Weddings and funeral services — for those who can’t afford to rent a purpose-built venue — appropriate a portion of the road under elaborately tented blue tarps. In consideration of traffic, most are held on weekends. But it was the garbage collection system that really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune. Folks hand over their bags to the collector, exchanging a few pleasantries; or he picks them up off the curb.

After restocking our wallets in Neipu we headed up into the mountains. Riding through the Maolin National Recreation Area and aboriginal preserve on a particularly long, cold, hard, rainy day we decided to rest the following day in Jia-xian. A picturesque provincial village nestled in a high river valley, Jia-xian proclaims itself the taro capital of Taiwan. Taro is a root starch one eats sautéed, fried, and even as ice cream.

We got in late, shivering and wet, and approached a group of ladies. Tina performed her where-can-we-sleep pantomime by joining her hands as if in prayer at the side of her head and angling both. One old lady motioned us to follow her. Two blocks and one turn later we arrived at a nondescript building. Tina checked out the $18 rooms but — never picking the first option — decided to look for others. The old lady who’d led us there suddenly looked disappointed and agitated. Thinking, we soon realized, that an $18 room was too expensive for us, she invited us to stay at her home — a kind offer we turned down, unable to explain.

Word soon got around of our presence at the other hotel, and we were joined for breakfast by our innkeeper’s niece, Ma Jo-shan, a local artist married to Josh, an American. They’d moved to Jia-xian to live with her elderly parents above the small grocery store they owned and ran, so her parents could share the joy of raising their grandkids. Jo invited us to tour the temples and mountaintops with her.

Mazu is my beacon, I shall not shipwreck . . .

Jia-xian’s old temple is dedicated to Mazu, Taiwan’s patroness, saint, or deity, depending on one’s outlook. While Christianity has traditionally been organized from the top down, with an authority (such as the pope) declaring who is beatified, sanctified or deified (from a non-believer’s point of view), most Eastern religions are ground-up, based on “ancestor worship,” animist traditions, and the teachings of Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius (the three sages dating from about 500 BC). With no central planning, many strains of thought evolved, and are still evolving, ranging from the highly superstitious (non-empirical) to the merely respectful; and from schools of “pure tradition” to custom-built, individualized beliefs.

Eastern spiritual thought is hard to grasp from Western reports. Having first been described to the west by Christians, in often patronizing — even derogatory — terms that ignore translation difficulties and missed the depths and subtleties and the complex relationships between philosophy and religion; dogma and opinion; or worship and reverence, it’s understandable. It helps, as Lao Tzu in the Tao advised (and I paraphrase), “to have no dog in the fight.” Unlike Middle Eastern religions, which are often intolerant of one another, Eastern believers are not only tolerant of others; they also respect and even admire them, resulting in much syncretism. China has fought many wars, but they have very seldom had a religious tendency.

The garbage collection system really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune.

Even the term “ancestor worship” is too glibly bestowed as it is not a religion but rather a practice, one that is a part of nearly all religious traditions. A better term is “ancestor veneration,” a more accurate description of what practitioners actually do, which is to cultivate kinship values such as filial piety, family loyalty, and family continuity, with rituals such as visiting graves, offering flowers and grave decorations, burning candles or incense, reciting genealogies, or simply displaying photographs in special locations. Prayer, actual worship, belief in the transformation of dead relatives into deities, or communication with them may or may not be present.

Likewise, animism is commonly misunderstood. The word literally refers to a belief thateverything — living or inanimate — has an essence: a soul, or anima, if you will; that soul need not be a spirit or ghost-like being with a potentially independent existence. Animism usually regards human beings as on a roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, natural forces and even objects — all deserving respect. Humans are considered a part of nature, not superior or separate from it. However, it is not a type of religion in itself but rather a constituent belief or virtue — analogous to polytheism, monotheism, or even filial piety — that is found in many belief systems.It is Aristotle’s elaborated version of animism that according to some scholars was appropriated by the early Christian church into the modern “soul” most of us are familiar with.

Taoism and Confucianism are often mentioned in the same breath as if they were complementary beliefs, while in reality their philosophical differences are as marked as Plato’s and Aristotle’s. Living at a time in China when Neolithic egalitarian tribes were evolving into hierarchical kingdoms, Lao Tzu and Confucius were exposed to dynamic change, the pace of which varied considerably geographically. Lao Tzu (the older of the two) came from a rural, conservative area. Confucius, on the other hand, was swept up in the new order. While Lao Tzu’s philosophy centered on preserving the old ways, Confucius embraced change. His philosophy stressed acceptance and adaptation to changing times through universal education in science and the classics. Lao Tzu advocated passivity; Confucius advocated wise action — Lao Tzu’s Ned Ludd to Confucius’ John Dewey.

Of the two, Lao Tzu was the more esoteric and metaphysical. In contrast, Confucius, fearing he might be deified after his death, ordered his disciples to burn his writings. They reluctantly did so, but then compiled what they remembered in The Analects. Today Taoism in Taiwan is a very big tent, incorporating many sages, saints, gods; beliefs, practices and ceremonies. On the other hand, Taipei’s Confucian Temple is a memorial to a man and his thought, with ceremonies held to commemorate him, not worship him or anyone.

Taiwanese Buddhism is not as ascetic, martial, or world rejecting as its Indian, Tibetan and Mongolian antecedents. It is personified by the “Happy Buddha”, a fat, smiling and goodie-laden effigy popular on vehicle dashboards and family shrines. Known as Tzu Chi or Renjian Fojiao (this-worldly) Buddhism, it encourages socially active involvement, stress reduction, and even fun. With its de-emphasis on ritual and superstition, the strain took off in the 1960’s and is now the religion of choice for middle-class urbanites and professionals. Taiwan's Buddhist population grew from 800,000 in 1983 to 4.9 million in 1995, a 600 percent increase and still growing.

As Taiwan’s patroness, Mazu is the closest thing to a pan-Taiwanese deity and gets the lioness’ share of festivals and celebrations. She is loosely lumped into the Taoist or Folk Religion pantheons, and is widely worshiped on the mainland and in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Chinese diaspora. It’s interesting to compare and contrast her life and legend with one of the west’s preeminent deities, Jesus Christ.

Born Lin Mo-niang in 960 in Fujian province, she died at the young age of 28 (JC at 33) — in one version — while attempting to save fishermen, including her father and brothers, from shipwreck after a typhoon (JC died attempting to save mankind from original sin — an alleged transgression by our legendary ancestors). Many stories, and later miracles, of seafaring rescues are attributed to her. Of exceptional intelligence, she was a sponge for knowledge, mastering Taoist and Buddhist texts at an early age and gaining repute as a female priest (though little is known about Jesus’ education, he sought what I would summarize as enlightenment through fasting and isolation in the desert for 40 days — a transcendent approach — in contrast to Mazu’s world-immersion education). She never claimed to be divine, as Jesus did. Nonetheless, she is — mostly — worshiped as the Goddess of the Sea and Empress of Heaven; in addition to being the patroness of childbirth, because she didn’t cry at birth (Jesus was, reputedly, virginally conceived).

Today she’s even become a political soccer ball, with the PRC getting her inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in order to win hearts in the ROC.

Closing the circle

North of Jia-xian we passed through soursop and wax apple orchards; coconut groves, pineapple fields, and rice paddies; shrimp farms, and kowtowed papaya trees bent short to ease picking and to allow the entire grove to be covered by protective netting. A couple of days from Taipei a young biker caught up to us. Taking a break between high school and college, she was on the first day of a solo ride around the island, and was bursting at the seams with enthusiasm tinged with just a touch of apprehension. Feeding the former, we allayed the latter.

Taiwan’s school system is hard to fathom, and I still haven’t quite worked out its incentives. Generally, the better performing kids go to public schools, while the remainder attend private ones. Huh? Yes, public schools are free, but there’s a catch — they have high admission and retention standards. Private schools accept all comers, but they charge. Individual tutors — outside the formal education system — are ubiquitous, affordable or not.

Riding into Taipei, we were again joined by a lone biker, this time a fit elderly gentleman, who, spotting our kit, assumed we were circumnavigating the island. We confirmed his suspicion. To celebrate, he invited us out to dinner, an invitation that took us by surprise but that Tina immediately accepted. He was 73, just retired (opining that Asians work too much), and had just graduated his youngest from college. Free at last from parental obligations, he was ready to bike the world and wanted to plumb our experience. Kung Gung-ho, besides his good English, spoke French: he had his eyes on the Atlantic coast of France. He’d already rounded Taiwan. His dream was to do one big bike trip a year for the next five years.

Over dessert, it was my turn to pick his brain. I asked him about Taiwan’s health care system. Surprised at my interest in something so mundane, he accommodatingly switched gears.

Taiwan has a compulsory, government-run, single-payer National Health Insurance scheme established in 1995, modeled — according to Dr. Michael Chen, CFO of the NHI — on America’s Medicare system. Public and private providers coexist, and the system covers traditional Chinese medicine. At 2%, the NHI has the lowest administrative costs in the world. Private insurance is available alongside the NHI for greater freedom of choice. There is a 70% patient satisfaction rate. Nevertheless, the NHI is unsustainable and going broke.

The government is not taking in enough money to cover the services it provides, so it is borrowing money from banks. Because the revenue base is capped, the plan does not keep pace with the increase in national income, or increased costs. Premiums are regulated by politicianswho are afraid to raise premiums because of the voters. Price controls are beginning to rear their ugly heads.

Office visits are as low as $5 US. Gung-ho (literally, work together) blamed his own age group for abusing the system. Believing they’ve paid up front for a service, the elderly set out with a vengeance to get their money’s worth by visiting doctors regularly and often, and getting prescriptions they didn’t intend to use.

Gung-ho ordered a round of green tea ice cream, paid the bill, and parted with this “ancestor worship” blessing:

Around me I wear an invisible coat of many colors, fabrics and texture. It is made of friends and family, here and no longer here, far and not so far. They are all part of my coat which keeps me warm wherever I go. It is a coat that is always in style and never wears out. You are now part of my coat.

George and Jorie welcomed us back in typical Taiwanese fashion: by taking us out to a traditional banquet. Over one too many sakes, Tina and I embarrassed ourselves with superlatives: about the dinner, the trip, our hosts, the country, the people, their religious and philosophical views, the infrastructure, even EVA Airlines our carrier — you name it.

So I asked them what the overall Taiwanese tax burden was. After a little reflection, doubtlessly influenced by the conviviality, George answered, “25%”, adding a rant about the cost and red tape of doing business in New York. If true, a light bulb flashed in my head.

Reflecting back to countless times when my leftwing friends had threatened to emigrate to Canada (or France, or wherever) if such-or-such rightwing politician got elected president of the United States, I realized that my rightwing friends had no such prospective refuge. Well, I can now offer them one: Taiwan — a destination that ought to be equally attractive to my other friends as well.




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Iron Man 3: The Low-Down

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Literature is fraught with examples of the hero who longs to be ordinary: the prince who covets the life of the pauper, the mermaid who trades her magical tail for the legs of a human, the gods who walk the earth and mate with mortals, the bewitching bride who abandons her powers to marry a mortal. These are just a few.

Iron Man is such a hero. He is torn between a sense of duty to protect his country from the attacks of weaponized soldiers and his desire to enjoy the luxurious lifestyle his successful entrepreneurship affords him. In Iron Man 3 he spends much of his time outside the super suit, fighting the bad guys not as Iron Man but as his alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.).

I like Iron Man. He’s my favorite superhero. First, his alter ego, Tony Stark, is anything but a “mild mannered” Clark Kent. He’s spunky, witty, and unpredictable. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether he’s a visionary or a maniac. Or just manic. I also like the fact that he isn’t stoic. When he gets punched, he bruises and bleeds. In this episode he suffers panic attacks too.

Stark is a scientist, not a mutant as most of the superheroes are. He designed and built his own superhero suit to counteract a nearly deadly injury to his heart. He calls himself “a mechanic” because ultimately, like most practical scientists, he fixes things. He’s also an entrepreneur. Yes, he’s wealthy, but he earned his wealth through intelligence, capital, and hard work. I like that.

OK, he also made much of his money by creating weapons of war, so I can’t give him an A-plus as a libertarian . . . but hey, he’s just responding to the market! And it’s the Department of Defense, not War, that he helps, right? But it does bother him that his scientific experiments contributed to the technology for creating the weaponized soldiers who are now attacking America. He feels responsible.

Superheroes have become our modern mythology, representing the changing values and beliefs of a changing culture.

As this episode begins, Stark is no longer the bon vivant playboy of previous iterations; he is now in a “committed relationship” with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his long-time, longsuffering assistant. Pepper is no longer a wallflower in the background but a buff and courageous überwoman who even gets to “suit up” in the Iron Man paraphernalia a couple of times. Nevertheless, she is kidnapped, early on, by an evil anatomist (Guy Pearce) who has created a new army of weaponized soldiers. Meanwhile, the world is threatened by an Osama-like villain known as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) who is taking credit for suicide bombers exploding in public places throughout the world. Tony spends most of the film fighting these hybrid soldiers, thwarting the maniac, and rescuing his damsel. He vows: “No politics or Pentagon this time — just good old fashioned revenge.”

While chasing down clues to the bad guys in a small Tennessee town, Tony runs into a cute kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins) who helps him fix his Iron Man suit and get it recharged. The sweet, casual interplay between these two characters creates the best part of the film. Tony doesn't have any experience with kids, and as a result, he talks to Harley in the way he would to a grown-up, and Harley responds as though they were best buds. Their conversations are charming and natural.

Iron Man 3 is not as good as the original, but it is certainly better than the second episode. The story is tighter, the villains are stronger, and the character development is deeper. Stan Lee, who created Spider-Man, Iron Man, and many other superheroes of the Marvel comic book franchise, makes his usual cameo appearance, this time as the judge at a Tennessee beauty pageant. Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies, chose to produce and act in this one instead: he plays Tony's overzealous bodyguard, Happy. It's not great filmmaking by any means, but it’s interesting as a cultural artifact.

Superhero movies are the safest bet for Hollywood studios today. They require big budgets, but they bring home big box office receipts. No fewer than four are slated for release this summer. Fans attend midnight showings on the first day of release, and audiences applaud enthusiastically throughout the show. It's almost like attending an old tent revival meeting. This isn't terribly surprising, because superheroes have become our modern mythology, representing the changing values and beliefs of a changing culture. The various superheroes continue to cross over into each other's mythologies, with numerous references to each other within their separate movies. It is worth watching the films if only to see how their characters and values change from year to year, and to observe the cultural phenomenon they have become.


Editor's Note: Review of "Iron Man 3," directed by Shane Black. Marvel Studios, 2013, 130 minutes.



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President Obama, Meet Alfred E. Neuman

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Isn’t it interesting that Barack Obama, whose presidency is intellectually and demographically a product of the antiwar, anti-imperialist, distrust-government movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has emerged as an automatic exponent of hidebound, don’t give an inch, interventionist, obscurantist, and warmaking government?

Obama couldn’t sit back and watch revolutions happen in Arab countries. He just had to intervene. Now he has to threaten and meddle in Syria, of all places. We will be fortunate if his militarism remains as feckless as it is right now.

As for domestic affairs . . . he couldn’t turn his crusading spirit against the entrenched forces of the Washington bureaucracy, as he appeared to have promised in 2008. Oh no. So far, he’s never seen a bureaucracy he didn’t want to defend. Not one of his significant officials has been invited to resign for his or her notorious failures. They’re all still there, telling transparent lies to Congress and the nation.

The latest example is Obama’s response to the gross failure of the FBI, which did nothing either to prevent the Boston bombers from doing their thing or to identify them afterward, despite the fact that the Bureau had, on its right hand, a passport picture of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, on its left hand, videos of the same Tamerlan Tsarnaev planting bombs. In the face of this evidence, the president proclaimed that the FBI did a great job.

According to the Washington Post:

In his first news conference since the Boston attack, Obama said law enforcement agencies had performed in “exemplary fashion” in the hunt for the bombers and in investigating one of the suspects before the bombings. He accused critics of chasing headlines.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, the FBI performed its duties,” Obama said. “Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing. But this is hard stuff.”

Hard stuff? How hard is it to compare pictures? And how hard is it to devise ways of keeping creeps like the Tsarnaevs out of the country? Or their creepy friends, now arrested for covering up the Tsarnaevs’ crimes? But imagine that you’re a government bureaucrat. Then your default position will be: student visas — why check? And yes, suppose that the Tsarnaevs return to the country that is supposedly persecuting them, thereby giving them a reason to live on welfare in the United States — well, why hold that against them? They’re charged with crimes? So what? Who, me? Worry?

Ridiculous? Yes. And why should Obama defend it?

The sad explanation is that he is a part of the old “counterculture” at its silliest, and it turns out to be intellectually and emotionally indistinguishable from the political “culture” it warred against. War is wrong — except when good people (like us) are waging it. Imperialism is wrong — except when good people (like us) are pushing the foreigners around. Entrenched bureaucracies are wrong — except when they are entrenched bureaucracies run by good people (us again!).

So that’s what it all came down to. Authority is wrong whenever I’m not the authority. But whenever I am, it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Critics are just chasing headlines.

The ’60s died — not with a bang but a blowhard.




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