Waiting

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I write while waiting — waiting to find out whether the President of the United States is going to attack Syria (Syria!) and perhaps initiate another war in the Middle East.

The president. Not Congress. Not a political party. Not a movement among voters. Not necessity. Not even advisability. And certainly not the Constitution, which makes the president commander in chief but gives the power to declare war to Congress.

So we wait to discover what the decisions of one man may do to our lives and liberties. How is this republican government?

Readers of Liberty know that I am not an isolationist, if by that word you mean someone who is morally opposed to the use of military force outside our borders. To me, the borders of such a “nation” as Syria have no sanctity at all. And I can conceive of circumstances in which America’s safety would depend on our attacking some other country.

Barack Obama and John Kerry were formerly pacifists of the silliest kind. Both are now interventionists of the silliest kind.

But I am an isolationist in the sense in which the founding generation of the United States and the founding generation of libertarian thinkers were isolationists. These people believed that it is almost always best to mind our own business.

That’s just common sense, you say. Indeed it is. And how can people possibly be guided in their military decisions by anything other than sense and logic?

About military and diplomatic affairs, the president is even less good at thinking than he is about other things. He intervened in Libya, thereby dispensing arms to America’s worst enemies, Islamic radicals. He helped to destabilize the government of Egypt, thereby bringing to power an Islamist regime. He fecklessly “stood up to” Russia. In every case, there were disastrous geopolitical results. As for Syria, the common sense of both the Left and the Right, Democrats and Republicans, pacifists and military experts has pronounced the idea of an American military attack dangerous and ridiculous.

In his statement of August 30, and in an earlier interview, Obama claimed that the presence of chemical weapons in Syria imperiled the security of the United States, thereby justifying military action against that country. By this logic, the presence of serious weapons anywhere imperils our security and mandates war.

If you say no, that’s not what he means, please tell me what he does mean. By what principles is the foreign policy of Barack Obama and John Kerry governed? Both were formerly pacifists of the silliest kind. Both are now interventionists of the silliest kind.

Obama also claimed that the Syrians had killed many innocent people, and that no one on earth should be allowed (by us?) to do so. Kerry shouted in the same vein. Does this mean that we are obliged to intervene in half the countries of the world? Again, if that isn’t what they mean, what do they mean?

So now, we wait in fear for the decision of these men, because their decision is all that matters — in this, the greatest of all constitutional nations.




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Drugs and Hypocrisy

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Attorney General Eric Holder recently made news when he came out against mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Speaking to the American Bar Association, he went on to say that low-level offenders should be diverted to drug treatment and community service programs, rather than languish for years in prison. The outright release from prison of some elderly, nonviolent offenders, who presumably have been incarcerated for most of their adult lives merely because they sold or ingested substances deemed not suitable for ingestion by our rulers, was also mentioned by the AG.

The policy changes advocated by Holder are not simply long overdue. They are in fact far too timid. The War on Drugs, declared some 30 years ago, has devastated the lives of millions of individuals and families. Drug users and their families are not the only ones who have been hurt by this government campaign against individual choice and behavior. We all have suffered. By driving up the price of illegal drugs, this war has contributed directly to crime and violence in our society, as gangs and mafias vie for control of the lucrative trade, and users turn to crime to pay for their habits. Our constitutional rights have been eroded by increased surveillance, confiscation of property without due process, and other law enforcement abuses. Worst of all, we have allowed the state to dictate how we supposedly free men and women should behave in private.

About 225,000 people are sitting in state prisons for drug offenses. 60% of them are nonviolent offenders. What sort of madness is this?

Inmates in federal prisons now number 219,000. The number of federal inmates has grown by almost 800% since 1980. Almost half of these prisoners are doing time for drug-related crimes. Has Holder recognized the sheer perversity of these figures? Not really. What bothers him is the fact that the federal prison system is operating at almost 40% above officially estimated capacity. Rising prison costs have led to less spending on cops and prosecutors and various government programs connected to the War on Drugs. It’s a resource issue for Holder, rather than a matter of recognizing that a fundamental injustice is being perpetrated by the state against its own citizens. The War on Drugs was lost the day it was declared, yet 30 years later we continue to accept the casualties it creates. The AG’s response is to tweak things a bit and hope for the best.

Most legislators on Capitol Hill have welcomed Holder’s initiative, but not one that I know of has taken the bold step of calling for an end to this unwinnable war. Moreover, federal action will not affect citizens being persecuted by the individual states. About 225,000 people are sitting in state prisons for drug offenses. According to the best studies available, 60% of them are nonviolent offenders. What sort of madness is this? What words are there to describe such iniquities in our so-called free republic?

One would love to see this president, any president, come out and speak the truth on this issue. Admit what any thinking person knows — that suppressing private drug use by adults is a hopeless endeavor, with bad outcomes abounding, and that furthermore it is no business of government even to attempt to do so. What really rankles with me is that the current occupant of the Oval Office, like his two predecessors, used illegal drugs in his youth. Obama at least has been rather forthright about his drug use. Clinton, you will recall, “didn’t inhale.” Bush, well known as a drunkard in his twenties and thirties, denied using illegal drugs, but was caught admitting marijuana use in a private conversation (he almost certainly used cocaine as well). But forthright or not, how does Barack sleep at night when tens of thousands of people who behaved just as he once did have been deprived of their liberty, had their lives ruined? What sort of man can become the leader of a nation and yet remain silent in the face of such injustice?




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Who, Me? Phony?

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“The president is focused on what we can do for the middle class in this country” — Jay Carney, White House spokesman, explaining why President Obama hadn’t commented on offenses against women when perpetrated by prominent members of the Democratic Party.

"Now is not the time to go backwards — back to the time middle-class jobs and neighborhood infrastructure were sacrificed to downtown special interests. We need to continue to move forward." — Robert Filner (Democrat), mayor of San Diego, explaining why he was going to resist a move to recall him, prompted by allegations of sexual and financial improprieties.

For many years “It’s for the Children!” was the card thrown on the table of rhetoric whenever America’s rulers and managers wanted more money to do something foolish. Now another trump has been designated: “It’s for the Middle Class.”

As a member of the middle class, I find this ironic. The intended beneficiaries are invariably people who want to tax and regulate the middle class. They are ordinarily rich people, or people who are about to become rich, in money or power, from the aforementioned taxes and regulations. Robert (“Bob”) Filner, who on August 23 resigned as mayor of my town, San Diego, is an example. He apparently doesn’t have a big bank account, although he is suspected of tapping the city treasury to provide himself with certain luxuries and accommodations. But he loves the power to tax and spend. I well remember the scene in Congress when Clinton’s tax raise squeaked through the House. Filner, then a member of that illustrious body, pushed his way to the front of the chamber and did a little dance, jumping up and down with joy because of this new squeeze on the middle class.

Phony? Oh yeah.

This summer, President Obama suddenly developed an aversion to phoniness, though not to the phoniness of his own supporters — only to the alleged phoniness of people who accuse his supporters of phoniness. Phoniness about Benghazi. Phoniness about “national security” spying. Phoniness about IRS corruption. Those are the three big current scandals of Obama’s administration, and he himself had previously treated at least one of them as a distressing scandal. In every case, however, his administration has done everything that coverups and lies could do to make itself even more scandalous.

Filner pushed his way to the front of the chamber and did a little dance, jumping up and down with joy because of this new squeeze on the middle class.

Things were getting so bad, and so obvious, that sometime in the midst of a long July, the gilded flunkies in the White House decided that the catchword of the season would be “phony scandals.” From the president on down, everyone would use that phrase on every possible occasion. And for a solid month they did so.

It was a dotty attempt to end the administration’s credibility problem, and it was conspicuously counterproductive. After three weeks, polls showed that something like 70% of respondents believed that the scandals weren’t phony at all, that the phoniness was entirely that of the deniers. The campaign continued, despite the fact that only people paid to be Democrats took the message seriously, and then only in public. Do you think that even professional supporters of all things Obama sat and brooded to themselves, “All these scandals . . . all this evidence about incompetence and lies and stonewalling. . . . It all seemed so real. But now . . . now that the president has examined everything so thoroughly, I can see that . . . hard as it may be to believe . . . all of it is just, well . . . phony”? Do you think they said that to themselves? Or do you think they said, “Well, maybe somebody will believe what we’re saying. Anyway, it’s a living.”

But the message, however stupid and self-defeating, caused real concern among reflective people. Had the administration, they wondered, lost its last ties with reality? These people were right, but they were over-reflective. They couldn’t see how funny the whole thing was.

I’m glad I saw it, because for me it stripped some of the last remnants of scariness from Obama’s demagoguery. I was behind the curve, of course; all the surveys showed that with most people he had lost his credibility within the first six months of his first term. That’s one reason why he barely beat Mitt Romney, who was nobody’s idea of a strong, compelling candidate. But now I could see exactly how phony the president’s mindless repetition and affected intonation — characteristic of his whole rhetorical career — can make him look. It was irresistibly comic to see him pause and marvel, in speech after speech, about how Washington had been so distracted by all its made-up causes of concern, its phony scandals, that it couldn’t do its work (i.e., do what he told it).

Like a lot of other politicians, the man still hadn’t adapted to the age of video. He actually appeared to believe that no one could access any more than one version of what he said, or that anyone who somehow figured out how to do so would naturally forget all the other versions as soon as the next mesmerizing performance appeared on the TV screen.

The president offered a virtuoso impersonation of a poor, deranged individual who is continually surprised by what he himself is saying. First the little hesitation, the fake attempt to discover the right phrase, the twisting of the countenance as if the whole face were saying, “This can’t be true! But it is! And it’s my duty to warn my fellow citizens!” — classic signs of bewilderment. Then, at last, he found the phrase! And it was . . . wait for it . . . “All these phony scandals”! Sometimes, reaching for the ultimate dramatic effect, he added, “and the Lord knows what.”

Well, you have to admire a president who at least pretends to believe in God. His real trust, however, was in his audience’s total ignorance — or something worse, its cynicism. Because, as I said, his performance was universally recognized as what it was, a performance. The fact that professional Democrats and party bigots were actually pleased by it, though they knew it was a lie, says a great deal about a large segment of our so-called political life.

The president offered a virtuoso impersonation of a poor, deranged individual who is continually surprised by what he himself is saying.

Now then. Speaking of phonies, I don’t need to remind you of former Congressmen Anthony Weiner and soon-to-be-former Mayor Robert Filner, who, like the patron demon of “progressive” politics, Teddy Kennedy, were completely correct — politically correct — about Women, except when they met an actual woman. Their responses to the revelation of their sexual idiocies were predictably phony: “I need help.” “I need more help.” “I need yet more help.” “And I’m getting it. But what the people really want me to talk about is what I can do for the middle class. Meanwhile, pity and sympathize. With me. And if you don’t, you’re a lousy rightwinger.”

I am happy to join with my fellow Americans in saying that I do not pity and sympathize. Like most of them, I’ve enjoyed the humiliation of Filner and Weiner (as I always enjoyed the humiliation of Kennedy). For three reasons.

First, I was happy that these mountebanks, whose political nostrums, once consumed, would give the government even more tyrannical power over our lives, had been interrupted in their sordid careers. Weiner’s sexual antics (and attempted coverups, evasions, and so on, delightful in themselves) denied him any possibility of being elected mayor of New York. Filner’s sexual antics, and his plucky refusal to resign his office, paralyzed the “progressive” forces that he claimed to represent in San Diego. The extent of “progressivism” was revealed by his crazed resignation speech. After repeatedly asserting that he was the victim of a “lynch mob” organized by the enemies of progress, bent on conducting a “coup” to throw a good man out of office, he provided a list of goals that, he suggested, were the priorities of his political faction: municipal planning by a crew of “world-class urban thinkers” already ensconced in City Hall, the bikification and solarization of the city, the placement of San Diego on the front lines of the war against “climate change,” an “efficient borders” meld of San Diego with Mexico. (Many of the people who spoke to the City Council in defense of Filner had relied on a translator when they threatened political action against anyone who voted to can him.) He gave lengthy tribute to “union leaders” who, he revealed to no one’s surprise, had been his most faithful and consistent guides. He ended with an inspirational quotation from (guess who?) Teddy Kennedy.

So, my second reason for wanting Filner and Weiner to hang in there was simply the educational value of their performance. I admit, however, that Filner’s leave-taking provided its own education in the way in which cities are run. He negotiated an agreement to resign (signed on August 23 but effective August 30, which gives him a few days to do as much damage as he can) in exchange for the city’s paying lots or all of his legal bills. Among the negotiators, be it noted, was the public official who will become interim mayor and at least one other public official who, like the first, may run for his office. Filner’s lawyers will be paid by the city, and he will be defended by the city against a lawsuit filed by Gloria Allred on behalf of a former city employee. The reason for this absurd bailout? According to the soon-to-be interim mayor, “This settlement is an end to our civic nightmare and allows this city to begin to heal."Why is it that the medical metaphor sounds phony? It’s because the city isn’t sick; its political leaders are. The Filner affair continued to dramatize and explain that sickness.

My third reason for relishing the humiliation of Filner and Weiner is that I have long regarded those two as virtually the most obnoxious people in politics (since the demise of Uncle Ted). I can’t forget watching Filner’s little dance in the chamber of the House. I can’t forget all the nasty things I’ve noticed about him — and here I’m not talking about sexual things or even illegal things but all those qualities that have made him loathed, as a person, by the people who encounter him. This was one of the most notorious facts about San Diego politics, and it is a measure of “progressive” integrity that the same set of people who initiated the campaign to remove him had, a few months before, pushed him vigorously as their candidate for mayor. They craved a leftwing Democrat and thought he was the only one with the organization to win. At the same time, they despised him. Weiner, when in Congress, was the “progressive” guy who was always leaping in front of the camera to rant against all criticism of his party. He specialized in low insults, and when asked to return to the question the interviewer had asked him, would hum little tunes to himself and smirk and walk in circles and say, “Are you ready? Are you ready now? Are you ready to let me speak now?”

Imagine a more libertarian society, in which virtually all current politicians would sink to the social level dictated by their intellectual competence.

It’s interesting to ask oneself what roles various people would occupy if our political system were different from what it is. The philosophical answer may be, It’s a meaningless question, because in a different system those people would have developed in different ways. Perhaps. I have my doubts about environmental theories of character formation. But the question is fun, at least.

I like to imagine a more libertarian society, in which virtually all current politicians would sink to the social level dictated by their intellectual competence. The two Presidents Bush would be CEOs of unimportant firms, prevented by abler people on their staffs from facing any realities requiring them to do more than decide what color of paint should be applied to the men’s restroom. Several members of the Supreme Court would be justices of the peace in small towns in the Florida panhandle. Many members of Congress would be good guys running small local businesses; many others would be the people who show up at PTA meetings determined to advance Their Own Agenda; a significant proportion of them would be in jail.

Then I think about a less libertarian society — a dictatorship. What role would our contemporaries play in that? It would take an extreme case of American exceptionalism to dream that they all, as good Americans, would be fighting the Power. They wouldn’t. The Bushes would be doing what I just suggested. So would most judges and legislators. A few would actually be fighting the Power, either because they had an ideology (I picture Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas) or because they knew that a dictatorship just isn’t right. I believe that a small but significant number of legislators, Democratic and Republican, would feel like that.

But can there be any question about where the Clintons would be? Or where Obama would be? They would be the Power. They would be fighting one another to remain the Power, but that’s where they would belong, because on the evidence of what they do right now, they have no compunctions about gathering and using power. To them, the exercise of power presents no moral issues, and they are convinced of their inherent right to wield it. This is the dictatorial personality, in its several versions.

True, they would wield dictatorial power in various ways. I can imagine Hillary Clinton staging a military putsch; I can only imagine Obama getting someone else to do it for him. But you see what I mean. And Filner and Weiner are psychologically fitted for the role of dictator as few other people are. Arrogant, domineering, with no sense of limits, utterly convinced of their right to rule, they would seize the throne or die trying. It’s not for nothing that Weiner and his insufferable wife — whose prepared statement in defense of him resembled the commencement address of a high school student commenting on her Best Friends Forever, and was read in a tone appropriate to its content — are slaves of the Clintons.

Speculation, mere speculation. And none of this has anything to do with sex. Let’s think now about the sex part — or, more sensibly, about the language in which it has been discussed.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. Weiner’s sexting was gross and stupid. Filner’s (alleged) custom of cornering women and demanding a date was reprehensible. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go. You can consider sexting immoral if you want; I don’t, so long as it’s among consenting adults. I see nothing morally wrong with pornography, and although Weiner is not my idea of a pornographic object, each to his own taste. And he wasn’t exactly committing adultery. Filner’s (alleged) conduct — grabbing women, kissing or trying to kiss them, touching their posteriors, pressing them for a date — was obviously wrong; it was a way of manipulating other people in an area of their life that should be sacred to their own choice. It implied that he had a right to rule any woman he met, and that is immoral by any principles of individualism. If it’s shown that he was trying to coerce women into having sex with him in order to keep their jobs or get some favor from the government, then we don’t have to rely on principles of individualism in order to convict him; he’s a creep by any standard.

Nevertheless, this is still pretty low-level stuff. It isn’t rape, much less the rape of the Sabines. In my younger, much younger, days, I, though male, encountered similar conduct, from both men and women. I didn’t like it; I resisted it; I continue to resent it. Yet in those days I was also the victim of an attempted mugging; an attempted physical attack by a gang of other college students who should not have been drunk on the streets at midnight; the theft and destruction of my car . . . . Quite a few things, none of them out of the ordinary, as this world goes. Today, like other ordinary, middle-class Americans, I am constantly robbed by the government of a large part of my income and freedom, and this has gotten worse as I have gotten older, thanks to people like Filner and Weiner.

Meanwhile, the mayor was accused of not showing up at a meeting at which, had he voted, he could have saved the city $25 million. Oops.

But the language that is used of Filner and Weiner is about a hundred times worse than the language commonly used about a mugging, a gang attack, the theft of a car from an impoverished young person, the theft of livelihood from tens of millions of ordinary people. You would think that Filner and Weiner had committed some Hitlerlike atrocity. But they didn’t.

In Filner’s case, we have heard much about the atrocious nature of his being 70 years old and allegedly “preying on” women as old as . . . 67! What a “dirty old man,” to pick on a “great grandma”! The leader of the anti-Filner forces, Donna Frye, a former member of the city council, former candidate for mayor, and perpetual “progressive” politico who insisted that Filner be elected last year, and got her way, now proclaimed, “Bob Filner is tragically unsafe for any woman to approach.” (I’m leaving out all the tears and self-applause about how hard it was for her to say these words, but duty impelled her, etc.) The salient image is the mayor as King Kong — but worse, because the mighty Kong was interested only in Fay Wray.

Here’s a story about a retired master sergeant in the Air Force, an accuser of Filner:

"He looks at my [business] card. He looks at me. He says, 'Fernandez. Are you married? Do you have a husband?' Very quick, very direct. I said, 'No, I'm divorced,'" she told CNN. "'Well, you're beautiful, and I can't take my eyes off you, and I want to take you to dinner.' I was really shocked and I was like, 'Uh, OK,'" Fernandez said. Then came a phone call and voice mail, which Fernandez never returned.

Oh the humanity! As one of the comedians on “Red Eye” said, the first few complaints seemed serious; the later ones made you think, “What next — ‘The jerk wanted to hold the door open for me’?”

Yes, Filner’s alleged sexual behavior was stupid, and wrong. Meanwhile, the mayor was accused of not showing up at a meeting at which, had he voted, he could have saved the city $25 million. Oops. Duly noted. But that’s not a reason to get upset. It’s the sex thing that really gets us.

Why is this, in a society that long ago assimilated the virtually incredible grossness of the Kennedys’ sexual regime? In a society that regards Bill Clinton as an elder statesman? In a society that honors with profits and sanctifies with awards the grossness of hip-hop “culture”? In a society in which no stand-up comedian can succeed without sex talk that would make a street girl blush? In a society in which the most popular kind of joke about unworthy businessmen or public servants involves their being raped in prison?

Phoniness? Yes, there is a phoniness even deeper than Obama’s.




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Start the Presses!

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Paul Versus Christie

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Kentucky senator Rand Paul and New Jersey governor Chris Christie had words recently over their differing views of the federal government’s warrantless surveillance program. Paul is critical of the snooping; Christie supports it. While each man is undoubtedly sincere in his beliefs, politics is at the heart of the argument. Both men would like to be president. Each sees the other as a major obstacle to his presidential ambitions. An interesting question, to me at least, is whether Christie actually believes that he can become his party’s nominee for president. I see no chance of this happening, certainly not in 2016. On the other hand, the second spot on the ticket could be his under certain circumstances. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back for a moment to the Rand-Christie split over domestic surveillance.

In late July, Christie fired the opening salvo in the surveillance debate with remarks made during an Aspen Institute panel discussion featuring four Republican governors (Christie, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Mike Pence of Indiana). He assailed the “strain of libertarianism” running through the two major parties with respect to both foreign policy and the War on Terror, calling it “very dangerous” for the country. “President Obama has done nothing to change the policies of the Bush administration in the War on Terror,” he continued. “And you know why? ’Cause they work.” He went on to criticize Senator Paul by name, for engaging in “esoteric, intellectual debates” on the subject. “I want them [i.e., Paul and those who support his views] to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and orphans [of 9/11 victims] and have that conversation. And they won’t, ’cause that’s a tougher conversation to have.”

Paul responded to Christie’s remarks in an interview with Sean Hannity:

You know, I think it’s not very smart . . . I would remind him [i.e., Christie] that I think what is dangerous in our country is to forget that we have a Bill of Rights, to forget about privacy, to give up on all of our liberty, to say “oh we’re going to catch terrorists, but you have to live in a police state” . . .

We fought the American Revolution over the fact that we didn’t want a warrant to apply to millions of people. The Fourth Amendment says it has to be a specific person, a place, and you have to name the items and you have to go to a judge and you have to say there’s probable cause. . . . And so people like the governor, who are, I guess, flippant about the Fourth Amendment and flippant about the Bill of Rights, they do an injustice to our soldiers, our soldiers who are laying their lives on the line for the Bill of Rights.

Bravo, Rand! After harpooning his whale, Paul tried to make peace, inviting the governor down to Washington for a beer at a pub near the Senate. But Christie rebuffed the offer, claiming he had too much to do in New Jersey. Paul said that he wanted to dial back the rhetoric on both sides, lest the Republicans descend into internecine warfare that can only help the Democrats. He told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto that he would support Christie if the latter became the Republican nominee in 2016. Christie responded by calling Paul’s initial remarks “out of whack” and “childish.”

The Kings and McCains of the world cannot conceive of an America disinterested in the Middle East: they are bound by mindsets and constituencies that demand our involvement there.

There’s no question that the “strain of libertarianism” Paul represents has establishment Republicans in a tizzy. John McCain, the senator who’s never seen a war he wouldn’t like to get into, has called Paul a “crazybird.” New York Congressman Peter King, a fervent supporter of the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq, told CNN that Paul “wants us to isolate ourselves, go back to a fortress America.” These men are indulging in scare tactics, comparing Paul and his supporters to the America First movement of the 1930s. They are wrong on two counts.

First, Paul has never advocated retreating into a fortress America. See for example his Feb. 6, 2013 speech to the Heritage Foundation. Second, of course, is the fact that no existential threat comparable to Nazism or Communism exists in the world today. The present bogeyman, radical Islam, is a danger only so long as we continue to meddle in the affairs of Islamic lands; absent that interference it would confine itself to infighting across the Ummah. It has no serious pretensions to world conquest (despite the nonsense put out by people such as William Federer); more importantly, it does not have the means to reach a position in the world comparable to that of Nazi Germany in 1940, or Soviet Russia in 1950.

The war with radical Islam is in reality a war of choice for us, though few Americans recognize this. The Kings and McCains of the world cannot conceive of an America disinterested in the Middle East: they are bound by mindsets and constituencies that demand our involvement there. The Paulistas face an uphill battle — actually, an impossible one, given the biases of the politicians, the national security apparatchiks, and the media — in persuading the nation that radical Islam’s war on America is largely of our own making. In the current environment it’s fairly easy for the interventionists to convince the citizenry, or a majority at least, that living in a proto-police state is the only alternative to devastating attacks like 9/11. The Paulistas are caught in a Catch-22. If they tell the truth to the American people, they will be smeared as isolationists. If they go along with the idea that radical Islam is determined to make war on us no matter what our policy in the Middle East may be, then it is all but impossible to attack the Patriot Act and programs such as the NSA’s blanket surveillance of Americans’ telephone and email communications. Only a fool would argue that lowering our guard against those who seek to kill us is a sound policy. Yet to persuade Americans that their country, through its actions both past and present, has played a major role in creating terrorism is a daunting task.

Only if we are stupid enough to launch a war of our own in the region — in Syria, or on Israel’s behalf in Iran — will radical Islam remain preoccupied with us.

My own view is that the Muslim world will become more and more involved in its own internal struggles — Sunni vs. Sunni as in Egypt, Shia vs. Sunni as in Bahrain, perhaps Shia vs. Shia at some point in Iran. Some of these struggles may erupt into actual warfare, as in the sectarian conflict (Sunni vs. Shia) now occurring in Syria (and extending into Lebanon and Iraq as well). The War on Terror will wither away eventually, as the Muslim world descends into chaos. Only if we are stupid enough to launch a war of our own in the region — in Syria, or on Israel’s behalf in Iran — will radical Islam remain preoccupied with us. The Muslim world should be left to work out its own destiny. Only be interfering do we endanger ourselves.

Of course, even if the War on Terror does end at some point, there’s no assurance that the US government will dismantle the domestic spying empire it has created. Certainly it’s unlikely that we will see a radical change in the War on Terror or the structure of the surveillance state by 2016. The US is not going to withdraw from the Middle East. Massive surveillance of US citizens’ communications will continue. The situation both here and in the Middle East will probably differ little from that which prevails today. Some cosmetic reforms of the surveillance state may be enacted. Bloodshed in the Middle East may increase. But fundamentally we will be stuck in the same mud.

There is no doubt that Rand Paul’s views on foreign entanglements resonate today with an electorate weary of spending its blood and treasure in far-off lands. According to the polls, over 60% of Americans are opposed to US intervention in Syria; over 70% want to keep hands off Egypt. But as we near the time for casting votes, a drumbeat of criticism will resound in the media and the halls of Congress, characterizing Paul’s views as out of the mainstream and dangerous. We will be told that the safety of the American people will be put at risk if these views prevail, and the volume will be turned up to whatever level is necessary to scare the voters. With Iraq and Afghanistan receding from the public memory, the concept of “better safe than sorry” will come increasingly to the fore. Paul will find himself opposed from left, right, and center when he tries to articulate his foreign policy views.

For it is certain, I believe, that he will run. Personally, I wish him well, despite the differences I have with him on some issues. But I fear that his effort to reach the presidency will be a quixotic one, perhaps even harming the cause he seeks to further.

What are Paul’s chances of winning the Republican nomination? First, let’s look at the competition. The names most bandied about, besides Paul’s, are those of Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, and of course Governor Christie. To this I would add Rick Santorum, who after all finished second to Romney in the battle for the 2012 Republican nomination. Neither Marco Rubio nor Ted Cruz will run, in my opinion. Neither is seasoned enough to be a serious presidential candidate (neither, though, was Barack Obama). Rubio would face opposition from the anti-immigration reform constituency, an important bloc of Republican voters. Some governors other than Christie may enter the race, but none can mount more than what would in effect be a favorite son candidacy.

If Rand is the standard bearer in 2016, the Goldwater experience will be repeated. Better to let Jeb and the Republican establishment take the hit.

Should both Ryan and Santorum enter the race, they will be competing for the same voters, mainly social conservatives, which would help Paul. But if only one of them chooses to run, then it becomes more difficult for a libertarian to win primaries and caucuses in a party that teems with social conservative activists. Paul can never get to the right of Ryan or Santorum on social issues.

The party establishment dreads the idea of either Paul or Santorum at the head of the ticket. It doesn’t believe Ryan can actually win. Are establishment thoughts then turning Chris Christie’s way?

You’d think so if you pay attention to the mainstream media, which loves the outspoken New Jersey governor. Reporters and analysts ensconced in offices from New York to California (but nowhere in between) seem to think Christie is a serious contender. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s Republican Party is not about to nominate a Northeasterner who slobbered over Barack Obama at the height of the 2012 campaign. Christie can win Republican primaries in the Northeast, and perhaps on the West Coast, but in the heartland he would find little support. If he runs he will come to the convention with a bloc of delegates, but one too small to give him the nomination.

Many in the Republican establishment — the leadership in Congress, big donors, globalists and national security honchos — would like Jeb Bush to run. Many Republicans believe that he alone can unite the party in 2016, and give them a reasonable chance of beating the Democrat nominee. And they’re almost certainly correct in their belief. Christie slots in as their choice for vice president. With Christie in the second spot it might be possible to pick off New Jersey and New Hampshire, states otherwise reliably blue in presidential years. That Christie would take the second spot, with Jeb at the head of the ticket, is certain. It’s his only real hope of becoming president some day.

If Bush seeks the nomination, and the field includes several candidates, he probably wins, just as Romney did in 2012. His conservative bona fides, though imperfect, are certainly better than the Mittster’s. At the same time he’s probably the one candidate with broad enough support to give the Republicans a shot at winning the presidency.

Paulistas should also remember that federal disaster relief is quite popular with the great majority of voters. So are other federal programs that many Republicans of the Tea Party variety would like to do away with.

What if, however, it’s a two-man race for the Republican nomination? Say Ryan and Santorum decide not to run. Say Christie cuts a deal with Bush to be his veep. Say Rand Paul is the one candidate out there competing with Bush for Republican votes. In such a scenario I can see the possibility of an insurgent Paul beating the establishment candidate. If Paul found himself battling Christie instead of Bush, his victory would be even likelier (to my mind, certain). Mind you, Paul needs to ratchet up his game. In the recent Paul-Christie debate, Paul made some rather foolish missteps, such as taking Christie to task for his “gimme gimme gimme” attitude toward federal dollars. Unfortunately for Rand, New Jersey sends more money to Washington than it gets in return, while in Rand’s home state of Kentucky the situation is the reverse. Paulistas should also remember that federal disaster relief is quite popular with the great majority of voters. So are other federal programs that many Republicans of the Tea Party variety would like to do away with.

Rand Paul is the most interesting politician in the country. He is intellectually superior to the next most interesting pol, Chris Christie. Christie’s views, however, are more easily understood by, and more palatable to, the majority of the electorate. If Paul runs for president in 2016, as I believe he will, he will enliven the debate to a far greater degree than his father did in 2012. He is a better speaker than his father, and better grounded in political realities. He could, under certain circumstances, sweep the Republicans off their feet and gain their nomination for president. But as interesting as that would be, I hope it doesn’t happen. If Rand is the standard bearer in 2016, the Goldwater experience will be repeated. Better to let Jeb and the Republican establishment take the hit. If healthy, Hillary Clinton will run, and she will defeat anyRepublican, be it Bush, Christie, or Paul. Sad to say, but Paul would fare worst of the three in a race against Hillary. The Paul agenda, if it is to advance, must do so incrementally. A resounding defeat in the 2016 presidential election can only hinder the progress of libertarian ideas.




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The Mediocre Inherit the Earth

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I hated public school. It was hell for learners who were faster or slower than the norm. Even 40 years ago, it catered to the mediocre. The curriculum lumbered along like a brontosaurus, every subject belabored until Joe and Jane Average achieved mastery.

In sixth grade, we had a kid in our class named Sidney. He was at the opposite end of the learning curve from me. I was always bored, he perpetually perplexed. I was “weird” because I was brainy (the term “nerd” had not yet become common), and poor Sidney was mercilessly picked on because people thought he was stupid. They would shout at him as if he were hearing-impaired, mock the way he spoke, trip him up when he walked by, and just generally make his life miserable.

Even at the age of 11, I couldn’t figure out why a child deserved to be bullied because of something he couldn’t help. Had Sidney chosen his learning disability? Supposing I was weird already, so I might as well make the most of it, I befriended him. I was one of only a handful of kids, that whole year, who treated him like a human being.

I got through elementary school by believing that adulthood would be different — that in the grownup world of work, people would be nice to each other. This basically held true for the first 19 years of my working life, when I juggled duties at a small insurance agency. Then I moved into the big corporate arena, and found myself right back in sixth grade.

Big corporations don’t even know what fair competition is. They’ve never had to practice it, and they do nothing to encourage excellence in their employees.

The all-American myth is that the business world rewards smarts and initiative. We’re told (or at least, we used to be) that even the Sidneys among us could get ahead if they worked hard, that the mediocre were constantly challenged to improve themselves, and that the brainy would lead them all. In reality, things are quite different.

Big corporations, many of which got where they are by lobbying the government to drive their competitors out of business, don’t even know what fair competition is. They’ve never had to practice it, and they do nothing to encourage excellence in their employees. Backbiting, conniving, bum-kissing, and total conformity are the tooth and claw needed to survive in this jungle. Truth has no currency; all that matters is what the bosses want to hear.

Employment in a large corporation is serfdom. It has little, if anything, to do with free enterprise. Everyone is terrified of originality and initiative. In every interview, a job applicant is asked the same inane questions. The right answers are not the truth, but what the interviewers want to hear.

“Do you have initiative?” Of course you do. “Are you a team player?” You’d better be. You certainly need to know where you see yourself in five years — in the hive, productively droning away.

Public schools prize conformity. They turn out good little drones. Young people graduate from them knowing nothing but how to be useful to the system — how to fit in. By the time they reach adulthood, any glimmer of originality has been bored or bullied out of them. Thus are they ready for the only function they are fit to perform: serving their corporate lords.

Sidney once walked several blocks from the store to my house balancing a watermelon on his head. He wanted to reward me for my friendship by bringing me something nice. Loyalty tends to be rewarded. But in corporate America, it is a commodity no longer prized. Instead of earning our trust, the new feudal order prefers to motivate us with fear.

I sometimes wonder what became of Sidney. Did he end up in the mailroom or the warehouse of some large company? He was capable of learning, if anyone had the patience to teach him. Apparently no one at our school did. Possibly he works in some charity-funded enterprise, but more likely he’s being taken care of by the government.

Big corporations are taken care of by the government; it follows that they want everybody around their fiefdoms to be taken care of in the same way. That is one reason, perhaps, why so many of their executives pay money to modern-liberal and “progressive” causes. Through taxation, inflation, the expensive misdirection of Medicare and Medicaid, and the exorbitant cost of socialized medicine, the state has gradually chiseled away at the edifice of protection that employers large and small used to afford their workers. As we are discouraged at every turn from taking care of ourselves, soon there will be nobody left to care for us but government. Which, I suspect, is exactly the plan.




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Continuing Obamalaise

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A spate of reports just out shows the continuing economic malaise created by Obama’s benighted administration, a phenomenon we call Obamalaise. Obamalaise set in early in the administration, and it has continued, despite what the administration and lickspittles in the media hail as the “miraculous recovery.”

The first item, from the Wall Street Journal, notes that the most recent jobs report was very disappointing: only 162,000 jobs were added in July, far fewer than the 183,000 that had been predicted by various economists. Worse, prior months’ figures were revised downward. Worse yet, average hours worked and average hourly earnings both dropped.

While the unemployment rate did fall from 7.6% to 7.4%, the supposed improvement was due in great measure to more people giving up looking for work.

The only reason the stock market didn’t react dramatically is that the weak report made it obvious that the Fed will continue its aggressive bond buying, which “the Bernank” had earlier suggested might be reduced.

What we have now is a far cry from the 5% unemployment rate that the administration promised us, back in 2009, if we just passed its grotesquely bloated $800 billion “stimulus” bill, with all its payoffs for Obama cronies and supporters. Moreover — as James Pethokoukis notes — we have never come even close to hitting the administration’s projected unemployment rate. For example, Obama promised that the rate would never exceed 8%, but he was off by one-fourth: it hit 10% by the end of 2009.

The real rate of unemployment is upwards of 10%, when you count in the people who want a job but have ceased looking for one.

In that year, the administration also projected that the stimulus would result in over 4% GDP growth in 2011, 2012, and 2013. In reality, growth has been happening at only half that rate, and it has dropped even lower recently.

As I argued in these pages long ago, it is for this sort of governmental fraud that we should extend Sarbanes-Oxley to cover government, not just business. If a program is sold on certain projections by an administration, and the projections prove false, the president, vice president, relevant cabinet members, and the senators and congresspersons who voted for the scheme should do jail time after their terms.

Pethokoukis observes that the real rate of unemployment is upwards of 10%, when you count in the people who have dropped out of the labor force. More than six and a half million Americans want a job but have ceased looking for one. If you count the underemployed, the real rate is above 14%.

Speaking of that, another report points out that of the 953,000 jobs created this year, 731,000 (or 77%) are part-time jobs. The main cause is the impending imposition of Obamacare, which requires employers with 50 or more “full-time” employees — now defined down to mean people working 30 or more hours a week — to purchase costly insurance for all of them. Employers are doing the rational thing: turning full-timers into part-timers. As Tyler Durden puts it, we are being converted to a part-time worker society.

Another recent WSJ piece adds yet more somber news. Over half the new jobs recently created have been in the low-wage sectors of the economy, especially the restaurant and retail industries.

The jobs news is especially ironic in one way: Obamalaise is going hardest on one of the groups that were most enthusiastic about voting for Obama: young people. Unemployment among 18–29 year olds stands at 16.1%. Again, the figure doesn’t include people who have only part-time work but want to work full-time. Only 43.6% of young people now have full-time work. And black teen unemployment has now hit an astounding 41.6%. This is up from 36% a year ago.

One last report puts the present youth predicament with tragic clarity. It turns out that 21.6 million Americans aged 18 to 31 now live with their parents, the highest number recorded in 40 years. This is 36% of all so-called millennials.

Obama built this. He did it with Obamacare. He did it with overregulation, and the leftists that he inserted into regulatory bodies. He did it with tax increases. He did it with his Green jihad on fossil fuels, led by like-minded people at the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and the EPA — the “Employment Pulverizing Agency.” He did it with massive taxpayer-backed loans and subsidies of Green energy companies that employed few people (before going broke) but funneled untold millions to political supporters.

Some are predicting that with continued Fed support, the economy’s growth will accelerate, and Obama will finish his administration with unemployment low again — meaning in the 5% range.

Perhaps. But, there is still a business cycle, and if in the next two or three years we have another recession, the workers of this country will be hit very hard, since the “recovery” has been so very anemic. To put it in another way, if this “miracle recovery” involves a record level of dependency on food stamps, a record number of young people forced to live at home, a record percentage of people having left the work force, more and more people forced into part-time work, and a national debt that will soon stand at $20 trillion — what will the next recession look like?




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The Faith of Our Fathers

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Why Is Arms Control for Civilians Only?

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In the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009, Oscar Grant III was killed by an overzealous transit cop in Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. He was 22 years old, the father of a four-year-old daughter. Grant and his friends were returning from watching the New Year's Eve fireworks when an altercation started among the revelers on the train. The fight had already ended before the cops arrived, but they still wanted to assert their thuggish authority. Grant was lying face down on the platform when he was shot. Several bystanders caught the arrest and shooting on their cellphones, and these grainy images of the actual event are seen at the beginning of "Fruitvale Station," which tells the story of Oscar Grant's final day of life.

The film is a lot like Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold in that we know from the beginning that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is going to be shot, just as we know from the first sentence of Chronicle that this is the day when Santiago Nasar is going to be killed. Nevertheless, both stories are taut and suspenseful because they focus on the "who" and the "why" of the stories rather than the end result. Fruitvale Station is a moving character study of the young man, and of the socioeconomic conditions that influenced his life and death. It is an important film for today, when stories appear of a 95-year-old man who refused medical attention being killed by cops with a beanbag round propelled from a shotgun, and an 18-year-old skateboarder being killed by another taser-happy cop after spraypainting an abandoned building. What ever happened to due process?

Oscar is presented as a generous-hearted young man, the kind who notices others and goes out of his way to help them in simple ways — he's that guy who will reach something from the top shelf of the grocery store for a stranger, or pick up something you need on the way home from work and not let you pay him back. He likes being a nice guy.

But we see a darker side to Oscar, too. He wears a mask of easygoing generosity, but behind that mask he is worried, and he is lying. He has lost his job at the grocery store, and he doesn't want anyone in his family to know it because he doesn't want to disappoint them. He has already disappointed them enough; we soon discover that he has done time in prison for various offenses, including drug dealing. The sad fact is that 40% of black males aged 18–26 are unemployed today, and a large proportion will spend time in prison. When they get out, their chance of finding employment drops even more. Dealing drugs is the fastest and surest way to make some quick cash. But it's also the fastest and surest way of ending up back in prison. Oscar doesn't want to go back.

Without the cellphone record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest."

The conflict between the good man Oscar seems innately to be and the outlaw he is struggling to leave behind makes this film much more than a diatribe against police brutality. One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs when Oscar suddenly dons his "prison mask" during a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer). Another inmate challenges him in the visiting room, and Oscar immediately becomes vicious and challenging in return. In the next moment he is a little boy again, desperate for his mother's understanding and affection. He is like the small dog who bares his teeth and growls menacingly when a larger dog enters his territory. It is a defensive stance, intentionally aggressive and defiant in order to avoid an escalation to physical violence. We see that mask once more during the film, and both times it is a stunning piece of acting.

There are many heroes in this film, but Oscar is not one of them. The film honors his memory, but he is a victim — a victim of poor education, of cultural poverty, and ultimately of random circumstances that put him on that train car in that station at that moment with a scared young cop who didn't know his taser from his service revolver. The true heroes are the ordinary citizens who pulled out their cellphones and began filming the event, even as cops yelled at them to put the phones down. Without that record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest." Good riddance. And his friends who were on the platform with him would likely have ended up in jail instead of being released hastily when the police realized they were in deep trouble.

As the late Andrew Breitbart maintained, we have become a militia of journalists, armed with our cellphone cameras and ready at a moment's notice to protect the strangers around us by documenting many kinds of abuse.

Recently when I was picking my son up at the airport, I dutifully circled the terminal at least half a dozen times while waiting for him to arrive. Finally he called to say that he had his luggage and was ready to be picked up. As I pulled to the curb, however, the airport cop yelled at me, "Move along! This area is only for active loading!" I pointed toward my son and opened my door to get out. "Stay in your car and move along!" he yelled again. I pointed again at my son. "I could have you arrested,” he threatened.

"For what?" I demanded. "For picking up my son who is standing right there?"

The cop's arm twitched backward toward his holster. Seriously. For an alleged parking offense. (Maybe that's where he kept his citation pad . . .) At that point the officer noticed that my daughter was filming the whole event on her cellphone. And suddenly his whole demeanor changed. "I'm sorry Ma'am," he said. "It's been a long day. I'm at the end of a double shift." Smile, copper. You're on candid camera.

The film is NR (not rated) because of pervasive ethnic street language that would have garnered an X (filmmakers will opt for NR to avoid the deadly X rating) but for the fact that the language is realistic and appropriate to the cultural environment. Frankly, I'm amazed that the word "nigger" blaring from the hip-hop songs on Oscar's radio would be considered worse than the gore and nudity that earns an R rating, but hey — I don't let the Hollywood police tell me what to watch anyway.

Fruitvale Station won both the Drama Grand Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. It is a powerful film, well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Fruitvale Station," directed by Ryan Coogler. The Weinstein Company, 2013, 85 minutes.



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Why India Doesn’t Change

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Recently, a federal cabinet minister in the Indian government, Pawan Kumar Bansal, was charged with taking a bribe of $160,000, via his nephew. The bribe was allegedly paid by an official of his own ministry. Were Bansal, within his own limited sense, rational, he would have started mobilizing his friends and bribing the news agencies, to avoid legal entanglements. Instead, he was found feeding a goat that was about to be sacrificed. It was a ritual to seek divine intervention.

To be elected a member of Parliament, Bansal must have been well perceived in his constituency, which is among the richest and most educated in India. The voters must have found him rational enough to be their representative. To be elected a top-level minister, he must have found acceptance among the majority of his political party, which rules the lives of 1.2 billion people. The prime minister must have found him charismatic, influential, and intelligent enough, or at least powerful enough to be a top-level minister, working daily on issues with serious influence on the direction India may take. Rising to the top in politics requires one to pass through umpteen filters. The fact that Bansal attained such a high position gives a glimpse of the psychology and character of the Indian body politic, its irrationality and medieval thinking.

I have almost never met a public official in India who did not ask for a bribe. But only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck. The investigative agencies are themselves totally corrupt, so they must find themselves cornered before they do anything. Even when the evidence is obvious, court cases simmer for several decades: eventually people die, or forget; witnesses change their stories, either because they are tired and want to end their court visits or because they lose their sanity under the pressures of an insane system; and prosecutors and judges keep changing. This is not just a result of financial corruption. The roots go much deeper.

There were riots in India in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The cases against the alleged culprits are still going on. Among people in government, there is apathy and lack of passion for what one does. Most of the job “satisfaction” public servants get is not from doing their job but from showing off their power, using it to obstruct and create problems for people. It is a very warped mentality that is not just about bribes (which in a narrow way is still a rational expectation) but is mostly a result of deep-rooted irrationality and the demands that irrational minds create. Indeed were bribes the only problem for India, it would have merely added a layer of cost to society, not made it stagnate or simmer in perpetual wretchedness.

Only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble in India, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck.

I believe that the state is simply a visual symptom of the deeper social problem. The “anti-nutrients” come from the surrounding society. The underlying morality of this society — seen from the perspective of my own experience — is not that of “right or wrong” based on reason and evidence. Instead, motivations are often driven by astrology, circular thinking, superstitions, narrow tribal affiliations, and a completely erroneous understanding of causality, an understanding that results from medieval thinking with little or no influence by the scientific revolution. When I was in engineering, it was not uncommon for hordes of students to travel long distances to visit exotic temples or enact weird rituals to help them pass examinations. One must ask what happens elsewhere in society, when the top engineering students are so superstitious.

Industrialization was imposed on India before the country had time to go through a phase of the age of reason and enlightenment. Partial acceptance of reason has made Indians extreme rationalists, solidifying their superstitions. For example, a very good electrical engineer recently told me that touching the feet of the idol in a temple results in a flow of electricity through your body that is extremely beneficial to you, transferring to you the wisdom of the god by electrically changing the connections of your neurons. Educated people often take extreme pride in how our ancestors — the ancestors of Indians as expressed in Indian mythologies — had airplanes and time machines.

What about Indian spirituality and religiousness? Don’t they control people’s corrupt behaviour? I am an atheist, but I do understand those who see religion as a means of spiritual solace. But for Bansal, and a lot of other people in India, religion has nothing to do with philosophy or spirituality. It is about rituals conducted for material benefits, either in this life or in the next. It is about materialism, materialism, and materialism.

Recently a group has gained very high visibility in fighting against corruption. This group has been asking its followers not to pay their electricity and water bills, to force the government to reduce the charges. No thought is given to where the loss-making public sector company will get its money from. These people should have fought for the public electricity company to be privatized and to allow competition to work. But that is too much for their feel-good fight against corruption, in which some obscure fountain of wealth will provide for the shortfall. Visible, financial corruption is truly the tip of the iceberg. It is deep-rooted irrationality that is the true problem.

Most of my Indian acquaintances talk against corruption. But in their private lives not only do they pay the bribes they have to pay to conduct legitimate business, but they are more than happy to pay to get an unjust advantage over others. Despite the rhetoric, financial corruption has actually increased in India. And it has much deeper roots than most people realize. If he were truly rational, the hapless Bansal would certainly not have wasted his time on the goat, but the age of reason has not touched his thinking.

India’s problem is not just a lack of personal ethics among those in government. By itself, financial corruption would add only a certain, limited cost to the economy. It is the fundamental irrationality that keeps India from gaining traction, from being able to build its way out of wretchedness.




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Detroit

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I was born and reared in the state of Michigan, and its affairs remain very interesting to me. I regard Detroit’s bankruptcy as the virtually inevitable result of events I’ve been witnessing throughout my life.

First there was the triumph of modern labor-management relations, which kept the price of labor sky-high, as long as junky cars could be unloaded on a market largely free of good-quality foreign goods. With the help of union-friendly politicians, labor disputes were settled amicably, usually with an enormous increase in benefits for labor. When there actually was a strike or layoff, which happened so rarely that it was regarded as a kind of natural disaster, challenging the existence of God, Michiganians were treated to constant interviews with baffled assembly-line workers, who informed the 10 o’clock news that if this thing continued for even a day longer, they couldn’t meet the mortgage on the house at the lake, and they might even have to sell the boat. It was hard, really hard, to meet the payments on three cars. As for savings, who could keep money in the bank, considering all these expenses?

Such were the rewards of unskilled labor. So why should anyone learn any skills? Then came the nervous collapse of both labor and management, once genuine competition took hold.

But something else had happened, simultaneous with the monopoly of the Big Three automakers and their inseparable companion, the United Auto Workers. This was the triumph of Great Society liberalism and the new class of managers and planners who purveyed it. Many of the big chiefs came from auto company management. Remember Robert McNamara? He’s a sample. These people demonstrated that they could be failures in civic planning as well as business planning. After the 1967 race riots in Detroit, they backed every sorry, money-losing civic improvement project they could think of, applying social engineering to the city’s problems. You can guess how well that worked.

Tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes.

The logical product of the Great Society was the flight from Detroit of everyone, white or black, who could possibly escape and buy a home in the suburbs. The city’s population went from 1,850,000 (1950) to 701,000 (2010). The escapees left behind them an inner city that was poor in productive workers but rich in people who voted for a living. The natural product of that was a chronically corrupt political class, keeping itself elected by class warfare and racial resentment.

Now the city of Detroit is so poor that it is letting large areas of formerly choice real estate go back to the fields and forests. It is arranging not to keep the streets open, not to keep the power running in whole sections of the city. The people I feel for most are the African-American families who have hung on, kept their modest houses and modest jobs, survived the violence and criminality of their neighbors, and now find that their own jealously guarded homes are to be abandoned by the city they struggled to keep in operation. Looking down Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Élysées of the Midwest, I see block after block of emptiness — or worse: wonderful early 20th-century housing, places to live that would be worth a fortune to almost anyone, anywhere else, but that are now hopelessly derelict.

I suppose that most people understand these things, in general. But one factor that should be emphasized, and almost never is, except in a way that contrasts with the truth, is the influence of that mundane but vicious thing, the tax. It is oft lamented that Detroit’s taxes can’t keep up with its expenditures. The problem is that the taxes existed at all.

Right now, Detroit’s municipal income tax is 2.4% for residents and 1.2% for nonresidents who work in Detroit (if that be not a contradiction in terms). Before 1999 these taxes stood at 3.0 and 1.5, respectively, and were authorized by a special provision in the state tax law allowing cities with populations of more than 600,000 (of which Michigan has only one) to exceed the statewide cap of 1.0 and 0.5%. In 1999, Detroit began slowly and minutely reducing tax rates in accordance with a deal, politically extorted from the state, that gave the city a whopping special subsidy from the revenues of Michigan as a whole.

I say “special,” not just because Detroit was getting a deal that, say, Muskegon didn’t get, but because Michigan had already, for many years, been subsidizing major Detroit projects and institutions — something that did not prevent Detroit politicians from erecting giant signs in front of them, bearing their own names.

Anyhow, in 2011, which is about the time when the probability of a Detroit bankruptcy became common talk in Michigan, the Detroit income tax represented about $230 million out of the city’s $1.2 billion general fund revenue. This means that the average man, woman, or child connected with this impoverished town was somehow generating over $1,700 in revenue for the city alone, about $330 of it from income taxes. Overlapping with the income tax, of course, are many other taxes, including property taxes, which generate several hundreds of millions of dollars and would generate more if the owners of half the land parcels in the city were still paying their property taxes, which they aren’t.

Then there’s the income that the city gets from government-licensed gambling and, ah yes, the income it gets from corporate taxes. In 2012, the city council doubled the corporate income tax rate, taking it from 1 to 2%. The excuse was a threatened 10% pay cut for municipal workers. “I can't in good conscience,” said one council member, “ask city employees to give back 10% and not ask the corporate community to share in the sacrifice by raising their taxes." Oh. OK. I see the logic.

Meanwhile, the state of Michigan has been cooperating with Detroit in attempting to create a new stadium for the Red Wings hockey team, a stadium that, its advocates insist, will generate “as much as $1 billion in economic development over 30 years.” It won’t, of course. People will just keep driving into Detroit to see the games, then driving out again. But over the same 30-year period, the taxpayers of Michigan will have to pay $444 million for bonds to subsidize this scam. Let’s see . . . if there were a billion dollars of economic development (over 30 years, of course), and it were highly profitable (which it won’t be), it might possibly earn, say, 10% on investment, which means an average profit of maybe $22 million a year (it can’t all happen at once), from which the taxpayers of the state of Michigan would receive, in taxes from the grateful beneficiaries of their subsidy, something less than $1 million a year.

So that’s the way — not bread and circuses, but welfare and hockey. Isn’t there an old saying about castles being erected on the ruins of cottages?

The more Detroit taxed, and the more Michigan taxed and subsidized, the worse things got. And continue to get. But why oh why? Because, as Isabel Paterson explained long ago in The God of the Machine, tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes. The things it builds may simply be dead weight, from an economic point of view, and will therefore have to be supported by continued taxation. Or, more likely, they will be institutions devoted to extracting yet more money from the productive members of society.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir.

These may be institutions such as the welfare industry. These may be institutions such as Detroit race politics, which long defended and empowered every crook in the city government, so long as he or she was an African-American, and is currently demanding that Detroit’s debts be “canceled,” thus neatly averting the consequences of bankruptcy. Or these institutions may be government-“stimulated” businesses, erected by subsidies and continually devoted to extending them.

But two things are certain. The beneficiaries will not “give back.” And they will never, never be the productively working black, white, or Asian population of anywhere. These are the people who are tricked into voting for the money-extraction industry, told that more taxes are needed to support the schools or the police or the fire department or something, or defeating the hated Republican Party, and then, mysteriously, find that every increase in taxes is turned into more guns aimed against them.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir. If you had any thoughts along those lines, the social history of Detroit will show you that it isn’t. The illness has also been blamed on mysterious “changes” in the auto industry. That’s not the cause either. Business and labor that aren’t on the take from subsidies — subsidies in the form of bailouts, friendly legislation, and noncompetitive labor laws, all of which the Detroit auto industry got, and fattened on, and sickened on — can “change” without doing grave damage to their communities. And the illness has been blamed on “massive corruption,” as if corruption could be massive without the profits it derives from laws and taxes.

Enough. Just look at who’s taking money from whom.




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The Forgotten Gibbs

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Wolcott Gibbs contributed more words to The New Yorker than any of his better-remembered contemporaries — Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, E.B. White, to name a few. And unlike them, he contributed pieces of every kind. His boss, founding editor Harold Ross, called him “the best goddam editor in the world.” Yet, as Thomas Vinciguerra reminds us, Gibbs is hardly thought of today. To remedy this unfortunate oversight, editor Vinciguerra has brought forth a new collection of Gibbs’ writing, which he entitles Backward Ran Sentences. With a useful introduction by the editor and a foreword by P.J. O’Rourke, the book is a literary bargain.

Gibbs wrote fact and fiction pieces — “Talk of the Town” items, so-called casuals, profiles, short stories, reviews of plays and motion pictures. His writing had an elegant bounce, when he was just trying to be funny, or when he was taking apart an unsatisfactory play or a bothersome personality. And yet, as editor Vinciguerra tells us, Gibbs was a sad man, full of self-doubt, caught up in cycles of alcoholism, and all the while a chain smoker. Like Harold Ross, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Woollcott, Gibbs died in his fifties. His wife suspected suicide, but smoking on top of pleurisy and too many martinis may have been enough to kill him.

Backward Ran Sentences contains some fascinating cultural history. The names associated with the Gibbs era roll off the pages like gumdrops — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mrs. Fiske, Marlon Brando, Joan McCracken, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Eva Le Gallienne, and on and on. Among his shorter pieces, Gibbs addresses the joys of getting the measles — a disease with little suffering, but still requiring a quarantine — and the sadness of leaving his beloved refuge, Fire Island, and returning to Manhattan. There is the tale of a man who leaves his car, typewriter, and golf clubs in a creek because he was “tired of fooling with it.” (I am in complete sympathy.) And consider the following lines from an item dated December 13, 1941: “War came to us with the ball in Brooklyn’s possession on the Giants’ forty-five yard line. ‘Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,’ a hurried voice broke in to announce.”

Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.”

Gibbs’ profiles describe the rise to prominence of some New York lights and contain perhaps the best writing in the book — witty, detached, and not overly personal.

One unique offering describes a lady who collects stray cats and hauls them to the SPCA.

While not an icon, “Our Lady of the Cats” — Miss Rita Ross — will live on in this footnote to New York’s history. The three-part profile of Alexander Woollcott isn’t all that insulting, though it led to a final break between Woollcott and Harold Ross. Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.” Other profiles in the present collection include those of Lucius Beebe, epicure, journalist, chronicler of “Cafe Society”; Ethel Merman, who could carry a Broadway musical “on her shoulders”; and William Sylvester Maney, famously irreverent press agent and inventor of an ersatz profanity. The not-quite-flattering description of Thomas E. Dewey led him to impound Gibbs’ bank account. According to editor Vinciguerra, Dewey thought Gibbs was employed by the Democrats. When the Gibbs article appeared, Dewey wasn’t yet Governor (here the editor errs), but still District Attorney for New York County. Thus he could sequester Gibbs’ reserves as evidence in a criminal investigation — though the necessary legal cause has eluded me. At the time (1940), Dewey was beginning his first run for the presidency after a famous tour as prosecutor of mobsters. He became the prototypical Republican losing candidate.

The Ralph Ingersoll profile contains some interesting history. Ingersoll worked at The New Yorker and then for Henry Luce at Time. While there, he split with Luce over the traditional Time cover showing the Man of the Year. The chosen man in this case was Adolf Hitler. Luce wanted to display an ordinary photograph, but Ingersoll preferred an illustration carrying an anti-Hitler message. Later, in the course of building the left-leaning PM magazine, Ingersoll scooped everyone on the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie. The US government had seized the liner and was converting it into a troop ship when it caught fire in its berth in New York Harbor. Before the fire, a PM reporter had sneaked aboard the Normandie and discovered that it was, as Gibbs put it, “a fire-bug’s dream.” And so, when the liner finally burned, the PM story was ready to run.

Placed among a cluster of Gibbs’ parodies — those of Hemingway and Noel Coward are themselves funny — is his famous portrait of Henry Luce, written in the compressed, turned-around style invented by Luce’s late partner, Briton Hadden. In it we find the words, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which provide the title for editor Vinciguerra’s collection. The parody of Time’s style later became a tit-for-tat justification for Tom Wolfe’s satirical treatment of The New Yorker as it was under William Shawn. Wolfe’s effort was rather more barbed than Gibbs’ parody, its author perhaps having failed to see the sadness of a man trying to preserve an age forever gone. Still, as the legend goes, when Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window. Were passages like the following all that provocative? “Very unlike novels of Pearl Buck were his early days. Under brows too beetling for a baby, Luce grew up inside compound, played with two sisters, lisped first Chinese, dreamed much of the Occident.” Or this one: “Typical perhaps of Luce methods is Fortune system of getting material. Writers in first draft put down wild gossip, any figures that occur to them. This is sent to victim who indignantly corrects errors, inadvertently supplies facts he might otherwise have withheld.” Well — perhaps.

The New Yorker “casuals” were very short stories, short fact pieces, anecdotes, and even brief parodies. In these and in his short stories, Gibbs could be unfunny when he wrote about the drinking class and its special problems. “Wit’s End” is a depressing story about a man who awakens to find his bed on fire — a situation in which Gibbs found himself more than once. On the other hand, “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is an amusing tale of his own youthful performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His mother had sewn little bells on his costume, and as he maneuvered on stage their ringing drowned out the other players’ lines. “The Curious Incident of Dogs in the Night-Time,” a story set in a restaurant, tells of two men, learned in Sherlock Holmes lore, who ingest an unbelievable number of martinis. Finding their way to an upstairs dining room, they think they’ve discovered a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Actually, it’s a convention of roofers from Denver. The story ends with the two inebriates singing at the piano and the conventioneers filing out of the room.

As the legend goes, when Henry Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window.

For 18 of his New Yorker years, Gibbs was its drama critic — for some of that time, he also reviewed motion pictures, a task he disliked. As P.J. O’Rourke writes, “He was not fooled by talent.” His standards applied equally to everyone who wrote, acted in, or directed Broadway productions. Taken together, his reviews represent a theatrical history of Broadway’s great age. They address plays by, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and musicals with words or music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner, and Lowe. The productions had names such as Ah, Wilderness! (a mixed review from Gibbs, with praise for George M. Cohan, playing the father), The Time of Your Life (slightly favorable), Romeo and Juliet (poor, but Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh will attract an audience), Blithe Spirit (good), Oklahoma! (great, of course), South Pacific (excellent, with special praise for the players), Guys and Dolls (great, with praise for Pat Rooney, Sr.), Me and Juliet (mixed, but with praise for the fated Joan McCracken), The Glass Menagerie (excellent, with exceptional praise for Laurette Taylor), My Fair Lady (excellent), Waiting for Godot (“meager moonshine”), Long Day’s Journey into Night” (good, with reservations about the play’s “epic scale of calamity,” but with praise for director Jose Quintero), West Side Story (fair, with praise for choreographer Jerome Robbins), The Music Man (good, but “not as good as all that”).

There are bits and pieces of other reviews under the heading “Curtain Calls,” including a very good one for Kiss Me Kate and a dismantling of Shaw’s The Millionairess and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the title role. There follow some movie reviews, including an amusing one of National Velvet, and some personal essays. Among these last is a tribute to his friend Robert Benchley, who preceded Gibbs as The New Yorker’s drama critic. Benchley was famous for such humorous essays as “The Menace of Buttered Toast” and “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los,” as well as his appearances in movies. Like Gibbs, he was a serious drinker, and like Gibbs, he died at the age of 56.

As I emphasized, Wolcott Gibbs drank to excess and was a chain smoker. Neither of those habits met with the same disapprobation that meets them today. Writers drank — perhaps Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis set the style — and some drank too much. (The trick was to drink without being tiresome.) The quality of Gibbs’ writing doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant bombardment of martinis. But why did he saturate himself so often? Perhaps because what he had wasn’t what he wanted, and what he wanted, he couldn’t have. When Gibbs said he should be writing novels, I think he was telling the awful truth. That was what he perceived as unattainable. But was it really? — no, not if he had been less of a defeatist. He certainly had the talent required to write novels. Perhaps he should have gotten away from New York — with all its personal and professional entanglements — found some odd corner, and started pecking away on his Royal typewriter. But that would have put at risk the only comfort and security he had ever known. So, instead, he maintained his self-deprecating attitude, and took to minimizing the importance of the writing profession and the magazine that employed him. He remained a resident outsider, which probably made him a more effective editor and critic. And he kept on drinking to ease his pain.

The final Gibbs piece in the current collection is an intra-office memo that found its way into print. It’s entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and contains some worthwhile advice for writers. For example — “Writers use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said.’” The office copy of the Gibbs memo carried a note by his contemporary, the fiction editor Katharine White. It describes Gibbs as “one of the most talented and witty magazine editors of all time.” He was that good.


Editor's Note: Review of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker," edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Bloomsbury, 2011, xix + 646 pp.



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Passing the Promethean Torch

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The affinity between science fiction and libertarian thought is longstanding (think Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson — or, for that matter, Ayn Rand), so that when the Prometheus Award was created in 1979 to honor the best pro-freedom science-fiction novel of the year, it was an acknowledgment rather than an establishment of a trend. Each year the Libertarian Futurist Society gives out the Prometheus Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and if the quality of the winners varies widely, year to year, well, that's a problem faced by all yearly awards. (To give the LFS full credit, "None of the Above" is always an option, but has carried the ballot only once.) Although this year's winner has now been announced, I beg the reader's indulgence for a few paragraphs; please endeavor to retain a certain feeling of suspense as I review this year's five nominees.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian. Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, is a well-crafted technothriller set in a near future in which unmanned drones are just a bit more scarily effective than they are today — and just a bit more scary is very scary indeed. The novel uses the tried-and-true technique of beginning with a broad selection of seemingly unrelated scenes, each well-described, and zeroing in on two main characters. In skilled hands, there is probably no thriller formula more satisfying. The mostly veiled but realistic villains, the horror of swarming drones, a satisfying dose of real science (including passages on "one of the few extirpator species on earth," weaver ants), all enhance this well-paced and ultimately quite thrilling thriller. Kill Decision is certainly a cautionary tale about the abuses of power in a technological age, but as most of the good guys are working for the government, and the bad guys are probably representative of one or more multinational corporations, it would be difficult to see it as reflecting libertarian ideas. But pro-human it certainly is.

The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

The other technothriller on the list, Arctic Rising, does, late in the novel, lay in a sudden vision of libertarian conclaves at the North Pole. But the vast majority of the novel's pages revel in nonstop action sequences that leave little room for reflection. Arctic Rising is told in the first person by Anika Duncan, an airship pilot; the action begins as she is shot out of the sky, for reasons unknown. Her narrative voice, though neither sophisticated nor literary, is fully adequate to the job, with just enough self-reflection to avoid dullness. The near-future setup is fun and intriguing — global warming has melted the ice caps to the point where Greenland and Baffin Island boom with development — and the action occurs in the newly thawed northern waters of the Northwest Passage. Author Tobias S. Buckell delivers a surfeit of action as well as an appropriately complex climax. An added pleasure is the pair of contrasting villains, one surprisingly sympathetic, the other the reverse, but equally convinced he is right. The bare bones of the thriller formula do for some reason show through the constant dangers, reducing the desired illusion of reality. But then thriller aficionados are known for their willingness to suspend disbelief.

Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, the only young-adult novel among this year's nominees, is also the only one that does not depend on violence to provide its kicks. Kudos for that. Pirate Cinema is set in so near a future it is just barely science fiction at all. Like most of Doctorow's recent novels, it pits freedom-loving youths against an alliance of evil corporations and intrusive government.

Copyright issues are central to Pirate Cinema, and it's not hard to discover what Doctorow's own position is: he's a supporter of (and former participator in) the Creative Commons initiative, and his approach is to make his novels available digitally for free, but to continue to publish and sell both print and ebook editions in the ordinary way.

For the most part, the novel focuses narrowly on the plight of 16-year-old Trent McCauley, whose crime is sampling old movies in order to assemble his own pastiches. It might seem hard to muster the necessary moral self-righteousness on this issue; the right to sample copyrighted material for non-commercial use is not exactly a candidate for the Bill of Rights. Incredibly, though, according to Doctorow's foreword, Britain's new Digital Economy Act "allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement." That definitely raises the stakes, in today's interconnected world.

Doctorow is a skilled writer, and he manages to make Trent McCauley's first-person narration both authentic and mostly interesting — no mean trick. The plot winds and twists appropriately, with first love fitting nicely with political considerations. The ending follows Doctorow's established formula, but that's all right; the reader would be disappointed with any other denouement.

We jump now to the farther future for two sequels to previous Award winners. It is so very hard for sequels to live up to their progenitors . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, which won the Prometheus Award in 2011, is an unusual genre-blending mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Most of the fun of this, the original book, lay in its imaginative worldbuilding, complete with a portrait of an advanced, stateless society. But in its sequel, Darkship Renegades, the worldbuilding is done, and the reader is left with a first-person narration of the heroine's ongoing perils. Athena Sinistra's immaturity and lack of self-restraint, her obsession with looks and sexual attraction, soon turn what was space opera into something more like soap opera. And the stateless society itself seems to have also lost its balance, being unable to cope with the emergence of a monopolistic "Energy Board." The climax of the novel features a shootout in a crowded meeting hall, hardly the most appealing portrait of problem-solving in a supposedly advanced libertarian society.

Dani and Eytan Kollins' novel The Unincorporated Man, Prometheus Award winner of 2010, told the story of Justin Cord, a self-made billionaire who, on being reawakened three hundred years in the future, refuses to go along with the personal incorporation that is part of the new society's norms. The conflict is made more interesting because this incorporation of the individual, in which outsiders (including the state) come to own more shares than the person, seems in many ways a less onerous burden than the open-ended taxation that exists today. The "bad guys," defending a relatively benign status quo, elicit the reader's sympathy, even as we root for Cord's intransigent stand.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian.

No such nuance disturbs the black-and-white spacescape of The Unincorporated Future, the fourth and last in what turned out to be an "Unincorporated" series. (I have not read the intervening two novels, The Unincorporated War and The Unincorporated Woman.) Whereas the first novel was the story of a fight for freedom, the fourth is mostly just a fight. The unincorporated trend, though banned on Earth, has flourished on the asteroids and beyond, and the novel begins in the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war as Earth tries to subdue their rebellion. It is now a given that the Outer Alliance represents the good guys, and Earth the bad guys, and with that backdrop let the space opera begin.

War is of course a great destroyer of freedom (my son maintains that the opposite of war is the free market), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes that animated the first book are missing here. Instead we have strong leaders, making on the one side painful decisions, on the other cold-blooded decisions, with both kinds costing millions of lives at a time. The ensuing space opera is entertaining enough, and the sequel is perhaps more consistent in tone and smoother in plot than the first novel in the series. But the issue of freedom has been left well in the background.

***

In the past, the Libertarian Futurist Society has shown a commendable willingness to honor novels that are not overtly libertarian. The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

This year's Best Novel award-winner, to be presented on August 30 at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas, is Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has won the award once before, in 2009, for his novel Little Brother, in which the villain was the bureaucratic Department of Homeland Security run amok. Although Pirate Cinema is a more narrowly focused work, libertarians should enjoy its youthful, anarchic spirit, part of Doctorow's ongoing novelistic campaign against conformity and coercion.

Easily beating out "None of the Above."




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