Not Our Fight

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Excuse me if I sound insensitive, but the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane by Russian separatists in Ukraine is none of our business. It wasn’t our plane, it wasn’t our country, and it isn’t our fight. Moreover, only one passenger was remotely American (I say “remotely” because he held dual citizenship and had lived in the Netherlands since he was five). So we should just keep our noses out of this one. We don’t need to impose sanctions, beef up our military presence, or drive the price of oil down in order to destroy the Russian economy, as some have suggested.

While it is a terrible shame that anyone should be killed in an accident, that’s all this really was: an accident. What seemed to be a Ukranian military jet turned out to be a passenger plane, and the shooter pulled the trigger before making certain of the target. When our troops make that kind of mistake, we call it “friendly fire,” and because it isn’t an intentional act, we hand out some medals to the victims and let the shooter slide.

Am I the first to ask the unspoken but obvious question: Didn’t they know they were flying over a war zone? Didn’t they know that Russian separatists had been shooting down Ukranian military jets for weeks? Hours after the accident, commercial airlines began diverting their flight plans around Ukraine; a map released today shows almost no planes above that country. Seems to me they should have made that adjustment as soon as the fighting broke out in Ukraine. I’m no fan of Putin, but if I were holding anyone responsible for this terrible accident, it would be the air traffic controllers and flight plan originators who allowed commercial jets to fly over a war zone.

Again, if my remarks seem insensitive, I apologize. Not one of the people on that plane deserved to die; the grief of their families is deep, and their deaths are unwarranted. But I would rather cry over 300 people killed in an accident than worry about thousands of additional soldiers sent to police the area. This one simply isn’t our fight.




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No Regrets

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Every year at about this time, Liberty’s Entertainment Editor, Jo Ann Skousen, produces a film festival in Las Vegas, in conjunction with the big gathering of libertarians and libertarian conservatives known as FreedomFest. Jo Ann is an expert at many things, but she can’t be a producer and a reporter at the same time, so I’ll poach on one of those territories and report on some things I witnessed in connection with this year’s Anthem, which happened on July 9–12.

One was Part 3, the final part, of the Atlas Shrugged movie, which will begin its public, theatrical run on September 12.

My impression was: not bad. Very good in many parts. None of the characters was cast in the way I would have done it; I would have made them look just like the people in the book. But good characters have more elasticity than that. In the tricky role of John Galt we have Kristoffer Polaha, who looks exactly like the dark, hunky, American boy you’d see in a truck commercial. Odd, but it’s possible and he makes it work. He even has a sense of humor. Laura Regan, as Dagny Taggart, is fine when she’s a bossy railroad executive; but when she’s a woman discovering Galt’s Gulch or being in love with John Galt, she’s commonplace, with the irritating whine that many commonplace women put in their voices these days.

These filmmakers don’t believe in just anything; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The screenplay is more than competent, although strong deductions must be made for the overuse of a voiceover telling you what’s been happening to the country while the main characters are having their conversations and love affairs. The device is obviously appropriate for a story of this length and complexity, but I thought I saw more visual effects in Part 1 than in this part, and there need to be more. I wish the budget had provided for them, although I’ve got to say that the torture of John Galt is much more effective in the movie than it is in the book.

What about the Speech? Story consultant David Kelley, who’s a smart guy, noted with some satisfaction that 33,000 words had been cut to 600. How? By “dropping from the speech what wasn’t foreshadowed in the movie.” In other words, by cutting what wasn’t directly relevant to the action. Fine with me.

A very interesting preview. But as interesting to me, for some of the same reasons, were the films on themes of liberty that were entered in the festival by small independent filmmakers. By “small,” I don’t mean “narrow” or “unimportant.” I mean done on small budgets. These filmmakers are important. They are volunteers in the first line of defense of small (i.e., also on small budgets) Americans like you and me.

Here’s Sean Malone, who’s come out with a film called No Vans Land, which is about how commuter vans are illegal in a lot of places. And Drew Tidwell, who has lots of distinguished movie and TV experience and who once made a movie inspired by Leonard E. Read’s famous I, Pencil (the movie’s called by the same name), which is about how everyone who uses even such a simple thing as a pencil should understand how much capitalism is involved in the multitude of processes necessary to make it. Now he’s the producer of a film called Empire State Divide, about people in southern New York who want to enrich the state by extracting natural gas from their land, but aren’t allowed to do so. And a charming couple, Dean and Nicole Greco, who made 100 Signatures, a film about the ways in which various states render it virtually impossible to run for office unless you’re nominated by one of the two major parties.

I asked the Grecos who did what on their film, and Dean replied, “We filmed it, wrote it, edited it, everything.” Fortunately, they finished it in October, because their daughter Andie (who made no comment but seemed happy to be with us) arrived in November. Nicole was once a TV newscaster, directed by Dean, but they decided to go out and make this film “to be helpful to mankind.”

That’s pretty much the story I got from the other moviemakers, too. But it was never the vague, general “I want to help” that becomes so difficult to hear when the community-servers and program-pushers use it. At Anthem the desire to help always had a local habitation and a name. “What keeps you going?” I asked Sean and Drew. Drew answered, “I believe in these projects,” and Sean answered, “I believe in the stories.” Each nodded at the other’s answer. They don’t believe in just anything, or in the vast generalizations that too many libertarians clutch to their bosoms; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs.

One person I spoke with — Kels Goodman, maker of a not so fictional film called The Last Eagle Scout, which is “about how government tries to shut down the Boy Scouts” — saw it as a warning about an imminent future, “a what if?, not 1000 years in the future but the next stage of the political correctness we have now.”

Of course, government has all the resources, and it’s a ratchet effect: the more money and power it takes, the more it has to maneuver us into letting it take more. The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs. And besides the money, there’s the rejection. It has insidious effects. As Nicole said, “it creeps up in weird ways.” You have to believe in a story a lot to keep coming back after being rejected by donors, film festivals, distributors, everyone but yourself. The people I talked to emphasized that. They didn’t like it. But they took it. And they responded by providing even more of their own energy and cleverness, and their money, if they still had any.

One person who had money was John Aglialoro, producer of Atlas Shrugged. When asked about the financing of the movie’s three parts, he said: “Part 1, $10 million, all by me. Part 2, $20 million, five by me. Part 3, $10 million, two-thirds by me.”

It’s a symbol of the libertarian movement. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself. Might be fun, though. Nobody expressed any regrets.




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Are Poor People Happier?

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Some people believe that those living in utter poverty, in the wretched parts of the world, know best how to smile and enjoy life. “Poor people,” they say, “live simple, contented lives, with fewer worries and distractions.” Some of the best-known spiritual teachers — Stephen Covey, Wayne Dyer, etc. — have talked about greater happiness, deeper connections with the earth, and higher levels of spirituality among the poor societies they have visited. Many celebrities (John Lennon, Richard Gere, etc.) and business leaders (the late Steve Jobs, for example) spent extended time in India to seek spiritual enlightenment.

To a casual observer, all this may look very reasonable. But the reality is completely different. And we’re not talking about a minor, insignificant error: such beliefs seriously affect what we mean by progress (Is poverty better than prosperity?) as well as the public and financial-aid policies we adopt in relation to poorer societies, often with horrible consequences. Even within this strand of erroneous views there are two schools of thought. On one hand there are people who want to restrict all developments in “primitive” areas “to preserve their languages and cultures,” whether those societies want development or not; on the other there are people who want to impose democracy on these societies and flood their poor people with cash, because “they deserve a better material life, their fair share.”

So what is it about poor societies?

Some people living in big cities cherish a romantic notion about rural places within their own area. Romantic, and mistaken: it is often a huge error to presume that rural people believe in simple living, have a higher sense of community, are closer to nature, are friendlier and more compassionate, and are physically more active and healthier.

I have been to scores of the world’s poorest countries, and I have spent extended periods there. I have done several spiritual retreats in India. I have found poor people very hospitable and generous toward me. But one must live there long enough to understand what is behind the facade. One must ask whether poor people are, indeed, happy.

A wretched life is survivable only on the foundation of numbness. Early in life, very poor people learn to switch off feelings, to avoid sensing the nonstop pain of poverty and tyranny. Those in hunger lack an interest in philosophy, a sense of right and wrong, or an aspiration for higher meaning in life. Their lives are driven by expediency, not morality or reason. They relieve the stress of living under tyranny by passing it on to those more vulnerable. They have, quite rightly, one overpowering obsession: survival. Poor people process the world through dogmatic beliefs and faith.

To poor people, a visitor is a novelty, a reason for catharsis, a much needed escape from their mostly wretched existence. The visitor provides them with a sense of comfort, a tacit knowledge that they are not in competition with him for resources. But visitors (and readers of visitors’ reports), beware: it is hazardous to jump to any conclusions about the character of a poor society and its state of being, simply because of a short, smiley encounter. Anyone who calls poverty spiritual is misled, shallow-thinking, or condescending.

* * *

I must expect some readers to respond that I am “over-generalizing.” They fail to comprehend that we always generalize. Was Saddam Hussein a bad guy? Indeed he was. But that is a generalization. In parts of his life, he was a good guy. He was a hero for people from his community. We might say that politicians are corrupt or that bureaucrats are lazy. That does not mean that good politicians cannot exist or that you’ll never find an efficient bureaucrat. Similarly when I talk about poor people, I am referring to the average.

* * *

But aren’t people in poor counties free from the “depression” felt by people in the richer, developed world? Yes, but for a very wrong reason. Poor people just don’t have the time (or the future) in which to feel depressed. On the surface of their existence they create all possible noise, chaos, and smell to keep themselves distracted, to avoid examining their inner selves. If they did find a reason for self-examination, they would emerge extremely frustrated. History shows that a lot of social revolutions happen, ironically, as people emerge from hand-to-mouth existence — the inertia of pre-rational thinking does not necessarily change even after they have started becoming prosperous.

Creating policies based on erroneous assumptions, either to aid poor countries or to change their regimes forcefully, has had disastrous consequences. If we really want to be an impetus for change, we must accept facts as they are, objectively, even if they counter the instinctive sympathy we feel for the weak.

Are the meek inheriting the earth?

In today’s age of technology, poverty does not come easy. Most poor people are poor because that is what they deserve. It is a result of their spiritual poverty, of their failure to imagine abundance and a win-win society, of a sinful state of thinking and worldview in which envy, tribalism, irrationality, and fatalism dominate. It is with their mental paradigms that they elect their leaders. Those in positions of power indeed are tyrants, but see what happens when the underclass is suddenly elevated to higher positions. You should normally expect worse.

Why else did Iraqi institutions built at the cost of trillions of dollars (including the money spent removing a tyrant) collapse like a house of cards within months of being left to themselves? It is just very hard to change the human mind, and without changing that, there is no hope. The removal of Saddam Hussein was at best a result of extraordinarily naive thinking. There is no escape from drudgery until people individually wake up.

Poor people are very materialistic, if you understand that “materialism.” Material acquisition is their obsession, a result of their minds being tuned only to survival. Moreover, when they start earning a surplus — and when they become nouveau riche — their worldviews don’t change easily and may not for several generations. A volcano of crudeness and rudeness erupts. And why venture to exotic countries to understand this? Look into your own backyard. Have you ever wondered why some in the poorest communities in your area have the most expensive cars? Look for information about those who won hundreds of millions in lottery tickets. Most of them end up worse than where they started, with unpaid bank loans, drug addiction, and wrong company.

* * *

A lot of confusion is created by using terms improperly. Some people tend to use “capitalism” in place of “materialism.” While they are not parallel terms and hence not strictly comparable, in essence they are often antonymous. “Materialism” has its roots in addiction to material acquisition and “capitalism” in individual liberty. In my experience those who seek personal freedom often lack any obsession for material acquisition. And one can live in utter opulence and still not be materialistic, if material acquisition is not the driving force in one’s life.

* * *

In the South African capital of Johannesburg, one is awed by Lamborghinis, Jaguars, and other very expensive cars, mostly driven by those who were very poor not long before, but got easy access to cash because of redistribution policies. Those who thought that this money would have gone toward better purposes have been proven wrong.

In my backwater city in India, where cars and houses were traditionally modest, signs of prosperity are now the same as signs of bankruptcy: people buy Audis and BMWs on loans they cannot afford to pay. Alcoholism among women, slum-dwellers, and rural people is on the rise, rather rapidly. A culture of self-denial (owing to the socialistic past) has rapidly mutated into one of pleasure-centeredness. Ironically, the switch was easy; it merely required a change of rules — there was no time-consuming, painful critical evaluation, for such a concept does not exist in the culture.

* * *

One might ask where Indian spiritual teachers emerge from. The reality is that spirituality is a rare concept in Indian society. Religions teach fatalism, dogmas, and superstitions. Magical stories of kings and queens and the myths that go with them grip the mind very early in life and combine to cripple people from thinking rationally. There is too much of materialistic expectation in the concept of the afterlife developed from dogmatic religion, making indoctrinated individuals very resistant to change. The corrupt leaders and sociopaths who benefit have entrenched themselves extremely well, over hundreds of years; and this entrenchment is not going to go away easily, for the sufferer and the tyrant are often two sides of the same coin. In such an ecosystem, those with an interest in spirituality are outcast — J. Krishnamurti, for example — and hence tend to gravitate to certain pockets of protection or interest, mostly catering to American and other Western followers.

* * *

But aren’t Chinese and Indians thrifty? Don’t they have huge savings? Haven’t the Chinese provided trillions in credit to the developed world? Consumption of Louis Vuitton and other exotic luxury goods — brands that I cannot pronounce or remember — is exploding in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and so on. The Confucian culture of China, a culture that encourages saving, is mostly a myth that prevails among China bulls (and I am one, but for a different reason), a retrospective rationalization for China’s successes of the last three decades. Not too long back, the Chinese were seen as spendthrift, lazy, and unhygienic.

* * *

Macau today is a much bigger gambling and sin city than Las Vegas, and growing. An upcoming hotel will soon have the biggest fleet of Rolls-Royces anywhere in the world. The cost of a suite for one night will be $135,000. Each suite will have a private access, perhaps to provide the ultimate in hedonism. I don’t decide what people should do, but I do wish they used their newly minted money for better purposes. However, I have invested some of my money in these pleasure centers. I will leave the reader to worry if I am a hypocrite.

* * *

What does this mean for the future?

What will human society look like in the future, as it continues on the path of economic growth and technological revolution? If poor societies are not really spiritual and deep-thinking, the trajectory they will take and the influence they will have on the larger society as they become richer and more globalized will be very different from what it would have been if their poverty were a result of nothing but their political institutions.

For a long time, I thought — very erroneously — that poor societies would use their initial excess cash to invest and provide for personal development. I had made the same error that I now blame others for.

In reality, poverty would almost instantly disappear were the poor capable of strategizing their lives, of looking at life rationally with the long term in mind. A visit to malls in Asia convinces me that the growth of luxury goods and high-end services will continue to trend upward. As soon as people have enough to eat, they start to consume rotten junk food, and their brand consciousness kicks in, making them spend a disproportionate amount of money on status goods. They must own a Louis Vuitton bag or drive an expensive car, even if it means sharing a room with several other people.

I have devoured with great pleasure the books of Jared Diamond, in which he attributes the success of the West to “guns, germs, and steel” and those of Niall Ferguson, in which he argues that beginning in the 15th century, the West developed six powerful new concepts or “killer applications” — competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic — allowing it to surge past all competitors in the East. But have all these concepts not been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries?

Did Cambodia (where a large population was killed in the civil war), Mao’s China, and vast parts of Africa not use guns for self-defeating purposes? Despite the fact that these poor people had suffered from huge tyrannies, the first thing they did when given the power was set-up worse a tyranny. The truth is that the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West, and without those historical revolutions the “killer applications” may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. The guns and the steel have horrendous consequences. Societies outside the West, without an intellectual infrastructure of rationality and ethics, lack the eyes to understand what made the West great; and it isn’t clear that the West still remembers its own moral underpinnings.

You cannot help poor people by artificially giving them power or by merely bringing a regime change to democracy. You can have a hope only if you can inculcate the concept of critical and self-critical reason.

There is nothing glamorous about poverty. Poverty is mostly a reflection of inner emptiness, irrationality, and the paradigms of pre-rational days. Poor people not only have no clue what spirituality means, but lack the awareness, or even the time or patience, to understand it. Those who are keen on getting rid of poverty must do the emotionally hard work of understanding what lies at its roots.




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R>G Revisited

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The Washington Post chose July 4 — a holiday kicking off a three-day weekend — to bury an interesting article, and it’s not hard to see why. Check out Zachary Goldfarb's lede:

After making fighting income inequality an early focus of his second term, President Obama has largely abandoned talk of the subject this election year in a move that highlights the emerging debate within the Democratic Party over economic populism and its limits.

During the first half of this year, Obama shifted from income inequality to the more politically palatable theme of lifting the middle class, focusing on issues such as the minimum wage and the gender pay gap that are thought to resonate with a broader group of voters.

The pivot is striking for a president who identified inequality as one of his top concerns after his reelection, calling it “a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.”

The Post is the quintessential establishment newspaper, as in tune with everything DC and its satellite suburbs as it is out of tune with everything else. Generally, the Post house style is to provide justifications for the actions of the powerful and connected, because they must be, on average, wiser and better than the populace — if they weren’t, then how would they have obtained their power and connections?

Imagine a “tax” on power — every year, those in whose hands so much is gathered must surrender a small percentage of it, to be distributed among those who have so little.

With few exceptions, then (notably, the articles on Edward Snowden and national security) you shouldn’t read the Washington Post for intellectual stimulation. Rather, read it for insights into the cramped and contorted psyche of the ruling class — there’s really no better way to place yourself into the sort of mental confines occupied by those who hold federal office.

For instance, to read the paragraphs above, it might seem as if the president is being called out for waffling on a core principle, or worse, betraying a group of people to whom he successfully pandered in the last election. The piece might even be interpreted as a lament for what is “politically palatable” in this country, or for the voters who would put the concerns of the middle class over those of the truly destitute. But the Post would never run even mild criticism without outweighing it with rationalizations or outright praise: thus the focus here is not on the president’s shortcomings, but rather his shrewdness, softening his rhetoric in time for the midterm elections. Where once the president had been determined to bring up inequality, not caring “whether that was a good economic message” (according to that ultimate Beltway insider, the mysterious “person familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations”), he has caved to political reality, and shifted his rhetorical course.

Of course, it must just be a coincidence that this new tack steers the president toward the interests of the DC establishment — and toward Wall Street, to boot. If one thought otherwise, why, there are employees at a whole range of DC-based thinktanks, from the Center for Equitable Grown on the left, to the Heritage Foundation on the right, and plenty more in between, all waiting to give soundbites about how one set of words is so much better than another for this thing called the “American middle class,” which we never actually see in the story, but which must exist given how often these important people discuss it. And of course, even the more radical of Obama’s supporters can delude themselves into thinking that such strategery is necessary so that Obama can devote himself to truly egalitarian reforms in his final two years.

It would be unthinkably gauche for the Post to suggest that Obama’s rhetoric on inequality was never sincere, or to point out that Wall Street has overwhelmingly backed Obama from the start — that’s left for journalists such as Tim Carney and unfavored papers such as the Washington Examiner to do. But all in all, the performance in this article isn’t entirely convincing, as if even the Post was tiring of repeating the talking points of K Street thinktankers and anonymous apparatchiks. Maybe it’s the Snowden files, or maybe it’s the shift to a new generation, or maybe it’s just the unstable position of newspapers with our digital present, but the Post is a little uneasy about just how much the people at the top control. And that means at least some portion of the establishment is uneasy about that as well.

The president might have to stop ordering people locked up or killed without some pretense of due process.

All of this made me revisit the discussion in these pages of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital. Piketty’s massive tome oversimplifies to a single principle, given as r>g, meaning that the rate of return on wealth exceeds the rate of economic growth, at least in Western industrialized nations. Were this true, then income inequality would inexorably increase, and wealth would be concentrated in ever greater amounts in ever fewer hands. Of course, as Mark Skousen and Leland Yeager showed, Piketty’s principle rests on several unsustainable assumptions about the permanence of capital and the assumption of risk.

However, Piketty’s principle makes a lot of sense when viewed as a statement not about wealth, but about political power. Yes, the two are related; in the present day, perhaps fatally so. But that sort of crony capitalism would be impossible without the power consolidation represented by Washington DC — the very arrangement that ensures that power will continue accruing to those already neck deep in it.

Piketty’s preferred solution for his perceived economic problem, a wealth tax, would only increase the flow of money going into, and much more rarely out of, our imperial metropolis. Imagine, however, an equivalent “tax” on power — every year, those in whose hands so much is gathered must surrender a small percentage of it, to be distributed among those who have so little. There are benefits straight off: everyone in office would have to list off all the political powers and assets they think they possess, and these could then be compared to the Constitution to get an idea of how deep the cuts would have to be.

Ideally, the tax would be progressive, so that those with comparatively little scope of power, such as first-year podunk-state congressmen with bottom-tier committee assignments, would only give up, say, a sugar subsidy that helps out a campaign donor. Those at the top, meanwhile, would be expected to turn over much more for the commonweal: the president, for instance, might have to stop ordering people locked up or killed without some pretense of due process.

It would take a while. And realistically, it would never come close to evening things out. But if we had such a mechanism that put power back in the hands of the people — as in, actual control over their own lives, not just as some weak metaphor for voting blocs — we could nonetheless do a great deal to reduce political inequality in the United States. And that would go much farther toward protecting The American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe than anything else Obama or any other DC denizen might choose to do.



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Moral Minority

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President Obama and President Hammond

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As Independence Day comes once more to America, we find ourselves with an administration that is laboring to become a despotism. Not content with making laws by executive order, nor abashed by a long series of rebukes from the Supreme Court, the president has proclaimed his intention of acting in defiance of Congress for the specific reason that Congress has refused to enact the laws he wanted.

The president recently summoned the speaker of the House and asked him when Congress would do his bidding on the immigration issue. The speaker said he saw no way of passing legislation this year. Probably he didn’t bother to state the fundamental reason, which is that no one trusts the president to keep his word about any executive actions mandated by legislation in this field (or perhaps any other). The president then announced that he would therefore proceed without Congress. Network news reported on July 1 that Obama had ordered his cabinet ministers to journey throughout the country, finding “creative means” of doing what Congress does not want to be done, not just about immigration but about every policy he wishes to effect.

This is a textbook definition of despotism — the executive acting in despite of an elected legislature.

Presidents have often exceeded their authority, but no other president has proceeded systematically on the declared principle of doing what Congress refuses to authorize, because Congress has refused to authorize it. Even Lincoln, who invaded the Constitution more dramatically than any other president, never proceeded on that principle.

The only precedent that favors the current chief executive is that of President Hammond, who in pursuit of his economic program went before Congress and said:

You have wasted precious days and weeks and years in futile discussion. We need action, immediate and effective action. . . . I ask you, gentlemen, to declare a state of national emergency and to adjourn this Congress until normal conditions are restored. During the period of that adjournment, I shall assume full responsibility for the government.

 When a congressman protested, asking, “If Congress refuses to adjourn?” Hammond replied, “I think, gentlemen, you forget that I am still the president of these United States, and as commander in chief of the army and navy, it is within the rights of the president to declare the country under martial law.” (For more about President Hammond, see Liberty, July 2010, pp. 21–29.)

The president has proclaimed his intention of acting in defiance of Congress for the specific reason that Congress has refused to enact the laws he wanted.

 

 That happened in 1933, when MGM released a movie called Gabriel Over the White House. In the movie, President Hammond is the hero. In his own mind, President Obama is a hero too. 

At July 4, thoughts customarily turn to heroes. Mine customarily turn to President Washington. Washington’s thoughts about a free government were somewhat different from those of President Hammond or President Obama. Take them as a gift of intelligent political thought, on this Independence Day:

It is important . . . that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield. (Farewell Address, 1796)




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Point Counterpoint

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Dinesh D’Souza is a debater beyond compare. I have watched him debate at least a dozen times, and he is simply brilliant in the way he sets up his opponent, recognizes the opponent’s position, and then systematically takes it apart and refutes it. Once when he was debating Christopher Hitchens on the value of religion, Hitchens called D’Souza’s bluff by not making his own case, thereby giving D’Souza nothing to tear apart. Undaunted, D’Souza first told the audience what Hitchens should have said about the bad things that have happened in the name of religion, and then went ahead with his own side of the debate, never missing a beat and managing to stay within his time limit to boot.

I thought about those debating skills while watching D’Souza’s new movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her. The film begins with an imagined reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle in which Washington dies and America never comes into existence. What might the world look like without the American philosophy? He then switches into devil’s advocate, listing five significant areas in which Americans should feel deep shame:

  1. Theft of lands from Native Americans, and genocide against them
  2. Theft of the American Southwest from Mexico
  3. Theft of life and labor from African-Americans
  4. Theft of resources from around the world through war and expansionism
  5. Theft of profits from consumers through capitalism (“You didn’t create that business — someone else built those roads, educated those employees, etc.”)

Watching this part of the film, especially as the first three points were elaborated, I nodded my head in agreement and disgust. These were terrible events that blot our nation’s history. How would D’Souza debate his way out of this one, I wondered?

D’Souza then steps back to give context and historical background to these situations. He does not denigrate or trivialize the suffering of the people involved, but he widens the story to give a broader perspective. By the time he is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history. In fact, our pride is restored for the good that we have accomplished, despite our slowness sometimes in getting there. Quoting both Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, he calls the equal rights vouchsafed in the Declaration of Independence a “promissory note” that took decades — nay, two centuries — to pay off, and indeed is still a promissory note in some instances.

By the time D’Souza is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history.

I was especially pleased that D’Souza included a segment on Madam C.J. Walker, the first black American woman to become a millionaire. Walker made her million manufacturing and selling cosmetics and pomades for African-Americans. She started as a cotton picker, worked her way up to cook, and saved her money to start her business. She is a true entrepreneurial hero who is often overlooked in the history books, I think, because she doesn’t fit the cult of victimhood ascribed to blacks and women, and because she made it on her own through entrepreneurship, not through political activism. I only know about her because her mansion is a mile from my house. (It survived the Roosevelt wealth tax devastation by serving as a tax-exempt old folks home for several decades, but is now a private residence again.) Now, thanks to D’Souza’s movie, others will know about this American entrepreneurial hero.

I would have been happy if the film had ended there, but then D’Souza turns to his opponents in this debate, such people as Boston University professor Howard Zinn, whose 1980 book A People’s History of the United States 1492–Present has influenced many political activists; and Saul Alinsky, whoseRules for Radicals heavily influenced such politicians and “community organizers” as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Like a good debater, D’Souza defuses the ammunition his detractors might use against him, the business about his recent run-in with the law, by addressing it head-on instead of giving his opponents an opportunity to whisper about it or suggest that he is hiding something. He admits that what he did was wrong (he reimbursed two friends who donated to another friend’s campaign in order to circumvent campaign contribution limits established by law — a law, by the way, that many people consider a violation of First Amendment right to free speech.) D’Souza frames his admission within the context of selective prosecution (some would call it political persecution) in retaliation for his previous film, 2016: Obama’s America.

America: Imagine a World without Her opened this week to coincide with the Fourth of July. It is an impressive piece of filmmaking, not only for its well-structured arguments but for its production qualities. Producer Gerald Molen, who won an Oscar as producer of Schindler’s List, is the man behind the magic. The film is also a featured selection at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival as part of FreedomFest at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas next week (information about FilmLovers Passes is at anthemfilmfestival.com).


Editor's Note: Review of "America: Imagine a World Without Her," directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan. Lionsgate, 2014, 103 minutes.



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The Stains of Social Justice

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The United Nations defines social justice as "the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth." Furthermore, social justice is impossible "without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies." Social justice is an axiom held dearly by socialists — apparently reconciled by the belief that great wealth and prosperity would have been created in places such as North Korea, East Germany, Cuba, and Venezuela, if only the "strong and coherent redistributive policies" had been, well, stronger and more coherent. In reality, social justice brings stagnation and decline, which, to socialists, look like fruit ever ripening into new and increasingly meddlesome forms of social justice. To socialists, distributing poverty and despair (even abysmal poverty and despair) is acceptable, as long as they are handling the distribution.

The socialists (more precisely, eco-socialists) in charge of US redistribution have managed to create a new American phenomenon: permanent economic stagnation. While speaking at the November 2013 IMF Economic Forum, Harvard University economist Larry Summers, was puzzled as to why, after four years, the US economy had not yet recovered. Noting that efforts to prevent a future crisis might be counterproductive, he concluded his speech by saying, "We may well need, in the years ahead, to think about how we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity, holding our economies back, below their potential."

Translation: even at extremely low interest rates, bank lending has been flat since 2009 because businesses are afraid to invest in an economy tainted by socialist mischief. Since social justice (delivered through the redistributive policies of Climate Change, the Stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, etc.) is "a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity;" we need to think about how to manage future stagnation, after some unspecified number of "years ahead" in continuation of the present stagnation.

The socialists in charge of US redistribution have managed to create a new American phenomenon: permanent economic stagnation.

Think about that. In the election year of 2008, we had a do-something-about-it-now problem. Today, in 2014, as the stagnation persists, is Washington ready to do something about it? No. Will Washington be ready to do something in the years ahead? No. But by then it will be ready to think about it. Maybe. The 2008 promises of jobs and economic growth were replaced by the vast, warm fuzziness of social justice vagaries such as equality, diversity, fairness, dignity, renewability, and sustainability. What happened to the grandiose 2008 plan for economic revitalization? In 2009, eco-socialist lawyers and academics reached into their magic hat of "strong and coherent redistributive policies" and pulled out a plan to build a new economy. Why fix an outdated economy that was driven by greed, racism, overconsumption, and planet-heating "fuels of yesterday"? Today, more than five years into the new economy of stultifying compassionate distribution, they reached back in and pulled out a Plan B: inurement.

But as this elite cabal was settling into a genial Washington DC, their big heads bubbling with theories (touted by bigger-headed sociologists and environmentalists) on how to build a shiny new economy, a handful of crass entrepreneurs was settling into the rude world of fracking, creating an oil and gas revolution that would blight the dreamscape of the social justice crowd. The New York Times article "North Dakota Went Boom" eloquently describes the discovery and development of the Bakken Shale Formation in western North Dakota, a rugged, empty area blemished by "roaring fires and messy drill pads." But the blemishes are producing a flood of jobs, prosperity, and cheap energy, infuriating eco-socialists, who have produced but a trickle of anything with their centrally planned economy of government-approved renewable energy. Then there is the horror that the great wealth befalling North Dakota is the result of "an economic imperative that dates back to the triumph of the treaty breakers who usurped the Native Americans and commodified the land, and to the waves that came in their wake, the great white hunters who cleaned out the buffalo." God have mercy. Has there ever been social justice in North Dakota?

Eco-socialists are unwanted in North Dakota, where household income is $2,214 higher than the national average, unemployment is the nation's lowest, and budget surpluses accrue even after major income tax cuts (more than 50% since 2009). But many of them can be found at the North Dakota border, weeping over economic fruits they are helpless to distribute. Tears blind them to "the allure of a derrick dressed up in lights and looming 10 stories over a desolate landscape where the leading academic solution to social and economic stagnation had been to surrender and let the land lapse into buffalo commons." Alas, the North Dakota buffalo commons strains the vision of prying eco-socialists peering into the state. It is a pathetically small plot (only 4% of North Dakota is federal land), barely large enough to hold a respectable climate change sit-in without its whimpers being heard in at least a few of the more than 6,000 wealth-producing drilling sites on private land, where 90% of the wells reside. Other eco-socialists are faced with the task of hawking income inequality or green jobs (such as solar panel installation at $38,000 per year) to the sullied hordes of climate deniers rushing into the state, on their way to oil and gas fields where the average annual wage is $90,225.

It has been said that veterans of the oil patch can estimate the productive capacity of an oil well from the size of its flare gas flame (which burns off the natural gas contained in the well). A seasoned eco-socialist can no doubt make a similar estimate based on the size of the yellow puddle at his stomping feet, as he rages against the carbon emissions that flaring spews into the atmosphere. Out of self-interest, oil companies eventually build gas-gathering pipelines that channel the gas to a processing plant, where they make even more money –while saving the gas. But for wells on federal land, these pipelines require the bureaucratic approval of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — the same law that has delayed the Keystone XL Pipeline for more than five years. Oil companies, therefore, are forced to flare off gas while they wait for their permits. In Wyoming, for example, the average wait time is seven years. According to Forbes Magazine, the state's "lost opportunity cost associated with the delay of oil and natural gas development is $22 billion in labor income and $90 billion in economic output over a ten-year period." Not a problem, when social justice is at stake.

Eco-socialists are unwanted in North Dakota, where household income is $2,214 higher than the national average, unemployment is the nation's lowest.

Under social justice policies, GDP growth during the "recovery" has averaged 2% annually, dropping to an alarming -2.9% in the most recent quarter. This is stagnation. But to eco-socialists, it is not failure. It is merely an economic aberration that their intellectuals will have to think about managing in the years ahead. In the world of social justice, success is not measured by wealth, growth, jobs, or income; the expansion of "strong and coherent redistributive policies" is the only yardstick. Accordingly, with $17 trillion of debt, medium household income down 8.3%, labor participation down to 62.8% (the lowest since 1978), and 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, eco-socialists shamelessly exclaim that we are "heading in the right direction."

And that they have "more work to do." That work largely involves stifling the US oil and gas industry — the only bright spot in an otherwise moribund economy. While forging the new green economy, eco-socialists have suppressed oil (down 6%) and gas (down 28%) production on federal land. Fortunately for our stagnating economy, oil and gas production has increased dramatically (61% and 33%, respectively) on non-federal land. Thanks to entrepreneurs such as Harold Hamm (who discovered the prolific Bakken shale "play") and innovators who developed fracking and horizontal drilling, the US oil and gas revolution has created well over one million jobs, reduced annual oil imports by 800 million barrels, slashed our annual energy bill by $100 billion, and cut carbon emissions by 300 million tons. It has also increased GDP by more than 1.7% — a contribution without which eco-socialists could not claim (at least not shamelessly) that we are "heading in the right direction."

While most of us celebrate these achievements, eco-socialists fear them. Their vision of social justice calls for our vast oil and gas resources to "lapse into buffalo commons." Otherwise, the income inequality gap might widen or the earth's temperature might rise (by the end of the century) or a flame might shoot out of someone's faucet, etc. Besides, the economic contributions from the oil and gas revolution amplify the failure of their immense, whimsical green energy investments, and expose the disingenuous tenets of their overreaching scheme to rebuild the US economy. According to the insightful Hamm, “That’s why these guys are raising so much hell, because suddenly they realize that everything they’ve invested in isn’t going to work . . . They know they’re misleading the public.”

Nevertheless, the social justice parade marches forward. Armed with NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other social justice regulations, eco-socialists won't be happy until our utility bills "necessarily skyrocket" and the price of US gasoline matches the price in Europe — thereby paving the way for government-approved solar panels, windmills, and electric cars. Forget about oil and gas. They are yesterday's fuels, dirty and finite. We will have renewable energy in a sustainable economy, even if it takes permanent stagnation to get there.

Social justice leads to stagnation, which leads to scarcity, which leads to rationing, which is what eco-socialists do best.

The good news is that America's oil and gas boom is winning. Eco-socialists, in denial of its benefits, are resigned to the desperate hope that it will be like other booms — short-lived. But estimates of its increasing longevity have revealed a brown stain on the seat of the pants of eco-socialism. There is no stagnation in North Dakota, where energy experts expect the Bakken play to last for 100 years or more. There, the odor of flare gas is preferable to the stench of socialism and, with an annual salary of $90,000, oil field workers can buy all the social justice they need.

This sentiment, of course, is shared by Texas, home to the Eagle Ford and the Permian Basin, and the leading oil and natural gas producing state in the nation. And recent breakthroughs in drilling technologies have the boom spreading to Oklahoma, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico, where the combined shale oil production has increased 57% in the last three years — causing, no doubt, a proportionate enlargement of that nasty brown stain. Mr. Hamm — whose oil company is developing a drill pad packing technique that could put more than 100,000 wells into North Dakota — would probably estimate a much larger and darker stain.

Social justice leads to stagnation, which leads to scarcity, which leads to rationing, which is what eco-socialists do best — with their "strong and coherent redistributive policies." They believe that through such policies we now have affordable healthcare, a kinder Wall Street, a cutting-edge renewable energy industry, and a world-class education system. Soon, electric vehicles will pour out of a rejuvenated Detroit, millions of Americans will work at high-paying green jobs, and solar panels and windmills will bring us energy independence. By then, their economists may have begun thinking about how to manage the permanent stagnation. That is their story, and they are sticking to it, even if it means squandering the world's most prolific source of fossil fuel energy, a resource that, if properly exploited, could revitalize the economy overnight, increase the wealth of every one of us, and finance self-help programs for anyone still afflicted by social injustice.

Nothing will change the minds of eco-socialists. But America's enormous, expanding oil and gas revolution may eventually make them change their pants.




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