Diddling While Rome Burns

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Your humble social media correspondent is troubled. For some time now, discord among warring libertarians has raged on Facebook, my own battlefield of choice. In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

One friend — whom I also know personally — has gone on an unholy tear about the injustices of life as a tenant. “Rent is theft!” his posts repeatedly scream. I’ve always considered him a levelheaded person. I have no idea what’s happened to him. A lot of people are quitting him because he’s gone to a place so dark they don’t want to follow.

In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

I know he leans far left. Like a lot of former statist progressives, he’s outraged about something practically all the time. He sees it as his personal mission to convert as many as possible of his comrades to left-libertarianism. I suppose you could say that he’s the Apostle Paul of that faction. But if all he has to give these hungry souls is more outrage and aggrievement, I think he’s offering pretty thin gruel.

In my previous essay in Liberty I alluded to the compulsion I see in so many people to dress up in fancy and heroic costumes. As this turbulence on Facebook was something I was already facing daily, I had it at least partially in mind. Almost everybody involved is between 19 and 25, looking for a girlfriend (or in some cases, a boyfriend) and hoping to appear edgy and revolutionary. I know I must be getting old, because the whole production is making me tired and cranky.

These people need to take a good, hard look around them. I can’t imagine where they’re getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom. Their mothers might have cared, in a worried, “Do you have a tummyache, dear?” sort of way, and their buds at the dorm probably found it mildly engrossing over pizza and beer. But they’re supposed to be adults now, and they’re merely diddling while Rome burns.

We’ve all got a lot of heavy lifting to do if we are even going to budge this society in a libertarian direction. The blessed time when we might profitably haggle about what type of libertarian society we’re going to have — just exactly, and to a precise ideological point — is one that neither I, nor anyone reading this essay, will ever live to see. It may be as distant in the future as the American Revolution is in the past. In the meantime, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are standing for what is right and that each of us is doing our personal utmost to work toward that worthy goal. Ordering fries with that is simply not an option.

Where are they getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom?

I’m glad to see so many new converts to the liberty movement, especially among the young, but I fear that few of them will persevere long enough to see their commitment through. I think it’s very likely that they’ll get discouraged by the tough slog, and end up returning to statism — a hefty part of the appeal of which is the promise of an order of fries with that. To switch metaphors yet again, we now find ourselves stuck in Siberia, but hope to row, in our huge fleet of leaky rowboats, clear to Honolulu. As we navigate the stormy waters between us and our destination, will they turn aside and end up shipwrecked on Alcatraz?

We’ll all just have to stay tuned. I know that I’ll continue to follow the soap opera. And I fully intend to persevere on our journey. I don’t needa side of fries — though there are some days when I yearn for an aspirin, the size of a hockey puck.




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Healthcare: More Is Less

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There was a time when insurance companies focused on actuarial tables while physicians focused on diagnosis and treatment. But not any more! Now insurance companies are raking in the premiums — double what they were five years ago for many customers — while doing everything in their power to reject claims. Patients are more afraid of the insurance agent than they are of the disease.

In the past month alone, my daughters have had four hefty medical claims rejected, including a medication prescribed to control chronic seizures and a gallbladder removal that was deemed “elective” by the insurance company! What is the point of buying insurance if you can’t use it? And how can the market respond to customer dissatisfaction when government regulation gives insurance companies so much power?

Insurance companies are raking in the premiums — double what they were five years ago for many customers — while doing everything in their power to reject claims.

I raised five active, rambunctious, rough-and-tumble children across three decades, and while I worried occasionally about their health and safety, I never worried about how I would pay for their healthcare. My relationship with insurance companies was straightforward and consistent. Our copay was consistent. Our deductible was consistent. If one of the kids was injured, I could call my favorite orthopedic practice without worrying that the claim would be rejected on the grounds of some esoteric technicality. When my daughter developed epilepsy, I was proactive in finding the right doctor, the right diagnosis, and the right treatment that has kept her virtually seizure-free for 15 years — until her current insurance company decided that the medication her doctor has prescribed for those 15 years will not be covered.

In the past five years, everything has changed. Suddenly it’s the insurance agent, not the physician, who decides what the patient needs by deciding whether it will be covered. Insurance premiums are so high that few families can save enough to cover out-of-pocket expenses, yet everything is becoming an out-of-pocket expense. My daughters find themselves owing nearly $15,000 in uncovered medical expenses in a single month — and they have insurance!

In the past month alone, my daughters have had four hefty medical claims rejected, including a medication prescribed to control chronic seizures and a gallbladder removal that was deemed “elective."

American healthcare, once the best in the world, is collapsing under the weight of over-regulation and crony capitalism that favors the insurer over the healer. Rand Paul, the only actual physician in the US Senate, has been locked out of discussions about healthcare reform. Let’s hope it all collapses soon, so the free market can rebuild from the ashes.




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Climate Change Wars

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Who’s right?

In the climate change controversies, the Left and the Right are at daggers drawn. The Left overwhelms with data, models, and prognostications warning of environmental disaster because atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased from an historic base level (by volume) of 0.03% to the present 0.04% — a huge percentage increase in raw CO2 levels, but a miniscule amount as a percentage of the entire atmosphere. The change, it is said, results from human activity, which must therefore be restricted.

The Right is skeptical of the data and how they’re gathered, often with much confirmation bias. It questions the models’ inputs and premises, and their ability to predict future conditions accurately. It accuses the Left of ignoring solar flare cycles, the possibility that earth is warming because we’re still coming out of the last Pleistocene ice age, and just plain old random fluctuations — the last three causes having nothing to do with human activity, which therefore needs no further restriction.

The Left overwhelms with data, models, and prognostications warning of environmental disaster.

But most of all, the dispute is about increasing government power. The Left’s solution to climate change is to put more controls on the economy. To the Right, this solution suggests an unnecessary power grab that would further restrict liberty and keep the world’s poor from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps — all for questionable results from reforms based on speculative premises.

The battle lines have been drawn along ideological lines, with science — both good and bad — playing second fiddle: most people just don’t have the knowledge or critical skills to evaluate the methodology and all the factors, conclusions, and opinions.

Fortunately, there is a third approach, one that relies on the Hayekian insight that markets are much better at analyzing all available data than any one individual, institution, or government (and I would include computers in that list) could possibly be. This is the approach taken by PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, a libertarian thinktank dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.

The Right is skeptical of the data and how they’re gathered, often with much confirmation bias.

It makes little difference whether the United States remained in or left the 2015 Paris Climate Accords: the agreed upon CO2 reduction levels were minimal, unreachable, and unenforceable. And despite the fact that carbon emissions from US power generation are at a 25-year low (thanks in part to fracking and cheap natural gas), “global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are steadily increasing and show no signs of slowing,” according to Shawn Regan, research fellow and executive editor of the PERC Reports.

Let’s admit it: solving the perceived problem of climate change on a global scale would be economically devastating, politically unattainable, and practically impossible. So PERC’s latest report focuses on adaptation, a concept heretofore deemed either taboo or irrelevant.

Al Gore dismissed adaptation as a “kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins.” Many others, says Regan, claimed that “focusing on adaptation would only distract from accepting costly carbon mitigation policies.”

Fortunately, there is a third approach, one that relies on the Hayekian insight that markets are much better at analyzing all available data than any one individual, institution, or government could possibly be.

But adaptation is the name of the game, and market forces are already at work — and have been for a long time, even though they’re seldom heralded by the media. As the latest PERC Reports (Vol. 36, Issue 1, Summer 2017) puts it:

Market prices send signals about local conditions that no central planner or scientific expert could possibly know. Property rights give resource owners the incentives necessary to adjust to changing conditions. If sea levels rise or crop yields decline, property owners have good reason to act — whether to invest in protections or innovations.

Some of the issues addressed by PERC’s scholars in the winter edition include how wheat production has, since the 1850s, adapted to a fluctuating climate (yes, the climate is not static); how wheat is increasingly being grown in harsher climates; how the global coffee sector is adapting to hotter conditions; how financial instruments are helping water traffic cope with the Mississippi’s erratic fluctuations; how free markets help cities adapt to climate change, through innovative designs in architecture and construction in flood-prone areas; and how urban growth — yes, urban growth — can do the same, through naturally occurring evolutionary redevelopments according to principles recognized by the late Jane Jacobs, doyenne and scourge of city planners. An analysis entitled “The Hole in the EPA’s Ozone Regulations” illustrates the way in which one-size-fits-all government edicts are prone to being gamed by those affected, and shows how an innovative contract in southern Arizona pays farmers to conserve water.

But PERC doesn’t limit itself to climate controversies. It is to environmental policy what the Cato Institute is to political and economic policy. All of PERC’s scholars are well-placed experts with impressive credentials.Two of its resident scholars are Liberty editor Randal O’Toole and water policy expert Terry L. Anderson, director of PERC and also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Anderson is the author of a groundbreaking book, Water Crisis: Ending the Policy Drought (1983). I particularly recall the influence that his ideas exerted on Sam Steiger, Republican Congressman, water company entrepreneur, and policy expert, the first libertarian mayor of my city, Prescott, Arizona and the first Libertarian Party candidate for governor. Steiger’s over-5% vote tally put Libertarians on the Arizona ballot, seemingly for good.

Adaptation is the name of the game, and market forces are already at work — and have been for a long time.

But I digress. Other PERC reports focus on how privately organized, ground-up, rights-based fishing groups have evolved in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Northern Australia, Belize, and other places, protecting near-shore fish and near-shore fishermen’s livelihoods. There are PERC articles assessing the runaway costs of the federal government’s wild horse program, and showing how human-wildlife conflicts were mitigated when elk were reintroduced into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

One fascinating piece is an interview with and profile of Ryan Zinke, President Trump’s interior secretary, who arrived at his new job dressed in boots, jeans, and a cowboy hat, seated somewhat awkwardly on an English saddle atop a 17-year-old Irish sport horse ridden through the streets of Washington. Another is a contrast between the policies advocated by such environmental organizations as the Wilderness Society and the Audubon Society and the way in which they manage their own properties.

PERC’s analyses focus on politically achievable and practical ends. The organization’s style is thinktank noncontroversial. The appeal to libertarians is clear.




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The Importance of Showing Up

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In the wake of the horrendous massacre in Las Vegas, we have heard moving stories of heroism: a husband who was shot and killed while protecting his wife; a young woman whose vertebrae were broken helping others climb over a wall to safety; a young man stripping off his clothing to cover the faces of seven dead victims and helping a dozen others to safety; a stranger slinging a wounded woman over his shoulder as they ran for cover; a woman driving her pickup to the site in order to carry the wounded to hospitals; people lined up for five hours or more to give blood.

As the wounded begin their long road to recovery, they too will exhibit heroic efforts to regain their lives. Las Vegas, Columbine, Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of massacre victims has become too long to quote. We listen misty-eyed to their stories and praise them for their courage.

Coincidentally, two films opened this week with mass shootings as their theme. One of them, Super Dark Times, speculates on the events that create a mass murderer. The other, Stronger, is the subject of this review. It tells the story of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and provided a description of one of the bombers that helped the FBI track them down.

Las Vegas, Columbine, Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of massacre victims has become too long to quote.

We expect our recovering survivors to be stoic and heroic — especially when they appear in movies. But more often than not, survivors are just normal. They cry, bicker, swear, and complain. Crisis doesn’t automatically build character; it reveals it. And Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is anything but heroic. A kitchen worker at Costco before the attack, he can’t even remember to take the chicken out of the oven before he takes out the trash. He is driven by an unwavering belief that his beloved Red Sox can only win if he watches the game from his favorite pub with a beer in his hand. He lives in a tiny fifth-story walkup with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), an alcoholic who is even more needy than Jeff. His girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) has broken up with him three times, primarily because he can’t get it together enough simply to show up when they have a date.

But on April 15, 2013, hoping to win Erin back, Jeff does show up — at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, bearing a homemade sign to cheer Erin on. And that’s how he loses his legs above the knee.

Erin shows up too, to shield him from his family and fans and to help him through his rehabilitation — and, yes, to assuage her guilt that she is the reason has lost his legs. But Jeff is a lousy patient, refusing to appear for the therapy sessions that are essential to building the core muscles he will need if he ever expects to use his prosthetic legs. Nevertheless, a sweet and painful romance develops between them.

More often than not, survivors are just normal. They cry, bicker, swear, and complain.

Jeff’s lowlife family basks in the notoriety as reporters and promoters come calling. Oprah! The Bruins! The freakin’ Red Sox! His mother is positively drunk on booze and celebrity. Jeff’s relatives don’t understand the trauma he experiences in open spaces, where he relives the horror of that sunny afternoon, and they consider it a personal affront when he doesn’t share their enthusiasm for public appearances.

“You’re a symbol, kid!” one supporter proclaims.

“Of what?” Jeff asks.

“Of Boston strong!” is the reply.

But Jeff isn’t strong. He’s barely coping. We see his struggle in the intimate moments that we don’t often think about when we’re turning our wounded warriors into heroes — taking a shower, taking a crap, dragging himself across the floor like a baby, unable even to crawl.

Stronger is admittedly a genre film, and as such, it’s reasonably predictable. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Jeff does finally discover the strength to show up, although it comes through a plot development that is not at all predictable. What keeps this film from being maudlin, despite its subject matter and its predictability, is the topnotch acting, not only from Gyllenhaal (one of the best actors of this generation) but from the entire supporting cast. The beautiful Miranda Richardson is frumpy and low-class as Bauman’s self-centered alcoholic mother. Maslany is believably conflicted as the girlfriend from a better side of town who alternately feels pity, revulsion, and love for this tenderhearted young man. The nurses, paramedics, and doctors are so perfect in their calm, take-control speech patterns that I had to check the credits to see if they were medical professionals playing themselves.

We see Bauman's struggle in the intimate moments that we don’t often think about when we’re turning our wounded warriors into heroes.

Eventually Jeff agrees to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game, and he asks for a bit of advice from the catcher. “Aim high,” is the response. Those two themes of the movie — show up, and aim high — are good advice for anyone.

Two days after the Las Vegas bombings, Jeff Bauman sent a message of encouragement and hope to the survivors. He wrote:

To the victims waking up in a hospital right now wondering how life will ever be the same. . . . I know your pain. The most important advice I can give is to remember that healing your mind is just as important as healing your physical, visible injuries. It took me too many years and dark moments to realize that and it is so, so important. You will walk again. You will laugh again. You will dance again. You will live again.

Bauman has learned how to show up, indeed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Stronger," directed by David Gordon Green. Bold Films/Lionsgate, 2017, 116 minutes.



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The Preventables and the Deplorables

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Ayn Rand says somewhere that you don’t understand a specific concept or thing until you can state the general class of objects to which it belongs, and you don’t understand a general class until you can identify some of its specific constituents.

She’s right, of course. The problem is that people can, and commonly do, get the specifics in the wrong classes.

We all know Democrats who meet a Republican and immediately put him or her in the class of Bigots and Dumb Asses. And we all know Republicans who meet a Democrat and immediately put this nice, unoffending person in the class of Destroyers of the Republic. When Democrats or Republicans encounter a libertarian, you can see it going on, right behind their eyeballs — the classification process effortlessly identifying “nice young person” as “good example of the Naïve and Feckless Class.”

Whatever the gunman’s motives, it is difficult to see any way of preventing this kind of thing from happening again, except by holding all public events in a bank vault.

This way of thinking can damage the thinker, as it did when Hillary Clinton naively and fecklessly put many of her potential voters in the “basket of deplorables.” More often, it damages society at large.

We live in a time and place when a vast range of specific problems are automatically put in the class of Things that Can Be Prevented, which is considered equivalent to the class of Things that Should Be Prevented, No Matter What.

The latest example is the horrible massacre at Las Vegas. Whatever the gunman’s motives, it is difficult to see any way of preventing this kind of thing from happening again, except by holding all public events in a bank vault. But before the victims’ blood could be wiped from the streets, talk turned to the question of how to, in effect, construct the bank vault.

I hope that means of putting cancer, insanity, and sheer stupidity in the Can Be Prevented category will ultimately be discovered, but they haven’t been discovered yet. And before you discover a means of prevention, your attempts at prevention are bound to be both feckless and destructive. In fact, if we keep going in this way, we will soon be unable to think, because the only classes of concepts we will have in our brains will be (A) The Preventables and (B) The Deplorables who “refuse” to prevent them.




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