Imitations of Life

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In the surreal world of “news,” the funniest thing that happened during the past few weeks may have been the fake Thanksgiving episode of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The show was prerecorded, but — and this is the thing that tickled me — Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski kept making fraudulent Thanksgiving sounds. As reported by the New York Daily News:

“Day after Thanksgiving. Woo! I’m stuffed!” host Mika Brzezinski said to open the show.

“A great Thanksgiving,” Joe Scarborough replied before they both offered a few awkward clichés.

S and B later claimed that the performance was a joke and that anyone who took it seriously (e.g., all media reporting on it) was a “moron.” Was that a joke? A joke about a joke? Much funnier was the network’s response to complaints. Its spokeswoman said:

There was no intention to trick viewers. Would it have helped if there was a disclaimer? Maybe. But that’s not typically done.

If this is correct, does it mean that news shows are typically faked? I can believe it. And I guess she’s right: a disclaimer wouldn’t help.

Or maybe it would, if the news content still made sense. I know, I know: that would mean hiring news people with the (minimal) knowledge and (minimally) balanced minds required to tell the difference between sense and nonsense. Such people would need to be paid, and that might be difficult, because the corporate vendors of news are strapped for money; they’ve got nothing left after paying such people as Matt Lauer and Megyn Kelly tens of millions, just to cause trouble.

Was that a joke? A joke about a joke?

But if the principal news media could scrape up some cash, maybe we wouldn’t see reports about “young, undocumented immigrants born in the U.S.” (NBC, November 28). That phrase (discovered by hawkeyed Liberty author Michael Christian) was later changed to “brought to the U.S.,” when somebody finally noticed the obvious mistake. But what’s the difference? The Dreamers are here, aren’t they? Who cares whether they were born or brought?

The larger question is why soi-disant journalists should want to make sense about anything, when nobody else seems to care. If the people at large really cared, why would they be getting their news from NBC or “Morning Joe” in the first place? And if the president cared . . .

Here’s a good one. When, on December 18, an Amtrak train went off the rails on a curve near Tacoma, killing several people, Trump immediately attributed the disaster to a lack of government investment in the infrastructure:

The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!

Now, one of the first things broadcast about the accident was the observation of witnesses that the train was going about 80 miles an hour. This turned out to be true. And if anyone was curious enough, as I was, to google a map, he could see at a glance that a train going anywhere near that speed would never get around that curve. Little more time was required to discover — because this too was immediately reported — that the stretch of rail in question had just been opened to passenger transportation after a vast federal investment in the infrastructure. This doesn’t mean that the president is always wrong. It does mean that his Does It Make Sense Monitor is subject to periodic deactivation.

That would mean hiring news people with the (minimal) knowledge and (minimally) balanced minds required to tell the difference between sense and nonsense.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: if VIPs made sense, where would Word Watch be? The answer is: out of copy. So senselessness has its benefits. That sudden, excited breath you take, that little jump your heart makes when you ask yourself, “Did the president really say that?” — you’d be missing all that fun if the VIPs (Vitally Ignorant People) limited themselves to sensible statements. As Yeats put it, “What theme had Homer but original sin?”

The sin of senselessness can brighten any subject. On December 14, ABC fired somebody named Mario Batali, who seems to be a chef, from its show “The Chew”(!). The cause was the usual sexual allegations, and Batali responded with the usual Reeducation Rag:

I have made many mistakes and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans and my team. My behavior was wrong . . . . I will work every day to regain your respect and trust.

That tells you a lot, doesn’t it? Now I feel that I understand exactly what happened. But he added:

In case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.

He followed with a picture of the magic Rolls, and a button you could click to get the recipe. It’s an odd effect, isn’t it — this combination of repentance and recipes? But the senselessness is almost as savory as a plate of warm cinnamon rolls.

If you want senselessness of any kind, sex is the most dependable source, and the result is virtually guaranteed when sex is combined with politics. As John McLaughlin used to say, here’s a political potpourri.

If VIPs made sense, where would Word Watch be? The answer is: out of copy.

My first exhibit comes from Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). She is one politician who really knows how to sling the clichés. Determined to destroy, as she put it, the “toxic culture of predatory sexual behavior” (that’s two big clichés in only six words), she attacked her colleague, Congressman Ruben Kihuen (D-NV), for his alleged sexual improprieties. But she was anxious to free herself from any implication of unfairness, and this is how she did it (dateline December 1):

I support a full, fair and expedient investigation against Congressman Kihuen and any other Member of Congress who have women or men come forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior. This process must be open [and] transparent and have an appropriate investigatory timeline that delivers justice.

It’s good to know what Senator Masto supports, as opposed to what she actually believes (if anything).

It gives her utterance that special something that was lacking in Mr. Batali’s statement of personal responsibility — that flavor of political process that adds so much to moral discourse. It suggests speaking at rallies, recording your vote, and wearing your most serious face when the cameras are on. She supports — but does she think? The quality of her thinking is indicated by her reference to a fair investigation against Kihuen. Thank you, Madame Defarge.

Let’s see, let’s see . . . the next linguistic scandal is provided by the Los Angeles Times, reporting on the life of California Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, who has lately been charged with sexual impropriety:

In 2013, Dababneh narrowly won a special election for his Assembly seat in a reliably Democratic district. . . . Since then, he has handily won reelection twice, boosted by a flush campaign account and an influential perch as chairman of the Assembly’s Banking and Finance Committee.

Picture that, if you can: boosted by a flush account, the man attained an influential perch. “Perch”: what is that, a fish? No, but I can more easily imagine a fish being influential than influence being wielded by one of those things that a bird sits on. My assumption is that the Times, which was knocked off its perch by a drop in daily circulation from 1,225,000 in 1990 to 274,000 in 2017, feels a compulsion to be flashy and jazzy all the time. Or try to be.

Again, big birds (well, once-big birds) give examples of senselessness to all the little birds. Remember Nancy Pelosi, and you’ll see at once what I mean. Whenever sane persons hear her name, they automatically ask themselves, “What idiotic remark has she made now?”

The quality of her thinking is indicated by her reference to a "fair" investigation "against" Kihuen. Thank you, Madame Defarge.

Pelosi’s special characteristic has always been her senseless clichés. A cliché is often just a tired way of saying something sensible, but her clichés are tired ways of saying nothing. Pelosi is the High Priest, the Grand Mufti, the Magical Adept, the Mysterious Oracle of meaningless clichés.

When sex charges arose against Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) — a perpetual representative from Detroit, where politics is as dirty as dirt — Pelosi stepped forth to defend him, dressed in her costume as the sweet village maiden who never wants to hear any bad things. I’ll quote her, putting her clichés in italics:

We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two?

How dear that she didn’t know! Although it wasn’t just one. If it had been, she wouldn’t have been talking about it. But now comes the Yankee Doodle Dandy part of her comments (except that Yankee Doodle Dandy was created by people who understood what to do with clichés):

John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left — right-wing [oops!] — is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that. [Did you ever notice how similar Pelosi’s rhetoric is to that of her bête noir, Donald Trump?] But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he will do the right thing.

I always enjoy listening to moral lectures, especially from people who don’t know what they’re talking about:

When asked specifically whether she believes the accusations against Conyers, Pelosi said: “I do not know who they are. Do you? They have not really come forward.”

Actually, they had. So later that day (November 26) Pelosi put out a statement saying, "Zero tolerance means consequences. I have asked for an ethics investigation, and as that investigation continues, Congressman Conyers has agreed to step aside as Ranking Member."

But there was more. According to NBC,

Pelosi, meanwhile, also [being a news writer means that you don’t have to worry about whether it’s senseless to write also when you’ve already written meanwhile] said the reaction to sexual misconduct accusations against former President Bill Clinton from that era versus today represent [and you don’t have to worry about subject-verb agreement, either] “obviously a generational change.”

“The concern that we had then was that they were impeaching the president of the United States, and for something that had nothing to do with the performance of his duties, and trying to take him out for that reason," Pelosi added. "But let's go forward. Let's go forward. I think that something wonderful is happening now, very credible. It's 100 years, almost 100 years, since women got the right to vote. Here we are, almost 100 years later, and something very transformative is happening.”

What the hell? What does that mean? It’s said that the definition of “true poetry” is something that cannot be translated into any other language. So I guess that Pelosi’s words are true poetry. You can’t even summarize them in a sensible way. As Alexander Pope put it, “true no-meaning puzzles more than wit.”

Nancy Pelosi is the High Priest, the Grand Mufti, the Magical Adept, the Mysterious Oracle of meaningless clichés.

Now that I’m quoting from the 18th century, I recall that Thomas Gray called the great front of the palace of Versailles “a huge heap of littleness.” A good phrase, susceptible of many applications. “A huge heap of littleness” is what all these official people are making of our language — our means of thinking and the palace of our culture.

On December 11, Fox News described, with peasant navieté, the way in which achievement is signified in Washington. The subject was Bruce Ohr, one of the horde of hollow men that government spawns and nurtures:

Until Dec. 6, when Fox News began making inquiries about him, Bruce Ohr held two titles at DOJ [if you aren’t inside the Beltway, this means “the Department of Justice”]. He was, and remains, director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force; but his other job was far more senior. Mr. Ohr held the rank of associate deputy attorney general, a post that gave him an office four doors down from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The day before Fox News reported that Mr. Ohr held his secret meetings last year with the founder of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, and with Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the dossier [accusing Donald Trump of bad behavior in a Moscow hotel], the Justice Department stripped Ohr of his deputy title and ousted him from his fourth floor office at the building that DOJ insiders call “Main Justice.”

Associate deputy attorney general . . . four doors down . . . ousted from the fourth floor . . . good grief! What would the Buddha think? What would your grandmother think? There used to be a half-good novel (Fannie Hurst, 1933) that spawned two half-good movies; and its title was Imitation of Life. That title is appropriate to many people and many things.

But here we are, as Pelosi says, at the end of 2017 — a year of linguistic horrors. It’s fitting that she should have the last word about this year, because she has extended it. Yes she has.

Pelosi thinks that "the process" has some significance, because she said it.

She doesn’t want anyone to imagine that she and her party exploited the cloyingly denominated Dreamers by promising that their wishes would be made into law this year, only to disappoint them. Therefore, by decree of Pelosi, 2017 has acquired a 13th month.

This was all reported by The Hill on December 21:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Thursday defended her fellow Democrats for allowing the debate over “Dreamers” to carry into January, saying the delay is no indication that party leaders have abandoned demands that the issue be tackled this year.

Instead, according to Pelosi's argument, the Republicans’ decision to punt the fight over 2018 spending into next month meant the Democrats had to postpone their immigration push, as well.

“They kicked the can for the omnibus into January. It’s this year, extended, that’s what it is. It’s the process,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

What does this mean, if anything? It means that Pelosi thinks that everyone in the country knows the significance of the omnibus, just as everyone is supposed to know the significance of the fourth floor. It means that she thinks the process has some significance, because she said it. It means that she thinks kicked the can sounds fresh and new. It means that she thinks she can lie about the calendar.

My idea is that neither the calendar nor the United States of America can be favorably transformed by nonsense words. My idea is that words ultimately depend on realities. To put this in another way, I agree with Yeats: “At stroke of midnight God shall win.”




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Government Art

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If you want evidence of the way government corrupts culture, consider the 16-foot fiberglass statue unveiled in mid-December in front of the new ten-acre IKEA store in Burbank, California. You can decide for yourself whether the thing looks like a penis — as most people seem to think — or whether it’s simply a meaningless piece of junk.

In either case, you don’t have to be a philistine to see that it’s crap. Of the many purposes of art — beauty, instruction, charm, mystery, emotional expression, simple decoration — it is wholly innocent. It could serve, at best, as a come-on for a nightclub or a way of luring chance passersby to a used car lot.

The major reason this piece of “public art” was foisted upon the public is that the city of Burbank has a law mandating such things.

So why is it there? One reason is our culture’s oddly traditional respect for the self-advertised avant-garde, which has posed as new and edgy for the past 100 years. The IKEA object was made by what the august Los Angeles Times has called “a renowned artist and art professor” at a state university. How edgy is that, dude!

I love the zeal with which corporate executives embrace the free and provocative spirit that haunts the avant-garde. One of these revolutionaries lauded IKEA’s hunk of junk by noting, in the free-spirited, provocative manner of giant corporations, that

art can challenge our expectations and our imagination in a new way. Our art was inspired by floral motifs resembling a highly abstract giant vase. It appears as a large free-standing figure, playful and open for multiple readings.

In other words, it’s yet another version of the avant-garde theory of the 1920s, coupled with the meaningless abstractionism of the 1950s and the kitsch of the 1840s. Great combination.

It’s not enough for government to run everything else; now it’s got to mandate and approve (or disapprove) artistic taste.

But the major reason this piece of “public art” was foisted upon the public is that the city of Burbank has a law mandating such things. To quote the LA Times, echoing a Burbank city official (who said of the public, “If they like it, that’s fantastic, but if they don’t, that’s OK”):

[Completion of the statue] marked IKEA’s fulfillment of Burbank’s Art in Public Places ordinance, which requires that 1% of the cost for a major project must go toward an art piece at the site or be placed in the city’s Public Art Fund. . . . [T]he Arts in Public Places Committee approved the project this past January and [it] cost IKEA $360,000.

So it’s not enough for government to run everything else; now it’s got to mandate and approve (or disapprove) artistic taste. That the approved taste turns out to be ugly and ridiculous follows naturally.

But there’s an even more natural set of causes and consequences. A well known economic principle states that “bad money drives out good.” That principle applies to what you have to buy as well as the currency with which you have to buy it. When government inflates the price of bad art, it drives good art out of the market. Simple as that. And I’m not being “playful.”




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Head of Brass, Feet of Clay

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A friend and I had a debate about Andrew McCabe, the doofus deputy director of the FBI.

As you recall, McCabe was an important figure in last year’s investigations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, despite the fact that his wife had received more than $700,000 from a close friend of Clinton’s to finance her campaign for the Virginia legislature. What McCabe seems to have done or permitted to be done during the investigations is pretty much what you’d expect from someone compromised in that way. I refer to such things as the FBI’s probable use of the absurd dossier on Trump’s visit to Russia as evidence to convince a secret court to allow surveillance of Trump and associates.

Now, if report be true, McCabe’s recent performance before a congressional committee showed that he is both a liar and a fool.

[S]ources said that when asked when he learned that the dossier had been funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, McCabe claimed he could not recall — despite the reported existence of documents with McCabe’s own signature on them establishing his knowledge of the dossier’s financing and provenance.

Is there any possibility that this would not be a ridiculous lie? Is there any possibility that a senior official would go before Congress, knowing that he would be asked precisely that question, and neither remember the answer nor look it up?

I mentioned this to my friend, whose assessment agreed with mine. He observed, however, that the rank-and-file of the FBI is equally disappointed with such behavior. That’s when I made objections.

Is there any possibility that this would not be a ridiculous lie?

For one thing, I’m not disappointed. I never expected anything better from the FBI. If I were going to be disappointed, I would be that way with the many leftists, and the many libertarians, who have spent their lives attacking the FBI, the CIA, and the other 15 or 20 surveillance agencies that the government runs, but who are now aghast that anyone should “take Trump’s side” by criticizing them.

That’s not what my friend was doing. He was merely showing the touching faith in which good Americans are reared, the faith that there is one part of the government that is actually too proud to lie, cheat, and steal. This has always seemed to me extremely unlikely.

I do not think the majority of men and women in the FBI and the Department of Justice are any less honorable than normal people, any more than I think that the majority of people who work for any other government agency are fools and liars and crooks and so forth. But my argument is this: in a normal, uncorrupt organization, the bosses are afraid to do certain things because a significant proportion of the rank and file will report them if they do. In an organization in which people are employed to enforce the law and are bound by oath to uphold the Constitution, we would expect someone — lots of people — to come forward and complain if bad things were being done, if the bosses were abusing their powers of investigation, search, and seizure; if the bosses were writing reports acquitting politicians they liked, months before investigations were complete; if the bosses were giving people immunity from prosecution without expecting any confessions in return; if the bosses were leaking information in order to influence the course of political events, while doing everything they could to hide information from people entitled to receive it.

My friend was merely showing the touching faith in which good Americans are reared, the faith that there is one part of the government that is actually too proud to lie, cheat, and steal.

Such things do not, cannot, happen in a vacuum. Hundreds of people have probably witnessed them taking place. And not one employee of the FBI or the Department of Justice has had the moral responsibility to say, “I was there. I saw it happen. It was wrong.”

The Republicans used to respond to any criticism of federal agents by demanding to know “who you think you are to be criticizing these brave men and women who are risking their lives to protect us.” Now the Democrats are doing it. Yet the brave men and women apparently will not fulfill their duty if it involves even a slight risk that they will not get their next promotion. And if they really are part of the Deep State, as Mr. McCabe manifestly is, they go merrily on their way without any sense of risk, assured that whatever they do, no one will produce the evidence that convicts them.

This has always seemed to me extremely unlikely.

This is not a problem that first arose in 2016. During the past 30 years, how many officials have resigned their posts in the federal government, or risked their posts in the federal government, or risked their promotions in the federal government, because they had seen something illegal or immoral going on, and they wanted to say something about it? The answer is: practically none. I don’t think that anyone will regard this freedom from complaint as a sign of the government’s exemplary moral purity.




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A Creature Strirring

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Christmas Spirits, Bad and Good

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People have been arguing on television about the Richardson Light Show — a vast, daft display of Christmas kitsch that adorns, and surrounds, and spills out beyond, the home of Carol and Hayden Richardson in Madison, Mississippi. The show has been happening for years and is now gargantuan. The Richardsons’ description speaks for itself:

Our display started approximately 17 years ago as a small residential display. Each year the display has continued to grow as we add new items. As we are currently planning and preparing for the 2017 display, we expect to have over 250 inflatables, over 100,000 LED lights, hundreds of lighted wireframe characters and messages, a 23 foot animated tree, and much more! Our lights are synchronized to music with the help of a computer program called Light-O-Rama and the music is broadcasted by radio on the station 99.9 FM. Live appearances by Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman are very common during the show. We look forward to seeing you this Christmas season.

As you would expect, neighbors have been complaining (but when don’t they?) about the crowds that the thing attracts; cops have been concerned (but when aren’t they?) about traffic problems; and spokespersons for religious liberty have been arguing (but when wouldn’t they?) that Christmas is under attack. People of common sense are urging the Richardsons and their neighbors to just get along, which they have had plenty of chances to do, yet have notably failed to do.

The Richardsons have a pretty large property, but with the aid of Google Maps I calculate that the three houses nearest to the display are only 150, 150, and 250 feet away.

It’s morally irrelevant, though amusing, to note that the Richardsons regard their annual event as a witness to Christ, despite the fact that the vast majority of decorations appear to be pop-culture crap having nothing to do with religion; and that neighbors claim the Richardsons are actually trying to profit from their display.

People of common sense are urging the Richardsons and their neighbors to just get along, which they have had plenty of chances to do, yet have notably failed to do.

But now the city council has gotten involved, and has sided with the Richardsons. I don’t know whether that’s because they value the show as a tourist attraction for their little town (population 25,000) or because most of the people who live there are Christians.

I don’t know, and I don’t care. I like Christmas; I like Christianity; I like profits; I don’t especially like cops; and I positively dislike “neighbors” and city councils. I do endorse the libertarian idea that if you aren’t trying to get your way through force or fraud, nobody should interfere with you. In other words, live and let live.

Nevertheless. . . I don’t think the nonaggression principle — a good idea — will solve all problems of property relations, any more than I think the idea that lying is wrong will solve all problems of communication. If a friend asks for my assessment of her children — “Aren’t they CUTE?! Don’t you think they’re CUTE?!” — I will dutifully and cheerfully lie to her.

I wonder if there’s a strictly libertarian way to keep your neighbors from blinding you with their Christmas lights and deafening you with the crowds they invite to see them.

So I’m in a quandary. I don’t know how to figure this — maybe some of Liberty’s readers can tell me how — but I wonder if there’s a strictly libertarian way to keep your neighbors from blinding you with their Christmas lights and deafening you with the crowds they invite to see them. I mean, after you’ve tried to be nice to them, and it didn’t work.

To this question, anarchists need not reply. I know their answer: in an anarchist society you wouldn’t buy into a community until you fully understood and agreed to the contract that specified your rights, and that would take care of everything. If your neighbor puts up an enormous, obnoxious Christmas display, just click on your contract and scroll down to Item 379, the one covering all issues that may conceivably arise from holiday entertainments and decorations. That will settle the issue. Fine. Next time I want to buy property in an anarchist society, I’ll make sure to read the fine print, and I’m sure that others will do so too, and abide by it.

Besides anarchists, people who need not reply include all men and women who kindly suggest, like the pro-Christmas Show people on Fox News, “Let’s just get along and negotiate this stuff.” The problem is what you do when people who aren’t so kind refuse to negotiate. That happens, you know.

This leaves readers who are neither kind nor anarchistic, and I will be happy to entertain their suggestions. But until I hear some plausibly high-principled way out of this difficulty, I’m going to act on instinct. If something like the Richardson Light Show starts manifesting itself next door to me, I’m calling the cops and demanding that they get rid of the public nuisance.




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Why Do Economists Disagree?

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The influence of economics suffers from the idea that economists disagree to the point of uselessness. George Bernard Shaw supposedly complained that “if all the economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a conclusion.” A similar old adage says that if you ask the advice of five economists, you will get five different answers, or, if Keynes is one of the five, six answers.

Such talk may be fun, but it is unfair. "The first lesson of economics,” said Thomas Sowell, “is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics." Why? With characteristic exaggeration, H.L. Mencken observed that “no educated man, stating plainly the elementary notions that every educated man holds about the matters that principally concern government, could be elected to office in a democratic state, save perhaps by a miracle . . . by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God” (Notes on Democracy, 1926, pp. 103, 106). A politician who understands economics and tries to apply it loses votes. One who understands it but conceals that fact is dishonest. Honest ignorance is an electoral advantage.

Externalities, monopoly, inflation, recessions, mistakes, inadequate foresight — all do occur. Economists are tempted to damn reality for being real.

Economists agree on the basics of their subject; disagreement on policy has other sources. The following list merely names the main points of agreement. Explaining them would go beyond this note, although, toward the end, it does expand on the most fundamental of them.

  1. Scarcity and the need for choice; opportunity cost.
  2. The division of labor, gains from trade, and comparative advantage.
  3. Marginalism and diminishing marginal returns.
  4. The role of the price system in exploiting the fragmented knowledge and coordinating the productive efforts of millions and billions of people in the nationwide and worldwide economy. The task includes allocating resources between the present and the future. The midget economy of the Swiss Family Robinson on its desert island contrasts instructively with the vast capitalist world of diverse resources, abilities, and preferences.
  5. “Economic calculation,” which is more than the mere dovetailing of such activities as automobile production and tire production, suitably proportioned. It refers, further, to producing the chosen amount of each good and service at minimum sacrifice of other desired things. Efforts at such calculation without genuine markets and prices, whether in theory or in the real world, have failed.
  6. Money as an institution that vastly promotes specialization and gains from multilateral trade. Money prices express opportunity costs, convey information and incentives, and ration scarce resources and goods.
  7. Private property, innovation, and entrepreneurship as essential to a thriving economy.
  8. Refutation of fallacies that have contaminated policy for centuries, especially ones relating to international trade and to a supposed self-regulation of money — the “real-bills doctrine” that the money supply will be correct if based on short-term bank loans to finance the production or marketing of real goods.

Shared understanding does not end there. Economists agree that reality has “imperfections” in comparison with an imaginary perfectly working price system. Externalities, monopoly, inflation, recessions, mistakes, inadequate foresight — all do occur. Economists are tempted to damn reality for being real, and they agree on many such matters. Price inflation traces above all to creating too much money.

Recessions are episodes of snowballing impediments to transactions, and economists explain them in various ways. In no field do professionals totally agree. An example in macroeconomics is the opinion of central bankers worldwide, shared by many but not all economists, that 2% inflation — a halving of money’s purchasing power every 36 years — is a proper objective of policy and that lower inflation is a cause for concern. Some technically valid arguments do exist for chronic mild inflation, but they are not decisive. Economists disagree on the weights to be accorded to agreed considerations.

Disagreement on policy traces overwhelmingly to matters other than economics.

But disagreement makes news while agreement does not. Lack of total agreement parallels what also occurs in the natural sciences: total understanding and consensus never are reached; room always remains for further research. As in other disciplines, economists disagree, when they do, on details and at the “frontiers” of research but not on the basics.

Disagreement on policy traces overwhelmingly to matters other than economics. Economists are not equally bold in predicting the future. They (as well as political scientists) hold differing opinions about how well government and politics function. Scientific issues join in policy disagreement, as about how serious a problem global warming is.

Economists are not equally knowledgeable about history, as about periods of advance and stagnation, crises, recessions, and monetary systems. Historical knowledge is valuable for making judgments about prospective population growth and technical and other innovation, but agreement cannot be expected to the extent that it can be expected on the basics of economics.

Psychology is sometimes at issue. Not all economists have the same understanding of people’s psychological quirks and of whether policy “nudges” might improve their decisionmaking.

Economists sometimes yield to wishful thinking. An example is the belief that proposed tax-rate cuts will so stimulate economic activity as to increase, not reduce, tax revenues.

Sociological questions arise, such as whether and to what extent welfare programs foster a culture of dependency and undermine the traditional family. So do issues of ethics and social philosophy, as about inequality of wealth and income, concern for future generations, how progressive the tax structure should be, whether the estate tax is fair, and what claims poor people at home and abroad are entitled to make on the more fortunate. “Bleeding-heart libertarians” do exist and have a web site of that name.

Like other people, economists sometimes yield to wishful thinking. An example is the belief that proposed tax-rate cuts will so stimulate economic activity as to increase, not reduce, tax revenues. Such a belief does not mean rejection of economic principles; in rare circumstances, that happy result could occur.

Career advancement can be a factor. Some economists seek distinction in cleverly working on the “frontiers” of research, in deploying impressive mathematics, or in finding exceptions to generally agreed applications of basic principles. Alternatively, some may be paid for rationalizations about policy that selectively emphasize some valid principles while disregarding (though not denying) others.

Some economists, perhaps seeking influence and fame, make compromises by taking account of political feasibility (i.e., votes), endorsing policies other than those they truly consider best. Full honesty would require openly acknowledging what they are doing (see Clarence Philbrook’s eloquent article in the American Economic Review, December 1953).

If enough demand exists, wouldn’t private enterprise satisfy it, and in a less costly and otherwise more suitable part of town?

Not all so-called economists are real ones who have completed graduate studies in the field and try to keep up with and occasionally contribute to the professional literature. It is not enough to hold an economics-related government position or to be prominent on TV. Disagreement among such people shouldn’t be allowed to disparage the professionals.

The most basic economic principles concern scarcity and opportunity cost. The city council of Auburn, Alabama, has voted to build an outdoor ice-skating rink downtown, where it will gobble up scarce parking space, worsen traffic problems, and otherwise inconvenience nonskaters. Evidently the council has not made a full cost-benefit analysis. Might not the money be better spent for other city purposes or left to taxpayers for their own purposes? How intense, anyway, is the demand for ice-skating here in the Deep South, where, by the way, the ice would have to be artificial? If enough demand exists, wouldn’t private enterprise satisfy it, and in a less costly and otherwise more suitable part of town?

I conjecture that the city council simply agreed with someone’s idea that a rink would be a good thing. So why not build it? It is easy to forget asking how desirable it would be and how great the opportunity cost in sacrifice of other public or private use of resources.

Disregard of opportunity cost is disregard for a principle accepted by all economists.

Such blitheness about opportunity cost shows up on the big-city and national levels. If a proposed museum would be nice or another overseas military base would seem to be a wise precaution, why not vote for it? A new sports stadium might please the fans, and consultants will conceive of side benefits for nearby restaurants, so why not support it with city money? An individual legislator pays practically nothing himself and might gain some votes.

James L. Payne shows how disregard of opportunity cost supports thinking that government money is somehow “free” (The Culture of Spending, 1991). Lobbyists not only for governors and mayors but also for industries swarm Washington seeking local projects and grants of money. Understandably, witnesses calling for such favors in congressional hearings far outnumber those who dissent. A similar explanation applies to firms and industries seeking protection from competition. But disregard of opportunity cost is disregard for a principle accepted by all economists.

Nothing said here denies that economists have expertise in contributing to policy judgments and that they — and quasi-economists — often disagree. Such disagreement rarely hinges on core principles and does not excuse disregarding them. Specialists cannot and should not have the decisive vote on policy, but that judgment does not excuse neglecting the basic principles that concern everybody and on which economists emphatically do agree.




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You Won’t Like This Video

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On December 9, National Review ran a story, written by David French, about the police killing of a man in a hallway of the La Quinta Inn at Mesa, Arizona. The story begins in this way:

If you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch one of the most outrageous and infuriating videos I’ve ever seen.

The article includes the video.

I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to think of another way to put it — to say something wiser or cleverer or more analytical than the sentence I just quoted. I can’t think how to do that. Maybe this is because I can’t get over the emotional effects of what I saw when I watched the video. But if you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch it too.




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The Econ of Eating

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I recently reconnected with the editor of my high school newspaper when I discovered that he has been attending FreedomFest for several years. A former bureau chief for Forbes, he is now retired in the northern California town where we attended high school and writes a weekly column as a restaurant critic. I’ve enjoyed reading his reviews. They tend to focus as much on the restaurateur as on the food, and they are always kind and encouraging to entrepreneurs. Just for fun, I decided to mimic his formula and write a restaurant review of my own. Those who frequent New York diners will feel right at home in my review, if not in my specific diner.

Every Monday and Wednesday I drive up the river to Ossining where I park my car in an upper lot and hike down 122 uneven stone steps (yes, I’ve counted them) to Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison where I teach college and pre-college courses to the inmates. I check in at noon for my 1:00–3:00 class, hike back up to the lot for my two-hour break, and then return at 5:30 for my 6:30–8:30 class. The hardest part of teaching at Sing Sing isn’t dealing with the security guards, or the stairs, or the oppressive heat from the radiators, or the faint odor of mold that permeates the air and clings to the students’ papers. It’s figuring out where to eat between classes.

“How can they offer so many choices?” you might ask. It’s simple: most of the food is exactly the same, with a variation on the sauce.

Ossining is a small village on the Hudson River, and dining options are limited. It has several convenience-store delis, a couple of Chinese takeouts, a few nice restaurants that don’t open until dinner time, a McDonald’s, and a diner. I usually opt for one of the latter two for my afternoon break, since those are the only places that offer seating.

At least once a week I select the Landmark Diner, so named because it has been a landmark in Ossining for over half a century. Most New York diners are owned by Greek families that immigrated to America shortly after World War II. The Landmark's story may be the same. What I know is that the owner — let’s call him Themi Papadopoulos — recognizes me and shows me to a booth in a corner where I can eat my solitary meal and grade papers until class time. The restaurant is slow between 3:30 and 5:30, so he doesn’t mind my taking up the booth. And I always purchase a full meal.

Like most New York diners, the Landmark sports a menu at least 25 pages long, including four pages of breakfast plates, eight kinds of burgers, a dozen styles of chicken breast, another dozen fish options, at least 20 pastas, plus soups, salads, and steaks. “How can they offer so many choices?” you might ask. It’s simple: most of the food is exactly the same, with a variation on the sauce. And most of it seems to be pre-cooked. The only difference between chicken piccata and chicken marsala is the jar the sauce comes out of. Your best bet at a diner is either bacon and eggs or a hamburger and a milkshake. It’s the only food that tastes fresh. And it’s usually pretty tasty.

Apparently the “special” had been cooked previously, frozen or refrigerated until needed, and then dipped into the deep fryer to give it that crispy, just-browned appearance.

This week, after showing me to my booth, Themi told me about the day’s specials — pasta primavera, braised salmon, and a half roasted chicken. Tired of my usual hamburger patty, and thinking the specials would actually be fresh, I chose the half roasted chicken. But first, wanting to make sure my selection would be half a chicken and not half-roasted, I asked him if the specials were already available, so early in the afternoon. “Of course!” he assured me.

Platters are huge at New York diners, harking back to the days in the old country when family members labored long in the vineyards or marble quarries and needed a hearty meal. The specials come with soup or salad, bread, potato, and vegetable. That day’s vegetable was red cabbage, another staple at Greek diners. Braised in vinegar, it has a sweet, tangy flavor that complements chicken or pork nicely. Of course, the flavor pairings are more successful when the vegetables are served along with the meat rather than between the salad and the main course, as mine were. Still, the delay of that course boded well for a thoroughly well roasted chicken, so I didn’t complain about my side dishes not being on the side of anything.

When my chicken arrived it was huge, almost the size of a capon, and the outer skin was brown and crisp, adding to my expectation of a succulent, moist, well-roasted meat. Alas, it was not so. The meat was hard and dry, with that unmistakable gaminess that happens after the Thanksgiving turkey has rested in the refrigerator overnight. Apparently the “special” had been cooked previously, frozen or refrigerated until needed, and then dipped into the deep fryer to give it that crispy, just-browned appearance. I should have remembered that diners don’t roast anything.

I moved my chicken plate to the edge of the table and continued to nibble at my potatoes and cabbage until it was time to return to the uneven staircase at Sing Sing. As I was paying, the cashier asked how my food was.

At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. In the free market, I can choose from a multitude of eateries.

“Since you asked, the chicken was a little overcooked,” I acknowledged helpfully.

“Did you eat it? Would you like something else?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t eat it, but the rest of the food was fine. I don’t need anything else,” I insisted, not wanting to look like one of those people who try to get a free meal.

Themi walked over and apologized. “She’s a regular customer,” he said to the cashier. “Take 10% off the bill."

What a bargain! With tax and tip I paid $24.00 for a side salad, a scoop of potatoes and a scoop of cabbage. Yet I knew that the offer of a free meal was sincere. At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. In the free market, I can choose from a multitude of eateries. The successful restaurateurs are those who keep their customers satisfied.

It was a bargain because I didn’t come in for a great meal. We don’t go to diners for great food. We go for the familiarity of that 25-page menu. For the familial welcome of the owners. For the quiet table where we won’t be rushed out. And because all of those desires were satisfied, there was no reason for me to ask for a refund. I received what I came for.

I’ll be at the Landmark again next week. It will always beat standing at the deli.




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A Christmas Truce?

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Every year, the story recirculates. Many of us hear, again, about the famous Christmas truce during World War I. How on Christmas Eve, 1914, along the Western Front, British and German soldiers sang carols to one another from opposing trenches and, the next morning, ventured out into no man’s land to exchange holiday wishes and small gifts. A few even played an impromptu game of soccer. They took time to remove the bodies of their dead that had been rotting in the field, and the following day the fighting began anew.

The soldiers called this the “Live and Let Live” system. A few small ceasefires were attempted from time to time thereafter. Their commanding officers were outraged by these horrible breaches of military conduct and — remembering that humiliating Christmas when their men refused to act like enemies — promptly put a stop to further breakouts of peace. Always and everywhere, the war must go on.

They took time to remove the bodies of their dead that had been rotting in the field, and the following day the fighting began anew.

A young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment was especially indignant. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime.” He demanded of his comrades at arms, “Have you no German sense of honor?” His name was Adolf Hitler, and he later made certain that German honor was defended, cost be damned.

But some of those soldiers never forgot the peace that might have been. In 1930, a British veteran of the Great War said, “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

The good thing about Christmas truces is that, indeed, they don’t need to happen only at Christmas. As sappy as it sounds when people say this, some ember of the season’s spirit really can be rekindled, if not all year long, at least from time to time.

Of late, I’ve found myself wishing for a truce of some sort. Or at any rate, a temporary ceasefire. In the political realm, Americans are definitely embroiled in a civil war. It’s more of a cold war than a hot one — thank the Lord. But it can be brutal, and it is hardly without casualties.

Those casualties are usually lost friendships and distance between family members. They may include failed romances or even divorce. Perhaps more frequently, we suffer shattered relations with people in our lives we consider less important to us. Our alienation from them nonetheless leaves us with the sense that the world is a lonely and hostile place.

In the political realm, Americans are definitely embroiled in a civil war. It can be brutal, and it is hardly without casualties.

Little ceasefires, here and there, may help us to recognize the dynamics behind our conflicts. Not only may we come to see how good it is to be at peace, but we might start questioning why those conflicts happen. What is driving them? Who is really goading us to fight? And are those fights absolutely necessary?

Not only do those determined to rule over us keep us fighting one another, but the problems they cause are the reasons we fight in the first place. If they would just go away and leave us alone, most of the issues that divide us would become manageable without hostility. Most conflicts happen because one collection of people aggresses against another. Usually they aggress, not because they need to, but because they are told to.

What if we just said no? What if we exchanged gifts, sang songs, played ball, and buried our dead instead? Suppose — as the old slogan goes — they gave a war and nobody came?

Christmas is the season when we think about such things. When we sing about “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” These days, the powers-that-be even set us to squabbling about that. They tell us that it should be “goodwill toward gender-neutral human persons.” And that we shouldn’t be singing about Christmas at all.

We might start questioning why these conflicts happen. Who is really goading us to fight? And are those fights absolutely necessary?

What if we said “Bah, humbug” to the humbugs? Real people — minding their own business and living their own lives — don’t worry about the things they’re told should bother us. If we were left to ourselves, how many shots would we fire?

A good rule of thumb, in dealing with politically contentious relatives this holiday season, might be to ask ourselves (as we take a deep breath and count to ten), “Is this something we need to fight over, or merely something we’re told that we must?” I know that actually, a lot of people do this. What if we did it all year round? Anything not worth fighting about with relatives at Christmas is probably no more worth fighting about with neighbors, coworkers, or friends in the middle of July.

Little truces can stretch into bigger ones, if we have the will to stick with them. We may, in time, decide that those who tell us we must fight with one another are just as wrong about a lot of the other things they tell us. And that those who use their authority to sow unnecessary discord should have no authority at all. What if they tried to rule over us and we refused to let them?

A Christmas truce might lead to the understanding that when we pursue truth, and really become acquainted with it, we need not resort to force because we can trust in peaceful persuasion. Force only needs to be used by those who don’t trust that what they believe in is true. The truth, in any matter over which human beings might fight, will never lead us into warfare — either foreign or domestic. This holiday is based upon the promise — age-old but ever new — that when we know the truth, it will set us free.




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Another Small Piece of a War

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In an earlier piece in these pages, I reviewed a book on Nazi uniforms and insignia. My point was to show how incredibly all-pervasive the Nazi propaganda machine was. If the Nazi Party took such exquisite painstaking work over simple patches, uniforms, and daggers, can you imagine how attentive it was to school curricula, cinema, books, and artwork?

The nice little film I want to review now could also be described as showing the viewer a small piece of Goebbels’ total propaganda war.

While swing music was in great demand in Germany in the early 1930s, the Party viewed it as "degenerate," officially banning it in 1935.

The film is a sadly neglected German documentary Propaganda Swing, made in 1989 by filmmaker Florian Steinbiss. It recounts the bizarre story of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry creating a “Jazz Orchestra” as a tool to transmit propaganda to the Allied troops and citizens. Called “Charlie and his Orchestra,” the band included the most talented swing jazz musicians in Germany and occupied Europe at the time.

This was almost grotesquely rich. While swing music was in great demand in Germany in the early 1930s, the Party viewed it as “Negermusik” and “Entertetemusik” — black music and degenerate music — officially banning it in 1935. But into the late 1930s, the music remained very popular among the German public, who defied the Party orthodoxy and frequented underground jazz clubs.

So it was strongly ironic that that a group of superbly talented jazz artists found themselves working for the Reich’s Propaganda Ministry. The band formed in 1940, and was broadcast over Nazi shortwave radio. Between 1941 and the end of the war, it made music that was very popular, especially among Allied troops and citizens. It was fronted by saxophonist Lutz Templin, with drummer Fritz (“Freddie”) Brocksiepen, vocalist Karl Schwedler (the “Charlie” of the group’s name, clarinetist Kurt Abraham, and trombonist Willy Berking.

Now, why would the regime fund and promote a swing band? The answer is that the crafty (if psychopathic) Goebbels saw that such a band would be useful in two ways. The first was to show Allied troops and civilians that Nazi Germany was culturally similar to the Allies after all. In this way it was successful. After the war, a BBC survey revealed that 26.5% of the British radio audience listened to the broadcasts. It is reputed that Churchill himself listened to and enjoyed the broadcasts.

Into the late 1930s, the music remained very popular among the German public, who defied the Party orthodoxy and frequented underground jazz clubs.

The second, craftier, motive was to push the Nazi agenda in an opaque way. The songs were not the originals but parodies; the music was lovingly played, but the original lyrics were replace by anti-Allied ones, sung in English. Goebbels consistently advocated disguising propaganda as pure entertainment. If a weary GI were just listening to this outstanding swing music he would not necessarily have recognized the content of the lyrics.

The film explores this aspect of propaganda swing in some detail. For instance, as we hear the band play “You’re Driving Me Crazy” we hear Charlie sing;

Yes, Jews, you're driving me crazy, what did I do, what did I do?
My fears for you make everything hazy, clouding the skies of blue.
Ah, Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind that will hurt me, desert me when I need a Jew.
Yes, Jews, you're driving me crazy, what did I do to you?

Charlie then intones, “Here is Winston Churchill's latest tearjerker” and resumes:

Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy.
I thought I had brains, but they shattered my planes.
They've built up a front against me, it's quite amazing,
Clouding the skies with their planes.
The Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind that will hurt me, desert me and laugh at me too.

Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy,
My last chance I'll pray, to get in this muddle the USA.
This new pact also is driving me crazy,
Germany, Italy, Japan, it gives me a pain.
I'm losing my nerve, I'm getting lazy
A prisoner forced to remain in England to reign.
The Jews are the friends who are near me, that still cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are not the kind of heroes who would fight for me,
Now they're leaving me too.
Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy, by Jove, I pray, come in USA.

The tune to Eddie Cantor’s song “Makin’ Whoopee” is introduced by Charlie, who says, “The Jews of the USA have asked Eddie Cantor to write new words for his famous hit of all time, ‘Makin’ Whoopee.’”

He then sings:

Another war, another profit,
Another Jewish business trick.
Another season, another reason
For making whoopee.

In the group’s parody of “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” we hear:

I’m gonna save the world for Wall Street,
Gonna fight for Russia, too.
I’m fighting for democracy;
I’m fighting for the Jew.

As the film’s narrator points out, the music focused primarily on anti-Semitic messages. For example, the parody version of “Down Mexico Way” pushed the view that FDR was Jewish.

The orchestra worked five days a week, with mornings devoted to the propaganda music and afternoons to regime-approved music for domestic consumption, with evenings available for playing in underground jazz clubs.

The songs were not the originals but parodies; the music was lovingly played, but the original lyrics were replace by anti-Allied and anti-Semitic ones, sung in English.

As the film notes, many German jazz artists were Jewish or Gypsy, and in the concentration camps in which these musicians were incarcerated they were first ordered to play for the SS guards before being put to death. Ironically, as the war wore on, Charlie’s orchestra increasingly consisted of “half-Jews and Gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and communists” — groups being rapidly eradicated in the death camps. The fact that their music was considered vital to the propaganda war effort allowed them to work at least temporarily in relative comfort. Toward the end of the war, foreign players were brought in to replace the German ones who had been forced to join the army or work in factories. By late 1943, Allied bombing raids forced the band to move from Berlin to Stuttgart, where it remained until the end of the war.

After the war, Templin and most of the band were able to find work in a various venues, including in American administered jazz clubs. Schwedler apparently either became a businessman in Germany or immigrated to America. It is a testament to the quality of the band’s musicianship that after hostilities were ended, American jazz greats such as Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Gene Krupa visited with members of the band. The backbone of the band, the drummer Fritz (Freddy) Brocksieper, went on to win a German Grammy.

The film nicely explores the ways in which musical broadcasts made successful propaganda. Especially effective was the use of British POWs to tell people back home that the POWs were being well treated. The POWs’ relatives tuned in, hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Many German jazz artists were Jewish or Gypsy, and in the concentration camps in which these musicians were incarcerated they were first ordered to play for the SS guards before being put to death.

After the war, the band’s foreign members steadfastly refused to acknowledge their involvement with it — thus raising the question of why people joined the band to begin with. The band’s drummer Brocksieper indicated one reason: being in the band kept the players safe, at least temporarily, from being drafted or sent to the camps, and provided a modest income, which they augmented by playing side gigs. Italian trumpeter Nino Impallomeni gave another reason: the members uniformly loved big band jazz, and this was the only way they could play it.

Brocksieper recounts how, after the fall of Berlin, the Americans sought him out to play for them. They subsidized the creation of a new group, providing food, something in short supply in occupied Germany. Brocksieper said that being on the receiving end of this largesse did not bother the band.

Especially effective was the use of British POWs to tell people back home that the POWs were being well treated. The POWs’ relatives tuned in, hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Here is where the film gets very interesting psychologically. The band members had to have experienced great cognitive dissonance all during the war, and afterwards. The German players were playing music they loved that no other German could even listen to legally; the players from conquered countries knew they were collaborating with their conquerors; and not just during the war but afterwards they lived fairly well, while ordinary Germans suffered. Impallomeni gave one defense: we were musicians, not politicians. The film’s narrator adds that the band members said the meanings of the politically obscene propaganda lyrics were not intelligible to them — a hard claim to accept, given that the band’s singer Charlie spoke perfect English.

As one listens to some of the original musicians play beautifully, decades after the end of the war, one can understand and almost forgive their collaboration with Goebbels’ propaganda machine.

Almost.


Editor's Note: "Propaganda Swing: Dr. Goebbels’ Jazz Orchestra," directed by Florian Steinbiss. Sudwestfunk, 1991, 60 minutes. Distributed by International Historic Films, https://ihffilm.com/



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