A Few Things We Can Do Without

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A new year is always hopeful — until you notice that it’s only the calendar that has changed; none of the problems has gone away. Word problems can be especially sticky visitors.

As 2017 changed to 2018, I was thinking about that old expression back in the day. I heard it once or twice when I was a kid. I thought it was charming, in a daft way. (Not that I knew the word “daft.”) It gestured vaguely toward some unspecified moment in the past on which something of vague, unspecified significance had occurred. It was quaint and silly. Then, about 1998, I heard the expression again — this time from college students, who had heard it from other college students, who had picked it up from somewhere. These students were saying it about anything that had happened before, well, 1998. “When I was in high school, back in the day . . .”

I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Soon the expression was everywhere. It was a fad. I thought that fads went away; they’re supposed to go away. But this one hasn’t. I hope that it will, eventually — although many other hoary old youth expressions — cool, hot, weed, hittin’ on, even hip, as in hipster — won’t give up their lease. Perhaps (who knows?) you can hasten the exit of back in the day by saying, the next time you hear it, “Pardon me . . . which day do you have in mind?”

And here are some other things, few of them as innocent as back in the day, that have overstayed their welcome. I’ve arranged them alphabetically, starting with:

All about, as in, “Libertarianism is all about freedom.” OK, I understand that statement, and there’s nothing especially wrong with it; it’s just a way of heightening an effect: instead of saying that “libertarianism is about freedom” you say “all about freedom.” Maybe it’s a little childish: you wouldn’t say, “War and Peace is all about the Napoleonic wars.” But it gets, and has gotten, worse. Usually, nowadays, it involves the pretense that human beings have themes, just as books and movements do. I recently told a colleague that something should be kept confidential. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m all about discretion.” I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Bible fakery. This is a perennial medium of political disinformation. Somewhere in history, there must have been a politician who used biblical references with some respect for their source, but I can’t think of one. Christmas is a dependable venue for Bible fakes. At Christmas 2017 the most popular type was the equation of illegal immigrants with the Holy Family. A few blocks from my home there’s a church that’s still flying a banner depicting Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem and proclaiming, “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome Here.” If any immigrants or refugees turn up at the church door, they’ll find out how much this kind of “welcome” is worth. But never mind; here’s something sillier. Martin O’Malley, decayed Governor of Maryland, whose campaign for the presidency was a ludicrous flop, has not ceased his quest for the limelight. On December 22, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s TV show to say, “Merry Christmas. And remember that Jesus himself was a refugee child. What would you do if he came to the borders of your country?”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France?

Carlson’s comment was: “That’s so stupid, it’s hard to respond.” So I will respond. Jesus and his family were not immigrants, and they were not part of some “refugee” movement. They never crossed the borders of their “country,” which was the Roman Empire. According to one of the gospels, they came to Bethlehem by government order, to fulfill a tax regulation; according to another, they fled, a couple of years later, to another part of the empire, but soon returned. Notice, however, what Bible fakery depends upon: an audience that is impressed by “Bible” ideas but is unwilling to ask “What is this guy talking about?” — and then open the book and find out what it says. It’s easy. A child could do it. Millions of children have done it. It is not a good sign that churchgoers and media gatekeepers (there’s another term we can do without) can’t be bothered to do it. Tucker evidently did, but in the program that aired on Fox News just before his, it was assumed without contest that Jesus’ parents took him illegally across a border.

Culture of, toxic culture of. An online journal devoted to the topic of eating has become alarmed about reports “of a male-dominated ‘boys’ club’ environment that, in some ways, has become synonymous with restaurant culture as a whole. The restaurant world is known for late-night, loose, sometimes wild culture, but staffers told Eater,” the online journal, that so and so “epitomized the archetype of rich, powerful restaurateurs who party hard with beautiful women and celebrities, and indulge in what several former employees called the most debaucherous behavior they had ever witnessed.”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France? This stuff is pretty hard to take. But culture, used in an anthropological and yet judgmental way — that’s even harder. When it’s used about realms of lifethat I’ve had anything to do with, I feel like a native of New Guinea who is suddenly being “studied” by a bunch of ignorant people from America. I feel that these people are full of crap. I know that they’re full of crap. Since I don’t cook, and I have some money, I have visited many provinces of the restaurant world; I am fairly well acquainted with restaurant culture. I’ve had good friends who ran expensive restaurants. The most debaucherous behavior I ever saw was a waiter flirtatiously kissing his (male) manager. That’s restaurant culture for you! Was it toxic? I don’t know, but no hospitalizations were reported.

Grab. This word has traditionally, and rightly, been reserved for instances of haste, rudeness, or criminality: “Dude! He grabbed my wallet!” During the past year, however, I have seldom heard a waiter or barista or person in a store respond to a request by saying, “I’ll get that for you.” What I hear is, “I’ll grab that for you.” Right; first grab me a steak; then you can grab me my check; after that, I can grab my car and leave.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions: people who work in them need to communicate essentially the same information, hour after hour, day after day; they look for new ways of communicating it; they find them. Then they say these new thingsover and over, until even they get sick of them. In the meantime, multitudes of other people have heard the cute new things and have passed them along. This is what happened, for example, with the vile “You still workin’ on that?” The result is similar to the one we see when explorers introduce some quickly multiplying rodent to an island populated by a diversity of interesting but unprotected species. Now every person who intends to get something, find something, provide something, reach for something, or pick up something is saying, “I’ll grab that for you.” Our only recourse is to take the word seriously and reply with the appropriate warnings: “Watch out! You don’t want to spill that check!” “Don’t grab it too hard! Those Big Macs are delicate!” “If you grab your data like that, you’re just lookin’ for trouble!” “Be careful how you grab it; those salads can get violent!”

Historical fakery. On January 20, Eric Trump talked to Fox News’ renowned legal expert, Judge Jeanine, and confided inside information about the president: “My father’s workin’ like nobody ever worked before. . . . He’s gotten more done in one year than arguably any president in history.” “Arguably” is the weasel word, but it isn’t enough, unless nobody in his audience ever heard of Washington, Jackson, Polk, Roosevelt (both of them), Truman, Johnson (Lyndon), Nixon, Reagan . . . I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant, so ignorant that it amounts to fakery. A guy who writes you a check for a thousand dollars without bothering to find out whether he’s got a thousand dollars in his account — if he’s not faking you, he’s faking himself.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions.

In history is something the country should have tired of four decades ago, when Democrats in Congress endlessly reiterated the notion that Watergate was “the worst crisis in our history,” at least “since the Civil War.” But that was a true and moderate statement, compared with such recent claims as that of Trump fils, or that of a would-be Trump nemesis, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), who is reported to have said that Trump is the first “racist” president in US history. By Gutierrez’ standards, if he has any, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and many others were all racists; and other presidents were racists by any standard. Depend on it: any public figure who uses the phrase in history knows nothing about the subject.

Knowledge is power. This phrase is submitted for your consideration by Mehmet Karayel, who says that he’s tired of hearing it — as well he might be. Knowledge is power is one of the Western world’s oldest clichés (it goes back to the Renaissance, anyway, though it smells like the Romans), and one of its most harmful. Every expert in ichthyology or Sumerian mythology treasures this silly aphorism, regarding it as his license to loot the world’s moral bank account: “I have knowledge; you are now required to give me power.” You see the fallacy, but the possessor of knowledge never does. So knowledgeable is he that he swallows the statement whole and spends the rest of his life in vengeful disappointment with the ignoramuseswho will not give him power. It never occurs to such wisepeople that their absolute trust in their own knowledge (of something or other) is itself a decisive refutation of their eligibility for power.

Legendary. We see examples of this one every day. The following happens to come from Mediaite (December 21), but it could be from anyplace: “Legendary anchorman Tom Brokaw took a hard swing against Fox News this morning . . .” Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw. And, if memory serves, Paul Bunyan could occasionally talk so as to make himself understood.

I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Eric Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant.

How does legendary get attached to people who are not even memorable? The reason is that it’s too hard to find another adjective for them; they just aren’t worth the effort, so to be nice, somebody makes them legendary. Notice that no one ever refers to “the legendary Abraham Lincoln.” It’s always “the legendary Meryl Streep” or someone like that.

Litigating, relitigating.This is a low-grade form of political flimflam. It’s the substitution of a high-class term that many people do not understand for simple terms that everyone uses all the time, in order to make simple events appear too complicated to be understood. Thus CNN, last November, on the goofy ways in which goofy Senator Alan Stuart (“Al”) Franken dealt with allegations of goofy sexual misdemeanors:“What Franken is doing here is obvious. He is letting the statement he released last week in the wake of the first allegations stand. He's not adding to it, re-opening it or relitigating it.” You’re an intelligent person; you’re a good reader; you know what litigate means. So tell me: how can someone litigate, let alone relitigate, a statement, let alone relitigate his own statement? The simple word, the word that relitigating has been used to replace, is “changing.”

Much worse than the passage just quoted is Senator Elizabeth Warren’s statement to the Boston Globe about her bizarre claim to be an American Indian:

These issues were extensively litigated in 2012 [when she ran for the Senate] and I think the people of Massachusetts made their decision. I think what the people of Massachusetts and what voters are concerned about is the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.

No, an election is not a litigation. And if it were, its purpose would not be to decide the issues of whether Elizabeth Warren and her employer, Harvard University, falsely claimed that she was an American Indian. Neither, unfortunately, would it be held to pronounce judgment on the illiterate syntax of Dr. Elizabeth Warren, darling of liberal “intellectuals,” a woman who says such things as “the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.” Diagram that, if you can. Her underlying idea is simple: she got elected, so she must be right, either about being an American Indian or about the morality of falsely claiming to be an American Indian. This idea is ridiculous, and that’s why she’s trying to make you feel that the situation is too complicated for you to understand.

Nation of immigrants. Everyone — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, whoever — constantly recites this article of the American Creed. That’s sufficient reason, in itself, to send nation of immigrants to the retirement home. But there’s another reason. It isn’t true that we are a nation of immigrants, and it hasn’t been true since the 17th century. The vast majority of Americans were born right here in America; they are native Americans in the true sense of those words. But even if we were a nation of immigrants, so what? What inference could possibly be drawn from that? It wouldn’t mean that more or less immigration should occur. The only thing it might suggest is that the original native Americans, the Indians, should have done more to prevent the growth of a nation of immigrants, in which they would become a small and persecuted minority.

Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw.

Perch. I mentioned Al Franken (boo!, hiss!). I mentioned Tucker Carlson (hurrah!). Here they are again, but not in a good way for either. During his December 6 TV program, the latter referred to the former as “a powerful person knocked from his high perch” by a sex scandal. That would have been all right, if Tucker hadn’t been echoing one of the media’s insta-clichés. During the past six months, every prominent social position has become a perch, and while it pleases me to picture former Senator Franken as a fat yellow parakeet being knocked from its little plastic swing, this cliché is like all the rest of them: it usurps the position of other expressions, many of them more exact or vivid or imaginative, that might be useful for the occasion. The plague of perch will get worse before it gets better, because it only started recently.

Tone deaf. Discussing the execrable behavior of federal prosecutors in the Bundy case, “Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor at University of Nevada Las Vegas, said he's struggled to understand what led to the prosecutors' ‘tone deafness’ to their obligations.” Contrary to current popular opinion, you can’t be tone deaf to something that’s not a tone. Obligations, for instance, are not a tone.

Under investigation. Here’s another phrase marked for condemnation by Mehmet Karayel. He notes its constant use as a charm to keep the peasants from storming the palace — in plain terms, to keep the public from learning anything about the government it pays for. Whenever some particularly atrocious official deed is perpetrated, the first response of every government agency is to begin an investigation. Of course, if something is under investigation, no information can be divulged. If, however, the investigation has been concluded, well, the investigation has been concluded — case closed; go away. The next thing you’ll hear is that the matter has been fully litigated, and this is no time to relitigate it; i.e., bring it up again.

These are sayings, by the way, that you will never hear from Word Watch. This column never refuses to give out information, and the public can stay just as long as it wants.




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Bettina Bien Greaves, R.I.P.

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All scholars dream of having one or more disciples who will make sure their legacy is kept alive and their works and theories prominently trumpeted before the public eye.

For the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, there was quite a following, including two couples, Hans and Mary Sennholz, and Percy and Bettina Greaves. On January 22 the last of the four, Bettina Bien Greaves, died at the astounding age of 100. (Mary Sennholz also lived to be 100. Austrian economists live long!)

Bettina Greaves deserves to be honored as Mises’ most devoted student, and in July a room will be dedicated to her at the annual FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas.

From the time she first heard Mises speak in 1951 at a Freeman seminar in Washington Square in New York City, Bettina was smitten. With a background in shorthand and secretarial work during the war years, she attended Mises’ famous New York University graduate seminar, taking copious notes on every lecture from 1951 until 1969. Although she had no formal training in economics, Greaves was the queen of the Austrian school and never deviated from it. She joined the Foundation of Economic Education (FEE) staff in 1953 and worked at the FEE mansion for the rest of her career. She survived everyone, including founder Leonard Read. After retiring, she stayed on as a board member and even donated her home in New York to FEE.

Bettina Bien Greaves was an uncompromising advocate of liberty, and will always be an inspiration to aspiring Austrian economists, and scholars everywhere.

I met her a few times when I visited FEE headquarters. My favorite Bettina Greaves story came from 2001, when I became president of FEE. After my first board meeting, Bettina came up to me and said privately, "I support you in every way as the new president. But could you do me a favor? Please be more critical of Milton Friedman!"

I nodded, and she left the room. A few minutes later another board member, Muso Ayau, came over to me. He was the founder of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala and a former president of the Mont Pelerin Society. He whispered, "Mark, I support you in every way as the new president of FEE, but could you do me a favor? Stop being so critical of Milton Friedman!" I’ll never forget it. I told this story to Milton and he had a belly laugh.

Bettina was a true believer in Austrian economics, and always sided with Mises when it came to differences between him and Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. (I’ve written a book on the differences, entitled Vienna and Chicago, Friends or Foes? A Tale of Two Schools of Free-Market Economics [Capital Press, 2005].) She focused her career on advancing the works and ideas of the Austrian school, including the contributions by Henry Hazlitt and Hans Sennholz. She wrote many articles for The Freeman, gave lectures, and compiled anthologies about Austrian economics. She spearheaded FEE’s program to provide libertarian material for high school debaters with packets on foreign aid, government regulations, medical care, and other issues. She compiled and edited Free Market Economics: A Syllabus, and A Basic Reader, a two-volume set that was distributed to thousands of students and teachers. After her husband’s death in 1984, she kept alive Percy Greaves’ lively interest in the controversies surrounding Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor, and wrote several Freeman articles on events that led up to that day of infamy, December 7, 1941.

But her main interest was always in her mentor, Ludwig von Mises. As Margit von Mises noted, Bettina studied “line by line, word for word” her husband’s writings. Bettina and her husband traveled with Lu and Margit to Argentina, Mexico, and other foreign lands where Mises lectured. (She spoke fluent Spanish and German.) She compiled, edited, and translated many of his books after his death in 1973. She also worked with her husband Percy to make Mises’s writings more understandable to the public. It was published in 1974, called Mises Made Easier (but never easy!). With the help of Robert W. McGee, she published an exhaustive Mises: An Annotated Bibliography (FEE, 1993, 1995). When the Liberty Fund decided to publish the complete works of Mises, Bettina was asked to be the editor, writing introductions for each volume.

Bettina Bien Greaves was an uncompromising advocate of liberty, and will always be an inspiration to aspiring Austrian economists, and scholars everywhere. ¡Bien hecho!

* * *

Editor’s note: Bettina Greaves was a loved and valued Contributing Editor of Liberty. Readers can find her articles and reviews from November 1997, “To the Dialecticians of All Parties,” to November 2008, “War from Six Sides,” by clicking here. More biographical information can be found in Jim Powell’s article, “A Salute to Bettina Bien Greaves,” July 1, 1997, on the FEE website.




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Caracas Dispatches

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Mercedes Flanagan — I’ll call her that — a Venezuelan lawyer, television executive, and jurist, and most important, this author’s first cousin, arrived in Miami on December 15, 2017.

Flanagan. A good Latin American name, like O’Higgins or De Valera.

Mercedes was able to get here after acquiring a six-month US visa (months in the making and a miracle) and flying a convoluted route that included Trinidad and Panama City. Direct flights — or flights of any sort — have become increasingly difficult to book because of Venezuela’s paucity of convertible currency. Five days after her arrival we met at her sister’s house in Boca Raton to celebrate the holidays together. Two of her granddaughters were there, having left Venezuela three months before. They too were seeking political asylum. Mercedes had lost a lot of weight but looked good, a result she attributed to the “Maduro diet,” as Venezuela’s food shortage is nicknamed, after Nicolás Maduro, the current president. She dreads returning.

Please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality.

“Behind the scenes,” she said, “Cubans run everything.” A surprising revelation for what was once one of South America’s richest, most sophisticated, and modern countries — and a dark irony. During the 1960s, Cuban military and guerrilla leaders funded and aided leftist insurgents. Though thoroughly defeated, they’ve made a latter-day comeback.

I asked Mercedes about the state of her finances. She answered that she was still receiving her government pension but that one-third of it had been converted into nonconvertible “economic war bonds,” useless savings certificates.

In 2017, the mismanagement of Venezuela’s socialist economy — please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality (a socialist economy is, by definition, a mismanaged economy; to actually mismanage a socialist economy would be to insert market mechanisms into it) — drove the inflation rate of the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency) to somewhere above 4,000%. Mercedes reported a black-market exchange rate of 102,000 Bolivares to the dollar, circa December 1. CNN now (mid-January) reports 191,000 Bolivares to the dollar.

In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check.

Let’s take a closer look at this money thing. Each day, Venezuelan banks are given a fixed budget dictating how much cash they’re allowed to disburse to clients. Electronic transactions are allowed, but forget ATMs, they’re all out of cash. Outside the banks, the lines of customers waiting to cash checks in order to acquire cash are already long by opening time — translating to about an hour’s wait. In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check. But here’s the kicker: the daily per client check-cashing allotment set by the government is the equivalent of between 6 and 18 US cents — often not even enough to buy a “tit’s” worth of groceries.

Yes, a “tit” or teta, as it is called, because it resembles a droopy breast. Officially, they are CLAP bags. They hold a month’s worth of groceries and toiletries that cost the equivalent of 18 US cents. The government makes them available to the poorest Venezuelans at heavily subsidized prices. But, as CNN reports, “Recently, CLAP bags have gotten smaller or been delayed as more Venezuelans slip into poverty and as the government runs out of money to import essential goods.” How ironic: a shortage of worthless cash.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month, according to Mercedes. One enterprising “Chávista collective” in Caracas representing about 4,000 families has issued its own, parallel currency, the panal, and its own bank, El Banco Panalero, to ease the shortage of cash. The pudgy face of the demagogue former President Hugo Chávez graces one side.

Speaking of iconic faces, renditions of Simón Bolívar’s face have been subtly altered to make him look more creole than European white by pugging his nose and darkening his skin — in other words, to have him resemble Chávez and Maduro.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month.

On the plus side, gasoline runs at about 60 cents a gallon — up from 4 cents a gallon not very long ago — a price that has allowed a lucrative smuggling market to thrive at the Colombian border. And Venezuelan day workers — mostly prostitutes — are now allowed into Colombia to earn some real money.

N.B.: Mercedes requested that her true identity not be revealed, writing: “The situation in Venezuela is now much worse with the cold-blooded assassination of the soldier officer for ‘desertion’ for disagreeing with the dictatorship of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ along with three civilians, one of them a pregnant woman . . . and they're not allowing family to see, identify the cadavers, or bury them. We're awaiting Maduro's announcement of the suspension of all civil rights. . . There the raids by armed ‘collectives’ controlled by the government continue with orders to spread panic so that the real, suffering population won't continue to demand their rights to food, medicine, security and free elections."




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The Sneaky, Dirty Truth About State and Local Taxes

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New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney complained to Neil Cavuto in a recent interview that “this new [federal] tax bill is going to hurt New Jersey in a big way.” Acknowledging that “one percent of New Jersey residents pay 42% of the taxes,” he warned, “We have to push the pause button on the millionaires tax” to keep millionaire residents from fleeing the state — and taking their wealth with them.

It’s about time they figured this out, because the jig is up.

The sneaky, dirty little truth is about the deductibility of state and local taxes. High-taxing, high-spending states such as New Jersey, Minnesota, Oregon, New York, and California have been fleecing taxpayers in other states for years. How? By taking the federal taxes paid by Nevadans, Texans, Floridians, etc., and using it to refund their own state and local taxes. They could get away with their high tax rates (as high as 13%!) in part because taxes were deductible. In essence, federal taxes have been funneled into the state and local coffers of high-tax states for years.

Taxpayers in low-tax-rate states have been carrying the big spenders in the high-tax states for way too long.

Let’s look at a simplified, hypothetical example. Let’s suppose Floridian John Smith has an income of $2,000,000 and is in the 39% federal tax bracket. (We’re talking about the 1% here, the ones who pay 42% of the taxes, according to Sweeney.) He owes the IRS about $672,000. (Ugh! That’s a huge amount of money!) His cousin, Jane Doe, lives in California and earns exactly the same amount of money. But she pays 13.3% income tax to California, and the real estate taxes on her modest $7 million California home are $25,000 higher than John’s property taxes. Until now, she has been able to deduct those state and local taxes from her net income, reducing her taxable income to $1,709,000. Her bill to the IRS is $615,000, or $57,000 less than John’s. In essence, taxpayers in low-tax-rate states have been carrying the big spenders in the high-tax states for way too long.

For Steve Sweeney, Jerry Brown, and legislators in other high-tax states, the game is over. New Jersey’s newly elected Governor Phil Murphy campaigned heavily to reinstate the “millionaires’ surtax” imposed on the wealthiest citizens that former Governor Chris Christie had lifted. Now Senate President Sweeney is aghast to realize that the Golden Geese can move to friendlier waters if all their eggs are confiscated. “We can’t afford to lose thousands of people who make up a large piece of our tax base,” he admitted to Cavuto. “We have to rethink this millionaire’s tax because they can leave.”

What a novel realization — people have choices! They can move! They can take their money with them! The besmirched 1% are finally being recognized as valuable. They run businesses, hire employees, buy homes, and pay taxes. Lots of taxes. Even Jerry Brown has suggested that California might have to rethink its budget and pull back on spending because of the new tax bill.

What a novel realization — people have choices! They can move!

Most Americans are unhappy about losing the deductibility of state, local, and property taxes. At first glance, I was one of them. Why should we pay income taxes on the money we already paid in taxes? Is it “income” if you never even see it in your paycheck? But legislators of high-tax states have bilked the residents of more budget-conscious states long enough. Their sneaky, dirty little secret is out. Losing the deductibility of state and local taxes is putting pressure on legislators to be more frugal and use tax revenues more effectively. Until we can eliminate income taxes completely, that’s a step in the right direction.




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State of the Moral Union

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On January 6, the state of Hawaii was panicked by a message mistakenly sent to cellphones by an employee of the state’s Emergency Management Agency:

Missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.

As a consequence of this enormous error, the government worker — name concealed, of course, because revealing it would be so wrong and hurtful — has been “temporarily reassigned.” Not fired. Reassigned. To what job, we are not told.

“He feels terrible,” management says.

So would I. But why, after such an event, should I go on being paid by the people whose lives I jeopardized?

We live in a country in which you can make one of the worst errors that a human being can possibly make and still retain your job, your benefits, and the sympathy of a grateful government.

This is not some fine point of morality. It is morality — the morality of a society in which government is the servant, not the master.

As usual, the government’s spokesman intoned, “We’re not going to take action till we have all the facts.” And as usual when such statements are made, the facts are already known and obvious to all. This was confirmed by the same government spokesman: “The reality is, he made a fairly simple mistake.”

We live in a country in which you can make one of the worst errors that a human being can possibly make and still retain your job, your benefits, and the sympathy of a grateful government. But if you talk dirty to a coworker, serve booze to someone 20 years and 364 days old, take a toy pistol into a school, lie to the FBI about things that aren’t crimes, spank your child, or name your car the General Lee, you will suffer all the shame and ostracism that can be inflicted by an outraged state and society.

That’s where we are right now.

Years ago, prostitutes in San Francisco founded an organization to protest government persecution. The org was called C.O.Y.O.T.E. — “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.” Not a bad slogan.




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Alas, Zimbabwe!

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I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




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What Followed the Triple Axel

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In America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, you can be anything you want to be, if you just dream big enough and try hard enough. Right.

Well, not quite.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team. Ross Miner did just that on January 7, skating a nearly perfect program to a rousing medley of Queen songs that earned him a silver medal behind 18-year-old skating phenom Nathan Chen and his five quadruple jumps. No one was going to beat Chen; silver was the new gold in 2018.

To win that silver medal, Miner had to be perfect. And he was. From the exquisitely light landing of his opening quad-salchow to the high, tight rotations of his triple lutz-triple toe to the musicality of his footwork and the unusual entrances into his fast, centered spins, Miner was perfect. No panic, no worry, he was “cool, relaxed, got hip, got on his tracks” as the lyrics sang during his footwork pattern. In figure skating there’s a term called “peaking at the right moment,” and Miner did. He laid out a perfect program when he needed it most: the national championships leading into the Olympics.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team.

Miner handily beat bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and pewter medalist Adam Rippon. At 17, Zhou has the quads but not the musicality of a seasoned skater; at 28, Rippon has the seasoned performance quality, but he choked when it counted, falling on his quad and popping two of his planned triples into singles. It was a devastating moment, one sure to haunt him for the rest of his life.

But hold on. Ross Miner didn’t make the Olympic team. He’ll be in South Korea as an alternate behind Zhou and Rippon. Unlike what happens in track and field, swimming, skiing, and just about any other sport, winning at U.S. Figure Skating Nationals doesn’t guarantee you a trip to the Olympics. In figure skating that decision is made behind closed doors by a committee that examines the skaters’ “body of work” to decide who is most likely to bring home a medal. And this season they’re betting on Rippon. Thanks for the memories, Ross. See ya later.

Selection by committee instead of competition also allows the judges to keep out the riffraff, which they weren’t able to do in 1994, when national gold medalist Tonya Harding, accused of masterminding the attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan, sued the United States Figure Skating Association for her right to compete on the US team in Lillehammer, Norway. Under the new rules, she would not have been able to sue, because medaling would not have guaranteed her a spot.

But that wasn’t the first time the judges tried to keep Harding down. A jumping powerhouse from the time she was a child and the first woman to land a triple axel at Nationals, Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted. She wasn’t “an old timey version of what a woman is supposed to be.” There was a hard edge about her that came from growing up in hard circumstances. She had thick thighs, over-permed hair, and heavy makeup; her practice outfits were too garish, her music too brash, and her performance dresses too full of froufrou. She practiced in a shopping mall ice rink. Instead of taking her under their wing and helping her succeed, the judges brushed her aside with low scores and hoped she would go away.

Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted.

Nancy Kerrigan was the opposite of Tonya Harding. She wore simple practice dresses and elegant performance dresses, pulled her sleek hair back into a bun, selected classical music for her routines, and even had her tiny front teeth capped to please the judges and develop the proper “look” for ladies’ skating. She was a skilled, elegant skater as well, with confident jumps and her trademark hand-on-knee spiral that young skaters liked to imitate. But more than anything, she had the look. The judges loved her.

Everyone knows what happened next: a goon named Shawn Eckardt hired another goon named Shane Stant to clobber Nancy Kerrigan with a collapsible baton during practice just two days before the senior ladies’ competition at Nationals in 1994. Eckardt was Harding’s bodyguard and the best friend of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding was blamed and her career was over. As the US gold medalist, she successfully sued to compete at Lillehammer. But at her ensuing trial she would be banned for life from any USFSA competitions, events, or activities.

Although pleas were entered and verdicts were pronounced in the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure. Eckardt was a self-important blowhard who insisted he had done espionage work for the CIA. Gillooly would have turned in his own mother to stay out of prison. Harding would have done the same to save her career and compete in the Olympics. In a situation like this there’s a tendency for the brain to rearrange its memories in a way that defends and protects its host; I doubt that Tonya Harding really knows what she knew, and when she knew it.

All of this is chronicled admirably in the new film I, Tonya. Libertarians will see an ironic connection in this title that is probably unintentional; just as no one person can make a pencil, no one person is responsible for the making of Tonya Harding. She is the product of poverty and poor education, abandonment by her father, beating by her mother, more beating by her husband, and unfair judging in a sport that was the only good thing in her life. I’m not defending her here; what happened to Kerrigan is inexcusable. But I am strangely sympathetic to her as a tragic hero who fell so far and so hard.

In the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure.

The film uses the mockumentary interview format made popular by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest in such films as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. This fictionalized interview style is exactly the right choice for presenting a story that relies so completely on unreliable narrators who think they have a lock on the truth. The result is a film that’s as funny as it is tragic.

We see the same kind of delusional defensiveness in the mock interviews with Tonya’s mother, LaVona Harding (Allison Janney). “She skated better when she was enraged,” she explains, justifying her harsh treatment of Tonya, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her (the real LaVona denies the knife throwing, but she acknowledges and justifies the “spankings”). When Tonya’s coach suggests that a ladylike demeanor might help Tonya fit in more with the other skaters, LaVona shouts, “Tonya doesn’t fit in. She stands out!” When LaVona thinks Tonya needs a little more determination to prove herself on the ice, she pays a fan to heckle her own daughter. She is cold, cruel, and unintentionally comical, and Janney plays her to the hilt of the knife she flings into Tonya’s arm.

The other characters are equally entertaining in a “stranger-than-fiction” sort of way. It’s like watching skating’s equivalent of a 20-car pileup: you just can’t look away. And it does offer a plausible backstory that makes Harding (played at different ages by Maizie Smith, McKenna Grace, and Margot Robbie) a more sympathetic character as a battered woman, bullied by everyone around her, than the one we’ve seen in documentaries over the past 24 years.

“She skated better when she was enraged,” Harding's mom explains, justifying her harsh treatment of her daughter, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her.

As a former skating mom, I remember the meanness of certain skaters, the prejudice of certain judges, the “acceptable” sabotage that often went on in dressing rooms. I taught my daughter to hold her head up, skate her best, and act as though everyone liked her. Eventually, everyone did. But a girl as socially inept as Tonya, with an ex-husband as hotheaded as Gillooly and a bodyguard as delusional as Eckart might almost be forgiven for . . . um . . . Nope. Not forgivable.

Nevertheless, the film has become something of a darling among the feminist set who are determined this year to make heroes out of victims with vaginas, even one who may have ordered a hit on another victim of the same gender. The black-dress ladies fawned over Tonya at the Golden Globes and are likely to do the same at future awards events this season. Watching the real Tonya Harding skate her landmark 1991 program as the movie credits rolled, seeing the joy on her face as she landed her triple axel and completed a clean program, I could almost agree with them. It was all so senseless. She didn’t need to beat Kerrigan to beat Kerrigan.


Editor's Note: Review of "I, Tonya," directed by Craig Gillespie. Clubhouse Pictures, 2017, 120 minutes.



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It's Delightful, It's Delovely, It's . . .

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Knights in Dark Satin

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It’s awards season again, that glittery time when Hollywood elites gather to praise each other’s work, comment on each other’s clothing, and make political statements we mere mortals in suburbia couldn’t possibly understand without the help of their stunning insights.

The circuit began with the Golden Globes on January 8 and will culminate in the awarding of the Oscars on March 4. At the Globes, all the gals showed up in sexy black evening gowns to show their solidarity with women who have been mistreated, abused, harassed, or misunderstood. It made me think of junior high: “What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know, what are you going to wear?” “Muffy Sinclair is wearing plaid overalls and knee socks.” “Ooh! Me too! Me too!” Suddenly the elite of the elite were controlling what all the women would wear to the Globes. And scarcely anyone dared to be different.

I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear.

Regardless of how I feel about their particular issue, I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear. Any woman who had chosen to express her own voice by wearing red or blue or white, no matter what the reason, would have been castigated by the press and by her peers. Just as women knew they had to play the Weinstein game if they wanted a role in Hollywood, they knew they had to wear a black dress if they wanted to fit in. Nothing has changed in Hollywood. You either toe the party line or move into another career.

Let’s face it: many of these seasoned women in their glitzy black dresses had to have known all about the Hollywood casting couches long before Harvey Weinstein’s shame became public. They endured it to get ahead, and then kept quiet about it when other women had to endure it. Sorority hazing at its worst. Not until it became public and, might I say, fashionable, did they join in with their #MeToo stories. Until then, they dared not risk the careers — for which they had paid dearly — by speaking out against Weinstein and his ilk. In fact, they embraced him. They played the game. Even after they were rich enough and famous enough and awarded enough that they didn’t need to. Now, to assuage their guilt and cover their shame, they’re shouting the loudest and pointing the longest fingers. And pressuring other women to play along, like it or not. It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped them get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

Two years ago the hypocrites of the Academy self-righteously awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to Spotlight (2015), a good but hardly great film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic church, as though pointing a finger at someone else’s institutionalization of systemic sexual predation would atone for the guilt in their own institution. Last year, after the Academy fielded complaints of racism for not nominating enough black actors and filmmakers in 2016 films, the award for Best Picture went to Moonlight, an obscure little film about a transgender black. Again, a good film, but not great and not memorable.

It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped the likes of Weinstein get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

This week, in another bid for both relevance and absolution, the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor went, predictably, to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a plucky woman who stands up against injustice (or seems to). After all, this is the year of the woman as victim, right?

So let’s review this film that’s bound to garner increasing acclaim as the award season drags on. Is it a good film? In terms of production values, yes. The story is quirky and unexpected, the plot taking one dark turn after another. The actors are all in, portraying their characters with the kind of free-for-all abandon that often leads to critical acclaim and award nominations. An upbeat musical score contributes to the quirky tone and provides a jarring contrast to the beatings and violence that turn up at the least expected moments. The dialog is sharp and punchy, and the small town setting is authentic and believable, even if the characters are not.

And that’s my main criticism of Three Billboards, a film that’s supposed to be about a heroic woman’s fight against Town Hall in the form of the police department. She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic. She’s vengeful and pathetic and, in many ways, wrong.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving and disgruntled mother whose daughter has been gruesomely raped and murdered. Seven months later, angered that the police haven’t arrested anyone for the crime, she turns on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) and publicizes his failure by leasing the rights to three billboards, on which she posts: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Understandably, the chief is not amused.

She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic.

But he isn’t unsympathetic, either. The thing is, we really can’t find fault with the chief. He’s kind. He’s understanding. And he’s trying. There simply aren’t any leads in the case. Mildred wants a conviction. Any conviction will do. But the only thing worse than not convicting the perpetrator of a crime is arresting the wrong man and convicting him instead, just to make the community feel safer.

I appreciate the chief’s methodical rigor in this case. At one point he says to Mildred, “I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well . . . right now there ain't too much more we could do.” And I abhor Mildred’s mean, spiteful, crude, ugly vengeance. She responds to Chief Willoughby’s rational concerns about civil rights and due process with “If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”

The story completely jumps the shark when Dixon, Chief Willoughby’s deputy (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced, racist, drunken cop, suddenly becomes the hero, in a way so bizarre and unbelievable that even if I told you how it ends, you would think I was kidding, in order to avoid revealing the true plot. So I won’t tell you. But it’s bad.

Three Billboards has an interesting premise about a vigilante citizen using public opinion to shame a police force into doing its job of bringing a criminal to justice. But it squanders the premise on vulgar, vengeful, violent characters created more for shock value instead of any enlightening or lasting message. You might want to see it just for the production values, but it would have to be an awfully rainy day or interminably long flight to induce me to see it again.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity.

The only reason Three Billboards won three Golden Globes is that it’s about a woman whose daughter was raped and who blames a man, because that’s the name of the game this awards season in Hollywood. Ironically, those short-sighted, dimwitted Hollywood voters didn’t even notice that their heroine agrees to go to dinner with a man and implies that she might “be dessert” in order to get something she wants. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Well, they did learn to wear black dresses to the party when Oprah says so.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity. Libertarians won’t want to miss Molly’s Game, which tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who for a dozen years ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Her clients included celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, Middle Eastern moguls, and underworld figures who came as much for the celebrity as for the game.

Molly is everything we want to see in an entrepreneur: she’s smart, she’s honest, she anticipates demand and creates supply, and she makes decisions based on long-term goals and expectations. She plays within the rules, provides a service that people want, and cares about her customers and her employees. She’s the model libertarian. No wonder the Black Dress Ladies ignored this film.

Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients.

The movie begins two years after Molly has closed her business, when 17 FBI agents bang on her door and arrest her at gunpoint. They know she’s clean, but they arrest her anyway because they need her to turn state’s evidence against some underworld types who had been regulars in her game. Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients. Virtually penniless now and living with her mother, she nevertheless convinces attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her by telling him her story, which we see in flashback and hear in voice-over narration. Based on the book Molly’s Game by the real Molly Bloom, this is a fascinating tale about an unlikely heroine dressed in Coco Chanel and Jimmy Choo’s without a single conservative (or conformative) black dress in the wardrobe closet. Libertarians won’t want to miss it.

Even more impressive in the female protagonist genre is The Shape of Water, a beauty and the beast tale with the added twist of the classic conflict between the individual and the state. Directed by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water has the magical quality of a painting brought to life. In this film he does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

The story is set in the 1950s, an era characterized by the Red Scare, nuclear experiments, conservative values, and the race for space. The Russians have launched a dog into orbit, fueling Americans’ fear of failure. Giant irradiated ants and spiders and creatures from the Black Lagoon terrorize communities on the silver screen. Against this backdrop, life imitates art as military scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious man (Doug Jones) in a South American river and brings the creature to a secret laboratory in San Francisco where military leaders hope to learn something that can help them in the race against the Russians.

Del Toro does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works the night shift at the laboratory and lives a solitary life above a movie theater — another contribution to the film’s liquid mixing of art and life. Found as a baby near a river bank, she has a strange affinity for water, even before meeting the river creature. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, out-of-work artist with a dozen half-eaten slices of lime green pie in his refrigerator and a pride of cats on his couch. He and Elisa watch old musicals on television and share a close but fraternal relationship.

Prodded and studied by the self-righteous and sadistic Strickland, the creature attacks him and draws blood. Yet Elisa isn’t afraid of him. Assigned to clean the creature’s space, she shares her lunch with him, expressing a shy charm reminiscent of the ingénues in the romantic musicals she enjoys with Giles. She develops a tenderness toward the creature and vows to rescue him when she learns that he is going to be studied by vivisection and then autopsy.

Sally Hawkins delivers a luminous performance as Elisa, communicating eloquently through sign language, body language, and facial expressions that make us forget she cannot speak. She manages to be both meekly shy and fiercely powerful. Richard Jenkins portrays the quiet despair of a man too old to start over who senses that he will leave no footprint on this earth. Michael Shannon has settled nicely into the sadistic villain role that seems to have become his forte. And the creature is, as artist Giles describes him, “beautiful.” This film has been described as “beauty and the beast,” but the only beast in the film is Strickland.

In sum, The Shape of Water celebrates art, emotion, intuition, difference, choice, and individuality. It is everything the Black Dress conformists are not. No wonder they overlooked it in favor of the vulgar, violent, vengeful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t you make the same mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," directed by Martin McDonagh. Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight, 2017. 115 minutes; "Molly’s Game," directed by Aaron Sorkin. STX Entertainment, 2017. 140 minutes; and "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Fox Searchlight, 2017. 123 minutes.



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The Geo-Petroleum Order Overturned

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Several recent articles point to the continuing rapid evolution of the world’s geopolitical order in regard to energy — what I dub the “geo-petroleum order”. The upheaval was caused by America’s resurrection as a dominant oil and natural gas superpower, which in turn was caused by the fracking revolution. This resurrection, I would suggest, has had two phases.

The first phase started in the 1990’s, when George P. Mitchel combined hydraulic fracturing (known for decades) with horizontal drilling. This technique — fracking, as it has come to be known — allowed oil production in America to grow like a bodybuilder on steroids. It grew linearly up about 50% between 2011 and 2015. This allowed the US to shrink steadily as a net oil importer. We are close to hitting the goal of zero net imports, which is to say we are close to energy independence. Moreover, fracking drove the price of oil down by something like two thirds, to the current range of $40 to $60 per barrel.

The introduction of that kaleidoscope creator of pointless boondoggles, the US Department of Energy, was another monumental mistake.

The second phase began when House Speaker Ryan managed — amazingly! — to get a bill through Congress allowing domestically produced oil to be sold abroad. And he got President Obama — no big fan of fossil fuels — to sign it into law. As I noted at the time, this was an astounding piece of work. It overturned a grotesquely stupid law (passed during the energy crisis of the 1970s) that forbade the sale of presumably scarce domestic oil abroad. It never occurred to the morons who enacted this law that it would discourage oil companies and innovators from finding different ways to extract oil here, and making them look abroad instead.

Parenthetically, I would suggest that future historians will record that it was primarily our own idiocy that caused our energy shortages during the period running from the OPEC oil embargo to the rapid rise of fracking — a period that saw the greatest transfer of wealth from the US to its enemies ever known, for which we were “rewarded” by terrorist attacks and Russian neoimperialism. The enactment of the aforementioned subhumanly stupid law prohibited the shipment of American-produced oil, incentivizing oil producers and innovators to focus on foreign oil production. The introduction of that kaleidoscope creator of pointless boondoggles, the US Department of Energy (DOE), was another monumental mistake. The projects it forced innovators to pursue exhibited a degree of asininity seldom exceeded in the private realm. These projects range from syn-fuels and geothermal energy to biomass and corn ethanol (the mother and father of all boondoggles) to solar farms and windmills that shred birds and produce expensive energy at the very times it is least needed. Another DOE achievement was killing of the fast breeder reactor, which would have taken the nuclear “waste” we have accumulated and use it as fuel.

The DOE should top the list of federal departments to be eliminated. And for those of you who are worried about a rise of ocean levels said to be caused by global warning, may I offer a helpful hint? Just create a US Department of Water Creation, and the ocean levels won’t just fall; they will simply dry up.

Development in ANWR will provide thousands of high-paying jobs and $60 billion in royalties for the state — some of which goes directly to the people of Alaska.

But I digress. The flawed tax bill recently passed by Congress and signed into law by the president contains a provision allowing limited drilling in the formerly locked away Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). ANWR — which is in the middle of nowhere, and protects nothing but mosquitoes — was created at a time of high oil prices, and with only one purpose: to deny oil companies the chance to develop a small piece of vast Alaska. ANWR was, of course, opposed by the great majority of actual Alaskans but favored by soi-disant “environmentalists” in Silicon Valley and Beverly Hills. But then, neither Silicon Valley nor Beverly Hills has Alaska’s unemployment rate, which is the highest in the nation. Nor do they have Alaska’s large budget deficit.

Development in ANWR will provide thousands of high-paying jobs and $60 billion in royalties for the state — which puts some of the funds in a master-fund, the income of which goes directly to the people of Alaska. ANWR will also rejuvenate the Alaskan Oil Pipeline, keeping that great project alive. Not bad, considering that the drilling will take place on less than 2,000 acres — which is one-hundredth of 1% of the ANWR reserve.

It has also been reported that the $3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline — created to ship the burgeoning oil production from fracking operations in North Dakota — is delivering bountiful benefits after only six months of operation. Lowering the cost of shipping has caused an increase in production. October’s production hit 1.185 million barrels per day (BPD), which is about a 13% increase over the peak before the pipeline.

As a result, unemployment in North Dakota is exceptionally low (2.3% in November), state revenues rose by $43.5 million in the first five months since the pipeline opened, and the pipe is projected to deliver $210 to $250 million in extra tax revenue by the end of its first two years. That’s delivering the green!

Saudi Arabia is now looking to invest in — American shale operations! How the geo-petroleum worm has turned.

Speaking of green, there has been a bonus for the environment as well. The pipeline has eliminated about 83% of the train traffic carrying oil, with only two trains a day now needed to transport oil instead of the 12 needed before the pipeline. This dramatically decreases the chance of ecologically damaging oil spills, or hominid-damaging oil explosions when trains carrying oil crash.

Another encouraging report explores an unseen upside of the growth in American fossil fuel production. The domestic steel industry — long an industry under stress from foreign competition — is itself experiencing a rebirth. Both oil and natural gas are shipped mainly by pipeline (unless misguided environmental activists stop the projects) and the pipes aren’t made of wood; they’re made of steel. Recently the newer domestic steel plants have become dramatically more efficient and are increasing capacity in anticipation of the pipeline buildout.

One American steel manufacturer projects growth in domestic oil and natural gas for the next ten to 20 years. Shipments from American steel producers went up 5% in the first ten months of last year — not as good as the 15% experienced by foreign producers, but still on the right track.

Some American manufacturers worry that the domestic buildout in steel plants will lead to a glut. But research done by Pipe Logix estimates that the number of oil and natural gas wells increased by 60% in 2016 alone. Those wells, and the pipes that ship their products, both require steel. So the worry about a “glut” of domestic steel mills seems exaggerated.

The foxy frackers just tightened their operations and kept innovating, winding up with an amazingly flexible industry that remains profitable in a below-$40 per barrel environment.

The American fossil fuel renaissance is having an impact on our major oil competitors. There is fascinating news that Saudi Arabia is now looking to invest in — American shale operations! How the geo-petroleum worm has turned!

Specifically, Aramco — the Saudi state-owned oil company — has approached the Houston based natural gas producer Tellurian, looking to invest. Aramco is also looked at acquiring assets in the two huge fossil fuel basins, Permian and Eagle Ford.

Admittedly, these developments are only incipient. But the fact that the Saudis are knocking at the door marks a major shift. They realize that America — once a pitifully energy-dependent giant brought its knees by despicable dictators sitting on top of large oil reserves — is now the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas, eclipsing both the always-treacherous Saudis and the authoritarian Russians. If you add on our coal production, we completely eclipse other countries in fossil-fuel production.

How sad that is for oil potentates, socialist caudillos, and dictators in general, who got fat on oil at an over-$100 price!

Of course, while we are the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, we are still net importers, because we consume so much. But as we increase production, we will become a net exporter. And this is what the Saudis realize. Aramco already owns some refineries in the US (and elsewhere in the world), but all Saudi production of oil and natural gas takes place in Saudi Arabia. The new leader of the country (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) plans to privatize Aramco, and the IPO shares would fetch a higher price if Aramco sites production here.

The Saudis have two other reasons for wanting to buy into US oil and natural gas production. First, they aim to understand better how fracking works in such nimble ways. A couple of years ago, the Saudis tried to drive the frackers out of business by jacking up their own production and thus driving down prices. For a while, the price of oil hit about $30 per barrel. This caused the Saudi government to hemorrhage foreign reserves, but the foxy frackers just tightened their operations and kept innovating, winding up with an amazingly flexible industry that remains profitable in a below-$40 per barrel environment. When the price drops that low, less efficient operations get closed, but they can be expanded again, in the blink of an eye, when oil goes over $50 a barrel. How sad that is for oil potentates, socialist caudillos, and dictators in general, who got fat on oil at an over-$100 price!

The Saudis envy this flexibility and deeply resent the fact that it will keep the price of oil below $60 a barrel for the indefinite future. Witness the Crown Prince’s attempt to seize the assets of corrupt relatives and get Saudis used to working, rather than living on welfare paid by the rest of the world.

The Russians have “kept up” with American technology since the time of Lenin, usually by stealing it.

The other reason the Saudis want to have operations here is that they want to shift from their reliance on their own oil to power everything. The world’s natural fossil fuel distribution has involved using oil to power transportation, but natural gas and coal to generate electricity — and coal is a much dirtier fuel. But Saudi Arabia’s own natural gas reserves — which are about equal to America’s — are sulfur-laden and hard to get out of the ground. So to convert its production of electricity to natural gas, the country would have to import 12 million metric tons of LNG annually. Extracting that here in America would make sense.

But I have another, deliciously rich, piece of news. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s true our archenemy Russia is flattering us in the extreme. It is trying to develop its own shale.

Russia’s main shale formation — the Bazhenov formation — is the largest in the world. And Russian oil production is the largest in the world. But Russians are looking at oil fields that are six decades or more old, and have declining outputs. So they want to do what America did: recover peak production by means of fracking. The trick is to replicate America’s technological expertise. To this end, the Russian government — i.e., Putin and his corrupt cronies — is offering tax incentives for shale companies, and incentivizing cooperation among energy companies and research institutes to develop fracking technology.

Alexei Vashkevich, exploration director for Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom Neft, who conveniently worked on the North Dakota’s Bakken formation operations, assures us that the Russians won’t rip off American technology but will develop a totally different Russian technology.

Oh, please, Alexei — as if the new Russian 5th-generation fighter weren’t a direct clone of America’s F35. The Russians have “kept up” with American technology since the time of Lenin, usually by stealing it. Witness A-bomb plans stolen by spies, F35 plans, obviously filched by cyberspies, aka hackers, who use the computer and internet technology they stole from — Americans!

We should work to keep oil prices so low that they delay Russia’s massive military buildup.

The news article just mentioned observes that it will be, perhaps, another six or seven years before Russian fracking operations produce very much, in part because of the embargo placed on Russia when it dismembered Ukraine. But wait: if the Russian technology-to-be is going to be totally different from America’s, why would the denial of that technology hold back Russia’s development?

I think you can expect Russia to do three things in the immediate future.

First, you will see it unleash its hackers to steal massive amounts of American fracking technology. My advice to American fracking companies is this: If you haven’t done so already, set up encryption and other barriers to stop cyberspies from an orgy of theft.

Second, you should be prepared to see mysterious “environmental” groups spew colossal amounts of deceitful anti-fracking propaganda. These groups will be funded by Putin for the sole purpose of retarding America’s own fracking.

Third, you can expect a dramatic increase in Russian meddling with elections, here and in Europe, by feeding propaganda to news media and funds to political activist groups. They likely played a role in strangling Poland’s development of its own substantial shale formations — keeping Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. No doubt they will try to elect anti-fracking candidates here as well.

My strong belief is that we should work to keep prices so low that they delay Russia’s massive military buildup. To do this, we need to open up more offshore sites, and more in Alaska, and push for the systematic exploration of the Arctic.

In this regard, there is some very recent good news. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has announced a plan that would overturn the Obama administration’s effort to restrict offshore drilling to only 6% of the American coastline. Under the new plan, fully 90% of offshore areas would be opened, in the largest sale of offshore leases in history. This is a huge new step towards the goal of making America, in Zinke’s words, “the strongest energy superpower.”

While oil company CEOs may fear a glut — and lower prices — consumers would welcome it.

This means that Southern California’s coastline would be open for offshore drilling for the first time since the late 1960s, when it was closed because of an oil spill in Santa Barbara. The East Coast offshore areas would also be reopened.

Naturally, environmentalist groups are already screaming. For example, Diane Hoskins of the activist group Oceana called the plan “absolutely radical.” This is to be expected. Democratic governors in several states (including California, Oregon, North Carolina, and Washington) also expressed complete opposition, and some Republicans became alarmed as well. Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Rick Scott both came out against drilling off Florida’s coastline.

Even oil companies have stated reservations, since they are now experiencing what they regard as a glut of oil. But while oil company CEOs may fear a glut — and lower prices — consumers would welcome it.

Zinke has pointed out that the plan will not be finalized until 2019, and only after comments have been received in public hearings around the country. While all that is pending, we can be thankful for inventive frackers and the prosperity they have given us.




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Take Your Mitts Off Our Myths

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Bear with me here. I have some explaining to do with this review, so don’t start throwing tomatoes yet. Here it goes:

I loved watching the new Star Wars episode.

At the same time, I’m glad that fans almost unanimously hate the new story, even if they don’t completely understand their visceral reaction to it. The Last Jedi is indeed bad, but not because of its repetitive plot or unlikely character development. I rather enjoyed the humorous asides, reminiscent of the original Han Solo. Benicio del Toro as the codebreaker DJ is delectably suave and sinister. Daisy Ridley is fresh and courageous and conflicted as the female lead. And the Stephen Jay Gould-inspired moment when Rey (Daisy Ridley) snaps her fingers and sees herself as a continuum extending into her future in front of her and from her past behind her offers a sophisticated and subtle answer to the conflict between destiny and free will — if her past exists along with her future, does she have the power to change the past? Or is her future predetermined by her past?

Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar.

My beef is with what the movie tries to say about our culture. But as a professor who teaches classes on mythology, I was engaged by the classic conflict between good and evil, inspired by the continuing offer of redemption, and fascinated by the evolution of the Star Wars myth.

The number one complaint about The Last Jedi that I’ve read on fan blogs and social media is that the recent stories are all retreads of the original Star Wars plot. Well, duh! Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar. Greek plays tended to tell the same stories from multiple angles, just as the Star Wars episodes all surround the central characters of Luke and Leia. This should come as no surprise. Why have there been at least 59 movies made about Jesse James, more than a dozen about the shootout at the OK Corral, and annual movies about Santa? Don’t we already know how they’re going to end? We watch these movies again and again because we want to experience vicariously how heroes (and antiheroes) face conflict, interact with supporting characters, and find redemption even in tragedy. Aristotle called it catharsis. Each version of the story gives it a slightly different spin as each generation’s definition of heroism changes, but the change is cloaked in the familiarity of the characters and their stories.

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth. We can trace the evolution of our beliefs, values, and culture simply by studying the films of succeeding decades. Just watch how women are portrayed in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and in current movies to see how American culture has changed. And has it ever changed in The Last Jedi!

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth.

From the beginning, George Lucas embedded in Star Wars the characteristics of American myth. His original story relied heavily on the western genre of the lone, flawed maverick who rides into town, is transformed by friendship, and chooses to risk his life and possessions to help protect his new community from treacherous invaders. Han Solo was that maverick hero. The values of that first film were the values of America: rugged individualism, rebellion against tyranny, reliance on instinct, and reverence for freedom. We saw those same values in the many movies of the 20th century with heroes who defy orders, take risks, act instinctively, and save the day. I also love the offer of redemption that permeates the Star Wars mythology. In each episode a hero has been seduced by the dark side, but all is not lost. He can return to the light and a hero’s welcome if he simply chooses it. Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader; now his grandson, Ben Solo, has become Kylo Ren. But the potential for good is strong in this one. He, too, can be redeemed.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down. Once again we have a maverick hero, Poe (Oscar Isaac), who acts on his own, and is demoted for it by the interim leader, Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Of course we expect that his instincts will prove correct. We also have a trio of rebels (Finn, Rose and BB-8) who secretly boards the First Order’s ship to push a button that will save the Resistance ship. If the story is truly repetitive of earlier episodes, this brave and risky ploy will work. Celebrations to follow.

But not in this movie. Our would-be heroes are caught and their plan is thwarted. Because of this, Vice Admiral Holdo’s secret plan for protecting the ship and its crew is also thwarted, and many Resistance soldiers are killed. The new message is clear: authority figures have no obligation to tell underlings their plans; and those who defy authority and follow their instincts will cause misery to the entire group. So shut up and obey.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down.

Fans are also troubled by the fact that our hero of 40 years, Luke Skywalker, has virtually given up on the Jedi. Discouraged and faithless, he has no desire to help the Resistance and is content to live out the rest of his life on a secluded island. Director and scriptwriter Rian Johnson has destroyed our once incorruptible hero, and his religion as well. I guess the pen truly is mightier than the light saber.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of Hollywood controlling and creating the American myth. Hollywood people hardly represent my own values, beliefs, or culture, or the values and beliefs of most Americans. Apparently Star Wars fans don’t like the idea either. While they complain about esoteric details of plot and character, I think what they are instinctively resisting is the new message of the film.

Mythology resonates with us. That’s one reason such franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the superhero movies endure. Cultural values can evolve over time, but when basic beliefs about free will and individualism change as outrageously as they have in The Last Jedi, we begin to feel “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror.” It’s time to resist the First Order of Hollywood and stop letting it control the American myth.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Last Jedi," directed by Rian Johnson. Walt Disney Pictures, 2017, 152 minutes.



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