Big Book, Big Insights

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Gary Jason is continuing his Thoughts books: Dangerous Thoughts: Provocative Writings on Contemporary Issues; Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy; Disturbing Thoughts: Unorthodox Writings on Timely Issues. Now we have Devious Thoughts: Unconventional Thoughts on Contemporary Issues. It is an excellent complement to the others in the series.

Jason is Liberty’s esteemed senior editor, and some of the essays in Devious Thoughts have appeared in Liberty. So my regard for this book may not be free from all possible or conceivable bias — but then again, Jason is senior editor because he is an exceptional writer and an exceptional reasoner, so it is natural to find that he writes exceptional books. Such as this one.

At more than 400 pages, it is also a big book, willing to take up a wide range of issues. There are essays on education, immigration, energy policy, labor unions, and politics and economics more generally. An especially interesting section highlights one of Jason’s major developing interests, the history of propaganda.

I have long considered Jason one of this country’s leading experts on that most familiar and most misguided of America’s obsessions, energy and the environment. In a world in which public assertions about the environment are seldom supported by relevant or even existent facts, Jason always has facts to spare. For such nonspecialists as I, the 22 essays in the Energy and Environmentalism section of Devious Thoughts are a thorough education in the crucial events of the past five years, the age of fracking. Summarizing this section of his book, Jason refers to “the good news of the fracking revolution and America’s resurrection as an energy superpower.” He also mentions “the continuing follies of the environmentalist movement, a movement as rich in emotion as it is impoverished in rationality.”

Clearly, Jason’s thoughts are not “devious” in the sense of being tricky or slyly suggestive or cunningly insinuated. They are clear and straightforward, devious only in the ironic sense that to people who view them from a conventional perspective they will look like Mephistophelian underminings of Right Thinking. Of course, Right Thinking includes unconditional support for government schools, uncritical sympathy for monopolistic labor unions, abject worship at the shrines of the environmentalist cult, and other strange mental exercises now required of all who wish to be regarded as good citizens.

One of my favorite essays in this volume is Jason’s hilarious account of the migration of Toyota’s national headquarters from California to Texas, and the stunned or hubristic reactions of local politicians to the fact that companies prefer to operate where governments don’t make business too hard to carry on. Too numerous to mention are Jason’s droll commentaries on the afflictions of the big labor unions, which are losing all but their chutzpah. Near the top of my list is his series of essays on the means by which a totalitarian state (Nazi Germany) manipulated its population. Jason’s knowledge of fact, always impressive, is especially so in these works, in which one continually finds facts one didn’t know — facts about so many things: Nazi financial schemes, Nazi children’s books, the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (what a name!), with its staff of 2,000 and its budget of almost 200 million Reichsmarks. . . . So many things.

Jason has an unusual ability to provide a dense array of facts and data while preserving liveliness and accessibility. In this book there is no unexplained jargon, no haughtily opaque references. The relatively short length of most essays allows them to be conveniently devoured and digested. And it’s a fine meal.


Editor's Note: Review of "Devious Thoughts: Unconventional Thoughts on Contemporary Issues," by Gary James Jason. CreateSpace, 2018, 406 pages.



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Android Paranoid

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The Enduring Mojo of “Roseanne”

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I have always loved Roseanne. It binds me pleasantly to a very important time in my life: my last year of college and the years immediately thereafter. Long before I knew there would be a reboot — something practically unheard-of in prime-time television — I liked to go to YouTube and revisit my favorite scenes from the original, nine-season run of the program. When I needed a lift, I’d watch Roseanne, her husband Dan, and sister Jackie stoned out of their minds on an old stash of weed they’d discovered, or daughter Becky’s humiliating episode of flatulence at a school assembly (she actually got a sympathy card for this), or — my personal favorite — Roseanne accepting a dare to do a topless flash of her husband in the backyard, not realizing that at that moment he happened to be welcoming a new neighbor. This was a genuinely funny show, full of spirit and heart and brutally honest, and when it went off the air, I missed it.

Nothing even remotely like it ever came along, until it came back. I would have eagerly greeted the reboot, regardless of how the real Roseanne Barr felt about President Trump. Discovering that its reincarnation is every bit as funny and thought-provoking as the original has been an added bonus. The popularity of its return is well earned. Although it probably won’t last another nine seasons (even the kids from the original series are looking slightly long in the tooth), I hope it stays around a good, long while.

This was a genuinely funny show, full of spirit and heart and brutally honest, and when it went off the air, I missed it.

The brouhaha in the media about the program’s political implications is something I choose to ignore. There is no reason to politicize absolutely everything — except for people who want to control absolutely everything. Those of us who do not believe that every aspect of our lives should be regulated by our self-appointed betters still appreciate quality entertainment for its own sake. We know it doesn’t need to justify itself by making some politically-relevant statement.

All the same, I can’t help but appreciate that Roseanne Barr has taken a stand. Her program could not possibly be honest if it didn’t deal frankly with the ways people have struggled during the past 20 years, under a plutocracy that no longer even bothers to pretend it cares about us. If the people who are so viciously attacking the program actually liked it, I probably wouldn’t. They would be telling me that I’d been reading it wrong.

Those of us who do not believe that every aspect of our lives should be regulated by our self-appointed betters still appreciate quality entertainment for its own sake.

But I haven’t. The characters in this program endure in their love for each other. They mourn those who have passed on and lovingly embrace the new arrivals. They deal with everyday life in a way the show’s viewers recognize as authentic. They call us back to life lived simply as human beings, totally apart from membership in any political tribe or any allegiance in a political war. The anti-Republicrat libertarian in me loves this.

The mojo of Roseanne is back, and in however trivial a sense, America is better off for it. If we, as a nation, ever get to the point where we can no longer accept honest and humane entertainment, we really will be finished. That the Roseanne reboot has been enormously popular is a sign that — however it may sputter — the pulse of this country keeps pumping on.




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Horror — and More

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In the opening minutes of A Quiet Place, a small group of people tiptoes silently through an apparently abandoned grocery store, loading supplies into a backpack. Are they stealing? Hiding? Both? A small figure darts down a shadowy aisle, running so fast that we can’t see who, or even what, it is. Is it after them? With them? A woman reaches for a prescription bottle with the intense concentration of a person playing pick-up-sticks; her fingers tremble as she lifts the bottle without touching the bottles around it. Perhaps these are druggies looking for a fix? No — a young boy lies on the ground beside the woman, bundled in a blanket and leaning lethargically against the wall. This is a family, we realize, utterly silent, and utterly afraid. Within minutes we understand why: an alien species is terrorizing the neighborhood, and it hunts by sound rather than sight or smell. The people must remain silent in order to survive.

This is a family, we realize, utterly silent, and utterly afraid.

A Quiet Place is the best kind of horror film, relying on tension, foreshadowing, and misdirection rather than blood and gore to create panic in the audience. The family members communicate through sign language, walk barefoot, identify creaky floorboards with paint, cover hard surfaces with cloth to muffle their noise, and widen their eyes in terror with every misplaced movement that might elicit a sound. Shadowy lighting, a suspenseful musical score by Michael Beltrami, sudden noises, incomplete information, and brief sightings of the monsters are enough to make us curl our toes and grab the hand beside us.

But this is more than a horror movie. It’s a movie about how to exist as a family when everything around you has turned upside down, when silence is essential to survival, and when each family member has the potential to put all the others at risk through something as simple as a sneeze, a cough, or a slip of the fingers. A newspaper headline about the invasion warns inhabitants, “They Can Hear You.” Another advises, “Stay Silent, Stay Alive.” I couldn’t help but compare these monsters that hunt their victims through sounds made in the privacy of their own homes to an Orwellian government that spies on its citizens, devours them, and turns children against their parents.

But this is more than a horror movie. It’s a movie about how to exist as a family when everything around you has turned upside down.

How do you create a sense of normalcy for your children in the face of such unrelenting surveillance? Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) provides schooling for her children, even though they can’t speak out loud. Children Regan (Millicent Simonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward) learn self-reliance and accountability as they work, play, and tussle together. Father Lee (John Krasinski) feels a particular burden to provide for his family, protect them from this danger, and teach them how to survive it. He’s a true libertarian hero, relying on wit, courage, and innovation to take care of his own. There are many tender acts of love in this film that raise it above the level of a merely scary movie, as well as poignant moments of misunderstanding that need to be resolved, before the thrilling climax.

When Krasinski was offered the role of the father, he liked it so much that he revised the script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, signed on as director, hired his wife Emily Blunt to play the mother, and insisted on hiring deaf actress Millicent Simmonds (who was so good in last year’s Wonderstruck) to play the deaf daughter. He ended up with an executive producer credit as well. The result is one of those perfect labors of love that unite terrific storytelling with terrific character development and a terrific ending that keeps you thinking about it long after the credits roll. I will probably see this one a second time.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Quiet Place," directed by John Krasinski. Platinum Dunes, 2018, 90 minutes.



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The Movie of the Multipliers

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The multipliers. These are some of the most dangerous elements of political life.

Intelligence, knowledge, persuasiveness, experience in political affairs — all these good things may add much to a politician’s ability to succeed. The lack of such qualities may subtract from it. But you can be possessed of all of them and still be only half as likely to win public office as a person who lacks them completely, but has real money, or one-quarter as likely as a person whose father happened to be a noted politician, or one-tenth as likely as a person who happens to possess the right age, color, or creed. Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.

The first President Bush, a man of normal abilities, achieved high political office by means of multipliers unrelated to political ideas or performance. He was rich, his father had been socially and politically important, and his contrast with Ronald Reagan endeared him to journalists who, for their own reasons, valued that contrast. The second President Bush, a man of no ability at all, was a nice guy, which added something to his political appeal. But the multiplier was the fact that his father had been president and had been surrounded by a gang of hacks who wanted to get back in power.

Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.

Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying. One of the Kennedys — John — had intelligence, courage, and a personality that was attractive in many ways. On its own, this ensemble of good attributes would probably have gotten him nowhere important in the political life of his time. His success depended on multipliers — a large fortune; an ambitious, politically manipulative father, good at surrounding young John with media toadies; a family ethic that sanctioned and demanded constant, conscienceless lying; a support base of fanatical Irish Catholics prepared to vote for anyone who shared their ethnic and religious identification, no matter what that person did; and an unbroken phalanx of media writers and performers for whom “Jack” embodied fantasies of male potency and sophisticated “culture.” His assassination provided another mighty multiplier, so mighty that sane people should thank God every morning that his brother, Edward (“Teddy,” then “Ted”) Kennedy, the inheritor of John’s manufactured charisma, never realized his life’s purpose of attaining the presidency.

Few readers of this journal need to be reminded of the fact that Edward Kennedy had no good qualities whatever, political or otherwise. Yet he might have become president; and after he died, he continued to be celebrated by crazed or cynical followers who would have hounded any person without his multipliers out of politics, if not out of the country.

Finally, a mere five decades after the event, a serious film has been made about the great divider of Kennedy’s political prospects, the incident of July 18, 1969, in which a drunken Kennedy drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, drowning the young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was with him. Kennedy left her to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement. This proving impossible, he admitted some vague form of responsibility, retreated to his Irish Catholic base, which, I repeat, would swallow any kind of explanation from a Kennedy, and, with the aid of friendly media and the accustomed throng of social and intellectual gofers, rebuilt his political career.

Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying.

Jason Clarke, who plays Kennedy in this film, and director John Curran, both apparently modern liberals, seem to think that Kennedy rebuilt not only a career but a self; they seem to believe that he became a genuinely great political figure. The idea is absurd, and the film does nothing to support it. It shows Kennedy deciding to recover from the incident at Chappaquiddick by founding his life on ever more aggressive lies — which is exactly what he did.

The film is, indeed, closer to fact than any historical movie I have ever seen. By the time it’s done, you have encountered all the relevant evidence, evidence that gains power by being introduced slowly, by frequent revisits to the scene of the crime. The scenes, both indoor and outdoor, are impeccably authentic and meaningful as further evidence. To select a small detail: the camera notices that when Kennedy is to make a particularly “authentic” television broadcast, he is seated at a serious looking desk behind a case full of important looking books, but the legs of the desk are propped by haphazard piles of the same kind of books — a good indication of the importance of knowledge in the life of Ted Kennedy.

As for acting — at the start of the movie, Clarke doesn’t look or talk much like the Kennedy we saw all too frequently, but as he develops the character’s psychology he actually convinces you that the two are exactly the same, right down to the shape of the face. The other well-known people who are impersonated do the same (a sign of great direction). One of them is Bruce Dern, playing Kennedy’s father. Dern is the most recognizable of actors, but I didn’t discover who he was until I read the credits. Kate Mara has a hard job playing Mary Jo Kopechne, and her performance is not memorable, but she had a difficult task, given the fact that Kopechne was not allowed to achieve distinctness in real life. Clancy Brown does a magnificent Robert McNamara; Taylor Nichols presents an interesting view of the psychology of Ted Sorensen (perhaps the most respected of the Kennedy hacks), though without aspiring to the height of Sorensen’s towering arrogance; and Ed Helms does an excellent job in the difficult role of the one good guy, Kennedy sidekick Joe Gargan.

Ted Kennedy left Mary Jo Kopechne to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement.

Real artists often exceed their conscious ideological programs simply by taking seriously their jobs as artists, so that in their hands a representation of human life takes on a life of its own, which is simultaneously our own real life, seen more deeply and rendered more self-explanatory. Artistic insight becomes analysis, and fact becomes a more suggestive truth. This is what Chappaquiddick does. Particularly revealing are the serious but irresistibly comic scenes in which all the hacks that money can buy are assembled to advise Teddy Kennedy about how to get out of the mess he has made. Here, viewed without overt explanation, analysis, or moralization, are a horde of important men, operating on the assumption that (A) the politician they serve is a destructive fool; (B) this politician must be elected president; and (C) his supporters must create all the lies and corruption necessary to make him so. The childishness is funny; the absolute lack of conscience is, in these true images of the powerful, terrifying. Add to that the movie’s evocation of the stolen prestige of John Kennedy’s presidency, and the Mafia-like adulation of “family” that has always characterized the Kennedys and their followers, and you have all the multipliers you need. The picture is complete.

I consider Chappaquiddick the third-best film about American politics, after Advise & Consent and The Manchurian Candidate. That’s quite an achievement.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chappaquiddick," directed by John Curran. Apex Entertainment, 2017, 101 minutes.



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Bitcoin Blues

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Enthusiasts expect bitcoin to become a new privatized money, perhaps even replacing government money. The system will keep track of cash balances and transactions in such a way as to prevent fraudulent double-spending of the same units. Operating without any centralized recordkeeping (as by a bank or government), it will enhance financial privacy. It will employ an advanced technology called blockchain. As the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (first quarter 2018) said, to really understand bitcoin and its many imitators requires combined knowledge of cryptography, computer science, and economics.

I lack this knowledge. Some points, though, are clear enough. A workable monetary system requires a unit of account and a medium of exchange. Prices, values, debts, claims, and cash balances are expressed, and accounting is conducted in the unit. The medium is something routinely used for receiving and making payments; in the United States it is currency and bank accounts denominated in dollars. Each transactor needs to hold some of the medium of exchange because receipts and expenditures are uncertain in exact timing and amount and are not closely synchronized.

The bitcoin unit goes undefined by anything and lacks redeemablity.

A suitable unit of account has an at least roughly stable value, which may be achieved in either of two ways. First, the unit may be defined by a quantity of some good or basket of goods, with the definition kept operational by two-way convertibility between money and the defining good or basket. Under the gold standard the US dollar was defined as the value of 1.5046 grams of pure gold. Under such a system the money supply adjusts almost automatically to the defined value. Alternatively, the value of the unit may be managed by central control of the money supply. The price level then adjusts to rough proportionality with the money supply, as explained by the quantity theory of money.

The bitcoin unit goes undefined by anything and lacks redeemablity. Its quantity grows in a strange way called “mining.” As a reward for taking part in the system’s decentralized record-keeping and especially for solving increasingly difficult mathematical problems, miners obtain new bitcoins. Their final amount is limited to 21 million. Who knows what happens then? Meanwhile, bitcoin-mining destroys real wealth by consuming vast amounts of electricity to operate huge computers.

Wild fluctuations in bitcoin’s undefined value rule out its use as unit of account and so, almost completely, as medium of exchange. Who wants to hold amounts of such an unstable asset for receiving and making payments? The occasional business firm “accepting” bitcoin promptly sells it for standard money rather than adding it to its transactions cash balance. A video by a Wall Street Journal reporter shows the great effort and extra costs of buying a pizza with bitcoin in New York City.

The final amount of bitcoins is limited to 21 million. Who knows what happens then?

Why, then, does anyone hold bitcoin? Some libertarians hold it to express disgust with government money and a hope for some kind of private and privacy-preserving alternative. (But other and academically respectable proposals for privatized money are available.) Some enthusiasts buy it as an investment or speculation. (Saying so in no way denies that speculation generally serves sound economic functions and that the distinction between it and investment is fuzzy.)

Prudence recommends that anyone considering an investment should ask how the desired gain might come as a share of real wealth — desired goods and services — created by his own and others’ investment. Even a gambling casino creates wealth in the perhaps questionable form of hopes, excitement, and entertainment. Gain on an investment or speculation with no prospect of creating wealth must come as a transfer from losers.

Meanwhile, bitcoin-mining destroys real wealth by consuming vast amounts of electricity to operate huge computers.

How, then, might promoting bitcoin create wealth? The advantages of a sound nongovernmental monetary system could count as wealth, but as a “public good” in the technical sense of something whose benefits cannot be withheld from people not paying for it — such as national defense or policing. Furthermore, competition from bitcoin’s surviving imitators would dilute any profits. More optimistically, experience with bitcoin might spur profitable improvements in its blockchain technology, which is already being extended beyond monetary uses.

Bitcoin might even evolve, after all, into a workable privatized money, quite in contrast with our current system. But how? Ayn Rand would dismissively reply: “Somehow.”

A final comment may be unfair, but I cannot resist making it. Excitement over bitcoin reminds me of the dotcom boom of the 1990s and even more so of the British South Seas bubble of 1720. For little more reason than that stocks kept going up, speculators drove prices still higher — until the crash came. Meanwhile, stock in dubious new enterprises sold readily. Charles Mackay (Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1848) writes of one promoter who disappeared with the proceeds of successfully issuing stock in something described as “A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.”




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