Fishing for Mackerel on the High Tide

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I am at the municipal wharf fishing next to a Filipino. (I always try to place myself next to a Filipino. Filipinos know more than anyone else about fishing from a wharf; it’s a fact!) He says the mackerel are going to come over with the high tide. I already believe that, from experience.

There are always tourists on the wharf, from a little bit of everywhere. Invariably, some are fishermen and fisherwomen, or would like to be. Two tourists have overheard us. They are from southern Indiana. It’s the first time they have actually seen the ocean, they say.

One of them asks if he heard right: you catch mackerel on the high tide? He is a fisherman himself; he fishes a lake-reservoir near Bloomington. I explain to him that the tide is high every 11 to 14 hours or so and that the sea recedes between those high marks. The mackerel, for their own very private reasons, mass on the high tides, and that’s when they look for something to eat, an anchovy, or even a shiny bare hook.

I belong myself to the tribe that values knowledge for its own sake. Fortunately, I am a fisherman.

I make a disgusting noise with my mouth to signal that the moon causes the oceans to slosh by kind of sucking on them and then releasing them. The first tourist seems interested but also puzzled by my lack of precision about the times when high tides occur. He also wants to know how important it is to respect the tides. I tell him what I know, what I think I know: you catch much more fish on the high tide than at any other time. The Filipino guy moves his head approvingly. I have instant validation. How do I figure out the tides, the first tourist asks? You can get tide tables for the current year at the tackle shop right over there. They are not exactly accurate but they are good enough for fishing; ask any expert fishermen (plural).

Hoosier number two wants to know what causes tides. He has already heard that it’s the moon. If that is so, he states, why can’t the high tide occur at exactly regular intervals? I point out to him that the moon changes its position relative to the earth pretty much all the time. And then I let him know that the sun also has an effect, a sucking effect like the moon’s but a weaker one because it’s farther away, and the earth rotation, and the local relief, and the winds, and . . .

By the time I am less than a third into my lecture on tides, tourist number two is looking at me with vacant eyes; I am afraid that his face will fall forward and hit the rough wood banister. But tourist number one now has tide tables in his hand and he is examining them with animated curiosity. The man would soon catch mackerel if he lived around here, I am thinking. The other tourist, the head-nodding one, understands tides at least 500% better than he did a short while ago. It does not matter to him at this point that he knows no more than one one-thousandth of what’s known about tides. He has no idea of this reality anyway.

The Filipino guy moves his head approvingly. I have instant validation.

I belong myself to the tribe that values knowledge for its own sake. Fortunately, I am a fisherman (an average fisherman). It helps me keep track of the fact that catching fish is also valuable, in several ways. Plus, I really like the fatty taste of mackerel. What I told the two tourists about tides serves both purposes. I believe that the first guy does not need to understand in detail the complex mechanisms of tidal motions to catch more fish. Of course, he must be convinced that I am not lying to him, that the mackerel really run on the high tide, and not on the low tide, for example

In the end, it all depends on what you want, mackerel or knowledge.

* * *

PS: When you cook mackerel, gut it but don’t remove the head, ever! Put it in a fairly hot skillet (not to a maximum heat, more like three-quarters High). Do not use oil or butter. The fish cooks best in its own fat. After it’s well seized on both sides, reduce the heat and cover to finish by steaming. It’s ready when the flesh comes off the main bone easily. Mackerel is not a wimpy fish; it’s hard to ruin. Salt only just before you serve. You can add black pepper anytime. Eat with lemon, of course. One more thing: if your spouse or partner is not a fishy-fish person you may have to trade him or her in after the second or third time you cook mackerel at home. Life is made of choices.




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We Are All Floridians Now

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The election of 2018 was ably summarized by Brenda Snipes, supervisor of elections for Broward County, Florida, in a comment about 2,000 ballots that her organization appeared to be missing. She said there was one thing she was sure of: “The ballots are in this building.”

There would be nowhere else for them to be. The ballots are in the building. The ballots are in the building.

The ballots, if found, would presumably have been cast for candidates of Snipes’ party, but she was forced to resign her position before she could find them. In the same way, Democratic and Republican partisans spent the election season trying to find the votes they needed and were sure existed, somewhere on the premises; but they never found where. The more or less final results of the election indicated that the voters were pretty much where they were when the whole thing started — evenly divided. The same groups turned out in more or less the same numbers, and when forced to decide between D and R, they decided in a way that taught no one much of anything. There was no blue wave. There was no red wave. Nobody rocked the vote. And because the results were approximately even, both parties will spend the next two years making asses of themselves trying to find their votes.

As a libertarian, I’m inclined to hate everyone’s politics; as someone who can read and write, I’m inclined to be skeptical about all supposed Great Communicators and Inspiring Speakers of the post-literate age.

But more was lost than ballots in the election of 2018. Grammar often got so lost that nobody even went looking for it. Here’s a report from Fox News (November 18) about the Senate election in Snipes’ own virtuous and efficient state:

[Rick] Scott's victory . . . marks the first time in more than a century that Florida has two Republican senators representing them in Washington.

No matter how many ballots Floridians cast — bogus or not — “Florida” is not a “them.”

The best orator among Florida politicians was supposed to be Andrew Gillum, the losing candidate for governor. Gillum is said by conservative friends of mine to be “a good speaker, even if you hate his politics.” As a libertarian, I’m inclined to hate everyone’s politics; as someone who can read and write, I’m inclined to be skeptical about all supposed Great Communicators and Inspiring Speakers of the post-literate age. I liked Ronald Reagan pretty well, but I wasn’t captivated by his speeches. I didn’t like Barack Obama or William Jefferson Clinton, but that wasn’t my reason for disliking their constant attempts at self-expression. The reason was that they were blustery, repetitive, and a hundred times too long for their concept count. I found Gillum’s speeches as embarrassing as any other faux-folksy orations.

There was no blue wave. There was no red wave. Nobody rocked the vote.

His election, like Scott’s, fell into the toils of a Florida recount, and Gillum long pursued a victory of hanging chads. Meanwhile, he talked a lot. He said, among other things,

I wanted so bad, and still want so bad, for us to be able to make a combined impact on this state, and I’m trusting that we’re going to have that opportunity. Once we get beyond this election, whatever the outcome may be, we will have to commit ourselves to an improved and a better democracy.

How bad[ly] do you want to be able to make an impact, Mr. Gillum? I want it so bad. Are you currently committed to a better democracy? Maybe not now, but in the future I will have to commit myself. But what do you mean by a better democracy? I mean an improved democracy. I will have to commit myself to an improved and a better democracy.

I didn’t like Barack Obama or William Jefferson Clinton, but that wasn’t my reason for disliking their constant attempts at self-expression.

Gillum wasn’t the only candidate in that race who was committed to the meaningless doubling of words. Ronald Dion (“Ron”) DeSantis, who emerged as victor, was also so committed. He also kept issuing statements, which were duly reported by the Miami Herald:

“I remain humbled by your support and the great honor the people of Florida have shown me as I prepare to serve as your next governor,” his statement read, striking a more conciliatory tone than the confrontational approach he used in the campaign. [The Herald is convinced that approaches strike tones. Picture that, if you can.]

He said the campaign must now end so it can “give way to governing and bringing people together to secure Florida’s future. With the campaign now over, that’s where all of my focus will be.”

Humbled by support and humbled by honor, DeSantis now turns to governing and bringing people together . . . can’t he just say something once? People who can’t do that are likely to get confused. What does it mean to say that a campaign must give way to bringing people together? Incidentally, what does it mean to secure the future? Isn’t it going to happen anyhow? Leave the damned thing alone.

I know what DeSantis was trying to say. Why didn’t he say it? “The campaign’s over; let’s try to work with our opponents”? Now, was that so hard?

But how in God’s universe did the other guy — Mr. Gillum — get himself so mixed up as to say that “it [meaning either his campaign or the recount he wanted] is not over until every legally casted vote is counted”?

Both Gillum and his opponent are able representatives of the modern form of illiteracy, which is the ability to read and speak without noticing what you read and speak.

Sorry. The past participle of cast is cast. And don’t accuse me of pedantry. The man is a politician. The most important thing in his life is the casting of votes. He must have read hundreds of articles, papers, advice sheets, whatever, about the subject. And he doesn’t know what the past participle of cast may be?

Don’t say he merely prefers an accepted variant of the word. Casted hasn’t been used in serious English since the 16th century, and if there’s one thing Florida politicians are not, it’s collectors of antiquarian books. (You can say the same about Mike Pence, who in 2016 babbled about having “casted” his vote, until he was reproved by Merriam Webster and a little swarm of literate people.) Both Gillum and his opponent are able representatives of the modern form of illiteracy, which is the ability to read and speak without noticing what you read and speak. When in doubt — whatever! Just make it up!

That approach can be used with concepts, too. Adults form concepts mainly by reading, reflection, and communication with knowledgeable people. The concepts result from their attempts to find intellectual answers to questions posed by their experience. This is particularly evident in the formation of economic concepts. Today we see one person paying three dollars for a cup of coffee and another declining to pay anything more than two. On another day we see the second person happily paying four dollars for the same commodity. We wonder how to account for this, and if we are willing to read, we may learn from our reading the principle of marginal utility. Similarly, we may wonder why jobs appear to be scarce in one year but abundant in another. If we read, or talk with other people, or pursue our own reflections, we may discover such concepts as the investment cycle, the effects of taxes and regulation, the influence of technological innovation upon productivity, and the like, and we can use these concepts to explain our experience.

I was going to list eight or ten fallacies that are packed into Ocasio-Cortez’s eight words. Then I realized: there aren’t any ideas in what she said.

By contrast, a person who, as Sophocles says, “wishes to talk but never to hear or listen” seeks answers not from reading, reflection, and communication but from an impulse to say something, whether the saying represents a concept or not. Want an example? Here’s a good one. It comes from the inimitable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected congresswoman of New York, who was asked by a PBS interviewer for her response to the nation’s low unemployment rate. As a dedicated opponent of the current economic regime, she seemed embarrassed by this question. But her embarrassment did not last long. She soon had something to say, which was: “Unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs.”

When I saw a clip of that interview, I grabbed a piece of paper to record her words, certain that I would use them here. My plan was to show how even dumb people can generate ideas, lots of ideas — dumb ideas, but plenty of them anyway. I would list eight or ten fallacies that are packed into Ocasio-Cortez’s eight words. Then I realized: there aren’t any ideas in what she said, or around what she said, or implied by what she said; it’s just words, nothing but words. Her remark was as empty of concepts as those mysterious messages in Cocteau’s Orphée: “The bird sings with its fingers, three times.” She is conceptually illiterate, that’s all.

I gave up my plan, but I was not disappointed. I knew that in this column, O-C’s future is secure. Most politicians talk nonsense all day long, but few are objects of a publicity cult. They are clowns without an audience, and their words are written on the waves. But Ocasio-Cortez is the Donald Trump of the Left. Nothing can stand between her and a camera, and there are always people showing her the way to one. She is God’s gift to Republicans and to people like me. I expect from her a continuous supply of hilarious remarks.

Like other mainstream politicians, McCaskill spent her career disguising an obsession with power as a manifestation of civic duty.

I have not been so lucky with Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, whose legislative career was ended by the voters on November 6. I fear that McCaskill will no longer be turning out fodder for Word Watch. But her farewell performance was a knockout in the nonsense department. It had the weight, the gravity, of exemplary things. Ocasio is a nut who sees no reason to disguise the fact, but McCaskill is a representative figure: like other mainstream politicians, she spent her career disguising an obsession with power as a manifestation of civic duty. When she lost, she posted a farewell address in which she made the following outrageous claim.

This campaign was never about me — it was always about the people of Missouri.

Her full statement contains 354 words, 33 of which are first-person pronouns. Most of it is autobiographical: “I love Missouri. I was born and raised here. Waited tables to put myself through college and law school at Mizzou. I have raised my family here. I’ve never left. [Note: except for 12 years vacationing in Washington DC.] . . . We’ve been through a lot together, Missouri and me.”

How icky can you get? The really awful thing is that this could have been “Montana and me” or “New Jersey and me” or “Hoboken and me”: any pol could have written this — and most of them have. The business about waiting tables — they all say something like that. They all maintain that their campaigns are not attempts to thrust their snouts into the gravy bowl; oh no, everything they do is a “fight for what’s right,” for “our values,” as McCaskill put it — the “values” of “this state” (or whatever). We have Missouri values, California values, Cleveland values, any kind of values you like, and every value offers a privilege to serve:

You allowed me to serve the public since I was 28 years old. [There’s an old leftist satirical song that says, “Our leaders are the finest men, / And we elect ’em again and again.”] For decades I have been blessed to get up every single day to make things better and improve people’s lives. [Recall Gillum’s idea about both improving and making better.] That has been my greatest privilege.

Every libertarian must be in agony, having to read yet another assertion that the people are desperately waiting for their lives to be improved by such philanthropists as Claire McCaskill. The real agony, however, begins when one gets to McCaskill’s promise. She puts it in boldface: “I will never stop fighting.

Even when they lose, they all say that. They all promise to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing their whole lives. No matter what you think, they know what’s right for you. You will never get rid of them. They simply won’t go away.




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Gateway Drug

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Vietnam Revisited

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I never fought in Vietnam. By the time I was old enough to go, I held a high draft-lottery number and a student deferment, and was never called up. I do remember the war, though. Early on, when Kennedy sent in the advisers, I was in elementary school, and saw the pictures on TV and in Life magazine. When Johnson sent in half a million men, I was in junior high, and we argued about the war in class. When Nixon came to power I was in high school, and we debated it more. When the four protesters were killed at Kent State University, I was finishing my first year at the University of Washington in Seattle. My instructor in German cancelled classes and gave us all A’s so we could go protest. I stood aside, watching the protesters flood onto Interstate 5 and block traffic until the cops pushed them off the exit to what are now the offices of Amazon.

My sentiments on the Vietnam War, like those of most Americans, evolved. In 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed, its government appealing for help and the US Congress and President Ford offering none, I was as coldhearted as anyone. I thought, “To hell with Vietnam.” I had been reading about it, thinking about it, arguing about it since I was a kid. During that time 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what? In economists’ terms, the mountain of corpses was a “sunk cost” — and I was ready to watch the whole damn thing sink into the South China Sea.

I was living in Berkeley, California, when the South fell. I remember standing outside my apartment on May 1, 1975, taking photographs of a parade down Telegraph Avenue welcoming the Communist victory. “All Indochina Must Go Communist,” one banner said. Well, I hadn’t evolved that much. For me the fall of South Vietnam was a day for quiet sadness.

By 1975, 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what?

As a kid in junior high, I had supported the war. Recall the geopolitical situation: Communists had eaten up a third of the world, with big bites in Eastern Europe in 1945–48, China in 1949, North Vietnam in 1954 and Cuba in 1959. They had been stopped in a few places — in Malaya, by the Brits — but once firmly established they had never been pushed back.The Cold War’s rules of engagement were that the Communists could contest our ground — what we called the Free World — but we dared not contest theirs. And the end of that road did not look good.

When I used that argument — and “domino theory” is not a good name for it — no one knew the Communist system was facing extinction. People knew it was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread.

All the old arguments came back as I was reading Max Hastings’ new book,Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. Hastings, an Englishman, is my favorite military historian; for years I have had his 1987 book, The Korean War, on my shelf, and I breezed through his 752-page Vietnam in a few days. In this book Hastings has undertaken to write the narrative of the war, and not all from the American side, but also in the voices of South and North Vietnam. Hastings reveals that there were arguments and worries on their side as well as ours. Many in the North hated the draft and did not want to trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to fight. Over the years, 200,000 Northerners deserted while in the South. The Northern soldiers also underwent far more privations than the Americans or their Southern allies, living on rice and water spinach (sold in Asian markets here as on choy) and often starving. On one occasion, Hastings says, they killed and ate an orangutan.

People knew communism was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread

Hastings analyzes the assumptions and the strategies of both sides. To the low-level Vietcong, the war was mostly about getting rid of Americans who looked and acted like the “long-nose” French, Vietnam’s late imperial overlords. The cadres tried to indoctrinate the VC in Marxism, but identity politics had the stronger pull.

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side. For a military historian, Hastings makes a key admission when he says that fighting was less important than “the social and cultural contest between Hanoi and Saigon.”

In that contest, the North’s standard-bearer was “Uncle Ho,” the Gandhi-like figure of Ho Chi Minh, who had kicked out the imperialist French. In the South, a society that included landowners, merchants, and bureaucrats who had worked for the French and prayed in the same church as the French, one of the icons was Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. One observer said that Ky, an air force pilot with slick black hair and a pencil-thin moustache, looked like a saxophone player in a cheap Manila nightclub. Writes Hastings of Ky, “He was publicly affable, fluent, enthusiastic about all things American but the taste of Coca-Cola — and as remote as a Martian from the Vietnamese people.”

Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side.

South Vietnam was a society rotten with corruption and ill-gotten wealth. “Again and again,” writes Hastings, “peasants were heard to say that whatever else was wrong with the communists, they were not getting rich.” History shows, though, that life is easier in a society in which some are wrongly rich than in one in which the rich are rounded up and shot, leaving everyone else poor. Hastings writes that when the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon, the soldiers were amazed at how much stuff the people had.

The Vietcong were terrorists. They beheaded the village chieftains who opposed them, and sometimes buried them alive. The Americans were told to behave better than that, but with their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm they dispensed death wholesale. American soldiers, Hastings writes, went to war “wearing sunglasses, helmets, and body armor to give them the appearance of robots empowered to kill.” Back at base, “Army enlisted men took it for granted that Vietnamese would clean their boots and police their huts.” And also use the bar girls for sexual entertainment.

Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese still fought and died for their state, and also worked with the Americans. First-generation Vietnamese in my home state are fiercely loyal to the old Republic of Vietnam, and still fly the yellow flag with the three stripes. Apparently they were not a majority of their countrymen, else the conflict would have come out differently.

With their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm the Americans dispensed death wholesale.

As the Pentagon Papers showed, smart people in the US government saw early on that South Vietnam was ultimately not a viable cause. President Kennedy expressed his doubts, but he also believed deeply that his mission was to stop the Communists. “Nothing that came later was inevitable,” Hastings writes, “but everything derived from the fact that sixteen thousand men were in country because John F. Kennedy had put them there.”

Hastings doesn’t buy the theory propagated in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK that Kennedy was on the verge of backtracking when he was shot.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sent half a million men to Vietnam because he didn’t want to be blamed for losing it, as Truman had been blamed for losing China. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat. For each of these US leaders, the concern was his country’s prestige (a Sixties word) and his own political standing. “An extraordinary fact about the decision making in Washington between 1961 and 1975,” Hastings observes, “was that Vietnamese were seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon it.”

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were focused on the Chinese and the Russians, and assumed they were in charge in Hanoi as much as the Americans were in Saigon. Hastings says it was not so. The Russians and the Chinese were frustrated at the North Vietnamese aggressiveness, and repeatedly advised them to cool it. Within the North Vietnamese leadership, Ho often agreed with his foreign advisors, but Hastings says that policy was set not by Ho but by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, “though the world would not know this.”

Nixon saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat.

By Hastings’ account the Americans were not the only ones who made big mistakes on the battlefield. Militarily, the biggest Communist mistake was the Tet (Lunar New Year) offensive of 1968. Le Duan’s idea was to show the flag in all the Southern cities, spark an uprising among the people, and swamp the Southern government in one big wave. In the event, the South Vietnamese didn’t rise. In Saigon, the Vietcong breached the wall of the US embassy, and in Hue, North Vietnamese regulars occupied the town north of the Perfume River for several weeks and methodically executed all their enemies. But everywhere the Communists were driven back.

The Vietcong lost 50,000 dead in Tet and follow-on attacks, five times the combined US and South Vietnamese military deaths. Largely cleansed of Vietcong, the countryside was quieter in the following year, as the North Vietnamese Army built up forces to fill the void left by the defeated Southern guerrillas. Though Tet was a military defeat for the North, the US press played it as a Communist show of strength, thereby tipping the balance of opinion in America against the war. For the Communists, a military defeat became a political victory.

The journalists had played it the way it looked, and it hadn’t looked like a South Vietnamese victory. American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which was used in 1964 to justify the de facto US declaration of war. Of the two supposed attacks on the destroyer USS Maddox, Hastings writes, one wasn’t real and the other was “a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.”

For the Communists, the military defeat of the Tet Offensive became a political victory.

In the case of Tet, US journalists inadvertently helped the enemy, but generally the press gave Americans a more accurate picture of the war in South Vietnam than the government did. The press did a poor job of reporting the shortcomings of the North, but it wasn’t allowed to go there. In 1966, when I was arguing with my schoolmates for the war, I repeatedly heard them say that communism would be a bad system for us, but it was a better one for the Vietnamese. If Americans had good reporting from North Vietnam, I don’t think my schoolmates would have said things like that. We anti-communists were right about one thing: communism turned out to be just as bad as we said it was.

The question remains as to what, if anything, America should have done to stop the Communists in Vietnam. Hastings quotes CIA officer Rufus Phillips describing what America did: “We decided that we were going to win the war and then give the country back to the Vietnamese. That was the coup de grace to Vietnamese nationalism.” But if it was wrong to do that in Vietnam, it should have been wrong in Korea, and it worked there, at least well enough to preserve the Republic of Korea. It can be no surprise that Kennedy and Johnson would try a military solution again.

What was the difference? Hastings touches on this question only briefly, mentioning the obvious: Korea is a peninsula with a border just 160 miles long, while South Vietnam had a border with Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam more than 1,000 miles long, perforated in many spots by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the complex of corridors through which the Communists infiltrated the South with fighters and supplies. The warfare on the Korean peninsula was conventional, with front lines; in Vietnam it was a guerrilla contest while the Americans were there, becoming conventional only after they had decided to go. The physical climate was different, too. The Koreas were divided on the 38thparallel, about the latitude of San Francisco; the Vietnams were divided on the 17th parallel, about the latitude of Belize City. All of Vietnam is in the tropics, with attendant cloudbursts, humidity, bacteria, and bugs.

American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident.

And there were political differences. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of national independence; Kim Il Sung pretended to be one, but had a less inspiring story. Also, in Korea the old imperial masters were not long-nosed Caucasians but Japanese.

A penultimate thought. Hastings quotes without comment Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of capitalist Singapore, to the effect that if the Americans had not resisted the Communists in Vietnam, “We would have been gone.” Call this the “domino theory” if you like. It was a view I encountered in the early ’90s, when I worked in Hong Kong for Asiaweek magazine. Our founder and publisher, a Kiwi named Michael O’Neill, maintained that the American effort in Vietnam had stopped the Communists from pushing on to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, China had junked communist economics, and Vietnam, unless it wanted to remain poor, would have to do the same. And that, O’Neill argued, meant that the Americans had really won the Vietnam War, even if they didn’t know it.

Or maybe, I thought, we had lost the war but in the long run it didn’t matter — because the war wasn’t the decisive contest.

Twenty-one years after the war ended, I traveled to Vietnam with my wife and six-year-old son. In Danang I met a group of men who had fought for the South and suffered persecution from the victors. They weren’t bitter at the Americans, nor were the tour guys who drove us to Khe Sanh and were too young to remember. In the North, at Ha Long, I chatted up the proprietor of a tiny restaurant who said that during the war, when he had been a truck driver for a state-owned coalmine, he had lost his house to American bombing. I told him I was very sorry my countrymen destroyed his house.

He shrugged. “I have a better one now.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975," by Max Hastings. Harper, 2018, 857 pages.



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The Abyss Gazes Back

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“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.
And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Though I’m a Libertarian, and in the Left-Right fight I am both-yet-neither, I’m hardly on the 50-yard line. At this stage of my political evolution, I’m considerably more likely to vote Republican than Democrat when no other option is available. In the Arizona senate race this year, I cast my ballot for Martha McSally. I did so without much enthusiasm. I am close enough to the 50-yard line — yet far enough from the field — so that when I vote either Republican or Democrat, I usually end up regretting it.

President Trump, to put it frankly, is a drama queen. He plays every scene bigly. Those who cling to his coattails seem, to me, inclined to do the same thing. Martha McSally is no exception. There were several times in her campaign when I had reason to think, per the old Marx Brothers routine, “Oh, Martha! Slowly I turned, step by step!”

Her opponent, now Senator-Elect Kyrsten Sinema, thinks it’s dandy for Americans to join the Taliban? That was the charge leveled against her by the McSally campaign. (“Step by step . . inch by inch . . ”) Actually, my very first thought, once McSally began making this claim, was that she thinks we’re all idiots. But in the 2003 interview in which Sinema made the “Taliban” comment, talk-radio host Ernie Hancock — himself a libertarian — was trying to show how liberal Sinema really was. His point was that she liked spending the taxpayers’ money on causes she considered noble. Flabbergasted when he said that as an individual, he had every right to join the Taliban (because the taxpayers wouldn’t be paying for it), and certainly thinking he was just trying to get her goat, she told him to go ahead and join: “Fine. I don't care if you want to do that, go ahead." The notion that she genuinely exhorted a middle-aged political pundit to become a terrorist is so absurd that it’s insulting anyone would expect me to believe it.

President Trump is a drama queen. He plays every scene bigly. Those who cling to his coattails seem inclined to do the same thing.

Congresswoman McSally’s views are closer to libertarian than Sinema’s, that’s for sure. It’s why I pulled the lever for the former instead of the latter. McSally generally believes in smaller government, at any rate. Though Sinema’s antiwar stance is significantly closer to mine, she is indeed a big-government booster on nearly every other issue. And I find political histrionics tiresome, regardless of which side indulges in them.

McSally used to be an Air Force fighter pilot — one of the nation’s female firsts. “I was shot at by the Taliban,” she tells us. The obvious and understandable emotion behind that assertion doesn’t change the fact that Sinema made an offhand, unscripted remark. It was a “gotcha” moment, plain and simple.

The fact that what she said would have been terribly insensitive (at the very least) had she meant it seriously does not change the fact that it was never meant to be taken seriously. She undoubtedly didn’t realize that, a decade and a half later, it would be scrounged up and used against her. But the fact of the matter was that Sinema didn’t think McSally should have been in the Middle East, flying a fighter plane, to get shot at in the first place. The whole point she’d been trying to make was that she was against the war.

The notion that Sinema genuinely exhorted a middle-aged political pundit to become a terrorist is so absurd that it’s insulting anyone would expect me to believe it.

Shenanigans like this are why libertarians — capital “L” or small — get frustrated with Republicans. The red-meat GOP base loves to call its political opponents “snowflakes.” But too often, they give the impression of being pretty snowflaky themselves. We want substance — logic — but what we so often get is emotional razzle-dazzle.

Politics these days reminds me increasingly of a black-and-white comedy. Lacking the wit of the Marx Brothers, it’s more on the level of the Three Stooges. Whenever a charge is lobbed by one side against the other, the opposition’s response is, basically, “But you started it . . . nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!” They’re forever poking their fingers in one another’s eyes and smacking one another on the head.

Yet as buffoonish as many politicians are, their antics don’t stay funny for very long. They’re taking our money and meddling in our lives. Republicans may do it less than Democrats, but they do it, all the same. When we gaze into the big-government abyss, the abyss gazes back. And there’s nothing funny about that.

The red-meat GOP base loves to call its political opponents “snowflakes.” But too often, they give the impression of being pretty snowflaky themselves.

We need a third option on the ballot: one with an “L” beside it. The only other choice in the Arizona senate race was a Green Party candidate, appropriately named Angela Green, who withdrew from the contest once it became obvious that Sinema needed her votes. Thousands of people still voted for Green, but in any case those wouldn’t have gone either to McSally or to a Libertarian.

We libertarians are prone to second-guessing our votes. The Republican Party in Arizona has done everything it can to keep us off the ballot, by rigging the system to deny us third-party status. To be frank, that didn’t endear McSally to me, either. What I probably should have done, in the choice for the senate, was vote for nobody at all.

With no third option (I would have voted for Groucho Marx before I’d have chosen Angela Green), I cast a lackluster vote, for a candidate I knew was trying to manipulate me. Though it made no difference to the outcome, I feel sullied and used. Now we have Kyrsten Sinema, a big-government, tax-and-spend “progressive,” in the US Senate seat formerly held by an at least somewhat libertarian Jeff Flake.

I believe the Republicans are fighting with monsters. The Democrats have little left in their arsenal besides cheap emotional appeals. But in stooping to their opponents’ level in the tactics they use, and in cynically shutting other candidates out, the Republicans are turning into monsters themselves. Voters are gazing into the abyss, and the abyss is gazing back.




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The Choices of Jeff Bezos

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Amazon’s choice to expand in New York City and the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC reminded me of a story I did on the company in January 1999, when I was a business reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Amazon was three and a half years old and was approaching $1 billion a year in revenue — an amount it does now in two days. Back then Amazon was operating out of an old building near the Pike Place Market above a cheap Indian restaurant and across the street from the Green Turtle youth hostel.

Its employees there worked from desks that were made from interior doors the company bought for $135 each and equipped with legs. “We have a carpenter who makes a hundred of these at a time,” Jeff Bezos told me. Bezos made a point of showing me his CEO’s desk was made from a door, too. It was a matter of priorities, he said. Amazon could not afford to piddle away its cash on fancy office furniture.

Bezos was 35 then. On paper he was worth $9 billion, though the company had not yet earned a nickel’s worth of profit.

Back then Amazon was operating out of an old building above a cheap Indian restaurant and across the street from the Green Turtle youth hostel.

In those days I wrote a lot of company features, which included an interview with the CEO and a walk around the plant. I always included the story of the founding, which in Amazon’s case was about how Bezos chose Seattle. Bezos wasn’t from here; he was from New York, where he’d been working on Wall Street. His idea for Amazon was an internet business to sell books, which were standard products, easy to handle, cheap to ship, and didn’t require after-market service. You might think such a business could be set up anywhere, but the location was important. It had to have good airline connections, for example.

The biggest thing, he told me, was the labor market. In order to grow, it had to have a deep pool of computer-savvy talent. The deepest pool on the West Coast was in Silicon Valley, but he avoided that place because the competition for talent was too fierce. He didn’t want to have to bid against Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Apple. Microsoft had created its own talent pool in Seattle, and he was happy to dip into that.

When the movers came to his apartment in New York, he said, he still hadn’t decided where to start his company. He had narrowed it down to four Western cities: Boulder, Colorado; Reno, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle. Portland and Reno, he decided, were too small; Boulder was near Denver, which was big enough. Well, he chose Seattle, which is now packed with 40,000 Amazon employees.

In order to grow, Amazon had to have a deep pool of computer-savvy talent.

Some commentators noticed that Bezos chose one of the seven states with no income tax, and suggested that when he went looking for “HQ2,” he would choose one of the others — Texas, maybe, perhaps Austin. If he had chosen Austin, the anti-income-tax people would have made hay over that.

A columnist in the Seattle Times, Danny Westneat, writes that by choosing New York City and suburban Washington DC, Amazon has thrown in with “two of the most expensive, high-tax environments in the nation,” places that have personal and corporate income taxes, including a city income tax in New York. Such a choice puts paid to the notion that a company like Amazon will go to the place with the best “tax climate.”

I have no objection to Amazon accepting subsidies—government’s offering them is another matter.

Was Amazon chasing subsidies? It was offered big ones by New York and by Virginia — but then, it was offered even bigger ones by other jurisdictions, and it turned them down. I have no objection to Amazon accepting subsidies (government’s offering them is another matter); Bezos owes it to his shareholders, including himself, to get the best deal he can. But he also owes them, and himself, the discipline not to be bribed into making a bad decision.

I note in the news reports that Amazon says it chose New York and metro Washington in search of the best pools of tech talent — which is the same thing Bezos told me about Seattle 20 years ago.

None of this is to say that a state’s tax and regulatory climates are not important. Texas has been growing faster than New York, and one of the obvious reasons is that Texas has fewer regulations and taxes. But to Bezos, that difference is not the most important one, and not enough to tip the balance in favor of Texas.

All of which assumes he is making a good decision.




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Public Opinion Court

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The Great Anti-Climax

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I do not believe in the saying that “all politics is local.” If that’s true, why are we always getting into wars in other countries? But during this election cycle I was very interested in California, which is my own locale.

As predicted, California elected as its next governor one Gavin Newsom, a wealthy former mayor of San Francisco and currently lieutenant governor of the state, who is about as smart as the average doorknob. This was a year in which handsome men were thought to have an enormous advantage; they seemed to remind people of John F. Kennedy, who when you think about it was handsome only when compared with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Newsom is handsome-for-a-politician, but that’s not why he won. He won because the Republican Party in this state dissolved about a decade ago, giving place to a fairly well-oiled Democracy run by the state employees’ unions. The surprise is that Newsom’s opponent, a small-government tax hawk named John Cox, received 41% of the vote and was considered a remote possibility to win. Cox was an excellent campaigner and got his votes by himself, with little help from a rumored “Republican Party.”

The same amount of help was rendered by that party to the biggest ballot initiative, Prop 6, which would have rolled back a large tax increase imposed in 2017 by the Democratic legislature, supposedly to “fix the roads.” When people list the core items that they expect to see in any state budget, roads usually rank first or second. But not in California. The money that should go for roads — even money granted by the voters in previous ballot propositions — goes instead for bike lanes, parks, and other “environmental” matters, and for astronomical employee salaries. (I don’t mean that the employees are astronomers; if they were, they might actually do some work. California is a place where people often have to wait seven hours to do their business at the DMV.) Before the latest tax increase, California already had the highest gas taxes in the nation; now they are higher. The new gas tax is one of the most regressive imaginable. It means that breadwinners have to pay the government about $400 a year, extra, or not be allowed to drive to work.

This was a year in which handsome men were thought to have an enormous advantage.

Prop 6 was designed to end this tax and not let it happen again. It was the brainchild, not of the Republican Party, but of a gay, hyper-energetic San Diego talk show host, Carl DeMaio, who is very good at pushing a cause. Pre-election surveys indicated, predictably, that two-thirds of voters were in favor of a proposition rolling back the gas tax. But Prop 6 went down, 45 to 55. Why? Because the Democratic secretary of state entitled and summarized it as an attack on road repair:

ELIMINATES CERTAIN ROAD REPAIR AND TRANSPORTATION FUNDING. REQUIRES CERTAIN FUEL TAXES AND VEHICLE FEES BE APPROVED BY THE ELECTORATE. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.

SUMMARY

Repeals a 2017 transportation law's taxes and fees designated for road repairs and public transportation. Fiscal Impact: Reduced ongoing revenues of $5.1 billion from state fuel and vehicle taxes that mainly would have paid for highway and road maintenance and repairs, as well as transit programs.

Note that telltale “as well as transit programs,” which clearly indicated, to anyone who read that far, that the money, as usual, would be spent on other things than fixin’ the roads. California voters didn’t read that far.

Yet while naïve voters were killing Prop 6, they were also killing Prop 10, which would have permitted and encouraged more than 500 local governments to impose rent control on the helpless population. They voted this one down by 62 to 38.

Large majorities on each side. Why? How? I don’t know. You tell me.

Note that telltale “as well as transit programs,” which clearly indicated, to anyone who read that far, that the money, as usual, would be spent on other things than fixin’ the roads.

Turning now to the nation at large: we’ll see whether there was a blue wave or a red wave when we see some kind of sophisticated, non-axe-grinding study of voters. We may wait a long time for that. In the meantime, we can say that if there was a blue wave, there was a red wave to meet it.

But remember: most congressional races in this country were decided on the yaller-dog principle: “Some people will vote for a yaller dog as long as he’s on the Democratic [or Republican] ticket.” That’s how New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert (“Bob”) Menendez got reelected, 53 to 42, despite his public repute as a crook and not a smart or likable one, either. And that’s how California House District 50 (eastern San Diego County) got decided. The Republican incumbent, Duncan Hunter, to whom nobody ever gave much credit for brains, is under federal indictment for using about $250,000 of campaign money for vacations, eating and drinking, “personal relationships,” and other fun, though basically penny-ante, stuff. His Democratic opponent was Ammar Campa-Najjar, age 29, another one of this year’s handsome young men. Until Hunter’s indictment, Campa-Najjar, a former Obama organizer and scion of a family of Palestinian enragés, was a purely sacrificial candidate for the Republican 50th. Hunter’s indictment united almost everyone in the county, Republican and Democrat, in scorning and deriding Hunter; it dried up his campaign money and unleashed a deluge of funds for Campa-Najjar, who is said to have spent ten times more money than Hunter. But it was all for nothing. Hunter’s district was safe Republican, and remained such. He was reelected 54 to 46.

Nationwide, a lot of electoral activity consisted simply of voters returning to their natural allegiance. Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, Tennessee — these are Republican states, and it was strange that they should have Democratic senators to begin with, or (in the case of Tennessee) that they should consider having one now. In other states, where there were real contests, the vote could usually have gone either way; the outcome therefore didn’t mean much on the philosophical plane. I’m thinking of the Florida Senate and governor race, the Wisconsin governor race, the Arizona and Nevada Senate races, and even the Montana Senate race. I’m not thinking of the Texas race, where the Republican governor won overwhelmingly, while the Republican senator, Ted Cruz, won merely respectably. Cruz, who was up against another “handsome,” “Kennedyesque,” but also overbearing “young” man, is virtually the only politician in the country who is less likable than Hillary Clinton. His Democratic foe had so much out-of-state money that he couldn’t think of ways to spend it all. But Cruz won — because Texas is Texas and Robert (“Beto”) O’Rourke is not.

Most congressional races in this country were decided on the yaller-dog principle: “Some people will vote for a yaller dog as long as he’s on the Democratic [or Republican] ticket.”

In Massachusetts, voters went overwhelmingly for a politician even less likable than Cruz, Elizabeth Warren; they also went overwhelmingly for the Republican gubernatorial incumbent. Maryland also voted Democrat for almost everything except its governor. The expression “the bland leading the bland” may apply; remember that Mitt Romney is a former governor of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts as well as a former Republican nominee for president. Romney was born in Michigan, has lived mainly in California, was governor of Massachusetts, and has now been elected a senator from Utah — a remarkable career of disaffiliation. Anywhere he hangs his hat is home, for now.

I don’t know enough about the folkways of Massachusetts and Maryland to guess why they elect conservatives to the statehouse and liberals to other offices; maybe the conservatives and the liberals are both members of the Faux Party, and the electorate loves and cherishes them for that reason. I do know that there isn’t any basis for another piece of folk wisdom, just now being uttered ad nauseam — the idea that the American people split their tickets between parties because they want balanced and limited government. Chris Stirewalt, a person who masquerades for Fox News as a political analyst, said on election night that there is “a preference among Americans for divided government.” Stirewalt instanced the coming Democratic House and Republican Senate.

This is so fatuous, it’s hard to find words for it. The completely safe districts that elect 80% of Congress are not populated by people who vote for a Democratic congressman and a Republican senator in order to preserve balanced government. When it comes to Congress — and usually every other office — they vote a straight party line. We have divided government only because other people vote an opposing straight party line. There are exceptions, as in the Republicans elected to the governorships of Massachusetts and Maryland, but they are just that — exceptions. Californians did not vote for big government when they turned down Prop 6 and then vote for little government when they welcomed Prop 10 because they wanted to balance big and little government. They did it because they didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t read beyond the title of Prop 6 but for some unknown reason sensed that Prop 10 was a danger. We don’t have sheep and wolves because someone decides that sheep and wolves need to balance each other; we have sheep and wolves because sheep engender sheep and wolves engender wolves.

Mitt Romney was born in Michigan, has lived mainly in California, was governor of Massachusetts, and has now been elected a senator from Utah — a remarkable career of disaffiliation.

It seems that Trump did marginally better than most other presidents at limiting his midterm losses in Congress; he lost fewer House seats than the average, and he picked up at least one valuable Senate seat. But we can’t assume that “he” was the crucial factor. He had an effect, surely; he “energized” many voters for and against him. It’s my bet that the energized Democrats were going to show up and vote anyway, but many of the energized Republicans would have stayed home, had not Trump inspired them. Yet in some cases, “he” probably “won” races despite himself. Ron DeSantis, the Florida senatorial candidate whom Trump endorsed, probably had a harder time in the general election than his primary opponent would have had. DeSantis seems to have won the general election by only four-tenths of 1%. I doubt, however, that the (failed) Republican senatorial candidate in Montana would have gotten within three percentage points of his incumbent rival without Trump’s efforts.

But speaking of the Montana election, it came within perhaps 1000 votes of being swung by the finally unwilling candidacy of a big-L Libertarian, Rick Breckenridge, who got 2.8% of the vote despite having dropped out, late in the game, in favor of the Republican. The LP guy had been polling at about 4%, but when he left, many votes had already been cast. No one knows for sure, but I assume that LP votes in Montana come mainly out of the Republicans. Some Democrats in Montana assume that too, because they sent out mailers urging “true conservatives” to vote for Breckenridge instead of the Republican — tactics that led Breckenridge to endorse the Republican.

Contrary to constant press reports about the remarkable popularity of the Democratic incumbent, Jon Tester — “a rural Democrat who still connects with the people,” etc. — the Libertarian Party appears to have been responsible for electing him in both 2006 and 2012, years in which Tester’s margin of victory over his Republican opponent was .87 and 3.72%, respectively, and the LP candidate’s vote was 2.6 and 6.56. It is painful to ask this question, but is it the LP’s job to elect members of other parties?

When it comes to Congress — and usually every other office — most people vote a straight party line. We have divided government only because other people vote an opposing straight party line.

Donald Trump may be enjoying the prospect of the next two years. In the Senate, he has achieved a significantly more Trumpian majority — no more Flake, no more McCain (although Mitt Romney will be glad to obstruct any non-RINO programs). In the House, he has gone from a slim Republican majority, out of which he got nothing except the tax cut, to a slimmer Democratic majority. God’s gift to him is the Democrats’ custom of automatically awarding committee chairmanships by seniority, which means that most of the key positions will go to elderly and loquacious men and women elected from extremely safe districts — a recipe for disaster if the election of 2020 is nationalized, which it surely will be. Maxine Waters does not play well on the national stage. She plays a little bit better than Nancy Pelosi.

But certain it is that this election was God’s gift to people who write about politics and enjoy laughing at politicians. The cast is irresistible . . . Trump . . . Waters . . . Pelosi . . . Schiff . . Nadler . . . Warren . . . To paraphrase yet another old saw, “politics is a tragedy for those who think and a comedy for those who feel — that a lot of good jokes are coming.”




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We Survived Another Election

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A newspaper columnist in my hometown called the elections of 2018 about social justice and the soul of America. It was, some said, the most important election of our lifetimes.

So much for that. RealClearPolitics projected a Democratic gain in the House of Representatives of 25; Nate Silver said 35. As I write, the day after the election, the result looks to be in that range. The Democrats lost seats in the Senate, which the pollsters had also predicted.

Does that amount to a “blue wave”? Yeah, but more like a surfing wave than the tsunami for which the anti-Trumpers yearned. Consider that in 2010, two years into the reign of Obama, the Tea Party-driven Republicans conquered the House with a 63-seat gain. In 1994, two years into Clinton’s first term, Republicans took the House with a 54-seat gain. In 1966, two years into Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Republicans picked up 47 seats in the House, though they fell short of controlling it. In each of these first-term off-year elections, the “wave” party also took seats in the Senate.

Does that amount to a “blue wave”? Yeah, but more like a surfing wave than the tsunami for which the anti-Trumpers yearned.

So we’ll have a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. That’s not such a bad outcome. We had divided government in most of the Bill Clinton years, and they were better years than most. Congress passed welfare reform, ratified NAFTA, and decided to keep its hands off the Internet — all good.

Rand Paul, libertarians’ favorite Republican senator, was not on the ballot this year, but he would have won. A Republican won Tennessee’s other Senate seat. Justin Amash, libertarians’ favorite Republican congressman, was easily reelected in Michigan.

In New Mexico, big-L Libertarian Gary Johnson came in third with 15% of the vote for a seat in the US Senate. He was not a spoiler; the Democrat had a majority and would have won had Johnson not been on the ballot. Johnson said it is his last campaign. Too bad. He’s a good man — but America has a two-party mind.

It's not such a bad outcome. We had divided government in most of the Bill Clinton years, and they were better years than most.

In Arizona, small-L libertarian Clint Bolick was up for a retention election for his nonpartisan seat on the Arizona Supreme Court. Bolick, who had been appointed to the court by the Republican governor, was targeted by the National Education Association — and he made it through easily.

As with most elections, some of the more interesting things were choices other than candidates, especially in the central and western states. Start with dope and guns. Voters in Michigan, which has had medical marijuana since 2008, passed Proposal 1, general legalization. Voters in North Dakota rejected a similar proposal. Medical marijuana won in Utah, the nation’s most conservative state, and also in Missouri, which had three versions of it on the ballot. Medical marijuana is not a big deal any more, at least outside the South.

Voters in my home state, Washington (which has had medical marijuana for 20 years), passed Initiative 1639, which raises the age for owning a gun to 21. The measure, said to be one of the toughest gun-control laws in the country, was pushed by urban progressives, and they had the votes to pass it.

Medical marijuana is not a big deal any more, at least outside the South.

Washington is a Democratic state with a split personality: it is the leftiest state with no income tax and no appetite for income taxes or any other new taxes. This year its voters nixed Initiative 1631, which would have slapped a hefty tax on gasoline refiners and handed the money — a lot of money — to a coterie of political appointees to spend on environmental good. Bill Gates was for it and Big Oil was against it. Well, the people sided with Big Oil.

Washington also considered Initiative 1634, to prohibit local government from adding new taxes on food. The left-leaning city of Seattle had recently slapped a tax on sugary drinks — a measure that was, of course, entirely for the public health. This went into effect in January, raising the price of a case of Gatorade at Costco from $15.99 to $26.33. Though I-1634 advertised itself as a barrier to taxes on food, everyone knew it was to stop any more raids on the consumers of Coca-Cola, Gatorade, and Red Bull. The propaganda for it was paid for by Big Soda, and Big Soda had a big victory.

Thank you, Big Soda. And Big Oil. Several of my friends voted for the food and gasoline taxes because it offended them deeply that corporate interests were trying to sway their votes. I admit that some of the propaganda was bad, but not so awful as to make me vote against my own interests.

Bill Gates was for it and Big Oil was against it. Well, the people sided with Big Oil.

Californians, I thought, had a better reason to vote for taxes: their roads. I recall a stretch of interstate near Livermore a couple of years ago with so many potholes it looked like something from the Syrian civil war. Since then California’s gas tax has been raised by 12 cents, an increase Proposition 6 would have canceled. And the people voted not to cancel it. Well, I won’t argue with them.

Several states had things on ballots that were offers of free stuff, or almost-free stuff, of a welfare-state nature. One was an expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state medical insurance for the poor. Basic Medicaid covers children, pregnant women, parents, and caretakers. Under Obamacare, states can opt to cover other adults under 65 if their incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level. Some 33 states had opted to do this, but as of this year’s election the rest — mostly “red” states — had not.

Raising the minimum wage has proved to be an irresistible offer in “red” states whose business-friendly leaders are loath to impose it.

The federal government will pay 90% of the cost of Medicaid expansion — the same percentage it paid states to build the interstate highways. It’s an irresistible offer, and Idaho (Proposition 2), Nebraska (Initiative 427), and Utah (Proposition 3) voted to accept it. In Montana, which had already decided to accept the federal money, Initiative 185 asked voters if they wanted to pay the state’s 10% share by increasing the cigarette tax by $2 a pack. That’s a different question, and as I write it looks as if their answer will be no.

Raising the minimum wage has proved to be an irresistible offer in “red” states whose business-friendly leaders are loath to impose it. For example, Arkansas has an $8.50 state minimum because of a ballot measure passed in 2014. Voters there were offered Issue 5 to raise the minimum to $9.25 in 2019, $10 in 2020 and $11 in 2021. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson was against it, as was the state chamber of commerce. And the conservative voters of Arkansas approved it overwhelmingly. In Missouri, where voters just flipped a Senate seat to the Republicans, they raised the state minimum wage from $7.85 to $8.60 in 2019, $9.45 in 2020, $10.30 in 2021, $11.15 in 2022, and $12 in 2023, indexing it thereafter to the Consumer Price Index for urban workers.

Occasionally some electorates do reject freebies. In California, Proposition 10 was a measure to allow local governments to impose rent controls on private housing. And it failed. The people of California voted it down.

Why, I don’t know. Maybe they understood the economics. Maybe it’s just that more homeowners vote than renters.

So much for the election of 2018. The Republic survived.




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Three Smart, Suspenseful Movies

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The leaves are settling, the goblins are gone, and you have a bowlful of leftover candy that you convinced yourself you would need for all the trick-or-treaters. Why not sneak those treats into a movie theater and enjoy an evening of intense suspense? I’ve reviewed three gripping new films that will send shivers down your spine. All three contain characters who face demons — of the psychological kind. All three examine the concept of choice and accountability, and all three offer unusual definitions of freedom.

Drew Goddard and Jason Blum are the new masters of suspense, lifting the genre above the slasher model of the ’80s and ’90s and the bloodfests of Quentin Tarantino to return to the psychological suspense dramas that were made in the ’50s and ’60s. Their films are characterized by sophisticated scripts, top quality cinematography and music, and lavish, almost garish, set dressing. After writing and directing 2012’s remarkable The Cabin in the Woods (see our review), Goddard explained, “The horror genre gets you in touch with our primal instincts as a people more than any other genre I can think of. It gives you this chance to sort of reflect on who we are and look at the sort of uglier side that we don't always look at, and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.” His latest film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is an ensemble piece that does just that, taking us on a dark and stormy night to a hotel as eerie and secretive as Hitchcock’s Bates Motel.

The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us.

The movie begins almost like a stage play; the scene, an oversized hotel room with an unnaturally wide expanse of floorspace in the middle where actors could mingle and emote, fills the screen and is as wide as a stage. A bed sits far stage right and a desk far stage left, with a small couch under the window next to the foot of the bed. A man enters, backlit through the hotel room door. He crosses stage right to the window and looks outside uneasily, then crosses downstage left to deposit his bag and crosses back to the window, where he closes the curtains furtively and finally turns on the light so he can get to work. The motions feel staged and unrealistic. That is their purpose. Nothing is going to be realistic in this movie.

Scene 2 occurs ten years later at the same hotel, circa 1968 (assuming that a particular news item on a black and white TV is meant to be a live broadcast). Several characters are gathering in the once-glamorous lobby of the rundown El Royale Hotel to check in for the night; we assume that at least one of them is related to the action in the opening scene. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), who introduces himself as a vacuum cleaner salesman on a junket, displays stereotypically sleazy gaucherie, especially toward Darlene (Cynthia Ervio) a young black woman carrying a bundle of bedrolls. By contrast, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) treats Darlene with genteel manners that may or may not be sincere, offering to carry her luggage to her room for her. The fourth guest (Dakota Johnson) is cool, glamorous, and haughtily aloof to them all as she selects a room far from the rest of the guests.

The El Royale is loosely based on the old Cal-Neva Hotel in Lake Tahoe, whose claim to fame (besides having once been owned by Frank Sinatra) was that the state line ran directly through the lobby. “Would you prefer the warmth and sunshine of the West, or the hope and opportunity of the East?” Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the El Royale’s desk clerk, asks expansively as customers arrive. “California rooms are a dollar extra,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, of course.

Yes, a National Geographic documentary is the scariest movie I have seen in ages.

It’s a significant decision, because choice and chance are important themes in this film, where nothing is as it seems and choosing wisely can be a matter of life and death. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Whom should we trust? What deep secrets are kept at the El Royale, and can the truth set them free? The plot backtracks and restarts numerous times as it is retold through the perspective of the various characters, insisting that our perspectives change too.

Occasional allusions to events that took place in the ’60s become important later in the film. The vintage clothing, automobiles, music, and mid-century furnishings also contribute to the rich Hitchcockean atmosphere. The women are stylish, the men are masculine, the young desk clerk is troubled, and Goddard even kills off a key character just a third of the way into the story, à la Hitch’s main character in Psycho. The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us. Horror might not be your genre, but this film is just about perfect.

Another film in which being off balance can lead to instant death is Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s breathtaking attempt, last year, to become the first person to solo climb the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Yes, a NatGeo doc is the scariest movie I have seen in ages. My heart was pounding and I had to look away from the screen several times as Alex fought to balance on a tiny toehold here, a half-inch protrusion there, making his way up the nearly perpendicular giant — without a rope or parachute. One slip, and he would be dead. In terms of Goddard’s definition of the horror genre, Free Solo reveals the psychological need to “get . . . in touch with . . . primal instincts, . . . [offers a] chance to sort of reflect on who we are . . . and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.”

What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death?

Alex Honnold is, by his own admission, an odd duck. Raised by an emotionally distant father and a mother for whom no accomplishment was ever enough, he notes that he had to teach himself how to hug when he was in college after noticing that hugging was something other people did. He never heard the words “I love you” from his parents. He earns “about as much as a moderately successful dentist,” through sponsorships, books, and speaking engagements, yet he lives in his car, a minivan that he modified to include a small stove, a refrigerator, and a platform bed. He eats his car-cooked meals from the skillet with a spatula.

This background is offered as a kind of psychological answer to the obvious question: What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death? Alex is possessed by personal demons that only seem to leave him when he is enjoying the freedom of the climb. As head cinematographer and co-director Jimmy Chin observes, “You have to be perfect in this sport. It’s like being in the Olympics where you either win the gold medal, or you die.” Dozens of extreme climbers have indeed fallen to their deaths, adding to the suspense of Alex’s pursuit.

In order to successfully ascend the mountain without a rope, soloists must practice repeatedly with ropes and a belaying partner until they know every inch, every crook, every cranny of the face. As Alex trains for the climb, he slips off the face and dangles over the canyon floor — a lot. This adds to our suspense as he finally starts the main adventure. Chin wisely decided to widen the angle of the documentary and include the filmmakers as part of the story, and we see how carefully they, too, prepare to document the feat. They must select the best vantage points along the way, roping into the face with their heavy cameras while remaining out of sight and making sure they don’t interfere, physically or psychologically. Jimmy’s greatest fear isn’t not getting the shot; it’s causing a distraction that might lead to his friend’s death.

The cameramen become our vicarious eyes and hearts. One repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death. I found myself looking away too, willing him to get to the top and end the agony of watching him glide impossibly up the sheer expanse of the mountain.

Despite the agony of suspense, the film is breathtakingly beautiful. The camera work is exquisite, capturing the magnificence of the mountain. It’s matched by the grandeur of the music and the precise choreography of the climb. Alex knows exactly what he is doing; he has memorized all 3,000 feet of the granite precipice. It’s the scariest and most awe-inspiring film I have seen in ages. The look of joy on Alex’s face as he turns to the camera after a particularly grueling section says it all. To quote Drew Goddard again, this kind of horror “lends itself to a sort of freedom” that few of us will ever know.

One crewman repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death.

Our third film is horrifying in that it isn’t fantasy — it’s fiction, yes, but it’s based on true-life experiences of gang life, drug culture, and trigger-happy police officers. The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, tells the story of a family determined to escape by staying put. They reside in a rundown, longstanding black neighborhood, but they send their children to a private school where they have a better chance of getting a good education and, let’s face it, living to adulthood without being sent to prison. Passing by the public high school, the main character, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) tells us in voiceover narration, “That’s where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list. And that’s one of the horrors presented by this film.

Starr must learn to navigate two worlds as she moves between her mostly white school and her mostly black neighborhood. Her school friends play at being cool by listening to rap music, dancing with a cool R&B vibe, and using black slang. But because she is truly black, Starr studiously avoids the vernacular of her black world. She fits in by not joining in. Meanwhile, at home she hangs out with her childhood friends (those who are still alive) while trying to remain safely aloof from the fights and drama that break out between them. She has a complicated relationship with many of the neighborhood kids; “Kenya’s mama had Seven with my daddy, but she’s no relation to me,” she explains to someone at a party.

When a fight breaks out at the party, Starr’s childhood friend and somehow-relation, Khalil (Algee Smith), grabs her hand and drives her to safety — almost. When he is pulled over by a cop (for the egregious crime of changing lanes without signaling) Starr quickly puts both hands on the dashboard as her daddy (Russell Hornsby) has taught his family to do, and frantically urges Khalil to do the same. But Khalil isn’t about to be submissive; with the swagger that comes from knowing you’ve done no wrong, he challenges the police officer. As the confrontation escalates, Khalil is shot and killed. Even though you know it’s going to happen, the moment is shocking, brutal, horrifying.

The public high school is “where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list.

What follows is a fair and complex assessment of all the things that have led to this moment. Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common), a black police officer, explains to Starr that cops have to make split-second decisions based on what they see and what they expect. He tells her that he probably would have ordered Khalil out of the car too, in order to keep an eye on him while running his license. Starr listens but then asks, “Would you have told a white business man in a Mercedes to get out of the car?” “Probably not,” he admits.

The message is clear: like Alex Honnold in Free Solo, those who challenge the granite face of the law need to respect the power of the opponent, even when they have a right to be where they are. Keep your hands where they belong and focus on potential risks. The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

Meanwhile, the police try to smear Khalil by painting him as a common drug dealer. “Good riddance,” is the message, even if he wasn’t doing anything wrong at the moment he was shot. They want Starr to testify against the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who controls the neighborhood and oversees the violent turf wars (and happens to be her half-brother Seven’s father). While protestors chanting “What do we want? Justice!” at City Hall are being pummeled by tear gas, King is tossing fire bombs at local black businesses that are standing up to his authority. This message is clear too: the problems in the ’hood aren’t black and white, in the racial or the metaphorical sense.

The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

According to rap artist Tupac Shakur, “Thuglife” is an anagram for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything.” One of the common threads in these three films is that children who are traumatized or neglected often grow up to commit traumatic or traumatizing acts. The Hate U Give offers much to think about as we figure out how to solve the problems in our urban neighborhoods, beginning with the public school system that acts as a racial boundary and the drug laws that act as a direct pathway to easy money followed by death or prison. That is true horror, in ways beyond anything we ever see on Halloween.

Bad Times at the El Royale, directed by Drew Goddard. Twentieth Century Fox, 2018, 141 minutes.

Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. National Geographic, 2018, 100 minutes.

The Hate U Give directed by George Tillman Jr. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2018, 133 minutes.




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