Good Things

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I am tired of cursing the Bishop
(Said Crazy Jane)
Nine books or nine hats
Would not make him a man.
I have found something worse
To meditate on.

Thus the wild Irishwoman who is the speaker in a series of Yeats’s poems. (This one is “Crazy Jane on the Mountain.”) The “worse” that Jane had in mind — at that moment, anyway — was the disloyalty of rulers. For me, at this moment, it would be the coronavirus, the language used to discuss it, and the people who use that language. I cursed them in last month’s Word Watch. I’ll probably do it again. But I’m tired of cursing. While we’re watching words, let’s watch some words that are good.

Often they are good because there aren’t very many of them. Here are the first lines of Yeats’s “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”:

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
“Those breasts are flat and fallen now;
Those veins must soon be dry.
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.”

“Fair and foul are near of kin
And fair needs foul,” I cried.
“My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied.”

Those are the first ten lines of an 18-line poem. It’s an argument about a profound philosophical speculation that has appeared in all educated times and cultivated circles — the idea that a whole must be composed of opposites, that “fair” and “foul” are not simply moral judgments that may or may not be true, but metaphysical realities essential to the nature of the universe. Clearly, “much” could be “said” about the difference between this view and the Bishop’s, and about whether such oppositions are in fact “needed.” Yeats seizes the moment when the argument is most vivid, most personal, most urgent, and therefore most expressive; and represents only that.

I’m tired of cursing. While we’re watching words, let’s watch some words that are good.

He doesn’t say what road it happened on, or how both Jane and the Bishop — such different people — came together there. He doesn’t introduce the Bishop’s words with a conventional “the Bishop said.” There isn’t time for such things; time is running out: “Those veins must soon be dry.” There certainly isn’t time for the Bishop to remind his antagonist that “heavenly mansion” refers to a particular passage of Scripture (John 14:2). Yeats leaves that out, too; either readers know it or they don’t. But there is a point to his mentioning the road. It’s not a church; it’s not a town; there is no hierarchy on “the road.” Out there, the two opponents can just meet as old acquaintances and start banging away at each other — no preliminaries required. I should mention that of the 105 words in the poem, 93 are lowly monosyllables — 89%. Lincoln was a master of brevity, but his word count at Gettysburg was 278 words, 212 monosyllables — 76%.

A composition at the other end of the seriousness spectrum shows other ways in which you can make some things good by leaving out lots of other things. It’s “Buttons and Bows,” a song written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and introduced by Bob Hope in the Western comedy The Paleface, where he sings it to Jane Russell.

East is east and west is west,
And the wrong one I have chose!
Let’s go where they keep on wearin’
Those frills and flowers and buttons and bows,
Rings and things and buttons and bows.

Don’t bury me in this prairEE;
Take me where the CEEment grows.
Let’s move down to some big town
Where they love a gal by the cut of her clothes,
And you’ll stand out in buttons and bows.

One reason why “take me where the CEEment grows” is funny is that no words are included to explain it; cement growing like grass is drolly presented as a familiar aspect of life in a civilized locale — didn’t you know? I also want to comment on “rings and things.” “Things” could have been replaced by some additional example of urban finery, but (recalling the executioner’s song in The Mikado) “it really doesn’t matter what you put upon the list”: from the comic character’s point of view it’s all just a blissful blur of wondrous things. And the close rhyme with “rings” comes in to emphasize his joyful lapse of focus.

Yeats leaves that out, too; either readers know it or they don’t.

Sometimes, if you do it quickly, you can give your words intensity by alluding to someone else’s words, so that the audience suddenly has two things coming its way. That’s what the Bishop does with the heavenly mansion — a serious reference by one serious work to another. You may also be able to increase the effect by altering the allusion, changing it from serious to not serious, or using it to project the personality of whoever comes up with the allusion — yourself or a character you create. And you can do it without adding many, or any, words.

In “Buttons and Bows, “Don’t bury me in this prairEE” alludes to “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” a lugubrious cowboy song that seems to have been recorded by everyone in the 20th century (including Johnny Cash). It’s not only lugubrious; it’s very verbose, so it’s funny to see it so quickly disposed of in “Buttons and Bows,” by a character who is distressed but not at all lugubrious.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of East and West” begins with the sonorous words “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, / Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” The first line became a solemn proverb. The version in “Buttons and Bows” is used to advance, very unsolemnly, a different idea from that of Kipling’s couplet — the idea that individual people can make judgments too, and change them if they’re wrong. Meanwhile, the ungrammatical “chose” reveals the real level of civilization of the character who seems to value civilized life so highly. All this, and no extra words.

It’s not only lugubrious; it’s very verbose, so it’s funny to see it so quickly disposed of in “Buttons and Bows."

Speaking of “twain,” Thomas Hardy wrote a great poem called “The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the Titanic).” It’s full of gorgeous long words and phrases, fit to describe the costly, beautiful ship and her terrible repose beneath the North Atlantic. In the middle of the poem (which is not, however, very long) the poet pictures “dim moon-eyed fishes” coming to gaze at the wreck and its “gilded gear,” and asking, “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” This is the high poetic style, full of strange words and stranger scenes, a style that can easily develop into pomposity. That’s what any normal reader fears, when he gets to that line. But the poet answers the fish’s question, and his answer starts with the little interjection “well.”

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too . . .

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

I don’t need to comment on the startling intensity that comes from the sexual allusion (“consummation”), which is provided with no addition to the word count. But what enables this poem, which was in danger of becoming a stilted moral lecture (“vaingloriousness”), to keep its readers to its magnificent end? It’s that little word “well.”

“Well” is probably the least likely word that anyone would put in such a poem and at such a point. But with that syllable, the poet signals his desire to converse with his reader as one person with another, friend with friend: “You’re wondering what the answer is? Well, it’s like this.” “Well” is a trick that inspires confidence. It’s friendly, but it’s also self-assured: “I know this stuff, but if you’re curious, I can easily fill you in.”

What enables this poem, which was in danger of becoming a stilted moral lecture, to keep its readers to its magnificent end?

If you doubt — as I do — the truth of Hardy’s theory of fate (“the Immanent Will”), his easy self-assurance may make you feel for a moment that the theory must, after all, have something to be said for it, or he wouldn’t be so certain. You’re willing to let him continue, to make the most of his ideas. And he does make the most of them. But without that least of all words, “well,” he wouldn’t have much of a chance.

Something like this brief but decisive demonstration of the writer’s self-assurance used to appear rather often in America’s political documents. Consider the Declaration of Independence. Besides the arresting self-confidence of “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” there’s the sentence in which the Declaration introduces its evidence that the British government was attempting to establish a tyranny over America. The sentence says, “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” That little sentence does exactly what it’s meant to do. You can’t think of a way to change it so that it does its job better. There isn’t any way — and that is a pretty accurate test of a good sentence, short or long, in poetry or prose. Notice that “let facts be submitted to a candid world” isn’t just an introduction to evidence; it’s also a clever play on the sympathies of readers, who are flattered to be told they are “candid.”

But sentences don’t have to be short to be economical — to do everything you could expect them to do, with no extra words. In the tenth Federalist paper, James Madison writes about the importance of maintaining the diversity of states:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

There are a lot of words in that passage, and the sentences are long, but look at how much significance Madison puts into every phrase. I’m not referring only to intellectual meaning but also to moral judgment and emotional intensity. Partisan politicians aren’t just “leaders”; they are “factious leaders,” and they don’t have “followings,” they spread “conflagrations.” Religious “sects” don’t just exert political influence; they “degenerate” into “political factions.” What we now call socialism isn’t just a movement; it’s a “rage” for “improper projects.” Then as now, to say that a pious political zealot is working on a “project” is a rebuke to his self-righteousness, implying that he is just like anyone else with a pet program or a cause rattling around in his head; and in the 18th century a “projector” was usually either a nut or a conman. But let’s say the worst and get it out of the way: these people have “projects,” which is bad, and the projects are “improper,” which is worse, but they may also be “wicked,” which is worst of all. They are spreaders of “maladies” that “taint” society. So much for them. Could you have put all this in briefer form?

“Never mind” and “Skip all that” should be at the top of every writer’s agenda, just above or below “So what?"

Here are three anecdotes about leaving words out.

The first is from James Boswell’s journal of his tour to the Hebrides with his friend Samuel Johnson, the great literary critic (1785). Here Dr. Johnson discusses the value of saying something short and not being embarrassed because you aren’t saying something long:

I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get.

The second is from His Girl Friday, the funniest movie ever made. At the end, the corrupt and evil mayor (Clarence Kolb) is trying to suborn the newspaper editor (Cary Grant), who has the goods on him, by handing out some stale remarks familiar to politicians. He starts with “Now look here, Walter, you’re an intelligent man . . .” “Never mind that,” Grant says. Then a crime witness chimes in, beginning his story right from the beginning — and thus repeating all the errors that Homer tried to abolish 2,800 years ago, when he invented the method of starting a story in medias res. “Skip all that,” Grant tells him. Just right. I think that “Never mind” and “Skip all that” should be at the top of every writer’s agenda, just above or below “So what?" The film is only 92 minutes long.

The third comes from a TV comedy that I loved when I was a young child. It was called Private Secretary, and it starred the remarkable Ann Sothern. She played the chief assistant to Mr. Sands (Don Porter), a talent agent. In one episode it happened that either she or Vi, the girl in the outer office, had typed something wrong, perhaps a contract, leaving out the word “not.” Someone said, “But it’s only a not!”, to which Mr. Sands replied, “Suppose that Moses had left out all the nots?” The answer, of course, is that it would have made the Ten Commandments much more exciting.




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I’ve Heard That the Sun Also Rises

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A recent Wall Street Journal piece reported something I thought I would never see: oil briefly hit $11.57 a barrel, close to the record low price of $10.42 set back in 1983. The cause of this decline in the world price for oil is easy to discover. First, OPEC — thanks to the American fracking revolution — has all but collapsed, with Saudi Arabia and Russia desperately opening up the spigots to bring in revenues to keep their corrupt oligarchies afloat. Second, the Black Swan — really, the Black Buzzard — event called COVID-19 became a true pandemic that has all but shut down the world economy. With few travelling by car, plane, train, or cruise ship, and with factories closing down, demand for energy has plummeted.

In fact, for a short period of time, the futures contract price of oil actually dropped below $0, meaning (in theory) that oil producers would have to pay buyers to take oil off their hands. As another article notes, the company that handles WTI (“West Texas Intermediate”) futures contracts — the CME Group — has only recently changed its computer modelling to allow WPI futures to trade with negative values. It briefly hit minus $37.63. While CME CEO Terrance Duffy feels that the program is working as planned, fracking guru Harold Hamm has asked the regulatory agency with oversight over the CME (Chicago Mercantile Exchange) to investigate whether there was some programming error or market manipulation behind the quote. And some are suggesting that traders may start shifting to the WTI’s main alternative, the Brent Futures contract, traded on the CME’s main competitor, the Intercontinental Exchange.

OPEC has all but collapsed, with Saudi Arabia and Russia desperately opening up the spigots to bring in revenues to keep their corrupt oligarchies afloat.

Naturally, the oil price collapse is causing pain to the whole energy industry. Offshore oil drillers have started shutting down wells in the US Gulf of Mexico. Only about 15% of America’s oil now comes from offshore drilling, because of its high cost compared to fracking operations. It is unlikely that when the older and more costly offshore platforms get closed, the underlying wells will be reopened any time in the foreseeable future. As Tim Duncan, Talos Energy CEO puts it, “In offshore, we don’t shut in fields, we shutter them. You begin the process of leaving them forever.”

As the article notes, this shuttering of offshore fields is surely hurting the companies that service the wells, companies that include Baker Hughes, Halliburton, and Schlumberger. As yet another piece notes, Baker Hughes, for example, expects to see its oil field projects decline by half during this year alone. The company’s shares have already declined by half this year. And it is cutting capital spending and jobs by 20%.

More generally, even the huge international oils companies — you know, the ones the Michael Moore morons say own the planet — companies such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, have seen their shares drop dramatically, and energy producers collectively have lost billions of dollars in market value. Rumors are proliferating prodigiously about possible bankruptcies and mergers.

For a short period of time, the futures contract price of oil actually dropped below $0, meaning (in theory) that oil producers would have to pay buyers to take oil off their hands.

And as another article notes, all this sturm und drang in the energy industry is hitting hardest in the states that depend the most on that industry. Of course, one thinks here of Texas. But as the authors of the piece observe, Alaska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming all rely more on energy than Texas does. And Ohio and Pennsylvania rely on it as well. For example, Wyoming generates 16.4% of its gross state product from mining and energy production, Alaska comes in at 15.3%, Oklahoma at 11.7%, and North Dakota at 10.3%. All this, while the energy sector in Texas is responsible for only 7.8% of the gross state product. Wyoming relies on taxes from oil and gas products for half of its general tax revenues, so it is especially vulnerable in this situation.

Of course, it is not surprising that the states whose economies rely disproportionately on the energy sector are now disproportionately feeling pain. As Jesus said, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”

One last article worth reflecting upon reports that the Trump regime is considering pumping cash into the oil and gas industry, and in exchange taking equity shares in either the companies themselves or their reserves of crude oil. The Boss has already begun by putting oil back in the federal Strategic Oil Reserve. This is a good move: buy oil while it is dirt cheap, keeping our oil industry afloat, and then sell off the reserve in the future when prices rise again, and make a profit.

As Jesus said, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”

What do I conclude from these ruminations? Two quotations come to mind.

First, as Nietzsche opined, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” The American energy industry has proven itself to be brilliantly innovative and astoundingly productive. This crisis will induce even further work in lowering production costs. It will eliminate the least productive wells, thus keeping prices down when the economy recovers. For recover it will, be it in months or even years.

As King Solomon — the wisest of all from whom I’ve quoted, including the estimable Harold Hamm — sagely observed:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the Earth abideth forever . . . The Sun also ariseth, and the Sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose . . . The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to its circuits . . . All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come thither they return again.

Thus it is that the massive reserves of oil and natural gas under our vast countryside and under our coastal shelves are not going to diminish one iota. The incomprehensibly huge slabs of shale from which our frackers have produced so much are not going to shrink one particle. The sun that powers our solar industry will not dim one bit, nor will the winds that turn our turbines cease to blow one jot. The rivers from which we derive so much electric power will flow not one whit less. And the virtually endless supply of radioactive elements that lie under our feet and fuel our safe and clean nuclear power plants will not wither away one mite.

It will all abide forever.




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Coasting Portugal

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One curious custom sets the Portuguese apart from everyone else: many places throughout the country — hotels, museums, restaurants, every sort of business, government buildings, even private residences — include the latitude and longitude coordinates of their location, down to the second, as part of their address or on their marquee, and as a matter of course.

Roads and streets tend to be well-marked, often with beautiful azulejo porcelain tile plaques either integrated in the cladding of a building or on short, free-standing, purposed pillars on street corners. There’s no getting lost in Portugal. However, when my wife and I occasionally got confused on our latest bike ride down the coast of the little country, we’d stop and ask for directions.

Legend has it unknown Portuguese cod fishermen made the first post-Viking discovery of this continent.

Invariably — and this too sets the Portuguese apart, informants provided precise, logical, understandable, and memorable directions, in spite of a bit of a language barrier. And they were concise. No arm waving in vague directions, no extraneous, confusing, and unnecessary information such as, “You’ll pass Dom Lambuças’ petisqueira on the left . . . well, actually it’s up Rua Magalhães about 30 meters . . . but . . . never mind; if you see the Dom — you’ll recognize him because he always wears a black beret — tell him João will come by later for a café. Then, past Magalhães and just before you get to . . .” etc. You get the picture.

Is it any wonder that nobody beats the Portuguese at locational analysis? Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator is credited with launching the so-called Age of Discovery — when Western Europe “discovered” the world, beginning with the discovery and colonization of the Madeira Islands in 1418. It was Portugal’s response to Spain’s claim to the Canary Islands (the author’s grandmother’s home), which the Portuguese had actually discovered 72 years before, in 1346. Mustn’t let the Spaniards get ahead.

Under Henry’s tutelage discoveries and claims followed apace. He is credited with developing the caravel, a newer, faster, lighter, and more maneuverable ship, along with founding the University of Lisbon, to promote science, and encouraging maritime development in Lagos and Sagres, at the southwest corner of Portugal, from which most of the exploratory voyages originated.

By 1427 Portuguese fishermen and navigators had discovered the Azores and reached the Sargasso Sea, stepping stones to North America and the cod fisheries off Newfoundland, where, legend has it — and seems reasonable, though there is no documentary record until the late 1400s — unknown Portuguese cod fishermen made the first post-Viking discovery of this continent. It was on their initial Atlantic voyages that Portuguese navigators pioneered the charting of wind and ocean currents, thereby facilitating more and farther explorations under safer and more predictable conditions.

Portuguese navigators went on to round Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, establishing claims in what would become Guinea Bissau, Congo, Angola, and Mozambique on their way to colonies in India (Goa) and China (Macau). When Columbus set off to cross the Atlantic in 1492, he took a Portuguese pilot, Miguel de Aguiar, to guide him. Twenty-seven years later, another Portuguese expedition, under Ferdinand Magellan, became the first to circumnavigate the earth.

* * *

We’d booked a modest B&B — up four flights of stairs — in the Alfama district of Lisbon, adjacent to the Tagus River and the cruise ship docks. Jet-lagged and not fully conscious, we walked two blocks over to the Panteão Nacional to clear our cobwebs. Perched atop a hill, this baroque domed church has been repurposed as a memorial to Portugal’s heroes, with cenotaphs of Prince Henry and Vasco da Gama under its colossal dome. Afterward we headed to a Goan Indian restaurant for a curry unlike any one might find in the US.

They don’t get many Americans; one hotel clerk at a resort town said ours were the first American passports he’d seen.

After a recuperative interlude that included kitting up and tuning up our bikes we took a train up to Caminha, a small town on the northwest corner of Portugal next to the Galician border. Though Portugal is otherwise very clean, we were disconcerted by the toilets on the carriages, which uninhibitedly drained directly onto the tracks. A sign above requested users to refrain from using the toilets while the train was stopped at a station.

We’d come to Portugal to bicycle its 1,200 kilometer coast, designated as EuroVelo Route 1, which follows mostly dedicated bike paths and little-trafficked roads. Visiting off-season provided cooler biking temperatures, fewer crowds, and cheaper lodging. We were often able to snag €200 hotel rooms or apartments for €35 a night.

Heading south, our first day on bikes was cold, foggy, and drizzly. It didn’t take long to get lost and have to backtrack, but we still reached our destination at Esposende. Oftentimes we’d cross paths with Fatima and Way of Saint James pilgrims on foot, though we got the impression that their pursuit was more avocational than religious.

In two days we arrived in Porto — from which the country gets its name — home of fortified port wine, and a stunning city built on the banks of the Douro River atop steeply rising hills. We took a day off to play tourist, visiting the Real Companhia Velha, Portugal’s oldest winery still in operation.

We’d read in various guide books that English, not Spanish, was the preferred second language for communication. I was skeptical. After all, written Spanish and Portuguese are about 75% mutually intelligible to either speaker. However, spoken Portuguese sounds more like French spoken with a mouthful of pebbles. Perhaps the preference had something to do with inter-Iberian rivalry?

Though the Portuguese are generally kind, helpful, outward-looking, patient to a fault, and impartial, when pressed they’d opine that Spaniards are chauvinistic and soberbios — arrogant, full of themselves, and drunk on their individual exceptionalism. When, during exchanges, my English failed them, I’d try Spanish. Many wouldn’t warm up to a semblance of mutual intelligibility until I revealed that I was from Cuba and not from next door.

On the other hand, they consider Brits warm and fun . . . in contrast to the Dutch, whom they perceive as nice but cold as cod. They don’t get many Americans; one hotel clerk at a resort town said ours were the first American passports he’d seen. When asked about Chinese mainlanders . . . just a hard, silent stare.

By 1385 intermarriage between the Portuguese and Castilian royal families led to complications, remonstration, fingerpointing, and finally war. With English help, the Spanish invaders were decisively driven back.

Portugal has nearly always remained a separate entity on the peninsula. Under the Romans it was a distinct province. But after the Moorish conquest of Iberia the entire peninsula (except for Asturias . . . mostly) became part of the Muslim caliphate.

The Vikings mainly bypassed it, not tempted by olives and bitter wine (though they did raid Lisbon once). In 1139, toward the end of the centuries-long Reconquista, Afonso Henriques, leading Christian armies and laying siege to Lisbon, won such a decisive victory that he was crowned king. In 1143 he declared the western sliver of Iberia an independent country: Portugal.

Perhaps the animosity toward the Spanish and the lovefest with the English began in 1308 when King Dinis, anticipating trouble with the Spanish, built 50 fortresses along the frontier with Castile and signed a commercial and friendship pact with England. It was an alliance that would last for centuries . . . and came none too soon. By 1385 intermarriage between the Portuguese and Castilian royal families led to complications, remonstration, fingerpointing, and finally . . . war. With English help, the Spanish invaders were decisively driven back.

But then it happened again. In 1580 Spain invaded Portugal — this time successfully, with Felipe II of Spain crowning himself King of Portugal. The union lasted until 1640, when Catalonia, that ever-rebellious, linguistically distinct Spanish province at the opposite end of the Iberian Peninsula, rose — not for the first or last time — in revolt against Madrid. The Portuguese, sensing an opportunity to regain their independence, rebelled. King Felipe III of Spain, on the horns of a dilemma, was loath to fight on two fronts: he chose to keep Catalonia and let the Portuguese go.

Port wine proved irresistible to palates weaned on West Indian sugar and gin, which had recently been legalized but was worse than rotgut and often flavored with turpentine.

The Spanish attacked again in 1762 . . . but again were repelled with English help. Finally, after Napoleon’s invasion of the peninsula in 1807, the English again came to Portugal’s rescue. The close relationship between the two countries is evidenced not just in the Portuguese preference for English over Spanish, but also in the port wine industry. Most of the brands sport English names: Taylor, Graham, Croft, Cockburn, Warre, Sandeman, et al.

Around 1700, when the bibulous Brits were deprived of their wine during one of their many skirmishes with the French, they turned to their old ally Portugal. Trouble was, would Portuguese wine survive the trip to London? Back then, the valley of the Douro — which had been a source of wine since the Roman occupation — produced wines that were dark and astringent . . . but rich in flavor. To make them palatable, the vintners added aguardiente, the local home brew (now tastefully referred to as “brandy” and often coming from France). With the added fortification, not all the sugar in the grapes was allowed to become alcohol . . . hence, a very sweet wine. The combination — strong and sweet — was irresistible to palates weaned on West Indian sugar and gin, which had recently been legalized but was worse than rotgut and often flavored with turpentine.

Today, Portugal has many wine producing regions outside of the Douro Valley. To our taste, nearly all of the regional wines — both reds and whites — but especially those from the Alentejo and Minho, are both excellent and cheap.

* * *

We left Porto up the steep hills of Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro, turned right towards the coast, and rode though desolate, fire-scarred pine forests growing out of sand dunes — on a badly potholed road that deterred traffic. The burned trees, extending through nearly three days of riding, were a depressing sight. At one spot, a logging operation was harvesting the charred timber. Later we found out that the fires had been intentionally set two years previously by unknown arsonists in order to harvest the protected littoral forests. Forest fires, especially fast-moving ones, burn the crowns, leaves and understory (which in this case was minimal), leaving trunks charred but largely untouched.

The riding soon became monotonous. To pass the time we indulged in imaginative conversation which, missing our Shiba Inu, at home inevitably turned to dogs. “What would we do if we found a litter of abandoned puppies out here?” Tina floated.

Later we found out that the fires had been intentionally set two years previously by unknown arsonists in order to harvest the protected littoral forests.

I ignored the question, hoping the topic would evaporate into thin air while desperately searching my mind for a more engaging topic when, a few minutes later, thin air materialized into a dog. It appeared out of nowhere, perhaps 20 kilometers from the nearest village. Golden, medium-sized, and very fetching, it was thirsty and hungry — friendly but cautious. After circling us three or four times it paused to smell and evaluate us . . . and then approached Tina’s cupped hand full of water, which it lapped up enthusiastically. Next, two sweet buns soaked in water. What to do? The endless dune littoral held no food or water for this lost puppy.

Suddenly, again out of nowhere, a VW microbus slowly approached. It was the first and only vehicle (other than a logging truck) we’d seen all day. Tina waved it to a stop. Inside, the archetype of a California surfer, but totally Portuguese — young, blond, muscled, camping out of his van while scoping out secret surf spots — rolled down his window and looked at us inquisitively.

We told him about the dog. Fernão said it wasn’t his. We asked him if he’d at least take it to the nearest town, since we couldn’t and the dog would exhaust itself trying to follow us. He looked reluctant but got out of the van and met the dog, which, following a few canine formalities warmed up to him. The dog’s intelligent circumspection made the warmth mutual.

But the dog wasn’t willing to jump into the van without a bit more foreplay. We coaxed, we petted; it essayed, it sniffed, it circled. Finally Tina put a piece of bread in the van and, after one more hesitation, he (he’d now become a “he” to us) jumped in. In that short time the dog had won our hearts. Tina hoped the surfer would adopt him.

Inside, the archetype of a California surfer, but totally Portuguese — young, blond, muscled, camping out of his van while scoping out secret surf spots — rolled down his window and looked at us inquisitively.

Much later that afternoon, after we left the burnt forest and were passing a village, the surfer van passed us and honked a greeting. The dog was riding shotgun. Had the surfer decided to keep him?

We overnighted in Figueira de Foz, a large city, then detoured to a one-lane, off-the-beaten-path road that slalomed through coastal marshes. Coming from the opposite direction we spotted the VW van. Fernão stopped and greeted us like long-lost friends. It was such an unlikely meeting. And he didn’t have the dog.

He said he’d stopped at the first village after he’d taken the dog. But no one there had lost a dog. At the next larger town, one with a rescue shelter, he was told he was in luck: it wouldn’t be euthanized — one dog had just been adopted, so they had room for the found hound. They checked the dog for a chip, since Portugal requires all dogs and cats to be chipped. This dog lacked one. Fernão left the dog.

However, driving away, he reconsidered. He’d grown attached to Erizo, the name he gave him. I asked him if he knew what that meant in English and explained that the second half of “sea urchin” was a double entendre in this case, and was an appropriately serendipitous name.

Fernão called his family to discuss adopting the dog. He ran a small outdoor adventure business that included (besides surfing) rock climbing. His work would require the family to mind the dog frequently. They’d agreed, and he was on his way back to the shelter to formally adopt Erizo. Tina danced a little jig of delight.

Once past Foz de Arelho our coastal route actually hugged the strand. Beautiful sandy beaches with intermittent salient headlands and cliffs reverberated with the full onslaught of the Atlantic’s swell, with 30 to 40 major reefs and beaches receiving regular and predictable waves three to fifteen feet high, depending on the season — a surfer’s paradise. In 2009 Supertubos, a beach near Peniche — where we rested a day at a hostel catering to surfers — was chosen as one of ten stops on the ASP World Tour, the most prestigious international surfing event. Just north of Peniche some of the world’s tallest waves can be found. In 2011, pro surfer Garrett McNamara set the world record for the tallest wave — at 100 feet — ever ridden.

* * *

One innovation in Portuguese grocery stores that we’d like to see over here is their fresh orange juice machine. A metal basket full of oranges sits atop a machine where, after you press a button, the oranges, one by relentless one, drop into the machine, where they are subjected to unspeakable atrocities. A spigot at the bottom allows the customer to fill either a half- or full-liter plastic bottle.

Riding into Lisbon we encountered a variation on this at a free-standing juice kiosk catering to passersby on the seaside concrete boardwalk. A young couple operated a blender attached to a bike’s drive chain, a contraption they touted as “green juice” — because it uses muscle power — not electricity or oil — to operate it. The husband pedaled the bike while the wife fed the blender. We couldn’t resist a smoothie. To further capitalize on the sale, they invited us to help save the world by climbing aboard and blending our own drink, which we did with delight.

At approximately two-thirds of the way down Portugal’s coast, Lisbon was a welcome rest stop that allowed us to further sample its charms. Carolina, our hostess at Balby’s B&B, where our bike boxes were stored, wanted us to meet her boyfriend, Jose, because she would be leaving on her annual November vacation — to Auschwitz, of all places — and would be absent upon our return at the end of our trip. Jose would take care of us.

Jose was a 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate in technology, specializing in transportation logistics under the twin auspices of a local university and MIT — but he just wanted to be known as a “regular guy.” Lucky for us, he was a political junkie. National elections had just been held, giving the Socialists another, albeit larger, minority win with 36% of the vote. But this time, Jose said, they refused to depend on the Communists — who suffered heavy losses — for legislative support. Instead, they declared a coalition with the Animal Rights Party, which saw a big increase in its share of the vote.

“What do they know about fiscal policy? The price of dog food?” he asked rhetorically, sarcasm visibly distorting his lips.

To further capitalize on the sale, they invited us to help save the world by climbing aboard and blending our own drink, which we did with delight.

European Socialism isn’t generally the government-owns-the-means-of-production sort — though there is enough of that — but rather a mushy, middle-of-the-road, mishmash of welfare state corporatism and whatever — in social or economic policy — might “seem” reasonable at the time. One of our other hosts even credits the Socialists with doing a decent job of navigating the country’s economy back to normalcy after the Big Recession — but then added that Germany’s EU fiscal prudence probably had much to do with their success.

For perspective, while in American political terminology social democrats are near the far-left of the political spectrum, in Portugal they are the center-center right opposition.

Campaign signs still hung on every lamp post, with the Communist platform promises placards particularly prominent:

  1. Raise all wages
  2. Raise all pensions
  3. Free childbirth and care

“Who’s going to pay for all that?” Jose again exclaimed. He complained that the Portuguese welfare state is too generous, taxing his hard-earned money and giving it to layabouts. “Why should I have to pay for someone else’s shiftlessness and lack of planning?” he asked, adding that the system does not provide incentive to work.

Portugal is quite crime free, ranking 13th worldwide in safety and, according to another informant, is the third least crime-ridden country in the EU. Its ranking would no doubt be higher were it not, as reported to me more than a few times, for gangs of Gypsy, er Roma, girls at tourist hot spots distracting visitors to pilfer purses; something we did not remotely experience. Trust is ubiquitous; when booking rooms on our ride we were never asked for a credit card.

While in American political terminology social democrats are near the far-left of the political spectrum, in Portugal they are the center-center right opposition.

The country, according to Jose, is the easiest EU country for a foreigner to enter, attracting Muslim refugees who use it as a waystation to the wider European Union. Few remain. A good thing, he adds, because they test the Portuguese tolerance for diversity through their own intolerance.

One Venezuelan expat working as a waiter reported that wages are modest, but then so are prices compared to the rest of the EU. And having worked in Spain, he preferred laidback Portugal.

miller salt cod

Portugal has more restaurants, cafes, bars, and hole-in-the-wall mini-markets than I’ve ever seen. Even Jose was at a loss trying to explain how they survived. The nation ranks 39th out of 190 countries in ease of doing business (the US ranks 6th). One very modest East Indian entrepreneur from South Africa running a tiny one-man grocery store said he’d worked all over the world and preferred Portugal for its hassle- and corruption-free atmosphere. Jose concurred but added that corruption in high places was an endemic problem: Socialist politicians own private rentseeking enterprises that obtain anti-competitive favoritism either through legislation or informally.

One novel albeit odd example of this is the ubiquitous Loja China stores. These sell a wide variety of cheap Chinese goods — housewares, hardware, electronics, furniture, clothing, etc. Jose said they are run by Chinese who get a five-year operating contract from the government with a wide variety of regulatory, tax, import duty, and other exemptions that allows them to undercut local prices, with the result that they’ve driven many local enterprises out of business. How the Loja China stores got in and obtained preferential treatment and whether they’re part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative, I was unable to find out.

* * *

We left Lisbon on a ferry across the Tejo River and continued riding down the coast, passing the ruins of a Roman fish-processing settlement. Occasionally we’d stay at hostels if we could book a private room. But, at our hostel in Vila Nova de Mira Flores, we felt a bit out of place.

Registration was on an electronic pad, with requirements I either lacked or declined to provide, such as a cellphone number and an email (yes, that’s right, I don’t own a cellphone and do not provide my email promiscuously; full disclosure — I celebrated my 70th birthday while on this trip — an old fuddy-duddy). Plus I found it impossible to navigate the pad. When I asked for a paper registration, the young lady said she didn’t have one and stared disconcertingly at me. Fortunately, I had a wife who took over the formalities.

The hostel was managed by millennials obsessed with sustainability, recycling, gender neutrality, and emanating a “positive vibe.” Most of the staff and clientele sported dreadlocks — with or without extensions — or mullets, wore torn jeans or floor-length skirts, and chain-smoked. The snack bar offered only organic and vegan dishes. Thank Buddha there was a full bar with a talented bartender, and all new guests were entitled to a free “welcome” drink.

Tina and I asked for mojitos. After expertly mixing he set them aside and approached an oversized tin on the bar. Then, with a dramatic pause and meaningful gaze, he declared that inside the tin was one of the greatest inventions ever: “It’s ideas like this that will save the world”.

Wow! Salvation in a can! We couldn’t wait to see this.

Thank Buddha there was a full bar with a talented bartender, and all new guests were entitled to a free “welcome” drink.

He opened the tin and pulled out a one-foot-long hollow tube made out of pasta — a straw — broke it in half, inserted each half into our drinks and gave us an inclusive, knowing look, expecting, I suppose, our amazement. When I told him we didn’t use straws, he pulled out the pasta…undoubtedly thinking, “A mojito without a straw? Perish the thought”.

But a bartender’s job isn’t just to mix and serve drinks. He needs to connect with his clientele so as to sell more drinks. The awkward spaghetti straw moment required finessing. He offered us a shot — on the house — of a drink popular with the young set, for getting tanked fast. It was either Portuguese or Brazilian hard liquor with a dollop of honey. Then he engaged us with, “Did you know that Portugal is the only country to bloodlessly overthrow a dictatorship?”

He was referring to the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, when an army faction backed by popular support overthrew the Salazar dictatorship, which had been in power since 1928. Though I knew next to nothing about Salazar or the Carnation Revolution, I did know about the Philippines’ People Power, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the revolution that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, I tried not to be too contentious — we wanted to hear him out and learn more about Portugal.

According to our bartender, Salazar was a vicious Fascist dictator who set Portugal back years and tortured and murdered whoever opposed him — the veritable spawn of Torquemada. Over the course of 1,200 kilometers we encountered no statues, street names, memorials or public references to him. But once I did a little research, however, I found the truth to be more, much more, nuanced.

Yes, Salazar had a secret police, imprisoned and tortured Nazis and Commies without due process, and rejected democracy. Still, he allowed limited — but real — political freedoms.

António de Oliveira Salazar rose to power as a reformist during a series of unstable governments in the 1920s and ‘30s. Deeply Catholic, he opposed both Nazism and Communism; capitalism and socialism, creating an Estado Novo organized under what he called Authoritarian Corporatism. He favored stability over democracy; nationalism over internationalism; and conservative family values.

In the 1930s all of Europe was deeply polarized between the far right and the far left. Salazar distanced himself from Italian Fascism, and though helping Franco during the Spanish Civil War, did not indulge in the extremes the Spanish dictator resorted to. Salazar strongly and publicly criticized both the Nazis — in particular the Nuremberg Laws — and the Communists, and managed to keep Portugal neutral during World War II while maintaining Portugal’s 600-year alliance with Britain and even secretly helping the Allied cause. Unlike Spain, which didn’t join NATO until 1982, Salazar made Portugal a founding member. And again, unlike Spain’s passive reception of Jewish refugees, Salazar actively provided for their asylum.

And yes, he had a secret police, imprisoned and tortured Nazis and Commies without due process, and rejected democracy. Still, he allowed limited — but real — political freedoms. Salazar died in 1970, but his regime continued — to me, a sign that the people had not reached any sort of breaking point with the status quo.

Many of the soldiers stuck carnations, which were in season at the time, in their rifle barrels. As soon as the populace got wind of the affair, thousands of Portuguese took to the streets

However, between 1961 and 1974 the Portuguese African colonies — along with many other European African colonies — revolted, vying for independence. The Salazar regime, to its detriment, fought the attempts. By the time of Salazar’s death the Portuguese military had become so overextended and the fiscal burden on the economy so heavy that the Carnation Revolution was almost inevitable.

It was actually a military coup led by officers opposed to the Colonial War and demanding democracy. The gathering place for the troops was the Lisbon flower market. Many of the soldiers stuck carnations, which were in season at the time, in their rifle barrels. As soon as the populace got wind of the affair, thousands of Portuguese took to the streets. Within six hours Prime Minister Marcello Caetano, who’d succeeded Salazar, resigned. Only four people died, killed by the Estado Novo’s political police before they capitulated.

Spain kept a close eye on events, with anticipation as to how its own post-Franco succession might unfold. A year and a half hence, after a long illness, El Caudillo, Francisco Franco finally died.

* * *

In a couple of days we reached Sagres, on Portugal’s southwest corner, where Prince Henry the Navigator had lived and died. Instead of riding south, we’d now ride due east through the Algarve, Portugal’s beach and tourist mecca, toward the Spanish province of Huelva. The contrast was stark. While we’d been rained on nearly every day along the western coast, the sun shone daily on the Algarve.

At Vila Real do Santo Antonio on the Portuguese-Spanish border we boarded a train back to Lisbon, where Jose met us at our B&B. Again, he wasn’t short of opinions. He resented the Germans controlling EU fiscal policy. He didn’t know what to think of Trump, figuring that if, out of a two-hour speech, the media picked one negative comment and nothing positive, the media were probably biased and unreliable.

The contrast was stark. While we’d been rained on nearly every day along the western coast, the sun shone daily on the Algarve.

As to the impending impeachment, Jose couldn’t understand the brouhaha over Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president, “What’s the big deal? Heads of state are supposed to negotiate and make deals.” Adding, almost as an afterthought, “And why should the US bear the responsibility for defending Europe? Europe should get its act together and defend itself, and get more involved in the Middle East, its next-door neighbor.”

As a parting gift, Tina gave him and Carolina a copy of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose.

* * *

An epilogue: we flew Air Canada back home, its price and bike policy clinching the deal. But we were in for a surprise in Toronto, where we had a four-hour layover. US Customs and Immigration had an extraterritorial presence there, allowing it to process transient passengers headed for the US. After our passports were scanned, Tina and I were ordered into one of three queues for processing. While the other two moved with dispatch, ours only grew longer. Only one agent was processing us, and he was “taking care” of a mullet-coiffed young Asian dude for over an hour.

After the first half-hour in line without any progress, the murmuring turned to loud complaints. Trump’s name was taken in vain. Folks feared missing their connecting flights, and many did — no small inconvenience. If a passenger stayed on to the next day, he was no longer “in transit” but had to report to Canadian Immigration, no doubt extending his unplanned stay even longer than just catching the next plane. It was already late at night.

When we had spent a whole hour in line, one more agent — without any sense of urgency — opened another kiosk for us. An hour and a half after that, we finally got called up. He peppered us with lots of questions, followed by, “Please follow me.”

“Sorry Mr. Miller. There’s a bad Bob Miller out there. Same name, same birthday.”

Tina and I were escorted to a back room and told to sit. Our escort, unprofessionally grousing, handed our passports to another agent behind a long counter. More sitting and waiting while others were processed ahead of us, sometimes after immediately arriving. Finally, after an interminable wait, the man behind the counter called us up, handed me my passport and told us we could go.

Noticing the puzzled look on my face (I wasn’t about to ask what the silly delay had been about), he smiled and offered, “Sorry Mr. Miller. There’s a bad Bob Miller out there. Same name, same birthday.”

“But is he also 70 years old?”

“Yup. But he was born in Detroit. Where were you born?”

“New York.”

“Good answer.”

* * *

On the flight to Phoenix we sat next to a young Canadian of East Indian origin, a Ph.D. tech candidate. He was heading for a two-day research project in Parker, Arizona for his thesis. Every winter thousands of Canadian and northern US “snowbirds” head to the Lower Colorado River in RVs and trailers and park in Parker, Quartzite, Yuma, and other warm, bare desert spots. The conceit of this young man’s dissertation was how to improve these pilgrims’ computer connectivity while on the road.

I turned away and went back to my book, Congo: The Epic History of a People . . . much more substantive. But Tina, ever the socialite, continued engaging him. The conversation soon turned to politics. The Canadian held conventional views, held them with a confidence and glib certainty that was difficult to counter. “What I don’t understand about Americans is their anti-vax position and their opposition to universal healthcare. I mean, what does it say about a society that refuses to provide healthcare to its people?”

But Tina, always quick with an answer — we’d heard that “society” canard many times — was particularly eloquent today: it says, she replied, “that the people are proud, self-reliant, and responsible for themselves and don’t want others to be forced to pay for their healthcare and don’t want to be forced to pay for others’ healthcare.”

I’ll never forget the startled look on that young man’s face.




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Facing the Jellyfish

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Several years ago we were enjoying a family gathering at New Smyrna Beach. It was late September, when the water temperatures are warm and inviting. The skies were blue with just a hint of the clouds that would darken into afternoon storms, and the waves were strong and low, just right for boogie boarding. Everyone was frolicking happily when my sister-in-law came bounding out of the waves, clutching at her thigh. A small red welt was forming. “Jellyfish!” she called out. “Everyone get out of the water!”

My sister, a fish by nature who lives in the Nevada desert, was last out. She walked along the sand for a while, looking longingly at the waves breaking on the shore. Then she returned to where my sister-in-law sat on a beach towel, enjoying the view. “What did it feel like?” Kathe asked her.

Sara thought for a minute. “Like a bee sting,” she responded.

She had assessed the risk, considered the reward, and chose for herself which was more important to her. And guess what? She didn’t get stung.

Kathe continued to probe. “How long did it last?”

Sara thought again. “About five minutes,” she estimated.

Kathe stood on the sand thinking. Then she said “OK!” and ran back into the ocean with a boogie board under her arm. She had assessed the risk, considered the reward, and chose for herself which was more important to her. And guess what? She didn’t get stung.

That’s what we need to be doing in this pandemic. Life is full of risks, and humans are natural problem solvers. Given enough information, we can decide for ourselves how to limit those risks, plan for the worst, and proceed with caution — or with abandon, if that’s our choice.

The “second wave” that pundits are now warning us about should not be a cause for alarm or a panicked return to our bunkers, crying that we reopened “too soon.”

When it began, this shutdown was not about preventing the disease but about delaying the disease. It would put the virus on hold and provide an opportunity to study it, examine the risks, look for effective treatments, and slow the spread of the virus while we geared up to fight it.

Now we have the mistaken idea that “no new cases” is the only acceptable position. This is not only a foolish position; it is an impossible one. As we start to reopen our businesses and our lives — and we must! — we are going to see an increase in cases of COVID-19. The virus has not gone away. The “second wave” that pundits are now warning us about should not be a cause for alarm or a panicked return to our bunkers, crying that we reopened “too soon.” The second wave is simply part of the cycle. We know how to ride the wave now. Yes, some people are still going to get sick. Yes, the ones who are most at risk should still stay out of the water. People have been known to die even from the stings of jellyfish.

But comparatively few are going to die. I say “comparatively” because there are nearly eight billion people on this planet. According to the World Health Organization, about 56 million people die each year, which is an average of about 153,000 people each day. Over a million people die each week. Each week!! This coronavirus is small potatoes compared to heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases — and guess what? People with those conditions are the ones most likely to succumb to COVID. There’s a reason death by heart disease is down during this epidemic — as computed by officials who count every death of someone infected with the virus as a death from the virus.

More people are going to get sick. More people are going to die. That’s sad, but it’s a fact.

The “second wave” that’s terrifying pundits today should appear as no surprise. It is as predictable as the next wave in the ocean. More people are going to get sick. More people are going to die. That’s sad, but it’s a fact. Those “flatten the curve” charts never predicted a reduction in total cases (which is impossible), but a spreading out of the cases. Instead of experiencing a sharp spike followed by a sharp descent, we could see a lower, broader peak that would last longer. This would allow us to gather supplies, reduce strain on medical services, and then manage the cases as we gradually descend the other side of the slope. We must ride this wave out, or we will crash and drown if we stall in the pipe any longer.

We’ve already spent several weeks hunkered down in our homes. During that time we’ve read countless reports and examined countless charts. We’ve listened to scientists, politicians, doctors, philosophers, and armchair experts. We’ve observed and we’ve considered. Now it’s time to assess our risks and decide for ourselves whether we’ll sit on the sand till the storm comes and it’s too late to swim, or get back into the ocean, knowing that we might spend five minutes ouching over a jellyfish sting. Those who are allergic to jellyfish venom: stay home. The rest of us are ready to ride this wave.




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A Socialist Folds

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“No socialist candidate has ever become a vehicle for major protest in the United States,” wrote Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks in their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. The reason, they argued, was the traditional American values of individualism and anti-statism. It Didn’t Happen Here was published 20 years ago, and is now, thanks to Bernie Sanders, out of date. It is time to think about what has happened.

What was Bernie Sanders’ appeal? Why did he ultimately fail? And what does it mean?

First, his appeal. To the Left, of course, his appeal was his ideas. American youth face a job market that pays top dollar for those with numeracy, intelligence, and drive, and much less for the others, leaving them resentful. The Left says to them: “Your frustration is not your fault. The system is rigged against you. See the billionaires? They are your oppressors. We can bring them down.”

To the Left, of course, Bernie's appeal was his ideas.

Still the Left makes up only part of the Sanders movement. At the apogee of Sanders’ trajectory, when he had won the February 22 Nevada caucuses with 46.8% of support in a four-way race, Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick (Jacobin, February 22) proclaimed a socialist triumph. They called the Sanders phenomenon “a new electorate rising up, and a fundamental realignment of US politics. And a new party, thoroughly working-class and committed to egalitarian politics, quickly blooming up into the husk of the old one . . . Face it, establishment Democrats — it’s his party now.”

But it wasn’t. Sanders had won only one state primary election, in New Hampshire — and that, with only 26% of the vote. Four years earlier, against Hillary Clinton, Sanders had taken 60% of the New Hampshire Democratic vote.

Something was seriously the matter with the Sanders coalition. The weakness didn’t show in Nevada, but the Nevada victory was in caucuses, which require people to come out at night and sit in rooms full of other people and express their political views publicly. Caucuses measure the zeal of activists, not the votes of ordinary voters.

As political scientist Philip Converse famously wrote in The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics (1964), most American voters aren’t ideological. They can’t define what socialism is. Converse’s article is 56 years old, and the youth of today are more ideological than their grandparents, as are the parties. But not by that much. In the 2016 surge, many of the Sanders supporters were not hard Left. And many of them were missing in 2020.

Something was seriously the matter with the Sanders coalition.

In an era of cynical political marketing, when so many candidates sound like robots and any deviation from their programming is a “gaffe,” voters yearn for authenticity. When they hear an office-seeker, they ask: is this guy real, or am I hearing a robot programmed for lines validated by focus groups? Sanders wasn’t that kind of candidate. He didn’t use focus groups. Much of what he said was programmed by an ideology, but you have to know that ideology in order to hear it. The average American isn’t trained to hear it, and in 2016, they didn’t hear it. This year, they did.

Sanders had not changed. He had the same ideology, the same purity of belief. Other radicals can appreciate that. In “My High School Buddy, Bernie,” Walter Block, a senior fellow at the very antisocialist Ludwig von Mises Institute, recalls his days at school with Bernie Sanders at Brooklyn’s James Madison High. “Bernie has the courage of his convictions, something not all that prevalent amongst our politicians,” Block writes. “He has never ‘run away from’ any of his heartfelt principles.”

In 2016 what were Hillary Clinton’s heartfelt principles? She believed what Democrats believed. And Biden believes what Democrats believe. When Democrats drifted right in the Eighties and Nineties, Biden was against racial busing; now that they drift left, he’s for Medicare at 60 and forgiving student debt. Biden is a bubble in a carpenter’s level.

Sanders didn’t use focus groups. Much of what he said was programmed by an ideology, but you have to know that ideology in order to hear it.

Bernie Sanders never was. He wasn’t even a Democrat until he decided to run for that party’s nomination. Like Ron Paul in 2008, Bernie Sanders is a man of belief with an intense following, especially among the young — a following that puts bumper stickers on their cars and sends in millions of small donations. And Sanders has the same problem Ron Paul had: he is too radical for his party.

In a perceptive article posted April 10 on Vox, Zack Beauchamp argues that Sanders’ “unapologetically socialist politics” does not fit American political culture. “Sanders’ defeat is a hammer blow to the Left’s class-based theory of winning political power,” Beauchamp writes. He continues:

The Sanders theory rested in part on a Marx-inflected theory of how people think about politics. A basic premise of Marxist political strategy is that people should behave according to their material self-interest as assessed by Marxists — which is to say, their class interests. Proposing policies like Medicare-for-all, which would plausibly alleviate the suffering of the working class, should be effective at galvanizing working-class voters to turn out for Left parties. But this isn’t really how politics works, at least in the contemporary United States . . . Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters’ behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory.

Americans vote their tribal affiliations. It may be a racial, ethnic, gender, educational, or political-party tribe, or some “intersectional” combination. And when it came to it, too many of these tribes decided that Sanders was not one of them.

Sanders has the same problem Ron Paul had: he is too radical for his party.

His defeat was sudden. He was up, horribly and fantastically, and then he was down. The signal to pull him down came from Democrat insiders. It’s one thing, a year before the November election, to have a socialist senator on the debate stage with six or seven other candidates, several of them egocentric billionaires and one or two of them downright goofy. At that point, the Party is talent scouting. It needs to look democratic and to keep the show interesting. And early on, the voters can be as whimsical as they like, favoring one candidate or the other. But after testing party sentiment in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, play time ends. By late February 2020, the Democratic Party was choosing its nominee. Political power is serious business, and this year the Democratic bigs worried that Bernie Sanders was not the right guy to win, and that if he did win, he wasn’t going to listen to them.

The media took him down. At a CNN Town Hall in Charleston, CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Sanders to defend his praise of Fidel Castro’s literacy programs. The praise was decades old; Cuomo said he’d gotten the question from Democrats in Florida’s delegation to Congress. It was a classic “gotcha” question: Here is a cow pie. If you’re such a “authentic” guy, step in it. And Sanders did. He said Castro did have admirable literacy programs in the early years of his regime, and it should be no crime to say so. That’s Bernie Sanders.

As long as Sanders compared his vision of a socialist America to Denmark, which is really a capitalist welfare state, he was safe. Praising a Communist, Fidel Castro, left Sanders wounded. In leftist lingo, he had been “redbaited.” Having redbaited Sanders myself, I thoroughly approved. And I noted that it was done by CNN, a network of Democrats. Good!

Political power is serious business, and this year the Democratic bigs worried that Bernie Sanders was not the right guy to win.

Cuomo wasn’t the only redbaiter. The political columnists piled on Sanders. At the Washington Post, Megan McArdle had a feisty column on February 18 titled “Bernie Sanders Is Not Just a Garden-Variety Social Democrat.” McArdle is a libertarian, but the liberals piled on, too. At Common Dreams, leftist Laura Flanders complained that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman “redbaited Bernie for the umpteenth time, deliberately distorting democratic socialism as Stalinism and accusing Sanders of ‘demonizing the engines of capitalism and job creation’.” Her column was titled “Thank You, Bernie Sanders. Screw You, New York Times.”

The Left complains about media bias, too. To them, the New York Times is “corporate media.”

The sudden reversal of the Sanders campaign came in the South Carolina primary of February 29. South Carolina is only one state out of 50, and not a big one. Why should it be more important than Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada? In South Carolina, the majority of Democrats are black. African Americans have electoral weight in the Democratic Party — and moral weight, too, as the victims of racism and the standard-bearers of the Civil Rights movement. And African Americans were not enthusiastic about the pink-faced man from lily-white Vermont (1.4% black) who in their view talked too much about economic inequality and not enough about racial inequality. Some no doubt remembered when he was confronted in 2015 in a rally in Seattle with the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” and Sanders, who believes deeply in egalitarian universality, replied, “All lives matter.” Joe Biden would not have made that mistake.

Unlike Sanders, Biden had been a lifelong Democrat, and he hadn’t been picking any roses for Fidel Castro. Biden had also been the loyal vice-president to America’s first African American president. South Carolina’s black Democrats gave their votes to Biden. In a seven-way race, Biden took 49% of Democratic votes, beating Sanders by more than two to one. It was Biden’s first victory after a weak showing in the three previous states.

African Americans were not enthusiastic about the pink-faced man from lily-white Vermont who talked too much about economic inequality and not enough about racial inequality.

Following the vote, two of the losers, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, gave up and endorsed Biden. Nobody endorsed Sanders. That sent a message: Not Bernie. On Super Tuesday, March 3, primary voters in 10 of 14 states across the country did their Democratic duty and made Joe Biden the presumptive nominee. That Sanders carried California, the largest prize of the 50 states, didn’t matter.

What does it mean?

Sanders has lost. He has run twice and lost twice. And he’s 78. He’s done. The United States is not going to have a socialist president on January 20, 2021, or a socialist vice president, either. (And even when a Sanders election seemed possible, it did not mean we were going to have a socialist America.)

Sanders did raise a socialist standard and ran with it — and a good deal further than Ron Paul did with his libertarian standard, 12 years ago. Sanders has repeatedly said, in his Marxist lingo, that he has won “the ideological struggle” within the Democratic Party. He has pushed the mainstream leftward, particularly in regard to lots of free stuff from the government. Right now, in the Great Coronavirus Emergency, our Republican government is shoveling money out by the trillions, and Democrats are nodding, “More, more, more.” But the emergency will fade, and the debt will remain. By the time the private sector recovers, the burden of carrying the federal debt may be much larger than people now envision. With the federal debt already above one year’s GDP, expanding the giveaway state in a non-emergency year will not be easy.

Nobody endorsed Sanders. That sent a message: Not Bernie.

Predictably, voices on the Left are trying to salvage what they can of the Sanders defeat. In a piece called “The Importance of Bernie Sanders and Socialism” in the New Yorker, John Cassidy argues that the Democrats will need Sanders’ socialism to counteract economic inequality. Edward Isaac-Dovere makes a similar argument in The Atlantic. “Nationalized health care, a Green New Deal, and student-loan forgiveness used to be as hard to imagine happening as the stockpiling of toilet paper,” he writes. “Ideas that the supposedly smartest people in Washington, in both major parties, wrote off as too expensive or impractical are getting pulled into the mainstream.”

They were getting pulled into the mainstream. The question is whether they will stay in the mainstream without a Sanders for President campaign. Libertarians who were inspired by the Ron Paul campaigns will appreciate this point. Presidential campaigns are hugely important. They raise the stakes. They motivate people. They draw media attention. And they put the winners into positions of power. Where the Left goes from here will depend partly on who wins the November election and by how much. It will depend even more on whether someone can fill Bernie Sanders’ shoes and stage a run for President in 2024. The first name mentioned is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was too young this year to become Bernie Sanders’ running mate. She will turn 35 in October 2024, making her legally just old enough to run.

Whether Americans would put a 35-year-old radical in the White House seems doubtful; then again, I was sure they would never put Donald Trump in the White House, and they did. And between now and 2023, when the new campaigns will begin, is plenty of time for another leader to rise. If this coronavirus mess turns out worse than people expect, the opening for the Left will be greater.

Where the Left goes from here will depend partly on who wins the November election and by how much.

For the cultural reason cited by Lipset and Marks in It Didn’t Happen Here and the political reasons cited by the writer in Vox, I don’t think the hard Left has much of a chance of taking power in the United States. I’m not so sure it will just go away without influencing the country, though. Consider that the Left’s historic high was during a 10-year depression. In the 1930s many Americans had a fascination with socialism and communism because the capitalist engine was putting along with 10-to-25% unemployment, year after year, seemingly unable to recover. When private industry did recover, the Left went away. Its recent revival — which is not as strong as in the 1930s — came at a time when the economy was firing on all cylinders. The Left saw the economic system when it was working, and said, “We don’t want it.”

That’s new. And that is the legacy of Bernie Sanders.




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Merciless

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China’s 35-year one-child policy (1979–2015) led to a number of sorrowful No’s: No brothers. No sisters. No cousins. No aunts. No uncles. No nieces. No nephews. And by the turn of the 21st century it began to mean no wives as well, thanks to an insidious practice that will be described below. For a culture that revered family and ancestry, the policy was a heavy blow.

Nanfu Wang was one of those children, born in 1985 under the one-child policy. Because her family lived in a rural area, they were able to lobby for a second child, but only after much pleading not to be sterilized and then agreeing to wait five years after Nanfu’s birth before getting pregnant again. Had the second child been another girl, Nanfu’s grandmother stood by at the birthing, basket in hand, to whisk the offending second daughter away to death by abandonment.

Now living in the United States and the mother of a little boy, Nanfu returned to China to interview people about the one-child policy and how it had affected them. The film, One Child Nation, is gloomy, authentic, and chilling. Nanfu describes the environment in which she grew up: the propaganda that appeared on “buildings, walls, posters, playing cards, calendars, matches, and blended into the background of life.” Songs and entertainment had extolled the policy in bouncy jingles performed in school assemblies, folk art, and classic operas:

Had the second child been another girl, Nanfu’s grandmother stood by, basket in hand, to whisk the offending second daughter away to death by abandonment.

“Fewer children make for a happier life”; “We have taken the one-child policy to heart”; “Our lives are so great now, thanks to the government’s foresight”; “With one child, a family’s standard of living will double,” they sang happily. No wonder Nanfu felt embarrassed about the baby at home. And everyone could see her family’s lack of patriotism in the missing star on the plaque outside their house. Peer pressure was strong. Retaliation and snitching were easy.

Some of these PSAs were not so jaunty. In a clip from the era, a young girl, perhaps six, intones with an eerie, ominous smile: “If you have a second child, you break the law. You’ll be detained . . . Think about it!”

Punishment for resisting sterilization was swift. Roofs were razed. Homes were demolished. Families were beaten. One former midwife, who by her own count aborted or induced and then killed 60,000 babies, describes how women were “abducted, tied up, dragged like pigs to be sterilized . . . [W]omen would cry, curse, go insane.”

Everyone could see her family’s lack of patriotism in the missing star on the plaque outside their house.

Repeatedly, as Nanfu asks those who had carried out these orders or who had acquiesced in them how they felt or why they did it. The answer was always the same:

“We didn’t want it, but we had no choice.”
“Policy is policy. What could we do?”
“I had no choice . . . I executed orders.”
“It was outside of my control.”

Even today, after the one-child policy has been lifted, the ambience has not changed; fear and resignation still cloud people’s eyes. When Nanfu questions the village leader, his wife rises from her card table in anger and shouts at Nanfu, “You better not get him into trouble!” Fear of being reported, even in one’s own home, is still strong.

As time passed, many began to believe the propaganda. Shuquian Jiang was an abortionist who became a national hero and received numerous awards. She still says, “The policy was absolutely correct,” although she admits that “initially I thought it was an atrocity.” Of course, what she says for the camera and what she believes in her heart might not be the same; in China, one tends to say publicly only what is acceptable. By contrast, the midwife who aborted or induced and killed 60,000 babies now works exclusively as an infertility specialist to atone for what she acknowledges as her sins.

Fear of being reported, even in one’s own home, is still strong.

Nanfu’s own mother said, “It was sad to demolish people’s homes, but it was necessary for China’s survival.” When Nanfu’s uncle’s wife produced a daughter, Nanfu’s mother helped him get rid of it so they could try again for a boy. She carried the baby girl into the market and left the basket on the meat counter. For two days she returned and watched to see who would take it. No one did, and the baby died, there on the meat counter. Nanfu presents numerous stories of intense sorrow, from those who executed the orders, those who were forced to endure the orders, and those who found ways to circumvent the orders.

About that final group, the most interesting is the story involves the Duan family, arrested and imprisoned for human trafficking. But one person’s “trafficking” is another person’s “rescue operation.” Now out of prison, Duan describes riding his bicycle to work each day as a teenager, and “seeing four or five abandoned babies” along his way. The babies would still be there on his way back, most of them dead. This happened day after day. All girls, of course. Eventually he began taking the babies to a local orphanage, where they could be adopted by foreign families who longed for a child. Soon others were bringing babies to Duan — trash collectors, taxi drivers, gas cylinder workers, and others who had access to the recesses where abandoned babies often ended up. Duan would take them to the orphanage, and the director would pay him for his effort. He estimates that he rescued 10,000 babies in this way. Others would say that he trafficked these babies. Duan called himself a “matchmaker.” Under such dire circumstances, I would not want to be the judge.

One Child Nation is sobering and fascinating and heartwrenching, not only as a history of the one-child policy in China, but also as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a government convinces the people that sacrifices must be made for the greater good. Peng Wang, an artist in the film who, like Duan, was appalled to find discarded fetuses in outdoor trash heaps, describes the “long term indoctrination of the population war” and then observes sadly, “Submission to the collective destroys one’s humanity, individuality, and conscience.” It’s appalling to see how readily the policy was implemented, accepted, and embraced. It began with propaganda permeating the schools, entertainment, and media. As a young child Nanfu took part in these song-and-dance events in her school, and felt terribly embarrassed by the fact that she had a younger brother. She believed the words that she sang. It was only after becoming a mother herself that she began to question the policy and wonder how it had affected those forced to live through it. Now she muses, “Were these values my own? Or were they impressed on me at a young age?”

For two days she returned and watched to see who would take it. No one did, and the baby died, there on the meat counter.

I think we know the answer to her question. We are watching it happen right now, as collectivist values and policies infiltrate our school curricula, entertainment media, and government edicts. In the current crisis, those who espouse a more reasoned approach to fighting the coronavirus are being called “Covid-deniers” and even “murderers.” Residents are calling 911 to report a neighbor going outside for a second run of the day or entering a grocery store without a mask. Statisticians and government agencies are using cellphone pings to track our movements. Bill Gates has recommended using facial recognition data in order to make sure people stay in their homes (with the software provided by Microsoft, of course.)

Some governors have suggested sending the National Guard door to door to count our food and commandeer anything beyond a 14-day supply. Governor Cuomo has threated to forcibly take medical equipment from hospitals in upstate New York and transfer it to New York City. Americans are willingly giving up the precious freedoms and protections vouchsafed in the Bill of Rights in order to force their neighbors into compliance. Basic individual rights — the right to choose for ourselves what we will do, what we will say, and how we will use our private property — are being suspended for “the greater good,” with the dubious justification that everything we do affects everyone else. Even breathing. It’s the butterfly effect run amok.

“I had no choice.” “It was out of my control.” “I had to put national policy above feelings.” “The policy was absolutely correct.” These were the justifications in China.

Americans are willingly giving up the precious freedoms and protections vouchsafed in the Bill of Rights in order to force their neighbors into compliance.

China was able to turn a culture that revered family into one that would kill breathing, kicking, crying babies because the people were hungry and afraid. Starvation was the result of Mao’s own ridiculous central planning and this galling truth of socialism: in a free country people are an asset, but in a socialist country people are a liability. Thus, when too many people are chasing too little rice, it’s easy to blame hunger on population (demand), rather than production (supply). When the Chinese had “nothing to eat but rice husks” (not even the rice!) they were ready to blame anyone in order to have more food. So, babies.

A friend of mine who has spent much time in China told me recently that he has seen people eat disgusting things when they are hungry. He has watched them carry dead rats home from the fields and eat basically anything that crawls. That’s what happens when you’re starving. And eventually, bats become a delicacy. And viruses jump from animals to humans.

Americans today aren’t yet hungry, but they are afraid. The enemy is a tiny bug that no one can see. Worse, they’ve been convinced that anyone might be contagious — even those who show no symptoms whatsoever — and that the disease is utterly fatal. They are looking for a policy that will protect them. Can your freedom be rescued? Or is it about to be trafficked to the god of the greater good?


Editor's Note: Review of "One Child Nation," directed by Nanfu Wang. Amazon Original, 2019, 88 minutes.



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Table for One

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Clowns to the Left of Me

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So many people on the Left want to embrace the COVID-19 pandemic as the validation of their world view. I don’t buy it.

In “Jokers to the Right,” posted here on March 31, I wrote that many people on my side of the political divide have been brushing off the pandemic as a minor thing. They’re doing it, I think, in order to save libertarian ideology, which doesn’t provide the best answers for fighting the spread of an infectious disease. People on the Left are having fun reminding us of that — for example, “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic,” posted on The Atlantic webpage, March 10.

The Left is proud that the public health authorities are proclaiming that “we are all in this together,” which is the Left’s principle about the whole society. The Left is making a we-were-right argument.

Many libertarians have been brushing off the pandemic in order to save libertarian ideology, which doesn’t provide the best answers for fighting the spread of an infectious disease.

We-were-right arguments are standard in political discourse, and both sides make them. In the current epidemic, for example, Liberty contributing editor Randal O’Toole, a critic of the public transit complex, argues in “We Were Warned Not to Bunch Up,” (The Antiplanner, March 18) that the virus shows the folly of transit modes that require people to bunch up. Of course O’Toole is right that buses and trains are dangerous during an infectious epidemic. (So are automobiles full of people.) But if you believe in massive subsidies to high-speed rail, O’Toole’s argument won’t move you. His we-were-right argument is cheeky but peripheral to the general question of mobility in normal times.

The Left is now making a we-were-right argument that is also peripheral but much more ambitious — and at our expense. Here is one such:

“A pandemic . . . makes clear that we need the state if we are going to survive,” writes Jedediah Britton-Purdy in “The Only Treatment for Coronavirus Is Solidarity,” in Jacobin, March 13, 2020. “Our alone-together world of individualist ethics and material interdependence didn’t just happen. It takes a vast and intricate infrastructure to keep us all running in one another’s service, and in the ultimate service of return to capital: from highways to credit markets to the global trade regime. The fact that these interwoven systems are tanking financial markets around the world at the prospect that people might need to spend a few months [sic!] sitting at home rather than hurrying around exchanging money shows how finely calibrated they are to profit, and how totally lacking in resilience to shifts in human need.”

The Left is now making a we-were-right argument that is much more ambitious — and at our expense.

Here is another:

The COVID-19 pandemic “and the inadequate U.S. response have laid bare the brokenness of neoliberalism,” write Jonathan Heller and Judith Barish in “How to Prepare for the Next Pandemic,” in The Nation, posted April 2. “The neoliberal worldview, which has dominated public policy-making across the world for the last 40 years, celebrates the liberation of a nimble market free from the oppressive constraints of the lumbering government,” they write. “Neoliberalism’s prescriptions are rooted in a radical individualism. In the words of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families’.”

(The Left loves to quote that statement of Thatcher’s. They have made it the most famous thing she ever said.)

The libertarian counterargument has been that the Left is attacking a straw man — that Clinton’s America, Dubya’s America, Obama’s America, and Trump’s America are not libertarian. In responding in this way, libertarians are comparing reality, as they perceive it, to the image of an ideal society in their heads. That’s exactly what the socialists at Jacobin and The Nation are doing. Focus for a minute on reality alone. What’s really going on here is that the Left is denouncing the classical liberal component of current society — and there is a large component — and demanding to replace it with socialism. These writers are attacking the idea of individualism — and that’s our idea.

In The Nation, Heller and Barish argue that our individualist society has ignored the alleged fact that wealth is “socially produced” — the Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren line that “you didn’t build that.” In Heller and Barish’s view, the rules of American commerce are set up to foster the production of wealth and not its fair distribution. The result, they argue, is “a competitive individualism that undermines community and destabilizes the social order.” And to them, this pandemic nicely shows they are right.

What’s really going on here is that the Left is denouncing the classical liberal component of current society and demanding to replace it with socialism.

For their part, supporters of the market have been arguing that capitalism has allowed people to create the wealthiest society that ever was, including fabulous medical services and drugs; that in this emergency, companies and individuals are making supplies available, sometimes with no profit; and that a socialist society would be much less able to do this. (Where would you rather be sick?) Supporters of the market further argue that American wealth was not “socially produced” but produced under the guidance of innovators and entrepreneurs, which our system encourages. In addition, the relatively low death rate from COVID-19 in the United States makes a strong argument that “individualist” America is not being outdone by countries with government-run medical systems.

I like those arguments a lot. We should keep making them. But my argument is different. It’s that if you’re thinking of the best principles under which to organize human life, you have to start with normal life. You don’t start with a global virus panic, distill the principle of “we’re all in this together,” and apply it, rubber-stamp-like, to everything from college campuses to grocery stores. You start with normal life, and derive principles from that. And that is what classical liberalism does. It starts with rational individuals who need to work to sustain themselves and their dependents. It declares that people in normal life should have the liberty to choose their work and make their own decisions about the use of their time and their stuff, and that they should own the gains and losses from their decisions. Over time, this rule will allow people to make themselves wealthier and happier than having some ruling power, democratically selected or otherwise, making these decisions for them. Individual responsibility also tends to make the people stronger, whereas socialism tends to turn them into whiners.

The classical liberal world will have different rules during emergencies. When the cruise ship is sinking, the captain does not auction off seats on the lifeboats. Likewise, in an epidemic of infectious disease, we’re all in it together. But an epidemic is an outlier, a “black swan.” The rules for an epidemic are special, and not relevant to the politics of normal life.

You don’t start with a global virus panic, distill the principle of “we’re all in this together,” and apply it, rubber-stamp-like, to everything from college campuses to grocery stores.

But to some people, they are emblematic. I remember people who lived through World War II who said it was the best time of their lives. It gave them a collective purpose. Suddenly I hear the thought that we have a collective purpose again, and that our society should retain some of it after this is over.

I do not hope for such a thing. Individual libertarians may want their lives to have a purpose, whether it be fighting disease, raising their children, building a company, or serving God, but we don’t want to be assigned a purpose. We want to choose our own. That insistence, that your life is your own, is our calling card.

On a web page called unherd.com, James Kirkup offers a piece called “Will the Panic Kill Off Libertarianism?” He begins: “I am not a libertarian, but I think libertarianism deserves some acknowledgement for its optimism about human nature. In short, this suggests that when people are left to their own devices, they will, in the end, do sensible, collaborative and even kind things.”

Suddenly I hear the thought that we have a collective purpose again, and that our society should retain some of it after this is over. I do not hope for such a thing.

Well, that’s nice. Then Kirkup goes on to observe that in the coronavirus epidemic, many people are doing stupid things. And they certainly are. Recently I’ve seen stories of people going to weddings and church services in defiance of “social distancing.” Kirkup argues that this shows that people need to be told what to do. And he concludes:

If people cannot be trusted to make decisions that can make the difference between life and death . . . where else should restraint be imposed by the state, for the good of the individual and society? Put it another way: once you’ve closed pubs and banned people from going outside, imposing, say, a tax to deter people from consuming sugary drinks is going to seem like a very small thing indeed.

It may seem a small thing, but it does not follow. During an epidemic the society may have to protect itself by quarantining an individual against his will, just as in a war the state may ask its soldiers to shoot and kill human beings. But neither epidemic nor war is part of normal life. Sugary drinks are. Asserting that government control of soft-drink cup sizes is a response to an “obesity crisis” is an attempt to apply the rules of emergencies to ordinary life. It is ridiculous. It should be laughed out of the public square. It is also dishonest: I live in a city that has put a tax on sugary drinks supposedly for the public health, but the net effect has been to take more of the people’s money for politicians to spend.

Libertarians should be fine with a measure of “we’re all in this together” during an epidemic. In some ways, we need that idea in organizing a society, especially in recognizing that everyone has equal rights under the law. But it cannot be the organizing principle for everything.




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The Corona Bailout

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There are libertarians who favor the two trillion dollar bailout, but basic libertarian principles oppose it. Let me argue both sides and see what emerges.

Con: The money that government spends comes from somewhere, and the government can't create money, so it is "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Pro: The rich, in their guise as Wall Street, love the bailout — and they are the ones who will end up paying for it.

Every American voter is going to remember the "free" money they got and thank Trump for saving their life.

Con: It will lead to bigger government.
Pro: If you concede the principle of minarchism, that the army, the police, and the fire departments are proper roles for government, then disaster management is probably OK. The solution is huge because the problem is huge.

Con: The Democrats got a lot of their labor rights policy agenda in under cover of the bailout bill, forcing Republicans to pass it.
Pro: This may well be what guarantees a GOP landslide, which is much better than a socialist landslide. Every American voter is going to remember the "free" money they got and thank Trump for saving their life. Biden's coronavirus plan will look seem like Trump Lite.

We have what is really a capitalist-socialist hybrid. And everyone is addicted already.

Con: The bailout fundamentally reordered the American system of government and economics.
Pro: Americans have short memories, and the government giving away money and taking credit for saving civilization is nothing new. Anything that actually is new probably won't last.

Con: This will usher in socialism and addict the working class to it.
Pro: That's already happened. We have what is really a capitalist-socialist hybrid. And everyone is addicted already. At least this crisis period will have a discreet and finite end, the point when the number of daily new corona cases in the USA is zero. Then we're back to Trump's conservative capitalism utopia.

I myself, In sum, from a libertarian point of view, am moderately opposed to the bailout. But I think it's no big deal — in the grand scheme of things. Right now our problem is not the bailout; it's the virus. And what about our problems tomorrow? Well, if there is a tomorrow, we'll deal with it tomorrow.




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Give Them Their Chance!

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Many years ago I attended the wake of a recent college graduate. Brendan had everything ahead of him: he was 21 years old, valedictorian of his university, and on his way to graduate school on a Fulbright scholarship when he simply didn’t wake up one morning. “SADS,” the coroner called it. Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. No discernible cause. For the funeral he was dressed in his father’s professorial regalia, which had first belonged to his grandfather. It was going to be presented to him when he was awarded his doctorate. Now it would be his shroud.

At the wake I noticed his grandmother standing alone next to the casket, a look of deep reflection on her face. She was leaning over his young body, not in an attitude of goodbye but as though she were ready to dive in. I knew exactly what she was thinking: if only she could trade places with him! She had lived a long and eventful life. His was just beginning. She would do anything to bring him out of that casket and take his place. He never got his turn at life.

It’s what I’m thinking now. As I write these words, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and young people are running up the steep hills in the canyon near our house to stay in shape because all the gyms are closed. Tomorrow, the trails will be closed as well. Other young people are working overtime at the Albertsons to keep the shelves stocked and the cash registers running. They’re driving delivery trucks for Amazon and flipping burgers at the local drive-thru.

She would do anything to bring him out of that casket and take his place. He never got his turn at life.

But many other young people are sitting at home, furloughed, wondering how long they’ll be out of work and how they will pay their bills. That $1,200 isn’t going to stretch very far. They can’t go to the gym, can’t socialize with their friends, can’t even go out for dinner or a movie. And they’re sad — senior recitals and sports seasons and semesters abroad have been canceled. So have graduations. Weddings, if they are happening at all, have been changed to a simple “I do” in front of an officiator and a couple of witnesses. Congress has strapped them with another two trillion dollars in debt, much of it for pork projects that couldn’t have passed under normal circumstances.

And why? Because a virus that causes a relatively benign illness in the vast majority of those who contract it is deadly for people who are older or whose health is already compromised. Many people have had it without even knowing it. An estimated 90% of those who contract the virus can treat themselves at home, the way most of us do when we get a cold or the flu. For that, we have shut down the entire world. What have we done to these kids?

Yes, some people are dying. And it sounds like a pretty miserable way to go. I don’t wish it on anyone. But many people are dying in another way, even if they don’t have the virus. Macy’s, already on shaky ground in the past few years, announced this week that it will be furloughing most of its 130,000 employees, and that many of its stores will not reopen. So many people are applying for unemployment benefits that it’s crashing government websites. States don’t have enough money in their coffers to cover all the claims. And what will all these unemployed families do for health insurance, especially as we’re facing a new disease that might require days or weeks of intensive care? Will Congress write another “stimulus bill,” this time to mandate single-payer universal health coverage? What a disaster that would be!

And for what — to make sure we elderly folks don’t get sick?

Weddings, if they are happening at all, have been changed to a simple “I do” in front of an officiator and a couple of witnesses.

Well, I have an idea: what if those of us who are at risk stayed home, and let the ablebodied go back to work? What if the CDC and FDA got out of the way so private labs could produce enough tests to find out who is sick and who isn’t? What if we let the market continue to do what it does best — provide goods and services, drugs and medical equipment, where they are needed — and, in the longer term, get government out of the way so that more doctors and more nurses can be trained and more hospitals built?

Much has been said about “essential” and “nonessential” services. But I disagree. There is no such thing as “nonessential” work. Even the local bowling alley is essential. It’s essential to the small business owner who still has to pay the rent, maintain the machines, and cover the health plans for employees, even while the business is shut down. It’s essential for the employee who sells the tickets and hands out the bowling shoes, and for the one who runs the snack bar. It’s essential for the league player whose mental and physical health is enhanced by playing on the team every week, and for the pals who get together to laugh, chat, and have a beer. Business is essential. Interaction is essential. Normal life is essential. I am very concerned for the mental health of all those whose lives have been severely disrupted by this global shutdown. I’m concerned for the financial health of old people and those who are just starting out. I’m concerned for the emotional health of children traumatized by what they are hearing on TV and in their homes.

But shouldn’t we do whatever it takes? “If it saves just one life . . .”

Even the local bowling alley is essential. It’s essential to the small business owner who still has to pay the rent, maintain the machines, and cover the health plans for employees

No.

Not at the price of an entire generation’s future and freedom. At 67, I’m a member of the at-risk age group, so I’m not pointing a finger at someone else to take the fall. I feel like that bereft grandmother standing over her grandson’s coffin, straightening his doctoral regalia and patting his hand, urging him to get up out of there and let her take his place.

I’ve had my turn at life. I’ve raised my children, kissed my grandchildren, climbed the pyramids, marveled at the moai on Easter Island, written my books and reviews. I have my legacy. I’ve had my turn. I’ll do my best to avoid getting the disease, because I know it won’t be pleasant, and I think I would be missed if I go.

That’s what everyone my age should be doing. People who have preexisting conditions and compromised immune systems should be even more careful. We should stay home and let the rest of the country go back to work. I will gladly give up these “heroic” measures to keep me safe if it will allow my grandchildren to have their turn too.




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