That Instructive Tone

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Many years ago, when I was a kid libertarian emerging from the swamps of the New Left, one of my friends, a student of sociology, told me something he had learned in class: among its other functions, government is a means of supplying information.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “like when they put up a traffic light. It tells you when to stop and go.”

I was too young to be paying any perceptible amount of money in taxes, so I didn’t think, “So this is why we need a government that spends as much every year as Europe did between AD 100 and AD 1960 — so it can throw that little switch on the traffic light?” But I did think, “Gosh, that’s banal.”

They are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide.

Since that time, unfortunately, government has become ever more intent on fulfilling the vital function of supplying information. Its attempts to do so are not limited to “merge,” “no left turn,” “pay your taxes by April 15 (or we are sending you to prison).” In my state, you can hardly eat a meal without being informed, someplace on the menu, that eggs and chickens need to be cooked at such and such a temperature. You can hardly pick up a package of anything without seeing a sign that says:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

You can hardly enter an apartment house without seeing an even more disturbing sign:

WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm.

A second or two after grabbing their genitals, most Californians recall that this information is without any merit or interest. Every property in the world includes some substance, some chemical, that might conceivably prevent you from reproducing. Eat enough dirt, and you will never reproduce again.

But lately the “information” conveyed by government has assumed a somewhat more lethal form — lethal to mental health, at any rate. President Obama’s comments are almost all of this nature; and the problem has gotten worse as Obama has moved from Partisan Manipulation and Just Plain Lies to the still deadlier genre of Words for the Ages. Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

As for the people who thought those speeches had information to supply, they are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide. I’m sure we can agree, however, on the idea that with such encouragement from the top, Obama’s subordinates are very likely to optimize their own potential for banality.

Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

Governmental banality manifested itself in virtually Platonic form in remarks delivered on June 11 by Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, former senator, former banker, former head of a cellphone company, former organizer for the Reagan campaign, former official of the Veterans Administration, former lobbyist for a tire company, and current Secretary of Defense. The occasion of his remarks was an investigation conducted by the House Armed Services Committee into the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked away from his post in a combat zone in Afghanistan, was captured by the enemy, and was ransomed at considerable expense by the Obama administration.

Hagel said:

Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. . . .You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them. . . . . . War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.

Now, would anybody ever guess that this man had come to Congress to talk about Bowe Bergdahl?

Of course, it’s hard to talk about something you know absolutely nothing about. Hagel’s comments, on this and other occasions, indicated that he had no idea whether Bergdahl was a deserter or if other soldiers had lost their lives looking for him or if the five Taliban honchos who were released in exchange for him were really important or not. But as Secretary of Defense, he had to talk about something, so he talked about the eternal truths. If someone produces The Wit and Wisdom of Chuck Hagel, these wise observations will need to be included:

Wars are messy.

There’s always suffering through [sic] war.

War is not some abstraction.

War is always about human beings.

War is a dirty business.

And just to keep the troops happy:

There’s no glory in war.

What is the listener supposed to deduce from this string of truisms? Don’t go to war? If you go to war, make sure to obliterate your enemies? All’s fair in a dirty game? What goes around comes around? War is an existential tragedy, best understood by curling up with a Camus novel? War isn’t half so pleasant as a successful career in Washington? Pass me the gin bottle?

Here we have a traffic light that’s blinking red, green, and yellow, all at once. But Hagel’s demeanor insisted that you had to respect any information he supplied. When anyone expressed a hint of skepticism, the Secretary of Defense was miffed.

Watching Hagel’s testimony, I was reminded that Leland Yeager had alerted me to the existence of another exponent of government as information, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. And Yeager was right, although McCarthy turns out to have a very different style from Hagel’s. Hagel (age 67) plays the part of the wise but grumpy old grandfather; he reacts to criticism by twisting around with an expression on his face that suggests his hearing aid is missing and he knows that the questioner has stolen it. By contrast, McCarthy (age 60) is young and hip. At least she thinks she is.

In a long, long speech delivered on June 2, McCarthy puffed something called the Clean Power Plan. In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrosity has to do with governmental “shaping” and “crafting” of large but impenetrably vague “solutions” to such nonproblems as global warming.

Remember global warming? The idea that people are heating up the globe, or planet? Yes, that’s what we used to hear. But since the expected warming doesn’t seem to be going on, people concerned with the purported emergency have changed their name for it. What government is now supposed to prevent is climate change, climate inaction, or, if you’re really hip, just climate. Those are the words that McCarthy uses in her speech; never once does anything so frank as warming appear. But she is hip, or cunning, enough to realize that some people in her audience know, or have heard somewhere, that there’s been a lot of actual cooling going on. How can she handle that? She handles it by indicating she’s so far ahead of the game that she’s plumb tired of watching it. After all, her sole purpose is to win. So whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we? I mean, sometimes the electricity goes off!

If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

The solution, of course, is a set of nationwide government interventions, entailing many billions in losses for companies and consumers.

But what strikes me is the tone. It’s the tone of a tenured sage who is tired of people with their petty questions and objections. If that’s the way they are, they’re not worth talking to — even though they’re paying her salary.

Remember, this woman hasn’t even been elected to her exalted position. And she isn’t a person who has won repute by offering the public some goods that it wants to buy. She’s just a government employee. But here she is, talking to people who have either been elected by the public or whose business has been favored in some kind of marketplace, and acting as if it’s her role to give awards at the kindergarten graduation:

I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it's the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.

If McCarthy actually were a teacher, I would advise her, first, to drop the attempt at pretending to be hip and cool. If you’re not young, you ought to know enough not to do that. But this is a teacher so unwise as to think that somebody’s going to like her to death because she uses expressions like shout out, lean into, and, elsewhere in her rambling, boring, repetitive speech, all about (“This plan is all about flexibility”), a win (“efficiency is a win”), think about it like this, calling our number (“Now, climate change is calling our number”), etc. It must be admitted that there are some signs of authenticity in McCarthy’s youthful patter: she resembles many young people in never having mastered English grammar and syntax. In company with her boss, President Obama, she has not yet learned the “like-as” distinction — and that’s just one example of a grammatical notion she’s never leaned into.

Whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we?

Second, I would advise her that one establishes one’s credentials to instruct others by recognizing and avoiding clichés, and not by running after them as if they were one’s heart’s desire. How else could she give us the right thing to do, of all stripes, success breeds success, and everybody wins within the space of five lines? In other passages we get in the driver’s seat, shifts the conversation, proven path,skeptics who will cry the sky is falling (actually, a skeptic would doubt that the sky is falling, but if you’ve collected a lot of clichés, you may as well butcher some), competitive edge, think of our children, cried wolf, bottom line, doomsday predictions that never came true (another odd choice for a person who spends her time warning about apocalyptic climate stuff),and my favorite pair of bromides, “Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles — it’s all hands on deck.”

That, like the earlier list, is selective. In the space available to me, I can’t do justice to McCarthy’s clichés. But go ahead — read the speech. I dare you. I gave you the link.

In the meantime, I ask you: Is she truly exercising the function of government to supply information? What she supplies is attitude, and a very bad attitude indeed. Bad ’tude, dude. No adult should talk to other adults in this way. In fact, no one should talk to anyone in this way. Although both the tone and the total absence of thought will be familiar to all who remember their high school assemblies, that precedent doesn’t make any of this a good, or even a decent, model for discourse of any kind, including high school assemblies.

But here, as bad speakers like to say, I’m reminded of a joke. Once there were two people who were very religious. They went to church all the time; they gave money; they never missed a vigil or a potluck dinner; with them it was all hands on deck. I’ll call this couple Adam and Steve. One Sunday Adam was sick, but he wanted to find out what the new priest had to say that morning, so he sent Steve along to church with instructions to report back to him. So Steve went and returned, and on his return he said, “Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?”

Adam gulped. “I guess,” he replied, “I’d better hear the bad news first.”

So Steve said, “Well, the priest got into the pulpit, and he preached nothing but heresy!”

“Oh my God!” Adam exclaimed. “After that, what could the good news be?”

“The good news,” Steve said, “is that nobody was listening.”

I would place bets on how many people, if any, read that speech by Ms. McCarthy, or, if present, listened to it. I fear that Leland Yeager and I may be her only attentive audience. And Obama’s sermons are just as eagerly followed.




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They Didn’t Want a War

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Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace gives a fascinating description of the background, stretching back to around 1900, of what she, like people at the time, calls the “Great War.” She relates how the Bosnian crisis of 1908, the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911, the crises arising from wars among the Balkan countries in 1912 and 1913, and various minor incidents were successfully muddled through without war among the great powers. The most general source of tension seems to have been fear of being attacked first and concern to make and maintain alliances.

Leading statesmen optimistically expected that tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, exacerbated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, would somehow be resolved like the earlier crises. Even after Austria-Hungary rejected Serbia’s compliant but not total acceptance of its ultimatum and declared war, hope lingered of keeping the war contained.

Few policymakers had wanted war (the main exception perhaps being Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff). The German Kaiser was no exception, although he was addicted to impulsive speeches and interviews, liked to strut in military uniform, and even enjoyed fiddling with the detailed design of uniforms (as did his fellow emperors Franz Joseph and Nicholas II).

World War I was a momentous and enduring tragedy. Germany, for one, had everything to gain from continuing peace.

As those examples suggest, MacMillan goes into revealing detail not only about demographic, economic, political, diplomatic, and military situations and events but also about people — royalty, politicians, foreign ministers, diplomats, generals and admirals, journalists, and influential or well connected socialites — together with their backgrounds, illnesses, deaths, and strengths or quirks of personality.

Much of this is relevant to the role of sheer and even trivial accident in momentous history. MacMillan herself notes several examples. The Russian monk Rasputin, whatever his faults, strongly advocated peace and had great influence with the Imperial family; but he had been stabbed by a madwoman on the very day of the Austrian Archduke’s assassination and was recovering slowly, far from St. Petersburg. The Archduke himself had long realized that Austria-Hungary was too weak to risk an aggressive foreign policy. Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter, German Foreign Minister and in MacMillan’s opinion a force for peace, had died in December 1912. Joseph Caillaux, France’s peace-minded Prime Minister, had had to resign in January 1912, partly in connection with his second wife’s shooting of an editor who had threatened to publish some indiscreet love letters that Caillaux had sent to her while she was still married to someone else. Although MacMillan does not explicitly raise the question, I was set to wondering how events would have evolved if Otto von Bismarck, a realist who was satisfied with Germany’s international position achieved by 1871, had been alive and in office in 1914. Or what if Gavrilo Princip’s bullet had missed the Archduke?

MacMillan ends her book, apart from a 13-page epilogue, with the outbreak of war in July-August 1914. That is fine with a reader more interested in the consequences of particular wars and with how the wars might have been avoided (as many potential wars no doubt were barely avoided) than with the details of the actual fighting. World War I was a momentous and enduring tragedy. Germany, for one, had everything to gain from continuing peace, including its growing leadership in science and industry. MacMillan writes a gripping story. She conveys a feel of the suspense that must have prevailed during the final crisis. My opinion of her book is overwhelmingly favorable.

Or it would be except for one minor but pervasive and annoying defect. The book is erratically punctuated, mainly but not everywhere underpunctuated. Even independent clauses, often even ones with their own internal punctuation, go unseparated by a comma or semicolon. Restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases and clauses are not distinguished, as clarity requires, by absence or presence of punctuation. Such erratic and erroneous punctuation delays understanding, if usually only for a second. Even so, it distracted me from the book’s fascinating story.

Above all, it distracted me with sustained wonder about how so untypically mispunctuated a book could emerge from a major publishing house. Could the copyeditor have given up in the face of a daunting and tedious task? Could an incompetent editor have imposed the damage, which the author then passively left standing? Could the author have committed the errors herself and then, perhaps out of bad experience with previous copyeditors, have insisted on none of their tampering this time? None of these hypotheses seems plausible, but I can’t think of a better one. The author’s including her copyeditor in her long list of Acknowledgments adds to the mystery.

I’d be grateful if someone could relieve my curiosity with the true story.


Editor's Note: Review of "The War that Ended Peace," by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, 2013, 784 pages.



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Green Jobs

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The Internet is awash with websites promoting green jobs. Unlike regular jobs, green jobs are socially and environmentally responsible. And they are more rewarding and fulfilling. They give the green-collar worker a sense of belonging to something greater than himself. As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama promised five million high paying green jobs. To green advocates, these jobs have helped implement the green recovery from the "Great Recession." Many tens of millions more will be created to build a new Green Economy that will bring social justice, environmental harmony, and sustainable prosperity to America.

As the Green Economy emerges, our entire infrastructure must be modernized, to bring our systems of agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, education, housing, and so forth into a mellifluous alignment with nature. According to Bright Green Talent, one of numerous companies established to help the green collar crowd, "we have to change everything — the way we live, the way we work, the way we eat, the way we travel, the way we make things." For those eager to begin green careers, it's "a wonderful time to get a green job or become a green entrepreneur." There's no time like the present to prepare for challenges ahead, such as "species extinction, deforestation, sea pollution, desertification, topsoil reduction, and freshwater depletion." And what could be more rewarding and fulfilling than a pat on the back from humanity for staving off "ecological collapse, major conflict, famine, drought, and economic depression"?

Under the new BLS definition, many coal miners, loggers, bus drivers, iron workers, bike-repair shop clerks, and used-record store employees have green jobs.

But back in the real world, there is a problem. Despite a few years of rapid growth in wind-and solar-generated electricity, there is no demand for green jobs. The ambitious, profligate schemes to create a green economy have gone awry. Sustainability is stagnation, even in the green world.

In his 2012 reelection bid, President Obama boasted about his record of creating 2.7 million green jobs, with many more on the way — ostensibly the result of his $90 billion clean-energy stimulus. In reality, it was the result of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) redefining a green job as any employment with an environmental benefit. Under the new BLS definition, many coal miners, loggers, bus drivers, iron workers, bike-repair shop clerks, and used-record store employees have green jobs.

Based on direct-employment data, however, only 140,000 actual green jobs existed when Mr. Obama was touting 2.7 million. This paltry number included the 910 direct jobs in the solar and wind energy industries that were created by the stimulus program (at a cost to taxpayers of $9.8 million per job). But it also included green jobs that existed before Obama took office. That is, even 140,000 was a gross overstatement. In examining the president's shamelessly deceptive claims, Reason magazine discovered both the paucity and the vapidity of green jobs, and provided a more accurate characterization of our emerging Green Economy:

Surprisingly, the top sector for clean jobs was not installing sleek new solar panels or manufacturing electric cars, but “waste management and treatment” (386,000 jobs). In other words, trash collectors. Rounding out the rest of the top four were “mass public transit” (350,000 jobs), conservation (315,000), and “regulation and compliance,” i.e., government employees (141,000). Should the 21st Century economy really depend on hiring more trash collectors, bus drivers, and bureaucrats?

The growth in legitimate green jobs was embarrassingly grim, even in industries such as solar and wind that had experienced significant growth in installation capacity. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2012, after two years of a "ninefold increase in solar power . . . solar employment had increased just 28%." In 2008, the wind industry employed about 85,000; by 2012, it employed about 81,000 — a decline of almost 5%.

Today, millions of Americans would be thrilled to land a job producing planet-healers such as solar panels, windmills, or batteries. Unfortunately, most of those jobs have moved to places such as China, where the cost of labor for producing the products is $1.74 per hour — compared to $35.53 per hour for American manufacturers. Thanks to green economists, who didn't think that an enormous labor cost differential would matter, American taxpayers blew $90 billion to create a green manufacturing boom in China, and now pay subsidies to homeowners and businesses to buy China's green products — green sustainability to the geniuses in Washington DC.

True, the present glut of cheap foreign solar panels has benefited many American consumers, as have the generous tax-funded subsidies. And, in recent years, solar panel installation jobs have increased by 20% annually. These jobs, however, pay on average less than $38,000 a year — compared with $52,400 a year, the average pay for manufacturing jobs. On the bright side, installers can think of the $14,400 difference as psychic income, derived from their being socially and environmentally responsible.

Thanks to green economists, who didn't think that an enormous labor cost differential would matter, American taxpayers blew $90 billion to create a green manufacturing boom in China.

Central planners have pushed the green revolution to new heights of crony capitalism — and irony. America's subsidized solar-panel manufacturing industry is unhappy with China's subsidized solar-panel manufacturing industry. Consequently, the US division of solar-panel maker SolarWorld AG, a German-owned firm, is lobbying Congress for protection. But America's subsidized installation industry is happy with cheap Chinese solar panels. In this skirmish, notes a recent Slate article, “The World’s Dumbest Trade War: "one side is wearing an American flag over a German flag, and the other has an American flag draped over a Chinese flag."

Immense subsidies to bring us together in a cause greater than ourselves have, instead, brought the world’s top economic powers to "the brink of a trade war that could cripple a promising industry in both countries, kill jobs, and hurt the environment all at once. It’s a terrible trade-policy trifecta." So much for environmental harmony.

And where's the environmental harmony for our birds and tortoises? Birds crashing into solar panels (or plummeting to their deaths after having their wings "reduced to a web of charred spines" by solar mirrors) are not good for the green image. Nor are dead desert tortoises, whose habitat has been disrupted by tediously sprawling solar farms. And gangly wind farms are worse, swatting more than a half million birds to death annually, including the iconic bald eagle.

After almost six years of throwing billions of taxpayer money at anything green, the excitement is over. Large-scale renewable energy has slowed to a feeble crawl, if not a morbid decline. Of the 365 federal applications for solar facilities since 2009, only twenty are on track to be built; only three large-scale plants are operational. Solar companies are going broke, and projects are being cancelled. Solar energy remains uncompetitive and, for all of the hoopla, contributes less than one half of 1% to the nation's power supply. Declining subsidies (the current 30% investment tax credit, for example, will drop to 10% in 2016) and increasing environmental costs (consider, for instance, the BrightSource Energy solar farm in California's Ivanpah Valley, which has already spent over $56 million relocating tortoises) are driving investors away. The wholesale blade-kill slaughter of birds has jeopardized the wind energy industry's annual subsidy ($12 billion in 2013).

Some green job promoters may be thinking, "Well, at least things can't get any worse." If so, they are wrong. The lawsuits are starting. There's nothing like a lawsuit to increase project costs, scare off financial backers, and kill green jobs. Recently, the Justice Department (taking time from its hectic fossil fuel lawsuit schedule) brought charges against a Wyoming wind farm that had been killing golden eagles, and won. The victory was small (a puny $1 million fine) but ominous. On its heels, the American Bird Conservancy announced plans to sue the Interior Department over eagle-kill permits that authorize windmill companies to "kill and harm bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years without penalty." This is bad news for green job seekers, and for bird hunters, who could apparently get a 30-year permit instead of an annual license. Bird hunter to Fish and Wildlife clerk: "Yeah, I'll have one of those eagle-kill permits, you know, for my windmill."

Five years of "sustainability" have brought stagnation, even to the green economy.

The EPA has spent over $50 million on 237 green job training programs. Of the 12,800 people trained, 9,100 obtained green jobs — at a cost to taxpayers of $5,500 per job. The Department of Energy has spent $26 billion on green energy loan programs that created 2,308 permanent jobs — at a cost to taxpayers of $11.25 million per job. Evidently, none of the employees works on the 20 million acres of federal land that the Obama administration has made available to renewable developers. Last October, in the first auction of this land for solar development, not a single bid was made. However, some of them may work on the millions of acres that Obama has denied to fossil fuel developers, where they search for reasons to suppress fracking. Yet fracking (on private lands) has created 360,000 jobs, at a cost to taxpayers of $0 per job, while reducing America's energy costs by $100 billion and carbon emissions by 300 million tons.

By 2012, fewer than 140,000 (of the five million promised) green jobs had been created, and these at an enormous cost to taxpayers. The number of legitimate new green jobs available today is anyone's guess. But green job seekers might want to dust off their brown resumes. A search at Bright Green Talent returned 14 green jobs — in the entire country. Damn that “talent” requirement! A similar search at Great Green Careers was more promising, returning 196 openings. But only four of them were full-time positions — in the entire country. Perhaps the other 192 companies were using the 29.5 hour work week Obamacare work-around.

Today, five years after the Great Recession, the general economy continues to stagnate. Economic growth has been stifled by feckless healthcare, energy, and financial reform policies. Despite incessant claims of job growth, jobs have been lost. The labor participation rate (the percent of the working-age population that is working) — the most accurate, and the only unambiguous, measure of employment — has dropped from 66 to 63% during the so-called recovery. And, despite equally incessant claims that we need more of them, there is no demand for green jobs. Five years of "sustainability" have brought stagnation, even to the green economy: shrinking profits, decreasing subsidies, project delays and cancellations, lawsuits, an imminent trade war, and widespread tortoise and bird carnage.

Nevertheless, earlier this month, at a California Walmart, President Obama proclaimed, "We’re going to support training programs at community colleges across the country that will help 50,000 workers earn the skills that solar companies are looking for right now.” That would be bird carcass removers and tortoise herders.




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Come On — Did They Really Say Those Things?

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Normally, I don’t find much entertainment in news reports of off-year congressional primaries in states where I don’t live. But look what fell into my lap while I was reading election reports on May 20. The author is Fox News reporter Chris Stirewalt; the subject is Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia:

When asked if she would have voted for President Obama’s signature health law, Nunn was gobsmacked in a MSNBC interview. “So, at the time that the Affordable Health Care Act [sic] was passed, I was working for Points of Light,” Nunn says. “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation . . . I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” She’s going to have plenty of chances to reconsider over the course of the campaign.

Now that’s entertainment. Just picture Stirewalt scratching his head and wearing out his eraser, hunting for le mot juste, and coming up with “gobsmacked.” What does that mean? And where does it come from? And what’s it for?

A dictionary informs me that it means “astounded,” and that its origin is “smacked” (I know what that means) plus “gob” (oh yes, now I remember: that’s a Britishism for “mouth”). But that doesn’t help very much. As an immediate descendant of one of America’s famous political families (as they are called; I call them parasites), Nunn could not have been astounded by a question about Obamacare. I’m guessing, but I think that Stirewalt means she was badly hurt, hit in the gob, or mouth, by an interview that went badly, from her point of view. He’s using this strange expression to make fun of her.

I must say, I have no reason to like Michelle Nunn, but I don’t relish the image of people being smacked in the mouth. It doesn’t seem, well, exactly right for news reporting. Or even for satire. And the effort to sound folksy by importing British folksiness seems counterproductive.

So there are several ways in which Stirewalt goofed. Now let’s consider the target of his humor, Michelle Nunn. I’m not concerned with the error noted by Fox News’s “sic”: so what if the real name of the Obamacare legislation is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? But passing beyond all that, the next thing out of her gob was something called Points of Light. She seemed to believe that everyone would know what that means, but I didn’t, until I looked it up. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Points of Light is an international nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in the United States dedicated to engaging more people and resources in solving serious social problems through voluntary service.” I guess if you’re professionally employed in figuring that one out, you can’t pay much attention to anything else that’s going on, such as Obamacare.

The dog had been transitioned. Picture that.

So Michelle Nunn, leading light and great political thinker, knew nothing about it.But does she now know what it is, andwhether she would have voted for it? That’s an easy question, too easy for a politician to answer. Politicians want to take on the hard questions, the challenging questions, the questions inspired by their gargantuan hopes and dreams. So instead of saying whether she would have voted for (i.e., now favors) the bitterly unpopular program ruthlessly jammed through Congress by the leader of her party, she entertains a harder question: what kind of people do you wish to inhabit America?

You’ll agree that this is a very hard question. But she found an answer: “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation.”

It is possible that, like many abstruse philosophers — Kant, say, or Heidegger — Nunn has thoughts too profound to be expressed in normal language. Therefore she must use “architect” as a verb and “legislation” as the kind of noun that admits the indefinite article, as in such uncommon phrases as “I will introduce a legislation” and “according to a legislation passed in 1958 . . .” Yet on closer inspection, these peculiar words appear not to differ in meaning from the words that any normally literate person would choose instead — words such as “tried to create, shape, invent, agree upon, etc., a bipartisan bill, act, law, scheme, plan, etc.” Can it be that Ms. Nunn, graduate of the University of Virginia and the Kennedy School of Government, is not a normally literate person, that her odd use of words merely signifies her membership in the ignorant tribe that hunts for food and shelter in political boardrooms and committee meetings, aborigines so innocent of books that they derive their patter entirely from the primitive verbiage of “agendas” and “executive summaries”?

The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

Every language, every system of discourse, even the most primitive, has its symbols, and it’s pretty clear what Ms. Nunn’s words were intended to symbolize. She wanted to say, without saying it, that she had nothing to do with Obamacare and wishes that it had turned out differently, but the blame lies with the Republicans, rather than her own party (which just happened to have passed the bill), because the Republicans refused to cooperate and make the thing bipartisan. Tribal priests sometime speak in this way, so that only their fellow priests will understand their message and know what to do to any rival priests. Priestly concerns have undoubtedly influenced Nunn’s sentence.

Yet there’s yet another sentence, and in it the impression of illiteracy is overwhelming. “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively,” she begins, “and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?”

But as you know, it’s possible to use big words and still not be literate. Children do it all the time. Unfortunately, they are often rewarded for the trick, and many turn out like Nunn, who can’t resist throwing a big word in, despite not knowing what it means. If she knew what “retrospectively” means, why would she pair it with “back,” thus creating the kind of gross redundancy that embarrasses literate men and women?

But let’s not take things out of context; let’s look at her whole sentence: “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” Here we have passed beyond the world of words; we are treading the marble floors of metaphysics.The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

This is the logic, simple though conclusive, that eludes Ms. Dunn. She thinks it is not possible — the reason is evident. She supported Obamacare. She must have supported it. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be twisting herself into knots, denying that it’s possible for anyone to say what she “would” have done in some mysterious past that neither memory nor imagination can recover. But if she thinks she’s fooling anybody, she isn’t.

Her verbal methods, alas, are not original. Making pretentious verbs out of common nouns (i.e., “architect”) — that’s what bureaucrats and news people do all day. This month we were informed that a dog employed to do some dirty work by the Department of Homeland Security had been “transitioned” out of service. The dog had been transitioned. Picture that. As for pretentious redundancies, the news is always full of those. On May 3, Fox reported that “pro-government supporters” were active in Ukraine. There was no news of anti-government supporters.

Even more insensate language appeared this month. On May 9, there was an awful accident in Virginia; a balloon hit an electric wire, scattering flaming wreckage and human bodies across the landscape. Three people were eventually found and pronounced dead. While rescue workers still searched for them, a spokesman for the balloon-festival sponsors conveyed this sentiment: “The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival regrets that there was a safety incident involving one of the balloons participating on the evening of May 9.”

Safety incident? A balloon hit an electric wire, and three people died. It was an incident all right, but a safety incident?

This is the kind of language that 21st-century Americans have grown to expect from public sources. Like Ms. Nunn’s remarks, it’s the product of the public relations school of English, which isn’t English at all. No writer of normal English would refer to a deadly accident as a “safety incident,” or even say that balloons — not people — “participated” in something. But for PR people, and those who learn their ABCs from them, this sort of thing is automatic.

Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you.

Of course, the PR disaster of the month has been the response, or non-response, of the Veterans Administration (aka Department of Veterans Affairs) and its head, Gen. Eric Shinseki, to allegations that many people have died at VA hospitals in Phoenix and elsewhere while waiting for a medical appointment. CNN has done a good job of following up on these allegations. For over six months the network has sought an interview with or statement from Shinseki, but its efforts have not succeeded. It did discover that he employs 54 (fifty-four!) press agents, none of whom responded to CNN’s attempts to get them to do their job. Finally, when the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called for the boss’s resignation, the VA issued a statement:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General's investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care.

Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans both now and in the future. The secretary knows there is more work to do.

Tell me, how many people does it take to reach that level of banality? Answer: 54.

Note the sidelong plea for “faith,” even if, in some cases, this faith must be posthumously awarded. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney, the man America loves to hate, indicated that for some unknown reason Obama himself had succumbed to this plea: "The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and take appropriate action." Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you. But the trick of invoking faith and confidence was worn out generations ago. In 1933, Isabel Paterson wrote, “When any one asks us to have confidence we are glad to inform him that the request of itself would shatter any remaining confidence in our mind.”

But what said Shinseki himself? Here are his words, from the CNN report (Friday, May 23) that I’ve been quoting:

Shinseki said Tuesday that [he] is "very sensitive to the allegations" coming from the Phoenix probe.

“I need to let the independent IG (inspector general) complete his investigation," he told the [Wall Street] Journal.

Paterson died (without the help of the VA) some years before the popularity of two press agent ploys that are as bad as demanding “confidence”: (1) claiming that one is “sensitive,” with the accompanying, implicit demand for sensitivity from one’s hapless audience; (2) insisting on the supposed necessity of doing nothing until an investigation is completed.

If you were really sensitive, wouldn’t you be too sensitive to say you were — in an interview that you finally had to give, as a bare-minimum response to deadly accusations? And, regardless of anybody else’s inquiries, wouldn’t you take the first plane to Phoenix and stand by the door of the hospital, asking patients how long it took them to get an appointment? If you could find a plane that was large enough, you could take all your press agents with you and let them turn you into a national hero. And if you didn’t do it, maybe your super-sensitive president could do it himself. After all, it would take less work than flying to Afghanistan, or figuring out how to flim-flam the VA issue.

But maybe it isn’t “sensitivity” we need. Maybe it’s normal words and normal actions.




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John Kerry Speaks!

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At many colleges and universities across this great land of ours, graduation weekend has just passed. Amid the festivities and regalia and good-hearted celebration, that meant the return of one of our most dreaded civic traditions: the commencement speech. For those fortunate enough to have avoided these in recent years, the commencement speech has become the chief opportunity for would-be public intellectuals to spout truisms and feel even more self-important than usual.

Case in point: one of this site’s favorite bloviators, John Kerry. Invited to speak at Yale’s Class Day, presumably on the strength of his sterling undergraduate record, Kerry produced a masterpiece of vacuity, making a case for how urgently the students needed to trust their “instutitions,” by which he meant the government. In addition to the expected lame jokes and the kinds of cultural references that dads make to try and pretend they’re still cool, Kerry indulged in his habitual verbal offenses:

  • word salad, such as rallying students to “galvanize action to recognize felt needs” (translation: “we need to spend lots of money meddling with people”);
  • doublespeak, such as “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.” (translation: “especially meddling with people in other countries”);
  • bumper stickerism, such as “None of our problems are without solution, but neither will they solve themselves” (translation: “our meddling can solve anything”); and
  • dubious assertions, such as “Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism” (translation: “never doubt even for a moment that meddling isn’t the right thing to do”).

Thing is, by graduation-weekend standards, Kerry’s speech is only half bad—I’ve survived much worse. What’s happened this year that has given me hope is students finally getting fed up and fighting back. At a number of schools, the student body banded together to reject the speaker being foisted on them. This move has brought howls from the sorts of writers who hope themselves one day to deliver commencement addresses. But why submit yourself to listening to a half hour from an architect of the Iraq War, like Condoleeza Rice, or a defender of forceful police coercion against nonviolent student protestors, like Robert Birgenau, if there’s any alternative? Graduations are a time for students to celebrate with friends and family, a chance to reflect on years past and look forward to years future. Nothing about that requires the importation of big-name outside speakers—especially those whose fame depends on the degree to which they’ve intruded themselves into the lives of others.



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The Babies are Booming

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According to the Census Bureau, a government agency and therefore one of the sources from which all knowledge proceeds, the post-World War II baby boom lasted from 1946 to 1964. I squeaked in right at the tail end of it. This meant I missed the good stuff: the Summer of Love, Woodstock, all the best riots. Roseanne Conner well summarized what the era meant for those lucky enough to have been born earlier: “Well . . . there was a war going on! Everything was just a lot more fun!”

When I was little, there was a Saturday morning cartoon about the Beatles. I was very surprised when I found out they were real people. In 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was shot, I was genuinely confused. Having already heard quite a lot about the Kennedy assassination, I didn’t see how it could happen to the same man twice.

I like these kids. They don’t take anything at face value. When they spot an injustice, they capture it on their ever-present smartphones and send it into viral immortality.

Those were chaotic, frightening, fascinating years to be a kid. Though I was only 7 when the decade ended, the spirit of freedom had gotten into my blood. I couldn’t wait to become a teenager and do all the great things that had made youth so exciting for my sister and the older siblings of my friends. But high school throbbed to the inane beat of disco, and in my college years, former flower children advised me that all the fun was over, so if I really wanted to have a meaningful life, I’d need to make piles of money. Our elders would yell at me and my friends about “you kids” and how horrible we were — not because of anything we’d ever done, but because of the antics of those who’d gotten there before us. They kept vigil over us like vultures, just to make sure we never got to do any of it.

Eversince the ’60s crashed into the ’70s and burned to cinders, the baby boomers have been pining for the era’s rebirth. When each new generation comes of age, they urge the youngsters to restart the revolution. The boomers are getting old, but their hope remains forever young.

They think they may be seeing the resurrection among the “millennials.” I agree, but I doubt the wilting flower children will recognize themselves in the current crop. The spirit animating today’s youth is one that the oldsters long ago disowned.

According to one of those ancient sayings the boomers love to quote, we can never step into the same river twice. As a fresh generation sets out to reform the world, it looks very different from what’s been expected by those who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War. These aren’t the children of the GIs who battled tyranny overseas; they’re the grandchildren of those children. The boomers pretty much depleted the store of goodies lavished upon them, and left little for those who come after. Today’s youngsters have to make their own breaks.

I see the Age of Aquarius as a time of promise yet to be fulfilled, though I disagree with the boomers about what that might mean. They evidently imagined it would signal the complete takeover of society by a big, benevolent government, run by Those Who Know Best. There’s always been a strain of that in their thinking. They seem to have forgotten that all through the ’60s, running parallel to that river was one of an altogether different color.

Whatever happened to the maxim that all authority should be questioned? What happened to a wide-eyed inquiry into the world, which accepted no truth secondhand? I haven’t seen very much of that until lately, but more and more I see it in today’s youth. I’m happy to say I probably won’t turn into one of the sour old people who grouse about “those kids.” When I spend time around teens and twenty-somethings, I come away feeling hopeful.

I like these kids. They don’t take anything at face value. They’ve been using computers since they were in diapers, and they connect to each other, via the Internet, with a facility that seems almost occult. Nobody’s going to put anything over on them. When they spot an injustice, they capture it on their ever-present smartphones and send it into viral immortality.

They’re not much impressed because some tired, graying frauds burned their draft cards 40 years ago. Haven’t these same onetime antiwar crusaders complacently permitted a war to drag on in the Middle East for over a decade? A war that has taken the lives and limbs of many in the millennial generation? That war was, evidently, only bad when a Republican was Commander-in-Chief. Since its headship switched parties, there’s been nary a grump from Gramps.

Today the Boomers as likely to reminisce about the cool concerts they attended as they are about the protests in which they marched. Many never showed up at the protests at all.

Kids have a built-in BS detector. They can see through a sham. I always wondered why the big kids had so many obviously great ideas, but squandered every chance to make themselves coherently heard. They never seemed to decide whether they wanted to drop out or fit in. Whether to change the world, get laid, or get stoned.

Today they’re as likely to reminisce about the cool concerts they attended as they are about the protests in which they marched. Many never showed up at the protests at all. Getting their heads busted would have been a bummer. Better to let government change the world. As they surrendered more and more of their self-confidence to Big Brother, they settled into a state of complacency they’ve never left.

This hardly seems the same bunch who gave us “Alice’s Restaurant.” Alice has closed her doors and boarded the windows. Perhaps her grandkids will reopen the place as an Internet café. If they do, I’ll be at the corner table.

Maybe it took a kid’s eyes to see the promise of the ’60s clearly. I was too young to get laid, or stoned, or to go to any of the really far-out concerts. I’m just old enough to remember.




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The Road to Potential

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How I hate the word “potential”! While acknowledging innate abilities with faint praise, it reeks of withering disappointment, talents wasted, opportunities lost.

Transcendence is a film with tremendous potential.

It begins with a talented cast of discriminating actors that includes Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and Paul Bettany. (OK, scratch Morgan Freeman from the list of “discriminating actors.” Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become as ubiquitous as Michael Caine.) Add a postapocalyptic setting, an army of zombified robotic post-humans, a love story that transcends death, and the time-honored “collision between mankind and technology.” Mix in some dialogue about challenging authority and questioning the meaning of life, and create a metaphor suggesting the thirst for power in the form of the World Wide Web. It seems like the perfect formula for an exciting sci-fi thriller.

Yet Transcendence barely gets off the ground. The story, about terrorists who attack the world’s computer hubs simultaneously in order to stop the Internet, should be powerfully engaging, but it lacks any building of tension or suspense. Instead it is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a computer programmer working on ways to heal the planet through nanotechnology. When terrorists attack his computer lab and infect him with deadly radiation poison, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his research partner Max (Paul Bettany) convince him to let them upload his consciousness onto a hard drive that will allow his sentient self to continue to live within the machine. It’s an interesting concept that ought to cause one to reflect on what makes us human: is it the physical body of flesh and bones that can move and act? Or is it the non-physical collection of memories, thoughts, and personality? Many people have had their heads cryogenically frozen after death, in hopes that someday their minds can be restored within a synthetic body and they can regain life. But that isn’t what this movie is about.

“Transcendence” is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

The plan works, and Will speaks from the computer screen after his death. However, Max immediately and inexplicably regrets having uploaded Will to the machine, so he joins forces with the terrorists (who also join forces with the government — it’s hard to keep all the factions and their motivations straight) to stop Will from doing what he was uploaded to do. Meanwhile, Evelyn joins forces with Will and together they build a solar power grid in an isolated Nevada desert to give Will enough juice to mingle with every scintilla of the Internet.

Yes, this makes Will omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. And that’s a definition of God, right? Will is treated like God’s evil twin, set on sucking up all the power in the universe (there’s that metaphor of the power grid.) But he doesn’t do anything evil. He doesn’t steal power from others; he creates his own from the sun — and he pays the Nevada residents a good wage to work for him. He doesn’t kill anyone, destroy anything, or even growl menacingly. In fact, he uses his power to refine his work in nanotechnology, and soon he is able to heal the blind, make the lame walk, and restore life to those who have been killed. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this is godlike too.) As they are healed, his new followers become like him — imbued with the Internet and able to communicate with Will through his spirit — that is, the Cloud.

This storyline has the potential for being eerie and scary, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers; but Will’s followers don’t do anything wrong either, and they aren’t at all zombie-like. They are just humans who once were disabled and now can see, walk, lift, run, hear, and produce. How is that different from living with a pacemaker or a titanium hip, and carrying around a smart phone that keeps one constantly connected to the Internet? Nevertheless, the government is determined to take them out, simply because they are now created in Will’s image and have the ability to communicate worldwide.

All of this has the potential for philosophical discussion, but I had to use all my creativity as a literature professor to reach the potential message I’ve described here. The message is beyond subtle — so subtle, in fact, that I think it went over the director’s own head. I’m not sure what he intended to suggest, except possibly that the collision between mankind and technology is usually good for a studio green light. I doubt that he was even aware of the potential metaphor or deeper meaning of the film he created.

Ah. There’s that word again. “Potential.” A film that had transcendent potential is instead fraught with withering disappointment, wasted talent, and lost opportunities. Insomniacs will love it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Transcendence," directed by Wally Pfister. Alcon Entertainment, 2014, 119 minutes.



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Catastrophe, Doom, and Oblivion

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Lately, the climate change movement has been celebrating. A recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report expressed 95% confidence that half of the warming during the previous 60 years was manmade. In January, the EPA ruled that new coal plants must install carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology — technology that is not yet commercially viable (take that, climate deniers). Then there is the accumulation of almost 500 climate-related laws passed in 66 countries. According to Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), "This surprising legislative momentum is happening across all continents. Encouragingly, this progress is being led by the big emerging and developing countries, such as China and Mexico, that together will represent 8 billion of the projected 9 billion people on Earth in 2050."

Riding the new-found momentum, climate change elites have sprung into action, reinvigorating the war on carbon and climate deniers. President Obama is conducting a regulatory version of Cap and Trade (legislation that failed to pass during his first term). He even has his own "Climate Change Action Plan." Senate Democrats are holding climate talkathons. John Kerry plans to broker a deal "committing the world’s economies to significant cuts in carbon emissions and sweeping changes in the global energy economy." Climate luminary Joe Biden theorizes, "It would be nice not to have any carbon fuels." To Al Gore, taxing carbon is not enough. "Tax denial," he chortles.

The policies of the past 25 years have failed miserably in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

But, the bravado and self-congratulatory rhetoric is a veneer, hiding an astounding lack of planet-saving progress. So too are the pompous slogans and the grandiose policies, built on a delicate foundation of "settled science," "social justice," and wishful thinking. They mask an astounding ignorance of global energy consumption and production trends, not to mention economic realities. God forbid they are celebrating the progress they expect from Obama's action plan and Kerry's climate deal. Their schemes offer nothing new, unless climate scientists discover a way for pompous slogans to reduce GHG emissions.

A litany of ambitious carbon reduction promises and sophomoric flat-earther insults is not a measure of actual planet-saving progress. Nor is a litany of vain and, at best, nebulous "accomplishments" such as laws passed, treaties discussed, money spent, solar panels and windmills produced, and green jobs created. What is the actual effectiveness of the policies? Are we on track to keep GHG emissions below 450 ppm by 2050 (to avert the "carbon tsunami" and our fall from the "climate cliff")? How much do we have to pay developing countries as climate change compensation? How much will it cost to prevent the catastrophic 7.2-degree Fahrenheit global temperature increase that some authorities predicted to occur by 2100? Will these amounts be sufficient to finally save the planet?

One hopes that what is past is not prologue. The policies of the past 25 years have failed miserably in reducing global GHG emissions. They include 20 years of generous subsidies for renewable energy and the splurge of $150 billion in loans to green energy companies such as Solyndra, Abound Solar, Evergreen Solar, and A123 Systems. The current European Union plan (EU 20/20), said to be the world's most significant climate policy, will cost $20 trillion through the end of the century and would reduce the global temperature by 0.1°F. $20 trillion for a 0.1°F decrease? What about the other 7.1 Armageddon-like degrees?

Perhaps Obama's Climate Action Plan — constructed with similar haste, method, and disdain for economic and scientific realities – will be more effective than the EU 20/20 plan. Whatever he has in mind, it had better work fast. At the 2007 Climate Change Conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon proclaimed that the world is at a crossroads, where "one path leads to a comprehensive climate change agreement, the other to oblivion. The choice is clear." We must choose soon: "The situation is so desperately serious that any delay could push us past the tipping point." What has been accomplished since? No new treaties (toothless or otherwise). The Kyoto Protocol, still the world's only climate change treaty, has actually weakened. Russia, Japan, and Canada have recently dropped out — despite Obama's 2008 heal-the-planet speech. The officially designated rescue fuels (solar, wind, and biofuel) account for less than 2% of the world's energy supply; oil, gas, and coal account for 87%. GHG emissions are increasing, faster than ever. Evidently, we opted for oblivion.

By replacing coal with natural gas, the shale-energy revolution has reduced US emissions by 300 million tons — an amount that exceeds the world's total reduction from solar and wind power combined.

According to a recent UN study, thanks to the abysmal failure of world governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we are probably doomed. English climate change scientist James Lovelock more than agrees; he believes we're only 40 years from global catastrophe. Unlike American climate gurus, Lovelock may have noticed the ongoing global energy shift in which developing countries are expected to consume 65% of the world's energy by 2040. Of all experts, Mr. Obama should have noticed that the developing world is hurtling into the future, furiously burning every calorie it can find of what he calls "yesterday's energy."

As this trend — said to "foreshadow a climate change catastrophe" — intensifies with the population growth of developing countries, other climate change experts warn that the end could come even sooner. Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara speculated, "It could be that the 2016 Games are the last Olympics in the history of mankind." Holy shit! No wonder Obama doesn't have time for meetings with the "Flat Earth Society."

This is a glimpse, from the world of climate change believers, of the effectiveness of the policies of their revered political leaders: catastrophe, doom, and oblivion, arriving ahead of schedule. Damn those flat-earthers.

In the real world, however, most people don't see the coming climate havoc with such clarity, or any clarity. Among the reasons for this hazy, infidel view: the temperature trend that produced the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 began to fade in, well, 1998; global temperatures have not increased in the 16 years since 1999. But climate change believers see it; they predicted it — all the horror that, for decades, they have been attributing to climate change. And they see the failure. Yet they refuse to see the vivid connection between paltry emissions reduction and futile policy.

The failure to save the planet is not the result of insufficiently apocalyptic warnings or public ridicule directed at uncooperative climate change deniers. Those who are unaware of the earth's curvature and temperature are irrelevant — all ten of them. Rather, it is the 6.9 billion people (of the 7 billion inhabiting the planet), who pay little, if any, attention to the incessant, shrill, vile, delusional hyperbole of the clueless climate-change elite. They are too busy dealing with bigger problems. The vast majority of people in the industrialized world are much more troubled by economic stagnation, unemployment, and debt. People in the developing world are consumed by the problems of poverty, famine, oppression, ignorance, despair, and natural disasters, to name a few — all the while struggling to be like their industrialized brethren. And when they become industrialized, they will switch to worrying about economic stagnation, unemployment, and debt. Only after that will they worry about climate change. Possibly.

Then there is the irrational insistence that renewable energy, alone, must save the planet. It is clear to anyone, except the political ideologues who long ago hijacked the global warming movement, that solar panels and windmills are not up to the task. At present, only subsidy and delusion sustain them. And who else but boneheads with a pie-in-the-sky political agenda would blithely dismiss more intelligent, proven technologies (natural gas and nuclear power) that could drastically reduce GHG emissions. For example, by replacing coal with natural gas, the shale-energy revolution (not the Obama green revolution) has reduced US emissions by 300 million tons — an amount that exceeds the world's total reduction from solar and wind combined — while reducing American energy costs by $100 billion.

Last September, in Why Climate Activists Need to Dial Back on the Panic, environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg lamented, "Our climate conversation has been dominated by fear and end-of-the-world thinking." He recommended that "instead of being scared silly, we need to realize that global warming is one of many challenges to tackle during the 21st century and start fixing it now with low-cost, realistic innovation." Maybe there is hope for the global warming movement.

There stood the imperious and clueless Kerry, trying to scare people who live in a "ring of fire" into worrying about a little carbon-induced warming.

Maybe not. Only a few months later, John Kerry descended upon Indonesia, brandishing global warming as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD), and promptly accused climate deniers of "burying their heads in the sand." Kerry, no doubt, thought that punching up his vapid climate change rhetoric with an edgy WMD metaphor would persuade Indonesians to turn down their thermostats and pump up their tires. Except that in Indonesia, where the average annual income is barely $3,000, most people don't have thermostats and tires.

Kerry also seemed unaware of the volcano that killed several people just two days before his arrival, and that Indonesia is located in the "Pacific Ring of Fire," so named for its deadly and frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But there stood the imperious and clueless Kerry, trying to scare people who live in a "ring of fire" into worrying about a little carbon-induced warming. Perhaps his "most fearsome weapon of mass destruction" embellishment will have more success in China, which accounts for almost 60% of the recent increase in global coal consumption, or in India, where the average annual income is $984.

For anyone who is serious about reducing manmade GHG emissions, there is nothing to celebrate. John Kerry (and his ilk) can offer nothing but catastrophe, doom, and oblivion to the global warming crusade.

#39;s energy.




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Election in India, World’s Biggest Democracy

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Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization:
“I think it would be a good idea.”

The biggest democracy in the world has started an electioneering process for the next federal government. This massive exercise runs from April 7 to May 12. Euphoria has swept the nation. Foreign Institutional Investors (FILs) are extremely optimistic about India’s future. The Indian stock market has reached its highest ever level.

Comparing India's low growth rate with China's high one, many experts believe that in democracies, growth must be slow — but steady — and eventually very strong. Is India’s moment of very strong growth arriving?

Narendra Modi of the seemingly right-leaning Hindu nationalistic party, BJP, is widely expected to be the next Prime Minister. Before dissecting Modi — to understand the current nature of Indian sociopolitical thought — let’s have a look at a recently emerged party that came out of nowhere aspiring to rule India, won a major election, but then slipped and broke its back, and ended up playing a major role in crystallizing Modi’s prospects.

That new party is the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP). Its key proclaimed interest has been reducing corruption in India. They would like to install a massive new government department with tens of thousands of new bureaucrats with “impeccable” integrity to oversee the conduct of the (rest of the) government.

The more complex a society becomes, the more it needs decentralization of power and the free market.

Those with any experience of India know that it is virtually impossible to find a single honest bureaucrat; moreover, you must constantly deal with extremely dishonest people in the society, which seriously lacks work ethic and integrity. One must struggle with dust and dirt everywhere, for cleaners don’t clean and sweepers don’t sweep. Nothing is done properly, but with expediency and a patch-up mentality. The environment is a disaster. Any concept of quality is conspicuous by its absence. Offering extra money to workers does not help; it merely results in more skipped days. Animals rot and people wallow in filth and disease. Only someone utterly lacking in empathy would not weep at the lack of dignity that even animals must suffer. I wept today, for I failed to get even my servants to treat our dying dog with some basic decency. The vet does not see any value in protecting his eye before spaying antiseptic on a wound right next to the eye.

Can Indians conceptualize what corruption really means?

AAP made a lot of noise and demonstrations against corruption and came to power in the state of Delhi in November 2013. A lot of young and middle-aged educated acquaintances of mine support AAP. They shout against corruption. But then a moment later they have no problems giving a bribe, not only to get a passport or a driving license, for which bribes are necessary, but also to gain an unfair advantage over others. They will worship a cow, garland it, and offer it freshly made food, prostrate themselves before it, sing religious hymns, and lovingly caress its neck. Then soon thereafter, once the ritual is over, pick up a thick, heavy stick and slam it hard on the back of the cow, to make it leave.

The biggest voting block of AAP was the “educated class,” taxi drivers, and housewives. You must constantly haggle with taxi drivers in Delhi. “Anti-corruption” was the taxi drivers’ way to get AAP to stop the police from interfering and extracting bribes for overcharging. Middle-class women voted for AAP because it promised cheap or free water and electricity. These two segments had at least a partly rational, albeit dishonest, financial interest in mind. But the “educated class” failed to connect some very simple dots.

The anti-corruption movement (witness what “holy cow” means in practice, as shown above), was steeped in hypocrisy and irrationality. Deep thinkers might find this unbelievable, for to them it should create such massive cognitive dissonance that the protagonists would be forced to stop at least one pattern of action: either hit the cow or worship it. In reality, there is no dissonance, for such people process the world through pre-rationality. Even a very high-level education can survive on the foundations of irrationality, if what is learned is accepted as a belief, on faith, through rote learning.

AAP soon found that it could not meet the heightened expectations of the masses. People believed that anti-corruption was a magic wand to get free stuff. Moreover, they wanted others to stop being corrupt, but still wanted a free license to be corrupt themselves. The AAP government fell a mere 49 days after coming to power.

Indians now want a strong leader, the latest fashion among voters lacking in rational moorings and a symptom of their keenness to deify someone, hoping to generate top- down growth without effort, on this occasion through leadership rather than any reduction of corruption.

The history of post-English India has shown that the country has done best when its government was weak. Two Indian prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, were assassinated in the ’80s. That left the federal government very weak. This weakness, along with a few other circumstances, helped entrepreneurs unleash business activity in the early ’90s. But that lasted just a decade. Socialism reared its ugly face again, for India had never addressed its fundamental problems. It liberalized for a decade, not so much because it saw value in doing so, but because it was cornered into a place where it had no other choice.

The rudderless system that was by default moving in the right direction has now been adrift again for a decade.

Today, the work ethic is weaker and corruption is worse. A decade of distribution of free TVs, bicycles (which can be sold off for alcohol), free grains, and guaranteed government work at higher-than-market wages means that it has become difficult to find workers. With a very high level of uneducated, untrained, mostly rural people, the last thing India needed was people who did not want to work. A heavy sense of entitlement has set in, worse than what was there before.

India’s failure to comprehend causality results in its doing more of exactly what made it a wretched place.

Even in respect to very basic goods, the Indian market is flooded with products from China. While economists might claim it makes no difference whether the economy is oriented toward service or manufacturing, the reality is that factories help society become more rational, for the workers can visually and mentally experience what causes what effects. It teaches them rationality and a sense of causality.

Now to dissect Modi . . . Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat, is a product of identity-lacking, rich, nationalistic, Indian lobbyists in the US. They prefer a romantic relationship with India — from a distance. Gujarat has done relatively well. But that is not because of Modi, but because of the fact that Gujaratis are all over the world. They have brought capital and competencies into Gujarat over the past two decades, in the way that Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong brought them into China. Gujarat is a relatively entrepreneurial place anyway, and a reasonably safe place too.

Gujarat would have done relatively well even without Modi, and perhaps much better without him. Alas, Modi has been able to claim credit for growth in Gujarat. He has found a sympathetic place in the hearts of those — particularly in the West — who are worried about Islamic fanaticism.

Under Modi’s government there was a massacre of 2,000 Muslims in 2002, while those in his party roamed around the street unhindered, with impunity. Men were killed, pregnant women’s abdomens were slit open to remove their fetuses, and children were burned alive. Girls were raped and then mutilated. Houses were burned. The US still blacklists Modi for a visa, for his “alleged” offenses. Europe has only recently allowed him in.

Modi will prove a very divisive figure in a nation where 13.5% of the population is Muslim. People will soon realize that he has no magic wand to set India on a path to progress. A strong leader cannot create wealth, even if he were a good guy. Wealth must be created through hard work and systematic thinking.

Technology is advancing very rapidly around the world. Society, as a result, is becoming extremely complex. Any complex system needs distributed intelligence. The more complex a society becomes, the more it needs decentralization of power and the free market. Otherwise, stresses will keep building up in unknown corners of society, to blow up the brittle, totalitarian political structure. India certainly does not need a strong leader.

Indians have very superstitious and irrational ways of processing the world. For now, India’s social problems are increasing. India’s failure to comprehend causality results in its doing more of exactly what made it a wretched place. Perhaps the slow buildup of stresses in the system will make the political system implode one day, starting the process of letting people see causality.

But I hope that Indians — in whatever shape the country’s political geography takes — will one day realize that growth, peace, humanity, spirituality, and prosperity cannot be founded on a strong leader, but on a society of rational, free-thinking individuals with character.




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Universities Are Not Walmart

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Just recently, the e-zine Salon.com ran a piece bearing the provocative title, “The Walmart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed.” It wins my prize for the most bizarre think-piece of the year.

The author, Keith Hoeller, considers the move in higher education to replace tenure-track professors with lowly adjuncts. To him, this is apparently as shocking as it is surprising.

He begins by noting that various surveys of workers show that tenured professors are a pretty happy bunch. They average over $90,000 a year in total compensation, for only nine months work, and they report low levels of job stress, high levels of job satisfaction, and so on. This is hardly a surprise. Getting tenure means never having to hear “you’re fired.” Tenured professors are virtually immune from termination, no matter how poor their job performance.

The first strange thing about Hoeller’s article is that it isn’t reporting anything new. The shift from highly-paid tenured professors to lowly-paid adjuncts has been going on for decades. The article’s deeper flaw its author’s use of Walmart as a slur.

Yes, Walmart uses a lot of part-time labor, as do most other retail and service industries. (The frequency of part-time work is increasing rapidly as the full implementation of that crazy-quilt law called ObamaCare grows nigh). But the resemblance ends there. Walmart, so despised by bien pensant literati, has succeeded in lowering its prices dramatically, on a vast array of consumer goods, and has done so since its inception. Walmart saves the average American family — all American families, including those of elitists who refuse to shop there — something like $2,300 per year. Its costcutting measures, including of course labor-saving measures — which go way beyond using part-time labor — have benefitted all consumers with lower prices and better goods, and Walmart investors with a good return on their money.

Walmart, Target, Costco and so on continue to deliver more for less, while the higher education system business only continues to deliver less for more.

In stark contrast, colleges have systematically screwed their consumers and investors. Consider first the consumers, i.e. students. During the past few decades, they have seen their tuition rise much faster than inflation — while the service rendered has steadily deteriorated. The deterioration takes the form of watered-down courses, degrees in vacuous subjects, and rampant grade inflation. Over the past decade in particular, students have had to run up huge amounts of loan debt getting degrees that have proven worthless in terms of career placement.

The investors in these colleges, the taxpayers (for public schools) and the donors (for private ones), who have seen graduation rates dwindle and the employability of recent college grads — only 56% of whom are in jobs appropriate to their training — plummet, are also being swindled.

The Hoeller piece doesn’t address the damning context of the increased use of academic part-timers: the fact that such savings in labor costs have not even slowed the explosion of costs to the students, and the fact that the services rendered have dropped in quality. The proximate cause is, of course, administrative bloat.

Bloat is the focus of a recent article by Jon Marcus of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Marcus reviews a report from the Delta Cost Project (also reviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education) on the rapid growth in college administrative staff. Marcus reports that the growth in the number of college administrators has greatly exceeded the growth in both the number of students and the number of faculty. Over the past 25 years, colleges and universities have increased the number of their administrative staff by 517,636. During that time, the ratio of nonacademic employees to faculty has doubled. We now see two non-academics for every tenure-track or tenured professor at public universities, and a ratio of two and a half to one at private colleges.

Growth in this area is especially strong at the central offices of public college and university systems. For example, the headquarters of the California State University system has a separate budget that exceeds the budget of three of its campuses!

Marcus cites economist Robert Martin making the point that so eluded Hoeller: “While the rest of the economy was shrinking overhead, higher education was investing heavily in more overhead.” Walmart, Target, Costco and so on continue to deliver more for less, while the higher education system business only continues to deliver less for more.

Marcus notes that in constant dollars, tuition and fees have nearly doubled at private four-colleges, and nearly tripled at public four-year colleges, over the last quarter-century. And during this period, the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty has gone from about one-third to about one-half.

Naturally, administrators have a reply: they claim they are delivering more value to the consumers (students) and principals (taxpayers and donors) by creating and expanding offices for security, counseling, technology services, “sustainability,” disabled student services, and especially “diversity.” But skeptics rightly reply that these services don’t seem to have resulted in objectively measurable favorable outcomes. For example, over the past decade, Marcus notes, the percentage of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees — which can be completed in four years — and actually getting their degrees within six years has risen only slightly (from 55% in 2002 to 58% in 2012).

In constant dollars, tuition and fees have nearly doubled at private four-colleges, and nearly tripled at public four-year colleges, over the last quarter-century.

And several economists cited in Marcus’ piece made the obvious point that universities, to the extent they even need many of these services, could easily outsource them. As Robert Martin put it, “You can hire outside firms, on a contract basis, with competitive bidding. All these activities are a distraction from what the institution is supposed to be doing.”

What is causing the exploitation of adjuncts and the explosion in student fees is at base the same thing: a severe case of the principal-agent problem.

The managerial agents at American universities — the administrators — have achieved virtually total power over the institutions they manage, so much so that they view themselves as the true principals (owners). Of course, they’re not — the principals are the taxpayers, the donors, and the tuition-payers. But the administrators seldom see it that way.

Until this problem is solved, you can expect to see administrative bloat continue apace, enabled by the burgeoning ranks of the adjuncts — and by higher tuition, which is in turn fueled by the federal student loan program, a government program run amuck.

In fine, the American university system is as dissimilar to Walmart as you can get. Walmart has not been shafting its customers through management bloat, higher prices, poorer service, and lousier products, all fueled by massive federal subsidies. The American university system has.

Growth in this area is especially strong at the central offices of public college and university systems. For example, the headquarters of the California State University system has a separate budget that exceeds the budget of three of its campuses!




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