The Rise of the Underclass

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If you are a working-age adult who is stuck in a low-wage job, or have no job at all, then you belong to the largest segment of the American labor force: a vast, sprawling underclass, with little, if any, economic value to the society that it burdens. Despite the ongoing monthly celebration of job growth, the number of working-age adults without a job is increasing rapidly and the jobs being created are, for the most part, of the subsistence variety, driving tens of millions of Americans into the lower reaches of the labor force.

During the recession that began in December 2007, 8.2 million American jobs were lost, 60% of which were middle-class jobs. The rest of the decline was split evenly among high-wage and low-wage jobs. Today, more than seven years later, the number of high-wage jobs has finally returned to its pre-recession level. But most of the middle-class jobs have not returned. They are being crowded out by low-wage jobs, largely the result of a stagnant economy, automation, and an enormous labor surplus.

The overwhelming majority of jobs are found in the two lowest wage earner quintiles. The bottom quintile, Q1, is 91.2 million strong, with an average income of $14,600; Q2 is 29.8 million strong, with an average income of $45,100. The other three quintiles, which I will call middle class (Q3), upper middle class (Q4), and upper class (Q5), include 19.1 million, 11.7 million, and 4.0 million, respectively, with average incomes of $70,100, $115,000, and $335,000. These three quintiles, which total only 34.8 million, have all the good jobs. The 121 million workers in the bottom two quintiles have the lousy ones.

As these jobs vanish, our already enormous labor surplus will grow ever larger, depressing wage rates still more.

Writing in the New York Times, Annie Lowrey reports that "the poor economy has replaced good jobs with bad ones." Most of the job growth has been in retail trade, administrative and waste services, and leisure and hospitality — the lowest paying sectors of the economy. Lowrey cited a National Employment Law Project analysis, which found that "fast food is driving the bulk of the job growth at the low end." To David Stockman, former Reagan budget director, the recovery has created a "Bread and Circuses" economy; he is not alone. To experts such as author and investment banker Daniel Alpert, it is a burger-flipper economy; "we have become a nation of hamburger flippers, Wal-Mart sales associates, barmaids, checkout people and other people working at very low wages.” Or, as Pulitzer Prize winning economics journalist Mark Whitehouse ("A Nation of Temps and Burger Flippers?") found, temporary burger flippers.

At least the burger flippers have jobs. With today's labor force participation (LFP) the lowest it's been in 37 years, there are 93 million working-age (16 years of age or older) adults who don't. This isn't to say that there are 93 million American who need jobs. Most retirees don't need them, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites "the aging of the baby boomer cohort" as the number one cause for the LFP decline. But in the 16–65 labor force age range, which excludes retirees, there are about 55 million chronically unemployed who might want a job. It's hard to whittle this number down much further. For example, the number two cause cited for the plummeting LFP is "the decline in the participation rate of those 16–24 years old." In other words, 16–24 year old Americans can't find jobs. They, along with many millions of others in this 55 million subset, are in the same boat as the 121 million with dead-end jobs — the underclass.

And it is growing fast. A recent Federal Reserve Bank study of eight major industrialized economies found that only the US has experienced a decline in LFP. Between 1997 and 2013, US LFP has decreased 4.6%, while Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom experienced increases. Then there is the so-called "Great Decoupling." Beginning around the turn of the century, employment gains, which have historically followed productivity gains, ceased. Job growth and wage increases have become decoupled from the economic progress produced by technological advance. While productivity increased linearly, employment remained flat through the Bush presidency, declining thereafter. Of today's 93 million work force nonparticipants, more than 13 million (3% of the 4.6% decline since 1997) have dropped out since President Obama took office.

Automation played a significant role in this exodus to the underclass, and will only augment its future contribution. Many companies have not rehired the people they laid off during the recession. Instead, they have adopted new technologies — hastening the return to pre-recession profits, at a lower cost — that automate tasks previously performed by humans, including high-skill, middle-class humans.

Automation is no longer confined to tedious, repetitive tasks. Jobs in services, sales, and construction, even jobs in management, science and engineering, and the arts will be vulnerable to takeover by machines. So says an Oxford University study, which concluded that 47% of US jobs are likely to be replaced by computerized machines. And a technology research firm, Gartner, forecasts that smart robots will replace one of every three jobs by 2025. As these jobs vanish, our already enormous labor surplus will grow ever larger, depressing wage rates still more.

Obama's policies have created a record-breaking number of shitty jobs, which he brags about, and now promises to make less shitty.

Yet, as if existing wages were not low enough, we add one million new legal immigrants annually. Politicians, Democrat, Republican, and libertarian alike, tell us that we need them: they start new businesses, they invent things, they help support our aging population. In 1970, with a population of about 200 million and 53% of all households in the middle class, Americans competently started new businesses, invented things (almost everything that mattered), and took care of the elderly. Economic prosperity was achieved through productivity increase, not population growth. Today, with a population of about 320 million, the middle class has shrunk to only 43% (along with its wages and net worth), and we struggle in an economic mire. It seems likely that, with more people (438 million by 2050, under our current immigration policy), the underclass will continue its relentless growth.

Meanwhile, there is no serious attempt by our political elite to help create good jobs — middle class, "breadwinner" jobs that can support a family and reanimate the American Dream. The Obama administration, apparently fooled (monthly) by the declining unemployment rate, is encouraged by an economy that systemically produces low-wage jobs, as long as the number is large enough to flaunt. Mr. Obama regularly brags about record-setting job growth, 12 million at his latest count, asserting that "the economy is headed in the right direction."

It is not. By instilling fear and confusion in American business, recent tax and regulatory policies (including immigration policies) are the chief contributors to underclass expansion. For example, there is a growing preference for companies to employ temporary workers instead of permanent ones. The use of employment services, observed Mr. Whitehouse, is "a practice that makes firing easier and reflects their caution about the economic outlook." Ironically, computer and management consultants, one of the few labor categories to have experienced job growth during the so-called recovery, consist of "people who help businesses figure out how to make do with fewer workers."

Capitalists believe that the way to reverse the trend is simply to reduce the taxes and regulations that have made businesses afraid to spend. Companies, then in possession of more capital and the freedom to invest it, would purchase new plant and equipment, create new products and services, develop new markets, etc., requiring better jobs and more workers to support the expanding operations. And with the increased demand for labor, wage rates would rise.

President Obama has different ideas. He is content with his Burger Flipper economy. Unlike his Green Economy, which briefly created a paltry number of green jobs, the Burger Flipper economy produces enough low-wage jobs each month (now 61 consecutive months) for him to gloat (now, it seems, 60 consecutive months). He apparently believes that this stream of lousy jobs will continue in sufficient quantity to accommodate the five million illegal immigrants that he wants to add to our existing labor surplus.

It is only the very wealthy who prosper, with the top 1% having reaped an astounding 95% of all of the nation's net income gains since Obama took office.

Hillary Clinton, likely our next president, is dismayed by his restraint. She "advocates expanding Obama's executive actions to allow millions or more undocumented immigrants to obtain legal protection and work permits." And if that does not expand the labor surplus enough, Clinton has said that she will "welcome back people who have already been deported."

With the labor surplus driving wage decline and "fast food" driving job growth, Obama has accordingly shifted his policies to help the burgeoning underclass. As Lowrey noted,

The swelling of the low-wage work force has led to a push for policies to raise the living standards of the poor, including through job training, expansion of health care coverage and a higher minimum wage.

Obama's new plan is to improve the quality of the lousy jobs that his old plan created.

Will it work? Those without a job will get no raise. That number, now at 93 million, will increase as businesses encounter the artificially increased labor costs. Those who have a qualifying job will be happy, at first — until they discover that (A) everything they buy will cost more, (B) they will pay more in taxes and receive less in benefits, and (C) at $10.10 an hour, they will still belong to the underclass.

To date, Obama's policies have been largely aspirational, and, for existing American citizens, lamentable. According to the BLS, only 6 million net jobs (not 12 million) have been created under his stewardship. And, according to a Center For Immigration Studies report, all of them have gone to immigrants (legal and illegal). "The number of immigrants working returned to pre-recession levels by the middle of 2012, and has continued to climb. But the number of natives working remains almost 1.5 million below the November 2007 level."

Given the immensity of the underclass, the thinking at the White House might be that Obama's plan will yield more bang for the buck than a plan, say, to help create high-paying jobs. Besides, they already think that the economy is headed in the right direction and expect that, in the burger flipper economy that their old plan created, nothing could possibly go wrong with a new plan designed to lift the wages of burger flippers.

Enter the Burger Robot, the fast food industry's answer to rising labor costs. The Burger Robot can make 360 sandwiches per hour (including gourmet sandwiches); it reduces liability, management duties, and food preparation footprint; it pays for itself in about one year (even at the existing minimum wage); and it doesn't need a hairnet. The machine is not designed to improve the efficiency of fast food workers; rather, says company cofounder, Alexandros Vardakostas, “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

The rise of the underclass is a glowing symptom of our decline. Today's politicians are singularly incapable of fulfilling their economic promises. Their glib, clumsy, overbearing laws and regulations have forged a pathetic burger-flipper economy offering little more than peonage and destitution to the majority of its labor force. After more than six years of feckless meddling, Obama's policies have created a record-breaking number of shitty jobs, which he brags about, and now promises to make less shitty. After more than six years of Obama's promises to help the poor and the middle class, it is only the very wealthy who prosper, with the top 1% having reaped an astounding 95% of all of the nation's net income gains since he took office. For everyone else, there is stagnation and decline — unless you are an immigrant or a robot.




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Election 2014: The Ballot Measures

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Libertarians should take encouragement from some of the ballot measures in the Nov. 4 election:

Medical freedom

Arizona voters passed Proposition 303, which seeks to allow patients with terminal illnesses to buy drugs that have passed Phase 1 (basic safety) trials but are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

To libertarians, this is an old and familiar cause and one in which it is easy to find allies if people are paying attention, which most times they are not. The movie Dallas Buyers Club provided an opening, and this year legislatures in Colorado, Missouri and Louisiana passed what are now called “Dallas Buyers Club” laws. In Arizona, the cause was promoted by the Goldwater Institute.

Opponents have said that such laws will give many terminal patients false hope, which is surely true. But it is better to give 90% false hope if 10% (or some other small share) obtain real benefit, if the alternative is an egalitarian world of no hope for all. And it ought to be the patient’s decision anyway.

What the FDA will do about the “Dallas Buyers Club” laws is a question; as with marijuana, the matter is covered by a federal law, if one of questionable constitutionality. At the very least the Arizona vote, a whopping 78% yes, should give other states, and eventually Congress, a political shove in favor of freedom.

Marijuana

Legalization measures were first passed in 2012 by the voters of Colorado and Washington (the two states that had the Libertarian Party on the ballot in 1972). They have been followed this year by the voters of Alaska, which passed Measure 2 with 52%; Oregon, which passed Measure 91 with 55%; and the District of Columbia, which passed a decriminalization measure, Initiative 71, with 65% yes.

Alaska and Oregon were early supporters of marijuana for medical patients, as were Colorado and Washington. When the opponents say medical marijuana is a stalking horse for full legalization, they are right. It is — which means that more states will join Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado.

On Nov. 4 Florida rejected medical marijuana, but only because it required a 60% yes vote. Florida Amendment 2 had nearly 58%.

Taxes

In Massachusetts, which several decades ago was labeled “taxachusetts,” voters approved Question 1, which repeals the automatic increases of the gas tax pegged to the Consumer Price Index.

In Tennessee, Amendment 3, forbidding the legislature from taxing most personal income, passed with a 66% yes vote. Tennessee is one of the nine states with no general income tax, though it does have a 6% tax on interest and dividends, which will continue.

In Nevada, 79% of voters rejected Question 3, to create a 2% tax on adjusted business revenue above $1 million. Proponents called it “The Education Initiative” because the money was to be spent on public schools; opponents called it “The Margin Tax Initiative.” The measure was put on the ballot with the help of the Nevada branch of the AFL-CIO, which then changed its mind and opposed it. Good for them; most people and organizations in politics never admit of making a mistake.

Debt

In Oregon, Measure 86 would have created a fund for scholarship grants through the sale of state bonds. The measure was put on the ballot by Oregon’s Democratic legislature and supported by the education lobby. It was opposed by the founder of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute and by the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, because of the likely increase in public debt. It also would have allowed the legislature to dip into the fund for general spending if the governor declared an emergency. In this “blue” state, the measure failed: 59% no.

Regulation

In Massachusetts, which has had mandatory bottle deposits on carbonated beverages since 1982, voters rejected Question 2, an initiative to extend the bottle law to sports drinks, juices, tea and bottled water (but not juice boxes). The vote was a landslide: 73% no.

Abortion

Libertarians are divided on abortion, depending on whether they consider a fetus to be a person. Voters in Colorado rejected Amendment 67, which would have defined an embryo or fetus as a “person” or “child” under state criminal law. The vote was 64% no.

In North Dakota, a “right to life” amendment the state legislature put on the ballot as Measure 1 was rejected, also 64% no.

In Tennessee, voters approved Amendment 1, which asserts state control over abortion but would leave to the legislature what sort of control it would be. Opponents called it the “Tennessee Taliban Amendment.” It got 53% of the vote.

All of these measures are probably symbolic only, because the question has been coopted by the U.S. Supreme Court under Roe v. Wade and later decisions. Still, symbolism can matter.

Alcohol

In Arkansas, where about half the counties are dry, Issue 4 would have opened the entire state to alcohol sales. It failed, with 57% voting no. That’s a loss for freedom if a gain for federalism.

Guns

Washington voters passed Initiative 594 to require background checks for sales of guns by non-dealers. The measure was bankrolled by Michael Bloomberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and a liberal Seattle venture capitalist and given an emotional push by shootings at a nearby high school. Washington remains a concealed-carry state.

Minimum wage

Politically, this is a lost issue for libertarians. On Nov. 4, Arkansas voted to raise its minimum from $7.25 (the federal minimum) to $8.50 by 2017; Alaska, to raise its minimum from $7.75 to $9.75 by 2016, and index it to inflation; Nebraska, to raise it from $7.25 to $9 by 2016, and South Dakota, to raise it from $7.25 to $8.50 by 2015, then index it. These measures passed by 65% in Arkansas, 69% in Alaska, 59% in Nebraska and 54% in South Dakota.

In Massachusetts, voters approved Question 4, mandating paid sick days in private business. The yes vote was 59%.

Governance

In Oregon, voters rejected the sort of “top two” election system operating in neighboring Washington. In that system, anyone can file in the primary and declare their party allegiance, and the top two vote-getters, irrespective of party, advance to the November election, which becomes a run-off. California has a similar system. Little parties like the Libertarian Party hate it, because it keeps them off the November ballot except in some one-party districts.

Oregon voters were offered a top-two system in 2008 and voted 66% against it. This time, for Measure 90, they voted 68% against it.




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The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

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It is with a great deal of sadness that I report that recently Bangladesh, a small nation in southeast Asia which is the country of origin of my father and his side of the family, collapsed from a 40-year-old democracy into a dictatorship. How this happened is interesting, both in absolute terms and also relative to politics in America.

You see, Bangladesh did not collapse by means of military coup or dictatorial takeover. Instead, it became a dictatorship by means of a democratic election. For the past 40 years, ever since Bangladesh won its War of Independence against Pakistan, every time the government called for an election, the heads of the two major Bangladeshi political parties, which are (1) the Awami League and (2) the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), handed over the election process to a “caretaker government,” a neutral group of aged respected lawmakers and leaders, who administered a fair and neutral election. Corruption and bribery have always been widespread in Bangladesh, but, in spite of this, the national elections were always kept clean and honest by the caretaker government.

But in the last election, the Awami League, which had been in power for several years and was widely hated and destined to lose at the polls, simply called an election, refused to let the caretaker government in, and held rigged, phony elections. The BNP boycotted the elections and called for general strikes and opposition rallies, but ultimately the BNP’s efforts were for nothing, as the Awami League put down the opposition movement by means of the police, and maintained control.

Sheik Hasina, the leader of the Awami League, is now the de facto dictator of Bangladesh. Interestingly, Hasina is a woman, and she is one of the world’s first and few female dictators. As a case study in the psychology of a tyrant, it is worth noting that Bangladeshi people generally believe that Hasina was enraged when Bangladesh’s microcredit banking pioneer Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize, which she felt should have gone to her instead, for brokering a minor peace treaty with the northern tribes. This may have inflamed her anger and her ambitions. The Awami dictatorship is real, despite the fact that Awami propaganda says that the League was democratically elected and that Bangladesh remains a democracy. Something similar exists in Russia with Putin, who is essentially a democratically-elected dictator. A number of other countries also put forward a face of democracy to seek support from the West, while actually being run by a ruling class.

History may classify every president from Wilson forward as an “emperor,” and it is mere semantics to ask whether the term is correct.

The decline and fall of the Bangladeshi democracy reads like a dire prophecy of what is going to happen in America if libertarians do not start winning big at the polls, and soon, in many different elections across states and nationally too. I will return to that idea later in this article, but here, having discussed Bangladesh, I would also like to mention Rome. In Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is shown that Rome deteriorated slowly, insidiously, with the very greatness and majesty of the Empire ultimately leading to the bloated corruption that consumed Rome and became Rome’s undoing. The book argues that Rome outsourced its military to the barbarians, and eventually those same barbarians turned on Rome and destroyed it. It is worth noting that, at the time when history regards Rome as having transformed itself from a Republic into an Empire, in the era of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the Romans themselves had no such idea. As shown by the writings of that era, the early Roman Empire was regarded as the continuation of the Roman Republic, and the early emperors were considered leaders of the Republic, not dictators.

What does all this mean for us here in the United States? I want to make two points. First, I think that if America ever descends into dictatorship, it will probably happen through the Bangladesh method of rigged elections followed by a strict police control of the opposition, instead of an armed revolt or military coup. The Republicans essentially rigged the vote in Florida for Bush in 2000 (or, at the very least, they refused to do a recount to establish what the accurate result of the vote really was), and once the Supreme Court gave the stamp of approval, they got away with it. If the same thing happened but on a bigger scale, if the Democrats rigged the votes in Michigan and Illinois and Missouri and won the White House, or if the Republicans rigged the votes in New Jersey and Wisconsin, and such things started to happen frequently, then what could be done about it? Nothing. And so, slowly and as by means of a spreading illness, American democracy could collapse into a sham democracy, a dictatorship.

If democracy in the US collapses, then the libertarians and the Tea Party may rebel (unless it is the GOP that becomes the ruling party), but the American military and police forces could probably put down any armed rebellion. The only thing that prevents this from happening is that elections in the US tend to be run at the local level by ordinary patriotic Americans who are too naive to understand the dangerous power that they possess as the stewards of our democracy.

Second: people see this era as the time of the Great Recession. But history may look back upon our time as that of the decline and fall of the American Empire. In the post-World War II era, and especially in the post-Cold War era and the War on Terror era, the United States of America has been the one and only true world power. We flex our military muscle around the globe, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military bases in Europe and Japan, and drone strike assassinations in Pakistan and Yemen. This by itself is enough to justify calling us an empire. History may classify every president from Wilson forward as an “emperor,” and it is mere semantics to ask whether the term is correct. Certainly, if we are an empire, then our leader is an emperor, and Bush acted like one, and Obama sure acts like one too.

If we are an empire, it may also be appropriate to say that the Great Recession is our decline, and will end with our fall. If the Great Recession never ends, then America is destined for widespread poverty, which could end in discontent, riots, and crime that will provoke a government crackdown and the rise of a police state. Many economists project that the recession won’t end until 2020, for another six long years. Millions of people remain unemployed, and if the jobs aren’t there to support them, and these people need food to eat, then chaos is coming.

People like to think that the Great Recession will end and good times are just around the corner. I certainly hope they are. Nothing would make me happier. But the structural defects in the US economy act to prevent growth and maintain stagnation, and only liberty could fix this. So unless libertarians start getting elected all over the place, America may be doomed. The structural defects are the various details of the manner in which the statist government’s taxes and regulations are stopping a growth-fueled economic recovery. Welfare motivates people not to work, and millions of poor people invest their thought in figuring out how to milk the welfare system, instead of figuring out how to become productive assets to the economy. These people vote for statists and against libertarians. This is not to say that we should let the poor die, but it does explain a lot about why the system is broken and can’t be fixed.

The minimum wage prevents employers from hiring Americans for low-skilled, low-paying manufacturing jobs, and these jobs are sent to China or Mexico. Meanwhile, regulations make doing business very difficult in the United States, and taxes make it expensive to live and work here. So higher-skilled, middle class jobs get outsourced to India. Just as with outsourcing the army to barbarians by the Roman Empire — something that destroyed Rome when the barbarians turned against the Empire — outsourcing of jobs may be the final source of the economic decline of the American Empire. The fact that government policy motivates employers to send American jobs overseas, with millions of jobs sent out already and more to come, explains a lot about why the American economy suffers while China’s economy and India’s economy grow.

I once heard someone say that America “outsources its labor standards,” meaning that our workers are paid and treated much better than the workers in third-world countries who produce much of what we consume. That is true, and it leads naturally to the outsourcing of our entire low-skill low-wage manufacturing industry, which, if those jobs had been kept in the USA, could have provided a foundation of growth with which to revive the sluggish economy.

President Obama, in the 2014 State of the Union speech, advocated raising the minimum wage. The general public met this proposal with indifference or support, not with the shock and outrage it deserved.

The minimum wage for American workers stands at over $7 an hour, plus legally mandated employer-provided health insurance, membership benefits from labor unions, Social Security for retiring workers, Medicare and Medicaid for poor workers, a social safety net of food stamps and SSI disability and unemployment benefits, and the tax-funded services given ”free” to workers but really paid for by the taxpayers — such benefits as public transportation and public education. The real cost to society of paying an American manufacturing worker may be $35 an hour. Factory workers in China are getting paid under $2 an hour, with negligible benefits, to make our computers, and our smartphones, and our tablets, and our other electronic devices, and our washing machines, and our televisions, and our children’s toys, and our flashlights, and our furniture, and our clothes.

It is basic economics, which most Americans seem not to understand, that a business must include the cost of making a product, including the salary and benefits paid to workers, in the retail price at which the product is sold, otherwise the product will be sold at a loss. Unless we want to pay $300 for a simple low-quality white cotton shirt, or $10,000 for a new cellphone, these things must be made in China, and businesses could not profitably employ Americans to make them. Do you wonder why the US economy has not recovered yet?

The liberals want us to solve the problem by imposing our artificially high labor standards on foreign workers. The AFL-CIO, for instance, has been active recently in organizing labor unions in Bangladesh. The libertarian solution, in contrast, is to deregulate working conditions here in the US so that we can bring manufacturing jobs back here. And boy, do we ever need those jobs! If the outsourcing trend is not stopped, then soon we won’t have enough jobs left in the USA for our income to support our first-world lifestyle. As libertarians, we know that lunches aren’t free, and we must pay for our standard of living by working for it. But President Obama, in the 2014 State of the Union speech, actually advocated raising the minimum wage. The general public met this proposal with indifference or support, not with the shock and outrage it deserved. It is political suicide to suggest that we should abolish the minimum wage and end welfare for workers and let the free market set wages and working conditions. But this political suicide may result in economic suicide and national suicide and real suicides, when people can’t find jobs and they and their families are literally starving, with no escape in sight.

Every libertarian knows that freedom leads to prosperity and government control leads to poverty, as well as to dictatorship. We all know that when the baby boom people clamor to protect their Social Security, when politically connected businesses cry for bailouts, when Wall Street asks the Federal Reserve to spend more money, when the lower middle class seeks to tax the rich for money to spend on mushy, wasteful programs that claim to help the poor while merely destroying the nation’s wealth, what we see is the destruction of free market capitalism — the system that safeguarded our freedom. We know that we are seeing the march down the road to serfdom. But the American people refuse to learn that lesson, and we libertarians don’t appear to be winning either the war of ideas, or of political campaigns. Pessimism, which I have always opposed, now seems more and more justified. Apparently it is a question of when, not if, we will witness the decline and fall of the American Empire; and our sole consolation must be that later historians will find our behavior as fascinating as Edward Gibbon found the Romans’.

Please, hope that I am wrong, but do what you can to make this an inaccurate prophecy.




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When Greed Isn't Good

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