Profound and Destructive


President Trump’s destructiveness requires few words here. Consider how world stock and currency markets have been shaken by the resignation on March 6 of Gary Cohn, regarded until then as Trump’s chief economic adviser. Although not a trained economist, Cohn apparently had some sound instincts derived from years of financial experience. His departure apparently and ominously leaves more influence, or echo, to Peter Navarro — look him up with Google.

This latest example of destructiveness follows the one touched off by Trump’s March 2 tweet bewailing America’s loss of “many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with” and heralding trade wars as “good, and easy to win.”

Trump views international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

I’ll spend more words on how profound Trump’s ignorance is. He considers a country’s excess of imports over exports a measure of loss. This measure applies even to trade with each foreign country separately. He counts China and Mexico among the worst offenders, deserving punishment. He does not understand the multilateral aspect of beneficial trade.

Nor does he understand how we gain in buying goods cheap from abroad. What difference does it make if steel and aluminum are cheap because of low foreign prices or because they grow cheaply on bushes at home? Money cost is a measure of opportunity cost, which means the loss of other goods when resources go instead to make the particular good in question. Opportunity cost reflects scarcity. Scarcity applies even to prosperous America, where we could enjoy still higher standards of living if food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and other goods and services came costlessly and miraculously from heaven. Scarcity and how gains from domestic and foreign trade alleviate it are fundamentals of economics. The principle of comparative advantage goes far in explaining how.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics, extending even to the behavior of a decent human being.

Without understanding the academic presentation of the “absorption approach to the balance of payments,” everyone should be able to grasp its central idea, which is sheer arithmetic. If we as a country use more output for consumption and real investment than we produce, then the difference must come from somewhere — from abroad in the form of more imports than exports. A big item in this excess absorption, alias national undersaving, is government deficits. Yet Trump and Congress are complacent about increasing the deficit and debt by taxing less and spending more.

All too many politicians say that they are in favor of free trade if it is “fair trade” played on a “level playing field.” These slogans express Trump’s view of international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

Trump does not understand how the price system coordinates economic activity, making most government planning about jobs and industries unnecessary and harmful.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics. It extends to diplomacy in domestic and foreign relations and even to the behavior of a decent human being. Yet his destructive economic ignorance remains prominent.

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Frackin’ . . . Like the Doo-Dah Man


Recent stories in the wonderful Wall Street Journal give us the happy news that (while receiving no coverage from the mainstream media, of course) the fracking revolution rolls on.

The first story reports that American crude oil exports are accelerating to new highs, rapidly approaching as much as Kuwait currently exports. Amazing. As of last month, we were exporting 1,984,000 barrels per day (BPD), an increase of nearly 500,000 BPD from the week before, and up an astounding 684,000 BPD in May. Considering that Kuwait ships about two million BPD, this is great news.

Admittedly, the US is still a net oil importer. But we import almost all the decreasing amount of foreign oil we need from our great ally Canada — our great ally, unless President Trump pulls out of NAFTA.

This exporting craze will only continue to build — if we don’t try to destroy our fracking industry, and allow it to flourish.

The reason for this surge in US crude oil exportation is that American crude is relatively cheap. In the week in which the record in exports was set, the US crude price was nearly $7 per barrel cheaper than the world standard. This is a new record low during the period since the 50-year-old ban on oil exports was lifted a couple of years ago, thanks to the much-maligned Congressman Paul Ryan.

In the irony that is the mother and father of all ironies, the second biggest buyer of America’s crude oil is our devoted enemy, China, which now takes about 180,000 BPD from us, up almost 900% from last year.

This exporting craze will only continue to build — if we don’t try to destroy our fracking industry, and allow it to flourish. All it needs is to be left alone in the free market. If so, it will guarantee that we never see $100 a barrel oil again ever. Here I must give Trump his props — he has allowed fracking to go unmolested.

What the frackers have shown is a profound and continuing ability to innovate and lower costs, in the face of an attempt by OPEC, that rent-seeking cesspool of corruption, to drive them out of business by lowering prices. But it was the OPEC companies that were driven to the wall.

This is just more of the daffy Malthusian “peak oil” thinking we’ve heard before.

The Wall Street Journal reports that one of the biggest natural gas fields from a decade ago, the Haynesville Shale field in Louisiana, has been reborn. Ten years ago it was productive, but five years ago it was nearly played out. Yet this field has come roaring back to life. The number of drilling rigs has tripled in the past year, and the current amount of natural gas is up by 17% in the same period.

What has allowed this resurrection of gas fields is “refracking” — the process of using more sand and extending the wells further. In fact, the US Geological Survey now estimates that the Haynesville, Louisiana and adjacent fields hold 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That is a 430% increase over its 2010 estimate.

Helping the process is investor recognition that natural gas has a bright future. The US Department of Energy projects that over the next quarter of a century or so, use of natural gas will outstrip that of all other fossil fuels, especially coal. Cheniere Energy has a large liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant and export facility in Louisiana. Additional LNG plants are being built in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and even Maryland.

Natural gas is the “feedstock” in many industries — petrochemicals, plastics, and fertilizers, to name the biggest. Nearly 80 petrochemical plants are being built in the Gulf Coast region alone, where they will result in jobs, and the continued resurrection of Dixieland.

The major hurdles are an apparent fall in innovation in the fracking industry, wariness among investors, and rising labor costs.

The WSJ notes that some “experts” are worried that the export market will siphon off so much natural gas that prices will rise, hurting manufacturers that are now ramping up. This is just more of the daffy Malthusian “peak oil” thinking we’ve heard before. We can simply increase production of natural gas from all over the US — from the Dakotas to Pennsylvania to Texas — to meet the demand. All the while good paying jobs will be created, and our adversaries (such as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Venezuela) will be kicked in their teeth.

When will the “experts” finally wake up and realize that in a free market there is no “peak” anything — least of all oil and natural gas?

In fact, during the past year, Castleton Commodities International spent more than a billion bucks to buy 160,000 acres of Anadarko’s Haynesville land. For that it got an infusion of capital from Tokyo Gas America, the largest utility in Japan. This shows the true expert assessment of fracking’s value.

A third WSJ article amplifies the idea that the glut of US production is spooking producers. In other words, it’s such a bitch that prices are set by supply and demand! The piece notes that the growth in the number of rigs — typically used as a measure of future activity &‐ dropped from 20% for the preceding four quarters to “only” 6% in the third quarter of this year.

Many of the OPEC states (especially Saudi Arabia) need oil to be around $100 per barrel to keep their economies stable and their citizens quiet.

This shouldn’t cause any pain. With the buildout of American industry and the roaring appetite of East Asian consumers, demand will just keep increasing. The Journal notes that US oil production may surpass the supposed “peak oil” production of 9.6 million BPD set in 1970. The major hurdles are an apparent fall in innovation in the fracking industry, wariness among investors, and rising labor costs. But despite the slowdown in the increase of production, there is no decrease in production, and the Energy Information Agency expects American oil production to hit 9.69 million BPD at the end of the year. This, despite oil prices stuck at about $50 per barrel.

The last WSJ story that I want to mention points to the continuing geopolitical fallout from the growth of US oil production. It reports that continued low prices on world oil markets have led Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other OPEC members to push Russia — which, while not technically an OPEC member, is surely a fellow traveler — to continue to agree to the current limits on production.

The narrative here is as simple as it is delicious. In the face of the American fracking revolution — which dropped world oil prices from over $100 per barrel a few years ago to $50 and below — OPEC has tried to figure out what to do. Many of the OPEC states (especially Saudi Arabia) need oil to be around $100 per barrel to keep their economies stable and their citizens quiet. But Putin’s regime has used Russia’s oil wealth for a huge military buildup, and kept Russian citizens happy by using military power to conquer the Crimea and threaten the rest of the former Soviet empire. To keep this up, Putin is prepared to sell as much oil as possible, even at lower prices, to fund his mechanisms of corruption.

In 2017 Russia agreed with the OPEC strategy to cut back production by 2% to keep prices from plummeting further. While this production cut helped raise the world price of oil by about 13%, American fracking has kept the world price well below $60 per barrel. But Russia’s participation in continuing the cuts is unclear, to say the least. The current agreement ends in March 2018, and OPEC is pushing the wily Putin to agree to extend it. The Saudis are offering to set up a billion-dollar fund to invest in energy projects.

The US should open all the spigots and end net importation of foreign oil once and for all.

Putin so far remains noncommittal. He can see what is obvious, which the WSJ article notes: if OPEC succeeds in raising prices, American shale companies can immediately crank up their output, rapidly driving the price back down.

Now, whether the Russians are bluffing OPEC to get more concessions, or simply intend to cover their drop in revenue by increasing their own production, we will have to wait to see. But I think the US should open all the spigots and end net importation of foreign oil once and for all. The US should make our own oil a major export. This means: opening up more federal land for fracking and offshore drilling, opening up ANWR in Alaska, opening the East Coast for offshore drilling, and pushing to open up the Arctic for the rapid exploitation of the region’s resources.

I would suggest to Trump that he get over his fears about free trade agreements and cut a deal that would allow him to sign the TPP agreement, but with one new provision: the TPP members should agree that if the US can sell them oil and LNG at world market prices, they will buy from us. That would eliminate the trade imbalances that so anger Trump (though not economists, of course). It is, alas, very doubtful that Trump can grow that much in strategic thinking.

that the export market will siphon off so much natural gas that prices will rise, hurting manufacturers that are now ramping up. This is just more of the daffy Malthusian ‐

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Imitating Obama?


I confess that I am no fan of Trump. Actually, that dramatically understates it. I regard him as a dangerous populist ignoramus whose crudity of character makes him unfit for office. When he won the nomination, I sent the Republican National Committee a letter of resignation from the party to which I had belonged for four decades, and re-registered Libertarian. (I did this despite my impression that Gary Johnson was either a hopeless dope or congenitally loopy.)

It was for me, in short, a completely miserable election.

My only hope was that Trump, once in office, would at least pretend to be presidential, and would drop his nativist and protectionist stances, having decisively won the populist vote. And I admit I was cheered when he appointed a good judge to the Supreme Court, talked about repealing and replacing Obamacare, and also talked about lowering at least corporate taxes. He has so far been unable to deliver.

Nativists fear even legal immigrants, not seeing how beneficial they are to the economy.

But unfortunately he has pursued his nativist and protectionist agendas. On the nativist agenda, he killed DACA — setting up the deportation of upwards of a million young people brought here involuntarily, and raised with scant knowledge of the countries of their births. Not only did he refuse to increase the H-1B visa and other programs that legally allow in college-trained STEM and medical professionals, but he has actually proposed cutting all legal immigration by half. He continues demanding that a wall be built on the border with Mexico, even though illegal immigration from Mexico has been steadily dropping for a decade — indeed, for the last few years, more Mexican immigrants have returned home than have come north. (That’s because Mexico has a good growth rate, and is now in the top ten manufacturing countries on earth). Nativists fear even legal immigrants, not seeing how beneficial they are to the economy. For example, immigrants and immigrants alone are the reason we don’t face the same demographic implosion that the European countries and Japan face, and immigrants are disproportionately likely to open new businesses.

On Trump’s protectionist agenda, after killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, Trump has set his sights on killing NAFTA. Several recent Wall Street Journal articles report on the administration’s attempt to renegotiate this deal, signed back in 1994. Trump’s curious hatred of Mexico and Canada is as bizarre as his love of Russia. In this he imitates Obama, who bashed NAFTA in his primary fight with America’s Sweetheart Hillary Clinton. At the time, most commentators assumed that this was just “Bubba bait” — that is, demagogic talk aimed at arousing nativism and protectionism by telling the economically illiterate that Evil Foreigners have “stolen” American jobs, jobs that usually have been automated away.

But to many people’s amazement, Obama — Trump’s match in protectionism — started trade wars with both Mexico and Canada shortly after assuming office. He stopped only when those countries fought back and kicked our economic behinds. For example, Obama violated NAFTA to “save” 200 trucking jobs (at the behest of one of his supporters, the Teamsters Union), but when Mexico retaliated with stiff tariffs against our farmers, 25,000 American jobs disappeared, whereupon Obama cancelled his policy with limited publicity.

After killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, Trump has set his sights on killing NAFTA.

To his credit — and as readers of this estimable journal know, I was a consistent critic of Obama’s regime — Obama slowly but surely came to understand why more than 90% of economists favor free trade. Obama eventually approved of the three free-trade agreements left to him by George Bush, and late in his second term negotiated the TPP. Who knows, perhaps Obama finally read that Econ 101 text that he was too negligent to read as an undergrad.

But Trump is even more of a populist fool. He immediately killed the TPP, and has now targeted NAFTA. He is apparently surprised that both Mexico and Canada are fighting back. A bully is always amazed when the smaller boy he chooses to pick on hauls off and smacks him.

The Wall Street Journal reports just how close to a collapse of the NAFTA talks we are. We have seen record highs in the stock market, but this would almost surely change quickly should the talks collapse. One economic consulting firm, the Colorado-based ImpactECON, has put the net job losses at 125,000 for Canada, 256,000 for the US, and a whopping 961,000 for Mexico over the next three to five years.

Trump is apparently surprised that both Mexico and Canada are fighting back.

For those populists who will cheer the disproportionate job losses to Mexico, well, they may want to ask themselves whether their protectionism trumps their nativism here. That is, if we move to destroy nearly a million Mexican jobs, where oh where will all those newly unemployed Mexicans go to avoid starvation? Trump had better be prepared to build his wall quickly.

If NAFTA does get repealed, tariffs would undoubtedly result. At a minimum, the three member states would revert to their average tariffs rates: 3.5% for the US; 4.2% for Canada; and 7.5% for Mexico. But there is good reason to think that the tariffs will be much higher. Both Canada and Mexico will be furious at seeing the US dump the deal and will likely raise tariffs enormously. Moreover, the collapse of NAFTA and the Mexican job market will be the result. The American Automobile Policy Council estimates that the rise of the price of domestic auto parts from the tariffs will cost 50,000 US jobs. Another economic thinktank, Boston Consulting Group, gives the same estimate.

The ImpactECON study says the small gains in US employment in production of machinery and chemical industries will be swamped by losses in the agricultural, auto, and apparel industries.

Mexico could simply embargo products from the US — it just ordered its first shipment of wheat from Argentina, no doubt in anticipation of the looming trade war.

This last is a nice point — a point that Frédéric Bastiat would have underscored. What average Americans — including Trump — expect to see after NAFTA is some US manufacturing jobs disappearing while trade flourishes between us and our natural neighbors. They assume the trade will cause the job losses, which is debatable. But worse, they don’t see the gain in jobs in farming and other industries.

Under NAFTA, our agricultural exports to Mexico and Canada have risen fourfold, hitting $38 billion last year. If NAFTA is junked, the Mexicans could revert to their pre-NAFTA tariff levels of 75% on US chicken and corn syrup, 45% on turkey, potatoes, and dairy products, and 15% on wheat. You see, protectionism works both ways: Mexico pre-NAFTA was trying to protect its farmers from competition from American farmers. In fact, Mexico could simply embargo these products from the US — it just ordered its first shipment of wheat from Argentina (30,000 tons), no doubt in anticipation of the looming trade war.

The Mexicans, by the way, are especially angry. All major candidates for the upcoming presidential election there are opposed to what Trump is doing, but the one who is poised to make the most gains is the ultra-leftist Lopez Obrador. If Mexicans, in their righteous indignation, elect him, we could have a Cuba right on our border. For instance, Mexico could retaliate by cutting a free trade agreement with China, and allowing the Chinese to set up naval and army bases on its soil — which it is completely free to do under international law.

Talk about a “game-changer”: for the first time in US history, we would face a military threat from one of its long borders.

Even the author of the 2011 report by the leftist thinktank Economic Policy Institute, Robert Scott, has changed his mind. The report purported to show that NAFTA cost 700,000 US jobs, and was widely cited by protectionists of all political stripes. Scott now says that if NAFTA is abandoned, manufacturers will just “move” jobs to Asia.

The real “culprit” behind manufacturing job loss is not international trade; it is automation and creative destruction.

The NAFTA talks are approaching crisis phase, because the US is making unreasonable demands. For example, the US negotiator Robert Lighthizer wants a “sunset clause” requiring the agreement to be renewed every five years, and a watering down of the provision for arbitrating disputes.

Of course, the joke in all this is that the US was losing manufacturing jobs long before NAFTA. As early as 1974 sociologist Daniel Bell discussed the shift from industrial work to high-tech and service sectors in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Economy, and the term “rust belt” was coined in 1982, more than a decade before NAFTA came into being. In fact, over the last decade all of the top ten manufacturing countries in the world lost manufacturing jobs. The real “culprit” is not international trade; it is automation and creative destruction. We don’t hand-bolt wheels on cars anymore, not because the Mexicans do it, but because robotic arms do. And we don’t make buggy whips anymore, not because the Chinese make them cheaper, but because we don’t have buggies.

The failure of many American workers to adjust to the shift from low-knowledge to high-tech factories results primarily from the pathetically poor average education they receive. I mean, you can’t read the instructions manual for the new computer-aided machinery if you can’t read to begin with. While other countries are reacting to the evolution of the industrial economy by building new colleges and trade schools, cranking out engineers, doctors, scientists and skilled workers, we struggle with risible high school and college dropout rates, a proliferation of humanities and social science majors, and vanishing trade schools.

We don’t make buggy whips anymore, not because the Chinese make them cheaper, but because we don’t have buggies.

All of this could be cured if we did what supposedly socialist Sweden did over a quarter century ago: immediately adopt a universal voucher program — that is, require all public schools in America to adopt perfectly pro-rata voucher systems within one year. But this would arouse the teachers’ unions like nothing else. They will protect the cushy jobs of mediocre and even positively bad teachers, forcing parents to keep their kids in failing schools.

Rising protectionism and fear of trade don’t just run the risk of depression and trade wars — which in turn run the risk of military war. They also distract us from the real cause of long-term blue-collar unemployment: a horribly broken educational system.

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Gas Expands!


An amazing and welcome development has been achieved. As the Wall Street Journal just reported, for the first time in six decades, America exported more natural gas than it imported. It has once again become a net exporter of natural gas, and this new export sector will grow rapidly.

The net export volume is starting modestly: in November we exported 7.4 billion cubic feet (BCF) per day, while still importing 7.0 BCF per day. But no one doubts that from this modest start the volume of exports will grow. American gas exports have gone up by 50% over the past six years, and the Energy Department projects that we will be the third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 2020 — behind only Australia and Qatar. Citigroup estimates that by 2020 the US will be supplying to the rest of the world about 20% of the natural gas it produces.

No one doubts that from this modest start the volume of natural gas exports will grow.

To cite one example of success: Cheniere Energy opened a facility in the Sabine Pass (on the border of Texas and Louisiana). It was originally intended to import LNG, but the fracking revolution so decreased the price of natural gas that the plant was quickly “reverse-designed” to export it. Since February, when the plant started shipments of LNG, its output has grown to an average of 1.5 BCF exported per day. Not surprisingly, Cheniere is expanding the Sabine Pass plant rapidly, and will open more export facilities over the next two years.

Three years ago, the Freeport LNG facility at Quintana Island, Texas, got approval to export LNG, and it will begin exporting massive quantities of LNG in two years. Next year, Dominion Resources will start exporting LNG to India and Japan.

The only way this US export industry won’t grow is if the government — intentionally or by simple bungling — stops it.

So this trend toward America becoming the dominant reliable supplier of LNG for the whole damn planet will not just continue — it will accelerate. Thank you again, free market: remarkably shrewd private individuals, acting primarily out of self-interest, came up with a way — fracking — to make domestic oil and natural gas plentiful again, and plentiful indefinitely. Government subsidized losers — technologies such as wind and solar energy — but the free market found the efficient answer.

In fact, the only way this US export industry won’t grow is if the government — intentionally or by simple bungling — stops it. The progressive liberal Democrats hate fracking, of course. Obama did everything he could to impede it — such as taking an unprecedented amount of land out of public use — although most of the land upon which fracking operations are happening is private. Hillary Clinton repeatedly stated her total opposition to fracking (not to mention coal), which likely was a major factor in her ignominious loss to Donald Trump.

Speaking of Trump, he may ironically set back the natural gas export boom brought by fracking. For while he certainly claims to support it, the largest customers of our natural gas are, outside of ourselves, our NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Together they are buying a record high of our total output. But Trump — a populist to the core — hates free trade, and has targeted NAFTA as a “bad deal” for America. His bungling trade policy could well get us into trade wars with the very countries that could become our biggest future energy export markets.

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The Space Aliens Have Finally Come


Movie reviews took a back seat at Liberty while the election dominated our pages. This was the most divisive election in recent history, with three flawed candidates being nominated by the three major parties. (Yes, I consider the LP a major party at this point, even if the chance of winning is still nonexistent.) The divisiveness only worsened after the surprise election of Donald Trump, with protests that quickly escalated into riots and derisive epithets of “Racist! Homophobe! Sexist!” that escalated into accusations (sometimes false) of personal attacks. College students, whimpering and wailing, were issued blankets, tissues, and even puppies by administrators more anxious to comfort their fears than to teach them how to cope with disappointment.


As I decided to write my first review for Liberty in over a month, I wondered: which current film would provide the best opportunity to address these issues? Arrival seemed like a sure bet.

Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?”

In this movie, 12 alien spacecraft enter the earth’s atmosphere and hover above locations around the globe, virtually knocking at the door and asking to be let in. But what is their purpose? Do they come in peace, or as galactic imperialists? That’s the question asked in every alien-oriented movie, and it was the key issue that drove Trump’s rise to the presidency. Do we build a wall — a yuge wall — to keep everyone out (at least until a thorough vetting has been performed), or do we open the doors and admit workers from Mexico, refugees from Syria, boat-people from southeast Asia, and anyone else who wants to come in? Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?” Fittingly, that is the tagline of Arrival.

The opening moments of the film reinforced my intent to write a timely political review. I like the fact that the writers chose the neutral term “arrival” rather than the usual “invasion.” People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater in New York City. Our main character even references Fox News Channel while trying to calm her hysterical mother, saying, “Why are you watching that channel? How many times have I told you not to listen to those idiots?” She also admits to strategic lying in order to get her way: “The story isn’t true, but it proves my point, “ she mutters her sly justification.

But, as so often happens when I come to a movie already thinking about how I’m going to write my review, I soon let go of my preconceived plan and let the actual film envelop me. The film is slow for the alien invasion genre, more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Independence Day. Leaders in the 12 nations where the spacecraft are hovering do bring in their military, but they do so cautiously. They have learned to be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, but they won’t slam the gates or start shooting the arrows until they’ve seen what’s inside this Trojan horse. What is the purpose of these uninvited arrivals?

Tension develops not so much from fear of attack as from an agonizing slowness that affects our perception of time; unnatural gravity that affects our perception of nature; a 60-beat, pulsating percussion that affects our perception of the aliens; and discordant, dissonant music that simply grates on our nerves.

People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a respected linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a first-rate mathematician, are called in to see whether they can communicate with the beings. An academic argument ensues over which is the core of civilization, language or math, but the film does not ask us to endure a cutesy, hormone-driven competition between the two attractive academicians. This is serious business, and they are serious partners in their mission to discover why the aliens have come and whether their intent is peaceful.

Guided by thoughts of her daughter’s birth and childhood, Louise turns to such non-verbal communications as touch, eye contact, body language, and facial expressions as she and Ian work out the “Heptoid” vocabulary. She points out the ambiguity inherent in words, and the consequent importance of understanding context in order to discover intent. “The Sanskrit word for war,” she offers as an example, “is desire for more cows.” Soldiers and bullets, she suggests, are a symptom of war, not the definition of it. I couldn’t help but think of the quote attributed to Frederic Bastiat: “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” And I again thought of our president-elect and his misguided determination to limit international trade.

For a film about language and communication, there is surprisingly little dialogue. Instead, the actors are asked to communicate their thoughts and emotions to the audience in the way their characters are communicating with the aliens — through body language, movement, and facial expressions. Director Denis Villeneuve couldn’t have asked for a better actress for this task than the brilliantly talented Amy Adams. She approaches the aliens with the same wonder and engagement as she expresses in her interactions with the daughter of her thoughts. We know how she feels about language, and about these aliens, because we know what it’s like to interact with a baby or a child. Language becomes a tool and an emotion. Linguistics become exciting and engaging. And the denouement of the film is wondrous because of all this.

This is a film that surprises you with unexpected stillness, unexpected wonder, unexpected fulfillment. It asks us to embrace life, even when it includes inevitable trauma or sorrow. In the end, I discovered, it is the right film for right now. But not for the reasons I expected. Go see it before you hear any more about it.

Editor's Note: Review of "Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. 21 Laps Entertainment / FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 115 minutes.

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Ideas Have Consequences


It probably couldn’t be any worse. The current presidential candidates are about as bad as bad can be.

Just look at them.

  • Ted Cruz, who called a press conference to say that he would not “copulate” with a rat like Donald Trump.
  • Donald Trump, who had every opportunity to gather all anti-establishment voters into his fold but insisted, instead, on alienating as many as possible — e.g., stipulating that in some hypothetical world in which abortion was outlawed, women who had abortions should be “punished,” then putting out a press release saying that he didn’t really mean that, and then saying what he didn’t mean again.
  • Bernie Sanders, spouting non-facts 24/7.
  • Hillary Clinton — say no more.

The temptation is to attribute the horror of 2016 to the candidates’ abominable personalities, or at most to the failures of the electoral system, which is warmly responsive to televisable personalities (Trump), and to the indefatigable pressure groups that gave us Clinton and Sanders (and Jeb Bush and a few other sparklers).

I think that those factors are important, but they are as nothing when compared with the ideas that are insisted upon by the pressure groups and are projected so abominably by the personalities.

All the problems that are used to justify the literally insane campaigns now being waged were the direct results of unlimited government.

The ideas aren’t many. We’re not dealing with the intellectual intricacy of the questions that Lincoln and Douglas debated. Most of what passes for ideas in today’s campaigning results from a handful of crude, outdated assumptions, as follows:

1. The idea that work produces wealth, and therefore ought to be rewarded — an idea that had the stuffing knocked out of it by the discovery of the principle of marginal utility, a mere 14 decades ago.

2. The age-old idea that wealth should be apportioned by political means; i.e., by force.

These two ideas provide most of Bernie Sanders’ intellectual equipment, if you want to call it that.

3. The pre-1830s idea that free trade is bad for the economy.

Here you will recognize Donald Trump’s motivating idea, and one of Sanders’.

4. The 1970s idea that racial — and “racial” — sensitivities have rights that government must enforce.

This belief, which is merely the flipside of the much older belief that white racial sensitivities must be enforced by government, is the basis of the grievance industry which fuels both Sanders and Clinton, and without which their candidacies might not be able to exist.

5. The idea that, as H.L. Mencken said, “the people know what they want and deserve to get it, good and hard.”

This is populism, which fuels the preposterous windbaggery of Trump and Sanders, and to a degree that of Cruz. It was adequately discredited by the idiotic behavior of the ancient, direct democracies, if not of modern Detroit, Chicago, and New York City.

Now, you may say, and you would be right to say to it, these fallacious notions get a lot of their steam from the true, or sort of true, ideas that are associated with them. Sanders’ people and Trump’s people are right in believing that the financial system is rigged against the majority of Americans. Trump’s people and Cruz’s people are right in thinking that the country is being run into the ground by small groups of wealthy, or otherwise privileged, self-serving apostles of political correctness, seemingly bent on outraging all feelings but their own. Trump’s people are right in thinking that a welfare state cannot admit hordes of immigrants without grossly disadvantaging its own citizens. Clinton’s people are right in their visceral aversion to populism.

It’s remarkable that Clinton’s supporters, though undoubtedly the best “educated” of any of these groups, has the fewest ideas, right or wrong. It’s certainly a commentary on elite education.

But the most remarkable fact is that all the problems that are used to justify the literally insane campaigns now being waged were the direct results of unlimited government. If the American people had voted to increase income inequality, strangle the middle class, create racial tensions, ship jobs overseas, enlarge the permanent underclass, and grant a permanent veto power to an unelected class of well-paid parasites, they couldn’t have gotten better results from their decades of votes for people who wished to expand the government.

Now people of common sense and what used to be common knowledge are seeing (the cliché is unavoidable) the chickens coming home to roost. Are you happy? I’m not.

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Unfair Competition from Robotland


This campaign season brings many complaints about “shipping jobs overseas.” Candidates promise to crack down on the offending corporations. American workers and the United States as a whole must compete on a slanted playing field against foreigners paid much below a dollar an hour. Moreover, the foreigners manipulate their currencies. They buy less from us than we from them, putting the US into a trade deficit (more exactly, a current-account deficit) costing us many billions of dollars a year. China, Japan, and Mexico count among the worst offenders. Free trade is fine, but only when it is fair.

In a similar but imaginary scenario, technology has advanced so far that “Robots” (in a stretched sense of the word) displace American workers at costs equivalent to Robot wages of 50 cents an hour. What is the difference between shipping jobs to Bangladesh and shipping jobs to Robotland? Well, Robotland does not have a balance of payments, so it cannot be accused of buying less from us than we from it, fleecing us of the difference. In the real world, automatic market mechanisms, if allowed to operate, forestall worrisome trade deficits and surpluses; and if the foreigners do make unbalanced sales to us, what can they do with the money? They acquire American bank accounts, securities, and properties, so supplying us with financial capital on advantageous terms.

What sense does the notion of one country competing with others have? Does it mean that international trade is a zero-sum game, with countries squabbling over shares in a fixed total of gains? On the contrary, international trade and advanced technology are alike in making desired goods more abundant. One country’s relatively low standard of living would trace to technological and entrepreneurial backwardness and perhaps to bad government. It would be absurd to blame its relative poverty on incompetent trade-policy negotiators.

One country’s relatively low standard of living would trace to technological and entrepreneurial backwardness and perhaps to bad government.

In the real world, conceivably, Robotland technology might displace many American workers, inviting Luddite arguments. I do not want to get into that issue here. I merely ask what the difference is between the scenarios of foreign competition and robots.

I wish that today’s vapid political debates could give way to ones with candidates testing one another’s policy-relevant understanding by posing questions like the one about robots. Other questions might be: How do your trade-policy proposals square with the principle of comparative advantage? What light might the absorption approach to balance-of-payments analysis shed on a connection between a trade deficit and a government budget deficit? In what sense is the Social Security trust fund a reassuring reality and in what sense a deceptive farce?

Unfortunately, such questions would not faze Donald Trump. He would respond with vicious personal insults and with reiterations of his own excellence. Anyway, allowing such questions could be entertaining. They might even enlighten some voters.

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On Dogs, Cats, and Carnal Knowledge


Reading the Drudge Report just after the House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have given President Obama fast track authority (or “TPA,” for “trade-promotion authority”) to conclude free trade agreements, I remembered a line from the first Ghostbusters movie. The busters (Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter) are explaining to the mayor that his city is headed for “a disaster of biblical proportions.” When the rather obtuse man asks what they mean by “biblical,” Ray says, “Real wrath of God type stuff.” Egon adds, “Forty years of darkness!” Winston chimes in with “the dead rising from the grave!” Whereupon the ever-arch Peter adds loudly, “Human sacrifice . . . dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!”

What happened on June 12 was that a bill to grant Obama the same power (fast track authority) that almost every other president since World War II has been given went down to defeat in a procedural vote, primarily because Democratic members followed their leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in opposing it. The maneuver was to join Republicans who oppose spending more money on work retraining programs — which are usually just boondoggles that don’t retrain anybody — in voting down a package deal that included the TPA and also increased retraining funds that had earlier passed the Senate.

Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

Fast track authority is the power Congress can (and almost always does) give any president to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) in confidence and without congressional meddling. If any FTA is concluded, it of course becomes law only if the Senate votes in favor of it. Naturally, the Senate can only vote the submitted FTA up or down — it cannot amend it, since amending it is renegotiating it, which the other side of the agreement would not accept. Without such power, you have 435 members of Congress playing president, making it impossible to get any treaty — free trade or otherwise — negotiated.

Despite Obama’s last-minute personal intervention, in which he tried to convince his own party members in the House to support his plan, or perhaps because of his intervention, the bill went down by a vote of 302–126. As one unnamed Democratic congressman put it, “She screwed this president.”

But a number of Republicans opposed the measure, too. Here we get to the dogs and cats getting it on together.

After the vote, Matt Drudge ran a large banner on his website. It screamed, “Brave Pelosi Says No!” Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

I won’t rehearse all the arguments about why free trade is economically beneficial. I have done so at length in these pages (“The Case for Free Trade,” Liberty, December 2010, pp. 33–41). And the case was made again, succinctly and well, in a recent piece by Larry Kudlow, Art Laffer, and Steve Moore. To economists, 90% of whom favor free trade, it is obvious that free trade is on balance economically good for countries engaging in it. Why is it that when 85% of climate scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming, it becomes “settled science,” but when 90% of economists agree that free trade increases wealth (the theory of comparative advantage), the matter is never considered settled?

The reason for Obama’s defeat is threefold.

First to be mentioned is the decline in free trade sentiment among Democrats. Coming out of the Great Depression and the devastating war it helped to spawn, Democrats agreed with Republicans that the protectionism associated with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs was and is economically counterproductive and geopolitically dangerous — for, as Frédéric Bastiat observed a century and a half ago, when goods cannot cross borders, soldiers will. That is why fast track authority has been given to all but one president since the end of the second world war.

While Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, any free trade agreement he negotiates will likely err on the side of suffocating regulations for both sides.

But the Democrat party has moved ever more toward the extreme left — progressive liberalism, as Solzhenitsyn observed, ever evolving into socialism — and fewer and fewer Democrats are willing to support free trade. Really, Bill Clinton was the last president to push for it, when he signed NAFTA into law. One of the most important of the core Democrat constituencies, Big Labor, loathes free trade. In this most recent vote, for example, when Pelosi and her myrmidons went against fast track for the president of their own party, Big Labor Daddy Richard Trumka (King of the AFL-CIO) praised her mightily, proclaiming that “she stood up against corporate interests.”

Second, despite the best efforts of House Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s to give Obama fast track authority, a portion of the Republican Party opposed the measure. The biggest reason is their distrust of Obama. That’s why websites such as and the Drudge Report were bashing the bill mightily.

Now, as any more-than-casual reader of these pages knows, I have been unwavering in my opposition to and contempt for the Obama Regime. To put this simply, I regard Obama as the worst president in modern history. (When I said this not long back, one reader chastised me for not characterizing Obama as the worst president in all history, but I confess that my weakness on the history of 19th-century presidents restrains me from agreeing.) President Obama will have done more to harm this country in both domestic and foreign policy than any other modern president, and if we are lucky enough to elect a decent Republican president in 2016, he or she will have to spend most of a first administration reversing the damage.

But as the old saw has it, even a broken clock is right twice a day. More to the point, while Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, in fact really pathetic at it, any FTA he negotiates will likely err on the side of trying to saddle the other side with what he favors for our side too: suffocating regulations. While that is economically deleterious, I doubt that it will result in a net disadvantage to us. Moreover, any final agreement he negotiates must still be approved by Congress, so any grossly unequal deal — say, one that increases Japan’s access to our markets but protects its agricultural industry — can quite easily be voted down, forcing him back to the table.

A good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false.

The third, and in my view the most important, reason for Obama’s loss is Obama himself. Let’s put aside the personality issue, which is that Obama is a patently arrogant, distant, snarky, intellectually mediocre narcissist who doesn’t work or play well with anyone except complete stooges. This doesn’t help him, but it isn’t the biggest problem about his free trade initiative. That problem is his history.

Obama has never gone on a tour, selling the need for a trade agreement with Asia and answering the obvious populist arguments against free trade. In this, ironically, he is like George Bush — who, while he negotiated and signed into law more FTAs than any other president, didn’t explain them, argue their importance, or refute the economically ignorant but passionately tribal populist objections to them. Obama doesn’t explain, you see; he merely shows contempt for differing opinions and expects everyone just to see his colossal greatness.

Worse, his history is one of buying the same populist claptrap arguments against free trade that he is being met with now. He bashed Hillary because her hubby signed NAFTA, which, he claimed (parroting the Trumka types), cost jobs; though this was obviously false, as must have been manifest even to an intellectual lightweight such as himself. When in office, he quickly started trade wars against both Mexico and Canada, wars that ceased only when those neighbors fought back and kicked his ass. He stalled the three FTAs left over from the Bush era, only signing them late into his second term, in the face of the worst economic recovery in American history. Now this guy — out of the blue — advocates free trade?

The average American, like the average person anywhere else on this planet, basically has his scientific and moral views set by history. The physics that the average person believes, for example, holds that objects are completely solid, and that they fall at different speeds; that space is completely empty and infinite in all directions, and that it has but three dimensions. Tradition doesn’t make such ideas true. The economics that the average person believes maintains that while labor deserves to be compensated, the lending of money doesn’t; that it is better if all people do all things for themselves, rather than dividing up the tasks among many people, possibly people in different countries; that saving rather than spending hurts jobs, but protecting home industries promotes jobs; and many other things. Tradition doesn’t make these notions true, either.

In short, a good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false. But Obama can’t teach anyone about fallacious ideas. Indeed, he often simply accepts them himself — unless he was just lying (something he does with amazing frequency and ease) when he campaigned against Hillary. Either way, he’s not able to teach the public why hunter-gatherer myths are wrong.

Maybe the Republicans can save him from the anti-free-trade crowd, but it is unclear that they can. If not, the biggest loser will be the American public. But I believe in the precept that people get the government they deserve.


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A Sincere Change of Heart?


The old adage wisely instructs us to “give credit where credit is due.” I am about to give credit to someone to whom I have given extremely scant credit before: our current president. Obama is apparently doing something I want him to do: he is advocating more FTAs — free trade agreements.

This is a surprising — nay, mindboggling — reversal of the course he took during his first four years. In his first term, he started trade wars with Mexico, Canada, and other places. He stalled, until late in that term, any action on the three residual FTAs that President Bush had left him (with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea). And he generally mouthed the labor union line that free trade “steals” “American” jobs.

But shortly before his reelection, he caved. In the face of a clearly stagnant economy he signed the three FTAs. He has now gone farther. In some of his recent speeches, he has advocated two new large FTA deals — one with the EU, and one — initially proposed by Bush — called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He is in favor of concluding those deals quickly. (The US started participating in the TPP negotiations under Bush in 2008.)

Obama backed the notion of an EU deal in his state of the union address, saying, “Tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership with the European Union . . . because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”

Of course, free trade with anywhere supports millions of “good-paying” jobs. This proposition has been urged by mainstream economists ever since the debacle of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs — or for that matter since Adam Smith. It has recently been brilliantly explored by Daniel Griswold in his primer on the subject, Mad about Trade (which I have reviewed for these pages). Obama is, it seems, only just learning this.

The trade deal with the EU would be huge. The economies of the EU and the US together constitute over half of world GDP, and the trade between them already accounts for one-third of all trade flows.Not commonly known in the US, but explored in detail in Griswold’s book, is the fact that as of 2010, US private investment in France and Belgium (combined) exceeded US private investment in China and India (combined). According to some estimates, an EU-USA FTA would likely add as much as 1.5% to GDP growth in both regions.

Of course, free trade with anywhere supports millions of “good-paying” jobs. President Obama is, it seems, only just learning this.

Concluding the TPP would also be huge. It would greatly expand the current, modest FTA called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (“P4” or “TPSEP”), which includes Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. The proposed TPP would embrace Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, and us. Japan has just announced that it will join the TPP talks as well. Obama hasn’t commented on the Japanese dimension, but he has indicated that he favors the TPP, viewing it as his “pivot” toward Asia.

There would be great advantage to including Japan in a large free trade zone with the US. The other nations with whom we are negotiating either have FTAs already (Australia, Canada, Chile, and Mexico), or are very small potatoes economically (Brunei, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, and so on). Japan, by contrast, is a country with which we have no FTA, and is the third largest economy on earth.

But as happy as I am that Obama seems to be seeing the light, I find myself filled with doubts.

Start with the fact that the president is a notorious liar and dissembler. As a senator, he feigned support for immigration reform but covertly helped kill Bush’s bill, and in the two years in which his party controlled both houses of Congress he refused to introduce a bill of his own. Yet he campaigned for reelection promising — comprehensive immigration reform!

Similarly, as a senator and during his first term (to which he was elected with enormous contributions from union funds) he fought off or stalled all free trade measures. Now he favors free trade? One can be forgiven for wondering whether his conversion is sincere.

Doubt also arises from the question of how persuasive Obama can be on the issue. The opponents of the new FTAs will use his own past arguments against him — the canards about free trade costing jobs, about its resulting in the famous “race to the bottom,” and so on.

Most importantly, the new FTAs are fraught with special difficulties. Let’s begin with the EU. The problem lies with countries such as France, which is highly unlikely to open its domestic manufacturing sector to true competition. The French are notorious for protecting their film and other “cultural” industries by import quotas and direct subsidies. They are famed for their inventiveness in erecting “non-tariff barriers” to trade. And they just elected a Socialist government that loathes free-market economics (which leftist Europeans disparagingly call “neoliberal economic theory”).

The opponents of the new free trade agreements will use Obama's own past arguments against him — the canards about free trade costing jobs, about its resulting in the famous “race to the bottom,” and so on.

Especially contentious is the issue of agricultural imports. America has always been an agricultural hyperpower, thanks to the vast expanse of its arable land and the incredible productivity of its farmers. American farmers have been at the forefront of agronomic invention, from the use of tractors to the use of GPS (global positioning satellite location finding) to the genetic manipulation of grains. France, in particular, and Europe, in general, oppose the sale of genetically modified foods, and are lavish in their subsidization of their farmers.

With unemployment running high in many EU countries — especially Greece and Spain, where it approaches 25%, or about what the US suffered during the Great Depression — an FTA with America will be a tough sell. The average European is as much a believer in populist economic fallacies as the average American, and especially in the myth that free trade costs domestic jobs. (It’s always funny how opponents on both sides of an FTA can argue that it will send jobs over to the other side).

You can catch a glimmer of the difficulty in clenching this deal when you hear Karel De Gucht, no less than the EU trade commissioner, who is pitching an FTA with the US to lower the automobile tariffs that make cars so expensive in Europe, hasten to assure France that it would never be required to dismantle its subsidies and quotas on cultural industries.

Even more problematic will be an FTA that involves Japan. The Japanese certainly want the benefits an FTA with America would bring, such as an end to the tariff we impose on their automobiles — a tariff that runs as high as 25%. If these tariffs were eliminated, Japan’s auto imports alone would jump by perhaps 6%. (No doubt this is why the UAW, the AFL-CIO, and the domestic automakers are alarmed at the very idea of ending those tariffs). But Japan is erecting large obstacles to an early deal for true free trade. They are aggressively “pulling a Bernanke,” that is, weakening the value of the yen, so that Japanese manufactured goods will drop in price compared to American goods. This would rather quickly reduce the impact of our tariff barriers.

An even more significant problem is the fact that a real FTA that included Japan would immediately open Japanese farmers to massive competition by America’s vastly more efficient agriculture. To cite one example: Japan imposes a stunning 778% tariff on imported rice. In other words, Japan’s rice farmers are so comparatively inefficient that they need to be protected by a tariff of nearly eight-fold the American price — a whole new meaning for the Eightfold Way!

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who decided to join the TPP talks, already faces opposition to his move, and has promised, “I will protect Japan’s agriculture and its food at all costs.” That doesn’t make it sound as if there were much chance of a major deal to open trade on both sides.

Over the long term, of course, competition would be good, very good, for Japan. Its citizens would get cheaper food, enabling them to buy more of other things or save more capital to create or expand competitive industries. Free trade would free up people from the farms, enabling them to work more creatively and productively in knowledge-based industries. This would be a major advantage, given that Japan’s population is aging rapidly.

But economics is not the same as culture. In a nation as socially cohesive and static as if Japan, it will be very difficult to convince people to allow their farm industry to shrink. Yet you don’t need to be Japanese to succumb to the myths of protectionism. Populist economics is popular all over the world because, well, the populace is basically the same all over the world. As Hayek noted, our evolution from hunter-gatherers has left us with instincts that are often counterproductive.

If Obama really has seen the light — about which, again, I am skeptical — he would do better to emulate Bush. Go for bilateral FTAs with countries with whom we have a better chance of success. I would urge him to focus on just two countries: Brazil and India. I will be brief here, having discussed the possibility of an FTA with Brazil elsewhere.

Start with the fact that bilateral FTAs are inherently easier to negotiate, since the special interest groups, those omnipresent rentseekers, are easier to hold in check, being fewer than those aroused by action on a broader front.

In a nation as socially cohesive and static as if Japan, it will be very difficult to convince people to allow their farm industry to shrink.

Second, note that while countries such as Japan and France are very culturally homogeneous, Brazil and India are, like the US, ethnically and culturally diverse. Such diversity tends to lessen (though not to eliminate) the tribalist-populist impulse to fear trade with the Other.

Third, Brazil and India are big countries. Brazil, with 200 million citizens, is the fifth largest country in population, and India is the second largest. Unlike Japan and most of Europe, Brazil and India are still growing in population, so they will have a young labor force for decades to come. They are likelier than other countries to allow the importation of food, and more eager to gain access to our manufactured goods markets.

Finally, both countries are growing economically at a fast clip. Brazil already has the world’s sixth largest economy. Both are nations whose greatest economic growth lies in their future, not their past.

They seem altogether better bets than those the administration is pursuing. Maybe — my recurring skepticism whispers — that is why the administration isn’t pursuing them.

ldquo;race to the bottom,

ldquo;race to the bottom,

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On Our Way Down


While our nation remains mired in economic uncertainty, sluggish growth, high unemployment, and even higher underemployment — in short, Obamalaise — other nations continue to move ahead. A recent report brings this point home.

Citigroup projects that the pattern of world trade is going to shift dramatically over the next 40years, and not in our favor. Citi’s research indicates that Developing Asia’s share of total world trade, which in 2010 was 24%, will grow to 42% in 2030 and 46% by 2050. Conversely, Western Europe, which had the largest share of total world trade in1990 (48%) dropped to 34% in 2010. That's still the largest share. But by 2030, that will dwindle to only 19%, and by 2050 it will be a meager 15%. North America will see similar declines.

Citi projects that China will become the biggest-trading country by 2015, surpassing the U.S. — the current leader — within only four years, and will stay on top for the foreseeable future. But even more remarkable is the forecast that the US will also be overtaken by — India. Even though India was not even in the top 10 largest trading countries in 2010, by 2050 it will become the second largest.

Now, research projections can be wrong — for one thing, they cannot for see exogenous events (e.g., what if China and India get into a major war?). But the trends are pretty clear.

And the causes of these trends are also clear. One cause of trade growth (among others) is the willingness to trade freely with other nations. Asia has embraced free trade with a vengeance, while Obama has done his best to block all progress on the issue, even going so far as to reverse the free trade agreements we have, simply to please his union bosses. For Obama, it is as if Adam Smith never existed. This is taking its toll.


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