The Emperor Has No Brains

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One of the greatest things in this universe is discovering that there are other people — lots of other people — who are just as smart as you are, or even (if you can believe it) smarter.

As a teacher, I’ve often been inspired by what I’ve seen other people doing in the classroom. “How did they think of that?” I ask myself, futilely. As a writer, I’ve spent many of the best moments of my life marveling at the accomplishments of people who were much more intelligent than I. Emily Dickinson, are you listening? J.F. Powers, can you hear me? Even writers who, I think, were not particularly bright (in my way of being bright) have earned my admiration by being smart enough (in their way) to do things I could never dream of doing. Hemingway and Whitman, I salute you.

But it’s not just in my own work that I rejoice to lose the competition. The cleverness of a good carpenter, the strategic intellect of a good cook — such things astonish me. I have a friend who has mastered virtually all the skills of the construction trade. That’s real intelligence, of a kind that I don’t have. When I’m disgusted with the world, I’m consoled by the knowledge that I’m surrounded by so many people who can do things so much better than I.

The cleverness of a good carpenter, the strategic intellect of a good cook — such things astonish me.

An economist would say I was recognizing the importance of the division of labor. I prefer to call it the division of intelligence. According to James Madison, writing in the tenth Federalist paper, this is what our system of government is all about. It’s about protecting the division of intelligence, and the superior degrees of intelligence:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is . . . an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.

It is not only the rights of property that derive from the division of intelligence; it’s property itself in any significant form. If everyone had one form and degree of intelligence, everyone would be a teacher, with no one to teach; everyone would be a writer of the same kind of stuff; everyone would be a mediocre cook, with no one to produce the food or pay for it.

Recently I bought a new heating and air conditioning unit. At the moment when the superbly intelligent and adroit technician finished installing it and presented me with the bill, social hierarchy did not exist; I was happy to reward the superior intelligence he showed in his craft, and he was happy to receive some of the money that I had been paid for exercising an appropriate degree of intelligence in mine. The best thing is that such moments are constantly occurring. They are the real story of human life.

But there is a class of people — let’s call it the governing class — that does not think in this way, that apparently lacks the capacity to think in this way. Members of this class assume that they are smarter, simply smarter, than everyone else and that they are therefore commanded by nature to tell everyone else what to do. Alexander Pope remarked that

Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.

The meaning of such comments is lost on the hierarchs of the governing class. They don’t command a province of human endeavor; they command human beings. They will not stoop; there is never any reason for them to stoop. They were born with an understanding of existence and their superior role in it, and if they weren’t, they soon learned it from their four years at Harvard, Brown, or Wellesley. They’re smarter than all the rest of us, which gives them the right to push us all around.

Members of this class assume that they are smarter, simply smarter, than everyone else and that they are therefore commanded by nature to tell everyone else what to do.

In the early republic, such people were rare, and scorned. If you wanted to be esteemed for your intelligence, you had to show that you actually were smart at doing something. It might be reading good literature, understanding its meaning, and using it in effective argument, especially on questions of political principle and fundamental law. This is the substantial intelligence that until the 20th century gained the highest rewards in America’s political life. But no one thought there was only one way to demonstrate intelligence. You might do it by showing your grasp of military affairs, or financial investments. You might construct great works of engineering or great industrial combinations. You might invent the electric light. You might build houses that people really wanted to live in or operate a hotel that would really make them comfortable. But you had to do something to show you were smart.

This obligation has been superseded by the modern, all-encompassing state, which inculcates far different, and far narrower, ideas of merit. It rewards people who have no skills except an ability to write memos, endure meetings, and serve on committees, teams, and task forces — most of them useless or harmful, but that’s all right: the state is made to command and not to please. The state grants prestige even to people whose sole job is to spin — that is, to lie to other people, using methods that are openly discussed and admired among the governing class but are presumed to operate unnoticed by those targeted for bamboozlement. In other words, the state gives special rewards to people who lack sufficient intelligence to respect the intelligence of others.

Civilized people — and our society is still, in most ways, civilized — are trained, and properly so, to respect other people’s intelligence and the achievements that are a sign of intelligence. But here’s the problem. They are trained to respect even the appearance of achievement. When I call a plumber and a man shows up with TONY on his chest and a set of plumber’s tools in his hand, I assume that he’s a plumber, and probably a decent one, or he wouldn’t still be in business. I’m inclined to respect him as such. Who am I to say that he’s not a real plumber? I’m not smart enough to judge that.

The modern, all-encompassing state inculcates far different, and far narrower, ideas of merit. It rewards people who have no skills except an ability to write memos, endure meetings, and serve on committees.

But in the same way, when a gang of people stride into a room in $2,000 suits, step to the microphone, and make statements about the welfare of the nation or some other governing-class topic, their air of assurance tempts otherwise intelligent men and women to wonder whether these impressive figures could possibly have attained their power unless they were, in fact, more intelligent than anyone else in the room. So large, and so important, is our respect for accomplishment that we imagine that anyone who has attained some distinguished position must have the mental qualities that merit it — must be, in a word, smart.

We are slow to realize that dumb people are drawn to dumb jobs. Imagine asking a good carpenter whether he would like a more prestigious job. “Doing what?” he says. “Oh,” you say, “going to meetings to decide which of the proposed revisions to the current memorandum regarding the department’s recommendation to the undersecretary should be revisited. You’ll look very impressive doing that.” The plumber would say, in franker words than these, that he wouldn’t consider it. But some people do more than consider it. They make it their life’s work. They often say that they didn’t even wonder about whether it was. They recognized it, right away, as their mission in life. And that’s true. They were just dumb enough to want it. Go read the parable of the trees in Judges 9:8–15.

This brings us at last (but you could see where we were going) to James Comey, late director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Comey has published a book about how much he hates President Trump, who fired him from his job. Comey has apparently governed his life in accordance with the idea that he is smarter than everyone else. He has tried to demonstrate the truth of that idea by snooping on other people and sending them to jail, even when their only crime was lying about something that wasn’t a crime. This is the man who imprisoned Martha Stewart, host of a television cooking show, for committing lèse majesté against Comey’s government agency.

We are slow to realize that dumb people are drawn to dumb jobs.

You might wonder how anyone could have led such a dumb life as Comey, and I suppose the answer is simply that dumb people do dumb things. Puffing his book in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, a fellow member of the governing class, Comey was asked one of those dumb questions that dumb people think are so clever when they’re conducting a job interview: “What is your worst quality?” Stephanopoulos put it in an even dumber way: “What’s James Comey’s rap on James Comey?” The answer was:

Yeah. My rap on myself is that — is that ego focus. That I — since I was a kid, I've had a sense of confidence. That I know I'm good at certain things. And there's a danger that that will bleed over into pride.

Few people will dispute this answer: Comey strikes nearly everyone as an insufferable egotist. But notice the idea that Comey thinks is not in dispute — the assumption that he is “good at certain things.” We have his own word for it: “I know I’m good.” It does not occur to him that an egotist will always imagine that he’s good at something, and that this may be evidence that, after all, he’s not good at anything. What is it, exactly, that Comey is good at?

He’s certainly not good at speaking like an adult. If the fractured syntax of the “rap on myself” answer isn’t enough to convince you, consider his childish answer to another childish question from Stephanopoulos, who wanted to know “what did it feel like to be James Comey” during the last ten days of the presidential campaign of 2016. That’s the period when Comey blunderingly announced that he was reinvestigating the “matter” of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then blunderingly announced that he’d stopped investigating them. Comey replied:

It sucked. Yeah, it was — it was a very painful period. Again, my whole life has been dedicated to institutions that work not to have an involvement in an election. I walked around vaguely sick to my stomach, feeling beaten down. I felt, when I went to the White House — I don't want to spoil it for people, but there's a movie called The Sixth Sense that I talk about in the book where Bruce Willis doesn't realize he's dead.

That's the way I felt. I felt like I was totally alone, that everybody hated me. And that there wasn't a way out because it really was the right thing to do. And that — that, in a way, I'm ruined. But that's what I have to do. I had to do it the way [sic].

Ah, the reflections of a sage and statesman! The penetrating self-analysis of a man who understands that most mysterious of all things, the human heart! The battle-wrought wisdom of a Churchillian leader!

It does not occur to Comey that an egotist will always imagine that he’s good at something, and that this may be evidence that, after all, he’s not good at anything.

Leader and leadership — Comey mentioned those words 47 times during his wee interview with Georgie. The subtitle of Comey’s book is “Truth, Lies, and Leadership.” Explaining to Stephanopoulos why he wrote a spiteful volume about how he was always telling the truth and President Trump was always telling lies, and that’s why Trump fired him from his leadership role, Comey cited young people’s need for education in leadership:

It occurred to me maybe I can be useful by offering a view to people, especially to young people, of what leadership should look like and how it should be centered on values.

I can’t tell how many young people (or any people) will actually read his book, but Comey is not a very challenging teacher. He’s the kind of teacher who is dumb enough to pander to his students. Kids say “it sucked,” so Comey says “it sucked.” (Lofty phrase! Especially when you remember what it literally means.) Kids feel emotions that make them lose all perspective, so Comey describes his bad day at the office by saying that it made him feel vaguely sick to his stomach, beaten down, totally alone. Kids have a desperate desire to be part of a group, so Comey tells them that when some people didn’t want him on their team anymore, he felt that everybody hated him. This is leadership!

When someone at this intellectual level strives for a literary or artistic allusion, he reaches out to . . . Washington? Lincoln? Dante? Nope. It’s Bruce Willis who’s on his mind. But he can’t fix his thoughts on Bruce. He’s got to keep coming back to . . . James Comey. “I’m ruined,” he thinks. And he keeps thinking that, and he has to tell other people that he’s thinking that. As is natural for a traumatized kid of 57.

Comey’s absence of intelligence, and his inability to conceive that his audience might have some, are painfully displayed when Stephanopoulos takes him through the absurd scene in which Comey informed Trump that he had a secret to tell him. The secret had to do with a dossier (that’s a foreign word, but I think you may be old enough to hear it) purporting to show that several years before, Trump had hired Russian prostitutes to piss on a bed that had once been occupied by President Obama. Master sleuth that he is, Comey is still unable, by his account, to determine whether to believe Trump’s outraged denial of this ridiculous and unsupported allegation.

I don't — I don't know. I don't — the nature of an investigator is you don't believe or disbelieve. [Really? That’s not what they taught me in Investigator School.] You ask, "What's my evidence? What is the evidence that establishes me [Huh? Is this English?] whether someone's telling me the truth or not. And ask this allegation—" I honestly never thought this words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the — the — current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don't know.

As any person of normal intelligence can see, Comey has to keep asserting that he doesn’t know whether any of this is true, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any reason to talk about it. But, one might ask, what does he know? He knows how he feels about things. He knows that in great detail.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How weird was that briefing?

JAMES COMEY: Really weird. I mean, I don't know whether it was weird for President-elect Trump, but I — it was almost an out-of-body experience for me. I was floating above myself, looking down, saying, "You're sitting here, briefing the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in Moscow." And of course, Jeh Johnson's voice is banging around in my head. President Obama's eyebrow raise is banging around in my head. I just wanted to get it done and get out of there.

What teenager could have said it better? “How weird was that briefing, Jimmy?” “Like, it was really weird.” Just thinking about icky things sent Comey’s brain rushing to the Pop Psych ward, where selves see themselves floating above themselves, and the voices (and eyebrows) of authority figures keep banging around in your head. Dude! How grody was that!

Comey has to keep asserting that he doesn’t know whether any of this is true, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any reason to talk about it.

Please remember that it was Comey who started this weirdness. And why? Because he felt it was his duty to tell Trump that somebody had written something that claimed that Trump had done something bad. Not bad, as in illegal, but bad, as in embarrassing. And embarrassing, to a teenager, is worse than illegal. It was so embarrassing — to Comey! — that he couldn’t tell the president precisely what it was. He preferred to leave some things to Trump’s imagination (which, we have reason to believe, is much more fertile than Comey’s).

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How graphic did you get?

JAMES COMEY: I think as graphic as I needed to be. I did not go into the business about — people peeing on each other, I just thought it was a weird enough experience for me to be talking to the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow. And so I left that part out. I thought I'd given enough to put him on notice as to what the essence of the material was.

It was all too weird — for Comey, who was apparently so weirded out that he couldn’t bring himself to mention where the gossip came from.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him that the Steele Dossier had been financed by his political opponents?

JAMES COMEY: No. I didn't — I didn't think I used the term "Steele Dossier," I just talked about additional material.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did he — but did he have a right to know that?

JAMES COMEY: That it'd been financed by his political opponents? I don't know the answer to that. I — it wasn't necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information. Again, I was clear on whether it's true or not, it's important that you know, both because of the counterintelligence reason and so you know that this maybe going to hit the media.

Well, well. What shall we make of this? Suppose somebody wants to meet with you and tell you something bad about you. Suppose that person is a cop. Or an employee. Or, as in this case, both. The guy could make a lot of trouble for you, because he’s a collector of secret information. And in this case, he happens to be a person who is trying to keep you from firing him. The information he wants to share with you is this: there is a secret dossier, alleging that you went to a foreign country, which is claimed to be an enemy country, and spent a night having dirty fun with prostitutes. He tells you that, without mentioning that the dossier was sponsored and financed by your political opponents. He just tells you that he has this thing. This secret thing. “I got this information, see, an’ I jus’ wanted youse to know it, see? That I had it, see? Me, I jus’ don’ know what to think of it. But spose it gits out. We don’t want that to happen. Do we . . . boss?” Even if, as the rightwing media theorize, Comey’s goal was to use his chat with Trump as a convoluted means of leaking the dossier, the obvious effect would be to make Trump wonder, “What else does this guy think he has on me?”

But suppose my impression of Comey’s intent is wrong. What type of mind would fail to recognize that it is the impression other minds would form? How stupid do you have to be to think that everybody else is just that stupid?

The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.

This is not the only mess that Comey has gotten himself into while expecting that no one would notice, and perhaps not even noticing himself. Here, have some links. And, as you’ll see, Comey has not acted alone. The nice thing about his present, tremendous mess is that few members of the governing class are emerging from it with their reputations intact. Since those reputations were largely created by a constant merry-go-round of praise from the governing class itself, it’s only fair that they should all get off the ride together.

As a literary critic, I keep wondering how anyone could read or listen to these people without realizing how dumb they are. The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways. Often they were very smart, and needed to be; their class privilege, if any, wasn’t strong enough to keep them going by itself. The contrast with the current political class appears to be lost on even some of its foes. They persist in saying such things as Laura Ingraham said of Comey on April 19: “He’s a very smart guy. University of Chicago Law School. He’s a smart guy.”

Laura, can’t you read anything besides your teleprompter?




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Sic Semper

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The firing of Andrew McCabe, long the number two person at the FBI and during part of 2017 its interim director, rejoiced my heart, which was even more rejoiced by the fact that his firing denies him access to the government pension, said to be worth almost $2 million, that he was on the verge of receiving. Now he can begin to deal with the legal and financial punishments that his organization has long visited upon innocent American citizens.

Of course, this person, fired for his own misdeeds, immediately issued a statement claiming that the event was an attack on “public servants” and “the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally.” I, for one, do not regard the FBI as sacred, or intelligence agents as a priestly class, or “public servants” as more than government employees. And even if they were, I would consider McCabe a very poor candidate to embody their virtues. This is a man whose wife took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a friend of Hillary Clinton to help her run for office on behalf of the party of Hillary Clinton, and still had the effrontery to supervise investigations of Hillary Clinton.

McCabe's firing is big news because we are seeing a tyrant fall.

Yet the fact that McCabe’s firing was big news, the fact that I and millions even notice the fate of Andrew McCabe, is no cause for celebration. “The FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally” are not supposed to be that important. Their professional careers are not supposed to be crucial to our system of government. The firing of one cop, justified or unjustified, should be no more important than the firing of a professor, a nurse, an engineer, or any other normal person.

McCabe’s firing is big news because he had big power; and he had big power, not because he had a big talent, which he didn’t, but because he was a ruler in an organization that investigates, controls, and often persecutes American citizens, while doggedly withholding information about itself. Under the leadership of McCabe and others, it has become a tyrannical organization. His firing is big news because we are seeing a tyrant fall. Let’s now get rid of the laws and attitudes and social customs that permit the tyranny of the Inner State.




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Head of Brass, Feet of Clay

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A friend and I had a debate about Andrew McCabe, the doofus deputy director of the FBI.

As you recall, McCabe was an important figure in last year’s investigations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, despite the fact that his wife had received more than $700,000 from a close friend of Clinton’s to finance her campaign for the Virginia legislature. What McCabe seems to have done or permitted to be done during the investigations is pretty much what you’d expect from someone compromised in that way. I refer to such things as the FBI’s probable use of the absurd dossier on Trump’s visit to Russia as evidence to convince a secret court to allow surveillance of Trump and associates.

Now, if report be true, McCabe’s recent performance before a congressional committee showed that he is both a liar and a fool.

[S]ources said that when asked when he learned that the dossier had been funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, McCabe claimed he could not recall — despite the reported existence of documents with McCabe’s own signature on them establishing his knowledge of the dossier’s financing and provenance.

Is there any possibility that this would not be a ridiculous lie? Is there any possibility that a senior official would go before Congress, knowing that he would be asked precisely that question, and neither remember the answer nor look it up?

I mentioned this to my friend, whose assessment agreed with mine. He observed, however, that the rank-and-file of the FBI is equally disappointed with such behavior. That’s when I made objections.

Is there any possibility that this would not be a ridiculous lie?

For one thing, I’m not disappointed. I never expected anything better from the FBI. If I were going to be disappointed, I would be that way with the many leftists, and the many libertarians, who have spent their lives attacking the FBI, the CIA, and the other 15 or 20 surveillance agencies that the government runs, but who are now aghast that anyone should “take Trump’s side” by criticizing them.

That’s not what my friend was doing. He was merely showing the touching faith in which good Americans are reared, the faith that there is one part of the government that is actually too proud to lie, cheat, and steal. This has always seemed to me extremely unlikely.

I do not think the majority of men and women in the FBI and the Department of Justice are any less honorable than normal people, any more than I think that the majority of people who work for any other government agency are fools and liars and crooks and so forth. But my argument is this: in a normal, uncorrupt organization, the bosses are afraid to do certain things because a significant proportion of the rank and file will report them if they do. In an organization in which people are employed to enforce the law and are bound by oath to uphold the Constitution, we would expect someone — lots of people — to come forward and complain if bad things were being done, if the bosses were abusing their powers of investigation, search, and seizure; if the bosses were writing reports acquitting politicians they liked, months before investigations were complete; if the bosses were giving people immunity from prosecution without expecting any confessions in return; if the bosses were leaking information in order to influence the course of political events, while doing everything they could to hide information from people entitled to receive it.

My friend was merely showing the touching faith in which good Americans are reared, the faith that there is one part of the government that is actually too proud to lie, cheat, and steal.

Such things do not, cannot, happen in a vacuum. Hundreds of people have probably witnessed them taking place. And not one employee of the FBI or the Department of Justice has had the moral responsibility to say, “I was there. I saw it happen. It was wrong.”

The Republicans used to respond to any criticism of federal agents by demanding to know “who you think you are to be criticizing these brave men and women who are risking their lives to protect us.” Now the Democrats are doing it. Yet the brave men and women apparently will not fulfill their duty if it involves even a slight risk that they will not get their next promotion. And if they really are part of the Deep State, as Mr. McCabe manifestly is, they go merrily on their way without any sense of risk, assured that whatever they do, no one will produce the evidence that convicts them.

This has always seemed to me extremely unlikely.

This is not a problem that first arose in 2016. During the past 30 years, how many officials have resigned their posts in the federal government, or risked their posts in the federal government, or risked their promotions in the federal government, because they had seen something illegal or immoral going on, and they wanted to say something about it? The answer is: practically none. I don’t think that anyone will regard this freedom from complaint as a sign of the government’s exemplary moral purity.




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All that Glitters Is Not Green

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Say what you will about urban woes, there is an American City — let’s call it the Emerald City — where everything appears to be swell, all the time. Just think: even among its lowly municipal employees there are 10,600 who make over $100,000 a year. That’s $1.3 billion a year, total.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks. The commissioner must do a good job, because last year she earned a $100,000 bonus, on top of her $300,000 salary.

Emerald City’s Water Management Department employs none but the finest: more than 700 of its people merit and receive over $100,000 a year, each.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks.

To keep the streets all green and shiny, Emerald City pays at least 160 of its Streets and Sanitation employees more than $100,000 a year. And to keep those streets safe, the city fields 5,007 Police Department employees who work so hard, what with overtime and all, that they too make more than $100,000.

Their salaries are especially well merited, considering the extreme and demoralizing difficulty of solving the city’s crimes. In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Only a happy and wealthy populace can afford to employ civil servants at prices like these. The willingness — nay, the eagerness — of Emerald City’s citizens to employ no one but the best is indicated by the fact that during the past five years, the average family’s tax contribution has increased by $1,700. That’s city taxes alone, mind you. But the citizens go farther: as of three years ago, they were willing to go into debt to the tune of $63 billion, an average of $61,000 per household — more than enough to move into a brand-new house almost anywhere on the Yellow Brick Road. And those figures have risen since.

But here’s a curious thing. The median household income of the United States is something like $56,000, but in only 16 of Emerald City’s 50 most populous statistical neighborhoods is the median household income $56,000 or greater. The bottom 16 neighborhoods have incomes of less than $37,000. Isn’t that interesting?

In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Another interesting statistic: In 2016, there were 762 homicides in Emerald City, a number that a police spokesman called “unacceptable.” Yet by mid-August of this year, the figure for 2017 already stood at 463.

And if report be true, Emerald City is not the spotless land of delight that Dorothy Gale reported visiting. Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Yet, according to statistics, not many of the very rich actually live in Emerald City. None of the city’s 50 neighborhoods has a median household income of $100,000. In the wealthiest one, median incomes are in the low 90s, less than the incomes just cited for the 10,600 civil servants. And since the median income of the entire city is only $47,000, it seems likely that a sociologist would analyze the situation as one in which a comparatively small number of city employees ruthlessly exploit the great majority of their employers, giving them practically nothing in return.

The sociologist might then turn to the political scientist and ask, “How long can this go on?” The political scientist might answer, “Who knows? Somehow, the voters of Emerald City have empowered the same political party, the same political customs, the same political regime, for more than three generations, no matter what happened as a result. This looks like a job for a psychologist.”

Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Thus consulted, the psychologist would probably say, “The citizens of Emerald City are like almost everyone else in the United States. They all do things like this. Who am I to judge? Statistically, people in Emerald City are sane and normal.”

I think there’s a chapter in one of the Oz books where this problem comes up. Having discovered what is actually going on in the Emerald City, a crowd rushes to the palace, shouting, “To the Wizard! To the Wizard! The Wizard will explain it!” Sure enough, the door of the palace opens, and out comes the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He’s carrying a book, and he says, “Back where I come from, we have people who are called theo . . . theologo . . . theologians! They spend all day thinking about the human soul. And they have nothing more to say about it than they can find in this old book.”

The Wizard opens it and reads:

A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?

“So,” said the Wizard, “you can all go home. Get out of here now — go on! Go on home.”




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Innocents at Home

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Here’s an ad that runs on the radio. A child’s voice says:

Hey there, we need to talk. We have more food than we know what to do with in this country, but there are 17 million kids who are struggling with hunger.

The idea is that the audience should give money to an organization that will deal with those kids.

This ad has been running for quite a while on Rush Limbaugh’s show, which is a very expensive ad venue. If it can drag money out of the cobwebbed wallets of Rush’s audience, it must work — a disturbing thought for people who want to believe in the good judgment of the American people.

It’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages.

Who is a “kid”? Suppose we go all out and define “kid” as anybody under 18. That means there are something like 70 million “kids” in this country. The ad asserts that one out of four of these kids is struggling with hunger. If this is so, we might expect to find some evidence in our daily life. We might expect to hear that two or three kids on our block don’t get enough to eat. But we don’t.

We can’t all live in Beverly Hills; but even if we did, while driving through a poorer neighborhood in some adjacent city we might expect to see a lot of kids just sitting idly by, too weak to play. Walking along a city street, we might expect to encounter many young people who were thin and wasted, struggling with hunger. I’ll speak for myself: when I walk down the street, there’s barely enough room on the sidewalk; the space is filled by enormous fat people, many of them enormous fat kids. At the 7-11, the club for poor people in my neighborhood, it’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages. And I think you know what it’s like to shop at Walmart. I’m pretty sure that Chelsea Clinton never does that, but on June 20 she tweeted, “Our globe has an obesity crisis.” Being Chelsea Clinton, she must be right.

About 46 million people get food stamps from the government — about the same number as those considered to be “beneath the poverty line” — and $70 billion are spent on food stamps, enough to give $4,000 a year to every kid allegedly struggling with hunger, or $1,000 a year to every kid, period.

 Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Clearly, obviously, patently, transparently, there is something wiggly about that ad. Somebody is defining the operative terms in a way that does not appear to be the product of childlike innocence.

But consider the ad’s first sentence. It’s an authentic reproduction of the way in which some children talk, the way in which some children are brought up to talk. It’s the voice of a cute little smart-alecky kid who’s repeating Joan Rivers’ old routine (“Can we talk?”), without knowing who Joan Rivers was or even what a routine may be, but ready and willing, nonetheless, to tell the grownups a thing or two. It’s the kind of voice that’s supposed to put us to shame with its innocent candor, while impressing us with its tuned-in sophistication. Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Maybe not. In real life, that kind of voice makes you want to take a swat at the parents, and at every sentimentalist who regards children as oracles and “it’s for the children” as a conclusive argument. Oscar Wilde was right in thinking that “the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. . . . A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without having to pay for it” (De Profundis). The first payment that the sentimentalist refuses is the effort required for a moment’s thought.

Anyone can do the math on these for the children campaigns. Anyone who’s tempted to vote more money for education can easily go online and find out how much more money has been given to public education every year and how small the results have been. Similarly, anyone can investigate why UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got? One would think that people who cared about the cause would invest a little of their time in seeing whether their funds will be spent productively or counterproductively. But of course they don’t. They just cynically write a check. They care a little bit about money, much more about restoring their sense of innocence, and nothing in particular about the children.

Last month’s Word Watch considered the childlike (or childish) innocence (or guile) of such entities as James Comey, Donald Trump, and the New York Times. But that column was premature. New evidence of sentimental “innocence” keeps rolling in.

UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got?

A good little child may say, “I’ll bet my granddad is a thousand years old,” or “My bike can go faster’n an airplane,” or “My teacher’s the best teacher in school. She’s the best in town. She’s the best in the whole world.” A significantly older, but not necessarily more adult President Trump habitually practices the same rhetoric. Here he is, giving appropriate, then sort of appropriate, then ridiculously inappropriate sympathy to Congressman Steve Scalise, the hospitalized victim of an attempted assassination:

Steve, I want you to know, you have the prayers not only of the entire city but of an entire nation and, frankly, the entire world.

Frankly, the entire world.

Trump is ordinarily characterized as a tough talking man of action, a swamp drainer, or (by other accounts) gutter dweller. He is no such thing. While enemies denounce him as a traitor, demand his impeachment, and enact his prospective murder, Trump kisses babies, communes with wunnerful, wunnerful fokes, walks on the sunny side, brightens the corner where he is. He fears no evil, even from such a transparent enemy (not to mention hypocrite, Pharisee, and double dealer) as former FBI Director Comey. No normal adult would invite a person like Comey into his office for a little private chat, just the two of them. If a normal adult wanted to ask Comey the obvious question, “Since you’ve already told me I’m not under investigation, why don’t you go ahead and say that in public?”, he would call in lots of other people and ask the question in front of them, thus embarrassing his foe into telling the truth. Whether or not Trump said what Comey claims he did in their private conversation, only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

As for Comey himself, here is an FBI director who uses “Lordy!” as his edgiest oath and who in his recent appearance before Senate investigators amazed the nation by depicting himself as a Babe in Toyland confronting the evil Mr. Barnaby. His testimony might be approved reading for any kindergarten, so loaded is it with moral conflicts that Anyone Can Understand. On one side, there’s the wicked monarch, enticing the boy-hero into his magic oval office, there to be killed and eaten if he fails to solve the tyrant’s riddles; on the other side, there’s the hero himself, little Jim Comey, all frail and scared and sick at his tummy (“queasy” is the word he likes), just as he was when that mean ol’ witch, Loretta Lynch, tried to make him do somethin’ wrong. (Which, by the way, he proceeded to do.) Of his discussion with Trump, Comey said, “Maybe if I were stronger. . . . I was so stunned by the conversation. . . . Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.” Well! Jimmy sure learnt somethin’ that day, didunt he?

Only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

After escaping, somehow, from what might have been a fatal interview, the solitary, haunted child waked in the middle of the night to ask himself, “What more can I do for the cause of truth, justice, and the American way?” The answer came, quick as lightning: “I’ll take one of those memos I wrote to myself in case I wanted to tattle to somebody, and I’ll pass it along to the newspapers,through the able hands of my trusty friend, a noble professor of law. I’ll be just like the Little Dutch Boy, except that I’ll take my finger out of the dike!”

Comey’s own description of the episode is still more innocent:

It — to me, its major impact was — as I said, occurred to me in the middle of the night — holy cow, there might be tapes. And if there tapes, it’s not just my word against his on — on the direction to get rid of the Flynn investigation. . . .

I asked — the president tweeted on Friday, after I got fired, that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape.

And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square. And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.

Holy cow! How childish would Comey have to be, to think that made sense, or to think that other people would think it made sense? If there were tapes, he wouldn’t have to worry about corroboration of what he said; whatever he said could be checked. But kids do the darnedest things. Comey took the possibility of tapes as a signal to provide his own kind of corroboration, the kind that was secret and anonymous, so the evidence could not be checked. Only the undeveloped logic of a child could come up with that. I reject the possibility that Comey was clever enough to think he could get a fallacious narrative on record and then be able to claim that any taped evidence must have been doctored after the fact. No one who actually thinks by means of such expressions as the public square is bright enough to concoct such a scheme.

But it occurs to me that what we’re considering may be more than a children’s story. It may be something even more naïve. It may be the type of story you expect a modern existentialist to write, a story in which the protagonist (dare I say the hero?) transcends the socially imposed solipsism of writing merely to himself and for himself, and breaks free, makes contact, finds a wider world — the world of newspapers and congressional testimony. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, in a childishly vengeful novel. “There might be a tape,” said James Comey, in a childishly vengeful testimony. Both became heroes of themselves, and of a childish New York Times.

The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

Childish? How can something so old and gray be childish? Well, it can be. The Times is a venue that lectures its readers continually about the dangers of an armed society, while sponsoring a production of Julius Caesar in which the president is stabbed to death. Even Bank of America withdrew its sponsorship, but the Times sees no evil — in the assassins, at any rate. After all, these guys are using knives, not guns. Children often make such meaningless distinctions. And perhaps that helps to explain the Times’ reaction to Salman Abedi, the Muslim fanatic who killed 22 people in Manchester, England, by using a bomb. For as long as possible (according to a quotation provided by a faithful reader in Northern California), the paper insisted that “no one yet knows what motivated him to commit such a horrific deed.” Do newspapers, as well as people, experience a deaf, blind, cranky, crazy second childhood?

I was not surprised when the Times announced, on May 31, that it was reducing its editorial staff, including “Public Editor” Liz Spayd, whose position was reduced to nothing. Spayd is best known for reprimanding the paper about its hubristic ignorance of Americans who live more than 50 miles from an ocean (and of many Americans who don’t). The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

That won’t make much difference; the Times has never looked as if anybody was exercising those functions. But one thing is alarming about the Times’ new policy: the paper is allegedly going to use the money it saves by firing editors to hire more reporters — or as management put it, “more on-the-ground journalists developing original work.” Strange . . . I thought the Times’ reporting was already original enough.




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Cashless and Thoughtless

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There has been a lot of push from international organizations to make poor societies around the world copy Western institutions, and recently to go cashless. Blind to differences in cultures, these international organizations have hugely over-estimated the organizational capabilities of people in the emerging markets — in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Anyone who has spent a sensible amount of time in emerging markets — not in five-star settings but as a normal person — knows that in these countries, an organization of two people often has one person too many. It is also evident that the two tends to expand into dozens, hundreds, and thousands, either because of the local desire to subsidize more people or because of the need to instigate a Western-style bureaucracy to control the whole thing.

Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

In these culturally very different markets, companies and institutions — Western concepts, which do not transplant well without the underlying European culture and values — can never stay nimble. To maintain control, internal bureaucracies must grow to provide checks and balances, because workers fail in independent thinking, work ethics, honesty, and cooperation. Creativity stays conspicuous by its absence.

Despite seemingly low labor costs — as low as a couple of dollars a day in wages — the costs of keeping such organizations together grows exponentially with size. Growing bureaucracies require additional checks and balances. Without the cleaning mechanism of European values and the control systems they provide, these organizations invariably accumulate dead mass, which keeps growing cancerously until they crumble under their own weight. Organizations that do not have constant blood transfusions and external subsidies tend to disintegrate rather rapidly. The price of keeping them together is extremely high.

In a climate already characterized by political correctness, a certain wisdom that Europeans had accumulated about the colonized world had evaporated by the time the USSR era ended in the late 1980s. Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

German companies moved their factories to Eastern Europe, a region of relative cultural closeness to Germany. But many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite. All kinds of configurations of Western corporate investment in emerging markets were tried, with similar results.

The problem is that these emerging markets’ societies are tribal. In such cultures you need the glue of violence, subsidies, and massive bureaucracies to keep organizations in place. The experiments of the past 500 years with colonization and Western education show that it is not easy — when it is even possible — to wean societies away from tribalism. Bigger and bigger organizations were put in place in emerging markets, but they tended to remain poor and in strife. The intervention of Western economic methods created an unnatural gap between the poor and an entrenched elite, rendered more entrenched by the possession of whatever new wealth was produced.

Many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite.

There is only one solution: keep organizations in these emerging markets as small as possible, remembering that tribal instincts ironically propel them to make their organizations big. Never subsidize big organizations, for if you do, besides providing services that add value you create operations that are a massive drag on the economy, full of endeavors that consume wealth instead of producing it.

This brings us to the current drive to go cashless.

India has recently attempted to reduce the use of cash, ostensibly to reduce corruption but actually to further centralize the economy by creating a medium of exchange that the government can constantly monitor. Naturally, it is also creating a national ID card system. Both of these are in direct conflict with what India should do as a tribal, medieval society.

Let’s consider the sequence of steps required to operate an online bank account in India.

Start with slow internet connections and frequent interruptions in electricity. Add extremely unwieldy websites, websites that do not open properly. My browser often gets hung up on these sites. My password has a limited validity and must be renewed regularly by using the old password and a one-time password sent to my mobile phone; and a lot goes wrong during this “simple” process. Once inside the account, however, I may need another one-time password and an additional transaction password to complete my business.

Most people actually walk down to their bank branch to do the so-called online transaction — a clear instance of the fact that trying to modernize any system beyond its natural capacity in a tribal society increases the costs and makes it more difficult. This is the persistent irony of modernization.

My Indian banks charge me fees and commissions I never agreed on. They then top it up with taxes on “services” provided. Bank statements are ridden with so many charges that only the rare person has time or patience to sort them out, particularly when the banks are crowded, and getting someone to talk to you on the phone is extremely difficult. When you get through to an agent, he usually knows nothing.

The frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, the reduction of cash has added significantly to the burden.

It gets worse, especially if you are the so-called common man. I know my way around pretty well, but I frequently get stuck. And here is a country where 25% of the population is officially illiterate and where engineers and doctors choose to apply for jobs as janitors, mostly because their degrees are no more than paper. It is a country where a large proportion of those who claim to be literate struggle to sign their own names, let alone show themselves capable of reading a sentence. Imagine how they would deal with forced digitalization of the currency system. This will end in disaster.

Even now, in the last six months that India has been trying to reduce the usage of cash, the frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, it has added significantly to the burden.

Notably, however, none of this means that people have gone against the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. He is winning election after election, and most people simply love him. When not facing banking problems in real time, they are actively in support of Modi’s attempt to go cashless. One must remind himself that this is a tribal, irrational society. People often cannot connect simple dots that are right in front of them; not even the so-called educated ones can do that. They tend to do exactly more of what created the original problem, which in this case is irrational authority.

Any tribal society contains the impetus to make bigger, and more complex systems of authority. Tribal people want nannies. They feel secure in big structures, despite the fact that such structures actually make them less safe. Tribal people demand free stuff, without any feeling of gratitude to any real source of wealth. Governments meet that emotional need, while doing little else for their subjects.

Any rational leader would make an aggressive attempt to counter a tribal society’s willingness to increase the sizes of its institutions. But tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

The IMF and the World Bank think that these emerging markets need better institutions. They think these countries need to reduce corruption, which is one of the reasons for the push towards going cashless. Locals in these countries agree. The irony is that these locals haven’t a clue about what corruption means — their tribal worldview means that they do not see corruption from a moral perspective. They merely look at the need to end corruption as a tool of expediency to improve their personal lives. They may think that everyone should stop asking for bribes, but they do not include themselves individually in that equation. Any sane, non-tribal person can see that this does not add up.

Tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

Contrary to the view of many libertarians, even when privatization does happen, there can only be limited improvements. Indian companies — for they have tribal people as ingredients — are instinctively dishonest. They lack a work ethic and, unconstrained by morals, they rampantly abuse their clients. For example, I used an online Indian travel agency to buy an international ticket. After tens of attempts the money left my bank account — but I never got my ticket. The company said I never paid. No one knows whether it was the bank or the agent that was at fault. Eventually the agent refunded my money to the bank, but then the bank blocked that money. I had to run around the bank, which could not trace that blocked money. I shouted, screamed, and threatened, but in this entangled mess, I don’t really know who was the culprit. I do know that big organizations and forced-from-the-top digital money simply do not work.

Given the low-trust culture, Indians prefer immediate exchange of goods for money and vice versa. If you pay for a later delivery, you undertake huge risks that your goods might never arrive, and if they do arrive it is not unlikely that you might receive substandard goods. If you sell goods for payment at a later date, your money might never come. No wonder 95% of Indian consumer transactions happen in cash, with goods exchanging hands exactly at the same time that cash is paid.

India’s attempts to go cashless will end in a disaster. This will become obvious in a few months, not years. But India is merely an example. The situation with most of the emerging markets is exactly the same (with China, perhaps, as the only exception).

The lesson is that poor countries are poor for a reason, despite all kinds of tools of technology — particularly the internet — that are available to make their economies rapidly converge with that of the West. Western institutions worked in the ex-colonies as long as Europeans ran their institutions. With Europeans long gone and European values no longer underpinning them, the institutions have increasingly become hollow structures — what one sees everywhere in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, with the exception of a few small countries. An attempt to go cashless is a tribal attempt to centralize, exactly when their institutions, including the institution of the nation-state, another European import, are imploding.




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Corruption Revisited

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I was born in India, and not long ago I returned for an extended visit — which occasioned many thoughts that might be used in answer to the question that people frequently ask me: “Has India changed?” By this people usually mean, Is India on its way to “development”? Here is an attempt to answer.

What is the free market?

Ask middle-class Indians what they mean by the “free market.” They will often define it as a system in which corporations are given free rein to expropriate properties of rural people so they can build modern factories. They believe that the government should be allowed to pay a fraction of the market price to acquire farmers’ land to build infrastructure. They think that India would not grow if corporations and government were not subsidized by the rural segment of society. For them, the “free market” is a system in which individual forces are pooled for the greater good of India.

In India, an overt caste system has continued to disappear, particularly in urban areas — but scratch the surface and you find that it is deeply entrenched. When reminded of wretchedness and poverty, the well-off middle class likes to counter with talk about a high standard of living. In a country where more than 50% of the people have no toilets, and similar numbers have no electricity, water supply, or access to primary healthcare, one has to ask what is meant by that high standard.

Middle-class Indians think that India would not grow if corporations and government were not subsidized by the rural segment of society.

In fact, the Indian middle class is devoid of empathy for poorer brethren. Its members often fail to count their chauffeurs, maids, guards, and servants as human beings. These poor people are lucky if they get $100 per month for 12 or more hours of work a day, with no days off or vacations. The situation gets much worse outside the urban areas.

In India one must pay a bribe for everything one gets, and paying a bribe is usually not enough; one must grovel at the feet of those in power. Any sane person who wants to survive must stay politically well-connected, learning to exchange favors in an entangled mess. One can understand why Indians who must live in India may need to tone down their opposition either to the backwardness of society or to the tyrants that backwardness creates.

Most of the media is indirectly controlled by the government, for without government advertisement revenue it is hard to survive. Meanwhile, India consistently ranks among the most dangerous places for journalists. Freedom of speech in India is a myth, and even the richest and most powerful live in chronic anxiety.

Speaking of riches — the Indian GDP is $1,718 per capita. The average Indian is economically poorer than the average African. It is understandable why Indians try to emigrate. Given a chance, most would. Those who fail prefer to sing to the glory of mother India — and those who emigrate, alas, end up doing the same thing.

There is only one way to make sense of all this: by understanding the underpinning cultural forces.

India is a pre-rational society. It is deeply tribal and superstitious, allowing little space for forward planning or long-term thinking. In such a society, people are driven by a compulsive need for material gains but not by compassion, fairness, or goodwill for others. An irrational society has by definition no moral instincts; life is lived not by values but by expediency.

One must pay a bribe for everything one gets, and paying a bribe is usually not enough; one must grovel at the feet of those in power.

India has imported the easy, entertainment aspects of Western society, but it has forgotten to import — actually completely failed to see — the way of reason, of continuity between cause and effect. The Indian diaspora sings to the greatness of India, not because it believes in it — for if it did, it would return to India — but because to the tribal mindset a glorified India gives increased self-confidence. If lobbying for India in the West adversely affects the poor, downtrodden people who live in India, this is of no significance to the voluntary exiles.

Deep culture is entrenched and resistant to change, even after people — including very well educated people — have moved to a new society. It may not change for generations, if it changes at all.

Why international organizations fail

Financial corruption is only the tip of the cultural iceberg.

Economists and international organizations long to help India set up big factories and enter the modern world. Yet despite flashy isolated data, during the 70 years of so-called post-independence, modernization has impoverished the country. The problem is that much of it proceeds by force.

Indian corporations are extremely dependent on government support: direct subsidies, regulatory favors, and overt transfer of wealth from poor people. One might call it legal plunder or corruption.

In India’s tribal society, in which any organization of two people has one person too many, real growth comes from the informal sector. The formal economy is often the pest, but money lent to the informal sectors earns as much as 36% a year — while the same money lent to the formal sector earns a negative real-interest rate. Of course, the informal sector contributes little to taxes.

International organizations should be, but are not, encouraging growth in the informal sector. These organizations operate with a very shallow definition of corruption. For them, tax avoidance, bribery and the exchange of favors are the only corrupt practices. They endeavor to fine-tune institutions in emerging markets so as to remove corruption in public institutions, unconcerned that these institutions might be incompatible with growth.

They also want to educate voters. They want to enforce the separation of judicial, executive, and political functions, and they invariably fail. They fail to understand that to a pre-rational culture, separation of the three arms of the government is unimaginable.

Despite flashy isolated data, during the 70 years of so-called post-independence, modernization has impoverished the country.

Indian institutions have continued to degenerate since the British left. What exists today is merely the facade of what the British abandoned 70 years back. Western institutions did work in India as long as the British ran them, but those days are over. Once destruction of those institutions has been completed — and they are now in an advanced stage of decay — they can never be rebuilt. India will then be on course to becoming a recognized banana republic.

International organizations fail because they don’t think that culture matters. They think that people are blank slates. They think that locals always strive for the “right” institutions. To them, local history, religion, habits, and values have no significance. They believe that all people care about is economic growth and as long as the “right” institutions can demonstrate better growth, locals will offer their support.

But corruption in India exists because of the underlying corruption in the culture. Given the circularity of the statement, “corruption” is perhaps the wrong word. “Irrationality” is a better replacement.

Managed disintegration

With the best efforts, changing a culture is a long affair. It is entirely possible that cultures never fundamentally change. They cannot be changed unless the institutions that might reform them are compatible with them. Without compatible institutions, evolution of culture cannot happen — a society with incompatible institutions is confused and fails to see causality. The more irrational a culture, the more decentralized its institutions must be; but ironically, the tribalism of such societies creates the poison of totalitarianism from the bottom up. An enlightened ruler — one who cannot come into existence through democratic means — would allow such a society to disintegrate politically, for he would know that eventually nature would lead it to that future. Decentralization and the managed disintegration of India is what international institutions should be striving for.

Corruption in India, in the rest of South Asia, and in the Middle East, Africa, and South America is a product of irrational cultures, worsened by incompatible institutions. International organizations might do a patch-up job, but they will eventually fail and will make the situation worse if they focus on financial corruption, which is only a distressing symptom.




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The Case for Hillary Clinton

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It’s a Liberty tradition: before a presidential election we invite our authors to make the best case they can for the Democratic candidate, the Libertarian candidate, the Republican candidate, and no candidate at all. In some instances, the best case isn’t one that the authors themselves find the most convincing. C’est la guerre.

* * *

I’m taking one for the team. Somebody has to do this on behalf of Liberty, and I’m the person who has drawn the short straw. I have to make an argument for voting Democrat in 2016.

Yet this is not an impossible argument to make. The reasons may not be compelling (you decide), but they’re not difficult to find. They come in two “baskets,” as Hillary Clinton would say. First, the basket of Trump’s deficiencies; second, the basket of Clinton’s own deficiencies.

“What?” you say.

Just hold on.

The deficiencies of Donald Trump

Trump is a demagogue, on the grand scale. Like most demagogues, he sometimes blusters into the truth about particular issues. But when you look at the scale of his blustering, you see the problem. He is running on a promise to use presidential power to fix everything in America that needs to be fixed. Never mind whether it actually does. I happen to think that most of the problems he has identified are real and serious. But do you want to give anyone, especially a popular leader, the power to cure everything that ails you? Never mind whether his plans would succeed. Lyndon Johnson did not succeed in winning his War on Poverty. Nobody has, and nobody could. But look at the wreckage he left behind him.

So much for Trump. Now for:

The deficiencies of Hillary Clinton

The argument here is that Clinton’s private vices can be regarded as public virtues. After a lifetime of dishonest struggle to make herself attractive to the American people, she has succeeded in making herself loathed by most and disliked by almost all. This is a public benefit. It has taught millions of people to distrust even first ladies.

Trump is running on a promise to use presidential power to fix everything in America that needs to be fixed. Never mind whether it actually does.

Hillary and her husband discovered a way to make tons of money on intended bribes from crony capitalists and obnoxious foreign governments, but it doesn’t appear that they actually accomplished much for their would-be clients. Perhaps the Clintons simply meant to stiff their friends; more likely, they weren’t competent enough to perform any real criminality, at least on a scale that would make it necessary for James Comey to prosecute. (Admittedly, Comey is an idiot in a thousand-dollar suit, a reductio ad absurdum of the Establishment’s claims to righteousness. But this is another good thing about Hillary — the exposure of people like that.) The buffoonery of Mrs. Clinton’s attempted coverups (“Wipe? You mean with a cloth?”) has put the lie to any notion that a Sauron-like intelligence is lurking in Chappaqua, NY — and to the idea that activist politicians at least mean well for the people. They don’t, and the Clintons have contributed very materially toward dispelling that dangerous illusion.

The life of Hillary Clinton has been little more than a series of absurd scandals, punctuated by absurd attempts to do some mighty deed. Take her version of national healthcare (take it, please!). During her husband’s first administration, she proceeded in the most ridiculously complicated manner this side of Rube Goldberg to get the medical industry into her hands and “reform” it. The result was a crushing defeat for her husband in the next congressional election: another public benefit.

There is virtually no prospect of a third Clinton administration being any more successful than the first two in accomplishing the Clintons’ ostensibly progressive ends.

Mrs. Clinton’s current policy proposals would undoubtedly be scary if anybody could make sense of them. That’s what the Sanders people meant when they said she doesn’t “stand for anything.” They were right. Even when she seems to, the evidence of her private communications plainly demonstrates that she doesn’t, or that she stands for the opposite of her announced positions.

There is virtually no prospect of a third Clinton administration being any more successful than the first two in accomplishing the Clintons’ ostensibly progressive ends, and many indications that the actions of the Clinton Operation will be disastrous to itself. This is the normal fate of fanatically self-serving people, and for this we can be grateful to the divine law of retribution.

Looking into my crystal ball — which, as everyone knows, is a flawless oracle — I see Hillary Clinton crippled from the start by recurring scandals, by the well-earned distrust of her confederates, and, above all, by the distrust and disgust of the nation as a whole. If you can’t get a president who believes in liberty, at least you can get a president who is a feckless, bumbling, self-defeating statist. Can you deny that this is Hillary Clinton?




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Extremely Careless

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When you’re hired for your job, your employer tells you that under no circumstances are you to reveal the company’s secret information, or even handle it in such a way as to allow it, possibly, to leak out. If you do so, you will be liable to prosecution.

During the course of your employment, you take secret documents home and share them with whomever you want to share them with. You do this with hundreds of secret documents. As a result, it is very likely that competitors get a good inside look at the company’s affairs.

When rumors surface that this is what you’ve been doing, you repeatedly lie about it. You destroy as many of your own files as you can. You even claim that there wasn’t any secret information in the documents you were handling.

So outrageous does this seem that your company’s customers demand an investigation. A long investigation is conducted. And the result is:

“Although we did not find clear evidence that you intended to violate rules governing the handling of secret information, there is evidence that you were extremely careless in your handling of very sensitive, highly secret information.” No action will be taken.

In the real world, how likely does this seem?




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Drugs Are the Least of the Problem

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The word “sicario” means “hit man” in Spanish, or more literally “dagger man.” Its use dates back to the Jewish Zealots who carried small daggers in their cloaks and assassinated Roman guards in the streets. A note at the beginning of the film Sicario informs us that these Zealots were “killers of those who invaded their homeland.” That would make them heroes with blood on their hands. The film presents two homelands, the United States and Mexico, that are invaded in different ways, and two sets of sicarios caught up in defending two ways of life that have been forever changed by the drug trade.

Drugs are the least of the problem in this film, which focuses instead on the collateral damage of the drug war. As the film opens, an FBI SWAT team led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invading a home in Chandler, Arizona, a quiet middle-class suburb of Phoenix 200 miles north of the border with Mexico. I have friends who live comfortably there. Kate’s mission is not a drug bust but a hostage rescue, and her team drives straight through the wall of the house with their Humvee in their surprise attack. They are too late for anything but cleanup duty, however, and the grisly scene they find causes many of them to vomit. This is the next step in the drug war — not just the physical effects of drug addiction, or the big-money corruption that goes with the lucrative trade, but the personal terror, torture, and murder that are used to maintain strict control. And it’s coming to middle America, the movie warns.

Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored.

“Pretty soon all of your crime scenes will be booby-trapped with explosives, and then how will you protect your team?” Kate’s superior (Victor Garber) warns her as he tries to recruit her for a riskier mission that involves tracing the violence to its source, a kingpin named Fausto (Julio Cedillo), by interrogating a lower-level henchman, Guilllermo (Edgar Arreola), in custody in Juarez, Mexico. Kate agrees to join the mission to extricate Guillermo from Juarez, although she doesn’t understand her role in the plot (and frankly, neither do we).

As the scene changes to Juarez, we see the ravages of the drug war in full force. Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored by occupants in the surrounding cars. A father eats breakfast with his son and then goes off to his job as a policeman and drug mule. This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters to shop for cactus lace and sombreros. And I hope it is not a precursor of the Chandler my friends may soon know if the war on drugs continues its relentless invasion.

Leading the hunt for Fausto is a mysterious Colombian named Alejandro (Benecio del Toro). Kate eyes him warily while they travel to Juarez and then to Nogales, and tension builds in the silence. Then, as they enter Juarez, the music begins — a downward chromatic slide in a minor key that starts softly and builds to a pulsing, crashing arpeggio of despair as they race through the city, jolting full throttle over speed bumps, surrounded by armed escorts with machine guns at the ready. The tension ebbs and flows throughout the rest of the film, accompanied by the riveting soundtrack, but it never disappears.

This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters.

This is not the kind of film you watch for entertainment value. It is appalling in its matter-of-fact portrayal of brutality. But it is an important story, led by the tour de force acting skills of Del Toro and Blunt. We’ve come to expect Del Toro’s steely-eyed reserve, his undertone of ruthlessness, and his skill at conveying character without saying a word. Blunt usually portrays her characters with kickass strength, even when they aren’t actually kicking ass. One would expect an FBI agent who has advanced to the role of team leader would have that same steely-eyed strength. But Blunt plays this character with an unexpected vulnerability and wariness. Her waif-thin slenderness contributes to the fragility of her character’s emotional state. She is a virtually powerless sicario, trying to protect her homeland from the invaders.


Editor's Note: Review of "Sicario," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Lionsgate, 2015, 121 minutes.



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