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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India: Great Expectations

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In 1991, under pressure from the IMF, India opened some industrial sectors to private companies and removed several licensing requirements. Private cellphone operators, banks, and airline companies started to appear. Soon, private banks were so customer-friendly that they would send someone to your home to help open an account. If you wanted more than $400 in cash, they delivered it free of cost. If you had a complaint, an employee would come to meet you in person within hours — wearing a tie, even in sweltering heat. Mobile phone companies provided outstanding service and, within years, at an enviable price. They delivered my SIM card to my home. If you wanted a new car, you did not have to worry about going to their showrooms. They came to you. Local airlines served great food and drinks, and were manned by bubbling youths full of passion for success. Foreign companies looking for competitive, English-speaking young people set up their operations in India.

Today, much of this lies in ruins. You have to keep chasing these private banks. Their websites are unfriendly, and they deduct money from your account without first informing you what they are about. An account holder stays away from credit cards, unless he really needs them or must show off; yet he still gets credit cards sent to him with yearly fees charged to his bank account, all without his approval.

The Indian government is a vicious, insensitive, passionless, totally corrupt, utterly stupid, and spineless organization, made up partly of psychopaths and partly of crooks, from top to bottom.

Airlines are marginally fine — with sulky services — as long as your baggage doesn’t go missing or a delay doesn’t make you miss your connecting flight. When my baggage went missing, so did the sleek-looking customer agents, for no one wanted to take responsibility. I recently discovered that the biggest mobile company now has no customer service number where you can talk to a live person. You must visit their office. If you deposit cash after your SIM was slated for disconnection (which of course you would not have been informed about), it will have disappeared into a black hole, from which a refund is virtually impossible unless you waste a horrendous amount of time. If the front-line agent has some figment of humanity (which is quite a rarity), he will tell you not to try getting your money back, for he might see the pain you would suffer trying.

Meanwhile, foreign companies started to realize that the costs of doing business were much higher than they had anticipated. They found that looks were deceptive. The English-speaking employees lacked skills, productivity, work ethic, and curiosity. Call-centers started to move to the Philippines. India stayed at best a back-office hub.

On earlier occasions, when I faced problems with Indian companies, I would report them to consumer forums, or write in to the complaint sections of the media. But I soon realized that despite any compensation I received, I spent so much time fighting the insensitive ears of these private companies that the project was cost-prohibitive. These days, if the money involved isn’t much, I forgive and forget, a sign of greying hair and loss of idealism. If what is involved is substantial, instead of fighting in consumer courts, I look for the most efficient strategy. If the Indian company is a subsidiary of a foreign company, I start by calling their CEO's office. When the Indian arm of a Korean refrigerator company refused to do anything about a problem, by calling their Korean office I got a new refrigerator. When a subsidiary of an American company gave me a faulty air conditioner and did nothing about it, I called their CEO in the US. I told his secretary that I would call twice a day to ensure that I got to speak with the CEO. Then their Indian arm worked so well that even the best anywhere in the world would have been impressed. But I have digressed.

In a mere few years, private companies became more like state-owned companies. In some cases one prefers state-owned companies, where at least a bribe does the job. Why?

In general, the "profitability" of Indian companies, particularly the big ones, is a reflection not so much of wealth-creation but of political backing, of their ability to find loopholes in regulations, and of outright theft, often from the poor section of society.

How things go wrong

The Indian government is a vicious, insensitive, passionless, totally corrupt, utterly stupid, and spineless organization, made up partly of psychopaths and partly of crooks, from top to bottom. Most have very numb or dead brains. They exist in dirty, unhygienic, and terrible environmental conditions, for it is they who do the cleaning. I can recall very few encounters with bureaucrats or politicians in which a bribe was not demanded. Moreover, you must grovel and beg in front of these (figuratively and literally) diseased people. Even then there is no guarantee that they will do the job.

I remember that on many occasions the bribes were not about approving something, but just to release my files so that I could take them myself to the next diseased creature. Only a citizen whose mind has not been destroyed and numbed would not feel humiliated by what he goes through at government offices. Not only is the bureaucrat after money, but he relishes the act of demeaning citizens, in a corrupt attempt to make up for his deep-rooted inferiority complex and self-hatred.

Demeaning others leaves the Indian bureaucrat feeling good about himself, at least for the moment. The irony is that all this makes him seriously sick, physically, mentally, and spiritually. His children go astray and he never understands why. As you discover reading The Lord of the Rings, in a tyranny, there is no single tyrant. Everyone is tyrannized by everyone else; everyone's spirit is subdued by everyone else’s. A bureaucrat must sit with people of his kind, who scheme against one another, forever wallowing in the rotting sewage of envy, hatred, and a strange kind of showmanship. In reality, however, they have nothing to show but impotence, for they never create anything useful or productive. They, their wives and kids, and even name-dropping relatives, show off their status in an exaggerated way, through noise, heavy-handedness, armed goons in costumes, and big cars with sirens.

Not only is the bureaucrat after money, but he relishes the act of demeaning citizens, in a corrupt attempt to make up for his deep-rooted inferiority complex and self-hatred.

A casual observer might believe that all you have to do is get rid of such bureaucrats. All you have to do is to change the party in power and streamline regulations and remove corruption through an empowered constitutional authority that politicians cannot touch.

Why then why did private companies fail to sustain their proper character?

The problem is much deeper than an observer might imagine. It is a problem that cannot be reached by the typical libertarian prescription of reducing the size or composition of government. When the prescription is applied, things don’t not turn out much better; and the improvement certainly does not last.

What most people fail to understand is that the state is little more than the sum total of the collective mind.

In India, even a perfectly created product has a very short half-life. My new gym has grown old within months. The dust piles up; the equipment rusts, rather rapidly. My new car earned a big dent, the day I bought it. Every vehicle gets smeared with dents. I don't know anyone who hasn't had several injuries and close calls with death. Day-to-life faults happen with amazing regularity, a frequency that could never have been imagined or statistically expected. The most resilient equipment burns away if you do not think of using a surge protector, for the electricity company will increase the voltage by misconnecting the wires at the main poles. Normal cars need to be redesigned to ensure that they work because, for example, there is almost universal adulteration of petrol. Refrigerators that are designed to keep working as long as they are plugged in stop cooling when water condenses and freezes in their air-pipes as a result of frequent electricity cuts.

Every time you take anything for repair, even a minor one, you get a patch-up job. You are looked upon with amusement if you ask for a good, clean job. No self-respecting workman would want to have anything to do with you, irrespective of the money you offer. Expediency is the mantra. If ever there is a serious repairman, he needs immense cognition to isolate the problem. The others patch whatever they can get away with patching. When you tinker with a system or an individual piece of equipment, trying to correct the problem, you often create more problems, for your tinkering — however innocent it may be — undoes the other patches. This situation exists not just with equipment but with absolutely everything in life. Most Indians waste a very large part of their day putting out existential fires. My five hours of no electricity today, in what is among the best neighborhoods and those most catered to, are one of my smaller worries, for at least I know what the problem is.

So what is the deeper problem?

Unfortunately, but predictably, the bureaucrat described above is merely a reflection of the larger society. He is the tip of the iceberg. This is always the case, but what most people fail to understand is that the state is little more than the sum total of the collective mind. The visible state — the government — and its tyranny is a symptom of the underlying problem: a society that breeds and sustains the statist poison. Individual Indians will decry corruption, but virtually everyone will pay a bribe to gain an unfair advantage over others or take bribes by rationalizing it away. Even written contracts have no value. It is considered fair game if someone steals your money and gets away with it. Most people will not rent their property, for they fear it will not be returned. Most people, even the guy on the street, have a perfect prescription for how I should live my life and will offer it to me unabashedly. Respect for others as individuals and their properties is a completely alien concept. This, combined with fatalism (a product of a superstitious mind that is immune to the concept of causality), is the reason behind the chaos on the roads and every other area of life. I contend that the Indian road is a visual representation of how the Indian mind works.

You cannot have a small government in a society in which everyone wants to control everyone else's life, where no one can be trusted to do a job properly, where the concept of how to make money is not wealth-creation but manipulation and theft. You cannot avoid building a large and corrupt police force in a society where the individual cannot be trusted. You cannot stop a complicated structure of regulations and government in a society in which individuals cannot think straight, clearly, or rationally.

If someone wants a real, sustainable change he should work in the arena of critical thinking and individualism, not on imposing superficial Western ways.

A tyrannical government is a product of a tyrannical, corrupt, and statist society. Even before the society changes, it is the individual who must change. A free society is unsustainable without free-minded individuals. Those who want real change must work on the root: the individual.

The general totalitarianism, indolence, dishonesty, lack of work ethic, confused thinking, irrationality, superstition, and lack of respect for other people have too much momentum on their side to let private companies stay good. The initial euphoria, mostly of a drunken kind, a catharsis, lasted for no more than a few years. What you culturally see in India is not different from what the West was like perhaps 500 years back. India's problems cannot be dealt with unless the society has gone through the reformation, enlightenment, and scientific revolution that happened in the West.

What differentiates the West from "the Rest"

For vices to be replaced by virtues — the way in which a rational individual perceives them — the concept of reason must take precedence. For those who do not think by means of reason, for those whose culture is not based on it, the vantage point from which vice and virtue are considered is very different. For such people, touching a low-caste person to help him might be a sin, and forcefully occupying the property of a poor person to build a temple might be a virtue.

Lacking appreciation of all this, the US government — assuming it was well-intentioned — spent many years lavishing its resources in attempts to bring democracy, the rule of law, etc., to societies where such constructs have mutated back to what they originally were. Those truly interested in bringing a change must understand that outside the West, the mainstream's way of thinking and conceptualizing the world, its way of imagining and perceiving the world, and its resultant aspirations and motivations are driven by undercurrents that are essentially pre-rational. It is the undercurrents that must be changed. They must, indeed, be replaced by reason and individualism.

The problems of India are extreme, but they aren’t just India's problems.

In my travels around the world, I am reminded of this again and again: there is the Western civilization, which values the individual and the concept of reason; and there is the rest, the area of the world in which most people haven't a clue about what individualism means or, if they have a clue, abhor it, even after hundreds of years of interactions with the West and even after the advent of the internet, easy information, and cheap traveling.

Reason and individualism are a rare fruit, a very expensive one. Without it, democracy, the rule of law, and regulations against excessive state power have limited and mostly unfavorable effects. That is the problem of India today.

And not just India. Most places outside the West are in a mess, living a contradiction, having some material development but lacking the necessary basis in reason and individualism, and hence of ethics. Even the West has increasingly lost these concepts. This might be making the world an extremely unstable place. But, again, I digress.

If someone wants a real, sustainable change he should work in the arena of critical thinking and individualism, not on imposing superficial Western ways, trying merely to reduce regulations or reduce the size of the public sector.

The future of India

With China slowing down, Russia failing to impress, Brazil in stalemate, and the economies of the West in stagnation or decline, the focus of those looking for economic growth has moved to India.

Despite producing some of the largest numbers of so-called scientists, engineers, and so forth in the world, India is an extremely wretched country. Relatively speaking, a huge amount of economic growth has taken place since 1991, when it is believed that India started to open up — from GDP per capita of a few hundred dollars then to $1,625 today. In my view, the date when India started to change economically was a decade earlier. India had started opening telecommunications to impress visitors during the hosting of the Asian Games in 1982. This in turn opened channels for an easy import of information and technology through the telecommunications cable. Things developed from there. But now that the low-hanging fruits of imported technology have been extracted from the tree, India is stagnating again.

The mainstream media disagree, strongly. During the past year, the euphoria of the old days has returned to India. The stock market has recently been the highest ever. Foreign institutional investors are flocking again. They see India as the next China, ignoring the fact that India is one of the rare countries that hasn't had an event to shake off entrenched interests, social habits, and patterns of thinking during the past many centuries.

How Modi can change a country of 1.25 billion is something that no one really wants to think about, for these are times of euphoria.

Deaths of hundreds of thousands every year in avoidable calamities of course haven't triggered any shakeup, and hence cannot be called revolutionary. Also, it pays to remind ourselves that the so-called independence movement in India was a political event. As a rule of thumb, a political event is an active avoidance of introspection. India's certainly wasn't a cultural movement or even a shakeup. In a way, it was the antithesis of a shake up. Before that, entrenched interests had participated in the revolt against what came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance, which the English supported. Democracy allowed the basest of elements to rise to the top, making entrenchment worse and a possibility of a shake up more remote and entangled.

India's newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, is behind today's grand hopes. Everyone is looking at him. Alas, Indians are so badly trained (and unable to think straight and clearly from the perspective of reason) that supervising a mere few of them often feels impossible. How Modi can change a country of 1.25 billion is something that no one really wants to think about, for these are times of euphoria. Hence, the cycle starts again.

There are far too many hopes about this deity. Modi's deification is perhaps the most visual symptom of India's problems: the society looking up to someone or something external to bring salvation. Today's youth have far too many material expectations, taught them by the TV, but not enough productivity. This might be a very dangerous cocktail in the making. Even if it isn’t, I see no way for India to experience meaningful change unless it gives up its irrationality and superstition. I see nothing on the horizon that is capable of teaching critical thinking to the youth.

For those who care to imagine, India may be, culturally and intellectually, where China and Russia were in the late 19th century. Then, India was indeed going through its own renaissance — the Bengal Renaissance — until it was nipped in the bud by half-baked, uneducable people (Gandhi, Nehru, etc.) who went to study in England and learned nothing more than what their irrational minds could accept: intellectual rationalizations for socialism. They neither got nor were capable of getting even get an inkling that what had made England great was reason and individualism. A bottom-up renaissance was corrupted into a top-down design to change India, the so-called independence movement.

At some point, India has to pick up the threads where it left them, with the premature end of its renaissance. Would that require it to suffer what China and Russia suffered in the early 20th century? It shouldn't, and I would hate to see that happening, but is there any other possibility that human history shows?




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The Ron Paul Un-Revolution

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A mere ten years back, if I told Americans and Canadians that I held libertarian views, many responded — recognizing that I was not a native English speaker — that “libertarian” was not a word. They thought I wanted to say “liberal.”

Today, “Don’t tread on me” flags, Ron Paul posters, and other advertisements for libertarian ideas grace houses and yards, even in remote places of the USA. Libertarianism is no longer an obscure concept. And a huge credit for making libertarianism mainstream goes to Ron Paul.

I am a big fan of Ron. He is, in my view, one of the finest human beings alive, despite the fact that I could never understand how, as a congressman, he could interact on a daily basis with sociopathic politicians and their sepoys. How could he not feel repulsion and frustration, operating in such an environment?

Politics by its very nature establishes a mindset of expediency and political activism, which are always in direct conflict with deeper understanding of principles.

Ron fought for a paradigm shift in the way the US government works. He voted against new laws. He wanted the US military for defense only, wanted removal of American forces from hundreds of bases around the world, and saw no reason why the US should be involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. Quite rightly he saw no reason for the US to be still in Japan, Korea, and Europe, even if the bases there were maintained by invitation. He asked why the US should be supporting the dictatorial regime in Saudi Arabia. He wanted a significant reduction in welfare payments. He wanted to audit and end the Federal Reserve. He wanted an end to the War on Drugs. He wanted the US to be out of the UN and NATO. He fought vehemently against NSA surveillance, and for the right to bear arms. He wanted government to be out of the medical business.

In short, he wanted the government to govern — to provide law and order, and defense — and to get out of virtually everything else. He wanted the US to follow its Constitution.

What Ron said was well-reasoned and extremely well-conveyed in his speeches, with passion and a breath of fresh air for those who had grown tired of the political process. Most libertarian organizations promoted him, and Ron got a massive reception at many university campuses around the US. He set records of sorts for money raised in his canvassing for the US Presidential elections of 2012. Earlier seen, by some, as convocations of old white men, libertarian meetings started getting more people of other races, more young people, and an increased number of women. I cannot remember how many times I have been told by people that they saw the reason and value of liberty after listening to Ron.

Many libertarians saw this as the start of a snowballing of the libertarian movement. After a few beers, the dreamy ones, those with a passion for spreading their message, could imagine an exponential increase in libertarian views. In their opinion, it was only a matter of time before the whole world would accept liberty. “Truth and reason win in the end,” they would say.

Alas, this was not the sign that the movement was gaining speed, but a sign of its sickness. Ron, having chosen a wrong means to spread his message — politics — had implanted a virus among his audience. Ron’s charisma glorified the political process. Unfortunately, politics by its very nature establishes a mindset of expediency and political activism, which are always in direct conflict with deeper understanding of principles.

The golden ring of politics corrupts everyone, slowly and subtly, without their recognizing it, corrupting their souls, ossifying their principles into facades that fall apart at the slightest pressure.

The virus of politicized libertarianism eventually mutated. In libertarian circles, it became very important to increase the number of one’s adherents. Many libertarian organizations got very well-funded. Students were flying around the world, attending conferences, one after another. Free-market organizations were being set up everywhere, all well-financed.

Many of the politicized libertarians ran to the lap of the government, determined to join the fight against the real or imagined enemy. In one strike they had forgotten that war is the health of the state.

Given the financial encouragement, all sorts of people, even if they were not principally libertarian, joined. My guess is that some who in the course of time would have become principled libertarians accepted and repeated libertarian mantras, as beliefs taken on faith, without fully understanding the reasoning behind them. This had to lead to ossification of the mental process.

There was an emphasis on getting more women into the movement. Some, who were market savvy, realized that it was going to be far easier to get attention in a women-deficit environment. It was ignored that the sexual objectification of women was demeaning to them and a huge step back for the libertarian philosophy. There was also an emphasis on ideological inclusiveness. Boundaries should be made a bit fuzzy, to allow a bit of compromise, to make libertarianism more inviting, less radical. One well-known anarchist, in an attempt to be inclusive, started calling the core values of libertarianism “brutalism.” Soon there were left-libertarians, thick-libertarians, thin-libertarians, bleeding-heart-libertarians, etc.

Last year, I went to a speech by a bleeding-heart-libertarian in Delhi and could not hold myself back from asking in what way the things he advocated were any different from radical socialism.

When two small terrorist incidents happened in Ottawa, many of the politicized libertarians ran to the lap of the government, determined to join the fight against the real or imagined enemy. In one strike they had forgotten that war is the health of the state. They suddenly had no problem imposing restrictions on certain people who lived and dressed differently. Uninterested in collateral damage, they had no problems blowing the Middle East out of existence. They had forgotten that the state is a much worse enemy. Islam and all its flaws would have been better controlled in a stateless environment. They lost their sense of balance — better the enemy they knew than the one they didn’t — for they were not moored in principles.

Libertarians of East European heritage — unconsciously driven by indoctrinated hatred for Russia, not by philosophy — wanted the US to embargo Russia. Coming full circle, this mutant movement even opposed Ron Paul, for he opposes US involvement in foreign lands. Meanwhile, drug-peddlers and prostitutes were seen as embodying libertarianism. Many young people were encouraged to look for issues with the police. Going over the speed limit, driving under influence, or jumping red lights were not only condoned but seen as expressions of liberty.

Libertarianism does not try to prevent people from selling their bodies or consuming drugs, but it is a logical fallacy to assume that this means that libertarianism encourages these activities. Even in an anarchist world, to stay civilized, there would still be rules against driving under the influence or jumping red lights.

Politics is a virus that implants in the brain the top-down approach to social change. A real change can only happen from the bottom up.

The meaning of libertarianism was being removed from its principles. Once you lose your moorings, you lose direction. It is an error to think that libertarianism means no rules or system, something that a superficial understanding of the philosophy might make one think.

Politics is a virus that implants in the brain the top-down approach to social change. A real change can only happen from the bottom up. The thinking of the politically minded is not based on principles but on political organization. It is doomed to fail. Did Ron not see this?

Principles are principles and hence unchangeable. Any philosophy must be radically based on principles, if it is not to lose its moorings. Do I foresee a world where there will be no dishonesty or violence? No. But that does not mean I should become more inclusive, to bring in more people by starting to practise partial honesty or partial violence. Just because the state might never cease to exist does not mean that I accept its legitimacy to make my values more inclusive.

Radicalism gives meaning and passion to carry on when the seas are frothy and uncertain. There is something, indeed a lot, behind the Christian concept of the remnant. The remnant stay on their course even in a turbulent world.

Without radicalism, without a solid grasp of principles, the superstructure has nothing to hold itself in place and must fall apart eventually.

But hasn’t the libertarian movement grown by leaps and bounds? Alas, this is a myth of those who hold irrational, romantic opinions, living secluded lives among others with similar ideas. In reality it is statism that is in the ascendant, not only in the West but even more in the non-Western countries.

Despite the fact that Ron made a huge contribution in making “libertarianism” known to the mainstream, by being in politics — which might at surface look like a small issue — he made a major compromise with his principles. He politicized libertarianism. This seemingly simple compromise will end as his legacy and possibly as a permanent confusion of the concept of libertarianism, not unlike the way in which the meaning of “liberal” mutated in North America.

You cannot make someone a libertarian. It cannot be a result of groupthink or politics. The change can only happen through self-reflection, meditation, contemplation, reason, and a passion for the truth. A libertarian society can emerge only as the end result of character-building, mostly through working on the self, from the bottom up.




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You Can’t Judge a Film by Its Title

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You might expect a film about organized crime and bearing the title A Most Violent Year to be filled with bloody, sadistic mayhem, à la Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. You would be wrong, however, as I was. Yes, there is violence in this story about a heating oil supplier who wants to run his business without paying for protection, without acknowledging mob-determined territorial monopolies, and without engaging in corruption. But it’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

The film takes its title from the fact that it’s set in New York in 1981, statistically one of the most crime-ridden years in the city’s history. Against this background Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is about to complete the biggest deal of his life, purchasing a large oil terminal that will allow him to double or even triple his business. He has already put down a million dollars — in cash — and now has 30 days in which to pay off the remainder, or he will lose his entire deposit. (This isn’t your typical real estate deal brokered by Century 21.) His banker has agreed to lend him the additional million and a half. Abel couldn’t be happier as he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) move into their brand new mansion, coincidentally closing that same day.

It’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

Well, maybe he could be just a little happier. Complicating the consummation of this deal for the oil terminal are two other deals: the Feds are suddenly investigating him for evidence of tax fraud or other crimes, and someone — he doesn’t know who — is threatening his employees by dragging drivers from his delivery trucks and roughing up his sales staff as they meet with potential clients. One of the things I like about this movie is that the employees aren’t the gangland thugs typical of this genre, and they aren’t shooting up everyone in sight. In fact, they aren’t shooting anyone if they can help it. They are ordinary young men and women — mostly white, mostly nervous — who are just trying to make a living at a relatively unskilled job, selling something as mundane as home heating fuel.

Surprisingly, that makes the film more suspenseful, not less. I actually began worrying about the men who deliver heating oil to my home in New York. Might they be involved in territorial warfare? Might they bring this violence into my backyard? The story is true in a way that is rare for Hollywood. They never use the word “Mafia,” and Abel’s name is Morales, not Morelli. The name suggests that he is able to run a business with morality and integrity, even in a city that is crumbling in moral decay.

This is the kind of film that suffers at the box office from not delivering what it seems to promise. Audiences who are drawn to thoughtful, character-driven, metaphorically rich films are likely to avoid it because of its title, while those who expect to see a typically violent and graphic gangster flick will complain that it was too bland and slow (as did many of the viewers in the theater where I saw it). And that’s a shame, because a film like this one, about an honest businessman trying to remain clean in a dirty industry, deserves a larger audience.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Most Violent Year," directed by J. C. Chardor. A24 (a production company that tops the funding list of over two dozen independent production and distribution companies), 2014, 125 minutes.



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Lessening the Language

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A friend of this column, Carl Isackson, has a beautiful dog named Lassen. But, to paraphrase the old rock ‘n’ roll song, Carl is bothered by “just one thing”: “Why can’t anybody get the name of my dog right?”

Carl, who lives in northern California, points out that his dog has the same name as a great natural monument of northern California, Lassen Peak. And the name is spelled phonetically. It’s one of the easiest names in the world. So why, when Carl takes Lassen to the vet or a hound-dog Hilton or some other place where his name needs to be registered, can’t people get it right?

“Oh, what a pretty dog!” they say. “What’s her name?”

“His name is Lassen,” Carl replies.

“What’s that again?”

“Lassen. Like the mountain.”

“Oh, Laysen. What an original name.”

(Growl.) “No, it’s Lassen L-A-S-S-E-N.”

“Right. Laysen.”

(Carl looks at the registration form. It says “Laysen.”)

“It’s LASSen. Like LASSie.”

“Huh?”

These attempts at instruction have never gone well. But then, the other day, Lassen checked into a pet hotel, and when he came out, the name on his Pawgress Report Card was “Lessen.”

Lessen.

From Lassen Peak to, just, uh, y’know, Lessen — that’s the progress of our language.

I assume that the people who think “Lassen” is a strange new name would react with outrage if they heard that Lassen Peak was being devastated by development. But they wouldn’t know what it was, or where, or be able to pronounce it if they saw it in writing, any more than those millions who went crazy about Bush’s scheme to drill oil in Alaska could pronounce or locate the minute part of the frozen north where Bush wanted to allow environmental devastation.

Picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and “squash” an indictment.

That was false consciousness, similar to the false consciousness of people who oppose the Keystone Pipeline on the ground that it would have some mystical effect on “the environment” — what effect, they don’t know.

But I want to discuss something more basic.

In my neighborhood there is, or was, a classy, early 20th-century stretch of boulevard that for the past nine months the city has maintained as a ruin. City workers blocked off two of the four lanes, tore up the median strip, dug a hole in what used to be pavement, and are now, very slowly, pouring concrete for what looks like an anti-tank emplacement. This, we are told, is supposed to become a “high-speed bus corridor.” How it will work, I don’t know; but it’s obvious that whatever speed a bus will be able to work up in those few blocks (two, to be exact) will never compensate for the time and gasoline that drivers are spending and will have to spend on the delays inevitably produced by eliminating two lanes of traffic. This, as I say, is obvious; but although everyone in the neighborhood complains about the city’s atrocious conduct, virtually no one comments on the fact that the whole giant waste of energy is motivated by an attempt to save energy. No one recognizes this irony, just as no one recognizes the fact that a dog named Lassen is named after, and spelled after, a mountain peak, not a word for diminishing returns.

Another instance! Consider the word quash. When is the last time you heard it? Yet it’s a standard term, one that until recently was used whenever people wanted to talk about the repression or suppression of something. Judges quashed indictments. Congressional committees quashed proposed legislation. Tyrants quashed rebellions. To use the word quash, you didn’t need to know all its uses. You just needed to know that there was such a word, and it might fit what you wanted to say.

But sometime during the past 20 years, people stopped recognizing the existence of quash. They stopped being able to hear or read it. When they encountered it, they saw and heard something more familiar, less daunting to their ignorance. They heard the word squash. And, like the goofy dog handlers, they didn’t care to puzzle (i.e., spell) out a less familiar word or to test the applicability of the easier word they wanted to substitute. Lassen became Lessen, and quash became squash.

Now proposals are squashed, rebellions are squashed, student protests are squashed, and even, God have mercy, wars and diseases are squashed. Conservatives don’t recognize the difference, any more than liberals. Poor Andrew C. McCarthy — he had to see his article about militant Islamics come out on National Review Online under the headline “DOJ Source: Obama Political Appointees Squashed Indictment of CAIR Leader and Other Islamist Groups” (April 14). And the British are as bad as we are. Here’s the author himself, someone named Con Coughlin, who is defence editor of the Telegraph, reporting on one of those convoluted British political things: “Mr Hammond no doubt believes these arguments are merely a political game and that, with a general election and the chance of further promotion in prospect, all he needs to do is squash criticism from the military by dismissing their claims as nonsense” (March 31).

Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and “impact” is the club of choice.

Whole lotta squashin’ goin’ on. You can picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and squash an indictment. Now let’s see you take that indictment to court! Or something named Philip Hammond (British writers no longer consider it their job to identify anyone, so why should I?) seizing a fat lump of criticism and squashing it into irrelevance.

These picturesque effects are not, of course, intended. They are the products of a lack of intention, and a lack of attention, too. They happen when words lose their history, their integrity, and their appropriate imagery and become mere flyover territory, uninteresting in detail — a landscape you just have to cross, preferably while sleeping, on your way to the big payoff — your meaning. Except that your meaning can only be expressed in words.

This is how people who want to say that someone is uninterested in his job assert that “he’s definitely disinterested,” not realizing that they’re paying the guy a compliment. This is how people who want to emphasize someone’s fame say that he’s “infamous.” They’ve heard the words uninterested and disinterested, and they’ve heard the words famous and infamous, but they never recognized a distinction. Everything just passed in a blur.

Sometimes the result is comic; more often it too is only a blur, a graying of meanings in a shadow world where nothing distinct, or distinctive, ever emerges. Well, it’s easier that way. That’s why impact is currently such a hit (pun intended) with everyone who wants to say something without going to the trouble of saying anything. What would a political speech be without impact? Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and impact is the club of choice. Context never matters. Here’s a tweet sent out by the White House, as part of President Obama’s attempt to end poverty by raising the minimum wage: “If we #RaiseTheWage here's how many workers would be impacted in your state . . .” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/live, April 19).The real, though unintended, message is: “For God’s sake, don’t raise the minimum wage! Don’t clobber those low-paid workers!” Because impact suggests a blow being struck, a planet hurtling into another planet, a car smashing into an orphanage . . . anything except the beneficial influence, assistance, or help that the tweeter had in mind.

I don’t know whether this is the chicken or the egg, but I do know that our daily speech is greatly impacted by the words used on talk shows; and here’s a sample of what you’ll find in the page of online news summary that professional talkers scan before they start their programs: “President Obama met with six faith leaders Tuesday to discuss immigration. The leaders told the president stories about how immigration policies had impacted members of their congregations” (Talk Radio News Service, April 16). “Faith leaders” are of course religious leaders, but let’s keep religion out of politics, shall we? Apparently these spokesmen for faith-in-politics spend their time picking through the debris left by their congregants’ (sorry, constituents’) collisions with immigration policies, searching for stories about how the poor folk have been impacted. This time, at least, I’m sure that the meaning is negative, but maybe the same people can come back tomorrow and tell the president stories about how their constituents were positively impacted by Obamacare.

Speaking of impacts, wouldn’t you be positively impacted if somebody used a word that could be distinguished from just any other word? I mean, think of all the synonyms for positive, as in positive impact: favorable, beautiful, helpful, wonderful, splendid, slightly encouraging . . . . And the synonyms for negative are much more fun. Why lessen the impact of what you want to say by using the most nondescript term available? Maybe because you’re lazy?

But it’s not just impact that’s at stake; it’s also knowledge. You might like to know precisely what kind of impact those policies had. Or, to use another example (I have plenty), if you’re concerned, as maybe you ought to be, with the chronic mystery of how many of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors were communist agents, intentional or unintentional, and you happen to look up the name of his intimate friend Harry Hopkins, this is what you’ll find in a defensive but fairly well informed Wikipedia article:

Hopkins was the top American official charged with dealing with Soviet officials during World War II. He interfaced with many Soviets, from middle ranks to the very highest — apart from Marshal Stalin, most notably Anastas Mikoyan, Hopkins's counterpart with responsibility for Lend-Lease. He often explained Roosevelt's plans to Stalin and other top Soviets in order to enlist Soviet support for American objectives, and in turn explained Stalin's goals and needs to Roosevelt.

Sounds pretty suspicious to me. And it all turns on that word “interfaced.” The word originates, not in the Roosevelt White House (which was much more literate than the White House of today) but in the kingdom of the computer. Its tendency, if you take it seriously, is to deny human agency. You don’t blame one computer for interfacing with another. But what went on? Did Hopkins just download his memory and upload his hosts’, or did he talk, negotiate, party, parry, gossip, conspire, or idly chat with the Soviets? Our author saith not. Then why is he writing? Surely not to give us knowledge. Maybe it’s just his way of interfacing with the ethereal blur.

It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year.

I’m not asking for more words. I’m not arguing that more is always more. Oh no. I think that President Obama has communicated all the knowledge he has in about the first 30 seconds of a speech, the part in which he thanks his introducers. He knows enough for that. If, as the Book of Common Prayer would have it, you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the rest of what he says, you’ll end up knowing a lot less than you knew when he was thanking Senator Foghorn.

But now we have the peculiar, yet somehow representative, case of José Fernandez, superintendent of the Centinela Valley Union High School District in Southern California. It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year. No, it was more; it’s just been discovered that the board also gave him two life insurance policies that he can cash in at any time, and their annual payments on these policies bring the total to around $750,000 a year. All this for someone who went bankrupt twice in his life and, according to a recent report, had been fired from his job as assistant superintendent.

The explanation, as alleged by Fernandez’ foes, is that a large construction company financed a school board election, and the resultant school board hired Fernandez, and Fernandez pushed through some large construction programs. This accusation may be relevant to the approach Fernandez adopted when his takings became public knowledge and angry constituents showed up at a school board meeting (February 25):

Fernandez declined to address any of the complaints about his compensation package, choosing instead to express his appreciation to the board for its support and touting his accomplishments.

“I want to thank the board for their support,” he said, over catcalls coming from a few members of the audience. “I want to thank residents in the area who voted for the bonds that funded new buildings, new science labs.

“I do hear you. I’ve listened very carefully and I will sit and work with the board on your concerns. I want to thank you all for coming here and expressing your concerns. I want to thank you all again. Good evening.”

The public wanted more, and got some of it: on April 9, Fernandez was placed on “administrative leave” (you guessed it — a paid leave). The surprising thing is this: Fernandez didn’t get away with his lessened approach to public controversy. How many politicians — and political CEOs, and other figures of supposed authority — have you heard mouthing syllables like “I hear you”; “I’ve listened very carefully”; “I will work on your concerns”; “thank you for expressing your concerns”; “thank you again”; “good evening,” and then shutting up, hoping that if nothing is uttered except a handful of subcommunicative syllables, nobody will recognize the difference between that and real public discourse?

The answer is, almost all of them — and almost all of them are getting away with it, despite Pawgress Reports that correctly name them Lessen.




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Election in India, World’s Biggest Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Indians conceptualize what corruption really means?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Mr. Yee’s Profession

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The day after Leland Yee was arrested, I was listening to a fill-in anchor on my favorite Southern California talk show. She started discussing the arrest, and I was shocked to hear her say that she had, until that moment, never known of Leland Yee. How, I wondered, could anyone not know this man, and despise him?

California State Senator Leland Yee is a man who crusaded against the Second Amendment with a host of bills designed to make owning a gun as pleasant for a law-abiding citizen as falling into the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Leland Yee is a man who tried to ban “violent” video games, and who, in response to objections, said, “Gamers have got to just quiet down. Gamers have no credibility in this argument. This is all about their lust for violence and the industry’s lust for money. This is a billion-dollar industry. This is about their self-interest.”

Occasionally someone wonders whether politicians mean what they say. This time it was the FBI.

Leland Yee is the sole Democratic senator who voted against the very, very liberal, Democrat-written state budget, because it didn’t spend enough. Leland Yee is the man who for many years persecuted the University of California, a constitutionally independent entity, attempting to subject it to governance by the legislature. (I freely concede that on this issue I may be biased; I am employed by the University of California. I seek to lessen my appearance of guilt by observing that the state’s contribution to the University’s income is less than 10%, and falling; as the percentage falls, politicians like Yee try even harder to subject the institution to themselves.) As reliably reported, seven of the top eight contributors to Yee are labor unions.

Yee got awards from journalists’ associations for his crusade on behalf of government “transparency” and “open records.” What interested these journalists was the fact that Yee got upset when one of the state colleges paid $75,000 to a certain politician to come and deliver a speech, and the college gave him a hard time when he wanted to find out about it. I don’t think any politician should be paid anything to give a speech to anyone, much less to the hapless denizens of a college, but Yee didn’t object to that sort of thing when members of his own party received honoraria. He got upset when it was Sarah Palin. So he demanded documents and documents and documents from the college, which successfully resisted. It’s at that point that he became an addict of transparency.

The episode that really tickles me, however, was, or started out to be, purely horticultural. Environmental fanatics attempted to remove “exotic” and “intrusive” plants from Golden Gate Park, demanding that the area be restored to its original condition (which was, by the way, mainly a bunch of sand dunes). Yee objected — but you probably won’t guess what his objection was. He didn’t say that cypress trees are pretty, and the climate is exactly right for them, and people like to see them, so why take them out? Oh no. He took the whole thing as an attack on Chinese Americans, who, he said, are regarded by some people as “exotic” and “intrusive.”

If somebody wanted to erect a monument to intrusive self-righteousness, Leland Yee could pose for the statue.

Given this history, I was not unhappy when, on March 26, Leland Yee was arrested — for, among other things, conspiring to traffic firearms illegally.

Take a moment to savor that. Yee was one of the nation’s leading opponents of people’s right to keep and bear arms. He claimed that guns made him want to cry, thinking of his children and other children, and how children are so often victims of gun violence.

But there’s this about transparency: occasionally someone takes it seriously. Occasionally someone wonders whether politicians mean what they say. This time it was the FBI, which infiltrated the social circle of a leading San Francisco gangster, looking for dirt on him, and also on Yee. The investigation may have started because, some years before, Yee had spontaneously decided to visit John Law to dish the dirt on one of his former political disciples, a San Francisco supervisor named Ed Jew . People think that was because Yee didn’t want any political competition. Anyway, Jew got sent to federal prison, and Yee ended up looking funkier than he had ever looked before. He’d had a few scrapes with the law, but nothing had happened to him, what with his being the last advocate of morality and transparency and diversity and the Children and all of that.

Nobody seemed to wonder how Yee could have so many possessions, despite having done nothing but hold “public service” jobs the past 26 years.

Now, however, Yee was being seriously investigated. According to the US Attorney’s affidavit, he and his friends liked to talk with gangsters, and they sounded a lot like gangsters themselves. One of the friends was Keith Jackson, who has now been charged with participating in a murder for hire plot. Jackson is a former president of the San Francisco Board of Education. His story is amusing. Then there was Marlon Sullivan, a sports agent and “consultant” who has advised big-time basketball players. Sullivan said he didn’t need to commit crimes; he just enjoyed doing it. He called it a “power and challenge thing” and said “it was fun” (affidavit, p. 88).About murder for hire, he said, “It’s easy work. . . . I will put eyes on the guy and have my boy knock him down” (88).

As for Yee, he is alleged to have said a lot of fun things. From the affidavit:

  • Yee on his role in supplying illegal arms: "People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don't care. People need certain things” (94).
  • Yee on opportunities to practice crime: "There's tremendous opportunity in local levels . . . because whoever's gonna be the mayor controls everything.” Yee was running for mayor of San Francisco. Should he become mayor, he said, “We control 6.8 billion man, shit" (106, 107).
  • Yee on evading political contributions laws: "As long as you cover your tracks . . . you're fine." Asked how someone could make large donations to him without getting caught, Yee suggested giving to the campaign, supported by (guess who?) Leland Yee, on behalf of a ballot measure to raise money for schools (106, 107).
  • Yee on contributions from gangsters: "By helping me get elected means, I'm gonna take actions on your behalf." "Just give me the goddamned money man, shit. . . You should just tell them, write some fucking checks, man" (127).
  • Yee on political virtue: "Senator Yee attributed his long career in public office to being careful and cautious" (95).
  • Yee on his beloved children: “Yee told [a secret agent] he would take the cash [for illegal activities] and have one of his children write out a check” (102).

It never ends. For starters, see some othertip-of-the-iceberg reports on Yee.

Well, Yee was hauled into court in shackles. Along with 20-plus other defendants, he pleaded not guilty. Unlike the rest of them, however, he was released on a $500,000 unsecured bond. Didn’t have to pay a dime. I guess that’s because he’s such a distinguished citizen.

That very afternoon, the Democratic leaders of the state Senate, suddenly sensitized to public opinion by the fact that during the past couple of months two other Democratic members of the Senate had been hit with criminal charges (and had been allowed to take “leaves of absence”), held a press conference in which they demanded that Yee leave the Senate, now. Never mind about that “innocent until proven guilty” stuff; they needed to protect “the institution.” When, oddly, he didn’t leave, they “suspended” him (and finally, the other two also). The Democratic mayor of San Francisco lamented the damage done to Yee’s many years of “public service.”

Yee on his role in supplying illegal arms: "People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don't care. People need certain things.”

To me, the most interesting remark was made by one Jackie Speier, a Democratic state representative from a wealthy Northern California district. (Did I mention that wealth is liberal? Did I mention that Yee represented western San Francisco and an even wealthier part of San Mateo County? Did I mention that nobody seemed to wonder how he could have so many possessions, despite having done nothing but hold “public service” jobs the past 26 years?) Ms. Speier, who like a lot of people claims never really to have known Mr. Yee — "I don't think anyone knew him," she said — was full of sympathy for politicians in general: "It's always sad for all of us in the profession, to see individuals who lose sight of what the public trust is all about."

The profession. For these people, their life (not that of the guy who fixes roofs or the gal who runs a restaurant) is a public service; their jobs are institutions, like the art museum, the church, and the medical school; and their cheap, stupid, boring existence — cadging money, sitting on committees, giving awards to one another, spreading “outrage” in exchange for votes — is a profession.

As my grandmother used to say, that takes the cake. But what I’d still like to know is this: How could Leland Yee have disgraced thatprofession?




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Bhopal, 1984

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The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world. It was caused by the accidental release of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant located in the city of Bhopal, capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. UCIL was a joint venture between Union Carbide USA and a public-private consortium of Indian investors.

When the gas leaked, all safety devices — water spray, scrubber, and alarms — failed to function. None of the employees of UCIL were affected, but there was no evacuation plan or mechanism to alert the citizens of Bhopal; and there was no suggested “antidote.” The leak killed thousands outright and injured between 150,000 and 600,000 others, at least 15,000 of whom later died from their injuries. Some sources give much higher numbers of fatalities. Tens of thousands and their next generations continue to suffer.

When constructed, the UCIL factory was in an area exclusively earmarked for industrial development and was a considerable distance away from the populated part of Bhopal. As time went by, slums developed in what had been a “green zone.” A few months before the incident, Arjun Singh, chief minister of the province, had given legal titles to those slums, which were his vote-bank. The slums were small, and were constructed of mud walls and tin roofs. No water or sewage facilities existed. The people who lived in these slums were the most affected by the gas leakage.

Very early in the morning of December 3, 1984, I was awakened by incessant honking and sirens.

As I write this, 29 years after the incident, the factory, now in disrepair, has been under the direct control of the government for over 15 years, but it has yet to be dismantled and cleaned. To research this article, I visited the factory. I entered the premises, with no barriers or security to stop me. Children were playing around. The roofs were falling apart. There were still bags of substances lying there. As one of the documented victims, I even tried to collect the money due to me, just to experience how the system was working. I did that five years ago but procrastinated about finishing my article, for reasons I will explain.

A lot has been written about the conduct of UCIL, but little attention has been paid to the conduct and character of the state and people of Bhopal. It is clear to me that the state washed its hands of all responsibility. So did the people.

A superficial observer might see the tragedy as merely one of the most visible features of a land of catastrophes. Yet its origin was in the human mind and its development depended on the specific defects of a collective worldview.

Dystopian 1984

My parents’ house is only a block away from the highway in suburban Bhopal. Very early in the morning of December 3, 1984, I was awakened by incessant honking and sirens. Noise and lack of personal space are an essential part of life in India. My brain would have flawlessly filtered out the noise and let me sleep, had it not identified an unusual flavor in it.

We had recently been witnessing horrible riots. About a month earlier, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been killed by her Sikh bodyguards. Early in the year, Indira had sent army tanks and commandos into the Sikhs’ most sacred temple, although their mission could have been achieved by simply disconnecting the water supply. Indira had run a brutal and murderous regime in separatist Punjab, a predominantly Sikh state, but she had the "moral" support of most Indians. What followed her murder was a pogrom against Sikhs around the country, organized by the ruling Congress Party. Sikhs were raped and burned alive in Bhopal. Their properties were destroyed. The servile armed forces and police were mostly silent spectators.

My acquaintances affirmed that the Sikhs deserved what they got. When the stories came out that the police had pulled the fingernails out of some people, against whom there was no evidence, most of my acquaintances seemed to have no moral qualms about it.

Asking myself what new was happening on the morning of December 3, I went to the rooftop of my parents' house to check. There were thousands and thousands of people on the highway. Cars jammed the roads. I had never seen so many cars; there weren’t many in the city, and those that existed were mostly owned by the government. Every self-respecting bureaucrat had a siren on his car. The cars were all going in one direction, and with a very strong sense of purpose: out of the city, as fast as they could. This was clearly an exodus. Winter mornings in India are very smoggy, from biomass burning for heating, cooking, and Indian cities’ preferred way of disposing of roadside garbage. What I smelled, however, was not the normal smoke, or the ever-pervading smell of India, which has scores of sources, including the rotting feces of the majority of Indians who still go out in the open.

Only many hours later did All India Radio announce a minor, insignificant gas leakage in Bhopal. By this time, hospitals were overflowing, hundreds had died, and human and animal corpses littered the streets.

A cold sweat broke out on me. My legs felt numb. This too was something we experienced quite regularly in life. Even under normal circumstances, nerves were at the breaking point, particularly the nerves of those who tried to live by reason and evidence and a sense of causality and who did not have the warped instinct of relieving tension by perpetuating it. Each premonition of something bad evoked a blurry sum of earlier, unpleasant memories. Human beings have an amazing capacity to block such memories, but the crux of the incidents still survives in the subconscious, influencing much of our behavior and personalities all our lives.

That cold morning of December, standing alone on the rooftop, I knew something terrible was afoot. Normally, however, such challenges would never lead us to live by the alien concept of a more fulfilling and productive life. The challenge was to preempt personal destruction in a society in which nearly everyone considered it his duty to run other people’s lives, a society in which reason and objectivity had absolutely no place. It was a life of tug-of-war, of wasted energies and unnecessary sufferings. The mode of discussion offered “expediency” as a supreme “moral” value. It was based on rhetoric and soundbites. Anything could be rationalized away, for nothing was held by philosophical anchors. The mindset of the people was rooted in the medieval period and incapable of communicating on the grounds of logic, reason, and evidence.

And now a very major crisis was in progress.

Gas leak!

I woke up my parents and took their radio — an unlicensed, smuggled one — to see if Mark Tully of the BBC, or the Voice of America, or Deutsche Welle had some news. These were our only sources of real news. Alas, Bhopal, a city of a million people, was then relatively unknown, and the international organizations did not have their tentacles there. All India Radio (AIR) was playing the music of state-funded musicians. Only many hours later did AIR announce a minor, insignificant gas leakage in Bhopal. The announcement was lumped together with irrelevant and marginal items. By this time, hospitals were overflowing, hundreds had died, and human and animal corpses littered the streets.

A half-dead family of six, friends of my dad, arrived from their place very close to the Union Carbide factory. They brought in the first news, about a gas leak. In the afternoon, we heard a rumor that the factory had been set on fire by the families of the victims and was leaking a much higher quantity of the gas, and that the fire was spreading to the nearby, massive petrol tanks of the state-owned companies. I thought that something akin to a nuclear bomb was in the making. This rumor made logical sense. The conduct was what one might expect from the people of Bhopal: their first instinct would be to set Union Carbide on fire rather than help their families or remedy the problem. Another exodus began, one far larger than the one that occurred in the night. We had no other choice but to join the herds.

AIR did not have any news in the afternoon, for the “irrelevant” news had already been announced once. By this time, our political leaders were safely in the higher-altitude resort town of Pachmarhi, about 200 km away, where all hotels were owned by the government. Earlier in the night, when I was watching from our rooftop, it was to this town that the cars with sirens and flashing lights were taking our utterly spineless and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats. They had hijacked whatever small emergency services we had. It is important to note that ambulances mostly did not exist, as they don’t even today.

The conduct was what one might expect from the people of Bhopal: their first instinct would be to set Union Carbide on fire rather than help their families or remedy the problem.

Once settled down in Pachmarhi, the official class started issuing self-righteous, brave instructions. They decided that there was no need for the people of Bhopal to evacuate, so they issued orders to petrol stations to close. Our telephones, as usual, were not working. Moreover, all out-of-the city phone calls had to be made manually, using an operator of the state-run telephone company. Even on a normal day, he was difficult to find. That day and for several weeks thereafter, he had gone missing. Tens of thousands of people were now arriving, sitting on the rooftops of trains, hoping to get information about their relatives. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong in that overcentralized system.

For months thereafter, the government was administered from the distant resort town. Even after our rulers returned, their food and water continued to be imported from faraway places. For over a year, the state continued to give us minimal information, if at all. We lived like helpless victims in a war, ever cautious and ever nervous. I am confident that this incident would have stayed out of the news were there no multinational company involved and had the state not realized that there was a opportunity to benefit from it.

For a couple of decades from that day, the sound of sirens would make my heart pound and my palms and armpits sweat. Indeed I am finishing this article after much procrastination, with my psyche revolting against my efforts to relive those days.

The immediate aftermath

For many days after the incident, I worked as a volunteer in government hospitals. There was a serious shortage of doctors, as most had run away. Hospitals were manned by student doctors. Every space was occupied, with several people on the same bed, people on the floors and in the corridors, on the roads leading to the hospitals, and in the parks outside. There was no one to look after them; they were dying miserable deaths.

We were given a bunch of different tablets to distribute to those dying. I asked a doctor on duty how I should decide what to administer. He responded with complete equanimity, “Give whatever.” Later we ran out of them all. Either way, except for a couple of VIP rooms with dedicated resources for the well-connected, these were hospitals in name only. The VIP rooms were empty, because the VIPs had escaped the city unscathed.

The Bhopal incident would have stayed out of the news were there no multinational company involved and had the state not realized that there was a opportunity to benefit from it.

For a few days I worked to collect information about those missing. What struck me most was that so often if someone’s daughter was missing she was not even mentioned. Indians at that time had no concept of getting compensation for a calamity like this. The state-owned insurance companies hardly paid anything, even to victims of road accidents. A few days after the incident, when people got to know that there might be compensation involved, they started mentioning their missing daughters. It took me many years to understand this attitude. For the same people, a daughter missing for a night was suspicious and not acceptable to the family. We collected the people’s information on scraps of paper, which I am sure never went into any official records.

What went deep into my teenage heart during those initial days was that most people behaved deplorably. People of Bhopal had killed and raped Sikhs. Of course, only a small minority had actively participated, but not for lack of interest, only for lack of “courage." As I have said, most that I knew gave their intellectual support to the anti-Sikh pogrom. That day in Bhopal when the gas was leaking, drivers ran their cars over other people without blinking their eyes. I wondered how, for those in such misery, thought of a possible illicit relationship their daughter might have had during the night as more important than her wellbeing.

Our utterly spineless and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats had hijacked whatever small emergency services we had. It is important to note that ambulances mostly did not exist, as they don’t even today.

My "help" at the hospitals was a complete waste of time and energy, and emotionally draining. Disgusted, I stopped volunteering. It was obvious in my mind that given the individual mindsets, the culture, and the institutions, what was happening was nothing exceptional. The Bhopal gas tragedy was a product of our karmas.

I had never known a life without fear. I still vividly remember the fear that the blackouts during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 generated in us, when I was only four years old. Then came famine. Through most of the 1970s, even our relatively well-off, well-connected family had to depend on rationed sugar and oil or on the black market. Indira appointed herself a dictator in 1976 and instituted emergency powers in the hands of the police. My elders lived in constant fear of the warrantless arrests the police could make. One of my relatives had to pay several thousand dollars in bribes for the crime of owning an imported cigarette lighter. Our family and others had to melt away precious gold coins of major historical value, the only alternative being to deposit them at a government office for no compensation while taking the risk of possible arrest. Then the problems of terrorism started in Punjab, in Kashmir, and in the northeastern provinces. There was a constant state of tension with Pakistan. We lived a life of continual, amorphous, chronic anxiety.

Were the people of Bhopal going to reflect on their deeds and thoughts, their irrationalities and superstitions and their worldviews that had placed a huge brigade of rude and uncultured pests in positions of power? Would they see the causal link between their worldview and the spontaneous emergence of extremely corrupt institutions? Would their medieval thinking give ground to rationality? A major tragedy has a possibility of focusing people’s minds. Was the gas tragedy going to make people see how their dependency, totalitarianism, lack of pride and self-respect, their expediency with no moral underpinnings, and their lack of respect for others had generated nonstop catastrophes and had created fissures for sociopaths to rise to positions of power?

Extreme distrust of the state

Eventually it became clear that the Union Carbide factory would cease to exist. It was time to empty some of the bigger chemical tanks. When the time came, the state told us that the process was going to be flawless. The “brave” politicians and bureaucrats, of course, went to the resort-town of Pachmarhi, to watch the event from a safe distance. But on this occasion, people refused to trust them. Bhopal, a city of over a million people, was a ghost town for several days. The Indian army, which has a major base close to Bhopal, and which did show up during the aftermath of the gas tragedy, was brought in to police the streets.

My elders lived in constant fear of the warrantless arrests the police could make. One of my relatives had to pay several thousand dollars in bribes for the crime of owning an imported cigarette lighter.

The Union Carbide tragedy shook people up. They had seen, with all the nakedness, the harms that the state causes, harms that in the West are usually hidden behind a softer façade. People in Bhopal had seen the utterly irresponsibility of a state that had monopolized the crisis management machinery and then hijacked it when the crisis erupted. Society realized that behind all the brave sounding talk of the state were extraordinarily spineless and timid people, with absolutely no sense of individual responsibility. “They are worse than animals,” people would say.

Over those months, I saw people becoming increasingly anti-statist. There were open discussions about making bribery legal, making it a mere transaction cost rather than a huge impediment. People frequently discussed the possibility of privatizing not only industries but particularly law and order, and crisis management machinery.

More of the same

Within months Bhopal faced another wave of social turmoil. On this occasion, the Indian government increased the scope of its affirmative policy for lower caste people in educational institutions. Riots erupted in Bhopal and in the whole of the province. The increase was designed not only to distract but to offer stolen crumbs to those who had suffered most, to make them cling to the idea of government as their savior. In the meantime, the opposition political party, BJP, was strengthening its political position by calling for construction of a Hindu temple at the exact location of a mosque in the town of Ayodhya. This was to lead to another series of nationwide riots. When I was living in the UK in 1992, one of the top news items I watched on the BBC one day was Hindu gangs freely roaming the city of Bhopal. On this occasion, Sikhs were on the side of Hindus! The people of India were extremely gullible and could be manipulated in whatever way desired by the sociopaths running the country.

Bhopal was fortunate that the UCIL was owned by an American company. Had it not been a foreign company, not a penny would have been paid to the victims. To get compensation from Union Carbide USA, making an utter mockery of the sovereignty of India, the Indian government took the case to an American court. The American court (figuratively) threw the papers to the floor. Social pressure against Union Carbide in America was the impetus for the payment. An amount of $470 million dollars was paid to the Indian government, which accordingly passed a law, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act of 1985, to usurp all the money, appointing the state as the trustee of all the claims and at the same time taking away individual people’s notional right to file cases against Union Carbide. Only a part of the money was to be distributed.

The state insisted that the people of Bhopal line up outside its dirty offices, manned by abusive and repulsive bureaucrats, to collect about $4 every week. The total paid was about $500 to those who did not suffer significant physical, visible injuries. I did not want to humiliate myself and did not see the worth in lining up to collect a mere $4 a week. But in an attempt to understand the state of affairs, and in order to write this article, I went to that office to claim my money. The office proved itself by far the worst I had ever seen in my life. Given that hundreds of thousands of people had walked that space, begging and groveling, for $4 a week, it had developed a Stalinist aura, perhaps worse. When the head of the department entered the office, it was as if a curfew had been declared. Everyone was expected to stand up and stand still. I stayed sitting.

After much cajoling the babu looked at my document. But in his file my name had been erased and someone else's had been overwritten. The corrupt office had stolen my due. Despite valid documents in my hand, I had no chance of getting my money unless I paid a bribe. (I have no intention in using this article to claim my $500. If however this article leads to an investigation, I will donate twice as much to an organization that looks after the gas victims.)

Bhopal was fortunate that the UCIL was owned by an American company. Had it not been a foreign company, not a penny would have been paid to the victims.

It seemed at one point that the people of Bhopal would fight for a smaller, more responsible state. But given their groveling character and readiness to sacrifice any values for small scraps of money, the state, ironically, became only bigger. They now had a monstrous new Department of Gas Tragedy. The guy on the street, alas, does not rebel, because he lacks integrity. When he is victimized, he does not challenge those in power. His instinctive reaction is to get into a position of unearned power where he himself can victimize others. It is the triumph of a deeply embedded psychology of “might is right” and the absence of a sense of justice.

India continues to be a land of catastrophes. In 2012, over 143,000 people died on Indian roads. In India’s mostly non-moving traffic, there are 100 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles; in China there are only 36, and in the US, only 15. On average, seven people die each day on the railway tracks, just in the city of Mumbai. Only recently, 115 people lost their lives in a stampede not too far from Bhopal.

Rationality has no place here. The state will not change until the medieval mind has changed. Despite our overt claims that we would like it small and free of corruption, the state will never go away until we realize our own personal contribution to feeding it.




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Why India Doesn’t Change

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Recently, a federal cabinet minister in the Indian government, Pawan Kumar Bansal, was charged with taking a bribe of $160,000, via his nephew. The bribe was allegedly paid by an official of his own ministry. Were Bansal, within his own limited sense, rational, he would have started mobilizing his friends and bribing the news agencies, to avoid legal entanglements. Instead, he was found feeding a goat that was about to be sacrificed. It was a ritual to seek divine intervention.

To be elected a member of Parliament, Bansal must have been well perceived in his constituency, which is among the richest and most educated in India. The voters must have found him rational enough to be their representative. To be elected a top-level minister, he must have found acceptance among the majority of his political party, which rules the lives of 1.2 billion people. The prime minister must have found him charismatic, influential, and intelligent enough, or at least powerful enough to be a top-level minister, working daily on issues with serious influence on the direction India may take. Rising to the top in politics requires one to pass through umpteen filters. The fact that Bansal attained such a high position gives a glimpse of the psychology and character of the Indian body politic, its irrationality and medieval thinking.

I have almost never met a public official in India who did not ask for a bribe. But only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck. The investigative agencies are themselves totally corrupt, so they must find themselves cornered before they do anything. Even when the evidence is obvious, court cases simmer for several decades: eventually people die, or forget; witnesses change their stories, either because they are tired and want to end their court visits or because they lose their sanity under the pressures of an insane system; and prosecutors and judges keep changing. This is not just a result of financial corruption. The roots go much deeper.

There were riots in India in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The cases against the alleged culprits are still going on. Among people in government, there is apathy and lack of passion for what one does. Most of the job “satisfaction” public servants get is not from doing their job but from showing off their power, using it to obstruct and create problems for people. It is a very warped mentality that is not just about bribes (which in a narrow way is still a rational expectation) but is mostly a result of deep-rooted irrationality and the demands that irrational minds create. Indeed were bribes the only problem for India, it would have merely added a layer of cost to society, not made it stagnate or simmer in perpetual wretchedness.

Only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble in India, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck.

I believe that the state is simply a visual symptom of the deeper social problem. The “anti-nutrients” come from the surrounding society. The underlying morality of this society — seen from the perspective of my own experience — is not that of “right or wrong” based on reason and evidence. Instead, motivations are often driven by astrology, circular thinking, superstitions, narrow tribal affiliations, and a completely erroneous understanding of causality, an understanding that results from medieval thinking with little or no influence by the scientific revolution. When I was in engineering, it was not uncommon for hordes of students to travel long distances to visit exotic temples or enact weird rituals to help them pass examinations. One must ask what happens elsewhere in society, when the top engineering students are so superstitious.

Industrialization was imposed on India before the country had time to go through a phase of the age of reason and enlightenment. Partial acceptance of reason has made Indians extreme rationalists, solidifying their superstitions. For example, a very good electrical engineer recently told me that touching the feet of the idol in a temple results in a flow of electricity through your body that is extremely beneficial to you, transferring to you the wisdom of the god by electrically changing the connections of your neurons. Educated people often take extreme pride in how our ancestors — the ancestors of Indians as expressed in Indian mythologies — had airplanes and time machines.

What about Indian spirituality and religiousness? Don’t they control people’s corrupt behaviour? I am an atheist, but I do understand those who see religion as a means of spiritual solace. But for Bansal, and a lot of other people in India, religion has nothing to do with philosophy or spirituality. It is about rituals conducted for material benefits, either in this life or in the next. It is about materialism, materialism, and materialism.

Recently a group has gained very high visibility in fighting against corruption. This group has been asking its followers not to pay their electricity and water bills, to force the government to reduce the charges. No thought is given to where the loss-making public sector company will get its money from. These people should have fought for the public electricity company to be privatized and to allow competition to work. But that is too much for their feel-good fight against corruption, in which some obscure fountain of wealth will provide for the shortfall. Visible, financial corruption is truly the tip of the iceberg. It is deep-rooted irrationality that is the true problem.

Most of my Indian acquaintances talk against corruption. But in their private lives not only do they pay the bribes they have to pay to conduct legitimate business, but they are more than happy to pay to get an unjust advantage over others. Despite the rhetoric, financial corruption has actually increased in India. And it has much deeper roots than most people realize. If he were truly rational, the hapless Bansal would certainly not have wasted his time on the goat, but the age of reason has not touched his thinking.

India’s problem is not just a lack of personal ethics among those in government. By itself, financial corruption would add only a certain, limited cost to the economy. It is the fundamental irrationality that keeps India from gaining traction, from being able to build its way out of wretchedness.




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Detroit

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I was born and reared in the state of Michigan, and its affairs remain very interesting to me. I regard Detroit’s bankruptcy as the virtually inevitable result of events I’ve been witnessing throughout my life.

First there was the triumph of modern labor-management relations, which kept the price of labor sky-high, as long as junky cars could be unloaded on a market largely free of good-quality foreign goods. With the help of union-friendly politicians, labor disputes were settled amicably, usually with an enormous increase in benefits for labor. When there actually was a strike or layoff, which happened so rarely that it was regarded as a kind of natural disaster, challenging the existence of God, Michiganians were treated to constant interviews with baffled assembly-line workers, who informed the 10 o’clock news that if this thing continued for even a day longer, they couldn’t meet the mortgage on the house at the lake, and they might even have to sell the boat. It was hard, really hard, to meet the payments on three cars. As for savings, who could keep money in the bank, considering all these expenses?

Such were the rewards of unskilled labor. So why should anyone learn any skills? Then came the nervous collapse of both labor and management, once genuine competition took hold.

But something else had happened, simultaneous with the monopoly of the Big Three automakers and their inseparable companion, the United Auto Workers. This was the triumph of Great Society liberalism and the new class of managers and planners who purveyed it. Many of the big chiefs came from auto company management. Remember Robert McNamara? He’s a sample. These people demonstrated that they could be failures in civic planning as well as business planning. After the 1967 race riots in Detroit, they backed every sorry, money-losing civic improvement project they could think of, applying social engineering to the city’s problems. You can guess how well that worked.

Tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes.

The logical product of the Great Society was the flight from Detroit of everyone, white or black, who could possibly escape and buy a home in the suburbs. The city’s population went from 1,850,000 (1950) to 701,000 (2010). The escapees left behind them an inner city that was poor in productive workers but rich in people who voted for a living. The natural product of that was a chronically corrupt political class, keeping itself elected by class warfare and racial resentment.

Now the city of Detroit is so poor that it is letting large areas of formerly choice real estate go back to the fields and forests. It is arranging not to keep the streets open, not to keep the power running in whole sections of the city. The people I feel for most are the African-American families who have hung on, kept their modest houses and modest jobs, survived the violence and criminality of their neighbors, and now find that their own jealously guarded homes are to be abandoned by the city they struggled to keep in operation. Looking down Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Élysées of the Midwest, I see block after block of emptiness — or worse: wonderful early 20th-century housing, places to live that would be worth a fortune to almost anyone, anywhere else, but that are now hopelessly derelict.

I suppose that most people understand these things, in general. But one factor that should be emphasized, and almost never is, except in a way that contrasts with the truth, is the influence of that mundane but vicious thing, the tax. It is oft lamented that Detroit’s taxes can’t keep up with its expenditures. The problem is that the taxes existed at all.

Right now, Detroit’s municipal income tax is 2.4% for residents and 1.2% for nonresidents who work in Detroit (if that be not a contradiction in terms). Before 1999 these taxes stood at 3.0 and 1.5, respectively, and were authorized by a special provision in the state tax law allowing cities with populations of more than 600,000 (of which Michigan has only one) to exceed the statewide cap of 1.0 and 0.5%. In 1999, Detroit began slowly and minutely reducing tax rates in accordance with a deal, politically extorted from the state, that gave the city a whopping special subsidy from the revenues of Michigan as a whole.

I say “special,” not just because Detroit was getting a deal that, say, Muskegon didn’t get, but because Michigan had already, for many years, been subsidizing major Detroit projects and institutions — something that did not prevent Detroit politicians from erecting giant signs in front of them, bearing their own names.

Anyhow, in 2011, which is about the time when the probability of a Detroit bankruptcy became common talk in Michigan, the Detroit income tax represented about $230 million out of the city’s $1.2 billion general fund revenue. This means that the average man, woman, or child connected with this impoverished town was somehow generating over $1,700 in revenue for the city alone, about $330 of it from income taxes. Overlapping with the income tax, of course, are many other taxes, including property taxes, which generate several hundreds of millions of dollars and would generate more if the owners of half the land parcels in the city were still paying their property taxes, which they aren’t.

Then there’s the income that the city gets from government-licensed gambling and, ah yes, the income it gets from corporate taxes. In 2012, the city council doubled the corporate income tax rate, taking it from 1 to 2%. The excuse was a threatened 10% pay cut for municipal workers. “I can't in good conscience,” said one council member, “ask city employees to give back 10% and not ask the corporate community to share in the sacrifice by raising their taxes." Oh. OK. I see the logic.

Meanwhile, the state of Michigan has been cooperating with Detroit in attempting to create a new stadium for the Red Wings hockey team, a stadium that, its advocates insist, will generate “as much as $1 billion in economic development over 30 years.” It won’t, of course. People will just keep driving into Detroit to see the games, then driving out again. But over the same 30-year period, the taxpayers of Michigan will have to pay $444 million for bonds to subsidize this scam. Let’s see . . . if there were a billion dollars of economic development (over 30 years, of course), and it were highly profitable (which it won’t be), it might possibly earn, say, 10% on investment, which means an average profit of maybe $22 million a year (it can’t all happen at once), from which the taxpayers of the state of Michigan would receive, in taxes from the grateful beneficiaries of their subsidy, something less than $1 million a year.

So that’s the way — not bread and circuses, but welfare and hockey. Isn’t there an old saying about castles being erected on the ruins of cottages?

The more Detroit taxed, and the more Michigan taxed and subsidized, the worse things got. And continue to get. But why oh why? Because, as Isabel Paterson explained long ago in The God of the Machine, tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes. The things it builds may simply be dead weight, from an economic point of view, and will therefore have to be supported by continued taxation. Or, more likely, they will be institutions devoted to extracting yet more money from the productive members of society.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir.

These may be institutions such as the welfare industry. These may be institutions such as Detroit race politics, which long defended and empowered every crook in the city government, so long as he or she was an African-American, and is currently demanding that Detroit’s debts be “canceled,” thus neatly averting the consequences of bankruptcy. Or these institutions may be government-“stimulated” businesses, erected by subsidies and continually devoted to extending them.

But two things are certain. The beneficiaries will not “give back.” And they will never, never be the productively working black, white, or Asian population of anywhere. These are the people who are tricked into voting for the money-extraction industry, told that more taxes are needed to support the schools or the police or the fire department or something, or defeating the hated Republican Party, and then, mysteriously, find that every increase in taxes is turned into more guns aimed against them.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir. If you had any thoughts along those lines, the social history of Detroit will show you that it isn’t. The illness has also been blamed on mysterious “changes” in the auto industry. That’s not the cause either. Business and labor that aren’t on the take from subsidies — subsidies in the form of bailouts, friendly legislation, and noncompetitive labor laws, all of which the Detroit auto industry got, and fattened on, and sickened on — can “change” without doing grave damage to their communities. And the illness has been blamed on “massive corruption,” as if corruption could be massive without the profits it derives from laws and taxes.

Enough. Just look at who’s taking money from whom.




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