Día de los Vivos

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Looking for a new holiday film and you’ve had it with watching scripted Hollywood families bicker around the dining table? Pixar’s Coco is one of the best films of the season. Never mind that it’s animated. Grab yourself a niece or a nephew (or just rustle up the courage to go to a “kid movie” without a kid) and enjoy. This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

The story centers on 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who lives with his parents, his overbearing Abuelita (Renee Victor), and his sweet doddering great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Miguel is a typical Mexican boy in a not-so-typical Mexican family where music has been banned from the home and the mere sight of a guitar engenders shrieks of anger. But Miguel loves music. He has been surreptitiously learning to play the guitar by watching videos of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the greatest musician of all time,” whose statue stands in the town plaza. Miguel wants to enter the town talent contest, but Abuelita forbids it. When Miguel shouts that he hates his family and wishes he weren’t part of them, it sets off a chain of events that will teach him the importance of family, tradition, and remembering the dead.

This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

Coco is set on Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors with a three-day fiesta of reminiscing, singing, feasting, and decorating graves. Families build small altars with photographs of their ancestors and offer incense, fruits, nuts, and candies, plus toys for relatives who died as children and tequila for the adults. Traditions include eating muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar-candy skulls, hanging cardboard skeletons and colorful tissue paper decorations, and planting yellow marigolds. It is thought that the pungent fragrance of marigolds will attract the souls of the dead.

These Mexican traditions are presented in a surfeit of rich colors and sounds as Miguel is mystically transported across the marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On the other side he discovers a land not unlike his own — the same town plaza, the same town heroes, the same kinds of holiday preparations being made by families who just happen to be dead. There’s even a very funny scene with TSA agents deciding who can and can’t cross the bridge, and a skeletonized Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge. Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a delightfully comical skeleton, who helps Miguel in his search for his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who seems to hold the key to Miguel’s return home.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for the young children who accompanied me. In fact, it makes death somehow comforting and even joyful when one considers the family reunions that await on the other side of the bridge. “Coco,” in fact, is the diminutive form of the common name “Socorro,” which means “to succor, aid, or comfort,” and this film offers much comfort about dying. It even suggests what happens to our pets when they die.

There’s even a skeletonized Frida Kahlo, who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge.

Moreover, many of the characters in Coco need comfort and aid. Miguel is far from home and at odds with his family on both sides of the bridge. Abuelita needs to face the true source of her pain and let go of her bitterness toward music. Her grandmother, Miguel’s departed Mama Imelda (Alana Ubach), must also overcome her bitterness toward her late husband — a bitterness that has followed her into the next life. Miguel’s new friend Hector is in danger of “fading away” because almost no one remembers him. Miguel learns to succor them all.

The marigold bridge becomes a powerful symbol of family connection, as Miguel learns to bridge the gap not only with his dead ancestors, but with his living family members as well.

It might be a little risky amid today’s rampant accusations of cultural appropriation for a company directed mostly by white males to release a movie set in Mexico focusing on intimate Mexican traditions and beliefs. The humor, accents, costumes, and traditions could have gone awry, veering into the realm of stereotype. But there is an authenticity in Coco that transcends political correctness and simply feels right. The characters are voiced almost entirely by Chicano actors, and background conversations and idiomatic phrases are presented in Spanish without subtitles, contributing to the cultural authenticity. The musical score is presented as a natural part of the story when Miguel, Ernesto, Frida and others sing and perform in public, so the story isn’t superimposed on a European or American musical genre. The vivid colors and family dynamic are simply the flavor of Mexico, without caricature or disrespect. It’s just about perfect.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for young children.

One thing that is definitely not perfect is the 21-minute animated short that accompanies most screenings of Coco. Based on the characters in Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” tells the story of the orphaned Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) searching for Christmas traditions they can adopt, now that they are living together again in the castle. The characters are flat, the situations are corny, and the premise — that you can somehow create instant traditions by copying others — completely misses the point of what a tradition is. At 21 minutes it’s three times too long, and its production values are so weak that you might be tempted to go home before the feature film actually begins. I recommend a trip to the snack bar after you find your seats.

Families are the oldest and simplest of social communities, yet they can often be the most complex to navigate. They are a topic that Disney has explored in numerous animated classics, from the competitive and vengeful stepmothers in Snow White, Cinderella, and Tangled to the trauma of maternal separation in Dumbo and Bambi to the teenage rebellion in The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to the complete redefinition of family in Jungle Book and Tarzan. The ability to address serious issues within the framework of kid-friendly animated films has been Disney’s forte for nearly a century, and it’s the reason Disney films continue to attract generation after generation of viewers, especially through its new partnership with Pixar.

Coco is among the best of these films, for so many reasons. I expect that many families will pull it out to view again when a beloved great-grandmother crosses over the marigold bridge — or even when a pet passes on, no matter what their literal beliefs about the afterlife. As Howard Canaan writes in Tales of Magic from Around the World: “Myths express not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth.” And the truth is, we will be happier if we give up our grudges, embrace the beauty in our lives, remember those who came before us, and recognize the individuality in each human being. Coco makes this point magically.


Editor's Note: Review of "Coco," directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Pixar, 2017, 109 minutes.



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Imitating Obama?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The More Things Change . . .

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I will confess that I found this past presidential campaign sheer hell. I detested both Clinton and Trump, and voted for neither. I hoped that both would lose, and my only consolation was that they both did lose: Trump was defeated decisively in the popular vote, while Clinton was defeated decisively in the Electoral College contest. My view was and is that Trump will transform the Republican Party into a populist one, pushing nativism, protectionism, corporatism, and isolationism. It saddened me to see writers I had previously admired — such as Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore — who have long argued against the populist siren call to the Republican Party, succumb to it at last, in the form of Trump — The Boss. They, along with a large group of other soi-disant free market commentators, have been seduced by populism. This group I call “the Herd.”

Now, when those of us who are classical liberals — i.e., believers in the free movement of products, of physical capital, and of human capital — expressed alarm at Trump’s explicitly expressed nativism, animus toward Mexicans and Chinese, sexism of the crudest sort, and obvious protectionist aversion to free trade, the Kudlow-Moore Herd mooed, “Oh, he’s just saying that to get the workers’ votes. Don’t worry — he isn’t serious — it’s just bait for the bubbas.” The Herd never asked why the rest of us would ever be attracted by the pitch “Vote for The Boss — he would never do what he says he will!”

Well, even before assuming office, The Boss has started making major decisions as if he were already in charge. It’s as if he couldn’t wait. And it seems he was serious in his campaign.

One highly touted decision The Boss made recently was to coerce Carrier, a division of United Technologies that makes HVAC units, to keep roughly half the workers who were slated to lose jobs when the plant was moved to Mexico. Under pressure, Carrier agreed to keep about 800 of the jobs here. (The Boss’ propaganda ministry said it was 1,150 jobs, but it turns out that included 350 support jobs that were slated to stay anyway.) Gregory Hayes, United Technologies’ CEO, gave in to The Boss, and The Boss and his myrmidons hailed this as a triumph. Indiana, veep-elect Mike Pence’s state, sweetened the deal by giving the company $7 million in tax incentives (read: taxpayer subsidies), but clearly Hayes was most concerned with the continuing bad publicity driven by The Boss and his Herd, and the threat of a 35% tariff on Carrier gas furnaces made in Mexico.

The Herd never asked why the rest of us would ever be attracted by the pitch “Vote for The Boss — he would never do what he says he will!”

The reactions to The Boss’ gambit have been fascinating, to put it mildly. Richly ironic was Sarah Palin’s denunciation of the deal as “crony capitalism.” She wrote ruefully, “When government steps in arbitrarily with individual subsidies, favoring one business over others, it sets inconsistent, unfair, illogical precedent. . . . Republicans oppose this, remember? Instead, we support competition on a level playing field, remember? Because we know special interest crony capitalism is one big fail.” This is rich, considering Palin was one of the Republican Party elite who came out in support of Trump. And she may come to rue her small speck of intellectual honesty, since she has been rumored to be under consideration for government positions and The Boss has shown he tends to appoint his supporters to administrative posts.

Moving now from the ironic to the surreal, the arch-free-market opponent Bernie Sanders also criticized the deal. Yes, socialist Sanders was angry that The Boss didn’t “save” all the jobs by immediately imposing a massive import tax on the products of any company that dares to offshore its operations. Sanders thinks that “United Technologies took Trump hostage and won,” by getting tax breaks in exchange for only half the jobs. In fact, Sanders holds that The Boss has endangered the jobs of countless American workers, because “he has signaled to every corporation in America that they can threaten to offshore jobs in exchange for business-friendly tax benefits and incentives. Even corporations that weren’t thinking of offshoring jobs will most probably be reevaluating their stance [now].”

Surreal indeed! The loopy old Stalinist tool can’t imagine any other reason why businesses would legitimately want to move operations abroad than to get tax breaks. Certainly not to escape our punitive corporate income taxes, currently the highest in the industrialized world, and about triple the rate of Ireland. Certainly not because of our dysfunctional common law system, the only one without the “loser-pay” (or “British”) rule that limits frivolous lawsuits. Certainly not to escape Obamacare, a law that saddles companies with the obligation to provide costly health insurance to their full-time employees whenever they have more than 49 of them. And certainly not because of the metastasizing cancer of regulation, which under Obama has simply exploded. Here the senile socialist Sanders complains that United Technologies made a profit last year of $7.6 billion, and its top execs received $50 million each. (Imagine that! Top execs being paid less than one tenth of one percent of the billions in profits they helped produce! Outrageously generous!)

The loopy old Stalinist tool can’t imagine any other reason why businesses would legitimately want to move operations abroad than to get tax breaks.

In a revealing interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer, United Technologies’ CEO Hayes explained his thinking. Nobody listening to the interview could doubt that Hayes is a decent and patriotic man, but also a man committed to running his company profitably and for the long term. He signaled that he caved to The Boss’ demands because he feared government retaliation against the other three United Technologies divisions — Pratt Whitney engines, Otis Elevator, and the aerospace division — no less than against Carrier. As he put it, “I was born at night, but not last night. I also know that about 10% of our revenue comes from the US government.”

Hayes outlined the reasons why his company had moved Carrier’s — but no other divisions’ — operations down to Mexico. While the skills of the employees at the other divisions are extraordinarily high, the skills at the assembly line for HVAC units are much lower. Moreover, Hayes noted, not only are labor costs lower in Mexico (80% lower) but the company’s existing Mexican plants, the absentee rate was only 1% and the turnover rate only 2%. These figures are much lower than those for the American plant.

Here Hayes touched upon two points I have to work to explain to my business ethics students — who, despite their choice of major, often incline to the Clinton-Sanders-Obama view of capitalism. First, besides intellectual virtues, employers have to consider moral virtues as well. And employees are often not “perfect substitutes” here: some are more inclined to show up for work reliably and work enthusiastically and conscientiously, because for them work is a moral prerequisite for being a virtuous person. Unfortunately, this attitude is more prevalent abroad than in heavily unionized American factories. (I attribute this to the unionization, not the Americanization, of the workers.) Second, what makes employees more valuable is their productivity, not their relatively low salaries. The top paid quarterback in the NFL is a lucky fellow named Luck, who earns $26.4 million a year from the Colts organization. Suppose I called the Colts management and offered my services for a mere 1% of that cost. Would the Colts jump at the chance to “snap up” an old, out-of-shape, overweight, nearsighted, clumsy, uncoordinated philosopher who has never played football in his ludicrous life? Hardly. But if the Colts management could find a man with the skill set of Mr. Luck for significantly less, then they might consider it.

What makes employees more valuable is their productivity, not their relatively low salaries.

Hayes explored this latter point when he noted that United Technologies sent 45,000 employees through their “employee scholar” program, with 38,000 receiving degrees. United Technologies spent $1.2 billion over the last two decades on increasing the skills — the intellectual virtue — of its workforce. And Cramer — an intellectually honest progressive liberal, which is as rare as a sympathetic fascist — pointed out for his CNBC audience (to wit, progressives who make money off capitalism even as they despise it) that United Technologies had early moved a plant from Nogales, Mexico to Florence, South Carolina — at a cost of $60 million in the first year. Notice that neither The Boss’ propaganda machine nor the Herd of establishment Republican apologists even mentioned the onshoring of the bigger Otis plant at great expense, nor the huge amount of money the company has put into improving the skills of tens of thousands of American workers. They mentioned only the 800 inefficient assembly-line jobs.

Hayes noted that United Technologies will now invest $16 million in the existing Carrier plant, to automate it as much as possible, to make it “cost competitive.” So the jobs “saved” by The Boss are not destined to last long. Yeah, the Mexicans won’t “steal them,” but the robots will. In short, don’t blame Juan — blame R2D2!

Hayes made one other point that one wishes The Boss could grasp: “The genie of globalization is not going back into the bottle. . . . Free trade is still essential to the growth of this country. This country was founded on two principles: immigration and free trade.” Boss, let me introduce you to Thomas Jefferson!

But the Herd was mightily pleased with what The Boss did to United Technologies. Larry Kudlow and Neil Cavuto, who should know better than to tout protectionism and cronyism, approved on air, with Cavuto adding the deft ad misericordiam touch that these jobs were saved just in time for Christmas — which rather makes The Boss the Savior.

The jobs “saved” by Trump are not destined to last long. The Mexicans won’t “steal them,” but the robots will.

One of the founding members of the Herd — Glenn Reynolds — chimed in his support for The Boss’ crony capitalism. Reynolds wrote an amazing — really, psychedelic — piece favorably comparing The Boss and his tweets with FDR and his radio “fireside chats.” Like, far out, man, America is in the Great Depression redivivus, and the Boss is here to save us!

Of course, as Reynolds himself concedes, FDR probably extended the Depression by seven years, but he certainly made economically illiterate Americans feel like he cared. And I guess it’s better to feel the pain you cause in others than to be oblivious to it, although I am more inclined to say you shouldn’t cause the freaking pain to begin with.

But Reynolds’ point is that The Boss, in “saving” these pathetically few jobs, showed more “compassion” than Obama, because when Obama was asked about saving jobs at this Carrier plant, the Prez said that the answer was improved job (re)training. That caused Reynolds to wax sanctimonious, saying that when a factory closes (from outsourcing, free trade, automation, or just plain producing a product the public doesn’t want), the people laid off and the local economy suffer. And the existing job retraining programs — including the Trade Adjustment Assistance program (TAA) — don’t work well. Here Reynolds quotes a study done by the Heritage Foundation that says the TAA doesn’t work — though considering the infamous hit-report the Heritage Foundation did some years back on the cost of immigrants to the nation, which cemented the organization’s turn from conservativism to populism, I no longer put any credence in its reports.

Now, readers of this journal over the last eight years will, I believe, not accuse me of being a blind Obama supporter — far from it. But in this case, Obama is correct and Reynolds, the Heritage Gang, and the rest of the Herd is wrong. We all learned from Joseph Schumpeter that economic progress is driven by “gales of creative destruction,” when old, less efficient ways of doing business are eliminated by newer, more efficient ones. Cathode ray tube TVs died rapidly when flat screens came out; VHS tapes died rapidly when DVDs became available. And human-piloted cars, trucks, and buses may soon be replaced by autopiloted ones. And we all know what Schumpeter pointed out, that this process is often a hardship on some workers as they undergo retraining for more productive jobs. No doubt, if truck, delivery van, and bus drivers, as well as cab and Uber drivers are all put out of work by self-driving cars, some people will find it hard to find other, more productive jobs over a relatively short period of time. But most will find other, more productive work, easily.

FDR probably extended the Depression by seven years, but he certainly made economically illiterate Americans feel like he cared.

For those workers who can’t make the shift easily, the answer is precisely to retrain them. What other options are there? To let them languish on food stamps? Or (as the lumpenprotectionists, Luddites, and nativists would urge) simply outlaw progress? Let’s face it: progress is a bitch!

Let’s consider this for a moment. No doubt many truck and cab drivers will oppose self-piloting vehicles. But we as a country lose roughly 38,000 people a year in auto accidents, more than we lost in the Korean War. Does Mr. Reynolds — so much more compassionate than we unpatriotic, cosmopolitan, hard-hearted, elitist, and egoistic globalists — really want to see those deaths occur forever, lest some cabbie in Queens can’t find work?

As to why the TAA and the other few dozen other government retraining programs don’t work well, they don’t work well for the same reason public schools don’t work well: when the government runs a monopoly, it fails just all other monopolies do. The answer (in both cases) is to separate the government funding from the service by voucherizing it.

Specifically, we should kill all the retraining programs, along with (say) the Department of Energy, and use all that money for vouchers for long-term unemployed so that they can go to a public or private community colleges to get retrained (or get the high-school diploma they should have gotten when they were young). I would allow trade unions and private industries to use these vouchers to expand their apprenticeship and training programs they already have, and to open full-fledged trade schools as well. For example, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America could run a chain of trade schools where people could come to learn the trades, paying the union with vouchers and perhaps by agreeing to be dues-payers for some period of time (say, ten years). Oh, and end the Obama Administration’s war on for-profit colleges, a war that killed so many hundreds of decent trade schools for no reason other than a desire to please the teacher’s unions. (The fall of the ITT college chain alone eliminated 130 campuses.)

There are several reasons why The Boss’ “victory for American jobs” is in fact disastrously bad.

First, it forces Carrier to keep paying high wages to its employees, thus ensuring that it will be unable to compete with foreign-produced products in the long term. This is the kind of “good deal” the US autoworkers received: ludicrously sweet contracts that drove two of the major American automakers into bankruptcy.

Government retraining programs don’t work well for the same reason public schools don’t: when the government runs a monopoly, it fails just all other monopolies do.

Second, it punishes American consumers, who will be forced not just to pay continuing high prices for Carrier’s products but also to pay higher taxes to provide the subsidies. The Boss’ “big-hearted” concern for the workers obviously did not extend to the consumers or taxpayers.

Third, as Bastiat would note, while the populace — with the Herd leading the cheers — hails the Boss for the 800 jobs saved, it will not see the many of thousands of jobs that will be lost. Any company, foreign or domestic, that is thinking of building new plants here knows that if any of those facilities turn out to be unprofitable — say, because the workers form a union as unreasonable as the UAW — and the company moves to close the plant, The Boss will punish it with whatever sort of sanctions he can dream up. As the French have discovered, the harder you make it to fire workers, the more reluctant companies will be to hire them in the first place, so you wind up with chronic high unemployment.

This is where the Herd may be miscalculating. Kudlow, Moore, Laffer, Cavuto, Reynolds, et.al. assume that with lower corporate taxes and fewer regulations, the economy will boom and job growth explode as companies repatriate foreign profits and open new plants here. But in the face of The Boss’ demagogic, autocratic governance, the companies may instead use the money to buy back stock in their own outfits or invest the money abroad. The good effects of The Boss’ more classically liberal policies may be trumped by the bad effects of his populist ones.

The harder you make it to fire workers, the more reluctant companies will be to hire them in the first place, so you wind up with chronic high unemployment.

In fact, the Herd’s admiring lowing in response to his bullying of Carrier may be confirming to The Boss that his protectionism is working. He moved on rapidly to attack another company — Rexnord Corporation — for daring to move a plant to Mexico and “viciously fire” 300 existing employees. So far the company hasn’t caved, leading The Boss to renew his threat to hit Mexican imports with a 35% tariff. Ford, which he threatened earlier, still appears to be moving forward with plans to build small cars in Mexico. So The Boss may well be forced to carry through with his threat.

This is all reminiscent of Obama’s first year, in which he started trade wars with Mexico and Canada, while engaging in crony capitalism with environmentalist companies. As the cynical but insightful French put it, the more things change, the more they stay the same.




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The Birth of a Nation

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On a clear and cool November morning, while accompanying my dog on our daily circuit of his considerable territory in this southern California suburb, I passed a house that had a flag hung above the garage door. It was at an angle, so I couldn’t see it very well, but then I got it: the Bear Flag, the official flag of California, which features a golden grizzly bear walking toward the left and, below the bear, the words “California Republic.” While it’s not unusual in this neighborhood to see the occasional American flag on display, this was the first time I’d seen the state flag being flown from a private residence, and it seemed odd.

What, I thought, is up with that?

* * *

Nestled snugly in the heart of Europe is 999 square miles of tidy, prosperous greenery called the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Surrounded by France, Belgium, and Germany, Luxembourg is a member of the European Parliament, where it enjoys the benefits of what mathematicians call degressive proportionality.

When considering the prospect of joining the EU, Luxembourgers had to face the possibility that their happy little land might just be swallowed whole.

In practical terms, this means that Luxembourg’s 540,000 or so people get six seats in the European Parliament, while the 80,000,000 or so Germans get 96. To be clear, that is roughly one seat for every 90,000 Luxembourgers and one for every 830,000 Germans. That’s right, each Luxembourger counts as more than nine Germans.

Why do the Germans put up with this? The unsurprising answer is self-interest.

When considering the prospect of joining the European Union, Luxembourgers had to face the possibility that their happy little land might just be swallowed whole. After all, any country that joins the EU, no matter how large, surrenders a hefty portion of its sovereignty and, given the Union’s immigration policies, invites substantial changes to its national culture and identity. For a small country like Luxembourg, joining up could mean disappearing down the maw of a supra-national leviathan forever, to put it colorfully.

If there were a strictly proportional European Parliament of 1,000 members, Luxembourg would get only one voice in the massive hall. This nightmarish scenario is probably what prompted the Duchy to ask for a few extra seats before they joined.

Although being in the EU is not without its costs, on balance, Germany benefits. It enjoys a tariff-free, nearly frictionless market of more than half a billion souls eager to buy German goods, a leading role in an effective collective counterweight to the power wielded by Russia, China, and the United States, and, after centuries of war and strife, relative peace and interdependent prosperity for an entire continent. A little degressive proportionality in the allotment of seats in the European Parliament must have seemed a trifle to pay for these considerable benefits.

And so, the compromise was made. Today, with something like 0.1% of the European Union population, Luxembourg gets 0.8% of the members of the European Parliament. It’s a pretty good deal, for Germans and Luxembourgers alike.

This nightmarish scenario is probably what prompted the Duchy to ask for a few extra seats before they joined.

Had the large countries not agreed to the compromise, the smaller countries probably would have stayed out, and the European Union as we know it would never have even been born.

* * *

The United States had arrived at a similar end by different means. By 1786, it was generally agreed that the Articles of Confederation, which gave equal weight to each state regardless of population, were not working well, so a federal convention was called to consider changes. The opening gavel came down in 1787 and the meeting soon morphed into the Constitutional Convention. The single most divisive issue was how to apportion power among the states. Things got a little heated.

On June 30, 1787, Gunning Bedford Jr., representing Delaware, made it clear that the less populous states were not going to be bullied into accepting strictly proportional representation in the central government, saying,

Will it be said that an inequality of power will not result from an inequality of votes. Give the opportunity, and ambition will not fail to abuse it. The whole History of mankind proves it . . . The Large States dare not dissolve the Confederation. If they do the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.

When things cooled down a bit, Mr. Bedford clarified that he was not making a threat. In this context, the threat that he was not making might have been something like inviting, say, the redcoats to help Delaware defend itself against, say, Pennsylvania. The notes of the Convention for that day are here.

Mr. Bedford’s speech marked a turning point in the deliberations. The large states gave up the demand for strict proportionality and moved in the direction of a series of compromises that incorporated the views of the less populous states in the draft of the Constitution that was presented to the states for ratification.

* * *

Let us imagine two friends, John, from Delaware, and Paul, from Massachusetts, discussing these compromises in 1787.

John: I fear that Delaware’s interests would be brushed aside by the more populous States if it were to join this Union.

When things cooled down a bit, Mr. Gunning Bedford Jr. clarified that he was not making a threat.

Paul: There are provisions in the proposed Constitution that prevent the interests of the small States from being ignored or their powers from being unjustly encroached upon.

John: Such as?

Paul: To begin with, the legislature has been divided into two chambers: the House of Representatives, in which the States are allotted seats in proportion to their populations, and the Senate, in which each State is allotted two seats, regardless of population. Any law must be passed by a majority vote of both bodies, or, if the President refuses to sign, by a two-thirds vote of both bodies.

John: Are the two equal in other respects?

Paul: Not quite. Any proposal dealing with taxation and expenditures must originate in the House, though the Senate must still concur for it to become law. The Senate alone, however, votes to confirm the appointments that the President makes to the Supreme Court and, while the President may negotiate a treaty, two-thirds of the Senators must agree with it before it can be ratified.

John: These provisions certainly give the small States more say than their numbers alone would warrant, not only in the legislative branch, but also in the judicial branch, and in foreign affairs as well. The role of the President, however, seems crucial in this Constitution. Is the President to be elected by popular vote?

In all likelihood, if the large states had not agreed to these compromises, the small states would not have ratified the Constitution.

Paul: No. Each state is to choose Electors, equal in number to that of its Representatives and Senators combined. Those Electors will then meet in their respective States and vote for a President. The candidate who wins the majority of the Electors’ votes becomes the President.

John: So, because each state will be granted an Elector for each Senator, the less populous states will have a disproportionate say in who becomes the President?

Paul: Exactly.

John: All these provisions are reassuring, but what is to prevent the more populous States from simply changing the rules once this new government is formed?

Paul: The rules for amending the Constitution are a part of the document itself. There are two methods. Under the first, two-thirds of both the House and the Senate must agree to any proposed amendment; then, three-quarters of all the State legislatures must agree, by a majority vote in each, to that proposed amendment. Under the second method, Congress must call for an amending convention when asked to do so by two-thirds of the State legislatures. Then conventions in three-quarters of the States would have to agree to the proposed amendment for it to take effect. .

John: So, a significant number of the representatives of the less populous States would have to vote twice, using either method, to change the very rules that gave them a disproportionate say in the affairs of the country in the first place?

Paul: Just so.

John: Could the Supreme Court change these provisions and impose proportional representation?

Paul: Should Justices of the Supreme Court attempt such a direct misinterpretation of the proposed Constitution, they would certainly be impeached. The proposed Constitution stipulates that, in the event that a simple majority of the House votes for impeachment, the Senate can, with a two-thirds majority vote, remove a Supreme Court Justice from the bench. Besides, the Justices are to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, both of which would be selected under these very provisions. The likelihood that a majority of the justices so selected would share such a fundamental disagreement with these provisions is remote.

Each Wyomingite counts as more than three Californians, not only in the Congress, but in presidential elections as well.

John: I am persuaded. I shall support ratification. But I must ask: why would you want to ratify a Constitution that grants less power to Massachusetts than its relatively large population would otherwise seem to warrant?

Paul: Oh, I don’t know — to establish justice, I guess. To insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense, something like that. And being united would really promote the general welfare, don’t you think? And maybe even secure the blessings of liberty, that kind of thing.

John: All of which would benefit Delaware as well.

Paul: Indeed.

In all likelihood, if the large states had not agreed to these compromises, the small states would not have ratified the Constitution and the United States of America as we know it today would never have been born.

* * *

If you want to understand the modern consequences of the American version of degressive proportionality that Paul and John discussed, Wyoming is a good place to start. This large, landlocked rectangle perched on the arid high plains and mountains of the American West is sometimes called the Cowboy State. Its official sport is the rodeo.

Wyoming’s roughly 600,000 people have three members of Congress, one in the House and two in the Senate, while the 39,000,000 or so Californians have 55 members of Congress, 53 in the House and two in the Senate. So there is one member of Congress for every 200,000 Wyomingites, while there is one for every 700,000 Californians. Yes, each Wyomingite counts as more than three Californians, not only in the Congress, but in presidential elections as well. Remember those Electors?

Why do the Californians put up with this? Well, they may not.

* * *

It is often pointed out that in the presidential election of 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, while Donald Trump merely won the electoral vote and the presidency. While the results in overrepresented states such as Wyoming account for Trump’s electoral victory, to understand Clinton’s popular vote triumph you need only look at one state: California.

On December 8, the California Secretary of State reported that state’s votes as Clinton, 8,753,788, and Trump, 4,483,810, giving Clinton 4,269,978 more votes than Trump in California alone. Let me repeat that: alone.

If you leave California’s votes out of the tally, Trump won 1,436,758 more votes nationally than Clinton.

On December 16, 2016, CNN reported the national popular vote totals as Clinton, 65,788,583, and Trump, 62, 955,363, giving Clinton 2,833,220 more votes than Trump nationally.

According to these figures, Clinton won the popular vote in California by 1,436,758 more votes than those by which she won in the country as a whole. To put this in another way, if you leave California’s votes out of the tally, Trump won 1,436,758 more votes nationally than Clinton.

Yes, you read that right.

It may have been at the exact moment when these results were released that degressive proportionality became something up with which some Californians would no longer, to paraphrase Churchill, put. They realized for the first time that they did not really care for this Electoral College at all.

Which brings us back to the flag.

* * *

On June 14, 1846, a scruffy band of what might be called illegal American immigrants in Sonoma, California, then part of Mexico, frustrated by what they saw as unjust treatment at the hands California Governor José Castro, seized the commandante of the town, retired Mexican General Mariano Vallejo, and declared that California would henceforth be an independent country.

One of the rebels fashioned a primitive flag featuring a leftward walking bear, below which, in bold Roman letters, he wrote the name CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC. The banner was raised over the barracks in Sonoma, the makeshift headquarters of the Republic. And thus was brought forth upon this continent a new nation.

Yes California has expedited its efforts to make California independent again because the election of Mr. Trump has generated such enthusiasm for secession.

Less than a month later, the 150 or so men in the new country’s army were absorbed into the US Army, the Bear Flag was lowered, the Stars and Stripes were raised, and with that, the Bear Flag Revolt was over. Unbeknownst to the rebels, the United States had been at war with Mexico since May. At the war’s end, Mexico ceded California to the United States. A few years later, in 1850, without ever becoming a territory, California became a state.

* * *

On November 11, 2016, Marcus Evans, Vice President of the Yes California Independence Campaign, delivered a letter to the Office of the Attorney General of the State of California. The LA Times article about this is here. The letter asked that the appropriate preparations be made for an initiative that, if successful, would put before the voters a measure that, if successful, would begin the formal process of the secession of California from the United States of America. As the article makes clear, Yes California has expedited its efforts to make California independent again because the election of Mr. Trump has generated such enthusiasm for the project, which some are calling “Calexit,” after “Brexit.”

My flag-hoisting neighbor shares this enthusiasm.

If you’d like to help the Yes California Independence Campaign gather signatures to put their measure on the ballot, you can contact them here. Just remember that the last time there was a serious dispute over the prenuptial agreement called the constitution, it was South Carolina that began the divorce proceedings. It was settled out of court.

* * *

A parting thought. If we accept that our goal is not only to ensure that the “one person, one vote” rule is enforced but also to ensure that each vote is given equal weight, then we must also accept that there are more egregious violators of this rule than the European Union or the United States. Both those unions look like models of proportionality compared to the United Nations, where India is a back-bencher and France has the power to veto.

What to do?

First, propose to the General Assembly that the UN Charter be amended to ensure that representation in the UN is strictly proportional to population.

If the number is set at 10 million then Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Norway, among others, would have to do without a seat.

There are about 7.5 billion of us now, so 750 representatives in the hall would mean one for every 10 million or so citizens. So far, so good. Let’s see: China would get 138 seats; India, 132; the US, 32; Russia, 14; Germany, 8; the UK, 7; France, 6; Canada, 4; Australia, 2; Belgium, 1; Portugal, 1; and Sweden, 0.

Wait. If the number is set at 10 million then Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Norway, among others, would have to do without a seat. Just mill around at the back, I guess.

So, second, when the first proposal is rejected, the US Ambassador to the United Nations should submit a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations asking him to make the necessary preparations for the United States of America to leave the United Nations, in the name of equity.

Can’t call it “Amexit” — sounds too much like a TV commercial. Mmmm. How about “Usexit?” No? What, then?




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I Hate When That Happens

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American manufacturing, once the principal source of American economic power, has become a pale shadow of the world-dominant competitor it was only 30 years ago. Although the productivity of American workers still vastly exceeds the worker productivity of all major manufacturing economies, America has become a laggard in the global marketplace. For decades many have bemoaned the descent of America's industrial power. Now they say that the decline has been the result of economic misfortune: globalization, technological advance, foreign competition, unions, and so forth.

The actual misfortune is that US economic policy has been formulated by feckless politicians in Washington DC. It's as if the nebbish Willie (from the “Willie and Frankie” sketches of Saturday Night Live fame) had been behind it all. Because Willie had no grasp of causality, his life was fraught with excruciating experiences, experiences of his own making. In one skit, he came up with a scheme to test mouse traps, only to discover that "the thing came down right on my tongue!" It was an accident, even though "after 40, 50 times, I . . . I . . . I couldn't even feel the cheese." With each painful incident (which included encounters with a meat thermometer, a ball-peen hammer, and a self-threading film projector), the baffled Willie sullenly whined, "I hate when that happens."

Since the turn of this century, 5.7 million American manufacturing jobs have been lost, and the US trade deficit has soared. According to a Council on Foreign Relations study, "between 2000 and 2012, the cumulative total of U.S. spending on imports of goods and services exceeded U.S. export earnings by $7.1 trillion dollars." For manufacturing workers and, for that matter, most Americans, there has been no recovery from the recession of 2008. Two of the Willies that deserve special thanks for this misfortune are former President Bill Clinton — for his role in causing the recession — and current President Barack Obama — for his role in causing the non-recovery.

Although the productivity of American workers still vastly exceeds the worker productivity of all major manufacturing economies, America has become a laggard in the global marketplace.

It's a safe bet that in none of the 542 speeches given since he left office (for which he has reaped $104.9 million) did Mr. Clinton mention how his policies caused the housing bubble and the financial crisis. These policies (deregulation of credit-default swaps, spurious use of the Community Reinvestment Act, and shenanigans with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, HUD, and other organizations, to name a few) were discussed here (“Sticking It To Wall Street”), and the following week, at Reason (“Clinton’s Legacy: The Financial and Housing Meltdown”). They set the stage for the recession that occurred seven years later, no doubt to Clinton's astonishment.

The Clinton legacy also included the unfortunate accidents that followed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), passed in 1993, and permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) for China, granted in 2000. Clinton expected NAFTA to increase US exports and therefore jobs (one million in five years, he promised). Instead, according to a recent Public Citizen report, "millions have suffered job loss, wage stagnation, and economic instability from NAFTA." The export of manufactured products from the US dwindled and the trade deficit with Mexico and Canada shot from $27 billion in 1993 to $177.2 billion today. And the economic chaos that engulfed Mexico prompted "a new wave of migration from Mexico."

Granted, Public Citizen is an anti-NAFTA advocacy group, but its claims are substantiated bytrustworthy sources — namely the US International Trade Commission (for the NAFTA trade deficit data, p. 7 of the report) and the Economic Policy Institute (for the job loss and wage decrease data, p. 8). Ironically, the immigration spike was caused by one of the few US export benefits from NAFTA. With NAFTA, Mexico eliminated its corn subsidy, but the US did not. Asa result, “seventy-five thousand Iowa farmers grew twice as much corn as three million Mexican farmers at half the cost." As subsidized U.S. corn flooded into Mexico, displaced Mexican farmers flooded into the US, greatly contributing to the surge of illegalimmigrants, from 4.8 million in 1993 to 11.7 million by 2012 (p. 22).

For manufacturing workers and, for that matter, most Americans, there has been no recovery from the recession of 2008.

NAFTA has paid off well for US corn farmers. American workers who, in the wake of the immigrant influx, lost their jobs or saw their wages shrink, have come up a little short. As have American taxpayers, who foot the bill for the subsidies awarded to corn industry cronies. This should not be confused with the bill from their cousins, the ethanol industry cronies, for subsidizing the ethanol scam — the ongoingenvironment-friendly fuel program, whose accidents include increasedair pollution, water contamination, soil erosion, andgreenhouse gas emissions, as well as increased prices for gasoline, automobiles, farmland, and food.

Clinton had loftier expectations in his efforts to help China gain World Trade Organization (WTO) membership. But instead of wielding American economic power to establish a level playing field for US industry, Clinton followed the wishes of Wall Street power, which did not extend to protecting US manufacturers from the mercantilist antics of brutal, authoritarian states such as China. As Robert Kuttner explained in “Playing Ourselves for Fools”:

In 1999, when China was negotiating its entry into the WTO, it was a lot weaker economically and financially, and the stench of the Tiananmen massacre still lingered, the U.S. had far more diplomatic leverage than the rather pitiful show of humility befitting a debtor nation displayed on President Barack Obama's recent maiden trip to Beijing. But as the memoirs of both Robert Rubin and Joseph Stiglitz confirm, that leverage was used mainly to gain access for U.S. banks and insurance companies to Chinese markets, not to require China to modify its system of predatory industrial mercantilism.

Clinton promised that China's admission to the WTO would provide the US with a vital trading partner who would change its ways and "play by the rules"; trade with China would "increase U.S. jobs and reduce our trade deficit." All the experts agreed. Then presidential candidate and fellow Willie, George W. Bush, agreed. "It is primarily U.S. exporters who will benefit," echoed the Cato Institute. It would be “a win-win result for both countries,” said Clinton, that could only "grow substantially with the new access to the Chinese market."

Alas, the tremendous US-China trade that ensued has, to date, resulted in the loss of 3.2 million American jobs, a US trade deficit with China of almost $500 billion (that grew from $100 billion in 2001), and, according to the New York Times (“Come On, China, Buy Our Stuff!”), American exporters are still waiting for the payoff. The main reason: currency manipulation by China's Central Bank makes American products more expensive to Chinese consumers. Furthermore, our trade deficit, which enables such manipulation, allows China to use its surplus of US dollars to purchase US Treasury bonds, which, in turn, enables the US government to plunge itself more deeply into debt (now at more than $18 trillion), with US taxpayers paying interest for the privilege.

Instead of wielding American economic power to establish a level playing field for US industry, President Clinton followed the wishes of Wall Street power.

American consumers have benefited, but foreign competitiveness has suffered. As a percentage of GDP, US manufacturing has shrunk from 14% in 2000 to about 11% today. According to a recent Economic Policy Institute study, of the 3.2 million jobs shed by our trade with China, 2.4 million were manufacturing jobs. Moreover, trade with low-wage countries such as China "has driven down wages for workers in U.S. manufacturing and reduced the wages and bargaining power of similar, non-college-educated workers [a pool of 100 million workers] throughout the economy."

Under Clinton's version of free trade, the outsourcing of American production, jobs, and technical expertise has flourished. To participate in such trade, observed Kuttner, many US manufacturing companies engage in

deals to shift their research, technology, and production offshore, sometimes in exchange for explicit subsidies for land, factories, research and development, and the implicit subsidy of low-wage and powerless workers and weak environmental or safety requirements. At other times, the terms of the deal are more stick than carrot: If you want to sell here, the companies are told, you must manufacture here. Or even worse, you can manufacture here but only for re-export to your own domestic market and not for local sale.

Describing Clinton’s legacy, the Huffington Post called him the "Outsourcer-in Chief," saying that

Manufacturers never emerged from the 2001 recession, which coincided with China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Between 2001 and 2009 the U.S. lost 42,400 factories and manufacturing employment dropped to 11.7 million, a loss of 32 percent of all manufacturing jobs.

But things are booming in China, which, thanks to US investment in the expansion and modernization of its manufacturing sector, has now surpassed the US as the world's leading exporter, and in our federal government, which now employs twice as many people as the entire American manufacturing industry — an industry to which Clinton could say, "The thing [WTO deal] came down right on my tongue!"

If Bill Clinton was the Outsourcer-in-Chief, then Barack Obama is the Regulator-in-Chief. With annual federal regulatory compliance costs now at an astounding $1.9 trillion, no one has done more to increase the cost, and decrease the desirability, of doing business in America than Mr. Obama. His regulatory obsession has exceeded that of George Bush, who, in eight years, increased regulatory costs by $318 billion. Obama has increased it by $708 billion, in only six years.

Unhindered by a timid Congress that has consigned its legislative powers to regulators, there's no telling how high Obama can drive regulatory costs during his final two years. But American manufacturing is doubly harassed by existing regulatory overreach, paying a staggering $20,000 per employee in annual compliance costs, compared with $10,000 for the average US firm. The cost is $35,000 per employee for small manufacturers (<50 employees), who, if they can't feel the cheese, can smell the pungent odor of our federal government.

The stagnation that began creeping into the economy under Bush is in full stride under Obama, with GDP growth averaging little more than 2% since he took office. Unconventional oil and gas production (i.e., fracking of oil and gas deposits, mostly on non-federal land) has been the only bright spot. Without fracking, even this tepid GDP growth would have been impossible. With fracking, says the Cato Institute, oil and gas prices have plummeted, increasing disposable income by $1,500 per household, 2.5 million jobs have been created, and a tax windfall of $100 billion has been garnered by government.

No one has done more to increase the cost, and decrease the desirability, of doing business in America than President Obama.

After almost seven years of stagnation, the US economy — with its shrinking middle class and its growing cohort of 55 million jobless working age adults, all desperate for a meaningful recovery from the recession of 2008 — has enthusiastically welcomed the fracking revolution. Mr. Obama's greeting has been less ardent. After almost seven years of tightening drilling regulations, his response has been to tighten fracking regulations, followed by more plans to tighten fracking regulations.

Existing regulations "are more than 30 years old, and they simply have not kept pace with the technical complexities of today’s hydraulic fracturing operations,” explained Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Nor has the 40-year-old crude oil export ban, which is no longer needed, now that the US is flush with oil and gas. Free trade in US energy would help reduce our trade deficit, our national debt, and our dependence on foreign energy. Surging US oil production has been responsible for plummeting global oil prices, thereby improving our national security with respect to countries and terrorist organizations whose bellicosity depends exclusively on oil revenues. Additional production, therefore, would further enhance US security and would likely reduce the frequency with which thugs such as Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei embarrass our president.

Crudely Put,” an article that explains the folly of this archaic ban, alludes to Putin's crushing energy grip on Europe and the reason for America’s reluctance to export more energy. Last February, Vaclav Bartuska, the Czech Republic’s energy envoy, pleaded with "American policymakers to liberalise energy exports . . . to safeguard allies under pressure from Russia," and asked, "if freeing crude exports makes America richer, its allies stronger, its foes weaker and the world safer, what stands in the way?" Willie Obama's colossal green mousetrap, of course.

This from the man who promised shovel-ready jobs, then green jobs, and now brags about the low-income jobs created under his stifling reign.

Perhaps American manufacturers will have better luck with Mr. Obama's new free trade brainchild, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which gives him "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade deals with Pacific Rim countries. Covering the legislation's East Room signing ceremony, Politico's Sarah Wheaton noted its bipartisan support, usually a good sign. But the more telling sign, Wheaton indicated, may have been discerned by the pianist in the Grand Foyer, who played "understated renditions of the theme to ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ songs depicting fantasy worlds undone by cynicism and lost innocence."

Reminiscent of Clinton's trade deal confidence, Mr. Obama stated that he was "absolutely convinced that these pieces of legislation are ultimately good for American workers." This from the man who promised shovel-ready jobs, then green jobs, and now brags about the low-income jobs created under his stifling reign — while middle-income manufacturing jobs languish.

Last November, Mr. Clinton conjectured, "NAFTA is still controversial but people will thank me for it in 20 years." He might as well have bit his lower lip and said, "after 40, 50 years, we  . . . we . . . we will feel the cheese." It will take much longer for American manufacturing to thank him for hustling China into the WTO. And who knows how long it will "ultimately" take for manufacturing workers to thank Obama for the trade deals that he hopes to negotiate — deals with trading partners who cannot be controlled by the $2 trillion regulatory mousetrap that punishes American manufacturers. It is a mousetrap with a spring force that Obama has increased by $708 billion. And, as the thing comes right down on his tongue, he orders costly new climate change regulations — to be paid for by US manufacturers, and ignored by their foreign competitors.

Federal trade and regulatory policy, not foreign competition and unions, is responsible for the decline of American manufacturing. Free trade, whose banner is routinely hoisted to adorn trade negotiations, exists only in the delusional minds of our hapless political leaders. Indeed, that American manufacturers must conform to inordinately higher standards (of trade, finance, health, safety, environment, etc.) than their foreign competitors is considered an achievement by the causality-challenged Obama. Green ideology, not economics or trade, is his forte. Officious regulation, not sound industrial policy, is his goal. As to the unfortunate accidents — chronic economic stagnation, declining household income, growing income inequality, immense pubic debt, enormous trade deficits, shrinking geopolitical power, and waning foreign competitiveness — that have befallen his presidency, he hates when that happens.




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Drugs Are the Least of the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Collateral Damage

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In Honduras, a country whose murder rate is 18 times that of the United States, citizens kill one another with impunity. In El Salvador, bodies lie in the street and get only a nervous glance from passers-by. In Guatemala, as well as Honduras, gangsters attack buses, robbing and even murdering the passengers. Throughout these three countries — they make up the Northern Triangle of Central America — members of such proliferating gangs as MS-13 and Barrio 18 do battle, leading to the death or disappearance of innumerable young people. The gangs specialize in kidnapping, extortion, and contract killing and often form alliances with the drug cartels.

In Mexico, which is supposedly peaceful, there have been deeply disturbing signs. In 2011, in Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico, police found 59 bodies in a pit near the place where, earlier, 72 bodies had been found — all of them the remains of Central American immigrants. These humble souls were forced off buses and shot when they refused to work for the Zetas, Mexico’s most pervasive drug cartel. In 2014, in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos murdered 43 college students, burned their bodies, put the residues in plastic bags, and tossed them into the San Juan River. The students had commandeered buses to take them to a political rally. The police pursued and captured them and, for some reason, turned them over to the cartel.

This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually.

And in 2015, along the road between the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and the city of Guadalajara, a motorized police column rode into an ambush that killed 15 of the officers and wounded five more. The incident occurred in the southwestern state of Jalisco, home of the New Generation, yet another drug cartel. This attack upon the police is a reminder of the choice given government officials by magisterial drug runners — plomo o plata, lead or silver. In other words, take a bribe or take a bullet. And to further intimidate them, the cartel hitmen have been known to place their victims before the public. Thus, in 2011, on a busy highway in Boca del Río, their agents halted traffic long enough to arrange 35 corpses for viewing by travelers.

As for the street gangs that cooperate with the cartels and practice their own style of intimidation — the biggest had their beginnings in the United States. Barrio 18 and MS-13 (properly named Mara Salvatrucha) were organized on the streets of Los Angeles. Subsequent criminal deportations sent some members back to their native El Salvador, where they found fertile ground, reorganized, and now filter back into this country. Barrio Azteca began in Texas prisons and became allies of the Juarez drug cartel. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Sureños began in prisons north of the border. Why did these gangs arise? What sustains them? Clearly, they were organized, not only for status and mutual defense, but also to gain a share of the enormous illegal drug market. And their territorial expansion and growth in membership indicate that they’ve succeeded.

Indeed, the entire network of gangs and cartels sits on the bedrock of America’s War on Drugs. This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually. Their huge markups have kept street prices high in the United States, making criminals wealthy and powerful and encouraging larceny, robbery, and even murder by desperate drug users. Added to these troubles are the sufferings inflicted on the people south of the border. There, the authorities — those who have avoided corruption — have little means to face the enormous crime wave created by the drug cartels and their street allies, whose crimes include the wanton murder of innocent citizens, including women and children.

All that I’ve described leads me to the obvious question — to what extent is the “immigration problem” simply more fallout from our War on Drugs? Of course, many Latino gangsters, with their tattoos and secret hand signals, have been sneaking northward, heading for cities to get those illegal-drug dollars. And along with them have come wandering misfits and ne’er-do-wells. But I suspect that conditions in Mexico and especially in Central America have so deteriorated that the soundest citizens are fleeing, searching for safe havens for themselves and their families. Is it the lure of our welfare state that attracts them? Or is it the all too visible cynicism and violence in their own countries that repels them? I don’t have precise answers, but I do know that wars consistently produce refugees — noncombatants who flee the battlegrounds. I doubt that our War on Drugs is an exception.

 

Further Reading

Adinolfi, Joseph. “Six Things You Need to Know about America’s Illegal Drug Trade: Who’s Using What, Where, and at What Cost — ConvergEx Study.” International Business Times, 29 Oct. 2013.

AP “59 Bodies Found Buried in a Series of Pits in Northern Mexico State of Tamaulipas.” New York Daily News, 7 Apr. 2011.

Barrio Azteca.” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas.

Brecher, Edward M., and the Editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Carroll, Rory. “Honduras: ‘We Are Burying Kids All the Time.’” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2010.

Castillo, Mariano. “Remains Could Be Those of Missing Mexican Students.” CNN, 11 November 2014.

Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report.” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

Crime in El Salvador.” Wikipedia.

Crime in Guatemala.” Ibid.

Crime in Honduras.” Ibid.

Crime in Mexico.” Ibid.

Daugherty, Arron. “MS 13, Barrio 18 Rivalry Increasing in Violence in Guatemala: President.” Insight Crime, 4 Feb. 2015.

DrugTraffickingintheUnitedStates. Washington DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004.

Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. Fwd. Kurt L. Schmoke. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1994.

Dyer, Zach. “Costa Rica Saw ‘Important Increase in Violence,’ says OIJ Director.” The Tico Times, 17 Feb. 2015.

El Salvador.” Insight Crime.

Gagne, David. “Guerreros Unidos, The New Face of Mexico Organized Crime?Insight Crime, 9 Oct. 2014.

___. “Mexico Drug Cartels Arming Gangs in Costa Rica.” Ibid., 17 Nov. 2014.

___. “Mexico Captures Sinaloa Cartel Head in Central America.” Ibid., 13 Apr. 2015.

Grillo, Ioan. “Mexican Gangsters Send a Grisly Message in Crime.” Time, 21 Sept. 2011.

Hargrove, Dorian. “Sinaloa Drug Cartel Controls 16 Mexican States, Including Baja California.” San Diego Reader, 3 Jan 2012.

Hastings, Deborah. “In Central America, Women Killed ‘With Impunity’ Just Because They’re Women.” New York Daily News, 10 Jan. 2014.

Honduras.” Insight Crime.

How Safe Is Mexico: A Travelers Guide to Safety Over Sensationalism.

Kilmer, Beau, et al. “How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation. 2014.

 ____. “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation, 7 March 2014.

Nicaragua.” Insight Crime.

Pelofsky, Jeremy. “Guns from U.S. Sting Found at Mexican Crime Scenes.” Reuters, 26 July 2011.

Police Officers Die in Mexico Roadside Ambush.” Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2015.

Riesenfeld, Loren. “ICE Raids Suggest Mexican Organized Crime Expanding Reach into U.S.Insight Crime, 9 Apr. 2015.

Romero, Simon. “Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City.” The New York Times, 22 May 2007.

Romo, Rafael. “Is the Case of 43 Missing Students in Mexico Closed?CNN, 28 Jan. 2015.

Stanford University. “The United States War on Drugs.”

2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping.” Wikipedia.

World Report: 2012.” Human Rights Watch.




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The Moonwalk & The Fish That Got Away

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I just watched an aquatic episode of Monster Quest on the History Channel. It reminded me of how I, like 600 or 700 million Chinese, missed the first walk on the moon. Yes, “Monster Quest.” Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone! And, yes, I know, that show has painted itself into a corner. It will pretty much have to produce a live sasquatch, or at least the carcass of one soon, or go off the air. But, don't worry, eventually this, my story, is going to turn into a fishing story, and also into a sex story.

The documentary examined a possible giant grouper attack on a child in Florida. It included good underwater footage of several Goliath groupers at close range. In the old days, some Goliath groupers were weighed in at over 500 pounds. Big fish! No need to lie if you hooked one of those.

I was about 26 and I was spending a whole summer on a small Mexican island off the Caribbean coast. I had only one purpose: to enact repeatedly a typical, recurrent fantasy of my French youth. I was there to spear sea creatures during the day and to cook and eat them during the warm tropical night. That was it. France is far to the north of most of North America, if you look at a map attentively. Paris, where I was raised, is even north of Montreal. It's also far from the ocean, but city people in France have deeply-anchored thalassotropism, an unreasoned attraction to the sea. Many spend summer at the seaside, where they learn to swim well. Even way back then, some people, like me, learned in their early teens to be comfortable underwater and to spear fish. French boys especially fantasized about tropical seas in the days when travel was expensive and it seemed there was little chance you would ever go there. Their dreams were purposeful and competent. They wanted to do something about them if the occasion arose, by some miracle. Well, the miracle happened for me. I emigrated to California, next door to Mexico.

In Mexico, I spent most daylight hours in the clear, clear sea, free-diving. That means up and down and up and down, holding your breath — no effeminate breathing apparatus (no scuba). With good training, under favorable conditions, if you are in shape, you can do that for hours on end. I never got bored, because I wasn't there for the sights; I was spearing fish right and left and I was also catching rock lobsters. (That's the red lobster with small claws, also called “spiny lobster.”) I don't wish to explain how I was catching the lobsters; I have a persistent fear of the Mexican constabulary, and I don't know what's the statute of limitation. The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the English Channel, where I had learned, that it was almost like moving to another planet.

For French spear-fishermen of that era, one kind of fish had legendary and mythical status: groupers. There were none in the Channel, and none in the Atlantic at those latitudes. There were only a few in the Mediterranean. Groupers were said to be elusive, secretive, and almost impossible to spear. Diving magazines reproduced endlessly the same photograph of the same champion of France posing with the same two foot-long grouper. I could not imagine, then, any change in my life's circumstances that would bring me within distance of such a trophy. To complete the picture, groupers were said to be excellent eating fish — not a small detail for the French, then or now.

The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the Channel that it was almost like moving to another planet.

Fast-forwarding my life story: that summer, I was right there on prime grouper territory. Once I had caught my three rock lobsters or my small barracuda for dinner, I would explore the reef cavities slowly, deliberately. I discovered that there were many groupers around but that they hid inside deep holes in the daytime. I devised a method to draw some of them out (the stupid ones, no doubt) where I could take a clear shot at them with my modest-sized rubber band spear gun. (I am sorry but I will not reveal the method until I am on my deathbed; it's like my secret chanterelles patch.)

Well, fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it. So I caught groupers worth catching several times and early on in my stay. And yes, the flesh was delicious, surprisingly refined in flavor and with a firm texture.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming American expedition to the moon had been the subject of a barrage of news, quasi-news, and speculations even in that remote part of Mexico. The night before the event, the locals were buying beer, and the few gringo tourists were right behind them. Some old women were even preparing Christmas tamales, way out of season. It was obvious there was not going to be any work done the next day, the planned date for the moonwalk.

We did not have access to a TV but my American girlfriend and I were going to join the festivities around a transistor radio with several other Americans. We were going to listen to commentators give the blow-by-blow. Incidentally, Mexican commentators of anything are better, more lively, more animated than their American counterparts. But grouper was on my mind. So, earlier than usual on the morning of the landing, I went into the water, close to town, with the modest objective of just doing a little exploration for later. Almost right away, I spotted a flat reef of old, smooth coral, shaped like a table, with many good-size perforations on its top.

Fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it.

Soon, the sun was at such an angle that I could see inside each hole right from the surface. I noticed something moving inside a hole and thought it might be a darting lobster. I dived down to investigate and immediately realized I was looking at the marbled skin of a large grouper with its head right under the opening. The atavistic assassin's reflex took over. Coolly, I told myself I would never have a better chance to shoot a large grouper in the head, where it counts, and at close range. One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

I shot as planned, right in the skull, and pulled on the line connecting the gun to the shaft in the fish, to bring it to the surface. There was resistance. I went down to investigate and found that the grouper was not dead, that it had inflated its body and braced itself inside the hole with its spiny dorsal fin. I dived about 15 or 20 times, and I was unable to budge it at all. Finally, I located a horizontal hole under the flat surface of the reef from which I could gain access to the struggling fish from a different angle.

I wrestled with the grouper for more than two hours, becoming prey to what economists know as the “sunk cost fallacy.” I had already invested so much time in that fish, I couldn't really let it go. In addition, one of my precious few shafts was embedded in its head and I would have to abandon it too.

Finally, the fish gave up or expired; it stopped resisting. I reached into the hole and grabbed it by the eye cavities, thumb in one eye, index finger in the other. I floated the fish up to the surface with no trouble and walked to town in the hot sun carrying on my shoulder a grouper the size of which I would not have even dared imagine ten years earlier, when I was still only a French spear-fisherman. I cannot tell you exactly how big that fish was, because there was no opportunity to weigh it, or even to measure it. Besides, fishermen are routinely accused of lying about measurements — because so many do, in fact, lie. I can say, however, that the next day, it fed eight young adults easily.

One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

By the time I arrived, the lunar show was over, the two guys had taken their little walk on the moon, everyone assured me, and the celebration was well under way. My girlfriend was miffed, but when she saw the grouper, she kind of understood my glee, although she was not a diver, and not even a woman of the sea. (She was just intelligent, and very hot!) At any rate, the moonwalk has always had a slight sense of unreality for me, because I did not watch it or even hear a description of the event in real time. As I mentioned, I am a little like the red Chinese who found out for sure only many years later. You might say, I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

There is a sequel to this story. The brain learns things it does not even know it knows. Every good fisherman will tell you he does not understand all his successes. So, the moonwalk fish subtly encouraged me to keep looking for grouper.

I explored a big pile of boulders, in shallow water, right across the narrow beach from the concrete cubicle where I lived. The top boulders almost broke the surface at low tide; the white sand on which they rested may have been 25 feet down, not much for an experienced free-diver with good, recent local training. Soon, I found a narrow space at the base of the boulders. With lots of air in my lungs, I did not hesitate to crawl inside. I ended up underneath the pile of rocks with just the tips of my flippers emerging.

I wasn't worried about wounding myself against the rocks, because I was wearing a light wetsuit. (I always wear a wetsuit when diving, even and especially in warm water. Warm water has coral. Any contact with most corals will inflict a thousand small cuts that will not heal if you submerge yourself in the salty sea repeatedly. And if you perspire even a little in the tropical night, the cuts hurt like hell.) I let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and discovered a black, glistening surface a couple of feet away from my face that did not look like rock.

I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

I came up for air and went down again to the same spot, through the narrow passage, which gave me exactly the same orientation to the light. The mysterious surface had changed color. After a dozen times going up and down and into the hole, my face suddenly confronted another face, right at the bottom. The other face had big thick lips and globular eyes. In spite of that striking description, it took my brain a few seconds to register what I was seeing, because of its sheer size. The face was several times larger than mine. The hole was nearly filled by a giant grouper.

That the fish did not scoot at my approach was not surprising. First, the narrow passage in which I had crawled may have been the only exit route. Second, large groupers have few predators. They are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

When I understood what was so close to me, my heart did not beat faster. I felt very calm and collected. I dived repeatedly to reassure myself that I was not dreaming. Several times I saw the characteristic lips and the round eyes; I observed that the dark skin was shiny; I saw parts of fins bigger than my legs.

Grouper are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

Remember that I had my little spear gun with me. Spearing the giant point-blank would have been child's play. Yet, I did not press the trigger. I wasn't afraid just then but something in my unconscious mind stopped me. I can't begin to say how big the grouper was because I never saw the whole thing. It was bigger than me. It might have been the biggest grouper anyone had ever speared. Certainly, it would have been the biggest grouper a French-born person had ever caught free-diving — or at any rate, any Parisian.

I went up and down for an hour, thinking, calculating from what angle to shoot, and then how to retrieve it out of its hole. As I was in shallow water, it seemed feasible. There was a very good chance I would be able to drag the fish out swimming backward in the narrow passage, if it were dead.

Soon, it became like solving an engineering problem. I got out of the water and walked back to my place to have lunch and do some more thinking. I was confident the giant would be there when I returned. I thought the boulders were its permanent dwelling.

But back at the grouper's cave, after 45 minutes or so, my disposition had changed slightly. I took yet another look at the fish. It dawned on me then that there was some real danger in attacking at close quarters, from a narrow space where I could not turn around, an animal bigger than myself, with sharp teeth, that could breathe in water. Then, another part of my brain began to feel that something was wrong about eating such a magnificent and, no doubt, old creature. Then, I told myself that having spent so much time in such close proximity with such a big grouper was enough of a trophy for a Paris boy. Besides, my hot girlfriend had been waiting for me with her imagination running on high rpm. She had, torrid, unspeakable plans for the rest of my afternoon. I abandoned the endeavor and went home with a light heart.

Many years later, the giant grouper that I spared, not speared, visits me in my dreams, but only when I am in a good mood, or when I am subconsciously plotting a small vacation to an exotic place. Fishermen will want to know if I ever felt fisherman's regrets over that huge catch I did not catch. The answer is that I do feel regrets, but I am sure I would have felt fisherman's remorse if I had taken the giant grouper and butchered it in the sun. There is a subtle issue of choice between two unequal ills here. Remorse will follow you forever although you can pretend you have forgotten its cause or causes. Regrets are, in principle, temporary. The goal you did not reach, the apple you did not pick may fall in your lap at any time before you check out for good; you never know. Even the one with whom you were pointlessly in lust when you were a junior in high school might go for you at the 20-year reunion. It's not what it could have been but still!

Postscript: Yes, I was diving alone. It's supposed to be dangerous. I am not recommending that divers who use scuba do the same. I am not even recommending the practice to other free-divers. It was just the right thing for me, at that time. The safe alternative is to have a diving companion who is a short fat woman who thrashes noisily in the water and swims too clumsily to escape anything.




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Playing the Odds

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In the old days, the mob and similar outfits ran the numbers racket in most of your larger American cities. The numbers racket was simple: you pick a three-digit number, give the guy your money, and, if your number comes up, you get a payoff about 600 times as big as the bet. As the overall payout was around 60%, the mob was sure to get a very respectable return on their end.

I think it was in the ’60s that the government started muscling in. Now it’s called the lottery, but it’s the same racket, except the odds were better when it was the mob running it because they did not feel it was incumbent upon them to withhold income tax.

Oh yeah, and now it’s legal. There is a new game now.

Here’s how it works. You pick a federal law. Any law will do. Then you violate that law. That’s right: you break it. Next, you wait to see whether the government decides that the violation entitles you to a cash payout. If so, you go to the government and provide proof that you violated the law. Then you just fill out the usual numerous forms and, eventually, the government hands you the cash.

A guy I know who likes to crack wise calls it “statutory roulette.” The odds that you will choose the right law to break aren’t particularly good, but it could happen.

Here’s an example.

Let us say it is 2009 and Victor, a guy in Juarez, Mexico, chooses to violate US immigration law by sneaking across the border to Texas. So he sneaks. He finds work, gets married, and, in the fullness of time, has a few kids. He files income taxes, but not with a Social Security Number (SSN), because, as he is what is sometimes called an “illegal alien,” he can’t have one. Instead, he has to use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). All this time, he stays in Texas. His children, having been born in the US, are automatically US citizens, which is only right. Victor keeps his nose relatively clean. He is not convicted of any felonies or even serious misdemeanors. Things are going pretty good for Victor.

Now it’s called the lottery, but it’s the same racket, except the odds were better when it was the mob running it.

So, as of November 14, 2014, Victor is still “unlawfully present” in the United States when, out of the blue, President Barack Obama approves an executive action that changes everything. The action is called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). And, just like that, Victor is eligible for a three-year deferral of deportation, a work permit, and an SSN.

It is hard to believe, I know, but you can look it up right here.

Here’s the good part. With the SSN, Victor can now refile his taxes for the past three years. And since he has that SSN, he is also retroactively eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a cash grant given to working people with kids. It is available only for people who are not in one of your higher income brackets. Which Victor is definitely not.

So. It seems that Victor is now eligible for a cash payment from the feds of somewhere around six to nine thousand American dollars.

At a Finance Committee hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked John Koskinen, the IRS Commissioner, whether this EITC thing for people who are in the country illegally is on the level. The IRS guy gave a long-winded answer that somewhat conspicuously did not include the word “no.” The exchange was on the TV. You can watch it here.

Just make sure you keep all the evidence that proves you actually did the crime, or the feds won’t pay up.

The senator couldn’t believe what he was hearing, so he said he wanted an answer in writing. The letter the IRS guy sent the senator is here.

Get the picture? That’s right, straight from the horse’s mouth: Victor is entitled to the dough.

Victor entered the country illegally. He lived in the country illegally. I mean, it wasn’t even legal for him to work here. And now, the federal government is going to give him a many-grand payoff for the time when he was “unlawfully present.” What can I say, Victor? Your number came up.

It is widely known that a reliable way to increase your chance of winning when you play the numbers or the lottery is to bet on more than one number. The more numbers you bet on, the better the odds are that one of your numbers will come up. In much the same way, it stands to reason that to improve your chances of winning in “statutory roulette,” it would be highly advisable for you to violate lots and lots of federal laws. The more of them you break, the better the odds that you’ll break one that ultimately entitles you to a wad of c-notes. Just make sure you keep all the evidence that proves you actually did the crime, or the feds won’t pay up.

Which is only fair.




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¡VIVA OBAMA!

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On May 4, 2009, President Obama greeted the Mexican Ambassador and others to the White House, saying “Welcome to Cinco de Quatro . . .”

Now, Cinco de Mayo is the holiday that celebrates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Quatro, on the other hand, means the something like “the Fifth of Four,” or maybe “Five from Four.” President Obama, with his usual aplomb, quickly corrected himself amidst friendly laughter and gave a nice speech that was very well received. Here it is.

That speech has given me the courage to write this piece. Should I make a fool of myself by stretching my limited knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history to the breaking point, it comforts me to know that I am not speaking on camera to Mexican dignitaries at the White House.

For much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.

This essay will begin with three colorful anecdotes that illustrate Latin American-style authoritarianism generally, and then survey the origins and history of Mexico’s presidency in particular. Next will come a biographical sketch of Jorge Ramos, the newly famous Univision news anchor. The recent decision by President Obama to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) is then examined with an emphasis on Mr. Ramos’ contribution to that decision. In conclusion, a modest proposal is made. It is hoped that this admittedly odd juxtapositioning will provide a vantage point from which we can gain a fresh perspective on the president’s historic initiative about immigration.

I

That Latin American heads of government have tended to be relatively more authoritarian than American presidents is not news. Where to start? Pinochet? Perón? Samoza? Batista? Trujillo? There are so many. I know, let’s start with Esposito.

In his 1971 film Bananas, Woody Allen imagines a revolution in San Marcos, a fictitious Central American country. Esposito, the leader of the guerillas, played by Jacobo Morales, gives a victory speech from a balcony in the capital square, saying, “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour! Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check!” The movie is a comedy. Here's the clip.

I read somewhere that Mr. Allen is not proud of his early work.

In February 2010, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela strode into a square in downtown Caracas with his entourage, the city’s mayor, and a TV crew. Standing in the square, he pointed to a building, asked a few questions about it, and then summarily ordered the building to be expropriated by the state. He did this over and over, with lots of buildings. He wasn’t kidding. This version is captioned in English.

Now, you tell me: Who was funnier, Esposito or Chavez?

Latin American authoritarianism is more subtly on display in the marvelous ESPN documentary, “Brothers in Exile.” It is the story of two Cuban baseball players who defected to the United States. In 1997, one of them, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, fled the country in a small fishing boat, leaving his family behind. In 1998, John Cardinal O’Connor sent a lay emissary, Mario Paredes, to Cuban President Fidel Castro with a letter requesting that Hernández’s family be allowed to join him in the US. When Paredes entered the president’s office, Castro was watching Hernandez help the Yankees win the World Series. Upon reading the letter, Castro told the emissary that Orlando was, “a good muchacho; one of the glories of Cuba.” Castro allowed the family to fly with Paredes to New Jersey the same day. Meanwhile, Mr. Juan Hernández Nodar, a Cuban-American baseball scout, was left to languish in a hellish Cuban prison for the remaining 11 years of his 13 year sentence for the heinous crime of unsuccessfully attempting to recruit “El Duque” in Cuba two years before. Nodar's story is worth reading.

Fidel Castro is affectionately known as “El Commandante.”

II

As the focus now narrows to Mexico, the question arises: What stirs this authoritarian impulse?

The pre-Columbian empires and societies of Mexico, it has been said, did little to prepare their people for participatory democracy, as they were less interested in human rights than human sacrifices.

The Spanish monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, some point out, weren’t fond of the notion of “the separation of powers.” They preferred the “top-down” model of governance.

It is also unlikely that the centuries-long Moorish occupation of Spain, the grueling Reconquista, and the Spanish Inquisition did much to create sympathy for the tradition of the “loyal opposition” or to enhance the practice of compromise in the governance of colonial or post-colonial Mexico.

The conquistadores and caudillos, others say, cared little for systems that included any significant “check” on their authority. The only real “balance” in the system was the usurper waiting in the wings. (The most frequent “balancer” might have been Antonio López de Santa Anna, the eleven-time President of Mexico. Yes, eleven.)

In Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto suggests that the “more or less continuous democratic development, constitutional propriety, and rule of law” in the US was possible because its revolution was fought before the Napoleonic Wars. The continuing “incapacitated political chaos” of Latin America he attributes, at least in part, to its revolutions being fought after “the French Revolution had dissolved the Enlightenment in blood and sanctified crimes committed in liberty’s name.” He may be right. It is certainly true that Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the same year that Napoleon died.

The theories that seek to explain the tendency toward authoritarianism are many, complex, and sometimes contradictory, but this much is clear: whether Left or Right, military or civilian, whether the result of a coup, an election, or a revolution, the government of Mexico has generally sported a robust executive branch and spindly and dependent legislative and judicial branches. There have been exceptions, of course, here and there, now and then, and things are changing, some say for the better, but the generalization stands: for much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.

While Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.

Enrique Krause’s book, Mexico, Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810–1996, tells the life stories of the leaders of Mexico from the War of Independence until 1996. He conceptualizes the history of Mexico as the struggle to achieve a true democracy in a country where, as the title suggests, the presidents have wielded enormous arbitrary power and, as a result, have had disproportionate personal influence on the uneven evolution of Mexican society. Much of the book details the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990 called “the perfect dictatorship.” Krause details endemic corruption, pervasive nepotism, massive expropriations, suicides, assassinations, mass atrocities, and elections rigged with live fire. He gives praise where he thinks it due but does not pull his punches in criticizing those who have thwarted the establishment of a real constitutional democracy.

To be fair, Krause’s book was published in 1997, and thus does not include the end of the PRI’s long run in 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency, nor the subsequent reelection of the PRI’s candidate in 2012. Fortunately, in an opinion piece in the December 11, 2014, New York Times, Krause updated his view of the presidency of Mexico:

The long rule of the PRI became a source of corruption that led, in the final decades of the 20th century, to the enrichment of politicians with ties to major drug traffickers. Many of us believed that all this would disappear with the advent of democracy in 2000, when the PRI fell from power after 71 years. We were wrong. The sudden limitations put on the near-monarchical powers of the president had the positive effect of liberating legal local powers (governors and mayors), but it also gave new strength to illegal local powers (drug traffickers and organized crime operatives), who recognized and utilized the weakness of control within the new democratic state to expand their national influence.

So, it seems that while Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.

III

Even the most patient reader must now be asking what in the world all of this has to do with what whitehouse.gov calls “the President’s Immigration Accountability Executive Actions.” Bear with me.

Who is Jorge Ramos?

Jorge Ramos was born in Mexico City in 1958. Tim Padgett, writing in Time (Aug. 22, 2005), explains that “as a 24-year-old reporter in Mexico City, Jorge Ramos felt choked by more than just the capital's notorious smog. Tired of censorship from Mexico's then ruling party, the PRI, Ramos bolted for Los Angeles in 1983.” Ramos himself said in his Nov. 26, 2014, speech accepting the Benjamin Burton Memorial Award, “I came to the U.S. after they tried to censor me in Mexico.” Hispanic Culture Online confirms that when he was a young reporter for Televisa in Mexico City, his stories were often censored to placate the PRI. By 1984 he had found work as a cub reporter for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles, an affiliate of the Spanish-language network, Univision.

Now based in Miami, Jorge Ramos has been the anchor for Univision since 1986 and is the most influential Spanish-language journalist in the country. It could even be argued that he is the most influential journalist, period, given that his English-only competition is fragmented and preoccupied with chasing ratings. After all, 17% of Americans are of Hispanic origin.

In political matters, Ramos does not pretend to be neutral. As he said in the acceptance speech, “When we deal with the powerful, we have to take a stand. Yes, we have to take an ethical decision and side with those who have no power.” In the December 1 issue of Time, reporter Michael Scherer writes that Ramos “is not just a newscaster, but an advocate and an agitator” More specifically, he is a leader of Hispanics in the US, especially the undocumented. As Ramos told Scherer, “Now, with the new numbers, we are being seen. Our voice is being heard.”

Again: who is Jorge Ramos? Here’s a composite portrait: one part Jesse Jackson, spokesman and advocate for an aggrieved minority. One part Sam Donaldson, whose tenacious questioning style annoyed many presidents. Maybe one part Zorro, the mythological figure who championed poor Californios in their struggle against Spanish tyranny. And perhaps a dash of Emiliano Zapata, the hero of the campesinos in their quest to recover their land, and even a bit of Miguel Hidalgo, the Mexican creole priest who first raised the banner of rebellion against Spain. Oh, and more than a little bit of César Chávez. In a sense, one could say that Jorge Ramos is an archetypal Mexican hero.

A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another.

When he interviews, he easily can be imagined as a matador, poised gracefully, awaiting the charge of the bull, his sword concealed in his muleta, his small red cape, ready to deliver the estocada, the death blow. For example, Padgett relates how Jorge Ramos once asked Fidel Castro if he ever planned to have real elections. Castro’s bodyguard slugged Ramos. Really.

The transcript and video of his acceptance speech at the Press Freedom Awards is here.

IV

On May 28, 2008, in Denver, presidential candidate Barack Obama said this to Mr. Ramos: “What I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.”

On September 20, 2012, in Miami, a disappointed Mr. Ramos pressed Mr. Obama, “At the beginning of your governing, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise.”

Ramos was undeterred by the president’s lengthy and somewhat unresponsive answer: “It was a promise, Mr. President. And I don't want to — because this is very important, I don’t want to get you off the explanation. You promised that. And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”

The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law.

Well. Let’s split a few hairs. Between those two interviews there was a global financial crisis and the start of what some have called the Great Recession. Dealing with those problems and the Affordable Care Act, the president had what might be called a full plate. Sure, the healthcare law was a choice but, in the end, the fact that there was no immigration bill that he could promote or support is really not so surprising.

It is the president’s answer to Ramos’ “broken promise” charge that is of greatest interest:

There’s the thinking that the President is somebody who is all powerful and can get everything done. In our branch of — in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature; I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done.

The quoted passages from the two interviews are in this video; the transcripts are from politifacts and whitehouse.gov.

The president’s response to the immigration question was unremarkable. There’s nothing in it that every high school Civics student isn’t taught. (But is Civics still taught?) He’d said it many times before and would say it many times more. In fact, on Nov. 19, 2014, Matt Wolking, a spokesman for John Boehner, compiled a chronological list of 22 quotations in which Barack Obama states that he does not have the power to reform the immigration laws on his own. Reading them is a bit like watching those old time-lapse photography sequences. At first, in 2008, like the constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago that he once was (OK, Senior Lecturer), he criticizes his predecessor for going outside the boundaries of the powers given to the president in the constitution. (“That’s what I intend to reverse when I’m president.”) Then, you can hear the frustration with Congress grow. (“I’m not a king.” “I’m not an emperor.”) The list is here. It’s worth the read.

And then, on Nov. 20, 2014, Obama expanded his constitutionally questionable DACA program to include parents, thereby deferring the deportation of up to 5 million illegal immigrants.

The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law. And on Nov. 25, 2014, he said exactly that to a heckler urging him to stop all deportations. Watch.

It is said that the president “misspoke.”

It is possible that the president had concluded months earlier that he had the power to change laws unilaterally. Here he is walking with French President François Hollande in February 2014. If you listen carefully, you will hear Obama say, “That’s the good thing about being the President: I can do whatever I want.” Listen.

This comment is sometimes called a “quip” — you know, like the time Louis XIV quipped, “I am the state.” Or when Mel Brooks quipped, “It’s good to be the king.”

Mexico is present within the life of the United States and it will be so more and more through the years to come. By coming to know Mexico, North Americans can learn to understand an unacknowledged part of themselves.” — Octavio Paz, 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature, from the dust jacket of Mexico: Biography of Power, by Enrique Krauze

V

A young journalist flees a land with an authoritarian presidency that censors his work to go to land that has a Constitution that actually protects his freedom of speech. He then uses that freedom to badger the president of his new home into overreaching his constitutional limits. He encourages the president to singlehandedly change a law that applies to millions of people. That the law needs changing is not the point. And it is not the fault of the now middle-aged journalist that the president succumbs to the goading. The journalist should know, however, that he has, perhaps inadvertently, even innocently, nudged the presidency of his new home in the direction of the authoritarian presidency of the land he once fled. A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law, you see, has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another. Who knows? He may even change the laws governing censorship.

President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.

In 1998, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison crowned Bill Clinton “The First Black President.” It’s sadly ironic that President Obama has disappointed so many African-Americans. The hope for change that filled them has largely faded. Poverty rates, home ownership, household incomes, and net worth have not improved during his first six years. Here are the sad facts.

On the other hand, President Obama did deliver real changes for undocumented immigrants, most of whom, like Mr. Ramos, came to the US from Mexico. President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.

In recognition of the good he has done for these immigrants and because he did it in a way that approximates the “near-monarchical powers” of the presidents of the PRI party in its heyday, it is hereby proposed that Barack Obama be crowned “The First Mexican President.”

¡Viva Obama!

***

Outtake: An interesting passage from the badgering Fusion / Univision interview of Barack Obama by Jorge Ramos, Nashville, on Tuesday, December 9:

RAMOS: But if you — as you were saying, you always had the legal authority to stop deportations, then why did you deport two million people?

POTUS: Jorge, we’re not going to—

RAMOS: For six years you did it.

POTUS: No. Listen, Jorge—

RAMOS: You destroyed many families. They called you deporter-in-chief.

POTUS: You called me deporter-in-chief.

RAMOS: It was Janet Murguia from La Raza.

POTUS: Yeah, but let me say this, Jorge—

RAMOS: Well, you could have stopped deportations.

POTUS: No, no, no.

RAMOS: That’s the whole idea.

POTUS: That is not true. Listen, here’s the fact of the matter.

RAMOS: You could have stopped them.

/em




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