Election in India, World’s Biggest Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Indians conceptualize what corruption really means?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Universities Are Not Walmart

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Just recently, the e-zine Salon.com ran a piece bearing the provocative title, “The Walmart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed.” It wins my prize for the most bizarre think-piece of the year.

The author, Keith Hoeller, considers the move in higher education to replace tenure-track professors with lowly adjuncts. To him, this is apparently as shocking as it is surprising.

He begins by noting that various surveys of workers show that tenured professors are a pretty happy bunch. They average over $90,000 a year in total compensation, for only nine months work, and they report low levels of job stress, high levels of job satisfaction, and so on. This is hardly a surprise. Getting tenure means never having to hear “you’re fired.” Tenured professors are virtually immune from termination, no matter how poor their job performance.

The first strange thing about Hoeller’s article is that it isn’t reporting anything new. The shift from highly-paid tenured professors to lowly-paid adjuncts has been going on for decades. The article’s deeper flaw its author’s use of Walmart as a slur.

Yes, Walmart uses a lot of part-time labor, as do most other retail and service industries. (The frequency of part-time work is increasing rapidly as the full implementation of that crazy-quilt law called ObamaCare grows nigh). But the resemblance ends there. Walmart, so despised by bien pensant literati, has succeeded in lowering its prices dramatically, on a vast array of consumer goods, and has done so since its inception. Walmart saves the average American family — all American families, including those of elitists who refuse to shop there — something like $2,300 per year. Its costcutting measures, including of course labor-saving measures — which go way beyond using part-time labor — have benefitted all consumers with lower prices and better goods, and Walmart investors with a good return on their money.

Walmart, Target, Costco and so on continue to deliver more for less, while the higher education system business only continues to deliver less for more.

In stark contrast, colleges have systematically screwed their consumers and investors. Consider first the consumers, i.e. students. During the past few decades, they have seen their tuition rise much faster than inflation — while the service rendered has steadily deteriorated. The deterioration takes the form of watered-down courses, degrees in vacuous subjects, and rampant grade inflation. Over the past decade in particular, students have had to run up huge amounts of loan debt getting degrees that have proven worthless in terms of career placement.

The investors in these colleges, the taxpayers (for public schools) and the donors (for private ones), who have seen graduation rates dwindle and the employability of recent college grads — only 56% of whom are in jobs appropriate to their training — plummet, are also being swindled.

The Hoeller piece doesn’t address the damning context of the increased use of academic part-timers: the fact that such savings in labor costs have not even slowed the explosion of costs to the students, and the fact that the services rendered have dropped in quality. The proximate cause is, of course, administrative bloat.

Bloat is the focus of a recent article by Jon Marcus of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Marcus reviews a report from the Delta Cost Project (also reviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education) on the rapid growth in college administrative staff. Marcus reports that the growth in the number of college administrators has greatly exceeded the growth in both the number of students and the number of faculty. Over the past 25 years, colleges and universities have increased the number of their administrative staff by 517,636. During that time, the ratio of nonacademic employees to faculty has doubled. We now see two non-academics for every tenure-track or tenured professor at public universities, and a ratio of two and a half to one at private colleges.

Growth in this area is especially strong at the central offices of public college and university systems. For example, the headquarters of the California State University system has a separate budget that exceeds the budget of three of its campuses!

Marcus cites economist Robert Martin making the point that so eluded Hoeller: “While the rest of the economy was shrinking overhead, higher education was investing heavily in more overhead.” Walmart, Target, Costco and so on continue to deliver more for less, while the higher education system business only continues to deliver less for more.

Marcus notes that in constant dollars, tuition and fees have nearly doubled at private four-colleges, and nearly tripled at public four-year colleges, over the last quarter-century. And during this period, the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty has gone from about one-third to about one-half.

Naturally, administrators have a reply: they claim they are delivering more value to the consumers (students) and principals (taxpayers and donors) by creating and expanding offices for security, counseling, technology services, “sustainability,” disabled student services, and especially “diversity.” But skeptics rightly reply that these services don’t seem to have resulted in objectively measurable favorable outcomes. For example, over the past decade, Marcus notes, the percentage of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees — which can be completed in four years — and actually getting their degrees within six years has risen only slightly (from 55% in 2002 to 58% in 2012).

In constant dollars, tuition and fees have nearly doubled at private four-colleges, and nearly tripled at public four-year colleges, over the last quarter-century.

And several economists cited in Marcus’ piece made the obvious point that universities, to the extent they even need many of these services, could easily outsource them. As Robert Martin put it, “You can hire outside firms, on a contract basis, with competitive bidding. All these activities are a distraction from what the institution is supposed to be doing.”

What is causing the exploitation of adjuncts and the explosion in student fees is at base the same thing: a severe case of the principal-agent problem.

The managerial agents at American universities — the administrators — have achieved virtually total power over the institutions they manage, so much so that they view themselves as the true principals (owners). Of course, they’re not — the principals are the taxpayers, the donors, and the tuition-payers. But the administrators seldom see it that way.

Until this problem is solved, you can expect to see administrative bloat continue apace, enabled by the burgeoning ranks of the adjuncts — and by higher tuition, which is in turn fueled by the federal student loan program, a government program run amuck.

In fine, the American university system is as dissimilar to Walmart as you can get. Walmart has not been shafting its customers through management bloat, higher prices, poorer service, and lousier products, all fueled by massive federal subsidies. The American university system has.




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What Did Obama Motors Know?

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GM — known derisively as “Obama Motors” because of the crony deal it got from the Obama administration — is once again in the news . . . for a massive corporate screwup.

GM is about to be investigated by Congress in the matter of the company’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles. These vehicles had faulty ignition switches. Their malfunctions apparently led to 13 deaths. GM has lawyered up, for it will surely face many tort lawsuits, as it surely should.  Recalls are not unknown in the auto industry, but what is causing Congress to investigate is that it took GM about ten years to get around to the recall. So GM has hired the big-name lawyer who headed the investigation into the 2008 Lehman Brothers failure to be the conspicuous head of its own internal investigation.

This is called: damage control.

When GM switches fail, drivers report that their vehicles become very hard to steer, and the air bags become disabled. So not only is the likelihood of accidents increased, but the likelihood of extreme injury and death also increases dramatically.

GM employees knew about this problem as early as 2004, when reports about it were discussed in the company’s engineering division. This is according to the timeline that GM itself has released. The company is not saying whether or not its engineers asked for a recall, or when the idea of a recall was first suggested.

In a risible act of hypocrisy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has presented the company with a list of over 100 questions it wants answered. It now appears that the NHTSA knew of the problem as early as 2007. Its people raised the issue in a meeting. But the NHTSA is refusing to answer any questions about it.

The affair has obviously brought back to the minds of investors the old GM — the one that had to be rescued at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars.

In a lawsuit, settled last year, brought by the family of a nurse killed in a crash involving one of these faulty switches, the plaintiff’s attorney discovered that GM had an engineering team investigating the problem (found to be prevalent in small GM cars). But this was never publicized, so owners of those cars were never warned that they were at risk.

When it was announced that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York had begun an investigation, GM shares dropped 5%, because the facts seemed to indicate not just negligence, but outright criminality.

This is just the most publicized of GM’s recent recalls. Current GM CEO Mary Barra has launched several other recalls, including one of 1.7 million higher-end vehicles (SUVs and Cadillacs) troubled by an airbag deployment wiring defect. The total number of GM vehicles recalled has now hit 4.8 million for the first quarter of 2014 — a sixfold increase from the number for all of last year. The company has issued seven major recalls in just the first three months of this year.

GM has put aside $300 million to cover immediate costs, but this is obviously not going to cover all the eventual costs. One critic has called for a fund of $1 billion. Some dealers are already reporting slower traffic in their showrooms. Meanwhile, some experts, such as corporate crisis consultant Larry Kamer, are suggesting that this crisis is a good opportunity for Ms. Barra and the “new” GM to show how much they care for customers. Kamer was a consultant for Toyota during its 2010 recall. Toyota recently settled with the U.S. Justice Department on that recall.

Barra has stepped forward to admit that the recall took too long, to offer her condolences to the families of those killed, and to announce that she has assembled a team to help the company handle and “learn from” the incident. Given that Barra was executive director of GM’s manufacturing engineering division while the deaths occurred, one is entitled to be a little skeptical of her new-found burning desire to enshrine the company as the Quality Queen of automotive technology.

As one report notes, Barra has reason to worry. The affair has obviously brought back to the minds of investors the old GM — the one that had to be rescued at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars. The article notes that Toyota took a major hit to its image from its recall two years ago. Toyota had to pay the Justice Department $1.2 billion for misleading customers. Attorney General Holder boldly declared that the Toyota deal will “serve as a model for how we treat cases with similarly situated companies,” though he didn’t address how that relates to GM.

Here is where one gets suspicious. The feds went after Toyota with a furry when it had its recalls, although the main accusation against it — that some models had “sticky accelerators” — was never proven. When it was charged that floor mats improperly installed by one Lexus dealer in San Diego led to the death of a family, Holder turned his department loose on Toyota, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood loudly proclaimed that Toyota owners should be afraid for their lives.

Of course, while the feds were going after Toyota so furiously, they owned GM. This stank to heaven. However, it is now clear that even as Holder and LaHood were conducting their Obama-jihad against Toyota, their own Obama Motors was known by their own NHTSA to be killing people. Cover-ups are common in government, I suppose, but a cover-up of this magnitude, of a company that had been socialized by the self-same government, is something rare.

Given Eric Holder’s record as an ideological hack, we can laugh at the idea that his Justice Department will honesty investigate GM.

Add to this the fact that at the time a little-noticed provision of GM’s bankruptcy deal was that the “new” (i.e., socialized) GM would not be liable for the tort claims of the “old” (i.e., pre-bailout) GM. This doesn’t just hint of corruption — it reeks. It isn’t clear to what degree GM will use that shield. Law professor David Skeel thinks that while GM is legally safe in using the bankruptcy shield, it would look bad to do so — hardball to the max. And lawyers are already sidestepping the issue by filing suits alleging that the value of some GM models have been hurt, rather than going directly for personal injury tort.

So not only did the Obama administration orchestrate a crony bankruptcy that handed over assets primarily to the administration’s own financial backers, but it apparently stood by and let innocent people die without ordering appropriate recalls. This, so it could run on the election mantra, “Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive!” Yes, GM was alive, but a number of its customers were dead.

Given Eric Holder’s record as an ideological hack, we can laugh at the idea that his Justice Department will honesty investigate GM. Perhaps what we need is a special prosecutor — somebody outside the control of Holder’s Justice — backed with enough assets to cleanse the stables of Obama Motors.




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Mr. Yee’s Profession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Suffering from PODADS (Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome)?

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Downton Abbey is one of the most widely watched and highly acclaimed television series ever broadcast, anywhere in the world. It is set in north Yorkshire, and the story concerns the Crawley family, led by the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their servants, who are seen against a backdrop of the economic, political, and social changes from 1912 through the 1920s.

Since the series was written for independent TV by staunch Thatcherite (and Oscar winner) Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), it is no coincidence that Lord Grantham bears the name of Lady T’s birthplace to the south in Lincolnshire. I recall Julian striding down the aisle, west to east, in St Paul’s Cathedral, on the day of Lady T’s funeral. He certainly looked the part!

In real life Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, southwest of London, where all the exterior and most of the interior scenes are filmed. It is the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, friends of Fellowes, and there are many parallels between the estate management issues faced by today’s Carnarvons and yesterday’s Granthams. There are also strong parallels on the marriage front, with a propensity for people in both families to marry loaded American women to keep the estate going. (Also of note is the role of the Carnarvon family in the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, led by the fourth earl, the great-great-grandfather of the present, eighth earl.)

Fans of the series have been descending on Highclere Castle in large numbers. It is open to the public on certain days, at advertised times. These arrangements are not prompted mainly by a desire to make money, much as that is welcome to fix leaky roofs. Rather, as the seventh earl told me on a visit in 1993, it was advisable for people such as him to open their estates to the public for inheritance tax purposes. Under UK law all these vast places have a huge incentive to open for a minimum of days — 90 comes to mind — because on the death of the owner the act of opening to the public for at least this minimum removes the property from the inheritance tax calculation. Tax avoidance, not tax evasion.

The number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee.

Such is the popularity of Downton Abbey that as an Englishman resident in Florida I cannot open my mouth in front of strangers without being greeted with questions about the program or comments such as “you sound just like you stepped off the set of Downton Abbey!” With the ending of the latest (and reputedly penultimate) series, a new question has arisen: “Oh John, what can we watch now, to get over Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome?”

Here are six other series that should hold you over until Downton Abbey returns. After listing them, I will return with a discussion of private versus public funding of such UK programs as come to PBS.

  1. Upstairs, Downstairs

    Made for independent TV (not the taxpayer funded BBC), its 68 episodes were broadcast from 1971 through 1975 and cover the years 1903 through 1930. The setting is a grand London townhouse — 165 Eaton Place in Belgravia, close to Lady T’s home in her final two decades. “Downstairs” work the servants, while the family lives, dines, and entertains “Upstairs,” much as in Downton Abbey. And again as in Downton Abbey, current events, from the grand to the less grand, permeate the plot.

    Such is the closeness of the respective story lines that at Wikipedia the first entry for “See Also” under Downton Abbey is Upstairs, Downstairs, and vice versa.

    Most of Upstairs, Downstairs was filmed in color, but be aware that the early episodes are in black and white, because of a strike by cameramen operating the then new technology — a reminder of labor relations pre-Thatcher.
     
  2. The Forsyte Saga

    Based on novels by Nobel Prizewinner John Galsworthy, the Saga covers 1906 through 1921. It was first made in black and white by the BBC (26 episodes, 1967) and then remade by the independent sector in color (13 episodes, 2002–2003). The plot is strong, but there is less of political economy and more of social change, as the Forsytes, unlike the Crawleys, are new to wealth.
     
  3. Cranford

    Made by the BBC, Cranford is based on the eponymous 1851 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, and related works. The original five episodes were broadcast in 2007, with two more episodes in 2009 that were marketed as Return to Cranford. Judi Dench stars throughout as Miss Matty, one of a group, mostly composed of spinsters and widows, who observe life in a small Cheshire town some 12 miles from the big city of Manchester. Weak on plot, it is really a series of vignettes, albeit quite well done. In later episodes, however, the effects of the expansion of the railroad system and the struggles of the local landowning family resonate in an interesting way.
     
  4. Lark Rise to Candleford

    Again made by the taxpayer-funded BBC, four series of this intelligent soap were broadcast between 2008 and 2011. Here the social contrasts lie between the poor hamlet of Lark Rise and the wealthier small town of Candleford. Set in the late 1890s, the 40 episodes are a bit light on the news and issues of the day but do examine the liberal tendencies of the hamlet versus the more Tory proclivities of the townies. One later episode includes extensive discussion of Self Help by Samuel Smiles, while another deals with the spread of the railroad. Those of you who so admired Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey have a treat in store as he appears as the stonemason Mr. Timmins, de facto leader of Lark Rise.
     
  5. Foyle’s War

    This independent production leaps us forward to World War II and the southern coastal town of Hastings, where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle is faced with crimes generated by wartime rules, restrictions, and regulations. The twenty-plus episodes approach 100 minutes each. While they can be viewed out of order, there are connecting story lines.

    The research behind each episode is awesome, and the series does move noticeably from one focused on crimes against a backdrop of wartime order to a wartime order with crime. The setting in Hastings helps hugely, as the first few miles inland from the coast were subject to even more draconian state intervention than truly inland areas. You may recognize Michael Kitchen who plays Foyle as Bill Tanner from Bond movies.
     
  6. Doc Martin

    Made by independent TV, some six series of over 40 episodes have been broadcast to date, with a seventh and final series promised.

    In a series set in present-day West Country, UK, Doc Martin is a top London surgeon who opts for the life of a small coastal port’s only family doctor. Tensions emerge along with a strong love line. Little is made of the fact that all his patients come through socialized medicine, and the portrayal of the NHS is extremely gentle. The horrendous backlogs and delays of the NHS are simply ignored. However, the overall effect is addictive.

I have been careful to note who funded, made, or broadcast each of the seven series. You will have noticed the mix of private and the taxpayer funded BBC. So what? I hear you ask. (Also I am vague at times on exact episode numbers, as they vary from country to country. A Christmas special in the UK for example often becomes two episodes in the US.)

Well, the BBC is not funded out of general tax revenues; it is funded by a license fee. If you buy a TV you have to buy a license (say $200-$250 per annum), and you have to renew it every year or eventually face prison time. The state even employs a special police force equipped with license evasion radar detection vans to hunt down folk who have not paid. Parliament fixes the level of the fee every few years, and the total revenue raised goes in a block grant to fund the Beeb, as it is called, or the Big Bunch of Communists chez moi. I promise I am not joking here at all.

To keep the MPs and Lords in Parliament happy, the BBC maintains a huge lobbying effort within a 3-iron of the Palace of Westminster. Its office is on the very same block as the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs, where I served as CEO for 17 years, as in 1993–2009.

The private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.

Soon after moving to the IEA I discovered the following astonishing fact: the number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee. Of course it was not billed as nonpayment of the BBC fee. Rather a household would not have the money to pay; they would evade and they’d be caught and ordered to pay; they’d fail and the lady of the household would do the time for something dressed up as failure to obey a court order. It just happened that by far the greatest number of such orders were BBC-related.

I was just appalled by this. The then-boss of the BBC was called Greg Dyke, and his Parliamentary henchman was my friend Michael Hastings.

For several years I would look for them on the street or at receptions and the like. I used to get right in their faces: “Hi Greg. Hi Michael. How many decent working-class ladies got imprisoned today because of you?” I was relentless. And the numbers dropped from the hundreds to something like ten — still disgusting but an improvement.

So how does this story of the funding of the BBC link back to my list of Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome Antidotes?

A key argument for taxpayer funding of the BBC is that the private sector is bound to sink to the lowest common denominator, while a release from commercial considerations is vital to produce the great period dramas with their fantastic wardrobes and glorious settings for which the BBC is supposedly world famous.

Downton Abbey clearly blows this argument to Mars and back.

And when you look at my antidotes, my list of six picked (I promise) with no reference to funding source, the private sector clearly trumps the public.

The evidence is clear, the jury is in, and the foreman is addressing the judge: Your Honor, we the jury find the private sector innocent of dumbing down. Indeed we find that the private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.

Note: Immediately following my submission of this article, The Daily Telegraph of London published a report by Christopher Hope (March 21, 2014) under the headline “Not paying TV licence set to be decriminalised.” A group of 140 British MPs has won the support of the government for this change. It will, however, entail a year-long review and will form part of the negotiations that will take place ahead of the BBC Charter renewal due in 2017.


Editor's Note: Mr. Blundell thanks Mrs. Rashmi Ferris of Tampa, FL for prompting this article.



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The Latest Victory for the Second Amendment

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In theory, the bold, frequent use of civil liberties tends to protect them. But it’s no guarantee. Both of these statements find support in the recent history of gun-related legislation in California.

It was 2010. I was on the phone with a journalist. He was looking for comments on some proposed legislation that had been in the news. An assemblywoman from San Diego, Lori Saldaña, wanted to do away with Californians’ little-known right to carry unloaded guns openly. “She says it’s dangerous, because a cop might shoot one of those guys with guns on their hips; what do you think about that?” He was asking me for a counter-argument.

At that time, the California legislature was considering Saldaña’s bill to ban the open carry of unloaded firearms. The attempted legislation had been prompted by outraged reactions in California to the nationwide open-carry movement.[1] In the two years or so before the proposed ban, advocates of gun rights in California had been organizing small marches and meetings where they would very carefully and very openly exercise a right that few people in California knew they had — the right to openly carry unloaded firearms. Picture a half dozen men and women at a Starbucks with holstered, empty semi-automatic pistols on one hip and holstered, full clips of ammunition on the other. California law (with exceptions that aren’t important here) went like this: concealed carry of any gun, loaded or not, is illegal without a permit, and open carry of loaded guns is illegal without a permit. In most counties of California, permits were very hard to get. You had to show “cause,” and cause seemed to be whatever the issuing authority thought it should be. That left only the rarely used right to carry unloaded guns in public openly, without a permit.

The argument was, in fact, as stupid as it sounded.

“That argument is ridiculous and illogical,” I said to the journalist. “Cops are supposed to know the law and enforce it, not shoot people who are doing nothing wrong or illegal. The solution is to change the cops, not to change the law. You don’t take away rights just because the police are surprised to see somebody exercising them.”

This was in response to arguments advanced to support Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña’s bill to prohibit open carry. That bill didn’t pass, but soon a similar bill, AB 144, was introduced. The author of that bill, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, made similarly bad arguments in its favor. For example, in an interview with Reason.tv, he said, “Just because one person is comfortable with their weapon, doesn’t mean that that gives that person the right to infringe on the rights of other people who aren’t comfortable.”[2] Was that some kind of sophisticated argument about competing civil rights: the right to bear arms and the right to be comfortable? No. There is no constitutional right to be comfortable. The argument was, in fact, as stupid as it sounded. Portantino also made and, finding it very clever, frequently repeated, a classic straw-man argument, saying “you don’t need a handgun to order a cheeseburger,” as though gun-rights activists were complaining that they could only get fast-food service at gunpoint.

AB 144 passed and was signed into law. The right to open carry (unloaded) was gone.

Something similar happened in California in the 20th century. By the 1960s, in urban areas of California it was rare to see people carrying loaded firearms in public. At the time, they had a legal right to. The law didn’t change, but the culture did. The Black Panthers knew this when, in 1967, they marched on the California state capitol toting loaded rifles and shotguns. They were not committing a crime. Public reaction to that scene made it easy for the legislature to pass a law banning open carrying of loaded guns.

Some civil libertarians thought that what the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and what the open-carry advocates did just a few years ago were counterproductive, because they provoked anti-liberal legislation. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. First, a civil right is of little value if nobody uses it. Second, Edward Peruta v. County of San Diego.[3]

Edward Peruta applied to the San Diego sheriff for a permit to carry a concealed firearm. The sheriff denied his application. Peruta then (2009) filed a lawsuit against the County of San Diego. He lost at trial and appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. A panel of the Ninth Circuit found that San Diego’s process for granting and denying gun permits infringed the Second Amendment. The court’s summary of its opinion begins in this way: “The panel reversed the district court’s summary judgment and held that a responsible, law-abiding citizen has a right under the Second Amendment to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.” Wow. If anything, the body of the opinion went further.

When the Black Panthers marched on the California state capitol toting loaded rifles and shotguns, they were not committing a crime.

My first reaction was astonishment. In California of all places. In the Ninth Circuit of all jurisdictions. Wow, again. Reading the case, I soon saw the connection between AB 144 and Peruta. The legislative history of AB 144 shows that the NRA and the California Rifle and Pistol Association were prescient. They registered this argument against the bill:

In most areas of California, CCW [concealed-carry weapon]permits are rarely issued, and are usually reserved for those with political clout and the wealthy elite. Because of this reality, "open carrying" is the only method available to the overwhelming majority of law-abiding individuals who wish to carry a firearm for self-defense. Accordingly, by banning the open carrying of even unloaded firearms, SB 144 effectively shuts the door on the ability of law-abiding Californians to carry a firearm for self-defense at all.[4]

The California legislature heard that argument and replied, “so what?” The bill was law when Peruta reached the appeals court.

I believe that if open carry were not banned, the Ninth Circuit would not have overturned San Diego’s permitting rules and procedures for concealed carry. The court’s reasoning is almost mathematical. It relies heavily on Heller,[5] a 2008 Supreme Court decision that, according to the Ninth Circuit, implies that “a law-abiding citizen’s ability to carry a gun outside the home for self-defense fell within the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.” Then the Peruta court repeatedly points out that California bans open carry and severely restricts concealed carry.

The math goes like this:

(A) Heller = the Supreme Court says that the Second Amendment means individuals (versus “militia”) have a right to carry firearms in public for self defense.

(B) San Diego’s implementation of California’s concealed-carry laws + California’s ban on open carry = a general prohibition on carrying firearms in public for self defense.

(A) + (B) = unconstitutional.

It’s an amazingly simple and far-reaching opinion. It will be reheard by the Ninth Circuit sitting en banc. It will reach the Supreme Court. But right now, it’s the law in California. The state must permit law-abiding citizens to carry firearms in public for self defense, either openly or concealed or both.




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The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The UAW Smackdown

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A spectre is haunting the American labor movement movement — the spectre of Detroitism.

Last month, the UAW in particular and Big Labor in general suffered a devastating defeat when the workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to reject the UAW.

Big Labor has had and continues to have a lot of influence on the American political system, because of its ability to seize workers’ dues and use them to elect progressive and other leftist candidates for office. But it has seen a massive melting of its membership over the last few decades. In 1983, around 20% of all American workers were members of unions; now, only 11.3% are. And while the percentage of public sector workers currently in unions is 35.3%, in the private sector it is a meager 6.7%.

And in the UAW — the venal organization of a minority of American autoworkers — the figures are even worse: in the last three decades, it has lost 75% of its membership. (The UAW claims it has 382,500 members, but that is out of about 820,000 total American autoworkers).

The Obama administration used every trick possible to help the UAW win in Tennessee.

So for several years, the UAW has set its eyes on the South, where — thanks to the prevalence of right-to-work laws — automakers, mainly foreign ones, have opened plants. The unprincipled union has had the help of the Obama administration, which it helped elect by lavish logistical and financial support, and which in turn ripped off both taxpayers and secured investors in a cynical crony bankruptcy deal to enrich the UAW.

The Obama administration used every trick possible to help the UAW win in Tennessee. First, the president stacked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with union tools by means of “recess appointments” that are probably illegal. The NLRB then allowed unions to use “card check” to win representation; that is, instead of holding a secret ballot election, the NLRB lets a union to be certified if the majority of workers sign authorization cards.

Of course, this opens the door for union coercion of workers, intimidating them into signing under the threat that if they don’t and the union gets voted in anyway, it will retaliate against them.

Some brave workers (represented by the estimable National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation) filed allegations that they had signed under UAW deception and coercion. The Obama-controlled NLRB dismissed the charges, but the worker outrage was so great that it forced VW — which, as explained below, needed to be forced — to ask that a secret ballot election be held.

Also helping the UAW was IG Metall, the union that represents autoworkers in Germany (and in fact has members on the boards of directors of not just VW, but BMW and Daimler as well). IG Metall is deeply afraid that more and more German auto plants will move to the Southern US, where right-to-work laws prohibit unions from forcing workers to support them, and lower energy costs prevail (thanks to our embrace of fracking — and Germany’s embrace of inefficient so-called “renewable” energy sources).

The NLRB was gaming the system, but VW (under pressure from its German union) tried to give away the game itself. VW pushed for a quick election (within nine days, far less than the average 40 days) and agreed not to speak against unionization. Moreover, VW agreed to allow the UAW to campaign inside the plant itself, and did not allow workers opposed to unionizing the same freedom.

But in spite of the blatant deck-stacking by Obama, his bogus NLRB, the company, the UAW, and the German union, the Big Labor gang was defeated by a 53% to 47% margin. Considering that the opponents of unionization were banned from stating their case in the plant, and considering the hardball tactics of the UAW, this was a decisive defeat for the union. As Art Schwartz (a former General Motors labor negotiator) put it, “If they can’t win this one, what can they win?

There seem to have been several specific factors that led to the workers giving the UAW the bum’s rush. First, the very unfairness of the scheme — letting the UAW speak, silencing its critics, and rushing the election — had to have been infuriating to the honest autoworkers.

Second, Obama made this a personal issue. He attacked Tennessee Republicans in his characteristically snide, mendacious way as caring more for “German shareholders than American workers.” His involvement brought the suffocating stench of his administration to the issue. Workers, in a state that voted for Obama’s opponent Romney by a margin of 20%, were reminded of the extensive corruption, abuse of power, and radical politics regnant in the White House. Grover Norquist, head of the invaluable group Americans for Tax Reform, pointed out the connection between Obama and the UAW on a billboard near the plant. The billboard message was that the “United Obama Workers” had spent millions in union dues to elect the man.

Third, workers were scared off by the miserable history of the UAW’s destructive and selfish war of confrontational tactics against the American automakers. The UAW drove GM and Chrysler off a cliff. VW and the other foreign carmakers pay and treat their employees in the southern US very well. Thus the workers were rightly afraid of losing their good jobs.

Fourth, workers obviously resented the UAW’s massive financial support of progressive and other leftist politicians, who vote for policies the workers generally hate, such as unlimited abortion and the elimination of gun rights. As one worker, Travis Finnell, put it forcefully, “We’re in the South. We have a lot of religion. I don’t want my money going to those causes.” This brings up what is doubtless another reason workers refused to enslave themselves to the UAW: the dues it takes from workers are quite steep — 2.5 hours of pay a month, and 1.15% of all the worker’s bonuses.

As a former General Motors labor negotiator put it, “If they can’t win this one, what can they win?”

Finally, it was well known in Tennessee that VW will soon decide where to locate a major new SUV factory — in Tennessee or Mexico. Please note: Mexico is a country that, unlike the US, has a free-trade agreement with the EU. The workers don’t want to give the company another reason to locate there.

But I suspect that the overarching reason for the UAW’s ignominious rout was the specter of Detroit. The Democrat-Big Labor complex has utterly destroyed one of America’s iconic cities. Between them, the UAW, the iniquitous city employee unions, and a mob of unscrupulous Democratic politicians drove two of the domestic automakers and the city itself into bankruptcy. As one worker said in a TV interview, the “common denominator” of the city’s collapse into a cesspool of decay was — the unions.

The reaction of the union was as predictable as it was despicable. Despite assurances that it would honor the workers’ decision, the UAW has just asked the Obama jury-rigged NLRB to call for a revote. The union is whining about “a coordinated and widely publicized coercive campaign” by outside interests (namely, Tennessee Republicans) to deprive the VW employees of their voices. The UAW naturally never mentions the coercive campaign by Obama, his stooge-packed NLRB, IG Metall, and the UAW itself to shove a ruinous union down the workers’ throats.

We will see if these miscreants can carry this off.




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Will Wins, Won’t Wins, Should Wins

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Hollywood produced some stellar films this year, and the Academy’s new policy of nominating up to ten films for Best Picture allows more of them to be recognized. Oddly, they decided to nominate only nine this time, leaving out such excellent films as Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Prisoners, but I’m impressed with all the films that were selected (even Philomena, for the acting, if not for the political stance). Two thirds of the Best Picture nominees are based on true stories this year, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Twelve Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, andPhilomena. All but one of the Best Picture nominees have already been reviewed in this magazine. Below I give you my top picks in the major categories for who ought to win, as well as my expectation for who is likely to win.

Best Picture

American Hustle. For ensemble work, this film is the best. The actors revel in their parts, embracing the ’70s oeuvre both in the film and offscreen in their interviews as though it were this year’s best-themed costume party. The story, loosely based on the government’s inept sting operation called ABSCAM, is great fun. Probably too much fun, in fact; this isn’t the kind of film that wins the Oscar.

The Wolf of Wall Street is another ensemble piece with a better chance of winning, because of its portrayal of a businessman completely devoid of any scruples. Scorsese had to edit out several scenes to avoid a deadly NC-17 rating, but he still pushed the envelope further than it has ever been pushed before. It is self-indulgent in every way, from its actors to its source material to its profanity (nearly 600 F-bombs) to its length (just under three hours). Some call it amazing; others call it boring. Great art often finds critics at both extremes.

Twelve Years a Slave is the film that Academy voters will feel obligated to vote for, even if they liked other films better.

The Academy usually votes for “important” films, which gives The Dallas Buyers Club a better chance of winning than either Wolf or Hustle. The film has a great libertarian theme and remarkable acting by Matthew McConaughey as the man who provided a life-sustaining cocktail of supplements to AIDS patients during the beginning of the crisis, and by Jared Leto, who portrays a transvestite patient. Both of them are nominated for their roles.

Gravity is my top choice for best picture. This film, about a scientist-cum-astronaut who becomes lost in space and has to find her way back to earth, is one of the best survival films ever made. It is taut and gripping throughout, with a protagonist who relies on her wits and her courage to survive. It is also a technological and cinematic masterpiece, the kind of film that will be talked about in film classes for decades.

Nevertheless, I think Gravity will lose to Twelve Years a Slave, another visual masterpiece whose subject matter, slavery, is considered more powerful and more important than a science-fiction adventure. It’s a good film, but a hard film to watch and unnecessarily divisive. But it’s the film that Academy voters feel obligated to vote for, even though they liked other films better — or so I’ve heard.

Best Director

Martin Scorsese was barely out of film school at NYU when he agreed to drive up to the Catskills to help film a music gig for a friend. The gig turned out to be Woodstock, and the documentary won the Oscar for Best Documentary in1970. Scorsese brings that same unbridled decadence and passion to The Wolf of Wall Street, virtually wallowing in sex, drugs and profanity throughout the film. Returning to his documentary roots, he encouraged his actors to delve into their characters and then set them loose to create their own scenes. The result is an outrageous montage of the characters’ voracious, insatiable appetites and a metaphor for capitalist greed — always a popular target in Hollywood. If he hadn’t recently won for The Departed (2006) he would be considered a sympathetic front runner this year, simply for his body of work. But he doesn’t have a chance this year against Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón.

Alfonso Cuarón’s vision for Gravity required unparalleled patience and determination, not only in the way he directed his protagonist (Sandra Bullock) but also in the way he figured out how to bring his vision to the screen. Once he knew what was needed, he waited over a year for the technology to be created and built. Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space. It’s brilliant.

Nevertheless, the gravity of Twelve Years a Slave is likely to outweigh Gravity in both of the top categories. Steve McQueen is also a visionary director who imagines the shot before he creates it rather than giving his actors their head and letting them lead the way. But some of his camera work in TYS is exquisitely framed and executed, from his lighting to his camera angles to the timing of his shots. One particularly long shot in which a character who has been lynched struggles to stay on tiptoe in order to avoid strangulation is utterly silent and agonizingly long. It is more powerful than other scenes of brutal, bloody whipping. Cuarón ought to win, but McQueen probably will.

Best Actor

My pick for best actor wasn’t nominated this year, but I have to give him a shout-out anyway. Jake Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance as the detective in Prisoners was simply superb. He created a backstory for his character through unspoken gestures and reactions entirely of his own design, from his character’s nervous blink to his unexplained tattoo to the enigmatic look on his face at the end of the film that leaves us wondering whether he is going to rescue the man in the underground box — or not. We know that he is the prisoner of his own undescribed background, simply through his body language and what is left unsaid. But Oscar seldom rewards the nuanced performance. (I happen to think Johnny Depp’s most outstanding performance is John Dillinger in Public Enemy, but he will be most remembered for his outlandish performances as Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, and the unfortunate Tonto.)

Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space.

All five nominees this year gave outstanding performances. Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) lost all sense of themselves as they fell headlong into their roles as raunchy, despicable rascals. Matt McConaughey’s character (Dallas Buyers Club) is raunchy too, but he’s not despicable, he’s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in Nebraska, and that’s a shame, because Dern’s portrayal of a man losing his sense of reality, even though he is more grounded and determined than the “sane” people who surround him, is remarkable. Dern spent a lifetime portraying supporting roles, mostly as sinister villains, and he did it well. This was the part he has waited to play, and he does it subly and brilliantly. But Oscar doesn’t reward subtle, nuanced performances (see Gyllenhaal, above). Dern will have to be satisfied that it’s an honor just to be nominated.

Ejiofor’s character will win for Best Actor. I say his character will win, because his performance isn’t anything special, but how can you vote against a man who spent twelve years as a slave? But McConaghey just might pull this one out. He deserves it not only for DBC, but for his body of work this year, including his short but memorable chest-thumping role in the beginning of American Hustle, and his remarkable performance as the title character in the indie film Mud. McConaughey has come a long way from his Dirk Brink adventure roles and rom-com roots. Expect to see a lot of chest-thumping from anyone who wins an Oscar for AH. Nevertheless, I’m expecting a clean sweep for TYS.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett! She is my hands-down favorite for her refined befuddlement in a Chanel jacket. Say what you want about Woody Allen’s personal life; the man knows how to assemble a cast and elicit exactly the right performance from it. Blanchett should win for Best Actress, and Sally Hawkins should win Best Supporting Actress for her role as the unrefined, practical, down-to-earth sister. Yes, Sandra Bullock is astounding in her virtually solo performance in Gravity. She creates and maintains a believable tension throughout the film. To see just how difficult that is, take a look at Robert Redford’s failed attempt to pull off the same feat as a castaway in this year’s All Is Lost, or even Tom Hanks in Cast Away; Hanks had to invent a secondary character, Wilson the Volleyball, to allow the audience inside his character’s thoughts, and his isolation on the island is bookended by Acts One and Three, on land with other people. Still, I think Blanchett’s performance outdistances Bullock’s.

Meryl Streep is probably the best film actress of her lifetime, and her role as a matriarch suffering from mouth cancer in August: Osage County is a tour de force. But the film itself is flawed. The dialogue is sharp and witty and biting, as one would expect from a film that is adapted from an award-winning stage play. But its strength is also its weaknesses. Stage and film are two different genres. The former requires broad movements and loud delivery to reach the back of the theater; metaphors like “stomping the boards,” “hamming it up,” and “chewing the scenery” all arose from stage acting — and for good reasons. By contrast, film actors must rein in their performances, because they are seen on screens 80 feet wide and 40 feet tall. A glance to the left, a lifted eyebrow, a shudder or a twitch can communicate information that would be lost in live theater. Osage is a story that needs to be shouted as family members gather around the table and air a lifetime of gripes. It works on stage but not on film. Streep’s performance is top notch; she stops at nothing as the ugly, angry matriarch. But it’s just too much for the screen.

The Academy seldom rewards subtle, nuanced performances.

Dame Judi Dench, Britain’s version of Meryl Streep, also puts in a remarkably witty, funny, and sympathetic performance, as the title character searching for the baby she gave up for adoption in Philomena. But it’s what we’ve come to expect from Dench. Next to such a strong set of contenders this year, she should reserve a table next to Bruce Dern for the after party. It truly is an honor to be nominated.

Amy Adams is another outstanding actress who, like Streep and Dench, can perform just about any role. I love her body of work. And she loved showing off her literal body with the plunging necklines her character wears in American Hustle (and she gleefully continued to wear in interviews promoting the film). But AH is an ensemble film in which each individual performance is less than the sum of its parts. It’s another argument for adding Best Ensemble as an Academy category.

Blanchett’s strongest competitor comes, again, from the cast of TYS. But the producers decided to list Lupita Nyong’o as a supporting actress, despite the fact that she has the longest and most important female role in the film. Blanchett is in the clear. I hope she breaks out that Chanel jacket to wear to the awards.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi is stunning as the leader of a gang of pirates who board a cargo ship and kidnap the captain for ransom. His performance is so believable that I had to keep reminding myself that he was not really a Somali pirate. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this is his cinematic debut. He’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor.

But Jared Leto is going to win, for his tough and touching portrayal of a transgender prostitute in DBC. And he deserves it. This is one year when we just need extra trophies.

Michael Fassbender as the despicable slave owner in TYS; Jonah Hill as the despicable penny-stockbroker in TWWS; and Bradley Cooper as the despicable FBI agent in AH will just have to join that table with the un-despicable Dench and Dern. None of them has a prayer of a chance.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has to be mentioned here as well. I suspect that if he had died two weeks earlier, he would have been nominated for his supporting role in The Master. This talented, versatile actor will be missed, and he will be highlighted in a tribute Sunday night.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins is my top pick for her role as the practical, forgiving, down-to-earth single mom who has every reason to feel bitterness toward her sister Jasmine, whose husband swindled them out of their life savings. She is lively and funny and wonderful in this role. But she doesn’t have a chance.

Neither has Jennifer Lawrence, despite her sleazy, slinky, shady performance as the wife of the Christian Bale’s two-bit con man in AH. She has two strikes against her: first, she won an Oscar last year for playing a similar role; and second, no one has a chance this year against Lupita Nyong’o.

Julia Roberts is the weakest of the group. Expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance.

Like Javier Bardem, who stole the 2008 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor from Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) by entering the supporting actor category instead of the leading actor category, Lupita Nyong’o belongs in the leading actress category. She is the central female character in the story. I have another criticism of her nomination, and that is, quite simply and directly, her acting. She seems very uncomfortable with the words she is asked to say. She recites her lines as though from memory, not from her heart; they don’t flow naturally from her mouth. Nevertheless, she will be lifted by the gravitas of the film, and is sure to win the Oscar.

Julia Roberts should not even have been nominated. Yes, she gets to yell and swear and pull Meryl Streep’s hair. But expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance. Hers is the weakest of the group. Jennifer Squibb as the insensitive, vulgar-mouthed wife of Bruce Dern in Nebraska is nominated largely for the novelty of hearing an old woman swear and lift up her skirts and talk about sex in public. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance either. These two actresses should studiously avoid the Dench-Dern table.

So there you have it: my picks, and my expectations. The real winner this year will probably be host Ellen Degeneres whose flippant humor and kind demeanor will set everyone at ease during what is usually a tense, exciting, and ultimately disappointing evening for most of the attendees. It is an honor to be nominated, but everyone wants to win, and 80% of the hopefuls will be going home as losers. Ellen might help them go out with a smile.




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Paul Harvey and the Penguins of Patagonia

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A few weeks ago, Dee Boersma, professor of penguins from the University of Washington, announced that she’d figured out why baby penguins at a place called Punta Tombo in Argentina are dying at a greater rate than they used to.

I’m a sucker for charismatic megafauna, especially when penguins are involved, and that got my attention. The conscientious way penguins stand guard outside their burrows shows them to be better parents than I ever was. Heck, it makes them better parents than Bill Cosby. They swim longer distances in the ocean than Diana Nyad and they’re cuter than Sally Fields and Holly Hunter added together.

Professor Boersma has spent a lot of her career trying to figure out why so many of their babies are dying. Finally, after a decade of effort, she gathered her conclusions, rechecked her facts, and courageously identified climate change as the culprit. It turns out that it rains more in Patagonia than it used to, penguin chicks get wet, and, without their waterproof adult feathers, they shiver themselves to death.

Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you.

Since Punta Tombo is the biggest-deal penguin colony in Argentina and climate change is an even bigger deal everywhere else, the news reverberated around the world and back again, like the boom from Mount Krakatoa. Within hours, it had rung church bells as far away as the New York Times,the Los Angeles Times, the Voice of America, the Voice of Russia, the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, Good Morning America, Bird-Watching Daily, and, undoubtedly, any number of other sanctuaries of learning that I’m not invited into.

As charismatic as penguins are, you may not have thought you’d have to care about their chicks in Patagonia, but you should. Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you. And it’s not just rain that’s about to happen. Nowadays, penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to. Nobody exactly says this, but the implication hangs in the air like an ash cloud over the Sunda Islands that it has something to do with overfishing in the South Atlantic.

I have no doubt that Ms Boersma knows penguins, that she has accounted for every dead chick with the greatest of care, that she is telling the truth about what she observed, and that she is the leading expert on penguins in general and the penguins of Punta Tombo in particular.

In fact, she is such an expert that she has achieved one of the few immortal indicators of expertness that it is in humans’ poor power to give. The beat-up old trailer she lived in for 30 years while she counted dead penguin chicks isn’t at Punta Tombo anymore. Like Abraham Lincoln’s stove-pipe hat, it now belongs to the ages and is safely lodged in a museum. Which goes to show just how expert she really is. Still, there may be more to this dying-penguin business than we’ve been told. I was at Punta Tombo ten days before the news about the baby penguins got loose and, well, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is a rest to this story.

In the first place, for whatever reason it is that penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have much to do with overfishing. These are Magellanic penguins, mostly; what Magellanic penguins eat is krill; and nobody fishes for krill.

As far as anybody knows, even Japanese sushi fishermen don’t fish for krill. But, since the Japanese do sometimes fish for minke, fin, and humpback whales . . . and minke, fin, and humpback whales eat lots of krill . . . every whale that winds up in a Japanese meat market for scientific purposes is one less whale out there depleting the krill supply. A lot of fish eat krill, too, and if the seas are as overfished as we’ve been told, you’d think there’d be so much extra krill floating around the South Atlantic that penguins could just lap it up from the shore. My guess is that the fact they can’t has more to do with the population dynamics of penguins than with anything we humans have done.

And the penguins at Punta Tombo have a pretty dynamic population. If Ms. Boersma’s count is anywhere near correct, something like a million of them spend the summer jostling together on two miles of beach. Penguins are everywhere at Punta Tombo. They stand in ranks, crowded together shoulder to shoulder like spectators at the Rose Parade. Penguins nestle under every bush, and there are lots of bushes. Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

Penguins shade themselves beneath the boardwalks that would keep them separate from tourists, except for the other penguins that hop up onto the boardwalks and stroll along, causing knots of humans to stand politely aside and wait for them to pass. At Punta Tombo, penguins have the right-of-way. Sometimes the penguins don’t pass but mill around conducting penguin business while tourists wait for their turn to use the boardwalks, and tour guides fidget about schedules.

Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

All along the beach penguins plop into the ocean. Shoals of penguins already in the ocean porpoise through the waves and then pop back onshore, when they can find a vacant place to pop onto. For sheer crowdedness, Punta Tombo is the Daytona Beach of the penguin world, and, since every female penguin lays two eggs, the colony becomes a lot more crowded as the eggs begin to hatch. If all the chicks survived, that would come to two million penguins’ worth of food the colony would go through during chick-raising season. Even with chicks dying, it’s hard to imagine there could be a krill left within hundreds of miles of the place. But there was in the past. Things aren’t what they used to be. Ms. Boersma is pretty clear on that point.

What the articles about dead-penguin-chicks-as-leading-indicators-of-bad-things-about-to-happen-to-you don’t delve into too deeply when they tell us that things aren’t what they used to be, is that things really aren’t what they used to be. Despite all the penguins at Punta Tombo, 50 or 60 years ago the place was a working ranch and there weren’t any penguins at all. Somewhere along the way the ranch turned into a nature reserve, penguins started popping out of the water, digging holes, building nests, raising families, ambling along boardwalks, swimming out to sea, inviting more penguins to come join them — and, in a twinkling of geological time, what used to be a ranch had changed into the largest penguin colony in Argentina.

Which suggests to me that, even if every single chick from this year’s hatching gets rained to death, there will still be a million more penguins at Punta Tombo than there were when I was in kindergarten and the only thing I knew about penguins was when Miss Ridley showed us pictures of them. This must mean something. Maybe, even, about the weather.




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