Two Small Steps in the Right Direction

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In this journal I have repeatedly expressed my intense disapproval of President Trump, so it seems to me that intellectual honesty requires me to compliment his governance when it does something I consider right. Recently, the Boss’ administration took a couple of steps toward what I consider excellent policies, so let me so record the facts.

The first pertains to something I have written about in the past.[1] Movie studios had for decades both produced and distributed their films — often playing them in theaters they themselves owned. This meant that the producers of the films made money on everything from ticket sales to snack bar concessions. This in turn allowed producers enough of a profit to take chances with new actors and directors, new genres, and smaller audience “art” movies.

Once deprived of its lucrative distribution side, the filmmaking industry settled into producing predictable movies in predictable genres, with predictable scripts, and with a relatively few established stars.

However, in 1948 (in US v. Paramount Pictures), the US Supreme Court ruled that studios could no longer control distribution. That meant they could no longer profit from concessions or control what theaters could show. The 1948 ruling widely prohibited practices such as studios owning their own theaters, limiting how their films could be shown, and “block booking” (i.e., requiring theaters to play a group of their movies or else be forbidden to any of them).

If you look at independent film critics’ lists of the best films of all time, the lion’s share were produced before the ruling was fully implemented by the Justice Department (in the mid-1950s or so). Nevertheless, once deprived of its lucrative distribution side, the filmmaking industry settled into producing predictable movies — including remakes — in predictable genres, with predictable scripts, and with a relatively few established stars. In recent years, this tendency has taken the form of endless sequels and prequels — Spiderman 78, Saw 89, Star Wars 95. For actors we see few amazing talents, discovered by wide-ranging talent scouts, but just more and more children or nieces or nephews of existing Hollywood insiders.

The original ruling was dubious to begin with. When the Federal Leviathan came up with this “anti-monopoly” action, there were five major and several smaller studios producing hundreds of movies a year. Some monopoly! However, the independent theater owners’ desire for access to other companies’ property carried the day — perhaps to the benefit of the small theater owners, but surely to the detriment of the lawful owners of the content (i.e., the studios) and the consumers as well. This was classic rentseeking in action.

The 1948 ruling led to a decline in the number and quality of films, giving people more reason to stay home rather than visit the theater.

Well, the revolution in the entertainment industry wrought by the internet has resulted in the rise of major companies — Netflix, Amazon, and recently Disney — producing and distributing their own product directly to the consumers’ homes. As a recent article in the WSJ notes, the Department of Justice has now announced that it will remove the regulations restricting distribution by producers directly to theaters. As Makin Delrahim, Justice’s top antitrust attorney, put it, “As the movie industry goes through more changes with technological innovation, with new businesses and new business models, it is our hope that the termination of the Paramount decrees clears the way for consumer-friendly innovation.”

The article claims that the DOJ’s move is a blow to the nation’s diminishing number of independent theaters and small independent studios, because it will force them into a release calendar that is dominated by expensive productions of the major studios. Half the 40,000 screens in America are controlled by three chains (AMC, Cinemark, and Regal), so smaller theater operators are already nervous about being put out of business. They complain about not being able to afford the heavy distribution prices that big studios demand for major hits. Using this past year as an example, 27% of all North American ticket sales have been for just five movies — four produced by Disney, naturally. So the small theater owners (represented by the National Association of Theater Owners, aka “NATO”) not unnaturally fear the DOJ’s letting these regulations lapse. But I would suggest to NATO and the theater owners it represents that they are not seeing the whole picture, and that if they did, they wouldn’t fear the change.

First, let’s make the obvious point that despite the onerous and longstanding restrictions put on the content providers (i.e., the studios), movie houses have been closing anyway. From 1995 to 2018, the number of theaters dropped from 7,744 to 5,803 — a loss of 25%. And the reason is clear: it is the same reason that individual retail stores and whole shopping malls have been closing — the Amazon effect. In retail sales, the internet has made many trips to the local store or mall unnecessary; the consumer can get what he wants online and have it delivered to his house, saving all the time, expense, and hassle of driving around. Similarly, the rise of cable and internet streaming has allowed TV, which started its rise as a competitor to the movies in the 1950s, to explode in audience size.

If more theaters are lost in the near future, this will probably not be because the 1948 regulations are going to be removed.

Adding to this “Amazon effect” that TV has had since its inception (the effect of allowing entertainment content to be delivered to the consumer at home) is the amazing technological development of the medium itself. The development of cable, and then internet streaming — along with the creation of big screen panel TVs and home surround sound systems — has enabled a home theater experience to come closer to a real theater experience than was ever before imaginable. I suspect that not long from now, we will have walls in our homes that are TV screens, just as in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.

So to a large extent, the trend of theaters closing is an outgrowth of TV expansion. The 1948 ruling did not stop this; it just led to a decline in the number and quality of films, again giving people more reason to stay home rather than visit the theater. If more theaters are lost in the near future, this will probably not be because the 1948 regulations are going to be removed.

But this is just a negative defense of removing the restrictions. I think a positive case can also be made, that allowing producers to own theaters will likely increase the number and variety of them.

The experience of watching a film alone or with your family and friends is quite different from that of viewing it in the company of a large number of strangers.

Start with the idea that single producers — say, Netflix — could own their own theater chains to first present their own content. Recently, Netflix premiered a major production (The Irishman) on TV first, and only then to theaters — presumably because it was the way to maximize receipts upon release. With its own theaters, it could debut films in them for maximum revenue, and later make them available on TV. More revenue would mean more original films it could then produce. It could build a chain of new theaters to do this, or it could buy out a large number of independent ones, or even join them in a franchise arrangement. You can imagine Netflix, Disney, HBO, and so on having large chains running only their own productions, allowing for the showing of shorts, cartoons, and serials as well, along with the sales of large amounts of accompanying merchandise. Again, this would lead to even more revenue, which would support even more production.

Next consider the possibility of “mixed use” theaters. Amazon — already producing some of its own content — could put together a chain of theaters where people could pick up or return their on-line orders, and also see a flick. Other retail players — such as Walmart, which has a large internet presence of its own — might be tempted to start producing and distributing its own movies, perhaps by buying an already existing movie producer (HBO, Hallmark/Crown Media, or such) and expanding its operations.

The reason I am so optimistic about the future of movie theaters is simple. The experience of watching a film alone or with your family and friends is quite different from that of viewing it in the company of a large number of strangers. It’s called “social proof” — look it up.

Much of the data is dispiriting, but there is some comfort in it.

The second area where this administration deserves a compliment is in education policy. The WSJ reports that the Department of Education has released a large amount of new data showing what students are earning on average after graduation, and what their average student debt load is. What is novel about this mass of data is the granularity, the nice specificity of the information, which is provided by major and college.

We learn that one of the best returns on an education investment comes from getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from MIT. People with that degree averaged $120,300 in first year’s income, with an average student debt load of $8,200. That is perhaps no surprise, but the fact that bachelor’s degrees in business administration from Bismarck State College average $100,500 in initial salaries perhaps is.

Alas, many other programs are not so lucrative. Dentists graduating from NYU averaged $69,000 right after graduation, but had an average student loan debt load of $387,600. Bachelor’s grads in computer science from DeVry University-Illinois earned $37,800 on average while owing an average $53,400. (The same degree from Wichita State University led to $61,800 in average starting salary and only $31,000 in debt.) Graduates in rhetoric and composition from Columbia University earned a meager $19,700 upon graduation, but had a debt load of $28,500. Undergrad degrees in theater from the University of Alabama averaged $14,000 in first-year income with an average debt load of $25,000. And those who got their Master’s in Theater from USC averaged only $30,800 initially, but had a debt of $100,800.

Ironically, though, business ethicists are all college professors, and colleges have seldom if ever provided accurate data about how much their products really benefit their consumers.

This data set is gathered from a website first set up by the Obama administration called the “College Scorecard,” and covers over 36,000 programs at 4,400 colleges, using input from millions of recent college grads. It is limited in one respect: it covers only students who received financial aid, and it excludes debt that parents assume. Much of the data is dispiriting, but there is some comfort in it. Despite the recent inflation in college tuition (driven in great measure by the federal student loan program, which has allowed American students to rack up a collective $1.5 trillion in debt), in 85% of the programs for which data are available, grads earned more in their first year than their total debt — although this means that in 15% of programs, students had total debt greater than their first-year incomes. In 2% of the programs, the students’ debt load was double the initial incomes.

I agree with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that “the best way to attack the ever-rising costs of college is to drive real transparency.” Yet releasing data about schools, majors, incomes, and student debt levels isn’t merely good public policy. It seems to me a moral imperative. It is a truism of business ethics that for any purchase to be ethical, it must be possible for the consumer to obtain all materially relevant information about the product. Ironically, though, business ethicists are all college professors, and colleges have seldom if ever provided accurate data about how much their products really benefit their consumers.

My only concern is whether Trump will follow through on these policies. With the Boss, this is always an issue.


[1]See “The Rise of the Comic Book Movie” in Liberty, October 2008. For an extended defense of my claims in that piece, see “The History of Cinema and America’s Role in It” in Reason Papers (July 2014).




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Shrinking Audience, Shrinking Stage

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Americans are getting tired of the debates. Back in June, when so many Democrats itched to be president that the talkfests were spread over two days, 27.1 million people tuned in by live TV and streaming. Voters didn’t know some of these Democrats, and wanted to get a sense of them — who Pete Buttigieg was, for example, and how to pronounce his name. By the July debates, viewership dropped by half, and by November, half again; and in December to 6.2 million on live television.

That’s one of every 25 of the 153 million registered voters in the United States. So if you missed it, don’t upbraid yourself. This time I was going to miss it and go to a movie, but it snowed and I stayed home and watched the debate after all. So here goes . . .

Six candidates made the cut, which was based on polls and number of donors. Some of the excluded candidates and their supporters bellyached that all six who made the cut were white — which meant what? Those excluded were Michael Bennet, Michael Bloomberg, John Delaney, Deval Patrick, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang. The thing they have in common is not race, but failure to connect with voters. Then, during the debate, Bernie Sanders was confronted about a remark he supposedly made in a private conversation two years ago that Elizabeth Warren would have difficulty being elected because she is a woman. He denied it and she, by her response, essentially confirmed it. Which means — what? For once I felt sorry for the guy.

Some of the excluded candidates and their supporters bellyached that all six who made the cut were white — which meant what?

They piled on Sanders for another matter — all the taxpayer money he planned to unleash in his Medicare for All plan. The moderator asked whether his single-payer system would “bankrupt the country.” Sanders’ answer was that yeah, it would cost trillions, but Americans would be done with premiums, deductibles, and copays, and that those added up to more. Therefore, his Medicare for All would cost less. Perhaps this was another political lie, but the Vermont socialist clearly believes it. And I think he could be right about it. If Sanders designed a European-type system, and Congress accepted his version of it, it might well save money. The Canadian system is cheaper than ours, the British system is cheaper than the Canadian, the Cuban system is cheaper than the British, and probably the North Korean system is cheaper than the Cuban. Sanders even said that he might have pharmaceuticals manufactured by the government. Under such rules, it is completely possible for a single-payer system to cost less than the system we have now. The new system would feel Spartan, and Americans would hate it, and probably it would kill off innovation from the biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. But it is possible.

Warren, who had played the role of Sanders’ ideological sidekick, moved to differentiate herself. The federal government contracts out a lot of things, she said. Maybe it could contract out the manufacture of generic drugs. “This is a way to make markets work,” she said. “You don’t even have to use price controls.”

She believes in capitalism, remember?

One of the interviewers asked Sanders about his socialism, and mentioned a poll that said two-thirds of Democrats didn’t agree with it. He didn’t back down. Yes, he said. He was for healthcare as a human right, a takeover of the pharmaceutical and health-insurance industries, public college for all, a green New Deal, and a $15 minimum wage.

The new system would feel Spartan, and Americans would hate it, and probably it would kill off innovation from the biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. But it is possible.

No boos from the audience. A couple of other candidates made veiled comments — Amy Klobuchar talked about “grand ideological sketches” and Buttigieg talked of ideas deemed bold “based on how many Americans they would alienate” — but nobody followed up with an attack on Sanders’ socialism. Not the candidates, not the moderators, not the audience.

For the Democratic Party that is notable.

Mostly the performances followed worn paths, but occasionally there was a glimmer of the new. Buttigieg opined that Democrats really ought to talk about the federal deficits and the public debt — a topic they’d been ignoring in all the debates — and then he didn’t talk about it. Klobuchar, who opposes free college for rich kids, said the real problem will be to train more home healthcare workers and nurses. “We’re not going to have a shortage of MBAs, we’re going to have a shortage of plumbers,” she said. Which means — what?

Warren was for prioritizing climate change, but she would also ban fracking. Klobuchar disagreed. “I see natural gas as a transition fuel,” she said. But the Minnesota senator dared not say anything critical of wind or solar — nor did any of the others. Biden briefly mentioned his proposal to set up 500,000 charging stations for electric cars. No one asked him where he expected the electricity to come from — or the money, for that matter.

Buttigieg opined that Democrats really ought to talk about the federal deficits and the public debt — a topic they’d been ignoring in all the debates — and then he didn’t talk about it.

Biden’s point, which he inserted when he could, was his experience. Others talked; he had done it. He made this sound petulant, but really it was an important point. Ideas are not everything. The presidency is a job in which experience matters, particularly previous time in a high-level executive job. Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush had been governors of large states, Jimmy Carter had been governor of a medium-sized state, and Bill Clinton had been governor of a small state. Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush were former vice presidents, and each had other political positions before that. Herbert Hoover was a famous Secretary of Commerce who had led the US effort for to relieve the Russian famine of 1920–21. Dwight Eisenhower had been supreme commander of Allied armies in Western Europe. John Kennedy, probably the least qualified of the group, had been in the House of Representatives for six years and the Senate for eight years.

Standards have slipped since the 20th century. A couple of election cycles back, I raised the question of the experience of Ron Paul, who was carrying the libertarian banner among the Republicans. Paul was a backbencher in the House of Representatives. The most recent president I could find who had been elected out of the House was James Garfield in 1880 — and Garfield was a frontbencher who would have taken a seat in the Senate (courtesy of the Massachusetts legislature) had he not been elected president. Garfield had also been a major general in the Civil War.

Many libertarians supported Ron Paul because they agreed with him. Few of his supporters asked whether he was qualified to be president, which he really wasn’t.

People forget that in 2008 Barack Obama had been a US senator for only two years. His lack of qualifications would have been a big Republican talking point had John McCain not run with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. McCain’s decision gave the experience issue to the Democrats. Obama also defused it by choosing longtime Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

Few of Ron Paul's supporters asked whether he was qualified to be president, which he really wasn’t.

In 2016 Donald Trump ran for president as a real estate tycoon, but that was a generous characterization. Trump’s name was plastered on high-rise towers, but he didn’t own the properties. He’d been bankrupt. Really he was a promoter, a showman, a high-level bullshitter. Trump was intelligent enough to have earned an MBA from the Wharton School and to outwit his Republican rivals in 2016, but nonetheless he was unqualified to be president.

And he was not the only such candidate. Ben Carson, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2016, was a neurosurgeon, and in this cycle Democrat Marianne Williamson was a writer of self-help books who offered to beat Trump with a campaign of “love.” Democrat Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur of modest success, and Tom Steyer is an entrepreneur of larger success, but the government is not a business.

Consider the other five Democrats who made it into the January 14 debates. Joe Biden, with a long career in the Senate and eight years as vice-president, is obviously qualified. (Comments about qualifications are not endorsements.) Amy Klobuchar has been in the Senate for 13 years and Bernie Sanders 12 years. Elizabeth Warren has been in the Senate for 7 years and before that was a professor at Harvard Law. Not bad. Pete Buttigieg, who was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for eight years — he just stepped down — is the least qualified of the five.

Donald Trump ran for president as a real estate tycoon, but that was a generous characterization. Really he was a promoter, a showman, a high-level bullshitter.

Now to age. In today’s America we are constrained not to say anyone is too old to do anything, even to be president of the United States. It’s “ageist.” Well, to hell with that. I’m 68 years old, and I freely admit that I’m too old to do a whole bunch of things. President of the United States is a taxing job. Twelve years of it killed Franklin Roosevelt, and eight years of it visibly aged Bill Clinton.

Until the election of Donald Trump, America’s oldest president was Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 was inaugurated a couple of weeks before turning 70. I saw Reagan up close in 1984, when he was 73, and he looked terrible. He served for almost five more years, but was visibly in decline by the time he left office.

Are Sanders and Biden too old? I believe so. Trump is not exactly a marathon runner, either.

Trump would be 74 on January 20, 2021. Joe Biden would be 78 and Bernie Sanders would be 79. The red-faced Sanders recently had a heart attack. Biden mumbles his lines. Are Sanders and Biden too old? I believe so. Trump is not exactly a marathon runner, either. Elizabeth Warren would be 71, but she seems younger, and women live on average five years longer than men. Amy Klobuchar would be 60 — what in this group would qualify as early middle age.

The youngest presidents we’ve had were John Kennedy, who was 42 when he took office in 1961, and Theodore Roosevelt, also 42 when he took office in 1901, after the death of William McKinley. Bill Clinton was 46 and Barack Obama was 47. Pete Buttigieg would be 38, which is just three years past the minimum age set in the constitution. You might select a 38-year-old of striking accomplishments to be president of the United States, but the former mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana? Vice president, perhaps. He is a smart guy.

Finally, I look at the political tea leaves. As I write, it is less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Bernie Sanders is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has the highest poll numbers — barely — and the most committed base of support. I don’t think Sanders will win the nomination, because as his rivals drop out their support will move to candidates less radical than he. But this could be wishful thinking. In 2016 I thought there was no way the Republican Party would nominate Donald Trump. And it did.




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Tyler Cowen’s “State Capacity Libertarianism”

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Tyler Cowen recently posted an argument on his web page, Marginal Revolution, called, “What Libertarianism Has Become and Will Become: State Capacity Libertarianism.”

Terrible name, I thought. But I kept reading.

Cowen, who is professor of economics at George Mason University and director of its Mercatus Center, is probably the most prominent mainstream libertarian intellectual today. (In essence, “mainstream” means that nonlibertarians will listen to him.) His webpage shows a mind ranging from the history of the Marshall Plan to the economics of art to how globalization affects the way the world eats.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems.

He begins his piece as follows:

“Having tracked the libertarian ‘movement’ for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow. One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt-right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.”

The problem, he says, is that plumb-line libertarianism doesn’t address some 21st-century problems, starting with the effects of carbon combustion on the Earth’s climate. Smart libertarians and classical liberals, he says (with a nod to Adam Smith), “have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.”

(Entirely non-sticky: correct.)

We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone.

The essence of Cowen’s view is that civilization has always needed a functioning state to underpin property rights and markets, and that in the 21st-century it needs one to solve a range of problems from global warming and traffic congestion. “State Capacity Libertarians,” Cowen writes, “are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.”

That’s right. We need the state. And let’s admit that state power has achieved some vital things that were not going to be done by markets alone. One is the creation of public-health institutions that can protect the public from such scourges as smallpox, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola. Another is to make markets work better by requiring the disclosure of information such as the contents of processed food or the legal properties of stocks and bonds.

“Plumb-line” libertarians — the purists — will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so. In the world of opinion journalism Cowen’s opened door was wrenched off its hinges by Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen in a piece entitled, “Libertarianism Is Losing Its Grip on Conservative Thought. Good.”

To Olsen, libertarians are zealots who declare “government always bad, private action always good.” And there are people like that. Olsen argues that this means libertarians “are congenitally unable to present plausible answers to challenges that people want addressed.” As an example, he cites the economic gap in Britain between the prosperous South and depressed North, an ailment to which the U.K.’s prime minister, the “one-nation conservative” Boris Johnson, now promises to minister. Olsen also cites the push by Sen. Mario Rubio (R-FL), for federal intervention to shore up “hollowed-out” manufacturing industries. Olsen applauds these proposals. He favors a politics in which “democratic governments can legitimately define a problem and then use tax, spending and regulatory policy to try to accomplish a specific, publicly defined goal.”

The purists will, of course, object that Cowen has opened the door to the state, which nonlibertarians will attempt to kick open all the way. And it is so.

Olsen goes on to argue that too many Republicans in Congress have been cowed by libertarians with their “government bad, private action good” mantra, so that the Republicans offer no solutions to such problems as health insurance coverage, climate change and “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor.” Olsen concludes, “Cowen’s essay is thus aptly timed, bringing a ray of sunshine into a long-darkened movement . . . The hard core will try to keep the rest of us in the shadows, but the days will lengthen as more and more conservatives break free from their frozen slumber.”

Shadows and dark forces aside, there is some truth in what Olsen says. Several of the Democratic presidential wannabees are pushing for the entire U.S. health insurance industry to be scrapped and replaced by federal officials. The Republicans oppose this, of course, but mainly by dragging their feet, which is not a strategy that ultimately wins. For years now, the Republicans in Congress have promised to repeal Obamacare, but when they had the votes to do it, they didn’t. They had nothing politically acceptable to replace it with. Now they are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

So Olsen has a point. If you are too doctrinaire you remove yourself from the discussion and you get nothing. But in defining his position, Olsen opens the door to state action much too wide. He wants government to take up “the challenges that people want addressed.” And that could be anything.

Libertarians seek to limit state action. Cowen is arguing, as am I, not to imagine limits too strict. To defend against an imminent threat to the health and safety of the people, state power may be used against foreign army or an infectious microbe, or to defend against a long-term threat like a warming planet. But the problem Olsen defines as “the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor” is not such an imminent threat. Nor is the relative decline of manufacturing. These are social trends, not imminent dangers. The percentage of Americans employed in manufacturing has been declining since 1953 — and with the advance of robotics, employment in that sector, if not production, will continue to decline. Get used to it.

Now Republicans are maneuvered into the position of effectively defending the program they promised to kill.

To a libertarian, the market value of different kinds of labor is a background fact that you take into account in your private decisions. If you grow up in a low-wage area with few opportunities, you can move away. You can stay and start a company and thereby provide work. If you can’t make it in manufacturing, you can do something else. Go into the service industry. Become a university professor. Sell hot dogs. Whatever. To a libertarian, these are not government problems.

In today’s America, they are. Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless. Government is enlisted to eradicate poverty, inequality, racism, sexism and homophobia. Reacting to the crisis of plastic bits in the Pacific Ocean, the city where I live has banned plastic straws, and to address the obesity crisis (supposedly) it taxes the sugar content of canned and bottled drinks.

No libertarian can accept Olsen’s idea of a government unleashed in this way. You can, however, consider Olsen’s criticism. Some of the time, out of political necessity, it makes sense to accept compromise solutions. Charter schools are better than uniform public schools. A mandate to buy private health insurance is better than “Medicare for All.” A carbon tax is better than green socialism. As George Orwell once wrote, the sure sign of a zealot is an argument that half a loaf is the same as no bread.

Politicians and journalists proclaim a manufacturing crisis, an opioid crisis, a homeless crisis, a student-loan crisis, a teen pregnancy crisis, a food-desert crisis, an obesity crisis, on and on. The thing is endless.

Consider some of the replies to Cowen from libertarians.

Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute was against him. “There is no political will or constituency for skillful technocratic state management of society . . . There is no third way between state and market.” Come on, Deist, don’t try to win by asserting theoretical categories. A society can have some state and some market — which is what we do have, here and in almost every jurisdiction on the planet, in various proportions. That’s what we’re talking about, and you know it. “Western states won't give up their sclerotic regulatory, tax, central banking, and entitlement systems no matter how many flying cars or hyperloops we want.” Yep, they probably won’t, just as Cowen says. “Climate change is not a problem or issue for anyone to solve.” Well, maybe not for anyone to solve, but perhaps for all of humanity to ameliorate — and intelligent amelioration might be good enough. “The environmental movement will quash nuclear (especially after Fukushima).” Maybe, but arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Deist also has his definition. “Libertarianism simply means ‘private.’ It is a non-state approach to organizing human society. It is not narrow or confining; in fact everything Cowen desires in an improved society can be advanced through private mechanisms.” Everything, eh? This reminds me of when I was a teenager and I wrote to Nathaniel Branden asking him how we would build highways without eminent domain. He replied that in a free society this would not be a problem, “nor has it ever been.”

Bryan Caplan offers a piece titled, “Worst Advice to Libertarians Ever?” He quotes Cowen’s lines, “We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.” Okay; Cowen didn’t say he liked growing government, but that he was willing to accept much of it. I don’t think this means, as responder Gabriel M. says, that Cowen “wants the next generation of libertarians to be social democrats.”

Arguing in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution makes more sense than the environmentalist position, which is to pin all our hopes on solar and wind.

Cowen replies to Caplan: “Bryan’s extreme rhetoric is a sign my points have hit home. I regularly debate these topics with him over lunch, I think Bryan is tired of being beat up upon in person. Note that in my essay I mention pandemics, global warming, and intellectual property as problem areas. There are plenty of facts on each topic. Bryan doesn’t mention one of these in response, instead shifting ground to the war on terror and resource pessimism, which he then punctures.”

When you argue against someone, rhetorical fairness requires that you take on their strongest points, not just their weakest ones.

At the Hoover Institution, economist David Henderson argues that “libertarianism, properly conceived, can handle almost all the modern problems that Cowen throws at it, whereas state capacity is fraught with danger.” Henderson argues that hardcore libertarians are right about recreational drugs, which maybe they are (meth, too?), and about the public schools. (Totally privatized schooling in one jump, or vouchers, or charters first?) He allows that on global warming, “if it is indeed a problem,” Cowen makes a good point. Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?) Henderson is right that there is some danger in Cowen’s position, but he also makes a crucial concession about global warming.

Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, argues that Cowen’s “spirit is on target” but that his “specifics are fundamentally mistaken.” He goes on to concede, however, that Cowen is mostly right about the movement not commanding new adherents. And concerning the necessity of compromise, Gillespie writes that a better, non plumb-line definition of libertarianism is “an outlook that privileges things such as autonomy, open-mindedness, pluralism, tolerance, innovation, and voluntary cooperation over forced participation in as many parts of life as possible." I like that definition a lot, and I think Cowen would like it. It seems to me that Gillespie accepts much of what Cowen says.

Maybe a carbon tax is needed, though how to get China pay its share? And do we really trust the government to get the details right? (What’s the alternative?)

Dan Hugger of the Acton Institute argues that Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism” “is actually a case for a politically pragmatic libertarianism tailor-made to a hostile audience.” Okay.

Several commenters describe Cowen’s position as left-liberal or social democrat — in other words, “liberaltarian.” These are sort-of libertarians who want to ally with Left in the hope of converting them. Read some of the comments from leftists on Olsen’s piece in the Washington Post.

  • “Libertarians are cruel,” writes Jetmechanic1. “Probably more so than republicans. They are overwhelmingly people who have money and status and don’t answer to anyone.”
  • “Libertarianism will never go away because Conservatives will always need a rationalization for ripping people off,” writes Blochead1.
  • “These people will eat you if they make a dime from it,” writes CountryMouse2.
  • “I’ve yet to hear of even ONE Libertarian of any stripe refusing to accept their Social Security checks,” writes CubbyMichael. (Isabel Paterson was one.)
  • From Domiba: “Tell a so-called libertarian to pave his own road.”
  • Then there is Kumit, who asserts that conservatism and libertarianism both are “just dog-whistle fascism.” (The “dog whistle” trope is a way of dismissing your opponents’ arguments without having to consider them.)

We are not allies of the Left. They don’t want anything to do with us. Cowen’s version of a compromised libertarianism is not “liberaltarianism” in any case.

Cowen’s positions are not plumb-line, but they are broadly libertarian. To me, the central statement of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love your family or your country or the green Earth, or that you accept no obligations to them. It means that you decide which ones to accept, and that others respect your decision. You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them. “Society” does not owe you food, shelter, housing, medical care and a free bus pass.

Our opponents accuse us of saying, “You are on your own,” as if we were cutting people off from humanity. And I think: No way. You are free to make all kinds of affiliations, and most people do. But you decide — what you believe, whom you love, whom you live with, where you live, what work you do and how you spend your money.

You accept the world as you find it and make your own way. You can ask others for help, and if you treat them kindly you have a good chance of getting it, but you can’t demand it of them.

In many of these things, we are essentially a libertarian society right now. Our politics is not libertarian, but even in our economic life, we are broadly more libertarian than not.

The case for liberty is also about the quality of the society. A society of private decisions is fluid. Freewheeling. Organic. Its direction is set by the sum of people’s choices, of which only a small part is how they vote. More important is what they do. It is the same in industry. The future of the medical industry, for example, requires that innovators constantly develop new drugs, new devices, new treatments and new ideas. A single payer will tend to roll a moldy carpet over all that. Regarding research and development spending, Terence Kealey wrote in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (1996), “Nationalization always lowers budgets, whatever the enterprise.” (p. 247). Especially when there is no competition — and that is what “single payer” means — government services tend to be not too good.

The political world of 2020 doesn’t want to hear this. The candidates vie with one another to offer free stuff and secular salvation. One is an avowed socialist, and none is a libertarian. Still we have a good case, and we can make it stronger if we are not so dogmatic about it. Life is complicated, and an entire political philosophy built on the nonaggression principle will not work and will not sell. But we can still promote a world of strong (if not absolute) self-ownership, self-reliance and individual rights. We can say what H.L. Mencken said of the freedom of the press, when asked how much of it he was for. His answer was, simply, “As much as people can stand.”




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The Democrats’ December Debate

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Seven of them! I was going to say, “Still too many,” but I think I’ll miss the ones that will be squeezed out next. Already I miss Representative Tulsi Gabbard. She is not going to be the nominee, but I note that she was the only Democrat in the House to vote “present” on the articles of impeachment. It would have been entertaining and maybe instructive to have the other seven Democrats light into Gabbard, and her into them. Gabbard had helped vanquish Kamala Harris — a net gain for the republic.

The rest of the candidates are becoming painfully familiar. Their spiels are not only memorized but burned into their neurons like the tracks on a DVD. They have conditioned themselves not to answer certain questions, but to select the question they wanted and press PLAY. The moderators, who know this, ask the wrong questions in the hope of unleashing a wobble of individuality. The first question of the night was to answer why, given that they all supported impeachment, did only about half of the American electorate support it?

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer all pressed PLAY and gave the prepared answer: Trump deserves impeachment because his administration is “the most corrupt in modern history” (Sanders), et cetera. Steyer one-upped the others by saying he began a public effort for impeachment two years ago — before Trump’s telephone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The candidates are becoming painfully familiar. Their spiels are not only memorized but burned into their neurons like the tracks on a DVD.

Yang was the only one who answered the question. Americans don’t agree on impeachment, he said, because they are getting their news from different sources, some of them pro-Trump and some rabidly anti-Trump that say he’s president only because of “Russia, racism, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, and emails.” The impeachment fight, Yang said, “strikes many Americans as a ballgame where you know what the score is going to be.”

Indeed. Yang is not going to be president, but it was good to have him there.

Moderators asked another “tough” question: given that the American economy is operating at full employment, how can they argue against Trump on the economy? Predictably, all who answered wallowed in gloom. Biden said, “The middle class is being killed.” Warren said, “The middle class is being hollowed out.” Buttigieg said, “This economy isn’t working for most of us.” Sanders said of an increase in average wages of 1.1% (Nov. 2018–Nov. 2019, after inflation, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics), “That ain’t great.” Yang joined in on the gloomfest, saying that average life expectancy in America has dropped for three years, largely on account of drug overdoses and suicides.

Yang is not going to be president, but it was good to have him there.

I checked that out, and it’s true. The drop came in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, from 78.9 years to 78.6 years. I didn’t know that, and I thank Yang for bringing it up, but what does it have to do with Donald Trump? What control does the president of the United States have over drug overdoses and suicides (including those that occurred before he took office)? And for that matter, what control does he have over the average increase in real wages?

One of the most annoying features of these long, gas-filled debates is that candidates offer solutions and “plans” for everything under the sun, from planetary climate to the worries of a diabetic in Nevada sharing insulin with his sisters. Never do you hear a candidate say, “The presidency is an office of limited powers, and I couldn’t help you with that.” The closest in this debate was on the question of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which all good Democrats are for. The question was then put to Biden, who was vice president for eight years when it was not done. And Biden said, “You have to have congressional authority to do it.”

Biden also said, regarding his support of the war in Afghanistan, “I was wrong.” I credit him for that. Politicians hardly ever say it.

On the matter of global warming, Steyer said he would declare a national emergency. So would Sanders. Declaring an emergency would allow the president to do — what? Buttigieg and Klobuchar supported a carbon tax, which would have to be passed by Congress. Biden wanted to offer Americans 550,000 electric charging stations and tax credits for solar panels on their roofs. (More free stuff!) One of the more interesting questions was whether the candidates would support nuclear power, because it emits no carbon. Warren, like the good progressive she is, said no more nuclear. So did Steyer. “We actually have the technology that we need,” he said. “It’s called wind and solar and batteries.” (Wind and solar and batteries?) Only Yang said he would consider nuclear, mentioning “next generation thorium reactors.”

What control does the president of the United States have over drug overdoses and suicides (including those that occurred before he took office)?

Does the president decide what sort of power plant utility companies build? They spoke as if he did.

The questioners repeatedly asked questions appropriate to a dictator, or a god. One of the questions was, what would you do to stop violence against transgendered people? An honest answer might have been, “I could condemn it vigorously.” Warren said, “I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, people of color, who have been killed in the past year.” It was a weak answer, but what could she say?

The one field in which the president is king is foreign affairs. There the Democratic thought was that America had to rejoin its allies and act in unison to support democracy and human rights. Several referred to Hong Kong, where protesters have been challenging Chinese hegemony — and China has, so far, held back. Yang had been to Hong Kong, and he has family there. He talked about the Hong Kong police’s use of facial recognition technology and the territory’s ban on facemasks. He didn’t suggest anything America could do about Hong Kong. Buttigieg talked about “isolating” China if it sent in the army. Biden talked about beefing up the Pacific Fleet to “protect other folks.” (What folks?) He added, “We don’t have to go to war. But we have to make it clear: this is as far as you go, China.”

I cut the candidates some slack here. They can be clear about the big policy things they can’t do by themselves, but foreign policy they can do, and it does not pay to show one’s hand in advance.

The questioners repeatedly asked questions appropriate to a dictator, or a god.

There were also some flashes of clarity. The questioners tried to pin down Sanders on why he’s for zero tuition at public colleges for everyone, and not just for those with, say, family incomes under $150,000 — Buttigieg’s proposal. Why would he cancel student debt for all, including the well-off, especially since he has it in for “the billionaire class”?

“I believe in the concept of universality,” he said, offering as examples Social Security and the public schools.

Warren was asked the same thing in regard to free tuition. Well, she said, she was going to pay for it with a tax on wealth — the implication being that the wealthy should not be excluded from free tuition. Universality, again.

And what would free public college mean for the private colleges? Nobody asked.

The one issue that heated up the debate was the one that means the most to the candidates themselves — paying for their campaigns. All candidates except the super-wealthy have to ask donors for money, and they hate doing it. The Democrats were all for getting private money out of politics — i.e., getting it from the government — but since that handout has not yet been universalized, they are in a bind. They can stand under a halo and accept only small donations, as Sanders and Warren are doing, or they can take big checks from those willing to write them and risk being called hypocrites.

Buttigieg was taking the big checks, and Warren called him out on it. Buttigieg had recently held a fundraiser in a “wine cave,” at which a bottle of inebriant went for $900. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," Warren said.

Democratic hopefuls can stand under a halo and accept only small donations, as Sanders and Warren are doing, or they can take big checks from those willing to write them and risk being called hypocrites.

This made me chuckle. Nine hundred isn’t a billion, and would billionaires pick Buttigieg? I didn’t think so. Buttigieg was not chuckling, He said Warren’s statement demonstrated “the problem of passing purity tests that you yourself cannot pass . . . Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.”

(Big cheer from the audience.)

“I don’t sell access to my time,” she said.

Buttigieg said her campaign is partly funded with money she raised in earlier campaigns and transferred to this one. “Did it corrupt you? Of course not,” he said.

This was the fourth or fifth Democratic debate I’d endured and I was tired of the pretense that they all mattered.

Klobuchar, who didn’t have a lot memorable to say this night, joined in and said, “I have never even been to a wine cave.” I recalled that in an earlier debate she said she had raised campaign money from old boyfriends.

A woman of the people.

Sanders bragged that he has more donors than anyone in American history, and that the donations average $18. Biden said his average was $43. Steyer, who has been donating millions to himself, wanted to change the subject. “We need to talk about prosperity,” he said.

I was tired of all the talking. This was the fourth or fifth Democratic debate I’d endured — I was losing count — and I was tired of the pretense that they all mattered. Steyer is not going to be the nominee. No way is the Democratic Party going to nominate a businessman. Ditto Yang, the entrepreneur. He even made a joke about this in his closing remarks: “I know what you are thinking, America. How am I still on the stage with them?” Yeah, I was thinking that. Yang is more of an individual, more “authentic,” than the rest of them, but he’s not going to be the nominee. Probably not Buttigieg or Klobuchar either. It will be Warren, Sanders, or Biden.

Well, let it be Biden. At least he knows the office, and he’s not a socialist.




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Highway to Nowhere

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In the annals of human weirdness Turkmenistan is top of the line.

Its capital is called Ashgabat, which in Modern Persian means City of Love. Ashgabat’s claim to fame is that it contains the world’s largest conglomeration — 5,000, according to our guide/minder — of white marble buildings. She asked us if we could guess why that would be the case. “Because Turkmenistan has a big marble quarry?” I posited. No, Silly, she seemed to think. “Because our president likes white marble.” The marble is imported from China and India and, in special cases such as the mausoleum of the first president, it’s genuine Carrera from Italy.

Along with the marble buildings, Ashgabat is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the tallest flagpole and the largest indoor Ferris wheel. The wheel is not set up in the oversized atrium of some hypermodern hotel, as I’d supposed, but is enclosed in a sheath that must make riding it feel very claustrophobic and, from a distance, gives the appearance of an outsized alarm clock, which our guide/monitor seemed unaccountably pleased about. The flagpole has been supplanted by a taller flagpole in Arabia but not to worry, she consoled us, it’s still the world’s tallest jet-powered flag pole. Because desert winds can’t be trusted to make a flag flutter, and nobody likes a limp flag, the government has installed a jet engine to keep the air moving 153 meters above the ground.

The president also likes white cars. You can tell this because all the cars in Ashgabat are white. He also closed the rural clinics so if you live in a rural area and get sick you have to hunt around for a white car to drive to Ashgabat. This could be quite a trip in a country that’s big enough to support an airline flying 737s between cities.

Because desert winds can’t be trusted to make a flag flutter, and nobody likes a limp flag, the government has installed a jet engine to keep the air moving.

The president disappeared this spring and everybody, at least everybody who knew enough to know, was hoping he’d died, but no such luck. A few days later he showed up doing doughnuts at the Darvaza Gas Crater. Or, maybe, he was doing donuts at the Darvaza Gas Crater. It was hard to tell. The video of the donuts was taken from a drone at something like three-hundred feet and showed somebody in an ATV doing donuts.

Could be it was him. Where else would the president of Turkmenistan go to take a few days off from brutally ravaging an entire nation? The Darvaza Gas Crater is the major . . . maybe the only . . . tourist attraction in the country. And what an attraction it is.

It’s a sinkhole in the Karakum Desert gushing huge amounts of natural gas into the atmosphere. Back in the Sixties or Seventies or, maybe, Fifties, nobody seems to know exactly when, geologists tossed in a match and it’s been burning ever since. Nobody seems to know . . . or want to say . . . why, exactly, geologists would do such a thing. The excuse is that they didn’t want natural gas wafting around what was then the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and killing goats. But if they wanted to protect their goats from gas, why didn’t they just gather it up and pipe it to some goat-free place that needed natural gas? Our guide/minder said the crater burns a million dollars’ worth of natural gas every day. She seemed proud of the fact.

Something else nobody talks about is why there’s a sinkhole in the center of the Karakum Desert in the first place. Apparently it just sort of opened up while geologists were innocently doing geology nearby. Given Soviet history with environmental stewardship, one suspects there is more to the gas-crater story than we’ve been told.

The president closed the rural clinics so if you live in a rural area and get sick you have to hunt around for a white car to drive to Ashgabat.

For whatever reason it’s there, the government is taking full advantage of the moneymaking possibilities. To accommodate the hordes of foreigners they intend to lure into the country they’ve erected six yurts so tourists can spend the night basking in the warm glow of what they seductively advertise as The Gates of Hell. To help with this project they have photos of the president sitting on a traditional rug in front of one of the yurts. He is attended by a smiling Turkmen woman in a traditional gown, a long black braid down her back. Long, black braids are de rigueur among ladies in Turkmenistan on the ground that “men like them,” meaning, of course, that the president likes long braids on pretty, dark-haired women. On the rug next to him is a platter mounded with fruit.

The night we stayed at the gas crater we didn’t find any mounds of fruit, or gorgeous women with long braids. Or ATV’s to do donuts in. But the yurts were there and the crater . . . well, the crater was really something. You’re not going to see anything like that anywhere else in the world. As ecological disasters go, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage class disaster although, as far as I know, UNESCO has yet to lend its name to this particular bit of heritage.

Another thing nobody seems to know is who, exactly, the president is. It’s not like they don’t know his name. Everybody knows his name. It’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Birdie-Muhammed-off) and, according to the official bio, he was Deputy Director of the Ministry of Health when the old president kicked off. Deputy Director of Ministry of Health seems like an unlikely platform from which to catapult yourself to the presidency so, perhaps, he was the old president’s nephew. Or, maybe, his son-in-law. Or a dentist, or somebody else. Everybody has an opinion. Nobody seems sure.

When the Soviet Union fell apart the old president turned the country into his private fiefdom and set about de-Sovietizing the place. Among the changes he made were the street names, which he replaced with serial numbers; the days of the week, which he renamed after whatever seemed to have popped into his head (First Day, Justice Day, Spirit Day); and the days of the month, three of which he renamed after himself, his mother, and the book he wrote. The book is the Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul) and is always referred to as THE Ruhnama, the way the Qur’an is THE Qur’an.

As ecological disasters go, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage class disaster although, as far as I know, UNESCO has yet to lend its name to this particular bit of heritage.

He wrote his book as a spiritual guide for the Turkmen people, and it has become a bestseller in certain circles. Those circles include everybody who owns a car, because the ability to recite passages from the book verbatim is required to pass the driver’s exam. The book’s being spiritual and all, he had its title carved into the side of the largest mosque in Turkmenistan, along with the words “Holy Book.” Then, in a kind of author-to-author comity, he had “Qur’an” inscribed on the opposing wall along with the words, “Allah’s Book.”

To bring the benefits of his spiritual teachings to the community at large, he placed an enormous statue of the Ruhnama, its cover a tasteful chartreuse and violet, in the center of a fountain in a park in downtown Ashgabat. At 8:00 every evening, the cover opens, a video starts to play, and a passage from the book is read aloud. By good fortune, I was never anywhere near that park at 8:00 in the evening.

In a separate park he built a 39-foot tall statue of himself, perched on top of a 230-foot tower. The statue had its arms outstretched, and it rotated so that the old president always faced the sun.

As part of his liberalization program, President Birdie changed the names of the streets back to street names, renamed the days and months back to days and months, and tore down the 230-foot tower with the statue of the old president . . . then thought better about what he’d done and had the statue replaced, this time atop a 290-foot triple arch thingy that looks like a rocket ship from a 1930’s pulp sci-fi magazine. He never had the rotator connected back up, though, so now his predecessor just faces north. Also, and I say this from personal experience, he placed a very grumpy guard to keep watch over the thing.

The ability to recite passages from the old president's book verbatim is required to pass the driver’s exam.

As becomes a second president, he had a more modest, egalitarian sort of golden statue made of himself, arm raised, looking heroic astride a horse on top of a 69-foot high cliff of white marble that was dragged in from somewhere and plunked down in yet another park in Ashgabat. The statue of the book remains in its fountain, still being squirted at with water.

The 5,000 marble-clad buildings derive from some kind of manic building program. Many are architectural fancies that would have made Disney drool: spirals and curves, gold and white, arches and domes and swirls and eight-pointed stars gleaming against the night sky because every building in Ashgabat gleams against the night sky. They are all lit up with spotlights. All five thousand of them. All night. According to our guide/monitor, folks in the know call the city Ash Vegas. From space, it must show up as a bright as Singapore.

Some of the domes are perched on top of skyscrapers and some aren’t domes at all, but spheres. One, set into the top of a white, soft-edged vertical structure, makes the place look like a stick of roll-on deodorant. And these are just the commercial buildings. At least they would be commercial if there were any actual commerce in Ashgabat. And if anybody used them. From the street they look as sterile and empty of people as every other major building in Ashgabat.

There are big, sprawling public buildings, too, all fitted out with gold and marble and tilework and pointed arches in garish, movie-set Muslim, some of which we were allowed to photograph, some not. “That one,” our guide/minder would say in tobacco-auctioneer English as we motored past, “not that one. No. No. Yes. No yes. Yesno. YesNoNonono. Yes.” She must have had to pass a very strict set of qualifying exams to get the job.

Every building in Ashgabat gleams against the night sky. They are all lit up with spotlights. All five thousand of them. All night.

Nobody seemed to be using these, either, which makes sense where Parliament is concerned, but not so much for the ministries and other government offices. The two-story and three-story high, gold-encrusted ceremonial doors were shut as tight as the doors painted on the backdrop of a DeMille Bible extravaganza. The side doors were closed, too. “Everybody uses the back doors,” our guide/monitor informed us.

The only people on the street, besides police, were occasional women sweeping the gutters with the kind of brooms that witches use in medieval fairy tales. Outside of town people were using donkey carts and picking cotton by hand. According to Human Rights Watch the people picking cotton did not volunteer for that job.

Along with the public buildings are enormous apartment buildings in duplicate and quadruplicate facing one another from opposite sides of intersections, or running to the vanishing point like medieval armies in a computer-generated sword-and-nipples epic. They’re fifteen or sixteen stories high with manicured lawns and welcoming colonnaded entrances, each at least as big as the Plaza in New York. And empty. No signs of life anywhere. No lights, no laundry draped on balconies, no shades half pulled, no plants in windows. Just vacant and lifeless, each with a huge, neon corporate logo on top flashing NOKIA . . . HUA WEI . . . TOYOTA into the desert night. The government had apparently sold the naming rights. Our guide/minder told us it was for the convenience of the residents, “so they can tell each other what building they live in.”

“But they’re empty,” I objected. “Nobody lives in those buildings.”

“You just don’t see anybody because they never have to come out. They have everything they need inside.”

“Like what?”

“Like swimming pools. They have swimming pools inside.”

Just vacant and lifeless, each with a huge, neon corporate logo on top flashing NOKIA . . . HUA WEI . . . TOYOTA into the desert night.

The odd part is, the swimming pool thing may be true. It was certainly true of the hotel we stopped at to use the bathroom. There it was, a beautiful, indoor pool fed by a gushing waterfall. A lovely, five-star swimming pool with the heat cranked up to Fiji, the waterfall gushing, the lights off, no lifeguard and not a single person swimming. The corridors were empty and darkened. There was a fully equipped gym, unused and unlit; a hotel shop, fitted out with local knickknacks, dark inside with doors locked; and a beautiful, sun-drenched dining room . . . tables set, wine and water glasses at the ready, napkins folded in complicated folds . . . all devoid of people.

A dimly lit clerk sat at the front desk but nobody was checking in or out. There was no concierge and no bellhops and nobody was lounging in the lobby. Off to the side through a gold-filigreed door I finally heard voices, many voices, and, peeking through the filigree, saw people. Scores of people in a darkened hallway on the wrong side of a locked door. Not hotel guests, just ordinary Turkmen in an unadorned, unlit corridor. What they were doing there and why they were locked out of the hotel part of the hotel remains unexplained. The street outside was lined with dozens of similar hotels, gorgeously clad in white marble, none showing any sign of life. It spooked me out.

The street itself was an eight-lane divided highway. President Birdie calls it an autobahn, and he’s not exaggerating. Paralleling it was a two-lane road. On each side. Twelve lanes of pristine motorway WITH NO CARS. No cars at all, not even white cars, at 8:30 on a Thursday morning in the middle of the capital city. Our guide/monitor said there really were cars, “Just not here.”

She was right about the cars. Later in the day we encountered some genuine traffic. Not much by the standards of small-town America, but there was a bit in the district where people actually live . . . old, shabby, overcrowded, cracking, stained, tumbledown Soviet apartment blocks with laundry hanging on balconies and lights in the windows and grass eroded away by foot traffic.

A lovely, five-star swimming pool with the heat cranked up to Fiji, the waterfall gushing, the lights off, no lifeguard and not a single person swimming.

Right now, you’re probably asking yourself, “How does one even get an indoor Ferris wheel into the Guinness Book of World Records?” Or the world’s tallest jet-powered flagpole, for that matter? It turns out there are records, and then there are records, and not to put too fine a point on it, some records . . . deepest dive underwater while holding your breath, highest number of apples held in your mouth while being cut in half with a chainsaw in one minute . . . are more highly sought after than others. I, for instance, hold a few of my own. Most people to ride in the backseat of my car (4, 19 Apr 2017) jumps to mind. It was crowded in there but worth it to become a world record holder. But proud as I am of this title, you won’t see it in the Guinness Book because I didn’t pay Guinness to certify it.

That’s the key. To get your name in the Guinness book, you pay Guinness . . . sometimes up to a quarter of a million dollars . . . to send somebody out and certify your record.

At the price, I decided to forego the honor and, next time, will just pay Uber to haul people wherever they need to go. But President Birdie is made out of sterner stuff. That is to say, he’s made out of money. In a country of almost 6 million people, he’s got most of it. Any time he’s willing to dip into his pocket for a new world’s record, Guinness is more than happy to send somebody out to certify it.

Here’s a record you won’t find in the Guinness Book because President Birdie didn’t pay to have it certified even though he had to beat out North Korea for the honor: most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Here’s another: world’s most repressive state.

President Birdie is made out of money. In a country of almost 6 million people, he’s got most of it.

Despite the fact that he has brought Turkmenistan to the edge of economic catastrophe, President Birdie recently announced plans to extend the autobahn into the desert, past the Darvaza Gas Crater, past all six yurts, all the way to the northern border where it will come to a dead stop in the Uzbeki part of the Karakum. If anybody actually lived in the Karakum, this might make it easier to get into Ashgabat for medical care. But nobody much does.

So if President Birdie wants to brighten the image of his country with another record, Guinness will be pleased to sell Turkmenistan the honor of having the World’s Longest Highway to Nowhere.




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News from Washington State

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A political milestone has been passed in the state of Washington: affirmative action has gone down. Voters have rejected Referendum 88, a measure to relegalize racial preferences in state employment, education, and contracting.

This is an issue that speaks directly to libertarians. We think in terms of individuals. In our view, justice requires that government treat individuals of different races by the same rules. To us, “affirmative action” is an Orwellian term for a policy of preferential treatment, which amounts to institutional racism.

Libertarians may disagree on a number of things, but I think we all agree on this.

In Washington, racial preferences in state and local government had been banned by law since November 1998. This is the way it happened. The state legislature, Republicans included, never would have passed the original law. They didn’t have the courage. But a couple of policy entrepreneurs, inspired in 1996 by California’s Proposition 209, started a signature drive to put the issue on the ballot. Their measure was called Initiative 200; it was opposed by all right-thinkers in government and the media, and in November 1998 it swept the state with 58% of the vote. Only King County, which contains Seattle, voted in favor of preferences.

To libertarians, “affirmative action” is an Orwellian term for a policy of preferential treatment, which amounts to institutional racism.

This time around, the defeat of racial preferences has been a much closer thing. The public vote was on Referendum 88, a measure to bring back affirmative action. As I write (November 12), 98% of the votes are in, and Referendum 88 is being rejected by 50.41% of voters. In only four of the state’s 39 counties are voters approving it. The highest percentages for approval are in King and San Juan counties — metro Seattle and the San Juan Islands — which are Washington’s two counties with the highest median personal income and the strongest propensity to vote left. (The third most leftwing county is Jefferson, which contains Port Townsend, the former home of Liberty. The magazine’s founder, Bill Bradford, would not be surprised that Jefferson County, 91% white, also supported racial preferences.)

Washington is a Democratic state. Our Democratic politicians believe deeply in the moral necessity of treating people of different races differently in the pursuit of equal results. They have wanted to bring back the practice for 20 years. For a long time they dared not do it, but in 2019 they slipped it through.

Apart from referendums (explained below), Washington has two kinds of voter-initiated ballot measures: initiatives to the people and initiatives to the legislature. Under the first kind, the people collect signatures to put a measure on the ballot, and if they pass it, it becomes law. Under the second kind, the people petition the legislature to adopt a law they propose. If they collect enough signatures, the legislature has three options. It can pass the measure into law, refuse to pass it and let it go to the ballot, or pass an alternative measure and let both of them go to the ballot.

The signature drive to bring back racial preferences, which was called Initiative 1000, was an initiative to the legislature. As a result of the “blue wave” of 2018, the Democrats hold both houses in Olympia. On the last day of the spring 2019 session legislators passed Initiative 1000 straight into law. All the Democrats except for one in each house voted for it, and all the Republicans voted against it. Initiative 1000 became law without a vote of the people.

Our Democratic politicians have wanted to bring back the practice for 20 years. For a long time they dared not do it, but in 2019 they slipped it through.

Washington also has the right of referendum, which allows the people to petition to put a brand new law on the ballot. Another political entrepreneur did just that, by collecting signatures for Referendum 88, which offered the voters the chance to vote “Accepted” or “Rejected” on the words of Initiative 1000.

That particular troublemaker was Kan Qiu, an immigrant from China. There was a reason the fight against preferences was being led by an Asian. In the state universities, Asians, whether immigrants or native-born, are the group most obviously threatened by racial quotas. Asians make up 7.8% of the resident population of Washington but 24% of undergraduates at the University of Washington. And that’s not counting foreign students. If racial preferences were allowed, the student body would probably not mirror the population exactly, but it’s a sure bet that “overrepresented” Asians would have to jump a higher hurdle.

Kan Qiu and his supporters wanted the people to vote “Rejected” on Referendum 88. Their argument in the Voter’s Pamphlet is clear: “Referendum 88 allows the government to use different rules for different races . . . That’s wrong. And it divides us further apart.”

But the description of Referendum 88 in the Voter’s Pamphlet, which is supposed to be non-biased, painted a different picture. It called Referendum 88 a measure to “allow the state to remedy discrimination for certain groups and to implement affirmative action, without the use of quotas or preferential treatment (as defined), in public education, employment and contracting.”

If racial preferences were allowed, it’s a sure bet that “overrepresented” Asians would have to jump a higher hurdle.

The red-flag words are “as defined.” The original Initiative 1000, and Referendum 88, which restated it for the voters, defined preferential treatment as using race or group identity “as the sole qualifying factor to select a lesser qualified candidate over a more qualified candidate.” Race could be a factor, but not the sole qualifying factor. In other words, as long as the state could point to one other factor, it could discriminate by race.

This is defining “preferences” as a box so small that nothing will fit in it.

The opponents of preferences pointed out this tendentious definition every chance they could, but it was in the Voter’s Pamphlet, approved by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Democrat. The supporters of preferences made the most of the official words, claiming over and over that Referendum 88 would not allow preferences. Those supporters included Washington’s leading newspapers and three former governors, including Gary Locke, who is Chinese American — and also a Democrat.

In Washington we have never had to register as Democrats or Republicans, so I can’t say how many of each there are, but the people do mostly vote Democrat.

Most of the rest of the candidates blew through the $150,000 donation limit. So Democracy Vouchers didn’t actually limit anything.

Not this time. This was a Democratic measure, and it failed — barely.

And barely counts.

Unfortunately, the same applies to municipal elections.

I had hoped to report to Liberty readers that the voters of Seattle had finally tossed out their Trotskyite councilwoman, Kshama Sawant. But Sawant, first elected in 2013, has been reelected again, along with most of the progressive-left candidates to the Seattle City Council.

Money was a big issue. Seattle has won praise (from Andrew Yang, for example) for its Democracy Vouchers program, which was supposed to “take money out of politics.” The program gives each voter $100 in vouchers to give to candidates that stayed within donation limits. But Sawant never signed up for Democracy Vouchers, arguing that she was going to be targeted by the corporations and would have to raise all the money she could. And most of the rest of the candidates blew through the $150,000 donation limit. So Democracy Vouchers didn’t actually limit anything.

I threw my vouchers away.

Sawant was right in her predictions about money from business. In mid-October, Amazon, which is based in Seattle, dumped $1 million into the city council campaigns. The Left had its union money and Sawant had her socialist money from around the country, but it was Amazon’s money on the other side that became the talk of the town. Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders tweeted from afar:

Jeff Bezos and Amazon think they can buy elections. They spent $1 million to stop City Council candidates @d1forLisa, @TammyMoralesSEA, @VoteSawant and @ElectScott2019. Show Amazon that they can't buy our democracy and that their corporate greed won't stand. Get out and vote!

They did, and the Left took every seat it wanted except one. In that one, the Left’s candidate was another avowed socialist, but without the name, the panache, or the district Kshama Sawant had. And he got 47.6% of the vote.

“Our movement has won,” Sawant crowed, “and defended our socialist council seat for working people against the richest man in the world.” Her next goal will be citywide rent control (which would require a change in state law) and another tax on business. The Seattle Times’ photo of her victory rally shows her supporters raising clenched fists behind a huge banner that reads, “TAX AMAZON.”

In mid-October, Amazon dumped $1 million into the city council campaigns.

The fight had started with a tax on Amazon. In 2018 the Seattle City Council voted to impose a “head tax” — a flat tax per employee — on large for-profit employers, with the money to be spent on the homeless. The Left made a point of saying that the tax would hit only the top 3% of employers, which was supposed to show how reasonable it was. The tax would have cost the city’s largest private employer, Amazon, tens of millions of dollars a year. When Amazon and other companies began bankrolling a voter petition to put the tax on the ballot as a referendum, and a poll showed that the voters would kill it, all but one of the Democrats on the council quickly voted for repeal. Sawant, the lone Marxist, condemned them as cowardly, which they were. She also led a public demonstration in front of Amazon’s headquarters and condemned CEO Jeff Bezos as “the enemy.”

In 2018 it did seem that the voters of Seattle were ready to sweep Sawant and her allies off the council. And this year, when seven of the nine council members were up for reelection, several of them declined to run. The council member in my district was one of them — but, alas, he has been replaced by another much like him.

The candidate chosen to run in Kshama Sawant’s district was a political novice named Egan Orion, a man best known for organizing PrideFest, a gay celebration. By any national standard he was pretty far left himself, but this is Seattle and Sawant’s district is the leftiest part of it.

Sawant, the lone Marxist, condemned them as cowardly, which they were.

There were things a nonleftist might like about Orion. Being known for a celebration made him less of an irritant than someone known for screaming at Jeff Bezos, or for the $15 minimum wage. Sawant was for rent control — and on Orion’s web page was an article about how rent control would hurt small landlords. In the county’s Voter’s Pamphlet, which has statements from all the candidates, Orion said he wanted to “expand all types of housing,” which was a politically correct way of saying he was not against builders of market-rate housing, which the Left blames for displacing the poor. Orion also said he wanted the city government to help women, gays, and people of color to start businesses. Passing over the intersectionality stuff, I perceived that he was in favor of people starting businesses. He also promised to “focus on outcomes, not ideology,” which seemed to be a nice way of saying he was not a fan of Leon Trotsky.

The state of Washington runs elections by mail, so that election day is really start-counting-the-ballots day. On the first count, Orion was ahead, with Sawant polling only 45.6%. Though she had come from behind and won in an earlier election, her supporters were worried. Socialist Alternative, the national newspaper of Sawant’s party, wrote,

Seattle is experiencing its own local variant of the right-populist wave which elevated Trump to power. Middle-class anxiety in the face of growing economic insecurity and social decay is exploited by big business and the rich, who are waging a ferocious struggle against the rise of socialist ideas and movements demanding limits to their wealth and power.

The chief evidence of a “right-populist” wave in Seattle was a local TV documentary about homeless encampments called “Seattle Is Dying.” (It’s on YouTube.) There are some right-wingers in Seattle, but you’d have to hire a detective to find them. In 2016 Trump got 8% of the vote here. Bernie Sanders could take this city easily. If he does, he will have a comrade on the city council who has just been reelected.




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First World, Third World

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On March 19, 2003, when the U.S. started bombing Iraq, I was in Berlin, walking the streets, explaining why the U.S. was doing the right thing, why that war had to be fought, and why Saddam Hussein should be got rid of.

Those were very emotional days, for I was on my way to Canada as a new immigrant. In a way, leaving India was an easy decision. It was a hellhole for me, not just because of the government, but primarily because of its people, every one of whom thinks that he knows how I should live. Having worked in India for ten years after my return from my after-graduation work in the UK, I had realized that my education and skills had no value. Success at work was solely dependent on bribing around.

I had also come to realize that this predicament wasn’t going to change, for Indian society is hinged to expediency — a lose-lose paradigm of tribalism, amply mixed with superstitions. With nothing solid on which to stand and no basis of reason on which to accumulate intellectual and financial capital, everything had a feral quality.

Leaving India was an easy decision. It was a hellhole for me.

When Indians protested against corruption (or cases of rape), Westerners cried their hearts out thinking that India had finally awakened. Alas, corruption is a problem for Indians only when it discomforts them, not when it benefits them financially. With the society conspicuously missing rational, hence moral, underpinnings, it is impossible to wish away social ills. Every sign was that India and its institutions, which are products of British colonization, were going to continue to deteriorate.

Deep in my heart I had always hoped that the U.S. would somehow take over India. Then I would have avoided facing the trouble of looking for a completely new life in a new country. More importantly, I would have avoided having to face my Mom, to tell her that I was emigrating.

Those days, walking around in Berlin, I was projecting my emotional state on the Iraqis. Why wouldn’t they want the same, when they were suffering worse tyranny?

And, indeed, within days of the U.S. starting its attack on Saddam Hussein, Iraqis were celebrating and welcoming U.S. troops. Statues of Saddam Hussein were being destroyed in what seemed like a clear verdict of the Iraqis that they had had enough of tyranny. And why should that not have been the case? I have never known anyone from the Third World who, when given a chance, would not sell a kidney, and both kidneys, were it possible, to move to the U.S.

With the society conspicuously missing rational, hence moral, underpinnings, it is impossible to wish away social ills.

Alas, within a year, Iraqis had grown tired of the U.S. presence, and chaos and fanaticism had been unleashed. A virulent form of Islam was starting to spread. Repression of minorities picked up. Internecine violence between various sects and within sects skyrocketed. It was as if all of a sudden, the U.S. troops had no one welcoming them.

Let’s come back later to the general question of whether the isolationists are right, and the United States should refrain from intervening outside its borders, except in self-protection. Here, let’s recognize that the influence of the U.S. has been important in ways that most people don’t recognize, perhaps because the influence is negative: it has to do with things that don’t happen, or don’t happen as badly as they probably would otherwise.

It is hard to imagine that without the fear of the United States, the tyrants of Africa would not have conducted massive genocides, much worse than those they did conduct. Many African countries would have disintegrated and fallen into tribal chaos.

After he reached his term limit, President Kabila of Congo refused to go. He simply did not conduct elections. Congo, a country the size of Western Europe and with a population now estimated at 92 million, was positioned to erupt into a civil war. Last year, seemingly fair elections were held; an opposition leader was elected and installed early this year. The media will highlight how democracy is finally setting its deep roots in Africa, ignoring the fact that it was nothing but sanctions and a threat from the U.S. that made Kabila behave. The U.S. stopped a major civil war from happening. Alas, because this didn’t happen, history will not contain much mention of a crisis the U.S. averted.

Within a year, Iraqis had grown tired of the U.S. presence, and chaos and fanaticism had been unleashed.

Without Western influence, with the U.S. as the cornerstone, more than a billion people in Africa would not have existed today. They would have been slaughtered by warfare, or fallen prey to famine and disease. Or they would never have been born to families living with famine and disease. Without the West, Malthus would have never loosened his grip on Africa.

Without the U.S. presence, the Middle East would have fallen into much worse civil war than it currently has, with a plethora of leaders of various sects fighting with each other for supremacy. Easy money from oil would have been squandered far more rapidly than it has been. Indeed, the GDP per capita of several of the Middle Eastern countries is half as much as it was in the 1970s. It is as if they had destroyed half their capacity to produce wealth and completely failed to benefit from the intervening, massive development of technology.

Without U.S. influence, the Syrian dictator may have gassed a lot more people and ISIS would have become much stronger. Had the U.S. not become involved, the massacre of Muslims in Kosovo and elsewhere in what was Yugoslavia would have been much worse. Even today, the biggest protector of Muslim lives is the U.S. When it comes to the so-called reeducation camps that China runs in its Muslim province of Xinjiang, the only country that openly fights for the rights of the Uyghur is the U.S., while most Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, and even the neighboring one — Pakistan — prefer to ignore their existence.

But doesn’t the U.S. help the dictators of Saudi Arabia to stay in power? Of course it does. The world is not a perfect place. Ironically, were Saudi Arabia to become freer, it would become more fanatical, not less. And without a stable, controlled Saudi Arabia, a much worse, rogue regime of Iran will get a free hand to create troubles in the Middle East. You simply don’t have a third choice.

The only country that openly fights for the rights of the Uyghur is the U.S., while most Muslim countries prefer to ignore their existence.

Had the U.S. not taken active steps to control the spread of communism, would Brazil and Chile not have become communist long ago? During the past century, the U.S. has directly or indirectly intervened more than 41 times to change governments in Latin America. Of course, the military-industrial complex went along for its own profits, as barnacles go along with the ship. But the fact remains that the Third World has been incapable of staying stable without Western help.

It is hard to imagine what Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore would have been like today had the U.S. not protected them, and not put them on the path to economic growth. Quite in contrast to the disrespect that the U.S. gets for its help to other countries, the majority of Japanese and Koreans hold favorable views of the United States.

Without the U.S., North Korea would have already developed operational nuclear weaponry. Because this didn’t happen, we don’t know how miserable our lives would have been had the U.S. not interfered. Indeed, a mere few months back, the U.S. stopped a war from igniting between nuclear-powered Pakistan and India, neither of which had the tool of reason that was necessary to deescalate. What happens when two sides are irrational can be seen from the neverending war fought by Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. How many such wars the U.S. averted we will never know.

Besides contributing to political stability around the world, the U.S. does far more good than any other country on the planet, most of which goes unrecognized, unseen, and unappreciated.

During the past century, the U.S. has directly or indirectly intervened more than 41 times to change governments in Latin America.

One of the distinct memories I have as a teen living in India is of a group of men and women tied up with a rope, being led away to a construction site. These were bonded labour — modern-day slaves. An estimated 20 to 65 million Indians are directly or indirectly victims of human trafficking. Girls are forced into prostitution, and brought in from Nepal and Bangladesh. Boys and girls from India — and other countries — are trafficked in the Middle East. Use of young boys for a camel race in Saudi Arabia did not stop because the locals started to feel empathy; it came under control because of pressure from the U.S.

As a kid, I used to watch how the Indian government responded to glaring evidence of slavery, trafficking, and human rights abuses. It didn’t give a damn. There was hardly a whimper against exploitation from the intelligentsia or the middle class, which tended to feel that prostitutes get what they deserve. For the rich and well-placed, the lower classes are invisible and their sufferings don’t matter. Middle class Indians will tell you with a straight face about the high standard of life in India, forgetful that their fleets of maids, servants, and chauffeurs are also human beings. Ironically, when the lower class people get more power, the lack of empathy they exhibit is much worse. In essence it is not India’s democracy that keeps whatever sanity there still is, but the fear of the U.S.

But let’s not think just about military pressures, or any kind of pressures. There are at least a couple billion more human beings on the planet because of an American agronomist, Norman Borlaug, who contributed extensively in the ’60s to increasing agricultural yields in several countries.

Monsoon rains in India failed in 1965 and 1966. India was at the brink of famine. Massive grain shipments were sent from the U.S. Not many people outside India know about this. What Indians “know” is that the grains were of low quality and that the U.S. purposely adulterated them with weed and insects. The facts were different, of course. To avoid recurrence of grain shortages, the U.S. insisted that India adopt a more free-market system of agriculture, which set the background for India’s green revolution. As a result, India’s population growth spiked up for the next two decades.

I used to watch how the Indian government responded to glaring evidence of slavery, trafficking, and human rights abuses. It didn’t give a damn.

Borlaug, quite rightly, got a Nobel Prize for his work. Unfortunately, however, this work did not account for Malthusian equilibrium, which must continuously operate among people who have a tendency to revert to subsistence farming, nullifying any extra benefits they acquire.

Let’s unpack all the above, isolating what the U.S. does that is clearly harmful or unsustainable and will significantly increase problems in the future, and the good that is sustainable. Alas, most of the good that the U.S. does in the Third World falls in the former category.

Removing dictators and imposing democracy does not work. Saddam Hussein’s tyranny was the only stabilizing force in Iraq. Removing dictators or changing the form of government outside the Western and East Asian societies leads to an immediate decay in the societies affected. Then the worsening continues, with no improvement in sight.

This is exactly what happened when democracy was forced on the Third World. Pakistan, Iraq, Myanmar, etc. are much worse because of it. Libya and Iraq are evidently stable only when dictators rule them with a heavy hand. Democracy is not a magic wand. It does not really work anywhere, but it inflicts huge pain immediately on those in the Third World. Democracy ensures that the least competent, the most tribal, and the most desirous of bread and circuses decide who runs society’s institutions.

Removing dictators and imposing democracy does not work.

India was an unmanageable country when the British ruled it. With the population now four times larger, many of the best people having emigrated, and a bunch of not just crooks, but braindead, irrational junkies in power, India has perhaps a billion people above its Malthusian equilibrium — which will kick in as soon as the U.S. is no longer able to maintain sanity in an increasingly unstable region. The same is the case virtually throughout the Third World, which represents 5 billion out of 7.5 billion human beings on the planet.

Why did the West enable nothing more than temporary loosening of Malthusian equilibrium, making the problem worse, in some ways, than it was before? The Christian ethic of helping people without expecting gratitude is dangerous, for it creates bigger problems for the receiver, problems that keep ramping up until the giver no longer has the capacity to be charitable. When this “generosity” is delivered through career bureaucrats, who have only to lose for being politically incorrect, there are no good intentions in the equation, and any policy correction is virtually impossible.

This leads us a massive problem that the U.S. has unintendedly created. Among the Third World societies are some that are now richer and better equipped for wars, as can be seen in the Middle East. When the Third World refuses to change culturally, U.S. help merely subsidizes the problems, making them worse. A time must come when this can no longer continue. Today, the U.S. is no longer in a position to manage the world. Intervention is a thankless job and attracts the disrespect of those helped. It postpones and increases problems.

The Christian ethic of helping people without expecting gratitude is dangerous, for it creates bigger problems for the receiver.

However sad this may be, there isn't much that can be done. Those of us who grew up in a Third World country learn not to feed every starving person or to stop every abuse from happening — there simply aren’t enough resources.

As U.S. influence recedes, however, the world will become an extremely unstable place. There is one thing that the U.S. should focus on — protecting itself and its cultural allies, in the West itself and in East Asia. Of course, as Trump insists, the allies must pull their own weight, and learn to say “thank you.” Such a policy of self-protection will inevitably include friendships of convenience with dictators like those in Saudi Arabia, to ensure that their societies don’t blow up, to keep tabs on rogue regimes like that in Iran, and to ensure that the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons goes no further. But the illusion of remaking a world that does not want to be remade must cease.




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Software Patents and Software Copyrights

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Some readers will be surprised to learn that as of 2019, despite the rise of Facebook, Google, and Amazon, and despite decades of the explosive growth of Microsoft and Apple, the Supreme Court of the United States has declined to decide whether software is patentable, instead deciding every software patent case on narrower grounds. It is settled and statutory that software is copyrightable, but the test for copyright infringement and the extent of copyright protection are questionable.

Here I will explore a Law and Economics Approach to questions about whether and to what extent software can be protected by patent or copyright.

One might ask why it would even be questioned whether software can be patented. After all, patent law protects technology, and software is technology. However, patent law was created in the 19th century and solidified in the 20th, and the paradigm of patent law, in which its legal doctrines make sense, is to protect a physical device with a specific structure and physical elements of the object arranged a certain way. Patent law protects structures and elements, not functions or features. Also, patent law has always held that abstract ideas are not protected. Every invention it dealt with during its formative era was a physical invention. One thinks of the cotton gin as a good example of an early achievement of patent law. Lastly, patent law evolved for investigations in physics, biology, and mechanical engineering in which scholarly research led to lab experiments that yielded inventions — all of which was very expensive and hard to duplicate, although productive of discoveries that greatly benefited society.

The Supreme Court of the United States has declined to decide whether software is patentable, instead deciding every software patent case on narrower grounds.

Software does not fit this paradigm. Software is an abstract idea with no physical existence essential to its operation. The same software can usually run on any hardware, so hardware is not necessary to it conceptually. As such, it should not be, and is not, patentable. Software patent attorneys recite hardware in patent claims to try to create a jurisdictional nexus in the physical world, but this is merely a legal fiction. What makes software profitable is usually its features and function, not how the elements of its source code were structured. It is black letter law that you can patent structures, but not features.

Software generally takes preexisting computer program language syntax, software frameworks, software OS features (operating systems), SDKs (software developer kits), and software APIs (application programming interfaces, a set of syntax for software systems to interact with other software systems), and uses them to do new and useful or extraordinary things. All software essentially uses the same sort of syntax, such as logical and arithmetic operations and conditional statements and loops and variables, and the same framework features, such as user authentication and database reads and writes, and merely rearranges these into new and useful features for end users — a calendar, for example, or photo sharing, or music playing. Front-end designs, such as what web pages or apps look like, usually take a set of given elements (colors and shapes or rounded corners or shadows or progress bars) and find new ways to arrange old components. Software engineers usually do not reinvent the wheel.

Software development is relatively cheap, does not require lab research, and does not rely on academic research. Indeed, a person could, in theory, learn how to code by reading books and, for no more than the cost of buying a laptop, use a free, open source framework to write software that made millions of dollars. Essentially anyone can learn to code, and scientific or mathematical skill of academic caliber are not requisite. Contrast the knowledge of biology or electrical engineering that is required to patent a drug or a microchip.

The paradigmatic Silicon Valley startup is three 20-year-old computer science majors who hack around one night and make some software and release it — whereupon it snags 2,000 users in a matter of weeks. The inventors raise a million dollars of venture capital, promote the product, get a million users, and get acquired for a billion dollars. That story resembles that of Instagram and many other “unicorns” (the slang term for a software startup valued at over a billion dollars). These young people who know code at a very high level and get very rich from it are called Silicon Valley Geniuses.

Software is an abstract idea with no physical existence essential to its operation. As such, it should not be, and is not, patentable.

In contrast, the paradigm for a patent is a lab that spends a ton of money on Ph.D. researchers who are looking for a cure for cancer. This lab must have the promise of a patent to justify the millions spent on research that may ultimately strike out. For this reason, trying to fit software into patent law is like trying to fit a square per into a round hole. The round hole did not expect and was not designed for a square peg.

Again, the abstract idea doctrine of patent law holds that abstract ideas and scientific principles are not eligible subject matter for patents. On the basis of the abstract idea doctrine alone, software is not patentable, and arguments that hardware gives it physical existence is a legal fiction. The actual statement of the software in a computer programming language does physically exist as bit values in computer memory or instructions in a processor, but language expression is copyright subject matter, whereas inventions are patent subject matter. Software, considered as an invention, is simply an idea implemented by a computer or device.

There is a path forward from this impasse: register software patents, but give them special rules. This path is especially attractive because it does not require new legislation and all the lobbying and hand-wringing that come with a political process, but it is more honest than legal fiction. The abstract idea doctrine should simply be retired as a patent doctrine that failed to keep pace with the evolution of technology. The abstract idea doctrine can be replaced by a distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge, which is a plausible distillation of the abstract idea law, wherein software patents that yield practical knowledge, as opposed to merely theoretical knowledge, can be patentable subject matter.

But this leaves the question of what software should be patentable.

There exists a certain basic set of patentability subject matter requirements that every patent lawyer knows: novelty, nonobviousness, utility, adequate disclosure, and claims defined by a specification. The key is two patentability subject matter requirements, as interpreted by Law and Economics. First, a patent must be novel. Second, it must be nonobvious.

There is a path forward from this impasse: register software patents, but give them special rules.

From a Law and Economics point of view, monopolies are horrible, because they raise prices and stifle competition. Yet a patent is a 20-year monopoly on an invention. So why grant a patent? A patent is a trade whereby society gives a monopoly to an inventor in return for his disclosing his invention, which then becomes part of the knowledge possessed by society. For this trade to be justified for society, the benefit to society of acquiring the knowledge must exceed the loss from higher prices during the monopoly. Novelty and nonobviousness are two guarantees of this. If the knowledge is not new, society has no need to buy it, because it already possesses it. The underlying intent of the nonobvious requirement is that other inventors would be unlikely to invent the same thing during the 20-year life of the monopoly, because otherwise society could gain that knowledge without paying out a full 20-year monopoly, even if society might wait five years for the invention to be disclosed by other inventors. This analysis replicates the patent law doctrine that combining old parts into a new configuration is not patentable unless the new whole is more than the already known sum of its parts. If A, B, and C are already known, then combining them into ABC might be new, but if there is no new knowledge above what was known from A, B, and C before, then society does not gain any new knowledge and has no reason to award a monopoly.

From this we arrive at a new test for whether a unit of software should be eligible for a patent: the Silicon Valley Genius Test. A patent should be awarded for something that a Silicon Valley Genius does not already know and could not figure out and is unlikely to think up during the next 20 years.

The Silicon Valley Genius knows every element of source code syntax and every feature already available to end users, so a new combination or configuration of those, absent something new that he does not know, will fail the test. The invention must be innovative and creative enough that, even with actual billions of dollars as motivation, the real geniuses of Silicon Valley are not likely to invent it within 20 years. The Silicon Valley Genius is smart, he is a genius, and if something could make a profit and could be cobbled together from the prior art, he will find a way to make it. But to pass the test, the knowledge involved must be new to the SVG. It must look like a lightbulb turning on in his head. After all, he is the representative member of society who actually gains the knowledge disclosed in the patent and is able to monetize it after the monopoly ends.

The Silicon Valley Genius Test is a very high standard to meet, but from the Law and Economics point of view there is otherwise no real reason to grant a patent — because real Silicon Valley Geniuses do exist in large numbers with venture capital funding and low development costs, so they will likely discover whatever the invention is and society will get it at a lower cost than by paying a monopoly. It is conceivable that most software patents would be struck down under the SVG test. Yet that would be the correct result, lowering prices by busting monopolies while only paying for true genius inventions that benefit society most.

From a Law and Economics point of view, monopolies are horrible, because they raise prices and stifle competition.

As with any test, we arrive at this question: how to pass it? Any inquiry using the SVG test must begin by identifying what is the knowledge that society gains in return for the proposed monopoly. From a Law and Economics point of view, if society does not take a profit on the trade of knowledge for monopoly, a patent should not issue. We can ask what new knowledge about how to do or accomplish something the disclosure teaches, and without which it may be merely theoretical knowledge, not practical knowledge. Having identified practical knowledge, we then ask whether an SVG knows or will soon know this.

The SVG test can demonstrate this in several ways. Expert testimony from real established SVGs can be taken on the issue of whether they think this would be novel and nonobvious to SVGs. Polls and surveys and focus groups can show the knowledge to groups of 20 to 100 SVGs plucked from Silicon Valley or the talent pool of software developers and ask them to vote on whether they have seen this or they think someone would have thought of this within the next 20 years. And there can be a factual analysis of the prior art to see if the patent is merely a reconfiguration of old known elements into new features, which is essentially not even novel, let alone non-obvious.

Prior art analysis should not be limited merely to academic scholarship and published patents. It should look to the documentation of every computer programming language, framework, and API, as well as analyzing the source code in every repository of free open source software, such as GitHub.

Now let’s look at copyrights. The Copyright Act defines software as a literary work, and courts have developed a test for software copyright infringement that is essentially the Hand Test applied to source code. The Hand Test, named after Judge Learned Hand, is a popular test for deciding idea-expression dichotomy issues in a copyright infringement case. The idea-expression dichotomy is a copyright doctrine that holds that literary expression is copyrightable subject matter, but ideas (and facts) are not.

It is conceivable that most software patents would be struck down under the Silicon Valley Genius test. Yet that would be the correct result.

Let us be honest: it is a legal fiction that a computer program is a literary work. As with patents, software doesn’t really fit the mold. But let us consider a computer program and take seriously the position that it is a literary work. A computer program, in the copyright sense, is a unit of source code. Source code is composed of words, written in a computer programming language, that tell a computer what to do (leaving aside the detail that it is compiled to machine code, which is a series of ones and zeroes loaded into the processor, and the machine code is what actually tells the processor what to do). So it is text written in a language, and could be protected under copyright like any book or article.

But what makes software special, and what makes people want to protect it, is precisely the thing that normal literary works lack: technological functionality and computer operational execution. If the basis of software copyright is that software is a literary work, then it should be protected as a literary work. Assume that an author writes a short story. Under the idea-expression dichotomy, copyright could protect literal copying of her words and also her voice, her style, her idiom, and the details of her plot and story and characters, although not the abstract ideas of her plot or her character archetypes. Copyright would also not protect the effect her story might have upon her readers.

Now assume that a chef writes a recipe in a cookbook. Literal copying of the cookbook would be copyright infringement, but when chefs use it to bake cakes, copyright would not normally give the author ownership over the cakes or any right to infringement damages. Selling pirated copies of a cookbook could lead to legal remedies, but baking a cake would not. If one chef buys a cookbook and bakes a cake and sells slices which compete against the author's cakes, absent some contractual license as a condition of buying the book, that is not copyright infringement.

I believe that copyright should protect the literary aspect of source code: its word choice, style, and idiom, the voice of the author as a writer of software, and any structural extensions of such, but should not protect functionality, which is properly within the scope of patent, not copyright. If the cake itself, or the reader enjoyment, is not copyright infringement, neither should be any source code elements, to the extent that they have an effect on computers.

Selling pirated copies of a cookbook could lead to legal remedies, but baking a cake would not.

A doctrinal basis for this position exists within the idea-expression dichotomy, which holds that where the copyright is the only possible expression of an idea, or one of a small finite set of potential expressions, then it merges with the idea and is a defense to infringement. From this we may infer the Functional Merger Test, which holds that features and functionality are facts about what software does or are simply ideas, and that where functionality merges with the expression of the source code under Merger Doctrine, the functionality is an idea for purposes of the idea-expression dichotomy, and the software as a functional entity cannot be protected.

Some examples may help to explain this. Assume that a feature requires software source code to take user input ten times in sequence and each time compare the input to a value, outputting a message if and only if the messages match. Assume that this must be done in one specific programming language. There is probably a small finite number of syntactic ways to do this. Declaring a variable, putting user input into it, comparing it to a string literal, and using a loop to do this ten times would suggest certain syntax to an SVG who was, for example, experienced in Java, or in Python. How to code this naturally emerges from the function or feature that is the end goal. The expression has therefore merged with the idea under Merger Doctrine, because there is either only one or a discreet finite number of expressions that is capable of correctly expressing the non-copyrightable idea.

Where the copyright would spoof a patent and grant a de facto monopoly on a technology, which Merger Doctrine in copyright law explicitly rejects, there should be a defense to copyright infringement. But the same argument would apply to most software copyrights, in the absence of actual copying of source code or the use of someone else's source code verbatim without permission. Languages, frameworks, SDKs, and APIs have a finite set of syntax to accomplish common jobs, and any common feature, or any feature conceivable by combining or reconfiguring known components, will suffer this syndrome of any one solution necessarily resembling other solutions. Writing source code takes a lot of work and investment, and copyright properly protects unauthorized use or literal verbatim copying of source code, but all copyright infringement litigation that comprises or touches upon functionality must fail, under Functional Merger Doctrine, because ideas are not copyrightable subject matter and the copyright would grant a monopoly on the idea and therefore the copyright is invalid to the extent that it is directed at protecting functionality. A software writer’s voice, style, and idiom could be protected, but these have no financial value, so enforcement would be rare.

To extend the cake hypothetical: assume that the recipe calls for flour, sugar, chocolate, eggs, butter, and honey. Assume that the chef writes the recipe in a cookbook and publishes it. What if it is impossible for another chef to write a recipe for that cake without using those six words: flour, sugar, chocolate, eggs, butter, honey? To judge infringement, one might try to grade the text on the scale of abstract idea to specific expression. But that would not be my approach. If the copyright would grant a monopoly on noncopyrightable subject matter, namely the cake, then there should be no infringement. There does not even need to be any deep analysis to find infringement. The copyright itself should be held invalid to the extent that it owns the cake recipe.

A software writer’s voice, style, and idiom could be protected, but these have no financial value, so enforcement would be rare.

By contrast, the current test for software copyright infringement seeks to remove all unprotected elements and then be left with the core structure and elements of the software, which other software can infringe if there is substantial similarity. This is essentially a version of the Hand Test for copyright infringement. The Hand Test posits a spectrum or continuum of the idea-expression dichotomy with unprotected idea at one extreme end and full protection as 100% expression at the other end. The judge applying the Hand Test then hears arguments and draws an arbitrary line and points to an arbitrary spot on the spectrum, above which is “protected” and below which is “idea.” Judge Hand famously said that no judge can know where he should draw the line, and no judge ever will, and the Hand Test is as much an acknowledgement of an arbitrary decision as it is an actual test applied by a judge. The copyright software infringement test inherits all the flaws and weaknesses of the Hand Test, with the decision of what to protect being arbitrary, unpredictable, and without rigorous rational justification. The test removes unprotected elements to find what is protected, but absent a test on top of it, this is circular reasoning: an element was removed because it was not protected, and it was not protected because it was removed.

In a novel you can have the plot in general (say, forbidden love), plot details (forbidden love between young Italian nobles), and fully defined textual detail (Romeo and Juliet). You can have a spectrum on which you begin with Romeo and Juliet, then move to their story but with different names, then not in Italy, then not in the Renaissance, then they aren’t from warring families but just from groups that hate each other, then they don’t both die at the end, and you can then arrive at just the abstract idea of forbidden love with a tragic ironic ending. To analyze whether West Side Story would infringe Romeo and Juliet (which could have been a real case, if copyrights had been started centuries ago and never expired), a judge would need to look at every point on the line from idea to expression, choose an arbitrary point, then assess whether West Side Story contains enough of the protected elements of Romeo and Juliet to infringe.

In contrast, source code is fully defined, and every item of syntax and every code structural organization and source code design exists only for the purpose of achieving a result; so there are really two discreet entities, the source code on the one hand, and features and functionality on the other hand, and there is no spectrum or continuum between them. Current software copyright law applies a Hand Test Romeo and Juliet approach instead of the either-or, all-or-nothing approach that I am recommending.

My position is that the test for software copyright infringement should be that literal copying or the unauthorized operational and actual use of source code by infringing hardware is liable but any allegation of infringement of non-identical source code fails, to the extent that it would protect (and grant a monopoly on) features or functionality. A Law and Economics analysis of infringement sheds light here.

Judge Hand famously said that no judge can know where he should draw the line, and no judge ever will, and the Hand Test is as much an acknowledgement of an arbitrary decision as it is an actual test.

Writing source code costs money: resources are consumed to pay the salary of the software developers while they write the code, and to hire coders who are technically competent to do so. By granting a copyright, copyright law gives the authors a monopoly on the source code and its usage for the life of the copyright, so that they can recover their investment. If infringers come along and sell copies of the source code, they can make the same revenues as the author but without the cost of authorship, and are hence stealing the money paid to make the source code. Copyright law properly prices the cost of creation into the sale price of the software, so that the purchaser pays the cost of its creation by the manufacturer (plus whatever profit the market will bear).

On the other hand, assume that someone writes source code that has a specific feature, and someone else writes a second computer program in the same computer programming language, implementing the same feature. The task, and the available syntax, defines and specifies certain optimal ways of coding the feature, so the second person's software ends up substantially similar to the first software. The first person sues for copyright infringement. The software is substantially similar, but damages are not for recovering the author’s cost of writing source code; instead he is trying to own the feature. This grants a monopoly and raises prices and eliminates the second person as a competitor and a substitute in the marketplace. The difference in price between what the software would cost in a world with price competition between the first and second persons, compared to what the software costs with the monopoly, is the amount of economic surplus that society loses by granting the monopoly.

It may or may not be economically efficient for society to grant a monopoly in return for technology, but to the extent that it does, patent law is the regime that does so. The details of patent law have been carefully calibrated by Congress to consider the costs and benefits of monopolies paid by society in return for technology given to society, both in eligibility and in duration of the monopoly, and copyright law should not be doing this. Judges have explicitly recognized that copyright law should not usurp patent law in Merger Doctrine cases, and the Functional Merger Doctrine for software copyrights will correctly eliminate infringement for features and functionality.

Software is not poetry, and one does not write it for beauty.

The Functionality Merger Doctrine is confirmed both by logic and by pursuit of the Law and Economics question: why is the copyright owner suing for infringement?

A lawsuit costs money, and the litigant must expect to get more out of it than what he spends, or as a rational economic actor he would not choose to litigate. If literal copying or unauthorized use of source code happens, and if his cost of having made the source code exceeds his loss through litigation, then he can gain something, the protection of his investment. Otherwise, if he sues, and only nonfunctional elements are protected, he gains nothing, because purely stylistic elements of source code have no financial value. Software is not poetry, and one does not write it for beauty. He would not sue unless he could monetize his lawsuit, for which he would have to take some of the money made by the functionality away from the competitor he sues. From a Law and Economics point of view, something must make the money to pay the damages, otherwise they would be unfunded.

Thus, absent literal copying, no software copyright infringement litigation would ever be initiated, unless it was to attack competing functionality in different yet similar source code, which is precisely what copyright as a literary work of authorship should not protect, and which is within the scope of patent, not copyright. Functional Merger Doctrine can eliminate all such lawsuits.

The test for whether software copyright infringement should be found will follow this inquiry: did literal verbatim copying of source code or actual unauthorized use of source code by hardware occur? If yes, copyright infringement. If no, there must be a presumption that the plaintiff seeks to protect functionality and must fail, rebutted by a showing that the asserted protected elements are nonfunctional — for example, voice or style.

It is a legal fiction that software is not an abstract idea for the purposes of patent law, and it is a legal fiction that software is a literary work.

Return to the example of the chef. Assume that the recipe says, “Mix flour, butter, eggs, chocolate, honey, and sugar; then bake.” If some publisher reprints this text in a rival cookbook, that is theft of the text as a literary work of authorship. But a chef cannot say the recipe without using the six words that name the ingredients, so they merge with the functionality. Now what if someone copies the structure, listing savory ingredients first and sweet ingredients last? Could the chef sue for infringement then? Scholars and judges may think this is a tough question, but really it is easy. Who cares in what order the ingredients are listed?

No lawsuit will ever get funded unless it is to protect something that makes enough money to pay the legal fees — in software, functionality. So the Functional Merger Doctrine test will apply and answer this question. The chef owns the cookbook but not the cake. No one cares about the recipe; people only care about the cake and what it tastes like. A chef’s recipe is the perfect analogy for software, because source code is a set of instructions that tells a computer what to do, and the functionality, the cake, is the operation of the computer executing that set and series of instructions, which does or accomplishes something useful. (It is interesting to wonder whether a chocolate honey cake would be surprising and unexpected enough to deserve a patent, although as a mere combination of already known elements it probably should not.)

To conclude: it is a legal fiction that software is not an abstract idea for the purposes of patent law, and it is a legal fiction that software is a literary work. But, lacking the political and legislative will to reform and create a new regime for software, we must make patent and copyright law work for software, through tests that are better suited for it. The Silicon Valley Genius Test and the Functional Merger Doctrine Test are clear, bright line tests that are easy for judges to use and that will clean up and refine the law of intellectual property for computer source code.




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The Urgency of Climate Change

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On June 30, at a climate change meeting in Abu Dhabi, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres exclaimed, "Every week brings new climate-related devastation . . . floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms." This weekly barrage of unprecedented climate events is believed to be caused by the increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 — exceeding a hellish 400 ppm in 2017. The world must “act now with ambition and urgency,” he implored.

Journalists, liberals, and frightened children agree, as does every one of the more than 20 Democrat candidates who have entered the 2020 presidential race. They adamantly believe that climate change is an “existential threat” that is already hitting key tipping points. Climatologist Michael Mann (the inventor of the famous Hockey Stick curve) “has urged governments to treat the transition to renewable energy with the equivalent urgency that drove the US industrial mobilization in World War Two”. By some estimates, fossil fuels must be eliminated in 12 years. Sensing a lack of urgency, students in over 100 nations walked out of their classrooms last March, in a global “Student Climate Strike” to protest climate inaction. News anchor Chuck Todd devoted an entire edition of NBC’s Meet the Press to how climate urgency can be explained to the American people.

This weekly barrage of unprecedented climate events is believed to be caused by the increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 — now exceeding a hellish 400 ppm.

Not long ago, climate havoc was less urgent. “Change” wasn’t expected to become catastrophic until the latter half of the century. As late as December 2015, when the Paris climate accord was signed, few cared that horrendous polluters, such as China and India, promised only trivial emission reductions. There was ample time for journalists to explain the urgency of climate change. Experts now, however, tell us that the increased frequency and intensity of extreme climate events is already underway, and that only bold, multitrillion dollar programs such as the Green New Deal (GND) can end the weekly assaults.

But why has the frequency and intensity of “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms" increased so much, only recently? The Global Circulation Models (GCMs) that predict global temperature as a function of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have not changed significantly; they are as flawed as they have always been.

Let’s say that a group of economists created an economic model designed to predict future inflation rates. And let’s say that they insisted that all future US monetary and fiscal policy be based on its predictions. But what if every time the model was tested, its predicted inflation rate was three times greater than the observed rate? After a few years of observed failure (if it took that long), most people would tell the economists where they could stick their model. And those who promoted policies based on its predictions would be ridiculed as clowns and morons.

The Global Circulation Models that predict global temperature as a function of greenhouse gas emissions have not changed significantly; they are as flawed as they have always been.

Not so in climate science world. The denizens of that bizarre kingdom are praised for their shoddy tools. Indeed, they have been encouraged, with profligate research grants, to create more and bigger GCMs. Since 1988, when James Hansen first sounded the catastrophic global warming alarm, climate scientists have relied on such models. Hansen’s initial model predicted a warming rate of 0.35C per decade. Other climate scientists jumped into the climate modeling business, and over the ensuing decades built a suite of at least 102 models — all of which estimated temperature increases similar to Hansen’s torrid rate.

The growth of climate temperature estimation science gave rise to climate event attribution science — the blaming of fossil-fuel combustion for any event that climate change fretters believe could plausibly result from the implausible temperatures predicted by the GCMs. And for most major news outlets, both of these sciences are settled, and weekly “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms” are the grist for the mill of climate urgency.

Except that empirical evidence for urgency does not exist. The temperature predictions of the GCMs are no more accurate than those of the fictitious economic model above. The only difference is that the latter model would have been discarded decades ago. The GCMs are still in use, heavy use, despite a gaping discrepancy between the theoretical temperatures that they estimate and the empirical temperatures that are observed. Its existence has been known for years. Many peer-reviewed studies (e.g., here, here, and here) have identified and measured its magnitude. In his 2019 paper Falsifying Climate Alarm, John Christy compared the temperature trends estimated by GCMs (102 of them) to the actual trend observed by satellites and radiosonde balloons. Over the period from 1979 (when satellite temperature measurements first became available) to 2017, the average trend produced by the models was 0.44 o C per decade, three times the observed trend of 0.15 o C per decade.

For most major news outlets, both of these sciences are settled, and weekly “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms” are the grist for the mill of climate urgency.

One would think that journalists such as Chuck Todd would welcome climate scientists such as Christy to their newscasts. They might discover that climate urgency is, well, not that urgent. Imagine the scoop: “GCMs Exaggerate Global Warming by Factor of 3, Need Fundamental Revisions.” Unfortunately, climate scientists such as Christy are treated as heretics, who should be given no opportunity to disturb the grist. “The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period. We're not going to give time to climate deniers,” pontificated Mr. Todd. This is tantamount to discovering that the actual inflation rate is 3%, then writing a front-page story based on the rate predicted by the faulty economic model: “Inflation Soars to 9%, Devastating Consumer Purchasing Power.”

And so it goes at the climate urgency mill. Instead of actual climate-related death and devastation, it is imagined climate-related death and devastation that is reported. It is only the attribution of climate havoc (to fossil-fuel consumption) that has increased in frequency and intensity — a development that dramatically escalated with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, nearly rupturing climate urgentometers with the 2017 US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Climate change enthusiasts around the world cringed at estimates of the additional quantity of CO2 that would spew from the US into earth’s ever-thickening, heat-trapping atmosphere. In a speech at NYU immediately prior to Mr. Trump’s announcement to withdraw, Mr. Guterres warned that the US would suffer “negative economic, security and societal consequences.” Forbes agreed with the assessment, stating, “While the rest of the world moves to invest heavily in renewables, implement carbon reduction technology, and alter consumption habits the United States runs the risk of losing its competitiveness in the global marketplace.” “China, India to Reach Climate Goals Years Early, as U.S. Likely to Fall Far Short,” snarled an Inside Climate News headline. The US became the climate villain. Climate urgency became exponentially more urgent. Climate destruction became weekly.

Instead of actual climate-related death and devastation, it is imagined climate-related death and devastation that is reported.

But is any of this urgent, or even true? Have Chuck Todd and his ilk bothered to check readily available empirical evidence? After all, science can only be confirmed by observation. If, for example, they consulted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s detailed list of hurricanes, they would quickly discover that there is no upward trend in frequency or intensity. In her June testimony before a US House committee on climate change, climate scientist Judith Curry noted: “Of the 13 strongest U.S. landfalling hurricanes in the historical record, only three have occurred since 1970 (Andrew, Michael, Charley). Four of these strongest hurricanes occurred in the decade following 1926.” She further stated, “Recent international and national assessment reports acknowledge that there is not yet evidence of changes in the frequency or intensity of hurricanes, droughts, floods or wildfires that can be attributed to manmade global warming.”

And let’s not forget climate-related death, the ultimate measure of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. According to the International Disaster Database, during the last century, the number of deaths from droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, storms, and wildfires has plummeted by more than 90%, from almost 500,000 per decade to less than 25,000 per decade today. Furthermore, when population growth (which quadrupled during the period) and more aggressive reporting in recent decades (to receive more disaster-relief aid) are taken into account, this impressive decline appears dramatically steeper. A time series plot would produce a hockey stick curve flipped over, “proving” that rising levels of atmospheric CO2 saves lives.

On September 23, the leaders of the rest of the world will come to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City, “with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.” Mr. Trump will no doubt be excoriated and nations such as China and India will be praised for their climate leadership, snatched from a derelict US, with its suffering economy.

The number of deaths from droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, storms, and wildfires has plummeted by more than 90%, from almost 500,000 per decade to less than 25,000 per decade today.

But the US economy has been booming — with rapid GDP growth, rising wage rates, and historically low unemployment. The “heavy investments in renewables” made by the rest of the world are, thus far, a bust. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), from 2005 to 2017, global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 6,040 million metric tons, an increase of 21%. In stark contrast, and to the dismay of journalists and politicians who have been telling us that America has let the rest of the world down, US energy-related CO2 emissions declined by 861 million metric tons, a decrease of 14%. And for climate enthusiasts who are placing their planet salvation hopes on early goal attainment, the report noted that “growth in global energy-related CO2 emissions from 2005 to 2017 was led by China, India, and other countries in Asia.” Perhaps Mr. Todd should explain climate urgency to China and India.

It’s difficult for people other than liberals and schoolchildren to view climate urgency as anything but a hoax. Most people tend to slow down, if not stop, when they sense that they are being deceived — when the stories they are being told do not match what they observe. True, Americans observed the devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria that struck in 2017; but they also observed the absence of a single major hurricane landfall in the 11 years prior.

If solar panels and windmills were cost-effective, we would see them everywhere. We see them almost nowhere. They supply less than 1% of the world’s energy. They provide this minuscule quantity because, after decades of technological advances (praised and celebrated by the news media) and decades of taxpayer-funded subsidies (currently in the US, $129 billion annually, without which both industries would go out of business tomorrow), they are too costly and inefficient to compete with other forms of energy. The next time a Democrat candidate promotes the GND, he should explain the urgency of replacing our cheapest sources of energy with the most expensive. Or how he expects to get to 100% solar and wind in 12 years, having taken 50 years to get to 1%. When a journalist uses the next flood or drought to explain the urgency of climate change, he should explain how, in those halcyon days of the 1930s, when the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was less than 300 ppm, floods claimed 436,147 lives. Or how the droughts of the 1920s claimed 472,400.

Perhaps Chuck Todd should explain climate urgency to China and India.

Climate change urgency has led to the hasty development of schemes to curb the rise in global temperature — currently predicted to exceed 4C by 2100. Controlling the earth’s climate, of course, requires an enormous quantity of money. The GND solution would build a near-zero carbon national electricity grid (115 million acres of solar panels and windmills to eliminate electricity generated by fossil fuels), replace air travel with a high-speed rail system and internal combustion vehicles with electric vehicles, retrofit all buildings to meet high energy-efficient standards, and much, much more. Its total cost has been estimated to be as high as $93 trillion. An exhaustive economic study by Benjamin Zycher of the American Enterprise Institute found that the electricity generation component alone would cost more than “$490.5 billion per year, permanently, or $3,845 per year per household.”

And for the proponents of the GND to believe that it will work, an enormous quantity of conceit and arrogance is also required. But let’s say that the GND succeeds — that it is executed flawlessly and meets all of its emission reduction goals. Then, notes Mr. Zycher, its effect on end-of-century temperature reduction is calculated (by an EPA climate model) to be somewhere between 0.173°C and 0.083°C. That is, $93 trillion of climate urgency will have absolutely no effect. All of that requires an enormous quantity of stupidity.




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Never the Same Again

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Hong Kong ranks among the freest societies in the world. Not only economically, but socially it is a very liberal place. It was marinated in British ways until 1997, much longer than Singapore and other colonies. Then China took it over as a special administered region, which according to the agreement with the UK meant that it was only nominally to be under Chinese control for the next 50 years. It was possibly the only colony in which a vast majority of citizens did not want the British to go.

For most of the past 22 years, China has been easy on Hong Kong, despite the fact that the People’s Liberation Army’s garrison headquarters is one of the most visible landmarks of Hong Kong island, a constant symbol of the fact that China can fully take over Hong Kong in minutes, if it wants to. This alone is enough to generate fear and hate among the people of Hong Kong. It does not help that they are conscious and made aware every day by the hordes of visiting tourists from China — through what are seen as their rather less sophisticated ways, their rudeness and misbehavior — that a far less developed country of China controls one of the richest societies on the planet.

Nouveaux riches from China buy properties in Hong Kong, driving up prices, their children take up slots in good schools, and they put buying pressure on edible goods, such as milk powder, etc., that have a high risk of being adulterated in China. Or at least this is what the people of Hong Kong think.

The People’s Liberation Army’s garrison headquarters is one of the most visible landmarks of Hong Kong island, a constant symbol of the fact that China can fully take over Hong Kong in minutes.

China has built ultramodern infrastructure in the region. It is now possible to cross the sea from Hong Kong to Macau using the world’s longest bridge, which is 55 kilometers long and cost a whopping $19 billion to build. Bullet trains now run from the heart of Hong Kong to Shenzhen in a mere 15 minutes for a cost of $10, and to Guangzhou in a mere 50 minutes. Shenzhen and Guangzhou are cities that were the fountainhead of the Chinese economic miracle when Deng Xiaoping made them the places for experiments in free-market capitalism in 1979.

The area adjoining Hong Kong continues to be the heart of Chinese manufacturing. It is a hive of energy, activity, progress, and optimism unlike anywhere else on the planet. In many ways, technology is more customer friendly in East Asia than it is in the West. The enormity of this can be appreciated only by those who visit. I often go to China, where I hold a long-term visa, and I go to Hong Kong often enough that I am allowed to pass the immigration eChannel that its citizens use, without a need to talk with any officer.

I am extremely fond of China, and see it as the future of humanity, and certainly as the only Third World country — if at all it can be considered that any more — that has the potential to become a developed society. Culturally and economically, it has been on a rapid upward trend. Chinese today compete with the best in the world, and their creativity has been unleashed. In many areas of research, Chinese organizations produce more quality and quantity of output than any other country on the planet, including the US. The reading habit is increasing rapidly among Chinese. There are tens, perhaps hundreds, of Chinese cities whose downtowns look more modern than those in the most developed parts of the world.

China owes a lot of its growth to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, countries that were able to channel both Western technology, adapted for Chinese culture and language, and Western investments. China became successful by copying Western technology and often improving on it, something that I, unlike others in the West, see as a massive achievement — because copying is not all that easy, as is demonstrated by the failure of the other Third World countries to do the same. China owes its gratitude to the West for enabling this.

I see China as the future of humanity, and certainly as the only Third World country — if at all it can be considered that any more — that has the potential to become a developed society.

Time has moved on, and gratitude has faded, or perhaps it never existed — the concept of national gratitude hardly exists outside the West and Japan. And China’s egocentric president Xi Jinping has inserted his thoughts in the constitution of China, declared himself a lifetime president, implemented a tyrannical social credit system, and taken a heavy-handed policy toward neighboring countries. In his overconfidence, he appears to think that China has arrived and could fight a trade war with the US head-on.

Xi has likely surrounded himself with yesmen and with others too fearful to speak. His arrogance and his distance from the ground realities are weaving a web of entanglements for China. Xi has helped to accentuate a sense of nationalism among Chinese. Out of jealousy and an inferiority complex, Chinese nationalists act big-brotherly toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, both highly developed societies. But in a country where face value is very important, where the central government is the key stabilizing force, and where decisions once taken cannot be easily reversed, Xi cannot afford to look weak. In a country of 1.39 billion people, this has created a massive systemic risk.

Unfortunately, by fuelling nationalism, by engaging in trade war with the US — a war that could have been avoided had he agreed to play fair — by being heavy-handed in contrast to tilting toward the rule of law, and by constantly interfering in Hong Kong, Xi is making China unstable, and at best seriously retarding its progress.

In his overconfidence, Xi appears to think that China has arrived and could fight a trade war with the US head-on.

When in 2014 Xi tried to influence Hong Kong’s electoral process, massive protests arose. Today, Hong Kong again finds itself in the crosshairs of China. The new protests, enormous and intense, are against China’s attempt to institute a law enabling extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China. Xi miscalculated. The protestors have come to conclude that China wants — by hook or by crook — to incorporate Hong Kong fully into China, something the people of Hong Kong are very paranoid about.

Hong Kong people are not like those who were at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The people of Hong Kong lack conditioning in fear-based control. They will fight much longer and harder, and will do everything possible to attract international attention.

According to the agreement that China had with the UK, it was to keep Hong Kong politically independent until 2047. But Xi cannot keep his hands off the golden-egg-laying goose. He and nationalist Chinese fail to understand that Hong Kong under the party’s control will no longer be Hong Kong, and will break one of the major channels of progress for China. But if he has to pull back, the reverberation will embolden those elements within China that want democracy. This is a lose-lose interference — because democracy would be a disaster for China.

Let me explain.

Across the spectrum from the Right to the Left, the people of Hong Kong tend to like the West. Many would have preferred to be continued to be ruled by the UK. They fly the Union Jack or the American flag to show their affiliation. The central theme organizing the protestors is a desire for a democratic process, unrestrained by China.

Hong Kong people are not like those who were at Tiananmen Square in 1989. They will fight much longer and harder, and will do everything possible to attract international attention.

But despite their liking for the West, a large number of people in Hong Kong exist in situations that would not be approved of in the West. Live-in maids who must stay away from their families in Indonesia and the Philippines, lower-class workers who must share a small room, often with the same bed shared among those working in shifts — many examples are possible. They all go against the sensitivities of the egalitarian forces in today’s West. Of course, these people exist because they get a better deal in Hong Kong than they would have where they grew up. Insisting that they get better working conditions would only mean that they would not have a place in Hong Kong and would be forced to stay in their home countries. Life is tough, but the free market offers them the best deal.

Democracy, by igniting populist forces, will destroy this arrangement. Taxes will go up and interference in private property and business — the kind of interference that gets socially generated in a democracy — will significantly reduce the freedoms that make Hong Kong what it is.

Hong Kong has no minimum wages. And, interestingly, wages in Hong Kong go down when the economic situation requires. No doubt there is a huge underclass. In a democratic system, the underclass will vote for economic egalitarianism, exactly what will destroy Hong Kong’s free market — damaging the underclass the most.

But anyway, it is impossible to see Hong Kong becoming democratic. China won’t let that happen. China cannot even afford to find a compromise, for losing face would mean nationalists going against the government, destabilizing China.

Taxes will go up and interference in private property and business will significantly reduce the freedoms that make Hong Kong what it is.

The need of Xi and China not to lose face means that this situation can no longer be disentangled. Given Xi’s constant interference, democratic desire in Hong Kong is going to stay. Several of my friends living in Hong Kong are seriously contemplating moving to Singapore. I myself am investing in property companies in Singapore, but I feel sad that, irrespective of which side wins, Hong Kong will never be the same again.

I go to China often. Chinese people are clearly fearful of discussing politics in the open, often even among friends. I like the fact that they are politically not active and focus on their own circle of influence. They lack the sense of entitlement. They also lack political freedom (which often translates into a sheep expecting the fox to steal from another sheep), but they enjoy social and economic freedoms. Unlike in other poor countries, women walk around feeling mostly safe.

If Xi now gives in, even partially, to the demands of Hong Kong protestors, it will embolden those demanding democracy in China. But a democratic China would be a disaster. It would create entitlements among its people, waste their resources on political activism, and introduce short-term-minded politicians and outright goons to power. Stability would be replaced by political infighting, and with that would also go whatever liberties there are. Measuring liberty is subjective, but I cannot think of a poor country that offers more liberty than China. I certainly feel far freer in China than in India — although the Chinese generally dislike Indians.

Whatever happens, Hong Kong will no longer be the same Hong Kong. Nor will China be the same China. And Xi is responsible for the mess, and for creating massive systemic risks against stability within China. I am a big fan of China and hope it finds a way out. But in retrospect, China would have been much better off never acquiring Hong Kong.




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