Flu Hooey

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"Scientists sound warning after first death from new H10N8 bird flu reported," blurted the latest flu alarm. A 73-year old Jiangxi Province woman died last December from a new strain of bird flu called H10N8. Following last year's H7N9 scare, ChineseCenter for Disease Control (CDC) researchers admonished that “the pandemic potential of this virus (H10N8) should not be underestimated." Rest assured, US CDC officials will not miscalculate the pandemic potential of any strain of flu. The possibility of an outbreak — even seasonal flu — is an opportunity to shine as our influenza experts and saviors.

But, in terms of what is of interest to the average citizen and what should be of paramount interest to all health officials, surprisingly little — nothing with any accuracy — is known about the flu. Who are its victims? How many of them are there? What is the toll (deaths, hospitalizations, days of lost work, etc.)? What is the ability of the CDC to predict next season's flu strains, let alone epidemics and pandemics? Who should be vaccinated, and against what? How effective (and safe) are the vaccines? And so on.

The CDC answers all these questions, to its own satisfaction, but leaves the layman confused and more than a little suspicious that almost anything it says about the flu is designed to scare, very much more than inform. For example, we have been told for many years that the flu kills 36,000 Americans annually. That number has recently been reduced to about 24,000, and expressed as a range (3,349 to 48,614) to provide "a better way to represent the variability and unpredictability" of seasonal flu-related deaths. Thanks for the clarity, but now we have to worry about the possibility of 49,000 deaths.

In terms of what is of interest to the average citizen and what should be of paramount interest to all health officials, surprisingly little — nothing with any accuracy — is known about the flu.

And what is meant by flu-related? The CDC report Estimates of Deaths Associated with Seasonal Influenza provides the answer in Table 2: Estimated number of annual influenza-associated deaths with underlying respiratory and circulatory causes. But there is a footnote; the numbers include deaths from influenza and pneumonia. Pneumonia! How is my flu shot going to protect me from pneumonia?

And what are underlying respiratory and circulatory causes? These are not defined, but Table 1, which excludes them, provides an estimate of the influenza and pneumonia only death toll. It has a mean of only 14,715 (down from 24,000) and a range of only 684 to 16,347. While this precipitous drop, from 36,000 deaths to less than 15,000, alleviates many flu season worries, where is the estimate for the flu-only scourge? It's not in any CDC influenza reports.

For such a breakdown, the tenacious investigator must consult the latest National Vital Statistics Report (the May 2013 edition). There, hidden in the bowels of Table 10, the decomposition is found for the year 2010 — apparently taking three full years to count up all the carnage: a measly 500 deaths from influenza; 50,097 from pneumonia. That's ripe: 500 flu deaths, 50,097 pneumonia deaths (100 times more), and the CDC sticks 50,597 into its flu report. Is the flu vaccine lobby that powerful? And where's the pneumonia lobby? I want a pneumonia shot.

To some of us, grossly exaggerating influenza threats to expand public vaccination is a despicable approach to conducting a national influenza control and prevention program. But what's a little disease-mongering when you’re saving lives? And there is nothing like an occasional threat of an epidemic, better yet a pandemic, to win over anyone left undaunted by the flagrantly massaged mortality and morbidity statistics of mundane seasonal flu.

An incipient pandemic (or epidemic) unfolds with the discovery of one or more individuals infected by a new flu strain. Next is the one-two punch of scientific mumbo-jumbo uttered over suspicious genetic material, followed by perfunctorily ominous warnings. Scientists studying the H10N8 virus determined that it had acquired genetic characteristics that may allow it to replicate efficiently in humans. In the throes of that Eureka moment, one researcher speculated that "the H10 and H8 gene segments might have derived from different wild bird influenza viruses reassorted to give rise to a hypothetical H10N8 virus in wild birds, which infected poultry and then reassorted with H9N2 viruses in poultry to give rise to the novel reassortant JX346 (H10N8) virus." Yikes (to whatever that means)!

It sounds like we are just a few random mutations away from a more lethal variant with human-to-human transmissibility — aka, a pandemic. But plausibility does not a pandemic make. Last October, a leading Netherlands virologist, who had been tracking the H7N9 virus, hastily announced, "We're bracing for what's going to happen next." What happened next? After claiming 69 Chinese lives to date (from a population of 1.35 billion), H7N9 has shown no evidence of human-to-human transmission, and concerns of an H7N9 pandemic have fizzled. With only one death to its credit, it's a little early, therefore, for panic over an H10N8 pandemic.

The vast majority of the time, the "flu" is an influenza-like illness, not influenza.

On the other hand, it's a little early for disappointment, on the part of CDC officials, healthcare journalists, drug company executives, and others, who may have been rooting for an H7N9 or H10N8 pandemic. Recall that after years of warnings of a bird flu pandemic (following the Avian Flu scare of 2005), the Swine Flu (H1N1) pandemic struck; by August of 2009, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology exclaimed a winter death toll of up to 90,000. Hope springs eternal.

For the time being, we are left with the less shrill, but more dependable, cries of seasonal flu: those of our health officials, hustling every American over six months old to the vaccination lines. Flu shots, we are told, could save over 22,000 lives annually; modern vaccines are safe, and 62% effective. Moreover, according to a computer model, the CDC estimates that its vaccination program has reduced flu-related hospitalizations by 79,000 and has "prevented approximately 6.6 million influenza illnesses and 3.2 million medically attended illnesses."

A computer model to estimate lives saved and infections prevented? Why not simply count them? CBS News found the answer in 2009, when it asked the CDC for a state-by-state count of laboratory-confirmed instances of flu. After waiting more than two months for its Freedom of Information request (the CDC balked at the initial request) to finally be honored, CBS discovered that "the vast majority of cases were negative for H1N1 as well as seasonal flu, despite the fact that many states were specifically testing patients deemed to be most likely to have H1N1 flu." In California, for example, 86% of the 13,704 specimens tested negative for the flu; only 2% tested positive for H1N1 flu.

CBS should not have been surprised. The vast majority of the time, the "flu" is an influenza-like illness (ILI), not influenza. According to CDC data, of the hundreds of thousands of respiratory specimens lab tested in the US annually, only 15% are found to be true influenza. The remaining 85% includes the 200 or so non-flu viruses (rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, adenoviruses, etc.) that, while producing flu-like symptoms, or ILI, are impervious to flu vaccines. These specimens are obtained from patients already inflicted by an ILI. Virological testing of specimens from the general population tells a much different, and very small, flu season story: the incidence of ILI is only 7%, with true influenza playing a bit part of 1%.

The larger story is the disparity between influenza policy and influenza evidence. That and the inexplicable failure of the CDC to accurately characterize the epidemiology of seasonal flu. What else are we not being told? The final tally for the Swine Flu pandemic was 11,000 deaths. Even this much lower number (down from the 90,000, initially predicted) may be smaller still — perhaps 1,650 (15% of 11,000) or 110 (1% of 11,000) pandemic embarrassments, when the average seasonal flu allegedly kills 24,000.

What are we to make of the CDC's urgent pleas for vaccination and its wild claims of success? To the average person, 62% effectiveness means that only 38 of every 100 people vaccinated would become infected. What if only 1 out every 100 people would become infected by the flu, even if they were not vaccinated? Further, assume a perfect vaccine (one that matches the strains of wild flu in circulation during flu season, and wins every encounter with these strains). Such a vaccine would prevent 1% of the vaccinated population from getting influenza. Period. That's it, 1% effectiveness. It would have no effect on those who acquire non-flu viruses and those who escaped infection by true influenza and ILI — i.e., the other 99%. While my naive, aggregated estimate is in stark disagreement with the 62% effectiveness calculated by a CDC computer model, it is, oddly enough, about 62 times closer to actual vaccine effectiveness.

Statistically speaking, seasonal flu is a rare, relatively benign disease. Vaccination provides little or no protection for the very young and very old — those who may need it most.

A 2012 Scientific American article addressed the paucity of evidence behind pretentious CDC vaccination claims. According to Cochrane Collaboration research referenced in the exposé, vaccines approved for children under the age of 2 “are not significantly more efficacious than placebo.” For older children, "the shot reduces the absolute risk that a child will catch the flu by about 3.6 percent, whereas the live (inhaled) vaccine reduces the absolute risk by about 17 percent." Adults under 65 "have about a four percent chance of catching the flu if they don’t get the vaccine and about a one percent chance if they do." For adults over 65, there is only one vaccine that has been shown to protect against infection or death, "an inhalable vaccine that contains a live, modified version of the virus [wait for it . . .] which is not approved in the U.S. for adults over age 50." Regarding claims that vaccination slows the spread of flu virus, "there are no data showing that this is true."

None of this is vaccination denial. God bless the Jonas Salks of the world. They are saints; their vaccines are miracles. But in the world of seasonal flu, the state of the art for vaccines is pathetic, CDC hubris to the contrary. Statistically speaking, seasonal flu is a rare, relatively benign disease. Vaccination provides little or no protection for the very young and very old — those who may need it most. At best, it provides marginal protection for older children and adults under 65 — those who need it least.

As for the world of pandemic flu, the verdict is still out, waiting anxiously along with hypochondriacs, the obsessively risk averse, and an immense global flu ecosystem (the WHO, the CDCs, influenza researchers, public health officials, the media, and, of course, pharmaceutical companies), for more H10N8 victims. But the poor old woman from China, the only death to date, "also had several chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease." Alas, she might not even have been the first victim.




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The Ghost of Elections Yet to Come

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On February 11 a mayoral election took place in my town, San Diego. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and on reflection, I believe it has considerable significance for the nation as a whole. It was a test of current Democratic electoral strategy, and of what may become Republican electoral strategy, if the Republicans are canny enough to adopt it.

The contestants were David Alvarez, Democrat, and Kevin Faulconer, Republican, both city councilmen. They were running to succeed disgraced Mayor Robert (“Bob”) Filner. Filner had been thrown out of office because of serious — though, in my view, overstated — charges of sexual misconduct. Other charges, even more serious, involved political bullying and bribery. These latter charges, unfortunately, have not been so closely considered, given the overwhelming emphasis that our society places on sex in all its forms. Both the sex charges and the political charges were important to Faulconer, who was a leader in the drive to oust Bob Filner. As for Alvarez, he was a Filner confidant who turned against him. In other, less kindly, and perhaps less objective words, Alvarez was a Filner flunky who stabbed him in the back.

Both Filner and Alvarez regarded themselves as Progressives. Both emphasized leftist political programs and played strongly to hardcore ethnic sentiments — Mexican-American and Mexican nationalist. Alvarez ran an ethnically oriented mayoral campaign with a borrow-and-spend platform to attract disciples of “growth,” “jobs,” “planning,” and share-the-wealth. Most importantly, however, he was the inheritor of Filner’s mantle as labor-union apparatchik.

A few years ago, San Diego, like many other California cities, was on the verge of bankruptcy because of the insanely favorable deals that city officials had made with city workers. Now the place is sort of back on its feet, but the unions remain as greedy as ever. Alvarez ran with about 20% more money than Faulconer, and about 80% of Alvarez’ money came from government employee unions. It was an instance of the employees trying to take over the company — except that in this case, the company has the power to make everyone pay for whatever the employees do.

Faulconer’s supposed liability was that he (like all other Republicans, according to the common mythology) was the candidate of rich people. Yet the donations of the rich were only a minority of his campaign fund, which, as I mentioned, was much smaller than that of Alvarez, the friend of the poor and excluded. It was also charged that Faulconer was the candidate of white old men. This wasn’t said in so many words, but it was conveyed in the usual campaign style and with the usual so-called reporting on the usual so-called public opinion polls. When Alvarez seemed, in late polling, to be narrowing the gap with his opponent, it was said in the local media that Faulconer’s fate depended entirely on the willingness of white old men to totter to the voting booth.

Alvarez ran with about 20% more money than "the candidate of rich people," Faulconer, and about 80% of Alvarez’ money came from government employee unions.

Now, Alvarez is only 33 years old, and the Faulconer people made a huge and really silly issue out of his youth and inexperience. Faulconer himself is only 47 — fairly young for a successful politician. Both are reasonably personable. Neither has skeletons in the closet. So far, there’s a rough equality. But what about political customs and allegiances? Like much of the rest of the country, San Diego has a long history of moderate Republicanism. Still, in 2012 Obama won 61% of the city’s votes. Obama endorsed Alvarez; and the Democratic labor unions, both local and national, paid for an immense get-out-the-vote drive. For weeks before the election, people with Spanish surnames and people in left-leaning parts of the city, such as mine, were deluged with propaganda. The calls and mailings came at them from both sides, but it was representatives of Alvarez who came and knocked on their doors, sometimes returning three or four times. On election day I could hear, all afternoon, young men with big voices pounding on the doors of people with Spanish surnames and calling them out to vote. Feeling the muscle of their organization, the Alvarez people became confident of victory.

Then, on election night, their hopes were ended. Alvarez got about 45% of the vote, and his Republican opponent got about 55%. It’s possible to say that the turnout was a few percentage points higher in the Faulconer districts than in the Alvarez districts, but there were exceptions both ways. Republicans are usually more certain to vote than Democrats, despite all the get-out-the-vote efforts on the other side — but not always. As for rich people, the latest polls had shown only a 1% advantage for Faulconer among the well-off. Several wealthy districts went for Alvarez or almost did. As Bill Bradford used to say, “Wealth is liberal.”

So what are the lessons for America as a whole? They are all probable, not definite, but there is some clarity here.

  1. Obama is a detriment, if anything, to Democrats’ campaigns.
  2. Get-out-the-vote has been badly overrated.
  3. Ethnicity has been badly overrated.
  4. As professional pollsters know, though seldom say, Democratic voters often exaggerate their commitment to vote, and other voters often tell people on the phone that they are planning to vote for someone of minority ethnicity, just to sound nice.
  5. The identification of Republicans with “a dwindling number of old white men” is silly.
  6. Unions continue their furious slide downhill.
  7. A Republican campaign that focuses not on “issues” but on “the work to be done” is likely to succeed. This “work” is not “restoring a sense of community” or “addressing income inequality” or “valuing education” but actual stuff you can see getting done, like synchronizing the traffic lights, getting the bums out of the library restrooms, or lowering the tax rate.

San Diego has always been a socially liberal town, informal and discretely religious. Its social liberalism is balanced by the strong social conservatism of its large military population. But these isms are apples and oranges — social liberals in one sense can be social conservatives in another. I often say that San Diego is as far west as the Midwest gets. In that sense, it is a reflection of America.

Faulconer’s campaign was about financing and maintaining a basic San Diego — fixing the roads, paying the bills, and not paying anybody extra just because he’s union labor. It was not about moral or metaphysical issues — gay marriage, abortion, income inequality, whatever. Alvarez probably wished that it had been about those things. His own campaign persistently assumed that all gay people and Mexican American people and female people and workin’ people are or ought to be Progressive Democrats who favor spending money that you don’t have and making social promises that you can’t keep. It additionally assumed that all Republicans are old male white homophobes, and have a moral screw loose, being opposed both to “diversity” and to “unity.” These demographic assumptions now appear not to be true or electorally useful, and why should anybody have thought that they were?

I imagine that if the Republicans can talk about paying bills and fixing roads, they can show that those assumptions aren’t any truer about America as a whole than they were about San Diego. Do I think that talk of this kind is the be-all and end-all of politics? I do not. But I’d rather have the bills paid and the roads fixed than see another Obama elected.




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Gobbled by the Blob

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How does one begin to make sense out of the gooey, smelly mess that is today’s Republican Party?

My question must be accompanied by a confession. I recently joined the GOP for the very purpose of screwing it up. I wanted to cause even more chaos within it, or at least my own local corner of it. But my purpose was not to do it harm, but to do it good. I hoped that the chaos to which I contributed would be creative, not destructive.

I keep being told, you see, that to “make a difference,” I must belong to a “major” political party. The term “make a difference” makes me grit my teeth; I’m sure Stephen Cox has exposed it to justifiable ridicule in at least one of his “Word Watch” essays. The term “major” political party will make a great many of our readers grit their teeth, too. But my friends’ incessant arguments that I could be more politically effective as a Republican than as a Libertarian — at this crucial hour, when statism threatens to gobble up this country like the Blob — pushed me over the edge. In one of those deeply desperate moments when craziness seemed like sanity, I switched parties.

Here, however, I must make another confession. Though I do know a lot of very nice Republicans, there are quite a number of others I simply cannot stand. I’d hoped to remain in the GOP at least long enough to vote in its primary later this year. Already I’m not sure that I can last that long.

I was a Democrat from the time I first registered to vote, at the age of 18, until only a couple of years ago. During the eight years when Bush II practically demolished liberty in this country, I found myself moving increasingly in a libertarian direction. I’d hoped Obama would be the anti-Bush, but when he turned into George’s little brother, that was simply too much for me. The cowering, groveling, toadying attitude of so many Democrats to Emperor O just proved unbearable. I couldn’t keep that clothespin on my nose any longer.

Statists both left and right jabber about power, power, power. They are savages, and that is all they understand.

As a capital-L Libertarian, I got a brief chance to breathe again. But now that my mania to “make a difference” in the GOP has been quelled by reality, I find the clothespin pinching me once more. The vast majority of Republicans were very willing subjects to George Junior. As soon as another of their warlords seizes the scepter, they will surely revert to their former serfdom. I’m particularly disgusted by their babble about “libertarianism.” They show no evidence of knowing even the meaning of the word.

Like other politically active people, they love power as a junkie loves heroin. The Tea Party, which started out as a libertarian enterprise, captured the popular imagination and began to exert an influence. Then the social conservatives got hold of it — seeing it as a vehicle to power — and now the movement divides its energies between combatting the leviathan state and attempting to harness it to serve theocracy. They will do anything to get control, while the Dems will stop at nothing to hold onto it. In either camp, principle is nothing but a quaint, outdated notion.

Leftists with whom I regularly spar keep asking me how libertarians — small-L or large — ever hope to “take power.” For a long time, I really tried to take their question at face value and answer it. Then I realized that libertarians, whether in the party that bears their name or outside of it, are interested in something other than power for its own, brutal sake. We want to exert an influence as great as possible, but the direction in which we would steer this country is back toward principle.

Like a missionary from the last civilized land on earth, I try to explain this to statists both left and right, but they merely jabber at me about power, power, power. They are savages, and that is all they understand. We don’t dare abandon our enterprise to these people. They will tear the body politic limb from limb.

I am being too kind to today’s GOP to describe it as savage. It is no longer even human. It is, indeed, a B-movie monster. It may have honestly attempted, at one time, to fight the Blob, but it has long since been devoured and digested. I deeply fear that its bright, young, libertarian-ish stars will be unable to save it.

They still have to genuflect to lunatics. Perhaps to avoid being torn limb-from-limb himself, Rand Paul accompanied his assertion that the gay marriage issue should be decided by the states with a joke so blatantly in bad taste that even professional homophobe Tony Perkins claimed he’d gone over the line. “The president recently weighed in on marriage,” Paul told a gathering of Iowa’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, “and you know he said he views were evolving on marriage. Call me cynical, but I wasn’t sure his views on marriage could get any gayer.” Though Perkins, head of the notoriously anti-gay Family Research Council, said “this is not something to laugh about, to poke fun of other people about,” Paul’s joke drew plenty of yuks from the crowd.

“He said the biblical golden rule caused him to be for gay marriage,” Paul went on to say about President Obama. “I’m like what version of the Bible is he reading?”

As a gay person of faith, I could have told the senator that Obama was reading from the same Bible I do. The same one I thought the people at that conference read from, because I know of no other.

The atmosphere in the Republican Party has gotten so sulfurous that rhetoric like this is represented to us as fresh air.But I find it next to impossible to vote for a politician who says such things. Nor do I believe I can stand to remain in a party that requires every successful candidate to say them.

I am being too kind to today’s GOP to describe it as savage. It is no longer even human.

I’m glad that Senator Paul doesn’t want to throw me in jail for loving someone whose genitalia don’t meet with his approval. Perhaps it is overemotional on my part, but I simply don’t want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in sweaty rooms packed with people who think like the “base” he still feels he needs to appease. My unease is based not on some childish fear that I might catch a disease, but on a sense that the whole party is headed over a cliff with the rest of the country.

Libertarianism offers an alternative that does something better than win the latest round in the tournament of big-government power. “Together,” writes Max Borders in The Freeman, “whatever our moralistic stripes, we are simultaneously creating a new order while rendering the old order obsolete. And now we’re aided by technology. This is not a libertarian ideology, but a libertarian reality carved out by people who simply refuse to be controlled by peers who purport to be superiors.”

That’s right — it’s what I really cared about all along. Perhaps the only difference I can make is by being different. We’re oddballs, and it may be inevitable that the savages won’t understand us. But every day new converts are joining us — if for no other reason than disappointment with the two major parties. Principle is roaring back.

We may need to opt out of the game. To “go Galt” on the system. The major-party minions may not like us, but we have probably already become too numerous not to count. The time may be coming when — dare I say it? — we may no longer be so odd.

Wherever I go, I will do good. That choice is mine, and as long as I insist on exercising it, I retain at least that much power. I refuse to accept savagery as the new normal. I will not be gobbled by the Blob.




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All in the Tribe

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A clear warning was sounded by the Republican national convention of 1996. Determined to nominate Bob Dole, a Republican elder statesman of the “moderate” variety (otherwise known as a Real Pro, the Great Insider, and One of Ours), the Grand Old Party turned its national deliberative body into a television soundstage, allowing no debate on anything. Only happy talk was permitted, and when the popular hero of the conservatives, Pat Buchanan, suddenly appeared in the convention hall, his entrance was distinctly without the permission of the tribal leaders. As Liberty’s reporter observed at the time (November 1996, p. 22), the ruling council feared that real people would have their way and nominate Buchanan. Meanwhile, the big chiefs did their best, and that was a lot, to remove all evidence of testicles from Jack Kemp, the quasi-libertarian whom they nominated for the vice presidency.

I am not saying that Pat Buchanan is a libertarian. Far from it. I am commenting on the behavior of his adversaries. Since their powwow, there hasn’t been a major-party national convention that has behaved as a deliberative body. They have all been like the First Vatican Council (1870), which was devised by Pope Pius IX as a stage set on which he could declare himself infallible. Pio Nono refused to allow the attending bishops to initiate any proposals, or even to know what their agenda was supposed to be. When some tried to protest, they found that the acoustics in the meeting room were so bad that almost nobody could understand them. When a few tried harder to protest, they were threatened with the loss of their sees. And so the invincible Pope was declared infallible.

There were many strong and learned people in the church who exposed the fallacies of Pius IX’s new doctrine, but the majority of bishops were so ignorant, stupid, frightened, or greedy for power that they went right along with it. They were not a congregation; they were a tribe, subject to their tribal rulers, just as American political parties are today.

Tribalism is now a leading characteristic of our politics, and perhaps the leading one. You see it in many forms, most of which are never mentioned in the information media — another sign of the ignorance and acquiescence that are inseparable accompaniments of tribalism. Ignorance and acquiescence are fit companions for each other. Why should anyone want to know anything, if no one is prepared to act on the knowledge that he or she might acquire?

Nepotism is another salient characteristic of tribal rule. In most tribes, leadership passes almost automatically from one member of a family to another. The more frightened and ignorant people are, the more they fear diversity of character and opinion; they want to keep what they have, or something closely related to it. Hence, the ruler’s son or grandson or son-in-law will be seen as having a direct claim on power. Once the unworthy person has gained power, he will be conscious of the ability of other persons to uncover his weaknesses or wrongdoings, and he will therefore seek to govern by loyalty, not information. He will continue to trust family ties more than the ties established by a common pursuit of rational goals.

Why should anyone want to know anything, if no one is prepared to act on the knowledge that he or she might acquire?

And, of course, tribal government is intensely small-scale and personal. Where power depends on charismatic personalities, the safest and easiest method of passing it along is by an irrational association with family. The Bible tells us that Samuel, judge and prophet, tried to appoint his sons as judges — as inheritors, in his place, of the divine charisma. It is noteworthy, however, that on this occasion the people rebelled; they were aware that the sons were no good, and they acted on that knowledge, and threw them out.

With us, all such processes of rational choice ended with the Kennedys. The Kennedy clan always did and always will act on tribal principles. And their tribe was originally embedded in a larger tribe, the Irish New England Catholics who would vote for anyone so long as he was not “English” or “Protestant.” The real problem arose when the whole country began acting in this way, accepting Ted Kennedy and even greater idiots, such as Patrick Kennedy, as natural successors to the bright and charismatic JFK. Robert Kennedy was a more competent bearer of charisma, but his position in the Kennedy clan was the only thing that really mattered to his success. Here was a man who had made himself stink in the nostrils of organized labor and the FDR liberals, a man who enjoyed a relationship with Joseph McCarthy, a man who was noted for his nastiness and ruthlessness — do you think his political career could possibly have gone anywhere if he had not happened to be a president’s brother?

Since the 1960s, no revelations of the gross immorality and stupidity that have abounded in the Kennedy family have proved capable of destroying the tribal loyalty felt for it by large segments of the American populace. Even more disturbing is the fact that the original tribe, the Irish Catholics, and the larger tribe, Americans in general, neither cared nor noticed that the ideology of the Kennedys — the thing about their political leadership that was subject to rational debate, pro or con — evolved into something almost directly opposite to what the voters had originally found attractive. Jack Kennedy was mildly-to-very “rightwing” in most of his public positions; his successors have ranged from very leftwing to crazy leftwing. This made no difference to the tribe.

The Clintons and the Bushes have built their political lives on Americans’ new susceptibility to tribalism. No objective judge of personal merit and fitness to attain the presidency would ever come close to regarding such people as Bill and Hillary Clinton, or the two Presidents Bush, as fit for any office of public trust, above, say, the level of notary public — and any notary whose standards of truth were similar to theirs would soon lose his seal. The Bushes are basically nice people; the Clintons are basically not; but that doesn’t mean that the Bushes had an inflexible habit of telling the truth. They didn’t. As for the Clintons, it’s hard to see that they have ever given the truth much value. Hillary has lied enthusiastically, even when there was no reason or occasion to lie. The revelations of the Clintons’ misconduct (has there been any other kind of conduct with them?) have never shaken their hold on an enormous tribe of voters, donors, and subject officials.

It’s not just my 12-year-old-kid ideal of America that leads me to see inheritance of political office as a bad omen for the republic. If there were something intellectually or morally distinguished about the nepotists, I would not object to one Bush or Clinton following the other. But neither morality nor intelligence has anything to do with it. There are millions of Americans who are smarter than the Bushes, the Clintons, and the Kennedys (yes, even the Kennedys). As for morals: the moral character of the Bushes was about par for American presidential politics, but the character of the Kennedys and Clintons came from another universe — the universe, perhaps, of the old Germanic tribes. At the presidential level, the notion that personal morality is politically irrelevant, the notion that “they all do it” and therefore I should do it too, is an innovation, and a most unhappy one. Say what you will about the hypocrisy of old-fashioned moral standards, I would rather have a pretense of morality than the assumption that it is meaningless.

In what society other than that of a warlike band of hunters and gatherers would Kathleen Sebelius still have a job?

What, you might say, about earlier instances of presidencies passed from one member of a family to another? Well, what about it? John Quincy Adams was the son of the great John Adams, and he benefited from the connection, but his intellectual attainments and his enormous experience as a diplomat would have made him an important political figure even without his relationship to his father — who was, by the way, not much liked in the early 19th century, if ever. Quincy Adams wasn’t a good president, but his father wasn’t to blame for that. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who died a month after his inauguration; the family connection appears to have had no significance in his career. The same might be said of Franklin Roosevelt, in respect to his distant relative, Theodore Roosevelt. Tribalism had nothing to do with FDR’s popularity; it has everything to do with Mrs. Clinton’s.

But tribes do not consist merely of biological families; there are also the allies and subordinate chiefs, the official families and political families of the rulers. The Kennedys and Clintons maintained (and maintain) vast numbers of flacks, fixers, hangers-on, speechwriters, ghostwriters, media allies, and just plain dumb-loyal employees of government whose real job is to maintain the power of the tribe. Their loyalty is their most important asset, and it is repaid in kind. The tribe takes care of its own.

One of the most ominous signs of tribalism in our political life is the paucity of expulsions from the central hearth. The Bushes were very loath to fire anyone, and Obama is still more loath. In what society other than that of a warlike band of hunters and gatherers would Kathleen Sebelius still have a job? It may be that Obama is afraid of releasing people because they know too much (although the example of Sebelius argues otherwise, because she obviously knows nothing about anything). Fears of untoward revelations were a strong factor with Bill Clinton’s administration, as they will be with any administration conducted by his wife; the Clintonistas, like the Kennedyphiles, have always behaved like a mob bound by blood oaths. In any case, recent administrations have placed the chief virtue of tribal society, which is loyalty, above every other virtue. The example has been imitated by every political group subsidiary to them. No spokesman for feminism, environmentalism, veterans’ assistance, ethnic causes, or even non-drunken driving can be driven from the podium by anything less than video proof of heinous crimes; at the first sign of trouble, the protective ring of loyalists shuts tight around them.

The result is that loyalists increase and prosper, and independent and critical minds are driven from politics. Tribes can be conquered (usually by other tribes) or they can starve themselves out of existence, but they cannot be reformed. The barbarian tribes that destroyed the Roman Empire either wiped one another out or were reduced to poverty and impotence by the devastation they had caused. It is sad but all too plausible: the American republic will perish in the tribal wars of Kennedys and Bushes, Clinton clones and Obama clones, pressure groups of elephants and pressure groups of donkeys.




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Logic and Liberty

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A key instrument of political persuasion is the logical argument. Advocates of every ideology back their ethical and political beliefs with arguments based on premises that reflect their fundamental views of the nature of reality and the nature of man.

Libertarians promote freedom-oriented values using closely reasoned arguments based on widely accepted social and ethical norms. Yet few people newly exposed to such arguments become libertarians. Why is this the case? Is it moral failure on the part of the listeners, failure such as envy or the desire for the unearned? Is it a refusal to accept rational arguments, putting faith or feelings above reason? Is it peer pressure, favoring the traditional and conventional?

Or is it something else entirely, something we’ve missed?

To understand why communicating the value of libertarian principles is often so difficult, we need to reexamine the nature of logical argumentation and the role it plays in political and ethical debate. Classical or Aristotelian logic is a powerful tool for grasping and organizing concepts and defining their relationships to one another and to reality. But decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas. Indeed, when used improperly or in an inappropriate setting, it often achieves the opposite of its intended result.

Decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas.

A widely held belief among libertarians is that, aside from direct perception, the primary way that people acquire knowledge or beliefs is by using their rational faculties, employing either classical logic or mental processes that are reducible to classical logic. This is not true; and even if it were, the use of logic alone would not be an efficient means of promoting a libertarian worldview. Here are several reasons why.

When dealing with concepts, people construct mental models of these concepts. These models are mental images representing typical examples of the concepts under discussion, based on previous encounters with instances of them. For example, when one is presented with the concept “bird,” the image that comes to mind is likely a “generic” bird such as a robin or a sparrow, rather than a less typical bird such as a penguin or an ostrich.

Once an image has become associated with a specific concept in an individual’s mind, that image becomes the standard by which he or she judges any instances of that concept encountered at a later time. When presented with a logical statement — for example, “if A, therefore B” — a person will evaluate not only whether the statement makes logical sense, but also how well “A” and “B” match his or her mental images. If two or more competing arguments are presented, people usually accept the one most strongly in accord with their preexisting images.

This leads to difficulties in the realm of political discourse. Taking an example from the libertarian playbook, consider the following syllogism: “Taxation is theft. Theft is morally wrong. Therefore, taxation is morally wrong.”

As libertarian arguments go, this one is relatively straightforward, easy to explain and understand. However, a listener’s response to this syllogism and its embedded concepts will be heavily influenced by the images that these concepts generate in his or her mind. For a non-libertarian listener, the word “theft” is likely to conjure up the image of a conventional criminal rather than a tax collector.

By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought.

Since the argument presented by the libertarian conforms to the rules of logic, the listener will evaluate the validity of the argument based upon the degree to which the image of “tax collector” corresponds to the image of “thief” in the listener’s mind. If the listener’s mental images for “thief” and “tax collector” are too far apart, the listener may conclude that the libertarian is attempting to stretch the definition of the word “theft” beyond its appropriate boundaries, and as a consequence may reject the argument entirely.

This is more than a trivial issue regarding the effectiveness of libertarian outreach. Mental images can be much more influential than logical arguments in shaping and maintaining a society’s character, laws, and customs. The history and political culture of the United States at present provide a case in point.

For many Americans in the revolutionary era, the exemplar of a person fully entitled to liberty was a white male, preferably a landowner and farmer. Native Americans, African-Americans, and women were seen as inferior in various respects when compared to this idealized image, and thus not entitled to enjoy the same rights as white males. These images or mental models were widespread in colonial and revolutionary America, reflected in policies such as expulsion of Native Americans, enslavement of African-Americans, limitations on women’s (especially married women’s) property rights, and exclusion of all three groups from meaningful participation in the political process. The pervasiveness of these mental images partially explains how so many white landowners were able, in their own minds, to justify owning slaves while simultaneously fighting a revolution based on “inalienable” human rights.

Political and cultural images are no less powerful today. Most of them (though not all) help to sustain the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of government intrusion into all aspects of a supposedly “free” society, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Statist politicians take full advantage of these images to bypass rational debate as they advance their agendas. Virtually all political advertising in the mainstream media attempts to influence voters by appealing to their established mental images in order to manipulate their emotions.Experience has shown that such advertising is effective. By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought; if it could, libertarians would have won the ideological battle long ago.

People assign measurement parameters to qualitative concepts, based on how well particular instances of these concepts match their mental images. The relationship between concepts and measurement is a tricky one. Many concepts, such as height, require some form of measurement when applied to a concrete example. Concepts that are more abstract, such as motivation, can be given descriptive forms of measurement (“highly motivated”, “barely motivated”), allowing specific instances to be compared to one another. Finally, there are concepts, such as “bird,” that apply to a specific set of entities and appear to be purely qualitative and not subject to measurement — either a particular entity is a bird, or it isn’t.

But people apply measurement parameters to qualitative concepts also, in terms of the degree to which a specific example matches a person’s mental image. A penguin may have all the formal characteristics of a bird and yet be too different from a “typical” bird to be considered a full member of the “set” of birds. Faced with this conundrum, people often give only partial or qualified recognition to a penguin’s status as a bird (“a penguin is sort of a bird”).

When qualitative concepts such as “bird” are assigned a measurement component, their inclusion in logical statements becomes problematic. If this type of concept is used in the premise of a syllogism, the measurement component will also carry over into its conclusion, and in some cases will diminish the perceived validity of the entire argument.

Revisiting our previous example of taxation as a form of theft, a non-libertarian is likely to assign the concept “tax collector” only partial membership in the set of conceptual entities denoted by the word “thief.” Depending on the listener’s perspective, the concept “tax collector” will correspond to the concept “thief” anywhere from 100% (if the listener is a hardcore libertarian) to 0% (if the listener is a hardcore socialist who does not recognize any right to private property). Most people will estimate the percentage as somewhere in between, depending upon the degree of legitimacy that each person assigns to the concept of taxation and how reasonable the person considers a tax rate to be. The extent to which a person believes that a tax collector is a thief is the extent to which that person will agree with the libertarian’s position regarding the morality of taxation. Only rarely will such agreement be total.

The higher the level of abstraction, the more widely a population’s mental models of a concept will vary. Higher-level concepts are derived from multiple lower-level concepts. The same holds true for mental images. Each lower-level image varies from person to person, increasing the overall variation in a population’s higher-level mental images. As an analogy, consider a contest among several chefs preparing a meal from the same recipe. The recipe itself is identical for all chefs, but each chef’s interpretation of that recipe will make each final product unique. The more complex the recipe — the more ingredients used and the more steps required in the meal’s preparation — the greater will be the variation in the resulting dishes.

Propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public.

Variation among high-level images greatly increases the difficulty faced by libertarians seeking to change people’s minds through the use of logic. Most concepts relating to libertarian principles and values — concepts such as justice, morality, property, and individualism — involve high levels of abstraction. But the more abstract the concepts employed in a libertarian’s argument, the less likely is the listener to share the libertarian’s interpretation of those concepts. To convince people to adopt a libertarian view of high-level abstractions such as justice, one must also convince them to revise their mental models of the lower-level concepts that give rise tothese high-level abstractions. Often this can be achieved only by a complete overhaul of a non-libertarian’s core values. Logical arguments, no matter how elegantly structured, are not sufficient by themselves to accomplish this task.

Because of evolutionary pressures, people are “hardwired” to resist change, an attribute that logic alone cannot overcome. In his recently published book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo identifies a widespread human trait — one that helps explain why it is so difficult for libertarians to be successful in challenging the political status quo. He writes: “The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency, and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival — which is, in effect, our survival.”

This universal human tendency — developed in a much more dangerous world to cope with ambiguous threats, and now part of our evolutionary heritage — raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the methods we use to advance our political philosophy. In employing an “educational” strategy using logical argumentation, we are constantly outmaneuvered by the hardwiring of the human brain that craves “stability, certainty, and consistency.” Our political agenda is not an obvious fit in any of these three categories. However, most libertarians do not recognize this as a serious problem, and ignore or downplay voters’ concerns regarding stability, certainty, and consistency, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the advantages of liberty and less intrusive government.

In doing so we make it difficult to gain adherents, because we are urging people to take a leap into the unknown and untried — at least in their experience. The prospect of instability triggers a perception of heightened risk and uncertainty in listeners’ minds. Most people are risk-averse, especially in matters concerning their own survival, their livelihood, and the wellbeing of their families. In times of crisis such as now, they gravitate toward solutions that promise stability, and shun proposals that are fraught with uncertainty, even if such proposals promise a greater level of individual freedom.

Given these reasons why logic alone cannot convince most people to adopt a libertarian philosophy, it might appear that our most potent weapon in the battle for liberty is inadequate to the task. But each of the limitations described above can be overcome by employing logic carefully and in combination with other means of persuasion. Here are a few suggestions in this regard.

If two words or phrases mean substantially the same thing, choose the one that is most likely to evoke the desired mental image in the listener’s mind. For example, defenders of economic liberty often use the terms “capitalism” and “free market” interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the two concepts are nearly identical in meaning. But to the general public, the word “capitalism” evokes a multitude of unfavorable associations and images that do not arise when the term “free market” is used.

For many people, “capitalism” conjures up images of politically connected financial institutions receiving government favors; multinational corporations “outsourcing” American jobs to cheaper and less regulated labor markets abroad; giant retailers crushing helpless smaller competitors; exploitation of conscientious workers by uncaring employers; and the awarding of multi-billion-dollar bonuses to rich Wall Street executives.

Although most of these undesirable events result from massive government interference in the economy, the public at large perceives them as failures of capitalism. This happens because of the pervasive influence of the media and the public education system, both of which are overwhelmingly friendly to “activist” government and hostile to business.

However, propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public, and “free market” is familiar to many people as shorthand for a system of voluntary exchange. While “capitalism” can readily be personified and caricatured (“evil capitalist,” “plutocrat,” “exploiter,” “monopolist”), the term “free market” does not lend itself to such verbal distortion — we never hear statists castigating “evil free marketers.”

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy.

When we promote our ethical and political principles through the use of logic, we are evoking people’s mental images as we attempt to appeal to their rational faculties. Our arguments can be much more persuasive if we strive to use words and phrases that evoke the most favorable images and associations in their minds. In this instance, promoting the “free market” rather than defending “capitalism” is more likely to achieve this goal.

Avoid the use of higher-level concepts when lower-level ones will address the issue at hand. For example, in casual conversation with non-philosophers, it is usually not helpful or appropriate to invoke natural rights theory, Austrian economics, or high-level abstractions such as individualism when discussing issues such as Wall Street bailouts and Obamacare. Most listeners will more readily connect with everyday libertarian talking points about freedom of choice and the unfairness of income redistribution.

Demonstrate that our policy proposals promote “stability, certainty, and consistency.” This means toning down the language of “radical upheaval” in favor of the language of “sensible reform.” As noted earlier, most voters are risk-averse when faced with the prospect of major changes in the social or political landscape. Such voters will be more receptive to arguments promoting a libertarian agenda if these arguments are presented in a manner that is reassuring rather than unsettling.

When proposing policies based on libertarian principles, avoid the temptation to insist that such policies be applied in every case. Although principles are not contextual, policies are. For most policies there are exceptional circumstances, such as “lifeboat” situations, that make it appropriate to modify them temporarily, or waive them. If we treat our political principles as axioms and our policy prescriptions as moral absolutes, our arguments become fragile; any real or perceived exceptions will weaken such arguments in the minds of listeners.

In libertarian circles, an unfortunate but common example of this phenomenon is misuse of the non-initiation-of-force principle (really a policy prescription rather than a principle), which states that no one may initiate force against another person. This policy is appropriate in most adult-to-adult interactions. However, in other contexts exceptions come readily to mind, such as dealings with children or persons afflicted with severe mental problems.

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy. We can more effectively promote our principles, and receive a more respectful hearing from a non-libertarian audience, if we do not overstate our case by insisting that our ideas be put into practice regardless of any circumstances that may arise. Libertarian proposals for public policy are aimed at maintaining or defending values, and can legitimately be overridden when higher or more fundamental values are at stake.

Ultimately, our success in promoting a libertarian worldview depends not only on presenting well-reasoned logical arguments, but also on making sure that we employ language and concepts that are appropriate to the particular issue and the particular audience we are addressing. Putting in this extra effort can go a long way toward making libertarianism accessible and attractive to those we seek to reach.




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Confessions of a Sports Fanatic

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As a libertarian, and a nonfollower of sports, I often wonder why people get deeply involved in America's great community project of watching games, cheering for teams, keeping track of trades, remembering statistics, and all the rest of it. To be honest, I simply don't understand why anyone would follow sports. So I asked a libertarian sports fan, Russell Hasan, to explain it to me. Here's what he said. See what you think.

— Stephen Cox

Ancient Greece held the Olympics. In ancient Rome the Emperor held gladiator games at the Coliseum. In modern America we have the Super Bowl. Given the broad fan base of sports, from baseball and football in the USA to soccer in Europe and South America, to rugby and cricket in England, Australia, and Asia, there must be something about sports that appeals to a deep and fundamental need in human nature.

Why do people like sports? The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel. Being a fanatical fan of the New York Yankees, and also following the New York Giants football team closely, does several things for me. I’ll list them.

1. Enjoyment. Watching sports is fun. If you don’t enjoy watching sports, then you are never going to be an avid sports fan (unless you play sports, which is a different article altogether). I like watching baseball and football, so it is natural for me to be a sports fan. Having been born and raised in New York, I root for the Yankees and the Giants. Sports gives me something to do when I am bored. There are 162 games during the baseball regular season, and more games when the Yankees make the playoffs. The Giants play 16 games in the football regular season. When you enjoy watching sports on TV, there is always something to watch. Factor in parties to see a game or seeing a game at a sports bar, and one can build an entire life out of watching the Yankees.

2. Tension. But why do I enjoy watching my Yankees play against another team, especially against the accursed, vile, rotten, Red Sox (their division rival)? Well, if you don’t see what I see then this might be like describing music to a deaf person, but something articulable can be stated about what it is like for a sports fan to see a game. I would describe a good game as “tension, adrenaline, excitement, and suspense.” Baseball and football are designed so that the games are usually a close contest between the two teams. A few crucial plays can determine who wins. When the Yankees are ahead by one run, and a fly ball goes to the outfield, I root for the Yankees outfielder to catch it. He does so 99% of the time, but there is a little sting of excitement to see the ball shoot over to him, and then a small but pleasurable sigh of relief when the baseball is caught.

The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel.

When I root for a team it means I want them to win, so I am happy when my team scores. I am elated when the Yankees win, and I feel horrible when they lose. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of being in a nerve-wracking high-stress situation when my team is in a key situation in a close game. To feel that, and then to see my team make a play and win the game, is thrilling.

3. Personality. So I enjoy games because I get to see my team win and the other team lose. But why am I a fan of the Yankees and Giants particularly? Each sports team has its own personality, which can only be seen when you follow the sport as closely as I do. For example, the Yankees are the equivalent of a rich successful businessman who dominates his competition and buys mansions and yachts, while the Red Sox are the equivalent of lovable loser underdogs who have recently changed their bad luck and become winners after decades of being horrible. The Mets (and also the basketball team the New York Knicks) are the pathetic loser that you feel sorry for and root for because of a deep, committed passion to be there for them no matter what, even though they constantly lose despite having every opportunity to win. It’s as if the Mets were your alcoholic brother who puked on your bathroom floor on a regular basis.

In football, the New York Giants’ personality is defined by their quarterback, Eli Manning, who once stood in the shadow of his more successful brother Peyton but later emerged and developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the game, crowned by two victories over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, victories that gave New York bragging rights in the perpetual New York vs. Boston sports feud. That sort of success story can be found at some point in the history of most teams. The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers. The personality of a team comes from its players and its fans, but it grows into a spirit that surrounds the team; and team personality is a great basis upon which to choose whom to root for. In the 2014 Super Bowl, the personality of the two teams is easy to see: the Broncos are Peyton Manning’s team as he fights to be recognized as the greatest football player of his era, while the Seahawks seek to give Seattle sports fans their first championship in a major American sport and reward Seattle’s fan base, which is known as the “Twelfth Man” because it is so loud that it’s like another member of the 11-man Seattle defense.

4. Regional Pride. Sports teams bring together a city or region and provide a bonding experience. The Yankees and Mets give New Yorkers something to talk about. I have had experiences at the dentist and the grocery store in which someone saw my Yankees cap and I had an interesting talk with a total stranger. In ways like this, sports gives a community something to discuss, something in common. Each city and region has a team that it is passionate about. New York has the Yankees and Mets, Boston has the Red Sox, Dallas has the Cowboys, Seattle has the Seahawks. These teams give regional identity and cultural flavor to an area, and this is good for the community.

The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers.

5. Discussion. As I mentioned, sports give people something to talk about. Every day of the year, I suspect there are a multitude of conversations about sports, and in the absence of sports these would be mere awkward silences between people who have nothing to talk about. There are millions of Yankees fans across America, and if I need to chat up any of them, I immediately have something that provides content for a friendly conversation. I can talk about the recent Yankees seasons for hours, and make intelligent observations about the team. I can talk about the decline of pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s arm strength, the ineptness of general manager Brian Cashman’s minor league talent scouting system, Robinson Cano’s greed, Babe Ruth’s stats (interesting fact: Babe Ruth has some of the best stats as a pitcher in baseball history, despite being better known for hitting over 700 home runs), and I could pull a dozen other conversation topics out of my Yankees hat. People need something to discuss when making friendly small talk, and sports is an easy, fun, enjoyable topic for them to discuss. I have found this to be true even among libertarians; for example, the famous Objectivist philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra is as avid a New York Yankees fan as I am.

6. Bonding. Sports brings friends together, and it brings families together when they share the same favorite team. Watching a baseball game together, or playing baseball in the backyard of your house, is a common father-son bonding experience. In my own case, if not for the fact that I and my mother and father are all Yankees fans, I would have very little in common with my parents, neither of whom are lawyers and both of whom are liberal Democrats.

7. Achievement. Sports, particularly baseball and football but also tennis, soccer, hockey, basketball, and most other sports, are almost unbelievably difficult for the athletes to play. Coaches and players require a chessmaster-like grasp of strategy, especially at the quarterback position in football. The quarterback needs to identify the defense’s scheme in about three seconds and find the right hole through which to throw the football. Major League pitchers need to be smart in deciding which pitch to throw to fool the batter. Intelligence is necessary. But athletic prowess is obviously also needed, and today’s professional athletes have almost unbelievable muscles. Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods. It is fun to watch people be good at something very difficult and challenging.

Also, a lot of success in sports is psychological. As Yogi Berra remarked: “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” To me, it is motivating and inspirational to watch the players on the team that is losing cope with the challenge of a deficit in the score and overcome their problems for a come-from-behind win. Both times the Giants beat the Patriots in recent Super Bowls, the Giants were the underdog and rallied to defeat a New England team that had more talent and was supposed to win. Stories like that are heartwarming. I was ecstatic when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and especially the second time they did it, when at the end of the game the Giants defense made a play against New England quarterback Tom Brady, who is probably the single most dangerous player in the NFL.

Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods.

Why do I like sports? I like sports because I enjoy watching the Yankees and Giants play. Why do I like watching them? Because it is fun to root for the home team. Why do I root for them? Because I am a Yankees fan and a Giants fan. Why am I a fan? I guess it really all reduces to a personal decision about how you choose to express yourself and what sort of personality you want to create for yourself as a human being, and what you enjoy in life. If I wanted, I could be a “foodie,” obsessed with sushi and sashimi. Then I would be writing about Japanese food instead of sports. But that isn’t who I am. Who I am is a New York Yankees fan and a New York Giants fan. And a lot of other Americans feel the way I do.




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Why I Worry about Global Warming

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When I was in college, Margaret Mead came by and told me I wasn’t getting enough sex. Not that I needed an important scientist to point out anything so obvious, but it was nice to have official validation. And in the how-much-sex-I-should-be-having department, nobody could validate like Margaret Mead.

Margaret Mead had been in Samoa, watching from behind bushes as the improving hands of unfettered sex turned would-be hoodlums into loving, productive members of society. In Samoa, there was almost no interpersonal violence, very little crime, and no juvenile delinquency. The only reason juvenile delinquency happened in America was because juvenile Americans weren’t getting enough sex. Who could argue with Margaret Mead about something like that?

Mead had credentials. She was curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham, fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, chair and also president of the executive committee of the board of directors of the American Anthropological Association.

Chuck’s jailbirds didn’t sound like the peaceful, sexually contented bonobos Ms. Mead had made them out to be.

With that one speech, Margaret Mead transmogrified a whole auditorium-load of us randy college guys into future productive members of society, every one of us on the prowl to spread peace and love all over whichever girl we ran into next. And when we ran into girls who clung to patriarchal values linking sex to marriage or, for that matter, to guys who turned them on, we had Margaret Mead and those fine-sounding credentials to corral her into the sack with.

The first glimmer that there might be more to the laid-back life in Samoa than Margaret Mead had led us to believe came years later when I occupied the office next to Chuck Habbernigg’s. Chuck had been attorney general for American Samoa, which meant he was on a first-name basis with just about everybody in the Pago Pago prison. And the people he was on a first-name basis with . . . well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Chuck’s jailbirds didn’t sound like the peaceful, sexually contented bonobos Ms. Mead had made them out to be.

The second inkling that something might be wrong came when a New Zealand anthropologist named Derek Freeman did what none of my classmates had ever done, or anybody else, apparently. He went to Samoa, checked out la Mead’s research, and discovered that she hadn’t been as rigorous as she let on. Hard as it was to imagine how such a thing could even be possible, it turned out that young Samoans got even less sex than young Americans, because Samoan parents made a bigger deal out of virginity than our parents had. And as for things like crime and social discontent . . . murder, juvenile delinquency, sexual violence, and suicide were higher over there than here. In the case of murder, much higher. The rate in Samoa was twice that of some of our inner cities.

For decades people had swallowed what Margaret Mead ladled out because nobody had the chops to call bullshit. It would have been worth the career of any anthropologist to claim that somebody as powerful as Margaret Mead, with all her chairs and important committees, was spectacularly, laughably wrong, especially an anthropologist who hadn’t gone to Samoa and done the fieldwork himself. And who’d want to do that? She had already done that fieldwork. If you wanted to go study a tribe, you’d go somewhere that hadn’t already been studied. So Freeman did the obvious thing, he waited until Mead had shuffled off to that great steering-committee in the sky, before he published.

Mead wasn’t the only famous scientist to hitch herself to a cartload of half-baked science, sink her teeth into the bit, and take off running. And to get millions of otherwise sensible people galloping along behind. The year after I graduated from college Paul Ehrlich came out with a book called The Population Bomb. It was a scary book that explained in a scary, scientific way how there were so many people in the world that entire societies were on the brink of being torn apart by food riots, hundreds of millions of us were going to die, and it was too late to do anything about it.

For decades people had swallowed what Margaret Mead ladled out because nobody had the chops to call bullshit.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” announced Mr. Ehrlich in his most scientific way. “In the 1970’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash program embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate . . .”

Ehrlich wrote this in 1968, and his credentials were positively Meadian, they are so impressive. During his long, destructive career, he’s been president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the United States Naval Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Credentialwise, there’s no doing better than Paul Ehrlich.

By way of illustrating how serious the population thing had become, he included a hockey-stick graph proving just how far down the broad highway to destruction we already were. Hockey-stick graphs have become de rigueur lately with the scare-you community, and they’re pretty much all the same: a horizontal line running from the Pleistocene to the Industrial Revolution indicating not much going on until, along about your great-grandparents’ day, the line shoots upward and, voilà, the planet is pucked, Armageddon is upon us, we’re all going to die and it’s your fault.

If what you actually remember from the ’70s has less to do with food riots in the Imperial Valley and more to do with the Green Revolution and hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians and Africans lifted out of starvation, bear in mind that the Green Revolution wasn’t something that got talked about a lot at the time. At the time, socially aware people who considered themselves scientifically literate . . . along with 58 academies of science that considered themselves socially-aware . . . became so alarmed over the fact that the rest of us weren’t willing to strangle our own children in order to save the planet that they began to think it was their duty to do something about us. Paul Ehrlich said so himself:

We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries . . .

I don’t know whether Deng Xiaoping read The Population Bomb, but the Paramount Leader wasn’t some wimpy university professor who could only rant about saving people from themselves. Deng Xiaoping was Paul Ehrlich with an army, and he had the power to see that pretty much anything he came up with happened. What he came up with was China’s one-child policy . . . and all the forced abortions, sorrow, and murder of girl babies that haunt the Chinese to this day.

In the ’30s, the issue du jour wasn’t that we had too many people in the world. In the ’30s, the issue was that we had too many of the wrong sort of people. Eugenics is the scientific name for doing something about too many of the wrong sort of people; and millions of the right sort, millions of concerned, socially-aware people, people with only the purest of motives, people who considered themselves scientifically-literate, jumped on the eugenics bandwagon. In our country, this led to anti-miscegenation laws and forced castration. In more socially-committed places, politicians used their political power in ways that sound positively Ehrlichian . . . and ensured healthy genes with gas chambers and murder squads.

All of those people who kept telling us Something Has To Be Done thought of themselves as scientifically literate, but none of them were.

In the ’70s, scientifically literate people discovered that if the rest of us — meaning me and you — didn’t clean up our industrial ways, and soon, glaciers were going to come down and scrape Manhattan off the map. Before we even had the chance to decide whether this was something we might want, famous scientist Carl Sagan — who’d spent part of his career on television and part of his career figuring out the way things are on other planets — jumped in on the side of the glaciers. Sagan was a lot smarter than you and me put together, and the debate about the glaciers was over: they were on the march, and the time had come to head down to the community college and sign up for adult-education classes in blubber chewing and igloo making.

All of those people who kept telling us Something Has To Be Done thought of themselves as scientifically literate, but none of them were. Not even Carl Sagan. Sagan was scientifically literate about television shows and atmospheric chemistry and dust storms on Mars, and the physics of particles bumping together in the rings of Saturn, but he didn’t know squat about glaciers. There aren’t any glaciers on other planets, at least not any of which the news has reached our planet. Or large, metropolitan areas waiting to be scraped away, for that matter. On most scientific matters, only three or four people in the world have enough actual knowledge to be scientifically literate.

Or not.

For the 40 years between the time young Margaret Mead returned to New York and started gathering up all those chairs, and the time Derek Freeman set out for Samoa, Margaret Mead was the only scientist in the world qualified to have an opinion about sex in Samoa. And her science was so botched, she wasn’t qualified either.

Whatever Paul Ehrlich may actually be qualified to talk about, telling people that the world is going to starve to death just as the Green Revolution was kicking into high gear wasn’t it.

No geneticist in the ’30s, a quarter century before DNA was discovered, could possibly have been qualified to say that entire groups of people should be flushed out of the gene pool. And those guys, and Paul Ehrlich, and Margaret Mead weren’t alone. They were just noisier than most. Here are some other things that socially aware, scientifically literate people have told us:

  • Tomatoes aren’t really tomatoes, they’re love apples and they will kill you.
  • Poinsettias will kill you, too, so keep poinsettias away from kids.
  • If you swim after a meal you’ll catch stomach cramps and drown.
  • If you hide under your fourth-grade desk, atom bombs can’t hurt you.
     
  • Go easy on the spaghetti because spaghetti is the kind of trash food that makes poor people fat. This advice was replaced by:
  • Eat lots of spaghetti because spaghetti contains complex carbohydrates, which was replaced by:
  • Don’t eat spaghetti because spaghetti is nothing more than empty calories, which was replaced by:
  • Eat lots of spaghetti because spaghetti is part of a Mediterranean diet, and Mediterranean people live to very old ages.
     
  • A glass of wine with dinner is good for the nerves, which was replaced by:
  • A single sip of alcohol leaves whole mountainsides of clear-cut brain cells in its wake, so never drink anything alcoholic, which was replaced by:
  • In spite of scarfing down unplucked songbirds, and sheep pancreases, and things even the Chinese won’t eat, French people drink lots of red wine, and they live longer than you do, so drink red wine, but not because you enjoy it, which was replaced by:
  • It’s not the alcohol that makes the French live a long time, it’s the grapes their wine is made out of. So drink grape juice, instead, which was replaced by:
  • It’s not the grapes, it’s the alcohol. Alcohol clears your arteries. Skip the red wine, chug down the hard stuff, and you can live as long as a Frenchman without the sulfites.
     
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away, which was replaced by:
  • Modern-day factory farmed apples come coated with Alar. Alar is the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply, so don’t even think about touching an apple unless you are wearing a hazmat suit, which was replaced by:
  • Alar is nothing more than an apple growth-regulating hormone and doesn’t have anything to do with people, so go on, eat apples.
     
  • Bumblebees can’t fly. But that one was based on a faulty mathematical model, which brings us to mathematical models in general. In general, researchers fall back on mathematical models when whatever they’re trying to figure out is too complicated for them to understand.

Nowadays scientists run their mathematical models through computers when they want to figure out something that’s too complicated to understand. Sometimes the computer models are so complicated, nobody understands them, either . . . especially where weather and supercomputers are involved. Which, now that global warming is à la mode, leads to questions nobody has answers to.

When people mention that we just had the hottest summer in half a century, they never say what happened 51 years ago to make things even hotter, because the computer wasn’t programmed to tell them.

When you ask why, if the oceans are beginning to boil away, is there so much more sea ice around Antarctica than there used to be, all they can answer is that the science is complicated, and they’re right. The science is complicated. It’s too complicated for the scientists who do that kind of science to understand. It’s way too complicated for scientists who do other kinds of science to understand. And as for the people who don’t do any science at all, such as the ones trying to persuade you that the whole thing is too complicated for you to understand, they don’t understand it any better than you do.

When people mention that we just had the hottest summer in half a century, they never say what happened 51 years ago to make things even hotter.

The very best that anybody can do with questions like these is to compare what the computer spits out with what seems to be going on in the real world. That’s easy with bumblebees. When your model tells you bumblebees can’t fly, you know something’s wrong with the model. When the model tells you summers should have been heating up for the past 15 years, and they haven’t been, maybe the computer hit a patch of short-term bad luck involving natural variations in weather patterns, and things really will heat up when the computer’s luck changes and the weather gets back on track.

Or, maybe, the sun ran out of spots for a while, the way it did in the Little Ice Age. And global warming is the only thing between us and freezing to death.

Or an increase in forest litter in the tropics is soaking up the carbon dioxide.

Or, maybe, all the sulfur compounds that Chinese coal-burning plants have been dumping into the air are shielding us from the solar gain we’d be getting if the Chinese were running their factories on natural gas.

Or the sudden, rapid growth of trees in the Siberian and Canadian sub-Arctics is swallowing up carbon dioxide as fast as the Chinese can generate it.

Or calcium in the ocean is turning carbon dioxide into limestone.

Or it’s all part of some long-term cycle having to do with Ice Ages. Carl Sagan was right, and the glaciers are coming for New York after all.

Or . . .

Or . . .

Or, could be, something is wrong with the model.

My money says we’re having a Margaret Mead moment: the science isn’t good enough, and nobody knows what’s going on. Not the computer programs. Not the people who write the computer programs. Not the scientists who study global warming. Certainly not the scientists who don’t study global warming. Or the hordes of socially aware laymen who consider themselves scientifically literate. And, most of all, not the politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals who built their careers on global warming.

The difference between me and these folks is, I know I’m scientifically illiterate. I am to science what a student at a madrassa is to the imam. All I can do is rely upon him to repeat the sacred texts to me. But with all the nonsense that’s been spoon-fed to us in the past, I’m going to ask questions before I get stampeded into doing something that doesn’t agree with the way the world looks to me. So, when someone who fancies himself scientifically literate tells me bumblebees can’t fly . . . and I look out my window at a whole gardenful of bumblebees buzzing around, I’ll need an explanation I can understand before I start claiming those bees aren’t flying.

When your model tells you bumblebees can’t fly, you know something’s wrong with the model.

Could be the global warm-mongers are right. Could be that God really does have an emerald palace all fitted out with rivers of non-alcoholic wine and six dozen amnesiac maidens waiting to be deflowered just by me so they can forget about it the next morning and start over again as virgins . . . if I’m righteous about not running the air conditioner. But I’d need more than the word of somebody who hasn’t been any closer to Paradise than I have before I turn off the AC on a summer’s day.

When the kid sitting cross-legged on the mat next to mine stops bobbing his head as he memorizes yet one more sura, and tells me that if I don’t quit driving my car the ocean will swell up and wash away Denver, I’m going to want to know what happened in Colorado a thousand years ago when the weather was so warm that Vikings were homesteading in Greenland.

Could be there’s an explanation for that, but I’d need to hear it before I start passing laws to force people to raise their children in squalor because the things they need to do in order to lead decent lives are too wasteful and antisocial for the rest of us to countenance.

I’d need better proof than Margaret-Mead-knows-best before I recommit to the silly personal values of the ’60s. And I’d need a lot better proof before I start castrating people I don’t think are as smart as I am, or forcing young mothers to have abortions, or condemning entire populations to gas chambers . . . or millions of people here, and billions in other places, to lifelong poverty because I don’t think they should burn coal or gasoline or nuclear energy.




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Bhopal, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dystopian 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now a very major crisis was in progress.

Gas leak!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The immediate aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extreme distrust of the state

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

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

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

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

More of the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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A Step Back From War

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On November 24, an interim agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions was reached between the P5+1 powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the US) and the Islamic Republic. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to:

  • stop enriching uranium beyond the 5% level, and take steps to downgrade its stockpile of uranium already enriched to the 20% level (at 20% it can be quickly converted to weapons-grade material)
  • allow inspectors better access to its nuclear sites, including daily inspections of the important facilities at Natanz and Fordo
  • halt development of the Arak heavy water plant, which upon completion would be capable of producing plutonium
  • build no new enrichment facilities
  • install no new centrifuges at its current facilities, or start up any centrifuges not currently in operation

Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium to the 3.5% level, as is its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the US interprets the NPT differently, but apparently has agreed to disagree with Iran on this, in effect conceding de facto that Iran has this right). Under the agreement Iran is also allowed to keep all of its existing centrifuges.

In return Iran will receive limited relief from the international sanctions regime which has crippled its economy. Some $6–7 billion worth of sanctions will be eased or lifted. Over $4 billion of this will come from the unfreezing of oil revenues currently held in foreign banks. No new sanctions will be imposed on Iran during the next six months (the lifetime of the interim agreement), so long as the Islamic Republic adheres to the terms of the agreement. The most crippling sanctions affecting Iran’s oil and financial sectors remain in place under the interim agreement.

There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

The US sanctions that will be removed can be lifted by presidential action — a key point, given that majorities in Congress remain suspicious of Iran. (Or, to put it another way, Israel and Saudi Arabia wield considerable influence over American legislators, while Iran has none.)

Is it a good deal? Yes, assuming that both sides are acting in good faith. The deal is an interim one with a six-month lifespan. Lacking progress on a comprehensive agreement, the US and the international community as a whole will quite likely ratchet up the sanctions pressure once more. We have not witnessed a “new Munich,” as some Israeli and neocon commentators have averred. It is quite simply the beginning of a badly needed dialogue between Iran and the West, one in which the interests of both sides may perhaps be found to dovetail. There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

This analyst feels certain that the P5+1 want to settle the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully, with Iran’s nuclear program at least frozen if not rolled back. Iran, it would seem, has been brought to the table by sanctions, particularly the very tough ones imposed since 2010. Self-interest rather than goodwill has brought the parties together, and self-interest is a much better foundation than goodwill to build a comprehensive agreement upon. Goodwill may follow in time.

There is little doubt that Iran has long sought, if not an actual nuclear weapon, at least the capability to produce one relatively quickly. Given the hostility that Iran has faced from the US, Israel, and the major Sunni Arab countries since 1979, its desire to become a nuclear power is understandable. Israel’s possession of a formidable nuclear arsenal (probably 200 or perhaps even 300 weapons) makes Iran’s effort seem puny by comparison. But again, it is Israel and not Iran that has widespread influence over the US Congress and American public opinion. On this issue the American viewpoint has been badly slanted in favor of both Israel and Saudi Arabia (two nations which are, in effect, allies when it comes to Iran), irrespective of US national interests. With this interim agreement the Obama administration has made a small beginning in redressing that dangerous imbalance.

In fact, it really isn’t the terms of this agreement that have disturbed the Israelis and the Saudis, but the very fact that an agreement was reached at all. The fear in both Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that an American-Iranian détente will follow, diminishing their influence over Washington. Would that it prove so! These two “friends” of ours have done considerable damage to America over the years. Our unconditional support for Israel has warped our relationship with the Islamic world, to our cost both economically and in terms of our national security. Saudi Arabia, by exporting radical Wahhabism (in an effort, so far largely successful, to deflect the fanaticism and violence of that movement away from the House of Saud), cost us dearly at 9/11 (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) and thereafter. It is not too much to say that our interaction with these two countries laid the groundwork for the disasters of 9/11 and the Second Iraq War, and much else besides. The time is long overdue for a rebalancing of US policy toward the Middle East.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam. The Iranian people, unlike the majority of Arabs (and particularly Sunni Arabs), are actually pro-Western to a great degree. This is quite evident to anyone who actually studies the country and its people, rather than relying on soundbites provided by cable news. It is true that the Islamic regime in Tehran has supported terrorist acts against the US in places such as Iraq and Lebanon. But it is equally true that this terrorism was motivated by raisons d’état, rather than religious fanaticism and anti-Occidentalism. A reorientation of US policy would bring such acts to a halt, whereas our frenemy Saudi Arabia is unable to prevent (indeed, has at times even secretly encouraged) Sunni terrorism against the US.

The US, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, put the Shia majority in power in Iraq, by means of war. Having embarked upon such a policy, we should, logically, extend it by demanding majority (i.e., Shia) rule in Bahrain. The next step, from the perspective of realpolitik, would be a US-Iranian condominium over the Shia-majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which coincidentally is where almost all of the Saudi oil is located. But of course we lack the statesmen or women capable of charting such a course.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam.

To return then to the real world. This interim agreement opens the possibility of preventing a nuclear Iran without war. A US war against Iran would be a difficult proposition under any circumstances. Given the strain of a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a real danger of the US military cracking during an operation that, to be successful, would entail the commitment of considerably more resources than those devoted to the Iraq war. The economic consequences of such a war (including a major increase in the price of oil, and the choice between borrowing money or raising taxes to pay the war costs) would be devastating.And an attack on Iran, as former Sec. of Defense Bob Gates commented during the Bush administration, would create a wave of terrorism that might persist for decades. There is in fact no alternative to a diplomatic solution.

Will diplomacy succeed? As already mentioned, both sides appear committed to reaching an agreement. The West needs peace and quiet in the Persian Gulf; Iran desperately needs relief from sanctions. Therefore it would seem this interim agreement will be succeeded by a more comprehensive one. Even so, it may be that in the end we will find ourselves containing an Iran that retains a “breakout capability.” But if we could contain a Soviet Union bristling with nukes, then surely we can contain a power that may have the capacity to produce one or two or even a dozen bombs. The alternative, war, is a far bleaker prospect.

Its logic aside, I regard a successful diplomatic outcome as a 50-50 proposition at best. Very powerful forces, both inside the US and beyond our borders, are committed to keeping the US and Iran apart. They are prepared to do almost anything to prevent a US-Iranian détente. And I fear they will.




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Obamacare by the Numbers

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Let's say you were put in charge of Obamacare. It sounds like a daunting business — to provide affordable healthcare insurance for 30 million uninsured Americans. But what if you didn't have to make a profit and were handed $940 billion for giving your product away free to some customers and selling it at steep discounts to others? Throw in $5 billion more for web site development and a $700 million marketing budget to lure reluctant customers.

Too timid to give it a try? OK, let's double the size of the slush fund to $1.8 trillion, pass a law forcing everyone to buy health insurance, and write a regulation that makes the existing policies of perhaps 100 million Americans illegal. I know what you are thinking: even an idiot could sell healthcare insurance, at a discount, to people required by law to buy it. There must be a catch.

And you would be right. But the catch is not the intransigent website problems or greedy, uncooperative insurance companies or bitter Republicans with their feeble attempts to defund the program. The catch is Obamacare itself — an immense, overreaching, already tottering Rube Goldberg contraption that cannot possibly succeed, no matter how much money is thrown at it.

True, most of us would do a better job at salesmanship than President Obama, at least those of us with a couple of years of high school under our belts. We certainly wouldn't have lied to our customers, at least not as often. None of us would have botched the website. We would have had it working like a charm, on time, and for a small fraction of the cost of the three-year, $600 million hack job that still crashes regularly at every whim of its spaghetti code. The frugal among us would have had the insurance industry do it for free. Why not? Look at the profits insurance companies will receive from inflated Obamacare premiums — not to mention the revenues from more than 30 million new customers to be sent goosestepping their way.

Millions of people who thought they would get subsidies earn too little to qualify — another awkward messaging problem for Obamacare navigators.

Nevertheless, we too would fail. A secure, fully operational website will not help. Indeed, it will simply expose and magnify the defects of Obamacare more quickly. Delays to fix the rollout or extend the individual mandate will only postpone the inevitable. When Obamacare is finally deemed open for business, with its shiny, new "tech-surged" website at the floodgates, the deluge of customers qualifying for subsidies and free health insurance will no doubt be flawlessly processed. So too will be the trickle of paying customers. The numbers — provided by the government (the White House, Health and Human Services, the Congressional Budget Office [CBO]) and the insurance industry — are bad. They have always been bad; intentionally hidden or obscured, only to be dismissed as insignificant when becoming visible or clear. And, as emerging enrollment data and insurance cancellation notices reveal, they are getting worse. Much worse.

The paltry enrollment to date provides a mere glimpse of the actuarial havoc to come, as predominantly high-cost customers — the old, the sick, the poor, the unemployed, the desperate — flock to enroll, while the low-cost, young, and healthy customers stay away, as they should, in droves. For a plan purporting to rescue the uninsured by giving 51% of them free medical care and 39% of them subsidies, this should not be unexpected; nor should the shock that $1.8 trillion (already twice the estimate of the $940 billion celebrated only three years ago) is woefully inadequate. Always surprised, always last to know, Mr. Obama will soon be asking for more.

According to the CBO, Obamacare will reduce the number of uninsured by 14 million in 2014. This will be accomplished, courtesy of the individual mandate, by moving nine million uninsured into Medicaid and five million uninsured into the Obamacare exchanges. In addition, two million with "substandard" individual health insurance policies will be switched to the exchanges, creating a total of seven million Obamacare customers. With incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL), they will receive subsidies (averaging $5,290 in 2014) to make their new, government-mandated, "quality" health insurance "affordable." These seven million "partial-payers" will become America's next entitlement class. It will grow rapidly to 24 million by 2023. The average subsidy will also grow (to $7,900), costing taxpayers well over $1 trillion.

Of this initial seven million, 2.7 million must be healthy, in the 18-34 age range, and undaunted by the exorbitant premiums they will be charged to defray the cost of insuring the older and sicker. Snaring them will be no small feat. Apart from rate shock, there is the Obamacare provision that allows them to stay on a parent’s plan until age 26, shrinking the young Obamacare customer pool roughly by half.

People in the other half of the desired customer pool are told that they should be happy paying high rates today; they too will pay lower rates later, when they are old and need the benefits. Medicare is cited as a successful program exemplifying the beneficence of such inter-generational subsidization. It's an excellent example, ironically. Medicare is a program that pays benefits to the old, using taxes paid by the young, which is on track to become insolvent by 2026. This statement clearly applies to Obamacare, except that Obamacare premiums are extraordinarily higher than Medicare taxes and Obamacare will go broke long before 2026. Unfortunately, this poses a difficult messaging problem for Obamacare navigators, who will persuade few with the "Hey kid, sign right here. Sure you'll get screwed by Obamacare, but you're already getting screwed by Medicare" angle.

The nine million uninsured who are ushered into Medicaid are mostly childless adults living in poverty. They reside in the 26 states employing the Medicaid Expansion. When applying for Obamacare, they will be given Medicaid, right after being informed that they won't get a nickel in subsidy money. Alas, millions of people who thought they would get subsidies earn too little to qualify — another awkward messaging problem for Obamacare navigators, who, for example, must explain to an individual making $11,500 per year why he won't get a subsidy, while an individual down the block, making $24,000 a year, will get $1,500.

In apologizing for lying about the ability of people to keep their healthcare providers and plans, Mr. Obama lied again.

For residents of the 24 states that have not expanded Medicaid, HealthCare.gov blithely points out, "you may not have as many options for health coverage." If you are poor, your total number of options is one. And it's not good. For example, an Alabama resident with an annual income of $11,400 (99% FPL) must buy an Obamacare policy costing $3,030 per year, offset by a subsidy of $0.00. Where did the Obamacare wizards think that people with an annual income of $11,400 could come up with $3,030 for Obamacare, when even the $95 fine for declining it is beyond their reach?

The Obamacare Medicaid Expansion, projected to cost federal taxpayers $709 billion, will add 13 million Americans to Medicaid by 2023 — all nonpaying customers. Furthermore, it is likely that this group will consume its "free" healthcare at a much higher rate than normal. That is, the cost will be much greater than $709 billion.

Many of the two million previously insured are people who thought they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, if they liked them, period. They may find solace in not being the only ones to be fooled — as they are joined by millions of other individuals who have recently had their "substandard" health insurance plans cancelled. And let's not forget President Obama, the Democrats in both houses of Congress who passed Obamacare in March of 2010, and the tens of millions of other Americans who thought that Obamacare would also reduce the deficit, "bend the health care cost curve down," and shrink health insurance premiums by $2,500.

Amid the furor that he repeatedly and knowingly misled Americans with his incessant if-you-like-it-you-can-keep-it-period incantations, Mr. Obama submitted a most spurious apology (exquisitely characterized by Stephen Cox, in “What? When? Why?”). He expressed sorrow for those "finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me," right after dismissing the people receiving cancellations as "a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged."

But in June of 2010, the Obama administration knew that "66% of small employer plans and 45% of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013” and that 40 to 66% with individually-purchased plans would suffer the same fate. For three and a half years, therefore, the White House has anticipated that as many as 100 million could lose their policies — hardly a "small percentage of folks." That is, in apologizing for lying about the ability of people to keep their healthcare providers and plans, Mr. Obama lied again.

To date, over five million individuals have already received cancellation notices. Together with millions more who will receive them by the time the Obamacare website is fixed, they will rush to the Obamacare exchanges, which have subsidy money for only two million. Where will Mr. Obama get the money for this "train wreck"? Then there is the second, much bigger, wreck arriving next year, when the employer mandate kicks in. And how much money will be needed to bail out health insurance companies, whose profits will shrink or vanish if Obama's youthful fan base doesn't show up in numbers large enough to prevent the so-called adverse selection "death spiral"?

The fallout from this follow-on wreck will peak just before the 2014 elections. What then will Mr. Obama and Democrat candidates have to say about the disruption and premium increases caused by Obamacare? With the Obamacare rollout last October, outrage was expressed by Republican and independent voters, while Democrat voters were silent. But their support was only apparent; they were in a sullen Obamacare transition from infatuation to familiarity. Next October they will be among many of the 100 million new and angry Obamacare customers clamoring for subsidy money. Many will be employed by insurance companies clamoring for bailout money.

How surprised will President Obama be when he is finally notified of the anger and unrest of more than "a small percentage of folks"? Whom will he blame for the mess this time? Doctors and hospitals, for charging too much? The old and the sick, for being too old and sick? What will be his solutions? What will he say they will cost? Will anyone believe him, or care about anything he has to say?




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