The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The UAW Smackdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will see if these miscreants can carry this off.




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Will Wins, Won’t Wins, Should Wins

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

Best Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Director

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

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

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

Best Actor

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

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

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

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

Best Actress

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

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

The Academy seldom rewards subtle, nuanced performances.

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

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

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

Best Supporting Actor

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

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

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

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

Best Supporting Actress

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Paul Harvey and the Penguins of Patagonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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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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