The Virus in India

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I am in India. I have always thought that when chaos hit India, I would be the first one to leave. Alas, no flights are leaving. I am stuck, so I will at least report.

When I arrived in Delhi, they were checking the temperature of the passengers. Then I flew through a few other airports. All had booths for medical staff to check on incoming passengers, except that the staff was missing. With no one checking on their attendance, why should they not be missing when they could be home, have fun, and be safe?

Passengers on planes were wearing masks but were unable to shake off the habit of grinding their crotches into the buttocks of those ahead of them in a line. Even women shamelessly do this to men.

The airports all had booths for medical staff to check on incoming passengers, except that the staff was missing.

So-called educated Indians are scared of the virus, which is a good first step. But they are dealing with it by drinking cow urine, passing WhatsApp memes to please the god, spreading outlandish rumors, etc. Then, fatalistically, they go out and mix around. Not to be left behind, the media are running superstitious stories and outlandish claims about the superiority of Indian doctors.

A government-run hospital pumped a concoction of medicine into patients and claimed to have treated them. The media ran stories about how the world was all praise for India and looking up to it, although the world knew nothing about it. A few days later, one of the “treated” patients died of a heart attack. No wonder, a British national tried to escape from quarantine, as many others did.

If I was afraid of coronavirus, I would rather stay put, even in Wuhan, than flee to Delhi.

Indians who were studying medicine in Wuhan were brought back to India. They were kept in a dormitory, where they mixed around and partied. More were brought in from Italy, some of whom immediately absconded when they experienced the abysmal conditions of the quarantine centers. There is a manhunt around the country for the absconders, who are no doubt happily spreading the virus. Some of the top people and celebrities have been culprits. Were I one of them, I am not sure what I would have done.

Indians “stranded” in Singapore are begging the Indian government to let them land in India. In all honesty, if I was afraid of coronavirus, I would rather stay put, even in Wuhan, than flee to Delhi.

More than 85% of Indians work in the informal sector. They live from hand to mouth. Add to this the feral and superstitious way of life in India. These grotesquely poor Indians haven’t been told what is wrong. They are afraid but aren’t sure why. Some think there is a curfew and if they violate it the police will come and beat them up — which the police happily do.

If coronavirus — or any communicable disease — strikes India, Malthus and Darwin will work hand-in-hand to take down hundreds of millions. Given extreme poverty, dysfunctionality, and unpreparedness, “lockdown” won’t work. Even if the virus does nothing, because of the stagnant and fear-fueled economy there will be a massive increase in crime over the next few weeks.

Those who think I am too impressed with China might want to consider the perspective I come from. The only hope for India — and other Third World countries — is that coronavirus is not potent in hot weather.

You can be absolutely assured that no one knows or will ever know the real number of those afflicted with the virus.

The politically correct World Health Organization is all praise for India. Officially, only 170 people have been afflicted by the virus, but in reality, India is hardly testing anyone, because it doesn’t have the kits or the laboratories to do the job. On even a normal day, Indian hospitals are packed with people, with no beds available. Even the floor space is littered with patients. You can be absolutely assured that no one knows or will ever know the real number of those afflicted with the virus. Incompetent doctors won’t know what killed the patients, who will then be cremated. None of this changes the fact that India is in an extremely precarious situation today.

The macro factors always keep India in entropy — lack of commitment, lack of social responsibility, lack of professionalism. India’s organizations are utterly dysfunctional and getting worse by the day, and you can do nothing about it, for the British have now been gone for 70 years. The concept of active, objective reason never got any traction in India — and you cannot maintain a civilization without it.




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One Trillion Dollars

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A cartoon by Tom Toles in the Washington Post shows an elephant flinging money out of a box. The caption: “Socialism wins the Republican Primary.” He is referring, of course, to the Great Coronavirus Bailout.

At the top of an economic cycle, with unemployment the lowest in 40 years, the Trump administration, the Republican Senate and the Democratic House were already running trillion-dollar annual deficits. Now our Republican president doubles down. He proposes emergency borrowing of another trillion, which will push the annual deficit-to-GDP ratio higher than in any year of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The markets don’t mind. As I write, the cost for the Treasury to burrow 30-year money is at an historic low of 1.55%, and for short money it is effectively zero. The market’s message: take all you want.

The president proposes emergency borrowing of another trillion, which will push the annual deficit-to-GDP ratio higher than in any year of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The Democrats love it. This is something they understand. On CNN, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, suggests spending $2 trillion. At least $2 trillion. Gene Sperling, an economic expert in the Clinton and Obama administrations, is asked whether there is any reason to worry about the size of this. Absolutely not, he says. No time for that! Just do it!

You’d think that Republicans would object. I note that Henry Olsen, the house Republican on the editorial page of the Washington Post, has a column titled, “Republicans Need to Go Bigger on Coronavirus. Much Bigger.” Even Megan McArdle, the Post’s columnist closest to my way of thinking, has a column titled, “A Libertarian’s Unlikely Pandemic Plea: Subsidize Everything.”

The market’s message: take all you want.

Stop. Let’s think about this first.

Two arguments are offered, practical and moral, for this eruption of dollars. The practical one is that if it is not done, America will fall into a depression. That is presented as a matter beyond discussion.

Is it? This is not like the Great Depression. That one did not begin with people suddenly shunning restaurants, sports stadiums, and international travel. There was a crash in the stock market, to be sure, but the more important event was the failure of national governments to pay the money they owed. Germany, which had been saddled with war reparations by the Treaty of Versailles, could not pay Britain and France, which in turn could not pay the United States. In the United States, investment bankers had been lending Germany the money to pay Britain and France, and that stopped, too. The whole structure of international debts fell apart. Wall Street had lent huge sums to Latin American governments, and they defaulted. In Seattle, where I live, the major office buildings and hotels built in the 1920s had been financed by bonds, and they defaulted. Thousands of owners of bonds — German bonds, Brazilian bonds, Cuban bonds, and local bonds — saw their assets shrink to pennies on the dollar. The bond market was shut to new borrowers on any kind of reasonable terms.

That is nothing like what is happening today. Today’s mess began with the government ordering great swaths of a strong economy to shut down to protect the public health. This is not an economic event at all, but a public health event with economic effects.

The Great Depression did not begin with people suddenly shunning restaurants, sports stadiums, and international travel.

This is more like an earthquake, a flood, or a fire, except that there is no tangible wreckage to clear away. No structures need to be rebuilt. The restaurant near my house stands ready for business, its tables set with napkins, silverware, and water glasses, except that no customers are allowed sit down.

What needs to be rebuilt are structures of an intangible sort: contracts. There will be startup costs, but how large can those be?

From my TV I hear no one suggesting that the restaurant owners, sports team owners, cruise ship owners, and airlines bear these costs themselves — that the costs are generally within their ability to bear and that the owners should bear them. Maybe I’ve missed the powerful appeals for self-reliance because I’m tuned to CNN, and CNN talks only to Democrats. I assume that if my concern for self-reliance were being voiced by public figures, the Democrats on CNN would be arguing against them, and they’re not. They are speaking as if no one would deign to dispute their superior wisdom.

The talking heads whose voices fill my home are making a moral argument that the shutdown is not the public’s fault. The government shut down the airlines, the cruise-ship lines, and the restaurants, and therefore the government should compensate them. But the government did that to protect people from a virus. Well, then, the matter is not one of fault, but of necessity. Does the government need to compensate for the side effects of life-saving action? If the government shut down one business because it was a threat to the public health, when the threat was not that business’ fault, an argument could be made to compensate the owners of that business by taxing everyone else a little bit. But when government shuts down a broad swath of industry across the entire country for a short time — and it is going to be a short time, right? — the argument for compensation is less convincing.

This is not an economic event at all, but a public health event with economic effects.

The voices I hear are arguing that government needs to help the little guy, who will be faced with the choice between paying for food and paying the rent. I am reminded of the assertion by Bernie Sanders — remember him? — that half of all Americans have no savings. I have known a number of persons who had no savings, and in every case, it was because they chose to live that way. Of course my experience is not everyone’s. Still, it is disturbing to hear political figures speak as if it’s wrong to expect people to have savings and to make hard choices.

If you cannot pay for food and rent, and you have no savings, you have a hard choice. You can borrow money from the bank, or from your family, or from friends. You can borrow food. You can ask the landlord to wait. You can stiff him and dare him to evict you, in the hope that he won’t because evictions are expensive, and take time. If you’re a good tenant, maybe he will cut you some slack, particularly if he’s under social and political pressure not to kick you out, or in a rental market in which too many other tenants have been kicked out. There has been a loss, and there may be a jockeying for power among you, your landlord, and your landlord’s bank, to decide who will eat the loss. And that’s life. It is not clear to me why the government should eat the loss.

And I now hear that government should make up all losses, even small ones. Unemployment insurance cannot meet the need because it covers close to half the lost wages. The aid package would have to cover it all. And the matter of school lunches: when schools started serving free and reduced-cost lunches (and breakfasts!) to children from low-income families, the argument was that if their stomachs weren’t full, they couldn’t learn. The free meals were an educational necessity. That was the argument — the entire argument. Now the schools are closed, and a wail goes up: What are the children to eat? Who is to feed them? And nobody dares suggest that children should be fed by the people who have been feeding children for millennia.

By Cuomo's logic, why should New York pay at all? Have the federal government pay!

Thus is 21st-century life. We have a disaster, and no American can be expected to absorb any losses, to make any hard choices, or to be self-reliant in any but the most trivial ways. The risk is all on the government — and the federal government, too, because only the federal government can vomit up cash by the trillions. Even the state governments are reduced to the status of children. As I write, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, is on CNN (his brother, Chris Cuomo, works there) arguing that the federal government needs to nationalize the production of medical equipment through a Truman-era law called the Defense Production Act. The government of New York wants to buy surgical masks and ventilators, and the other state governments have bid the price up. Governor Cuomo finds this very unfair. It is much fairer and more equitable, he believes, to compel entrepreneurs to supply as many masks and ventilators as the state declares it needs at a price the state deems fair to pay.

By his logic, why should New York pay at all? Have the federal government pay! Like Tom Toles’ elephant, the federal government has the money box. It’s a federal box. It can produce money for nothing, money that is a claim on the labor of you and me and our descendants; it can fling one trillion, two trillion, many trillions into the air and watch it flutter down to the sad victims on the ground. Drop it on Carnival Cruise Lines! Drop it on Andrew Cuomo! Drop it on me! We all wait to be saved.




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Yammering, Hectoring, and Infantilizing

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Not since I was stuck in a hospital in February 2016 during the runup to Super Tuesday have I had CNN on all the time. Usually I don’t watch CNN. Being “self-quarantined” in a national crisis — a real one — I watch it. There is much on CNN that is intelligent and relevant, which is why I watch and listen. But there is much also that is inflammatory and biased.

Much of the problem is the playing-up of panic. All reporters are trained to play up stories, to sharpen them, to bring out the conflict and emotion. I was a newspaper reporter years ago, and I know that to some degree they have to do this. Each person in the chain of news reporting is a kind of salesman. The reporters are trying to “make a sale” to their immediate editors, and they, in turn, are trying to sell their stories to the top editors, and the top editors are trying to grab and hold the attention of the public. But when you’re in a genuine crisis, you already have the attention of the public. In that situation, you should think about the social effect of your story. If you are reporting on an irrational panic — a nation of morons out to buy up all the toilet paper — you should report it in a way that doesn’t prompt hoi polloi to clean out all the canned chili and frozen pot pies. For media people, this sort of restraint goes against what they are.

Some are worse than others. On March 12 I watched CNN host Don Lemon browbeat commentator John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio. Kasich, a moderate Republican, ran against Trump in 2016 for the presidential nomination. He’s the antithesis of a Trump lackey. Kasich was on CNN just after President Trump addressed the nation about COVID-19 and announced the travel restrictions from Europe. Kasich was there to comment. His comment was that finally, after underplaying the epidemic, Trump had set the right tone.

When you’re in a genuine crisis, you already have the attention of the public. In that situation, you should think about the social effect of your story.

Lemon didn’t argue with Trump’s tone, but he brushed Kasich’s comment aside. What Lemon wanted to talk about, and Kasich to talk about, was that one of Trump’s statements about the travel restrictions had had to be corrected. The president, Lemon said, was giving “mixed messages”; he was confusing the people. To Kasich, however, having to correct an error was a minor thing. The correction had been made within the hour. The important thing was that Trump was taking the medical experts seriously and acting seriously.

“I think he set a serious tone; that's what I wanted out for him for a long time, and I think we got it,” Kasich said.

To Lemon, the important thing was to remind viewers that Trump had been wrong for two months. When Kasich insisted on talking about what Trump had just said, Lemon said, “You’re deflecting.”

I thought, “No. You’re deflecting.”

Sometimes this question can be reasonable, but it is also a question that requires no thought.

I understand the ethic of media people trying to extract truth from politicians who posture and lie — and Trump is no innocent in that regard. But Lemon was being unreasonable. Yes, in hindsight, Trump had been slow to respond to the epidemic. It’s all right to mention that, but the story is, the news is, he’s engaged now. It’s important to criticize the powerful when they fall short, but it’s just as important to credit them when they are on the mark. Public praise emboldens a leader to do more of the things that are praised, and it encourages others to cooperate and support him. Here was a case when Trump had improved, and dramatically so. The media needed to praise him for that — and Lemon kicked him. As the old song went, “Kick him when he’s up, kick him when he’s down!”

One of the most common kicks is Why Didn’t You Do This Before? I watched a press conference at which Trump announced some measures on the coronavirus. The reporters wanted to know: why didn’t you do this before? Sometimes this question can be reasonable, but it is also a question that requires no thought. Whatever a leader does, he can be asked why he didn’t do it yesterday. If you hear reporters at press conferences asking that question enough times, it reminds you of barking dogs.

On the news today was a story, which some group in the government reported months ago, that the federal government wasn’t ready for an epidemic. The “they knew and they did nothing” story is another that is entirely predictable. Every time a bridge falls into the Mississippi, or some such, we learn that some engineer warned months before that the bridge was bad. This happens again and again, and people wonder, “What’s the matter with our stupid leaders?” Fine; there’s plenty wrong. But governments are made up of individuals, some of them diligent and some of them drones, all working under bureaucrats who hoard information and jockey for power. And on top of this heap is one man with a limited brain whose demonstrable skill was that he could manipulate millions of Americans into voting for him. Should he take warnings from the nobodies on the bottom more seriously? Sure — but how would that work, exactly?

As the old song went, “Kick him when he’s up, kick him when he’s down!”

And then there is the question of magnitude. I live in an earthquake zone. Every once in a while, we get media stories telling us to be ready for The Big One. These stories have some good effects — I see public buildings reinforced with steel and concrete pillars under freeway bridges sheathed with steel, etc. I have screwed my bookcases into the wall, bought earthquake insurance and a few other things. I am ready for an ordinary earthquake, but am I really ready for The Big One? Not really. Nobody is. And if we get one, and all the old brick apartment houses collapse, and other houses are knocked off their foundations, I’m sure some smartypants will say, “You were warned.” And he will be right: we were.

Smartypants reporters ask, “Why did you (Trump) get tested if you told the American people not to get tested unless they had symptoms?” The same thing came up regarding professional athletes: “Why should they get tested when others can’t?” (Trump’s answer: “That’s life.”)

I am ready for an ordinary earthquake, but am I really ready for The Big One? Not really. Nobody is.

Many of the questions the reporters are throwing at the president are obviously put to them by other people. When reporters demand to know how many surgical masks will be available, and by what day and who will get them first, they are channeling their hometown politicians and hospital administrators — and also their hometown editors. (I can just hear an editor, yammering in the reporter’s ear: “Dammit, what are we paying you for? Pin the weasel down! Get specifics!”) But having all these media people hectoring, beseeching, imploring the Leader for definite, detailed, bankable results is acting as if the people were children waiting to be saved.

We’re not that. At least I hope so. Former Liberty editor Tim Virkkala writes in his blog, “We must not become a cargo cult, praying for the lordly President to bring us all the goodies of a mysterious, magical civilization.”

As I write, CNN is still on. Much of the time the news people are talking to doctors and public health officials. The news people ask good questions. They mostly get good answers, and they treat the interviewees with decorum and respect. But that is not how they treat the president or anyone, such as Kasich, who defends even one of his speeches. The CNN people really do go out of their way not to say anything good about Donald Trump, no matter what he does.




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In Praise of Business

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All week I’ve been receiving emails from the companies I do business with, telling me what they are doing to keep customers safe during the coronavirus scare. My airline companies have waived cancellation and change fees to help me navigate my changing travel plans. When Royal Caribbean was forced to cancel a cruise I was set to take next week, they not only waived the cancellation fee, they offered me a 125% credit if I would reschedule my trip and sail with them sometime before December 2021. Numerous online teaching resources have offered links to their study guides for harried parents who suddenly find themselves homeschooling — and they aren’t charging a fee for the service. Distilleries began making hand sanitizer from their castoff alcohol. Meanwhile, my local grocery store has had all hands on deck for the past two weeks, continually restocking the shelves and checking customers through the lines as quickly as possible without a break. And still they offer to help me to my car. With a smile.

As the crisis has deepened, restaurants have stepped in to help. Chick-fil-A has delivered mountains of hot meals to hospital workers — for free. Whataburger, headquartered in Texas, has delivered food to exhausted employees at H-E-B grocery stores — for free. And Jimmy John's sandwich shops have vowed to provide meals for at-risk kids during the school closures — for free. Amazon has stepped up its delivery service, hiring over 100,000 new employees so that valued customers can receive needed goods — including food — at our own homes. Not for free, but at their normal prices.

No government agency directed these companies to step up their services, double their workloads, or give away their products for free.

There is nothing like American business. This is what Adam Smith meant when he talked about “the invisible hand” of the marketplace. No government agency directed these companies to step up their services, double their workloads, or give away their products for free. In fact, government told private labs to stand down when they were ready to develop and distribute test kits. Yet there they are, anticipating needs, increasing their orders, doubling their staffs, and limiting the sales of certain items (hand sanitizers, toilet paper) through an appeal to good will rather than strict rationing. I shudder to think how all of this will change if our mayors decide to get in on the act and commandeer the stores.

The airlines and hotels and car mechanics and retail stores know that if they provide excellent service to their customers now, those customers will be back when the crisis is over. The educational companies such as National Scholastic who give their resources for free today are likely to have new customers tomorrow. And the CEO of Albertsons will go to bed with a satisfied smile, knowing that because he doubled and redoubled the efforts of his employees, you and I will have enough nonperishables to last through a quarantine — and even enough toilet paper. (Although that seemed doubtful two weeks ago, Georgia Pacific has ramped up its factories to keep up with demand.)

Meanwhile, I am concerned about the performers and amateur athletes and musicians and artists and event organizers whose livelihoods are already a bit tenuous. Competition for a gig is always so stiff, and one’s shelf life, especially for athletes, is so brief. Can they survive a season of cancellations? Will performing arts theaters bounce back, or do they face bankruptcy from the forced closings?

The airlines and hotels and car mechanics and retail stores know that if they provide excellent service to their customers now, those customers will be back when the crisis is over.

I’m even more concerned about the barbers, restaurant workers, amusement park attendants, and other modest earners who are out of work right now — will they be able to pay the rent and other bills?

Over the weekend I saw businesses adjusting to the new social distancing. Retailers were scrubbing their surfaces and spraying their keypads after every customer, and greeters were slowing anxious shoppers as they entered the store. My favorite restaurant took out half its tables in order to keep diners at least six feet away from one another, and they were encouraging take-out rather than dine-in. Movie theaters were selling only 50 tickets per screening so patrons could have at least two seats between them.

All of these innovations will go away as governments begin issuing mandatory closing edicts, but even then, businesses will find ways to adjust. Universal, for example, has decided to release its new films each week on streaming platforms so they can be viewed at home (great for us, though not so great for the cineplex). Dine-in restaurants are creating pickup lines (great for us, though not so great for the wait staff). Others will innovate as well.

All of these innovations will go away as governments begin issuing mandatory closing edicts, but even then, businesses will find ways to adjust

As you go forward through these difficult times, consider not requesting a refund for the tickets you’ve purchased to shows, games, and other events that have been canceled. Help the theaters and venues stay alive by accepting a credit for a future event, or letting them keep the money altogether. Leave a tip in the pickup line and ask that it be donated to the wait staff who have been laid off. Offer to help your neighbors who suddenly have children at home during the day with no babysitter and a job they need to keep. Thank the retail workers for being at their jobs during these extra-hectic days.

Be calm. Be patient. Wash your hands. And don’t take the last roll of toilet paper.




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The Failure of Government

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Wall Street is (I hope) discovering that the Fed can't wave a magic wand to make problems disappear.

As you know, the stock market has been in chaos for the past month. Four times it had dramatic, even historic declines — 7%, 10%, 13%, and just yesterday over 6%. But it also had a day of gaining 9% after Trump declared a national emergency, 5% on a spike after the first time the Federal Reserve indicated it would act, and a sharp spike the first time Congress announced legislation.

What are the lessons? Wall Street is stupid.

Here is my take on Wall Street. Investors read about the coming recession and sell. The market collapses. Then they read about the Fed or the White House or Congress taking action. The market shoots up. Then they read more bad news, and the next day there’s another collapse. This cycle of ups and downs has repeated over and over.

What are the lessons? Wall Street is stupid. It has a short memory and low long-term vision. Investors really think the federal government can wave a magic wand and make any problem disappear. Now Wall Street is learning that is not true, and stocks tumble. In the long term, it seems that the market will be down 25% to 40% from its peak in February 2020.

Wall Street is learning that the Fed is mortal, not a deity.

As the virus crisis unfolds, there will be much antilibertarian sentiment, to the effect that we need a social safety net, socialized medicine, etc. Instead of replying by talking about what capitalism can do, let's talk about what government cannot do. It can't find a cure by magic. And it can't create money by magic. It cannot eliminate the economic damage caused by the coronavirus. It has no magical powers. This is not a crisis that government will solve. It is a crisis that we as a human species will overcome.

Now that Wall Street is learning that the Fed is mortal, not a deity, if you own stocks, strap on a helmet. You're in for a volatile, rough ride. As are we all, in the months and year to come.




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Sanders, Biden, and the "Ideological Struggle”

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In the March 15 debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the immediate news was that Biden promised to pick a woman as a running mate. I already assumed he would do that. (Amy Klobuchar? Kamala Harris?) Biden also said he would appoint the first black woman to the US Supreme Court (Harris?), though the newsies didn’t focus on that.

To someone more interested in ideas, the memorable line of the evening was from Sanders: “We are winning the ideological struggle.”

Sanders speaks the language of the Left. Note that he repeatedly talked about “workers.”

His statement hit me on several levels. First, the language. Joe Biden would never use a phrase like “ideological struggle.” Old-line Democrats don’t talk that way. Combine that with Sanders’ condemnation-in-advance of “profiteering,” his bewailing of America’s “unjust and unfair economic system,” and, in his closing statement, his call to “rethink America. Create a country where we care about each other rather than a country of greed and corruption.”

Sanders speaks the language of the Left. Note that he repeatedly talked about “workers.” Here in Seattle we have a Trotskyist on the city council. In the council’s debate in 2018 about the employee head tax, when all the other council members talked about helping “the homeless,” our local Marxist talked about helping “the workers.” And that’s how Bernie talks.

At one point, Biden went after Sanders for his history of praising Cuba and the Soviet Union. Sanders’ reply was that he has always been against authoritarianism; he had never praised that, but the things he’d said about medical care in Cuba, for example, were accurate. So is the statement, “Extreme poverty in China today is much less than 40 to 50 year ago.” Should he not say that because China’s government is authoritarian? Biden replied by denouncing China as a dictatorship. He also dismissed the material progress in China as “marginal,” which is not true, but by red-baiting Sanders he had drawn blood. I wished he had done more: Sanders’ fellow-traveling to Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union (his honeymoon!), done years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, were the actions of an admirer. The white-haired “democratic socialist” has never disowned his youthful pinkhood. Back then, he was full of admiration for State Doctors for All; now he wants Medicare for All.

Biden didn’t pursue it.

On the great issue of the day, how the federal government should respond to the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus, the two candidates staked out predictable positions.

On the political level Sanders’ statement, “We are winning the ideological struggle,” sounded like an admission that he wasn’t going to win the Democratic Party’s nomination. After the voting of the past two weeks, Sanders is toast, as long as Biden stays healthy and passably lucid.

On the literal level, Sanders’ statement, “We are winning the ideological struggle” hit me as true. Biden is against “Medicare for All” because it would cost trillions of dollars, making it too lumpy to jam through Congress. But Biden said, “We don’t disagree on the principle.” Biden assured the viewers of his plan, Obamacare 2.0, “I can get that passed. I can get that done.”

Indeed, on the great issue of the day, how the federal government should respond to the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus, the two candidates staked out predictable positions. President Trump had just had a press conference announcing government money to pay much of the cost of the quarantines, and that all COVID-19 testing would be free. Biden promised to outdo Trump: everything would be free. “Nobody will pay for anything to do with the national crisis,” he promised. “We’re going to have a major, major, major bailout package.”

One wonders whether either Biden or Sanders would enlist corporate leaders. Probably not Sanders, who declared, “We have a bunch of crooks running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off.”

Sanders’ reply was that Biden’s money blowout wouldn’t have changed the healthcare system. “We don’t have a system,” Sanders said. He wants a single-payer system. “You have a single-payer system in Italy,” Biden retorted. “It doesn’t work there.” But nobody cared about Italy.

Earlier, Trump had come out in his press conference with a bevy of corporate leaders, some of them from retail chains such as Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS, and others from medical-related companies. All these CEOs had pledged to cooperate in fighting the virus. One wonders whether either Biden or Sanders would enlist corporate leaders. Probably not Sanders, who declared, “We have a bunch of crooks running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off.” Maybe Biden would, though I doubt it.

Biden had been in Democratic leadership in the Senate for decades, casting votes for tactical reasons, often in times when the Democrats played second fiddle to the Republicans. Sanders, a radical backbencher elected as an Independent, challenged Biden to justify some of these votes. In the George W. Bush years, Biden had voted for a bankruptcy bill that forbade the charge-off of student debt. He had repeatedly voted for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions. In the Clinton years he had voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited same-sex marriage, and for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which increased competition from Canada and Mexico. Biden had, most notoriously, voted in 2002 for the authorization to use force in Iraq. “Everybody knew that when you voted for that, you were voting Bush and Cheney the authority to go to war,” Sanders said.

Biden had voted in 2008 to bail out the banks because, he said, the alternative was a depression. Sanders had voted no because, he said, the bankers were a bunch of crooks.

Biden had, most notoriously, voted in 2002 for the authorization to use force in Iraq.

Sanders said that on one occasion that Biden had talked with the Republicans about cutting Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Biden protested that he had never voted to cut those benefits — he never would! — but he had to admit, under Sanders’ pressure, that he’d talked about it.

Responding to this list of political sins, Biden said that Sanders had voted to forbid the victims of gun violence, or their families, from suing the manufacturers of guns. Sanders let that go by without comment.

And so it went. Both of them were for saving the Earth with wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars, and both would ban fracking. Biden repeated his fantastic claim that passenger trains “would take millions of automobiles off the road.” Biden promised to reenter the Paris Climate Accord. Sanders said, “Who cares? It’s not a big deal,” though of course he was for it. The Vermont Sandino promised to hold the oil-industry leaders “criminally accountable” for warming the planet and lying to the people about it.

The “criminally accountable” part was a difference between the two men. Sanders has a hard edge that Biden does not. The person watching the debate with me, who has not followed the campaigns, pointed to Biden and said, “He’s the slick one.” And then to Sanders, “He’s more honest.”

I suppose. And more openly threatening.




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Were You Ready for Corona?

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The TV is on CNN, everything is coronavirus, and national attention is on my hometown, Seattle. Washington Governor Jay Inslee — he who ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president on the promise to fight carbon dioxide — is fighting an entity much more immediately dangerous. As I write, Inslee has declared a ban on all public meetings, public or private, of 250 or more, in the county in which I live. I’m a libertarian, but in matters of pandemics, I bow to the inevitability of state power.

The inevitability of it, if not the complete effectiveness. This is clear if you listen to officials on TV talk about the coronavirus. Whenever the holders of power over public health get on TV, they begin a kind of ritual, like baboons picking lice out of each other’s fur. The ritual is the effusive assertion that the official standing next to them (especially if that official controls a lot of money) has been doing a fantastic job. President Trump talked that way at his first press conference, as did Vice President Pence when he came to Olympia, Washington. All these politicians and political-public-health people do it, nearly as over the top as the actors and actresses at the Oscars. Here in the Coronavirus State it doesn’t feel like anyone has done a fantastic job. Everyone is scrambling to catch up with a microscopic bug.

And did you expect better? I didn’t. I never expected even an adequate job from government officials or from the private sector either, at least in the beginning. CNN’s earnest talking heads are rabbiting on about Trump not being ready, the rest of the government not being ready, about test kits being short, surgical masks short, blah, blah, blah. Ground zero for the infection of the United States is a nursing home 15 miles from my house, in the town of Kirkland. (If you shop at Costco, you will be familiar with that name.) The media people say that the employees at the nursing home weren’t ready, that when they found out about the virus they didn’t use the proper protective gear, implying that their ignorance and sloppiness let the sickness spread to dozens of patients.

Well, hell. Of course the nursing home people weren’t ready. Why would they be? Were you ready? And you might say, “Yeah, but I’m not a nursing home. They’re in the health care business.” Nursing homes are in the feeding-old-people and helping-them-in-the-shower business. You can’t expect them to be ready for a microscopic invasion from China. And you think the county health department, or the state, should be ready? In theory, sure. They are supposed to manage this sort of thing, be right on top of it, master it, kill it, and protect us all. But pandemics don’t often happen, and other problems do. Health workers are good at fixing those problems because they deal with them all the time.

Mostly we prepare for what we know. Several years ago, my wife slipped on the front porch and shattered her ankle. After that I put in a handrail. She had mentioned a handrail before, but it wasn’t urgent, and I hadn’t put one in. A few miles from my house a schoolboy was hit and killed by a car while crossing a busy street where there was no crosswalk. After that, the city put in a crosswalk. That is how we get crosswalks. It’s unfortunate, but it’s how people are. Recently I put in a grab bar in the bathtub. No one had fallen in that tub, but I thought I had better put one in. I can pat myself on the back for being “proactive” this time, but falling in the bathtub is a common thing for older people. Global pandemics are not. We’ve had a few of them now, and if we start having them every year or so, we will be ready for them.

As I write, Trump has just taken network time to address the nation, banning travel from continental Europe for 30 days. He seems more focused on the problem than he was, and more realistic — and of course, the talking heads on CNN still take him to task for not answering every concern they have. In Seattle the school board has just closed the public schools. And so we lurch forward.




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Sleepy Joe Awakens

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First thoughts on Super Tuesday:

By moving toward Joe Biden, Democrats are responding to messages in the media. We have a liberal media, not a socialist media, and in these past days it has been imagining the crash-and-burn of a Sanders-Warren ticket (or maybe even a Sanders-Gabbard ticket; imagine that!) and posing tough questions. And for good reason. Bernie had it coming. The media like a horse race, and tend to handicap frontrunners. And they pile on candidates who wander outside the lane markers of the politically acceptable.

In this case, good. The not so good part is that Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. may become the nominee, and possibly even the next president of the United States. Biden has better table manners than Donald Trump. Biden has experience by the tubful. As he keeps reminding audiences, he’s Been There, Done That. In 2008 Obama, who was only two years out of the Illinois legislature, chose Biden for vice president because Biden had been in the Senate since the administration of Richard Nixon.

We have a liberal media, not a socialist media, and in these past days it has been imagining the crash-and-burn of a Sanders-Warren ticket.

Libertarians might ask themselves: which is worse, a President Biden who wheels and deals and Gets Things Done (especially for his boy, Hunter!) — or a President Sanders who puffs up his cheeks, hectors and damns, and demands utopia? You could argue that an effective Biden would be worse than an ineffective Sanders. Two Democrats I know — Biden supporters now, I suppose — have told me that even I should vote for Sanders, if it’s between him and Trump. Their argument was that Sanders could never get his utopian programs through Congress, and is therefore not a serious threat to the Republic, but that Trump is.

I find this argument unconvincing. Trump is boorish and domineering, he likes to bully Congress and the Federal Reserve, and he has some policies I don’t like. But Trump has not dropped the atomic bomb, he has not gotten the country into a major war, he has not attempted to stack the Supreme Court, and he has not ordered an entire minority group into concentration camps. I can think of other presidents who did those things. The Republic survived them, sort of. I could be wrong, but I think the Republic can survive Donald Trump — at least better than it could survive four or even eight years, God forbid, of President Bernie Sanders.

I think of the men Trump has appointed to the Supreme Court — and I think: who would Bernie Sanders appoint?

I could be wrong, but I think the Republic can survive Donald Trump.

The reason for not preferring Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden is the long-term consequences to the Democratic Party of nominating a socialist. It mattered in 1964 when the Republican Party nominated an anti-New Deal conservative, Barry Goldwater. He got only 38% of the vote, but he changed the ideology of the Republican Party and paved the way for Ronald Reagan. And that changed the country. Nominating a socialist would change the ideology of the Democratic Party, and perhaps the country, in the other direction. It would change which proposals were acceptable in the Democratic Party, and which ones were not. To a disturbing extent the Vermont Sandino has already done this. Letting him have any more success cannot be good. That being so, it would be even worse if Sanders won the nomination and beat Donald Trump. Then we would have a new two-party system: the Socialists and the Nationalists. (And yes, I know, some libertarians will argue that that’s what we have now, but all I can say is, just you wait.)

No; it is better that Sanders be defeated, even by Joe Biden, warts (as Liberty Editor Stephen Cox has highlighted) and all.

Goldwater got only 38% of the vote, but he changed the ideology of the Republican Party and paved the way for Ronald Reagan. And that changed the country.

I was going to add, “or by Mike Bloomberg,” but he is finished. Bloomberg has proven once again that it takes more than money to win elections. Votes are what wins elections, and there are never enough votes for sale for a rich man to corner the market and become president. That Mike Bloomberg spent upwards of $500 million is a measure of his ambition, and his foolishness. It was even more so for Tom Steyer, a man I’d never heard of until last summer. Hey, guys! You made bad investments! You earned it in the market and spent it on political campaigns. You should have bought yachts!

The Democratic Party is not going to give its prized spot to a self-funded practitioner of capitalism.

The Republicans are different that way, some. They nominated Wendell Willkie in 1940 and he had been a businessman, sort of; and in 2016 they nominated Donald Trump, who was a businessman, sort of. Really Donald Trump was a showman, a media guy. A much better politician than a developer of high-rise buildings. Trump knew how to wow a crowd, how to use the electronic media, how to intimidate his opponents with crude one-liners. He won because he’s a fabulous bullshitter who delighted in violating the proprieties of the Politically Correct. In 2016 Hillary Clinton outspent him by almost 2 to 1 — and all good Democrats keep saying, we’ve got to get money out of politics . . .

Money helps, to be sure. All by itself, it’s useless. Votes are what counts. Sanders has them, and now Biden has them. Let’s see if one will knock the other out before the convention, and if the winner can unify the Democratic Party. It won’t be easy.




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A Free-Market Path to Corporate Reform

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On economic issues, libertarians have historically played a supporting role to conservatives, at least in the eyes of the general public. The upcoming election season provides us with an opportunity to throw off this image and craft a public identity of our own.

One of the more contentious disputes in the ongoing political wars is what to do about the substantial power wielded by large corporations in our political, social, and economic lives. On this issue, liberals and conservatives have staked out positions that appear at first glance to be diametrically opposed. Many liberals and far-left “progressives” portray large corporations — especially those in the social media, fossil fuel, and pharmaceutical industries — as rampaging beasts, whose predatory behavior must be curbed by strict government oversight and control. Many conservatives, on the other hand, paint a benign picture of large corporations as consumer-friendly instruments of free markets and prosperity, which must be protected at all costs from further government interference.

By any rational standard, large corporations have acquired too much economic and political power, and most of them are not shy about using this power to undermine the free market when that serves their interests.

To the extent that libertarians deal with this issue at all, we tend to side with conservatives. Although a vocal minority of libertarians oppose specific corporate perks such as limited liability and corporate personhood, most of us view corporations in a favorable light, as essential providers of the multitude of goods and services we use every day. Our lack of political influence, however, makes us marginal players in this debate, and we are perceived as little more than cheerleaders for the mainstream conservative viewpoint.

This need no longer be the case. Our fundamental principle, the nonaggression principle, provides us with a chance to speak in our own voice and introduce a totally new perspective to this debate. Using the nonaggression principle, we can identify specific government policies that enable and encourage corporate dominance, and we can actively promote explicitly libertarian reforms aimed at creating a more level playing field between people and corporations.

Such reforms are way overdue. By any rational standard, large corporations have acquired too much economic and political power, and most of them are not shy about using this power to undermine the free market when that serves their interests. A current example is an all-out effort by many corporate healthcare providers, through lobbying and lawsuits, to block price transparency for consumers, a key feature of the free market that is essential to its functioning.

Unfortunately, all modern economies have specific sets of rules for corporations — rules that are distinct from and often opposite to those for individuals and other types of organizations. These rules violate free-market norms in two major ways: as all libertarians know, they require corporations to submit to intrusive government oversight and regulation of their activities; and as not all libertarians fully realize, they give corporations special privileges that are not granted to unincorporated firms or individuals.

Chief among these special privileges is “limited liability,” designed to shield owners of corporations from financial risk relating to corporate negligence or misbehavior. Although libertarians disagree about the extent to which individual stockholders should be held responsible for corporate misconduct, that is not the issue here. The issue instead is that, by granting limited liability to owners of corporations and denying it to unincorporated firms, the government is creating a double standard in the marketplace, one that favors corporations over individuals.

Unfortunately, all modern economies have specific sets of rules for corporations — rules that are distinct from and often opposite to those for individuals and other types of organizations.

Corporations have additional ways of avoiding the consequences of their wrongful actions. Suing a corporation is a difficult, expensive and time-consuming process — much more so than suing another person. A corporation can easily dissolve or go bankrupt, even as its owners continue to prosper. A judge’s approval is usually needed to “pierce the corporate veil” and sue the owners directly. Such approval can be difficult or impossible to obtain, especially in jurisdictions that advertise themselves as friendly to corporations.

Since corporations can own, buy, and sell one another, a privilege rightly denied to individuals, it is easy to establish a chain of corporate ownership to conceal the identity of the true owners, by setting up the controlling corporations in different domestic jurisdictions or in other countries.

These state-granted corporate privileges come at a steep price — to our economic freedom as well as to corporations themselves. Corporations are brought into existence by legislative permission. They can be snuffed out of existence just as easily through government revocation of their charters. This gives governments tremendous power to regulate corporations as they see fit, and encourages corporate decision makers to seek the “friendship” of powerful government agencies and do their bidding. The result is a toxic blend of crony capitalism and a “mixed” economy, within which the marketplace is anything but free.

The competitive advantages conferred by government permit corporations to grow larger than they would in a free market, “crowding out” other types of business organizations in the process. Eventually we arrive at an economic landscape dominated by corporate executives and their regulators, at the expense of everyone else’s freedom.

These state-granted corporate privileges come at a steep price — to our economic freedom as well as to corporations themselves.

Should libertarians regard this state of affairs as incompatible with the proper functioning of a free economy? If so, what should be done to fix it?

The answer to both these questions can be found by applying the basic principle that guides our political philosophy. The nonaggression principle declares that governments should not interfere with anyone’s peaceful activities, provided those activities do not violate the rights of others. For libertarians, this principle applies not only to individuals, but also to groups of individuals — and a corporation, at its root, is simply a group of individuals who share an interlocking set of contractual relationships.

The nonaggression principle logically leads to this conclusion: any activities that are legally and morally legitimate for corporations should be equally legitimate for all other private, voluntary groups of people. Conversely, activities that violate the rights of others should be prohibited to all such groups. When it comes to legal rights and responsibilities, a free society should not treat corporations any differently from the way it treats any other privately organized groups, such as labor unions, religious and charitable organizations, foundations, and political parties.

This leads to a further conclusion that some will consider radical: there is no need or justification for “corporation” as a legal concept at all. An unincorporated business should have exactly the same standing under the law as an incorporated business in matters such as taxation, liability, reporting requirements, and recognition of contracts. Aside from protecting the rights of third parties, governments should have no say regarding any firm’s form of organization, purpose, or method of operation. Legal protections extended to corporations should be equally available to all other groups.

Any activities that are legally and morally legitimate for corporations should be equally legitimate for all other private, voluntary groups of people.

Such a set of reforms, if applied consistently, would have far-reaching effects. It would do away with any reason to treat corporations as privileged legal entities.It would remove the need for a body of corporate law, separate from individual and contract law. It would render irrelevant the legal fiction of corporate personhood, along with the torturous logic needed to justify such a concept. It would create a more level playing field between people and corporations. It would bring more consistency and fairness to government policies regarding liability and secrecy. It would ensure that any legal protections given to corporate owners and agents would also extend to unincorporated individuals and groups. Taken together, these reforms would constitute a major step toward a freer economy.

As a means of generating favorable publicity for libertarianism, promoting such reforms has much to recommend it. These proposals derive directly from our fundamental principles. They are straightforward and easy to explain. They stand in stark contrast to the spurious “reforms” dished out by the mainstream Left and Right. They appeal to people’s sense of fairness. And by promoting both economic liberty and equality before the law, they have the potential to gain support from people on both sides of the mainstream political divide.

But advocating such reforms should be more than just a strategy to improve our public relations, burnish our image, and promote our brand. A more important consideration is at stake here. As principled champions of the free market, we libertarians should actually be defending the free market, not the flawed simulation that we see around us. As principled champions of individual rights, we should be defending these rights not only against the government but also against any corporations that violate them with the government’s blessing.

As the 2020 political season heats up, the issue of corporate power will increasingly command the public’s attention. This presents us with a clear choice. We can continue playing second fiddle to the conservative-led campaign to further deregulate large corporations, while doing little or nothing to take away their unfair advantages in the marketplace. Or we can strike out on our own, and boost our credibility as champions of individual rights, by leading the charge to put an end to corporate privileges and make the marketplace more free.




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Fantasies of the Filmerati

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So Parasite has won Best Picture at the Oscars. Certainly it is well-made (as discussed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen). Director Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won it for him is its leftward political message. A similar message is what struck me about the other movie of Bong’s I saw, Snowpiercer, which I wrote about in Liberty back in January last year.

Unlike the post-apocalyptic science-fiction Snowpiercer, Parasite is set in today’s Seoul, Korea (Bong’s homeland). The story concerns two families. The Parks are rich and the Kims are poor. The “parasites” are — at least, on the surface — the Kims, who worm their way into the household staff of the Parks, displacing the other servants. In the course of a story that begins as social realism and ends as a surrealistic horror movie, the Kims become the parasites that consume their host.

Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won the Oscar for him is Parasite's leftward political message.

The movie is a story of how the class structure drives ordinary people to weird violence. This is supposed to be a deep criticism of modern capitalism — what the Left calls late capitalism. (Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?) I’ve heard several viewers say Parasite is really not a dig at capitalism, because Bong has imagined the poor family, the Kims, as the parasites. They are dishonest, dissolute, and ultimately destructive. The Parks, thanks to their money, are “nice,” and nothing like the evil exploiters imagined by the Old Left.

That interpretation is overly generous, I think. Google “Parasite” and “capitalism” and see what you get. There is Bong Joon Ho saying at the Golden Globes ceremonies, “This film is about the rich and poor and about capitalism.” And Richard Brody saying in The New Yorker that Parasite is about “the injustice of inequality” and a system in which “the warped, the undeserving, and the incompetent . . . lord over a new generation of embittered and marginalized strugglers.” And Gabriella Paiella in GQ asserting that Parasite is “a taut thriller that vividly evokes the acute desperation of late capitalism, all wrapped in a layer of dark comedy.” And Nathaniel Bell of LA Weekly summing up the film as“Alfred Hitchcock by way of Karl Marx.”

And that’s the mainstream press. If you want the hardcore, try the Marxist LeftVoice.org, where Julia Wallace writes, “Parasite captures the inherently parasitic relationship between capitalists and the working class and imagines the headlong plunge that is coming when the working class will get fed up with creating things for the ruling class to take.”

Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?

Are arts writers politically biased? Well, of 398 reviews of Parasite on RottenTomatoes five are unfavorable, and two of those argue that the movie’s anticapitalist message isn’t militant enough. One is Paddy Kehoe of RTE, Ireland’s version of NPR, who says, “It doesn’t point up a route . . . towards radical change.” The other is Rick Krisonak of Seven Days, a publication in Bernie Sanders’ hometown of Burlington, Vermont, who writes that Parasite “offers zero thoughtful comment on capitalism or inequality. It simply gives us poor characters gaming rich characters and assumes we'll side with the poor.”

I think that is Bong’s intention.

His main characters are the members of two families of four: husband, wife, boy, girl. The poor family, the Kims, are thoroughly Asian, working intelligently (if connivingly) as a family unit. The rich family, the Parks, are Westernized to the point of parody. Each soul is on its individual path, mostly lost, with the sheltered, smiling wife praising her son’s childish crayon drawings and wondering why he doesn’t obey his parents. The boy imagines himself an American Indian, prancing around the big, modernistic house, shooting toy arrows at the household staff. The mother’s idea for taming her boy is “art therapy.” The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a smell. George Orwell said the same in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

Some of the details of Bong’s story make no sense at all. Kyle Smith of National Review, who may be the only right-winger in Rotten Tomatoes’ fawning herd, notes that the rich people in Parasite are never shown doing any work. The husband doesn’t drive the Mercedes-Benz and the wife doesn’t boil the water for noodles. They don’t really do anything. How did they become so rich? Bong doesn’t think we need to know. In Parasite, work is mostly bullshit, and only the poor do it.

The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a "smell."

At the outset, the Kims are making a bare living in their roach-ridden, urinated-on basement apartment by folding boxes for takeout pizza — and the employee from the pizza store berates them for messing up that simple task. But these are not the Joads. They are intelligent — school-smart and street-smart. They don’t have a full measure of morality, at least regarding the rich, but they have discipline. And when they try, they are successful. The poor-family daughter does a bangup job as an “art therapist,” instantly transforming the little wild Indian into an obedient boy. The National Review’s man asks how such a smart, disciplined, enterprising family came to be stuck at the bottom of the totem pole, folding pizza boxes: “In order to cock a snoot at supposed class injustice, artists like Bong have to fundamentally misrepresent what’s going on.”

That was my bellyache about Bong’s 2013 movie, Snowpiercer. If you’re going to criticize a system, show us what’s real. Others have done this with the world of household servants — most recently Alfonso Cuaron in Roma (2018), which recreates the home in Mexico City where he lived as a boy. That was real. Parasite is not.

The critics like that it’s not real. They praise it. A.O. Scott of the New York Times calls it “intensely metaphorical and devastatingly concrete.” (Got that?) Scott concludes, “Whether we know it or not, it’s Bong’s world we’re living in. Literally.”

Does the New York Times know what “literally” means?




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