John Kerry Speaks!

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At many colleges and universities across this great land of ours, graduation weekend has just passed. Amid the festivities and regalia and good-hearted celebration, that meant the return of one of our most dreaded civic traditions: the commencement speech. For those fortunate enough to have avoided these in recent years, the commencement speech has become the chief opportunity for would-be public intellectuals to spout truisms and feel even more self-important than usual.

Case in point: one of this site’s favorite bloviators, John Kerry. Invited to speak at Yale’s Class Day, presumably on the strength of his sterling undergraduate record, Kerry produced a masterpiece of vacuity, making a case for how urgently the students needed to trust their “instutitions,” by which he meant the government. In addition to the expected lame jokes and the kinds of cultural references that dads make to try and pretend they’re still cool, Kerry indulged in his habitual verbal offenses:

  • word salad, such as rallying students to “galvanize action to recognize felt needs” (translation: “we need to spend lots of money meddling with people”);
  • doublespeak, such as “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.” (translation: “especially meddling with people in other countries”);
  • bumper stickerism, such as “None of our problems are without solution, but neither will they solve themselves” (translation: “our meddling can solve anything”); and
  • dubious assertions, such as “Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism” (translation: “never doubt even for a moment that meddling isn’t the right thing to do”).

Thing is, by graduation-weekend standards, Kerry’s speech is only half bad—I’ve survived much worse. What’s happened this year that has given me hope is students finally getting fed up and fighting back. At a number of schools, the student body banded together to reject the speaker being foisted on them. This move has brought howls from the sorts of writers who hope themselves one day to deliver commencement addresses. But why submit yourself to listening to a half hour from an architect of the Iraq War, like Condoleeza Rice, or a defender of forceful police coercion against nonviolent student protestors, like Robert Birgenau, if there’s any alternative? Graduations are a time for students to celebrate with friends and family, a chance to reflect on years past and look forward to years future. Nothing about that requires the importation of big-name outside speakers—especially those whose fame depends on the degree to which they’ve intruded themselves into the lives of others.



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Vox Populi

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At almost every really snazzy party I’ve been allowed to attend during the past few years, the conversation lagged until one among the elegant guests brought up American Idol — the TV show on which people compete by displaying the “skill” of shrieking in falsetto voices and manifesting faux emotions. As soon as that subject was introduced, everyone became enthusiastic. At last, they had something to share. Everyone, it seemed, was rooting for one or another of the contestants, although there was general agreement that all of them were wonderful and deserved the highest praise. This was enough to dash any illusions I might have harbored about the cultural level of the wealthy and powerful.

Imagine my horror when I found that someone named Clay Aiken was running for Congress and attracting attention, for no other reason than the fact that he had been a contestant on American Idol. What next, I thought — Hillary Clinton running for president?

On May 13, the electorate of North Carolina — working folks, mostly, not members of the mentally idle rich — laid my fears to rest. At least my fears about Clay Aiken. The media, ever zealous for the cause of Democrats, heralded his victory in the Democratic primary. What many stories didn’t mention was that he won by a mere 400 votes, beating a man who had died the day before.

Aiken may not get elected.

In fact, he will not get elected. His Republican opponent, now running for a third term, got 56% of the November vote last time. Even if she dies of campaign injuries, she’ll stand a very good chance of beating him.

As for Hillary — even if the Republicans nominate a dead man, which they probably will, chances are she’ll get beat.




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Imagined Community

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Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho

Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho




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Equal Pay for Equal Work

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Once again equal pay for men and women doing presumably equal work has become a live political issue. If Congress can achieve fair pay by passing still another law, why not?

But what is equal work? Is it the same numbers of hours spent? Is it work in the same industry or other category, broadly or narrowly defined?  Is it work typically done by people with similar levels of education as proxied by diplomas and degrees? Are what economists call “compensating differences” unfair — differences in pay for work considered particularly risky or boring and work found attractive in itself? More plausibly, does fair pay mean equal pay for work appearing to promise the same addition to the revenue or profit of a business firm? If so, as judged by whom? Without attention to availability, productiveness, and costs of materials, energy, and other things bought, including the many kinds of labor, a firm would go broke.

More equal-pay legislation will add to the burdens already borne by business firms, perhaps especially small businesses.

An economic system coordinated otherwise than by market transactions and the interplay of prices, profit, and loss would be very different from the system that has brought prosperity to the Western world. A market economy puts to good use vast amounts of knowledge both specific and widely dispersed. This knowledge, as well as informed conjectures, exists in the minds of millions and billions of consumers, employees, job candidates, entrepreneurs, and owners and managers of business firms and other organizations. Knowledge of how to conduct and mesh their activities simply could not be centralized for effective use by planners and regulators. The writings of Mises and Hayek (and, earlier, Henry George), reinforced by experience in Communist countries, have taught us this lesson. Even if, per impossibile, this knowledge could be centrally deployed, politicians would have incentives to disregard much of it.

Business owners and managers, sometimes aided by specialist consultants, can best judge how to structure their workplaces and employ the people most likely to contribute to profits. Supply and demand interacting on markets, including the labor market, contribute to these judgments. Business losses tend to weed out bad judgment of these kinds, while profits tend to reward good judgment.

Employers must judge how likely employees or job candidates are to fit in well with their businesses. How likely is a person to be available for working long or irregular hours on short notice or for shifting among assignments and geographical locations? How committed is the person to a career, or how likely to quit or interrupt work for family or other reasons or to request many hours or even months of paid or unpaid leave? How likely is the person to generate profitable new ideas? How likely to get along well with customers, colleagues, and supervisors? Or how likely to prove obnoxiously litigious? A good matching of jobs and employees benefits all concerned.

Realistically, of course, employers cannot have all the detailed and ineffable knowledge necessary for ideal decisions. They must make judgments based on categories, experience, probabilities, statistics, and hunches, and perhaps sometimes even on stereotypes. These regrettable gaps in knowledge are not blameworthy or avoidable, although detailed experience and practiced intuition may shrink them. The system of markets, profit, and loss tends, at least, to reward or punish good or bad business judgment; nothing similar weeds out bad legislation.

Government regulators drift into thinking that their own work is important.

More equal-pay legislation will add to the burdens already borne by business firms, perhaps especially small ones. These will include the burdens of keeping records of and reporting on job interviews held or not held, performance reviews, job categories and modifications, and innumerable other things. Risks compound the burdens, including risks of being second-guessed about honest judgments and of dubious statistics being manipulated to infer violations of rules even in the absence of evidence. Government regulators drift into thinking that their own work is important and into eagerly receiving and investigating complaints. Aggrieved employees have additional ways to browbeat their employers by threatening to file complaints or lawsuits. Opportunities for lawyers multiply.

The burdens placed on job creation are heavy already. They apparently help account for the disappointing growth in employment as recovery from the recession continues only sluggishly.

Yet far from being morally obliged to bear such burdens and risks, businesspeople are under no obligation to be in any business or hire any workers at all. Even employing job candidates willing to work for less pay than others appearing similarly qualified is a service to workers and the public (even if a less noble service than one might wish). Employing anybody increases the scarcity value and the job and pay prospects of the rest of the labor force. Employers practicing discrimination unrelated to the value of employees’ work suffer the penalty of reduced profit and lose ground to firms showing sounder business judgment.

Speaking of fairness, how fair is it to draft businesspeople more and more into unpaid and thankless service as social-welfare agencies and as scapegoats?

Making a political issue of “fair pay” expands opportunities for politicians and demagogy. It illustrates how superficial bright ideas can get casually inserted into laws, notably into laws running hundreds or thousands of pages. As Thomas Sowell has explained, being both economically literate and honest is a disadvantage for a politician. (An economically illiterate one can honestly advocate bad but popular legislation, while a dishonest politician may gain votes by concealing his economic understanding.)

My message, in summary, is dismay at ignorance or disregard of how essential using widely dispersed specific knowledge is to a prosperous economy.




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One State in Palestine

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Seldom am I inclined to support a member of the Obama administration, but Secretary of State Kerry deserves defense against abuse for mentioning the unsatisfactory alternatives to a two-state solution in Palestine. If the single state allowed equal political rights to all its inhabitants, the Arabs would outvote and outbreed the Jews and deprive the state of its distinctively Jewish character.

Isn’t that obvious and worth recognizing? Kerry was arguing for two states, not a single state with apartheid.

The word “apartheid” may be an unfortunate term for inequality of rights. If so, let the critic suggest a better one. Meanwhile, we should recognize that words often do get applied beyond their original uses. This stretching can be forgivable and even useful, as it is in Kerry’s case.




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Not with a Bang, but a Whimper

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The most recent news on the UAW’s attempt to unionize the VW autoworkers in Chattanooga, Tennessee is interesting.

Despite enormous advantages, including the Obama administration’s blatantly partisan efforts to game the game in favor of the UAW, the union lost the vote. The union that nearly destroyed the American automakers, gleefully driving two of them into bankruptcy — a bankruptcy that ripped off taxpayers for tens of billions of dollars and left one of the companies merely a division of the Italian automaker Fiat — couldn’t overcome its unsavory reputation and convince the workers that it wouldn’t destroy their jobs and city as well.

That was in February. Immediately after the vote, the UAW filed an appeal with the Obama-rigged National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), even though it had earlier said it would abide by the will of the workers. But just before the deadline for its lawyers to appear and argue for voiding the vote, the UAW dropped its appeal. It turned tail and ran.

This capitulation came as a surprise. The union had aggressively pursued the plan, issuing subpoenas against the Republican governor of the state, Bill Haslam, and one of its Republican US senators, Bob Corker, to turn over their staff emails regarding the election, under the theory that the two men wrongfully influenced workers to oppose the UAW. The theory, then, is that the UAW is free to spend tens of millions of its members’ dues every election cycle to defeat Republicans, but the targets have no right to criticize the UAW in return. The UAW is nothing if not fair.

One of the workers who organized the vote against the union, Mike Burton, admitted that he couldn’t explain why the UAW gave up so easily. UAW president Bob King would only say that his outfit wanted to put the “tainted election in the rearview mirror ... and focus on advocating for new jobs and economic investment in Chattanooga.” But the real explanation was suggested by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial from the same day, namely, that even if the NLRB ordered another election at the plant, the UAW would very likely have lost it — making the union look even worse. The editorial also suggested that the UAW may have been afraid that anti-union workers would sue it for violating the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibits a company from giving a “thing of value” to any union seeking to organize its workers. This VW clearly did by giving the UAW the right to voice its arguments in the plant while denying the same right to the anti-union workers.

I would add the speculation that — given the recent revelations that GM knowingly covered up defects in its cars, defects that killed a number of people, while it was grabbing billions in taxpayer dollars in the bankruptcy operation — the UAW probably fears reminding people that it was behind the crony deal.

The latest defeat for the union comes on the heels of the failure of its drive to organize workers at a Canton, Mississippi, Nissan plant, and its lack of luck so far in organizing the workers at the Vance, Alabama, Mercedes-Benz plant.

These failures couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.




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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Cliven Bundy?

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Robert Duvall was born to play Cliven Bundy. The story of Cliven Bundy’s stand against the federal government has all the components of a great movie, except one: we don’t have an ending. Will it end in tragedy like the Branch Davidian standoff outside Waco, or will the ending be triumphant and peaceful?

If you haven’t followed the story, here’s a summary: Cliven Bundy’s family started its ranch northeast of what is now Las Vegas in 1877. Their cattle have grazed on the surrounding government land ever since. In 1993, the Bureau of Land Management tried to buy Cliven’s grazing rights to protect the desert tortoise. Cliven refused to sell. Then the BLM revoked the grazing rights. Cliven never applied for them to be renewed, and his cattle continued to graze on the land. The courts upheld the revocation of the grazing rights, and last fall gave Cliven 45 days to remove his cattle from government land. He didn’t remove them. The fines and fees that Cliven owes now total more than a million dollars. On April 5, 2014, the BLM began an operation to seize Cliven’s cattle. BLM Law Enforcement Rangers and Special Agents came, as did people who sympathized with Cliven. An armed standoff followed. On April 12, the BLM decided not to execute the court’s order, citing a “serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.” (The above is gleaned from Jamie Fuller’s April 15 post on the Washington Post blog “The Fix.”)

On April 14, on KRNV television in Reno, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporter Samantha Boatman, "Well, it's not over. We can't have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it's not over” (MyNews4.com).

Senator Reid’s has asserted that people can’t be allowed to get away with breaking the law. The assertion is, of course, false.

If Harry Reid says that it’s not over, you can be pretty sure that it’s not over. But what to do? Viewed strictly as a legal matter, Cliven’s an outlaw. To many Americans, however, Cliven’s cause appears to be just; to some, it’s worth fighting for. Even if you set aside accusations of nepotism against Reid and family, the influence of Chinese money, and the manipulation of the EPA, Cliven has many supporters who simply believe that the federal government has grown too big for its britches. With the addition of these viral accusations, proven or not, the number of supporters grows, as does their enthusiasm for the cause. How is this problem to be solved without bloodshed? I think I know a way. (To find out more about the allegations, start here.)

The solution lies in Senator Reid’s assertion that people can’t be allowed to get away with breaking the law. The assertion is, of course, false. People are allowed to get away with breaking the law. An example comes to mind.

On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, sent a memo to three of her underlings telling them that illegal immigrants with certain characteristics would be allowed to have work permits and a renewable two-year deferral of removal from the country. On that same day, President Barack Obama announced the change on TV from the lawn of the White House. It was thought at the time that about 800,000 people who had entered the country illegally would benefit from this memo, which was referred to as an act of prosecutorial discretion. (A summary of that act and an overview of prosecutorial discretion can be found in my earlier Liberty piece “Prosecutorial Indiscretion.”)

So. President Obama has shown Senator Reid the way to a triumphant and peaceful ending. All that needs to happen is for the Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to send a memo to the Director of the Bureau of Land Management (Neil Kornze, Senator Reid’s chief aide until March of this year). The memo need only say that Cliven Bundy is to be allowed to have his grazing permit back and that all fees and fines levied against him are forgiven. To make things “just so,” President Obama would have to announce this act of prosecutorial discretion on the White House lawn. I think the President could be convinced to play himself in the movie.

Fade to black




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Entitlement Drives Amok

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They’re calling her a road rage hero, this woman who filmed a driver flipping her off as he passed her on the highway just moments before he lost control of his car and slid across three lanes, coming to rest in the opposite direction on the opposite side of the road. “Good for her!” people are saying. “Poetic justice.” “She showed him!”

Well, what exactly did she show him? In my opinion, she’s no hero. She caused this accident, and she should be grateful that no one was killed or seriously injured. This is an example of entitlement run amok.

First, what was she doing in the fast lane if she didn’t want to drive as fast as the person behind her? Apologists are saying that she couldn’t move over because there was too much traffic, but that simply isn’t true. If the driver behind her had enough space to pass her on the right, she had enough space to move over.

She caused this accident, and she should be grateful that no one was killed or seriously injured.

Second, she should be cited for distracted driving. Instead of watching the road (at 60 miles an hour!) she was using her cellphone to film the other driver, not only when he was beside her, but when he was behind her! In New York she would have been slapped with a $500 fine and five points on her license. And she would have deserved it. Instead, people are applauding her chutzpah. Sheesh.

Third, she contributed mightily to this man’s frustration. She taunted him with her phone and deliberately went slow in the fast lane, controlling it. She cackled with delight when she saw his car flipping around. Fortunately no cars were coming toward him as he spun out into the opposite lane, but many lives could have been lost or forever changed.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not defending the man who felt the need to flip her off instead of just driving away. He was distracted too, looking to his left instead of watching the road, and he paid the price in a ruined pickup and a ruined reputation. But driving requires the utmost courtesy. This is one place where even libertarians should yield property rights to bullies and get out of the way when someone else wants the road. You never know when some crazy lady with a cellphone is going to push you — or someone driving behind you — right over the edge.




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Post-Traumatic Story Disorder

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The latest of our nation’s mass-media-broadcast shootings took place yesterday (April 2) at Fort Hood, where a gunman—according to reports, one Ivan Lopez—murdered 3 and wounded 16 before killing himself.

Given the ghoulishness of the 24-hour-cycle press, it’s unsurprising that their first, hopeful question was whether this was a terrorist attack. Given their stupidity, it’s also unsurprising that, once they found out poor Lopez was just some guy possibly suffering from PTSD following a stint in Iraq, they reached precisely the wrong conclusion: that this wasn’t about terrorism after all.

You idiots. Of course it’s about terrorism. It’s all about our government’s stupid, belligerent, macho response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, knocking over countries with little or no connection to those attacks, in the mistaken belief that we could run those countries better than they were already being run. It’s all about how Congress and the military have removed hundred of billions of dollars from the American economy in order to build and maintain palatial outposts of Empire, only to strand our people there at the first sign of trouble. It’s all about how we continued to recruit unfledged and underemployed men and women and dispatch them into conditions that favored the advancement of sadists and psychopaths, places where anyone of normal disposition would end up damaged in mind, if not also in body.

When the networks say it’s not about “terrorism,” what they mean was the shooter wasn’t Muslim, or they can’t connect him to any extremist groups at home or abroad—more’s the pity for them, deprived of their latest bogeyman, their newest Tsarnaev or Nidal Hasan. Lopez, if it is him, is just some schmuck they can’t fit into a preexisting narrative; at least, not one they’re willing to broadcast. But the story’s clear enough to anyone who doesn't purposefully blind themselves to it.



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Apple Pie, Puppy Dogs, and Sunshine

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Those promoting a political idea usually sell it to the public by portraying it as pure wonderfulness. “We want apple pie, puppy dogs, and sunshine for everybody!” And really, who wouldn’t want that?

I thought that by now I would have finished with the recently-failed Arizona SB 1062 “religious freedom” bill — the subject of my previous essay in Liberty. But the reaction my opinion has received, from several people I know, makes me realize I’ve only scratched the surface of a deeper problem, one that is, in the long run, far more interesting. To those of us who love to watch political theater for the sheer entertainment of it all, the phenomenon is fascinating indeed.

As the state held its breath to see if the governor would sign or veto SB 1062, I sat in an ice cream parlor with some friends. Inevitably, the subject came up, and I gave my take on it. Across the table from me, my friend John underwent an amazing transformation. For a moment, I thought he was going to turn into the Incredible Hulk.

Leaning into his whipped cream, his eyes bulging and forehead arteries popping, he said, “It’s about religious freedom, okay?!”

Apple pie, puppy dogs, sunshine, and religious freedom for everybody. Okay? But where does this leave people who know there’s a poison pill inside that candy shell?

Issues are framed this way, by those who promote them, so that anyone who opposes them looks like the baseborn child of Snidely Whiplash and Tokyo Rose. I like John very much, so I didn’t want to leave him with that impression. “I don’t think the bill would really do what it’s claimed to be trying to do,” I said. And then I told him why.

We are not an unfeeling nation. We do a powerful lot of feeling. But that we do precious little thinking has become painfully obvious.

Three or four people — out of all the millions in this country — filed silly lawsuits against merchants who refused, “for religious reasons,” not to serve them. We would never accept the notion that because of what three or four heterosexuals did, all of them should be judged guilty. But that is exactly what was done here. And it is done to gays and other minorities all the time, and for no other reason, apparently, than because it can be.

How does that serve liberty? How is it possible, on such a basis, even to make an intelligent or responsible decision about legislation — which is itself government intrusion, no matter how attractively it’s packaged — that affects the lives of millions? Appeals to wield the club of government this way are nearly always made on the basis of raw emotion. A free people who would remain free would be wise to pause, breathe, and think about the issue in the light of fact.

John responded to my opinion not with reason but emotion. He may have thought he was giving me a reason — “religious freedom” — but I was not questioning whether that is a good thing. I was challenging whether religious freedom would best be served by the bill proposed. I thought the measure taken was too extreme to be warranted by the incidents that provoked it, which might better be addressed in other ways. And I thought that its passage would bring consequences not only unintended but undesirable.

As I suggested in my previous piece on the subject, we could reform the civil court system to discourage frivolous lawsuits. If we absolutely could not resist passing yet another law protecting religious freedom, we could include a clause requiring merchants who would refuse to serve certain patrons to post their policy publicly. Far better, we could sidestep government coercion altogether and encourage those who proudly serve all customers without bias to participate in a plan to publicize this. In Arizona, for example, businesses can take the Unity Pledge. As those wishing to refuse same-sex couples’ business for religious reasons have no justification for hiding their light under a bushel, it’s difficult to see why they would want to keep their convictions a secret.

Other people with whom I have discussed this legislation have responded the same way John did. Motivated by passion, they want to act on passion. On cue, everybody — feel, feel, feel!

I might suggest that we are not an unfeeling nation. We do a powerful lot of feeling. But that we do precious little thinking has become painfully obvious.

Majorities tend, all too often, to resort to brute force. They do it simply because they are the majority, so they can get away with it. This is behavior conducive not to liberty but to license. Those who worship the power of the state seem unable to distinguish between the two. Those who believe in liberty — if we would keep that liberty — would be wise to make the distinction.




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