The Coase Theorem and the Environment

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About 25 years ago, when I worked for a national bank in Europe, I had an interesting meeting. Three tall, redheaded representatives of the Icelandic fresh cod (as opposed to dried or salt-cod) fisheries cooperative were looking for a loan to expand packaging operations in France. To justify the loan, we had to learn about their business. How to get collateral from things that can swim away, for example.

The Icelanders confidently and proudly addressed every question. I learned a lot, much of it surprising. For example, I learned that the cooperative itself was not a corporation or association, but an entity created by special act of the Icelandic legislature (the Thing, or more precisely the Althing or General Assembly). I also learned that property rights were the key to the fisheries’ reliability.

For many years, I forgot about this meeting, then a friend of mine posted this link to a social media website. The story identifies a trend: young adults not buying cars. His comment on the story was, “We are renters on this planet, not owners.” That was meant as a conservationist statement to encourage good ecological stewardship of planetary resources.

If acting like a renter does not make for good ecological stewardship of planetary resources, what does?

I thought to myself that if exhortation would make us greener, the hot air coming out of Al Gore and many others would have restored the planet to Eden at least a decade ago. What I said online was, “Renters always trash the place. In economics, one version of this is called the tragedy of the commons. Ownership and property rights promote good management of natural resources. We drive on public roads, burn subsidized fuel, get fat on subsidized farm commodities.” But all of this made me remember the Icelandic fishermen and a certain Mr. Coase.

If acting like a renter does not make for good ecological stewardship of planetary resources, what does? Part of the answer is in the Coase theorem. (Here tip your hat to Ronald Coase, who died in 2013.) It suggests that clear and tradable ownership rights help people bargain to allocate resources efficiently.

The Wikipedia entry on the theorem offers alternative versions of it:

  • Version 1: A clear delineation of private property rights is an essential prelude to market transactions.
  • Version 2: As long as private property rights are well defined under zero transaction cost, exchange will eliminate divergence and lead to efficient use of resources or highest valued use of resources.
  • Version 3: The allocation of resources is invariant to the assignment of private property rights under zero transaction cost and zero income effect.

I think of it as the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. Overfishing is a big example of the tragedy. In most parts of the ocean, fish stocks are not owned but regulated (or not). People trolling through the waters are not owners. Instead they have some usage rights, like renters in an apartment, and they have rules to obey that are analogous to the clauses of a rental contract. But like a lot of renters, they don’t always obey the rules. They trash the place, as they would not if they owned it.

In fact, it’s even worse than that, because there is competition to trash the place. As an edible species of fish gets rarer, the price goes up and competitors vie to take as much as they can before the stock is depleted. They might know it’s a disaster in the making, but that does not change the incentives. If they moderate their catch, the depletion occurs anyway. There’s no owner to get the long-term benefits of fishing sustainably.

Property rights created by governments are attractive alternatives. Iceland, for example, for more than 25 years has been regulating its fisheries in a way that partly approximates ownership. Basically, license holders get quota rights that they can trade. In (Coasian) theory, the rights end up in the hands of the fishers who get the most value from the quota. I believe that the results have been good. In June of this year, Iceland Magazine reported that the country’s cod population was at historic highs and quotas would increase.

They might know it’s a disaster in the making, but that does not change the incentives. If they moderate their catch, the depletion occurs anyway.

My examples and observations here make for an extremely superficial treatment of ideas and phenomena that have been debated, studied, and written about for more than half a century. I intend them only as an initial antidote to the implications of vapid slogans like “We are renters on this planet.”




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The Moonwalk & The Fish That Got Away

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I just watched an aquatic episode of Monster Quest on the History Channel. It reminded me of how I, like 600 or 700 million Chinese, missed the first walk on the moon. Yes, “Monster Quest.” Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone! And, yes, I know, that show has painted itself into a corner. It will pretty much have to produce a live sasquatch, or at least the carcass of one soon, or go off the air. But, don't worry, eventually this, my story, is going to turn into a fishing story, and also into a sex story.

The documentary examined a possible giant grouper attack on a child in Florida. It included good underwater footage of several Goliath groupers at close range. In the old days, some Goliath groupers were weighed in at over 500 pounds. Big fish! No need to lie if you hooked one of those.

I was about 26 and I was spending a whole summer on a small Mexican island off the Caribbean coast. I had only one purpose: to enact repeatedly a typical, recurrent fantasy of my French youth. I was there to spear sea creatures during the day and to cook and eat them during the warm tropical night. That was it. France is far to the north of most of North America, if you look at a map attentively. Paris, where I was raised, is even north of Montreal. It's also far from the ocean, but city people in France have deeply-anchored thalassotropism, an unreasoned attraction to the sea. Many spend summer at the seaside, where they learn to swim well. Even way back then, some people, like me, learned in their early teens to be comfortable underwater and to spear fish. French boys especially fantasized about tropical seas in the days when travel was expensive and it seemed there was little chance you would ever go there. Their dreams were purposeful and competent. They wanted to do something about them if the occasion arose, by some miracle. Well, the miracle happened for me. I emigrated to California, next door to Mexico.

In Mexico, I spent most daylight hours in the clear, clear sea, free-diving. That means up and down and up and down, holding your breath — no effeminate breathing apparatus (no scuba). With good training, under favorable conditions, if you are in shape, you can do that for hours on end. I never got bored, because I wasn't there for the sights; I was spearing fish right and left and I was also catching rock lobsters. (That's the red lobster with small claws, also called “spiny lobster.”) I don't wish to explain how I was catching the lobsters; I have a persistent fear of the Mexican constabulary, and I don't know what's the statute of limitation. The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the English Channel, where I had learned, that it was almost like moving to another planet.

For French spear-fishermen of that era, one kind of fish had legendary and mythical status: groupers. There were none in the Channel, and none in the Atlantic at those latitudes. There were only a few in the Mediterranean. Groupers were said to be elusive, secretive, and almost impossible to spear. Diving magazines reproduced endlessly the same photograph of the same champion of France posing with the same two foot-long grouper. I could not imagine, then, any change in my life's circumstances that would bring me within distance of such a trophy. To complete the picture, groupers were said to be excellent eating fish — not a small detail for the French, then or now.

The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the Channel that it was almost like moving to another planet.

Fast-forwarding my life story: that summer, I was right there on prime grouper territory. Once I had caught my three rock lobsters or my small barracuda for dinner, I would explore the reef cavities slowly, deliberately. I discovered that there were many groupers around but that they hid inside deep holes in the daytime. I devised a method to draw some of them out (the stupid ones, no doubt) where I could take a clear shot at them with my modest-sized rubber band spear gun. (I am sorry but I will not reveal the method until I am on my deathbed; it's like my secret chanterelles patch.)

Well, fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it. So I caught groupers worth catching several times and early on in my stay. And yes, the flesh was delicious, surprisingly refined in flavor and with a firm texture.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming American expedition to the moon had been the subject of a barrage of news, quasi-news, and speculations even in that remote part of Mexico. The night before the event, the locals were buying beer, and the few gringo tourists were right behind them. Some old women were even preparing Christmas tamales, way out of season. It was obvious there was not going to be any work done the next day, the planned date for the moonwalk.

We did not have access to a TV but my American girlfriend and I were going to join the festivities around a transistor radio with several other Americans. We were going to listen to commentators give the blow-by-blow. Incidentally, Mexican commentators of anything are better, more lively, more animated than their American counterparts. But grouper was on my mind. So, earlier than usual on the morning of the landing, I went into the water, close to town, with the modest objective of just doing a little exploration for later. Almost right away, I spotted a flat reef of old, smooth coral, shaped like a table, with many good-size perforations on its top.

Fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it.

Soon, the sun was at such an angle that I could see inside each hole right from the surface. I noticed something moving inside a hole and thought it might be a darting lobster. I dived down to investigate and immediately realized I was looking at the marbled skin of a large grouper with its head right under the opening. The atavistic assassin's reflex took over. Coolly, I told myself I would never have a better chance to shoot a large grouper in the head, where it counts, and at close range. One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

I shot as planned, right in the skull, and pulled on the line connecting the gun to the shaft in the fish, to bring it to the surface. There was resistance. I went down to investigate and found that the grouper was not dead, that it had inflated its body and braced itself inside the hole with its spiny dorsal fin. I dived about 15 or 20 times, and I was unable to budge it at all. Finally, I located a horizontal hole under the flat surface of the reef from which I could gain access to the struggling fish from a different angle.

I wrestled with the grouper for more than two hours, becoming prey to what economists know as the “sunk cost fallacy.” I had already invested so much time in that fish, I couldn't really let it go. In addition, one of my precious few shafts was embedded in its head and I would have to abandon it too.

Finally, the fish gave up or expired; it stopped resisting. I reached into the hole and grabbed it by the eye cavities, thumb in one eye, index finger in the other. I floated the fish up to the surface with no trouble and walked to town in the hot sun carrying on my shoulder a grouper the size of which I would not have even dared imagine ten years earlier, when I was still only a French spear-fisherman. I cannot tell you exactly how big that fish was, because there was no opportunity to weigh it, or even to measure it. Besides, fishermen are routinely accused of lying about measurements — because so many do, in fact, lie. I can say, however, that the next day, it fed eight young adults easily.

One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

By the time I arrived, the lunar show was over, the two guys had taken their little walk on the moon, everyone assured me, and the celebration was well under way. My girlfriend was miffed, but when she saw the grouper, she kind of understood my glee, although she was not a diver, and not even a woman of the sea. (She was just intelligent, and very hot!) At any rate, the moonwalk has always had a slight sense of unreality for me, because I did not watch it or even hear a description of the event in real time. As I mentioned, I am a little like the red Chinese who found out for sure only many years later. You might say, I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

There is a sequel to this story. The brain learns things it does not even know it knows. Every good fisherman will tell you he does not understand all his successes. So, the moonwalk fish subtly encouraged me to keep looking for grouper.

I explored a big pile of boulders, in shallow water, right across the narrow beach from the concrete cubicle where I lived. The top boulders almost broke the surface at low tide; the white sand on which they rested may have been 25 feet down, not much for an experienced free-diver with good, recent local training. Soon, I found a narrow space at the base of the boulders. With lots of air in my lungs, I did not hesitate to crawl inside. I ended up underneath the pile of rocks with just the tips of my flippers emerging.

I wasn't worried about wounding myself against the rocks, because I was wearing a light wetsuit. (I always wear a wetsuit when diving, even and especially in warm water. Warm water has coral. Any contact with most corals will inflict a thousand small cuts that will not heal if you submerge yourself in the salty sea repeatedly. And if you perspire even a little in the tropical night, the cuts hurt like hell.) I let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and discovered a black, glistening surface a couple of feet away from my face that did not look like rock.

I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

I came up for air and went down again to the same spot, through the narrow passage, which gave me exactly the same orientation to the light. The mysterious surface had changed color. After a dozen times going up and down and into the hole, my face suddenly confronted another face, right at the bottom. The other face had big thick lips and globular eyes. In spite of that striking description, it took my brain a few seconds to register what I was seeing, because of its sheer size. The face was several times larger than mine. The hole was nearly filled by a giant grouper.

That the fish did not scoot at my approach was not surprising. First, the narrow passage in which I had crawled may have been the only exit route. Second, large groupers have few predators. They are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

When I understood what was so close to me, my heart did not beat faster. I felt very calm and collected. I dived repeatedly to reassure myself that I was not dreaming. Several times I saw the characteristic lips and the round eyes; I observed that the dark skin was shiny; I saw parts of fins bigger than my legs.

Grouper are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

Remember that I had my little spear gun with me. Spearing the giant point-blank would have been child's play. Yet, I did not press the trigger. I wasn't afraid just then but something in my unconscious mind stopped me. I can't begin to say how big the grouper was because I never saw the whole thing. It was bigger than me. It might have been the biggest grouper anyone had ever speared. Certainly, it would have been the biggest grouper a French-born person had ever caught free-diving — or at any rate, any Parisian.

I went up and down for an hour, thinking, calculating from what angle to shoot, and then how to retrieve it out of its hole. As I was in shallow water, it seemed feasible. There was a very good chance I would be able to drag the fish out swimming backward in the narrow passage, if it were dead.

Soon, it became like solving an engineering problem. I got out of the water and walked back to my place to have lunch and do some more thinking. I was confident the giant would be there when I returned. I thought the boulders were its permanent dwelling.

But back at the grouper's cave, after 45 minutes or so, my disposition had changed slightly. I took yet another look at the fish. It dawned on me then that there was some real danger in attacking at close quarters, from a narrow space where I could not turn around, an animal bigger than myself, with sharp teeth, that could breathe in water. Then, another part of my brain began to feel that something was wrong about eating such a magnificent and, no doubt, old creature. Then, I told myself that having spent so much time in such close proximity with such a big grouper was enough of a trophy for a Paris boy. Besides, my hot girlfriend had been waiting for me with her imagination running on high rpm. She had, torrid, unspeakable plans for the rest of my afternoon. I abandoned the endeavor and went home with a light heart.

Many years later, the giant grouper that I spared, not speared, visits me in my dreams, but only when I am in a good mood, or when I am subconsciously plotting a small vacation to an exotic place. Fishermen will want to know if I ever felt fisherman's regrets over that huge catch I did not catch. The answer is that I do feel regrets, but I am sure I would have felt fisherman's remorse if I had taken the giant grouper and butchered it in the sun. There is a subtle issue of choice between two unequal ills here. Remorse will follow you forever although you can pretend you have forgotten its cause or causes. Regrets are, in principle, temporary. The goal you did not reach, the apple you did not pick may fall in your lap at any time before you check out for good; you never know. Even the one with whom you were pointlessly in lust when you were a junior in high school might go for you at the 20-year reunion. It's not what it could have been but still!

Postscript: Yes, I was diving alone. It's supposed to be dangerous. I am not recommending that divers who use scuba do the same. I am not even recommending the practice to other free-divers. It was just the right thing for me, at that time. The safe alternative is to have a diving companion who is a short fat woman who thrashes noisily in the water and swims too clumsily to escape anything.




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No Armistice in Sight

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Recently in this journal Robert Miller made the apt observation that Stalin’s Soviet Union was the only country that had to fight on just one front in World War II. All the others had to battle at least two forces simultaneously. Pity Word Watch, which is always fighting on a dozen fronts.

Some of these are characterized by chronic trench warfare. Last month, I noted that Karl Rove is too polite to speak the word “hell.” He says “heck” instead. This month, I have been informed by Brit Hume, in an interview he gave to Fox News, that Mitt Romney won’t even come that close to hell. Romney says something like “h, e, toothpicks.” I’m not kidding. Just when you think the forces of freedom have broken through the prudery line, you find them repelled, once again, by Republicans.

Meanwhile, President Obama, former recreational drug user, goes on the Jimmy Fallon show, stylishly and smirkingly calls marijuana “weed,” and claims of his administration: “What we are trying to do when it comes to drugs is treating it [sic — there’s another battlefront: the president’s wretched grammar] as a public health problem. When we provide prevention and education to folks, that can make a huge difference." Barack Obama, chief law enforcement agent of the United States, the man who is currently persecuting medical marijuana dispensaries (thus "providing prevention and education to folks"), is capable of saying things like this.

So that’s four fronts, right there. Bad grammar, scrambled syntax (in normal life, do we ever hear phrases like "provide prevention"?), condescension ("folks"), and sheer hypocrisy. The war continues.

Here’s another battle that the Rebel Alliance has been fighting for years, against the united forces of the Empire — though victory may now be in sight, because Brit Hume has joined the rebel cause. On July 30, the eponymous host of the "O’Reilly Show" asked Hume whether Sarah Palin, a person whom neither of them seems to like, was “prepared to run the country.” Instead of responding in the normal, softball way, or even going after the question directly, Hume said, “I don’t think the president runs the country, but the government, perhaps, or the executive branch.“

Just when you think the forces of freedom have broken through the prudery line, you find them repelled, once again, by Republicans.

This column has been harping on that “runs the country,” “runs the state,” “runs the city” locution for years. It’s one of the main bastions of statism. It insinuates — nay, preaches — the idea that we elect politicians to run things — to run our nation, our homes, ourexistence, us. Things are bad enough as they are, but just imagine Barack Obama actually running the United States, as people run hardware stores or their children’s lives. I’m not risking much by speculating that within a month we would all be starving. And in place of Barry Obama, insert any political functionary you please, with an option to replace “United States” with California, Oklahoma, Peoria, or Rives Junction.

Speaking of California, there’s a linguistic battlefront if ever there was one. Last month, I called particular attention to Gov. Jerry Brown’s relentless assaults on the English language. Since then, he’s reiterated his attacks with a phrase that he apparently thinks is invincible, because it declares invincibility. It’s an odd phrase, hubristic — the kind of phrase that isn’t supposed to be used in a democratic society. It is “crush the opposition.”

In talking, for instance, about “clean” energy (nobody ever talks about dirty energy; if it’s dirty, it’s not energetic, I guess), he recites a Satanic mantra, in which hypocrisy and brutality are conceived as virtues. First, he says, you need to "talk a little bit” to people. This is apparently supposed to neutralize their opposition. Then, he says, “at the end of the day you have to move forward.” So much for talk; you had no intention of listening. Now what you do is something he claims to have learned “in Oakland” — as if Oakland, where he once was mayor, were a school of civic conduct, like Philadelphia in the days of Washington and Madison. But what did he learn? “I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush.” By that he means opposition to his plans to save the environment by imposing ever more restrictive regulations, and also opposition to his plans to ruin the environment by slashing a 200-billion-dollar railroad across 500 miles of outraged landscape.

There’s more. Brown avers, "We need a centralized base of arbitrary intervention to overcome the distributed political power that is blocking forward progress.” James Madison couldn’t have said it any better — that’s exactly what republican government , with its distributed political powers, exists to frustrate: the centralized bases of arbitrary intervention. To the classical American, classical liberal way of thinking, the clearest sign of illegitimate government is a reliance on or boasting aboutarbitrary power. Nothing could be clearer. Yet virtually no one in my besotted state has called attention to Brown’s absurdly authoritarian rants.

Maybe people have accepted the mindset of the political ad men, for whom the meanings of words are the last things to be taken seriously. And look out — here’s another incoming from that quarter. Did you know that what most of us call attack ads are commonly called, by the people who produce them, contrasting ads? This came out when the two presidential campaigns allegedly suspended their contrasting ads because of the Colorado theater shootings. “Contrasting”? Well, yes, those ads present a steady contrast to truth and decency.

Just imagine Barack Obama actually running the United States, as people run hardware stores or their children’s lives. I’m not risking much by speculating that within a month we would all be starving.

Such ads are also called negative campaigning — which reminds me of yet another front. This column is a frequent complainer against the word negative, when used as a synonym for unfavorable, slanderous, vicious, Hitlerian, or any of the thousand other meaningful adjectives for which unfavorable can be an ignorant stand-in. I don’t care about the 99% of the populace that uses negative because it can’t think of any other word. It’s incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial what 99% of the populace thinks about certain subjects, and this is one of them. Negative is appropriate only to mathematics and old-fashioned film processing. Otherwise, it’s just a cover-up for what you really mean. Don’t get me started on that. I mean, don’t get me restarted.

I’m moving on, now, to the Jay Carney front. Jay Carney is that little guy who looks like he’s 16 years old, and actually talks like the 16-year-old know it all, the little brat in your sophomore class who kept talking and talking, confidently reciting every clich√© he’d ever heard, despite being as dumb as an ox? Yeah, that one. So here’s Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary, as quoted on Real Clear Politics, July 26. Carney was asked what does the administration regard as the capital of Israel.

Jay Carney: Um... I haven't had that question in a while. Our position has not changed. Can we, uh...

Reporter: What is the capital [of Israel]?

Jay Carney: You know our position.

Reporter: I don't.

Lester Kinsolving, World Net Daily: No, no. She doesn't know, that's why she asked.

Carney: She does know.

Reporter: I don't.

Kinsolving: She does not know. She just said that she does not know. I don't know.

Carney: We have long, let's not call on...

Kinsolving: Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?

Carney: You know the answer to that.

Kinsolving: I don't know the answer. We don't know the answer. Could you just give us an answer? What do you recognize? What does the administration recognize?

Carney: Our position has not changed.

Kinsolving: What position?

Carney then moved on to another question.

Now, I know, and you know, that anything having to do with the Middle East is Fraught with Political Terror and, for all I know, Peril. But Carney's line is that the administration has a position, that everyone knows it, and that he refuses to state it. This can be a little bit frustrating, if you want to find something out. I must say, however, that Carney's babble contributes a good deal to my self-satisfaction, as it should to yours. There isn't a reader of Liberty, anywhere in the world, who would ever go on as he does.

One function of Liberty, however, is to show that life does not consist of politics alone. That’s the libertarian idea, is it not? Freedom from politics? And it’s the right idea. It encourages us to enjoy all those parts of life that (thank God!) remain private and nonpolitical.

Unfortunately, it also obliges us to observe those bloody assassinations of language that occur even outside the political arena.

Here’s one. It’s a news article (http://updatednews.ca/2012/07/27/1100-pounds-white-sturgeon-caught-in-canada/) about somebody who caught and, I am happy to say, released a sturgeon weighing 1,100 pounds. I like to eat fish, but when fish get that big, they’re old, and eld has an aura of romance. I love to think about animals that long survive their owners — so long as the owners aren’t me.

The article says, “Incredibly, this massive sturgeon, a prehistoric species, might have been hatched the year the Titanic sank.”

Here's a little platoon of words that is vulnerable from so many angles, I hardly know where to start.

First, I’d like to observe that we’re looking at a normal sentence, as “normal” is understood in the nuthouse of the contemporary media.

Second, I want to say that I am the author of a book about the Titanic (The Titanic Storygo buy it on Amazon), but even I have tired of seeing 1912 represented as the linchpin, the benchmark, the a quo and ad quem of universal history. So what if a fish was hatched in the year the Titanic sank?

Third, there’s this idea — or unfocused interjection — about things that are incredible or unbelievable.The existence of a hundred-year old fish is something I am very capable of crediting. I am very well prepared to believe that there are entities in this world that have existed since 1912. I worship in a church that — believe it or not! — was built in 1912, the year the Titanic sank. The sidewalk in front of my house was laid some years earlier. I have actually known people who were alive, even before 1912and many people who were hatched in the year itself. When you get to the age of Adwaitya the Tortoise (“Adwaitya, R.I.P.,” Liberty, June 2006, pp. 9–11), then I’ll start paying attention.

Fourth, one fish (“this massive sturgeon”) is not a species.

But, thinking of that, the fifth and truly awful thing is the oohing and ahhing about the “prehistoric species.” All species are prehistoric. Do you think the Lord waited around till somebody was able to write history, before he started evolving sturgeons? Or pandas, or jackals, or smelt? Or us?

Are we really fighting it out on this line? Well, all right, I’ll go on fighting, even if it takes all summer.

But speaking of us (look out, this is going to be an amazing transition), you may have noticed that people sometimes write comments to Liberty accusing us of being weak libertarians, insufficient libertarians, quasi-libertarians, non-libertarians, anti-libertarians, and even worse forms of libertarians. (The phrases are synonymous, their different forms resulting merely from which side of the bed the author woke up on.) The sad truth is that, despite what anybody thinks, we are libertarianssimply, thoroughly, and intrinsically.The nice thing is that libertarians can actually disagree with one another, and violently too, without reading one another out of the family.

So what if a fish was hatched in the year the Titanic sank?

Another nice thing, which I’d like to notice, has to do with the readers who periodically write in to say that Liberty repeats the Republicans’ “talking points.” When I read that, I start laughing. But I hope it comes true. I hope I live to see the day when either the Republicans or the Democrats, or both, actually agree, in their talking points, with the principles of individual freedom advocated by Liberty’s authors (each proceeding in his or her own way, mind you), and agree so fully that Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and libertarians can scarcely be distinguished.

I am sorry to say, however, that if Karl Rove ever becomes a libertarian, he will probably still be saying “heck.”

Therefore the fight continues.




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Swimming Against the Tide

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At the beginning of the First World War, Robert Frost wrote in Mending Wall (1914), “Good fences make good neighbors” — suggesting metaphorically that borders and boundaries help to prevent war and aggression. But in that same poem he acknowledged,

Something there is that doesn’t like a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Nature herself, he said, works to break down manmade walls through the simple power of water finding cracks and breaking rocks. Nature doesn’t like boundaries.

Borders are good when borders are necessary. They are preferable to war. But more than a century earlier, weary from the destruction and expense of war, Benjamin Franklin recommended wise foreign policy when he wrote: “The system of America is commerce with all and war with none.”

Business brings people together. I may not like your politics, your religion, your clothing, or your neighborhood, but if you produce something I want and I produce something you want, and if we have a justice system that protects our right to property, we will manage to get along, if only for the benefit of mutual exchange. War and aggression may provide short-term solutions to shortages, and walls may keep aggressors at bay. But commerce and free trade promote lasting relationships that increase prosperity and living standards for all. Understanding this simple fact could solve many of the current problems in the Middle East.

Commerce vs war. That's what I thought my review would emphasize when I headed out to see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an indie flick about a British fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to create a salmon fishery in Yemen. What a great a new industry for an emerging nation, I thought. This is the way to be good neighbors and promote peace and prosperity — through commerce! Who needs war?

Sigh. This is what happens when I start writing my review before seeing the movie. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is not about commercial fishing at all, but about a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) who loves salmon fishing at his massive estate in Scotland and is willing to spend £50 million or more to be able to fish in Yemen. He isn’t interested in creating jobs and industry; he just wants to fish in his own backyard. Sheesh!

Nevertheless, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a wonderful little film, one that is well worth seeing. Salmon fishing is actually a metaphor for the uphill relationships presented in this funny romantic drama, which follows two couples who become unintentionally entwined. The fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones, is the very prim and proper husband of Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling), a financial analyst who seems more committed to her job than to her marriage. Meanwhile, the sheik’s consultant in the project, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who entices Dr. Jones with a money-is-no-object offer, is in love with a soldier (Tom Mison) who has suddenly been deployed to the Middle East.

Encouraging them in the fishing project is Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary, who seizes this “goodwill” story as an opportunity to counteract some bad war-related publicity coming out of the Middle East. (Chillingly, Maxwell uses her access to high-security government search engines to scan through private emails for references to the Middle East. And they pop right up on her screen, including the "private" communication to Jones from the sheik's representative, requesting a salmon fishery in Yemen. Yikes!) Normally so drab and serious in her roles, Thomas displays an unexpected talent for humor in this film. With her delightfully droll delivery; she effortlessly steals every scene. And that is no easy theft, for a film in which every actor is so adept at displaying that bemused, self-effacing kind of British humor that always seems to say, “Oh, did I do something funny?” The film is simply charming, through and through.

One of the sheik's chief concerns when Jones and Co. are ready to transfer the salmon to Yemen is whether farm-bred fish that have never seen a river will run, or whether they will just swim passively in circles. This underscores the film’s theme: do people who have been domesticated to the point of emasculation still have the instinct to know when they have been set free? Alfred Jones proclaims, “It’s in the very core of their being to run. Even if they never have. Even if their parents never did!” He’s talking about himself, of course, although he doesn’t know it. Juxtaposed against this hopeful declaration is his wife Mary’s cutting remark, “It’s in your DNA to return to a dry, dull, pedestrian life.” Where is his true home? And how much effort will it take to find it? That's what the film asks its viewers.

Ultimately this is a film about swimming against the tide. As Dr. Jones deliberates on whether to accept the whimsical challenge of bringing salmon to a desert, we see an overhead shot of him hurrying along a crowded sidewalk within a school of gray-suited businessmen. Suddenly he turns and makes his way through the crowd in the opposite direction, to tell Harriet that he accepts the offer. He is swimming upstream (yes, to spawn!), and we know that he will be caught before the film is over.


Editor's Note: Review of "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," directed by Halle Lasstrom. Lionsgate, 2011, 107 minutes.



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