The Great Debaters

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I feel that I should say something about the presidential debates. I don’t want to do it. Probably you don’t want to read it. But it’s as inevitable as someone going to a wake and saying, “Doesn’t he look natural?”

“Natural,” of course, would not be the right word for our current debaters. Most of them look deranged, and their talk confirms the impression. I think one sample will suffice. It’s the now-famous outburst from Bernie Sanders, standing next to his alleged opponent, Hillary Clinton, and screaming, “"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails. . . . Enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America.”

Can’t you just hear the Witch of the West cackling, “Helping the little lady along, are you, my fine gentleman?” In this case, the cackling was supplied by the little lady herself, who shrieked a series of those demented sounds that pass with her for laughter. But why would anybody say what Sanders said? It’s not the kind of thing you say if you actually want to beat your opponent.

Media speculation holds that Bernie wants a high position in a Clinton administration, and one can imagine many posts for which he would be qualified. As someone who doesn’t realize that the arguments for socialism were completely discredited over a hundred years ago, he’s suited to be Undersecretary for Historic Preservation. Maybe he could rise as far as Executive Director of the Steam Locomotive Bureau.

In this case, the cackling was supplied by the little lady herself, who shrieked a series of those demented sounds that pass with her for laughter.

My own speculation is that Sanders simply hates Republicans so much that he is willing to do anything to express contempt for them. Because that’s what his statement was — a mere declaration of contempt. No reasoning about the evidence, no consideration of the many problems that Clinton’s “damn emails” have brought up, and of course no interest in the, after all, very interesting question of why he thinks he can speak for “the American people.” The same populace that he pictures as alternately vomiting over the email scandal and trying to sleep it off (“sick and tired”) is depicted by the polls as actively concerned with the issue and actively engaged in revising its opinion of Hillary Clinton — downward. Why wouldn’t Sanders use this as a campaign talking point, or at least leave it lay, unless he was mastered by his vindictive spirit? The reason his campaign got traction is that even Democrats consider Clinton a hateful, dishonest person. But with his carefully plotted debate outburst, Sanders showed that for him, nothing is worth so much as reviling the Republicans. This is ordinary for Democrats. The family that reviles together, stays together.

But to do Sanders the justice he is never willing to do other people, we need to consider his own explanation of his motive — his belief that discussion of Hillary’s “damn emails” crowds out discussion of “the real issues facing America.”

(I like quoting “damn emails,” because it’s such a dumb thing to say. “Damn” is the default term of abuse. It’s what people say when they can’t think of anything else. It’s exactly what a dumb, befuddled, obnoxious old coot would say about any problem in daily life. “Damn junk mail! Why do they send me the damn stuff? Damn toaster! Burns the bread every damn time! Damn kids! I’m sick of the damn kids in this neighborhood!”)

As someone who doesn’t realize that the arguments for socialism were completely discredited over a hundred years ago, Sanders is well suited to be Undersecretary for Historic Preservation.

So let’s consider his belief. The essential idea is one he shares with most of the other candidates, Democratic or Republican — the notion that there is a giant pile of issues out there, as tall as Mt. Everest and just as gnarly, and that America has to face those issues,and would be busy doing so if Americans could only see them. The candidate’s mission is to reveal the existence of those issues, now cleverly concealed behind the opponents’ lying contemptible hateful hate-filled propaganda. No one else is willing to undertake this mission.

If this is true, it’s surprising that political candidates almost never initiate a dialogue about the issues that is remotely similar to anything that normal people do when they have a real issue to discuss. Normal people try to find the facts, and if the facts turn out not to be alarming, they are happy not to argue about solving a problem that no one can find. But if there is a problem, and it’s apparent enough to be a subject of debate, they try to sharpen their arguments and communicate them clearly and concisely. They entertain objections and attend to plausible counterarguments. And they present a clear plan of action. They don’t go on and on about how the door needs to be fixed; they say, “Tomorrow morning, I’ll call up Dave the Fixit Guy and see what he’ll charge to take care of that door.”

Political candidates address the issues in a different way. They declare, usually out of the blue, that they have discovered an issue that must be faced. Then they invent facts to support their statements, denounce anyone who takes a more optimistic view of the situation, declare that the problem must be solved instantaneously, and exclude any possibility of solving it except by taking all the money out of other people’s bank accounts. This is not what you or I mean when we urge other people to face an issue. Still stranger is the fact that the political discussion, or national dialogue, never reaches the level of argument. It’s all declarations and demands.

Sanders is a convenient, and hilarious, example. When, during the Democrats’ debate, Anderson Cooper asked him whether he was electable, given his history — he supported the Sandinistas, honeymooned in the Soviet Union, and bills himself as a socialist — Sanders replied by saying that in the last election “63% of the American people didn’t vote, Anderson. 80% of young people didn’t vote.” He implied that these people would vote for him. Some discussion.

As for his positive program, consider this masterpiece of argumentation:

And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1% in this country own almost 90% — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57% of all new income is going to the top 1%.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

Sanders has a remarkable ability to make things up — remarkable for a human being, that is, but not for a presidential candidate. Their custom is just to say things, convinced that their audience won’t even take the trouble to check with Wikipedia. Very well. When you do subject yourself to that enormous task and find the Wiki article “Wealth in the United States,” you will not discover that one one-thousandth of the American population owns “almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%.” That’s just something that Sanders goes around saying, or yelling. He yells a lot.

But suppose you don’t care about piddling matters of fact. Suppose you care only about mighty matters of morality. What is the argument that allows Sanders to get from the existence of income inequality to the claim that income inequality is immoral? What is the argument that allows him to go, for instance, from the idea that people who receive $11,000 a year in Social Security benefits should be recompensed by taking 15% of incomes over $118,000 a year and giving it to them?

Moral lectures come strangely to the lips of a speaker who has no moral sense.

There is no argument. He never presents one. He just says things. To go back to the Wiki article, why shouldn’t Sanders demand that families headed by people between 65 and 74 years of age surrender huge amounts of money to households headed by people under 35 years of age? After all, the median net worth of the former is $232,100, and the median net worth of the latter is $10,460. And how about childless couples? They have a median net worth of $213,730, which is more than twice that of couples with children, and about 15 times that of single people with children, or single people under 55 years of age, without children. Shouldn’t these culprits, these viciously immoral childless couples, be compelled to give their wealth to those less fortunate?

Moral lectures come strangely to the lips of a speaker who has no moral sense. If he had any, wouldn’t he hesitate to tell one lie after another? Wouldn’t he hesitate to say, for instance, that “we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth”? Ah, Haiti — famous for its medical and family paid leave. Burma — a paradise for early childcare. Is Sanders so stupid that he doesn’t know what life on earth is like, or is he so cynical that he figures he can say anything at all, and an audience will lap it up?

In either case, he shouldn’t be shouting about morality. Even if he does believe that his visible audience consists of mindless oysters, why should he assume that everyone else is? “When you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby” — as if mothers with newborns were as unwitting as Sanders’ followers, and simply allowed their offspring to be snatched away from their passive arms.

Most voters have something like free will. So if liberty and prosperity are snatched from them by the likes of Bernie Sanders, it’s their own fault. In the last sentence I originally typed “liberty and responsibility,” but “responsibility” may be the problem — that word is apparently so detestable to some of our fellow citizens that they’d rather hear Bernie Sanders bleating away, like the guy in the restaurant whom you ask not to be seated next to, than take a few moments to fulfill the duty of reflective thought.

Is Sanders so stupid that he doesn’t know what life on earth is like, or is he so cynical that he figures he can say anything at all, and an audience will lap it up?

Nevertheless, I doubt that many voters are as fearful of their own free will as are the media that attempted to fry Ben Carson for his answer to a question about what he would do if he were attacked by a mass murderer. He said he would try to take the guy down. He suggested that the targeted victims should act together to do that. In response, this headline appeared, typical of many:

2016 Contender Ben Carson Defends Remarks Criticizing Victims of Oregon Shooting

The preposterous idea was that Carson had criticized the victims for not having attacked the maniac who was assaulting them. He did no such thing. It seems that the media will settle for nothing short of “Carson Commends All Americans Who Plan to Cower and Be Killed.” Certainly the media were pleased enough when other presidential candidates suggested that the only acceptable options are (A) shivering like a sheep before any lunatic with a gun, and (B) keeping guns out of the hands of sane people.

I hope that if I am ever targeted by a lunatic, I will follow Dr. Carson’s advice. I know that if Carson happens to be with me, I can trust him to lead the charge. But I can never stand up to another Bernie Sanders debate. I’d rather be shot.




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World Government, or Smaller Countries?

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Some believe that we are rapidly moving towards a world government. The European Union was one of the most visible expressions of this motion. NAFTA, ASEAN, and other trading blocks were seen as small moves in the same direction. The UN was the dream of the mushy-headed, those living on intellectual welfare with no real-life experience of how wealth is created.

A world government would be unsustainable if it ever came to pass, for the kind of people who work in governments always take pride at backstabbing one another, as well as their competitors in other governments. People’s lives have changed tremendously, given easy travel and high technology, but the structure of governments has not changed.

The world is becoming increasingly complex, but the institution of the state has remained mostly unchanged, making large governments very brittle.

Duty-free shopping exists in every country, for each of these governments competes to benefit itself by helping travelers avoid paying taxes to other governments. The US, the world's self-appointed chief policeman, is among the worst (or best) in this respect. While governments in the Caribbean islands and many smaller nations — mostly termed tax havens — get bad reputations for secrecy (and hence, my own respect), Miami, New York, and London are probably the world's capitals for secrecy and tax avoidance as long as you are not the milk-cow of the US or England.

One might even ask how is it that such a large number of properties are bought by Chinese, Ukrainians, and Russians in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK. If these Western governments ensured that unaccounted money did not come from abroad, their hot property markets would crash.

The US makes almost no attempt to locate safety deposit lockers filled with US-dollar cash in jurisdictions outside the US. The government likes the convenience of interest-free loans in perpetuity from the cash holders. Using FACTA and all kinds of obnoxious enforcements on no other basis than American exceptionalism and its bullying power, the US gets the information it wants from other governments, but none dares to ask the US to reciprocate.

So far from world government being likely to happen, the future belongs to smaller states. But this will happen after a lot of turmoil.

Most banks comply with US bullying, although the cost of compliance is horrendous for financial institutions around the world. One day a breaking point will come and they will stop. Perhaps an alternative international currency will trigger this.

The US won’t be there forever

With every generation, glamour moves to a different jurisdiction. When I was growing up, it was France for fashion and snobbery, England for style, and Japan for the work ethic. A generation later, with all others having receded to the background, it became the US.

It is worth talking with today's teenagers in Asia. They follow Korean fashion, pop music, and soap operas. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is Indian music and movies. What the world looks up to will increasingly be Asia, while America recedes into the background.

If you find a Chinese girl with spectacles and no lenses in them amusing, you haven’t kept up with the fashion trends that originated in Korea or Japan. In Seoul, you will meet visiting teenagers from Malaysia who sing in Korean, and you can bet that they watch K-pop at home.

If you see girls wearing shorts that are a millimeter below the danger zone, but with the waist-band that does not end at the waist but much above the navel, you know where that fashion came from: from girls who worry about possibly having short legs. If you find men wearing tight pants, you know that the fashion is not from the West.

The bigger states will break

Before the world starts ignoring the diktats of the United States, America will become increasingly heavy-handed. Anything it doesn’t like will be considered "terrorism." For Americans, privacy will cease to exist. This is not based on prophecy, but on the history of how human civilizations have evolved and gone out of existence. The Roman Empire disappeared. So did the English and the French empires.

In other large countries — India, Brazil, France, the UK, etc. — the institution of government will come under huge amounts of stress, as heightened expectations of a populations hugely influenced by the modern-day welfare system can no longer be met. The world is becoming increasingly complex, with new technologies and cheap traveling, but the institution of the state has remained mostly unchanged, making large governments very brittle.

While all conventional religions are tribal in nature, they at least have elements of compassion, honesty, and other virtues. But statism thrives on hatred for other people.

To me the “Arab Spring” was the first visible sign of this. So was the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Behind the facade of higher vision and increased nationalism is indoctrination of a populace that is incapable of critical thinking, the kind of populace that in earlier generations would have stayed out of having an opinion on public policy. They have come to see democracy as a magic wand that delivers whatever one aspires for, merely through the vote. Nationalism is the emotional crutch for their failure to be self-dependent and their lack of self-confidence. None of these fake, irrational values can keep big nation-states glued together when the crunch time comes.

The result will be the possible breakup of many of the larger states. Would the US also break up? The irrational tribal slogan — “we are the biggest and the best” — can keep the US together for only so long. So far from world government being likely to happen, the future belongs to smaller states. But this will happen after a lot of turmoil, ironically made worse by the fact that in general, today’s populace is likely more statist and patriotic than the previous generations.

Central America: case studies on small countries

I have been very impressed with how well Hong Kong and Singapore are organized. In fact, I have become enamored with small countries.

I recently spent two months travelling in Central America, trying to understand its economy and people. I spent a fair amount of time in Boquete, Panama, a place where a large number of American expatriates live. When I was there, a girl with a flirtatious look (and from what I understood, based on my talks with the locals, her only competence) was elected as the local political representative. Alcohol was banned during the election days, but that did not stop restaurants from serving it, in coffee mugs.

The populace in Central America is not necessarily more awakened than that of the United States — perhaps much less. But does that matter? Mostly people are ambivalent about the existence of expatriates, if not grateful for their contribution to the economy. The state is alive and well there, but I hardly care about the state anymore. What I care about is how it affects me.

These small states recognize the economic importance of expatriates and mostly let them get on with their lives. Protecting property rights is their core competence. Nicaragua, for example, has become an attractive place for property investment, offering the cheapest options for those who can navigate this emerging country. In terms of expense, Panama is in between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Panama offers quality at a reasonable price. It also uses the US dollar, which is not the best way to run a monetary policy, for it is still dependent on a fiat currency, but this ensures that Panamanians cannot run their own printing press. Of course, they have no central bank of their own, and hence no cartel that comes with it.

Why is a place such as this, relatively conflict-free and wth enormous natural resources, not very rich?

Not only Americans and Canadians but also those from Ecuador, Venezuela, and other countries are finding safety in Panama. As a rule of thumb, small countries offer asset protection that big counties don't, for if these small countries stop respecting property rights, expatriates will fly away with their money.

Neither Costa Rica nor Panama has a military. This not only saves what would have been about 5% of the GDP in wastage but it sets a certain way of thinking among the citizenry. War is the health of the state, and statism is the worst religion. While all conventional religions are tribal in nature, they at least have elements of compassion, honesty, and other virtues. But statism thrives on hatred for other people. When you have the military solely for defence, narrowly defined (as is the case with Singapore and Switzerland) or have no military at all (as in Panama and Costa Rica), the social mindset is not about hatred for people who are different.

The repercussions are far-reaching. Less hatred also means fewer social conflicts within such societies, and hence a lack of civil wars within these countries. One must still be cautious about isolated crimes.

Incidentally, Central America is a unique place for nature lovers. This small piece of land separates two major oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, and hence is a channel for equalizing weather differences between the two oceans. I cannot think of another place where the forests change within minutes of walking, as you move from the area influenced by one kind of weather system to another, just on the other side of the ridge.

When traveling around in Costa Rica and Panama one must wonder — as I did — why a place that has been relatively conflict-free and has enormous natural resources is not a very rich place. Businesses tend to hire expatriates as much as they can. Locals are not known for their work ethic. Why this is the case, I am not sure. But that is why I travel, for it forces me to think about issues that would otherwise not occur to me. It hones my understanding of cultures, politics, and economics. Again, as an individualist, what I care about most is what affects me; and I doubt that the realm of One World Government would stimulate me much.




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Loco Parentis

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Going for Broke

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When Greed Isn't Good

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Football? Why?

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Me? I like tennis, a much more gentle and gentlemanly sport than the current favorite, football. Knocking people down takes little skill. Pounding a “down the line” passing shot that just ticks the line takes super hand-eye coordination. Notice that in football the home team fans are encouraged to hoot and scream like the lynch mob in front of the jailhouse, to drown out the quarterback’s signals. Contrast that with the silent courtesy given to the server even if you’ve got 50 bucks riding on the match against him.

So — a brief note on college football. I used to be a fan. (And the origin of that word, by the way, is not “fanatic,” but “fancier.” People arefanciers of the University of Alabama.) I used to enjoy the game, although I never saw a defensive tackle turn to the ref, shed a tear, and mumble, “I held No. 33.” But I’ve seen McEnroe overrule the ump: “No, his ball was in.”

Then I realized that while to me football is entertainment, to students it’s a distraction and corruption. Colleges are institutions supposedly dedicated to the education and maturation of youth. I assume that’s the wellspring of their nonprofit status. But football, in its current form, downplays sportsmanship. It recruits — in most cases — large, fast, violent young men who specialize in using their large, fast, violent bodies to knock down and inflict serious injury on opponents. This is not exactly a lesson in sportsmanship or human relationships. Our colleges accept this anomaly in their mission because a stultified public allows it. And in many cases a gang of alumni — who evidently got a lousy education — sponsor it. The G-d of mammon — not learning — reigns. The lure of reinforced endowments and bulging bank accounts is irresistible. Who said that colleges’ nonprofit status carries over to sports and other athletic activities? A courtroom full of lawyers could debate that for a semester or two.

Coaches make millions — much of it from my taxpayer pocket. It should be an optional item on my tax form. And after all, it seems only fair that if the school makes a profit, I should get a proportionate refund.

But money is not the main issue. (Most schools lose money on their athletic programs.) It’s the disproportionate emphasis on sports, which might involve 1 to 2% of the student body, versus the rest, who are purchasing the school’s educational products. If I’m going to be a drunken spendthrift with institutional money (and remember, nobody spends your money like it’s their own), I’d rather pay two million to the head of the engineering department than two million to the football coach.

Which skill is more important? Creating a bridge, a new concept of combustion engines, a new source of energy — or whacking an anonymous opponent, which sounds a lot like modern warfare? And don’t think that the coach tears up and shouts at the defensive tackle who breaks the leg of an enemy quarterback, “Oh, dear, you broke his leg. His incompetent backup will have to finish the game. I so wanted to go against their first team.” Such lines are never spoken on the gridiron battlefield. Sportsmanship is a rare commodity. And winning, as misspoken by some coaches, isn’t everything. You learn from losing, too. And life is full of losing as well as winning.

I only scratch the surface. But you get the idea. Why are colleges in the entertainment business? Certainly not for the benefit of their primary customers. It’s as though the municipal fire department held courses in arson, on the side.




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What Fiscal Cliff?

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Previewing the Budget Deal

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Geothermal Currency

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