Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sometimes, There's Hope

I have spent an adult lifetime talking to myself. I listen well. I even comment to myself on my comments, and sometimes I even tell myself I am full of it. I am grateful for my own company because at least I take myself seriously.

I can't say as much about my relatives, friends, and aquaintances. Often I am considered to be the strange one. "Oh, that's just Ron being Ron," they say as they giggle at my convoluted attempts to give them a concise rendition of some obscure aspect of libertarianism. Conversation quickly moves away from the Great Questions of our day and on to sports, or personalities, or music, etc.

Such is life. At times, I get a little down at my inability to engage others in serious and enlightening conversation. How, I ask myself (because I am the only one listening) are the problems of our society, our country, or the world to be dealt with if we fail to discuss them seriously, at some depth, and with some integrity? I have been told, and I have told myself, to not expect much because I am looking for what never will be.

But this year, on Christmas night, I saw something interesting happen. A couple of friends that I generally disagree with on all Great Questions, but whom I genuinely like and respect, were having sport with me over the blurb on the back of "The Creature From Jekyll Island." The blurb was fron Ron Paul, someone my friends have only cursory knowledge of and whom they consider just another Republican. One friend, the wife, read the blurb aloud in a faux dramatic voice as a way of poking at me. I did not take it personally, but I also was not sure how to respond to the sarcasm.

Then inspiration struck. I went to my book pile and found "End the Fed," by Ron Paul. I handed it to the husband, while his wife was still reading the other blurb, back cover first. Then I watched as his face went from neutral to wide eyed surprise and leaning back in his chair as if a force had reached out and pushed him backwards suddenly. He recovered, leaned forward, and showed his wife the front cover.

"Ron Paul, 'End the Fed,'" she said. "So?"

The husband flipped the book around and she read the blurb. She threw herself back in her chair. "No way! No fucking way!"

The blurb as by Arlo Guthrie, one of her counter-culture heros.

"We're taking the book home, and my husband is going to read it!"

My words, no matter how carefully chosen, had been unable to open a serious conversation about free markets or libertarianism for 20 years. Yet a simple sentence by Arlo opened the floodgates of interest and passion.

I trust our next gathering will be interesting.

There can be hope, even twenty years too late.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Non-Conspiracy

I found this article on

He presents a world in which mundane forces move the world, not elite evil-doers pulling strings. I believe this to be a great extent...but not exclusively. That there IS an elite group, interconnected and cooperating with each other, who at least attempt to 'rule the world' seems obvious enough. That would include powerful political figures such as the Clintons and the Bushes, Greenspan and Kissinger, as well as unimaginably wealthy men such as the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds, and their friends in the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group, the G10 and the G20.

Nevertheless, this article reminds me that the world is a complex place that we make sense of when we look backward and impose our understanding of how things work on the assembled facts. We conjure up conpiracies and manipulations that neatly explain everything. Life, being lived forward, does not lend itself easily to manipulation. It is more like the weather: there are many influences, some of which are human, but mostly it's chaos playing itself out.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Enemy is Us

The New York Times reported yesterday that government workers have been warned not to read the latest Wikileaks dump of 250,000 diplomatic cables. To read them is to illegally access classified and secret documents.

The Office of Management and Budget warned that the documents must not be viewed by a government employee until they have been officially released by a proper authority. College students are warned not to view or download the documents...if they would like to have a career in government in the future. The Department of Defense stated that an unauthorized viewing of the documents creates a 'security violation.'

Security against....whom? Foreign enemies? No, non-Americans can read them at will without prosecution.

The security risk is that Americans may find out what their government is up to...and do something about it. Hillary Clinton, having been outed as a credit card number thief, is now political toast. The exposed connection between Israeli Mafia, Israeli government officials, and drug dealing in America could turn Americans against their most abusive client state. The world of international relations is being exposed as nothing but a game of childish cliques run by school-yard bullies, hardly worthy of the blood and treasure of innocents everywhere.

Can you imagine the terror Hillary Clinton must feel after spending a lifetime triangulating, positioning, posing, and pandering with the goal of one day becoming the most powerful person on the planet...only to see her life's ambition turning to shit before her eyes? In her view, and in the view of the thousands of other government posers out there, Americans must NOT be allowed to see that under their puffed up self-importantance they are nothing more than shifty-eyed convenience store clerks with an eye for filching credit card numbers. They are not likely to let it happen without a fight. A very dirty fight.

The New York Times article ('Government Workers Ordered Not To Read Cables') is so revealing of the true nature of our government's attitude toward American citizens that it is redundant to put it in plainer terms. But here it is:

We are the enemy. The war is against us. The government is not nearly as worried that foreigners will know about their shennanigans as it is fearful that we will know about them. We must be kept in the dark. We must be controlled. We must not be allowed the truth because we might do something no foreign power could ever do: exact justice.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

We've Got You Surrounded!

I had some time to ponder two totally unrelated events from last weekend. One was a craft show, and the other was a traffic stop. The only connection between the two events was the re-enforcement of the feeling we are surrounded, 360 degrees, by government force.

The craft show was held at Cape Girardeau. This was our fourth attempt to sell my wife's dyed silk garments for a profit. This one worked out pretty well because, unlike the first three shows, we reacted to our economic environment by changing our prices downward after the first two hours. The other vendors at this venue were selling handmade Christmas oriented stuff...santas, wreaths, ornaments, pillows, etc., cheap. The average price was around $20. Our product average was around $40. By taking the prices down $10 per piece, we were more in line with our customer's expectations even though our product was still among the most expensive in the room. I suggested we needed to lower our prices, but it was my wife who had to make the decision to do so. After all, this was all her work. Hours and days of standing in her studio wrapping, clamping, dying, rinsing, squeezing, ironing. Then the committent of renting booth space, the gas expense of getting there, the food and drink to keep us going for two days.

Every sale of every piece she had slaved over required the collection of sales tax. 7.99%. I have gotten used to the idea and I barely give it a thought anymore. However, I had some time on my hands and I reflected how twenty years ago my wife and I sold some handmade toys at craft shows and nobody paid or collected sales tax. Technically we were required to do so by the state, but as a practical matter it was disregarded by all concerned. Most crafters make their goods and offer them for sale as a break-even proposition. Between all of the show expenses, the travel, the hotels, the food, there's not much left over to compensate for the time spent creating the products. One crafting friend of ours had not made back her booth fees at the three previous shows, and except for this show at which we had to take a reduced margin, we barely scraped by also.

Now, however, the craft fairs are monitored by the state. As part of your 'show packet' that the fairs hand out, you receive a copy of the local sales tax tables. You WILL collect sales tax. The State, having done none of the work, taken none of the risk, was still making about 8% (more in some places). When one has dreamed up the concept, bought the materials, made the product, and sold it to the end-user, the tax seems like such a slap in the face.

(Update): my wife just received a threatening letter from the State of Missouri because she paid her sales tax without a valid State of Missouri tax license. Penalty: $500 for the first day, and $100 per day thereafter. There seems to be a 20 day grace period to straighten this out, so we are not too worried. But the tone...)

Unrelated. On the first day of the craft show, my son was driving with two friends to a state park to do some camping. However, he has a heavy foot and was pulled over by the state police for speeding. The cop, seeing three 19 year olds in a car, told my son he smelled pot in the car. This was an outright lie. I own the car, I have driven the car as recently as that morning, and it had no smell. Additionally, the three young people in the car do not smoke pot. Still, the cop insisted he smelled pot and asked for permission to search the car. My son mentioned that the cop did not have a warrant, then quickly backed down and agreed to the search. After all, he said, he knew there was no pot in the car. Besides, he thought, if he cooperated maybe the cop would go easy on him for speeding.

The the cop did something no one expected: he stood my son and his two friends by the side of the road, handcuffed them, and told them to look away from the car as it was searched. No one has any idea what the cop looked at or in during the five minutes he was going through the car, but after about five minutes the cop came back and released everybody. And he gave my son a speeding ticket. All three of the young people were shaken up by the experience, and when I heard about it later that day, I was furious. It just seemed so wrong! Handcuffing people for speeding 10 mph over the speed limit!

It turns out that the cop did something completely legal. It was called a "Terry Stop." If the cop has reason to be concerned about his own safety, he can immobilize you for a short period of time while he assesses the situation. You are not under arrest, but you are not allowed to leave. This cop told the three kids that because there was only one of him and three of them, he had to cuff them. That explanation makes sense, but it doesn't change the humiliation these kids felt standing along the side of a major interstate highway handcuffed with their hands behind their backs for all the world to see. Implication: these kids must have done something bad. Implication: the cop just made a good bust. Implication: can't trust young people and thank god we have cops to keep them in line.

Ironically, if my son had simply refused to give permission for the search, he would have gotten the ticket and been sent on his way. Additionally, it seems to me that, with 10,000 laws on the books, who knows what laws we are violating every single day? The search simply allowed the cop to find something else for which to fine or arrest my son.

The state seems to be all around us all the time. Like walls closing in. Like a noose tightening. Remember: you're not paranoid if they really are out to get you.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"There's Something Hard in Your Pants"

The title is a quote from a TSA screener when he patted down my brother at a Washington D.C. airport. It seems my brother went through the body scanner, but the results were inconclusive so he was pulled aside for the full body grope, too. The TSA agent kept pushing on my brother's lower abdomen below his belt and asking what was in his pants. My brother took it good naturedly and replied that there was nothing there. The screener kept prodding and asking what was in his pants. My brother kept saying 'nothing' in an increasingly irritated tone.

"There's something hard in your pants," said the TSA agent one more time. My brother finally responded, "keep pushing and there will be!" The agent quickly decided it must be a fold in my brother's shirttail and let him continue on his way.

Great response.

Update to the Great Fizzle

A few days ago I mused on the Daily Paul that the TSA could defuse the National Opt-Out Day by simply turning off the full body scanners for the day. No scanners means nothing to opt-out of means protest fizzles.

Lookie here:

I should take up sooth saying.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Great Fizzle

Today, National Opt-Out Day, has been a snorer. A few scattered protests. Some opt-outs. It was mostly business as usual.

Was it a total bust? Maybe not. The number of people who flew today is supposed to be up 3.5% over last year. We will not know the real number for a few more days. If the number of people actually went down, then maybe people decided to opt-out completely by driving instead of flying. Time will tell.

Other than that, it appears Americans lined up to do away with their human dignity and the Constitution for the sake of feel-good security theater. Their unwillingness to confront the government over a policy with such personal aspects as being required to display themselves naked before being allowed to fly means that they will absolutely not take on the government over less concrete violations. First Amendment? A luxury! Second Amendment? A potential threat to security! Fourth Amendment? Unnecessary! Tenth Amendment? An anachronism!

Not only will Americans not fight to take back the freedom that once was theirs, but they have signalled in no uncertain terms that they will not fight against future intrusions. That will embolden the statists to consolidate their gains, grab and exercise more power, and take control of more of our lives.

The protest fizzled. Americans are going to get a lot more of what they refused to refuse.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Has the Sleeping Giant Awakened?

I used to wonder what it would take for Americans to rise up, enmass, and confront their government. If the news reports are any indication, it is the stories, the voice recordings, and the video of people, some as young as three years old, or as infirm as a disabled cancer patient, being put through a full body scanner or being groped as a prior condition for getting on an airplane. One man, to prove a point, refused the scanners, then refused the pat-down, but willingly stripped to his bike shorts so the TSA could see he had nothing to hide. He was told to put on his clothes so they could pat him down! Then they arrested him for not following instructions!
Indignation at the overreach of the TSA has gone viral. Someone started the call for a National Opt-Out Day, and over the course of two weeks it has snowballed into a fearsome threat to on-time air travel on the day before Thanksgiving.

The TSA reacted this past weekend. They stated that anyone who disrupts the scanning process or the pat downs will be arrested and fined $10,000. The pat-downs and the scans would go forward as planned, said Mr. Pistole, the head of the TSA. His tough guy attitude struck the exact wrong cord, and the calls for opting out of the naked body scanners intensified. Today, he was somewhat more concilliatory by saying they were looking at procedures to see if they could be made more palatable, and pleading with air travellers to cooperate with the TSA out of consideration for other travellers.

On my way home tonight, my Congressman, Russ Carnahan, got some airtime by saying he was reviewing TSA procedures to see if they couldn't be modified. Russ has never demonstrated the slightest concern for the Constitution. His concern was strictly to make TSA procedures less of a lightning rod. He doesn't want to kill the beast, he wants to tame it.

Debates have raged on TV between civil libertarians, who oppose the very idea of the TSA as well as the security measures they have put in place, and the Safety First crowd that repeats the mantra "anything for safety." One of their best critiques is "if you (libertarians) don't want the TSA to do body scans to keep us safe, what would YOU do to keep us safe?" The best response to that critique is: "it is not the government's job to keep us safe in the air, it is the airlines job to keep us safe in the air." That doesn't directly answer the question so much as it tries to reframe the debate: it's not WHAT will keep us safe, but WHO. I'm not sure most viewers get this.

Nevertheless, there is extensive buzz on the internet and in the mainstream press. We'll know in two days if it has any teeth. It seems to me that the easy way for the TSA to defang the entire threat is to turn off the machines for a day. No machines and no pat downs means no opt-out. The whole protest fizzles. They can always put the rules in place at another time when everyone has gotten a little tired of the arguments.

Personally, I hope the TSA sticks with its' hardline position. That could be the catalyst for a nationwide reality check, some citizen activism, and maybe for some citizen empowerment. If people see the TSA run away from one of their cherished programs because of an incensed public, maybe the public will sense their own power and continue spontaneous challenges to other programs, bureaucracies, and government institutions.

I wonder if the sleeping giant has awakened.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Scanner Update

Just an update to my earlier post about the backscatter machines at airports:

I flew out of St Louis Lambert on Monday. The scanner was there, but it was not being used. Everyone in the very, very long security line was put through the old metal detectors. No drama here.

I flew back out of Phoenix Sky scanners in sight.

From stories I have read elsewhere, the TSA is dealing with the 'opt out' crowd by doing simple pat-downs. No cavity searches. No genital probing. Some of the overheated rhetoric on some websites accuses the TSA of almost demonic procedures, yet the evidence is that the TSA are being careful and respectful. I'm sure there will be exceptions, and those will be publicized repeatedly. People will 'opt out' to avoid being seen naked, and they'll fear getting a pat-down and a feel-up at the same time. I think they are worrying about the wrong stuff. They ought to be considering the fear-mongering that is at the core of the whole scanning/probing issue. They ought to 'opt out' while dreaming of the Fourth Amendment.

The good news is that the dilemma I felt in an earlier post is somewhat muted now. Of course I will 'opt out,' not because I might be seen naked, but because it's all just wrong.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Communicating with a Pol

I wrote the following letter to Ed Martin, Republican candidate for Missouri's 3rd Congressional District:

Dear Ed,
This is to inform you that I intend to vote for you on November 2nd.
However, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: this is not an endorsement. I cannot know what you are really going to do when you get to Washington. The words you have written indicate at least a cursory knowledge of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and the libertarian philosophy of liberty. Whether or not you truly understand those words...that is to be seen. You may have won my vote, but you have to earn my trust.
At this time I have no reason to trust you.
Most Republican candidates are going to benefit from the rising wave of anti-Obama revulsion. The Republicans will win many seats and they will pat themselves on the back and say "see, they love us." Nothing could be further from the truth. Republicans forget that they were thrown out just two years ago amid similar disgust with Bush and his run-amok cronies and Congressional lapdogs. Voters are looking for something else, a different way of governing. They didn't get it with the Bush Republicans, they tried the Democrats and were deeply disappointed; now they're trying to find what they are looking for with the Republicans again. I fear we will be shafted again.
I have no illusions about the daunting task of reversing the course of government. It is likely that the new 'tea party' congressmen will constitute such a small part of the overall Congress that they will have little direct influence on day-to-day legislation. They will be considered to be irrelevant by the mainstream. The pressure will be to go along to get along in hopes of having influence somewhere in the future. This is a pipe dream. This is the reason the Republicans were thrown out two years ago, and the reason the Democrats will be thrown out this year.
What I am voting for is a Congressman who will stand up, even if all alone, and say: this is contrary to the Constitution. Even if you never vote with the majority, even if you forever are marginalized by the people who have caused the mess in this country, you will be representing me and people like me every time you take those hard, principled, difficult-to-explain-in-soundbite stands. All alone.
If you do that, you will be representing people like me. And you will win the kind of devoted following enjoyed by statesmen, but never by politicians.
I wish you luck in the upcoming election.

Ron Johnson

Later that same day, I received the following reply:

Thanks for this note. I agree with you: vote for me, hold me accountable, and, if I falter, vote me out!
Thanks for your vote.
All the best.
Ed Martin

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ten Thousand Indignities

St Louis Lambert Airport has installed full body scanners in the terminal I usually use when traveling for business. I knew it was coming, ever since the rush-job purchase of the scanners (lobbied for by the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, who just happened to represent a company that sells the machines) after the incident with the crotch bomber in Detroit last December.

The whole idea that strip searches of all passengers traveling by plane is a reasonable precaution against the danger of a terrorist event is...well...a real head scratcher. Does it make travellers safer? Not really. Terrorists, like any motivated criminal, look upon fixed solutions, such as metal detectors, bomb sniffing machines, xrayed luggage, etc., as just another wrinkle to be overcome. As was pointed out by one security expert, if the terrorist is on a suicide mission, they may as well have the bomb installed inside their supposedly has already been documented:

The fact that planes have not been falling out of the sky for the last ten years is not because airports have done a superb job 'keeping us safe,' because the FBI has noted, repeatedly, that the failure rate of TSA at catching test weapons, even weapons barely concealed, is abysmal. Something like 40% are not detected. Since a motivated terrorist is going to be far more creative than a civil service bureaucrat, I have to conclude they haven't attacked the planes because they don't want to.

Are the scanners safe? The manufacturers say they are, but no independent testing can verify it. There is significant debate by xray technicians and engineers about possible damage due to improper calibration, focus, and training. Do the scanners save the naked photos? The government says 'no,' but they lie. The government specifications for construction require that the machines have the ability to store images, even though that function may be turned off. Do the scanners blur the 'sensative' areas? No. If they did, then that would be a prime place to hide a bomb, right? So forget blurring.

None of these issues cause me to lose sleep. If someone in another room somewhere gets herself in a sweat seeing me in the all-together, I consider it a compliment. But that's just me. On the other hand, if it's a guy...I'd rather not think about it.

No, the issues that haunt me are: Does it violate the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, and does this open the door to even more invasive surveilance? Unqualified yes to both.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (4th Amendment, U.S. Constitution)

Ok, so the counterargument is that we live in a new era and that the Founding Fathers could not have understood 21st century terrorism. To keep us safe, full body scanning is a reasonable measure. As one pundit put it, the Constitution is not a suicide pact, meaning that if it gets in the way of making us safe, then it should be discarded as needed.

I don't have to tell anyone how much this distresses a civil libertarian. It is not in the times of peace and ease when we need to worry about our civil liberties, but in the times of stress and conflict. Infact, during hard times it is more important than ever to jealously guard our personal liberties, such as our rights to due process and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Tyrants have always used times of distress to impose themselves upon their people under the guise of protecting them. Hermann Goering said all governments bring the people to the bidding of the leaders through crisis. Rahm Emmanual is famous for his phrase "Never let a good crisis go to waste." So in times of difficulty, we need to guard our civil liberties even closer.

The argument from civil liberties, however, generally fails in the face of the argument from 'safety.' As a nation, we crave absolute safety in everything and in the process we have steadily given up our freedom to be armed, to travel, to write and speak freely, to consume what we wish, to take risks, to keep our privacy. All intrusions, ten thousand if there is one, are treated individually as no big deal. Indeed, we usually give the restrictions on our privacy and our independence no serious thought, as they seem to be more of a nusance than anything. Sometimes, however, in moments of clarity, as we stand in line for a permit, license, or other official government approval before going on to do what we would have done anyway, and we sense the oppressiveness of the situation. We see the government functionary behind the desk and feel the uselessness of the paper-shuffling, stamping, stapling, collating, and filing that our lives have become. We wish we could find the words that would make the petty bureaucrat sit back and're right sir, no need for approval, I am interferring with your life, you can go about your business.

That's not the way it works, however. The System is a self-reinforcing network of laws, social norms, and expectations, glued together with 'safety' as a common denominator. Objecting to any given mandated rule, like the need for a building permit to install a new water heater, or the requirement to have a virtual a strip search to get on a plane makes you sound somewhat looney because, after all, it's for your safety. Remember, this is a society where police have announced random voluntary bag searches (NY subway) and people have approached the cops and asked to participate, then THANKED the officers for searching the bag they have been carrying all over town. What? Yes! Or requiring a background check on everyone who wants to buy a gun from a only the law abiding go through the process while the scofflaws don't bother...yet the gun laws make us safer because the people who were no danger to anyone are still no danger to anyone? The norm is lunacy. Anyone who calls out the lunacy is the nut!

I am planning to travel via plane out of Lambert Airport in the next few weeks. Though I am conflicted about the process of going through security to get on the plane, I know I have only two choices if I wish to fly: get into that full body scanner, or let a TSA agent give me a hands-on full body pat-down, including a probing of the genitals. Either way, I have to submit or I don't fly. By itself, this latest intrusion into my life does not make or break me...but it is the totality of the experience of life in America, the "freest nation on earth," that is weighing heavily on my mind.

I will not go to the barracades over this. Any protestation will fall on deaf ears, or worse, will get me put on a list with no possible positive outcome. My fellow travellers will not sympathize; TSA agents will continue to 'just do their jobs.' I will either fly or not fly and the TSA could care less. One way or the other, they win this one. Just add it to my list of indignities to be endured.

We think we can pick and choose the indignities we will object to or endure. The truth is: It is all of a kind. We will either reject the 'safety' argument and choose to live with uncertainty, or we will take the 'safety' argument to its' logical conclusion, one little indignity at a time. If we want a different kind of society, we will have to do it from a principled conviction that the grand experiment in human freedom is due for a major 'reset.'

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Busy, busy

I've been busy lately responding to things I have read. My responses, in my humble opinion, are pretty good. Below are the e-mail exchanges and the context inwhich they happened:
First, I read an article by a guy named Jeff Jacoby about the economics of recycling. I first stumbled on the article as a link on Cafe Hayek:

I decided to write to Mr. Jacoby:
"I've read the comments section after your article on recycling you ever hit a nerve with a lot of people.

Your point about the value of recycling was lost on them entirely.

Let me add two small factoids:

I lived in Cleveland when they first started mandatory recycling. Up until
then, the only real recycling was done at the aluminum can collection
machines scattered around town. You rarely saw an aluminum can laying
around because it represented cash to someone. Anyway, we had to separate
our recyclables into bags for three different types of materials, each
color coded to make them easy for the recycling company to identify.
Aluminum, as I recall, was blue. You could drive the streets of Cleveland
on trash day and find everyone's various colored recycling bags at the
curb...but hardly ever see a blue bag. Why? Because the early morning
trash pickers beat the recycling trucks to the aluminum. This caused such
a disruption in the recycler's cash flow plans that the City of Cleveland
had to pass an ordinance against anyone except the City's chosen recycling
company from taking the blue bags.
Implication: the only thing worth recycling was aluminum...and it was
already being recycled before the mandatory recycling scheme.

Second story:
I live in a suburb of St Louis. We have single stream recycling. My
family pays about $43 per quarter for the recycling service, and I estimate
that we produce about 400 pounds of recyclables during that time. That
comes to about $215 per ton. Hmmmm. Doesn't seem like such a good deal to
me. I wonder how many resources are consumed by those $215 worth of
expenses...versus the $40 to landfill a ton (or $8 for our 400 lbs of

Ron Johnson
Webster Groves, MO"

Mr Jacoby responded:

"<< Because the early morning trash pickers beat the recycling trucks to
the aluminum. >>

Funny you should mention that -- it is *precisely* the point I am going to
begin my second column with. In my neighborhood every week, a little old
Vietnamese lady goes through the trash, diligently removing all the
aluminum cans. I have no idea what she'll do with the big new bins, which
are as tall as she is.

I'm a transplanted Clevelander too -- grew up in South Euclid and
University Heights.

all the best,

Jeff Jacoby
Op-Ed Columnist
The Boston Globe"

Ahhhh. My new best friend.

I also responded to an invitation by the local Republican Party to view a movie about radical islam. I declined by writing:

"I will not be attending this showing. While I have not seen this particular movie, I have researched the subject sufficiently to no longer be concerned with radical muslims. They are no more a threat to our national security than is the KKK, which is not to say that they don't exist, just that they are of such marginal significance that the real danger is in overstating their power. In our fear of an impotent enemy, we have passed the Constitution-busting Patriot Act, damaged habeas corpus, initiated domestic spying on innocent Americans, passed the Real ID Act, passed the Military Commissions Act, excused torture, intiated two wars (maybe soon to be three), and have now introduced full body scanners at airports. All this in what used to be a free country. Our fear is our enemy, not radical muslims.

We need to be cognisant of our provocations that have helped to fuel the Jihad. Invading muslim countries that have not attacked us, propping up muslim dicators, overthrowing elected muslim governments, etc., has given the radical muslims legitimate cause celebre around which to chant their hate for America. If we followed the traditional Republican formula of NOT policing the world, we would remove from them the little traction they have in the muslim world, and virtually all traction in the West.

Now, more than ever, we need a non-interventionist foreign policy and we need to reject fear-mongering.

I can't see how this movie can possibly help in that regard.

Ron Johnson"

I was surprised, and pleased, to get the following response:

"You raise some valid points. I am only the messenger on this one. I was asked to forward the invitation from Gravois Township and did so. I know nothing about the content of the movie. It would be interesting to see if the issues you raised are mentioned in the movie or how the history of attacks have/when occurred. I believe we have mishandled several issues and I have concerns about those as well. I don't know who produced this film and I don't know if it only concerns incidents in the United States.

But thanks for letting me know and again, I was just asked to pass this along.


I think she likes me.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Is It Safe?

The short answer: no.

The United States Court of Appeals has ruled that a U.S. citizen may not sue for damages if he has been falsely imprisoned and tortured by the CIA or one of its' private contractors. Allowing a suit, says the court, may reveal secret and top secret information.

Couple this with the statement by the Department of Justice that self-proclaimed 'Constitutionalists,' Ron Paul followers, and Tea Party advocates are "potential terrorists." Obama has asserted and won the power to arrest and detain indefinitely anyone he deems to be a 'suspected terrorist.' He has also asserted and won the power to deny and abridge habeas corpus in suspected terrorist cases.

I am an admirer of Ron Paul. I have written favorably about the Constitution and Ron Paul. According to the DOJ, I could be a potential terrorist. The Executive branch could cull through my writings, collect evidence via secret 'National Security Letters' (that I would not be allowed to discuss with a lawyer), and determine I fit the profile of a potential terrorist (the law does not require them to present any evidence to any neutral third party, so reading my drivel is not really necessary, nor is giving reasons for labeling me a 'potential terrorist,' though even the old Soviet Union liked to have confessions and the patina of evidence to justify its' oppressions) and have me arrested and put in jail. As a 'terror suspect,' I would not have the right to see the evidence against me or challenge my detention in any court. The Executive could do with me as he/she wished, including having me tortured with 'enhanced interrogation techniques.' This could go on for days, weeks, months, or years. If, or when, it is found I was incarcerated and tortured based on the evidence of lies or, worse, political persecution, I could be released at a whim, but I would have no right to sue my persecutors for the injustice they committed because the act of arbitrary imprisonment could, itself, be considered a state secret.

They hold all the cards. I have an empty hand. They can do with me as they wish. They can do with YOU as they wish.

This is not paranoia. This is real in every way except magnitude. So far, these rules have only been used against brown people. Muslims. That they have not been used more widely should not be looked upon as proof that it never will be. On the contrary, it is a near certainty that uninhibited power will be exercised in an unlimited way.

It is not safe to speak one's mind. It is not safe to write. It is not safe to associate.

It is not safe.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Oh, How The World Has Changed

This YouTube got me to thinking about the Bush/Obama "free speech zones," and how far we have come in just one generation:

And then there was this:

I was a freshman at the University of Michigan in the 1975-76 school year when Gerald Ford decided to announce at his alma mater his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President.

The event was held at the basketball arena not too far from Central Campus. I, and thousands of other U of M students and local residents, flooded the streets as if we were going to a sporting event. I remember reaching the door to the arena and being surprized that every single person was given a once-over and a bag check before being allowed inside. They even took my umbrella and examined it closely (it was a rainy day). I'd never been exposed to official paranoia before. I remember thinking how silly it was.

The arena was packed. I don't remember exactly, but I think it held about 15,000, and since this was not that long after the Nixon pardon, it was not a friendly crowd. When the president finally appeared at the podium for his speech, the place went nuts. There was little chance of actually hearing Ford over the screaming, yelling, chants, insults, and general mayhem. At one point, someone lit a string of firecrackers (remember, Ford had been the target of two prior assassination attempts) and Secret Service agents came out of the woodwork, tackled Ford, then dashed out into the audience to look for the perpetrator. A half minute later, Ford stepped back to the podium and continued speaking through the renewed chants and cat-calls.

I'm sure Ford could not have picked a worse place to launch his candidacy. The opposition to him was fierce. He must have left Ann Arbor with a very bad feeling about his political future.

Contrast that event 35 years ago with the Bush/Obama era of "free speech zones." Shunted off to fenced-in locations blocks away from the President, the protesters shout but no one hears. They wave signs, but no one sees. How in heaven's name is our government to know when the people are angry? This cannot end well.

I'm afraid our children will come to think of this as normal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Escape Clause

Most Americans are sympathetic to the libertarian ideas of small government, low taxes, equality before the law, innocent until proven guilty, and self-reliance. Many a Tea Party speech has begun with a quote from Jefferson, Madison, and Thoreau. The Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are enshrined as near perfect documents. Why, then, are people repelled by the term 'libertarian?' Why do some of the advocates of small government attack 'libertarianism' with terms like 'juvenile,' or 'moronic,' or worse? Even regular posters at the are dismissive of libertarianism, though Ron Paul himself describes himself as a libertarian. How could it be libertarianism could come to be so reviled among people who would otherwise be considered fellow travelers?

I think it's because there is no Escape Clause.

There are different approaches to the origins of libertarian philosophy, but the most common one is the 'non-agression' principle. Stated simply, you may do as you wish with with your life and your property as long as you do not initiate aggression against anyone else's life or property. Nearly everyone says, 'this is all fine, but...'

But what about the poor...we need to steal from some people to give wealth to others.
But what about drug users...we need to take control of their lives because we don't like what they are doing.
But what about health care...we need to force people to value it as much as we do.
But what about (your favorite cause)...we need to enslave others because the results will be good.

Everyone has their Escape Clause. They are happy to agree to the non-aggression long as they are exempt from it. Everyone seems to have a little larceny in them. Of course, and entire society built around larceny quickly becomes a free-for-all for pickpockets. That, I think is the society we currently live in. Many of my friends would say, "So...?" They accept the idea that everyone is out to steal from everyone else...that's just the way it is.

Yet these same people are the Tea Partiers who decry the confiscation by taxes of their hard earned money. I believe they are concious of their hypocrisy...they just can't help themselves. They feel they need the legal option to steal or enslave, at least a little, if they feel like it. They WANT their Escape Clause.

So they have it. And they have the society that results from it, and they are not happy. What these Tea Partiers can't fathom is that once it is accepted that robbing, maiming, and killing others for what they consider necessary reasons, they have essentially muttered the open sesame that makes all other reasons acceptable. The tepid conservatives, who mouth the words about individual liberty, hand to their big-government, big spending, high tax, regulate-them-'till-they bleed, opposition all the justifications for every confiscation, imposition, and oppression known to man. The big government people don't need an escape clause. They just need the small government people to agree there must be one. Or one hundred. Or seventy thousand (the number of pages of Federal Regulations, minus the sixteen thousand pages of the Tax Code).

This is the essence of the Escape Clause. It is the escape from morality, the blessing of the cruel, and the justification of the unjust. It is the purposeful breaking of our moral compass so we can be freed from the dictates of universal principles that cross over all cultures and epochs: It is wrong to rob, injure, enslave, or kill another human being. Indeed, an entire class of educated, attractive, and engaging people argues that not only are these actions acceptable, they are necessary and noble. Psychology labels these people 'sociopaths;' they label themselves 'public servants.'

Libertarianism does not have Escape Clauses. It says you should not rob, nor is it acceptable to get your Congressman to rob for you. You should not injure, nor should you get the police to do it for you. You should not enslave, and no government should force other's to live for your sake.

So because libertarianism advocates individual liberty, but does not twist itself in a knot creating moral loopholes, it is considered moronic.

Got it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ok, smarty, what would YOU do?

The country is in a tough economic spot. All indications are that there is no recovery from this two year old recession. More people are losing their jobs. More businesses are going bankrupt. A general gloom has decended over the marketplace.

The federal government has tried the standard remedies: lower interest rates, deficit spending, make-work programs, and bailouts. Nothing has worked. The critics of the current, and former, government have been crying that the powers-that-be are impoverishing us all. The supporters of the government are responding that the critics have no better ideas and that they are just playing politics with a national tragedy.

Fair enough. I have been a critic by claiming, from early on, the government's programs won't work and will probably make the problems worse. So far I have been right. But do I have any positive contribution to make beyond sniping at our Dear Leader? As a card-carrying amateur pundit and economic seer, let me try my hand.

My Take On The Situation:

First, I believe the cause of this recession is the same as all the other recessions and depressions of the past. Credit booms lead to credit busts, as day leads to night. The Austrian economists von Mises and Hayek constructed an understanding of the boom and bust cycle almost a hundred years ago that explains in clear cause-and-effect terms how new credit money causes malinvestment and cannot be sustained, therefore there is credit contraction, deflation, and correction (recession, bankruptcies, etc.). So, if you want to stop a recession, don't have a credit boom. Once the credit expansion has happened, the rest is inevitable.

Where are we in this cycle today? We have just endured 40 years of credit expansion exacerbated by the disconnection of our money supply from the only anchor it had: gold. With the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971, and our reniging on agreements to redeem our dollars with gold, the door was left wide open for monetary expansion without limit. All things being equal, a currency that is inflated far beyond the economy's increases in goods and services will lose value. Prices would go up. People would demand more pay. The spiral of "cost-push inflation" and continuing loose money policies would result in ever accelerating price increases until the money lost all value in a hyper-inflation. That did not happen in the U.S. because the dollar became the "reserve currency of the world," thereby soaking up the newly minted dollars to be used in other international exchanges. We were able to create the money instead of products, and send it overseas to trade for goods. The effect was to make it economically silly to produce products here when we could buy all we wanted with paper and electronic dollars created from nothing.

That new money, however, came into our hands via debt. The loans we, and our government, took out fueled the boom in the stock market, the dot-coms, housing, and now bonds. But at the core, they were still loans that needed to be serviced. When the debt load became excessive, we, as individuals, stopped funding our purchases with new debt and the recession began. When banks stopped lending, credit cards cancelled customers, and consumers started paying down their debts, the money supply reversed.

Deflation became the name of the game, and according to the Federal Reserve, the enemy. Ben Bernanke earned the name "Helicopter Ben" when he pledged to prevent deflation (sometimes referred to as 'liquidity crisis') by dropping money from the air if need be. So far, despite doubling the M1 money supply in a recent 12 month period, the total M3 money supply has been shrinking by over 9% on an annualized basis. Thus the growing unemployment, downward pressure on prices, and bankruptcies. You can see why he would consider deflation to be the enemy.

What Can Be Done?

The danger in trying to reinflate the money supply is that the result could easily be a newer and bigger bubble, total loss of confidence in the dollar, and hyperinflation, or, just as bad, the economy may refuse to reinflate with new lending and instead painfully deflate over a long period of time instead of all at once. Decades of precious life could be squandered.

The first thing that must be acknowledged is that the correction is inevitable. Stop trying to fight it, because all you will do is expend resources you will need later. As Churchill was supposed to have said: when you're going through hell, keep going. We need to get through this, and as quickly as possible.

So, no bailouts, no stimulus, no subsidies, no zero interest rates. These are the things that caused our injury, so we need to stop doing them. The immediate result will be a sudden deflation.

The Federal budget will have to be slashed, and not by a little, but by a lot. Forget our overseas will have to go. The military will have to refocus on defending the U.S., not nationbuilding Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm guessing an 80% reduction would be about right.

Subsidies for all our Federally funded pet projects will have to end, from arts projects, to cash for clunkers, to the space program. Done. Over. If we don't, there will be no way to stop Federal borrowing that's putting us on the path to becoming a banana republic.

Social programs are in a different league. Programs that help those who reasonably cannot help themselves should be kept intact. I'm talking about Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Because each of these programs is essentially broke today, they may require even more funding in the future as the economy tanks and the demographics of the baby-boom retirement looms. I believe that each of these programs is doomed to fail, so I advocate, long term, planning their reduction and elimination. But that's for another day. Today, if they were eliminated, helpless people would starve to death.

Next, take some positive steps. Allow people to escape from the crashing dollar system by giving them the option to make deals or settle their debts in any currency or commodity they please. This could be done by repealing the legal tender laws that require settlement of debts in dollars. The dollar would quickly seek its' own value amongst all the options out there. For the average person, however, they would have an escape from the inflate/deflate rollercoaster, and this one move alone could give the economy the ability to quickly correct and rebound.

During a deflation, it is critical that expenses be reduced to match the reduced money supply. The biggest single expense in most people's lives is the burden of government: taxes. The burden must not be allowed to grow, and ideally will shrink, as a percent of income. Less money for the government means more money for the people to service their debts, accumulate savings, invest in their future, and enjoy their lives. But make no mistake: if tax cuts mean more government borrowing, nothing is gained! Government spending at all levels must be cut AND taxes must be cut in order to lighten the burdens on the economy and allow it to rebuild.

I would make it illegal for the Federal Reserve to create money out of thin air. That is where the inflationary boom and deflationary bust cycle has its' beginning. Fractional reserve banking is the mechanism by which a small amount of currency becomes are large amount of credit, and it is also the point of failure in our monetary system. Banks create debt in the society by lending the same money out multiple times at once, thereby falsely increasing the apparent money in the economy. When the people are overburdened with debt, they cease new borrowing and begin to pay back their loans, which causes the apparent money supply to contract (deflation). The banks are now at risk of runs on their deposits, as there is not enough money in reserve to satisfy all of the claimants, so they build their reserves by not lending, and the economy goes into a tailspin. It all started with the Federal Reserve and the practice of fractional reserve banking. Both must be stopped, or the boom and bust cycle can never be brought under control.

I don't think we can outlaw fractional reserve banking overnight, though that might be the moral thing to do, because the deflationary shock to the economy would shake our society down to its' bones. I also would not change the reserve requirements to make the banks more resistant to runs, because that would provide the people with a false sense that the banks are "safe" when infact they are still insolvent. 100% reserves would be 100% safe, but the deflation that would be required to get there might do serious social and political harm to our society. Instead, I would eliminate the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and make it clear that nothing is completely safe. Suddenly companies and the people will want to know that their bank is treating their money with care, and banks will become more careful with their loan porfolio. If the Federal Reserve is prevented from printing money to 'loan' to banks to save them from their mistakes, then there would be a real chance that banks could go out of business if they are reckless with their depositors' money. The market would discipline banks in a way no regulator ever could.

Finally, to allow full employment at lower money supply levels, wage rates must be allowed to fluctuate. While it may seem cruel to eliminate the minimum wage, it is far far more cruel to condemn an entire class of people (the people who have the least education, are aged or inexperienced, disabled, or otherwise less productive) to institutional unemployment. They must be allowed to work for an agreed upon wage, even if they wage is very low. Full employment would ensue, and because the costs of overhead would plummet, prices would drop also. This is not so radical an idea as most people would assume. One of the tenants of Keynesian economics is that inflation of the money supply is needed to achieve full employment because people are resistant to accepting lower wages. An increase in the money supply means devalued purchasing power, which means REAL wages are lowered without the worker's knowledge. As all economists know, Keynesians included, real wages must go down if large masses of unemployed are to find jobs again. I believe inflating the money supply to acheive full employment introduces us to the boom and bust cycle detailed above. Let's be up front with the unemployed and tell them they will need to work for less instead of stealing their purchasing power and creating the boom and bust cycle to achieve the same end.

Those are my thoughts today. I'll get back to you when they are on the verge of being adopted.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's Not All or Nothing

There was a long piece in the Daily Kos this week that 'exposed' libertarians and their goofy-subversive-dangerous ideas. Outside of the general snarky patina of the article, it was actually a pretty good survey of libertarian positions on most issues. There were some key, and common, characterizations that were, I felt, wide of the mark. I have chosen to highlight one that I feel is fundamental to the overall misunderstanding of the libertarian philosophy.

I am often accused of being an idealist. Unable to deal with the 'real world,' they say, I adhere to an ideology that has no practical application. There is no constituency to abolish the FDA, SSA, CIA, IRS, or DEA. Also, a libertarian society would provide no safety net and people could starve, or be homeless, or die without all these government programs. Imposing the libertarian system on a modern society would require everyone to accept it, and that ain't going to happen. Idealism never works, they say, which is why all 'isms' fail. Libertarianism is no different from Communism. Pie in the sky, impractical, doomed to failure.

Perhaps the critique of Communism is correct. It does seem to require a violent revolution to wipe away the old bourgeois regime and replace it with a worker's paradise in one fell swoop. If the program is not adopted in its' entirety, it fails. Let one bourgeois remain in power and he will ruin the Communist stew. Root them out! Kill them all! Purge society of the wreckers so Communism can flourish and create a worker's paradise. So when critics of Communism say it doesn't work, and Communists reply that it hasn't been tried, the Communists have a point. (Forget for a moment that successful small scale communist experiments have been carried out in the U.S. since the early 1800's, in towns such as New Harmony and New Economy.) Both the critics of Communism and the supporters of Communism agree: what has been tried in various nations around the world has lacked the requisite purity, and they have all failed miserably. Maybe it would work if pure, but we know it won't work if it is impure.

While Libertarianism tries to be a comprehensive political philosophy, like the Marxist and Communist theories, it does not run afoul of the same purity problem as other 'isms.' Impure libertarian societies have existed on a national scale, and they have been highly successful. I'm thinking of the U.S. prior to World War I. The Roman Republic before Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Hong Kong. Even the ancient Hebrews lived in a kind of libertarian world with no kings or rulers (the Jews were warned not to get a king because he would tax their wealth and send their children off to war...oh how prophetic!) In each case, the relative freedom enjoyed by individuals in those societies resulted in stable and wealthy communities. As their freedoms were curtailed, each of those societies experienced a decline in wealth, stability, and vitality (Hong Kong has not yet seen a decline, as it remains one of the freest places on earth despite belonging to a 'communist' country). Libertarian theory endorses the idea that more freedom means more wealth, stability, and security, while less freedom means more poverty, discontent, and conflict.

Taken to its' logical extreme, Libertarianism calls for an entirely voluntary society. A century and a half ago, that might have been imaginable. Today, from the perspective of people who are taxed, licensed, mandated, regulated, and subsidized by a 360 degree government that alternates between kind paternalism and nasty scold, this is a ridiculous thought. Surely the Libertarian ideal is so disconnected with the world as it exists that it is not worthy of serious consideration. Problems today must be fixed with practical solutions, not pie-in-the-sky theories.

Actually, this is where Libertarianism excels. Since Libertarianism does not require perfect execution to generate positive results, it can be taken in small pieces. Example: When the airlines were "deregulated" in the late 1970's and early 1980's, there was loud complaining that air travel would become more expensive and unsafe. Libertarian theory said it would become more affordable, flexible, and safer (if that was important to consumers). Indeed, that is exactly what happened. Air travel boomed. Over the next ten years fares dropped by some 50% and the number of carriers and routes doubled, making air travel affordable and practical for millions of Americans who otherwise would not have considered flying. The entire economy did not have to be deregulated, just a portion of a portion. More freedom was better, however limited.

The same thing happened with the trucking business at about the same time. The result was lower freight rates for industry and lower merchandise prices for consumers.

Alcohol prohibition in the 1920's resulted in a wave of violent crime as gangs battled over the black market while doing little to decrease drinking. Making alcohol legal again was another step in the direction of freedom, and the unintended consequences of prohibition disappeared overnight. A similar approach is needed with marijuana, and for the same reasons: it is practical and it is the right thing to do in a free society. Theory says that society would benefit from legalizing all drugs, but it will benefit from just the first small step with marijuana.

Libertarianism is not all or nothing. In general, freedom is good, more freedom is better. It is not necessary to have a pure Libertarian system to experience the benefits of freedom. Libertarian theory can be taken to the extreme...if you want...but it can also be taken is small pieces if that is all your society can handle. No need for a violent revolution. Just the steady drip, drip, drip of ideals and practical compromise. Then, one day, we may all be free. Perfectly free.

And it will seem perfectly reasonable.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Musings on History as it Is and as it Was

Rand Paul was in trouble this week. He touched on the sacrosanct 1964 Civil Rights Act and mentioned it was less than perfect. For three news cycles he was vilified as a wide-eyed idealist out of touch with reality, or as a closet racist. No amount of denial mattered. The hole he had dug kept getting deeper...until he did the only thing left and shut up. Now he is a silent racist, I guess.

What Rand came to appreciate is that history comes in two parts: Is and Was. The "Is" part clobbered him his week. "Was" could have defended him, but it was no where to be found. My experience is that "Was" always shows up a little late, but in a tux. "Is" is always johnny-on-the-spot with hair-on-fire.

Sorry, dear reader, if I've lost you. Let me try again.

A question was posed to me by a fellow on the How could I defend the sanctity of property rights, as a libertarian, if a black person came to town and no one would give him a meal or a hotel room? Wouldn't the 1964 Civil Rights Act be necessary to save the black man from starvation or the elements? (In other words, Mr. Libertarian Fancy Pants, I challenge you to apply your principles consistently and commit social and poltical hari kari for the amusement of all). I nearly took the bait and responded by putting my head in that noose, but then I read the question again...and I sought more information.

The office a couple of doors from mine is occupied by a most interesting person. He is a tall thin man of about seventy years who speaks with the slow drawl of a life-long Mississippian. He is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, though that doesn't prevent him from taking sides in a political fight, sometimes for one and sometimes for the other. As a Jew, he was taught by his father to treat all persons equally because, his father said, "when they're done with the blacks, they'll come for the Jews."

Who better to ask about conditions in the pre-1964 South? So I layed out the question as it had been posed to me and watched him as he leaned back and wound-up his story-telling machine.

" first job out of college was selling shoes in Jackson, Mississippi. I will tell you that growing up in Vicksburg, I never saw an act of blatant racism. I'm sure there was some, but I never saw it. Blacks and whites worked together, lived together. Hell, two black women raised me, and if I did something I wasn't supposed to, they whupped me, too. But I won't mislead you...there were separate drinking fountains and restrooms, and I'm sure blacks couldn't sit in the front of many restaurants. There was probably no trouble because blacks 'knew their place,'" I caught a little wince in his face as he finished his sentence.

"In Jackson, just out of college, the owner of the shoe store I worked in was a terrible racist. He was so bad that he didn't allow his black customers to sit down. They had to buy the shoes standing up and take them home to try them on. When I saw that, I asked myself if I could even work for an asshole like that. But there was a manager in that store who would keep watch for the owner, and when the coast was clear, he'd have the black customers step into the stockroom where they could try on the shoes without being seen. Word got out in the black community and the black customers would come in when that manager was on duty."

He continued. "My own father owned a clothing store and he sold expensive clothes. Many of our customers bought on the layaway plan. Every week they'd come in a make a payment, and I'd remember the black women coming in and pulling cash out of their brassieres or their hose to put down on those clothes. If they couldn't make a payment, they'd stop in and say, 'sorry, Mr. B, but my husband got laid off from the mill this week and I can't pay you, but I promise I'll be back as soon as he gets a job.' My dad would hold the goods, unless the situation got abusive, and wait for them to pay. They usually did. I remember him showing me the card file where all of the layaway accounts were kept, and him telling me 'look here, our worst accounts are white, with not one colored customer in that stack.' I never forgot it."

I relayed to him how my father did not meet a black person until he was drafted into the army in World War II. Whatever his experience was there, he had nothing but derogatory comments to make about blacks, yet one night at about 10:00 there was a knock on our door. Two black men were asking for a lift into town, as their car had broken down a couple of miles up the road. My dad put on his coat and drove them fifteen miles into the nearest town. We all stayed up until he returned. After all, these were BLACK people and outside of my dad's army stories the only thing we knew about blacks was that Bill Cosby was funny, but the rest of blacks were burning down Detroit, Cleveland, and LA (this was the 1960's). When my dad returned, he said 'those were two of the nicest n*****rs I ever met.'

I told my friend that my own convictions were formed by reading "Black Like Me" in high school, and forever after that my father and I were at loggerheads concerning race. Nevertheless, my friend told me that even within families, there was no consistent approach to race. Heck, I replied, even within a single person there's no consistent approach.

And, I said, as a Northerner I was taught that there was blatant racism everywhere in the South. Whites against blacks. No middle ground. This whole discussion about Rand, the Civil Rights Act, and the South is based on stereotypes. The reality was much more nuanced, and much more humane, even if it had elements of terrible bigotry.

I went back to my desk and drafted my response to my questioner.

"It is said that extreme cases make bad law, meaning that the law cannot be written to right every possible wrong. To do so would create solutions that are worse than the sin. Is your scenario possible? Yes. Is your scenario probable? No. It didn't happen that way in the past and there is no reason to believe it would in the future."

"Is" gets right to the point and says before 1964 whites were racists and blacks were oppressed victims. "Was" isn't so kind as to wrap it all up in a single sentence and instead likes to start by pulling out an old cigar, leaning back in a chair, and musing..." 1955 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a town of sixteen thousand or so, I remember...."

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Last Resort

In a community college acting class many years ago, I learned a life lesson that haunts me to this day: the trump card in any dispute, whether personal or political, is always violence.

The teacher paired up the class and gave each of us scenarios that we had to improvise our way through, with the "winner" being the one who achieved the particular goal he was assigned. I was paired with Mike, a large man a few years older than me, who had a very overbearing presence. Our scenario was this: Mike was an auto mechanic who never refunds money when he has an unhappy customer. Me? I was the unhappy customer hell bent on getting my money back on a bad repair job.

I walked into Mike's garage on stage to confront him, but he immediately slipped under a "car," which was a bunch of metal chairs arranged in a rectangle. As I tried to explain that I wanted a refund, he began banging on the "car" with a hammer and making an god-awful racket. No matter what I said, he yelled back that he couldn't hear me. I crawled under the "car" and began yelling at him so he couldn't ignore me, but Mike just banged louder. This scene went on for several minutes, much to the amusement of our classmates.

I was stymied. I couldn't make an argument, indeed I couldn't be heard, so I was being totally ineffectual in achieving the goal of getting the refund. As this was leading to a failure in the task, I switched gears, crawled out from under the "car," and in a moment of inspiration I announced that I found the imaginary cash box, pantomimed opening it, declared there was 50 bucks in there, and made like I had tucked it under my arm as I declared that was good enough, and I marched out of the garage with Mike sputtering in the background. I had won.

I observed my classmates going through their scenarios and noted that it was not eloquence, or wit, or technique that would win the task, but rather some physical action such as a punch, or a shot from a gun, or, in my case, a robbery. The actor who was most effective was often the one who resorted to the most violent solution.

In the context of life, the lesson, I fear, is all too real. There is great anger in the country right now. Despite strong nationwide opposition, our Congressmen, Senators, and President, have spent trillions bailing out the rich bankers, taking over General Motors, expanding wars, and nationalizing the health care industry. The anger in the street is palpable. By god, we say, we will VOTE OUT ALL THE BUGGERS and take our country back...except that we the people don't control the voting booth. The government does. We mass thousands to protest...but the government literally pretends we don't exist. We write to our representatives, but they send us back form letters full of pablum excusing their votes. We can almost imagine the government sitting in their offices sniggering at the utter uselessness of all that storming around. What's worse is we KNOW they are laughing at us.

Breaking points are as varied as the people who have them. And we all have them. Joe Stack found his. Jim Koresh found his. Tim McVeigh found his. As the disconnect between the people and the politicians gets wider, more and more people will find theirs'. One by one, as talking, protesting, and voting doesn't work, people will turn to other means. The government knows this, and it has an enormous stockpile of weapons and agents trained to use them to try to keep a lid on the people's anger. Both sides are likely to turn to violence: the people to random acts of destruction, maiming, and killing, and the government to harsh repression against everyone, guilty and innocent alike, which will push even more to the breaking point. The spiral downward appears inevitable.

Except that I believe that where there is life, there is hope. I hope the people can find the right levers of power to influence that will return the government to its' proper size and role. I pray, though I am not a praying man, the petty tyrants in Washington will sense that the only way to defuse this anger is with talk or with blood, and I hope they choose the former.

If they don't, they will surely get the latter.

I don't revel in this insight. I fear it. I fight against it. I advocate non-violence. But I see the strength of government prompting a response from the people to meet force with more force. The most ruthless will win...and after that how will they conduct themselves? With honor? Unlikely.

Violent revolution, like violent repression, leads to societies of fear and barrenness. If we don't meet the government with violence, they will steamroll us. If we do, we are likely to become the new oppressors.

Dark thoughts for dark times.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Letter To An Awakening Friend

I wrote the letter below to a friend of mine who has just discovered He and I had spoken many times in the past couple of years about the mid-east wars, the economy, politics, etc., and I always knew he was more of a neo-con than a conservative. But he has an open mind, so we were able to talk productively even though we disagreed on the interpretation of current events. Having stumbled on libertarian/conservative information on his own and finding it convincing enough to be disturbed by it means that he is moving more in my direction. I wanted to let him know I agreed.


(Sorry, in advance, for my long response)
I checked out the blog. Interesting. There is a lot of crossover information here with the websites I frequent. My focus has been on the current economic/political situation and the likely unfolding of events in the future. The Survivalist Blog seems to cover much of the same information with the added twist of advising how people can protect themselves. The writer seems sane and measured, not wooly haired and crazy-eyed. There is probably good prudent advice in there that we should all take.

As for the alarming nature of the information: I lose sleep sometimes when I get too far "down the rabbit hole." The causal connections, several times removed, between actions of our "leaders" and the meltdown of our economy and the perversion of our Constitution, sometimes is so clear to me that I cannot understand why other people cannot see it. Then I remember that I've been reading related stuff for the last 35 years, and that I cannot expect the average person to just read one book or article, or even a dozen books and articles, and expect them to come to the same conclusions I have.

I believe we are in for a very difficult time in the future. The large picture is: our economy was fooled by easy money generated by deficit spending, expansionist Federal Reserve policy, and fractional reserve banking.

People thought they were richer than they really were (I was one of them); they borrowed and bought and pushed prices upward for thirty years with the expectation there would be more money tomorrow.

When the new money was not sufficient to fulfull our expectations of ever-increasing prices, prices began to fall.

Falling prices began to reveal unsound investments (think: real estate, but it applies to other areas of the economy also) and the loans that supported them could not be repaid.

The banks and investment houses that were the most leveraged (fractional reserve banks are always insolvent, by their nature) were the first to collapse, leading to a chain reaction of insolvencies and credit contraction, which destroys the circulating money supply (just as increasing credit in a fractional reserve system creates money) and principle paydowns (which sucks money out of the economy).

With a decreasing circulating money supply (despite the trillions the Fed pumped into favored banks to prop them up, which they either can't or won't lend), asset prices will continue to drop...for a far...leading to bone-crunching deflation, unemployment, bankruptcies, etc., a process that, if allowed to happen, would be complete in a year or so as the economy adjusted to the new reality of a lower money supply, then started growing again...

But the trillions of dollars being lavished on the financial houses by the Fed will eventually find its' way back into the circulating money supply.

The new money will begin competing with existing money for existing goods and services, and in a very short time prices will skyrocket...but wages will not (why? because of the large number of unemployed workers who, due to competition with other unemployed workers, cannot demand higher pay).

This will result in bone-crushing inflation for everyone, but especially for people on Social Security, pensions, or other fixed state aid.

If the scenario I have written above is correct, our country is in for an extreme amount of instability, both political and economic. People will be discouraged, and maybe even dangeously hungry. They will get restive, possibly violent. With the instability will come calls for more law and order, which will come at the expense of the Bill of Rights. The question will be: will the American people rediscover the wisdom of the Constitution (which, if followed, would have prevented this scenario to begin with), or will they adopt a different political framework, such as a leader cult or an oligopoly?

There is no way of knowing how it will all resolve itself, but it is unlikely that the America of our youth will be the America of our future.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: "How America Can Rise Again"

A Canadian friend of mine sent me a link to James Fallows' latest Atlantic Online article entitled "How America Can Rise Again." While I think highly of Mr. Fallows' writing, I am usually at odds with his conclusions. My reaction to this article was no exception.

In presenting his case, first he catalogs the ills currently plaguing the U.S.: high unemployment and loss of the middle class, disintegrating infrastructure, lagging communications development, dysfunctional Federal government, and military overreach. Then, as if laying out a balance sheet, he points to assets that offset these liabilities: relative openness of the society, welcoming of immigrants, plenty of money, world-leading university system, and a 400 year tradition of "jeremiads" leading to reflection and change. These strengths, he believes, will allow America to reshape itself through political reforms (he is partial to the Parliamentary system).

Mr. Fallows admits he has been away from the country for a few years and that his impressions of America, upon his return, are somewhat skewed by his experience in
China. Certainly, compared with China, America is more open, multi-ethnic, flexible, rich, and educated. One could stand in China today and compare it to China of twenty five years ago and make the same comparisons and come to the same conclusions. But it is questionable whether one can say that about America of 1985 and America of 2010. The weaknesses in America are real and growing, whereas the strengths, also real, are almost all in decline. Following the trend line of the past couple of decades, the future is bleak.

What do I mean? Let's take openness to immigrants, for example. Yes, Americans are generally an accepting people. It is common to find foreign born citizens or permanent residents in all walks of life, and there is absolutely no animosity aimed at them (unless they are Arab, which is a whole other discussion). If there is an anti-immigrant constituency, it is limited to "illegal" immigrants (read: Mexican). However, the laws and government policies concerning foreigners coming to the U.S. are a very different story. The visa hurdles, the quizzing and profiling at points of entry, the heavy hand of the Transportation Safety Administration, and the bureaucratic nightmare of running afoul of immigration rules (especially if you are Arab), has led to a decline in the number of foreign visits to the U.S. in the last ten years, despite a general rise in tourism and transnational travel in the rest of the world. Highly publicized incidents, such as that of the British little-old-ladies en-route to Australia who refueled in L.A. only to be forced to deplane and stand for hours with no bathroom breaks while awaiting interrogation by the TSA, have only served to shine a spotlight on our official "unwelcome" mat at the door. Official policy: if you are foreign, you are a potential enemy.

As for the flexibility of our society, that, too, is a relic of the past. What made us flexible economically and socially in the past was a relative dearth of legal restrictions. It has long been noted by European economists that the U.S. has been a marvelous job-creating machine over the last several decades in contrast to the relative stagnation of much of Europe. Double digit unemployment in France, Spain, and Germany has been the norm for over a generation. Why not in the U.S.? Because we had fewer reasons NOT to invest, NOT to hire, NOT to expand. In France, for example, it is very difficult to fire a worker (this was intended to tip the power scales in favor of workers), so employers are very reluctant to hire in the first place for fear of being burdened with unproductive workers. The result is institutionally encouraged unemployment. No such rules existed in the U.S., but when glancing at the ever-expanding mandates on employers for documentation, citizenship verification, mandatory leave, matching taxes, minimum wages, and soon-to-be government required insurance, one can see the disincentives to hiring building up. We are not yet France, but we are no longer encouraging employment.

And employment is only one area of rigidity. Business licenses, zoning, permits, professional licensing, and continuously changing IRS accounting rules make starting a new enterprise a daunting task. John Stossel did a report on a French company that made pay-per-use curbside toilets and the trials and tribulations they endured trying to get through New York City's regulatory maze. In the end, the company chose not to enter the U.S. market due to onerous regulation, despite strong approval and demand from the New Yorkers who got try out the prototype. When our business environment is less flexible than that of France, we are almost certainly headed in the wrong direction.

What's more is that the mood in Washington is toward more, not less, regulations and mandates. The recent TARP program, the Stimulus Bill of 2009, and the actions of the Federal Reserve in bailing out large financial institutions send a clear message: We Will Not Allow Change To Happen. James Fallows considers our flexibility to be one of our greatest strengths, as indeed it has been, but it is quickly fading as we build institutional firewalls that prevent change from happening.

Mr. Fallows makes the puzzling case that we are wealthy enough to remake the countries of the Middle East, so we are wealthy enough to rebuild our infrastructure. It does not seem to occur to him that one of the main reasons our infrastructure has not been repaired is BECAUSE we are bleeding our wealth into the sands of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and maybe soon Iran. One expense precludes the other. The longer we are expending our limited wealth (and ALL wealth is limited) overseas, the less likely we will have the resources to rebuild our roads and bridges. With the Obama administration seemly committed to never ending war, our infrastructure will continue to fray and unravel.

What's more is that it is becoming more apparent that for the last several decades Americans have been, at best, treading economic water. Due to anomalies in measuring wealth over time, it is difficult to put an exact number on it, but it is becoming disturbingly clear that where one income used to be enough to finance a middle class household, it now almost invariably takes two. In the past ten years, middle class Americans' incomes have been in decline. Draw that trend line again, and weep.

As far as the assertion that institutions of higher education will lead the way to the new American revival, I say, huh? For the last several decades, the vast majority of college graduates do not work in any field they studied for. Indeed, my own experience tells me that a college degree is particularly good at narrowing the field of candidates for an employer to consider, but with the exception of task-specific professions such as engineering, medicine, or law, most education takes place on the job. Our ever-increasing college graduate population has failed to guarantee our continuous growth, so I would not now look to the Universities to lead us out of our current decline.

Mr. Fallows talks about our history of jeremiads. I never heard that word before, but I like it. Yes, we have a long history of bleating into the wind how we are in decline due to our sins, then we pull out of it with some new a bigger advance in wealth and living standards. He states that this current decline may, in fact, be irreversible, but he goes back to the jeremiads of the past and shows how we roused ourselves from our stupor and conquered our ailments. He's betting on that happening again, just because it always happened in the past.

I hesitantly concur. There are numerous voices out there. Some are calling for more and bigger roles for government, some are calling for less. Some are wanting more war, some want to bring all our troops home. Some are clambering for more surveillance and security, and some are lobbying for the return of habeas corpus and our Bill of Rights. Some voices are even calling for a plutocracy of experts to run things (oh, how Platonic!). Which voices will be heard will determine whether or not we will recover or stagnate.

And finally, Mr. Fallows presents us with a political choice to make: "Doing more, or doing less." He chooses doing more with our political system in the form of public/private partnerships, though recognizing that the body politic is sick and "gangrenous." Without active public institutions, private efforts will dissolve into chaos and criminality, he says. To me, this is a bit of a jump. Maybe even a straw man. Doing less is exactly what the Chinese did in order to revive their economy. The Russians have also been experiencing growth as a result of "doing less."

If less can deliver more, then why shall we not consider that avenue of action? Fifty years of continuous government growth have led us to the "lost decade," so maybe it is time to reverse course a bit. The assertion that less government would deprive the society of wealth making opportunities, or even result in the breakdown of private institutions, is unsupported by American history, post cold-war history, economic theory, and current practical experience. James Fallows comes to, ironically, a very conservative don't-rock-the-boat conclusion: let's muddle through and everything will be fine.

This is almost certainly not how America can rise again.