In Which I Am Interviewed at Length About Politics, Criminal Hijinks, and Near-Death Experiences

A buddy of mine, Paul Fuhr, has a weekly podcast in which he interviews interesting people at length about what makes them tick. A few weeks ago, he included me in the category of people he considered worthy of a chat for his Fuhrious Podcast. I’ll let his summary speak for itself (note that I was managing editor of Reason.com, while the excellent Katherine Mangu-Ward was and remains managing editor of the print magazine):

Jerry Tuccille called in from his home near Sedona, Arizona to discuss Libertarianism, the publishing world, the election, what inspires him, hiking the Desert Southwest, family art heists, trying not to die while camping, buying John Cusack a beer, and the challenges of homeschooling. Tuccille is a political writer for Reason, the foremost libertarian magazine in the U.S., where he was its managing editor. His articles have appeared everywhere from Salon to the Washington Times, covering government overreach, civil liberties, and free markets. (Intro Song: “Don’t Wanna Know If You’re Lonely,” Husker Du)

The interview can be found here.

Trump (and Sanders) Damage Not Just America, But the Liberal Democracy Brand

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew / Photo by U.S. Department of Defense

A few days ago, the editorial page of China’s Global Times basically pointed at America’s political system and laughed. Look at what the nagging democrats coughed up!

Big-mouthed, anti-traditional, abusively forthright, [Trump] is a perfect populist that could easily provoke the public. Despite candidates’ promises, Americans know elections cannot really change their lives. Then, why not support Trump and vent their spleen?

The rise of a racist in the US political arena worries the whole world. Usually, the tempo of the evolution of US politics can be predicted, while Trump’s ascent indicates all possibilities and unpredictability. He has even been called another Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler by some Western media.

Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy. Now, most analysts believe the US election system will stop Trump from being president eventually. The process will be scary but not dangerous.

Even if Trump is simply a false alarm, the impact has already left a dent. The US faces the prospect of an institutional failure, which might be triggered by a growing mass of real-life problems.

Pundits immediately (and rightly) jumped on this, pointing out the flaws that the paper was ignoring in China’s own authoritarian system of government, which not only excludes public input but also suppresses dissent. “Of course, there are a couple of glaring lacunae in that argument,” noted the Washington Post‘s Simon Denyer. “The most obvious being the tyranny and mass insanity unleashed by Mao Zedong, who killed tens of millions of his own people, (as indeed Stalin did in the Soviet Union). But hey, that bit of history is officially glossed over here.”

And no matter the populist lunacy into which democracies descend, they’re pretty good at peaceful shifts in political leadership. Dictatorships are a bit clumsy at that whole transition of power thing.

But Denyer and other commenters missed the fact that the Global Times editorial wasn’t a one-off. It’s part of a much larger reconsideration of the principles of government by much of the world that hasn’t fully (or at all) adopted liberal democratic values.A lot of that “reconsideration” is self-serving twaddle by autocrats looking to retain power while granting their subjects sufficient access to prosperity that they don’t revolt. But there’s enough truth to the analysis of the West’s flaws and the growing political crisis in supposedly stable, established systems that editorials criticizing democracy can gain traction among educated people who are deciding on their own future path.

Similar criticism could also be directed at Bernie Sanders–a surging politician who would and should be the year’s astonishment if Americans weren’t flocking in even greater numbers to support an orange authoritarian narcissist. The Vermont socialist’s promises to loot prosperous Americans to support a ludicrous grab-bag of unaffordable goodies are excellent examples of a prevailing problem with western democracies that dominated attention before the emergence of an open thug on the U.S. scene.

In 2014’s The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, John Micklethwait, then editor-in-chief of The Economist, and Adrian Woolridge, management editor of the same magazine, sketched the “revolution” in government through the nation state, the liberal state, and the welfare state. Published just two years ago, the book seems almost quaint as it discusses the crisis in which the modern welfare state finds itself–before the political eruptions of the last year which drove a populist thug to prominence in the Republican Party, an economically illiterate socialist to draw crowds of young Americans, a crazy Trotskyite to gain the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, the surge of nationalist-populists in Germany, France… But though overshadowed since, the authors’ points about the crisis of the modern western political system remains valid. Describing the condition of Britain in the 1970s, they write, “Ever-bigger government meant ever-greater social dysfunction. Vested interests competed ever more viciously for their share of the pie.”

More importantly, those flaws have been picked up by those seeking an alternative–an alternative to western democracy, and also an alternative to loosening their own grip on power.

“When you have popular democracy, to win votes you have to give more. And to beat your opponents in the next election, you have to promise to give more away. So it is a never-ending process of auctions–and the cost, the debt being paid for by the next generation,” they quote Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew as commenting. Lee, who died last year, famously created an economically free and socially authoritarian city state that has limited  democratic input–and stiff penalties for too vigorously criticizing the powers-that-be.

Lee was listened to and is eagerly studied, partly because he tells many people what they want to hear, but also because even when his tightly controlled system suffers an economic setback, it still seems to be doing better than the much freer democracies of the West.

And his example has been adopted and touted elsewhere. At the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong (CELAP) which trains the country’s future government apparatchiks and considers models to take the massive country into the future “there are better places to look than gridlocked America–most notably Singapore.”

The Singapore model is also admired, write Micklethwait and Woolridge, in places including Russia, Dubai, and Rwanda.

So the Global Times editorial fits into the ongoing erosion and disparagement of the western model of liberal democracy–often on a very calculated and deliberate basis–by people considering what system of governance should take them into the future. Many of those people obviously want an authoritarian model that maintains their clout and privileges. But to the extent the established western democracies keep shitting the bed, the Lee Kuan Yews of the world will find an increasingly receptive audience among those who need a system that effectively allows them to get rich while protecting lives and property. Civil liberty…well, if it leads to Trump, maybe they’ll pass.

While critical of libertarianism–at least in quasi-anarchist form–Micklethwait and Woolridge call for a revival of classical liberal solutions which most people would recognize as libertarian. They want to see the state restrained and reduced in size, power devolved, and rights protected. They see that–convincingly I think–as reinvigorating liberal democracy and securing its continued existence where it is already established, as well as its status as a model for the rest of the world.

“It is time to put the ‘liberal’ back into ‘liberal democracy’: to persuade both voters and governments to accept restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overindulge itself.”

Yes, I think that’s convincing. But how to accomplish that is the trick. How do you convince people to rein it in when they’re reveling in the use of the state as a bludgeon (Trump voters) or a mugger-for-hire (Sanders supporters)? Because if they don’t limit themselves, the system will fall apart–and then the Lee Kuan Yews of the world will happily do the limiting for them.

It’s Not Just Trump; the Rot Goes Deeper

Over the weekend, I received a slightly frantic message from an old friend beside herself over the Trump phenomenon that has dominated this year’s political cycle–and looks poised to turn the Republican Party into a smoking pile of wreckage. Her note contained horror not just at Trumpkins, but Republicans in general, who she characterized as “PRO violence, bigotry, racism, lies, hot air and nonsense…”

She’s a Bernie Sanders supporter, herself, and somewhat enamored of socialism.

She went on to explain how she advised a daughter who lives in New Zealand to never move back to the U.S.

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody that I share her dismay over the rise of Trump’s cult of personality. But my diagnosis is rather different. I think the rot goes deeper and has spread more widely. Below is my reply to her.

***

Hi B–!
I appreciate your sentiments. This campaign season is bringing out strong feelings, often for good reason. But some of those feelings–the more vitriolic ones–are part of the problem.

Donald Trump

Photo by: Michael Vadon

Keep in mind that both major political parties are in crisis. The Democratic Party would be perceived as a basket case, if the Republican Party weren’t so obviously on the brink of disintegration and in the process of being hijacked by a populist thug. As Britain’s The Economist notes, “The state of the Republicans is particularly parlous. But the contradictions among Democrats, though less obvious, also run deep.” Trump, a political centrist of the populist variety (really) could have easily run under either party’s banner, but he chose the more hollow and direction-less one for convenience’s sake. That’s because the Republican establishment (some individuals excepted) have spent years ignoring ideas and stirring up opposition for the sake of opposition so that they could avoid taking tough positions on important issues like entitlement reform, spending choices, and corporate welfare. Having handed out pitchforks to the mob, they now find themselves on the receiving end.

But the Democrats are not only deeply divided, they’re also increasingly authoritarian, having abandoned their civil libertarian ideals and interest in foreign policy restraint. That’s how we get a primary race between an openly corrupt party hack and an economically illiterate socialist who praises totalitarian regimes.

That would be a disaster for the Democrats — if somebody who acts like Mussolini wasn’t about to run away with the Republican nomination. As another British commentator notes, “The violence seen in Chicago is part of a long-term crisis: the nihilism of the Right, the authoritarianism of the Left and the weakening of republican institutions.”

As that quote implies, the rot goes deeper than the political parties. A big chunk of our population is embracing populism, nativism, and authoritarianism. Trump is attracting the white blue collar vote across ideological divides. Chunks of the electorate are changing party affiliation to support him, especially in the East and rust belt (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts). Given that he happily operates outside the norms of liberal democracy, this is extraordinarily troubling.

It’s also something that won’t be resolved by the destruction and replacement of the GOP, since the populist mob will still be out there and available for the next leader.

I don’t think Trump will win the election; his negatives are prohibitively high and his divisiveness puts a ceiling on support. But I think our political system is actually sicker than just his candidacy would indicate.

Feel free to share the above, if you like. For what it’s worth, New Zealand–and Australia–look to be in better shape than the U.S. or continental Europe [just hours after I wrote this the state election returns came in from Germany, reporting the success of the Trump-esque AfD]. Both, by the way, are not just politically stable, but less socialist overall (despite rhetoric) than the U.S.

Democracy Is Nothing More Than a Fragile Truce–and We’re Testing Its Limits

Is the truce still on?

Karl Popper. Photo: London School of Economics

Karl Popper, the author of the rightly revered The Open Society and Its Enemies, didn’t believe in “the rule of the people” which he dismissed as a “completely impractical ideology.” Oh, he supported democratic systems of government all right–he just thought it was nonsense to pretend that they represented some sort of popular will. “But, of course, nowhere do the people actually rule,” he wrote for The Economist in 1988. “It is governments that rule (and, unfortunately, also bureaucrats, our civil servants—or our uncivil masters, as Winston Churchill called them—whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to make accountable for their actions).”

Instead, Popper favored democracy as an effective means by which “bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence.” His endorsement of elections was pragmatic.

I would go one step further. Democracy represents not just a relatively peaceful means of disposing of bad rulers, it also represents a suspension of (violent) hostilities between opposing factions within a political system. Ultimately, democracy is an unspoken truce among various peoples suffering under the rule of the government in question. They’re bound together by the assumption that the outcome of elections and legislative debates will be less terrible, on balance, than the political consequences of going at it in the streets hammer and tongs.

That we keep coming back to variations of democracy and that even profoundly unrepresentative (and unresponsive) regimes feel obliged to pretend that they represent the outcome of popular deliberation is testimony to the system’s perceived success in this realm.

But having dispensed with the civic religious trappings surrounding elections and recognizing that their value lies in disposing of the malicious and incompetent, and buffering factional disputes, it’s apparent that democracy’s value continues only so long as the vast majority of people agree that its outcomes can generally be expected to be less bad than the possible results of open conflict. If that perception changes, then all bets are off.

This, I think, is one of the better pragmatic arguments for limited and decentralized government in addition to democracy. By reducing the chances that the various factions that compose a society (and which evolve, disappear, and are replaced over time) will have unacceptable outcomes thrust upon them, you increase the likelihood that working within the democratic process will continue to be perceived as preferable to taking a chance on the alternative. Limited government lowers the stakes by putting some areas of life off-limits to political decision-making. Decentralized government (including federalism in the U.S. context) means that factions can implement political preferences in geographic areas where they’re concentrated while leaving largely untouched those areas where people who would find such policies objectionable are dominant. People caught “behind enemy lines” can (and do) move elsewhere to find a regime more to their liking.

Imperfect, no doubt, but a generally workable and peaceful way of allowing people with important differences to live within the same political system.

So, if you really want to break the truce and make conflict-solution outside the system seem more appealing, raise the stakes. Centralize the political system and increase the reach of whoever is currently in power so that people come to believe that they can’t really afford to lose too many political battles. And then raise tensions by making it difficult to change the people running the political machine.

Looking at the dumpster fire that is political debate and the presidential campaign in 2016 America, I can’t help but thinking that the democratic system is broken across the board. In a world in which political parties usually appear and disappear with regularity, the Republican and Democratic parties have been unassailable for a century and a half, as have most of their leaders, making the system appear (rightly) largely unresponsive in turning out politicians that large segments of the population want to see removed from power (Another Bush? Another Clinton? McConnell? Pelosi?). Resentment at the situation has erupted in the populist candidacies of the economically ignorant but crowd-pleasing Bernie Sanders, and the wildly narcissistic but equally crowd-pleasing Donald Trump. And all levels of government have reached ever-further into people’s lives even as decision-making has been concentrated in Washington, D.C., meaning that there’s no way for people to escape from intrusive policy decisions to which they object.

I don’t see how this ends well.

Expensive College Degrees Become a Bit More Pointless

It was nice knowing ya

Photo by Gavin Huang

A few months ago, I wrote about the UK offices of giant accounting firms Ernst & Young and PriceWaterhouse Coopers deemphasizing college credentials in their hiring processes. At a time when college costs are soaring and campuses appear to have degenerated into madhouses, E&Y “found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.”

So E&Y essentially announced that their was no hiring advantage to be had in laying out a mint for tuition and suffering four years of hypersensitivity, and it wasn’t alone.

Now enlist Penguin Random House to the that-college-degree-isn’t-worth-a-damn brigade. “Random House human resources director Neil Morrison said that growing evidence shows there is no simple correlation between having a degree and future professional success,” reports The Guardian. As a consequence, the international publishing company “will no longer require candidates for new jobs to have a university degree.”

As far as these companies are concerned, if you want to go to college, that’s your choice, but it won’t necessarily help you when you apply for a job.

So… When will people begin to decide, en masse, that there’s little attraction to be found in paying out tens of thousands of dollars per year to be immersed in a quasi-totalitarian environment that’s increasingly divorced from real life? We can’t be too many hiring policy announcements away from that point.

With Clinton Campaign Collapsing, Brace Yourself for a Brown vs. Red Election

Offered, for your edification, this comment from Hillary Clinton’s campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon:

“It is alarming that the intelligence community IG, working with Republicans in Congress, continues to selectively leak materials in order to resurface the same allegations and try to hurt Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”

The offended protest came in response to revelations from an inspector general for the intelligence community that some of the emails the presidential candidate stored on her home-cooked email server when she was secretary of state included “special access program” information. That’s the sort of super-secret label slapped on black projects and other we’d-tell-you-but-then-we’d-have-to-kill-you data.

I’m guessing that the latest details are a deliberate intelligence sector leak, but not necessarily as a gimme to Republicans. I have to think that the country’s spooks are pretty damned appalled at the prospect of a chief executive who cavalierly leaves sensitive data lying around her apartment rather than stored at the office as an attempted end-run around freedom of information requests. Slipping that nugget to the press is probably a shot at torpedoing Clinton’s candidacy and/or pressuring the Justice Department to prosecute, without regard for who else may benefit as a result.

I'm trying to pass one of my policies now. Anybody got some prune juice?

Bernie Sanders/Photo by Gage Skidmore

But the obvious beneficiaries include not just Republican presidential hopefuls, but also Bernie Sanders. The socialist from Vermont is the only serious remaining alternative for the Democratic nomination at a point in time when it’s really too late for anybody else to jump into the normal selection process with hope of getting the donkey party’s nod. He’s already leading Clinton in New Hampshire, competitive with her in Iowa, and gaining nationally. I’m not sufficiently versed on party bylaws to know if there’s still a chance of something being engineered at the convention (both major parties have democratized their procedures over the decades so that the process is far more grassroots-driven than in the past), but it would be exceedingly difficult to foist a top-down establishment pick on the party if Sanders shows up with the requisite delegates.

Would you believe it started as a Y-O-O-O-J joke?

Donald Trump/Photo by Gage Skidmore

With Donald Trump chewing up the scenery on the GOP side, there’s a very real chance of seeing two outsiders seize the major party nominations based on populist campaigns exploiting the collapse of establishment efforts. Sanders is a self-described socialist, while Trump is a personality-driven authoritarian centrist who stirs up nationalist sentiments while vilifying out groups–a fascist at least in the broad sense, if not a Mussolini fanboy.

That means America’s major political parties (which have effectively delegitimized competitors through the schools and media) are within a whisker of handing us a brown vs. red presidential race in the fall of 2016.

For what it’s worth, I recommend bourbon. Or Victory Gin, if you wait a year.

1-in-4 Americans See Government as the Enemy. Hold on For a Wild Ride.

Polling firms have established a decades-long tradition of asking Americans about their fading trust in government and then recording the pathetically low scores. There’s a strongly partisan element to the results: Republicans trust government when their guy is in the White House, and Democrats love them some D.C. when they control the Oval office. But the downward trend has been steady for decades, with the latest Pew poll finding that “just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time.” And part of the tradition is the regular rending of garments by media pundits agonized over Americans’ lack of faith in our governing institutions.

It’s all good entertainment, but nobody has really been sure of where it’s going.

Federal government as enemyHowever, the latest Pew poll reveals that much of the public has gone far beyond distrust, now that “27% of registered voters say they think of government as an enemy.” That’s up from 19% in 1996, when we were going through what commentators at the time described as a surge in anti-government sentiment. We’re at the point now where more than a third of Republicans and Independents (but only 12% of Democrats) wouldn’t piss on the government to put it out if it caught on fire.

“Enemy” expresses a stronger feeling than “distrust,” by far. It’s evidence of a segment of the population that views the government as an alien thing–almost an occupying power in hostile hands. Simultaneously, the political camps have become hardened in their positions with regard to the role of government, the activities that should be permitted or banned, and consequently antagonistic toward one another over those differences. It’s not just a polite disagreement on election day, it’s more like an ideological holy war. “Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families,” Pew revealed last year.

How we got here is the topic of many articles, research reports, and books. My personal favorite is the Washington State University study that insists that political polarization is the result of TV news deregulation. If only government controlled more of the information we receive, we’d all just get along. Cool story, bro…

More plausibly, the Washington Post‘s Dan Balz wrote that “The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago.”

I’ll add that this is very likely the outcome of a government that has taken on an ever-growing role in people’s lives, and centralized policy-making in Washington, D.C. It’s not just the federal government disdained in the abstract–the federal employees who actually barge into people’s lives to enforce policy are also disliked. “More than one-third of survey respondents — 35 percent — voiced ‘little or no confidence’ in federal workers,” according to George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. Researchers linked that growing dislike to public missteps such as NSA spying and politicized IRS enforcement.

Political polarization

With the stakes in political decisions increasing, the battles over who gets to make those decisions become more intense. In a mobile and Internet-driven world, this motivates people to choose teams and seek support in the world around them and the communities they find in real life and online. Even on social media, such as Facebook, people tend to associate with like-minded people and share stories that reflect their points of view. Americans also are physically clustering in communities of politically and culturally similar people, as revealed in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, published in 2008. Presumably, they feel more able to live lives in the way that they prefer when they have relatively few neighbors who want to strictly regulate or even ban favorite pastimes, or otherwise govern in unwelcome ways.

But that understandable process of sorting and associating with the like-minded tends to reinforce views and harden differences. That’s probably inevitable in a world of high-stakes political contests, since most people don’t want to live their lives as political missionaries. It’s also led to a flirtation–not serious, as of yet–with the idea of breaking the country up into more cohesive units. Reuters found last year that a quarter of the U.S. population wants their states to secede from the union. It’s actually 34% of southwesterners. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, but it’s an interesting further sign that many people are done with the federal government, and with unwelcome rules imposed on them by “others” with very different ideas about the proper way to run a country.

Where does this take us?

I see no end in sight to vicious political battles, since I see no end in sight to efforts to centralize policy-making in D.C. and to insert government deeper into people’s lives. There’s no reason to expect feelings to simmer down when the consequences of political losses are so high. Triumphalist celebration of victories will alternate with despair over defeats. In consequence, I expect the perception of government as an enemy to continue to grow, and partisan bad feelings to increase as policy struggles are won and lost and one side or another suffers consequences as a result.

The real-world consequences will probably include declining tax compliance and a growing underground economy–to escape government intrusion, and as a result of a loss of legitimacy by the state. We’ll also likely see mass noncompliance with intrusive and controversial laws, such as we’ve already seen in New York over the “assault weapon” registration law. In some ways, this will mark the transformation of the United States into a more “European”-style country–a goal long sought by people who don’t realize that official policy isn’t necessarily reflected in popular conduct in countries where the government is held in low regard.

There’s evidence that polarization harms the economy and reduces prosperity, so an escalation may well make the battles even more bitter as the damage gets worse.

More speculatively, we may also see an uptick in low-level political unrest–not civil war, but more like Spain where the central government’s authority has limited sway in parts of the country, and where active sabotage of official efforts is not uncommon. That’s especially likely if clustering continues, so that people continue to concentrate in geographically distinct camps where they can live alongside friendly faces and even ignore despised laws. We’ve already seen this in the ranks of rural sheriffs vowing defiance of state and federal gun laws, as well as in the sanctuary city movement.

It’s likely to be a wild ride.

Students Graduate from Protesting Residual Racism to Demanding Free Stuff. And Stop Laughing at Them!

Photo: PCU. See it, but not sober.

Photo: PCU. See it, but not sober.

The round of college campus protests currently turning institutions of higher education into very expensive places in which to squeeze in a class or two in between sit-ins and overwrought expressions of outrage started, more or less, as reactions to perceptions of residual racism. In response, much of the population outside the academic bubble seems to have embraced the idea that retiring monuments to slavery advocates might be a reasonable thing to do in a world where some students are descended from people who suffered as slaves.

But the rest of the complaints are maybe not receiving such an enthusiastic reception from people who find it hard to believe that students admitted to elite universities are the put-upon victims of a culture of bigotry poisoning college campuses, of all places. Are there racists attending the University of Missouri, Wesleyan, Princeton, and Yale? Probably. Are those racists rare voices of irrelevant stupidity speckled through bastions of racial tolerance? Almost certainly–at least in the experience of the hard-working people who have to dwell in the reality of the world outside, decades after equality before the law became a done deal, even if the criminal justice system hasn’t fully digested the fact.

So, mocked and snubbed for finding offense in the least offensive places to be found in this imperfect world, and at risk of stripping the epithet “racist” of its sting through excessive use, college protesters seem to be detouring into demands for…free stuff. And ponies. Well, the ponies might be more sensible.

From the very lengthy document posted yesterday by the vanguards of the revolution at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Our aspirations are untainted: free tuition via a University open to all, abolition of the police and prisons, free and collectivized housing and food, and more.

A lot more, it turns out, none of which would help to reduce the costs of the free (to students) stuff that would be shouldered by taxpayers.

We DEMAND that University cafeterias, gym memberships, libraries, and class registration be free to all residents of North Carolina regardless of admittance into the institution…

We DEMAND a University and hospital-wide minimum wage of at least $25.00/hour…

We DEMAND that free childcare and afterschool care is provided to all staff, students, and faculty at UNC and UNC-Hospitals. We DEMAND transportation from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to afterschool programs at UNC…

We DEMAND that student-athletes are recognized as University employees, paid a base salary $25.00/hour with benefits, and, further, compensated in accordance with the level of revenue that they bring to the University…

We DEMAND that all workers receive free monthly GO Passes and free parking through employment with UNC or UNC-Hospitals…

There’s a lot more, including denunciations of capitalism and something called the “athletics-industrial complex.” But that just highlights the obvious fact that economics education is sadly lacking at UNC-Chapel Hill. Frankly, a demand for a pony for each protester would be rather more affordable than the laundry list of goodies actually proffered. I’m not entirely sure who the students think is going to pay for all that free stuff, though I suppose it’s the sinister, mustache-twirling one-percenters who, so I’m told, have pots of gold hidden under the stairs.

Or leprechauns. Maybe they have it in for leprechauns.

But don’t fear. The UNC protesters are troubled by badthink, too. They’re not going to let go of that risible aspect of this year’s live-action staging of the movie PCU.

We DEMAND that the University incorporate mandatory programming for all University constituents (students, faculty, staff, administrators, deans, chairs, etc.) that teaches the historical racial violence of this University and town as well as a historical and contemporary look at the ways in which racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and cisheteropatriarchy structure our world.

I’d call it totalitarian except that it’s so over-the-top that it parodies itself. They want to teach us the evils (as they see them) of our world–including “cisheteropatriarchy” which I leave to readers to parse for meaning, if it has any. And when people inevitably convulse with laughter and openly mock their earnest reeducation efforts?

Oh, we’ll have none of that. At least, Princeton’s Destiny Crockett finds that prospect entirely unamusing. In a piece for The Daily Princetonian she wrote (in part):

[I]f your freedom of thought means that I, a Black student, do not have the luxury of feeling safe on a campus that I have worked my entire life to get to, it should have no place in universities or any other beloved institution.

Oh, Destiny. We’re supposed to figure out what makes you “feel” safe or unsafe and adjust our speech and behavior accordingly? I think you and your friends went beyond jumping the shark and backflipped over a whole school of them. In response, all I can say is that I think you need…a holiday in Cambodia.

The Great Western Land Grab

Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Ken Ivory rubs some people the wrong way. Indeed, some people dislike him enough that they’re willing to elevate a policy disagreement to a legal accusation. In June 2015, a group filed complaints with the attorneys general of Arizona, Montana, and Utah (dismissed in October) charging the Utah state representative with fraud.

Ivory, you see, also heads the American Lands Council (ALC), and a progressive activist group called the Campaign for Accountability (CFA) took exception to ALC’s efforts to shift the federal government’s vast landholdings throughout the West to state governments. Ivory “misleads local officials into supporting an effort to return federal lands to the states that is patently unconstitutional and would impose prohibitively expensive costs on the states,” the group said.

Ivory’s “misleading” crusade has been striking a chord across the West. While the limited polling on the issue finds divided opinions over the specifics of state vs. federal control of territory, they also show that westerners remain overwhelmingly committed to keeping public lands open to the recreational and economic activities that federal agencies have been choking off. Increasing restrictions and resentment of the same have spurred lawmakers in multiple states to adopt Ivory’s approach to confronting D.C.’s practices and power.

That growing popularity may be what actually upset the CFA, a group closely tied to the Democratic activist David Brock’s Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). As the Congressional Research Service pointed out in a 2012 report, the feds own more than 60 percent of Alaska and almost “half of the land in the 11 coterminous western states.” Elsewhere in the U.S., by contrast, the share of land owned by the federal government is just 4 percent.

Western complaints about D.C.’s management of that land and the resources in and under it are often described with the term “Sagebrush Rebellion.” That phrase was coined in the 1970s, when federal wilderness designation threatened to put much western land off-limits to commercial development and to motorized recreational use. In a region where Arizona’s 41 percent federal ownership actually pales in comparison to the 80 percent of Nevada controlled by D.C., putting land and the resources it contains off-limits was seen as the equivalent of a knife to the throat.

Chafing against federal restrictions and management practices, Sagebrush rebels pushed for surrender of those vast stretches of terrain to the westerners that actually lived there. They variously argued for sale of holdings to private owners or else transfer to state and local authorities.

 

Back to the Sagebrush

Western states are rich not just in resources but in scenery. Where the locals saw opportunities for grazing, coal mining, and logging, federal officials saw natural wonders ripe both for postcards and personal exploration. The emphasis on those outdoors destinations, perhaps underappreciated by westerners trying to scratch a living from a region that often only grudgingly obliged, frequently irritated people who felt as if they were being treated more as intruders in a museum than as citizens of states of the union.

The original Sagebrush Rebellion largely sputtered after the election of a seemingly sympathetic president, Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed, “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion” while on the campaign trail. But the underlying tensions never disappeared after progress on the issue went no further than that verbal endorsement.

In 2012, with Western land complaints still unresolved, legislators in Utah—63 percent owned by the federal government—fired a legislative warning shot when they passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act, penned by Ivory. The law demanded the surrender of public lands to the state based on a controversial legal argument that the federal government had an obligation to give up the goods. It also threatened outright seizure of the same if the feds didn’t comply.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a coalition of conservative state lawmakers and like-minded private interests, turned that law into model legislation for other western states. A similar bill failed on an 8–5 committee vote in Colorado, while another was vetoed by Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer the same year. In April 2015, a new Arizona governor—Doug Ducey, also a Republican—vetoed two bills seeking the surrender of public lands but agreed to a study committee on the issue.

In Idaho, Republican Gov. Butch Otter has accused the federal government of badly mishandling the public lands under its control, which constitute 62 percent of the state. “Idahoans and all Americans will continue paying in many ways for the lack of direction—or misguided direction—that federal laws and policies provide public land managers,” he wrote in a 2012 op-ed. Otter called for greater local say to offset “the shortsightedness of absentee federal landlords.”

Otter has since testified to Congress in favor of a pilot program that would let Idaho control a share of the federal lands in the state. The state’s legislature maintains a committee to study “the process for the State of Idaho to acquire title to and control of public lands controlled by the federal government.”

In April 2014, representatives from Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington met in Salt Lake City to discuss prying land from the federal government, even as the Bundy standoff over grazing rights simmered in national headlines. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s conspiratorial views and racist sentiments vacuumed up much of the national media attention paid to his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. But the locally based Las Vegas Review-Journal editorialized that the controversy was further evidence that “the federal government owns too much land — more than 80 percent of Nevada — and is completely incapable of managing it.” The newspaper urged federal officials to sell much of their holdings to local people with a stake in how it’s used.

 

Competing Visions

Gov. Otter’s issues with federal land management relate to what he sees as poorly crafted federal policies that increase the risk of wildfires, the bane of life in arid country. Current federal policy, charges Otter, is dominated by people who “want to return our public lands to their most natural state, when the West was populated only by relatively small numbers of native people.”

Set aside the issue of whether the pre-Columbian West was truly “natural.” (Anthropologist Shepard Krech III suggests in his 2000 book The Ecological Indian that people were managing and changing the American landscape, including burning vast acreages, centuries before Europeans set foot on the continent.) The region is now more heavily populated and urbanized than in the past, which means wildfires can have disastrous consequences. In September 2012, over 300,000 acres burned in the lightning-triggered Mustang Complex blaze, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people in east-central Idaho.

Preventing disaster, argues Otter, requires “active management” that “removes fire-prone fuels” and eases access because “[r]oad systems make it possible for people, engines and bulldozers to respond to fires.”

Federal land managers frequently take an opposing tack. In northern Arizona, the United States Forest Service stirred up a hornet’s nest when, in compliance with a 2005 mandate from D.C. issued to all national forests, it announced a Travel Management Plan that essentially flipped rules about forest use. Previously, motorized travel in the national forest had been permitted where it wasn’t explicitly forbidden; now it was forbidden except on designated roads, areas, and trails. Not only was forest travel now restricted, but so was the popular pastime of dispersed camping, since vehicles were banned from pulling off the road in all but very limited stretches of forest, reducing the area in which such camping was allowed by two-thirds.

Adding interest to the forest restrictions is the Forest Service’s refusal to block or mark closed roads. Travelers are expected to deduce permissible roads from their maps or risk fines.

In a widely distributed letter to policy makers, Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil objected: “The Forest Service is converting hundreds of square miles of forest land to ‘wilderness’ status by fiat. They will be closing hundreds of miles of roads in our forests that have been open to the public for decades.” Anticipating widespread defiance of the rules, he added that “the Forest Service will be making criminals out of families that have camped or enjoyed areas of the forest for generations.”

Pribil’s predecessor, Joe Richards, was just as blunt in a letter to the Arizona Daily Sun and other newspapers, criticizing “the federal policy of continual encroachment, closure and restrictions by fiat.” He warned that “the real goal is to drive people off the land and return it to its ‘pre-civilization’ state.”

Richards’s concerns about driving people from the lands might be dismissed as so much paranoia if advocates of forest restrictions weren’t so eager to confirm them. The Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based organization that advocates for restrictive forest rules, including road closures, says on its website, “We work toward a future in which species and ecosystems are finally afforded primacy among public lands priorities.” What that means can be inferred from the list of victories the group claims against human activities, including “prohibiting mining on 3.4 million acres and off-road vehicles on 550,000 acres, and reducing or prohibiting livestock on 2 million acres.”

But what about Butch Otter’s concerns about wildfires? True, the Forest Service’s Travel Management Plan exempts “any fire, military, emergency, or law enforcement vehicle for emergency purposes,” but that carve-out is likely to mean little as years pass and access roads become impassable, making fire suppression more difficult in hard-to-reach areas.

 

And a Clash of Competency

If watching the world go up in flames around them is maddening for westerners, seeing it turned to ash while potential wealth is locked away out of reach is at least as frustrating. The federal government may increasingly labor to keep people out of public lands, but it’s just as determined to confine all potential sources of profitability within those same borders.

“The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management lose $2 billion each year managing federal lands,” wrote Shawn Regan in the pages of The Wall Street Journal in April 2015. A former National Park Service Ranger and current research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) based in Bozeman, Montana, Regan added, “For example, the feds are notorious for conducting ‘below-cost’ timber sales, in which they spend more selling the timber than they get in return.”

This is the sort of mismanagement that might put the American Lands Council on the same page as the Center for Biological Diversity in opposition to commercial activity that leaves taxpayers subsidizing somebody else’s profits.

With Holly Fretwell, a professor of economics at Montana State University, Regan co-authored a 2015 report for PERC that found federal “public land managers lack a clear purpose or sense of direction.” Management of resources conflicts with environmental goals which clash with recreational uses—all bound by regulations and eyed by competing constituencies. Without a clear incentive to keep the books on federal turf in the black, the administration of enormous tracts of beautiful and resource-stuffed territory is often a muddled, inefficient proposition for the feds.

By contrast, the states have a track record of managing trust lands, which are specifically designated as income-generating assets, to maximize returns. Trust lands are required to generate revenue to support schools, hospitals, and other uses, and the intended beneficiaries have a legal claim on the proceeds.

To illustrate their case, the authors point to Arizona, where each acre of federal land generates just $1.62 for state and local communities. By contrast, each acre of trust land in Arizona generates $11.40 for state and local communities. The comparable figures are: $4.07 from federal lands in Montana vs. $20.99 from state trust lands; $2.09 from federal lands in Idaho vs. $21.12 from state trust lands, and $19.55 from federal lands in New Mexico vs. $60.85 from state trust lands.

Regan and Fretwell conclude that “States have clearly demonstrated their ability to generate greater returns from land management than the federal government,” and that states had the potential to use transferred federal lands just as efficiently, so long as they managed them as they did their existing trust lands—that is, provided they didn’t emulate federal practice.

There are, it should be noted, examples of federal lands being more carefully and profitably managed than state-owned counterparts. The U.S. Forest Service contracts with private companies to operate campgrounds and recreation areas across the United States. Responsible for their own bottom lines, concessionaires must make sure their properties attract paying visitors and break even on their own merits. A separate 2013 PERC study by Warren Meyer compared the Forest Service’s success with this approach at a park near Sedona, Arizona, with a nearby money-losing operation owned by the state. During a budget crunch, the inefficient state park faced closure while the privately managed federal property remained “open and well-maintained without the need for tax money.”

So there’s nothing inevitably more efficient about state management relative to that based in D.C. – it’s all in the incentives and the execution. But despite its success with the practice, the Forest Service recently canceled some of these concessions at the Tahoe National Forest in California, assumed management itself, and promptly hiked fees while reducing services.

Meyer, president of a company that manages some public parks, frets that “people who are skeptical of private enterprise and more confident in government-led solutions tend to self-select for government jobs” and favor bureaucratic priorities and practices over concerns for efficiency or serving end users. And those people seem disproportionately represented in federal agencies managing public lands.

Regan and Fretwell specifically excludes the cost of managing and suppressing wildfires from their report. But with westerners already dissatisfied with federal policy in that area, and with local control promising greater resources with which to combat wildfires, that may not be an issue.

 

Cultural Divide

But economics and competent management may be almost beside the point in much of the struggle over control of public lands. Picking sides has become something of a cultural marker.

Note that the Travel Management Plan implemented in northern Arizona restricts “motorized” access, which has become a cultural dividing line when it comes to outdoors use. In general terms, on one side are off-roaders, ATV-users, dirt-bikers, and their related commercial interests; on the other side are hikers, backpackers, to a lesser extent mountain-bikers, and their affiliated businesses. (Horseback riders, while culturally closer to the motorized set, seem to occupy a tolerated middle ground.) By and large, the motorized set see themselves as more rural and more traditionally “Western,” and they boast of their connections to the ranching, mining, timber, and energy industries. Aficionados of muscle-driven travel are centered in cities and college towns and tend to be critical of commercial concerns entering into the management of the great outdoors.

But if hikers and backpackers like to wrap themselves in a cloak of environmental rectitude and decry opponents as despoilers of the wilderness, they too have a monetary stake in the conflict. When Utah Gov. Herbert signed his state’s legislative challenge to federal control of public lands, the Outdoor Industry Association complained that “these policies threaten the recreation infrastructure that is fundamental to the outdoor industry.” The group threatened to move its Outdoor Retailer convention, which brings an estimated $40 million to Utah every year, from its traditional home in Salt Lake City in response to the “political climate.” (The group didn’t follow through on the threat.)

Even before the forest travel restrictions were implemented, the stakes had become high—and aggravating for the affected. As Colorado’s White River National Forest prepared its own Travel Management Plan in 2005, the Aspen Times noted that already “nearly one-third of the 2.3 million acres in the White River is designated as wilderness, where motorized and mechanized users are banned and only hiking and backpacking are allowed.”

 

Tombstone

The muscles vs. motors divide isn’t just a cultural indicator. It can have real-world consequences, even spelling life or death for a historic community. In 2011, the Monument Fire torched the 1880s-era pipelines that connected Tombstone, Arizona, to springs in the Huachuca Mountains, leaving the town dependent on a few inadequate wells. Until that fire, the town known best for a vigorous disagreement at the OK Corral had a better water situation than many western settlements. Its pipelines were constructed by the forward-thinking Huachuca Water Company long before the U.S. Forest Service claimed authority over the surrounding landscape, and they kept the stuff of life flowing to the town of 1,500.

The fire and subsequent rain-driven rockslides on denuded slopes destroyed those aging lines and necessitated repairs. But the Forest Service has designated the terrain through which 26 miles of pipeline run as “wilderness” off-limits to anything mechanical or motorized, and it refuses to ease those restrictions. Rangers threatened city workers with arrest when they brought in an excavator. Even the use of wheelbarrows had to be negotiated.

Playing to the stereotype of out-of-touch federal overlords, the Forest Service cited the presence of the Mexican spotted owl as reason to deny authorization for the use of mechanical equipment in pipeline repairs. One of its representatives, James Upchurch, evoked scorn when, in court, he voiced ambivalence over the relative importance of owls and people.

Part in protest and partly to get something done, Tombstone organized a “shovel brigade” of volunteers to make repairs manually. CNN coverage of the brigade’s efforts opened with federal rangers who hiked out to the site of the work observing owls through their binoculars.

Represented by Arizona’s free-market Goldwater Institute, Tombstone challenged the Forest Service in court. So far it has lost most of the legal battles, but won sympathetic press coverage and strong public support.

 

Tilting at Windmills?

Westerners may have real grounds for displeasure with federal control of public lands, but getting the federal government to surrender that turf is another matter. The fraud filings against the American Lands Council call efforts to force the federal government to transfer land to the states “patently unconstitutional”—a charge echoed by the Grand Canyon Trust and the Arizona Republic.

They have a point. The 1894 federal Enabling Act preparing the ground for Utah’s admission as a state said, in addition to banning polygamy, “the people inhabiting said proposed State do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof,” with control resting in the hands of Congress. The equivalent law for Arizona, passed 26 years later, contained nearly identical language, including the feds’ condemnation of “plural marriages.”

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says, in part: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.” This “Supremacy Clause” would seem to settle the matter, mooting the Transfer of Public Lands Act and its counterparts around the angry West.

As Anne Weismann, executive director of the CFA, told me via email that this means Ken Ivory is guilty of fraud. She says he is using “his position as head of American Lands Council to raise money based on claims that have been widely and soundly rejected on legal and factual bases.” Weismann basically accused Ivory of running a scam based on bogus legal arguments, then pocketing the proceeds.

That’s “quite amusing,” Ivory replies. Ivory says that the money he is paid by the American Lands Council is a fraction of that collected and paid out by Weisman’s group and its related organizations. Ivory and his wife together collected $115,000 from the ALC in 2013—half the $230,000 CREW, the parent organization to CFA, paid former executive director Melanie Sloan. (CFA itself was founded only in spring 2015, and Weismann didn’t respond to my question about her salary.)

But you can get lost in the funding charges and countercharges that partisan groups lob at each other. More importantly, are ALC’s legal claims fraudulent?

Ivory, unsurprisingly, says no. His American Land Council (which counters additional controversy over the sale of real estate to private owners who might actually know what to do with it by focusing on state vs. federal control) points out that the Enabling Act language surrendering control of lands to the United States also emphasized that federal control would continue only “until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States,” and says that the federal government implicitly promised to do just that.

He’s not alone. In an analysis of Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act published by the Brigham Young University Law Review, Donald Kochan, of Chapman University School of Law, concludes, “There are credible legal arguments supporting Utah’s demand that the federal government extinguish certain public lands within the State. At the very least, it seems clear that the law is not ‘clearly’ unconstitutional as some opponents contend.”

In an email to me, Kochan stressed that he had no personal knowledge about the accusations against ALC, but he stood by his 2013 law review paper. “Individuals should read the analysis and judge for themselves. If they would give it serious consideration, I think they would move beyond the arguments about frivolity.”

A 2013 article in the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law came to a similar conclusion. Relying on a contractual reading of the Utah Enabling Act, author Austin Anderson concludes that there’s a good argument that the federal government bound itself to surrender those vast public lands to the states. “The constitutionality of [Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act] remains plausible,” he writes.

That’s not to say that anybody sees anything but an uphill battle for western efforts to reclaim those mountains, forests, deserts, and resources. “It remains to be seen whether the executive would enforce a judgment favorable to the states and whether the states could effectively resort to the political process,” notes Anderson. Kochan offers a similar caution: “There is a difference between the assessment of a legal argument’s legitimacy, credibility, or supportability and the probability of a legal argument’s success in light of political, soft-‘precedential,’ or judicial temperament hurdles.”

Which means that this all might be a quixotic battle. But a quixotic battle isn’t a “fraud”—it’s a David and Goliath contest between sincere, if mismatched, opponents.

Then again, CFA’s charges against Ivory and ALC may be an indication that when you step away from the legal arena and enter the realm of bare-knuckles politics, the opponents actually aren’t so mismatched.

Recognizing the issue’s resonance among many Western voters, the current Republican platform includes the sentiment: “Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.” CFA, whose leadership has close connections to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration, is likely less concerned about arguments over constitutionality than with depriving Republicans and conservatives of a potential weapon for galvanizing western voters.

But political battles rooted in D.C. politics won’t address western concerns one way or another. The dispute is old but the tensions are fresh, renewed by new grievances to add to the litany of long-simmering ones. At its root is a conflict of visions about use of beautiful and unforgiving wide-open spaces, but also about the relationship of the people who inhabit those spaces with a distant and often distrusted federal government.

How Dare You Use Logical Thought at a Time Like This!

Bath School Disaster/Public Domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

Bath School Disaster/Public Domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

If you’re looking for a sociology experiment in fear-driven policy, the current frenzy of calls from some quarters for more restrictions on personal ownership of firearms is a good example. Not that I enjoy marinating in it, but it’s a good example. I walked away from a “debate” the other day with a woman who told me to get my “head out of [my] ass” if I thought mass shootings are not becoming more common, talked about how afraid people like her are, and said she was “tired of statistics” and just wanted to get something done, as if invoking feelz is the ultimate trump card in a conversation.

Because for her, and many people like her, it is. All that matters is raw, animal emotion.

Fore the record, to evoke tired statistics and inconvenient facts, mass attacks are not on the rise, while violent crime continues to decline and is less common in the United States than in (supposedly safer) Europe. Mass killers tend to be very deliberate and long-term planners, plotting their actions according to the situation. They do not share an as-of-yet easily distinguished psychological profile, and rarely have criminal records. This means they’re hard to detect and deter, and they’ll take existing precautions as a given and work around them. Anders Behring Breivik reportedly plotted for almost a decade, starting a farming business to acquire fertilizer for explosives, and negotiating all of Norway’s legal hoops to purchase firearms.

One more law won’t fix that. To which I hear: you’re saying there’s nothing we can do; there must be something we can do. Well, yes. But “we” will have to do it ourselves. Nobody can protect us by waving a wand or passing a law.

But guns are scary.

So are knives when a mass attack in China (where blades are the weapons of choice) kills 33 people at a train station. The weapon is a choice–the real danger is the intent of the attacker(s) and the passivity of those victims and bystanders who are physically capable of reacting to defend themselves and others.

And guns and knives are going nowhere. Gun restrictions have never elicited much in the way of compliance, anywhere. New York’s recent assault weapon registration law drew in about 5 percent obedience from gun owners. Such weapons are increasingly easy to manufacture at home, even by those with minimal skills.

In a horrible way, we should be thankful mass attackers usually confine themselves to personal weapons. The worst school attack in U.S. history remains the Bath School Disaster, planned over many months by the disgruntled school board treasurer and perpetrated with dynamite. Thirty-eight people died.

The Happy Land fire killed 87 people after the jilted boyfriend of a coat check girl at the social club torched the place with a jug of gasoline.

And then there’s the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, both horrors committed with unconventional weapons by people who put a lot of time and planning into their crimes.

This all reminds me of what security expert Bruce Schneier has said in the context of travel security: “Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back.” Everything else is “security theater” that violates innocent people’s liberty while doing nothing to deter bad actors who just work around checkpoints and restrictions.

Mass attacks strike me as being much the same: Hard to detect, perpetrated by malicious people who tailor their plans to the situation, and requiring a willingness to react by the intended targets without waiting for “the authorities” to show up. There’s no easy fix, and rejecting rational thought in favor of indulging fear won’t accomplish a damned thing.