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.”



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.

In Defense of ‘Seditious Traitors’

The Constitution should be up and running again in no time

The Siege (1998)

Not long ago, a poll by the British outfit YouGov purported to demonstrate that roughly a third of Americans could imagine a scenario under which they would support a military coup against the U.S. government. I say “purported” because any question that asks respondents if they “can imagine” a scenario is dependent for its results on whatever alien invasion scenarios or political fever dreams people might cook up. Still, YouGov did come up with some interesting data:

The proportion of the country that would support a military takeover increases when people are asked whether they would hypothetically support the military stepping in to take control from a civilian government which is beginning to violate the constitution. 43% of Americans would support the military stepping in while 29% would be opposed.

And we have headlines! Or at least a press release to send around — which YouGov did.

An acquaintance promptly sent around an article about the poll, prompting this odd response by an old college classmate: “Interesting. Nearly 1/3 of Americans are seditious traitors? I find that surprising and alarming.”

I suggested that the problem might be a government that alienates huge swathes of the population, and that throwing names at the ticked off recipients to a survey wasn’t helpful.

Calling them seditious traitors is the literal truth. They support overthrowing the government, which would make them traitors, and since they’re ‘supporting’ it, I presume that means encouraging it, which is sedition. No hyperbole there.

I wasn’t getting anywhere. So I transitioned to explaining the legal requirements for treason and sedition charges under U.S. law, and that he might have a hard time making charges stick.

So we never got around to an important point: Even if he’d been right that “nearly 1/3 of Americans are seditious traitors,” would that have been the damning condemnation that he intended? Or just a description?

What is “sedition“?  It’s “overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward insurrection against the established order.” Likewise, “treason” is a more extreme point along the same continuum: “‘…[a]…citizen’s actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation].’ In many nations, it is also often considered treason to attempt or conspire to overthrow the government, even if no foreign country is aiding or involved by such an endeavor.’

In both cases, you can definitely see why governments would dislike sedition and treason, but they’re not like murder and rape, which are inherently wrong. The moral content of an act of sedition or treason is entirely dependent on the quality of its target. If a government is good, working to overthrow it is morally wrong; if it’s evil, committing sedition and treason against it might constitute your righteous deed for the decade.

Presumably, people contemplating seditious treason against the government have lost respect for the institution and think it might need to be tossed out. Pointing out their seditious, treasonous ways isn’t a criticism; it’s just a description. They’re potential revolutionaries intending to replace a government they dislike with one they think will be better.

You know, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and company.

This poses a problem for people like, I’ve come to realize, my old classmate, who personally identify with the state. They believe, like Bernie Sanders, that “The government, in a democratic society, is the people” and that if you resent intrusive officials in any way “You’re assuming that the government is some kind of foreign entity.” To them, to challenge the state is to challenge their sense of selves. That strikes me as freaky to the point of pathology, but it explains responding to the YouGov poll with charges of “treason” rather than a more reasonable, “I’m having trouble imaging a committee of colonels as a better alternative to anything.”

But much of the population does see government as an “other.” When it offends us, we no longer want to be subject to its abuses. That doesn’t mean that every “solution” somebody answering a survey might imagine is an improvement. But it does mean that contemplating something other than the political status quo is not a bad thing.

What Happens When Employers Decide That University Degrees Are Worthless?

With regard to the title of this post, we may be about to find out. The UK branch of Ernst & Young–one of the world’s top accounting firms and a major (and well-regarded) employer–is reducing the importance of higher education credentials as criteria in hiring. And the company isn’t doing it quietly–the move was trumpeted in an August 3, 2015 press release announcing that they’d “found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.” Instead of academic credentials, the company will emphasize its own assessments.

EY will remove academic qualifications from their entry criteria for their 2016 graduate, undergraduate and school leaver programmes, which open for applications today.

Students will no longer be required to have a minimum of 300 UCAS points (equivalent to 3 B’s) and a 2:1 degree classification to make an application. Instead, EY will use a new and enhanced suite of online ‘strengths’ assessments and numerical tests to assess the potential of applicants for 2016.

The HuffingtonPost UK reported earlier this year that PricewaterhouseCoopers, another large employer, made a similar announcement, wrapped in progressive verbiage.

I don’t know of any major U.S. employers making similar announcements about deemphasizing academic credentials in the hiring process, nor has anybody come out and said that university degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on (though the EY statement comes awfully close). It’s not hard to imagine, though, that the shift in the UK has its counterpart in the U.S.–both countries share similar concerns that academia has become divorced from reality. When even the liberal president of the United States denounces the stultifying political correctness of college campuses, there’s a big damned problem.

And Americans, at least, pay a soaring price for higher “education” that is being left behind not only in its respect for the values of an open society, but also in innovating to meet student needs in a changing world.

My guess is that PricewaterhouseCoopers and EY are only high-profile peeks at a change that is already underway, as employers lose respect for the value of college degrees and substitute other criteria in their hiring process. Some people will decry that as anti-intellectual, but it’s not. Too many jobs have come to require college degrees in recent decades–an expensive and unnecessary hurdle in most cases. When my father became a stock broker back in the 1970s, anybody who could study and sit for the exam was welcome. The later addition of a bachelor’s degree as a requirement did nobody any favors, and dropping it won’t be the end of the world.

And then, maybe, colleges will have to choose between providing actual value to intellectually curious students who want a real education, or else further degenerating into insane asylums for voluntary inmates.

Either way, research and inquiry will continue among people who want to understand and engage with the world. But that sort of activity may have to switch venues.

Hey Overpriced Minimum Wage Workers, Your Robot Replacement Has Already Been Hired

I have seen the future, and it’s a tablet computer that does not want to be paid $15 an hour.

Los Angeles is the latest municipality where politicians are considering buying votes by mandating a $15 per hour minimum wage. That’s actually a ban on workers taking jobs for $12 or $14 per hour, but it sounds compassionate when reduced to slogans and finger-wagging at “greedy”businesses. New York is poised to implement $15 per hour as the minimum wage for fast food workers state-wide. And Vice President Joe Biden is among the pols calling for a federal minimum wage hike–to $12 per hour, in his case (not that he himself is worth that much).

But you know what? Businesses are way ahead of them.

I took my son to Chili’s for lunch today. On the table was one of the 45,000 Ziosk tablets (it may be more by now) the company had in place over a year ago. The widgets let you order drinks and desserts and pay your bill without flagging down a server. They also offer some entertainment options. Chili’s swears up and down that no server jobs are at risk because “we’d never want to lose our awesome Team Members,” But I bet Chili’s doesn’t want to lose money, either, and it would risk that if labor costs go through the roof. The device is obviously one software upgrade away from letting customers order everything electronically, which could potentially reduce server needs to one or two backups for the old-school customers who don’t want to use a touchscreen.

So…What do you think is going to happen if the move for a massively boosted minimum wage goes nationwide?

I'm guessing that tipping the tablet would not become a thing

Photo by Chili's

Unshockingly, a report released today says that lots of jobs are on the chopping block if the government tries to create prosperity out of thin air by hiking the minimum wage. The report, by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, and Ben Gitis, director of labor-market policy at the American Action Forum, says that “increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020 would affect 55.1 million workers and cost 6.6 million jobs.”

A lower hike would be “better” in the sense of doing less damage. Boosting the minimum to $12 per hour “would cost 3.8 million low-wage jobs.” Which sucks less. Under either scenario, only a tiny percentage of gains would be enjoyed by those in poverty–at the expense of jobs and paychecks.

Business owners are neither stupid nor suicidal. They listen to the political rhetoric coming out of demagogues’ mouths and they make contingency plans for surviving the policy flingings of the simians we elect to office. Those Ziosks on the table aren’t just gee-whiz toys;they’re hedges against the future.

In San Francisco, where the $15 minimum wage is already law, innovative startup Momentum Machines has a plan to completely mechanize fast-food restaurants from the kitchen to the table. The company notes, “An average quick service restaurant spends $135K every year on labor for the production of hamburgers. Not only does our machine eliminate nearly all of that cost, it also obviates the associated management headaches.”

But the headaches for unskilled workers trying to get a foothold in the job market are just beginning.

IRS Prone to Target Non-Profits Unfairly, Says Government Agency

The headline above should be news to exactly nobody, Well…Except for the president of the United States. He went on John Stewart on Tuesday to insist that no way, no how, did the Internal Revenue Service deliberately target conservative organizations. The Washington Times summarizes it thusly:

Mr. Obama said Congress “passed a crummy law” that provided vague guidance to the people who worked at the IRS. And he said that employees implemented the law “poorly and stupidly.”

The president went on to say that the “real scandal around the IRS is that they have been so poorly funded that they cannot go after these folks who are deliberately avoiding tax payments.”

Note that John Stewart, towards the end of the chat, called for mandatory national service for Americans. So this episode is a must-watch of epic fail.

But Obama’s comments come after the IRS’s own inspector general admitted that the tax agency targeted Tea Party groups “based on names and policy positions instead of indications of political campaign intervention.”

And, as if to emphasize the point, the day after Obama smarmed away concerns about the use of the IRS as a political weapon, the Government Accountability Office issued its own report, warning “The control deficiencies GAO found increase the risk that EO could select organizations for examination in an unfair manner—for example, based on an organization’s religious, educational, political, or other views.”

But it’s all on Congress and a “crummy law,” of course.

Discourage Vice and Reap Bonanzas With High Taxes! What Could Go Wrong?

Oh. And sex. They'll have to think of a way to tax sex.

Photo by defekto / Foter / CC BY-NC

What could make more sense than discouraging weak-minded sinners from the path of wrongfulness (or whatever the fuck the word is) by loading high tariffs on smokes, booze, sodas or whatever might rub today’s bien pensant crew the wrong way while they’re tut-tutting over the failures of lesser creatures? Why, it’s a no-brainer! And you could close government budgetary gaps with the moolah pouring in from the proceeds of those high taxes, too.

Forget that there’s a bit of a disconnect between simultaneously using taxes as proxies for prohibition and revenue raising. Well…No. Don’t forget that. And don’t forget that people have always been a tad resistant to actual prohibition efforts,and the historical record shows similar pitfalls for sin taxes.

Anyway, that’s the gist of my new piece for Reason. Pour a tall glass and light a smoke while you read “It’s Time We Learned from Sin Taxes’ Impressive History of Failure.”

Is Bitcoin the Key to Evading Capital Controls?

My first post-staff weekly column is up at, and it’s about the potential cryptocurrencies show for dodging capital controls and evading the worst effects of intrusive monetary policy. Some news reports suggest that it’s already happening in Greece, and on a small scale it probably is. But I suspect those headlines resulted from financial journalists looking at the situation and figuring out how they would hedge risk and get money past the authorities. More people are likely to see and have access to those solutions in the future.

To read the full article, click “Bitcoin May Be Too Late for Greece, But Not Other Countries Headed In That Direction.”

Compassion Means Stealing Shit From People Who, Unlike You, Thought Ahead

You are welcome in the community if you have the secret Christian decoder ringYesterday, a Facebook “friend” (in the broad social media sense of the term) posted a brief musing about the current flurry of apocalyptic fiction.

If the apocalypse-books industry was a little less “arm yourself to the teeth so your family is the only one in town that doesn’t starve in our far-fetched psuedoscientific global economic collapse” and a little more “use battle-tested American Red Cross first aid and community response training to save as many people as possible during a plausible natural disaster scenario,” I’d have a lot more respect for it. I mean, I’m not going to be the guy who shoots some stranger’s kid over a can of string beans, and people who write books where they fantasize about that sort of thing scare me more than the idea of an actual apocalypse does.

Now, personally, I understand wishing writers catered more to my tastes. If the romance novel genre had more sex scenes and less heartwrenching relationship contrivance, I’d “have a lot more respect for it” too. In the morning, I mean. But romance novelists have hit on a formula that works, and they don’t need my respect. The same goes for apocalyptic fiction and my Facebook acquaintance’s complaints.

I’m also not entirely sure what this guy is talking about. I’ve read a few shit-hits-the-fan novels, and they boil down to ant-and-grasshopper morality tales, though the ant usually (unlike in the original fable) rises to the occasion to help out neighbors and rebuild a community. There are lots of books and lots of takes, of course, and maybe Facebook guy has a specific dude-in-his-bunker book in mind. But the granddaddy of the current apocalyptic fiction flurry is probably Patriots by James Wesley, Rawles (no, the comma isn’t an accident). Patriots, once you get past the use of “are you a Christian?” as the gag-inducing secret handshake of the economic collapse, focuses on people who planned ahead to survive the worst and reconnect with others.

Anyway, that’s an aside, the real point is that the first comment on this musing was:

If an apocalypse ever happens, I’m going to make it my sole mission in life to gather together an enormous mob of people to take out all the survivalists, and then use all of their stockpiles to build a socialist utopia.

And then Facebook guy answers, “I like the way you think!”

One utopia, coming up!

Photo by the U.S. Government

Why do I care? Because Facebook guy is a civil liberties columnist and advocate. In fact, he inherited a civil libertarian gig I had years ago, though he writes from more of a progressive/SJW perspective. He’s also very active as a political lefty in his community (the one that preppers apparently plan to barricade the doors against). This progressive “civil libertarian” perspective apparently includes the idea that if people have more foresight than you and put aside some provisions for hard times, it’s OK to gang together with other dumbasses who didn’t stick some canned soup in the pantry, kill the prepared types (I’m interpreting “take out” by its usual usage), steal their shit, and use the stuff to impose your preferred political and economic system on the survivors. This is a whole step beyond just wishing the SHTF fiction genre was nothing more than a series of boring tracts about the Red Cross’s good deeds. I’d have to turn my bitching about romance novels into a rape fantasy to achieve the equivalent, and I’m not a sufficiently shitty human being to do that.

To give this guy his due, he does advocate for civil liberties in an effective way on a lot of issues. He’s generally very good on police abuse, search and seizure, and free speech. But it’s interesting how overtly thuggish a professional civil liberties advocate can be in an unguarded moment–to the point of high-fiving the idea of mass violence and totalitarian impositions against those who rub him the wrong way.

Is there a take-away here?

Yeah. Be very cautious of those who set themselves up as guardians of your liberty. You never know when their personal preferences in some other area will overcome their regard for your freedom.

Oh, and I know Fifty Shades of Grey has sex scenes. I just can’t… No thanks.