Home // Articles posted by J.D. Tuccille

When Higher Education Morphs Into Ideological Indoctrination, Expect Fewer Customers

A majority of Republicans and Americans leaning Republican now think that colleges and universities are a negative influence on the country. Yes, that’s a big change–no matter the decades-old sniping by conservatives toward academia and institutions of higher learning. And before anybody starts chuckling, the shift has big implication all right–but more for the relevance of colleges and universities than for the fates of right-leaners.

Reports Pew:

As recently as two years ago, most Republicans and Republican leaners held a positive view of the role of colleges and universities. In September 2015, 54% of Republicans said colleges and universities had a positive impact on the way things were going in the country; 37% rated their impact negatively.

By 2016, Republicans’ ratings of colleges and universities were mixed (43% positive, 45% negative). Today, for the first time on a question asked since 2010, a majority (58%) of Republicans say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while 36% say they have a positive effect.

Writing for Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle notes that “Conservatives in the media have been complaining about liberals in academia for a very long time — just about as long, in fact, as academia has been trending liberal.” But since then, she points out, much of academia has gone from sharply leaning toward one ideology to explicitly condemning the legitimacy of opposing views. Ejection of speakers from campus, violent confrontations, and efforts to shut down dissenters and free speech advocates on college campuses have become a regular feature of coverage of campus doings in recent years–and the results have been swift.

“Over the past two years, the share of Republicans and Republican leaners who view the impact of colleges and universities positively has declined 18 percentage points (from 54% to 36%),” says Pew. That’s an important shift, and a fast one.

Now, why should anybody other than those on the right (and those concerned about actual inquiry in an intellectually diverse environment) care if conservatives choose not to avail themselves of higher education in years to come? If Republican offspring choose to confine themselves to a blue collar future, so much the better for bien pensants who will have a clearer path to management gigs, right?

First, let’s not dismiss non-college track jobs. Starting a business and entering a trade remain great paths through life that don’t require an entry charge equivalent to a mortgage. Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, points out that “You have right now about 3 million jobs in transportation, commerce, and trades that can’t be filled” and that pushing college as the only route to the good life is stupid.

That said, there’s no guarantee that the colleges and universities openly rejecting people who adhere to an assortment of mainstream political views will retain their gatekeeper role to plum jobs. Colleges gain wide respect so long as they are seen as educational institutions that open the doors to opportunity. If, instead, they’re perceived more as ideological institutions that can no longer guarantee opportunity, they’ll lose their cachet very quickly.

In the past two years, high-profile companies including Ernst & Young, Penguin Random House, and PriceWaterhouse Coopers have publicly deemphasized college degrees in their hiring processes. E&Y “found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.” The other companies made similar announcements. They won’t discriminate against degree-holders, they say. But they’ll happily hire those who haven’t bothered with the time and expense of college, and train them in-house.

How many other companies are making the same changes quietly?

Even today, some professions remain open to non-degree applicants. You can still become a lawyer in a handful of states without ever attending law school. You have to study under the guidance of a practicing attorney before sitting for the bar–basically, an apprenticeship. That practice could easily revive and spread if attending a school comes to be seen as an expensive distraction rather than a boon.

Actually, I think that developing a variety of alternative routes to jobs, careers, and adult life is a good thing of its own accord. If colleges and universities continue their transformation into monasteries of true believers, alienating half the population in the process, those alternatives will be not just good, but necessary.

Fleeing From Health Insurance Isn’t the Same Thing as Losing It

“Republican healthcare bill imperiled with 22 million seen losing insurance,” reads a Reuters headline about the CBO assessment of the Senate healthcare bill.And, indeed, the CBO did say, “The Senate bill would increase the number of people who are uninsured by 22 million in 2026 relative to the number under current law.”

But the CBO never uses the word “lose”–a word that would imply that those people will be deprived of something they want. And that’s not what the CBO is saying. Instead, it notes:

CBO and JCT estimate that, in 2018, 15 million more people would be uninsured under this legislation than under current law—primarily because the penalty for not having insurance would be eliminated. The increase in the number of uninsured people relative to the number projected under current law would reach 19 million in 2020 and 22 million in 2026.

That is, in the absence of penalties coercing them to purchase health insurance that they don’t want, tens of millions of Americans will choose to go without. That’s a big difference for an allegedly free society whose political institutions can fairly be judged by the degree to which they leave people alone to make their own decisions. Those decisions may be wise, unwise, or a mix of the two. But the freedom to make that choice is what matters.

And if Americans choose not to purchase health coverage when they’re freed of coercion, they’re not losing coverage, they’re fleeing from it.

That’s not to say the Senate bill is a good one; it’s a dog’s breakfast that retains many of the distorting features of Obamacare without introducing the choice and free market reforms that could put health care back on an even footing.

But fleeing something you don’t want is a far cry from losing something you cherish.

Frankly, I Prefer the Snakebite

Forget about me. You folks are scary.

Forget about me. You folks are scary. Photo: Paul Venter

At the close of the 19th century, Ewart S. Grogan and Arthur H. Sharp, two Cambridge undergraduates, took advantage of a vacation from classes to successfully attempt the first walking traverse along the length of Africa, south to north, in part to impress a girl’s father. They did some shooting along the way.

That’s a succinct description that sucks all the juice from one of the more impressive real-life adventures ever, accomplished by two college students who may well have subsequently inspired every P. G. Wodehouse and Monty Python parody of simultaneously insufferable and seemingly superhuman British imperialists to come. They wrote up their journey in From the Cape to Cairo, published in 1900, a reprint of which I’m reading now.

Following is a representative excerpt. Note, even for the time Grogan and Sharp were almost comically (not so funny if you were on the receiving end) racist. The racial epithet appears in the original.

During lunch, a native rushed in, saying that he had been bitten by a night adder, one of the most deadly snakes in Africa. I promptly collared him by the arm, stopped the circulation with some string, slit his finger cross-wise with my pocket-knife, exploded some gunpowder in the cut, while Dodson administered repeated subcutaneous injections of permanganate of potash. Meanwhile, the arm, chest, and left side swelled to the most appalling proportions. Cavendish then appeared on the scene with a bottle of whisky, three parts of which we poured down his throat; then we told off three strong men to run him round the camp till he subsided like a log into a drunken stupor. The following morning he was still alive, but the swelling was enormous, and the coloring of his nails indicated incipient gangrene. Not knowing what else to do, we put a pot on the fire, and made a very strong solution of the permanganate which we kept gently simmering, while six stalwart niggers forced the unfortunate’s hand in and out. His yells were fearful, but the cure was complete; the swelling rapidly subsided, the nails resumed their normal colour, and the following morning, with the exception of the loss of the skin of his hand, he was comparatively well.

I’ll note here that night adders are dangerous, but not usually fatal to adults, and that potassium permanganate is an antiseptic not known for antivenin properties (although it was commonly used as one at the time). I’m truly impressed as much by the patient’s physical endurance as by the treatment. And I’ll bet that was an epic hangover.

Best fraternity initiation, ever!

It’s a Changing World, and It’s Probably Changing Into the 1930s

In the aftermath of a presidential election, the outcome of which some people predicted, but I’m not one of them, Dave Barry points to the ever-morphing nature of “serious” politicians’ political beliefs.

In Washington, Democrats who believed in a strong president wielding power via executive orders instantly exchange these deeply held convictions with Republicans who until Election Day at roughly 10 p.m. Eastern time believed fervently in filibusters and limited government.

That’s a point that happens to be both clever and true–politicians do seem to take to heart Groucho Marx’s maxim, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

But, as Matt Welch writes over at Reason, those “others” are sounding awfully familiar. With nationalism and populism rising across America, Europe, and beyond, the ideological center of gravity is shifting in a familiar–and frightening direction.

In the post-neoliberal era, parties of the left are going hard democrat-socialist (think Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn), while parties of the right increasingly adopt the welfare-state nationalism of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, and France’s ever-advancing Le Pen family. The areas around the center are as dead as the political careers of, well, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Shades of the 1930s! Everything old is new again, indeed–especially withdrawing inward, and looking for a strongman to reclaim imagined past glory by force of will. And by force of arms, if need be.

Not that the lost center was much of anything to mourn, but as elitist and warlike as it was, people from America to France to the Philippines seem to be rejecting it in favor of a rawer, more grassroots authoritarianism.

There may be an opening here for people favoring liberty and autonomy. But I suspect that most libertarian relief for the near future will be achieved outside of and despite government policy, not through the political system.

In the meantime, break out your copy of The Road to Serfdom. The insights in there, put on paper in reaction to another moment when faith in individualism and freedom was waning, seem strikingly current.

Gary Johnson’s Big Sin? ‘Poaching’ Votes from Hillary Clinton (and Sucky Media Savvy).

“Gary Johnson’s poll collapse is happening, as predicted,” trumpets the Washington Post‘s Philip Bump. “Gary Johnson flames out,” smirks Steven Shepard at Politico. “Right on Schedule, Gary Johnson’s Poll Numbers Are Crashing,” adds Ed Kilgore at New York magazine. It’s the most coverage the Libertarian presidential candidate has received since he couldn’t come up with the name of an international political leader he really digs, or since he stumbled on the name of the Syrian city of Aleppo during an abrupt topic change during an interview.

Which, come to think of it, may have something to do with those dropping poll numbers.

To be honest, Johnson makes some of his own trouble. As is frequently and correctly pointed out, he’s not quick on his feet in interviews, he’s awkward before a camera, and he comes off as a bit eccentric. When he stumbles, he doesn’t easily recover. But these qualities were treated as largely positive qualities early on, when it looked like he would provide an alternative for Republican voters disgusted with Trump. “Johnson is a bit of an oddball. But he’s an endearing one, which is more than we can say about Trump and Clinton, two very strange people in different ways,” CBS News’s Will Rahn pointed out in June. Rahn also noted that the Libertarians had “a lot of executive experience for any ticket, let alone a third-party one.”

I think a more serious problem is that Johnson often comes off as if he wants everybody to like him. That might be a good quality in your neighbor, but it’s a dangerous vulnerability in a political candidate sparring with those journalists who are just doing their jobs–let alone hostile interviewers. If you view the people with microphones as the adversaries they are rather than buddies, you’re going to be better prepared for gotcha questions and out-of-context presentation of your comments.

Well, if you’re quick on your feet you will.

But Gary Johnson ran into another very serious “problem” not of his making: He started gathering up voters that Democrats and political forecasters expected to go to Hillary Clinton. “Democrats thought he would take from Trump,” Politico explained last month, “but polls show he’s attracting voters who like neither candidate.” The Hill added, “Democrats panicked by third-party candidates drawing support away from Hillary Clinton are ramping up their attacks against Gary Johnson.” In particular, he began pulling in up to a quarter of millennial voters–younger participants in the political process who might not only break away from the Democratic candidate, but establish long-term voting habits favoring another political party.

Since then, Johnson’s portrayal in the national media has been almost exclusively as a dummy, rather than an “endearing” former two-term governor with very different policy proposals from his Republican and Democratic rivals. You’ve heard an awful lot about his failure to name an international political leader he respects (that’s a gaffe? Why should he be a fan boy for Angela Merkel?), and almost nothing about him, say, polling higher than Hillary Clinton among military voters (the Christian Science Monitor did run a hand-wringing piece that managed to ask “why?” without talking to any actual troops).

But is this really a media pile-on? Maybe it’s journalists in a feeding frenzy, or being lazy, rather than series of a partisan attacks on a candidate who threatens their preferred contender.

But that’s not what some journalists who have held their own shit together see happening with their colleagues.

“The number of mainstream media reporters who are out there expressing their explicit opinions, that tend to be decisively pro-Hillary and anti-Trump, to me is scary,” commented Jim VandeHei, who co-founded Politico and is no longer with the publication.

The media is “not even trying to hide it anymore” in terms of political leanings noted an op-ed in The Hill by Joe Concha, one of the publication’s own media reporters.

“Journalists shower Hillary Clinton with campaign cash,” the Center for Public Integrity reported just last week.

And indeed, among the more interesting revelations (in a series of them) to come out of the Podesta emails published by Wikileaks has been the “Clinton campaign’s cozy press relationship,” as noted by The Intercept (there is a very good reason why so many journalists have fallen out of love with the transparency site). Clinton staffers discussed “friendly journalists” with whom they could place stories, wined and dined them at off-the-record parties, and signed off on articles about the campaign.

And that coziness does seem to have an impact. You’ll find plenty of discussion of the Aleppo gaffe. But just try to find media mentions of the British Parliament’s report last month condemning American-British-French military intervention in Libya in 2011, which it held responsible for “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” Clinton, you’ll remember, was Secretary of State at the time with responsibility for U.S. foreign policy, including our part in that Libyan catastrophe.

And try to dig up a story or two outside the ideological or foreign press about the Clinton Foundation accepting donations from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar after her State Department identified them as funders of ISIS.

Yes, Trump has (a few) media supporters too. Many of them are at Fox News which has several overt cheerleaders for the populist-nationalist candidate on its schedule. And yes, most journalists target the blustery Republican candidate while favoring Clinton. While he makes much of his own trouble, there’s no doubt who the majority of news people want to see in the White House.

And that leaves little room for anything but hostile coverage of a presidential candidate who challenges the overtly preferred candidate of the majority of journalists, and the favorite of a small minority, and who, frankly, kind of sucks at publicly fencing with interlocutors who are out for blood. Johnson is being skewered on camera and in print by reporters who are essentially operatives for his opponents in the election, and he’s pretty terrible at turning the tables on them.

Would any candidate be better in this position?

Any Libertarian nominee who started eating into Hillary Clinton’s presumed voting base would certainly have faced media hostility. But we can imagine candidates who would be faster on their feet in fielding surprise questions, more realistic about the inclinations on the journalists facing them, and more combative and energetic in responding to spin.

The problem comes in turning that imagination into an actual human being who wants to run for office. Johnson’s main opponents in seeking the Libertarian nomination this year were John McAfee, of tech and venture capital fame, and Austin Petersen, a libertarian activist and media entrepreneur.

McAfee is media savvy and cultivates his own image; the “crazy” persona he presents is at least partially intentional. I’m told by those who have interviewed him that he’s rather more serious and balanced in person. He might well have pursued some version of the down-the-middle strategy favored by Johnson-Weld, drawing votes from those who would otherwise have favored both Clinton and Trump. But charismatic and savvy as he is, his edgy image is only partially cultivated–he really is a “person of interest” in a murder in Belize, and he faced drunk-driving and firearms charges just last year. McAfee’s explanations may be perfectly truthful, but there’s no way that a hostile press would have passed up a chance to fill headlines about a strongly polling McAfee candidacy with the words “murder,” “drugs,” and “guns.”

Petersen doesn’t have the government or business credentials of Johnson or McAfee, but he does have media experience and polish. He would have likely run a different campaign, leaning toward the right with an eye to scooping up “never Trump” voters. To the extent that they’re sincere, the pro-life, conservatarian Petersen is what disappointed Republicans mean when they say they wish the LP would run a “real libertarian.” (That some of them then go and support a hawkish, authoritarian, ex-CIA, former Goldman Sachs mini-candidate–something of a larval Hillary Clinton–demonstrates the limits of that sincerity). It’s unlikely that he would have faced the same media hostility if he was gathering mostly never-Trump Republican voters, but it’s also unlikely that he would have made anything like Johnson’s headway among millennials and Sanders supporters.

The other contenders for the nomination were relative unknowns outside of the Libertarian Party. They came off as perfectly sincere activists devoted to the cause, but without much to grab the attention of people not already committed to the movement. Could one of them have risen to the occasion and molded a credible campaign that ventured into double-digit polling support–and then fended off a full assault by a hostile media? It’s possible, but none demonstrated that potential during the campaign for the nomination.

So yes, we can imagine a candidate for president better prepared than Gary Johnson to not only mount a serious run for the presidency but also to duel with hostile pundits. That candidate may well exist as a real person or multiple people. But it’s not apparent from the evidence that such a candidate actually sought to run in 2016.

But the Libertarian Party is going to need that sort of a candidate in the future as it seeks to build on this year’s high profile and make bigger waves in 2020 and beyond. If Johnson ultimately wins 5 percent or better of ballots, the LP qualifies for public funding from voluntary taxpayer checkoffs for the next general election. Given that the money is freely given, not coerced, the LP should seriously consider accepting what could be millions of dollars–and an enhanced opportunity to disrupt what will probably, again, be a contentious presidential campaign.

And given that the media has demonstrated its overwhelming pro-Democratic partisanship, and is highly unlikely to become more diverse in its views or less enthusiastic in its activism over the next four years, Libertarians (or any serious third-party candidates who threaten to “poach” donkey party votes) will need to be not just credible contenders for office, but accomplished sparring partners for their media opponents.

Election 2016 Mercifully Ends for Me! (See How I Voted.)

Arizona not only allows early voting, it actively encourages the practice with a registry where you can sign up to receive mail-in ballots in preference to trudging to a polling station on election day. My ballot arrived today, I promptly filled it out. And so I’ve entered my preferences, irrelevant though they may be, into the maw of the democratic machine for the hideous national election that would not end, 2016 edition.

At right, you’ll see a photograph of my presidential selection. Before you go telling me that I’ve broken the law, fuck you, no I haven’t, and I wouldn’t care if I had. Anyway, Arizona explicitly allows the practice of posting images of your own vote: “A voter who makes available an image of the voter’s own ballot by posting on the internet or in some other electronic medium is deemed to have consented to retransmittal of that image and that retransmittal does not constitute a violation of this section.”

Anyway, no surprise, I voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president. I consider the former two-term governor of New Mexico and somewhat squishy advocate of liberty to be the best qualified candidate for the office this year, as well as the most ideologically compatible with my own views. He’s also not evil, which is a major consideration in a mid-20th-century-ish campaign season when the Democratic Party is represented by Eva Peron without the charisma, and the Republicans are fronted by a less-stable Benito Mussolini.

Down-ballot, I selected Libertarians where available, Greens where not. I skipped those races (quite a few, since the state deliberately made it tougher for smaller political parties) where only Republicans and Democrats had candidates. Let me clarify that: I voted for no Republicans and no Democrats. Not one.

I think it’s time for those parties to die and make way for something that doesn’t stink up the joint.

I voted in favor of Prop. 205, a measure which would introduce imperfect but real improvements in marijuana laws, partially legalizing the stuff for people 21 years of age and older.

I voted against Prop. 206, a measure which would reduce job opportunities for new and unskilled workers by raising their cost to employers in the form of a hiked minimum wage. It would also dictate paid sick time practices, further raising the cost of hiring people.

Those are the high points.

As you can see, I didn’t throw my vote away on inferior contenders for public office.

Why Arrest Your Opponents When You Can Ban Their Fun?

Amanda Furrer

Is this the embodiment of evil? / Photo by Amanda Furrer

Maryland officials have suddenly discovered a crying need to ban spear hunting and restrict air guns (cuz you’ll shoot your eye out, I guess, or poke it). A former head of the Heritage Foundation wants to double down on drug prohibition (you can’t have enough stupid). And the federal government is severely curtailing the popular pastime of off-roading. Color me cynical, but I think this all has more to do with political point-scoring than well-considered policy preferences.

Let me elaborate.

In the midst of one of the more hideous political contests the American democratic system has coughed up in the last century or so, pundits trying to explain the horror show are rightly rediscovering Bill Bishop’s excellent book, The Big Sort. In his 2008 work, Bishop described how strongly correlated lifestyle and ideology have become in modern America, and how highly mobile Americans are leaving behind communities where they feel like outsiders in terms of both beliefs and hobbies to relocate among the like-minded. The result, he said, was that Americans are decreasingly challenged by opposing views, and increasingly likely to embrace radicalized versions of themselves.

That is, Americans who think alike are also likely to live alike, and are becoming increasingly different across the board from the broadly defined opposing camp. Bishop wasn’t alone in his conclusion. “It takes only a very small ‘nudge,’ whether from ‘within’ or ‘above,’ to tip a large population into a self-reinforcing dynamic that can carve deep cultural fissures into the demographic landscape,” Daniel DellaPosta, Yongren Shi, and Michael Macy of Cornell University wrote in “Why Do Liberals Drink Lattes?” a paper published last year in the American Journal of Sociology. “When cultural tastes in turn have a reciprocal effect on personal networks, such divisions are likely to be even further exaggerated, leading to a starkly divided world of latte-sipping liberals and bird-hunting conservatives.”

The polls seem to bear this out. In Virginia, “More than half the people who support one of the two major-party candidates say they do not have any close friends or family voting for the other,” the Washington Post reported last month.Tellingly, the Post added, “The poll also found cultural differences between Clinton voters and Trump voters, reflected in their ties to guns, gays and even hybrid vehicles.”

Those supporters are also more ideologically consistent than in the past (even if their chosen candidates are ideologically incoherent). “Looking at 10 political values questions tracked since 1994, more Democrats now give uniformly liberal responses, and more Republicans give uniformly conservative responses than at any point in the last 20 years,” Pew Research noted in 2014.

Unsurprisingly, groups of Americans who increasingly think and live differently from one another are also mutually alienated from one another. “For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party,” Pew found this summer. “And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.”

Some commentators find fodder in this national divide for sermons about the importance of valuing diversity of ideas. That’s great. But there’s no easy way to make people separated by geography, recreational choices, culinary preferences, housing styles, and ideology to find common ground. Many Americans are drawing further away from one another in terms of all-encompassing tribal identity, and that leaves diminishing reference points in common. People who don’t understand each other and rarely encounter one another aren’t going to start reenacting My Dinner With Andre (which only half of them have any interest in seeing to begin with).

Even more disturbing, though, is that the broad cultural preferences so closely intermingled with ideological identities create an opening for the victors in political contests to punish their enemies without openly targeting partisan affiliation. Yes, overt political retribution occurs too–see the scandal over IRS mistreatment of conservative organizations–and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become more common as the partisan divide widens. But in what’s left of our liberal democratic system, it’s still relatively risky to openly penalize people for believing the “wrong things.” Restricting or banning lifestyle practices almost exclusively favored by people who believe those things, however, is another matter.

You know. Like with hunting, and marijuana, and off-road vehicles.

How much easier it is to slap high tariffs on trendy foreign cars, or tighten restrictions on those nasty guns, than to explain why you’re thumping on some guy’s kidneys because he voted for your opponent. You can still make him and his friends suffer with legal penalties and taxes that won’t really affect your supporters, and your crew will get your nudge-and-wink and approve of slams against political/cultural enemies.

Or is THIS the embodiment of evil? /Autoviva

Or is THIS the embodiment of evil? / Photo by Autoviva

Fuck those Prius-drivers/bitter-clingers. They’re getting what they deserve. Right?

You may even propose to “make the environment here so unwelcoming that some will choose not to come, and some may actually leave,” in the words of a former New Hampshire Democratic state representative who opposed the libertarian Free State Project. She added, “One way is to pass measures that will restrict the ‘freedoms’ that they think they will find here.”

That’s a pretty explicit scheme to use the law to punish political opponents by targeting culture and lifestyle preferences associated with their viewpoint.

I’d suggest that most gun control efforts of recent years are more about punishing “right-wingers” than about serious attempts to reduce crime. Similarly, I suspect that much remaining resistance to marijuana and the weirdly persistent state-level attempts to prevent Tesla from opening car dealerships are intended to inconvenience people on the left. In both cases, the target is a cultural marker strongly identified with (though not exclusive to) an identifiable political-cultural faction of the American public.

So the next time one of your hobbies is targeted for an overtly unjustified and seemingly ill-considered restriction, give it some thought. There may have been more intellectual effort expended on the law or regulation than you’ve allowed for–but it was more in the form of malice toward your “tribe” than any real concern about the activity in question.

The True Threat to Britain

There's a cop up ahead. Crucify him? Or just harsh words? / Romanarmy.net

There’s a cop up ahead. Crucify him? Or just harsh words? / Romanarmy.net

Apropos of nothing, I’ve realized that Roman military reenactment is rather popular in the United Kingdom. In a country that has not only strict gun laws, but also draconian laws restricting anything sharper than a cutting comment, there’s an enormous loophole. To bypass those tight regulations regarding knives, swords, and javelins, you need only say the magic words: “Holy shit, have you had a look at Bettany Hughes’s tits?”

So, you can’t go pistol shooting, you’re forbidden to defend yourself with a knife, and even hanging a sword on the wall is a chancy thing. But training in the weapons and tactics of the army that conquered most of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and held it for centuries is totally cool.

Let’s be clear. These reenactors could march across the country half-drunk, just like real legionaries, and take it over. At least, they could be impolite while making clanking noises to millions of Britons.

True, The U.K. has a well-trained, and pretty well-armed, military. And if its troops are able to catch an Uber ride, it’s probably game over for any coup attempt too small too fill more than a pub or two. But if that Uber ride is suborned or simply delayed by a fellow traveler…

Well, then it’s Senatus Populus que … what? … Manchesterus?

Solar Power is a Cool Idea With Lousy Execution

Bow down before Ra!

Photo: AleSpa

I’m intrigued by the idea of solar power, as are many people. Pointing solar panels toward the sun and simply harvesting energy–what a cool concept! So last year I looked into having solar installed at my house and made appointments with representatives from two companies to come out and bid on the project. One was SolarCity, the national firm headed by Elon Musk, and the other was a local company with a good reputation.

My major requirement for both companies’ bids was that I wanted a system that gave me access to the power I generate. That sounds like a natural, right? You have solar panels on your roof or in your yard, just feet from your home. You’d think you should be able to use the power they generate. Well, you’d think that, but that’s not always the case.

For years, most solar installations have been designed to be grid tied–hooked to the electric grid–and dependent on net metering requirements that obligate electric utilities to buy the resulting power. Basically, you install a generator on your property and sell juice to the electric company, but draw your own power for home use from the same grid as everybody else. In a blackout, despite the solar panels on the roof, your refrigerator stops humming just like everybody else’s appliances. You might have a plug or two available to you on the installation, but that’s it. And, of course, once the sun goes down, the panels don’t generate anything. Your installation lowers your bill, but it gives you no added independence.

So, I asked the solar salesmen to bid me on some storage capacity so that those panels on my roof would benefit me directly, not just as a bill-lowering measure. SolarCity had just included Powerwall batteries–basically Tesla car batteries–in its line. The local company had two battery vendors to pick from and offered me a couple of options.

To cut to the chase, there are no solar panels on my roof, a year later. The local company’s bids were very well-considered, very flexible, and between $30,000 and $40,000 based on some variables. From that I’d be able to subtract tax credits, but that’s a big chunk of change. SolarCity’s bid came in just shy of $40,000, and I wasn’t convinced that its battery installation would be worth a damn, because my research on Powerwall capabilities turned up information entirely at odds with the salesman’s vague assurances. The lion’s share of that cost was the batteries; the panels themselves were roughly 30%-40% of the overall expense, but they alone didn’t do what I wanted.

When I said thanks but no thanks. The local company rep was very understanding. The Solar City guy tried to guilt trip me with the following text message.

X from SolarCity here… don’t want to bother you but I did some more research into the politics of solar in AZ since your accountant thought that was what you should base your decision on. It turns out there are laws in place on both the federal and state levels that protect solar consumers after they go solar. There is no chance, according to precedent, that your contract with APS will change after you go solar. They are putting out confusing scare tactics to try and stall people until next year when rates will be higher for new customers. I have a letter directly from APS that they sent to existing solar customers explaining the grandfathering contract which promises NO INCREASE FOR EXISTING CUSTOMERS. So if you want to do the right thing for your sons future… and set a good example… please get back in touch with me so I can show you the APS document which guarantees you are  protected when you go solar for the life of your equipment. Thanks for reading!

If you want to piss me off, try convincing me to give you $40,000 as an expression of love for my son.

But what was the SolarCity guy talking about?

He and I had discussed not just the price, but the fact that the entire basis for making a net metering arrangement pay for itself depended on legal requirements that power utilities purchase power from people who install panels, and assumptions that the details of the arrangement will remain largely unchanged for two or more decades. He’s right that the contract itself is unlikely to change, but there can certainly be added costs in a market in which the buyers are all unwilling and actively lobbying to change the law. A market made by politics can be unmade the same way, and I didn’t want to get stuck with a legacy system based on old legal arrangements–especially since the batteries required to give me some actual energy independence add so much expense.

Why are the batteries so expensive? Well, battery technology has made incremental progress over the years, while the panels themselves have improved by leaps and bounds. Much of that is just technological reality. You can’t make a breakthrough happen. But in the case of solar power the incentives have been legally crafted to encourage grid-tied installations with little thought to storage. The law has crafted a model that depends on an artificial market at the expense of allowing the natural development of a market that would take advantage of solar power’s natural ability to create electricity where it’s needed (which is both convenient and an attractive prospect at a time when there’s growing concern over the power grid’s vulnerability to deliberate attack).

Tellingly, when Britain reduced subsidies, new installations flatlined, demonstrating how artificial the market is.

Letting the solar market develop naturally would encourage installations based on its strengths–perhaps a greater focus on battery research–and weaknesses alike. Weaknesses? Yes, a big part of the battery cost in my bids results from the need for oversized storage to accommodate the startup load — often three times the running load — for appliances designed with a grid-tie in mind. If you build a home and install appliances that start slowly and run smoothly — say a small well pump that continuously feeds a cistern from which water flows downhill into a home rather than a larger pump that runs intermittently to a pressure tank — you reduce storage needs. But if you create artificial incentives for a different kind of market, that potential is likely to be overlooked.

Unlike the SolarCity rep, the local company rep was actually a bit apologetic with his bid. He told me that he knew the market was changing and that he thought they’d lost valuable time during which they could have worked to develop a different sort of market by relying on the net metering requirements. I really wish I could have given him my business.

But instead, I installed a generator tied into natural gas. It just makes more sense for my current needs, no matter how cool solar power looks.

Dear Trumpkins and Clintonistas, Your Candidates Are Evil

Choose the form of your destructor!

Corrupt-ilicious or tyrant-tastic?

As I write these words, the FBI is reportedly investigating, after an aborted earlier attempt, Hillary Clinton’s use of the Clinton Foundation to, essentially, peddle access and government positions to generous donors. The revelations are actually just the culmination of a long-festering pattern of behavior that has seen suspicious favors done for individuals and companies including UBS, Uranium One, and the Saudi government.

Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, is busy trying to shrug off reports that his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, pocketed millions of illegal dollars in payments from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. Trump, famously, has a man-crush on the thuggish Russian strongman and has even gone so far as to deny Russian military designs on Ukraine after Putin seized Crimea. Or maybe the money is unrelated–after all, he praised North Korea’s ruthless dictator, Kim Jong Un and the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of protests at Tiananmen Square without obvious compensation. This is independent of Trump’s attack just yesterday on freedom of the press.

Oh, and both Trump and Clinton have very serious problems with free speech in general.

Let’s face it: These are two of the shittiest creatures to ever to crawl out from under a rock and scurry into American politics, which is saying something, considering that it’s not an industry that brings out the best in people. But even compared to the control freaks, Klansmen, and grifters who have long made their livings by seeking government office, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton bring an unprecedented degree of overt grasping corruption and explicit contempt for the rest of the human race to their quests for the vast powers of the U.S. presidency. It’s no stretch to say that they embody evil in a way that we rarely have so openly rubbed in our faces.

Choose the form of the destructor, indeed.

To their credit, a good many Americans have glanced at what the Republican and Democratic parties left on the carpet and immediately gagged at what they’d stepped in. Clinton and Trump have consistently scored record high unfavorable ratings with voters. But they went on to win the nominations of their respective political parties anyway, testifying to the sad shape of these two senile and creaky organizations. Since then, “a full 13 percent of Americans would rather have a meteor hit Earth than vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” according to pollsters.

And yet…I’m still hearing people say that we have to choose between the psychopath and the sociopath. We must choose the form of the destructor, because it’s irresponsible to vote third party/refuse to vote. They insist that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein can’t win the election (because you shouldn’t vote for them, I guess) and not voting makes you responsible for the the destructor who ultimately triumphs. We must embrace evil, or else the other evil will win.

I think Julian Assange of Wikileaks had it right when he said, “You’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?” Neither for me, please.

Look, you can talk the inevitability of the two-party system all you like, but that doesn’t mean it has to be these two parties. In healthy democracies, political parties rise and fall. In recent years, Canada’s Reform Party competed with and then supplanted the Progressive Conservative Party before changing its name to “Conservative.” Before that, Britain’s Labour Party bumped the Liberal Party out of the ranks of the two dominant parties (though the displaced entity, now known as Liberal Democrats, hung on and is part of the current government as a junior partner to the Conservative Party). Even in the U.S. the Republican Party croaked the Whig Party in the 1850s and took its place. Political parties are private organizations. They live only so long as people see a need for them, and can be replaced when they do awful things like nominating evil people as their candidates for president.

Did I mention that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both horrible human beings and that to pick between them is to choose different brands of malevolence?

Look, if you really just can’t get enough of corrupt-ilicious Hillary or find the Donald just tyrant-tastic, knock yourself out with your chosen destructor. Just don’t act astonished when the rest of us back away with a frozen look of horror on our faces.

Because we’re better than that. And we’re still trying to scrape your candidate off our shoes.