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Power brokers must love the street theater


If nothing else, the Occupy Wall Street protests provide (yet another) reminder that the political “Left” can be just as incoherent, unrealistic and authoritarian as the political “Right.” Compare all of the snickering over tricorner hats and overheated verbiage at Tea Party gatherings to wacky signs and this prominent (unofficial) list of demands at the Occupy Wall Street website.

I think both groups have legitimate grievances — overgrown government on the one hand and corporatist cronyism on the other — but the fact is that grassroots political movements are messy. And, in reality, real people on the streets don’t always know what the fuck they’re talking about, even when expressing heart-felt outrage.

So you end up with movements that, at their fringes, compare elected officials to genocidal totalitarian dictators, and demand the destruction of industrial civilization.

Unfortunately, the net beneficiaries of grassroots lunacy are the powers-that-be, who can simply sit back, point at the street theater, and say: “Would you really prefer to put the crazies in charge?”

The real answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t want anybody “in charge”. Because, so long as somebody is in charge, they’ll inevitably accumulate ever-more power on behalf of themselves and their cronies — the root complaints of both the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers.

Could Europe end up more free-market than the U.S.?

The United States has its problems, but at least we can make a living here more easily, without going hat in hand to a bureaucrat and begging “mother may I,” than our cousins across the pond, right? Well … by and large, that has been the case over the course of our history. But the fact that something was true in the past is no guarantee that it will remain so in the future. The U.S. government, under the mis-rule of both major parties, has tried over the past decade(s) to spend the country into somebody’s disturbing fever-dream of a rule-bound “paradise.” Those efforts continue even as Europeans reach the end of that same dodgy path and discover that, with bank accounts barren and populations too smothered in red tape to fill them up again, they may have to free up their economies out of pure necessity.

There may be no more convincing evidence that the finances of the Greek government are a shambles than the insistent claims of the German chancellor (whose government constitutes Europe’s financial fire brigade) that the Greek books aren’t so bad after all — and so members of her own government should shut up already.

This comes as Italy’s latest attempt to borrow yet more money to pay its bills met with a less-than-enthusiastic response, leaving the already-strapped European Central Bank as pretty much the only serious customer. That is, unless China decides to unload some of that cash surplus on a risky investment in the Mediterranean.

And Ireland is under heavy pressure to address its own cash-strappedness by paring the welfare state and trimming compensation for government workers — advice being implemented elsewhere, amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

All over Europe, governments are running out of money, and have all put the touch one time too many on flusher neighbors who no longer have much to spare for their domestic concerns, let alone to bail out spendthrifts across the border. Much of the speculation by observers watching Europe’s financial troubles is over whether or not the multi-nation euro currency can survive, but does it really matter whether the shrunken European governments of the future pay their reduced bills with the euro, or with revived versions of the drachma and the lira?

“Shrunken,” I say, because it’s pretty clear that European governments in the foreseeable future will spend less money, provide fewer services and intervene less in private economic matters. Governments from Dublin to Athens are cutting back on generous social programs, paying bureaucrats less than in the past, privatizing businesses and deregulating some important aspects of their economies. Ireland has reduced its minimum wage, Greece has eased the process of hiring and firing workers and other countries are doing much of the same — haltingly, it’s true. Taxes are rising in the process, unfortunately, but that may do limited damage among populations accustomed to treating tax rates as little more than suggested contributions, especially if markets really do enjoy reduced regulation.

And all of this as the United States moves closer to very-expensive welfare-state status with the imposition of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And, while the Obama administration has backed off a bit on EPA regulations, and has ordered federal agencies to review regulations to make sure they’re not too burdensome, the White House has also engaged in high-profile enforcement of red-tape, including an armed raid, against companies such as Boeing and Gibson Guitars.

I can see a time not far in the future when Europeans, climbing their way back to prosperity, engage in their traditional entertainment of heaping scorn upon Americans — but now for clinging to outmoded statist economic policies and bloated government institutions. If it happens, it will be an historic turn-about — though not completely unprecedented.

Hmmm … It might be time to polish up your language skills. For what it’s worth, Spanish and Italian are pretty easy to pick up.

Steven Chu hates waste (at least when it comes to light bulbs)

Complete douchebag

Secretary Chu doesn't want you wasting your own money. Aren't you lucky?

Control freaks are rarely entirely open about their control freakery, but on Friday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu engaged in an unusual bit of complete honesty during a conference call with reporters. The subject was the ban on incandescent light bulbs, and current efforts in the House of Representatives to repeal that law. Said Secretary Chu in supporting the ban, “We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.”

Well, maybe calling the ban on traditional incandescent light bulbs a “ban” is unfair. After all, despite actually boasting about taking away people’ choices, Chu claims on the DOE’s EnergyBlog that:

The standards do NOT ban incandescent bulbs. You’ll still be able to buy energy-saving halogen incandescent bulbs that look exactly the same as the ones you’re used to, and more than pay for themselves over the life of the 100 watt replacement bulb.

You see, even though the government has outlawed light bulbs that don’t meet standards that traditional incandescent light bulbs can’t meet, you can still purchase a much-more expensive product that looks the same, so shut up already.

Ummm … no. If you outlaw something, that really is a ban — as telegraphed to begin with by Chu’s “taking away a choice” admission.

As for the justification for taking away a choice … Isn’t it obvious to everybody that, when we accuse others of “wast[ing] their own money,” we’re really just saying we don’t approve of the way they spend their dough and they ought to change their priorities to be more like us? Your mom accuses you of wasting money on comic books, your husband objects to you wasting money on shoes, your in-laws insist your fun vacations are a waste (you should visit them more often) … It’s never a statement of an objective standard; it’s just a shorthand way to nag somebody to shift his spending preferences to brink them in line with those of the speaker.

I know people who really like the new CFLs — one even gives them away to her presumably less-enlightened friends. She’s sort of a Johnny Appleseed of the damned things. And good for her — if she wants to buy them with her own money, that’s her choice. But we don’t all have the same preferences. That some of us want to spend our money on different kinds of light bulbs than Steven Chu likes, doesn’t mean that we’re wasting a penny. We have the right to make our own choices and spend what Chu concedes is our own money.

Or maybe Steven Chu would like us to paw through the details of his expenditures to find a few examples of “waste” we might want to discourage.

Maybe the New Deal was a class war after all

In the piece of Arizona in which I live, there’s a distinct social divide between locally sourced business people and professionals, and those from elsewhere. While everybody mixes at community events and in the professional setting, on their own time, the locals go one way and the imports go another.

It’s not an economic divide — asset-wise, one tribe or the other may have the advantage, but that’s clearly not where the border lies. In fact, there’s a range of incomes on either side; the real common denominator — and source of the division — is culture. In broad terms, one group spends its cash on ATVs, steak and beer, and the other on mountain bikes, hummus and wine. Things are a bit fuzzier than that, of course, but it’s enough to make for two largely detached social networks.

This is on my mind because I’m currently reading Paul Fussell’s much-referenced and very biting Class: A guide through the American status system. Published originally in the early 1980s, the book may be dated a bit in some specific details, but it recalls to me (shudder) my high school years in WASPy Greenwich, Connecticut, and reminds me that economic divides and social divides are not the same thing. One of the great glories of the United States is that wealth really is within the reach of just about anybody with brains and drive — but social barriers are a hell of a lot harder to overcome. Despite his billions, Bill Gates will always be an upper middle-class guy — never mind that he could buy and sell whatever is left of the Roosevelts.

Of course, if sufficiently secure in his own skin, he need not give a shit about that social divide either — which is freedom in itself.

But, speaking of the Roosevelts, this long and somewhat strange introduction is my labored way of working around to an observation that occurred to me some time ago while I was reading Amity Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, about the Great Depression. It’s often remarked that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a “traitor to his class” — that his authoritarianism, corporatist economics and populist bloviating separated him from his natural allies and championed the little guy.

Except … That’s not true, is it?

FDR was fond of bashing “money changers” and plutocrats, and of challenging major figures in business and industry — which is indicative, since he himself was engaged in … nothing. Nothing, that is, aside from politics. Really, his official White House biography speaks of college, law school and political office. Other biographies refer to a brief legal clerkship. But really, his family had lived off of inherited money for generations, and he didn’t have to work at anything that didn’t interest him. The man was a landed aristocrat.

And what about his opponents?

Many of FDR’s opponents may have been wealthier than him, but they also worked at it in ways that the idle social elite have traditionally considered vulgar. Take Andrew Mellon, for example. Widely derided as a shadowy and powerful figure — “three presidents served under him” — Mellon was the son of a Scots-Irish immigrant who started off working in lumber and coal and later went into banking. Yes, he grew immensely rich and powerful, but he worked. By Roosevelt’s standards, Mellon was a social inferior.

In fact, the same could be said about all of those “plutocrats” whose businesses were affected, to one extent or another, by the New Deal. The simple fact that they engaged in commerce beyond managing an ancient estate would have made them a bit … icky … to the likes of FDR and the old elite.

As Fussell writes in Class, “[A]s a class indicator, the amount of money is less significant than the source. The main thing distinguishing the top three classes from each other is the amount of money inherited in relation to the amount currently earned. The top out-of-sight-class … lives on inherited capital entirely.”

By the standard set by Fussell (a liberal Democrat, by the way, who contrasts Ronald Reagan’s “Midwestern small-town meanness” with “Roosevelt’s politics of aristocratic magnanimity”), the likes of Mellon and Henry Ford (another son of an immigrant), who actually worked for the majority of their wealth, would have been one or two social classes below FDR, despite their vast assets.

It’s interesting … Transfer the same cast of characters to, say, fifteenth-century Flanders (not that I’m an expert) and grad students would be cranking out papers about the exploitation of the peasantry as a weapon by the landed aristocracy against the newly empowered merchant class, but clear judgment goes out the window when the scion of a long-established elite New York family takes advantage of an economic down-turn to stir up struggling Americans against newly risen business owners who are overshadowing his social set in the United States of the 1930s.

I’ve long since come to realize that I rarely have original ideas, so I’ll assume that this insight has been covered, to much greater depth, elsewhere. Please feel free to drop me a note telling me what I’ve overlooked, since the subject intrigues me.

Chuck Schumer, surprisingly, finds something else he wants to ban

Many, many years ago, when I was a young man and the Internet (which wasn’t even called that yet) was little more than a very awkward way for engineering grad students to exchange porn, one of my roommates returned to school after spending his post-freshman summer as an intern in the office of a young New York congressman. My roomie was excited because this second-termer openly described himself around the office — though not publicly, in the age of Reagan — as a “socialist.” That my roommate considered this a positive was no surprise — we attended a small, private college in New England, a region seemingly established as a haven for institutions where smart people can spend a lot of money to be taught how swell it is to boss other people around.

Anyway, the congressman in question was Chuck Schumer.

Can you tell that I'm pleasuring myself with a swatch of chainmail?

Chuck Schumer asks, "Can you tell that I'm pleasuring myself with a swatch of chainmail?"

In the years since, I don’t know if Schumer has retained his one-time affection for whatever brand of socialism he once favored. What I do know, however, is that he has established himself as the preeminent control freak in the Senate, having since moved to the upper house of Congress. From self-defense issues to undeclared wars and torture to, most recently, private virtual currencies and online drug markets, Schumer almost always picks the side that expands state power at the expense of the individual. Even when supposedly championing the little guy, it’s always on the way to handing more authority to some government agency.

That Schumer sometimes seems to pick his targets based on what would most benefit his friends in the financial industry demonstrates that he may have gone the way of most good socialists, and jettisoned the populist trappings in favor of the benefits to be had from wielding power.

Senator Charles Schumer’s recent fulminating over the alternative online currency, Bitcoin, and its use in the Silk Road online drug market, fits right into his unsavory role as a ferocious campaigner against grassroots-level stuff that he doesn’t really understand, beyond the fact that it clearly poses a challenge to government power. If history is any guide, he’ll propose some legislation that only peripherally impacts his intended target, somehow benefits a campaign donor — and probably gets shot down in this Congress, anyway.

Of course, Charles Schumer does represent the current generation in a fine New York tradition of politicians who govern as autocratic ideologues, while also finding a way to line their pockets. Yes, the Empire State has seemlessly conjoined fanatical authoritarianism with self-aggrandizing corruption to an extent that’s hard to imagine elsewhere, but would be exceeded in its sheer repulsiveness only by a business that made its money torturing kittens.

Repulsive elsewhere, that is, but not in New York. Back home, Charles Schumer is apparently just what people want in a Senator.

And people ask me why I left.

Don’t shrug off ‘Atlas Shrugged’

It can be painful to anticipate seeing the film version of a book you enjoy — especially a “difficult” book that requires a lot of massaging to make it ready for the silver screen. The pain level can only be exacerbated when the movie is made on a small budget by an acolyte of the book who may have a different vision than you, or even lack the savvy and resources to carry the project through in a professional way. So, when my buddy told me that Atlas Shrugged was coming to Sedona, I … well … shrugged and told myself that, if it sucked, at least we’d grab a few drinks after the showing.

I’m happy to say that Atlas Shrugged is a good movie. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s professionally done, and does credit to the book while remaining watchable. The cinematography isn’t just Hollywood-worthy, it’s beautiful. The story builds at a good pace and it grabbed my attention — perhaps a testimony to the moviemakers’ skill in trimming down some of Ayn Rand’s excesses without losing the message and urgency of the book. Also the characters struck me as more human and accessible than their printed-page versions, both in their motivations and their conduct — that’s important not just for the heroes, but for the villains, who I found less cardboard-y on screen than in the book.

The feel of a crumbling America propped up by a dwindling class of producers is well-captured by backdrops to scenes, newscasts and conversations among the characters

Now, the weaknesses… Of course, it’s didactic. Even shorn of a few of Rand’s beat-it-to-death hammer-blows, Atlas Shrugged remains a political story, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The audience started tittering after a few repetitions of “who is John Galt?” But that may be a product of the cultural familiarity that the phrase has acquired — the giggles died down after a while. I know that I grew more comfortable with the phrase as an expression of fatalistic resignation in the movie’s near-future setting.

The acting, while generally good, had a few week spots. Taylor Schilling comes off a bit lightweight and wooden as Dagny Taggart. I thought Grant Bowler was good as Hank Rearden, but my buddy thought he had an off scene or two before hitting his stride. The rest of the cast is heavily salted with familiar Hollywood character actors who do an excellent job of projecting despairing good or weaselly evil, as required. Michael O’Keefe pops up, very nicely, in the small role of Hugh Akston. By and large, the cast fills out the characters’ presence in a way that Rand’s writing sometimes didn’t.

And sometimes, there was no getting past Rand’s dialogue. Let’s face it, Atlas Shrugged is a compelling book because of the story she told, not so much because of the dialogue.

But let me sum it up this way: Atlas Shrugged is better and more enjoyable (a key point!) than most Nicolas Cage movies, at a fraction of the budget.

Sadly, Atlas Shrugged didn’t come to Sedona as a regular booking. It was a special one-night event sponsored by the Sedona Tea Party, and advertised largely through the group’s email list. Even so, 115 people turned out. Although you can probably expect a healthy future of DVD and streaming-video rentals for the flick, the movie seems to have lost its initial steam, and special showings like this are mostly going to preach to the choir.

Speaking of choir … This was the first Tea Party even I’ve attended, and yes, the gathering did include a prayer, as well as a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Interestingly, the president of the local group, a local businesswoman, was careful to remain non-partisan in her political statements, and inclusive in her religious ones — to the point of acknowledging alternative and non-traditional views, and describing her own views as such. She also claimed to have read Atlas Shrugged about two dozen times.

I walked away with the impression that the local Tea Party group is older (at 45, I was on the youngish side in the room) and generally conservative, but with a strong libertarian presence. The age range may be an artifact of Sedona, which is where slightly artsy wealthy people go to get all new-agey and then die. And the libertarian tone is, happily, to be expected in this state, nativist convulsions not withstanding.

So, if you get a chance, go see Atlas Shrugged. And don’t see it as a chore or a duty, but as a movie you might well enjoy. And keep your fingers crossed for parts 2 and 3.

Ron Paul polls strong as opponent to Obama

The latest CNN poll is out, including a variety of hypothetical matchups between potential GOP nominees and the sitting president. The strongest contender is … Rep. Ron Paul!

That’s right, in a what-if race between Barack Obama and Ron Paul, polling 1,034 Americans, the results come in at 52% for Obama and 45% for Paul. The next strongest candidate is (gag) religio-fascist Mike Huckabee at 8 points behind the president. Supposed favorite Mitt Romney trails by 11 points.

It’s way early yet, so take this poll with a grain of salt — although it taps the leading advocate of libertarian ideas in the Republican party as a serious contender.

A serious contender with the general public, that is. Among Republicans, Paul comes in with 10% support as a potential nominee, behind Huckabee at 16%, Trump, Romney and Palin. That still puts him in play, of course — and let’s see if the numbers move after this poll and today’s debate.

A chill runs down my spine

I know that I’ve been distracted recently, so can I digress from my usually scholarly and restrained well-spoken self and say: I’m just a tad scared?

Seriously. Ben Bernanke seems to have adopted Kevin Bacon’s first movie appearance as his guide to holding a press conference, gold bugs look prescient as the dollar slides toward Weimar territory and Donald Trump … holy shit, Donald Trump?

It’s as if we’ve entered the period of the decline of the republic — but without the reliable money that kept the Gracchi brothers fat and happy. And without the cool architecture and classy duds, of course. It’s the fall of civilization, but with everybody sporting wife-beaters in a strip mall. Come to think of it, it’s the fall of something, but maybe not civilization.

I know that “the end is nigh” is a reliable fall-back for everybody who really means, “things were better when I was a kid,” but do we really have to flirt so closely with stupid and disastrous just to call me out as a false Cassandra?

Actually, I don’t think “the end is nigh” – but I do thing that suckage is here, and likely to stick around for a good, long while. Good times more often end with a whimper than a bang, and I expect that we’ll slog through the same. Our kids will be heading out in our cast-off suits for long-shot job interview number 197 — at a Tongan corporation (the new superpower in 2031) — and we’ll still be telling them that things will likely turn around soon.

Well, they could turn around, but we’re idiots.

I don’t feel optimistic about the future, if that’s not obvious from the above. But I think I and my progeny are relatively well-positioned to slink in the future — scathed, perhaps, but not destroyed. Family history records that we’re pretty adept at slipping across borders: Spain to Italy, Germany to Serbia, Italy to Argentina, Serbia to America, Argentina to … well … the Bronx (we don’t always choose well).

So descendants of mine are likely to skulk through the future, ignoring the powers-that-be, making their own way and prospering on the margins.

But, damn it, I’m stuck here and now!

Hayek schools Keynes on recession economics

Remember that rap video in which F.A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes faced off over their economic philosophies? Well, they’re at it again — and this time it’s over the causes and cures of recessions. Yes, it’s good, well-produced and worth sharing.

Did we really have to wait until rap music to find a way to make economics fun and understandable?

Elegy for Peter McWilliams

Persuading people of the value of freedom can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Those of us who favor freedom are habitually painted as selfish when we demand liberty for ourselves, and (bizarrely) callous when we insist on it for others. So let us never forget Peter McWilliams, an author and advocate who had a talent for framing freedom in terms of compassion and aspiration.

I remember covering McWilliams’s death for Free-Market.Net in 2000 when he succumbed to AIDS and cancer — and to the denial to him by authorities, under threat of the loss of his mother’s home, of the medical marijuana that he was using to control the side-effects of his medication.

Now, a talented (but anonymous) singer-songwriter and curator of the online Peter McWilliams Museum has produced a video tribute to McWilliams that effectively captures the man’s spirit.