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Just how hermetically sealed is New York’s insular political culture?

In the September 20 issue of New York magazine, there’s a brief piece by Dan Amira called “Tea House 2011.” Touted in the table of contents as a look at “lesser-known lunatics of the tea party,” the article is supposed to be a peek at the beyond-the-pale madmen who “are operating out of the national spotlight this campaign season.” These aspiring members of Congress get a tiny photo, a brief bio, and a few words on the unquestionable insanity they espouse, to which we’ll all supposedly be subject should the Tea Party get its way come November. Their craziness is taken as so obvious that no analysis is required once their opinions are stated.

And sure enough, of the exactly six would-be congresscritters profiled in this article, there’s an honest-to-God … well … apparent birther in the mix. He’s running for Colorado’s Fourth District. Cory Gardner is also the least outsidery of the bunch, considering that he’s already a state legislator.

But two of the “lesser-known lunatics” are on the list because they (drumroll please) question Social Security and Medicare. Todd Young, running for Indiana’s Ninth District, “[r]eferred to Social Security as a ‘Ponzi scheme.'” And Jesse Kelly, running in Arizona’s Eighth District, “said he ‘would love to eliminate’ Social Security and eventually end Medicare.” He’s also opposed to the minimum wage.

Uh huh. So of the six crazier-than-crazy Tea Party candidates profiled by New York for their “lunacy,” two of them are in there for positions that are widely held by professional economists. Wikipedia’s entry on the minimum wage summarizes surveys finding that as many as “90 percent of the economists surveyed agreed that the minimum wage increases unemployment among low-skilled workers” and “46.8% wanted it completely eliminated.” Similar surveys of economists find that they consider Social security a mess — 85.3 percent agree that “the gap between Social Security funds and expenditures will become unsustainably large within the next fifty years if current policies remain unchanged.” And Hell, even Michael Kinsley agrees it’s a Ponzi scheme (although he thinks that’s OK). And it’s hard to defend Medicare when the program is widely used as an example of a government scheme run amok.

But, in polite New York circles, criticizing Social Security, Medicare and minimum wage laws is just not done — to the point that anybody who ventures in that direction is considered laughable

From time to time, I miss the sophistication of my old digs. But whenever I get to hankering for exotic restaurants, creative theater and innovative arts in my home town, all I need for a cure is a reminder of the … well … lunatics who run the show there.

Christine O’Donnell may well represent America

Granted that newly minted Republican candidate for one of Delaware’s U.S. Senate seats, Christine O’Donnell, dwells at the intersection of crazy and stupid, but you have to wonder whether it was such a good tactic for GOP hierarchy to essentially forbid voters to support her in a decade in which they’ve pissed away their credibility, and whether it’s wise for her opponents to continue to emphasize her mortgage default and her creative accounting during an era when Americans have demonstrated themselves to possess the financial acumen of your average crack whore with a stolen credit card.

Crazy, stupid, financially irresponsible and despised by the establishment? Americans may decide to send somebody just like themselves to the Senate.

And no, I’m not suggesting that a smarmy control freak like Chris Coons is better. I’m just intrigued by how closely we’re approaching menckenesque perfection.

I’m sitting out the congressional election

Here in Arizona’s first congressional district — a monstrosity of 58,608 miles into which you could drop New York State with room to rattle around — the incumbent Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick appears likely to join the tide of congressional Democrats polishing up their resumes after November. Should that happen, her successor will be Paul Gosar, a Flagstaff dentist who won the favor of both Sarah Palin and Joe Arpaio — the Arizona equivalent of having an image of the madonna appear in the steam on your bathroom window.

Kirkpatrick clearly anticipated a few speed bumps on the way to reelection — she spent the better part of the last year wandering the district and collaring people to assure them that she had no intention of kicking in their doors and grabbing their gun collections. Nobody ever really suspected otherwise, of course. This is the southwest; if anybody had ever suspected her of gun-controller-ish leanings, her political career would have required a change not just of area codes, but of driver’s licenses. That put her repeated pro-gun reassurances in the same camp as the cheating ex-girlfriend who tries to smooth things over by saying, “well, at least I never slept with your brother.”

Well, yeah, babe, you answer — but my brother is gay!

Who she did tryst with was Obamacare, and that’s not going down too well in CD-1 — especially with a medical type gunning for her under the Republican banner.

Frankly, though, I’m sitting this one out. In years past, I’ve dragged myself, unenthusiastically, to the polls to register my opposition to the candidates who most disgusted me. That usually involved voting for a few Libertarians, and whoever sucked less on the Republican and Democrat lines and then going home to lick my wounds. But this year there’s no Libertarian running for Congress in the district. And the Democrats up and down the ticket are competing with Republicans primarily by arguing that they hate Mexicans every bit as much as their opponents.

Yes, Ann Kirkpatrick also promises us that it makes her so mad when the feds throw taxpayer money around — except for the porculus bill, of course, which throws a deep, dark shadow over all other federal check-writing efforts.

But lest we think that fiscal sanity may dwell elsewhere, Paul Gosar chimes in to assure us that he wants to keep Social Security as bloated, ill-conceived and disastrously unsustainable as Kirkpatrick (all we have to to to save it is let Republicans spend money instead of Democrats).

And Gosar likes throwing young American bodies into overseas adventures just as much as does the current congresscritter.

Oh yeah. And Kirkpatrick wants to outlaw burning the American flag as a form of political protest.


These aren’t stupid people, but they are craven, nasty thugs who show no obvious interest in reining-in government, promoting peace or expanding freedom. They spin their presentations slightly so that one candidate is a bit more in line with one party and the other candidate favors the line for the opposition, but it’s a race to the bottom to see who can wave the flag in the most disgusting way. I can’t see much there to motivate me to get out of bed on election day.

So I won’t.

Police state by default

I’ll say right out that Paul Karl Lukacs has bigger stones than me. When I’m going through Customs — or airport security in general — I may venture into testiness on my own behalf or run interference if my young son is getting the third degree (yes, it’s happened), but I’m generally focused on getting past the Gestapo, not on asserting my rights. So I applaud Lukacs for answering “none of your business” to a nosy Customs official when questioned about his overseas trip. His experience went like this:

“Why were you in China?” asked the passport control officer, a woman with the appearance and disposition of a prison matron.

“None of your business,” I said.

Her eyes widened in disbelief.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“I’m not going to be interrogated as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country,” I said.

This did not go over well. She asked a series of questions, such as how long I had been in China, whether I was there on personal business or commercial business, etc. I stood silently. She said that her questions were mandated by Congress and that I should complain to Congress instead of refusing to cooperate with her.

She asked me to take one of my small bags off her counter. I complied.

She picked up the phone and told someone I “was refusing to cooperate at all.” This was incorrect. I had presented her with proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport) and had moved the bag when she asked. What I was refusing to do was answer her questions.

Ultimately, Lukacs was allowed to go on his way because Americans really don’t have to do anything but show a customs declaration and proof of citizenship in order to re-enter the country. Of course he had to cool his heels first because … well, just because. He hadn’t respected their authoritah, after all.

It makes you think …

There are a lot of protections against official nosiness and pushiness on the books or in our legal traditions that go relatively unused. They go unused, of course, because officialdom makes it increasingly unpleasant to assert those rights. If the cost of telling a police officer to mind his manners is a strip search and a night in the lock-up, followed only months later by a lukewarm apology and an off-hand acknowledgment that you were in the right, many people simply stop telling cops where to get off. Even the occasional cash settlement isn’t going to be worth it for the average person. As time goes on, we forget what our rights are, and officials are trained in procedures rather than the legal scope of their authority. Eventually, the rights in question may still exist on the books, but largely as quaint museum-quality exhibits.

And then you run across the occasional Paul Karl Lukacs, willing to take a figurative bullet in the hopes that one of the gray-haired supervisors remembers a few vestigial legalisms.

So the question is … Is it a tactic on the part of officialdom to expand their power? Or is it more of a case of institutional mission-creep, fueled by our own timidity and laziness?

Either way, our rights become meaningless if we abandon them because it becomes a hassle to assert them.

And note that not a single statute is altered along the way to changing the balance of power between the folks wielding the power of the state and the rest of us.

Modern-day ‘capital strike’ becomes more likely

Pundits have been speculating for months that the United States is undergoing a “capital strike” of the sort that occurred during the Great Depression — that is, frightened and confused by government policies and the (often contradictory) directions in which they tug the economy, investors are sitting on their money rather than putting it into new and existing ventures that might generate jobs and prosperity. That speculation appears to be firming up into reality, as new reports indicate both disenchantment with the Big O among his well-heeled backers and (likely related) widespread unwillingness to invest in the U.S. economy.

Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, described the earlier version of the phenomenon in a 2009 column:

“Fat cats” is what President Barack Obama just called bankers. He also invited them to the White House this past week.

The reason for the mixed message is that the president is cross with banks: They have refused to heed his orders to lend. The dynamic of preachy executive and elusive lenders recalls the mid-1930s, when a petulant Franklin Roosevelt gave a label to banks’ puzzling behavior: “capital strike.” …

Observing that banks maintained what had once been considered ample reserves, 1930s monetary authorities reasoned that increasing reserve requirements on paper would have little effect: Their increase was merely a de facto recognition of an accumulation that had already occurred.

The authorities forgot these bankers had been burned. The wary banks reacted by stashing away yet more cash. The result was an unforeseen tightening and less cash in the economy.

Election cycles also contribute to capital strikes. Banks today know that whatever the White House says, it has to stop pouring out the cash eventually, probably after midterms. Banks in the 1930s held on to cash because they knew Roosevelt would stop spending after the 1936 election, and he did.

House winnings

High taxes, or the prospect of tax increases, do damage as well. In 1937, a tire company executive explained the effect of Roosevelt’s confiscatory rates upon the investor: “He will not risk financing new ventures if the government take is greater than that of the average gambling house.”

Infantilizing the private sector also makes it shut down. In the 1930s, Roosevelt, like Obama, alternated between coddling banks and companies and giving them the equivalent of a good spanking. Both can be counterproductive. The editors of Time magazine formally recognized that by printing a regular rubric over its weekly reports: “Last week the U.S. Government did the following for and to U.S. Business …”

Writing in The Freeman, historian Burton Folsom, Jr. further draws out some of the parallels between then and now:

The sequence of massive federal spending followed by a lack of recovery plus tax hikes is poison for a politician. Therefore Roosevelt sought scapegoats to explain his failure. Wall Street bankers were his favorites. He called them “economic royalists” and blamed them for causing the Great Depression. He also blamed America’s top businessmen for instigating a “capital strike”—they were refusing to invest in order to make him look bad. FDR then launched IRS investigations of key Republicans and used the newspapers to encourage hostility toward these targets.

Obama has followed FDR’s playbook of attacking Wall Street bankers and various corporate leaders. He condemns the raises these bankers sometimes receive and the profits earned by some large oil companies and health insurance companies.

In June, on ABC News, George Will raised the possibility that Obama is reaping the same results as FDR, saying:

The Bush tax cuts are going to expire. Interest rates have to go up sooner or later. The House, just before going on recess, passed a so-called jobs bill with $80 billion more dollars of taxes in it. There may be climate change regulation. No one knows quite how Obama Care is going to effect the private sector. In pandemic uncertainty, capital goes on strike.

But, so far, this has largely been speculation. Have the Wall Street types who heavily supported Barack Obama’s presidential run turned against him? And are investors really stashing their cash rather than risk it in an environment of anti-business hostility and economic uncertainty?

The Magic Eight Ball now seems to suggest the answer is: You better believe it!

The New York Times reports on the u-turn a major Wall Street backer of Obama has made in his opinion of the president and his policies:

Daniel S. Loeb, the hedge fund manager, was one of Barack Obama’s biggest backers in the 2008 presidential campaign.

A registered Democrat, Mr. Loeb has given and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democrats. Less than a year ago, he was considered to be among the Wall Street elite still close enough to the White House to be invited to a speech in Lower Manhattan, where President Obama outlined the need for a financial regulatory overhaul.

So it came as quite a surprise on Friday, when Mr. Loeb sent a letter to his investors that sounded as if he were preparing to join Glenn Beck in Washington over the weekend.

“As every student of American history knows, this country’s core founding principles included nonpunitive taxation, constitutionally guaranteed protections against persecution of the minority and an inexorable right of self-determination,” he wrote. “Washington has taken actions over the past months, like the Goldman suit that seem designed to fracture the populace by pulling capital and power from the hands of some and putting it in the hands of others.”

This is important, even the Times concedes, because:

Mr. Loeb’s views, irrespective of their validity, point to a bigger problem for the economy: If business leaders have a such a distrust of government, they won’t invest in the country. And perception is becoming reality.

Just last week, Paul S. Otellini, chief executive of Intel, said at a dinner at the Aspen Forum of the Technology Policy Institute that “the next big thing will not be invented here. Jobs will not be created here.”

Mr. Otellini has overseen two big acquisitions in the last two weeks — the $7.7 billion takeover of the security software maker McAfee and the $1.4 billion deal for the wireless chip unit of Infineon Technologies. If he is true to his word, those deals will most likely lead to job cuts in the United States, not job creation.

And it’s not just one ticked-off hedge-fund manager and a disgruntled tech executive — it seems to be oodles of investors preferring to keep cash under the mattress rather than throw it into whatever the economy and the unpredictable folks tinkering with its controls may bring their way. Business Week interviewed Professor John Paglia of the Pepperdine Private Capital Markets Project about his latest semi-annual report. Paglia tole the magazine that, despite high demand for investment among small businesses, and increased credit-worthiness, “there’s a dearth of capital opportunities for the upstart businesses that potentially—down the road—could lead us to economic prosperity.” Banks, venture capitalists and angel investors are declining to make loans to such an extent that “[t]he No. 1 concern for private companies is access to capital. Nearly 31 percent cited that, even more than the 27 percent that said the economy is their top concern.”

Earlier this year, the Pepperdine Private Capital Markets Project reported that almost half of venture capitalist plan to sit on their cash, despite growing demand for investment, at least over the next year. Said Paglia: “The long-road out of the current recession and tepid marketplace has made it easier to simply keep money locked up.”

The Pepperdine data suggests that the “capital strike,” such as it is, is a reaction to economic uncertainty, rather than a refusal to make money and generate prosperity just to spite the administration (as FDR used to charge). Of course, the Times piece makes it clear that much of that uncertainty can be laid at the feet of the government, so the end result is the same.

Where have all the liberaltarians gone?

On his blog Cato staffer Will Wilkinson writes that he’ll soon no longer … well … be a Cato staffer — and the same is true of his colleague Brink Lindsey. This is important because Lindsey and Wilkinson have been the two libertarians most closely associated with the “liberaltarian” project — the idea, spawned during the dark George W. Bush years, that libertarians should finally jettison the rather overripe alliance with the increasingly blood-and-iron-oriented political right and seek to build bridges with the left.

Without further details to go on, this has sparked much speculation that the Cato Institute is pushing Lindsey and Wilkinson out the door now that the Obama administration has proven itself just as pushy and sanguinary as its predecessor — and amidst hopes that the Tea Party movement means that the place to be is on the right, after all.

I have no special insight to offer here. What few contacts I had at Cato have largely eroded over the years, as I’ve drifted from professional concerns to professional irrelevance — and a greater focus on family matters. But I will say that I hope the mutterings are wrong; I’d hate to think that Cato is tossing people overboard because they’re too willing to broaden the search for allies.

That’s not to say that I support a formal “liberaltarian” strategy. It would be awfully ironic if an individualist, do-your-own-thing political movement were to try to evolve a formal strategy for anything, let alone for designating official friends and enemies. But I think it’s just good sense to look for allies where you can find them, without declaring whole sections of the political spectrum to be “off-limits” or “friendly” territory.

Frankly, political labels don’t really tell us much about whether people generally favor liberty or generally oppose liberty. If we’re discussing the left, it’s not enough to mention that the Obama administration is authoritarian, snoopy and war-mongering — we also need to mention the likes of Nat Hentoff and Harvey Silverglate, and the great good they’ve done for the cause of freedom. As for the right … perhaps the Tea Party movement does represent a revival of a right-wing interest in personal freedom and limited government, but did I mention eight hideous years of George W. Bush?

Basically, we shouldn’t be blinded by labels because they obscure more than they reveal. “Liberal,” “conservative,” “left” and “right” have come to cover such a wide range of views (and a multitude of sins, along with some virtues) that they don’t tell us very much at all. We need to look for friends where we can find them, using our own natural affinities, the language and interests of those we’re approaching, and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. Lindsey and Wilkinson are probably best suited for outreach to the left, Lew Rockwell and company are certainly more comfortable with the right, and the rest of us should do whatever seems right and opportune.

Libertarians never should have allowed themselves to be associated as a movement with “the right” and we shouldn’t make the same mistake with “the left.” But we should all be willing to treat anybody with an interest in expanding liberty, if only in one area, as a potential ally.

GQ profile seems like an endorsement for Rand Paul

Social conservatives are apparently muy upset about GQ‘s profile of Rand Paul’s college days. I take the tempest over the rather humanizing article on the candidate as further evidence of how fucking humorless the god-botherers are — as are people in general, these days, really, considering that Paul’s opponents are trying to make hay over the article, too. Frankly, details about Rand Paul’s history of hanging out with an underground, free-thinking, prankster-ish secret society at Baylor University, and his “kidnapping” of an entirely willing female friend in order to (unsuccessfully) persuade her to smoke grass, after which he and his buddy required her to “worship” Aqua Buddha (you see what grass does to you, kids?) before returning her safely and soberly home make him more likeable to me, not less.

Underlining the harmless nature of the whole matter, the woman in the Aqua Buddha incident told GQ “they never did anything wrong” and clarified the matter to the Washington Post by emphasizing her willing role:

“I went along because they were my friends,” she said. “There was an implicit degree of cooperation in the whole thing. I felt like I was being hazed.”

Apparently the woman in question wasn’t entirely pleased by the affair, but this was at a very religious college where Rand Paul was an outlier by being not uber-conservative and she seemed freaked out by the sacrilege inherent in the Aqua Buddha worship as well as the pot-smoking.

Would anybody really be more comfortable if Paul had fit in better at Baylor?

Gay marriage and the benefits of (un)democracy

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anybody that I was pleased by Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision last week striking down California’s Proposition 8 and clearing the way for gay couples to enjoy the questionable benefits of marriage to the same extent as straight couples. As I’ve written in the past, the maid of honor (title by his own insistence) at my wedding was a gay friend of my wife (and an all-around decent guy), I have more than a few gay and lesbian friends, and I see no particular reason why they should be denied access to the many legal niceties, conveniences and (occasionally) pitfalls that come with obtaining a government-issued license recognizing a supposedly private relationship.

Frankly, by allowing the government to tie so many bells and whistles to state-sanctioned marriage, the public made it inevitable that many people beyond the originally intended audience would not just want, but need access to that official seal of approval. Holy matrimony be damned, it’s about inheritance, joint bank accounts, common property and the simple decency inherent in being allowed to make hard decisions after an unexpected summons to a hospital bed. Mixed-race couples wanted (and got) access to state recognition for their marriages first, and now same-sex couples want (and are getting) the same thing.

But I’ve written about that before. For a change, let’s take a gander at the reaction to Judge Walker’s ruling.

Unelected judge” is the critical phrase most commonly leveled at the San Francisco-based Reagan appointee (along with charges that the allegedly gay jurist is just defending his own). Having lost the legal battle (so far), social conservatives have now become rabid majoritarians, advocates of 50% + 1 as the ultimate arbiter of what’s right and proper. Suddenly, National Review’s Rich Lowry is arguing, “let’s stipulate that Judge Walker is right. In that case, he and like-minded people should come up with, say, Proposition 9 overturning the ban and persuade 50.1 percent of Californians to support it.”

Uh huh. And Lowry has the same take on the recent decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago (PDF), voiding that city’s handgun ban, right? Overturning that law was judicial overreach, too, wasn’t it? Or is that different?

Look, a lot of terrible violations of liberty and equality before the law can be very popular, including various types of discrimination, bans and restrictions of all sorts, censorship of speech critical of charismatic politicians, ad nauseum. Pretty much any type of authoritarianism is capable of commanding the support of the majority given the right time and place for a poll.  Care to guess how a national referendum on the Fourth Amendment would have turned out in the aftermath of 9/11? The founders had a lot of faults, but a lack of awareness about the flaws of majority rule wasn’t one of them. That’s why they were so critical of democracy and put in place restrictions on what the people and their representatives can do.

With his decision, Judge Walker exercised a 21st-century implementation of the long-established power of the judiciary to rein-in the power of the state, even when that power is exercised directly by the majority. In truth, individual rights and limits on state power, and the enforcement of those rights and limits by the judiciary, are fundamentally anti-democratic. And that anti-democratic tradition is a good thing.

A majority of California voters tried to ban the extension of the legal rights attached to state-sanctioned marriage to a group they don’t like — an overt exercise in discrimination. Judge Walker said no. Democracy may have lost in that contest, but liberty triumphed.

Now, if you want to discuss why the government is involved in marriage at all …

Packing heat

While I was back east, yet another legal milestone was achieved in Arizona. That’s right, the Grand Canyon state joined Alaska and Vermont as jurisdictions where people can legally carry firearms concealed without first asking “mother, may I” of the goons in government office.

Of course, Arizona is just catching up with me with its legal tweak, since I’ve been lugging my guns along when the mood struck or the need seemed pressing for over twenty years now, without regard for the preferences of the local political class. I did so more often in New York City than I do here, for the simple reason that there’s more need for enhanced self-defense capabilities in the Rotten Apple than in the desert.

It is nice, though, that now I no longer  have to worry about offending the sensibilities of the local constabulary by going well-heeled.

Candidate Kristin Davis puts the good kind of prostitution in politics

The candidacy of Kristin Davis, the former madam who supplied then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer with his playmates (and before that she was vice president of a hedge-fund) for Spitzer’s old office is almost enough to make me consider moving back to my old stomping grounds just so I can cast a vote. An outspoken libertarian who cites Hayek, von Mises and Rand, she’s running on a platform of legalizing marijuana, prostitution and gay marriage — the first two, in part, to bring profitable industries into the above-ground economy, the third as a simple matter of equality.

Alas, if I moved back to New York to support Davis, I’d actually have to live there. Been there, done that, ain’t doing it again.

Anyway, enjoy Kristin Davis’s excellent campaign video, below.