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Three decades ago, I was briefly involved in a campaign in Jefferson County, Washington State, to prevent nuclear warheads from being stored within its borders. I knew it was a hopeless endeavor — there seemed zero chance for local government, spurred by idealistic citizens, to prevent the U.S. Navy from using nearby Indian Island as a maximum security repository for missiles and warheads taken from submarines scheduled for maintenance at Bangor Trident Base — but it did introduce me to the leftist activists in the northern parts of the Olympic Peninsula.

The fit was not always comfortable. Among many interesting moments with these people, I remember most clearly my first encounter with an angry feminist. And with clueless feminists.

FD110687-98A7-4289-95AC-B972EE0200C6But the biggest difference may have regarded our different ethical approaches. I was not prone to the same sort of moralism that they were, for one thing. Or Utopianism. I also had become convinced that MAD was a successful policy, on the whole, and that the traitorous Rosenbergs may have inadvertently served as the saviors not only of America but also of humanity. So I occasionally said things more than a tad out of place amongst the activists.

One of the odder moments of mutual incomprehension concerned the reasons to oppose the bomb storage. I offered a NIMBY argument, and mention the threat of terrorism. “Indian Island is a target.” The activists looked at me blankly. They were uninterested in terrorism. Terrorism was not on their radar, except, I suppose, as a tactic that they could imagine themselves using, push come to shove.

I remember Bob the bookseller looking at me, puzzled, having caught the implication of my logic. “Where do you want the bombs stored?” he asked. “And how many do you think we need?”

“How many nuclear bombs would you like?” That last question was rather pointed.

I had no idea, of course, so I shrugged. I am generally not good at prescribing for an institution I am not in any way responsible for.

C431E517-A2BF-4990-A419-D3BF9FF48CFCHonestly, I thought terrorism was the wave of the future. A few years later, after Bush’s invasions of Panama and Iraq, I was more confident yet. Sure enough, my suspicion proved increasingly savvy over the years, constituting one of two sets of prophecies that showed me not a complete nutball. I felt satisfied, I confess: I understood some things about the way the world worked that most people did not seem to. At all.

Yup, terrorism and the price of gold. I was right, way back then.

Now, I have no idea what is going to happen next. My hunches are all over the place, between financial Armageddon and the Singularity!

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N.B. Pictured are three Google maps of the area in Jefferson County where I lived at the time. Circled in red are where the offices of Liberty magazine were listed with the Post Office (the Polk Street apartment building I lived in) and (at bottom) they were actually located, on top of the hill. One of my first jobs for Bill Bradford, Liberty’s publisher, in my first year or two working for him, was Community Plenipotentiary. That is, I would get involved in community activism so he would not have to! Yes, he paid me to do this sort of thing. Thankfully, it did not take up much of my time, and arguably I did it on my own time. I was not being paid by the hour.

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A little before midnight I espied a YouTube video titled “Donald Trump Declares and National Emergency and F…” I clicked it. Then the AppleTV told me that the Internet was not working. In the distance, I heard gunfire.

Ominous….

False alarm, though. I reset my modem and it all came back. It was just an InfoWars video. And the gunfire outside picked up as the New Year dawned.

For a moment there I had been ready to embrace the fall of America!

I continue to practice armament spirituality, imagining the end, daily. This year I’ll imagine death and catastrophe in a new way every day. Just to prepare myself for the Inevitable.

Keep thinking those good thoughts, as Rona Barrett used to say.

Happy New Year!

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Dominique Swain as Lolita

Two decades ago, Jesse Walker launched into his auctorial career by beginning to write his first book, Rebels on the Air. In previous years, he had lived in the town I also resided in — Port Townsend, Washington — and we had seen many movies together. In 1997* he moved to Seattle, so we didn’t see each other all that often and didn’t have much chance to argue about the movies we saw. I remember his surprise at my favorite movie of that year, Gatacca, which now only marks the lucky 13th slot on his favorite movies list of that year:

    1. Oz
      Written by Tom Fontana
      Directed by Darnell Martin, Nick Gomez, Jean De Segonzac, Leslie Libman, Larry Williams, and Alan Taylor

      Power shifts constantly in a penitentiary’s ever-evolving social web. In a perfect climax, the whole network explodes, inverting, distorting, and dashing the prison’s hierarchies.

    2. The Apostle
      Written and directed by Robert Duvall

      A double rarity: a thoughtful movie about religion and a textured portrait of the South.

    3. The Sweet Hereafter
      Directed by Atom Egoyan
      Written by Egoyan, from a novel by Russell Banks

      Death rips a hole in a town. The viewer drifts both through the community and through time, as helpless as the grieving parents of the story.

    4. fast, cheap & out of control
      Directed by Errol Morris

      Studies in spontaneous order.

    5. Deconstructing Harry
      Written and directed by Woody Allen

      The last great Woody Allen movie is a sardonic, self-lacerating remake of Wild Strawberries.

    6. Jackie Brown
      Directed by Quentin Tarantino
      Written by Tarantino, from a novel by Elmore Leonard

      All the Tarantino trademarks are on display here: the idiosyncratic structure, the brilliantly selected soundtrack, the rich and funny dialogue. But there’s something deeper going on as well, a pulp fable about integration that refuses to preach or to give the audience a reassuring conclusion.

    7. The Ice Storm
      Directed by Ang Lee
      Written by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody

      Before this movie, Christina Ricci had starred in a series of fluffy kid flicks, with only a quirky supporting role in the Addams Family films betraying more than a hint that she had something more in her. With this—released the same year as That Darn Cat!—she suddenly established herself as the indie queen of the late ’90s.

    8. Henry Fool
      Written and directed by Hal Hartley

      ‘OK, you got me outnumbered here four to one and you’re gonna kill me here tonight and not a soul in this dimly lit world is gonna notice I’m gone. But one of you, one of you, one of you is gonna have his eye torn out. Period. . . . One of you poor, underpaid jerks is gonna have an eye ripped out of its socket. I promise. It’s a small thing perhaps, all things considered, but I will succeed, because it’s the only thing I have left to do in this world. So why don’t you just take a good look at one another one last time, and think it over a few minutes more.’

    9. Sunday
      Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
      Written by Nossiter and James Lasdun, from a story by Lasdun

      ‘I guess I’m too old to play a human being.’

    10. Face/Off
      Directed by John Woo
      Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary

      This crazed sci-fi doppelgängerung is John Woo’s best American movie, and frankly I like it better than most of his Hong Kong output too.

    11. Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage)
    12. Ulee’s Gold (Victor Nuñez)
    13. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol)
    14. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
    15. Public Housing (Frederick Wiseman)
    16. The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (Sam Green)
    17. The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet)
    18. The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
    19. Gummo (Harmony Korine)
    20. Absolute Power (Clint Eastwood)

    Now, remember, that is Jesse Walker’s list, not mine. Mine is a bit different.

    Long-form narrative fiction, either as broadcast on TV or as streamed online, in series and “mini-series” format, is different enough from one-night screened film that I usually do not include it in these “best-of” lists. Besides, I have never bothered to even give Oz a try. So my own ranking — and let us remember, these ranks are more for sport than expressions of a science — would obviously exclude Jesse’s first pick, and probably look something like this:

    1. Gattaca
      Written & directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law.

      Contrary to ‘the Pajama Guy,’ I do not regard this movie as exhibiting a ‘good idea poorly executed,’ but as a great idea brilliantly executed. Besides, it includes Gore Vidal in one of his best supporting performances. It is also science fiction as I like it best: about ideas and their impact on our lives, not on explosions somehow heard in space.

    2. fast, cheap & out of control
      Directed by Errol Morris

      This is a brilliantly conceived, edited, and scored documentary that explores four men with their peculiar (if entertainingly related) obsessions: animal topiary, wild animal-taming, the mole rat, and robotics. It is the latter subject that provides the title, for the roboticist imagined creating robots based on insect behavior and intelligence, not on human intelligence, and putting many robots onto the surface of an alien planet (such as Mars) and counting on redundancy. Sort of like treating information as life, and robots as sperm and not eggs. (The idea of this sort of robotic approach appears also, earlier, in Darrin Morgan’s great second contribution to The X-Files, The War of the Coprophages.) The Errol Morris film remains one of my favorite from this documentarian/visual essayist, and is probably the one that proceeds at the crispest pace: fast, very fast indeed. But not cheap. And not out of control.

    3. As Good as It Gets
      Directed by James L. Brooks, starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt Greg Kinnear, and Cuba Gooding Jr.

      Look, I know this is a very popular film. But unlike the biggest film of the year, the execrable Titanic, this film is a portrait not only of interesting people trying to adapt to each other and learn how to improve, to become better people, it is a romance we have not quite seen before. Nicholson plays a deeply neurotic romance writer with a decided lack of ‘people skills.’ It is obvious that this character has used being nasty to others as a way to provide emotional security for himself. But we see him change in this film, and that makes the film worthwhile — and better than most films these days. Also, the film is quite funny. If occasionally a little hard for me to take (the comedy of embarrassment not being something I tend to enjoy much — I get embarrassed for others so easily).

    4. The Sweet Hereafter
      Written & directed by Atom Egoyan (from a novel by Russell Banks)

      An extremely sad tale of people trying to deal with a great community tragedy. Lovely, well worth watching.

    5. The Ice Storm
      Written by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody; directed by Ang Lee. Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Czerny, Christina Ricci.,

      This is not entirely dissimilar from Atom Egoyan’s movie, above. At least, in memory it seems a sad film about tragedy, guilt, and empty lives. Since I remember more scenes from it than from The Sweet Hereafter, perhaps it should be placed above it in order. But remember: these rankings are not scientific, or even expressions of urgent personal opinion. They are indicators of admiration and love. And yes, I was deeply affected by this film.

    6. Jackie Brown
      Written & directed by Quentin Tarantino (from a novel by Elmore Leonard)

      I liked this film better the second viewing than the first, and better the third time than the second. If I see it once more, it may move closer to the top of this list.

    7. Henry Fool
      Written & directed by Hal Hartley, starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey.

      My friend Eric Dixon loves this indy auteur, Hal Hartley. I am a tad iffy on the filmmaker, being a bit uncomfortable with a certain clumsiness in too many of his films. They are not quite polished. And yet, he has something going for him in this film — as in several other works — that bowled me over the first time I saw it. I have enjoyed Henry Fool’s sequels as well.

    8. Chasing Amy
      Written & directed by Kevin Smith, starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Ethan Suplee, Scott Mosier.

      This is such a step above the Clerks films that it bears marking. I know it is often denigrated as somehow . . . not respectable, and it does have Ben Affleck in a leading role, and the actor has delivered some dubious performances in his career. But the female lead is magnificent, and Jason Lee does a great job in a supporting role. The characters are quirky and original, and the milieu is refreshing. Further, the key scene to which the plot leads us is a corker. I remember my first time watching this film. As that scene approached, I saw the direction that it could go and I may have mumbled ‘surely Smith is not going there.’ But he did. He went there. All the way. And the scene is hilarious. The film seems a very realistic take on the rom-com, to me, even if that seemingly preposterous, comic, climactic Proposition is ‘unbelievable.’ I know: I go out on a limb here. I am unrepentant.

    9. The Spanish Prisoner
      Written & directed by David Mamet, starring Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon.

      A very clever take on con artistry, even better than House of Games from a decade previous.

    Now, I do not have a tenth on my list. Why? Because two of the most memorable movies of the year are messes. They are so egregious, each in its special way, that one could, with some plausibility, put them on a Worst Of the Year list.

    But any movie so expertly made as these two deserve special mention. I do not know how to place them. So I will let them stand as runners-up for the tenth-best of that year. Each is a cautionary tale, both in theme and in execution. So, let them sit here on the bottom of my list, to spark some thought:

    • Lolita
      Written by Stephen Schiff based on the great novel by Vladimir Nabokov, directed by Adrian Lyne, and starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella.

      Upon reading it, I judged the novel impossible to make into a movie. And yet it has been done twice. The first time was in the early 1960s by Stanley Kubrick, and the pedophilia theme was updated: the title inamorata was played as a teenage girl by a teenager, not the girl on the cusp at all . . . and an attractive one at that. It’s a good movie, maybe the best role for James Mason. Further, it gets at a crucial element of the book: it is a dark comedy. And yet the Kubrick effort is far enough away from the book that it seems almost further from the classic novel than that novel is from its precursors, the posthumously published The Enchanter (1986) and the identically titled short story from the early 20th century written by another author entirely. The 1997 movie premiered in Europe and then debuted in America in late 1998 — and the lag is understandable. It goes a different direction. In some ways it is much closer to the novel. The actress who plays Lolita, for example, seems less the teenybopper and more the “nymphet” — though Dominique Swain was about the same age as Miss Sue Lyon when the 1962 work was shot. The whole affair is much more . . . well, it was rated R in part for “aberrant sexual behavior.” The main sex scene between Humbert Humbert (played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons) and Lolita is unforgettable — so see it at your own risk. It is especially disturbing because most of the dark comedy is gone. It is merely dark. Indeed, it seems to play as a twisted romance of sorts. A tragedy, maybe. Which I understand the novel was, in a sense, but . . . the movie seems somehow very wrong, and less moral than the book. Oh, and we “get” to see Frank Langella in full-frontal nudity. Alrighty then. I have never read the unused Nabokov screenplay for the work, but I know how I would write the screenplay, and how to cinematically frame the first half as separate from the second half, which was a crucial structural element in the novel that is missing in both movies. But this 1997 work is brilliantly shot, acted, and . . . yes, unforgettable.

    • Boogie Nights
      Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds.

      This movie stars Marky Mark in his first screen role as Dirk Diggler, a well-endowed lad who makes it big in the porn biz as it turned from a film industry into a video industry. It is funny in the first half and then goes dark in the second. It thus has a structure that the Lolita films should have had. But it becomes unduly chaotic as it grinds home the apparent message, and more than a bit hard to watch. Indeed, my “review” of Boogie Nights, delivered to my friends at the time, was short and sweet: like Dirk Diggler’s dick, it is way too long.

    twv

    * Or maybe in late 1996, I cannot remember. He had worked with me under the presiding mad genius of R.W. Bradford, at Liberty magazine. But my copies of the first few issues of 1997 seem to be missing, so I cannot check the even the season of his exit from Liberty’s masthead.

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I made a helpful little list, last night, of  videos worth watching on Amazon Prime:

  • Arrival (2016)
  • Predestination (2015)
  • Doctor Thorne (ITV miniseries)
  • Man in the High Castle (two seasons)
  • If I Were You (2013)
  • Clear History (2013)
  • Hello, My Name Is Doris (2016)
  • Mozart in the Jungle (three seasons)

I looked at this list of favorites and noticed that Predestination was the one on the list I had seen least recently. On a whim, I began watching this terrific fleshing out of Robert A. Heinlein’s short story, “All You Zombies.”

Meanwhile, of course, my iPad was by my side, charging. And, I think, updating the iOS. Which may explain why, 45 minutes into the movie, when the hero says, “He deserves to to die,” Siri woke up and saluted me.

“Hey there,” she said.

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“Hey, yourself, Siri.”

I should have carried on a conversation with her. But I wasn’t really in the mood for a Turing Test.

Wrong movie.

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It has become commonplace: the hallmark of today’s self-identified Left is to play encomiast* to diversity while brooking scant diversity of opinion. Indeed, difference of opinion now fills them with scorn and rage.

What do we call their error here?

They have ready terms for people who hate or discriminate against others on the basis of race or sex: racism and sexism, respectively.

They have ready terms for people who hate or discriminate against gays, trans people or foreigners: homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.

So, what do we call their hatred for people with different philosophies, who diverge on matters of facts and values?

Shall we dub them with an “ism” or a “phobia”?

If it is to be the latter, may I suggest xenologophobia?**

I have many ideas for the ism variant, but I suspect I should merely ask others for the exact term that has been fixed upon by professionals. (Call this a bleg.)

Nevertheless, I proceed. And I note that it would be especially satisfactory to base the epithet on the philosophical nature of the error.

How? Well . . . racism and sexism, for example, are not just about hatred or “discrimination.” The error in these attitudes, if we drill down to principle, limns the nature of the prejudice: racism is the “making too much of race” by imputing some generalizations about a race to individuals of that race regardless of merit.

Even were the modal Swede socialist-minded, it would be an error to assume that every Swede you meet is a socialist, no matter how statistically relevant the identification with Swedes and socialism. This would be racism, were Swedes considered a race. (Otherwise we could call the error Swedism? I mean, ethnism?)

Similarly with sexism. “Sexism is judging people by their sex,” wrote the coiner of the term, “when sex doesn’t matter.”

Leftist ideologues who will not debate their opponents respectfully, who exclude non-leftists from the community of scholars on criterion of lockstep ideological agreement, put too much stock in their ideas, and have abandoned liberality, tolerance. We could simply and rightly call them illiberals. But that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter.

They negatively judge people by their ideas when ideas don’t really matter . . . by ideologies when ideologies shouldn’t matter. But we can’t call these illiberals “ideaists” (“idealism” already having been nabbed for other purposes). Too clumsy.

But hey: we do not need the -ism or -ist, really; there are other suffix options: think of Christianity. Isn’t there an -ity suffix, or something similar?

How about idiots?

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* Encomiast, remember, was defined by Ambrose Bierce as “a special, but not particular kind of liar.”

** If they fear even going halfway to meet people they disagree with, for fear of endlessly parsing disagreement, we could call them Zenologophobes.

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For Democrats and Republicans, the biggest issue dredged up by ever-increasing number of sexual harassment accusations against Hollywood, media and political celebrities is whether the scandals will morph from Teachable Moment to Impeachable.

But maybe a better way to look it pertains to what you might call “the demarcation problem”: the thing we need to know, of any particular accusation — apart from its factuality, its truth-value — is the nature of the behavior:

Creepy or Criminal?

According to the exact wording of Donald Trump’s infamous recorded boasts, his offenses were, if true,* merely creepy. But, if his boasted-of grabby hands were not always met with assent, then in those non-consensual instances his offenses were likely criminal.

Indeed, the reason so many people think Trump has confessed to sexual assault is that no one really believes that all the women he has hit on consented to grabbing of them “by the pussy.”

With Senate candidate Roy Moore, on the other hand, we have quite a number of very specific allegations, of which we learn more every day. Moore apparently liked very young women, and we have heard the most about a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old, both of whom he had “courted” when he was much, much older.

That may indeed be creepy. (Most people seem to think so.) But not illegal, since Alabama’s age of consent is 16.

It gets worse for Moore, however, since he is also accused of inappropriate relations with a 14-year-old, and outright sexual assault, too. Those would be criminal.

rat-styleAnd Moore, as Jacob Sullum sagely notes at Reason, has made matters worse for his own cause, putting out conflicting stories about his relations with his older inappropriate inamorata. This undermines his defenses regarding the truly more serious allegations.

Meanwhile, Republicans are rallying around Moore — as if their complaints about the creepy-and-criminal Clintons were just a matter of partisan convenience.

And that is creepy.

What is missing, here? Our attention has been called, once again, away from substantive crimes of the federal government. Like in the Wag the Dog days, the criminal aspects of our government receive scant attention. All the fuss is over the sex stuff — the sloppy kisses, blue dresses, unwanted ass-grabs, and worse.**

The creeps and criminals have distracted us from the true enormities.

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* But remember — the boastful are notorious liars.

** Note that what is missing from a lot of this is any consideration of the appropriate level at which creepy or merely unwanted advances (or even mere ribaldry) might be distinguished from those very few grave affronts requiring a full warlock hunt (as I put it a few weeks ago, and as Claire Berlinsky dubbed the mania more recently) and those crimes that deserve prosecution. (And then there is the technical difficulty of coming to the truth, especially after decades’ long lags, and the horrific institutionalization of enabling mere accusations to ruin lives. Warlock hunt, indeed — what is being established is the cultural totalitarianism of Ms. Grundy.) Most of what we are dealing with, here, are not rapes or sexual assaults, but, instead, faux pas best handled at the level of manners, and not made the federal cases or national outrages that the great Paul Jacob judges with more approbation than I can muster.

A Conjecture

Maybe because my aesthetic tastes are so resolutely minority (or ultra-minority), I have never been inclined — even before I developed any political opinions to speak of — to seek to prohibit the publication, exhibition or performance of any work of art on “community standards” or even moral grounds. Could it be that those people with more standard, popular tastes, are precisely those most likely to leap to censorship or even boycott pressure to squelch art or ideas they do not like, simply because the commonality of their tastes suggests to them the power of majority opinion, and thus the likelihood of success?

IMG_2025And could we be witnessing the loudest crowing for abridgements of free speech (“hate speech is not free speech!”) from college campuses and media enclaves for reasons of this very principle? Universities and Hollywood and major media are de facto intellectual bubbles, self-selected (as well as pressure-driven by intranigent minorities) to enforce ideological ideologial uniformity . . . and thus the perception of majority taste. Leading, in turn, to the current anti-free speech mania.

Well, it’s a theory. A conjecture.

I advance it, in part, to explain why illiberal ideas take form and grow. Perhaps they crystallize when there is too much cultural homogeneity.

Which, if true, would be the cream of the jest, since the current batch of illiberals are those progressives who yammer the most about “diversity.”

But, as is now widely known, they are not really interested in value diversity. They are interested in racial and sexual (OK: “gender”) diversity only. By sharing a value-dependent moral vision — not a transaction-based principled vision — they have developed a surprisingly strong sense of community, and use their commonality to enforce strong pressure to out-groups to conform to their in-group.

Even while, yes, preaching the doctrine of “inclusion.”

There is nothing about progressivism which does not give cause for sardonic laughter.

In this context, it has been a hoot to watch major media figures fall from grace over the issue of sexual harassment . . . and graver sexual misconduct. Call it Schadenfreude on my part. It is truly rich. Mainly, what we are seeing here is the purging from the Sanctimonious Classes eminent figures who, it turns out (and to only feigned surprise), had no good reason for self-righteousness, or any standing for righteousness at all.

I may be disturbed by the witch-huntery of mass boycott and social censure that sends the Weinsteins and Lauers and the like into the Outer Darkness — without trial or rules of evidence or much nuance about the acts actually mentioned — but to witness the celerity of the “punishment,” and its apparent extremity (no livelihood left for any of these? Really?), directed at people who have been so smugly censorious of others on these very grounds? Priceless.

When Patrick J. Buchanan declared a culture war, decades ago, I confess: I was not impressed. But he was right. (I know: “far right”! Ha ha.) We are now in full-out culture war on largely political grounds, and I have been thrown in with conservatives whose general approach to life (“there is no kill like overkill”) I have some basic difficulties with. But, though the conservative temper may be fear-based about cultural cohesion, and far too prone to the vices of rage and vindictiveness, progressive vices now seem more dangerous. I can live peacefully among conservatives. But would I be given any peace from progressives? I think not. They would love to tax and regulate me and those I know into conformity with their values. They would never cease to hector me for my disagreements with their dogmas. And their vices? Envy alone could destroy civilization, if it be entirely unleashed. Rage leads to warfare; envy to totalitarianism.

But of course, as I’ve said many times before, progressives in politics are the new conservatives in temper. It is they who rage against differences of opinion. It is they who scream at their ideological opponents and refuse to use reason in debate. It is they who join hands and use the social controls of boycott, shunning, shaming, and moralistic opprobrium to marginalize others.

So, how to attack them? Perhaps reason will not cut it — not to begin with, any way. They must learn that their basic values are not universally shared. That their tastes are not universal, and not written into the warp and woof of the universe.

Maybe, chastened, shown not to be as “open” to diversity as they had pretended, they will then listen to reason, and learn that the way to accommodate diversity is with the easy yoke of liberty and not the dead hand of the totalitarian state.

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I try to read the MoveOn emails I receive several times a week. Yes, I try. But they are very trying.

Just this morning I got an email from “Bernie Sanders” . . . which began “Hi Timothy — I just wanted to make sure you saw my message from the other day.”

Must be important.

So what does “Bernie Sanders” say?

Well, he pushes what he (or his copywriter) call “the progressive agenda,” which is dead set against the “corporate giveaway” in the new tax reform bill. Here is how he begins:

Throughout my political career, I have asked us all to imagine what our nation’s future could be: a country with a minimum wage that is a living wage; with students graduating college without crushing debt that stifles their ability to pursue their dreams; where health care is recognized as a right for every man, woman, and child; and where we lead other nations in the fight against climate change.

I have asked us to believe that we could level the playing field and create a vibrant democracy where the billionaire class would no longer be able to buy and sell our candidates and elections.

I will always believe in that vision of America — even as I watch Republicans try to pass a tax scam that is literally the opposite agenda of what you and I have championed over the years.

A tax scam. I wonder: does it increase taxes on the poor and the proverbial “middle class”? I doubt it, but I honestly do not know. The only “fact” about the tax bill given is that it decreases taxes on the wealthy.

I assume by that he means decreases tax rates on the wealthy. There is a difference between rate and revenue. The difference should affect the way we talk about taxes. Somehow, it almost never does.

Bernie, if you could help me on this, please explain. Comments are open below.

Lacking many specifics from this pitch letter (and, after all, that is what most MoveOn emails are, pleas for funds — the only other regular pitch being calls for action, usually to complain to my congressperson), I wander back up to the top. Bernie Sanders imagines an America with “a minimum wage that is a living wage”; with college students not starting their remunerative careers buried in debt; “health care” treated “as a right” for all; and the country leading the world “in the fight against climate change.” Each point is worth thinking about. But I am going to avoid the “climate change” issue entirely, focusing, instead, on the climate-of-opinion change regarding matters nearer at hand.*

The Ass Ceiling

Minimum wage laws were one of the two big issues regarding economic policy that turned me away, forever, from Bernie’s brand of politics. The first time I heard someone assert that minimum wage laws hurt some low-skilled workers while helping competing workers with higher perceived skills, I got really interested in economics. As a science. I wanted to see how this could be the case, if it could at all.

I learned two things right away: one must move beyond slogans and look at what laws are at base, and then what their effects are beyond the policy’s immediate targets.

At base, minimum wage laws proscribe hiring people at a rate lower than set by the “minimum.” A minimum wage regulation does not require businesses to hire anybody at that rate. Such regulations prohibit businesses from hiring anybody below that rate. So, by their very nature, minimum wage laws are employment-limiting laws.

That puts the burden of proof on the proponent of the “minimum wage” to explain how it could increase the ranks of the employed, or, at the very least, not decrease those ranks. If employment decreases — either immediately or in the future — then minimum wage laws are not boons to the poor, lifting poor workers out of poverty. Instead, they would constitute mere redistribution-of-wealth schemes: in effect taking from some poor and giving to others, making them less poor.

The import of this idea has yet to hit at least half of the population.

The working out of the wider and long-term effects of wage-rate floors (as economists tend to characterize the regulation) gets complicated. It comes down to productivity — the marginal product, actually — and interesting scientific study can work out the complexities. There are debates to be had.† But what is interesting about political discussion, particularly from Bernie Sanders and his cadres, is that such discussion is never forthcoming. The usual defenses of minimum wage regulations that I hear point to the bizarre Card and Krueger studies, and not as economic explanations, but as excuses, as authority to dismiss economic reasoning entirely — with no more intellectual integrity than nyah-nyah taunting. “My study is better than your study”!

The popular use of these contrarian studies (and yes, most studies of minimum wage law effects disconfirm the stated utility of the regulations) is not to advance knowledge, much less explore how any particular study is constructed, but because it gives an excuse to hold to a policy endorsed for non-scientific reasons.

imageI know this because I felt their pull. The love of “minimum wage” regulations is part of a belief in the efficacy not merely of government but of activists who propound simple nostrums. It is a very religious commitment, and when I looked into the issue, nearly four decades ago, and studied my own psychology as well as economic theory, I concluded that my motives in promoting the wage floor were not pristine.

As always in such issues, it comes back to the Seen and Not Seen. What we “see” is a minimum wage law, and people employed above the prohibited low rates. We do not — and cannot — see the people that would have been employed had such regulations not existed. The counter-factual world is closed to us. And yet the reality of our experience is entirely encompassed precisely by such counter-factuals, since, when we choose either a job or a policy (or a career or a spouse or a philosophy) we are forecasting two or more possible worlds of effects that would result from a choice one way or the other, and those forecasts are not illusions, but guesses as to possible realities that, after the choice is made and the action (or policy) instantiated, only one of which becomes factual, actual.

By sticking to the Seen effects of minimum wage regulations, the enforced floor’s proponents allow themselves a smug sense of “sticking to the facts” while denying a basic part of reality. Meanwhile, they become acolytes to a particular religious view of life, wherein the State is savior and activism is ritual and prayer.

And, all the while they go about promoting one of their favored nostrums, they ignore the reality: wage floors are worse than the proverbial “glass ceilings” of feminist lore. The floor is raised, hiking the productivity requirements of workers, placing those unable to perform at the set level below the floor, looking up at the . . . feet and asses of those who remain employed. The People Under the Floor have been condemned by the regulation, with no more hope for them other than subsidy.

Oh, sure, they could get more skills, and that is indeed one thing progressives have always insisted upon: that people who want to work go to progressive-run schools where productivity is allegedly taught (it isn’t, for the most part) and the bills are paid from taxpayers. Indeed, unable to work because prohibited from doing so, the likelihood of skill acquisition is diminished for the low-skilled, since actual work is the single most important source for acquiring skills. And, indeed, most of those trapped under the floor are there in no small part because our society’s prescribed basic training ground, the public school, has proved to be ineffective (for a variety of reasons). No wonder, then, that The People Under the Floor turn to black markets and government handouts. That is pretty much all that is left them.

That is what Bernie Sanders and his kind have left them.

I shudder when I think about the People Under the Floor. And I try (often not successfully) not to be angered at the progressives most intent on policies that keep them there.

The takeaway that is so rarely taken, is this: the wage floor is an ass ceiling for the forcibly unemployed.

But Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

The interesting thing about progressivism is its relentless moralism. The subject line of Bernie’s email is “Stop this immoral disaster.” Calling something “immoral” often excuses one from thinking about it in any practical way. Bernie was talking about the tax issue, but his lack of any specifics is just indicative of this sort of mindset.

When I call something “immoral” or “evil,” that means that I have stopped careful consideration of it, too. Them’s fighting words, words of action.

One just hopes that there is some thought upon which that judgment of immorality can be based.

In his earnest (if under-thought) wishes for a debt-free beginning to careers (Bernie himself was a slacker, and then entered Congress in a great binge of living off the system) and for automatic, care-free medical assistance for all, Bernie seems driven by a utopian vision, an Edenic myth, backed only by

  1. activism and
  2. subsidy from the rich

IMG_4679Indeed, this email sums up his whole approach. It is an appeal to activists to support more activism that would (the scheme runs) lead to government action that would take from the rich and give to the not-rich. So no wonder, in all this, it is important to mention the awful spectacle of billionaires “buying and selling” — no talk of renting, interestingly enough — “our candidates and elections.” The big money game in politics is there, of course, because big money is what it is all about. Bernie S. and his fellow B.S.ers demand that “the rich” subsidize them more. Which is about money. Lots of it. The mere presence of the B.S. agenda ensures that those whom B.S.ers wish to plunder will lobby government to keep a bit more of what they have.

This is simply the nature of politics. When it is not about offense, it is about defense. And the more hits in offense a group takes, the more the group will spend in defense.

And by complaining about the rich defending themselves, the B.S.ers are trying to stack the game in their favor. Not only do they think it would be “nice” if other people paid for their college educations and their health care, they think it would be especially nice if those people who pay do not have a say in the “deal.”

How convenient.

Yet they are the ones always talking about “greed”!

This whole approach that they push seems a huge grab from a few to give to the many.

Quite a scheme they got, there.

None of This Is New

Nothing I have written here should strike anyone as in any way novel — except perhaps for a few quips and phrasings. After all, this is a very old debate. As soon as “socialism” became a word on the lips of reformers and revolutionaries, these debates became ubiquitous.

When I was young, the people who pushed the B.S. line were often called “liberals,” but with the rise of Reaganite conservatism, the l-word because a term of opprobrium. The word “progressive” became more popular. When I was younger, I read The Progressive magazine. I have been following this sort of thing all my adult life. But not close enough, apparently, for that magazine still exists. I have not seen it in years.

IMG_4680Indeed, I dropped the rag about the time I helped found Liberty magazine, which was published from Port Townsend until the death of its publisher in 2005. The third issue of Liberty appeared about 30 years ago exactly; the first had hit the mails in July (I think it was) of 1987. Liberty was a libertarian zine, and I had considered myself some sort of a libertarian for less than a decade at the time of its founding. But I had read a great deal of literature in both the individualist and collectivist movements. I had made an informed choice.

Perhaps I was destined to become a libertarian, for my individualism was built into the warp and woof of my psyche. Thinking in terms of groups seemed nuts to me. Indeed, I had interpreted my anti-racism and anti-sexism so big in the decades of my youth as anti-groupthink ethical philosophies. The error of sexism was to judge a person primarily in sex role terms, “by his or her sex” not his or her personhood. What an affront to civility, it seemed to me. And racism? Even less justifiable, for while the differences between men and women, boys and girls, were quite obvious and pronounced on the biological level, and even in psychological terms, the differences among the races were not that large, and from one person to another in any racial category could easily stretch the whole of human diversity.

And yet now the B.S. folks talk relentlessly of groups, of group identity, of one’s personal identity in terms of groups, and of victim groups and groups to be victimized (I mean, “oppressor” groups to be brought down and made “to pay”). Collectivism is alive and well. I have no sympathy for it any more. The whole “thinking in group terms” groupthink strikes me as pure madness.

And why “madness”? Why not use a nicer term? Well, madness is a word we usually use to describe the passionate people who are in some important way unhinged from reality.

The reality I see is that, right now, there are two federal governments: the constitutional government funded by income taxes, corporate taxes, other taxes, tariffs and “fees”; and the extra-constitutional government (consisting of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, mainly) funded by FICA and SECA and similar taxes. Interestingly, the unconstitutional government (which I designate as unconstitutional simply because, uh, none of its functions are listed in the Constitution) is basically run on a rough parity, mimic-insurance-contracts “public utility” basis, and what one gets out of the system does indeed depend on what one puts into it. The constitutional part is paid for mostly by the wealthy.

The nature of this tax situation is indeed quite amazing. The B.S.ers often yammer about “making the rich pay their fair share,” but the constitutional government is paid for almost entirely by the rich. This video explains this pretty well:

So when Bernie writes me to warn that current moves by the Republicans are designed to benefit the rich at the expense of “working families,” I am a bit skeptical:

And I’m going on the road again because we have to defeat this bill, too — a tax bill that will slash taxes for the rich, raise taxes on working families, and lay the groundwork for a massive attack on the most vulnerable people in our country.

This bill is an immoral disaster. If it passes, 13 million fewer Americans will be insured, and health care premiums will surge for tens of millions more. Further, the Republican budget cuts Medicaid by $1 trillion over 10 years and Medicare by over $400 billion. In order to give huge tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations, the Republican budget also makes enormous cuts to education, nutrition, affordable housing, and transportation — and will crush college students and college graduates struggling with debt.

In short: This budget will do incalculable harm to tens of millions of working families, women, kids, the sick, the elderly, and the poor. We have to fight this budget and stop it. That’s why I’m hitting the road with MoveOn, and why I’m asking you to support the work that we’re doing.

Then he asks for $3.

Thanks, but no thanks. I will spend $3 on a Coke. Or two. Or three.

Bernie makes no mention of how “rickety” is the current unconstitutional government sector, the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid division. That is where most of his complaints about cuts are. But if it be unstable, financially unsound, we (if there is a “we” at all here . . . I know I have no power of choice in the matter) have basically two things to do: cut services and/or raise revenues. A normal person would probably suggest doing both, though one could see problems associated with doing either. The consequences of doing nothing? Almost unthinkable, for most people.

The fact that Bernie makes no mention of the problem, just focuses, instead, on the problem he sees with one solution, strikes me as irresponsible. If you want to know why there is such a strong divide, these day, look not merely the rhetoric on both sides, but on what they do not say. Bernie is mum about the secular disorder of the federal government, in which he serves as a prominent leader.

And his solution — make the rich pay more, not less — is even less responsible. He wishes to bail out the unconstitutional system that he himself helped strain (by voting for more benefits in the past) from the constitutional half of government, which already is paid for mainly by the very people he wants to soak further in his bailout.

I just shake my head.

I realize, this rambling blog entry is of little value. I am not really writing to convince anyone of any particular thing. Do I have any hope of convincing the progressives? No. They live in their reality, and its irreality they hope to impose on the rest of us. Meanwhile, we watch the Republicans speak only in half truths, and attempt only half-responsible reforms. I am just venting between jobs. (I have a video project to get to.)

I have never been less hopeful about the political future of the United States than I am right now. And I ascribe most of this to the unwillingness of partisans to deal with reality. Two sides and the middle are caught in a game where not seeing the whole is the most obvious feature.

It looks like the worst sort of game: not win-win; not win-lose; but lose-lose.

twv

 



* The willingness of people to become convinced of governments’ ability to manage the planetary climate while our federal government cannot even balance a budget is so astounding to me that I am, right now, at a loss for words. On that goofy subject.

† One of my readers made an astounding caveat to an earlier expression of mine about the marginal productivity theory of wages, which depended upon what seemed to me like a bizarre misreading of equilibrium theory, and a complete elision of knowledge problems —  but I confess, many of these are beyond my ken.)

IMG_3895

a question asked on Quora; my answer:

The level of incredulity about political and bureaucratic governance would almost certainly be astoundingly high. Mockery of those in government, and their major supporters, would make Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Samantha Bee blanch — and these denunciation “comedians” would act in earnest as what they truly are, conservatives in temper if not institutional preference.

Also, before a majority were reached, a tax revolt would likely usher in a crisis on a constitutional level. The federal government would be apt to undergo spasms of an amazing nature, something like we have not witnessed in our lifetimes.

And yet, the power of a squeaky wheel, an intransigent minority, is worth remembering.

If the libertarian majority remains culturally laid back and tolerant of the boorishness and rudeness and sheer crazed monomania of the statist minority, that seemingly likely revolt might not happen.

Right now, for example, less than a quarter of the population is progressive, and yet progressive institutions dominate. Indeed, they are seemingly impregnable. Even political conservatives, who ostensibly oppose progressives, contemplate thoroughgoing attacks upon progressive institutions only in the realm of wish and fantasy: they accomplish next to nothing. This makes their limited-government values mere velleities. Indeed, it seems clear to me: all conservatives really want is conscientious and responsible maintenance of society’s basic institutions, which just happen to be FDR/LBJ progressive in nature. Note that conservatives cannot now manage to muster the energy and intelligence to repeal the recently enacted Obama/Pelosi medical regulatory/subsidy institutions.

And yet the left freaks out over this — progressives have even called the Tea Party “anarchists.” The egregious Elizabeth Warren is the ninny, here, and a more absurd judgment could hardly be imagined. Leftists are so far out on whatever limb they have crawled onto that they see responsible maintenance of basic institutions as a threat to those institutions. It’s quite astounding.

But even more importantly, our conversation is still being driven by the cultural left, obsessed with issues regarding racism, sexism, and the like. Indeed, much of the current angst is the result of the popular revolt against “political correctness,” which most Americans think has gone way too far down the road to groupthink bullying.

So, who knows what would happen? It depends upon what form the ideas and proclivities a libertarian majority would take, and how they would relate to other habits of thought and action. If libertarians remain as quelled and squeamish as conservatives have been, and allow themselves to be serially betrayed by their spokespeople and representatives, as social conservatives have, then, well, progressives will continue to dominate.

There is no automatic unfolding of policy and constitutional order from an ideology. There is always that niggly matter of the difference between fantasy and reality.

I just hope, whatever libertarian ideas come to dominate, and whatever mores the new libertarian majority possesses, those future libertarians will not allow themselves to become as delusional as social conservatives and intersectional progressives have become.

twv

a questioned asked on Quora; my answer:

A number of times. But here is one obvious case, in what amounts to metaethics. Maybe I am misapplying the idea. You tell me.

What modern normative philosophers call “morality” — and what older philosophers might have designated as “the rules and standards of justice” — depends, in practice, upon widespread reciprocity. That is, there are prisoner’s dilemmas throughout situations of conflict and potential coöperation, and it makes sense for any individual to coöperate often only if others also approach such arenas of interaction with an open attitude, not flight or fight, much less with a hankering to steal.

It has been shown that a tit-for-tat strategy of reciprocity — which closely tracks many traditional notions of justice — leads to the most widespread success. But how can you trust “the other guy” to treat you fairly, justly, and not as predator to prey?

It takes more courage than many, many folks naturally possess to approach a potentially dangerous situation with a reserved reciprocity standard in mind. So, how do we steal ourselves to this? Indeed, how can we open ourselves to such attitudes before we gain the practical experience with the world to be confident that such strategies do in fact work, for both self and other, and over a long haul?

A number of religious ideas have helped. They differ from society to society, and we call them myths, and all or most seem obvious fictional. Made up. But the threat of a punishing Deity encourages some to curb their bloodlust and “defector” urges. The idea that we are all “equal before God” helps, too. And as a number of evolutionary psychologists have pointed out, the mere contemplation of a supernatural (nature-transcendent) or metaphysical (normal existence-transcendent) Being or even Principle signals both to self and others a willingness to transcend narrow ego-interests. Setting the stage for civilized coöperation.

This sort of thing often gets swept up under the rubric of “signaling.” But such signaling works regardless of reality. There may or may not be a God. Or natural rights. Or the categorical imperative. But even fictional ideas can be real in their effects.

I sometimes think of the advance of civilization as aided by a series of outrageous fictions.

Seems like the Thomas Theorem to me.

twv