Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Melania sues a blogger: the Trumps, libel laws, and the media

February 21, 2017

First Lady Melania Trump sued a Maryland blogger for $150 million for libel, and he reportedly settled by paying her a “substantial sum.” Such cases are commonly settled because a court fight is so costly. The blogger had suggested that Mrs. Trump had once been a paid “escort,” which he conceded was unsubstantiated. Other similar suits remain pending.

images(When I looked online for a photo — whoah! More of a first lady than we’re accustomed to seeing. I chose one of more tasteful pictures, at left.)

President Trump, hyper-allergic to criticism, has long called for changing libel laws to make suing easier. He is probably thinking of the British system, where the defendant has the burden of proof. This is a huge scandal, and has made Britain a mecca for shameful libel suits. Like Holocaust denier David Irving suing an author who wrote of his historical distortions, putting her through hell to defend herself in court (depicted in the recent film Denial).

Trump also probably wants to change the Times v. Sullivan doctrine. That was a 1964 Supreme Court decision saying that when someone criticizes a public official in the performance of their duties, a libel suit must prove not just falsity but actual malice and reckless disregard for truth.

images-1This makes it very hard for politicians to sue, and is a major bulwark against their abuse of libel laws.* Which is a very real problem in other countries. Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was notorious for using libel suits to persecute political opponents who criticized him, sometimes bankrupting them in the process.

Donald Trump too is notorious for litigiousness; he’s been involved in at least three thousand lawsuits. He wants looser libel laws so he can sue even more people. But it’s also part of his bigger project to destroy the American news media as an independent information source that holds people like him accountable for lies and misdeeds. He has already succeeded partway, his constant baseless attacks having damaged mainstream media’s credibility in the minds of many people.

images-2It’s sickening when the biggest liar in political history calls the press dishonest, “the enemy of the American people.” To the contrary, it’s Trump’s vile rhetoric that’s dishonest and a real danger to America. This is how dictators start. Democracy needs a robust free media to expose lies, corruption, and bungling. Now more than ever, with this egregious presidency!

Getting back to Melania, her feeling hurt by that blog might be understandable. Except that when you enter the White House, especially in today’s febrile political climate, you have to expect a certain amount of garbage thrown at you. images-3The Obamas certainly endured a lot of that (notably from Mr. Donald J. Trump, loudmouth of lying “birtherism”). But the Obamas didn’t go around suing folks. It’s unbecoming for a first family; and frightening to use that power to intimidate critics. America is not Singapore.

Meantime, remember Trump’s press conference claiming to separate himself from his businesses? With all those piles of suppposed documents? Yet another Trump fraud. I wish someone had had the balls to go up and look inside those folders. unknownBut the performance at least showed recognition that exploiting the oval office for private profit is totally inappropriate (if not criminal).

Mrs. Trump, in contrast however, appears unashamed about aiming to cash in on her public position. Her lawsuit claimed that the blogger damaged her potential for anticipated “multimillion dollar business relationships” and other “major business opportunities” expected from her first ladyship. The breathtaking frankness, at least, is refreshing.

Let them sue me for this blog.

unknown-1* Times v. Sullivan saved the posterior of yours truly, sued for $1.5 million for libel in 1973 when I authored a critical book about Albany’s political machine.

Selling girls in Afghanistan

February 19, 2017

You’re a thirteen year old girl, in Afghanistan, when your father sells you to a warlord as his fourth wife; with two of your sisters thrown into the deal, for his henchmen. (One soon burns herself to death.)

unknownThis is The Pearl That Broke its Shell, a 2014 novel by Nadia Hashimi. I’ve written before about how such “traditional” culture blights male-female relations, reviewing Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. At least the guy in that book was almost a human being, almost trying.

Pearl tells the stories of Rahima, the thirteen year old, and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba. Here’s something I learned about: Rahima spent some time as “Rahim,” a bacha posh, a girl living as a boy. This is not a transgender thing. Rather, it’s to evade all the societal restrictions on girls, and people wink at it. Thus “Rahim” could go to the market alone and haggle with vendors, thus helping her mother.

As a wife, Rahima was strictly confined in the warlord’s house and her role consisted of household chores, sexual servitude, and taking beatings. The only difference from being in prison was child-bearing. So maybe the better analogy is to slavery.

unknown-1Being a warlord with four wives might sound like a cool gig. Would I want it? No thanks. And a Henny Youngman joke is not coming here. When I compare the deep, warm, human relationship I have with my (one) wife against the cold, harsh, inhumane ones portrayed in these books, I weep with gratitude for our culture and what it gives us – and I weep for people in societies like Afghanistan’s, who don’t even know what they’re missing.

One thing missing is romance and seduction. Being a sexual object is a wife’s duty. Thus, her own sexuality is no part of the equation. It was striking that the lone male character in Pearl portrayed with a modicum of humanity nevertheless, when deflowering his new wife Shekiba, did it with no preliminaries. Not even an explanation to soften what was about to happen (and it didn’t take long). Whatever word Afghans use for this act, it cannot rightly translate as “lovemaking,” and sounds about as much fun as Trump’s pussy grabbing. Again , no thanks.

Hirsi Ali

Hirsi Ali

I think often of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel, talking of her arrival in the Netherlands as a refugee, after life in various Muslim countries. It was like landing on a different planet. Very quickly her eyes were opened to this being a good society, that enables people to live good lives. Much unlike her own past homes.

As for Rahima, her warlord hubby develops buyer’s remorse, and spots another chick he fancies; but a Muslim can’t have more than four wives. images-2Rahima realizes this does not bode well for her. She is disposable, literally; can be simply killed to reopen the fourth-wife slot, and nobody would do a thing. But there’s a happy ending; Rahima manages to escape to a women’s shelter in Kabul.

Unfortunately most Afghanis have no escape route.

Protesting Trump’s assault on American values

January 29, 2017

This morning I heard on the news that there’d be a protest vigil, at the Albany Airport, against Trump’s Muslim travel ban. I told my wife; we quickly found the details; it was starting at 10 AM. We decided to go.

img_20170129_114053I’m not normally an activist demonstrator. But in all my 53 years of political involvement and observation, never before have I experienced such a depth of feeling as my horror at Trump’s un-American actions. We both felt a responsibility to stand up against this.

I whipped up a sign saying, “Trump Disgraces America.” My wife’s said, “I see something, so I’m saying something.” She attached to it an actual copy of the constitution.

As we drove up to the Airport, there was a checkpoint, with a sheriff’s car, and deputy. Wow; never saw that before! I imagined hearing something like, “Only ticketed passengers allowed,” so I got ready to say, “This is still America, you can’t stop us from free speech in a public place!”

The officer pleasantly bade us good morning and asked why we’d come.

My wife pleasantly said, “We’re here for the vigil.”

And the officer pleasantly said, “Excellent. Go right this way to park.”

Well, they were getting a lot of extra parking revenue out of this.

I was surprised at the size of the crowd – which soon grew to several hundred, despite the short notice and ad hoc situation. Many of the signs were better than mine. One, for example, said, “U.S. Visa denied,” with a picture of Anne Frank. Some resembled the lawn sign I’d put up on November 10.

Some participants were mounting a bench to address the gathering. I decided to take a turn. Before I started, a woman shouted something about how even Republicans should oppose what Trump did. I said, in toto:

“I am a Republican – an enrolled Republican. My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, is working, in Iraq, for a refugee relief agency. Yesterday she wrote this on her blog: Trump’s ‘America First’ actually ‘puts America last – last in humanity, last in compassion, last in lifting up the tired, the poor, the huddled masses – which is what made America first, in so many ways, to begin with.’”

Trump’s order bars not only all Muslim refugees, but even people with valid green cards; even people who’ve resided legally in the U.S. for years, who were travelling from designated countries. It’s insane and criminal. Courts have already ordered this stopped, but Trump, and much of our immigration gestapo, so far refuse to obey.

This is a nation of laws, with its independent judiciary a crucial bulwark against tyranny. If the regime can defy courts with impunity, then we are in really deep trouble.

America’s Shame

January 28, 2017

President Trump’s Muslim travel restrictions are a sickening betrayal of what America stands for. Or used to stand for.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

unknownMy mother came through that golden door in 1938 as a refugee from persecution and violence. But most German Jews were not so lucky. America’s WWII refusal to do more for them remains a stain on our national honor. Today we add a new stain by slamming the golden door against victims of the monstrous horror in Syria, and other Muslim victims.

Another thing this nation used to stand for was religious openness. images-1George Washington wrote that Jews are not merely tolerated in America, they are Americans. Non-discrimination among religions was a bedrock principle on which this nation was built. Yet Trump’s order exempts Christians from the travel ban.

His action caters to the basest, dumbest prejudices of his followers. Make us safe from terrorism? While these people have an insane love affair with guns, that kill hundreds of times more Americans than terrorism? Where is the common sense? The San Bernardino and Orlando shooters killed far fewer people than die every week through gun accidents. But anyhow they were U.S. citizens who would not have been affected by Trump’s stupid action.

Meantime, he has singled out seven Muslim nations for his travel ban. None of the 9/11 terrorists came from those seven. They all came from four nations not on Trump’s list. But those four (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and UAE) are all countries for which a ban would be politically problematic. So instead Trump picks other ones.

But even if the countries were the right ones, this would still be an exceptionally silly action. As if would-be terrorists would go through the vetting process. As if people willing to massacre others, even to blow themselves up, could not find ways to sneak in. images-2Trump’s despicable action will hurt tens of thousands of desperate, suffering people, while inconveniencing bad guys not at all. (How hard is it to masquerade as “Christian?”)

George W. Bush, in launching the war on terror, took great pains to make clear that it was not a war on Muslims. He understood how catastrophic it would be to antagonize all of Islam. Trump does not; he is doing exactly what Bush took pains to avoid. This will only increase conflict and terrorism.

The action is ostensibly temporary, a “pause.” But when, pray tell, do you suppose Trump will feel able to lift the travel ban without enraging the assholes who love it?

images-3The raw truth is that some people just don’t like people who are different from themselves. That’s what this is really all about, at rock bottom.

Well, some Americans at least are still working to uphold true American values. My daughter is employed in Iraq, with the Danish Refugee Council. After I drafted this, I saw that she had written something on her own blog more eloquent. Please read it here.

But let me quote her: Trump’s “America First” actually “puts America last — last in humanity, last in compassion, last in lifting up the tired, the poor, the huddled masses — which is what made America first, in so many ways, to begin with.”

UPDATE: Today two Syrian families arrived in Philadelphia, with valid visas and green cards, having worked for years to get them. They were sent back.

The inaugural address: us against them

January 20, 2017

images-1The President had much to say to “forgotten Americans,” who feel full of resentments. Fair enough. But what about the rest of us?

Trump talked of a Washington political elite that prospers at the expense of everyone else. That’s his division between bad and good, victims and victimizers. (A bit strange to cast Washington politicians as the Enemies of the People – when over 90% get re-elected every time.) Perhaps surprisingly Trump did not mention banks, Wall Street, or corporations. No – it’s just the Washington pols against the entire rest of the country, and the entire rest of the country is suffering.

It’s a country mired in “carnage.” Yes, “carnage!” I thought I was transported in a time machine back to 1933, judging from the grim picture of American society and its economy that he portrayed.

As if Washington predation is actually the cause of our economic challenges. It’s absurd. And meantime, in fact, most Americans are doing quite fine, and do not harbor grievances against some malevolent elite that we imagine is screwing us. But we seem invisible to Trump.

imagesSo his theme was us-against-them. His “us” is the 40% who voted for him and still back him. His words about national unity were cynically empty. This was an atrociously divisive speech, setting part of the population against another. I felt like I’m one of the “them.”

Us-against-them is likewise his global stance. For the better part of a century, America has seen its role as being bound into a world community, wherein promotion of our interests is served by promotion of our values. Those values have included democracy, openness, nations solving their problems peaceably, and trading with each other for mutual benefit. America has shouldered the lead and responsibility in building and sustaining this global order. The logic is that we are better off in a world where other countries are democratic and hence do not create causes of war and turmoil, and in which other countries grow more prosperous, and hence more secure, and better able to buy what we produce.

images-2Forget all that, Trump says. His global vision is very different: it’s us against them. Our policy now will simply be America First; and other countries should likewise mind their own self-interest. Nothing about having any interests in common. (He’s even cheered on the unraveling of the European Union.) And we won’t try to “impose” our values on anyone. Values are irrelevant in this dark vision. Trump sees other countries only as “ravaging” us; the world as a zero-sum game where one nation’s gain is another’s loss.

This insanity is the whole world’s loss. Our own most of all.

 

My credo

January 18, 2017

 

unknownAs our political transition unfolds, I find myself caught between the Scylla of a Democratic party increasingly romanticizing socialist economics hostile to enterprise and trade, and a Republican Charybdis fallen into a dark hole of nativism romanticizing a past that won’t return and shouldn’t. Today’s real divide is between mindsets of openness and closedness. With irresponsible foolishness of every sort running rampant, trampling sound classically liberal principles, I will not give up on them, but will continue to defend them in the years ahead. Here I recap those core principles.

 

  • Democracy and rule of law, so government is accountable to citizens, its powers over them restricted.

 

  • Freedom of speech, expression, and argument. images-1No idea immune from critical examination – even if that offends or discomfits some. This is not only integral to personal freedom, it is also crucial for society to evaluate ideas and progress thereby.

 

  • Limited government, filling only roles that individuals cannot. People able to choose for themselves how to live and act, with society dictating only when its reasons are compelling; basically, only to protect others from harm.

 

  • Free market economics is the best way to grow the pie so all can prosper. images-2Profit-seeking business is how people’s needs and desires get satisfied. That is best promoted when businesses are forced to compete openly and fairly with each other, none gaining advantage through government intervention. Instead government should function to remove barriers to competition and business enterprise.

 

  • This does not mean businesses unregulated. They too are subject to laws to protect others from harm.

 

  • Inequality is the inevitable result of people striving to better themselves, and is not unjust or an evil. Successful people are not the enemy, nor the cause of want. But a market economy generates enough wealth that we can afford to give everyone a decent living standard, out of simple humanity.

 

  • When another country can sell us something cheaper than we can produce it ourselves, we benefit as well as they. images-3Impeding such trade only impoverishes both nations. The gains from freer global trade, through lower consumer prices, vastly exceed the costs in any jobs lost.

 

  • America prospers best in a world wherein democracy, free trade, and peaceful development prevail among other countries, making them too more prosperous; so promoting those values must be the core of our foreign policy. Forces in the world threatening those values must be actively combated.

 

  • Government spending and taxation must be brought into a sustainable balance. Heedlessly piling up excessive debt will not end well.

 

  • Truth and facts should be sought objectively, and should shape our beliefs, rather than our beliefs shaping what we think are facts. unknown-1Confirmation bias is the enemy of reason. We acquire truth through science, a method of rational inquiry which progresses by self-correction as more facts become known and understood.

 

  • No religion is better or truer than any other. All are equally false; and that false consciousness can only impede people in grappling with challenges all too real.

 

  • Human beings are natural animals, resulting from Darwinian evolution. Ultimately the only thing that matters in the Universe is the well being of creatures capable of feeling. All people have equal dignity and worth (except for those who imagine their kind is superior, thereby proving they are inferior).

 

  • Over the centuries, the increasing application of all these principles has made for enormous global progress, with ever more people able to live ever better lives. unknown-2Abandoning these principles endangers that progress.

Jobs of the future and Idiocracy

January 9, 2017

The Economist magazine recently tried to identify where America’s job growth will come from. Of course, pessimists are always seeing the opposite, afraid that advancing technology will put people out of work – starting with the 19th century Luddites, who campaigned against factory automation – and could not have foreseen the explosion of new jobs that technologies like railways, telegraphy, and electrification would soon bring.scan-2

So using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Economist presented the job categories that should see the highest growth rates in the years ahead, to 2024. Now, America, judging from current politics, is fixated upon old-time factory jobs (like Carrier’s). But here’s what struck me from that Economist article. It’s not just that such factory jobs aren’t in it. Of course not. However, I asked myself whether the kinds of people who did such factory jobs can switch into these other professions. I don’t think so.

Well, maybe for one or two of the 16 shown, like “ambulance drivers.” Though even that may overlook the advance of self-driving technology.

images-1The top job growth category is “wind turbine service technicians,” reflecting increasing emphasis on alternative energy technologies. But most of the list reflects a different trend: ageing populations, and the panoply of services they’ll require. And, as The Economist notes, “[t]hese are all tasks that require empathy and social skills.”

Again – not the métier of America’s army of less educated assembly line jockeys. They’re yesterday’s men.

The Economist’s writer also points out that the analysis doesn’t take into account job categories that don’t exist yet. Some will be related to technologies that are just emerging, like virtual reality and drones. unknownHe notes that his 16-year-old daughter wants to be a robopsychologist (who figures out why robots are misbehaving). Such jobs don’t exist now, but probably will soon. And then there are all the future jobs we can’t even conceive of today.

A lifeline for all those yesterday men? Not a chance. Yet we’re still producing such people. Our educational system still spits out a sizeable cohort of folks without even a high school diploma. Some can do those remnants of low skill jobs that aren’t automated away. Many though have to be supported by the productive population, in one way or another; the “disability” system covers a lot of people whose “disability” is really just being useless.

unknown-1The movie Idiocracy (one of those dystopian-future flicks) began by contrasting two families. A highly educated, brainy couple agonize over having even a single child. While a bunch of doofuses pops them out right and left. Result, after multiple generations: a nation of doofuses. Apparently everyone is supported somehow because technology dispenses with a need for human work. Not very realistic.

The fact is that, to support all our yesterday’s men (and women) we’ll need a lot of tomorrow people, capable of doing the tomorrow jobs that the former cannot. And Idiocracy wasn’t entirely cuckoo in highlighting that advanced modern populations are not reproducing themselves. So where will we get the tomorrow people we need? Immigration.

Indeed, a key reason why America’s economy has been more dynamic than Europe’s is our greater ability to assimilate immigrants. They fill the gaps our own natives cannot. Our schools don’t produce enough Americans to do all the high tech and skilled service jobs; a lot of them are done by immigrants (especially from Asia).

unknown-2The idea that other countries send us losers and scroungers is stupid. People willing to uproot themselves and start fresh in a new and unfamiliar environment are, to the contrary, full of the kind of enterprise and drive we need.

America’s fixation on manufacturing jobs – and its growing hostility toward immigration – are a double whammy of, well, idiocracy.

 

The tide of history

December 30, 2016

               “There is a tide in the affairs of men . . . “  – William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

unknownThe Enlightenment began in the early 1700s, aiming to free us from shackles both mental and political. In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, and America, the Declaration of Independence. Both were seminal Enlightenment manifestos. The latter lit a slow-burning fuse that finally set off a worldwide democratic explosion in the late Twentieth Century.

That century first passed through a Götterdämmerung as powerful totalitarian and militaristic forces rose up and were, amid vast slaughter, beaten down. unknown-1Not until the late ‘80s did Communism succumb. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and, viewing the New Year’s Eve fireworks, I saluted aloud that “blessed, golden year.” Then the Soviet Union itself fell, and soon after I was thrilled to visit a Russia that was now a free country.

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama captured the zeitgeist with The End of History, proclaiming the global triumph of humanistic values centered upon peaceful democratic politics and open economies – ascendant because this gives human beings the opportunities for self-realization they most deeply crave.

unknown-2All that, in hindsight now, was a high-water mark. There is a tide in the affairs of men. And future historians will deem 2016 another seminal year – when the tide of history turned.

It was America that had shouldered the lead, in defeating the militarist totalitarians, and then through the Cold War, continuing its leadership and rallying the forces of light against darkness. Great steadfast America (most of the time) standing up for the best human values. But now America has tired of it; or perhaps has simply lost the thread, ceasing to understand what it’s about.

The Fukuyama paradigm was already wobbling, as Russia resumed being bad old Russia, China’s repression intensified, the “Arab Spring” largely backfired, horrors went largely unpunished, the European Union began to unravel, and democracy was in retreat in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Thailand, Malaysia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Nicaragua . . . .

And then America elected Trump.

unknown-3It’s what this represents that makes 2016 a hinge of history. It’s America throwing its moral leadership down the toilet. Trump, unique among modern U.S. presidents, shows no interest whatsoever in that mission. To the contrary, he sucks up to Putin, and seems to actually align us on the dark side. And electing a man of his flagrantly obvious vile character signals a collapse of our civic culture. This, combined with the triumph of his appeal to his voters’ worst instincts, shows that America has indeed turned its back on the high ideals that made it great in the first place. (True, those voters were a minority. But 63 million of them have given him the presidency.)

This is not something we’ll recover from in four years, or eight. Our body politic used to punish lies and gaffes. Now it rewards them. Jeb Bush was proven wrong in telling Trump, “You can’t insult your way to the presidency.” Now our politics is deeply polluted with vulgarity, lies, bogus news, and conspiracy theories; while partisan divisions harden, the two sides inhabiting separate universes and hating each other ever more passionately. We’ll be lucky if it doesn’t end in literal civil war. But we sure won’t be coming together to tackle the challenging issues that cloud America’s future.

Some are already speculating about when his followers will turn on Trump. Of course he won’t fulfill his impossible promises. But this assumes Trump support is rational (despite his promises having been absurd). images-1Nobody wants to admit they made a mistake, and that will likely apply to most Trump voters. Their refusal so far to see the truth about him is like a religious faith. And if they do find their faith betrayed, will they then return to sanity, decency and civic responsibility, to a conventional mainstream politician and platform? I don’t think so. If anger and resentments drove many voters in 2016, a perceived Trump betrayal will enflame them even more. And with the door opened to monsters, the next could well be even worse.

America’s decline might not be the end of the world – if the rest could go merrily along building the Fukuyama Jerusalem without us. But that’s not what’s happening. As explained, America has been the “indispensable nation,” the linchpin, the keystone. images-3Subtract U.S. moral leadership, and what happens to a humanistic global order, of openness and democracy, already under assault by hordes of howling demons?

This is why 2016 is such a tragedy.

 

Fear and loathing in chemistry sets

December 26, 2016

images-1Remember chemistry sets? Millennials won’t. They pretty much vanished about 25 years ago. These were kits sold for kids, with arrays of different chemicals in little jars, and maybe some equipment like tongs, glassware, and Bunsen burners.

People loved them. Were they out of their minds? The danger! The danger!

Well, they sure were dangerous. I don’t recall having had a store-bought chemistry set, but I did have a science bent, and one time when my parents were out, I conducted a little clandestine chemistry experiment on the kitchen counter. images-2Yes, it blew up. The countertop was damaged, but luckily I was unscathed . . . until Mom got home.

The idea of letting a kid today play with chemicals, using fragile glassware and a Bunsen burner no less, would be seen as flat-out madness. Such a parent would probably be locked up.

Actually, chemistry sets are still sold, but they’re a pale shadow, with only a few insipid substances that do nothing more than change color; and certainly no Bunsen burners. unknownI even read that the Consumer Product Safety Commission was considering banning one set because it included . . . wait for it . . . a paper clip. Yes, the dreaded paper clip. Could be swallowed.

Remember the “Bubble Boy” . . . ?

But no doubt old-time chemistry sets did cause some injuries. However, when I googled the phrase “children killed by chemistry sets” (yes, intensive research goes into these blog posts), I couldn’t find a single case. But one commentary that came up said chemistry sets in fact taught kids safety. You learn by doing. (I certainly learned from that kitchen mishap.) Whereas today’s kids are so overprotected from every conceivable danger that they don’t properly develop the concept of danger. unknown-1I wonder if this is a cause for a modern behavior that really is insanely hazardous (killing thousands annually): texting while driving.

Chemistry sets also taught kids about, well, chemistry, and science more generally. My googling, while it turned up no death stories, did turn up kids who developed a love of science from those chemistry sets and went on to scientific careers. Maybe the demise of chemistry kits is one small reason why we’re producing fewer scientists.

Yet another casualty of our twisted mentality about fears and dangers. Both fear and its lack can be irrational, and we often get it wrong both ways. How many people have ever sent a text expressing fear about GM foods (no danger at all) – while driving? And too often we vent fears about good things (like GM, and child science kits) but not truly bad things (like guns in the home which, unlike chemistry sets, kill kids in droves).

unknown-2Another good thing that has suffered from this syndrome is the childhood fun of Halloween. Do you know how many kids were ever actually poisoned by Halloween candy?

Precisely one. His father did it to collect insurance.

Eat the Rich

December 17, 2016

unknownP. J. O’Rourke is the funniest serious writer I know. Or the most serious humorist. Even the “Acknowledgments” section of his book Eat the Rich is hilarious. Its subtitle is A Treatise on Economics – often called the dismal science. Some dispute that – denying economics is a science. But it’s normally no laff riot. O’Rourke makes it one while actually treating the subject in deadly earnest.

O’Rourke asks why countries are rich or poor. It’s not obvious. He starts by naming the usual suspects – brains, education, natural resources, culture, history, hard work, technology, government – and exonerating them all with counter-examples. Admittedly that’s a mite glib. While he says government doesn’t cause affluence, because places with a lot of government are often broke, the kind of government matters.

unknownSo he visits countries, seeking enlightenment. First stop, Albania. So dysfunctional is Albania in O’Rourke’s telling that it’s a mystery Albanians don’t just starve. He titles the chapter “Bad Capitalism,” but capitalism per se is not Albania’s problem. It’s a deficiency of civil society. Albanians never got the memo about living decently among other people.

Next, Sweden: “Good Socialism.” This “socialist utopia” is often romanticized – the common mistake of confusing labels with reality. O’Rourke: “When the Social Democrats did get in office, they made socialism work by the novel expedient of not introducing any.” Instead, they retained a free market capitalist economy, and heavily taxed the resulting prosperity to fund egalitarian redistribution and social welfare spending. Swedes bought into this because, on the civil society spectrum, they’re at the opposite end from Albanians – really nice people who believe in egalitarianism and social welfare.

unknown-1But unfortunately, O’Rourke explains, politicians found they could buy votes with ever increasing hand-outs. Whereas originally, benefits mainly went to working people, now non-work started to pay.

Guess what. Redistributing the fruits of prosperity might fly, but not redistributing fruits you’re not producing. Sweden got into a deep hole. But at least, being Swedish and sensible, they saw the need for retrenchment. So today’s Sweden is very much not what lefties dream.

images-1Then on to Cuba: “Bad Socialism.” Worse even than Albania which at least actually has an economy, sort of. I won’t go into details, but if you’re one of those ideologues who thinks Cuba is the cat’s meow (the healthcare! the healthcare!) – you’re an idiot.

I mean, come on, really, you are.

O’Rourke quotes a Cuba guidebook that a museum’s antique furniture was “recovered from the great mansions of the local bourgeoisie” – “Tactfully put,” he says. “Outside the tourist areas, however, there was a fair danger of experiencing some freelance socialism; you might find that you were the local bourgeoisie from which something got recovered.”

Finally, Hong Kong: a tiny place with huge population density and no natural resources, poor as dirt when the Brits came in. They made it rich. How? By doing nothing. Just letting Hong Kongers freely do their own thing. The freest market economy on Earth. Today its per capita income exceeds Britain’s own (the Brits partly socialized themselves).images-2

This sets the stage for O’Rourke’s summing-up chapter – a cogent, compelling defense of free market capitalism.

In pre-industrial times, nearly everyone was poor as dirt. Economic growth was approximately squat. Since then, growth has multiplied average incomes around tenfold. More efficient production is part of it. But you also need secure property rights, rule of law, and democratic (hence accountable) government. These are interconnected, and part of a society’s culture.

unknown-2So is a free market – enabling people to freely utilize their abilities to improve their lot, and enjoy the fruits of their efforts. No freedom is more fundamental. This is also more moral than any alternative – even though it results in inequality, which some deem unfair. O’Rourke: “The market is ‘heartless.’ So are clocks and yardsticks.” Blaming inequality on free markets is like gaining twenty pounds and blaming the bathroom scale.

The common error is thinking Joe’s wealth causes Sue’s poverty. As though there’s a fixed amount of wealth to go around, and Joe having more means Sue having less. Not so. Mainly, the world’s Joes get richer by producing something of value, enlarging the pie, enabling Sue to have more too. So wealth is not an evil, it’s a good thing. And actually, the ethic of capitalism, as opposed to mere wealth, is to reinvest riches, not just hoard them. This also grows the pie.

unknown-1Adam Smith, in 1776, called it the “invisible hand.” The truth that folks striving to enrich themselves wind up enriching society. Many still don’t get it. Why? Because it is invisible. Yet because of it, globally, the gap between rich and poor is in fact narrowing, not just in money, but in quality of life measures like literacy, infant mortality, longevity, etc. Some unfairness is a reasonable price to pay for the betterment of all (or most).

unknown-3But O’Rourke deems it actually wrong to care about fairness. He invokes the Tenth Commandment: don’t covet thy neighbor’s stuff. Get your own. A message to socialists, egalitarians, and fairness fetishists.

Here’s my own summation – also a concept that eludes many people (like Bernie, the Cuban government). All wealth comes from producing goods and services people need or want. Whatever encourages (or at least doesn’t hinder) folks getting on with it is good economic policy.

That is all ye know on earth,
And all ye need to know.