Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Welcome to Chinatown. Please remove wallet.

Here's another one of those tidbits buried in a news article that you blow right past... but then it reaches out and sort of grabs your eyeballs, like in a Tex Avery cartoon, and your head snaps back up the page: "Whaaaaa??" In this case, it's a comment by "an economist at the Center for European Reform" (but I doubt it has anything to do with Martin Luther). He points out that "few countries other than the United States and Britain have taken any responsibility for the [economic] crisis. China, for example, insists the roots of the current crisis lie in the West. 'They believe they played no role at all in precipitating the crisis,' said Whyte [the economist]. But he noted China has played a big role in creating global macroeconomic imbalances through its huge purchases of U.S. government debt."

So... now it's all China's fault for purchasing our debt? Well, whose idea was it to create all that debt in the first place, and then sell it to China? I mean, did China send shock troops into the Treasury Department and force them to grind out a trillion dollars in T-bills, and then ship them back to Beijing? It's sort of like blaming the pusher for the heroin addiction of the junkie, which is... actually perfectly reasonable, in a way. You have something someone wants, that they will pay any price for, you wave it in front of their face, they take the bait, and they come to a bad end... and their last words are "It's all your fault." So as the American system, and much of the world economy on its coattails, goes down the drain, we croak, with our dying breath, "It's all China's fault." And you know, doggone it, we might have a point -- not that it does us any good now. But what if you're China, let's say, in the post-Soviet era. You've rediscovered capitalism. You have a population that's totally cowed, and that thinks any standard of living above grubbing for roots and eating the bark off trees is the high life. And guess what, you've got cash, and lots of it. At the same time, you've got international ambitions... projects... ideas... schemes... maybe even an empire to build. And who are your main competitors? Well, Russia is in the picture, but they've got a few internal problems of their own to straighten out. India might be a factor in a few decades... but really, there's only one guy to beat on the way to the title belt, and that's the U.S.A. But then you notice that Americans are living far above their means, and not only that, but they have come to expect that standard of living as their due. (This is the point at which the pusher spots the junkie staggering down the street.) So the U.S., while it appears to have military dominance, and a certain amount of remaining -- although severely eroded -- political influence, and even commercial and financial dominance, is rotting from within -- economically, politically, and socially (they wouldn't consider "morally" to be a problem). They have become a debtor nation, and there is no chance of reversing that trend as long as they continue to pursue foreign intervention follies and, on the domestic front, wildly extravagant entitlement and subsidy programs. So they are (think about the junkie again) ripe for the picking.

So the conversation goes on in the depths of the Forbidden City: "But how do we put them in their place? Military action? Not a good idea. Nuclear war? Good enough for Chairman Mao, but maybe no longer sellable to the less idealistic moderns. Bleed them dry by supporting their enemies (real and alleged) overseas? Done it... doing it... will keep doing it. But too slow. Well then, how about simply loaning them money by buying up their 'debt'? That will put us in a position, sooner or later, of being able to, basically, dictate terms on things like Taiwan, and tell them to get off our case about Tibet and about all of our 'foreign aid' [knowing smiles all around] projects... and mainly, it will enable us to dethrone them as The Economic Power and put ourselves in their place."

"Now, of course, there is a down side, which is that in order to crash their economy we have to take heavy losses ourselves. But in the long run it will be a good investment. For one thing, we don't have to just hold cash -- we can also buy up property [think: Long Beach]. And once their currency starts to inflate (at above the usual rate) we can insist on other forms of compensation -- property, trade privileges, political influence, who knows? What counts is that they will be at our mercy. Now of course we'll have to maintain a proper air and attitude of indignation, and engage in a lot of scolding... but the situation will play right into our hands nonetheless."

So has this Whyte guy (not to be confused with Lula da Silva's "white people with blue eyes") "outed" China? Has he exposed some sort of gigantic scam... some ingenious piece of international finance/political strategy? "Creative destruction" that costs them a lot less than Mao's nuclear war would have? He might very well have... but the implications will be totally ignored by Obama and Co., and by everyone else, because it's just too scary. Scary not because China is poised to take over the lead role in the world economy -- I mean, somebody's gotta be in charge -- but because it means they're smarter than anybody in the U.S. government, or than anybody in the American financial system -- except for their collaborators, of course. And Hillary.

Hmmm... do you suppose they're thinking of making her Dowager Empress once this is all over with? I've already written about that possibility. (And here I thought it was just fiction!)

The Not-so-Proud Tower

I'm really upset about this. First they change "freedom fries" back to "French fries", despite the fact that those low-life Gallic hedonists cut and ran out on us in Iraq. And now some clowns up in New York have decided that "Freedom Tower" is going to be called just plain old "One World Trade Center". Not even "One World Trade Center the Second"... or "One WTC Junior"... or "1 1/2 WTC". The whole problem began, I suppose, when the federal government left "ground zero" in the hands of the Port Authority of New York, rather than nationalizing it. (But of course nationalization wasn't the "in thing" back in 2001 that it is now, let's admit.) Clearly, a national shrine on the order of "ground zero", or whatever is built on it at any time in the next thousand years, should be the property of All the People.

(I should comment at this point on the battles that have broken out concerning the property in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed. Apparently the guy who owns the property (imagine!) wants to keep it pristine and undeveloped -- except for the strip mine, or junkyard, or whatever it is that was there before. But again, what are one person's selfish whims compared to the needs of All the People? At least in this case the property is owned by an incompetent government agency, so it can be seen as a fair fight.)

One -- and you can't make these things up -- reason given for the change is that it's "more practical" to market the building -- i.e. rental space -- using the more familiar name. Now, when a guy peddling rental space says "practical", it only means one thing -- "easier to rent". So... are there people renting real estate in Lower Manhattan who don't care about freedom and don't want to be associated with it? And if so, do we really want them renting space on hallowed ground, and committing all sorts of abominations there? Well, I understand the intel agencies had quite a bit of space in that area... maybe that's the reason. But here's another reason they gave: "... the 102-story Freedom Tower's name could make it more susceptible to future attacks." Right. If we just change the name the building then becomes hidden... anonymous... invisible. Surely no terrorist group would consider attacking a 102-story building in Lower Manhattan housing fat-cat international finance organizations if the name were changed back to the exact same name the building they already attacked had. Right? I can hear the conversation now:

"So what do you think, Ahmed? Shall we make jihad on the infidel and attack their brand-new tall shiny building in New York -- you know, the one that is as easy a target as the ones we attacked before?"

"No, Omar, that would be most improper, since the building is no longer called Freedom Tower. If it were still called that, we would, of course, attack it as a statement against freedom, but it would make us look like fools to seem to attack the same building we attacked before. It would look like we didn't finish the job the first time, the way the infidel George H. W. Bush failed to finish the job he started in Kuwait, thus delaying our glorious war against the Crusaders. No, Omar, we will have to, regretfully, leave this building alone. The infidels have outsmarted us again."

This is what happens when "property" and "icon" clash, and when local entities get to pursue their agendas regardless of the feelings and emotional needs of The People. Hopefully, in the rosier future -- not far off! -- when all local interests have been subordinated to federal priorities, and silly things like rentals to private firms will be a thing of the past because private firms will be a thing of past, we won't have to put up with any more of these upsetting episodes.

Where the Fund Never Stops

They may have to change the name of their flagship show to "Some Things Considered". It seems that NPR is having money problems... which is quite remarkable, considering that so many of their affiliate stations have switched to what is basically an "all fund raising, all the time" format. But what is even more remarkable is that NPR has been carrying water for the liberals, Democrats, and the American left in general ever since Carl Kasell was in knee pants. They started referring to "President, er, newly-elected president, Barack Obama" the day after the election. There is a shrine to the Church of Global Warming in their HQ building in Washington, DC. And now they're hurting for a paltry amount of cash that would barely cover the annual bonus for one AIG executive. So where's Obama in all this? Talk about ingratitude! I can't believe that someone hasn't just driven over there from the White House (it can't be more than a mile away) and dumped a tub of money in their laps.

Plus, what happened to all of Joan Kroc's money? She gave them $225 million just 5 years ago -- leading to headlines like "What a Kroc!". Don't tell me they've spent it all already!

It's a sorry sight indeed when even a media lap dog for the liberal establishment has to go begging. I mean, who's next -- the New York Times? The Washington Post? This is getting serious. I mean, gosh, I may have to write them a check myself just to keep them in business so I can keep making fun of them. "Tout pour l'art" and all that.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

You Can't Go Back To Washington D.C., 'Cause It's Beijing Now

Western analysts have been scratching their heads for years now, trying to figure out what's behind China's startling economic growth and soon-to-be world dominance. But they could have saved themselves the trouble, and just asked the governor of China's central bank. He says that China's economic flexibility and quick response capability "proved the superiority of its authoritarian, one-party political system." (Did he really use the term "authoritarian", as the article claims? Doesn't he know that applies only to fascists, Republicans, and the Catholic Church?) This is all part of the propaganda run-up to the upcoming London economic summit, at which time a Nuremberg trial of American political and financial leaders is expected to take place, with the expected punishment being hanging and exile, in that order. But seriously, China is definitely positioning itself to take over the lead in world economics -- an event that would have seemed hysterically far-fetched a mere 30 years ago. And considering our recent performance in this department, it shouldn't be all that difficult for China to take over, and with the full approval of everyone else at the summit, who, I'm sure, is sick to death of American pretentions leading to disaster. Right now, the "rogue state" when it comes to economics is none other than us -- and when we sneeze, the rest of the world catches cold (especially Iceland... but it is called "Iceland", after all). Maybe it is time to let someone else try their hand at ruining everything for everyone.

But I do have one quibble with the governor's statement. He holds up an "authoritarian, one-party political system" as the answer -- or at least the basis -- for maintining economic stability. The probem is, we _have_ a one-party political system. Oh sure, it's divided into two warring camps the way the World Wrestling Federation has its "good guys" and "bad guys" -- but everyone knows it's a joke and a fraud. The Republicans and Democrats agree, in principle (if that is the word), on 99% of the issues 99% of the time. The differences are at the margins, and even at that the fights are more about power than about policy -- to say nothing of principles or -- heaven forbid! -- morality in government. And when the so-called two-party regime is threatened from without -- as by a third party or independent political movement -- they combine forces and circle the wagons in an instant. And as to "authoritarianism" -- that's just another word for political correctness, and we certainly have more than enough of that. We also have an elected monarchy which requires worship and idolization of whoever happens to win the most votes. Not to mention which, there is a new variety of authoritarianism afoot which started on Day One of Obama's administration -- namely the act they put on of being puzzled and dismayed when anyone doesn't fully agree with their programs or priorities -- which is followed by hostility and a no-holds-barred counterattack designed to annihilate all opposition.

So one-party? Authoritarian? Fuhgeddaboutit. We're every bit a match for China in this department. Where we seem to have fallen down on the job is in allowing the business community to operate relatively autonomously all this time -- a serious mistake, we can now all agree, and one that is being remedied even as we speak. Who knows, we might be as good as China yet. (But we really have to get Hillary to stop going over there and begging for more loans... so unseemly...)

Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back

Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (and don't ask me which are his first, middle, and last names!) has hit the nail straight on the head. He blames the world-wide economic crisis on "white people with blue eyes" -- who, aside from their obvious physical defects, "before the crisis appeared to know everything, but are now showing that they know nothing." Well, I'm not so sure about that last part -- my theory is still that this whole crisis was meticulously engineered to maximally benefit the people who... it's maximally benefiting, and send the rest of us to the poorhouse. But as far as his pronouncement on physiognomy is concerned, who can possibly argue? We have seen an endless parade of robber barons appear before Congress, and they are almost invariably of the same type -- tall, with round, pink, slightly chubby faces and expertly-cut white hair. They all look like clones of Dick Cheney. In fact, maybe they are! Has anyone considered that? I mean, why should a corporate "headhunter" run himself ragged looking for the perfect physical type when a limitless number of them can be bred and nurtured in a secret laboratory in Switzerland? Personally, I think every one of these applicants for a "bailout" should be DNA tested. If it turns out that they are all genetically identical, we have an objective, scientific basis for a real conspiracy -- and maybe a reverse class action suit. (Call it "the suit against the suits".) But even if it doesn't come to that, I'm definitely on Lula... or Silva... or Luiz's side. I say, down with the pink, white, and blue, and up with... oh wait, Obama is none of the above. OK, let me think about this a bit more... I'll get back to you.

They Call Me Cuba Pete

With regard to Cuba, the good news is that the life expectancy is 77.3 years – “nearly the same as the United States”, according to a news item. The bad news is that “about 90 percent of Cubans have government jobs” -- mainly because the government is the only employer, and that's because it took over all industries, retail, services, and agriculture decades ago. But hold on a minute – maybe those two numbers are causally related in some way. Admittedly, Cuba has a medical system that's the envy of Hillary Clinton... but there might be more. Maybe it's the fact that they all work for the government that enhances their life expectancy. I mean, government jobs are low-stress... low-demand... low (or no) accountability... low (or no) standards... they are, in fact, the very model by which all employment is to be measured in the liberal utopia of the future (and the future, as we all know, is getting closer every day). But in Cuba, that utopia is now, and has been for nigh unto 50 years. We know that the “rat race” that is an inevitable product of capitalism and free enterprise takes its toll on health in the form of high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, nervous breakdowns, obesity, baldness, erectile dysfunction, and so forth. And we also know that government workers are a famously relaxed, laid-back, devil-may-care bunch, whose only serious health problem is blood clots from spending a long time motionless. So maybe... just maybe... we can solve a lot of the health problems of Americans by seeing to it that as many jobs as possible are converted from “private sector” to “government”. In fact... wait a minute! That's exactly what Obama and his administration are doing even as we speak! Are they secretly trying to enhance the health and longevity of Americans by doing this, and only pretending it's about the economy? If so, I give them top grades for vision and subtlety... but only average grades for honesty.

Cult Comfort

Iraq is learning fast about democracy, American-style. A group of Iranians who are opposed to the Iranian government is camped in Iraq, just across the border from Iran. But now the Iraqi government is threatening to break the group up, describing it as a “cult” and its members as “brainwashed” and in need of “detoxification”. Well, now, where do you suppose they got those ideas and that terminology? Clearly they've been keeping an eye on federal and state governments in the U.S. and their approach to weird, fringey, or “just plain don't like 'em” groups, the most recent being the FLDS colony in Texas. You call a group a “cult” and you've instantly labeled them as authoritarian psychos, hysterics, paranoiacs, outsiders, less than human, and not having the same rights as the rest of us. That, in turn, lays the groundwork for invasions, arrests, destruction of families, and a stereotypical list of accusations, one of which is invariably child sexual abuse (with "polygamy" and "firearms possession" running a distant second and third). And in extreme cases – like that of the Branch Davidians who had the back luck to run afoul of Janet Reno – it means wholesale destruction – a literal holocaust – and no one will care, because you've already “thinged” those people out of legitimacy as human beings. This is, in fact, the hidden flaw -- or one of many -- in democracy. It's all about "majority rule" but it gets a bit vague with regard to minority rights... which is why our legal code has thousands of pages devoted to the question (and it's still far from being settled). Paradoxically, an _individual_ who is a member of a minority group has more defined rights than the group he's a member of -- a case of "weakness in numbers", if you will. But his individual rights are typically compromised in proportion to his level of involvement with the group... and if he's considered a "leader", his individual rights basically go out the window.

Plus, sure enough, the Iranian group in question is playing its role to the hilt, saying that they “will never leave their home” and that an Iraqi crackdown would be “setting the stage for a human catastrophe”. They are clearly prepared for martyrdom... and may have an actual yen for it, in fact. So what are we going to see – Waco, Iraqi-style? The stage is certainly being set. Of course it wouldn't be the first time in recent history that an Asian government has acted against a cult – we also had the Falun Gong in China and the Golden Temple (Sikhs) in India. (And, in a sense, China considers Tibetan Buddhism a cult, albeit a very old and fairly extensive one, especially if you include small liberal arts colleges in the U.S.)

Minorities, historically, are usually on the defensive. But this new language that is used in dealing with very small minorities, and the standardized negative imagery that goes along with it, is as much a part of the American scene as it is part of the scene in any other country. In their case, it's usually just another example of simple tyranny, and "ho-hum", what else is new? In ours it's more about the Puritan heritage, for as we all know (unless we never moved beyond our grade-school "history" textbooks) the Puritans were themselves a cult, but they, in turn, showed a remarkable degree of intolerance for anyone who diverged from the party line.

The bottom line to all this is that not only do we not possess the “moral high ground” in these matters, we have managed to set the worst possible examples. And sure enough, anyone looking for an excuse to treat minorities, especially "cults", in a shabby way can just check out our act -- it will tell them all they need to know.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Liberal Family Values

Back in 1988, historian Paul Johnson wrote a book entitled “Intellectuals”, which he described as “an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.” In nearly all cases – there are 12 intellectual/moral biographies in the book, and brief treatments of numerous others – the intellectuals were tried and found wanting. Which is to say, their personal lives, which were typically chaotic and characterized by impulsiveness, moral turpitude, neglect of children, and disloyalty to, and maltreatment of, friends and associates, gave the lie to any claim they might have had to moral superiority or being qualified to give advice to others, define the terms of intellectual dialogue, or make recommendations to governments and other agents of change as to the improvement of the human condition. It might be said that their heads were in the clouds but they had feet of clay. And yet – Johnson ruefully points out – they have all have a profound impact on not only intellectual history but on society – particular its moral tone. We live, in effect, in a world created by intellectuals – for better or worse, and it's usually worse.

The book could, in fact, just as well have been called “Liberals”, since most of the people dealt with were to the left of center, and some far to the left. And that immediately raises a question – often asked, and answered in short order, by the intellectuals of our time -- namely whether the notion of a “conservative intellectual” is not a contradiction in terms. Part of the problem is that the very term “intellectual” seems to conjure up the image of a person who spends a lot of time thinking, talking, and writing, but not much time getting to know “real”, average people – like, you know, the ones whose “rights” he is constantly standing up for. So there is a definite air of superiority, remoteness, and leftish snobbishness about the concept of “intellectual” -- not to mention the central-casting accoutrements like the tweed jacket, the Earth Shoes (or whatever the current equivalent is), the bad grooming, the Saab or Volvo, the pipe (when tobacco was still OK), the fashionable pets, the avant-garde tastes in music and art, and so on. Say the word “intellectual” in any “non-intellectual” crowd and I can guarantee everyone present will instantly have roughly the same picture in their head – and that picture will bear an eerie resemblance to so many of the fusty characters who have acted as “advisors” to every Democratic president since FDR... and to _none_ of the Republican presidents. Maybe it's possible that conservatives don't _need_ intellectuals because conservatism is much more natural and common-sensical than liberalism... i.e., it doesn't need constant, 24-7 rationalization or excuse-making or denial. I think a very strong argument can be made that this is the case, and one has to wonder why conservatism, which is easy to understand, is not more popular than liberalism, which _appears_ easy to understand because it's full of slogans and buzzwords, but which – when you probe into it, and into its moral and philosophical foundations – is extremely chaotic and loaded with contradictions. But that's the answer – most people don't “probe” -- they don't look for logic or consistency, just a few simple, if irrational, “ideas” that they can grab onto as a way of explaining – to themselves and others – why their lives aren't all that they should be, and how nice it would be if the government would only step in and make their world a better place (and send someone else the bill).

Having said that, however, I would be remiss in not pointing out that there have, in fact, been many first-rate intellects among the conservatives, the most prominent of course being William F. Buckley Jr., who, more or less single-handedly, made conservatism intellectually respectable at a time when you could either be a thinking leftist or an unthinking, smug, complacent Republican. But Buckley was preceded, and followed, by many others... and I would put Thomas Sowell, Joseph Sobran, and Sam Francis at the top of a very long list.

So the bottom line on “intellectuals” -- as I read Johnson's book – is that, although they can be interesting, exotic, and entertaining (and also tiresome and irritating), they typically leave the world a worse place than it was when they arrived on the scene. And their legacy is surprisingly robust, given the destructiveness of their ideas and the amounts of human misery those can cause. This can be explained, at least in part, by the eternal hope on the part of a large proportion of humankind that someone – or something – will come along and relieve them of responsibility (moral, economic, social, etc.)... take care of them when times are tough (which, for a liberal, means all the time)... and (as a bonus) punish people who dare to think, or act, differently. And this hope, far from being dashed by each new failure of liberalism/collectivism, is reborn with each new generation. Of liberals it can truly be said that they have a keen sense of envy, grievance, injustice, and “payback”, but virtually no sense of history. Plus, they are absolutely clueless as to the nature of man – the real nature, that is, not the “ideal” nature they spend so much time trying to force down everyone's throat. And is this syndrome something that is hard-wired in a certain percentage of individuals, or is it a product of society? (If the latter, and given that present-day society is, by and large, a product of liberalism, we have an interesting bit of circularity here.) I have often thought that what I call the “totalitarian impulse”, which is at one end of the liberal continuum, is, more often than not, the result of poor upbringing. That is, it doesn't spring up full-blown the first time a college student encounters a Marxist professor; it's more like an intellectual accident waiting to happen. If you want to get Freudian about it, I would say that too-early weaning is to liberals what bad toilet training is to certain conservatives – neither necessary nor sufficient, but etiologically reliable. But there's clearly much more to it than that.

What got me thinking about all this was the recent unfortunate death of the actress Natasha Richardson as the result of a skiing accident. An obituary provided certain background facts about Richardson's family, and it was pointed out that there is an alleged “family curse” among the Redgraves and Richardsons -- intellectuals and "artistes" all -- which is manifested in numerous divorces, scandals, illnesses, relationship “issues”, and sexual “issues”. The families were also prone to political fancies as well; Richardson's mother's (Vanessa Redgrave's) house was “always full of Workers' Revolutionary Party members”, and she “remains a committed Marxist”. Here is a passage worth quoting:

“Vanessa recalled how Natasha used to beg her to stay at home and spend more time with her. 'I tried to explain that our political struggle was for her future, and that of all the children of her generation. “But I need you now,” said Natasha, “I won't need you so much then”.'” Later it is stated, “Natasha was... much perturbed by the constant comings and goings of lodgers and revolutionaries.” (Which I freely translate to "parasites, who make a habit of exploiting 'useful idiots' like Redgrave".)

Well, there you have it – liberal child-rearing in a nutshell. No time to actually stay home and take responsibility for the children – there are barricades that have to be manned, marches and demonstrations to attend, tracts to write! Plus, children can raise themselves, more or less, since they are innately good (as Rousseau contended, and as liberals still all – without exception – believe). And what strikes me is that this moral/psychological ailment is often multi-generational – like welfare – because the neglect of their children by liberals leads to various neuroses and dysfunctions, which in turn lead – I would expect – to more liberalism, if only in order to “identify with the aggressor”, or try and please the absent parent.

Now, I don't know anything about Natasha Richardson's political views, but I can guarantee that, more often than not, liberal parents will wind up with liberal grown offspring – unlike conservative parents, where the next generation can seem a bit more diverse. This could, of course, be taken as a sign that liberals “bring their kids up right”, and show them the proper example of “caring” (for the world, not for anyone in particular). Personally, I prefer the “chain of neurosis” model that Paul Johnson provides such a firm and convincing basis for, and that we see so often in liberal friends, associates, and celebrities. And on the conservative side, I'll grant that those families are not perfect either, and that the natural tendency of youth to rebel, or at least explore alternatives, can lead to a divergence of political views from that taught in front of the hearth. But I will also argue that societies that survive, and thrive, are ones in which, regardless of the official party line of the state, people – and particularly families – generally live in a “conservative” way, i.e. manifesting what are called (contemptuously, by the American media) “family values”. And even when radical social experiments sweep away all that is known and familiar – think of the Soviet collective farms or the Chinese Cultural Revolution – it's striking how readily, once a modicum of sanity returns to the society, people go back to the core family model, as if they know it's the best way to insure the survival of future generations. It's also striking how universally incompetent governments are when it comes to raising (and, I would say, also educating) children, despite all the utopian idealism the social planners can conjure up. Societies – like organisms – have survival instincts; at least the ones that survive do (by definition). And paramount among these is the notion that the family unit is essential for the welfare and health of both the individual and the group. Now, whether family disruption leads directly to societal decay – or whether it's usually the other way around – is difficult to establish, since they are so closely correlated. What I suspect is that there is a symbiosis, by which one is the beneficiary (or the victim) of the other. Clearly, the war being waged on families by the dominant culture, the media and entertainment elite, and by our own government, is a symptom of the moral sickness that has seeped into the legal system and our leadership as well as society in general. But that moral sickness had to originate somewhere, and I nominate, as the first place to look, dysfunctional families, perhaps combined with the loss of a spiritual anchor. Call it "social concupiscence" -- flawed individuals attract others of their kind and, if not stopped, enter into relationships and establish flawed family units, which produce more flawed individuals, ad infinitum. (And, by the way, “ethics” doesn't ever seem to quite compensate for the lack of a moral foundation. People will claim that it does – or can, but, ultimately, all “ethics” is culturally conditioned, relative, and arbitrary. As evidence for this I offer societies like Nazi Germany, where people were willing to act in full accord with the “ethics”, or ideals, of the state, even if those blatantly contradicted Natural Law.)

Liberals all dream of suppressing religion, and churches, because those represent competition in the world of ideas – a challenge to the liberal world view. When Mao said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, he wasn't including religion of any sort – or morality in the strict sense. Liberalism is all about ideas – but they have to conform to certain standards, like not having a monotheistic or “moralistic” religious base... not exalting the family above any other “social contract”, either voluntary or imposed... and, needless to say, not having the taint of “sexism” (i.e. believing that men and women really are different, and that it's for a reason), “racism” (the downside of “diversity”, when you get right down to it), or “homophobia” (believing that homosexuality is an unnatural state – non-Darwinian, even!). And of course any political philosophy that contends that “there are no absolutes – except that there are no absolutes” is setting itself up, from the start, as a source of chaos, contradiction, and endless rumination in campus coffee shops. When a topic, or issue, is discussed endlessly, by generation after generation of intellectuals, is it because the answer is so elusive and complex? What's more likely is that it's because the answer is obvious, but no one wants to admit it. Whenever you think society has “moved on” from all the debates of the 60s, just head for the nearest college or university campus and you'll find that nothing has changed, nothing has progressed, and nothing has improved – it's just the same old nonsense being mulled over in the same old way – and by many of the same people, even. Why, it's enough to make one wonder about the whole notion of “progress”!

So when it comes to "intellectuals", in the interest of diversity I'll say keep them around, don't harass them unduly, but for goodness' sake don't listen to them! And don't let them get anywhere near the centers of power. And be prepared to put your hands over the ears of small children if an intellectual starts speaking in their presence.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

You Wanted Change? Well, Here It Is!

A new presidential administration begins, after a bruising election in which the losing candidate was accused of wanting to drastically escalate an unpopular war... perhaps even to use nuclear weapons in the process. However, the winner, contrary to the expectations of his supporters, takes no steps to end the war, but instead changes the strategy in such a way that even more troops are needed. His supporters, disillusioned, stage protests and eventually march on the Pentagon.

The first two months of the Obama administration? Well, maybe... but I was talking about LBJ. Of course, he had already been in office for a while at the time of the 1964 election -- due to a bit of unpleasantness down in Dallas -- but I clearly remember how Goldwater was portrayed -- by the media, as usual -- as a "warmonger", and as "psychotic". So people expected better of Lyndon, once he got a direct mandate from the electorate, but instead they got Rolling Thunder (the architect of which, Robert Strange McNamara, is still at large, BTW). In all of the subsequent discussions of "what were the 60s", and "what did they represent", and "how did they happen", and "what did they lead to", no theory can be taken seriously that does not include Vietnam, LBJ, and the draft. Similarly, no discussion of the current economic crisis is complete without including Iraq and Afghanistan. And yeah, I know, the on-the-spot historians have already agreed that the whole thing started with subprime mortgages, which were forced on the mortgage and banking -- and then investment -- industries by the goverment, i.e. by liberals and Democrats -- i.e. by Barney Frank et al. But I don't believe this. Yes, it was a big piece.. but as I've said before, for a "domino effect" to occur the dominoes have to already be up on end, and in a row, and ready to fall. Which is to say, there have to be many weaknesses, flaws, and Achilles heels in the economy for a few -- or even a few million -- subprime mortgages to have the impact they have had. Among these flaws are, of course, the Social Security time bomb, Medicare, Medicaid, drug entitlements, health care (now! Just wait until Obama gets hold of it), trade imbalances, budget deficits, the national debt, the massive waste of the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror"... and, of couse, the twin overseas wars which, up until recently, were bleeding us dry faster than any other single factor. Take the last few years of the economy and subtract the war in Iraq, for instance. Does the subprime meltdown have the same devastating effect? I would be amazed if it did. Or... take the pre-existing entitlement crisis and the trade imbalances. Get them off the books. Does the subprime crisis start as big and bad a chain of events as it did? Highly unlikely. The subprime mortgage situation can be seen, perhaps, as the last straw... or, as they say in family therapy, the "presenting patient". But as far as its being the sole source of our current woes, I just can't imagine that being the case.

On the other hand, some people are starting to claim that the whole subprime mortage debacle was an ingenious "sting" operation designed to deliver a final, visible, overwhelming blow to capitalism (so-called). According to this theory, a bunch of geniuses like Barney Frank (you can already see how unlikely this scenario is) came up with the subprime mortgage idea, knowing that if they pressured, or forced, the mortgage industry to make enough of these loans, there would eventually be a tidal wave of defaults, the housing market would go flat, everyone would be angry, and "business" and "capitalism" could be blamed and thus regulated out of existence, for all intents and purposes. Well, in a sense this is the way things worked out -- and in fact they worked out even better (from the anti-capitalist perspective) because the "toxic loans" didn't just stay with the mortgage companies, they spread like a virus through the entire financial system, including overseas (Iceland, even!)... and the result is that Obama can now justify taking over any part of the system he pleases... or all of it. The reason I consider this an unanticipated consequence is that I simply don't credit these people with being that smart. Lucky, maybe... but not smart. I think what we're seeing now is more like crimes of opportunity than the reaping of a gigantic, planned harvest. But I could be wrong. The people who are really in charge might have gotten together a while back, and decided that they'd had enough of this "capitalism" thing -- or even the pseudo-capitalism that replaced it -- and that it was time to consolidate their gains and bring the world under the collectivist yoke... not the communist, or ex-communist, world this time, but the people who fought communism... the ones who thought they were "free".

There are arguments to be made for each of these models... and probably for a few others as well. But I prefer to be phenomenological for right now, and take the current crisis as a "perfect storm" of sorts, that had no single cause, but represents a convergence of all the worst in government meddling, mediocrity, greed, delusion, and political and economic opportunism. But I'll say again -- the timing could not have been better (if the whole thing had been planned from the start). The crisis starts during a Republican administration... they're "forced" to "do something" about it, or to at least start doing something, and thus give up any claim they might still have to being "pro" free enterprise and capitalism... then the Democrats take over and, well, it wasn't _our_ fault everything went to hell, but thank goodness we know exactly what to do about it -- namely to nationalize everything and print more money than already exists in the entire world. And we have "incredible confidence" that it's all going to work. Now when anything is timed that perfectly, so that no one person, or administration, has to take all the blame, you really have to think there is something behind it... and that that "something" is certainly much bigger, and more powerful, than any one measly president or administration.

But a few more thoughts about the subprime mortgage snafu. At the very least, it's being used as a scapegoat (with bipartisan blamability, even!) to keep people from focusing on areas of even greater criminality and neglect on the part of elected officials and presidential administrations. But rest assured, there's plenty enough blame to go around, when you add up all the assaults on political legitimacy and economic sanity that we have suffered over the years... and in every case, it's a matter of political expediency of the moment, and of letting the "long run" take care of itself. Of course, Keynes once commented that "in the long run, we're all dead" -- true for him maybe, but guess what, we're _living_ in the "long run" right now. The chickens are flocking home to roost -- darkening the skies -- fouling the air with their droppings. The time for putting things off has ended... the party's over (unless you work for AIG)... and the bookie ain't takin' no more bets on the cuff, thank you very much. In fact, you owe him money and he's lookin' for yez right now. That's the situation we're in, and is it our fault? (whimper, whine) Well, yeah -- it is partly, because we grew up assuming we could always live as we were used to living, no matter what. But it turns out that the "American way of life" is unsustainable -- not only from a global perspective but internally as well. Who knew that not just a few of us, but most of us, were like that bird in a gilded cage, only waiting for the day when the third world would rise up and start demanding "social justice". (And what took the Mexicans so long to realize all they had to do was wade across the Rio Grande in order to start a whole new life?) Ironically, we fought off the communists on the domestic front, and fought the (not always) Cold War internationally, imagining that once these benighted people adopted American values, peace would break out and all would be well. Well, peace did break out... at least among the big players... and guess what, now Russia, China, and India all have American values, i.e. they all want to live according to the American standard of living, to replace the self-sacrificing idealism that went along with communism (or, in India's case, the existential despair of Hinduism). "Oops!" We'd be better off if they were all still communists. But now it's too late. We set too good an example. And now they all want what we have... or what we used to have... and if they can't have it, then, by gosh, they won't let us have it either.

Is it really true that, as some have claimed, the "American experiment" could only survive as long as there were oceans between us and everyone else -- serious oceans I mean, that took weeks to cross? With borders as porous as Ted Kennedy's liver, it's hard to imagine our being able to maintain any sort of exclusivity for much longer; in fact, data on the drug trade from Latin America indicate that Elvis has already left the building and he ain't coming back. Now of course, as P.J. O'Rourke has demonstrated, it's not just a matter of natural resources or "luck" -- it's also a matter of national character... how countries become prosperous or how they don't, I mean. But let's face it -- like in everything else, there are always more losers than winners among the nations of the world, and the one resource the losers have plenty of is resentment and a determination to get their "fair share" of the "pie", no matter what it takes. So you take a flea-bitten place like Afghanistan, and rather than take us on on the field of honor they (1) sponsor the dudes who pulled off 9-11; and (2) grow 90% of the poppies that feed into our heroin problem. That's how they fight -- and it's not "dirty", or "terrorism", it's just the way small places speak power to large places. They are the mouse and we're the elephant. Our problem is that we're still considered the ones to beat... and there are hundreds of outfits out there just waiting to get into the ring with "the" superpower -- especially now that "the" superpower has developed a case of economic AIDS.

Is there a "bottom line" to all this? No -- no more than there is a bottom line when you're caught up in a tornado -- you might get let down gently, or you might wind up dashed against a very large tree. At this point, it's all process and no product. The stated agendas of our leading politicians change by the hour. Hundreds of billions are flushed down the toilet, then someone realizes it's a toilet and rushes to do something more productive with the next few hundred... like flushing it down a different toilet. It's comforting in a way -- I guess -- to finally have proof positive that our leaders really don't know any more about history, or economics, than the most ordinary citizen lounging on a park bench. They are not blessed with superior knowledge -- just with charisma and a bit of luck. And -- if you adopt my model -- they are in the unique position of seeming to be in charge, and to lead, but actually of following orders from someone else, who is unknown and invisible as far as the public is concerned. But how smart, really, is _that_ person (or persons)? Is it possible that, for once in history, no one is in control and that everyone is floundering? Warren Buffet has taken a huge hit from the economy -- so what can any of us mere mortals expect? Of course, he still has more money than anyone else on earth, but still... Yes, these are indeed interesting times, and they will be absolutely impossible to describe to anyone who is not already alive and of sufficient years to appreciate all that is going on. Impossible -- but I'm not going to give up trying.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Our Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash

The latest scare word to come out of the mouths of Republicans discussing the Obama bailout/budget/simulus enormity is "federal bankruptcy", which will supposedly occur if Congress gives Obama everything he wants in terms of a free rein to limitless spending. (At the same time, a White House advisor describes herself as "incredibly confident" that Obama's plan will work. "Incredibly" is definitely the word for it.) But what the Republicans using the new scare word don't seem to realize is that the federal government is _already_ bankrupt... and, in fact, has been... for decades.

Well, let me clarify that a bit. Let's say you're an individual person -- a normal average slob. Your liabilities exceed your assets. You could file for bankruptcy there and then... except that, unless you're a complete loser, you have expectations of future income -- a paycheck, pension check, welfare check, drug money, money from pawning your car stereo... something. Plus, all your liabilities are not coming due at once (unless you got suckered into one of those "balloon" mortgages -- but even then, the government will bail you out). Plus, there are plenty of predatory lenders out there (I define "predatory" as any lender who lends money to a person who shouldn't be borrowing money... which describes nearly all of them) who will lend you more money to tide you over, i.e. they will offer a loan which comes due in two months so you can pay off the one that comes due in one month.

So there are plenty of "fudge factors" that keep people who _could_ go bankrupt from actually doing so. Plus, people know that bankruptcy tends to have a bad effect on your credit record, which means you might not be able to borrow more money later on if you go bankrupt now... and we can't have that! Plus, what if you should apply for a job that involves taking care of other people's money? Are you worthy of their trust? (For that matter, are any of these failed banks?) So, in the broad sense, it's not just a matter of assets vs. liabilities. It's more like a matter of assets + projected income + unused credit vs. liabilities + projected additional liabilities (i.e. loans), and how all of these are distributed over time. And if _that_ figure is on the plus side, you're probably not going to go bankrupt... unless something changes. On the other hand, if that figure is on the negative side -- which means, in practical terms, that you've already borrowed more than you can ever repay, unless you win the lottery -- then bankruptcy might be your only option.

That's what happens if you're a single, normal individual. But how about if you're a government? Strictly speaking, any year in which the government has a budget deficit (i.e., more outgo than income) it's in a state of bankruptcy. But things aren't quite that simple. Sure, governments have assets and liabilities, like individuals do... they borrow money and loan it out... they have "income" (AKA "taxes") and expenses (AKA "the budget"), but they have something Joe Schmoe doesn't have, and that's the ability to print money. Now if Joe Schmoe could print money his problems would be solved. And the ability to print money solves the government's problems too -- up to a point. You can inflate the currency to reduce some of your liabilities (as long as your assets aren't in the same currency, in which case it's a wash)... and to make paying back loans (e.g. the "national debt") less onerous (but money you've loaned out winds up being worth less as well). Inflation also helps with tax intake, since it bumps people up a bracket or two even if their relative level of compensation stays the same (and don't think the government isn't well aware of this!). And inflation helps with entitlements.. as long as they aren't "inflation-indexed". So as far as the government is concerned, inflation is "a good thing", as Martha Stewart would say. So what's the down side? Well, it has partly to do with trade, i.e. with other countries, since the more bogus our money gets the more expensive their stuff gets and the less of it we can afford. But the real problem, these days, is the fact that other countries -- like China, for instance -- hold huge chunks of our national debt in their hot hands, and they get mightily unhappy when we start inflating our currency, since it threatens their investment. And a point will come when they are no longer willing to support our habit, i.e. by buying more debt. (Note that China has already reached that fork in the road... and if we lose China, we've lost it all, baby.) And the taxpayers will be so tapped out they'll be either unwilling or unable to buy any government bonds themselves, which means... no more loans, no more budget deficits. And you're saying, but wouldn't that be a good thing? And the answer is yes, it would, except that we will still owe trillions, at that point, to overseas entities -- countries, banks, and so on... and we won't be able to pay -- not just principal, but interest as well (AKA "debt servicing"). And when that happens, they'll do what anyone else would do when they get stiffed by someone going bankrupt -- they'll demand any and all assets in lieu of what we owe and can't pay. So -- and I know, this is a wild idea, but who would have believed what has already happened in the past few months? -- the Chinese could demand that we turn over our national parks to them, at fair market value. Or that a few million Americans be shipped over to China as wage slaves (or worse!) in order to pay off the debt. Or that we offer free spa and vacation services to any Chinese citizen who lands at L.A. International. You get the idea. They're not going to just write it off, or "forgive", or anything of the sort. They'll cut us up like a turkey, the way the World Bank cuts up the hapless third-world governments that are foolish enough to take out one of their loans. This is what real, genuine, hard-core bankruptcy of the United States government would, or could, mean. It wouldn't be a matter of locking up the fools who created the situation -- any more than it's now a matter of locking up any bankers or Wall Street types. They will get off scot free, as always. No, it's the people who will pay the price... although, on the bright side, it could put a crimp in the government's ability to do even more damage... at least for a while.

But will it come to this? Surely our leaders will "take steps" to insure that things never get this bad. And yes, it may take some "belt tightening", yadda yadda. But hey -- look at all that's already happened, and with the full collaboration, blessing, and enthusiastic participation of Congress and two different administrations. American business is certainly not going to object -- they're all lying around in a derelict crack house, totally stoned on the handouts they've already been given. The blows that have already been landed would be enough to bring down most economies... but ours is pretty big, and kind of robust, but it can only take so much, and when the final collapse comes, it will truly resound around the world... but nowhere as loudly as in China, and this, I offer, is a kind of poetic justice in itself. We have, on one side, the largest remaining communist (if in name only) state. On the other side, we have our economy, which has been dragged down for decades now by the exigencies of the Cold War and, later, by the perpetual wars necessitated by our Wilsonian foreign policy. One could argue that the communist world -- or what is left of it -- owes us something. The fact that we have to commit economic hara-kiri to collect... well, that's unfortunate, but at least they don't come out of the fight unscathed.

Plus, who knows, they might not do a half bad job running Yellowstone.

Wellington's Waterloo

An article on the beaten, bruised, and battered 401(k) accounts that have taken a major hit from the economic crash provides an interesting example of reality vs. illusion in the world of finance. According to a 28-year (plus 2 months of 2009) chart of returns from the Vanguard Wellington fund, $5000 invested at the beginning of each year since 1981 would have yielded a year-end value for 2007 of approx. $928,000. That's with annual returns ranging up to a breathtaking 33% (in 1995), and only three years of negative annual returns through 2007. Call that $928,000 the baseline for the disillusionment which was to follow, because in 2008 the year-end value was approx. $725,000, a drop of over $200,000. So the hapless account holder, as far as he or she is concerned, "lost" $200,000, or 22%, in one year. But wait, there's more! In the first two months of 2009, the value would have gone down another 11%. That's 11% in two months, or 66% by the end of 2009, if things go the way they've been going. (But it might be worse!) And the net loss from the end of 2007 to the end of February 2009 is 30%.

Sounds horrible, right? But consider -- that end-of-2007 figure, if based on a fixed interest rate, would have represented a yield of between 21% and 22% over the period in question -- not at all shabby. But what about all the "losses"? Well, the end-of-2008 figure _still_ represents a yield between 19% and 20%... and the end-of-Feburary 2009 figure represents a yield between 18% and 19%. So after the crushing losses of the last few months, our 401(k) holder with this fund has still realized a yield of between 18% and 19% overall -- which beats the crap out of any bank, T-bill, bond, or even gold, I believe. So do these people have any right to complain? Isn't it just possible that their sky-high yields of years past were nothing but a "bubble", that didn't represent anything of real value? Isn't it possible that the current value of their account is more realistic, i.e. it might just be what they should have been making all along. Or, to put it another way, if they had seen straight-line growth from 1981 to now, with a yield of 18-19%, they'd be on cloud nine... BUT since they thought, back at the end of 2007, that they were even richer, now they're miserable... depressed... suicidal. "It's all relative", as someone once said.

But let's look at it still another way. Let's say the person in question started the account in 1981 and never withdrew a dime. The account's value, based on the rate of return, is a "value on paper", which is, in turn, a tiny portion of the _total_ "value on paper" of all of the assets of the fund... and that, in turn, is based on selling prices, not of _their_ holdings, which they usually aren't turning over, but of similar holdings which _are_ being turned over, i.e. sold. In other words, if, say, 1% of the total stock of a firm is sold on a given day, the price of that stock is attributed to the other 99% of the stock, as its "value". But the fact is, if that other 99% went on the market the same day (or week, or month) there's no way the sellers could have gotten that price for it... or any price at all, for that matter. Which is to say, the laws of supply and demand apply automatically to stocks that are being bought and sold on the free market -- but it's a mistake to apply them to stocks that _aren't_ being bought or sold. And while it's true that most of the classic "bubbles" are based on fast buying and selling of the commodity in question, there is another kind of bubble as well, and that has to do with stocks that are just sitting there in someone's portfolio, but which seem to be appreciating in value at a rapid rate based on what's happening to other stocks. So what I suspect about most of these 401(k) funds is that they were relatively stable with regard to the makeup of the portfolios in question -- in other words, a very small percentage of the holdings were actually being bought or sold on any given day. Which means, most of the appreciation in value was _not_ based directly on sales, but only on _attributed_ value, i.e. on the market value of the similar stocks that were being sold by other people. Which means -- in turn -- (finally, a bottom line!) -- that these 401(k) portfolios were _never_ worth as much as people thought they were... i.e. if they had gone on the market the price would have turned out to be much lower, especially if large chunks had gone on the market all at once.

So what does this mean in terms of the alleged $2 trillion in 401(k) losses in 17 months? Were those accounts, in the aggregate, _ever_ worth that much? Or was a lot of that "value" just notional and on paper, and not based on any sort of realistic scenario? If I own some stock and decide to sell it, the fact of my selling it is probably not going to have a major impact on the price, unless I'm some kind of high roller. But if a major 401(k) fund decides to sell, it could very easily have an impact on the price... and this is my point. The bigger the aggregate, the less accurate the assignment of "value" is, to the point where, if a given fund, or a given stock within a fund, is, for all intents and purposes, impossible to liquidate on short notice, or all at once, without suffering huge losses, then the value assigned to it is basically meaningless. Which means that all of these people who think they "lost" a lot may not have -- not really. What they "lost" was value on paper, but not real value, and certainly not anything tangible. Of course, that won't stop the boo-hooing and the rending of garments, and it won't stop politicians from making the most of a bad situation. But it might be some small consolation to a person who wound up holding the short straw that a lot of what they "lost" never actually existed.

The Will to Disorder

You may already know all about this, but I didn't. Apparently there's a new disease on the books -- the latest one! And no, I'm not talking about "bailout fatigue". This is something called "intermittent explosive disorder" (IED), and it has nothing to do with terrorists. It's apparently your doctor's word for what used to be called a bad temper -- but those old folk terms are so imprecise, aren't they? So now we have the serendipitously-named IED, which is clearly of much more diagnostic value. This came to my attention in an article about a local teen who attacked his girlfriend with a hammer -- apparently in response to getting jilted. (Let this be a warning to any young ladies present -- watch out who you get involved with, and if it's too late for that watch out who you break up with, especially if there are any hammers present!) Now, I'm sure I don't have to mention that this guy also had ADHD -- but how could he not, since that has become the universal diagnosis for what, in my day, was called "being a male teenager". In any case, IED -- according to the article -- "results in episodes of explosive behavior with an inability to control it." Which is another way of saying that IED results in IED. See, I told you this was a much more precise diagnostic category! How did we get along without it for so long?

Now, I don't question that this kid has something seriously wrong with him and that he needs help. Or, more precisely, everyone _else_ needs help in dealing with this kid (or avoiding him, as the case may be). What I question is this knee-jerk reaction on the part of "experts", who are ever ready to assign an official diagnostic category to something -- always including the word "disorder" -- when, in fact, they don't know thing one about it or why it occurs. Wouldn't it be more modest to just stick with the less formal, more folksy terminology until it could be firmly established that we really are talking about a clinical syndrome? But no, that would just seem way too "unprofessional". How much of a fee do you think you could collect for declaring that someone had a bad temper? Would Blue Cross pay up? Highly unlikely. So we wind up with this escalation in the terminology of pathology until -- as has already happened -- the majority of public school children have, in their file, some notation by some "provider" that they suffer from some sort of "disorder". Is this something that is going to pursue them, doggedly, through college and into military service, or a civilian career track? Maybe -- but by that time _everyone_ will have a "disorder", so it will no longer be of any value as a criterion. Then we can all sit back and relax and wait for the next brainstorm from the experts.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fraudian Slips

In the previous post, I explained how unrealistic it is to expect federal workers to act as effective insurance against waste and fraud in the expenditure of government -- i.e. taxpayer -- funds. It is simply not in the nature of federal workers -- more specifically contract monitors -- to be concerned about "saving" money or putting it to optimum use. Plus, we have a factor which has never been discussed with regard to the repeated confrontations between Congress and "big business" -- namely that money intimidates, by which I mean that when a Congressman with a six-figure income is talking to a business executive with a eight- or nine-figure income, you have an automatically unequal power relationship -- and believe me, it is felt -- intensely -- by both parties. As far as the executive is concerned, the Congressman is a "face" -- a pretty boy -- an airhead -- an empty suit -- a con artist, who, basically, knows nothing about anything except how to win elections. And to the Congressman, the executive is that which he will never be -- someone who entered the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace and managed to dominate, and conquer, and grow rich as a result. So all of these "hearings" look like an old newsreel with a swarm of pygmies gathered around the Great White Hunter -- no one is in any doubt as to who the dominant person in the room is, and who will win the encounter.

Similarly, when a federal employee who is assigned to monitor a contract encounters the alpha-male (or alpha-female) high rollers who are in charge of the company that won the bid, they inevitably feel out of their element and "above their pay grade", as Obama would say. So they tend to defer, and tiptoe, and walk on eggs, not because they have no actual power in the situation -- because they do, according to regulation -- but because there is an older, more archaic form of intimidation going on, and no amount of "training" of the humble federal employee (who, likely as not, got the job in the first place because he wasn't cut out to survive in the world of competition) is going to make it go away. And, heaven forbid, should it ever come time to "discipline" the contractor for some sort of infraction -- most commonly a failure to "deliver", or the delivery of a manifestly inferior product -- the humble federal employee is certainly not going to go out and meet Goliath single-handed. He's going to call in his own boss, and their boss, and all the heavy artillery the agency can muster, and the chances are that the effort will be derailed because at some point "someone who knows someone" will get in the loop and wonder, out loud, what all the fuss is about, and doesn't the humble federal employee have anything better to do with their time, plus the end of the rating period is coming up, and... well, you can fill in the rest, I'm sure. So even in the rare case where the person monitoring the contract is serious about his duties, there is seldom anything that can be done in cases of contractor malfeasance. And in the more typical case, where the contract monitor is your average faceless clock-puncher, the issue won't ever even come up. The contractor could rape the clock-puncher's grandmother and put it on YouTube, and it would hardly create a stir; this is how passive and non-boat rocking these people are.

Now, the situation I've just described typifies the more common sort of government contract, in which there are fairly tangible "deliverables" -- of goods and services -- expected as the outcome. In other words, a firm receives taxpayers' money and is supposed to provide something in return -- and not just something vague and intangible, but actual "stuff" -- either "widgets" or some activity that makes a visible difference, like cleaning restrooms. And you would think all government contracts were like that -- or should be. But read on. The two major exceptions, as per my observations over the years, are: (1) "consulting"; and (2) "earmarks", and I will deal with each of these in turn.

Now, your typical "consulting" contract does not _appear_ to differ significantly from a standard "service" contract -- i.e., a certain level of effort is required which produces results which can be judged satisfactory or not. But unlike more tangible services like cleaning restrooms, your typical consulting contract requirement basically boils down to what one of my old bosses called "does stuff". And the "stuff" that is done is seldom anything that can be subjected to any tangible or operational criteria. What you're basically paying the person to do is think, and talk, and perhaps write. And their thinking, talking, and writing is supposed to be roughly relevant to a given area of concern... but even these "areas of concern" tend to be a bit on the nebulous side. So consultants will be hired to perform all sorts of Dilbert-esque jobs like "aiding mission operationalization"... "leveraging digitization efficiencies"... "juxtaposing cost tradeoffs against short, medium, and long term unfunded requirements"... and so on. Can anyone out there tell me what criteria they would use to determine if a person ever succeeded in doing any of these things? And remember, they weren't hired to actually do it -- only to think about it, and offer advice, insight, and input. So imagine the situation the poor federal schlump is in when he's assigned to "monitor" one of these consulting contracts -- and you can be sure that the "consultant" is another one of those alpha types who drives a Jaguar and is easy to pick out in a meeting because he's the only one wearing tailored clothing (vs. the fed guy who is wearing stuff bought off the overstock rack at Marshall's).

I would say, overall, that "consulting" is the easiest, most seamless way by which money is moved from the taxpayers to the parasite class -- easier than the government employee's own paycheck, in fact, because it's much more difficult to get an actual "in-house" government job than work as a consultant. Is it any accident that, whenever a government official at any level (federal, state, local) is accused of corruption and diverting money to their cronies, said cronies almost invariably were paid for "consulting"? In fact, it's amazing that any of these cases ever come to court, because there is no one out there who can, conclusively, define the difference between a fraudulent consulting job and a legitimate one.

Now that we've dispensed with consulting -- which comes closer to "middle class welfare" than anything else in the economy -- let's move on to "earmarks". (This, by the way, is a term that has been used in the government for decades -- it's only recently that it has appeared on the media radar.) I've already made the point that, ultimately, all government expenditures are local expenditures, so the distinction between "earmarks" and non-earmarks is an artificial one at that level. In other words, when it's all about jobs, and getting politicians re-elected, people on the local level don't care what it's called in Washington. No one actually receiving "earmark" money thinks of it as anything special -- it's just another program... just another teat on the gigantic sow called The Government. But the distinction is still useful if we're talking about the perspective of the poor bureaucrat who actually has to do the dirty deed -- i.e. monitor the contract -- and his chances of ever blowing the whistle on "waste and fraud".

First, imagine the scene in a typical government agency when the earmark "comes down" (this is the term that is commonly used). The first reaction is, "Oh shit, now we have to use some of our scarce funding to pay for some damn pet rock that some Congressman wants." And there is no appeal! So some part of the regular, i.e. at least semi-legitimate, program has to be cut... or, alternatively, the entire program has to be "salami sliced" (another common term) by reducing each element of it by, say, 10%, in order to fund the earmark. This is the most common case, and it happens when an "earmark" is applied to the regular agency budget -- oftentimes long after said budget is approved and the program is under way. But Senator Fatass wants his friend Billybob down in Butt Butt, Alabama, to get a waste disposal contract, and your money was just sitting there, so tough luck, sport. (Did you know there are people in the federal government whose main job is to look around and locate unspent or "low priority" money that is ripe for pillaging? Yep -- sad but true.) Alternatively, and not quite as grievously, an earmark will come down with money attached, in which case the only thing that comes out of the agency's hide is the labor hours spent monitoring the silly thing -- and the time spent deflecting blame when things go wrong (which is almost assured).

But in either case, the guy in the trenches -- i.e. Fred Schmuckler, Contract Monitor -- has a problem. If he tried to monitor the contract in the -- let's say -- anal-compulsive, Javert-esque fashion -- checking his watch to make certain each deliverable shows up no later than noon on the delivery date... well, first of all, someone's going to tell him to cool it. And secondly, the "deliverable" is likely to be so nebulous, and undefined, as to make the output of a standard consulting contract look like a pail of nails by comparison. Plus, he knows -- because he's been told -- that this is an "earmark", and that, therefore, "deliverables" don't matter -- in fact, they're a pain in the butt and we're glad the contract doesn't require any. What he's not told, in so many words, but what is well understood by all, is that the purpose of the contract is simply to get money into the hands of the contractor, courtesy of their Congressman or some other high official. Is it blatant cronyism or vote-buying? Goes without saying. Is it considered a "perk" of elected office -- that each elected official gets a certain amount of taxpayer money for their own private sandbox, no questions asked? Goes without saying. Is any accountability anticipated, or expected? Negatory. The idea is, the agency acts as the facilitator -- the "throughput" channel -- and their job is to hold their nose as it goes by, do the paperwork, sign the forms, and shut up. Oh, and pretend to be "monitoring" the whole thing, which brings us back to Fred Schmuckler. If he is not one of those dead souls who you can find wandering aimlessly through any government agency -- hanging out at the snack bar -- reading the paper in the rest room -- going grocery shopping during lunch hour -- he may occasionally feel the prick of conscience. After all, he is a man of integrity! And there are standards here, that are being violated! And he can just see the fat cats grinning from ear to ear as they receive checks that were "cut" based on receipts which _he signed_! Leavenworth awaits!! But no... this is not the kind of thing that would ever get anyone fired, or even mildly reprimanded. It's business as usual, government-style. Fred will go home that evening, less of a man -- and not at all a mensch -- but his future is secure, as long as he doesn't make waves. He is, after all, only a lowly servant of the Regime, a very small cog in a mighty apparatus, and nothing shady that ever happens can ever possibly be his fault.

So what is the point of all this? Only to point out that the so-called "stimulus package" is atypical in one main respect -- it's entirely made up of "earmarks", which means that not only does it all qualify as "waste and fraud", as I pointed out before, but it will all have the cachet of the traditional earmark, i.e. it will be invincible and untouchable, and woe unto the lowly bureaucrat who questions even one small part of it. Which makes this whole argument about "not enough federal workers to provide adequate oversight" an occasion for hilarity -- or weeping -- or both. When these "stimulus" items come marching down the pike, they will be treated like nuclear waste -- with a strictly hands-off policy. The agencies cursed with handling them will look the other way, lest they be turned to stone by the sight of the Medusa, and they will be allowed to pass unmolested. Eventually, checks will be written, and cashed, and some people will be richer, and the rest of us will be poorer, and if you expect anything more out of it than that, well... where'd you get that killer weed?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chillin' With the Chinchillas

I've already explained that every government program is a jobs program, and that there is no such thing as “government waste” -- that is, if you're on the receiving end. Or if you like, reverse the logic and say that _all_ government expenditures are “waste” because they all disrupt the free market and violate the laws of supply and demand – i.e. they all represent things that people, as individuals, would not buy if they had the choice.

Now, it's amazing how much easier it is to understand certain things once you clear your head about these issues. But it's equally amazing how most, if not all, of our elected representatives still can't, or won't, see things as they are. An example is Rep. Dan Burton's shock and dismay that, according to the usual “rule” for these things, $55 Billion of the stimulus plan is likely to go for fraud. This is based on something called “the industry standard level of fraud” -- and, I admit, I didn't know there was an “industry standard” for this, but I'm not surprised. Heck, everything else has goals and performance criteria, why not fraud? At any rate, the standard is 7%, and 7% of $787 Billion is bit over $55 Billion. (You'd think with all those sevens in there we might be in for a bit of luck – but I'm afraid not.) So Burton characterizes this $55 Billion as “wasted” money, and adds that (get this!) “$55 Billion in stimulus waste and fraud would prompt the American people to 'march on the Capitol'.” I guess by “the American people” he means the middle class, since they're going to absorb most of the (negative) impact of the stimulus plan... but relax, Dan – the middle class has never marched on the Capitol, or on anything else, for any reason. They live in perpetual fear of the strong and the violent – like the IRS, for example – and so they can always be counted on to stand silent before their shearers.

But here's the point. How do you tell the “fraud” and “waste” part of the stimulus plan from the legit stuff? Can we tell now? In which case, can those items be deleted before so much as a dollar is spent? But no, I suspect he means money earmarked for “legitimate” purposes – things absolutely vital to the recovery of the economy – you know, like subsidies for chinchilla farmers, or a shoelace museum – that is instead diverted to the bank accounts of local operators out in the boondocks, to decorate their rec rooms or buy a trip to Branson, Missouri. But he misses the point. Either the entire stimulus program is a waste and a fraud, or none of it is. It's entirely a matter of definition. Let's say that a certain amount is earmarked for that mythical chinchilla farm – and sure enough, a check is written out to the chinchilla farmer, and he deposits it in his business bank account, and draws on it for needed supplies, overhead expenses, chinchilla stud service... whatever. But would one American citizen in a million have freely turned even a dime of their own money over to him for these purposes? No. So in that sense it qualifies as “waste”. And is the preservation of that – or any other – chinchilla farm really vital to economic recovery? Is chinchilla farming an industry that's “too big to fail”? Will the failure of chinchilla farms cause a devastating ripple effect through the entire economic system... with former chinchilla farmers standing in bread lines and collecting unemployment? No – to all the above. So in that sense the chinchilla subsidies are based on fraud – i.e. on misrepresentation of the importance of that particular industry to the economy.

And there is another level of fraud involved here as well. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say, or imply, that the federal government – i.e. the taxpayer – is responsible for bailing out chinchilla farms. But our elected representatives act as though it's printed right there in black and white, and in voting for subsidies of this sort they dare anyone to speak up in protest or try and contest it in court. So it adds up to a combination of fraud, theft, and “taunting”, as the NFL referees would say.

Plus, get this – Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, AKA the RAT Board (you can't make these things up!), admits that he was “horrified” by the $55 Billion figure, AND (now get this!) that “the problem will be aggravated by a lack of federal workers needed to oversee the spending.” Now, when's the last time a federal worker was willing, or able, to save the taxpayers any substantial amount of money? I think you might find one in a history book somewhere – say, back in the administration of James K. Polk. But these days? News flash – federal workers are paid to spend money; it's their job. In fact, the more taxpayer money a federal worker is entrusted with, the higher his rank and salary are likely to be. The size of your “program” is the most popular indicator of status in Washington. And not only that – there are severe penalties imposed for failing to spend your full allocation – penalties like, for instance, not getting as much the next time. So program managers are rewarded for committing, and spending, all they can, and the quicker the better. In fact, they can even be rewarded for overspending, because that way some other schmuck who hasn't been as diligent gets “dipped” for the amount of the overexpenditure. But for underspending, there is nothing but punishment and shame -- and, by the way, the "non-dispersed" portion is never, ever returned to the U.S. Treasury. So no, hiring more federal workers is no insurance against waste and fraud; if anything it will aggravate the problem, because if "tax receivers" are the junkies, then federal workers are the facilitators and pushers.

It has already been established that the thousands of “earmarked” items in the stimulus plan – i.e. the vast bulk of the plan – are, far from being “emergency”, “vital”, or even “important” programs, basically a bunch of garbage that failed to make the cut for the regular annual budget. In other words, they are loser line items that even the most spendthrift Congressman couldn't quite stomach keeping on the “buy” list. But when you have a sudden $787 Billion windfall – and all the important stuff is already paid for – what are you doing to do with the $787 Billion? Spend it on crap, of course! That's the way the system works. “Extra money” never goes for anything anyone really wants – except a few narrow, special-interest types lurking in some dark alleyway behind the Capitol. So when you see it all going for things like chinchilla farms, please understand that this is an inevitable outcome of the government budget process in general, and of the way this “stimulus program” is being handled – and that it's not going to “stimulate” squat, outside of those narrow special interests – who will, by the way, be back for more in a few months, because now they're hooked.

The good news is, we'll have plenty of chinchillas. (Now what the heck does one do with a chinchilla anyway??)

Excuse Me, But... (a quartet of impolite questions)

(1) If I were a Navy recruiter, wouldn't I be just a bit hesitant about selling the Navy to a guy named Hassan Abu-Jihaad? Apparently this guy's name didn't set off any warning bells, and he wound up on a ship where he was eventually accused of providing information about ship movements to terrorists. Luckily (for Hassan), the Bush administration screwed up the case, and he wound up convicted for disclosing classified information, but not for aiding terrorists. But gee, if someone had been a bit more vigilant in the first place... but I guess that would have constituted “profiling”.

(2) If I knew someone with a 200-pound chimpanzee that they dressed in human clothes and allowed to eat at the dinner table, would I voluntarily go to their house, and in particular would I try helping the chimp's owner get the big ape back where it belonged after it wandered off? I sure wouldn't, but one woman did, and she, um... “lost face” as a result. (sorry about that)

(3) Isn't it just possible that at least some of the people who were gypped by Bernie Madoff are partly to blame for their own misfortune? I mean, think about it. Here's a guy who claims to be another King Midas. He can turn your money into even more money, no matter what happens to the market – and here are client testimonials to prove it! Shouldn't that raise at least a hint of suspicion? It strikes me that these people violated the number one rule of investing, namely: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But investing in the usual way through the usual channels wasn't good enough for these folks – oh, no. They knew this guy who had figured out the secret code – the innermost workings – of the stock market, and he was going to make them rich. Call it “economic gnosticism”. The smart people find the smartest guy around and give him all their money, and don't ask questions. Well, they were half right – he was smart, but they weren't.

(4) Ever wonder why any policeman who is killed in the line of duty is declared a hero, and a pillar of the community – while at the same time cops are being indicted all over the place for brutality, corruption, working for the mob, and so on? I mean... why don't any of those rotten cops ever get killed in the line of duty? Or is that one of the perks of corruption – that you're never put in harm's way? Or... is it just possible that, every once in a while, one of those police “heroes” was actually one of the bad guys – but for public relations purposes he's remembered as a hero and martyr... even though a few people on the inside know the truth? I don't know the answer... but it is a curious thing, you must admit.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Keeping the Faith

Just as "there are no atheists in foxholes", there may be fewer atheists than usual in Congress right now, and more people praying. And they certainly have a lot to pray about, since all they seem capable of these days is running around in a kind of dithering, impotent panic, getting selectively intimidated one minute by the captains of industry, and indignant the next minute by the manifest greed and sociopathic attitudes of those same captains. The stock solution to all of this misery is to give Obama whatever he wants, hoping it will all go away... and when it doesn't, playground-style fights break out between Democrats and the few remaining Republicans... between tax-and-spenders and the few remaining fiscal conservatives... and between social activists and "values" people. All in all, it's a sorry sight, and one that we all wish we could turn away from, especially since we share in the culpability to the extent of having voted to send one or more of these clueless blockheads to Washington, and allowing them to take over our economic future.

And in this midst of all of this, what does Obama choose to do, by way of outreach to the other side? Why, he does everything in his power to insure the deaths of even more unborn children, both in this country and overseas... and to support all the mini-Frankensteins around the country who have been biding their time until they could get back to the business of doing stem cell research using human embryos. And this is, of course, all in the name of "science", as opposed to "political ideology", even though the latter might just contain a bit of moral consideration as well.

Now, while none of this is surprising, I have to ask, hasn't anyone in Congress, or the administration, ever wondered whether there just might be some connection... some moral link... karma, even... between our present economic troubles and our moral and ethical behavior, with our treatment of the unborn being the issue of primary concern? The Evangelicals would say so, and this is one area where I agree with them -- with Pat Robertson, even! I don't think these two aspects of our existence as a society can -- or should -- be separated, and frankly I'm not as surprised when bad things like the economic crisis happen as the secularists are, because, whereas they can't see any reason why we "deserve" such things, I can see _plenty_ of reasons why we do. And as long as we are so indifferent to the fate of the unborn, I can't imagine that any prayers -- whether uttered, not uttered, or merely vaguely felt -- on behalf of the economy are going to do any good. Now, I'm not claiming that history is nothing more than the story of repeated action-reaction cycles -- i.e., our action and God's reaction. This is what the Old Testament makes it look like is the rule, but in practice things are generally more involved, more complex, and more slow-moving than that. There are very few instances of "instant karma" in recent history... although the Twelve-Year Reich (i.e. Nazi Germany) comes close, as do the short reign of the Khmer Rouge, the Spanish Republic, the Allende regime, and so on. But it's more often the case that bad, tiresome, boring, tyrannical people just hang on, and stick around, and do even more damage, and that their programs, which are created in their own image, live on long after they're gone. I've already said that the Washington, D.C. of today is still basically a creation of Franklin D. Roosevelt... and the Pentagon is a product of the long-ended Cold War. And look at the charming legacy of the "civil rights" movement, with all of its "unintended consequences"... and the similar legacy of another favorite liberal program, "urban renewal". Bad ideas really do seem to live on, and they are seldom rejected in their entirety... besides which, their advocates continue to inhabit the woodwork of government, like termites, doing further damage to the economy and the social structure without ceasing. The biggest job of each new administration is, in fact, to get rid of all the leftover "moles" from the previous one -- and this is not as easy as one might think. Many of these people wind up in jobs from which they can't just be fired because a new administration has moved in. So the Clinton moles work day and night to sabotage Bush programs, and now there are undoubtedly Bush moles working day and night to sabotage Obama programs. So again, things are not as clear-cut, or black-and-white, as one might wish -- certainly not to the extent presented in the history books written for unwary public school children and college undergraduates, in which there is only good or evil, with no shades of gray.

And yet I can't help feeling that, despite all the imprecision in the system, and the maddening delays of justice, there are consequences to be had when so many of our government programs and policies are originated, and implemented, by moral imbeciles. And it would be one thing if only they got punished... but as we know, that's not how these things work. The society is often held responsible for the sins of the few, and this is fair in a way because, at the very least, many of the wrong things that were done could have been prevented by simply not electing certain people to office, or by opposing them once they were in office, or by at least protesting publicly. And yet, this too very seldom happens. The high water mark of public protest in my lifetime was certainly during the Vietnam era, with the 1968 Chicago (Democratic) convention being, perhaps, the most iconic (as well as ironic). Most protests since then have been by a small, shivering remnant, who get nothing but hoots and jeers from passing sophisticates. The cynical pragmatist will say that "you can't fight city hall" (or Washington) -- but, in fact, I believe that the anti-Vietnam protests had a lot to do with changing some of our policies and, ultimately, getting us out of that hellhole. (The fact that we were driven out by the Vietnamese didn't hurt either. But by that time we had basically lost the will to stick around.) The history of the civil rights movement certainly demonstrates that if you protest long enough, and loud enough, you can get a response out of the establishment (especially if there are Molotov cocktails involved -- but it works if there aren't as well). So yes, people with a moral point of view -- with "values" -- can at least be heard... which means that, if they are ignored, the fault is not theirs but that of the people who ignored them. As in days of old, the prophet is the "loneliest man in town", and the "values voters" are a scorned -- and frequently duped, e.g. by the Neocons -- minority. But this is no sign that one should give up -- in fact, it ought to be a source of renewed energy, since if we do not speak up "the rocks themselves will cry out". And perhaps we can even save this society from some of its due punishment, from God who is long-suffering.

He's Too Heavy, Father, and He Ain't My Brother

A recent article speculates that Americans might be acquiring new respect for Big Brother-ism as a result of the economic crisis. Well, yeah -- that's like saying people acquire a new respect for air when they're being waterboarded. But first you have to have a crisis big enough to cause them to forget their traditional "values" -- and the current troubles certainly fill the bill. Then, it's also worth noting that this all plays directly into the hands of liberal "agents of change", who want nothing more than to turn the U.S. into a socialist utopia of gray, faceless serfs ruled by a privileged elite. In fact, that may turn out to be one of the main motivators behind the crisis -- although at present it's greed, stupidity, and negligence that are making all the headlines. But the article claims that "Americans have been skeptical of big government since George Washington's time." Well, I would say that Americans _were_ skeptical of big government up until the New Deal, when the first overwhelming -- and possibly engineered for that very reason -- economic crisis fostered the creation of Big Government as we have known it ever since (but which is going to start looking like Little Government compared to Obama's Utopia). Skepticism about big government is, at this point, confined to a very small remnant of paleoconservatives and libertarians. If you want a measure of what percentage of Americans find big government not to their liking, simply add up all the paleocon and libertarian votes in the last election. You're going to come up with well under one percent. So this notion of hesitancy, or skepticism, about big government has very little foundation -- and, by extention, one can predict that the amount of resistance to the already-underway quantum leap toward socialism, collectivism, and totalitarianism will meet with very little resistance as well. Of course, there will always be a few people who will jump off the train shouting "enough!" -- but those will be in the tiniest of minorities. At best, once the crisis has passed -- or at least we have stabilized at a third-world standard of living -- a few people are going to look back and say, "What happened?" And yes, it did appear that things were going well, with the Dow over 14,000 just a short 17 months ago, inflation low, interest rates low, and only a few low rumblings about the stock market, banks, mortgage brokers, Social Security, Medicare, the wars, and the pinhead in the White House. Compared to now, it was a balmy, pleasant, soothing time. But as you'll recall, the morning of September 11, 2001 was one of the most pleasant ones in New York in months... until the trouble began. You can't say "life is good" while sitting on a nuclear reactor that is about to melt down. Well, I mean, you can _say_ it, but it won't take long before events will establish that you're an idiot. The last truly "good times" were... when? The 90s? The 80s? Certainly any time since the Social Security bubble started to expand exponentially can't be considered "good". But before that we had various forms of uncontrolled bleeding in the form of other wars, "foreign aid", welfare, and so on -- not to mention corruption in high places, which is so chronic a problem it hardly differentiates one era from another. Subjectively, I would say that we could never really relax as long as the Soviet Union existed -- at least in its aggressive internationalist phase, i.e. the 1930s on. I know I was never too fond, as a kid, of all those "duck and cover" drills. After seeing films of the atomic bomb tests, I couldn't quite imagine my grade school standing up to a good blast from the Russkies, even though it was made of brick and was quite sturdy. So in that sense, the 50s were an era of prosperity, but severely tempered by Cold War fears -- both the real ones and the paranoid variety. And the minute that decade was over with we had Vietnam and the draft -- so chalk up another "lost decade". The 70s were half Vietnam and half Jimmy Carter -- and a more grotesque chimera is scarcely to be imagined. I would be willing to say that the 80s -- i.e. the "Reagan era" -- were pretty good, but even they were marred by various unfortunate events, like the child abuse witch hunts that equalled, for sheer viciousness and irrationality and gross miscarriages of justice, anything the Salem Puritans ever came up with. Then, before you know it, we had Bill Clinton, the American Nero, and his experiment with what R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. called "kakistocracy", i.e. "rule by trash". And no sooner were we rid of him than we got President Pinhead, 9-11, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and...

Oy! Were there never any good times? Maybe it's all a matter of perspective. Even in the depths of the Depression there were people driving Duesenbergs around. And really, is "stability" all that important? Some people -- liberals in particular -- consider it boring... "bourgeois"... complacent and smug. And we already know that hard times (war, depression, etc.) are more self-defining for a society than good times are. It's no accident that most "news" is bad. So maybe we should be thankful that we live in "interesting times". But frankly, I'd rather live in any era believing in liberty than in the best of times bowing to Big Brother, even if he is a "brother" named Obama.

Things Go Worse With Coke

Why is anybody still mystified as to the reason for all the drug-related violence in Mexico? A single chart put out by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime tells us all we need to know. The wholesale value of a kilo of cocaine in Mexico is $8,000 – and the value of that same kilo just across the Rio Grande in the U.S. is $30,000. Now, when you have a product that you can get to appreciate in value by a factor of nearly four merely by smuggling it across an undefended border, whaddaya gonna do? And whaddaya think a few hundred thousand other dudes are also going to do? And whaddaya think the result is going to be? Again, it is clear that the latter-day Puritanism of the “War on Drugs” is the primary source of Mexico's troubles, as well as those of all the other “failed narco-states”, or soon-to-be-failed ones. Our uptightness about drugs is creating, in effect, war zones in dozens of other countries, both near and far – islands of anarchy in places where the rule of law is already on very shaky ground. And as to places like Afghanistan, where the lion's share of the GNP resides in trading drugs that we don't like – well, they can just go to hell. And that's exactly what is happening. Ever notice how much of our “foreign aid” goes to drug interdiction? And the more we provide, the worse the problem gets. (It's almost like... drug addiction!) The people of those countries must think we're totally insane... and they're right! But the consequences of not cooperating with our delusional crusade are apparently worse than the consequences of cooperating... so the madness goes on.