Of Caricatures and Reality

Dirt&Grass

Photo Credit:  Elizabeth Lies

It was a long commute home today.  I think that most people are all out of vacation days, and perhaps saving up what they have for the Easter holidays.  Almost everyone went to work, and a lot of them chose to go home at the same time and on the same roads as I.  In the slow motion on the expressway there was ample time to think and muse.

Among my musings, and considering the ongoing presidential campaign, I imagined a conversation with one of the leading Democrat candidates.  I will refer to the candidate as Burning Cynders, to preserve anonymity.  I will leave it to you to imagine whether this reminds you of anyone.

WAA:  I understand that you want to buy votes with my money.

Cynders:  I don’t buy votes.  That’s what my opponents do.

WAA:  You just promise them free stuff, like free college tuition and free healthcare, to be paid for out of my pocket.

Cynders:  Everyone has a right to an education.

WAA:  And apparently you claim the right to pick my pocket to pay for it.  Sounds like you have learned how to buy votes with other people’s money.

Cynders:  It’s called leadership.  Someone has to stand up for people who are not as fortunate as you are.

WAA:  You don’t make me feel fortunate at all.

Cynders:  You are fortunate to be able to help your fellow man.

WAA:  You mean, I am fortunate to have you help yourself to what I have earned so that you can give it to your cronies.

Cynders:  Giving to cronies is what my opponents do.  I want to give the money to young people so that they can get an education.

WAA:  You, personally, are going to give the money to each of the wannabe students?  You will be very busy.  It’s a big country.  You may find a lot of hands stretched out.

Cynders:  I certainly hope so.  And I will have plenty of people who will help me, who will administer the programs, people who believe in what I am trying to do.

WAA:  That’s wonderful.  So you will give the money to them, and they will make sure that some of it gets to the students to pay for their free education.  Sounds like the happy marriage of cronyism and vote buying.

Cynders:  No, these are real patriots, people who really understand what America is all about.

WAA:  America is about free handouts?  And taxing successful people to pay you and your cronies?  Are the professors and school administrators working for free to help provide this free college tuition?

Cynders:  Of course not.  We need the best to teach our children.  They deserve the best, and we need to invest in the best.

WAA:  But I thought that you said that education is a right.  How can these professors make merchandise of the students and their rights by insisting on being paid to honor those rights?

Cynders:  The professors have a right to be paid, and paid commensurate with their ability and skill and knowledge.

WAA:  And commensurate with their connection to you and your plan.  I apparently have no right, except to let you pick my pocket to pay them so generously.  Sounds like more of your cronies.  I could never vote for you on such a plan.

Cynders:  You don’t have to vote for me.  You just need to work and make a lot of money so that I can use it to . . .

WAA:  To buy the votes of the people to whom you want to give all the free stuff.

Some may think that this conversation is a caricature, but it is hard to make a caricature of someone who is himself a caricature.  This is closer to reality than what emanates from such presidential candidates (there is a parallel candidate caricature for president among the Republicans).

As I said, this conversation formed in my head as I was in traffic on my way home, home from Washington, D.C.  All around me were BMWs, Mercedes, Infinitis, Lexus, Acuras, and more than the occasional Jaguar and Porsche.  These are the people, living in what have recently become some of the wealthiest counties in America.  These are the people who would be paid by Burning Cynders to administer his free programs.

Of Free Speech and Insensitivity Training

There is a poignant scene in “Lawrence of Arabia”, a movie with many poignant scenes, in which Lawrence demonstrates to a fellow officer how to snuff out a candle. He pinches the flame with his fingers. The other officer gives it a try but jerks back his hand when his fingers are scorched.

“That hurts,” the officer complains. Lawrence replies, “Certainly it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.”

There is a lesson there, particularly important for a society that has become hypersensitive to injury, real or imagined. Hurt may come from something as small as a look—or failure to look. It may come from an article of clothing, either worn or neglected. Lately flags have been targeted as sources of personal and even societal pain. Hurt may come from something as small as a word. Indeed, I think that most often today and in our society, both words and our sensitivity to words have become sharpened.

If we are to preserve freedom of speech—in all its important varieties—we need to develop some insensitivity, as in not minding when it hurts. Freedom of speech only matters when someone hears something he does not like. The choice then is intolerance and silence or freedom and not minding the hurt.

Another way to look at it is that we most desire freedom of speech when we are the speaker. From the point of view of listener, we may have mixed emotions. We may like what we say, but when we do not like what we hear do we wish to silence the speaker, or do we accept the options of free speech, to turn away or to endure another’s unpleasant rodomontade?

Freedom of speech was made part of the First Amendment, because rulers and monarchs were at pains to inflict genuine physical hurt whenever they took offense at the words of their subjects. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech was needed to protect people using words that hurt people in government, that offended people in power.

Even though enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of speech has to be won by each generation, because it is constantly in jeopardy. Americans are nearly unanimous in their support of freedom of speech when it is speech that they like, speech that reinforces their own views, and especially speech that praises and flatters. We do not particularly need the Constitution to protect that kind of speech. Speech that is unpopular, speech that goes against the grain, speech that is obnoxious to our opinions, speech that challenges our beliefs, that is the speech the Founders fought to protect. Most of human progress has come from that kind of speech. It is speech that is worth protecting today and that many try to silence.

President Obama and his political friends are fond of declaring that “the debate is over,” whether referring to Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank Act, climate change, same-sex marriage, or other important issues of significant disagreement. I expect that soon we will hear President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration spokesmen insist that the debate is over with regard to the nuclear deal with Iran. In a free republic, can the debate ever really be over?

This is nothing new; it is a continuation of a very old struggle. Despots great and petty since early ages have exercised what power they might to silence ideas and expressions they did not want to hear, or did not want others to hear. The gallows, flames, and torture chambers of yesteryear are matched today by bullets, bombs, and bayonets from radical Islam and totalitarian governments. In the West, where constitutions solemnly embrace free speech, voices are silenced by public ridicule, elaborate and intrusive regulations on what can and cannot be said and when and where—reinforced by government fines, restrictions, confiscations, and jail time.

I recently visited my son at his new job at a large factory. He was very careful to spell out to me a lengthy list of subjects I should not bring up, whether from fear of his colleagues, company policies, or federal, state, and local regulations. I have been given similar training at my place of work.

When I was young I was taught to be courteous and not seek to offend. I was also taught to be slow to take offence. Do children today repeat the rhyme I heard as a child? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I wonder. Or are our children taught today that there is great reward in being the sensitized “victim” of someone else’s “offensive” words? Where do we find freedom in that?

Of Warming Planets and Cooling Economies

Did you notice when the Obama Administration paused in its ballyhooing about global warming? President Obama and his officials had been busily hustling the warming of the planet and its attendant disasters—which they insist can only be fixed by increasing government control of our lives, from birthing to breathing. The President was in Florida, blaming the future hurricane season—which has not yet happened—on global warming. “The best climate scientists in the world are telling us that extreme weather events like hurricanes are likely to become more powerful.” What President Obama did not mention—anywhere in his speech at the National Hurricane Center in Miami—was that the scientists predicted a “below-normal” hurricane season for 2015. Was that mercy because of or in spite of global warming?

Perhaps we should not blame the President for leaving that little item of information out, since for each of the last several years the cited “best climate scientists” (whoever they are) had predicted extraordinarily active and destructive hurricane seasons. Since each season turned out to be unusually mild, the official forecasters have now changed their tune, putting themselves solidly in-sync with recent trends. Do not put yourself at risk with a long investment on it either way.

As for global warming, however, the President and those who say they agree with him insist that the debate is over (in either science or a free nation can the debate ever really be over?), meaning that it is unacceptable to disagree with them. If you can’t say something calamitous, then don’t say anything at all.

Then, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the global warming talk stopped. There was a mercifully, if brief, moratorium on warming warnings. Instead of predicted calamity, a real calamity was at hand that required some ‘splaining. The most recent report on the nation’s economic growth was announced. Not only had growth slowed, as measured by government number crunchers, the economy had actually declined in the first 3 months of 2015. That seemed to come as a surprise to no one who is either without a job or working in a job that is something less than the job held before 2009. But it was unwelcome news to the Administration that has been working on economic revival for going on seven years.

Instead of global warming, the Administration needed cold weather to blame for the decline in economic activity during January, February, and March. The lead official White House explanative was, “harsh winter weather”. I did not make this up, and you are not supposed to notice how convenient White House excuses are. It was better that global warming talk was cooled for a moment lest people recognize the contradictions in the official propaganda and begin to wonder whether White House policies were working.

Winter weather is not a novel excuse for failed government programs. The old Soviet Union blamed repeated crop failures on harsh winters (in Russia? Who knew?). The similarity in excuses used by the Obama White House and the Soviet Politburo is not accidental. Central planners can survive only if they have at the ready a list of excuses of things beyond their control. The list could be a long one, since in the end there is not very much about the economy that central planners can control, if control means making things go they way intended. To quote the character Jayne Cobb, in Serenity, “what you plan and what takes place ain’t ever been exactly similar.”

Of Blasphemy and Racism

Blasphemy! Heresy! Treason! Racism! All loaded words, used less to convey meaning than for their effect as weapons. Few weapons in history have been as powerful. They have killed thousands, perhaps millions, and silenced many more. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” These will. They are intended to.

Consider “blasphemy.” It is a common hammer of religious leaders who are doubtful of their deity’s ability to defend himself. These nervous clerics and acolytes step in to threaten and, where they can, inflict the harshest penalties against any and all they accuse of “blasphemy,” which usually means saying anything that the listeners consider untoward or disrespectful vis-à-vis their deity. The harshness of the penalties, and the vagueness of what qualifies as an infraction, create a terror that intimidates both speech and action among others, which is the basic purpose of the label. The religious leaders of Judea during the days of Jesus’ mortal ministry repeatedly tried to silence Him by hurling “blasphemy” at Him. On the day of His death, they cried blasphemy to stir up the anger of the population—although they used another word, “treason,” when addressing the Roman authorities. Several dozen nations today (with little opposition from the U.S. State Department or other executive branch officials) are seeking to make blasphemy a globally recognized crime, at least when touching upon Islam or its sensitivities.

“Heresy” has similar uses. Rather than a crime of the impious, it is invoked in pious disagreements about whom or what is sacred. The Spanish Inquisition comes readily to mind. The accusation seems to be most commonly employed by those who lack confidence in the convincing power of their doctrines when faced with competing ones. “Heresy” is intended to close ears, “heretic” to silence speakers, both intended to end the debate.

Next we come to “treason,” which can be a real phenomenon and a genuine crime against the nation or people, and when proved and the traitor caught usually answered with stern—if not brutal—penalties. Genuine treason puts the nation or community at risk by exposing weaknesses to enemies.

In former times, as well as in nations governed by authoritarian regimes, “treason” has been invoked, however, less to label traitors to the state and the society as to subdue opponents to the supreme leader. Kings, emperors, czars, dictators, and others of the ilk sit nervously on their thrones—and for good reason. They lack legitimacy yet enjoy immense power (or its illusion), which lures other would-be despots. Nearly every one of the Roman emperors, for example, met death at human hands. The Soviet Union never had a legitimate transfer of power from one boss to the next. Tyrants, therefore, have little tolerance for opposition and are credulous of every rumor of resistance. That makes accusations of “treason” powerful tools of terror for scoundrels in such societies to employ to settle grudges, dispose of enemies, steal lands and wealth, or otherwise gain advantage. Many innocents have been so victimized.

Which brings us to “racism.” This is a modern weaponized word. Originally coined to identify people who would justify plunder and oppression by employing racial prejudices, it has been preserved long after such plans and schemes are suppressed by law and proscribed by social convention. Indeed, the word only works as a weapon because of the universal social opprobrium already attached to it. Its power as an epithet comes because no one in civil society considers it tolerable, any actual existence a bizarre aberration. Calling someone “racist” is tantamount to accusing him of being unfit for public association and worthy of ostracism. It is therefore used most commonly today, like the use throughout history of the other weapon words, to end debate, to intimidate opponents, to plunder wealth, and in general to gain advantage. “Racism” is the modern world’s “blasphemy,” “heresy,” and even “treason.” “Racism” is used to cause hurt, even where the absence of authentic racism causes none. Worse, it is used by real racists to shield or camouflage their own bigotry.

Employed as a weapon word, racism is losing meaning. When was the last time you heard a reasoned discussion and debate of racism? Intellectual dialog is avoided for fear that raising the subject in an impartial way will court exposure to accusation, much as discussion of blasphemy, heresy, and treason in times past. What is left, for example, when racism no longer means conscious prejudicial action but is applied—as it is by the Obama Administration—to mean manufactured statistical discrepancies among people who admittedly have no intention to act in a prejudicial manner?

For the wielders of the weapon, the meaning of racism must be kept general and undefined to maximize the number of potential targets. Feeding the outrage attached to it is a constant labor as is constantly finding new eruptions of racism where none exist. The recognition of racism (especially where it is absent) must be automatic and assumed proven when employed—addressed if at all only by the mea culpa of the accused, followed by public contrition and the ceding of wealth or advantage to the accusers.

Where, I wonder, does the real racism lie? Can racial distinction and prejudice wither when they are regularly conjured for personal advantage? What does that do to a society where laws and culture already universally hold racism in contempt? What is the appropriate term for the moguls of the racism industry who prosper by the preservation and promotion of racism? When will the public immolations for private gain end?

Of Elections and Sports

Shortly before the 2012 election I offered an observation about sports and elections, and how one is not like the other. That message may continue to have relevance today.

It is early Fall. That means that we are nearing the end of the regular season of baseball, and the New York Yankees are on course to make the playoffs and another run for the World Series title, number 28. Their chances look good this year, if they can keep their players from injury and the bullpen resumes pitching up to its abilities.

Others are following football. Already the Washington Redskins have gone from having a lock on getting into the Super Bowl, after winning their first game, to being nearly mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by losing their next two. As they say in baseball, though with less justification in pro-football, it’s a long season. And speaking of the Redskins, it has been said that you can tell that someone has been in Washington too long when he begins cheering for the Redskins. Let that rest on your own taste and experience.

Basketball fans know that in just a few weeks, practice begins for college hoops. The college basketball season will terminate several months later in the greatest sporting event that the United States has to offer, March Madness! I don’t know when or whether the professional basketball season ever ends. I suppose it does.

Somewhere someone is playing soccer, where some team is leading another by the insurmountable score of 1-0. But I think that we may be in the only few weeks of the year when there are no hockey games—even as the NHL is haunted again by more labor-management strife.

At his school my son is running on a cross country team, the Trinity Tempest. The motto of the team is not but should be, “Tempest Fugit.” Instead, it seems to be something like, “Pass the weak, hurdle the dead.” Nice so far as it goes. Classical Latin would be better, it seems to me, but I am not a runner and have no say.

Yes, there is much sporting excitement and many sports in the Fall. Elections, however, are not one of them. Electing the leaders of our government, who will wield control over life and death, freedom and slavery, prosperity and poverty, is not a sport. Self-government is one of the most serious activities of life for those who cherish their liberty. Those who do not will eventually vote away their freedom, as we have seen in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in recent years, and before that in places like Germany of the 1930s.

Of course, you would never know that from the public discourse on television, radio, in newspapers and other media outlets. Presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional races are treated as if they all were games, with little at stake other than whether your favorite team wins. Issues are trivialized, if mentioned at all. The trivializers have even assigned team colors, one side “Red” and another “Blue.” The most important issue in the media after a debate is “who won?” rather than, “what did we learn about what a candidate believes and what he would do if elected?” Points are awarded by press experts for style, poise, rhetoric, and gotcha lines. Panels of talking heads award scores as if they were judges at a figure skating competition.

It is all more than beside the point. It corrupts the process. Rather than true debates, in which candidates have enough time to declare and explain their views and policies on important issues, media celebrities offer trick questions, to which the future President of the United States is given two, three, or sometimes even five minutes to respond as he or she fishes for a soundbite to make it into the 60-second news recap (most of which will again be focused on, “who won?”). Based on this silly exercise, viewers are encouraged to text in (for a small fee) their vote—not for who would be the best office holder—but for who was the winner of the night’s contest.

We should expect and demand better. Through modern revelation we have been given a set of standards. You do not have to be a believer in revelation to recognize the wisdom of the counsel:

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise, whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:10)

Our task as voters interested in preserving our rights and freedoms is too seek out diligently the honest, the good, and the wise. Anything less is evil. In an election, in a campaign, in a debate, I want to discover who is the honest, the good, and the wise, and I am little interest in style points.

That takes careful and diligent effort, for among the honest, the good, and the wise, are the liars, the false, and the foolish intent on deceiving. These latter like to hide in the noise of the sporting contest and often seek to divert attention to the things that little matter, the stray word, the high school prank. We need to keep our focus on a diligent search for the honest, the good, and the wise. With persistent effort, we can find them.

In self-government, we are the players. The issue is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, decidedly not a game. But if we follow these standards and apply them diligently, then in the end We the People will be the winners.

(First published September 26, 2012)

Of Incentives and Jobs

Remember the early days of the recession and its intensification by the policies of Washington? Remember how the politics of envy ended up causing more job losses as the demagogues in the White House and on Capitol Hill lambasted incentives employers offered to successful employees? Good thing that the politics of envy are now behind us, that we have all grown up and recognized how foolish it all is to feel better by pulling other people down. Then again, maybe my blog post from 2009 still has some relevance today.

Weird things happen when we decide by law who should have jobs and who should not and we order how people and businesses should spend money. I am not referring to the legality of telling people who receive money from the government how to live their lives and run their businesses. I am referring to the wisdom of it. And by “weird” I really mean “bad.”

On Friday a press release came across my desk, issued by seven travel-meeting-event industry trade associations. Their basic message was that the public beating up of companies over the meetings they hold and the incentive programs that they have for employees is killing the travel, tourism, and meeting industry and the people who work in it. They estimate that 200,000 jobs were lost in that industry in 2008, and a larger number of job losses are predicted for 2009.

Even the old communist governments figured out that workers respond to incentives. Under the power of incentives people work harder, smarter, and more creatively. They may even enjoy their work more. Sometimes incentives that take the employee out of the normal routine can be very powerful. If left to their own devices, businesses will experiment with different packages of incentives to guide their employees into the most efficient ways to accomplish company goals and objectives. Will they get it right? Often they will not. When they get it wrong, they try something else.

What is the best set of incentives, and should the incentives include travel and recreation programs? I do not know, and neither do you. No one has enough information, smarts, or involvement to know. You may know what works for you, but are you willing to say that others should be offered the same rewards or that you should be given the same incentive program designed by someone somewhere else or in some other line of work? Everyone meeting company goals gets a set of golf clubs. That may work fine for Harry, but how about for you?

While it may be lots of fun to rant about businesses sending employees to Florida for a weekend, do we have any idea how that might figure into the incentive programs in those businesses? If you take that option away, what other option will work as well or as efficiently? Again, I do not know, and neither do you.

Up until recently, I did not have to know or pretend to know. We left it for businesses and their employees to figure out. In view of the efficiency of our businesses–which efficiency continued to improve and lead the world even in 2008–American businesses have been getting the incentives much more right than wrong. When we decide to make those decisions for other people, especially when we try do so through government force, we can be pretty sure we will get it wrong. Who wants to explain to the 200,000 travel and tourism industry people who are in danger of losing their jobs why businesses should not be holding meetings in Williamsburg or San Antonio or Nashville? Step up now; a frozen turkey if you get it right.

(First published February 8, 2009)

Of Demagogues and Big Problems

One of the common tricks of demagogues, as cheap as it is common, is to denounce in high dander something for being “Big,”—“bad” because it is “Big.” Some of the recent targets have been Big Banks, Big Pharma (the drug companies), Big Oil, Big Insurance, and Big Business in general. The target is apparently chosen for its relation to the prescription that the demagogue already has in mind. Invariably the prescription involves granting more power to the demagogue, sometimes ceded from the freedoms of the targeted Big, but not infrequently taken from the liberty of the people who are somehow harmed by the Big, who are to be somehow made better by being less free.

Obamacare is one example, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, and Big Medicine all denounced to some degree in the effort to generate popular support to pass the legislation. In the end, as more and more people are recognizing, it is individual choice that has been lost, personal freedoms to choose doctors, medical plans, and available treatments (along with substantial sums of money) that have been taken, passed on to big bureaucracies identified by the demagogues.

Demagogues on left and right and even in the middle resort to this device of denouncing Big Bad, because it resonates with many people who do not consider themselves “Big” anything. We all can feel intimidated by something in our lives and experiences bigger than ourselves, making us all potentially susceptible to the demagogue’s pandering. It is also a favorite device of demagogues, because it does not require much thought or creativity to make the anti-Big speech. It seems almost required that the demagogue at some point refer to the Big Target as “Goliath” and modestly identify himself or herself with “David.” That tired jape is now getting to be about 3,000 years old, but demagogues think that their audiences just cannot get enough of it.

To be sure, there are some cases where being big is a good thing and some things that can be too big to be good. It all has to do with why they are big and perhaps how they got that way. Big savings are usually good. The Grand Canyon is big and magnificent, and I would say that the Empire StateBuilding is, too, at least as I behold it. On the other hand, big debts are to be avoided, big pits can be dangerous, and the L Tower in Toronto is an eyesore in my estimation (though I will acknowledge that others could be fond of it).

Government can be too big or too small, depending on what it does with our rights and freedoms. There are governments too small to promote and protect freedom, while there are many—most—that are too big, and ever increasing at the expense of individual rights, freedoms, and opportunities. That includes governments that are big enough to help their cronies become bigger by robbing the competition and the public. Businesses that are big because of government favor would be better for everyone if they lost the government favor and let competition, efficiency, and customer choices determine how big they should be.

Some are just big because they grew that way. Is Microsoft or Apple too big? I do not know, and neither do you. Exposed to the full discipline of the free market they will be the right size, and so will their competitors. What is the right size for banks in the United States? I do not know, and again neither do you nor does anyone else. The more that they are exposed to market forces, the sooner we will get the best answer, which I expect will be along the lines of “many sizes and shapes” in order to match the many sizes and shapes and needs of businesses, families, and individuals who rely on banks for financial services. Free competition in open markets has the power to right size commercial enterprises.

A word of caution. Part of the success of the war on Big consists in making the listeners feel small and helpless—unless rescued and led by the fearless demagogue. Besides belittling most people, the demagogue’s device diverts attention from the fact that just about everyone is part of something Big, a Big that may eventually be the demagogue’s next target. Maybe your church will one day be considered too “Big.” Or maybe the industry in which you happen to work will become a “Big” target, the town or region where you live, your race or your ethnic group, your savings and investments, the cars or trucks that you drive, your appetite, your use of water, the size of the lot of your house, the wealth of your nation. All of these, and many others, have already been used by demagogues in their Big harangues. The demagogue’s insatiable appetite for power never has enough targets. He or she is always looking for more.

Sometimes there is a kernel of something genuinely amiss in the demagogue’s Big complaint. Often, when you boil down the genuine substance of any of the complaints to the hard facts, it is hard to discover what is the Big Deal—at least in the problem. The Big Deal is to be found in the solution, which is what the demagogue is really after. Were the Popes in Rome really controlling the lives and governments of England in the time of Henry VIII? No, but the solution of confiscating Catholic Church properties and awarding them to the King’s cronies was a very Big Deal. The Nazi demagogues in Germany played the same game with their own people, the German Jews, and with their property and possessions.

The demagogue’s solutions, resting upon emotion and panic, seldom solve anything and often lead to more problems. The Climate Wars—one year the coming ice age, the next year global warming, today just climate “change”—is an example we have all seen unfold, inflicting untold billions of dollars of costs while enriching favored cronies, but which in even the most enthusiastic promises of the demagogues will do little to affect the climate in reality in our lifetimes.

The next time you hear a public figure fume about something being Big, carefully inquire into and focus upon what he or she is after. You may be a target just Big enough.