Saturday, July 31, 2004

The Thing Itself is the Abuse

I have a lot of friends who are not fans of George Bush. To put it mildly. They wish him no harm, certainly not Nicholson Baker's dadaist fantasy of flying saws, but they think he is the worst President since...well, ever.

These same people, without exception, talk about how great and important the "state" is.

Me, I wonder what the "state" is. There is a guy, George Bush, who in many ways runs the state, but my statist friends hate him. The state must be something else. It could be Louis XIV, of course, because he said "l'Etat, c'est moi !". But my friends don't really think Louis XIV was the ideal form of government. What is the answer? What is the state?

I think I found it. The state is Cherrail Curry-Hagler, of the DC Transit Police.

The Washington Post ran a
story, and another, about a scientist who got arrested for taking three or four seconds too long to obey the state.

Here are the facts, which (remarkably) are not in dispute. Seriously, the arresting officer (Ms. C-H) agrees that these are the facts.

Stephanie Willett, EPA Scientist, 45
Cherrail Curry-Hagler, DC Transit Policewoman

About 6:30 p.m. July 16, Willett was riding the escalator from 11th Street NW (DC transit map) into the station, and eating a "PayDay" candy bar. Cherrail Curry-Hagler, D.C. transit policewoman, was riding up on the other escalator. Officer Curry-Hagler warned Willett to finish the candy before entering the station.

Willett nodded but kept chewing the peanut-and-caramel bar as she walked through the fare gates. Curry-Hagler, who had turned around and followed Willett, warned her again as she stuffed the last bit into her mouth before throwing the wrapper into the trash can near the station manager's kiosk, according to both Willett and the officer.

Curry-Hagler ordered Willett to stop and show ID, because she (Ms. C-H) intended to write a citation. Willett said she refused to stop and told the officer, "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?" while still chewing the PayDay bar as she rode a second escalator to catch her Orange Line train.

At that point, Willett said, Curry-Hagler grabbed her and patted her down, running her hands around Willett's bust, under her bra and around her waist. She put Willett in a police cruiser and took her to the D.C. police 1st District headquarters, where she was locked in a cell. At 9:30 p.m., after she paid a $10 fee, Willett was released to her husband. She is scheduled to appear in court in October for a hearing.

Okay, now here's the thing:
1. Ms. Willett was on a DOWN ESCALATOR. She couldn't turn around.
2. She was already chewing the candy bar. She couldn't spit it out, without littering. Even I think you should be given a ticket if you spit chewed up food on a public escalator.
3. When Willett got to the bottom of the escalator, she put the last bit into her mouth, threw the wrapper into the trash can, and continued on toward her train.

There is no way that Ms. Willett could have obeyed the instruction not to eat in the station, unless she had run back up the escalator, or spit out candy bar.

The real reason that Ms. Willett (who, if it matters, is African-American, as is Ms. Curry-Hagler) got smacked down is that she brought out some attitude. She said, "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?"

And here is the answer: given the law on the books, Ms. Willett had flagrantly committed "a real crime." You can't take food into a station, and you can't eat in the station. Ms. Curry-Hagler had not, in fact, committed an abuse of the system. Ms. Curry-Hagler, and all the other eager beaver Transit Gestapo in DC, are out there with their gimlet-eyed vigilance for EXACTLY offenses like these.

Which brings me to brilliant, but not nearly well-known enough, observation by Edmund Burke, in A Vindication of Natural Society.

In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse! Observe, my Lord, I pray you, that grand Error upon which all artificial legislative Power is founded. It was observed, that Men had ungovernable Passions, which made it necessary to guard against the Violence they might offer to each other. They appointed Governors over them for this Reason; but a worse and more perplexing Difficulty arises, how to be defended against the Governors? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

[The Latin bit at the end means, "Who will guard the guardians?" But you knew that.]

The U.S. has criminalized so much behavior, from eating a candy bar on an escalator while moving toward a Metro station to mild drug use to consensual sexual practices, that our prisons are full of people innocent of any real crime. The only reason that we are even talking about the case of Ms. Willett is that she was middle class and an employed professional. In poor areas all over the U.S., police harass and beat nameless citizens while trying to enforce unenforceable laws. Those cops, and those bureaucrats who try to enforce the tax laws and the regulations on transactions and safety standards and a thousand other things, may or may not be good people. I expect that Ms. Curry-Hagler took her tin Transit Cop badge, and herself, a little too seriously in handcuffing Ms. Willett. But we don't fall out only with the abuse. The state, the state itself, with its hydra-headed legal restrictions on liberty and its extraordinarily complex and expensive mechanisms of support and oppression....the thing itself is the abuse.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Baseball: Kellogg, Brown, and Root, Root, Root for the Home Team

So, I had this great idea: compare the Red Sox to the Democrats, and the Yankees to the Republicans. Seemed like a natural. After all, the Dems are meeting in Boston, and the Repub confab is in New York. And Kerry actually threw out the first pitch at Fenway, and said "go Red Sox" on national TV.

But, Mike Pesca at NPR seems to have nailed it. Of course, he did it on National People's Radio, so he had a little bit different spin. I am still going to take my shot, but with a little more edge to it.

Consider the key features of the two teams. (Color hint: Red Sox are for blue states, Yankees are for red states)

Red Sox

  • Extremely, embarrassingly weak on defense. As a team they had 79 errors, as of Monday. Suppose we could tack on a new stat, "suck." The Sox might lead the league. It certainly describes the Sox' outfield: "Oh, gosh, that last play was a Suck-7! Manny turned the wrong way, completely misplayed the bounce, and then made a bad throw! Actually, there could have been two sucks on that one play!"
  • Center Fielder Johnny Damon looks like a street person, someone who needs government handouts right away, so he can get out of the "Quest for Fire" look. He's very fast, but has an incredibly weak arm. (Actually, this may be a problem for my theory, because Damon can't get the ball to second base. A real Democrat, like Bill Clinton, Mario Cuomo, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart [I could go on], gets to second base every time, as long as their wives are not in the room.)
  • The Sox strike out a lot. 738 times, for an average of 7.5 strikeouts per game. Why in the world does John Kerry think he can get the UN to help out in Iraq? He'd just strike out again.
  • You might think of the Democratic approach as standing around a lot, talking about things, and then deciding not to do much. And...that's the Red Sox. They have a total of 40 stolen bases. One guy, Carl Crawford of the Devil Rays, has stolen more (41) than the entire Red Sox team.
  • The Red Sox have a team payroll of $105 million, fifth highest in all of baseball. So, it's not like they are poor or anything. You'd think they would realize how hypocritical it is to whine about those "rich people," when they have tons of money, too. (I was talking about the Kerrys; I was also talking about the Edwards; did you think I was still talking about the Red Sox? Jeez, pay attention.)
  • The Red Sox pitchers are handing out free passes to pretty much everyone who comes to the plate. Their 184 walks given up, combined with the total of zero times (I'm not kidding) they have held their opponents scoreless, tell me one thing: The Red Sox, like the Democrats, really don't want anyone to be shut out, or to feel bad about themselves. Can't we just all get along?
  • That is worth emphasizing: The Sox starters have given up nearly 30% more walks than the Yankees starters. That is a lot of free passes. But liberals can't help it. They see a guy standing there...and they say, "You go ahead...go to first base. You don't have to swing, or do anything, just go. But we won't give you any real credit for it. We won't count it as an at bat, and it won't help your average. We just want you to take this free thing, and become dependent on it as your way of getting on base. That way, you won't ever learn to hit on your own, and you can vote Democrat forever."


  • A bunch of strong-arm guys. They have perhaps the TWO best shortstops in baseball, so one of them (A-Rod) has to play third. You'd think they would say, "No, we already have a great shortstop (Jeter); we'll share the extra one." But that would not be the Republican way.
  • The Yankees payroll is by far the largest in baseball. They pay their players $180 million per year. If you add up the lowest paid teams, you get FOUR TEAMS before you get the Yankees' total. That means the Devil Rays, Expos, Brewers and Royals, COMBINED, still make less than the Yankees' roster. ( I can't resist adding that the best team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals, has a relatively modest $101 million payroll.)
  • The Red Sox have 27% more errors than the Yankees. So, yes, the Yankees are strong on defense.
  • The Yankees have stolen nearly 20% more bases than the Red Sox. They think you should try to get something started. Of course, if you get caught stealing second, you can go back to the dugout. If you get caught without any allies in Iraq, you have to stick around and take casualties for a long time. Maybe it's better to be aggressive on the basepaths than on foreign policy....
  • The Yankees starters have given up 145 walks, which is really stingy. This is the equivalent of telling panhandlers, "Hey, buddy, get a job!" On the other hand, the reason the Yankees starters haven't given up as many walks is that they don't work very hard. The Sox starters stay out there and sweat, like good working men: Sox starters have thrown more than 606 innings. The Yankee starters don't need to work that hard (560 innings). Besides, the Yankees starters have some foreign worker come in and clean up the mess they have left: Mariano Rivera has 35 saves, and an ERA under 1.45.
  • None of the Yankees seem to have that much fun. When your team spends $ 64 million more in payroll than the next guys (that would be Mets: second in payroll, first in suck, now motoring along at five games under .500), you are SUPPOSED to win. It would be like some guy who was born into a wealthy, politically connected family, and ended up being President. How could you say that he really achieved anything? He hardly deserved to win, but he was SUPPOSED to.

Now, there are some possible counterarguments. One could say that Billy Crystal, who made "61*" and has long worn his Yankee-love on his tiny little sleeve, is a big Democrat. There was Billy, calling the President a thug, and laughing at Whoopi's very clever "Bush" jokes. Okay, there was only one joke, about the President's name and a woman's private parts, one W probably heard in the third grade, but gosh did Billy Crystal (Yankee fan) think it was funny, over and over. How can a Yankee fan be a Dem?

The answer is this: Bill Kristol, the conservative editor of the Weekly Standard, is a big Red Sox fan. So, I can explain the apparent anomaly: someone just got their crystal ball mixed up.

FOLLOW UP: See Frederic Frommer, of AP, with a little different take on the same idea. (Thanks to MWT for the tip...)

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Control of the Senate?

By rights, the Republicans should either maintain their slim Senate majority, or increase it by a few seats.  But the Democrats are doing much better than anyone expected in fund-raising.  A strong Presidential campaign showing, and an economy anything less than robustly expanding, could turn the tide for Democrats.

Basic math and hoary wisdom favor Republicans in the upcoming votes, because Democrats control 19 of the 34 Senate seats up for election this fall; Republicans hold only 15.   That means that Democrats are more exposed, right at the beginning.  Any surprises are likely to harm the Dems.  Furthermore, the set of seats up for grabs is heavily southern:  North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana all have retiring Democratic incumbents.  Not one of those states is easy pickings for the men and women in blue.

But…it may not be that simple.  Several of the states (Louisiana may be the best example, but there are others) are “red” in Presidential politics, but “blue” for everything else.  Louisiana has a Democratic governor, and both Senate seats are held by the Dems. And the White House campaign androids are increasingly concerned about, and focused on, the swing states for the Prez race.  The campaign is showing little willingness to help Republicans in close races where Electoral College votes are not at risk.  So, Louisiana will get Prez attention, because it might go either way.  But North Dakota and South Dakota, each of whom have Democratic incumbents who might be vulnerable, aren’t going to get help from the national ticket, because (a) ND and SD are solidly Republican, for the Electoral College, and (b) Louisiana has 9 EC votes, all in one place, while ND and SD have a total 6 votes combined, and that is spread out over 150,000 square miles.

Further, and perhaps more surprisingly, the Republican leadership has repeatedly failed this time around to attract first rate candidates for the open Senate seats.  In 2002, the Republicans really pulled out all the stops, and managed to hold the Senate when the numbers (Republican seats to defend) were reversed.  Maybe they used up all the top candidates in their Rolodex, but the difference is stark.

I have said before, and still believe, that 9 Senate seats are actually in the “can’t predict winner” or else the “probably will change partisan control” categories.  Democrats face strong challenges in five states: Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina; Republicans are at risk in Alaska, Colorado, Illinois and Oklahoma.

If the elections were held today, the likely outcome would be that the Dems would lose current seats in Georgia and South Carolina, but would pick up the currently Republican seat in Illinois.  That leaves six too close to call, and those six are evenly split in terms of current control, 3 D (FL, LA, NC) and 3 R (AK, CO, OK)

With normal luck, then, the six toss-ups should split evenly.  The result would be (as the conventional wisdom would suggest) that the Republicans pick up one seat net (losing two seats currently in the R column, but gaining three seats now in the D column).

If that arithmetic is correct, that would leave the Senate with 52 Republican seats, 47 Democrats and one Independent.

But things could easily be different.  I am no believer in “coattails,” but in this case the response to campaigning for the Presidency could change everything.  After all, suppose just two seats break the Dems’ way.  That would mean 50 R, 49 D, and 1 Jeffords.  (If you have ever met him, you can tell he is his own party.  What a jolly fellow.)  And that, in turn, would mean that the Vice President, whoever he is, will determine control of the Senate.

So, if Kerry wins, and if Kerry is able to influence just two Senate races, then the Senate will change hands.  But if Bush wins, and Bush can find time to campaign in some of the now dormant states and bring the Senate seats into play, the Republicans could tread water, or even pick up a seat or two.

Check out the Iowa Stock Market results on Senate Control.  Prices fluctuate, of course, but traders have been increasingly optimistic about a Senate takeover by the Dems, starting at about the beginning of July 2004.  The numbers on the graph aren’t big, but I wouldn’t have believed this a year ago.



Sunday, July 25, 2004

I'm not Lisa, my name is Julie

(with apologies to Jessi Colter, because she wrote the song)

In answer to your emails, I'm also not Dave, or any of the other (probably much better) Munger blogs.

Here is a very partial list of the Munger blogs that I am not associated with...

Proof that not all Mungers are conservative…:
Christine Munger’s blog from Leon, Nicaragua.

An out-of-control, over-the-top Munger:  Dave (aka “Bill”, of course)
(for proof of the o-o-c, o-t-t bit, see )

You can be a data Munger, or a word Munger (if you know PERL)
Writings from the Edge:  The “morass of civilization”
(wouldn’t civilization be fun if we all got morass?)

A Canadian, also not conservative, world-travelling journalist M. Munger.
(are you kidding me?  that is such a great URL…)

Links -- May be offensive

Some funny, some offensive, most both

A jibjab movie, equal opportunity bashing, excellent voicing and graphics. Hard to say which part is my favorite, though the Howard Dean bit is hard to beat, except the very end part where Cheney gets his props, which is even better.

A fair and balanced book. Not. (Just kidding. It really is a book)

Assassination fantasies, and a liberal trying to pretend it's okay (just fiction, don't you know)

"Kerry is Bin Laden's Man / President Bush is mine" -- commentary asks the question: who would Bin Laden vote for? See also the very nice Kerry-Edwards Vietnam riff, with desperately many refugees trying to get into the desperately small helicopter.

John Kerry's excellent adventure book, New Soldier: interesting comments. I hope those people all get the help they need, or the drugs.

These people are eligible to vote. That should terrify you.

The End of the World: unbelievably popular bit about ....well, about what the title says.

Don't It Make Your Red States Blue?

Yes, Virginia, there is a North Carolina.  But, no, it is not “in play”, as the appalling political vernacularites have come to describe states that might actually see a contest for Electoral College votes in November.

Or, more accurately, if North Carolina is actually in play, it will be because the economy has tanked, AND there is a renewed full-scale war in Iraq, AND George Bush has announced that he is gay.  Seriously, the set of things that would have to be true for Kerry to win NC are not entirely implausible, but Kerry takes the state only as part of a “Bush will be playing the role of Mondale” landslide.

But then why choose Breck boy John Edwards for VP?  I have seen questions among the cognoscenti, or at least those who, when they look in a mirror, think they see one of the cognoscenti:  “Why choose a guy who can’t help win his home state?”  As George Will points out, it actually happens fairly often.  But the better question might be, why appoint a guy who couldn’t carry his home state even if he were at the top of the ticket?

Thinking that Edwards will help win in the South fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of the Electoral College.  But Edwards does sharply affect the dynamics of the race.  Let me see if I can clear this up.  (My students sometimes claim that they know less after a lecture than before, a net learning negative, so “clear up” may not be what happens).  But, here goes.

Democrats look at a map of the U.S, and they hear a version of the country song: "Don't it make your red states blue?" (sing along!)  It’s been a sad song now, for some time, except for the Clinton years, when it was a bizarre song.

Democratic presidential candidates can count on four states for sure: California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. That's 113 Electoral College votes. Throw in the little sure things for the Dems -- Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont -- and you are up to 141.  (Note:  You can do this game yourself, at the Electoral College Calculator!  Honestly, though, it will make you nuts...)

Now take the states outside the South where the Repubs are a sure thing. I'll use the 11 non-southern states that voted for Dole in 1996 (if they voted for that guy, they are REAL Red states). That gives the Repubs a base of 55.

In the states that might be called "Southern" (I'll be expansive and use Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia), there are 168 Electoral College votes.

So, the math is simple: if the Dems concede the South (except for Florida:  let's make it blue, just for fun), they start out at a 196-168 disadvantage. To catch up, the Dems have to sweep Illinois, Maryland,  and Washington. If they win all those (if the race is close, they won't), the count stands at 196 R-210 D.  Remember, the Dems need 270 EC votes to put their weeping, whining, waffling selves back in the White House, where the cognoscenti think they belong.

The problem is that the election would come down to the big close middle states:  Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), Missouri (11) Ohio (20), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (21), and Wisconsin (10) -- with a total of 96 electoral votes. Those states were all close in 2000, and are likely to be close again. Somehow the winner is going to have to take 60 or more votes from a group of hotly contested states, when normal luck is going to yield no more than 40 or 50.

And...THAT IS WHY JOHN EDWARDS WAS APPOINTED VICE PRESIDENT!  The Dems have to take 60 votes from Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  In 2000, the Dems harvested 69 EC votes from those states, and several were by razor-thin margins.

John Edwards has two effects on the election; each is important, and together they could make the difference.

First, having Edwards on the ticket means that Bush-Cheney have to play some defense.  They could lose Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, or Virginia if they ignore the South.  If they spend their time and treasure in those states (and, yes, in North Carolina, too), they will not lose those states (though remember I counted Florida as a Kerry-Edwards win).  But every minute, and every dollar, spent in southern states playing defense means that it is not spent in the M-M-M-O-O-P-W states that will determine the outcome.  Edwards makes Bush spread out his defense, a lot. 

(Some reporters have told me that they believe the Repubs have infinite money, and this won't matter.  But the campaign only has so much time, and so much money where you can say, "My name is Dubya, and I approved this ad".  The shadowy bogeymen with money, like George Soros and Barbara Streisand, are giving like crazy to the Dems, anyway) 

A spread out defense really helps the ground game of the offense.  (Yes, a football metaphor.  Sue me).  And that is the other factor that makes Edwards matter:  His ground game is perfect for the M-....-W states.  "Two Americas, you people have been done wrong, but you should be proud to be Americans, vague optimism, short on specifics, I love all of you, check out my hair":  I'm not quoting, of course, but that is the robotically recorded stump speech Edwards has been repeating since December.  He is sufficiently life-like that you can't tell he is animatronic, and the speech is PERFECT for the economically damaged states of the midwest.

So, in a nutshell.  Edwards doesn't win the South, or even Southern states.  But his Southern attraction, and his message, may mean that Kerry wins the industrial midwest, and the election.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Unconventional Wisdom

To be fair, it's hard to say if this piece is unconventional, or just not wisdom.

But, from the BBC: “Jordan Levin, entertainment president of Warner Brothers, said the mood at the network was "approaching a level of giddiness" after excellent ratings [for several new 'reality' shows]"

Consider the following partial list of unbelievably successful reality shows on TV:
Amazing Race
American Idol
Fear Factor
Last Comic Standing
Simple Life

From the perspective of the networks, these programs are excellent. They cost almost nothing to produce, because common folk line up for the chance to be humiliated, mocked, or horribly patronized.

Why do we watch them? Consider the wisdom of Skye Lutz-Carrillo, son of the Texas farm family where part of Simple Life II was filmed. After meeting Paris Hilton and Nicole Richey, he captured the whole nuthouse in a nutshell: "They're a little ditzy maybe, but I wouldn't be opposed to making out with them."

All of these shows are a little ditzy. But there we are, making out with our TV screen, leaving the blessed "off" switch on the remote untouched. People feel involved. It is precisely because Everyman, and Everywoman, is up there on the screen that we watch. The shows that actually allow audience participation are among the most successful.

Political conventions are boring. They are also dying. The networks will give each party only three hours, total, of programming time for each convention. Now, you could watch the things on C-SPAN. You could also give up donuts and swim a mile every day. What could the parties do?

You have to realize that the parties are absolute ho's for free media, in nearly every other setting. The reason incumbents are so difficult to unseat is that they have so many free media opportunities, events where they get coverage simply by virtue of doing some part of their jobs. And of course you can make stuff up. If the local Representative appears at the ribbon-cutting for the new school, there will be a picture in the paper. This is true even if the Represenative voted against the bill authorizing the money for the building.

One could imagine, in fact, that an incumbent President could land on a carrier deck, wearing a flight suit, and address a huge number of sailors in front a "We Won!" sign. The media would cover this like a reality show, and everyone would win: Prez gets great coverage, media gets interesting and entertaining footage, and the voters get to think, "He's kind of ditzy, but I wouldn't be opposed to making out with him." Now, of course, this could never actually HAPPEN, I'm just making up an unlikely scenario.

Why do parties have this blind spot when it comes to conventions, then? The greatest free media opportunity you could imagine, and all the parties do is try to see who can be the most boring, and the most "inclusive". All they mean by inclusive, of course, is "Ethnicity / Gender/Job Bingo": "Oh, a black lesbian metalworker! All I need now is a male Native American architect and I win!"

In an earlier entry, I claimed that the conventions have traditionally had three functions:
1. Choose the nominee
2. Choose the platform
3. Get all the activists pumped, and give them a chance to display the worst color / fabric combinations the world has ever seen.

The problem is that conventions today are ONLY about #3. Nominees are chosen by primaries, and platforms (such as they are) are selected by focus groups and consultants.


The most obvious would be "Queer Eye for the Politicii", to fix those fashion gaffes. That would actually work, now that I think of it: have some REALLY bitchy guys just critique the outfits on the floor of the convention. I'd watch, for sure.

But a more substantive suggestion would be to bring back #2: platform selection. Let the convention delegates, and the folks at home, vote on platform planks. You could have debates, and decide which issues win. You could have a feature called "THE DOOR": as soon as more than 50% of the people calling in said they hated the speech, the speaker would fall through a trap door into a padded room full of cockroaches and grub worms. You could have a camera down there, so that you could watch on a split screen: blabbermouth gets the cockroaches, great speaker gets more time.

An idea whose time has come: a reality show called "THE CONVENTION"

In a recent article, James O'Toole of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette uncovered this nugget of a quote, where economist John Kenneth Galbraith composed a requiem for political conventions:
"These vast ceremonials are now a bloated corpse. ... A semblance of life is breathed into the corpse by delegates who, having been elected or selected and having traveled to the great event, wish to believe they are doing something. In this wish they are abetted by the press, which is enjoying an expense-paid reunion and a carnival untaxing to the mind. ..."

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Conventional Wisdom

We are about to start the convention season. The Democratic convention will be held in Boston, starting July 26. The Republican convention will start August 30, in New York. But...Why?
The Constitution says nothing of parties, or conventions. The founders thought the U.S. House would decide most Presidential elections. The first truly contested election, in 1800, was decided in just this way. After 36 ballots, Thomas Jefferson was selected by a majority of State delegations. For decades, parties focused on governing, not elections.
The first Democratic Party convention was in Baltimore, in 1832. All but one of the 23 states sent delegates, nominating incumbent Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren. The poorly attended first "convention" for the Republican Party was held in 1856, in Philadelphia. By this time, the notion of party had changed, as research by Duke's John Aldrich and others has showed. With the Jackson-van Buren ticket, and forever after, parties existed not just to govern, but to win elections.
Conventions had three purposes: choose the party's standard-bearer for the Presidency, nail down the planks of the platform, and then mobilize partisans. Before conventions and modern parties, turnout rates had been low--in 1824, 30 percent. After 1832, conventions inspired and aroused activists all over the country. By 1840, turnout rates approached 80%.
Although nominees were sometimes selected on the first ballot, nomination battles were sometimes bitter. In 192o, Warren Harding was chosen as a compromise candidate, after 9 deadlocked ballots on other candidates. Harding was selected only after a tense interview with the opposing factions, in a room observers said was filled with smoke and acrimony.
Modern conventions have evolved from acrimony to anachrony, ignored by media and mocked by the public. The reason is that everybody knows who the nominee is, after the exhausting series of primaries. Gone is the smoke-filled room, the drama of multiple ballots--gone is the politics.
The third function of conventions (arouse the activists) has survived, intact but isolated from political purpose. People still come from all over the U.S. gather to wear ridiculous hats, drink too much, and put on ties or polyester pants suits in colors unknown to nature. But that's not enough. Conventions are dying.
It is hardly surprising that the media mostly give things a miss. Where is the news? Will so-and-so speak? How long will he get? At what time? It takes a Kremlinologist to decode the messages: "Smith stood beside Jones on the platform for 45 minutes, and he was either either angry or else his shoes are too tight. Later, Smith stood beside Johnson for only 9 minutes. Film at 11." Is there any hope?
You bet there is. We'll never bring back the days when conventions cull candidates; primaries are too deeply rooted for that. But the second function of conventions, platform selection, could easily ressurect a sense of connection and political spice for delegates and partisans at home watching TV. It has been a long time since platforms were up to the delegates. Instead, issue "positions" are chosen by the campaign staff or by focus groups.
Focus groups are chosen precisely for the their ignorance and lack of connections with politics, because they are the "swing" voters who will determine who wins in our closely divided polity. But the closed-door, focus group approach is the political equivalent of visiting the eye doctor. Focus groups peer at issue framing through the blurry lens of sound bytes: "Better now...or now? Twist left...or right? Read the next that clearer? How does this one make you feel?"
Conventions could be a real debate about platforms, about what the party stands for. Not only would there be real conflicts, with motions and amendments, but there would some direct connection between the people who attend the convention and candidates who carry their message to the electorate. As it stands, conventions are vapid, five-day infomercials, scripted and choreographed. The delegates cheer, but they might as well be watching a pep rally in a high school gym, because the real game won't start until later. If delegates had more of a say in writing the platform, and if the platform meant something for the campaign, it would bring the politics back in.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Sed Victa Catoni

Several emails have inquired about the cryptic "Sed Victa Catoni" in the blog title.
The first part, I guess, is easy enough.  For LOTR or Tolkien fans, it is obvious that ____ End is some hobbit hole, which is where most of us would secretly like to live.  Bag End, for example, for the LOTR-challenged.   And, "Wit's End" was a little precious, so....
But the second part is truly obscure, I'll admit.
The answer can be found at greater length here, but I have an excerpt (quoted from the linked source):
"   Lucan wrote, in his Civil War epic, The Pharsalia, "victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni" ('The victorious cause pleased the gods but the defeated cause pleased Cato'). In death, Cato's obdurate determination was elevated to the high pantheon of Roman patriotism. Caesar appears to have disliked Cato as he disliked few men; it is impossible otherwise to account for Caesar's genuine resentment at Cato's untimely death. He is said to have spoken, as if to the living man, "I envy you this death, for you envied [denied] me the chance to save you." Cassius Dio, Roman History, XLIII. When Cicero and Brutus published posthumous praises of Cato's noble qualities, Caesar published his Anti-Cato, which has not survived but which apparently was viewed disparagingly by his contemporaries. 90 years later, Cato could be seriously described by as having "...a character nearer to that of gods than of men. He never did a right action solely for the sake of seeming to do the right, but because he could not do otherwise." Velleius, History, II, XXXV. Cato, in spite of himself, had passed into legend.    "
My favorite guess, from an email, was that there must be a character on the Sopranos named Victor Catoni.  Then some utterance would be attributed to him as "Said Victor Catoni."  Add the NJ Italian accent, and you have the answer.   That's actually better than the real explanation.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The “Values” Debate: Do-Be-Do-Be-Do

What do we want from leaders? To be, or to do? American culture likes doing. The American dream, in its purest form, rewards effort with happiness. Whatever you look like, or wherever you came from, all that matters is what you do once you get here.
Citizenship itself is more doing than being—if you say you are an American, then you are, regardless of where you came from or who you used to be. New citizens must promise to do: “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
Of course, there is a darker side to America, where being matters. The American dream wasn’t available to blacks, women, Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, or to a variety of other groups, because our “values” elevated being to destiny. “They” aren’t like “us,” don’t you know.
The distinction between being and doing is always sharpest in election years, because citizens are torn between the two concepts of the good. We pay attention to what candidates promise to do after the election. But we also want candidates to share our values, to “be” like us. And those who are unlike us? They are evil. They must be stopped. Vote for me, because I share your values and my opponent worships Satan..
This is not so new, of course. A rabid focus on values characterized U.S. elections for decades after the founding. In 1800, the Hartford Courant famously predicted that, if Jefferson won the 1800 election, “...murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” None of these came true, until the Clinton Administration, however.
In 1994, the Republicans seized both houses of Congress. They did it by highlighting values, and taking polarizing stands. The Democrats were caught by surprise, though the strength of the economy and the weakness of the Republican ticket in 1996 allowed Clinton to hold the White House. But then Clinton’s sexual pecadilloes forced Gore to run on values, a “being” theme poorly suited for Gore’s talent as a doer. The election was a tie, but the Bush camp claimed vindication: Bush’s core values are American, so that the policies implied by those values are unassailable. Consequently, anyone who opposes Republican policies on the war or the economy is evil.
The backlash from the left is perhaps understandable, but it is disturbing. Mel Gibson’s loose adaption of the gospels “The Passion” galvanized believers on the right. Michael Moore’s loose adaptation of history, “Fahrenheit 9/11” has found equally rapturous audiences among anti-Bush partisans. Moore really does score some hits on “W”, but the movie mostly just implies that George Bush is evil. Consequently, according to Moore and his growing tribe of fury, George Bush’s policies must be evil.
It is tempting to think a values battle will benefit the Republicans, who “own” that issue. Many of the Republican faithful approve of George Bush because he can say “Jesus” (not just God, but Jesus) without blushing. If Kerry ever tried to mention Jesus in a speech, his head might explode. Even with John Edwards, for whom religion is a comfortable subject, the Democrats appear to be handicapped on values.
But the Republicans may be seen to have tried to hijack the church. Inferring “correct” policies from religious doctrine may make even the faithful recoil. Before 9/11, I heard smug references to the Republicans’ “Taliban wing.” That analogy has become less acceptable, but more accurate, over the past three years.
The result is that the time and treasure of both parties will be expended on the “issue” of same-sex marriage. Sure, we will talk about the war on terror, ending the occupation of Iraq, and problems of free trade and the economy. But only after we spend weeks arguing over whether a definition of “marriage” should appear in the U.S. Constitution. No one will have their mind changed, and no one will be informed.
In this sort of non-debate, the issues themselves become unimportant. They are strategically chosen platforms for advancing a narrow conception of morality, either from the perspective of religious certainty or secular conviction. Suggesting that gay men and women deserve the rights of contract and free association brings scorn from the right. Raising legitimate questions about whether the tradition of marriage is in fact a sacred union of man and woman brings eye-popping rage from the left. You can’t talk about it. Yet we will speak of little else in the coming months.
We have lost our way, because we cannot explore the political landscape using only a moral compass. With so many tough questions about what to do, the 2004 election is on the verge of being transformed, by both sides, into a competition over loyalty oaths. If we are going to solve the domestic and international policy problems that beset us, we are going to have to be able to talk to each other without spitting.
Frank Sinatra had it right. You've probably seen his Solomonic synthesis, on the "do vs. be" debate, on a bathroom wall somewhere. The whole thing is apocryphal, of course (it was actually made up by Kurt Vonnegut), but it sums up why ol' Blue Eyes is a quintessential American.

"To be is to do"--Socrates.
"To do is to be"--Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do"--Frank Sinatra.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Big Times in NC

Quite a bit of activity by media on John Edwards and the VP spot on the Kerry ticket. I have had some fun, but of course didn't get paid enough to pay for parking. You would have to be a narcissist (and I am) to care about such attention....

Toronto Star story
LA Times story
Baltimore Sun story
Cleveland Plain Dealer story
CBS TV story (about two minutes in, click on thumbnail)

Pilgrim's Egress III

Today, the final installment of Pilgrim's Egress (PEIII)

A Pilgrim's Egress (Part 3)
Confessions of a Conservative Forrest Gump

By Michael Munger
( © Michael Munger 2004; all rights reserved. No reproduction or quotation without express written authorization)

May 2001. I’m in the world’s oldest army truck, with three soft-looking 40-year-old soldiers. We are outside the main airport in Havana, Cuba, and I am in the country illegally. I didn’t sneak in; I flew in on a tiny commercial flight from Miami. But I didn’t have a valid visa, because apparently the gate agent in Miami (on whom more anon) had a twisted sense of humor. The guys in the truck couldn’t have been more bored. I couldn’t have been more scared. And I had never so vividly felt the absence of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments. I promised my inner self that if I ever got out of this alive, I would stop making fun of the whackjobs in the ACLU. Heck, I would join the ACLU, and make my sons join as soon as they could have their sense of humor surgically removed.

But then I realized some money was missing. Ten dollars, American cash. It was missing from the pocket of each of the three soldiers. I took three tens out of my wallet and waved them like a fan. Then it turned out that a visa could in fact be obtained right at the airport. As I went back inside the airport, I noticed that the truck’s right front tire was flat. The bored soldiers had known the truck wasn’t headed anywhere. It was just business. No hard feelings, right?

It struck me: the Cuban system is the natural baseline, the way humans deal with each other if they are denied property and markets. Take away some peevish 18th century powderheads with a profound distrust of centralized power, and the U.S. would have the same system.

Remember the song, “I’d Love to Change the World”? It has a verse, “Tax the rich, feed the poor / Till there are no rich no more? (If you don’t remember, it is from Ten Years After’s 1971 album, “A Space in Time.”) I had heard the song maybe a hundred times before I realized that it perfectly summarizes the clotting of the mental arteries of the U.S. intelligentsia.

If we tax the rich and feed the poor, will there be a socialist nirvana? Like the song says, “Till there are no…RICH…no more.” That’s all the power to tax means. You can’t get rid of poor people by taxing the bejeezus out of anyone who is productive, energetic, or creative. But you can get rid of the rich. Cuba got rid of all its rich people by killing them, taxing them, or scaring them off to Miami.

People who are afraid of government in the U.S. often say, “Would you want restaurants run by the Post Office?” But that’s the wrong analogy. The Post Office sells a product, and could be efficient if it were privatized. What happened in Cuba was a hostile takeover by a truly abusive Third World system: the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles.

If you want to experience Cuba right here in the States, go talk to a DC DMV employee. You will never encounter another human being who is quite that bored, or quite that angry. There are no rich people in line at the DMV. We all get treated the same. Like shit. So now you’ve been to Cuba. Welcome to the workers’ paradise.

Pilgrim’s Egress III: The Clotting of the American Mind

American education has lost sight of a simple fact. This lack in our lucubrations is discernable at every level from kindergarten to PhD programs (full circle, in other words). The simple fact is this: The U.S. is the engine of production, innovation, and scientific achievement for the whole world. For the most part, if this is acknowledged at all, it comes with an apology, like we should feel guilty. But it is hardly an accident. The U.S. is at the apex of the arc of human achievement because… well, because our system is better than the others.

Now, this may have involved luck, genius, or divine providence. But it’s still true. Most nations founded at the same time as the U.S., or later, are sitting in a truck with one flat tire, waiting for an American to take his wallet out and spread some tens around.

Some new nations, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, have been successful, of course. But their system is copied from ours, except for the random “u”s that preserve their distinctive colour as nations. The old nations, of course, either went the U.S. way out of good sense (England), or because they were lucky enough to be looking down U.S. gunbarrels when we stopped shooting (Japan, Germany).

People might argue that the “Asian tiger” nations are distinctive, and that their Confucian heritage explains their economic success. But then one would want to know why the ancient home of Confucian culture, China, has become the place where the DC DMV sends its managers to learn advanced techniques of humiliation and delay. No, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and now even Vietnam have been successful only because, and then only to the extent that, they have protected property rights, rewarded creativity, and encouraged effort.

The rest of the world is a freakin’ basket case. Nations with enormous natural wealth, large populations, and fantastic ports are stagnating. The sole occupation in much of Africa and Latin America is sitting in trucks with flat tires until all available wealth can be dissipated. This is how they achieve their perfectly just income distributions. Once everybody has nothing, all they have left to argue about is who gets to sit in the truck that week.

I had come to Cuba on an educational exchange program (I started to say “visa,” but I didn’t actually get one of those, as I will soon explain). My friend (I’ll call him “John”) and I were to give lectures at the Center for the Study of the United States, at the University of Havana. We had prepared stuff on the American Presidential election (all Cubans loved the American election of 2000, because they recognized the process). And we had worked up presentations on some of the sub-cabinet appointments for Bush’s government, particularly those affecting Latin America and Cuba in particular.

We were out of our league. The folks at the Center were bright, funny, and had direct outside internet access. That meant two things: first, these nice people were stone spooks, their “study” of the U.S. being simply the analytical arm of the Cuban intelligence service. Second, since they lived in a system where whim and bias were king, they knew an incredible amount about whim and bias. “John” and I wanted to talk about the American system; they wanted to know about the third deputy underover secretary of photocopiers, because they knew that he ran the weekly game of blind-man’s grab-ass in the basement of the State Department.

They ended up showing me web sites (U.S. government web sites, mind you) where you could track cabinet appointments and get detailed dossiers of potential appointees. It became clear that the information I had prepared was too basic for them. My color overheads really impressed them, though. Cuba has that technology, of course, but they cost about $1.50 per page to produce. Figuring this was a boondoggle, rather than a Duke business trip, I had gone to Kinko’s and had the copies made at my own expense in Raleigh.

These were professors and near the top of the heap in terms of income, at about $20 per month. The idea that someone would pay nearly $30 to make 18 overheads, on their own, was amazing to our hosts. I later found out that many of the professors/spooks also drove taxis on nights and weekends, since they could make a month’s salary in tips in a couple of days.

No Visa, No Mastercard

U.S. citizens must petititon for permission to go to Cuba, and the conditions are fairly stringent. You have to qualify for an educational, artistic, or other exchange program, and the purpose has to be documented. I had done all these things with the aid of the organization sponsoring the trip. But the U.S. government is still none too pleased about people going directly to Cuba, and so the airline arrangements are kind of sketchy.

In the Miami airport, I had asked four people, gotten three different sets of directions (all wrong), and failed to find the ticket counter for nearly two hours. When I did find it, I was told that I couldn’t possibly board the flight because the paperwork wouldn’t go through. I took my bag down there anyway, and talked to the gate agent. When I said I was there for the Cuba flight, he just laughed. “That flight leaves in 25 minutes. There is no way to get the visa forms filled out in that time.”

Having lived in Texas, I knew the Latino mind. Seeing the name tag on the gate guy, I wheedled. “Arturo, I am sorry for the trouble. It’s just that I thought that YOU might be able to do this. But, of course, now I see that it is beyond your power to get this done. I’ll just get a hotel, and come back tomorrow….”

Arturo’s breath hissed inward, and he glared at me. “YOU…WAIT….HERE!” he half shouted. Within seconds, he had the forms, and was barking orders in Spanish. Two other gate agents were recruited, and all four of us worked on forms, with me handing my passport and educational exchange visa application form around as needed. Since all the other passengers had been an hour early, as required by the visa system, the gate agents had nothing else to do anyway.

In twenty minutes, with about five minutes to spare, Arturo smiled and gestured at the seating area. “Dr. Munger, you are welcome to enter and sit down. Your seat number is 11A. Enjoy your flight.” Feeling that my place in the world hierarchy was secure, I stepped in and pretended to read a magazine for about thirty seconds before the flight was called, and we all got up to go out to the little “Miami Vice Drugrunner Special” prop plane that would take us 120 miles to Havana. As Arturo took my boarding pass at the gate, he winked.

I have a vision of the events at Arturo’s house that night. After dinner, he is helping his wife with the dishes. Arturo shakes his head, a little ruefully. “I did it again, Cipriana. I sent some jerk across without a visa.”

She turns on him. “Arturo! That’s so mean! You know they’ll hassle him! What if he reports you!”

Arturo laughs. “This guy was such a zangon, he’ll never even figure out what happened. He obviously thought he was playing me, and he probably thinks he has some special insight into the Latino mind. I wonder how he’s doing now?” Arturo looks slyly sideways at Cipriana.

She tries to look stern, but a snicker sneaks out of the side of her mouth. “SOLA VAYA!” she snorts. They both giggle, and then finish the dishes. A personal note, to Arturo: Good one, man. I deserved it.

Of course, while you need a visa to get into Cuba, you may as well leave your Mastercard on your dresser at home. Cubans take plastic, but they cannot accept American Express, or any other card issued by U.S. banks (that’s the U.S. law). So Americans have to take big plugs of cash. This is really not a problem, since Cuba (oddly) is one of the most dollarized economies in the world. The only things you can buy with pesos, from the “state” stores, are dead flies and petrified brick of soap powder.

We had lots of free time, and there are plenty of things to do in Havana. Hemingway’s house, touring the Morro castle, museums,’s a five-hundred-year-old city, with fifty years of zealotry slathered on top. We also spent a few hours each with two astonishingly interesting, sad, and hopeful people. I’ll describe them each briefly.

One of the first things “John” and I did was to go to the Museo de la Revolución, unsubtly sited in the palace of the former President, Fulgencio Batista. Our tour guide was a dedicated, attractive young government employee. I’ll call her “Antolina.” She loved the museum. She showed us the bullet holes near the stairway, where the Castro-aligned “students” had run up the stairs to try to kill Batista in 1957. Batista’s office was impressively ornate, and Antolina showed us the “secret” exit behind a curtain where the cowardly Batista had run to hide from the students’ righteous anger. The attack had failed, she said, but it had been a glorious union of the student intellectuals and the working class, the first instance of the union that still animates Cuba today, and so on (I’m skipping a lot).

Halfway through the tour, we went outside to look at some displays of military hardware. I asked Antolina a question, about the “students” and where they had come from. My question couldn’t have been more innocent. She immediately turned to me, and said, “Look, you two are professors. I’m an historian. Let’s drop that other stuff, because it’s just what we tell tourists.”

And then she told us her version of the real story. Remember, this is a woman who works in the Museo de la Revolución, as close as you can get to shrine in Cuba. She is a uniformed government employee. But she also cared about history. First and foremost, she cared about Cuba, and the truth. In that moment, she felt more of a connection with American scholars than she did with her putative colleagues at the Museo.

It turns out, at least according to Antolina, that the attack was botched from the outset. The two trucks, one with students and one with workers, were supposed to coordinate, and pull up to the back of the palace together. But the workers pulled up first, saw soldiers on the roof with rifles, and hauled ass, tires squealing. They drove off and hid behind a building, and then just bailed completely, leaving the truck and scattering (maybe it had flat tire?). The students pulled up about a minute later, and immediately became the focus of the soldiers on the roof, because of the all the tire-squealing and ass-hauling.

Several students were killed in the parking lot, but ten or so made it inside the building, brandishing rifles and yelling. They fired wildly, making the bullet holes by the stairs. As they went up the stairs, the soldiers were getting organized. The students just ran around bumping into each other until they were killed or captured. It is not clear they ever even found Batista’s office. And, if they had, it would hardly have mattered, because it is well established that Batista was upstairs in his bed that entire day, suffering from Montezuma’s revenge. In short, the workers ran off before the first shot, the students got lost, and Batista was out with a tummy ache.

John and I talked about this later, and agreed there were two amazing things about Antolina’s brief lecture in the park. First, through gestures and concise, idiomatic description (in what was, after all, her second language), she made us feel as if we had been there. Though the story was brief, she told it in a way that has stuck in my mind ever since. Second, this was a priestess, working in the temple of the Revolution. And she had abandoned the official version of the story as soon as we got outside.

This young woman should have been a real historian, doing real research, or curating some important museum collection. If she had been born in any other country, she would have been. Her self-confidence, in retrospect, was remarkable. When she found out we were professors, she decided we were all peers. Since she had been denied a chance at a PhD, or advanced study, this took more than a little chutzpah. But, as Muhammed Ali said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.” And that tour guide could have done anything she wanted to do. Except in Cuba, where she had to spend every afternoon telling lies to tourists for an American dollar.

The second person was a semi-private, but governmentapproved tour guide, who went with us by taxi to several sites and helped us to get through an army “roadblock” that had no apparent purpose. (All the tires on their trucks were functional; I checked.) He was friendly, witty, and very energetic. I’ll call him “Trino.”

At lunch, John and I asked Trino about himself. It turns out he had an advanced degree, the closest equivalent one could find to an MBA in Cuba. He wanted to start his own business, and had several plans about how to make it happen. We talked in general terms about what would happen when Castro finally passed on, the inevitable chaos of transition and the uncertainies afterward. I realized that Trino was furious at the system he had to live in. More than anyone else I met, this tour guide made me feel the tragedy of “modern” Cuba.

He had enormous plans, gigantic ambitions. But he had to go to Hemingway’s house, or some other attraction, every day and listen to tourists ask the same questions. (“Do they have those six-toed cats here?” “No, that was Hemingway’s other house, the one in Key West.” (PLEASE GOD, JUST SHOOT ME!)). His life was ticking by, and he couldn’t build anything, even though he lived in one of the largest, most attractive, least developed tourist destinations in world. There is prime real estate, right on the Malecon, one of the most beautiful ocean vistas anywhere, where the buildings are completely uninhabitable. Some visitors ask if these buildings were damaged in the Revolution. No; they have been damaged by it, a little at a time, until whole blocks are crying large concrete tears that just stay in the streets.

Back at the University, we asked our spook hosts why these properties weren’t being developed, or just torn down. They had earnestly explained that the process of investment in real estate was complicated by the facts that (1) one couldn’t obtain loans, because capital is barren and interest is theft, and (2) one can’t own property anyway, because it is owned by the state. I tried to argue that there was a big difference between complicated and asinine, but I didn’t get far.

But I had a job, and I was going back to my own country, where the Marxist theorists are in humanities departments where they can’t do much harm. In the U.S., only the agriculture, health care, and professor- making industries are completely socialized. Trino had to ride by these inert potential fountains of cash every day, and it was tragic. All you have to do is take ten 26-year-old financetrained entrepreneurs like Trino, open up a system for direct foreign investment, and endorse private property. Within a year, each of those Trinos would have been making $30k a month, the unemployment rate would be below 3%, and the Malecon would be beautiful even if you turned away from the ocean and looked at the houses.

The cost of the Revolution, in short, is not that Cuba has failed to build tourist hotels to attract libidinous German businessmen to wear out the local hookers. (Those guys are flying in already, and staying at horrible hotels, by the way.) The cost of the Revolution is that it tells people what they can want. Then, when the system can’t even deliver that, the system admonishes people to be happy with what they have. It is not an economic system, it’s a religion.

The trip ended much less eventfully than it had begun. The taxi that picked us up at the hotel was a massive Mercedes, maybe two years old, and plush. It was about a 25 minute ride (a little over 15 miles) to the airport, and we swooshed along through the Third World landscape feeling like capitalistimperialist pigs (that’s a good thing, by the way). Our driver was quiet, courteous, drove just over the speed limit, stayed off the horn, and in his lane. In short, this was the best taxi ride I have ever had, anywhere.

When we got to the airport, the driver said, “Four-tee.” John and I both heard it that way. We were delighted. This wasn’t a truck with a flat tire, this was a new Mercedes, and a veteran taxi driver was ripping us off by charging us an outrageously realistic world price for a realistically high quality service. The Cuba of the future, and we were the vanguard. As we tried to hand him a wad of fives and tens, the driver’s eyes widened, and he shook his head wearily. Idiot Americans. “No, no: Four-TEEN.”

I was tempted to tell the driver that he would still be better off with an old truck.

Hasta La Victoria Siempre

What set of ideas led to this mess? We could blame Marx or Lenin, who came up with the original recipe. Or we could castigate Castro, and heaven knows that there are thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of ruined lives, that Castro should have to answer for. But one of the important thinkers of the Revolución in Cuba was its Christ-figure/ poster boy, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. You won’t see many images or statues of Castro (to his credit, he is personally modest, in dress and lifestyle), but you will see Che everywhere, almost as much as you’ll see images of Jose Martí (imagine the love child of George Washington and Martin Luther King).

Guevara was what Fidel was not: handsome, brilliant, educated, a medical doctor, an accomplished writer, and (in the last years of his brief life) openly anti-Soviet. (If you ever get a chance, read the book he co-authored, The Motorcycle Diaries, a terrific picaresque-tradition-meets-moped narrative, written with a genuine sympathy for the indigenous peoples of South America.) He was also capable of giving a public speech in less than five hours, a skill Castro has never developed, but is still trying to work on about twice a month.

For present purposes, though, there is one other important thing about “Che” (a nickname, after his habit of ending sentences with the Argentinian slang for “pal” or “buddy”). Che was a philosopher of the Revolution. To understand the “project” of revolution in Cuba, it is worth quoting Dr. Guevara at length. This is from his “Man and Socialism in Cuba” (1965). The letter distinguishes the role of the individual, and the collective, and the project of remaking citizens:

Society as a whole must become a huge school....We can see the new man who begins to emerge in this period of the building of socialism. His image is as yet unfinished; in fact it will never be finished, since the process advances parallel the development of new economic forms. Discounting those whose lack of education makes them tend toward the solitary road, towards the satisfaction of their ambitions, there are others who, even within this new picture of over-all advances, tend to march in isolation from the accompanying mass. What is more important is that people become more aware every day of the need to incorporate themselves into society and of their own importance as motors of that society.

They no longer march in complete solitude along lost roads towards far-off longings. They follow their vanguard, composed of the Party, of the most advanced workers, of the advanced men who move along bound to the masses and in close communion with them. The vanguards have their eyes on the futures and its recompenses, but the latter are not envisioned as something individual; the reward is the new society where human beings will have different characteristics: the society of communist man.

I really admire Guevara. He was an impossibly attractive combination of intellect, physical vigor, and sensitivity to suffering, besides looking really terrific in the beret. But he had this wrong, dead wrong. (And so does this freak show) There are no “new economic forms.” And people pursuing “the satisfaction of their ambitions” are the real motors of a healthy society. People “incorporating themselves into society” are people descending into a living grave.

Cuba should be a wealthy, prosperous, educated country. It is truly beautiful, if you don’t look too closely at the collapsing buildings and chunks of concrete in the streets. The weather is great, and people run incredible “private” restaurants (paladares) out of their homes. For $18 or less, you’ll get everything from appetizers to cigars, and you’ll never taste better camarones al mojo de ajo. The cars, rebuilt coches de Bondo from the 1950’s, still run, even though not one part of the engine, brakes, or steering is original. In short, in every situation or activity where the Cuban people have been allowed to “tend toward the solitary road,” they rock.

The parts of Cuba that suck are…well, everything else. The government restaurants are grossly overpriced, and the service is decidedly indifferent. The government construction projects consist of groups of men arriving to work about 10 a.m., staring at the walls for a while, having some lunch in the shade, and then calling it a day. Their pay for this charade is about right, less than $10 per month. But they are clearly missing their true calling. These men are ideally suited to work on U.S. DOT road projects, and earn $10 per hour.

Now, on its face, this is not a problem. Collectivist activities everywhere are maddening wastes of time and money. I had no trouble recognizing the Department of Motor Vehicles service ethic, or the Department of Transportation work ethic, from my own experience here in the U.S. The difference is that in Cuba the collectivist part is the stuff Castro and his co-religionists are proud of. Just another illustration of von Mises’ fundamental insight: “Most men endure the sacrifice of their intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams. They cannot bear that their utopias should run aground on the unalterable necessities of human existence. What they yearn for is another reality different from the one given in this world.”

The Project of Moral Progress: Sirens on the Rocks

The idea of moral progress is irresistible, crack cocaine for the intellectual. Various projects, from the reform of institutions to reforming the minds of citizens, are constantly hatched and chattered about. In spite of the disasters that always result (Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” Pol Pot’s reeducation camps, and Hillary Clinton’s health care “reforms”), educated people are always convinced that things should be, and could be, better.

Is there an evolution in human society toward the good, or at least the better? If so, is it an evolution in institutions and technology, or an evolution in human morality and consciousness? And is the evolution a consequence of the spontaneous emergence and acceptance of new ideas, or must we be forced to be free?

In my presidential address to the Public Choice Society in 1997, I made a large claim: The fundamental human problem is the design, or maintenance, of institutions that make self-interested individual action not inconsistent with the welfare of the larger society.

If one accepts this claim, then there are two ways to conceive of the “project” of human progress. They are fundamentally different, in terms of their conceptions of the place of humans in society, and of human nature itself.

Project 1: Mechanism Design—Take self-interest as given, with “interests” themselves being exogenous. Then the task is to design, or foster, mechanisms (with markets being one archetype) where the collective consequences of individual self-interest are not harmful. Under some circumstances, institutions may emerge (or be created) that make everyone better off. Is this “led by an invisible hand” model possible for government institutions? Of course. As James Madison put it, in Federalist 51:

[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Project 2: Moral Perfectability—In the progressive society, laws, institutions, and morals cannot be allowed to be external constraints. We must inscribe the laws not in books, but on the human heart. I am paraphrasing from what Christians call the “New Testament” (“I will put my laws in their hearts; I shall inscribe them on their minds” [Hebrews 8:10]), but the meaning attached to the words is purely modern.

For example, consider the following multiple choice question. Here is a text. Now, identify the writer:

It seems as if Marxism, once all the rage, is currently not so much in fashion. To counter these tendencies, we must strengthen our ideological and political work. Both students and intellectuals should study hard. In addition to the study of their specialized subjects, they must make progress ideologically and politically, which means they should study Marxism, current events and politics. Not to have a correct political orientation is like not having a soul....All departments and organizations should shoulder their responsibilities for ideological and political work. This applies...especially to heads of educational institutions and teachers. Our educational policy must enable everyone who receives an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically and [...develop both a ...] socialist consciousness and culture. (emphasis added).


A. Frederic Jameson

B. The entire discipline of Cultural Anthropology

C. Karl Marx

D. Mao Tse-tung

E. Friedrich August von Hayek

The only incorrect answer is “E”; all the other answers are correct. The best answers are “A” or “D”, though it is important to understand that Mao’s English prose was more accessible. (The actual quote is from Mao’s “On the Correct Handling of C o n t r a d i c t i o n s Among the People”, by the way.)

The nature of the secular religion being foisted on all of us could hardly be more explicit. The development of morality, in fact the very possession of a soul, is based on the compulsory inculcation of collective values and the acceptance of reciprocal obligations. These constraints cannot be external, for those who believe in the moral perfectability of mankind. They are learned, the product not just of education but an encompassing vision of the nature of education as a motor for social evolution. What is necessary is that the institutions of society be organized and focused on the development of the “new man.”

In Cuba, the government has tried for 45 years to force everyone to be new men and women, and punished those who tried to act otherwise. People are told from birth that they should not seek material rewards, and that their reward will come from the intrinsic value of right action, in belonging to (literally, being the property of) the community.

Still, it hasn’t taken hold. The problem for Castro is not that the U.S. casts its shadow over his economy, making it falter and break down. The faltering and breakdowns are the only things the Castro economy can accomplish. The problem for Castro, and for the moral perfectability project, is that they really want humans to be otherwise; not better—different. They want humans to want what the intellectuals think they should want. All the zeal, creativity, and coercive power of the collectivist state are focused on making those citizens want the “right” thing.

And there is the real triumph of the human spirit: an adamantine cussedness, an obdurate refusal to be “reeducated,” or remade in the image of the new man. What I saw in Cuba was an unwillingness to subordinate the self to a thousandheaded über-being, composed solely of eyes, mouths, and assholes. Cubans have dreams, they have their own lives, and they are just biding their time until they can escape the trap.

A Box of Chocolates

Forest Gump kept saying that “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” This did not displease him, however, because he had a naïve, but ultimately vindicated, conception of life: Even though there is nobody in charge, and the world is not under someone’s control, there are forces that drive us toward the good. This is a fundamentally libertarian perspective, and it drives people on the left, and for that matter on the right, bonkers.

There are certain features of systems that work: effort, creativity, and merit are rewarded. People are allowed, even encouraged, to find the niche that suits them best, rather than being directed by some hive-mind. And the laws and institutions of government countenance adaptable, highly plastic relations among citizens, not restricting their ability to associate politically, economically, or spiritually.

The reason that such systems are fragile, and don’t survive very well, is that the temptation to make things better is simply irresistible. The human mind is vain and deceitful, as Hobbes told us:

But without steadiness, and direction to some end, great fancy is one kind of madness; such as they have that, entering into any discourse, are snatched from their purpose by everything that comes in their thought, into so many and so long digressions and parentheses, that they utterly lose themselves: which kind of folly I know no particular name for: but the cause of it is sometimes want of experience; whereby that seemeth to a man new and rare which doth not so to others: sometimes pusillanimity; by which that seems great to him which other men think a trifle: and whatsoever is new, or great, and therefore thought fit to be told, withdraws a man by degrees from the intended way of his discourse. (Leviathan, Chapter VIII)

Hobbes didn’t know any “particular name” for this failing, but it has since been named. It is the conceit of social engineering that dominates the academic establishment in the United States. This conceit, apparently irresistible even to first rate minds, is this: Something must be done to improve the system. We should constantly look for ways to direct and improve that which is destroyed by attempts at direction or improvement. Che called these will-o-the-wisps “new economic forms,” but fundamentally failed to recognize the fact that the reforms he advocated would tranform Cuba from a thriving developed nation into an economic mausoleum. The kind of new economic forms that work must be the product of individually-motivated private innovation, not collectivist direction.

I want to thank NEW SENSE, and in particular Madison Kitchens, for having given me this extended forum for the presentation of these recollections, provocations, and outrages. For those of you who have been kind, interested, or just angry enough to read through all three of these essays: Thanks to you, too. Feel free to email me at if you have comments, or just want to point out my errors of thought or expression. I have had a great time.


Ernesto “Che” Guevara, 1965, “Man and Socialism in Cuba,” Letter from Major Ernesto Che Guevara to Carlos Quijano, editor of the Montevideo weekly magazine Marcha.

The translation here is by Brian Basgan, found A Gringa’s Search for Pesos in Cuba.”

UPDATE: Humberto Fontova, on Cuba and the Dem's pet hippo

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Pilgrim's Egress II

Again, New Sense, the student magazine published at (but not by) Duke, was kind enough to publish a serialized version of some chapters from a book I'm working on. This is the second installment

A Pilgrim’s Egress (Part 2)
Confessions of a Conservative Forrest Gump

By Michael C. Munger
( © Michael Munger 2003; all rights reserved. No reproduction or quotation without express written authorization)

August 1986. I’m 27, two years out of grad school. We’re balancing Wheat Thins and cheese cubes on plastic plates, holding our plastic glasses filled with Chardonnay. Our faces fill with unbalanced plastic smiles. The “New Faculty: Welcome to Texas!” party had started half an hour ago, but it was quiet as a tomb. What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Then the Dean, a grouchy guy in a nice suit, walked out to an open space among the fifty or so newcomers. Incredibly, he took a plastic fork and ting-ting-tinged it against his plastic cup, making no sound and spilling wine. But in the silence he soon had our attention.

“Now, I want you all to listen to me, because this is important.” He smiled, as if about to say something clever. “I don’t want to hear about ‘teaching, how much teaching’ you are all doing. You are here to do research.” Big smile now; avuncular, in a Slobodan Milosevic way. “This is a simple business: you will be judged on how much research you produce. You have to teach, you all have to teach, but I don’t want to hear anything about it. You have to teach well enough that I don’t get any complaints. But…” (here his voice rose: louder, higher) “…you will be judged solely on your research records, when it comes to salary, retention, and promotion decisions!” His voice echoed. “Are there any questions?”

There weren’t any. He had been pretty clear. Psychotic, but clear. I expected him to shriek, “If you doint eat yer meat, ya canna have any pudding! How ken ya have any pudding, if yer woint eat yer meat?” Welcome to Texas! Everything’s bigger here, even the grouchiness of the people in suits who run universities.

Pilgrim’s Egress Part II: Everything’s Bigger in Texas

In the last issue, I described the infamous “attack of the conservatives” on the anti-apartheid shanties on the Green at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH. If you missed that introduction, you can find it on the NEW SENSE website:

This month, I turn to my experience at my first “real” (meaning tenure-track, the opposite of real) job, at the University of Texas in Austin. UT couldn’t have been more different than Dartmouth, in every way. Dartmouth was small, private, and students were the boss. UT was public, it was huge, and professors thought students were the crap on their shoes. (sorry: I’ll stop writing in verse, right now).

Folks tell you “everything’s bigger in Texas!”, but you would have to see the UT campus to believe it. The overall undergraduate population hovers between 45,000 and 46,000, with another 10,000 or so graduate students. The UT website trumpets that “UT is the nation’s largest university.”

Then, if you go to the Texas Memorial Museum on campus, the entryway signs trumpet the statue of the “Texas Pterosaur,” the “largest flying creature ever discovered on earth!” It is common for a Texan to tell you, proudly: “We’re bigger than France!” What is the deal? Why does everyone in Texas talk so big?

The answer is uncomplicated: Texans assume, plausibly, that outsiders (particularly Yankee academic outsiders) will look down on them. So the natives bluster, and brag, and look out of the corner of their eyes to see if the professors are impressed. The profs are not impressed, of course, for an equally uncomplicated reason. Most faculty, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, are politically Leftist. Now, Leftists love “The People,” as an abstraction. But Leftists often hate dealing with persons personally.

The idea of engaging with a nonacademic, someone unaware of Foucault’s genius, is very upsetting. Professors love the working class, as a big lumpen proletariat in need of assistance, by force if necessary, but professors find the idea of actually working appalling. Stands to reason: if you spend your time caterwauling about how deadening working must be, you have to believe that workers are the walking dead.

It took me about a week, New Hampshire transplant that I was, to take the Texan’s side on this point. My wife and I never lived in the enclave north of the University, choosing instead to live south of the river. Colleagues would ask us, “How can you live with…Texans?”, and then laugh as if they had said something clever. For academics, Austin was a Chekhov play. They lived impossibly far from Moscow, but desperately aped the manners of the Muscovite (okay, Cambridge, New Haven, or Palo Alto) elite. All they could do is dream, read their books, and study the job openings newsletters.

The condescension toward Texan students was remarkable. “I can’t believe how conservative everyone is. Do they not have any good teachers in the high schools?” The goals of my colleagues often had little to do with traditional education. Many “teachers” at UT confronted students with their “hypocrisies,” rather than trying to lecture. In my department, Government, several professors openly tried to confront and embarrass conservatives. The hubris of my colleagues was breathtaking, because they were satisfied with nothing less than complete conversion. It wasn’t enough to think Pinochet was bad. The last lesson had to be learnt: you had to love, really love, dapper Danny Ortega.

“Politically Correct”: The Real Story

Without reprieve, adjudged to death,
For want of well pronouncing shibboleth.

—John Milton, “Samson Agonistes”

You have to realize that the idea of political correctness, as opposed to its archenemy, political incorrectness, lies behind the bland smile of many otherwise decent liberals. There really is a right, and a wrong, view. Right is what they believe; wrong is anything else. If they are tolerant, it is the same kind of patronizing tolerance that keeps them from correcting one of their yowling whelps in a restaurant. They give the child time to work on his issues, and he’ll come to the right conclusion on his own. But don’t be confused—the tolerance the politically correct Left shows is not the kind of respect that implies, or even allows, an exchange of views. They are right, and you are wrong, and only an idiot would disagree. (You are the idiot, by the way.)

This is the sort of utter certainty, and contempt for alternative viewpoints, that explains the current popularity of desipient demagogues like Michael Moore. It’s all so obvious. Either you agree with the Left, or you’re a selfish pig or an idiot, and probably both. The correct views, the correct clothing, even the correct facial expressions, are deducible from the basic truths that all smart (i.e., liberal) people share. (Check out Eric Adler’s hilarious observations about the “women’s studies nod”; Adler, 2001).

As for so many other topics, the best insights I have seen on this subject come from Nobel laureate economist F.A. Hayek, in this case from his 1973 book Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Hayek’s claim is that intellectuals have convinced themselves that:

…human institutions will serve human purposes only if
they have been deliberately designed for these purposes,
often also that the fact that an institution exists is evidence
of its having been created for a purpose, and always that
we should so redesign society and its institutions so that all
our actions will be wholly guided by known purposes. To
most people these propositions seem almost self-evident and to
constitute an attitude alone worthy of a thinking being. (pp.
8-9, V. 1, emphasis mine).

What are they so sure of? What view of the Left has come “to constitute an attitude alone worthy of a thinking being”? It is that markets and independent thought may, at best, be a necessary evil. Real freedom requires planning and control. A famous statement of this view is Mannheim’s:

At the highest stage freedom can only exist when it is
secured by planning. It cannot consist in restricting the
powers of the planner, but in a conception of planning
which guarantees the existence of essential forms of freedom
through the plan itself. For every restriction imposed by
limited authorities would destroy the unity of the plan, so
that society would regress to the former stage of competition
and mutual control. (p. 378; quoted in Caldwell, 1997).

The very idea of “political correctness,” then, is the product of two certainties that intertwine in the minds of the intellectual Left. (The nonintellectual Left has only one certainty: the rest of us should shut up, or go to jail. This is exactly the same certainty as the nonintellectual Right, by the way.) The first certainty is the moral superiority of planned economies, and education systems, with equality of income and the absence of opportunity for social differentiation through effort or excellence.

The second is the inevitability of historical “progress” toward this goal, as societies evolve and improve. Together, these two certainties constitute a dynamic teleology, with both moral and historical force. To be politically correct, then, is not simply to pay lip service to current fads of speech or fashion, such as what name to call a minority group to avoid insulting its most sensitive members. Political correctness is the sense that there is a right side in history, and people on the other side are evil, delaying progress and misleading the gullible masses.

Now, I have raised, superficially, a number of difficult questions, and haven’t answered any of them. The status of planning, the socialist calculation debate, and the causes of history are not things I have definitive answers on. And that’s the point. I’m confused, not sure about how the good society should be structured, open to alternative points of view. I am just the sort of person that is not politically correct, because I ask questions and insist that the answers be based on the rules of logic and empirical evidence, rather than on a faith in a secular religion with a naïve socialist eschatology.

That’s why the first time I heard someone use the phrase “politically correct,” I burst out laughing. I was standing at a water fountain, and a colleague who didn’t know me very well (he would never have suspected me of the heresy of uncertainty) stopped to chat. He mentioned Jesse Jackson (who was running for President, and to whose campaign he had contributed) was giving a speech that night.

I assumed he would be excited about the speech, glued to the TV, since he had been chattering about the Reverend for weeks. (At this time, Jesse Jackson had not yet become an egregious and embarrassing self-caricature, running a “pay me or I’ll call you racist!” protection racket). “Oh, no,” said my colleague. “I really don’t like to listen to him. He doesn’t have many concrete policy proposals.”

I was amazed. “Why are you supporting him, if you don’t think he is a good candidate?” I asked.

He was surprised I didn’t understand. He spoke slowly, as to a child. “Well, given how corrupt and unjust the American democratic system is, the choices we make don’t matter anyway. So, you might as well be politically correct.” What he meant was that you should pick the candidate who most visibly serves the agenda of the Left, purely as a symbol (in this case, by having black skin). Since there is no substance, or meaning, to democratic politics (he assured me Foucault proved this, by asserting it), we should all make symbolic choices that serve the good. To do otherwise, and most particularly if you actually believed in one of the candidates, was to be duped by shadowy people who “control” the process. In short, the sign of his depth and cleverness was precisely the superficiality of his choice criterion.

The Left’s use of “politically correct” as a pass phrase didn’t last long, though of course the underlying certainty about truth persists. Before long, in fact, the abbreviation to “PC” had become an even more powerful shibboleth for the political Right. If you said that you that favored hiring a person who happened to be a woman, or African-American, you might be accused of “caving in to the PC movement,” even if you genuinely thought that the candidate was simply the best person for the job.

Interestingly, supporting a minority candidate you happen to admire won’t get you any credit on the Left, either. PC-ers don’t think that there are, or should be, standards. There are only symbols and politics. So, while the use of “politically correct” has changed dramatically, the meaning hasn’t changed at all. If there are no objective standards of morality, no means to judge right and wrong, then conformity with a political doctrine is the only metric. Thus, the Left has aligned itself with a long tradition of intellectual indignities, starting in many ways with Rousseau, and passing along through many other people who spoke excellent French. That perspective can be summarized simply: No one can tell what is good or bad. Except me.

I am a Red-Baiter

“Red-baiting” is a political tactic, one that rabble-rousers on the right used in the 1940s, the 1950s, and in some ways have never stopped using. It is reprehensible, because it plays on the fears and patriotism of otherwise good people. And, for the person called a “Red,” the result in the 1950s could be devastating: loss of job, denial of future employment, even physical threats.

It is tempting to think that that was then, and this now, and things have changed. Still, people on the Left really do still have some legitimate fears. (Two words: Ann Coulter.) We no longer think of a backlash against Leftists as “red-baiting,” of course, since there are no more Marxists outside of English and Literature departments (and people who ought to be in those departments, but don’t know it). Without a worldwide movement and the sinister muscle of the Soviet Union, it is hard to say why people get so worked up when someone on the Left expresses their views.

But they do: questions about U.S. foreign policy, whether in Latin America, Africa, or more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, bring angry reactions. Instead of addressing the issues, demagogues on the Right question the patriotism of dissenters. This is illogical (disagreeing with U.S. policy hardly implies you support the policies of our enemies), but it is rhetorically useful.

Questioning patriotism puts the dissenter on the defensive, turning the “debate” from policy to dissenters’ attitudes. “My son plays baseball! I pick up trash on the jogging trail! I drive a Volvo, but it has American-made floor mats! I love America!”

Here’s the thing: you might think people who fear intellectual repression wouldn’t practice it. You would be wrong. One tactic of the academic Left (I won’t talk about the academic Right, or unicorns, or Santa Claus) is to transform a question about policy into an accusation about attitude. For example, you label as “racist” anyone who disagrees with your views. Since “racist” is such a powerful accusation, and since racism actually is a real and present force in American society, it is a knockout blow, ending a debate. After you have been called racist a few times, you stop arguing and just smile when someone says something stupid.

But the cruelest tool of the academic establishment dates from the 1980s. It is “red-baiting-baiting.” If someone argues with you, you call them a red-baiter. The irony is that being “red” at a university is a sign of sophistication, and people hardly try to hide it. Most of the time, at dinners or meetings, I am the only conservative. What would happen if I called a faculty member an extreme Leftist in such a setting? As far as I can tell, that person would get an endowed chair and go on to write prose so chuckleheaded that it wins the “Turgid N. Opaque” award year after year.

In the spring of 1989, there had been complaints from students about government department professors being “too liberal.” The real problem was more like “too lazy.” Profs spent class literally shouting at students about how ignorant they were. (Knowing you are ignorant, and going to college to remedy it, ought to mean the student wants to be taught, not mocked, but irony is dead) The profs would yell, “Hey, you, orange shirt in the fourth. row. Do you know that the government of El Salvador is a fascist puppet of the U.S. imperialist plutocracy?”

Now, the choices for answers to these questions were “yes” or “no.” Neither one was much help in terms of learning. Still, even these surly and unhelpful rantings should have been protected under the umbrella of academic freedom, at least in any one classroom. If some West Texas kid from Burkburnett or Floydada comes to Austin, and doesn’t get to see “fahreatin’ liberals,” he ought to get his money back. Our job is to take people out of their comfort zone. Further, there was no evidence, at any time, that political views affected grades. And there had been no complaint about a single incident that clearly crossed a line of propriety, just general discontent.

Notice that I said “…in any one classroom.” What I meant was that if academic freedom protects the liberals, it protects the conservatives. Academic freedom means specific protection from job-related reprisals (firings, salary cuts, or denials of raises or promotions) from the administration. It cannot possibly mean that you are protected from other faculty expressing their own, possibly opposing, views. The person who said this best, in my experience, is Barry Saunders of the Raleigh News and Observer: “Freedom of speech means you can say what you want, but then you still got to take the ass-whuppin’ for being wrong, if you are.”

Remember, academic administrators today are disproportionately (on the order of 10-1, or more) liberal. Bleating about being oppressed, within the university, for expressing liberal views is absurd. But there was, at Texas, one complicating factor. You absolutely had to avoid complaints about your teaching. If students complained about a faculty member being too liberal, or anything else, that faculty member needed to make some changes.

So, the department decided to take strong action. In other words, it formed a committee. It apparently wasn’t taking the problem all that seriously, though, because the chairman asked me to be on the committee. As a third-year junior person, I had little knowledge and even less power. But it was my first committee assignment, and I was determined to do my best.

Our agenda was simple: how to deal with the complaints that a few students had leveled, verbally, alleging no single incident or valid cause, against two of the instructors in the Government Department. The answer seemed pretty easy to me. We needed to say that these were not real complaints. There was no action that justified interference with the classroom teaching of these faculty.

When it came time for the meeting, though, I was shocked. The committee chair said that there was good news. The department had done a great job of dealing with the complaints of previous years. There had been, in fact, no complaints at all.

This seemed facile. After all, there had been complaints, just not actionable ones. I said I wanted the department to take a stand, not sweep the problem under the table. In retrospect, I was obnoxious, and probably wrong. The distinction between “no complaints,” and “some complaints, but nothing important or specific,” was not exactly at the Watergate level of cover-ups. Still, I could not have predicted what happened next.

The head of the committee was furious. “What sort of complaints?”

I knew the answer to that: “Some of the students have complained that the instructors are ‘too liberal’, and that they make the students uncomfortable. Now, I think…”

He interrupted me: “Have there been complaints that you are too conservative?”

I later realized that he thought he was threatening me, but I wasn’t clever enough to understand. This should show you, though, that the very idea that professors might be afraid for being liberal, inside the administration, is far-fetched. Most department chairs, and mid- and upper-level administrators, lean Left. The others lean so far Left that they have toppled entirely. But what I said next, in my ignorance, made things worse. “Suppose there have been complaints, about me, about being too conservative. Then there still have been complaints, and our committee needs to address them.”

He got very quiet then. He asked me what the complaints were, though we had discussed them in the hallway. Then he asked me, quite formally, what classes and professors the complaints had been addressed to. I played along, and named the courses and the instructors. Then he closed his notebook, looked at the other two committee members, who had not said a word, and announced that the meeting was now over.

This seemed like a funny way to run things, but okay. I went home. When I came in the next morning, I walked by the open door of one of the complained-about professors. The person howled, “SO! YOU DON’T LIKE MY CLASS! WHY DIDN’T YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO COME TO ME YOURSELF?”

I actually was so dumb I didn’t know what the person meant. “No, I don’t have a problem with your class. What do you…”


What the committee chair had done was to scuttle down the stairs to the main office, and say that I, Michael Munger, was complaining about the class. I tried to explain, but the instructor I had “ratted” on was beyond wanting to hear explanation. This person had thought we were at least casual friends, and here I had complained about the person’s class, in a “secret” meeting, without even letting the instructor know first.

I went back into the hallway and heard a booming voice. “Doing a little red-baiting, are you Munger?” The speaker was a friend, a guy way on the left side of the political world, but a perfectly decent and thoughtful fellow. We had been over to each others’ houses and went to lunch at least twice a week. I tried to explain to him what had happened, but he had already made up his mind. “Munger, this is why we can’t have conservatives in the department. When it comes down to it, you people can’t help yourselves. You have to play the commie card!” I could see that he was laughing at me, and was half-joking.

But he was also half-serious. The academic Left needs to see itself as being outré, oppressed, the “Other” in the society in which it lives. If the Left thought of itself as conventional, and established, two things would happen. First, they would actually be responsible for the problems and inadequacies of American university education, rather than the rebels trying to make things better against overwhelming odds. Second, they would be overcome by unhappiness on a grand scale. Many people on the Left require a sense of “otherness” to be able to survive psychologically. Intellectual laziness and moral bankruptcy are not very attractive. Better to be beaten down and discriminated against by “the man.”

I had to give up, and I did. I apologized to the two instructors whom I had “wronged.” (And, if I had done what they had been told I did, it would have been wrong.) The committee chair was a different matter. The amazing thing was that, by the time I talked to him again, he had convinced himself that his made-up account was true. He took me to lunch and tried to have a fatherly talk, saying that I needed to curb my ideological extremism.

I was in no position to argue. I was, however, in a position to leave, and did. In August of 1990, I left for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, taking a pay cut of nearly ten percent just to escape.

Concluding Remarks

In 1988, my colleagues were loudly in love with Jesse Jackson all spring and summer. In the final campaign they became Michael Dukakis worshippers. Mikey D didn’t do very well, especially after the famous “bobble-head in a tank” incident. The day after the election (I was pretty happy, because I had voted for the winner, George H. W. Bush), I came into the department whistling. Okay, I was singing: “Happy days are here again….”

One of my colleagues, standing at the water fountain, yelled out: “Oh, screw you!” Fair enough, I deserved that. In fact, the person was smiling, so this was just the sort of friendly “my team lost, so bite me!” reaction I expected and would have given back if the situation had been reversed. But as I got closer, I saw that the smile was a rictus of hate.

“I don’t know anyone else who voted for idiot Bush. How does that make you feel, to be the only one? Doesn’t that make you wonder if you have it all wrong?”

This seemed odd, to say the least. Bush had won the Electoral College by 426-111, a pretty handy victory. The popular vote was closer, of course, but Bush had still won by nearly seven million votes. That is, out of 89 million votes, Bush got 48 million. Furthermore, in Texas itself, 56 percent of the voters had gone for Bush. That’s nearly three million people, in Texas alone, that my colleague had never met, or apparently even heard of.

The great mass of people, who worked at jobs, paid taxes, sent their kids to school, and made political choices based on their own best judgement, were completely unknown to my colleague. And this person was proud of that, considering it a badge of honor not to know any of the people who worked and paid our salaries.

How can one love “The People” and yet hate everybody? The answer can be found in one of my favorite jokes. A firebreathing liberal is standing on a streetcorner soapbox, regaling the crowd about how their lives will be better after the Revolution. “Come the Revolution, things will be better! Come the Revolution, there will be no property, and you will have everything you want! Come the Revolution, YOU WILL ALL EAT MILK AND HONEY, THREE TIMES A DAY!”

In the back, a timid fellow said something, but the speaker couldn’t hear it. The speaker roared, “WHAT? What did you say?”

The timid guy raised his voice. “I said, what if I don’t like milk and honey?”

The speaker is outraged, and glares at the questioner. “Oh, my friend, that’s easy. Come the Revolution, you WILL like milk and honey!”

The academic Left, as a religious community, doesn’t like people at all. They have rarely spoken to, or met, anyone who doesn’t fully share their views. The series of educational and employment choices that lead to a career in the humanities or social sciences nearly guarantee a kind of isolation and groupthink that is self-perpetuating.

I guess it comes down to one particular claim about truth. Reasonable people can disagree about the best form of government, and the nature of the good society. If you really don’t know anyone who disagrees with you, you shouldn’t take that as a sign that you are right. It means you should get out more. And try to find a place that serves something besides just milk and honey. You might like it.

Coming Next NEW SENSE:
“Pilgrim’s Egress, Part III: The Clotting of the American Mind”


Adler, Eric. 2001. “What Fresh Hell is This?” Women’s Quarterly. Spring.

Caldwell, Bruce. 1997. “Hayek and Socialism.” Journal of Economic Literature. 35: 1856-1890.

Hayek, F. A. 1973. Law, Legislation, and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1940. Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction: Studies in Modern Social Structure. London: Kegan Paul.

Texas State Historical Association, “Handbook of Texas Online,” accessed December 16, 2003.

U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Redistricting Data (P.L. 94-171) Summary File and 1990 Census. Table 2: Counties Ranked by Population: 2000. Internet Release date: April 2, 2001, accessed December 15, 2003.