Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gas Prices Now and Then

Tibor R. Machan

Cologne, Germany. During the last several years that gasoline prices posted at pumps were steadily rising I have run across a few obscure articles, mostly produced by economists, which claimed that the actual price of gasoline is now lower than it was back in the 1970s when we had the nuisance of all those long lines at gas stations. I am no expert at this stuff but I have noticed something that seems to lend credence to the economists' claim: there are innumerable huge SUVs, minvans, and similar gas guzzlers still all over the road in my neighborhood and wherever I have been doing some driving (Florida, Washington, DC, Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South and North Carolina).

While the posted prices are, of course, huge compared to what they used to be, it appears, from what these economists tell us, that the actual percetage of people's income spent on gasoline is less now than it used to be some thirty years ago. And given how many folks are hanging on to their gas guzzlers, it looks like the economists are right.

What is puzzling me to no end is that virtually nothing about this is discussed in mainstream media. No front page article has appeared in The New York Times, The LA Times or other papers with which I am familiar, and certainly none of the TV news programs have sent out reporters to check out the economists' contention. Why? Is there something to be gained by the press from hiding from readers and viewers the possibility, even probability, that there really is no extraordinary oil crises? What if it is all as it had been for several decades now, neither a smooth ride yet not as bumpy one as mainstream opinion would have it? Is there something dangerous about letting folks know that the real price of gasoline is actually lower than it was back in the early 1970s when in today's dollars gasoline cost about $6.50 a gallon?

Of course, gasoline has been quite a lot more expensive in Europe than in the US for decades on end. And the difference is still evident. So Europeans do tend to drive much smaller cars than Americans. Even allowing for the fact that changing from a big to a smaller or really small vehicles is not going to happen overnight, no major adjustments are evident on America's roads. What change has come about can be written off as panic reaction instead of prudence. Of course, for some people adjustments may be warranted, but that's true anytime, given that the market favors different producers and consumers based on productivity, the fluctuation of supply and demand throughout the economy.

Nevertheless, it seems that oil prices, though high, aren't actually higher than they have been for decades. So why is this not explored by investigative journalists across the land?

Perhaps the answer is simply that good news is no news. So if there is no oil crises then writing and talking about oil is worthless from the viewpoint of the media. No one makes a big deal of the fact that there haven't been many air crashes in recent years--no headline blares that "Millions of passengers have reached their destination safely." On the other hand should there be one or two crashes, this is going to be major news everywhere even if on average flying is far safer than, say, driving and ride bicycles.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that hardly anything one reads in newspapers or views on TV should be taken at face value. One needs a healthy dose of skepticism whenever one relies on conventional news sources. But maybe there is an opportunity here as well: given that so many newspapers are having economic difficulties now, what with the Internet posing a major challenge to their economic base--namely, advertising (especially classifieds)--some experimentation with reporting more good news may be the answer.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Leader of the Free World Torpedoes Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

Cologne, Germany. As The New York Times reported the other day-- United States was among three of the most powerful economies of the world, China and India being the others, to ground to a halt the effort at the World Trade Organization (which recently met met in Geneva, Switzerland), to eliminate or at least lower farm subsidies so as to open markets that could then admit as serious participants citizens of poor countries the economies of which are only going to improve of their farm products can be sold globally. It is truly disgusting and embarrassing that America is among the countries where protectionism is a major political force.

For decades, even centuries, America was dubbed "the leader of the free world." Just what did that mean? The meaning of "freedom" in this designation is supposed to be that America`s citizens enjoy and fervently support individual freedom for all human beings. As Thomas Jefferson and many other Founders proposed, the Declaration of Independence was a commitment to the equal right to liberty, among other rights, not just of those who would live in the new country. That liberty was deemed a basic human rights, unalienable, that all human beings possess and was to be secured, in time, for all. The government of the United States of American was instituted to secure these rights but all people across the world had them whether they were respected and protected or not by their various governments.

A clear, unambiguous implication of the right to liberty is to engage in peaceful trade with any willing fellow human being. If you want to sell a horse or car or apartment house and find someone who comes to terms with you, the right to liberty means that no one may prevent the deal from taking place. If anyone does, the person is a criminal, plain and simple.

But protectionism is precisely the official prevention of free trade. Farmers from Africa or anywhere else have grain or some other produce for sale and find others who are willing to pay what they ask for it but the government, urged on by domestic farmers who don`t want the competition, coercively prevent the trade from taking place.

That the Peoples Republic of China would take part in such a criminal policy is perhaps understandable, seeing that the country is basically a fascist state, run by a bunch of pragmatic rulers who have no commitment to individual rights, such as to everyone`s unalienable right to liberty. India, while nominally a democracy, is not a liberal democracy and thus also lacks commitment to individual rights. It comes a bit closer by virtue of its partial embrace of the principle of democratic political participation but that`s by no means enough.

In the case of the United States of America its government`s opposition to abolishing protectionism is out and out hypocrisy. A free country that prevents its citizens from engaging in unhindered trade with willing people abroad is, well, a contradiction in terms. America`s negotiators at the WTO should make an open declaration of having jettisoned the principles of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights in favor of the system of mercantilism, commerce dictated by the central government in behalf of various parties who are the favorites of the rulers! That is the very system that the Founders attempted to overthrow, the system Adam Smith criticised so powerfully in his The Wealth of Nations--published, incidentally, in 1776.

On top of it all, the current American administration keeps insisting that freedom is good for all people, including those in the Middle East, such as Iraq, so much so that young men and women ought to be sent to risk and give their lives so that this freedom could be realized abroad. But at the same time members of this same administration willingly comply with segments of the American citizenry who have zero interest in human liberty, especially the human liberty of millions of farmers abroad whose very livelihood directly depends on their right to liberty being respected and protected.

It is very difficult, under the circumstances, to take anything seriously that the American government declares in the name of the struggle for liberty. All those men and women who are asked to stand up for liberty are being deceived. It seems what they are protecting is the special perverse interests of American farmers and other protected groups.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Obama & Europe

Tibor R. Machan

Cologne, Germany. It`s like Susan Neiman and I travelled on two different continents during the last couple of weeks. In her Sunday July 27, 2008, Op Ed column in The New York Times, Ms. Neiman says that "it`s hard for me to find a European, aside from two Harvard-educated friends in Paris, who confessed to excitement — not just about the visit, but the prospect of an Obama presidency." So she acknowledges that Senator Obama produced something of a frenzy in much of Europe but then maintains that no one here has much confidence in his prospective presidency.

My own experience, after a week in Switzerland and then one in Heidelberg (at the University there), is quite different. Most of the Europeans, actually nearly all of them, eagerly expect a Barack Obama presidency. This may be partly because so many of them dislike George W. Bush and do not imagine Senator John McCain to be any different from him. I suggest this in light of the fact that those with whom I have spoken about the upcoming US presidential election exhibited nothing but delight at an Obama victory. Yet this is not because of any enthusiasm about his policies. Indeed, hardly anyone gave any indication of knowing about what the Senator might do as president other than not be enthusiastic about "staying the course" in Iraq. No one hereabouts seems to like that war, that is evident.

But apart from this aspect of Senator Obama's candidacy there is little else that the Europeans I know and have been talking to about this say they welcome in the man they are nearly certain will be the next president of the United States of America. No, it is all about what is probably best considered a sort of feeling they have about how swell it would be to have the Senator in the White House. Indeed, my impressions is that what Senator Obama promises for these Europeans is finally to take race of the agenda of American politics. Whether this is realistic or not, it seems to be what a great many people here expect.

But such an expectation is naive. The measure of racism that exists among various Americans isn't so superficial as to disappear with the ascendency of Senator Obama to the US presidency. Were that the case, racism would have disappeared a long time ago. Sadly, America's racists, as indeed the world's, are mostly unshakable in their conviction that something is very wrong with the people they demean. The only other place where I have detected that kind of racism is South Africa and among Europe's anti-Semites. So I am afraid that however much Senator Obama's candidacy and likely victory in November amounts to a hopeful sign, much more in-depth change needs to occur for racism to stop being a significant aspect of American--and indeed world--culture.

What is actually disappointing in Senator Obama's candiacay is his rather shallow discussions of racism, for example in his speech in Berlin. And perhaps that is deliberate. Altogether too many Europeans share a certain aspect of the racism that is still part of America. This is the idea of tribalism or clanism, the view that human beings belong to various groups by their very nature. In Europe there is altogether too much talk of ethnic identity, both by those who are victims of such thinking and those who engage in it. Individualism, the best antidote to collectivism, has by no means swept the continent and, sadly, it seems to be disappearing from America as well. Those who would be the best source of teaching about the way individualism counters collectivist thinking--namely intellectuals at universities, newspaper and magazine editorial departments and think tanks--still embrace the prejudiced notion that individualism is something that produces acrimony within human communities. They, therefore, never miss the opportunity to denigrate it, to besmirch it, as if it and not its opposite, namely, collectivism (in all its forms) were the real scourge.

Senator Obama could in fact be a major influence both at home and abroad in spreading Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous doctrine about what should really count as we think about human beings, namely, "the content of [their] character." Each person ought, accordingly, be judged as an individual who either possesses or lacks admirable character traits, never mind all the talk about "identity" and even "culture." Those are very divisive aspects of anyone when treated as prominent.

So although most thinking Europeans, contrary to Ms. Neiman, do embrace Senator Obama as America's next president, they do it mostly for what might be considered a sort of reverse racism: he is going to make it appear that race no longer matters. If it were only true! For that what we need is for a figure like Senator Obama to discuss racism in more fundamental terms than he has done so far.