Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gift Ideas for Cyber Monday

Black Friday is past.  It seems to have begun this year on Thursday, Thanksgiving.  Merchants are happy because their sales receipts for Black Friday 2010 have outpaced those of Black Friday 2009.

Increased sales of push-up bras and other lingerie items tend to indicate a recovery in the retail sector, and, reports Reuters,

Total retail traffic will have risen 8.7 percent to 212 million shoppers from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, compared with the same period in 2009, according to the survey from the National Retail Federation.

Shoppers will have spent $45 billion online and in stores over the four days, according to the survey, which includes estimated spending for Sunday. That compares with $41.2 billion in 2009.

Spending per person rose to $365.34 from $343.31 a year earlier, NRF said.
Tomorrow, November 29, is the much-vaunted Cyber Monday, when workers return to their jobs from the four-day weekend and begin using their office computers to shop on line (the honorable ones only during their lunch hours), ordering gifts for themselves and loved ones.

In between came a new shoppers' holiday called "Small Business Saturday."  The idea of that one is that consumers should visit local mom-and-pop shops and buy things there.  Even government officials got into the act.  Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, according to the AP, urged Old Dominion shoppers to patronize local small businesses.
The Republican governor says small business accounts for 98% of all businesses in Virginia, and for 75% of job growth.

He said doing your holiday shopping Saturday supports what he calls the "lifeblood of Virginia."
For my part, I visited four local businesses on Saturday:  Carter Mountain Orchard, The C'ville Market, McDonald's, and Walmart.

Lest you object that eating at McDonald's and buying things at Walmart betray the spirit of "Small Business Saturday," keep in mind that both McDonald's and Walmart started out as small businesses, respectively six and five decades ago.  And for those of you who found this blog post through the most pervasive global business of them all, Google, it's good to remember that the search engine giant did not exist even 15 years ago.

The best lessons about how small businesses succeed and grow, I suggest the South Park episodes "Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes" (Season 8) and "Gnomes" (Season 2).

That second episode contains a speech about free enterprise that would put Howard Roark to shame.  As Robert Arp writes in his book, South Park and Philosophy:
In the spirit of libertarianism, Kyle proclaims something rarely heard on television outside of a John Stossel report:  "Big corporations are good.  Because without big corporations we wouldn't have things like cars and computers and canned soup."  And Stan comes to the defense of the dreaded Harbucks:  "Even Harbucks started off as a small, little business.  But because it made such great coffee, and because they ran their business so well, they managed to grow until they became the corporate powerhouse it is today.  And that is why we should all let Harbucks stay."
In short, today's small business -- or even a yet-unrealized business concept -- may be tomorrow's behemoth, and that's good for consumers, for workers, for entrepreneurs, and for stockholders.

Looking forward to tomorrow, however, I would like to make a few suggestions for Cyber Monday purchases, whether something self-indulgent or something that will be a stocking-stuffer for St. Nicholas Day or gift under the tree on Christmas. (You may want to order expedited delivery if you're buying Chanukah presents. The Festival of Lights begins on December 1 this year.)

Let me begin by recommending the four best books that I have read in the past year.  Three are non-fiction, one is fiction.  I regret not having written full-length reviews of these books yet, but I may get around to it eventually.

By far my favorite book of 2010 has been Daniel Okrent's Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  The title is self-explanatory but completely understates the rich lode of historical matter that Okrent has gathered between the book's covers.  I thought I knew the story of Prohibition, and I was wrong.  So many rich details had slipped my notice over the years, including the seminal work of Wayne B. Wheeler, the pre-eminent lobbyist for Prohibition, who basically invented grass-roots political organizing and direct-mail fundraising years before Marvin Liebman, Richard Viguerie, or

Neither did I know how the forces of Prohibition had undermined the Constitution by preventing for a full decade the mandated reapportionment following the 1920 census, because those favoring Prohibition knew that a Congress that more accurately represented cities, suburbs, and recent immigrants would be less inclined to support stiff enforcement of the Volstead Act and would be more inclined to move toward full repeal of the 18th Amendment.  As a result of the manipulation of Wheeler and others, the Congress elected in 1930 represented the same districts as their predecessors did in 1912, a clear violation of the Constitution.

What's more, Okrent did some digging and discovered no evidence for the widely-held belief that the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a bootlegger.  Though Kennedy had imported liquor legally at just about the time that repeal seemed inevitable, there simply is no documentary proof that he had imported illegal liquor during Prohibition.  The rumor that the senior Kennedy had been a bootlegger, and had built his family's fortune on that, seems to have begun sometime in the 1950s and, as Okrent points out, if any evidence had existed prior to that date, Kennedy -- who had many enemies in business and politics -- would certainly have been called out on it.

Another book of history that I really enjoyed was Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market:  Ayn Rand and the American Right.  Burns, who teaches at the University of Virginia, wrote a page-turner about the Objectivist philosopher and novelist's life.

That may be hard to believe, since the outlines of Rand's career are so well-known, given previous biographies and memoirs.  Somehow, however, Burns is able to keep the reader's attention.  As I read along through the book, I kept saying to myself, "I know what happens next, but I want to find out how it happens."

Burns was the first outside scholar to be given access to Rand's personal papers and library, and the result of her research is a highly readable yet informative chronicle, not only of Rand's life but of her influence on the American conservative and libertarian movements. 

Over the course of the past eleven or twelve months, I have had at least three opportunities to see Burns speak:  once at the Miller Center, once at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and once at a forum she assembled on the idea of "liberaltarianism," or the cooperation between libertarians and liberals in the public square.  On two occasions, I was able to interview her about Ayn Rand and about her book.

In the world of entertainment, it was my pleasure last month to see TV's Craig Ferguson perform his stand-up act at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville.

In anticipation of that show, I read Ferguson's own autobiography, American on Purpose:  The Improbably Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

As the title implies, the story culminates in Ferguson's decision to become an American citizen.  I was actually a bit disappointed that, for all the detail about his life and "adventures" earlier in the book, the section on the naturalization process was thin.  It certainly was not as complete as the reports Ferguson gave about it on The Late, Late Show on CBS while he was going through it.  (That included numerous offers of "honorary citizenship" from state governors, including a then-unknown-outside-Alaska Sarah Palin, whom Ferguson described at the time as something of a "sexy librarian.")

Still, Ferguson's chronicle of his life growing up in a lower-middle-class household near Glasgow in the 1960s and '70s, his love affair with the United States that began upon his first visit here at the age of 13, his early life as a drunk and drug addict, his first attempts at performing (which began with him as the drummer for a punk rock band, leading to a stand-up act as the character "Bing Hitler") that included encounters with other beginners like U2 and Alan Cumming, through his long-term engagement as a regular on The Drew Carey Show and finally, his becoming the best of the late-night talk show hosts (in my opinion, at least).

After Ferguson's performance at the Paramount in Charlottesville, I noticed his tour bus was still parked out back and, curious, I found a cadre of fans standing outside, waiting for the star to emerge.  Sure enough, only a few minutes later, he came out of the stage door and signed a few autographs and posed for a few photographs.  Luckily for me and Steven Latimer, who was with me that night, Craig let us pose with him in the very last shot taken that night.  Naturally, I posted it on Facebook as soon as we got home.  It appears here for the first time outside a social networking context.

As the picture was being snapped, I said to Craig, "You're the smartest host on late-night TV," to which he replied:  "That's like being a tall midget."  Maybe so, but I stand by my statement.

For what it's worth, I also purchased Ferguson's novel, Between the Bridge and the River, on that night at the Paramount.  I have not yet had a chance to read it.

I don't read much fiction, in general, but when I received a review copy of James Magruder's Sugarless, I simply could not put it down.

It has been almost a year since I read the book, but I still think about it because it resonates with my personal experience so much:  not in every aspect, but hitting a sufficient number of points on the matrix to make me believe it.

Sugarless is the story of Rick, a 15-year-old high school student in suburban Chicago during the mid-1970s who, almost purely by chance, ends up on the speech team and finds out he has a talent for dramatic interpretation (or dramatic interp, for those in the know).

Magruder's verisimilitude about high school forensics struck me more than anything else in the book, even the parts about the protaganist's struggle with coming out as gay in an era far less accepting of that than it is now.  His descriptions of the scenes at speech tournaments are amazingly accurate, and his portrayals of coaches and competitors are eerily familiar to me.

The one detail that other readers might find difficult to believe is the choice of the protaganist's speech coach to have him do an excerpt from Mart Crowley's play, The Boys in the Band.  People unfamiliar with high school forensics may think that a play about gay men would be off-limits, especially in 1976, and especially in the American Midwest.

The truth is, a cutting from The Boys in the Band was circulating at that time, and my own coach asked me to do it.  For reasons unrelated to the content of the piece, I ended up doing a different selection.  (If I recall correctly, it was the courtroom scene in A Man for All Seasons, a far more conventional choice.)  So I can testify against the doubters that an excerpt from The Boys in the Band was, indeed, being performed on the high school forensics circuit in the mid-1970s.

Having just seen the excellent documentary about Crowley and his play, Making the Boys, at the Virginia Film Festival, my memories of reading Sugarless earlier this year and my own experience in high school rushed back to me.  I recommend Sugarless to anyone who has competed in speech and debate or to anyone who was once a gay teenager.  It's an excellent book, and a compelling read -- a real achievement for a first-time novelist, even one who, like Magruder, is an accomplished playwright and translator.

I had planned to list a few novelty items here to round out this list of suggestions for Cyber Monday gifts, but these four books probably do the job.

In any event, has set up a whole page of links aimed at the Cyber Monday shopper.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The 'Next Big Thing in Economics'? Three Views

What is the “next big thing” in economics? What is it that non-economists know nothing about today but that everyone will be talking about in five or ten years?

I posed this question to three young economists following a panel discussion at George Mason University featuring three Nobel laureates: Amartya Sen, Elinor Ostrom, and James Buchanan.

The September 9 event honored Buchanan, one of the founders of “Virginia School” or public-choice economics, who taught at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville before settling at George Mason (located in Fairfax, Virginia) in the 1980s.

The tribute attracted numerous professional economists, academics, and students interested in hearing about Buchanan’s contributions to social philosophy and political economy.

In addition to Buchanan's fellow Nobel prize winners, the program included encomia from GMU’s former law school dean, Henry Manne, and the current chairman of the university’s economics department, Daniel Houser, among others, as well as an opportunity for university President Alan Merten to show off a new conference facility.

Garett Jones
Garett Jones is assistant professor of economics at George Mason University as well as BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at the Mercatus Center, which is headquartered at GMU's Arlington Campus near Virginia Square. His current research, he said, is about “why IQ matters more for nations than for individuals.”

He noted that “a person’s individual IQ has a very weak relationship and very small effect on their adult wages, but it seems as though a nation’s average IQ -- how people do on conventional IQ tests, on average -- is a really great predictor of how rich or poor that country is.” He described this as “quite a robust finding” and he is trying to discover “why that’s true.”

Jones’ prediction of what the “next big thing” comes from a different part of the field, however.

“This idea of balance sheets and net worth is being a big part of business cycles, is a really big deal,” he said.

Jones pointed to a review by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells of Richard C. Koo’s book, The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics: Lessons from Japan’s Great Recession, in the September 30 issue of the New York Review of Books, describing it as “this book that’s been kicking around for a little bit” as giving “some attention” to the topic.

Discussions like these, Jones said, are “trying to bring [Federal Reserve chairman] Ben Bernanke’s research into the broader public light,” such as ideas about “what makes it possible for us to trust each other, what makes it possible for firms to lend to individuals, [and] for investors to lend to banks.” What is necessary to make these things possible, he explained, “is that you want to lend to people who have a high net worth, people who have sound balance sheets.”

What’s “floating around,” he said, is “the idea that we’re in a so-called ‘balance sheet recession,’” yet, he added, “the absolute centrality of healthy balance sheets of individuals, of firms, [and] of governments, is something that has not made it [into] the mainstream.”

“Five years from now,” Jones said, “we’ll take it for granted in a way that don’t at all today.”

Margaret Polski
For her part, Margaret Polski of the Mercatus Center pointed to new forecasting tools that are becoming available to economists.

“The real problem that we have in economics,” Polski said, “is that we can’t forecast the things that are really interesting and really important: changes in the business cycle, when we’re going up, when we’re going down. We can’t forecast when we have shocks, big price changes, and catastrophic events.”

Polski offered the example of “the Congressional Budget Office’s record in forecasting and the error in their forecasts,” for which there’s a record dating back to 1976.

In six of the last 13 years, she said, the CBO’s forecasts have been “significantly off.”

It doesn’t end there, however, she added.

“It’s not just the CBO, it’s not just the Office of Management and Budget, it’s also the private sector economic forecasters. The practical matter is that our current tools for forecasting don’t serve us well.

“What you’re going to be hearing over the coming years,” Polski continued, “is the use of complex systems tools, agent-based models to help us develop a better understanding of what’s really happening at a micro level and how that translates into macro impacts.”

That she said, is “where I think it’s going. That’s what I think is interesting and cool.”

Polski noted that,” thanks to the most recent financial regulatory reform, we have an office of financial research,” which means that, “for the first time, we’ll actually be able to collect data. Researchers will be able to get their hands on this data and start putting these tools to work.”

These tools, she said, “will help us really imagine futures that we otherwise would have a hard time imagining, [and] imagine scenarios that are otherwise difficult for us to imagine,” so that we then “can think about what is the impact of our policy decisions in a different way that we’re able to do right now.”

The new tools, Polski emphasized, are “agent-based tools” and therefore more individualized and focused than traditional forecasting models.

“The reason the macro models don’t predict” as well, she explained, “is they’re based on historical data and they’re based on big patterns and big trends and the fact of the matter is that individuals matter, small groups matter.”

This is a point often lost on those engaged in traditional macroeconomic analysis, “because agents and small collectives of agents really do matter.”

Using the new tools, she said, these agents will not “lose that power; it’s that we don’t understand their power. That’s why our forecasts are wrong and they’re wrong in ways that cause us to make bad policy.”

The real challenge, Polski explained, “has always been to integrate micro and macro.”

In the economics profession, she pointed out, “there have always been microeconomists and macroeconomists, and never the twain shall meet,” with one exception.

“Theoretically, they meet in industrial organization theory, but that’s just not enough, because that’s very focused on business and on the structure of industrial markets. That’s not really what we’re talking about.”

What we are really talking about, Polski said, is “trying to bring those analytical tools together to understand how individual actions and small collectivities can produce macro patterns, and how there can be disruptive, unpredictable, non-linear events that occur.”

Once these tools are widely available, predictions will become more accurate and that, according to Margaret Polski, is the next big thing in economics.

Peter Boettke
Recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal as “the intellectual standard-bearer for the Austrian school of economics,” Peter Boettke teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and conducts research there and at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, across the river from Washington, D.C.

Boettke singled out the work of Ostrom and Buchanan, particularly their ideas “about the nature of democracy and citizenry,” that democracy is more than just voting but more active participation, and exploring the preconditions for that.

Elinor Ostrom’s husband, Vincent Ostrom, Boettke said, “wrote a wonderful book called The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies. It’s a very densely written book, so it doesn’t have the sort of popular sway that it should,” but it establishes the way to think about “those conditions about what it means to be a citizen, or what they call an artisan-citizen.”

Following on the work of the Ostroms and Buchanan, he continued, “We’re now examining those things: how it is that you create or cultivate (educationally) individuals [so they] can become self-governing citizens or their own participants within the democratic process.”

That idea, Boettke said, “is going to get more and more explored,” and Ostrom’s Nobel Prize and other events mean that it is “going to capture the imagination of a lot of scholars [in] what Amartya Sen [calls] the ‘public reason project.'”

Looking at another discipline, Boettke noted, “if you read in philosophy, a lot of people in philosophy now are calling for an idea of ‘public reason.’ I think that idea is something that no one knows about now, but ten years from now, people will all know about it and think back, ‘When the hell did they get started thinking about that?’”

One of the developments that excites Boettke is the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of economic research and theory.

“There’s a rising trend of programs in philosophy, politics, and economics,” he said, and that is a return to “what actually took place back at the end of the nineteenth century.”

Boettke explained:

“You can think about modern economics as an hourglass shape. You start with really broad questions and then, as we believed that the role of the economist was to be a technical expert, the questions narrowed, but then we found out we knew more and more about less and less.”

Consequently, he said, “we had to open the questions up again. We opened them up to sociology, to psychology, to philosophy, to politics, so as a result the hourglass goes narrow and then widens up, and we’re at that point of the widening up.”

Boettke pointed out that “the financial crisis is a perfect example of this, because you can’t just answer it as a technician in economics. It’s a question about the legal and political rules, the culture of Wall Street.”

Citing Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, which he called “fascinating,” Boettke explained that “economists normally don’t look at those things, but now we have to. What are the implicit rules that are going on? What do these people believe that they are doing?”

Animated and smiling, Boettke returned to his hourglass analogy and concluded: “We started out, we got very narrow, we didn’t go anywhere -- or it didn’t really help – [and] now we’re opening up again.”

(This article originally appeared in three parts on on September 20September 21, and September 23, 2010.)

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Documentary Explores Cultural Impact of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about growing up amidst racism and intolerance in the Depression-era Deep South.

Independent filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy has produced a documentary called Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, which was screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on November 7.

Murphy has also written a companion book, Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the interviews she did for the film with fans of the novel (and the subsequent 1962 Oscar-winning film) such as Oprah Winfrey, historian Diane McWhorter, novelists Scott Turow and Wally Lamb, veteran television journalist Tom Brokaw, and people from Harper Lee’s life, including her elder sister, 99-year-old Alice Lee. (Harper Lee herself has not granted an interview since 1964.)

Why the Novel Remains Popular
To Kill a Mockingbird remains as popular as it is, particularly among teachers who assign it to their classes year after year, because the novel “novel is about so many things, and it means so many different things to different people,” Murphy told me in the lobby of the Regal Cinemas on Charlottesville's downtown mall after her film was screened.

“It has indelible characters,” she said, and “it has a social message without being preachy.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is “about race, of course,” Murphy added, but it’s also “about class. It’s about justice; it’s about tolerance. It’s also about childhood; it’s about love; it’s about loneliness -- and it’s an incredible novel of suspense.”

Impact on Civil Rights
The book also had an impact on the civil rights movement, which gained steam shortly after its publication and especially after the movie version, starring Gregory Peck as small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, who is assigned to defend a black man against false charges of raping a white woman.

Murphy explained that just as an earlier “successful model,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “gave abolitionists fuel in the Civil War, many people have said that To Kill a Mockingbird provided important ammunition in the civil rights movement.”

The fact that the book “was written by a young white woman from the Deep South,” Murphy continued, did a lot “in ways that no treatise, no newspaper editorial, no politician could do.”

The reason, she said, was that To Kill a Mockingbird “was art, it was popular, it was told from the point of view of a child, and it allowed white Southerners and Northerners and everyone else to question the system and the way it was.”

While Murphy's documentary film, Hey, Boo, does not yet have a distributor, Murphy hopes that it may be broadcast as early as January or February 2011, perhaps as part of the “American Masters” series on PBS, with the possibility that it will be available on DVD or in cinemas sometime after it airs on television.

Fortunately, Scout, Atticus & Boo, Murphy’s companion book, was published by HarperCollins in May and is available in bookstores and through and other on-line booksellers.

(This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, on on November 15, 2010.)

Video of Mary Murphy's Q&A with the audience after the screening of Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, is below.  There are three segments, each about 10 minutes in length.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III

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Stanley Nelson discusses his new documentary film, ‘Freedom Riders’

Director Stanley Nelson
“What the civil rights movement did,” reflected documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, was to force people “to make a choice.  You couldn’t ignore it anymore.  It was stuff that was on the front page, it was in your face, you had to choose: which way are you going?”

Nelson, whose new film, Freedom Riders, was screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on November 5, made his comments in a panel discussion following the screening. 

Other participants in the discussion were civil-rights activists Joan Mulholland of Arlington County and Dion Diamond and the Rev. Reginald Green of Washington, who were among the original “freedom riders” of 1961.  The panel was moderated by Larry Sabato of the UVA Center for Politics.

Effective engagement of the news media
In response to a question from Sabato, Nelson pointed out how the civil rights movement’s strategy of engaging the news media was slow in emerging but eventually “incredibly effective.”

During the 1961 freedom rides, he said, “the media’s role really changed.”

When the freedom rides started in May of that year, “there was no media coverage except the black press,” such as the Washington/Baltimore Afro-American and Johnson Publications (Ebony and Jet), which each had a “representative on the ride.”

The rest of the news media, however, “totally ignored the rides and there was no media coverage at all,” Nelson said, which caused difficulty for him and his team of filmmakers, because there was a dearth of archival material from the early part of the freedom ride phenomenon.

What changed “by the end of the freedom rides,” he explained, was that there were “400 people coming in [and] that was a huge news story, so you had the nightly news and you have all the print journalists and camera people there.”

By mid-summer, the news media was reacting to the civil rights movement’s strategy “to hold the front page” for at least five days at a time, to keep people’s attention on the issue so that it became “impossible to ignore.”

Making a choice
In researching the freedom rides, Nelson explained, “one of the fascinating things that we found making the film was that” in the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi), “there was a very small percentage of people of white people who supported integration -- a tiny percentage [of] 1, 2, 3 percent.”

At the other extreme, he said, “there was another small percentage of people who were violent racists, maybe 10 [or] 15 percent.”

That meant, he explained, that “the rest of the people, 80-85 percent, just were able to kind of go on, and ignore what was going on” – hence his remark that the civil rights movement, in general, and the freedom rides, in particular, forced people to make a choice about which way to go.

How ‘Freedom Riders’ became a film
After the panel ended, Nelson told me that the Freedom Riders project came to him while he “was working on a film for ‘American Experience’ called Wounded Knee.”

The producers “called and said that they had purchased this book, Freedom Riders by Ray Arsenault, and would I take a look at it [because] they’re thinking of making it into a film.”

Nelson “said yes without even getting the book,” because he “knew a little bit about the story and realized it would be great, so that’s how that happened.”

Making the film took about 18 months from start to finish, Nelson explained.  It will be broadcast on PBS as part of the “American Experience” series in May 2011, “which is the 50th anniversary of the freedom rides.” 

Currently, Nelson is showing Freedom Riders at film festivals and also at schools, including a screening at Charlottesville High School earlier this month.  In addition, some college students will be recreating the freedom rides next year as part of a fiftieth anniversary commemoration that will also promote the film.

Video from the Virginia Film Festival's panel discussion about Freedom Riders, sponsored by the UVA Center for Politics, is below.

(This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, on on November 18, 2010.)

Video, Part I - Recorded at the Culbreth Theatre on the grounds of the University of Virginia on Friday, November 5, 2010.

Larry Sabato introduces the panel:

Video, Part II

Video, Part III

Video, Part IV, in which Larry Sabato poses the question about the news media:

Video, Part V:

Video, Part VI
, in which the Reverend Reginald Green -- who in junior high was the lead singer in a group that included Marvin Gaye -- leads the crowd in a rendition of "We Shall Not Be Moved":
As noted above, Freedom Riders, the film, will be aired on PBS stations as part of the "American Experience" series in May 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

NOTE:  In 2009, the UVA Center for Politics sponsored a screening and panel discussion at the Virginia Film Festival about another milestone in the civil rights era called Locked Out:  The Fall of Massive Resistance.  That panel included former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and several survivors of the shutdown of government schools in the Commonwealth:  Rita Moseley of Prince Edward County, Donald Martin of Charlottesville, Michael Jones of Arlington County, Delores Brown of Norfolk, and Faye Coleman Hoes of Warren County.

Update, May 10, 2011:  PBS has announced that Stanley Nelson's documentary film, Freedom Riders, will be broadcast on public television stations beginning Monday, May 16, 2011, as part of the American Experience series.  Check your local listings.

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The End of 'Liberty'? Not Exactly...

Generally, receiving unexpected money in the mail is something to celebrate.

When I found a check for $30.55 in my mailbox early last week, however, it was a bittersweet event.

Why was that?  It marked the end of an era.  The check was the refund on the remainder of my subscription to Liberty magazine, which is switching to an exclusively on-line format starting in 2011.  The print version of the magazine will be no more.

I have been reading Liberty since about 1990.  It is always a delight, especially when I begin -- as I invariably do -- with the feature on the last page, "Terra Incognita," a collection of oddities from the world press, showcasing strange behavior by governments and political elites, and sometimes just strange behavior, full stop.  The additional short items in the front of the book, under the heading of "Reflections," may represent the first group blog -- having existed for years, if not decades, before the concept of "group blog" ever manifested itself.

Editor-in-chief Stephen Cox also has a monthly column on the abuses of language that can be thoughtful and provocative, often bringing me to say, "Yes, I get peeved about that, too; I'm glad I'm not the only one."

Though not an organ of the Libertarian Party, Liberty has often been the only publication that treats the LP both seriously and critically, serving not as a cheerleader (though the magazine and the party have clearly been on the same side in the struggle against statism) but often as a gently chiding friend.  For example, the founding editor, the late R.W. Bradford, ran a series of articles about a decade ago calling attention to alleged malfeasance on the part of LP executives and officials in the campaigns of Harry Browne, who was the LP nominee for president in 1996 and 2000.  This investigative journalism led to better management of the party.

Liberty also offered book and movie reviews from a libertarian perspective, recollections of the early days of the libertarian movement, and lots of articles about Ayn Rand and her disciples.

I was lucky enough to be published in Liberty, at least once -- a review of Paulina Borsook's book, Cyberselfish, which I found to be a caricature, rather than a serious exploration, of libertarian thought and libertarians.

I am sure that I will occasionally visit Liberty's web site to keep up with all the writers whom I've come to enjoy, but unless I receive regular email, Twitter, or Facebook updates reminding me to do so, I'm afraid I will be neglectful.  (That's how I end up visiting the web sites of Reason and The Freeman several times a week.)

The print edition, with Liberty's plain appearance and rich content, will be missed.  In the meantime, I have dozens of copies strewn around my house.  Since they all look alike, I can pick up any one of them, ignore the date on the cover, and pretend it's new.  Even if it's not, I'm bound to learn something.
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Opt-Out Alliance and Traveler's Rights Card

Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, who was the 2008 presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, has launched a new activist group called the Opt-Out Alliance, in reaction to the assault on our liberties by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). 

The Opt-Out Alliance joins the Rutherford Institute, Republican Liberty Caucus, Libertarian Party, and countless other civil-liberties organizations, tea-party groups, and incensed individuals who are not just complaining, but acting on their anger with regard to the TSA's overreach (and underreach, for those whose nether regions have been patted down).

Reports of TSA agents removing the clothing of small boys, letting a man soak in his own urine after they punctured his urostomy bag, and forcing women to detach their prosthetic breasts have raised the ire of fair-minded citizens everywhere.

The Opt-Out Alliance, which states its mission as "fighting for basic dignity and decency for air travelers," provides its members with a wallet-sized card that explains your rights as a citizen against unreasonable searches.

According to the group's web site:
The cards provide you with:
-- The appropriate steps to Opt Out of TSA Full-Body Scanners and "enhanced" pat downs.
-- Information on how to file an official complaint -- on the spot.
-- A traveler's Hotline Number to report your experience to the media.
The Opt-Out Alliance is riding a tide of righteous discontent. Not only travelers, but Americans in general are finally waking up to the fact that the government wants to upend the principles of a democratic republic: It wants to cow us into submission and make us obey it, rather than the proper form in which government obeys us.

Benjamin Franklin's warning about giving up essential liberty for temporary safety has never been more appropriate, and more necessary, than it is today.

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Remembering David Nolan

It's eerie and it's sad.

On Friday, sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., David Nolan added me as a friend on Facebook.

By Saturday evening, David Nolan had passed away.

The founder of the Libertarian Party and the creator of the paradigm-shifting Nolan Chart was killed in a car crash in Arizona, apparently caused by Nolan's suffering a stroke while behind the wheel.  He was 66 years old.  Tomorrow would have been his 67th birthday.

Although I only met Nolan a few times during my years as a Libertarian Party activist in the early and mid-1990s, his influence on me (and others) was strong.  Dave Weigel explains that Nolan played a moderating and conciliatory role at sometimes raucous LP gatherings, including the contentious 2008 presidential nominating convention:
I met Nolan in 2008, while covering the Libertarian Party convention for Reason -- in Denver, again -- and liked him instantly. He was a center of calm in the middle of an rough and media-grabbing battle for the heart of the party. He calmed the occasional (okay, frequent) sense that the nomination of one candidate or another would destroy the LP by praising all of the candidates and telling the losers to suck it up. He did not seem like a man who was retiring from politics, so I wasn't surprised to see him make one last hopeless run for office as a Libertarian, campaigning against John McCain in this year's U.S. Senate race.
I won't repeat the oft-told tale of how the Libertarian Party was started in David Nolan's living room in Denver in 1971, a reaction to the Nixon administration's decision to impose wage and price controls on the American economy.

I wasn't there, but it's amazing that a then-27-year-old political activist could almost singlehandedly establish a political party that would later have tens of thousands of members (and ex-members), lead to the election of hundreds of public officials across the country, and spread the message of libertarianism during political campaigns, when voters tend to be paying closer attention to issues.

During the 1996 LP convention in Washington, there was a commemoration of the founding of the party, which that year was celebrating its 25th anniversary.  In one of the meeting halls of the Washington Convention Center, a recreation of Nolan's Denver living room served as a stage for early LP members to reminisce about the founding.  Nolan participated, as did 1972 vice-presidential candidate Tonie Nathan (the first woman ever to receive a vote in the Electoral College), and Pennsylvania LP activist Don Ernsberger, who recalled that he used a mailing list of about 50 people to recruit members to the new party, and at the time he thought the list included every libertarian in the United States.

An underestimate, to be sure.

Unfortunately, nobody had thought to record the recollections of the early LP leaders, either on video or on audio.  An opportunity for a lasting oral history of the founding was lost, except in the memories of the hundreds of LP members who were there that day.

Even if Nolan had not been one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, his legacy would be secure simply in his creation of what is now universally known as the "Nolan Chart."  He helped us break out of the constraints of a paradigm that insisted upon a two-dimensional, right/left political spectrum and demonstrated that the way people really think about politics is three-dimensional -- not just right/left, but also up/down.

I have used the Nolan Chart, and the accompanying World's Smallest Political Quiz (developed by the late Marshall Fritz), when I lecture to college classes about libertarianism.  It's a good way to break the ice and also to explain how libertarians do not fit into a two-sizes-fit-all liberal/conservative mold.

I have also used the Nolan Chart and the WSPQ in an Operation Politically Homeless display at county fairs (with the LP), at Republican gatherings (with the Republican Liberty Caucus), and at gay pride festivals (with Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty).  The chart and the quiz are both effective conversation-starters and also good recruiting tools.  It's always amusing to see some Republican finding out he's not conservative, or some Democrat finding out she's not liberal.  On more than one occasion, I've observed (metaphorical) steam coming out of someone's ears when he discovers he's a statist or -- far more often -- a satisfied smile upon learning that he's a libertarian.

Countless members of the Libertarian Party and other libertarian -- small-L -- groups have joined the movement upon taking the quiz and seeing their dot on the Nolan Chart.

In a note sent late last night (or quite early this morning) to members of the Libertarian Party of Virginia, longtime LPVA activist Marc Montoni wrote:
There is not a person who has been involved in our organization who wasn't touched by the life of David Nolan. He helped build our political home and devoted decades of his life to its guidance and service. Nolan's work has influenced the lives of millions of people through the thousands of small and large successes that the Libertarian Party has had in its four decades of existence. If Libertarians hit the streets to protest a tax increase, it was Nolan's creation that brought them together. If a Libertarian is among the nearly 1,000 people who have won election to public office, it was Nolan's creation that helped staff the campaign team.
Other tributes to David Nolan have been posted on the Libertarian Party's blog.

Nolan's final act of political activism took place on Facebook shortly before he died. He expressed a wish that, to celebrate his birthday on November 23, friends and acquaintances should make financial donations to the Advocates for Self-Government.

As one of his friends noted on that Facebook page, what a fitting tribute it would be if that request for contributions turned into a moneybomb for the Advocates.

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