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Works and Days

Why Aren’t We No. 1?

April 6th, 2014 - 11:04 pm
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The end of Route One, Key West, Florida.

 

There is a pastime among liberal pundits — the latest is Nicholas Kristof — to quote a new center left global ranking (with unbiased titles such as “The Social Progress Imperative”) and then to decry that the United States is behind its major industrial competitors in things like “Internet Access” and “Ecosystem sustainability.” The subtext of these rants is that an illiberal, reactionary U.S. does not spend enough on government entitlements to promote parity, equality and social justice among its citizenry. These pessimistic rankings increase the angst about the American condition when viewed from scowling perches in Washington or New York.

Not surprisingly, the winners in these periodic gloomy assessments are usually smaller or intermediate quasi-socialist nations, with mostly homogeneous ethnic and religious populations (e.g., Switzerland, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, etc.). And the result is that Americans are scolded to tone down their pride at being exceptional and to begin to emulate such supposedly more livable societies.

Yet I suppose that if you were to assess, say, the mostly 5.6 million homogenously well off Californians, who lived within 10 miles of the coast, from San Diego to Berkeley, they would compare quite nicely with Denmark. Or for that matter, should the Danish system be applied to 300 million in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, I also think that they would sink a bit in terms of social progress.

The criteria by which America is to be judged are often both biased and historically ignorant. Why not rank the United States in comparison with other similarly huge countries that span three time zones, and include in their enormous populations radically different ethnic and religious groups?

How about comparing America to countries that, like the U.S., have vast territories and diverse populations over 200 million — China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil? How would such nations stack up to the U.S, in terms of corruption, health care, pollution, freedom of the individual, treatment of women and gays, religious tolerance, or other criteria of “social progress?” Is there a global assessment of coups and revolutions per nation, or contrarily the longest sustained democracy?

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The 4th Annual Silicon Valley Rubber Duck Race in Vasona Lake Park on June 12, 2011, in Los Gatos, California.

If only people had to live in the world that they dreamed of for others.

Endangered species everywhere are supposed to be at risk — except birds of prey shredded by wind turbine farms, or reptilian habitats harmed by massive solar farms. High-speed rail is great for utopian visionaries — except don’t dare start it in the Bay Area, when there are yokels aplenty down in Hanford to experiment on. Let’s raise power bills to the highest levels in the country with all sorts of green mandates — given that we live in 70-degree year-round temperatures, while “they” who are stupid enough to dwell in 105-degree Bakersfield deserve the resulting high power bills. We need cheap labor, open borders, multiculturalism, and identity politics, but not too near my kids’ Santa Monica or Atherton prep schools. I like my beamer in La Jolla and my Mercedes in Menlo Park, but not the fracking that might provide cheaper gas for Juan and Jose who drive a used 10-year-old Yukon 40 miles to work in Mendota.

Appreciate these contradictions of the liberal elite mind and the current California drought is logical rather than aberrant.

In this third year of California drought, perhaps 500,000 acres of farmland will lie idle for lack of water. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be sunk into lowering wells, as the aquifer dives, when too many straws compete for too little water at the bottom of the glass. There are reasons why a drought threatens existential ruin in the billions of dollars rather than mere hardship. Our forefathers 50 years ago knew well the ancient California equation: a) California’s population always grows; b) 80% of the state wishes to live where 20% of the rain falls; c) therefore, to ensure that the normal cycles of drought do not prove fatal to commerce and agriculture, man must transfer water from the north to the south of the state.

Unlike 1976-77, there are no longer just 23 million Californians, but 40 million. But unlike the past, Californians in the 1970s gave up on completing the state California Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project that had supplemented the earlier Colorado River, Big Creek, and Hetch Hetchy water storage and transference efforts.

At some fateful moment in the 1970s, the other California on the coast, drunk with the globalized wealth that poured into Napa Valley, the Silicon Valley, the great coastal university nexuses at Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA and Caltech, the entertainment industry, the defense industry, and the financial industry decided that they had transcended the old warnings of more Californians needing far more water to survive more droughts. When you are rich, you can afford for the first time in your life to favor a newt with spots on his toes over someone else that lacks your money, clout, and sensitivities.

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Of Pre- and Postmodern Poseurs

March 23rd, 2014 - 4:44 pm
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Obama’s postmodernism has met its match in the premodern Putin.

Vladimir Putin thinks he has a winning formula to restore the global clout of the old Soviet Union. Contemporary Russia is a chaotic, shrinking, and petrodollar-fed kleptocracy. It certainly lacks the population, the vast resources, and territory of its former communist incarnation. For Putin, restoring a lot of the latter without necessarily the former failed communist state makes sense — especially if he can do it on the cheap with passive-aggressive diplomacy and not getting into a shooting war with the far more powerful U.S. If there is a downside for Putin annexing the Crimea in the short term, no one has yet to explain it.

To pull his aggression off, he has adopted most of the repertoire of the proverbial dictator. Threats of a preventative war are leveled, mostly to “protect” Russian-speaking minorities in former Soviet republics. Plebiscites follow, with the usual 90%-plus results. Thugs and goons are sent in to remind the population that the Russian army may follow.

Then Munich-like, compromise is offered to appease the “international community” — before the finale of carving out and annexing territory outright, with the trailer promise of having no more territorial demands in Europe. Putin has given speeches almost identical to Hitler’s 1938 Berlin address promising no more thefts in Europe and a new Germany without the shame of 1918.

Note the bullying nature of Putin. He prefers scanning westward to slice off parts of Georgia, Ukraine, and perhaps next the Baltic states rather than eastward to pick a border fight with, say, his neighbor China. He bets big-time that affluent and leisured Americans in the post-Iraq and -Afghanistan Age fear tough diplomacy as much as they do war, and thus skip the former in fear it might lead to the latter.

Putin provides the necessary premodern optics to match his muscle flexing. He is our modern Mussolini, with the bare chest, the hunting and fishing poses, the judo posturing, and all sorts of various helmets perched in planes and tanks. Putin believes his people would rather feel proud about increased international swagger than have access to universal health care or Head Start — in the manner that a cow-horned, long-ship raider kept power by reminding his otherwise impoverished Vikings that, beside greater stashes of loot, more people feared and honored them than ever before.

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Liberals and Their Uppity Enemies

March 16th, 2014 - 9:58 pm

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Why do liberals hate Sarah Palin? She has made far fewer gaffes than has Joe Biden, whose verbal mishaps have often been racist in nature. Is dropping your g’s worse than saying “corpse-men“? She does not believe that Canadians speak Canadian in the way the president thinks Austrians speak Austrian. Her life story is inspirational — working mom, without inherited privilege or capital, a successful pre-2008 tenure as an Alaska politician.

I think the animus — as opposed to just disagreement with her views — derives in part from the fact that she is vivacious and attractive in a fresh Sally Field sort of way, unlike the cheek-boned refinement of an Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Onassis. Or is it because her diction, syntax, and grammar (especially the use of the passive voice) resonate slightly lower middle-class America? She is what white grandees with real white privilege castigate as a beneficiary of white privilege that she never really had.

Much of the dislike is also because she is upbeat and unapologetic. She thinks America is a rare, good place and far better than the alternative. She is blunt about her values and politics, and does not seem to be skeptical, cynical, or ambivalent. Her “oh gosh” world is one of undisguised belief; she does not roll her eyes in David Letterman boredom. Nor does Palin adopt the Clinton on spec bite-the-lip, feel-your-pain anguish, clear evidence of the costs of feeling moral ambiguity.

To the degree she has any facial artifice, it is more likely a wink (but not in Jon Stewart fashion that you and she share private superiority over the yokels) than a John Kerry long face or the pained stutter of Barack Obama as his vast mind works so fast that his only too human lips cannot catch up.

In other words, to the liberal, who as Atlas carries the burdens of the world on his shoulders, she is one-dimensional, without nuance, and one of the clueless class in need of some pity — unless she dares rise up on her hind legs and walk with her betters. Palin so exasperates liberals that they are reduced to very illiberal, very aristocratic disdain for the way she dresses, the places she lives, and the sort of children she has raised. Middle-class white conservative Christian moms from Alaska are not what liberals mean when they talk of diversity. Palin is simply too uppity in liberal eyes.

Why do liberals despise Rush Limbaugh more so than, say, conservatives hate Bill Maher or Chris Matthews? Yes, he is vastly more successful and influential, and does them, as the president so frequently whines, a lot of political damage. Of course, the Left hates the fact that Limbaugh went from middle-class to a billionaire, and without the proper educational credentials and anguish along the way to contextualize his wealth. (Keeping millions of listeners entertained for three hours, 250 days a year, is supposedly easy; in contrast, teaching a graduate seminar fifteen times a semester on your dissertation is an ordeal, full of deep thinking and contemplative heavy lifting.)

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We keep hearing that Vladimir Putin is stupid. Does he not get that this is now the 21st century? No, he doesn’t.

The fool seems mired either in the 19th of the czars, or the 20th of Bolsheviks. He certainly does.

Didn’t Putin have to act to shore up falling domestic opinion? Maybe.

Does he not understand that he is alienating Europe? Who knows?

Does he know that absorbing the Crimea is a quagmire? Hardly at all.

Or that he has missed out on common areas of concern between Russia and the U.S.? Probably not.

Does he grasp that sanctions will hurt his vulnerable petrol kleptocracy? Or that what is left of the Ukraine will only become more pro-Western? Perhaps he will, at some far-off day.

Rightly call the Putins of the world thugs, short-sided, nihilistic, and savage. But all that and more do not necessarily translate into stupidity, at least as they see their Hobbesian world.

Can’t he see that we are well-intentioned?

How odd that we alone can fathom how this thug has squandered what little good accrued from his tropical winter Olympics. We alone know that his own planned summit might be spoiled, and needlessly so given his gratuitous invasion of Ukrainian territory. In short, by all our Western liberal calculations, if we were Putin we certainly would not do something not just renegade, but also so abjectly stupid as to enter the Ukraine.

Left unsaid, of course, is that we know that our own erstwhile “reset” intentions were designed to help Putin, so it is doubly maddening that he bites the outreached Western hand. A disappointed Barack Obama has dismissed Putin’s various photo-ups and melodramatic fits as “macho shtick” and analogous to the bored kid slouching in the back of the room — as if the frustrated teacher could not draw out the gangbanger who once showed so much hidden promise.

The problem with all this condescending advice about and to Putin is not just the conceit that he obviously must see the world — not to mention traditional Russian interests — as we quite understandably do, but that he must also see the U.S. and Europe as we see ourselves. I wish that he would, but I know of no evidence that he does or ever will.

No doubt Putin has shared interests in putting down radical Islamic terror. No doubt that a friendly EU means that his gas and oil exports have reliable markets. No doubt that friendship with the U.S. means one less danger from a nuclear-armed power.

But does Putin agree with such reasoned logic? Probably not.

How Putin sees us

He believes that the U.S. and Europe are wealthy and powerful, but also vulnerable societies who spend what they don’t have and either won’t invest in defense commensurately with their economic wealth or won’t necessarily use the power that they have invested in. Putin suspects that our media-hyped outrages usually subside in a few days, as Westerners move on to the next psychodramatic crisis.

It does not matter that those are gross distortions, unfair, or Neanderthal, it only matters that Putin seems to think them, and that he is not disabused of such conclusions by any evidence that we can adduce to the contrary — despite our rich menu of sermons, sanctions, boycotts, freezes, ostracisms, and shaming.

If there is a downside in alienating world opinion, or even if his new acquisitions cost more than they are worth, such calculations pale in comparison with his perceptions of an upside. Putin assumes the world, for all its pretensions, is amoral. He assumes it  looks up to states that show power and confidence rather than fairness and justice.

It matters little that his repulsive cynicism may well be wrong, only that such realpolitik guides his calculations. He thinks crudely slicing away portions of the former Soviet Union and adding them to the Russian Federation projects strength and concretely adds to the size of his own mostly failed state.

If these gambles may prove to be unwise long-term investments, to Putin — and no doubt to the Russian people who seems to admire his audacity — they are certainly wise short-term gambles. In Putin’s calculus, a vast and miserable but swaggering Russia is a far superior place to a small, humble, humane, prosperous Switzerland or Denmark.

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Meet President Bucky Brewster. You’ll like his style, even if MSNBC, NPR, PBS, CNN and Time magazine won’t.

Imagine if a hard-right-wing president were to follow Barack Obama and embrace the new precedents that Obama himself has established for the presidency. Would he then be seen as an unusually polarizing figure, who abused the power of his office? Let’s call him Bucky Brewster, the new Republican President from Montana.

Settled law?

President Bucky Brewster announces that he finds most of the Affordable Care Act patently unconstitutional. So he suspends all its timetables of implementation, stops the employer and individual mandates, and gives exemptions to big corporations, Tea Party groups, and the NRA. Brewster goes on to throw out Obama’s recently passed “comprehensive immigration reform” act, deporting at once four million illegal aliens and cancelling the Dream Act, remarking: “It contradicts prior law. The federal immigration law is the law.”

Brewster worries about the EPA a lot. So he decides that the Endangered Species Act is unconstitutional and a threat to property rights. He suspends enforcement of it indefinitely. Brewster also orders a regulatory raid on liberal Solaris, alleging that its solar panels will cause too much glare for private aviation pilots and are made of rare imported silica, and so shuts the company down. Brewster also advises Boeing that, if it were smart, it should leave Washington and go to a right-to-work state like Mississippi. Brewster also reminds that the Defense of Marriage Act has never been repealed and thus he outlaws all gay marriages “in accordance with settled law.”

What will MSNBC say? The abuse of power? Unconstitutional? Impeachment?

Appointments?

President Bucky Brewster wants to fundamentally transform America and so his appointments must reflect his conservative ideology. So he taps as green jobs czar an ad man for the oil companies who, we learn, is a “birther.” His new NASA director gives an interview pledging that the chief aim of the space agency is now to reach out to Christians abroad.

One of his communications directors praises the efficiency of Mussolini, who, she says, has always been her role model. His EPA director, who is a big Keystone pipeline booster, opens a fake email account to take the pulse of the pipeline debate — and has the EPA give an award to her alias!  He appoints as Treasury secretary Donald Trump, who confesses that he wrote off his kids’ camp fees as tax deductions and pocketed his FICA allotments. His new energy secretary, Billy Bob Fella, who drives a Hummer, announces: “We want gas prices to get down to around 70 cents a gallon, right down there to those Saudi or Kuwaiti levels. What a great way to save the planet by returning a little cash to the poor driver’s pocket.”

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Meet the Richerals

February 24th, 2014 - 1:41 pm

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The new millennium has also given us a new American profile — the hip richeral. Richerals are, of course, well off. But they are even more cool and liberal. The two facts are not so much incompatible, as complementary.

For some, big money allows three things: wealth’s cocoon enables you to dream safely about utopia rather than being laid off and broke; it exempts you from worrying much about the high taxes and regulations needed to pay for your redistributionist fantasy agendas; and it gives you the influence, capital, and opportunities to flee from the messy ramifications of your own ideology.

The other side of being liberal is just as important for the richerals. Guilt is a primordial human emotion — usually in civilization’s history assuaged by religion and the accompanying fear of damnation in the hereafter. But richerals are more likely than average to be either agnostic or atheistic. Yet that fact does not mean that they feel any less guilty about unfairness and inequality. So they do have deities of sorts — a hip Olympic pantheon of race, class, gender, and environmental gods. Their own privilege — be it the techie lifestyle of the Silicon Valley, the Ivy League quad, the Malibu gated estate, the Montana getaway, the Upper West Side ambiance — even under Obama just cannot yet be extended to everyone.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? How can a richeral be redistributionist and statist when such ideologies are targeted at one’s own cherished lifestyle? So penance, medieval exemption, and confessions step in as civilization’s age-old remedies for the guilt of such a pious sinner.

Wear jeans as you board your jet. Listen to rap as you review your stock options. Champion a baitfish. Hate Sarah Palin. Make Travyon into a symbol of resistance. Amnesty for your gardener and nannie alike. Being a richeral apparently means you never have to say you are sorry about the means you used to get your cash, why you mean to keep and expand it, and how you plan to pass it on to your richeral kids.

Barack Obama came to Fresno last week to address the drought. He did not mention the diversions over the last five years of precious irrigation water out to sea. Nor did he talk of any possible funding to build new mountain reservoirs. Instead, he talked mostly of climate change and some new federal loans to address it. We were to assume that both the record cold, ice, and snow back east (that the president fled from) and the record lack of rain here in the West were due to man-made global warming. In terms of “climate change” reductionism, anything counts — a drought or a monsoon, ice or fire, the doldrums or hurricanes, occurring on average, below average, or above average.

In other words, for Obama the drought was sort of like pushing radical new gun control laws in reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy: another occasion to demagogue a political agenda that most likely has nothing to do with addressing the problem at hand.

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Let’s Save California Now!

February 16th, 2014 - 3:41 pm

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Just a handful of legislative acts might still save California. Here are 12 brief examples:

1. The Hetch Hetchy Smelt and Salmon Act

This so-called “Skip a Shower, Save a Smelt Act” would transfer control of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir releases from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The legislation would dismantle sections of the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct west beyond the San Joaquin River, stop the present unnatural diversion of fresh water to San Francisco, and allow instead Hetch Hetchy fresh water to resume natural flows to the San Joaquin River — thus allowing the San Joaquin River and Tuolumne River to recover their salmon populations.

In addition, the transfers of fresh Hetch Hetchy water into the delta and beyond to the Pacific Ocean would preserve delta smelt populations.  To make up the losses, the law would set up Bay Area water commissions to monitor mandatory rationing, recycling, and the recovery of sewage and grey water. It would also assess new taxes for wind and solar salinization plants to replace the 265,000 acre feet currently diverted to Bay Area residential use from its proper role in ensuring healthy fish populations. Aim: To synchronize water resources with water-use advocacy. 

2. The Undocumented Immigrant Equity Act

The “I am Juan too Act” would assess all California communities by U.S. Census data to ascertain average per-household income levels as well as diversity percentages. Those counties assessed on average in the top 10% bracket of the state’s per-household income level, and which do not reflect the general ethnic make-up of the state, would be required to provide low-income housing for undocumented immigrants, who by 2020 would by law make up not less than 20% of such targeted communities’ general populations.

There are dozens of empty miles, for example, along the 280 freeway corridor from Palo Alto to Burlingame — an ideal place for high-density, low-income housing, served by high-speed rail. Aim: One, to achieve economic parity for undocumented immigrants by allowing them affordable housing in affluent areas where jobs are plentiful, wages are high, and opportunities exist for mentorships; and, two, to ensure cultural diversity among the non-diverse host community, bringing it into compliance with the state’s ethnic profile.   

3. The Cultivating Diversity Education Equilibrium Act

The “Beverly Hills to the Barrio Act” would ensure that all California school populations reflect the state’s rich ethnic diversity percentages. Schools would lose state aid if their student populations were not commensurate with state ethnic-group target levels. To take one example of the choices available for school districts to partner and find common solutions: School districts in Redwood City or East Palo Alto, for example, would bus more students on those campuses found in numbers out of compliance with statewide percentages to Menlo-Atherton. The latter in turn would bus more of its own students found in excess of state averages to Redwood City and East Palo school districts, until all three campuses reached “diversity equilibrium” and matched the correct racial percentages in the state. Aim: To end disparities in California school testing and performance levels accruing largely due to intrinsic racial and ethnic discrimination.

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An Immigration Morality Tale

February 9th, 2014 - 6:01 pm

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If there are executive orders overriding federal immigration law to extend amnesty to foreign nationals, without legal residence, and to continue their educations, there are also de facto all sorts of un-Dream Acts that simply allow anyone wishing to enter the United States without much audit. In other words, one of the strangest things about illegal immigration is that a nation that is monitored, taped, videoed, and bugged, that is struggling now with the AP, IRS, and NSA scandals whose common theme is excessive government intrusions in our private lives, knows absolutely nothing about those who arrive illegally into the U.S.

The following story is a tragedy, involving the most heartrending of all crimes, the alleged killing of an infant, born into the world entirely dependent on the good will and caring of adults. It reports allegations of murder, not proof of it. Much must be inferred rather than confirmed. But all that said, the preliminary account is emblematic of a deeply sick society, which in its loud protestations of mercy and charity is often heartless and uncharitable:

Madera teen held in death of newborn found in cabinet
The Fresno Bee February 5, 2014

A teenage girl has been arrested on suspicion of killing her newborn girl after the child was found wrapped in plastic and stuffed in a bathroom cabinet, the Madera County Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday.

The 17-year-old girl, whose name was not released, showed up at an area hospital last Friday, where doctors discovered she was suffering from postpartum bleeding, the Sheriff’s Department said.

The girl denied giving birth, and because of a language barrier — she speaks Mixteco Bajo, a dialect spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico — it took doctors and deputies hours to learn where she lived.

Deputies went to the home on Chapin Street near Avenue 16 in Madera, where a resident allowed them to search it. When deputies found the infant, they returned to the hospital and confronted the mother, who admitted giving birth but insisted the child was born dead.

Autopsy results show the baby was delivered alive and then killed, the Sheriff’s Department said. The cause of death was not released.

The girl, who comes from a village in Oaxaca, Mexico, arrived in Madera three days before giving birth, the Sheriff’s Department said. She is being held in Madera County Juvenile Hall on suspicion of murder. Her bail is set at $1 million.

Let’s explore what’s behind the language employed in the above news article, beginning with:

“Showed up at an area hospital last Friday”

I do not know what that means other than someone desperately in need of health care went to a hospital and was given top-flight help, a fact known to anyone who has gone to any San Joaquin Valley emergency room. We should be proud of such charity that does not hinge on one’s financial circumstances, but we should also remember that this has been long true of American culture, including during the Obamacare debate when charges flew that a callous society was turning away the indigent in need of treatment.

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On almost every contemporary issue there is a populist, middle-class argument to be made against elite liberalism. Yet the Republican class in charge seems ossified in its inability to make a counter-argument for the middle class. Never has the liberal agenda been so vulnerable, a logical development when bad ideas have had five years to prove themselves as very bad ideas. When Obama is all done he will have taken high presidential popularity ratings, a supermajority in the Senate, and a large margin in the House and lost them all — if only the Republicans can make an adequate case that they represent the middle class, the Democrats only the very wealthy and the very dependent.

Illegal Immigration

We know the entry of 11 million illegal aliens depresses the wages of the poor and entry-level working class. Illegal immigration overwhelms state services, and that too hurts citizens most in need of help. The lower-middle classes do not have low-paid nannies, gardeners, and house-keepers. We know the illegal influx pleases La Raza activists, most of them second- and third-generation elites in government, politics, journalism and education, who without illegal immigration would not have much of a moral or legal justification for the continuance of affirmative action and identity politics, given that statistically Latinos would soon follow the pattern of other assimilated groups. (For example, is there affirmative action for Armenian immigrants? An Italian Razza movement? Punjabi Studies?)

We also know that cheap labor in the shadows benefits corporate business, eager for low-wage laborers.  So how hard is it for a Republican simply to say, “I oppose illegal immigration because (1) it is illegal. It undermines the sanctity of the law and discriminates against the law-abiding waiting in line to enter the U.S. legally. (2) It benefits corporate grandees at the expense of working people. (3) It is driven by self-serving elites of the ethnic-grievance industry to enhance their own advantage, rather than to help poor folks struggling to find decent wages and schools. Illegal immigration, in short, is the most illiberal issue of our time.

Energy

Fracking and horizontal drilling help the middle class. Stopping them on federal lands or banning Keystone makes the lower classes pay for the pipe dreams of the upper class. The Berkeley Sierra Club professor doesn’t worry whether he can find a job welding on a pipeline. He does not drive along the Westside 50 miles to work and so cares little about the price of gas for his third-hand pick-up. It is about 70 degrees year round in Menlo Park, so it is easy to jack power bills up to subsidize wind and solar, when you don’t need to survive 105 degree temperatures in Bakersfield. Discouraging energy development is a pastime of the rich, who have the money to shield themselves from the consequences of their advocacy, and do not associate with the less well-off, who always seem to suffer from elite pipe dreams. Why not headquarter the Sierra Club in Bakersfield, where the cost of electricity is real for real people? Cannot a Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union simply say, “Mr. President, you are shamelessly taking credit for gas and oil production that you did all in your power to thwart. The middle class is enjoying a temporary cut in gas prices, despite, not because of, you.”

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