The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC

Washington’s political establishment went berserk when US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) publicly noted that US-Israel relations are “all about the Benjamins”  — slang for $100 bills, referring to money shoveled at American politicians by the American Israel Public Affairs Group (AIPAC).

Omar was accused of antisemitism — immediately by Republicans, shortly after by members of her own party — and bullied into apologizing. She may or may not be prejudiced against Jews,  but even if she is, that wasn’t her real offense.

Her real offense was  publicly mentioning the irrefutable fact that many members of Congress take their marching orders from a foreign power’s lobbying apparatus (an apparatus not, as required by law, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act), at least partly because those marching orders come with promises of significant donations to those politicians’ campaigns.

AIPAC itself doesn’t make direct donations to political campaigns. But AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups like Christians United For Israel punch well above their weight in American politics, largely by motivating their supporters to financially support and work for “pro-Israel” candidates in general elections and help weed out “anti-Israel” candidates in party primaries.

By the way, “pro-Israel” in this context always means “supportive of the jingoism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party,” and never “supportive of the many Israelis who’d like peace with the Palestinian Arabs.”

One AIPAC supporter  alone, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, spent $65 million getting Republicans elected, including $25 million supporting Donald Trump, in 2016.  But that $25 million was only put into action after Trump retreated from his early position of “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, publicly prostrated himself to AIPAC in a speech at one of its events, and pronounced himself “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history.”

But: We’re not supposed to talk about that. Ever. And it’s easy to see why.

If most Americans noticed that many  members of Congress (as well as most presidents) are selling their influence over US policy to a foreign power, we might do something about it.

For decades, howling “antisemitism” any time the matter came up proved an effective tactic for shutting down public discussion of the “special relationship” under which Israel receives lavish foreign aid subsidies, effective control of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and lately even state (and pending federal) legislation requiring government contractors to sign loyalty oaths to Israel’s government.

The Israeli lobby’s power to prevent that discussion seems to be slipping, however. Why? In part because the lobby’s money and political support, which used to be spent buying both sides of the partisan aisle, has begun tilting heavily Republican in recent years, freeing some Democrats to not “stay bought.” And in part because the newest generation of politicians includes some like Ilhan Omar who aren’t for sale (to Israel, anyway).

Decades of unquestioning obedience to the Israel lobby has drawn the US into needless and costly conflicts  not even remotely related to the defense of the United States. We’ll be better off when the “special relationship,” and the corruption underlying it, ends.

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The FDA’s Assault on Tobacco Consumers, Part 3

Early one morning last December, Jeff Gracik was heading to his southern California home garage-workshop where he makes his living when he heard a loud, hurried knock on his front door. Thinking it might be a rushed UPS driver, he quickly opened the door. But it wasn’t UPS. Standing on his doorstep were three badge-flashing inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They had come to inspect Jeff’s business.

Just what is Jeff’s business? Does he produce food? No. Does he produce drugs? No again. So why the unannounced visit by FDA inspectors?

Jeff makes pipes for tobacco pipe smokers. He doesn’t make tobacco, mind you, which (alas) Congress empowered the FDA to control, but pipes, most of which are made from wood (most commonly briar, but other varieties too), materials such as acrylic and vulcanized rubber for the mouthpieces, and wood stains, which Jeff buys but does not make.

In its wisdom, the FDA has deemed pipes “tobacco products,” a category of things it regulates under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) of 2009. Forgive the bureaucratese I’m about to shovel your way, but an FDA document states (pp. 257-58):

“The definition of ‘tobacco product’ … includes all components, parts, and accessories of tobacco products (except for raw materials other than tobacco used in manufacturing a component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product). FDA interprets components and parts of a tobacco product to include any assembly of materials intended or reasonably expected: 1) to alter or affect the tobacco product’s performance, composition, constituents or characteristics; or 2) to be used with or for the human consumption of a tobacco product. Both e-cigarettes and pipes meet this definition.”

You may find it odd that the FDA chooses not to regulate lighters, matches, ashtrays, humidors, and the like, but it has its reason: it deems such things to be accessories, not components and parts. Accessories, the FDA says, “do not contain tobacco, are not derived from tobacco, and do not affect or alter the performance, composition, constituents, or characteristics of a tobacco product.” Since pipes do those things, they are deemed regulated components rather than unregulated accessories.

Who knew the FDA personnel had the wisdom to make such fine distinctions?

Note the first word I emphasized a couple of paragraphs earlier: interprets. The FDA admits it has no explicit statutory authority to regulate things not made or derived from tobacco even if they can be used to consume tobacco. Did the members of Congress who wrote and voted for the TCA (which amended the FD&C) deem non-tobacco products such as wooden pipes to be tobacco products? It appears not. The legislation states that the “term ‘tobacco product’ means any product made or derived from tobacco that is intended for human consumption, including any component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product (except for raw materials other than tobacco used in manufacturing a component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product).”

The word including would seem to limit the covered components, parts, and accessories to things “made or derived from tobacco,” of which the briar root Jeff Gracik uses is not an example. Briar comes from the root of the flowering plant called Erica Arborea, or tree heath.

To reinforce my point, note that the word pipe appears in the TCA only as a qualifier for the word tobacco. The statute’s authors wanted to assure that tobacco is understood to include pipe tobacco and not just cigars and cigarettes. But the legislation contains not one single reference to pipes per se. So Congress apparently did not intend to authorize the FDA to control anything other than tobacco or things derived from it, even things that are likely to be used to consume tobacco.

But no matter. The FDA has assumed the power to deem non-A to be A. Logic and common sense be damned.

At any rate, three FDA inspectors (two of them trainees) turned up unannounced at Jeff Gracik’s door to say that they had the authority under the TCA to enter his premises — right then — and inspect his home workshop. Actually, he had “consented” to inspections once every two years when he registered with the FDA as a pipe maker. Jeff had learned earlier that under the law, retailers could not sell his pipes unless he was registered, so he allowed a retailer to register him, saving him the trouble of doing the paperwork himself. He had no choice: he earns his living as a full-time pipe maker and wants to keep doing so.

Jeff, who is 39, started making pipes in 2003. He sold his first one a year later and has since built a sterling reputation among pipe collectors. He makes 100 to 125 pipes a year — which sell for $800 to $3,000 apiece — under the name J. Alan Pipes. Jeff is an artisan; he makes pipes one at a time by hand. Each is unique, a thing of beauty, a dazzling collaboration of nature and human being. He and brother Jeremy have a second, lower-priced line of partially machine-made pipes under the name Alan Brothers.

Needless to say, Jeff was unaccustomed to having federal agents traipsing around his workshop. “I was so shocked,” he told me. He said the inspectors were friendly but firm — and apparently unsure what they were supposed to be doing. This might have been their first venture into unknown territory. (Other pipe makers are being similarly visited.) The inspectors started asking questions “most of which were not really relevant to pipe making. Things like: tell us about all the materials you use. Tell us about where they’re from. Do you have receipts for where they’re from? We need the names for all the distributors for all your materials. We need to know exactly the ingredients with which they’re treated; so, for instance, briar, how is it treated? Of course, I’m an artisan. I don’t have those kinds of records.”

That was just the beginning. “They had me demonstrate how to make a pipe. So I had to take a block of briar and chuck it in my lathe…. And as the day went on, they became more and more interested in what I was doing.” He said some of their questions suggested they were interested in the potential toxicity of materials and ingredient, but that’s as far as that went. They tested no materials or stains and took no sample with them. Jeff was not told to submit anything for approval.

The visit lasted six and a half hours, as if this small businessman had nothing better to do than entertain a group of FDA inspectors. “I got nothing done that day,” he said.

“They wanted to see written procedures,” he explained. “How do you do A to Z?” He told them that as a craftsman and unlike a factory, he has no written procedures. As the hours went by he sensed he was almost gaining sympathy from the inspectors.

Jeff said he did his best to comply with all requests, including requests for documents going back to 2006. “If they shut me down because I failed to answer a question to their satisfaction,” he said, “then my kids don’t eat and we foreclose on our house.”

For the record, the TCA states that regulations “shall not impose requirements unduly burdensome to a tobacco product manufacturer or importer, taking into account the cost of complying with such requirements and the need for the protection of the public health ….” Decide for yourself if the FDA obeys that prohibition.

The FDA and those who support government control will point out that even though pipes are not made from tobacco, they are used to consume tobacco. That’s true. But Gracik points out that some people who buy his pipes, which can be as beautiful as any work of art, are collectors who don’t smoke. (Interestingly, his grandmother’s first cousin was Andy Warhol.)

It’s hard to say how many pipe makers we have in America. People connected with the industry and hobby estimate the number of full-timers at 25 to 30, with a few hundred more who make and sell pipes part-time. Jeff is afraid that the thicket of rules could persuade many of them to “throw in the towel.” He says: “It scared the hell out of a lot of pipe makers when we found out we were under this kind of scrutiny.”

The pipe makers certainly could use a trade association to protect them. But Gracik says they are, unsurprisingly, individualists and so discussions about forming an association have gotten nowhere.

So the FDA harasses — even if it’s with a smile — small-scale artisans who scratch out livings working by hand with wood and other harmless materials. To what end? It’s all part of a larger puritanical campaign to harass peaceful Americans who enjoy consuming tobacco via cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco and using non-tobacco nicotine e-cigarettes.

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits,” Mark Twain said.

Using tobacco is not risk-free, of course, but most things in life are not risk-free. In the real world, risk can be managed and minimized but never eliminated, and in a free society, individuals have the right to decide for themselves how to go about doing it.

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Homeschoolers: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

My eight-year-old daughter and I recently read about the Salem witch trials. She had heard about Salem from a friend who visited the nearby town during its popular Halloween festivities, and she was curious about the witches. We went to the library to get some books on the topic of how 20 innocent people were put to death for “witchcraft” in 1692, with scores more accused and jailed.

What struck me most about revisiting the Salem Witch Trials with my children was the fact that these English Puritans who had recently settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony had no presumption of innocence. Those accused of a crime at the time, both in the New World and elsewhere, were guilty until proven innocent. The presumption of innocence in trials, with court defenders and impartial juries, would take centuries to catch on. The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” was coined by an English lawyer in 1791, but even then it took a long while to become the legal precedent we all now take for granted.

A Pattern of Privacy Invasion

Of course, this legal designation is still imperfectly applied, particularly in cases of fear and bias against certain groups. The US PATRIOT Act, for instance, allows law enforcement agencies the authority to conduct surveillance on individuals and groups by monitoring personal phone calls, emails, and financial documents without a court order. First passed in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and reauthorized since, it is intended to root out the evils of terrorism but does so by violating individual liberty and presuming guilt over innocence.

We see this pattern of privacy invasion by the state and presumed guilt in other areas, as well. In the United Kingdom, for example, there has been such a dramatic rise in the number of homeschoolers that the state believes it must regulate and monitor the practice. Estimates suggest that the number of homeschoolers in the UK increased 40 percent in just three years, and it is thought to be the fastest-growing education option in the UK, with approximately 60,000 homeschooled children in 2018.

The rapid growth of parents taking back control of their children’s education has led to calls by government officials to create a “compulsory register” of homeschooled children and to monitor their education. The UK’s Department of Education told the BBC through a spokesperson this week:

Where children are being home educated, we know that in the vast majority of cases parents are doing an excellent job. We also know, however, that in a very small minority of cases children are not receiving the standard of education they should be.

The idea that all homeschooling families in the UK must now be presumed guilty of neglect because a “very small minority” might be is not a legitimate reason to violate the privacy and personal freedom of law-abiding citizens. There are already laws to protect children from abuse and neglect in the UK and elsewhere, and those laws should be duly enforced; but subjecting all homeschooling families to regulation and oversight because of fears of a few is a blatant example of state intrusion.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Families often choose the homeschooling option because they are especially attentive to their child’s well-being. As The Guardian reported last fall:

Many parents who opt to homeschool their children say they are avoiding bullying, exam pressure and stress. Others have concerns about special educational needs, not getting a place at the school of their choice, or the school environment.

In other words, most of these homeschooling parents are going above and beyond to provide the best education for their children and should not have their decisions questioned and educational approaches monitored.

Supporters of homeschooling regulation, both in the United States and abroad, frequently say that it’s really no big deal. If you’re one of the vigilant homeschooling families then you shouldn’t mind state oversight. But that’s like saying if I have nothing to hide, it’s okay for the government to search my house and read my emails—without a warrant. It presumes guilt over innocence.

Intentions may be good. The Salem Puritans wanted to root out witchcraft and what they saw as the work of the devil. The PATRIOT Act aimed to prevent terrorism through government surveillance. Monitoring homeschooling families is presented as protecting children. But in all cases, innocent people are suspected of guilt and must prove themselves worthy. It’s antithetical to the values of a free society.

I wanted to tell my daughter that we’re so much better now than those Puritans, that “innocent until proven guilty” now prevails. But I’m honestly not so sure.

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Uninformed, Misinformed, Brainwashed Statists

If you don’t watch “the news” you might be uninformed; if you watch it you will be misinformed.

“News” is opinion. There’s no such thing as just presenting the facts; there never was. There’s always going to be a slant to it. It’s almost always a statist slant.

If they don’t honestly portray cops as a gang, politicians as thieving thugs, government as religion, “laws” as slavery, they are not telling the truth. They are opinionizing. Lying. Covering up the truth to protect the bad guys.

Any bland “news” story about the “arrest” of a drug dealer, and the drugs, cash, and guns confiscated from him, is a nest of lies– opinions, if I were to be nice about it. It will assume statism. It will assume the legitimacy of prohibition, “taxation”, government police, “gun control” [sic], “laws”, the “justice system”, and a hundred other things which shouldn’t be assumed.

They are selling their opinion to people who mostly agree with them (even when they feel they are on the other side), or who they are trying to fool into agreeing with them. It largely works.

I think that’s why you see “Right” vs “Left” in almost all “news”/opinions. All “news” comes from one side or the other… yet the sides are really the same. They are statist, anti-liberty bigots to the core. So the “news” gets people to arguing over which of those identical twins is correct, when they are both wrong.

Statists live in a statist bubble, even if they sample statist opinions from the “other side”. It’s still only statism.

Libertarians don’t have the option of living in a bubble. We get exposed to the other sides. All other sides. Constantly. Whether we intend to or not. It’s unavoidable. That’s why we are better informed than the uninformed or the misinformed statists. And it’s why the statists try so hard to ridicule our position. They have to, otherwise they might realize they are losers going in circles, chasing hallucinations.

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Be the Euphoria You Want To See In the World

Euphoria, n. A feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness

When I experience euphoria

I’m a pretty stereotypical runner guy now. So I’d have to tell you first about the euphoria that kicks in several miles into a long run. I’ve written before that it’s like:

You become an animal – something far more basic than your everyday self. You feel amazing, transcendent even – and you also feel desperate. You are being tested and rewarded. You sweat out your distractions, your pettiness, your greed, your insecurities.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to running, though.

I might get it when I wrap up a difficult jiu jitsu class (or some other session learning some difficult skill).

I just about always get it when I’m vulnerable with someone about attraction, or my failures, or difficult truths.

And I probably get it when I work my butt off to organize an event at work or home, when I’m working late in the office and no one’s around*, and when I hit “send” on an email delivering a hard project at 3 AM in the morning.

The common denominator is that I experience this kind of euphoria whenever I confront the things I might tend to avoid. Chemically, it’s adrenaline. Psychologically, it’s conditioning. Spiritually, it’s growth.

The world becomes lighter, I become stronger, and everything falls into place because I know I can take it.

But there’s also euphoria in reflection and dreaming.

When I’m going for a long drive I’ll reflect on where I’ve been and the beauty and chance and hard work (my own and others’) that has gotten me to where I am. There’s a euphoria that comes with realizing that (despite the many problems) you’re living in the fairest, freest, healthiest, wealthiest, and most peaceful society in all of human history.

Also while I’m driving, I’m probably listening to film scores (one of my favorite genres, judge me) and imagining a more adventurous life. If I’m going fast, with the windows down, with courage, and with the hope of a challenge ahead, I’ll feel just a bit euphoric. Heck, I get this sometimes on the way to work, right where I get to pick up speed.

When I see euphoria in the world

I wouldn’t say I often see euphoria – it’s pretty hard to separate from normal happiness or excitement from the outside looking in. But I do see often enough when people come alive – that low-level hum of euphoria and joy that can characterize not just a moment but a life.

You can tell pretty fast whether someone has that low-level euphoria. They voluntarily spend their time exploring a topic. They start talking faster when it comes up. They alternate between grinning with joy and frowning with focus. They own the adrenaline rush, and their initiative is magnetic. It makes you want to work harder.

I see something like this when I see great young apprentices in the Praxis community. They’re often just 18 or so and moving cross-country to work in startups. And the ones that are asking questions, doing hard work, and eking all the value they can get from their experience clearly have that “alive” quality that I don’t see in most young people.

I also see that low-level euphoria when I see great artists at work, like when I saw Lindsey Stirling perform around Christmastime. She may have been tired after a long tour of the same routine, but she did not show it. In the dancing, the decor, the stories, the music, the humor there was this sense of tremendous effort but also of effortless joy. Stirling was someone who from love brought together all of the best of human potential into this show. You have to be alive to do something like that.

So I suppose the answer is the same – if you want to see euphoria, go where the effort is. You can find it at celebrations occasionally, but you’ll find it often where the most sparks are flying.

Be the euphoria you want to see

How do I contribute to euphoria?

I guess I start by experiencing a lot of euphoria (when I can). I’m a big fan of the popular Howard Thurman quote:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

What I want to do is show people that it’s possible and practical to live a life of joy. Most people don’t believe that and so don’t find much euphoria.

So a good deal of that is on me. I’ve had experiences that have convinced me that truth (a big prerequisite for undivided joy) is worth it, and that effort is worth it. I want to communicate that. And I’ll do that best by taking as many chances as I can to surprise and delight people into the realization that joy is *right there* for anyone willing to act boldly.

I can encourage euphoria just by finding and encouraging others already on the path to “what makes them come alive.” If you’re an alive person, you can basically expect to have my friendship, or at least my alliance. Your fire is precious and deserves respect (the world is boring without people like you). I will root for you at least, and I might even be willing to fight for you in the extreme.

And what I’d like to continue to develop is a philosophical grounding for joy. People need to know that their struggles are worthwhile and their joy possible and good. Plenty of good thinkers (Ayn Rand for me, especially) have started this work. I’ll continue to try to share the words I’ve learned and find new ones that make the case for joy.

*The euphoria here is not much different than the state of “flow” in psychology.

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Nationalism, the Ideological Delusion at the Heart of Protectionism

Every economic entity, whether it be an individual, a family, or a firm, faces a constant choice with regard to how it will secure the goods and services it desires in order to carry out its economic plans: make or buy?

Most individuals and families give little conscious thought to their making this choice. Yet they make it all the same. Many individuals do many things for themselves, such as house cleaning, home maintenance, personal care of various sorts, meal preparation, and so forth. They do not pause often to consider whether they would be better off to purchase these things, although they might purchase them, and some individuals do. One can hire housekeepers, groundskeepers, meal providers, and many other services. In some cases, provision of these services amounts to a large industry catering to individuals and families who have decided that buying is better than making, that market transactions are better than self-sufficiency.

In contrast, business firms commonly give serious, explicit attention to how they should answer the make-or-buy question, and many specialize in a narrow range of activities, relying on market purchases to provide every item they can buy at a lower cost than that at which they could make it for themselves.

When someone decides to buy rather than make, it is normally the case that no one objects or attempts to impede the transaction. In some cases, local providers of certain goods and services have tried to shield themselves from the competition of providers in other states, but in many, if not all, cases the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such state-level protectionism is contrary to the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. As a result, the United States of America has long been a vast free-trade area, and this condition explains in no small part how Americans have succeeded in lifting their level of living steadily over the past two centuries, notwithstanding the transitory inability of various suppliers to meet the “outside” competition successfully.

In regard to competitors located outside the national boundaries, however, the situation has often been seen as different and as warranting government action—tariffs, import quotas, prohibitions of trade in certain items, special regulatory, licensing, or documentation demands laid on imported goods or importers, and so forth—aimed at keeping American producers free of foreign competition.

Along with the demands for such government restriction and penalization of international purchases has grown up or been imported from elsewhere a doctrine—protectionism—aimed at making such selfish and predatory use of government power appear to be broadly beneficial to the nation as a whole, not simply to the domestic providers who cannot meet the foreign competition. Although protectionism has had a multitude of promoters through the ages, from the man in the street to the occupant of the White House, it has always been a bogus doctrine, making claims that cannot be upheld by solid economic theory or sound economic history. Analysts going back to Adam Smith, James Mill, and David Ricardo have debunked protectionism’s claims, as have many economists in the following centuries.

Yet it lives on, and even now it is thriving ideologically and politically in many quarters, and the question is, why? What accounts for the fact that a doctrine few people would invoke to justify government interference with competition from outside the neighborhood, the city, the state, or the region nevertheless seems to many people to make sense at the national level?

To ask the question is almost to answer it. People who would balk at city, state, or regional protectionism will not only tolerate national protectionism, but actually hail it as a godsend for overall national prosperity. The doctrine of nationalism, a dangerous brew in which Americans have long indulged to great excess is the cause of this bizarre public sentiment. If you told the people of Cleveland that the city must practice protectionism against all other cities, states, and regions, they would account you crazy. But if you tell them that the entire nation must put protectionism into practice, many of them will swallow the proposal with gusto.

What is this mystical magnetism that nationalism exerts on so many Americans? It is the wholly superstitious conviction that some special, deep, and overriding solidarity binds them to a particular group of almost 330 million strangers, people they have never met, never will meet, and with whom in many cases they have practically nothing in common. Indeed, in many cases, if any given American were to meet with a great many of his “fellow Americans,” he would find them altogether odious. On the other hand, he might find, should the occasion arise, that he has much in common with many Canadians, Guatemalans, and Kenyans. (I myself have done so in all these cases and an abundance of others, so my example is scarcely far-fetched.)

In history, nationalism has served as a powerful means whereby ambitious would-be national leaders have forged groups of unrelated and sometimes hostile people into a unitary political entity with the enlarged force that resides in sheer numbers. Nevertheless, the substantive moral irrelevance of nationalism arises from, if nothing else, the mere accident of one’s having been born within the boundaries that contentious rulers happen to have established in their struggles with the rulers of adjacent territories. Genuine, morally defensible loyalties cannot be justified on the basis of accidents beyond one’s choice or control.

Yet, however morally irrelevant nationalism ought to be, it is in practice often of life-and-death importance, and during recent centuries, hundreds of millions of persons have regarded it as so important that they would fight and die in loyalty to the political leaders of “their” nation-state or gladly send their sons to be slaughtered in the same cause. If it is potent enough to cause men to march in legions over the cliffs into oblivion, it is certainly powerful enough to prop up the economically and morally bankrupt practice known as protectionism, and it does so quite commonly throughout the world.

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