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Notes and Observations on Being Raised by Melvin Earl Smith

What follows is the transcript of a speech I gave at dad’s 70th birthday party on March 31, 2017, and is posted here as a (1-day belated) Father’s Day tribute. Important note: It's "Melvin Earl" on his birth certificate, or when I'm irritated with him. Anyone else will get the stink eye if they call him anything other than Bud.

1. Don’t even THINK of showing up lightly armed for a battle of wits. A few years back, there was a fellow named Justin Halpern who became an internet sensation when he started a Twitter feed entitled “Shit my dad says.” The sole content of these tweets were verbatim quotes from Halpern’s dad, who was 73 when the feed started. The dad–Sam–was a cynical old curmudgeon given to profane, extremely sarcastic, almost unfailingly (and often unintentionally) hilarious quips, observations and other musings, which Halpern would simply transcribe word-for-word. Sam is a retired physician whose career included a stint as a military doc in Vietnam. For a time I was a regular visitor to this site, and would as often as not chortle and snort at each new entry. This guy’s dad and my dad were clearly kindred spirits. My dad wasn’t a physician, but he did spend several decades dealing with the criminal scum of humanity both from the prosecution and defense side of the courtroom. Like Halpern’s dad, this career path forged a world-weary and hard-bitten humor that was . . . unique.

In dad’s case, there were too many examples of him exercising his singular wit upon me to list tonight unless you want to spend the entire evening on this one topic, which I don’t think you do. So I’ll limit my examples to two, but rest assured they are only two of hundreds, if not thousands. The common thread running through these two particular examples is that in each instance, I was rendered unable to retort.

The first occurred when I was going through my rebellious, neurotic, angst-riven, utterly nauseating and repulsive adolescent stage. I don’t remember the broader context of the conversation, but dad, as he often did around this period, was expressing his general disapproval of my manner of dress, hairstyle (I had hair then), comportment, demeanor, and of how all of these things reflected poorly on the family that raised me and, more importantly, him. In response I launched into a lengthy soliloquy about how important it was for me to be my own person, find my own way, express my individuality and so forth by dressing how I chose (like my friends) and cutting my hair as I preferred (ditto), listening to the same crappy music they did, and basically acting like a derelict creep. He listened as patiently as he could–although if it’s possible to roll ones eyes hard enough to permanently damage them, he probably came close–and the reply, when it finally came was roughly as follows: “Well whatever you think it is that makes you such a unique ‘individual’ came out of the end of my (here he used common nickname for “Richard”), so take your “individualism” and stick it where the sun don’t shine.” Except he used a far less family-friendly version of “where the sun don’t shine.”

The second example occurred years later, and only a few years back, when he and I were up on our ranch bombing around in my Jeep. Alcohol may or may not have been a factor in whatever it was we were doing, so I’ll just take the safe bet and say that it probably was. At one point, when I drifted a corner a bit too fast, dad suggested that perhaps I might want to slow down a bit and not drive like a total lunatic. My reply was something along the lines of, “I can’t believe YOU are telling ME to behave myself, when clearly I’m the more responsible of the two of us.” Here I should add as an aside that in most instances, this is perfectly true. In reply, without the least pause to gather his thoughts, dad immediately fired back, “You know, you’re absolutely right. The entire time you were growing up, every time I would find myself saying, ‘Dammit, who’s responsible for this,’ it almost always turned out to be you!”

2. You could NOT successfully lie to him, and were in deep, dark trouble if you attempted to. Not only had dad done or attempted to do everything I ever did or attempted to do when he was a kid, he represented criminal scumbags for a living. Professional liars tried to lie to him all day, every day. Ain’t no way his kids were ever going to pull it off. You couldn’t pull the wool over the old man’s eyes, at least not for long. You WOULD be found out. And while dad was never a particularly strict disciplinarian nor particularly prone to wrath, his wrath would be felt if you lied. Which is a good segue into Bullet Point No. 3.

3. He was unwavering on the important things, but didn’t dwell on the little stuff. Dad was–and is–fun. When people who haven’t seen him in a while ask me how he is, my answer is always the same: “He’s the same guy you saw last time–a 70-year-old kid!” That isn’t said with an eye roll or the least hint of disapprobation, but with sincere admiration and appreciation for his ability to remain young at heart. It’s a gift, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who recognizes it as such. Of the two of us, he’s the free spirit and I’m the grumpy old man.

He was fun as a dad too. He always made sure us kids got to experience and enjoy a broad variety of things. I had a fun and relatively unrestricted childhood. I was Huck Finn. I played on the river all day in the summer, had my own boat, and was (sort of, loosely) expected back by around dinner time–whenever that was. No cell phones, no ability to easily track me down. I didn’t wear helmets or seat belts, I climbed every tree in the neighborhood. I shot guns–a lot. I rode dirt bikes and ATVs–really, really fast. I broke lots of stuff, most of it his.

What I didn’t do was lie, cheat or steal, and I still don’t. The reason I don’t is that when I was growing up, these were the only “bad” things you could do. And to dad, all three were the same thing. I happen to agree with this. All three spring forth from the same basic moral defect. We didn’t get in trouble for much, but we ALWAYS got in trouble for the Big Three. It was a lesson I took to heart, then as now.

The only other thing dad took seriously was gun safety, and I certainly agree with that position as well. He was a cross between an SS sturmbannfuhrer and a Soviet commissar when it came to lying, cheating, stealing and gun safety. He was lax, permissive, understanding, and philosophical when it came to pretty much everything else. And my childhood and adolescence were all the better for it, particularly inasmuch as I survived these.

4. His love was–and is–truly unconditional. Put simply, there never was–and still isn’t–a screw-up of sufficient magnitude that any of us kids could commit or, for that matter, anyone he loves could commit, that would not be instantly forgiven. He’d drop whatever he was doing and go to bat for us any time, any place. Dad is easy going. He’s a “Type B” personality through and through. Right, that is, until you screw with someone he loves. Then it doesn’t matter how many bullets he has, he’s gonna use them all, be the earth scorched, the mountains leveled, and the seas boiled away.

So that, folks, is the man we’re celebrating tonight: The one and only!

A Jaded, Hopeful Recap

Little more can or should be said about the 2016 presidential election. It somehow came to pass that of the tens of millions of Americans who are at least 35, natural-born citizens and otherwise not disqualified from holding the office, the winnowing process gave us two “choices” most of us, even in our soberer moments, would elect to send on a one-way trip to the Kuiper Belt and not consider it poor stewardship of public resources to have done so. The hows and whys of its having come down to a basket of two deplorables have been overdiscussed to no avail, as nothing about the system that set before us Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich (Google the South Park reference if necessary)–again–will be modified or done away with, and it will grind inexorably onward. It is for this and other reasons too numerous to list that every time I see the handiwork of democracy in action, I get down on my knees to thank the living Lord that I live in a republic with separation of powers which are, at least in theory, constitutionally limited.

It was the founding generation of this very republic that was near universal in its disdain for political parties, which the leading lights of the era more often referred to as “factions.” We see concern over looming factionalism, and the clearly expressed desire to thwart it, sprinkled throughout the Federalist Papers and much of the personal correspondence of the Constitution’s principal architects. While in general I revere these giants, I used to think they were all wet when it came to this particular concern. The formation of parties seemed to me natural, inevitable and not necessarily objectionable. 

Suddenly I’m less sure of myself. Factionalism in the 2016 election cycle has led to some curious behavior, even degrees of what can only be described as lunacy I once would have thought unlikely in many leading pundits and power brokers I erstwhile respected. To the lifelong student and ever fascinated observer of human nature, things keep getting curiouser and curiouser. I speak, it should be noted, from the sidelines–as one who would have been more or less equally aggrieved by either outcome, albeit for different reasons in each instance. The reversion to tribalism is surprising, even if it probably shouldn’t be. I see lifelong, committed “movement” conservatarians now enthusiastically supporting and defending Trump despite his ideological malleability/schizophrenia/flakiness, and even if their support started out very tentative as his lock on the nomination looked increasingly likely. I see them contorting themselves into verbal and rhetorical pretzels defending most of what he does and says, which often includes the plainly indefensible. On the other side, I see formerly sane Democrats losing their ever-loving minds and speaking in apocalyptic terms, never mind that Trump spent his entire adult life prior to roughly late 2015 harboring views which, with the lone exception of seriously entertaining Obama “birther” nonsense, made him largely indistinguishable from many of those very Democrats.

The unlikely Trump victory and the upheaval that followed track almost perfectly, at least in an analogical sense, with a memorable bit from one of Chris Rock’s standup routines wherein he discusses the O. J. Simpson verdict and concludes that black people were too happy about it and white people were too upset. Rock noted that he hadn’t seen white people that upset since they cancelled MASH, and described us milling about in a funk, shouting, “This is BULLSHIT!” Whereas blacks were elated, shouting, “We won! We won!”, to which Rock retorts, “What the f--k did we win? Every day I go out to the mailbox to look for my O. J. prize, and NOTHING!”

The aftermath we’re now witnessing, in all of its jubilance, triumphalism, anger, fear and strained relationships, exposes certain oddities of human nature which are probably long overdue for airing and examination. A necessarily imperfect description of what we’re seeing is that it’s the fallout from the emotional investment people tend to place into “their” candidate once they’ve stopped dithering and have gone all-in. It is at this point that, far too often, a mentality takes hold that “my” guy can do no wrong, while “their” guy can do no right. Having now made it to the other side of an election that (leaving aside third parties) forced us to choose between major party candidates worse than any two in living memory, now may be the best opportunity any of us have yet seen to take a hard, critical look at the electoral tribalism that so bitterly divides us.

In fairness I should say I’ve often been as guilty of this as the next person. With a few noteworthy exceptions, I was too uncritical of Dubya. He was “my” candidate from “my” (former) party. I questioned many of his decisions, but never his motives or intentions. He’s a humble, Christian guy with an unassuming, aw shucks demeanor. I was relatively certain he meant well most of the time. He almost always got the benefit of the doubt, even when that doubt was substantial. Many were drawn to Obama in a similarly personal manner. They found him winsome. He comes across as cool as a trout, confident (if somewhat aloof, even arrogant), bright, in control and steady at the wheel, above it all. I was never impressed, but only a fool would deny that the man possesses a wealth of charisma and natural gifts. Both he and Bush 43 strike me as likely better men than they were presidents.

The error in this approach, with its emphasis on personal appeal, magnetism, presence, “gravitas”–whatever one wishes to call it–is that none of us should be judging any president or presidential candidate on the basis of who s/he is, as this is ultimately unknowable at the level of interaction any of us is capable of having with the politician in question, and just as ultimately irrelevant. We should judge any president of any party as we would periodically assess an employee. That’s what the president is; not our leader, monarch or fuhrer, but our employee. Like virtually any employee, each president presents us with a collection of strengths, which should be praised as and when they manifest themselves, and weaknesses, which should be criticized and never ignored. In business management, I’ve been slapped more than once with a painful reminder of the great folly in coddling employees whom I personally like, letting things slide with them that would not be tolerated in another. It’s not an entirely apt comparison, of course, because employees in the ordinary sense are people we actually know. The absurdity of defending a president who is “our” guy lies in the fact that he really isn’t, doesn’t know any of us, and probably couldn’t give a damn about any of us as individual human beings apart from the voting constituencies we represent. Thus we should judge the president solely on what he does. We should praise him when he does right and give him no quarter when he does wrong, whether through a mistake in judgment or some darker motive. Such is the trade-off for the immense power and privilege the office bestows upon him. Actions, not intentions; performance, not personality. If no other good comes from a Trump presidency, perhaps it will bring this idea into sharper focus. Politicians are never what they seem to be in any case. Their wives and kids know them; YOU do not. You know their public persona. The attachment you form to them, and the hopes and aspirations you place with them, are comforting illusions you alone nurture. There’s nothing objectively real about them.

Trump will do some things right, and we should acknowledge when he does. He will most assuredly do plenty of things wrong, as he already has. In either case, we should strive to ensure we’re gauging Trump the chief executive, not Trump the man. We should continue to do this with his successor, and every successor thereafter. 

“(H)istory has itself become a target of desperate attack by those for whom the truth threatens devastating consequences to their visions, their egos, or their projects. A whole new class of intellectuals has arisen to supply a history geared to what people currently wish to believe, rather than to the record of the past.  There are, of course, honest differences in the interpretation of history. But there are also dishonest differences.”

–Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture, 1994

On the Tempest in the Malheur Teapot

A few have privately inquired as to why I’ve been so uncharacteristically mute about “Y’all Qaeda”–the mob of yokels who courageously stormed and took possession of a remote federal facility southeast of Burns on a holiday weekend after encountering stiff resistance from two chipmunks and an irritated barn owl. I guess I’ve kept mum because, really, what is there to say about it? They’re idiots? They’re a barely literate, infantile rabble? I try to limit my comments to things others might find insightful, interesting, provocative, perhaps even amusing. What’s the point of stating the obvious?

The Hammonds, for whom this mob of numbskulls purports to speak, are unambiguously on record as wanting nothing to do with them, and with good reason. Were I ever to find myself in hot water with the feds, the last thing I would want would be the Bundy boobs and their cousins by homosexual incest as my champions. 

These yahoos aren’t patriots. They aren’t “constitutionalists.” If they’ve even read the document, I suspect it involved a good deal of skimming. The people who fought first for our independence, then to secure order from the ensuing chaos were a breed apart. They were loftily erudite scholars, deeply and broadly educated in the classics, eloquent, subtle and profound. Ammon Bundy can barely cobble together a coherent sentence, and he’s one of the ringleaders. One can scarce imagine how dim his followers must be. If one of these daft maggots could successfully hack his way through a single sentence of the Federalist Papers and emerge from the exercise with even a faint glimmer of understanding, I’d eat my hat. The Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor for high ideals, their rights as Englishmen and other legal principles dating to and, in many instances, pre-dating the Magna Carta. They were well-versed not only in Aristotle and Aquinas but also showed obvious familiarity with relative contemporaries like Locke, Montesquieu and Blackstone. Many had a great deal to lose, and many indeed lost it all. Perhaps most importantly, they abhorred lawlessness; indeed, the Constitutional Convention became necessary in response to it. The states under the Articles of Confederation had become fragmented and ungovernable. If the Framers could be brought into our time, while they would likely view with alarm the myriad ways in which the federal government has broken free of the limits they intended to place upon its power, they would be similarly unimpressed with Bundy & Co.’s response. Such were the towering polymaths who birthed our republic. This “militia” is an agglomeration of children with small arms play-acting at being revolutionaries. They’ll overtax the septic system at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge HQ for a week or two until they get bored, the media stops paying attention, or they learn their wives back home have taken up with the dude two ranchsteads over. And who could blame them–he has a rented double-wide and only five pickup payments left.

It’s as a champion of gun rights that I’m particularly peeved by these bozos. If ever a group of people played right into the hands of those who delight in the “gun-enthusiast-as-silly-hick” stereotype, it’s Y’all Qaeda. They’re doing such a thoroughgoing job of sullying our image that it wouldn’t surprise me to find out the Brady Campaign or Handgun Control, Inc.–or whatever it is those pink twinkies call themselves these days–is clandestinely funding them. They’re doing nobody any favors and garnering ZERO sympathy from anyone who matters–e. g. anyone in a position to effect change that would benefit the Hammonds and many other Western farmers and ranchers who often find themselves similarly strong-armed by the feds. They’re alienating anyone whose sympathetic impulses might have favored the Hammonds, but who may have needed additional persuasion to become true believers. Indeed the Hammonds, who truly are victims of unjust, overreaching laws and crusading prosecutors, gain not a groat from this. To me, that’s the real bummer of this whole disturbance of the peace: Y’all Qaeda is drawing the focus away from those on whose behalf it claims to be taking a stand. If these noisome gomers really cared about the Hammonds, they’d be raising funds to help the two men’s wives get by while they’re in prison, or to hire the best lawyers available for further appeals, or to lobby for legal changes. But hey, let’s face it–grabbing your rifle and pretending you’re a badass is way more fun. At least right up until actual blood starts spilling.

The Six Rules

Understanding basic economics means understanding how the world works. It allows one to peer through a lot of noise, haze, obfuscation and deliberate misdirects put out there by clever frauds. Nearly a quarter century (sigh) of studying economics has helped me boil things down to 6 economic maxims, which I have very creatively dubbed the Six Rules. I came up with none of these on my own, but have borrowed them from an assortment of giants upon whose shoulders I humbly stand, most notably Adam Smith, Thomas Sowell, David Ricardo, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. One or more of the Six Rules can be used to explain virtually anything you see happening, including things that don’t at first blush appear even remotely related to economics. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their popular Freakonomics books, have done a decent job pointing this out (their premise being sound even if some of their conclusions are dubious). For the Six Rules to be of much use, however, a reasonably firm foundation in the basics, such as the laws of supply and demand, is necessary. As they demonstrate daily, such a foundation is by no means a given even among our most elite politicians and policymakers.
The Six Rules are, as follows:

1. RESOURCES ARE SCARCE, AND HAVE ALTERNATIVE USES. A “resource” in this instance means anything that has economic value (e.g., for which there exists at least one person in the world who is willing to give something else of value in exchange for it). “Scarcity” in the economic sense means there is more demand for something than there is supply. This is also the case for anything of value, and price is both the signal and the medium for bringing supply and demand into a state of equilibrium. Something with a price of zero will not be supplied because there’s no demand for it, and the fact that there’s no demand for it is the reason its price is zero. 

The second part of the sentence–that resources have alternative uses–means that every dollar used for X is rendered unavailable to use for Y. It is another way of saying resources need to be allocated or, if you prefer, that their use needs to be prioritized. This rule comes from Thomas Sowell’s indispensable Basic Economics, where it is used in tandem with what should possibly be a separate Rule on this list in itself: There are no "solutions," only trade-offs. Which is to say, in a world where resources are scarce and have alternative uses, there can be no solutions, only trade-offs. We simply can’t do everything, because resource scarcity requires their allocation in one way which necessarily precludes their allocation in an alternative way.

2. PEOPLE RESPOND TO INCENTIVES IN WAYS THAT ARE EXTREMELY PREDICTABLE. You’ll often hear economists refer to “perverse incentives.” When you hear that, it means people are responding to a law, policy or set of circumstances in the exact opposite manner as was hoped for or considered desirable. A commonly used example is a law that drives landowners to kill off an endangered animal the law intended to protect so they can avoid being deprived of the economic value of their timber or some other natural resource they would be able to exploit but for the animal’s presence. Such a law creates a perverse incentive against protecting endangered species. Whenever you hear a politician or pundit gassing about the “unintended consequences” of a law, you should call to mind this Rule. Look not at the intention behind the law–which is perfectly irrelevant–but at the incentives it creates and you’ll quickly conclude that people are responding to those incentives very predictably.


4. GOVERNMENT, MONOPOLIES, AND OTHER ENTITIES NOT SUBJECT TO MARKET DISCIPLINE ARE INVARIABLY ILL-MANAGED. When you can’t go out of business, there’s nothing to keep you in line. This is doubly true when you're playing with other people's money. Governments and monopolies routinely violate the other five Rules on this list and get away with it, which is why they tend to behave arbitrarily, capriciously and even irrationally. Other very large businesses–virtual monopolies–behave similarly. The bigger a big business gets, the more it behaves like government.

5. WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THOSE DESCRIBED IN RULE NO. 4, ECONOMICS IS NOT ZERO-SUM. Unless Bob robbed you at gunpoint, or had something you needed so desperately that you’d pay any price for it (the same thing as robbing you at gunpoint), Bob’s being rich is not the cause of you–or anyone else–being poor. People get rich by adding value to the economy, which increases the overall amount of wealth in circulation, not by impoverishing others. No Steve Jobs = no iPhones. No iPhones = You need to carry a camera, a video camera, a phone, a computer, a calculator, a calendar and some dozens of other objects around with you. You can’t have wealth without the rich. Moreover, if Mark Cuban didn’t have a private jet, nobody would be employed flying it, maintaining it and supplying parts and fuel for it. If there were no demand for private jets more generally, thousands of people up and down the supply chain required to build them would be out of the job. Rich people are the reason venture capital exists, which in turn is the only reason anyone is able to start businesses and create employment opportunities. We’d be living in caves subsisting on whatever we could grow or catch without them.

6. PRICE FLOORS CAUSE SURPLUSES AND PRICE CEILINGS CAUSE SHORTAGES. All the time, every time, without exception. It’s important to remember this because politicians in particular are very fond of scoring points by attempting–successfully, more often than not–to convince people that through their peerless and indispensable genius, they’ve found a way to magically carve out an exception to this rule in this or that special case. Hasn’t happened, never will. Price ceilings on oil always–always–lead to oil shortages. Price floors on unskilled labor (the minimum wage) always lead to a surplus of unskilled labor, meaning higher unemployment for the unskilled, particularly if they are younger workers. The political gains to be had from convincing people that this basic economic maxim can be suspended in a particular instance are obvious and irresistible to politicians. Your job, as an informed voter, is to stop falling for this ruse. The laws of supply and demand are no different from the laws of physics: indifferent to our will and utterly immutable. Price is the mechanism by which the two drive each other, and price controls, whether floors or ceilings, are merely lies about fundamental reality. They’re feel-good fairy dust mixed with moonshine.