»  Radio Derb — Transcript

        Friday, December 7th, 2007


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[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire March No. 2, organ version]

01 — Intro.     Radio Derb is on the air! This is your genial host John Derbyshire bringing you season's greetings and some snippets from the news for you to ponder.

Radio Derb's going to be a little short this week, ladies and gents, my apologies for that. I've been on the road. What's lacking in quantity will, I assure you, be made up for in quality.

On with the show!


02 — I'm hurting, Mr President.     I know all Radio Derb listeners agree with our President that, quote: "When someone's hurting government must move." Well, I'm hurting.

You see, on my net income of $25,000 a year, I figured there was no way I could afford a decent house. Then I got talking to this really cool mortgage broker guy. He explained to me that my thinking was all wrong. Buying a house, he explained, is not like going to the store and buying a six-pack. It's not a purchase of something you're going to consume. It's an investment.

House values always rise, you see; so even if you can't meet the payments, you can always unload the property for twice what you paid and come away smelling like roses.

Thus enlightened, I went and bought myself a ten-bedroom house on a hundred-acre spread over in the east end of Long Island. I financed with a mortgage the guy sold me: something called a balloon adjustable sub-prime jumbo 150-year cross-collateralized bundled-derivative obligation with an escalator clause locked into the 90-day futures price on mung beans on the Kuala Lumpur Commodities Exchange. I think I got that right.

Anyway, the firm that this thing was securitized through, which seems to be based in Bucharest, is now dunning me for $12,000 a month, which I can't pay, so I'm hurting, you see?

When will the government move, Mr President? Oh, I read in this morning's newspaper that you already have. Quote: "President Bush will announce this afternoon an agreement with major mortgage firms to freeze interest rates for five years for financially troubled homeowners."

Wow. That gets me off the hook. Thanks, Mr. President! That's the guy I voted for.

But now, since I've opened the subject, I also own this stock that someone promised me would go nowhere but up and it's been going nowhere but down for two years. I bought on margin and now I'm getting those annoying calls from my broker.

I'm hurting Mr President, I'm hurting!

And then there's the boat that I bought using the house as collateral. You know, a real nice boat — sixty-footer. I tell you, Mr. President, I'm hurting. I'm hurting!


03 — Second Amendment technology issues.     A crazy guy in Omaha, Nebraska opened fire with a rifle in a shopping mall, killing eight people and wounding five before killing himself. There doesn't seem to have been any motive, other than that the guy was obviously very seriously ticked off at the world in general.

Now I just know I'm going to be sitting around with Second Amendment friends for the next few days, all of us grumbling: "Wasn't there anyone around in that mall who could have taken a shot at him?"

That's probably a bit unfair. The gunman had got himself a good defensive position up on a third-floor balcony, and the whole thing was over in a few minutes. Still, you can't help but wonder whether matters would have turned out differently if twenty-five percent, or fifty percent, or ninety percent of those shoppers had been armed.

On the other side, my non-Second Amendment friends — not to mention my non-Second Amendment wife — will say, very reasonably I think:

I'm not going to tote a handgun round with me on the one-in-a-million chance I'll come up against a lunatic or a criminal or a terrorist. Those things are heavy. They need cleaning. Who's got time for all the training and practice? Well, enthusiasts have of course, but they're enthusiasts. I'm enthusiastic about different stuff. Plus it will be one more damn thing to think about when getting ready to go to the mall: car keys, credit cards, cellphone, nine-millimeter semi, … C'mon.

Well, as I said, I think that's a reasonable point of view. The way most of us handle this — by going out unarmed, resignedly shrugging off the microscopic probability of getting whacked by some crazy loner in between Brookstone and the sweater boutique — that is probably rational.

It does get me thinking though. Where is technology in all this? There's been no fundamental advance in side-arm technology for close to a century, except for the Taser, which is only for very close range.

We conquered polio and we went to the Moon. Vaudeville, the three-martini lunch and the four-pack-a-day habit have all gone with the wind. Elvis is dead; China's capitalist; a woman's running for President; and we've cracked the Poincaré Conjecture; yet we're still handling violent confrontations by hurling blobs of lead through the air at nine hundred feet per second.

Can't someone come up with a better people-zapper? Now there's an accessory I'd like to have on my cell phone.


04 — Ron Paul's assets: amateurish, non-crazy.     Just a couple of points on Ron Paul.

First: The deal-breaker for a lot of conservatives who otherwise like Paul is the War on Terror.

Jonah Goldberg wrote an excellent piece in the current print edition of National Review reminding us that Bill Buckley put his own original libertarianism on the back shelf when he became convinced that the U.S.S.R. was an existential threat to us, one that could only be opposed by giving our government more power and money.

If you think jihadism is that kind of threat — a U.S.S.R.-sized threat — you won't buy what Paul is selling. If you don't think so, you might.

Second point: Paul's supporters. Quite a lot of them seem to be nuts.

Paul's personality works against this problem — and it is a problem because a lot of people's main knowledge of a candidate comes via his supporters.

Paul is the opposite of a control freak, which is reasonable enough considering he's a libertarian. If you tell Ron Paul that you met some of his supporters arguing for the privatization of the U.S. Air Force, or a constitutional ban on seatbelt laws, or the abolition of paper money, Paul's just going to chuckle and say, "Oh, kids, whaddaya gonna to do?"

I don't personally think this is a big issue. Paul's a bit of a Mitt Romney in this respect. Lots of people think that Mormonism is a wacky cult, but surely nobody thinks that Romney is a wacky cultist. The guy just comes over as too sane and sensible. It's a bit the same with Paulism.

Friends tell me that there are 9/11 Truthers in Paul's baggage train. Well, I bet there are, and I bet that if one of them were to buttonhole Ron Paul, Paul would be much too polite to blow him off. I try to be gentle with lunatics too.

If you're going to go around saying that Paul himself is a lunatic or a cultist, though, you'll get few takers. It's just too obviously not the case.

Third: The amateurism of Paul's campaign is currently a strength. Professional campaign management has reached a point of diminishing returns. If you increase the professionalism of your campaign management by a few points, you'll peel off a few more voters, but you'll turn off some equivalent number who found the packages just too slick.

In this environment, amateurism is appealing. Enough voters detest the smooth, professionalized focus-group-tested, poll-watching, triangulating wizards of modern campaign management to make it something of a liability, certainly for an out-of-the-mainstream candidate like Paul.

Here's a prediction. If Paul gets enough voters in the early primaries to attract the attentions of the campaign management professionals, and they take over the Paul campaign and polish it and shine it and paint it nice pastel colors and smother it with spreadsheets and mission statements and focus groups — if that happens, Paul will sink like a stone.


05 — Hillary's experience.     Oh, Hillary Clinton. Don't get me started. I saw her on TV the other night, sneering at Barack Obama as "someone who entered the Senate just so he could run for President," end quote.

As always with Clintons, you don't know whether to loathe them for the empty icy cynicism, or admire them for their breathtaking gall.

Meanwhile Mrs Clinton is selling herself to the Democratic electorate as the experienced candidate.

She's making the sale, too. Pollsters for the Washington Post divided likely Democratic voters into two blocks according to whether they thought strength and experience were more important, or a new direction and new ideas. Mrs Clinton swept the strength-and-experience people, getting 57 percent of them. Fourteen percent went for Edwards, eleven for Richardson, ten for Obama.

Well, I can sort of see the point about strength. Mrs Clinton will certainly be ruthless and unscrupulous about getting what she wants. Whether what she wants will be good for the country is another issue.

But, experience? Seven years of dozing up there in Halitosis Hall while Teddy Kennedy drones on about how undertaxed we are? And before that, what? Experience at operating a document shredder?

The only one of that four candidates I named with actual executive experience is Bill Richardson. Okay, Richardson's a race-pandering ditherer who never had an interesting thought in his life; but being state Governor isn't nothing.

Being an affirmative-action hire at a shady law firm in the boondocks is nothing. Being First Lady of Arkansas is nothing, experience-wise; and actually, being First Lady of the United States is also nothing.

Having experience of actually running something big and complicated may be overrated — who had more executive experience than Herbert Hoover, after all? — but if that's really what you want in your candidate, you could do way better than Hillary.


06 — The Guantanamo Bay embarrassment.     Is it just me or do other conservative hawks feel just a smidgen of discomfort about the prisoners of war we're holding at Guantanamo Bay?

Sure, if we let these guys out, they'll be back rigging up IEDs to blow our guys up, or planning new 9/11-style attacks on our mainland. I don't dispute that; and considering what happens in war — considering, I mean, what we do to enemy combatants in the normal course of battle — three hots and a cot in the Caribbean isn't bad.

But still, what's the plan here? Just to keep them there, like, for ever? We're talking about three hundred guys who range from hardened terrorists to uncommitted hangers-around who just got caught up in some sweep. Military tribunals are supposed to be figuring out which are which, but it's going awfully slowly and nobody seems to know what the rules are. It's not even clear if habeas corpus applies.

That means, in this context, a detainee's right to argue his case before a federal judge. Guantanamo Bay is foreign soil that just happens to be controlled by the U.S. government. Does habeas corpus apply to foreigners held outside the country? If so, wouldn't it also apply to that Iranian infiltrator our guys are questioning in some Baghdad basement any day of the week?

Given the fact that the federal judiciary includes a large cohort of justices who are slightly to the left of Noam Chomsky, I'm not sure I want those guys deciding the fate of possible Mohammed Attas.

On the other hand, a lot of people tell me the War on Terror could go on for a generation or two. We've held these guys for six years. Are we willing to hold them for sixty? I doubt it.

We've got ourselves in a nasty bind here and I don't see any way out of it.

At least let's not make it worse. If we take battlefield prisoners in future, let's deal with them in the countries we find them in. We can shoot them as spies if they were out of uniform, we're entitled to do that. Or we could just hand them over to our local allies.

Guantanamo Bay is an embarrassment.


07 — Religion in U.S. politics.     The American electorate consists of a great mass of people who declare themselves to be Christian and a fringe of people who identify themselves otherwise.

The actual numbers in the 2001 census were as follows: Eighty-one percent Christian, fifteen percent agnostic or atheist, four percent other religions, of which the biggest was Jewish at 1.4 percent.

If you want to look at the first derivatives: Christians dropped over seven percent from 1990 to 2001, agnostics and atheists went up not quite seven percent, and the tiny gap was filled by a slight increase in other religions.

Numerically, agnostics and atheists doubled their headcount from 1990 to 2001.

Of the 81 percent of us identifying as Christians, it is a much-disputed question how many are so-called "cultural Christians" who never actually think about the divinity of Christ from one year's end to the next. The answer is certainly at least half.

Churchgoing is likewise much disputed, as people seem to mis-report their churchgoing habits. The best estimates — done with such techniques as actually counting automobiles in church parking lots — suggest that around a quarter of us go to church once a week or more.

Well, that's religion in American. Religion in American politics plays out accordingly. Understandably, candidates feel the need to say Christian-friendly things. No politician is in the business of ticking off 81 percent of the electorate.

With close to one in five of us nonbelievers, though, you don't want to sound like too much of a Holy Roller. Ticking off fifteen percent of the public isn't too smart either, especially when the fifteen percent is growing fast.

And of course it all cuts differently by region and party. The rise of the Religious Right has got conservatism tagged as the religious faction; yet some of us are old enough to remember when evangelicals were out knocking on doors for Jimmy Carter. And the general tenor of Southern Christianity can, as Mike Huckabee seems intent on illustrating, be big-government populist as well as Reagan conservative.

The equation of conservatism with religiosity needs a whole sheaf of qualifications, in fact. If you listed the major party Presidential candidates of the 20th century by piety, Barry Goldwater would be way down the list, far below several Democrats. The four states where unbelievers were actually a majority in the 2001 census were Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming. That's two blue states, two red states.

In short, this is a bit of a minefield for national candidates. I just want to say that I think Mitt Romney tiptoed through this minefield with exceptional skill the other day, and that is an impressive thing all by itself.


08 — Signoff.     I'm afraid that will have to suffice for this week, Radio Derb listeners. Not only have I been on the road, I have come home to a house severely disrupted by a gang of fellows converting us from oil heat to gas. Whether this will do anything to slow global warming, I have no idea, but it will clear up some space in my basement.

The gas-fired Radio Derb will be on the air again next week with more ruminations — not I hope too gaseous — on the appalling state of the nation and the world.

Until then, get stocking up on port wine, fruitcake and wrapping paper.


[Music clip: More Derbyshire Marches.]