Captital Letters: Theaters of Operation

In which our man in Washington encounters show business, Beltway-style, rides uncomfortably into the sunset, and observes "the work of the American people."


Subj: A Day on theBeat
Date: Thu, Sep 17, 1998 7:49 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

Yesterday was a day of policy and political multitasking. It started well for your humble correspondent, with NPR blaring in the bedroom, C-SPAN's Washington Journal occupying the living room TV, and The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and The Wall Street Journal on the dining room table. As I read the Post's semi-special scandal section, I thought to myself, "This must be why I went to college." It got even better when my lovely wife delivered a plate of her homemade "apple crumble," a concoction similar to apple pie, topped with vanilla frozen yogurt.

Knowing I had a long day ahead, I also fueled up with some oatmeal before heading out the door to the Heritage Foundation, where the National Immigration Forum and Empower America were sponsoring an event on "A Conservative View of Immigration." Jack Kemp was the day's first speaker. Along with Bill Bennett, he opposed California's Proposition 187, an initiative widely perceived as being anti-immigrant, but whose backers will maintain was only inspired by animus towards illegal immigrants. (This legal vs. illegal immigrant–the former good, the latter bad–is an important distinction for conservatives, as anything that violates a law, be it crossing a border to work or smoking a joint to relieve pain, is to be condemned.)

"This is probably not the most important meeting going on in Washington," said Kemp alluding to a meeting just a few blocks away in which our elected representatives were deciding whether to release Ken Starr's $40 million video titled, Your President, a Squirmy Liar.

But Kemp was passionate nevertheless. He has a reputation for going on a bit long. But I can say this about the man: He is a master gesticulator, a skill he has no doubt honed on the campaign trail. He never commits a "mixed gesticulation," which, like its cousin the mixed metaphor (falling through the roof), is when an unpracticed speaker moves her hands up, for example, when saying "Falling through the floor." And Kemp appears to have a signature move. With his arms bent 90 degrees at the elbow and his palms parallel with fingers spread, Kemp rattles off an emphatic point, such as "God bless America," closing one finger with each word, as if to place a staccato over it.

What I always enjoy about Jack Kemp speeches (perhaps because I haven't heard that many) are their eclectic nature and Reaganesque themes. Both were on display yesterday. Kemp referred often to "Ronnie" and his optimistic vision. He spoke of Marian Anderson, the black woman denied an opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall. He quoted Adam Smith. And he managed to devote considerable time to the evils of the International Monetary Fund, not exactly on topic, but interesting nonetheless. I learned, for example, that members of the Ukrainian choir who sang last Sunday at Kemp's church had their life savings drop from $20,000 to 60 cents due to IMF-prompted currency devaluation.

Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), the next speaker, started with a laugh line. "I always get nervous if I'm speaking after Jack Kemp and he says, `I've just got one last point.'"

Abraham, whose grandparents on both sides emigrated from Lebanon, speaks from the heart on this issue. He, too, supports "legal" immigration, knowing first-hand that the best Americans are often found among the self-selected ones. Said Abraham, citing Manhattan Institute statistics, "Compared to native-born Americans, [immigrants] are more likely to have intact families, they are more likely to have college degrees, they are more likely to be working, and they are no more likely to commit crimes." (They are also more likely to dry clean one's clothes, mow one's lawn, or drive one to the airport.)

My next meeting was off the record, so no mention of it here. I emerged at roughly noon and headed back to my office. After checking my voice mail, e-mail, and snail mail, I grabbed my sandwich–turkey on a French roll–and headed to Lafayette Park where it was rumored that a group of concerned Americans were going to be holding a "Wag the Dog" protest rally. This was a "pseudo event," one that exists solely for the purpose of being broadcast on television or affecting a print story, like this one.

Conservatives are concerned that Clinton will veto next year's appropriations bills, shut down the government, and blame the Republicans for it (sound familiar?) in order to take the focus off his "private life." They want the press, and the public, to start thinking along these lines so Clinton, not Congress, will get the blame. Earlier in the day, I had suggested a slogan that I thought might earn some TV time: "Mr. President, just because you spanked the monkey, don't wag the dog." Whether anyone used it or not, I don't know, since I arrived a half hour late and missed the entire rally.

I wasn't the only one who arrived late. Kathryn Serkes of the Coalition for the Resignation of the President, a pseudo group, also missed the rally. This was quite unfortunate, as Serkes is a founder of the Presidential Moving Co., a pseudo company, and was hoping to drum up some business by offering an "Impeachment Special"-a free move to any president who resigns. She even had a pseudo contract printed up, offering to move, among other things, "800+ FBI files" and "3 boxes used cigars." She couldn't find parking for her moving van.

I was planning to cap the day by attending an event at the Cato Institute for Clint Bolick's new book, Transformation, at 4 p.m. But I was booked to appear on a radio show at 6 p.m. on Monicagate, and I decided it best to study up before opining for an hour on the topic. Not much of note on the radio show, except for one woman caller who reasoned that women weren't upset at the president because they expect men to cheat on their wives and then lie about it. She was fairly certain, however, that her husband wasn't among these men.

Subj: Willie & Me
Date: Fri, Sep 18, 1998 10:58 AM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

Heading home from the National Press Club yesterday, where the Institute for Justice hosted a splendid luncheon to kick off Clint Bolick's book tour, I noticed a familiar-looking rotund man standing in front of the fence that separates the north side of the White House from the rest of the world. He was wearing a New York Yankees hat, smoking a butt, looking into a TV camera, and surrounded by a small group of people–not an unusual scene, except perhaps the smoking in public, since this is a convenient place for the non-credentialed to film with the White House as a backdrop. But this particular cigarette-puffing correspondent was Michael Moore, whom I know only from the annoying but entertaining film Roger & Me, but who I believe has made quite a career out of left-wing gonzo journalism/entertainment. I pulled out my notebook and decided to stick around.

There's a "moving van backed up to the White House," Moore said into the camera, as he told a tale of a Republican coup d'etat. (Indeed there was a moving van parked close to the door, a conventional 10-wheeler cab hooked to a low-bed van. Perhaps someone underbid Kathryn Serkes.) He then launched into a segment that made me wonder if he was on assignment for the online magazine Salon. He warned that he was going to investigate the sex lives of all "585 members of Congress." He had to film this segment over, after one of his producers informed him that there are 535 members of Congress.

"You got to hand it to Ken Starr," said Moore, as he started narrating another clip. "Forty million dollars of our tax money to support his sexual perversions. We got to thinking, What about our sexual perversions? Whose going to support ours? Well tonight, on The Awful Truth, we are going to appoint our own special prosecutor."

The Awful Truth appears to be an English TV show of Moore's. I made his producers, who soon took notice of my notepad and tape recorder, nervous. Two women queried me on what publication I wrote for. I gave one a card. I queried them on what they were filming. One said a British television show, but wouldn't say much else. I did notice a "United Broadcasting Corp." sticker on a Polaroid camera.

Moore was soon finished filming. As he waddled off across Lafayette Park, his cameraman and one producer stayed behind to film two fellas from Florida reading a poem to the late Princess Diana. Yep, it must be an English show.

Subj: Notes on Montana (very long)
Date: Tue, Sep 29, 1998 2:10 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

Thought I would jot down some observations on my time in America's Last Best Place, a.k.a. Montana. Consider it the truncated diaries of an enviro-capitalist. I know my beat is D.C. and that I don't even scribble much on green issues, except an occasional celebration of ferrets. But like other D.C.-based writers for influential publications, I found myself invited to partake in a journalist seminar on "free market environmentalism," sponsored by the Bozeman-based Political Economy Research Center. This trip is well regarded among inside-the-Beltway scribblers, which was reflected in five of the 15 participants hailing from D.C.

I once heard a prominent conservative writer praise the trip over a Heritage Foundation buffet table. So when I received an invitation to attend, I quickly accepted, after clearing it with the boss.

The conference was held at Lone Mountain Ranch, a rustic resort located a wee bit northwest of Yellowstone in Big Sky, Montana. This appears to be a mountain where people express their love for the environment in the free market by building log cabins considerably larger than Honest Abe's. I believe there's a ski resort at the peak of this sliver of paradise, although I never ventured up to confirm. And this is A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer country (at least I think it is). A stream, or as the locals would say, "crick," runs through the ranch. Some of the best fly fishing in the world is available in the Gallatin River, which runs right past the entrance to Big Sky.

* * *

After the first night's dinner, (I chose French onion soup as my starter, and enjoyed duck for my entree, starting what would be a trend of game-themed dinners. I gained sustenance from bison on Friday and pheasant on Saturday) we played the "trading game." The trading game is designed to prove that trade creates value. For this particular incarnation, the people at PERC purchased sundry items from Wal-Mart, itself an expression of the free market's influence in rural America, each for less than a dollar. The items were passed out randomly in brown paper bags. We were given pads made of recycled PERC manuscripts and told to value our item on a scale of one to five. Eagerly ripping into my bag, I discovered a miniature bar of Lever soap with a price tag of 50 cents. Not too exciting; but not bereft of utility. I wrote down two.

We were then instructed to examine our tablemates' items, and trade if we so chose. All I can remember is that one person at my table had an old-fashioned black comb. This is national trade, I thought, and I'm stuck in a poorly endowed Third World country. So I immediately started looking to other tables, anticipating that international trade would soon be allowed. I wanted to score some toothpaste, since I could pick up a sliver of soap at any hotel, but a travel-size tube of Crest takes more effort to acquire. But no one would trade with me. I was stuck with my soap–just like Charlie Brown is stuck with his rocks each Halloween.

It was true that the total utility increased with each round of trade (people were asked to write down a new value for each item they managed to bargain for). But I ended up reporting a utility of negative one, feeling psychologically poorer. When asked to explain, I responded that at first I was happy with my bit of soap. But then I saw what others were given, and I wanted them more. So while in an absolute sense I was no worse off after two rounds of trade, in a relative sense I felt poorer, since I couldn't get what I wanted. For this, I was held up before the group, I think by Terry Anderson, the executive director of PERC, as an example of envy.

While enjoying an after-dinner drink with a couple of locals, someone came in and announced that the Northern Lights were on display. I finished my pint and exited into the great outdoors with my eyes to the sky. "That's west," someone told me. I then looked north, shivered in my sport coat, and headed off to bed.

* * *

Montana's beauty astounds, its spaces inspire, and, now that it has become a popular destination for the Land Rover set, its food is also quite good. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the western part of this state. My grandparents on my father's side took a hunting trip to the Treasure State when I was just finishing up grammar school. They liked what they saw, compared it to what California was becoming, and bought what I now know is disparagingly referred to as a "ranchet." My grandparents' ranchet consisted of a few acres with a stream running through in the Bitterroot Valley. They set out to porch-farm alfalfa and porch-ranch llamas. Yes llamas. Sheep were added to the mix as well.

Here in the Gallatin Valley, I discover that characters like my grandparents are seen as problems for the state. They are unwelcome interlopers whose presence serves only to produce a "Montana Mirage." The Montana Mirage, as best I could understand it, is the effect of being drawn to Montana's pristine simplicity only to fundamentally alter these characteristics, perhaps even destroy them.

Although this seemed to be a general feeling among the locals in our group, the Friday morning presentation by Montana rancher John Flynn provided some precision to these inchoate sentiments. Flynn, who is profiled in a book co-authored by Terry Anderson called Enviro-Capitalists, is a Montana native who works days as the Broadwater County Attorney. He is also a novelist, having published Montana Pursuit, and a lover of Mon-tana's natural emptiness. Flynn also runs a ranch. To stay afloat, Flynn has diversified his activities. His ranch no longer exclusively raises beef. It also provides a hunting refuge, cattle drives for well-heeled Americans and foreigners who pay to do the work of the West, and, believe it or not, a Tom Sawyer product, where these same people actually pay to work on his ranch all day. Not bad. That's exactly the creativity that we expect from Americans.

This would seem to make Flynn an enviro-capitalist, if that word can be parsed to mean a person who is making some dough selling environmental amenities or experiences at the same time he works to conserve them. And at a conference that is celebrating "free market environmentalism," Flynn is a good choice of speaker. But Flynn rejects the label. He is not driven not by either environmentalism or capitalism, although he appears to have an appreciation of both. Rather, he is driven by a deep desire to preserve his form of life, working ranches, which he sees disappearing in Montana under the twin forces of free trade and ranchet-building transplants.

The ranching way of life–living off the land, turning grass into money (the cow, according to Flynn and other ranchers, is just the middle man)–is becoming unsustainable in parts of Montana. A combination of low commodity prices and high demand for scenic rural living, if only for a few months a year, provides ranchers with a sell option that's tough to refuse. An acre of high-mountain range, according to Flynn, can produce an annual beef-based profit of $75 at today's prices. Yet "flatlanders" are eager to buy this land for up to $3,000 an acre. (I know I'm mixing a stock and a flow variable, but this is how he presented it. And he is well positioned to know if there's a spread.)

These newcomers aren't interested in working the land. Most want ranchets–a few prime acres, around which they will build a fence. In doing so they have bid up the price of land so that no working ranch in Montana will ever be able to add another acre, according to Flynn.

Flynn's story is compelling and in his raw genuineness, he pulls one quickly to his side. But it struck me that his story is fundamentally at odds with the free market philosophy that is supposedly celebrated by the day's sponsors. Free markets are about change, the old giving way to the new, today's new becoming tomorrow's old, and the cycle relentlessly churning on. That an acre that will only produce $75 is valued by some at $3,000 is the market's way of telling the rancher to get a new line of work. It's painful and disruptive. It frustrates expectations, forces change, disrupts communities, and many other undesirable things. It is also what has made us a wealthy nation.

* * *

We just had a mini-blowup. It was probably inevitable, given the disparate folks who are assembled. One woman, who to this day remains inspired by Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb, expressed concern that members of our group weren't sufficiently spiritual in their environmentalism. She was so upset after the morning's discussion and its talk of markets that she had to take a two-hour hike to commune with nature just to restore her equilibrium. (Your humble correspondent, if you must know, used this recreation time to sit on the porch and smoke a cigar while typing on my laptop.) But even this proved disconcerting, as she encountered a private property sign on the hike. "I don't see too many signs that say, Please Trespass," she said in an attempt to make some larger point about the downsides of the free market.

After this outburst, a few participants felt the need to articulate their devotion to nature, adding the market is simply a means to the end of environmental bliss. There were complaints about Disneyland and malls. Not covering the environment, I had remained silent, satisfying my needs with a single witticism, but offering no full-throated articulation of my view. But I feel compelled now to go on record.

Environmental amenities–hiking, fishing, looking at trees–are just one of a number of things for which I find the great outdoors useful. Sure, I like to wake up in fresh mountain air. Who wouldn't, so long as a shower is nearby and food not far away? But I also love the smell of diesel fuel, its exhaust once combusted, and the sight of scrapers, front-end loaders, and bulldozers hard at work creating comfort for humans. Give me a backhoe digging deep into the earth. Hand me a chainsaw, I'll clear the trees. While an old tree is something to look at for a few minutes, perhaps photograph my lovely wife beside, what really commands my attention is industrial structures, especially those that have slipped into retirement: old factories and deserted warehouses. I'll trade a tree for an old steam locomotive on which to climb or a rusting truck chassis to examine any day. It's fine to commune with nature, take a walk in the woods, and wallow in the wonderful outdoors. But I also like Brooklyn, where factories are found among apartments and houses, or San Francisco's China Basin, where one can enjoy a Bloody Mary brunch amid working shipyards.

Perhaps I'm a little off center. But that's why I don't write much on the environment.

* * *

After a Saturday morning of deep discussion of water markets, it was recreation time. I decided to suck it up, saddle up, and head out on a guided horseback ride. Given my history with horses–I was nearly bucked off on one occasion–I requested the laziest, most even-tempered beast they had. Instead, they gave me the hungriest.

Heading out of the Lone Mountain Ranch, I was bringing up the rear. The tour for everyone else was experienced on a walking horse, head-to-butt, five in a line. I wasn't so lucky. My horse felt the need to stop and eat every few steps, which caused the horse and me to fall behind. The horse, whose name I made it a point not to learn, obliged by trotting to catch up. Trotting is one of those activities that I would rather look at than experience with any frequency or for any duration. For a skilled equestrian, I am sure that it is pleasurable and easy. But for your humble correspondent, it is back-jarring, butt-bouncing and ball-smashing.

This cycle continued for an hour and a half. As the others walked ponderously along, we stopped every time my horse found its mouth empty of grass. I would cuss it and pull on the reins, being instructed that the latter would prevent its grazing. It didn't. After eating its fill, it would trot to catch up to the walking others, only to commence grazing again upon reaching the pack.

As we headed through the hills, I kept longing for a motorcycle.

Subj: Food Supply Report
Date: Fri, Oct 2, 1998 2:16 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org

Headed out this morning to the inaugural meeting of the President's Council on Food Safety. The life of your humble correspondent is not simply a medley of AEI events, discussions in the gym, and horseback rides. Nope. There's the DGS (Dull Government Stuff) as well.

I happened across the announcement for this meeting while reporting on the feds' new egg regulations. The timing caught my eye. On August 25, a mere week and a day after his non-apology apology, our president issued Executive Order 13100 and created The President's Council on Food Safety.

"By the authority invested in me as President…and in order to improve the safety of the food supply through science-based regulation and well-coordinated inspection, enforcement, research and education programs, it is hereby ordered" that a train wreck of high-level bureaucrats, including the "Secretary of Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency" and many, many, many more get together and discuss food safety.

As I read this, I thought the most powerful politician in the world wasn't kidding on August 17, when he looked us in the eye, blamed Ken Starr for his blow job problems, and said he needed to get back to the work of the American people. Food safety. Important work.

When I arrived and unpacked my laptop about five minutes before the 9:30 a.m. start time, the scene was giddy, as one would expect. It was, after all, a room full of approximately 150 bureaucrats and sundry hangers-on, from advocacy groups to industry representatives, known in bureau-cratese as "stakeholders." We were at ground zero of the creation of yet another great effort by government. As I glanced at the name tags with prominent affiliations from all walks of life: FDA, USDA, FSIS, American Frozen Food Institute, Kraft Foods, FMC, etc., I thought, this is what my economics professors meant by "deadweight loss." I finally have human faces to plaster in the shaded triangle.

Dr. Neal Lane, who's the assistant to some bureaucrat who is probably an assistant to another, kicked off the event, enthusing about a "comprehensive food safety plan," and the excitement of "public input," as HHS Secretary Donna Shalala sat stoically in a state of boredom that undermined the importance of the topic at hand.

Your humble correspondent recognizes the importance of food safety. I once spent a painful few days huddled with a mildly hallucinogenic fever in an $8-a-night hotel room near Mexico City's Zocalo due to a bout of amoebic dysentery. Mexico, you see, doesn't have the USDA, at least not for the taco stands that sell five tacos and a Coke for a buck. But it wasn't the tacos that got me. It was a midnight hot dog purchased from an unreliable fellow while I was sampling the area's cantinas with another unreliable fellow. But that's another story.

Still, it's safe to say that I don't value food safety as highly as the next speaker, Donna Shalala, who looks as if she gets plenty of safe food but lacks other ingredients of a healthy life, such as exercise and sunlight. Shalala talked about a "seamless" food safety net. She quoted Will Rogers: "political promises are about as solid as applesauce." But she quickly reassured the audience that the government does, of course, regulate applesauce.

Shalala read her speech at such a brisk uninterested pace I could barely keep up, although I did catch an utterance that would turn out to be a major theme of the day, heck, of the decade: "When it comes to food safety, what we feed our children, good enough is never enough."

Richard Rominger, deputy secretary of agriculture, was up next. Dull beyond description. Shalala and Lane carried on a side conversation as Rominger droned on. Rominger overshot even the upbeat spirit of the day, when he compared Clinton's efforts in food safety to Sosa and McGwire's slugging. The American people might not know the FSIS from the USDA, according to Rominger, but they know that salmonella is a constant threat. Yep, this guy has his finger on America's pulse, I thought to myself as he spoke of E. coli, Upton Sinclair, and microbial standards. He finished at 10, and he and Shalala left.

With the figureheads gone, it was time to get to the business of the day: the council's vision statement. Dr. Lynn Goldman, an assistant to some administrator in the crevice of the EPA that concerns itself with pesticides and other toxic substances, noted that the vision statement, although only 72 words, is packed with many ideas that fit into three themes: safe and affordable food supply; everyone must play a role; and good science.

We then had a reading of the vision statement, which, in case anybody overlooked it in their packet, was printed on a three-by-five-foot card prominently positioned at the front of the room.

"Consumers can be confident that food is safe, healthy, and affordable. We work within a seamless food safety system that uses farm-to-table preventive strategies and integrated research, surveillance, inspection and enforcement. We are vigilant to new and emergent threats and consider the needs of vulnerable populations. We use science- and risk-based approaches along with public/private partnerships. Food is safe because everyone understands and accepts their responsibilities."

Careful readers will notice that the essentials of Clintonian statism are incorporated. The state will vigilantly protect "vulnerable populations," which, in this room of 99.9 percent middle-aged white people, seemed to mean children, the elderly, and ethnic food cooks. More important, food is safe because we accept our responsibility, which, it turns out, is sending money to these folks to hold such meetings.

From here, the meeting degenerated into a discussion of the vision statement. A woman from the National Pork Producers stated that "education" and "technology transfer" should be part of the vision. A lisp-ridden woman from the Center for Science in the Public Interest thought that it should mention public health and someone else from a public health group added that it would be good to add some "chemical concerns" to the statement. A woman from the safe food coalition argued, surprise, for more government money.

As I packed up to leave, the comments-turned-speeches had already begun. A woman–I'm not sure if the same as before–from the Center for Science in the Public Interest was offering a 10-point plan to save the world. As I was exiting the room, a woman from the Humane Society was attempting to link the treatment of animals to food safety.

It's good to know that Clinton is back doing such good work on behalf of the American people. Lucky for him, and his poll numbers, that most don't know what he's doing.