Monthly Archives: June 2015

Hippies, Beats and Boredom

Beats, Hippies, drugs, heroin

Burroughs in Tangier

I just finished Ted Morgan’s rather long biography of William Burroughs. For a guy who shot his wife dead and was a heroin addict most of his life, not to mention a weird sort of homosexual avatar, Burroughs had many glittering friends and a remarkably dull life. I like literary biography as a genre and will read lit bios more or less to fill in the missing pieces of the English literary enterprise in the 20th century. Burroughs’ own work I have found unreadable and now that I know, in excruciating detail, from whence it came, I should not be surprised. Give me Gore Vidal anytime.

On eBay, I found a stash of Tom Wolfe’s early work. Four dilapidated pocket books chronicling the end of the Beats and the birth of the Hippies. The shorter form journalism of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby remains a pleasure with Wolfe getting the rise of American prole/teen culture in the early sixties exactly right. From Junior Johnson and stock car racing to slot cars to Hot Rods and demolition derbies – plus Las Vegas –  he demonstrates the sheer power of the underclass with a bit of World War II money. It’s a bit dated now – “style of life” for “lifestyle” – but Wolfe’s journalism says a lot about America in an age of optimism. 

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test – all about the delights of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters is very nearly unreadable. Not because Wolfe writes badly, rather because he writes far too well and the sheer tedium of these people is repeated page after page after page. Hippies do not age well – as the drooling 65-year-old beggars who dot our streets attest. But reading about these people in their prime, when the world was new and they were taking LSD before everyone took LSD suggests very strongly that these people were pretty damned boring to begin with. Kesey himself, with One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, established a bit of a reputation and (link between the Beats and Hippies) Neal Cassady (lightly disguised as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road) apparently was quite a good driver. But that was about it. Hallucinations distort reality, they don’t change it.

They got a school bus, painted it in Day-Glo, took lots of drugs and drove around America surprising and outraging the “citizens”. Perhaps material for a 10,000 word Esquire article but a book…no. Other people’s drug trips, like other people’s dreams, should be written of lightly, if at all.

I was just a bit young to embrace the hippies, I enjoyed the drugs and a bit of the sex, but the actual life was five or even ten years ahead of me. When the Merry Pranksters were annoying Americans from coast to coast I would have been about eight.

Various of my rightie friends suggest that the right finds itself losing culture wars. They are correct to a degree. The generation of 1968, having imbued a melange of Marcuse, Leary, Fanon and, in the deep background, Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and Rudi Dutschke, take as a given their right to define the hip, the politically correct, the fashionable and the unspeakable. The grand march through the institutions – Dutschke’s phase not Gramsci’s – has left us with universities, media and corporations largely incapable of saying “no” to the ever-escalating demands of whichever identity group happens along.

But the roots, the root causes if you will, go back well before 1968 to the toxic culture of the beats and the echo of that culture in the Merry Pranksters. At its core, that world is about unspeakable selfishness, a deep sense of entitlement and a profound solipsism.

The enervation of the West began on hot afternoons in Tangier, redolent of hash and the delights afforded aging homosexuals by desperate Arab boys. Is there such a thing as a counter plinth? The very opposite of a platform upon which to erect a work of art or a society?

Oddly enough, Wolfe’s description of a California in which grown men made baroque objects in the shape of cars, or the South where equally grown men raced “stock” cars at 180 miles per hour, suggests the road not taken. And, indeed, Wolfe’s subsequent books, The Right Stuff and then the dark, Bonfire of the Vanities, show the paths diverging.

Winning the culture war is about defending a culture and, more importantly, developing that culture. Oddly, this has nothing to do with #hashtags or the right cocktail parties; or perhaps it does. Perhaps it is about our own #hashtags and our own cocktail parties and learning a little from the pomo left.

The modern left is perfectly delighted to direct a two minute hate at a scientist’s shirt or a scientist’s light remarks or someone who shows up consensus science as a fraud. It hates facts and it hates humour. Facts and humour and a sense of camaraderie can go a very long way in deconstructing the flailing left wing consensus. Rather than railing about the idiocy of identity politics, it is much more fun to arrange cage matches such as happened at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade when the #blacklivesmatter people showed up. Lobbing the 18 year global warming pause into unctuous discussions of model predicted end times is always fun. Remembering the Islam in Islamic terrorism is worthwhile.

Most of all, remembering just how boring hippies were and just what dreadful people the Beats celebrated will keep spirits up and humour front and center.

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SCOTUS ends debate before it bored us to death

Legal scholars are having a little bit of trouble with the “reasoning” in the US Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage. It was not, frankly, the Supreme Court’s finest jurisprudential hour and the precedent of reading into the constitution rights which were well outside the Founder’s intention is unlikely to end well. No matter.

I have long thought gay marriage should be legal. Canada has had it for a decade and has, so far, not collapsed like Rome before the Visigoths. Once legalized gay marriage is mercifully no longer much discussed. Base appealing GOP candidate seem to think one badly reasoned Supreme Court decision should lead to the election of Supreme Court Justices, or a Constitutional Amendment or, possibly, just a general hissy fit. They are thereby denying that base, and the rest of America, a break from hearing about the overarching importance of gay marriage to the well being of America. Believe me, not having to hear about it is blissful.

Of course there are always going to be people deciding that this is the starting gate for the slippery slope to, well, it is not clear what lies beneath but it is pretty sure to be awful like little old ladies marrying their cats or people marrying more than one person at once rather than serially like decent people do. And what about the children?

Call me crazy but it is really no one’s business but their own.

Of course, for some of my socon friends this really is the hill to die for. Family! Religion! What’s in the Bible! Children!

Unfortunately for the socons the gay marriage ship has sailed. Politically intelligent people will wish it Bon Voyage and get on with the things which matter like ISIS, climate change bullshit, building smaller government. Really smart political people will be talking about robots and AI and autonomous cars and the materials revolution and the culture of abundance. Those are real political issues. Gay marriage, like the Confederate Flag and trans everything are distractions.

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Grexit

Apparently, today, Greece is to have an ultimatum, or is it a prenultimatum. No matter, the EU and the IMF and the Germans are really serious now and they are not prepared to put up with any more waffles. Or are they?

The biggest problem the Greeks and the Eurozone face is the fact that neither side is willing to really draw that line in the sand. The Greeks keep spinning and the EU types keep backing away from the possible calamity of Grexit.

The Greeks are counting on the theory that the Eurozone and the EU cannot withstand the possibility of Greece defaulting. Are the Greeks right? On the numbers almost certainly not. Greece is 2% of the overall Euro GDP. They owe something on the order of 150 billion Euros which sounds like a lot but much of that debt is hedged and much of it will be repaid. The European banking community has managed to transfer a lot of the Greek debt to the assorted government and quasi-governmental institutions. Sure, they will take a hit, but not a balance sheet busting one.

From the European perspective losing Greece would be sad but not quite on the order of losing Spain or Italy. The EU will continue, the Euro will survive.

In world terms, the Greek exit/default/bankruptcy is a buying opportunity. Mr. Cook has denied that Apple will buy Greece but that will not stop any number of hedge funds and sovereign wealth funds from stepping up and buying bits of it. And, if the Grexit results in a drachma worth pennies on the Euro it is a dandy bet that plenty of Germans, Brits and French people will be only too delighted to buy that Greek villa they were priced out of previously.

A fire sale is not likely to be politically popular in Greece, but there is not a lot which a government can do to prevent private transactions between consenting adults. Especially in a country where the law is breaking down.

From the world wide perspective, Greek default is unfortunate but a long way from tragic. From a Greek perspective, it is probably the only way out. The only people who are likely to suffer really nasty consequences are the Eurocrats whose mantra of “ever closer” will lie broken at the side of the road. I shall try to work up a tear, but I doubt I will succeed.

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Greeks without Gifts

Greece, Grexit, EuroAbout three years ago my pal Mike Brock alerted me to the risk premiums being demanded on Greek sovereign debt. They had gone hyperbolic. Apparently Mike was on to something.

It is looking very much as though Greece will not meet its obligations and if it can’t there is every chance that it can no longer remain in the Eurozone. Default at this point may be the Greeks’ best option if it cannot persuade its creditors to take the proverbial “haircut” on its debt. In fact, it may be the best option even if the creditors accept a haircut.

Leaving aside the leftie posturing, there is a very real question as to why Greece ever joined the Euro. The Euro itself is a rather odd construction which makes not a lot of economic sense. Having a single monetary policy while leaving nations free to set their own fiscal policy might make sense if all of those nations were economically very similar. But even then there would be problems if some of those nations were politically divergent from others. The grand hope of the EU and the Eurozone was that people as diverse as the Germans and the Greeks would somehow all become “Europeans”. That has not happened.

For the EU losing Greece would be about as significant as Canada misplacing Prince Edward Island. Sad, a bit of a blow, over in two weeks. For Greece, losing the EU could well be the best thing which ever happened.

Economic reality can be postponed to a degree but it cannot be ignored. The Greek economy was not paying its way. The Greek government was paying lots in benefits and collecting not so much in taxes. Politically, it was largely impossible to cut the expenditure side of the ledger – a position which Syriza is maintaining in the face of its debt crisis. There were and are perverse political incentives to keep paying money which the government does not have to people who are not working. While that is possible when the people who are not working – the elderly, the ill – are a tiny fraction of the population, it can’t be sustained as the non-working numbers grow.

So long as there was the Euro, the EU and, ultimately, Germany to pay the bills there was very little political will to undertake reform. Austerity was decried. The harder truths avoided. Smart Greeks could see what was coming and have been offshoring their money in buckets for years. Good for them, not so good for Greece.

What comes after default will not be pretty and may very well degenerate into a weird sort of civil war. (Not an uncommon outcome in Greek politics from pretty much WWI on.) The may be suffering on a national scale and the collapse of Greek civil society. Or there may not. In fact, it is equally possible what with a Greek currency priced to reflect Greek productivity, Greece could emerge from a default with a viable, Greek, economy.

At the moment Greece is hobbled by a currency which has very little relation to its actual economy.Exiting the Euro is risky but it is likely a better bet in the middle to long term than continuing to pretend that Greece is somehow Germany with a better climate.

Gone to Pot

A client of mine alerted me to tonight’s 5th Estate program on Pot Fiction. It is the full hour and worth watching for a variety of reasons. Here’s the link.

The point of the program is that, in Vancouver at least, the practical effect of Health Canada’s Medical Marijuana regulations is de facto legalization. And, in fact, the program does not actually deal with the effect of the injunction against those regulations which has meant that the regulations themselves are suspended until a case against them has been heard, likely all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Despite the fact that I don’t smoke pot – because if I do I will be asleep in approximately three minutes – I have long advocated complete legalization. Largely for libertarian reasons but also because the criminal law is essentially unenforceable. But the medical marijuana regulatory scheme interests me as a grand example of government getting something entirely wrong.

The original medical marijuana regulations allowed people to buy from a single supplier or grow their own or designate a grower. While the system was far from perfect, and found to be unconstitutional, it had the advantage of regulating with a very light hand. But, oh Heavens, there was “leakage”. Medical pot was not always only used by medical users. Yikes.

So Health Canada came up with a regulatory scheme which was going to licence grower/distributors and put the users and their growers out of business. Enter Big Green and a bunch of promoters who sold shares in publicly listed companies based on the new regulations. The promoters made a lot of money using a simple story: there were 45,000 medical pot users in Canada (projected to grow to 450,000 users in a decade) who each used about 3 grams a day and who would have no choice but to pay between $8 and $15 a gram for their “medicine”. You do the math.

To my not very great surprise, people used to paying $0 to $5.00 a gram did not rush to sign up. And, very quickly, at least in Vancouver, pot shops – for registered users only of course – began to spring up. Becoming a registered user was not tough. As the 5th Estate guy discovered, telling a naturopath a charming story about stress and sleep disturbance over Skype gets you your registration. At which point you are free to buy. (I note the 5th Estate did not ask the pot shop owners where they were getting their pot – which is a rather good question because it is certainly not from the licenced growers as they are not allowed to sell except by mail order.)

As anyone who has lived in Vancouver knows, the Vancouver Police Department has better things to do than bust dispensaries. Plus, given the injunction halting enforcement of the Health Canada regs, it is not obvious what they would bust the dispensaries for that would have a chance of getting past the Crown. But even if they did bust the dispensary and even if the Crown brought charges, it is pretty difficult to see how a judge could find a person guilty who was selling to a registered user.

The problem is that the boffins at Health Canada have not quite figured out that their regulations are assuming a world which does not exist. First, they assume that people want to smoke “legal pot”. That might be true if police forces were in the habit of kicking down doors to arrest people smoking pot at home but, I fear, that hasn’t happened in years. (It may occasionally occur as a means of harassment but the probable cause issue is usually sufficient to kick the charges.)

Second, the boffins assumed that “medical marijuana” would somehow be policed by the medical profession. While it is a happy thought, all that is needed are a few doctors, nurse practitioners and naturopaths who think pot is just fine for what ails you, to render the “policing” function meaningless. Given that there is very little evidence either way as to pot’s medical efficacy, putting the burden of policing on the medical profession was a non-starter from the get go.

Third, the idea of centralizing growing and distribution of a relatively easy to grow plant in the hands of a group of entrepreneurs was a forlorn hope. Why would Mrs. Smith give up her little personal grow op only to buy her arthritis pain reliever at five times the price from clever marketers? And why would people who were growing illegally stop when they now had a fool proof means of distribution.

The only way that the regulations – if they ever manage to survive judicial scrutiny – will work is if Health Canada can somehow convince the Vancouver (and many other city police departments) to enforce the Criminal Code in the face of wide spread public opposition. Health Canada’s regulations will only work if the cost of “illegal medical marijuana” is, by draconian enforcement, raised to the point where the legal alternative is cheaper. Which would mean a level of enforcement which far exceeded the scale of enforcement we saw in the 1990’s. Which is not going to happen.

Health Canada is in way over its head. It has 1200 pending licence applications and it has only managed to approve 17 of them. It’s regulations are suspended by a Federal Court injunction. Its rules saying that only dried smokable pot is legal have been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada. It has never managed to provide guidance as to the conditions marijuana is indicated for and what dosages might be efficacious.

Meanwhile, people who want to smoke pot are running rings around the regulations and using them to have a “Get out of Jail Free” card on the off chance they are found “in possession”. Now the law is in disrepute with the public and, more importantly, the police, Crown and judges.

We have legalization through the backdoor.

Unregulated, un-taxed and entirely beyond the state’s control.

I’d call that a win.

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The Election

I have been taking a long break from Canadian politics. The Conservatives annoy me, the NDP worry me and the Liberals are simply pathetic. But now that the pre-Election BBQ season is upon us I am paying a bit of attention.

Poor Justin. The CPC did their focus groups and discovered that JT is a perfectly likable guy. Good looking, better on his feet than his detractors thought he would be and then they spotted the hook, “Just not ready.” It is a nice hook. More in sorrow than in anger. The implication is that Justin might, at some point, be ready. Just not right at the moment. It is a very clever move except for one problem: the Tories need Justin to be ready enough to snaffle just the right number of votes from the NDP. When you have 38% of the votes, tops, you need to avoid a situation in which the other guys, with their call it 55% manage to swing behind one of the other parties.

Now there is the happy chance that Lizzy May will sterilize a few of the nuttier eco-fringe bar votes and hurt the NDP. But at best that is 5% nationwide. The CPC can’t count on anything but a mini-Green surge.

Which leaves the NDP.

Gulp.

Reading the polls suggest to me (and lot of other people) that there is not a huge pro-NDP or pro-Liberal voting bloc; rather there are a lot of people who have had enough of Harper. There are confirmed anti-Harper people who populate the comment boards of the CBC, the Star and the Globe and Mail ascribing sins unimagined to this rather awkward man. But there are also a lot of people who, while they do not hate Harper, have had enough of him.

Weirdly, as support for the Liberal Party and Trudeau the younger slips, it is not translating into any increase in pro-Harper support. The thing which must keep the Harper war room awake at night is the possibility that Liberals, sensing that this is not Trudeau’s season, will defect to the NDP. A few? A lot? If it is more than a few there are a fair number of seats in “vote rich Ontario” and a handful elsewhere which could easily go NDP. And some of those are CPC marginals.

This could get interesting pretty quickly.

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