Later On

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Archive for January 22nd, 2022

How a New Hampshire libertarian utopia was foiled by bears

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This Vox report by Sean Illing is from just over a year ago — published in December, 2020 — but it deserves some recognition and reading:

Every ideology produces its own brand of fanatics, but there’s something special about libertarianism.

I don’t mean that as an insult, either. I love libertarians! For the most part, they’re fun and interesting people. But they also tend to be cocksure about core principles in a way most people aren’t. If you’ve ever encountered a freshly minted Ayn Rand enthusiast, you know what I mean.

And yet one of the things that makes political philosophy so amusing is that it’s mostly abstract. You can’t really prove anything — it’s just a never-ending argument about values. Every now and again, though, reality intervenes in a way that illustrates the absurdity of particular ideas.

Something like this happened in the mid-2000s in a small New Hampshire town called Grafton. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, author of a new book titled A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, says it’s the “boldest social experiment in modern American history.” I don’t know if it’s the “boldest,” but it’s definitely one of the strangest.

The experiment was called the “Free Town Project” (it later became the “Free State Project”), and the goal was simple: take over Grafton’s local government and turn it into a libertarian utopia. The movement was cooked up by a small group of ragtag libertarian activists who saw in Grafton a unique opportunity to realize their dreams of a perfectly logical and perfectly market-based community. Needless to say, utopia never arrived, but the bears did! (I promise I’ll explain below.)

I reached out to Hongoltz-Hetling to talk about his book. I wanted to know what happened in New Hampshire, why the experiment failed, and what the whole saga can teach us not just about libertarianism but about the dangers of loving theory more than reality.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

How would you describe the “Free Town Project” to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I’d put it like this: There’s a national community of libertarians that has developed over the last 40 or 50 years, and they’ve never really had a place to call their own. They’ve never been in charge of a nation, or a state, or even a city. And they’ve always really wanted to create a community that would showcase what would happen if they implemented their principles on a broad scale.

So in 2004, a group of them decided that they wanted to take some action on this deficiency, and they decided to launch what they called the Free Town Project. They sent out a call to a bunch of loosely affiliated national libertarians and told everyone to move to this one spot and found this utopian community that would then serve as a shining jewel for the world to see that libertarian philosophies worked not only in theory but in practice. And they chose a town in rural New Hampshire called Grafton that already had fewer than 1,000 people in it. And they just showed up and started working to take over the town government and get rid of every rule and regulation and tax expense that they could.

Sean Illing

Of all the towns in all the world, why Grafton?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

They didn’t choose it in a vacuum. They actually conducted a very careful and thorough search. They zeroed in on the state of New Hampshire fairly quickly because that’s the “Live Free or Die” state. They knew that it would align well with their philosophy of individualism and personal responsibility. But once they decided on New Hampshire, they actually visited dozens of small towns, looking for that perfect mix of factors that would enable them to take over.

What they needed was a town that was small enough that they could come up and elbow the existing citizenry, someplace where land was cheap, where they could come in and buy up a bunch of land and kind of host their incoming colonists. And they wanted a place that had no zoning, because they wanted to be able to live in nontraditional housing situations and not have to go through the rigamarole of building or buying expensive homes or preexisting homes.

Sean Illing

Wait, what do you mean by “nontraditional housing”?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

As the people of Grafton soon found out, a nontraditional housing situation meant a camp in the woods or a bunch of shipping containers or whatever. They brought in yurts and mobile homes and formed little clusters of cabins and tents. There was one location called “Tent City,” where a bunch of people just lived in tents from day to day. They all united under this broad umbrella principle of “personal freedom,” but as you’d expect, there was a lot of variation in how they exercised it.

Sean Illing

What did the demographics of the group look like? Are we talking mostly about white guys or Ayn Rand bros who found each other on the internet?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Well, we’re talking about hundreds of people, though the numbers aren’t all that clear. They definitely skewed male. They definitely skewed white. Some of them had a lot of money, which gave them the freedom to be able to pick up roots and move to a small town in New Hampshire. A lot of them had very little money and nothing keeping them in their places. So they were able to pick up and come in. But most of them just didn’t have those family situations or those 9-to-5 jobs, and that was really what characterized them more than anything else.

Sean Illing

And how did they take over the local government? Did they meet much resistance?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

When they first showed up, they hadn’t told anyone that they were doing this, with the exception of a couple of sympathetic libertarians within the community. And so all of a sudden the people in Grafton woke up to the fact that their town was in the process of being invaded by a bunch of idealistic libertarians. And they were pissed. They had a big town meeting. It was a very shouty, very angry town meeting, during which they told the Free Towners who dared to come that they didn’t want them there and they didn’t appreciate being treated as if their community was an experimental playpen for libertarians to come in and try to prove something.

But the libertarians, even though they never outnumbered the existing Grafton residents, what they found was that they could come in, and they could find like-minded people, traditional conservatives or just very liberty-oriented individuals, who agreed with them on enough issues that, despite that angry opposition, they were able to start to work their will on the levers of government.

They couldn’t pass some of the initiatives they wanted. They tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the school district and to completely discontinue paying for road repairs, or to declare Grafton a United Nations free zone, some of the outlandish things like that. But they did find that a lot of existing Grafton residents would be happy to cut town services to the bone. And so they successfully put a stranglehold on things like police services, things like road services and fire services and even the public library. All of these things were cut to the bone.

Sean Illing

Then what happened over the next few years or so?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

By pretty much any measure you can look at to gauge a town’s success, Grafton got worse. Recycling rates went . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and indeed, there’s the book.

It strongly reminds me of Don Quixote, who spend so much time and study in reading his books of knights-errant that those became his reality, so that when he encountered things in the real world, he could see them only through the warped lens of his reading, so he attacked the windmills as though they were giants and the flock of sheep as though they were an army. He could no longer see things as they were, but only as his books and readings told him they should be.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 4:44 pm

An old Virginia plantation, a new owner, and a family legacy unveiled

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The story the rabbi told provides an example of how the past can suddenly become attached to the present. This account by Joe Helm in the Washington Post is another example. (The link is a gift link: no paywall with this link). It begins:

GRETNA, Va. — There was so much Fredrick Miller didn’t know about the handsome house here on Riceville Road.

He grew up just a half-mile away and rode past it on his school bus every day. It was hard to miss. The home’s Gothic revival gables, six chimneys, diamond-paned windows and sweeping lawn were as distinctive a sight as was to be seen in this rural southern Virginia community. But Miller, 56, an Air Force veteran who now lives in California, didn’t give it much thought. He didn’t know it had once been a plantation or that 58 people had once been enslaved there. He never considered that its past had anything to do with him.

Two years ago, when his sister called to say the estate was for sale, he jumped on it. He’d been looking, pulled home to the place he left at 18. His roots were deep in this part of Pittsylvania County, and he wanted a place where his vast extended family, many of whom still live nearby, could gather.

The handsome house set on a rise had a name, it turned out. Sharswood. And Sharswood had a history. And its history had everything to do with Miller.

Slavery wasn’t something people talked much about in this part of Virginia when Miller was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. And other than a few brief mentions in school, it wasn’t taught much, either.

The only time he remembers the subject coming up was when Alex Haley’s miniseries, “Roots,” was broadcast in 1977.

“For a lot of us, that was our first experience with what really happened during slavery,” he said. “It just wasn’t discussed.”

Miller assumed his ancestors had been enslaved. But where and when and by whom were questions that were left unasked and unanswered.

“People didn’t want to talk about this stuff because it was too painful,” said Dexter Miller, 60, a cousin of Fredrick’s who lives in Java. “They would say, ‘This is grown folks’ business.’ And that’s how some of the history was lost.”

Teaching America’s truth: How slavery is taught in America’s schools

Another cousin, Marian Keyes, who taught first in segregated schools and later in integrated schools from 1959 to 1990, said that for a long time there was little teaching about slavery in Pittsylvania County.

“We weren’t really allowed to even talk about it back then,” said Keyes, who turns 90 this year and lives in Chatham. “We weren’t even allowed to do much about the Civil War and all of that kind of stuff, really.”

Even outside of school, when she was growing up, Keyes said, the subject of slavery was avoided.

“I just thought everything was normal,” she said, “because that was the way of life.”

But the unspoken history left a gulf.

It wasn’t until after Fredrick Miller bought Sharswood in May 2020 that its past started coming into focus. That’s when his sister, Karen Dixon-Rexroth and their cousins Sonya Womack-Miranda and Dexter Miller doubled down on researching their family history.

What neither Fredrick Miller nor his sister knew at the time was that the property had once been a 2,000-acre plantation, whose owners before and during the Civil War were Charles Edwin Miller and Nathaniel Crenshaw Miller.

Miller.

That Fredrick Miller and so many members of his extended family were born and grew up in the shadow of Sharswood was a clue to perhaps a deeper connection. It wasn’t uncommon after emancipation for formerly enslaved people to take the last names of their enslavers. But establishing the link required more research.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 4:12 pm

Posted in Daily life, History, Memes

Matt Stoller’s Open Thread: Have You Ever Been Through a Merger?

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Matt Stoller has an interesting open thread, which he introduces with this:

Last week, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and Department of Justice Antitrust Division chief Jonathan Kanter announced they are going to revise merger policy, and they want public input before doing so. Therefore, today’s open thread for paid subscribers is about mergers. Have you been through a merger? Orchestrated a merger? Dealt with a customer or supplier going through a merger? What was it like? Do you have any broader observations about corporate combinations?

Here are my experiences.

In my first job out of college, the tiny company at which I worked went through a merger. This was during the dot com boom, and we were floating on venture capital trying to find a business model. Our CEO came upon a small but profitable company that made accounting software in a niche area. The founders wanted to get out of the business because they had been running the company for twenty years and sought to retire, and we seemed like a good energetic group who could take over. So we bought it, and instantly became profitable.

You’d think this would be a great situation. But with little industry background, we flailed around for a year, enraging customers and partners. Our product ‘upgrade’ made the software worse, which became clear when we had to deal with significant customer service issues involving bugs, incompatible systems, and just bad accounting. As a 23 year old, I ended up being told to fire seven people that year, including people 20 years older with more wisdom and insight (as well as more responsibilities).

We eventually cleaned up the mess, but the experience stuck with me as I learned more about antitrust and corporate strategy. Since the 1980s, economists have come to believe that mergers are nearly always good, that the combined firms are more efficient. When I learned that the bedrock assumption behind antitrust economics is that mergers are nearly always efficient, I thought it was a joke. But it’s not.

The merger I went through was a best-case scenario. It involved a small firm passing from one generation to the next, without any real problems involving monopolization. And yet there was a massive loss of efficiency if only because the new team had to learn the business. For bigger mergers, and mergers involving private equity-type transactions, mergers are often value-destructive. In 2018, for instance, AT&T fought the government’s antitrust division for the right to buy Time Warner, and won. The combo turned into a giant turf battle among executives, management consultants crawled all over the place, sucking out cash, and finally three years later, AT&T is undoing the transaction on which they wasted tens of billions of dollars. That’s the usual story (plus the $400M golden parachute for the Time Warner CEO, which is unfortunately also quite common).

But some mergers are far worse than just a waste of resources. I encountered one of these when I was a staffer in the Senate. When Office Depot and Staples were trying to merge, the CEO of a 150-person firm that sold to office supply stores came to my office and asked for help stopping the deal. The buyer who dealt with his particular product category at Staples was a 25 year-old kid who didn’t like him, and wanted to source from China. If Staples got control of Office Depot, his business would die. He told me most of the office supply industry agreed with this assessment, but all of them were too afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. He begged me to keep the visit a secret. Fortunately, a judge blocked the Staples-Office Depot combination.

But this kind of weird uneconomic transaction, where large amounts of power are put in the hands of random unqualified corporate actors, is  . . .

Continue reading. And comment.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 2:42 pm

He Survived The Holocaust Because Of A Stranger’s Kindness

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Listen to this great story — less than 4 minutes.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 2:38 pm

Posted in Daily life, History

The mask conundrum: A dialogue

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Kevin Drum treats us to a Socratic dialogue. He writes:

There’s a fundamental problem with our campaign to get people to wear masks. It’s pretty obvious, but here it is:

Socrates: Our greatest healers and physicians are united in urging us to wear masks in order to fight the plague that runs rampant among us. Do you believe their advice to be sound?

Glaucon: Why yes.

Socrates: And what evidence do they offer that you find so persuasive?

Glaucon: It is obvious that masks reduce the expulsion of bad airs from breathing and coughing. If I am suffering from the plague—but still out in the agora because I am not yet feeling any ill effects—it diminishes the number of malignant corpuscles that I introduce into the world.

Socrates: So when you wear a mask, you do it to help other people, not yourself?

Glaucon: That is so. It is not perfect, but it is still beneficent to the good health of Athens.

Socrates: And you consider this a virtuous act.

Glaucon: Indeed I do. A respect for the good of society is one of the highest virtues.

Socrates: Quite so. But you’ll admit that not everyone thinks as you do.

Glaucon: Unhappily, all my experience among men teaches me that you are right.

Socrates: So on the one side, we have your fellow citizens of virtue. They are the most likely to heed the advice of our physicians, are they not?

Glaucon: I cannot disagree.

Socrates: And being virtuous, they have probably already visited a physician and procured for themselves a potion that protects against the plague?

Glaucon: Indeed, I myself have done so. I believe it was called a “vaccine.”

Socrates: And what does this “vaccine” accomplish?

Glaucon:  . . .

Do continue reading. Drum points out a paradox we need to solve.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 1:36 pm

New batch of rosemary salt, and new lessons learned

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Today’s batch of rosemary salt

A new batch, and new lessons. I’ve updated the main post (which contains the recipe) with the lessons learned this time, which are:

  1. Use the weighted recipe. Rosemary springs — and sage sprigs — vary greatly from package to package. The only reliable way to ensure correct proportions is to weigh the rosemary and sage (and other ingredients as well, if you want, but those seem less problematic).
  2. Process the rosemary and sage in stages. Put a small portion of rosemary and sage in the processor, process that until it’s finely chopped, add some more, process that, and so on. Somewhere in the middle of the process, add the garlic and lemon zest. (I at first put all the rosemary and sage in the processor, but it was too much and wouldn’t process. So I took it out and processed in stages.)
  3. Add salt after the other ingredients have been thoroughly processed. Then process some more. The result is be somewhat fluffy — and very tasty. Photo above is today’s batch.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 1:31 pm

Abandonment of new music and clinging to old: Sign of decline and imminent fall?

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It’s a bad sign when a society/culture/country/civilization clings to past glories and turns its back on the present. It shows a reluctance to face current reality and in the extreme you get Don Quixote. Ted Gioia had a recent column on how old music is killing new music, and that column is well worth reading. Even more interesting is his follow-up column, in which industry trackers and insiders point out that it’s even more extreme than he thought.

Read those, and think also of those in Britain who still cling to the idea of the great British Empire (now gone), on which the sun never set (until it did). 

IS the US starting to crumble on all fronts?

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Memes, Music

Best Food to Prevent Common Childhood Infections

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Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 11:08 am

The roots of Libertarianism

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Libertarianism has never made any sense at all to me, though I do understand some people find its ideas attractive and its logic irrefutable. The fact that it doesn’t work doesn’t bother them because, dad-gummit, it should work. (You may detect aspects of Don Quixote in this attitude, and if so, we we are in agreement.)

But where did this strange delusion originate? As it happens, there’s an excellent history that’s available as a PDF. Here it is:

From that document:

The more people got to know about LeFevre’s libertarian program, the more they started calling it out as an elaborate swindle hatched by wealthy interests, designed to talk the public into dismantling their own government power and institutions the only power that protected the public from the sort of corporate abuse that had brought on the Great Depression.

The purpose of Freedom School’s teachings, it was becoming increasingly clear, was to turn the American public against their own government, to free up corporations and the rich to do as they pleased, by selling it as “freedom” and to tarnish the forces that impeded corporate power government, democracy, labor unions as “tyranny.”

Read the whole thing.

And see also this previous post. (Libertarian Texas power grid)

And this one. (Libertarian destruction of Sears)

And this one. (Libertarians take over and destroy a city in Texas)

And this one. (Libertarians take over and destroy a city in New Hampshire)

And this one. (Libertarian naïveté)

Oh, heck: here’s the whole list. (blog search on “libertarian”)

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 11:04 am

What is the color of something infinitely hot?

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That is, to what color does something converge as you continually increase its temperature?

Answer:

Detailed explanation.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 10:44 am

Posted in Science

The Unbearable Poopness of Bookstores

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I’m told that many people are relieved to learn that this is a thing. Jonathan Jarry writes for the McGill University Office of Science and Society:

Imagine you have been walking the aisles of your favourite bookstore [or library – LG] for an hour, letting your gaze gaily hop from one spine to the next. You smell the ink and the paper. You hear the dulcet tones of a piano over the PA system.

And then it hits you, like a cannonball dropping in your lower abdomen.

The acute, undeniable urge to evacuate your bowels.

As you make a run for the nearest public washroom, you think to yourself, “Not again!”

The scenario above will divide our readers. Some will be left scratching their head, wondering why I cooked up such a strange story. Others will be blushing. They will feel seen.

Indeed, this peculiar confluence of events—feeling an overwhelming urge to go #2 while visiting a bookstore—has been reported time and time again, mostly in Japanese media, and it even has a name: Mariko Aoki phenomenon, after the young woman who inadvertently wrote it down in the annals of history.

Sure, there had been mentions in literary work as early as the 1950s, and the occasional discussion on radio and television, but it was the February 1985 issue of Japan’s Hon no Zasshi (which translates to Book Magazine) that blew the lid on the phenomenon. The magazine printed a short letter from a woman named Mariko Aoki, who had realized that wandering inside a bookstore triggered this urge to relieve herself. Following publication, the magazine received several reports from readers who regularly experienced the same. Their next issue had a 14-page feature article on this unsolved mystery. The horse was out of the barn: the Mariko Aoki phenomenon was apparently, according to Book Magazine’s sensationalistic headline, “shaking the bookstore industry.”

Taking a crack at finding the cause

The Mariko Aoki phenomenon is a case study in how easy it is to generate hypotheses to explain something strange that makes little sense at face value. After all, what could possibly explain the intense—some have even said apocalyptic—urge to drop the kids off at the pool, but only specifically when inside a bookstore? Well, the brain abhors a vacuum, and when it starts speculating, it can be hard to stop.

One leading theory points the finger at  . . .

Continue reading.

In my early teens I looked for books at the library, not in bookstores, but I certainly noticed the phenomenon. I attributed it to my having to squat often to peruse titles on the lower shelves. YMMV

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 10:34 am

Posted in Daily life

Dark chocolate reprised

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I enjoyed the lingering transformation of yesterday’s dark-chocolate aftershave from definitely chocolate to something more difficult to define though still very pleasant. So I decided to have another helping, and do a full-chocolate shave. 

Again I used a Maggard Razors 22mm brush, but one with a different handle shape. The lather was instant, thick, and fragrant, and Fine Accoutrement’s Marvel razor (here on a UFO handle) did a reasonably good job — not the razor’s fault, just a blade used once too many times. I did switch the blade following the shave.

A splash again of dark-chocolate aftershave (with a squirt of Hydrating Gel), and the weekend begins with a bright, sunny morning.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 10:15 am

Posted in Shaving

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