Winter Break Happenings

Note: the video companion to this post can be viewed on youtube at:

As the featured picture above shows, snow covered the mountains of Western Virginia about two feet deep as Bethany and I left for Michigan to visit my family over Christmas break. Curiously enough, while the Old Dominion’s hills were covered in beautiful, glistening snow that revealed the land’s contours, the fluffy stuff disappeared as we drove through West Virginia’s rugged hills and on into Eastern Kentucky, where we made our first stop.

The forty-degree weather couldn’t deter us from pursuing our target species in the frigid stream below and we hiked into a beautiful hardwood stream ravine bounded by caves and rock faces, the crystal-clear stream, rocks tinted teal by minerals, below. We first happened upon some two-lined and dusky salamanders after flipping dozens of rocks near a cave entrance, but our luck improved markedly when we began searching a small tributary to the stream, perhaps two or three feet wide and barely two inches deep in the center. Within five minutes, we’d turned up some larvae of our target species, the Kentucky Spring Salamander, Gyrinophilus porphyriticus duryi. Despite the biting cold, we also flipped a lethargic Green frog beneath a small submerged rock. Perhaps because the water flows directly from the caves and rockfaces, the frogs overwinter under rocks so as not to freeze (cave water doesn’t freeze except in extreme cold snaps). Around the twists and turns in the winding stream we turned rocks, our hands turning icy as we climbed the hillside with every small cascade. At a spot where a small seepage came out of the hillside and merged with the tributary, Bethany overturned a large rock, and beneath it, a fluorescent orange-red salamander! An adult Kentucky Spring! The beast had the classic look of all the pictures I’d seen of them before–the orange-red eyes, the lack of spots on the back, the chunky body, much fatter than the Northern subspecies. We were ecstatic!!

Kentucky Spring Salamander-Northeastern KY
Same Kentucky Spring Salamander

With pictures aplenty, we climbed back out of the ravine and continued herping the picturesque cave streams for fun, sighting several more larvae of the Kentucky Spring and several Two-lined salamanders, including the one pictured below.

Stream flowing from cave-Northeast KY
Southern Two-lined Salamander-Northeast KY

From Kentucky, we cruised into Ohio through the bustling hamlet of Portsmouth, at the mouth of the mighty Scioto River. A perfunctory check of a small stream in the Southern Ohio foothills at sunset yielded another few two-lined salamanders. Nightfall saw us at a campground cabin along the Ohio River as the coal barges thundered by, along the sliver of flat land a half-mile wide before the imposing hills on either side of the river rise above the valley. In the morning, as the sun rose above the river and the eastern sky toward West Virginia lit up orange and pink, Bethany and I held a bluegrass jam session on the cabin porch before heading north to see Serpent Mound, a Native American earthwork constructed in what is today Adams County, Ohio, on the edge of the Appalachian Plateau, long before European settlement that most paleontologists believe was meant to help the early societies keep track of agricultural harvesting schedules.

The Serpent Mound-Adams County, Ohio

In the biting cold that morning, we only stayed about forty-five minutes, hiking some of the woods around the mound and climbing an observation tower to take the picture of the impressive structure above. The amount of labor necessary to construct this mound with only rudimentary tools is truly astonishing, especially for those of us who have ever tried to move dirt within the confines of a 20’x20′ garden!

Upon returning home to Michigan, there was no snow on the ground, but temperatures were much too cold for herping. Visits with extended, time lounging with family, copious amounts of Chess, and planning for the now-imminent California trip kept us busy. Then we turned south before New Year’s to visit with Bethany’s family, stopping in Southwestern Ohio along the way both to see Streamside Salamanders, a lifer for Bethany, and meet up with a friend who graduated college early and lives in Cincinnati. Stopping at a small reserve outside the city, we were accompanied by a young park employee who knew nearly everything about the park’s birds, herps, and natural history, pointing out different types of rock due to glacial movement, and identifying birds by flight pattern. After striking out in the first wetland, the edge of a small pond, where a tiny seepage flowed in, yielded a couple of our target species, the Streamside Salamander, while a board in the adjacent woods had a third, larger adult hiding under it.

Streamside Salamanders arranged by age. Southwestern Ohio.

After a double-date with my friend from Cincinnati, we continued our southward journey to visit with Bethany’s family in Tennessee. During the course of our visit, we also took a trip to a nearby secret herping spot with one of Bethany’s friends, and despite the cold weather, we turned up an early-season (New Year’s is about as early as it gets) Spring Peeper and one Four-toed Salamander with most of its tail missing, the first Four-toed I’d seen since 2011. We also planned to hit another larger wetland, but the presence of multiple duck hunters dissuaded us, as we didn’t want to spoil their hunting.

Spring Peeper-late December 2019
Four-toed Salamander, Tennessee

We continued our visit thereafter, but that Four-toed wrapped up our wintertime herping stint, which saw us hit spots in three states and nab two lifers between us. We returned to Virginia after the New Year with some great memories of winter break 2018/19!

I hope you enjoyed the post, and happy herping! Keep an eye out for additional posts related to our upcoming trip to California in two weeks!


Minimum Wage Lessons from Lexington, Virginia

HL Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore,” once said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” He and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t get along.

The proportion of college-aged students, even at some prestigious universities, that accede to her democratic socialist ideology is a source of amazement to me because of how completely socialism has failed around the world, and how it has hobbled the economies of so much of Europe. France, with its protective labor laws that make firing an unwanted employee near-impossible, has graced itself with youth unemployment of nearly 25% in a boom economy. Voters across Scandinavia, which is often held up as a paragon of successful socialism, are shifting toward free markets (fun fact: when the 2008-09 crisis hit, Sweden refused to bail out its native automakers, unlike the United States). Spain and the Balkan states struggle with high and persistent unemployment, partly the result of over-bloated government spending and restrictive labor laws. Yet many on the left continue their strident calls for a $15 minimum wage. Apparently, round numbers roll off the tongue. “Fight for $14.34” sounds a bit clunky. But besides the phonetics, this is lunacy in the face of current labor market conditions.

In yesteryear, with Republicans still in control of the House, the populist streak on the Right confined more to immigration and international economics rather than domestic ones, the obsession with a $15 minimum wage was an amusing display of foolishness. But with Democrats now in control of the House and openly pushing a doubling of the minimum wage, economic populism on the Right brewing, and the Virginia House of Delegates on a razor’s edge, a $15 minimum wage push is a real threat to the prosperity of both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation. Consider for a moment the economic effects of a $15 minimum wage.

In industries where automation is just around the corner, raising wages to $15 will ensure the instant automation of labor and the elimination of low-skilled jobs. In Maryland, where the minimum wage is $10.10/hour, many McDonald’s chains have installed kiosks where customers place their orders and wait to be served without ever conversing with a human. In such a context, low-wage workers protesting for higher wages is tantamount to a Medieval self-flagellation parade, but without the placebo of spiritual protection from The Black Death. Some are incredulous that a higher minimum wage corresponds to higher unemployment rates. They sometimes cite studies that support their claims, except for one huge flaw: these studies, including the famous New Jersey vs. Pennsylvania fast food worker study (Card and Krueger, 1993) where only the wage change differed across state lines, examine changes of less than a dollar (in Card and Krueger, $0.80) or the $1-2 range in the minimum wage, not an overnight doubling. To extrapolate effects from these studies to a $7.75 increase in the minimum wage by assuming a linear relationship is a non sequitur. To see why, extend the logic implicit in the $15/hour argument (that because studies on small increases in minimum wages have shown little effect on employment then large changes must also have no effect) to $20, or $40, or $100 per hour minimum wages. Is it reasonable to assume that these policy changes are compatible with employment for low-skilled labor? Only in an alternate universe. In contrast to small, measured increases of the minimum wage (which still accomplish nothing but at least do not wreck low-skilled labor markets), an overnight doubling would necessarily make most low-skill workers, especially in low-cost of living areas like Rockbridge County, not worth their wages and hence put them out of jobs.

Consider the input of a local business owner who wishes to remain anonymous. He started his company recently and often works with just a few employees. When I asked him what he thinks of a $15 minimum wage, he replied, “It affects everything I guess. If the wages I pay go up, my prices go up, and my customers must pay it, and then their wages have to go up, and all the prices go up.” He doubts that some of his customers would willingly pay the higher prices for his services, “They [clients] may not be willing to pay that and may turn to under-the-table people, and it would affect my business most significantly in a negative way.” This self-made entrepreneur correctly senses that arbitrary increases in wages don’t make us any wealthier, but merely induce medium and long-run inflation, and along the way, exclude some from working. As for his specific business, he predicts, “$15 out of the gate must be justified by [workers’] experience because they have to be delivering. I start people out low and then raise their pay as they start working faster. At $15, I couldn’t hire a bunch of new employees who want to learn the trade.” In short, he couldn’t provide new jobs for young people entering the workforce. According to this businessman, very few home contracting companies in California (where the minimum wage is $11/hour for small businesses and $12/hour for larger ones) will hire new apprentices or employees without previous experiences, thus limiting opportunity for native Californians to join the trades and begin climbing the ladder of economic opportunity. This effect is one with which I have some personal experience.

Over this past summer, in addition to interning for an economics professor, I worked as a painter and started with zero experience. My starting pay was $9.50 per hour, and I doubt my productivity the first week or two even justified this sum. By the end of summer, I had learned how to paint, prepare rooms for painting, and cleanup work sites more effectively. By then, my pay was $11 an hour. Living in rural Rockbridge County, $11 per hour was not chump change. A $15 minimum wage would rob other youth (and older folks working side jobs or re-entering the workforce to augment retirement income) of these sorts of opportunities and render them poorer, not wealthier. Even holding inflation constant in the face of an overnight doubled wages for the nearly 30% of workers who earn less than $10.10 per hour according to Pew Research, the costs of lost employment are immense. Contrary to the chants of angry protestors and the histrionics of certain political leaders, wages are not arbitrary inventions of shadowy economic overlords, but are measures of value determined by worker productivity. When workers produce more, as in the case of our local home contractor’s employees, the owner can afford to pay them more because they generate more value to the business.

Businesses may weather small increases in the minimum wage by simply taking a hit to profits or slightly increasing prices to customers, but an overnight doubling would destroy jobs, or at a minimum, prevent the creation of innumerable new ones. Tragically, the fact that jobs never created and higher inflation (a big part of the cost of higher minimum wages) are difficult to observe while people whose pay doubles (the benefit) are highly visible occludes many people’s thinking on the issue, as it does for steel tariffs and targeted programs like agricultural subsidies. The benefits are easy to see and the costs are hidden. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

In addition to these utilitarian arguments against a large increase in the minimum wage, there is also a philosophical argument that the minimum wage itself is immoral. If my labor is my property, then how can a mere majority of my peers set limits on the rates of pay for which I can voluntarily exchange my time? This seems like an affront to all our private property rights. The principle that a majority of citizens can make mutually beneficial, morally harmless transactions with few if any externalities (as opposed to limits on the voluntary exchange of, say, plutonium, toxic sludge disposal space, or assisted suicide) is a dangerous one indeed. It means that a citizen’s livelihood is at the majority’s mercy.

As congressional Democrats push a $15 minimum wage with the political winds at their back after winning the shutdown fight, hoping that they can ride the false promise of higher living standards for all to electoral victory and re-invigorate the New Deal coalition, conservatives should inject a modicum of reality into the debate. Government fiat cannot create Nirvana. Trying to do so is as useless as a papal encyclical against solar eclipses, no offense to Pope Francis.

One Flew Over the Coup-Coup Nest

Alternate universes are fun, and these days, no psychedelic drugs are necessary to experience them. Case in point: online reporting and social media reactions to the current leadership struggle in Venezuela, where little-known politician Juan Guaido is trying to wrest control from Nicolas Maduro, a brutal dictator befitting a Three Amigos remake with machine guns. Just like the “infamous El Guapo” from the classic Steve Martin film, Maduro rules Venezuela with an iron fist, reportedly killing and disappearing hundreds of citizens in this week’s protests. Maduro and his gaudy goons live high on the hog and brutalize starving citizens while subverting the constitutional order, a la Animal Farm, while claiming the mantle of “people’s defender.” Maduro stays afloat with drug-smuggling, gun-running, and oil revenue-siphoning operations, but the dire conditions among Venezuela’s average and middling classes are sinking him nonetheless.

With the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela has still found its way to bankruptcy under the tubby tropical tyrant. If Maduro coached basketball like he runs Venezuela, he could lose every regular season game with LeBron, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant all on his team. Inflation rates exceeded one million percent this year. As the institutional collapse and monetary madness continues, it may top ten million percent this year. Several news sources report that a simple basket of daily food now costs the equivalent of $200. Those statistics aren’t stratospheric; they’re in the Kuiper belt.

Denied any other means of voting, Venezuelans are voting with their feet and flooding the border regions of Columbia, Brazil, and Guyana by the millions. Three million have left in the past few years. If an equal share of US citizens emigrated, we’d lose Texas and Louisiana. But out of the darkness, Juan Guaido, a little-known politician who seems intent merely on restoring constitutional order, holding free elections, and stepping down, has emerged. President Trump recognized him as the republic’s legitimate leader almost immediately last week, and Canada, much of Latin America, and Europe have followed suit. Heavily invested in Maduro and desperately desiring a Western hemispheric beachhead, Moscow has joined Maduro in calling Juan Guaido’s actions a “US-led coup d’état.” The only thing more laughable than Putin’s claim is that some left-wing journalists and alt-right social media whackos in the West agree. Seriously?

By definition, a coup d’état involves the overthrow of a government, usually democratically elected, by a faction of that nation’s military forces, sometimes with the assistance of a foreign government’s secret agents, like the CIA or KGB. At last check, neither Guaido nor the US have forcibly removed Maduro, and Guaido is offering amnesty to army officers who switch sides. None of the top brass, fattened up with bribes and eyeball-deep in international crimes, is on Guaido’s side. Maduro is not democratically elected unless the standard is Boss Tweed. The opposition boycotted Maduro’s May 2018 election, where he supposedly won 66% of the vote (with a million percent inflation, 40% unemployment, and food shortages? Even FDR couldn’t pull that off), because he banned the strongest opposition candidates from running and intimidated voters with physical and economic coercion. Guaido, on the other hand, while not elected as president, was elected to Venezuela’s constitutionally-ordained National Assembly, which Maduro unlawfully stripped of nearly all its powers. Guaido is the highest-ranking member of the opposition party, which holds a majority in the National Assembly. If anyone can claim legitimacy to challenge Maduro, Guaido can. Furthermore, the only nation with special forces on the ground right now is Russia, which has reportedly sent in hundreds of contractors. Evidently, they missed the conspicuous “Beware of Dog” sign when they decided to play in our backyard, first tacked to the fence by James Monroe. The fact that we’re still in our kennel is a testament to America’s restraint in the wake of our disastrous Middle East adventures, not our “imperialism.” A democratically-elected leader with the support of the people but not the military is seeking to peacefully unseat a dictator with military loyalists and foreign mercenaries by his side, the latter vowing to fight to the death rather than relinquish tyranny. An unusual coup d’état indeed!

The fact that anyone on the alt-Right or the Marxist left in the US sides with Maduro is stunning. Even in the eyes of this paleo-conservative, we have a dog in the fight. This is not Iraq. America’s main geopolitical enemies, China and Russia, both have significant investments in Venezuela. China seethes over possible loss of oil investments, and we have a rare opportunity to use the belt in China’s “belt and road” to give our Asian adversaries a good financial whipping. Venezuela has a history of democracy, civil society, and relative prosperity. Iraq did not. It has a viable democratically-elected leader who respects his citizens’ constitutional rights. Iraq did not. Most obviously, Venezuela sits barely 1,000 miles from US territorial waters. Iraq doesn’t. The Venezuelan people, now schooled in Socialism Sucks 101, are ready to handle their own governance, with only some foreign aid from the West required. Iraq wasn’t. No years-long occupation, new embassy, cultural conversions, or military contractors necessary.

The consequences of inaction are also high. A failed Venezuela will precipitate a refugee crisis the likes of which the Western Hemisphere has never seen, straining public resources like healthcare, schooling, and housing from America’s Southland to Lima and Buenos Aires. A continued Venezuelan spiral will also hurt the American economy indirectly, as Venezuela is the third-largest source of American oil imports. As the nation collapses, so does its oil production, now barely a million bpd.

God willing this crisis will end with a new, constitutionally-elected president in Venezuela, Russian and Chinese lost investments, increased Venezuelan oil production, a re-invigorated Venezuelan civil society and economy under liberty, and a return to normal US relations. But until then, those who demonize starving protestors chanting “libertad” and the brave man leading them, who root instead for a murderous thug in tacky military regalia, only prove they’ve flown over the coup-coup nest with their conspiracy theories of American imperialism.

Philosophical Underpinnings of Disparate Economic Visions

Behind every political position or economic idea, there lies a deep philosophical assumption. Societies where people disagree on politics and economic policies can survive quite peaceably so long as these disparate ideas are predicated on the same moral and philosophical foundations, but where these differ, trouble ensues. The fact that the United States has of late largely avoided the violence and civil strife of less-developed nations, even as our society splinters along religious, lifestyle, and philosophical lines, reflects more the inertia of our heritage’s traditional mores of tolerance and liberty than a rejection of the proposition that peoples who disagree on basic philosophy will, eventually, be unable to live in the same State.
In theory, of course, this need not be the case. Different opinions on philosophical questions can theoretically persist indefinitely in a single nation. But practically, this requires a degree of patience and societal toleration incompatible with how most people view the world, and even incompatible with human nature itself. To admit that this utopia is possible is to all at once admit of the efficacy of a single world government, all squabbles over the difficulty of preserving true liberty in such a system aside, and to defenestrate al notion of practicality in assessing human nature. Frederick Hayek observed in his essay, “Why I’m Not a Conservative,” (conservative in the European sense of the word), that political conservatives, at root, are unable to live in civil society with those who think differently than themselves, and that socialists, on the other side of the spectrum, have the same distaste for dissent (see Stalin, Joseph). But Hayek, in contrast to my argument here, observed that among those who adhere to the European form of conservatism, not only is living forever with those who have different basic philosophies and moral ideals impossible, but living with those who merely have different policy opinions and habits but the same moral roots is ultimately untenable. The larger differences of philosophical basis, such as faith vs. atheism, individual responsibility vs. group identity and guilt, and life as a utility-seeking operation vs. life as a meaningful endeavor, are irreconcilable even for the classical liberal in the long-haul. How long would libertarians tolerate living in a Muslim-majority nation, with the concomitant set of laws and social mores that arise from that religion’s cultural development and basic premises? Not long.

Our Founding Fathers, broad-minded as they were, understood this well. John Jay noted in Federalist no. 2 that one of America’s principal advantages lay in its unity of purpose, language, and religion across such a broad swath of fertile and contiguous land. Not similarity of blood, or of genetic stock, which at the time and still today is among the most diverse on Earth, but of ideas, of basic philosophical foundations in the Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian traditions, of life outlook. Indeed, as opposed to the bloodline monarchies of Old Europe and the tiny republics, such as that in the Netherlands, the United States had a common national creed that could be imparted to newcomers, because its basis did not lie in being an Englishman, Belgian, Franc, or German by birth. Interestingly, as the United States has developed along with the world around it, utopians of all stripes increasingly reject the fundamental philosophical foundations of both the Enlightenment (in the English tradition) and the Judeo-Christian tradition. This change in ideals and philosophical roots can be clearly observed in several economic ideas.
The other day, I read an article about how America’s top technology executives and innovators do not foresee the benefits of the technological revolution flowing to most Americans, but envisage a future world in which so many processes, from legal services and manufacturing to food service and hospitality, are mechanized, that the gains from these technologies only flow to an ever-narrowing class of tech innovators, while everyone else works menial data-manipulation jobs that, while they enable a higher standard of living via the new technology and cheap production, bring very little chance of advancement, of prosperity, or of economic independence. In their world, this must presumably be an ideal—universal human prosperity with near-zero human toil and very little unpredictability in life. Diseases conquered, body chemistry manageable, sex and parental responsibility divorced by perfect birth control, the human form determined by genetic engineering, and so forth. But there’s a problem with this utopia: most people don’t want it. In fact, the US has some very basic philosophical problems with this brave new world.

First of all, this dystopian future assumes that human beings reach their highest end, in Jeremy Bentham-esque fashion, when their power to consume is maximized, even to the exclusion of all other goals for a human life. Secondly, it wrongly assumes that work is valuable only for the buying power that it bestows. Certainly this is one highly useful function of work, but work also forms character, keeps us from idleness, forms community bonds, and so forth. To imagine a future largely without work is to imagine a future without meaning or purpose, a world set adrift from all that anchors us. Third, this version of the economy, by virtue of its employment structure and the prevailing wisdom of the gurus who reign supreme in this new epoch, encourages splurging one’s desires and impulses without time for reflection or reason, for it drives a wedge between us and the natural world (which is but another way of saying it drives a wedge between us and God, from whom natural law emanates). Without reflection on our own labors and the realities of the natural world, human beings become arrogant. We believe we can design utopias for ourselves, whether those utopias be of the Ayn Randian, Bernie Sanders, or Joseph Stalin types. And without a credible reason not to overthrow a tiny capitalist cabal atop a world where pleasure reigns supreme for the plebes (many of whom, by the way, will be exceptionally intelligent, but simply not needed in a world of machine learning where only a few top programmers “make it”), what stops the socialist and communist utopians from pursuing their anti-reality dreams just as vigorously as the tech gurus? I see no limiting principle here.

It may be said that our current technological innovators are capitalists, and are therefore not utopians or dangerous to society. I disagree. They are quasi-capitalists who see the future as being molded entirely by their algorithms, not in the fashion that Carnegie fashioned the future with steel or Rockefeller with oil, but in a way that gives them direct access to the private lives and thought patterns of all, that stifles free thought too far removed from what they deem mainstream, and in which an entirely new ecosystem of practical government, the discipline of the mob and the fear of lost status, replaces the traditional moral compass. They are utopians seeking to undermine free society by hiding under cover of superficial capitalist tendencies. This world is not a utopia for all of us who believe that human life has nonmaterial meaning, that work is part of our purpose, and that commitments to others like marriage, parenthood, and familial ties are some of the most fulfilling parts of human existence, who believe that the true rights of property, the bedrock of capitalism, are rooted in the rights of free thought, free expression, and democratized defense, and that economic independence of the common people is the surest guardian of a government’s republican character and respect for natural rights.

In short, the tech gurus’ basic philosophy, while ostensibly free market, is at odds with the basic philosophy of America’s founders, and of most Americans. It assumes no God exists, that because no God exists, life is merely the consumption of the pleasurable, and that to the extent that consumption can be maximized, any collateral damage to the social and moral fabric of the human species, even detrimental changes to basic human mating instincts and social capacity, built over the past hundred thousand years, are inconsequential. But in this grand experiment, the American people will resist, requiring stealth on behalf of the tech companies until we are lulled into addiction and unable to break the spell even when we know what’s happening (are we already there?), and if we cannot stop this progression to the post-post-post modern, then this utopian fantasy, like all others before it, will be proven incalculably wrong when humanity falls back into the state of nature from which it arose. The first victims of that state of nature, of that primal scream that emanates from the soul when the pleasures of the body no longer amuse us as much as the prospect of destroying the empty existence we’ve come to hate, will be the tech titans of whatever year the calendar displays. That is, if we still keep track of time.

Trump’s Trade Pivot

For the past two years, it has become a truism universally accepted that Donald Trump is pro-tariff and against the Western liberal order of free global trade, a crusader for returning to the free-wheeling protectionism that preceded the Second World War. Some on the populist right and pro-labor left have lauded him for these proclivities, while the free-trade right, and the progressive left (or the mindless left that opposes anything that the GOP proposes) have made rude noises and written disapproving columns. The hopes of the former and the fears of the latter appeared to be confirmed by Trump’s unilateral tariffs on aluminum and steel, the renegotiation of NAFTA’s rocky start, the trumpery rhetoric emerging from the White House, and trade disputes with Canada, the EU, and Mexico.

But this week, Donald Trump’s administration agreed to a re-negotiated trade pact with Mexico, whereby trade between Mexico and the United States will remain relatively free but less artificially tipped in favor of Mexican development. This is a free-trade goal: to lower foreign barriers against US goods by temporary tariff, not to impose permanent tariffs as an end of themselves. Similarly, the administration’s message on Canada is focused not on imposing tariffs to create jobs (which is a fallacy from start to finish), but on using our tariffs and the pressure of the US having a bilateral deal with Mexico to force Canada to lower its own barriers against US dairy, timber, and manufactured goods. It may be too soon to say, but it appears as if the administration’s long-anticipated turn toward promoting free trade to the benefit of US manufactures and agricultural goods, long expounded by economist Stephen Moore as the true end game of the Trump tariff, has arrived. With easing trade tensions with the European Union, which gave a vague but promising pledge to lower its draconian protections of European farmers, an agreement with Mexico, the promise of free trade with the UK, exemptions from the steel and aluminum tariffs for key US allies South Korea and Japan, and Trump focused on dismantling Canada’s smattering of protectionism, the trade strategy, and the geopolitical idea underpinning it, has emerged.

By pursuing even more liberalized trade with our allies, albeit coercively at times, Donald Trump seeks to make up for the trade volume that the US will inevitably lose in the trade war with China, our long-term geopolitical enemy (see previous post “Of China”). This increased trade volume will mitigate much of the inflation borne of restricted supply chains that occur in trade wars (by keeping the supply of goods higher than otherwise), and keep the economy from being derailed by the China dispute. Donald Trump, over the wrong-headed advice of some in his cabinet, appears to be realizing what this blog has stressed for several months: to remain the world’s superpower and gain prosperity, the US must recognize that in the new global paradigm, China is our biggest enemy, and more formidable than any previous opponent. Whereas in previous eras, such as the 1950s, America was strong enough to go it alone economically if it chose, today, we’ll need relatively free trade with the whole Western world to blunt the inflationary effects and concomitant political backlash from tariffing China, which will inflict sharper pains on them, as an export economy reliant on manufacturing, than us. I hope he continues pursuing this new course of pressuring allies into freer reciprocal trade, predicated on the realization that America can no longer afford to subsidize the entire world’s development.

Summer Salamander Rain

Summer is not usually the season for salamanders, much like October is not usually a good month for fireworks sales: it happens, but not all that often. Add to the mix that here in the Valley, we’ve had a spell of 90-plus weather for the better part of two weeks, and all signals point toward more snakes and fewer salamanders out and about. But on Sunday, something changed. A large thunderstorm rolled in in the late afternoon, bringing with it a cold front, drenching rains, and localized flash flooding. As the sun went down and temperatures dropped into the 70s, Bethany and I went road cruising on a snake route, but this night, the caudates took the cake. After a half hour or so of slow driving and seeing two red leaves that we thought would be red salamanders, we finally happened upon the real thing–an old adult Northern Red with spots fusing together and its brilliant red coloration fading.

Old Northern Red (P. ruber ruber)

Further on, we sighted a few Red efts and brought them into the car for pictures amid philosophical discussion. Red efts, juvenile eastern newts, are small and, were it not for their brilliant coloration, would be nearly impossible to spot while road cruising. The feature picture for this post is the first red eft we cruised in a section of road paralleling the stream. After three of these critters, we saw another orangish figure on the road, and figured it would be another eft, but it turned out to be a Long-tailed salamander (Eurycea longicauda). These brook salamanders, close relatives of the two-lined, three-lined, and cave salamanders, are sleek and slender with a distinctive herringbone pattern on their bright orange bodies. They are most common in the western parts of Appalachia, notably Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, but their range edges into Virginia west of the Blue Ridge, where they are present but less common. This salamander, our best of the night, was the first long-tailed I have seen in the Commonwealth.

Long-tailed Salamander-Rockbridge County, VA



Recent Finds from the Shenandoah Valley

Hi you all!

Since the last lifer-oriented outing I took with Bethany to West Virginia in June, I’ve been working and writing here in Virginia, preparing for senior year, doing lots of econ, and only getting in very local herping, most of it in my county. But bouncing around the Shenandoah Valley and adjacent Blue Ridge this July has turned up several good finds, some old friends, some new and different.

Road cruising for snakes at twilight has yielded Copperheads (above), garters, and rat snakes.

Road-cruised Eastern Garter

Meanwhile, on a recent hike at Spy Rock in the Blue Ridge we found a few northern dusky salamanders, ubiquitous throughout Virginia, in a picturesque stream before making the arduous hike. The hike to the top of the mountain, though difficult, was picturesque, with grassy balds atop the mountain and a gorgeous view of the surrounding land. Curiously, the puddles on top of the rock had some tadpoles that are still a mystery, though my guess is either Upland chorus frog or eastern newt. Then, as we turned around to descend the rock, a summer camp group began its ascent, led by a guy….in an orange T-Rex suit (he must have lost a gargantuan bet)!! As Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park would say, “Life finds a way.” This was the view we had as we prepared to go down:

DSC_8796 (2)

Enjoy everyone, and happy herping as we enter the dog days of late summer!

You can view my recent road cruising, salamandering, and some vintage footage of 2017 Virginia salamanders, including such gems as Yonahlossee and Northern Red, on my youtube channel at:

Corker the Cowardly Lion: A Senate Dormant

In 1830, with the Indian Removal Act on the floor of the House of Representatives, Davy Crockett (D-TN) stood up for the Cherokee Indians, thus committing political suicide. Andrew Jackson, the sitting president, had immense popularity in Tennessee, largely due to his brand of anti-elitist, anti-bank populism. Of course, Crockett lost re-election in 1831, an event that produced one of the most famous quotes of his career: “I would rather be politically dead than hypocritically immortalized” (many people also associate the “You all may go to Hell, but I will go to Texas,” directed at constituents, with this event, but that actually happened in 1835 when he lost re-election again after serving the 1833-34 term). Among history buffs, Crockett is remembered as a man who stood on principle and refused to cede his reason to his party’s president.

A hundred and eighty years later, Bob Corker (R-TN) presents himself as the new Davy Crockett. They both have two-syllable names that start with “c,” and both hail from the Volunteer State. Opposing Donald Trump is as toxic in a Tennessee Republican primary today as opposing Jackson was in an 1830s general election. But seeking to fashion an image of principled conservatism athwart President Trump’s supposed Russian sympathies, protectionism, danger to NATO (which is much overstated–if anything, Trump’s stop in Brussels strengthened the alliance by exposing German hypocrisy and bringing Eastern Europe’s concerns about Russian gas sales and weak defense spending in Western Europe–which our allies have now pledged to increase by $33 billion), and xenophobia, the Tennessee lawmaker has sponsored or co-sponsored several Senate resolutions aimed at curtailing President Trump’s authority.

These include a resolution denouncing Trump’s use of outmoded national security legislation to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on such menaces as the UK and Canada. As of today, he has also sponsored a resolution, which passed 98-0, exhorting the president not to extradite our former Russian ambassador and others in the US that have exposed Kremlin corruption to Moscow for “questioning” (presumably, the first question would be: “Mustard gas or nerve agent?”). Donald Trump referred to the prospect of swapping these Americans for the twelve Russians Robert Mueller just indicted as a “great deal,” so this last resolution is justified, as is the former.

Regardless of whether one thinks that China, as a global competitor for superpower status and an abominable nation for human and civil liberty, needs curtailing even if it hurts the US economy (as I do), Canada and the UK are not endangering national security by supplying us with barely 20% of our steel. And regardless of whether one believes that Trump’s policy toward Russia, such as putting missile defenses back into Poland and resuming arms sales to Georgia and Ukraine, is much tougher than Obama’s ever was, the President’s comments in Helsinki are inexcusable to anyone who watched that conference even half-sober. Further, the fact that Trump entertains the idea of handing the same Putin who has murdered enemies on foreign soil one of our former diplomats boggles the mind. Some congressional intercession is warranted, but as usual, the legislative branch lacks the willpower to fulfill its constitutional role.

In a predictable stroke of cowardice, senators such as Bob Corker, who frame the issues at hand as make-or-break moments for American republicanism and the rule of law, do not pursue actual legislation, but “non-binding” legislation and “symbolic resolutions.” I know of no profession besides politics where this is acceptable (can you imagine telling your boss the report isn’t done but you made a “symbolic” one with random numbers?). Our less Trump-inclined senators must not believe their own clap-trap about the severity of Trump’s offenses, or else care very little about their nation’s fate. If ninety-eight senators agree that Trump should not extradite the persons in question, they, in coordination with the House, could pass private bills protecting these individuals one-by-one, or else pass a blanket bill protecting former US ambassadors from extradition. The majority that voted for the “symbolic” measure could easily override a veto, unless of course these senators do not want to go on record overriding a Trump veto and are interested only in superficial virtue signaling. It is well within Congress’s constitutional power to determine the limits of US citizens’ extradition, and to make specific exceptions to existing joint-extradition treaties.

Further, if Trump is abusing national security excuses to put tariffs on our allies (which he indisputably is, even though I like the China tariffs), repeal the law that lets him do so rather than passing inconsequential resolutions. Better yet, have Congress set tariff rates itself through legislation. Congress still possess the constitutional power to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imports, and excise,” and could easily exercise such power to decisively blunt the Trump tariffs. All the resolutions in the world, no matter how strongly worded, cannot increase the price of soybeans for Michigan farmers or ease manufacturers’ fears. Legislation can, and if a majority of both the US House and US Senate think it is the best course for our nation, they should pass legislation setting lower tariffs on our allies. Such consequential policy and international relations issues are exactly what the Founders envisaged in the care of the “cool and deliberative” Senate. But for Corker, belittlement of the Senate’s institutional power and constitutional duty to save his own skin and take a righteous stand with nothing on the line is an old trick.

In 2013, Corker and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) allowed President Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement to arrive on the Senate floor as a “fast-track agreement,” rather than a treaty. Rather than requiring two-thirds approval for the treaty to take effect, defeating the deal would require sixty senators voting for a bill to repeal the agreement. It worked perfectly for everyone—except the American people and the integrity of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Republican Senators and vulnerable Democrats could denounce the deal as reckless and appear earnest to their constituents, knowing that their speeches were nothing but spectacle, that the deal would take effect no matter what. In the end, the Iran deal took effect despite a 54-vote majority against it in the Senate. Talk about flipping the Constitution on its head! By bipartisan agreement, led by the illustrious Mr. Corker, we eviscerated the treaty clause. Now, the Senate implicitly grants the president the power to tax by passing what amounts to a mere complaint affixed with the Senatorial seal when Trump taxes unilaterally. This is not about one’s view of Trump, or his European policy, or his tariffs, or his gaffes in Finland. It’s about whether the Senate will fulfill its constitutional role and reign in the imperial presidency, determine policy as intended by the Founders, and nurture statesman, or degenerate into a cesspool of deceit and empty platitudes.

If Bob Corker wants to be remembered as the next Crockett, he should introduce some legislation on immigration reform, tariffs, and foreign policy and go out with guns blazing. Whether these resolutions pass will depend on their merits, the sense of the people, and the courage of his fellow senators. But retiring rather than facing voters after offering a flimsy defense in the face of what he thinks is an affront to American values, rather than the utmost he can muster, is no way to inspire colleagues.

O Civility, Civility, Wherefore Art Thou, Civility?

Calling for civility in print these days is all the rage (see what I did there?). With the recent events at the Red Hen here in Lexington, where the restaurant owner ejected Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for no reason other than her work for the president, at the Black Swan in Richmond, where a customer publicly berated Steve Bannon and the altercation escalated such that the police were called, and a series of other breakdowns in the civil code of late, writing about civility has morphed into a cottage industry. But this latest string of indecency is just part of a long string of acts that have been increasing in frequency since the turn of the millennium, if not earlier, but which have really spiked in the last five years. Cop-killers in Dallas, BLM protestors shouting “Pigs in a blanket, fry them like bacon,” white nationalists marching through Charlottesville chanting “The South will rise again,” a nutcase from Ohio plowing his Dodge into a crowd of left-wing counter-protestors, increases in KKK activity here in Virginia, college students gone full-Salem witch trials over conservative speech, Maxine Waters encouraging the public shaming of conservatives, people flippantly calling our president a traitor, and conservatives getting angry over the Red Hen’s incivility that they recommend an IRS audit on twitter a la Obama. This is not new to the last few months, but the increasing intensity and frequency of such events and their growing acceptance among larger chunks of both political parties is disturbing. The last time we went this berserk, it was 1968. Half a million troops were in Vietnam, inflation ran wild, the economy sputtered, and civil rights struggles weighed on recent memory. Today, we’re approaching 1968 levels of animosity toward one another in the absence of a large-scale war requiring mass mobilization. It’s good economic times. Inflation is low and so is unemployment (so long, Phillips Curve). But we’re still at each other’s throats. What gives?

I agree with the calls for civility and tolerance, so long as “tolerance” is rightly understood to mean not hating others for beliefs and letting them speak even if we disagree. But seriously, does this new wave of incivility, right and left, really surprise us? If it does, it shouldn’t. Civility is not the default human operating system. Just ask a Chinese peasant during the Great Leap Forward, a Jew in Hitler’s Germany, or a disabled person in Woodrow Wilson’s progressive era America. All of them would have been better off had they been born a century, or even two centuries, earlier. The natural state of mankind is not moral perfection, but moral turpitude, and left alone, we revert to the mostly dark instincts of our nature (not all are dark of course and some, like greed and lust for power, that are dark, can be harnessed within the context of civic society and common virtue to create great things—hence the “profit motive”). In the absence of religious belief, familial cohesion, and civic society to mold young people and their views of the world around them, exhorting progressive college radicals or alt-right loons to civility is like exhorting a lion to shave its mane.

Ironically, some of the loud calls for civility emanate from the center-left and liberal intelligentsia that has worked so diligently to diminish the influence of organized religion, specifically Orthodox Judaism and any form of Christianity, both of which teach the “Golden Rule” of human behavior, and to brand faith unfashionable. But it’s this tradition of Judeo-Christian values, fused with the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the traditional wisdom of the Greeks and Romans, that has made the West the most prosperous, tranquil, open, and tolerant culture in the history of the world. Specifically, a religion that teaches an obligation to one’s fellow human beings and standards of right behavior as moral absolutes, not sliding scales or relative cultural understandings, has a way of producing love, respect, and tolerance, even amid profound disagreement. This is well-illustrated by the Presbyterian church I have begun attending outside Lexington, where just on my first visit, I met conservatives and liberals, doctrinal traditionalists and liberals. They tolerate one another because, besides living in a tight-knit rural community and knowing each other well, they also view such proper behavior as a moral obligation (and let us note that much of the incivility we see happens in the metropolises and on college campuses). Despite this, the liberal intelligentsia seeks to discard with Christianity and the Greco-Roman wisdom, while many young progressives want to leave the Enlightenment in the dust, too.

Then they are both stunned when the right wing, imbibing the same mores of materialism, Machiavellian politics, and power struggle that the Left has been pushing since the 1960s (I don’t mean Dr. King, but the Black Panthers and many in the New Left campus movement), spawns populism and nationalism. What else would it spawn? If we take common morals and religion out of conservatism, all that remains is either a reactionary tendency to stop change and become tribal, or an Ayn Rand-type individualistic absolutism, both of which end badly, as does liberalism devoid of common morals (see: politics, identity). Such reckless ideas will continue to destroy our cultural tapestry unless we identify the true roots of the problem. Well-educated writers everywhere, liberal and conservative, will continue to shout “civility, civility” and be dumbfounded when no one listens, thinking the problem is only a mere forgetfulness by the offenders, not a fundamental change in the American psyche, indeed the whole Western psyche, that their ilk fomented and which has incredible inertia. As Jeremiah 6:14 says, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”

Perhaps if we want peace, we should spend less media firepower, less academic jargon, and less legal and cultural effort trying to remove the Prince of Peace from the public square. Maybe we should not try to render all who follow him unable to act on their beliefs in the marketplace or in public, and demonize those who would dare assert their religion is more than a casual Sunday hobby as “bigots,” “passe,” and “old-fashioned.” Perhaps a return to traditional Judeo-Christian values, which include openness, love, forgiveness, and prudence, is in order if we want societal harmony. Until then, our elites will look on in horror as societal norms collapse and write eloquent, disbelieving essays, all of which wrongly assume that because the calendar has progressed, so has mankind’s grasp of morality.

Some Thoughts on Judge Kavanaugh

Supreme Court vacancies are to politics what good marriage prospects are to romance. It’s nearly impossible to predict when they’ll appear, which is infrequent, it’s critical to capitalize on the situation quickly when it presents itself without going so fast that you miss something in the candidate’s character and values, asking the right questions without prodding too annoyingly is critical, and once you commit to one candidate, you can’t take it back, so picking right can translate to a felicitous life, while a wrong decision can lead to massive regret, lost sleep, disagreement on key life decisions, and lost hair. Which leaves me wondering, though on balance Brett Judge Kavanaugh’s record is conservative, why did Trump nominate him to the High Court? Honestly, this is one of the most crucial things that Trump will do, whether or not he wins re-election. The only thing that might be more consequential is if he gets to replace a liberal justice. He had a massive opportunity to fire up the libertarian-constitutionalist right, young conservatives, and college-educated right-wingers by picking someone beloved by the right, like Ted Cruz or Mike Lee. But instead, we have Brett Kavanaugh. Let me be clear at the outset: I think Kavanaugh is a good pick and will be generally in the conservative camp during his tenure on the Court should he be confirmed, but his stances on several issues bother me, the case in his favor as opposed to Mike Lee or Amy Coney Barrett seems flimsy, and this pick will not fire up conservatives wary of Trump’s other stances on trade, immigration, and the recent Russia blunder one iota.
First, and by far most importantly, Judge Kavanaugh has shown a peculiar hostility to the Fourth Amendment, initially ruled that the Obamacare individual mandate was a “tax,” and (hat tip to the indefatigable David French at National Review for digging this last one up) has reasoned that the federal government, and state governments, can have a legitimate and significant interest in the provision of contraception to citizens. Let’s take these one at a time. First, Judge Kavanaugh has ruled previously that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to electronic records, but only when the government physically intrudes on someone’s private space, like a home or office. He has further written in Klayman v. Obama that even if electronic communication was covered by the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections, national security concerns override. This is radicalism! In essence, Judge Kavanaugh does not believe there should be any limits to electronic surveillance of our own citizens, contrary not only to public opinion and many constitutional scholars (and the Founders), but Congress’s understanding of the Fourth Amendment. To assert that the Fourth Amendment (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…”) does not cover electronic communications, which are the modern-day equivalent of “papers and effects” is to ignore that this will make the Fourth Amendment completely meaningless for all but the Amish. On this important issue, Mike Lee has a much clearer understanding than Kavanaugh, as illustrated by his entire chapter on the English common law origins of the Fourth Amendment in Our Lost Constitution, which shows that multiplicative warrants requesting multiple people’s information at once are specifically barred, and that electronic records fall within the bounds of the language.
Secondly, Judge Kavanaugh’s misinterpretation of the tax clause (“Congress shall have the power….to lay and collect taxes, duties, imports, and excises”) is absolutely fatal to limited government. Enabling negative taxation, like that in the Obamacare individual mandate, means that government can enforce any economic outcome it wants by imposing a gigantic penalty for not partaking in a particular kind of commerce. This lapse in judgment is inexcusable, and totally at loggerheads with Kavanaugh’s restrictive view of interstate commerce. Lastly, in the Priests for Life case, despite ruling in the priests’ favor, Kavanaugh’s argument bought the government line that there is a legitimate and significant “state interest” in ensuring the availability of contraception. What? For what? Economic development purposes? Gender equality? That’s called social engineering. Despite Judge Kavanaugh’s ruling, the underlying chink in the logic here paves the way for disturbing future cases where the government can try to assert its “state interest” in contraceptive availability, knowing that Kavanaugh will add one vote to the liberal bloc. But these jurisprudential differences with the judge are accompanied by realizations about the case for him and the political consequences of his nomination.
Moreover, those in favor of Judge Kavanaugh as opposed to Amy Coney Barrett or Mike Lee (or anyone else on Trump’s list, really) have a weak case. To the objection that he ruled Obamacare a tax, they respond that he wrote one of the strongest opinions against the constitutionality of the law based on the Interstate Commerce Clause and will apply that stricter understanding of Interstate Commerce to many other things. That’s wonderful by itself, but by ruling Obamacare a “tax,” along with John Roberts when the case got to the Supreme Court level, Kavanaugh has opened an 18-wheeler-sized loophole through which the government can do nearly anything it wants to coerce citizens into private contracts. Without a proper understanding of the taxation power and its limits, even a Jefferson-style view of “Interstate Commerce” is insufficient to stop the federal government’s bacteria-esque expansion. To the objection that he is a product of the Washington establishment, which is one of the least significant knocks against him, they respond that he’s a devout Catholic, a family man, and a humble volunteer. On a personal level, that is wonderful, and it’s too bad I don’t have him for a next-door neighbor. Those are the kind of people I want to live around, the kind of people whose kids I want around mine someday. But being nice, being Catholic, and having a good family are not sufficient qualifications for the Supreme Court. If they were, then I know at least fifteen people qualified to be Supreme Court justices, some of them from Macomb County, some of them students at W & L, or their parents. Also, minus the Catholicism, these criteria also should have put Jimmy Carter in the running to pull a William Howard Taft and occupy the SCOTUS bench after he left the White House (though an abominable President of the United States on a variety of levels, Jimmy Carter is undeniably one of the best men to occupy the Oval Office since the turn of the twentieth century). “Kavanaugh’s a good Catholic and conservative for the most part” is not a good defense of a SCOTUS nominee, no matter how true the assertions of his stellar personal life are.
Lastly, Judge Kavanaugh will not fire up the libertarian side of the GOP base, particularly young, educated conservatives and libertarians, at all, largely owing to the archaic, near-Wilson dismissal of the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections discussed earlier. Especially with the disunity and fear of his authoritarian infatuation that Donald Trump just sowed in Helsinki (after a brilliant performance in Brussels that exposed media hysteria and presented a welcome change to the tired assumptions of post-WWII: see previous post), he desperately needs to make a case that the liberty-minded conservatives that voted for him with reservations in 2016 (me and about half of young conservatives I know, rural and urban, elite college-goers and otherwise) should stick with him to achieve tangible political benefits. Nominating Kavanaugh does not make that case whatsoever, and probably damages it. The fact that Kavanaugh is the “establishment” pick is consolation to no one, save for five Never-Trumpers inside the 495 beltway who will never vote for Trump in 2020 anyway.
All this is to say: Kavanaugh is a good pick with an originalist record of jurisprudence, but not a great one, and with four months until the November elections, senators like Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul should make it plain that they will vote against Kavanaugh and force Donald Trump to nominate a different jurist who believes in the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and does not define the power to tax so broadly as to enable anything. But then again, when’s the last time the Senate stood up for anything against a president (other than meaningless non-binding votes and endless hearings)? Further, those on the left looking to dig up personal dirt on the judge are barking up the wrong tree. That may play in DC socialite circles, but to generate antipathy for him among everyone else, they should hammer home the privacy issue (which, of course, would only lead to another, more conservative nominee who respects the 4th Amendment that the left will not be able to defeat with the right united). If Kavanaugh is confirmed, I hope that he proves me wrong on the three policy positions outlined. He’s certainly a rock-star judge everywhere else on the conservative wish list, from guns and economic freedom to states’ rights and originalism, but I fear that with the emergence of the police state and the breakdown of traditional constitutional norms one of the biggest issues of our time, his dismissal of the 4th and his embrace of the tax defense of Obamacare may prove the most prominent marks of his tenure.