Live Free or Die

Libertarian National Convention 2016

Orlando, Florida

Day One

At first I thought the Libertarian Party’s convention had attracted a disappointing turnout. Then I found the smoking section.

The party’s 907-strong national delegation is perhaps one of the few American communities that still has a cigarette-puffing majority, their deep inhales as much a badge of honour as the star-spangled porcupine pins on their lapels.

It is hard to imagine a more aesthetically diverse cross-section of people within the one political movement. Southern gents in linen suits and colourful bow-ties hobnob with mohawked anarchists, Second Amendment-worshipping cowboys and bespectacled ‘hacktivists’ – united only in their belief that government causes, rather than solves, most problems, and their conviction that participatory democracy matters.

Like any political convention, the exhibit hall is made of up an endless array of factions and sub-factions, institutes and causes, with names like “Advocates for Self-Government” and “Hemp Coalition”.  There is even a booth exclaiming “Muslims for Liberty”, with a pleasant young student handing out copies of the Quran – a document not usually associated with free market libertarianism.

And then there are the apparatchiks – or “faceless men” as we call them back home – a frenzied blur of laptops and grey suits, shouting things about head counts and conference rooms in an over-caffeinated manner.

Because of course, this is not just a meeting of likeminded philosophical comrades but a real democratic exercise to elect the party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees, among other official party roles. And this year the normally fairly underground event is attracting a lot more attention off the back of a nationally televised debate, hence the arrival of the international press (represented by yours truly).

Unlike the two major parties, democracy is held is such esteem here that the nominee doesn’t get to pick his or her own VP candidate. Instead, the two names on the ticket are voted on separately, meaning the presidential candidate could end up with a rival’s running mate if that’s what the delegates choose – leading to a very appropriate form of chaos.

On this opening day of the convention, mustering votes is clearly therefore the focus. State delegations congregate in corridors and poolside caucuses to argue for their candidate and tally up the votes.

This event didn’t need any extra colour or movement, but in some great comedy of errors, MegaCon – a giant nerd convention and competitor to the famous Comic-Con – is being held right next door.

And so among the suits and ties, beards and ponytails, marijuana leaf flags and Statue of Liberty headwear weave face-painted avatars, dwarves, elves and aliens.

There is even some overlap between the two events, with a very convincing Professor Snape from Harry Potter spotted wearing a Minnesota delegate’s badge.

Just to top it all off, Vermin Supreme – perennial presidential candidate, performance artist and eccentric cult figure – has left the Democratic party and is throwing his hat (i.e. gumboot) into the ring for the Libertarian nomination.

American politics is rarely boring, and here in the halls where democracy actually happens, it is promising to be anything but.

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A liberty-lovin’ lady offers her two cents.

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Me and my new mate, Vermin Supreme (yes, that is a gumboot on his head).

Day Two

The caucusing no doubt went on late into the night, over beers, whisky and whatever other substance they choose to put into their own bodies goddamit!

But the second day of the convention has turned from politics to policy and philosophy, a steady stream of sessions explaining how the theories of the libertarian movement’s intellectual icons – Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand and so on – can be turned into sound public policy and a winning formula (or at least one that cracks more than a million votes).

From benefits to ballot access, currency manipulation to campaign strategy, the morning’s panels and speeches were surprisingly substantive for an event perceived to be a bunch of whackjobs smoking blunts and shooting semi-automatics.

That perception was also a topic of fervent conversation. Many within the party, especially those supporting the candidacy of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and his preferred running mate, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, are hoping to successfully pitch themselves as a sensible middle ground between the Republicans and Democrats. With the likely nominees of the major parties facing historically high unfavourable ratings, the bid to expand electoral appeal makes sense. As Johnson himself puts it: “the goal is to move party meetings from the treehouse to the auditorium”.

The party’s purists, however, care less about electoral appeal than ideological principles, warning that this angsty, 45-year old party – which started as a protest of the politics of Richard Nixon – is at risk of appearing like “Republican lite”.

Flyers distributed to delegates warn that the Johnson-Weld ticket would sell the party’s true believers up the river, and that one senior adviser even once displayed a “Romney 2012” bumper sticker. The so-called libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party rails against Johnson’s support for a consumption tax instead of income and corporate taxes, among a number of practical compromises learnt from real experience governing . But to them, all taxation is theft and compromise is treason.

In a rallying speech with more than a little subtle subtext about the presidential candidates, Tom Woods, an author and economist, called on delegates to stop describing themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” but instead as “libertarian”, its own distinct philosophical tradition that doesn’t borrow from either of the major parties. He urged them to shun the stereotype of their party as being for pot-smoking, more tolerant Republicans.

Given the importance of product differentiation in free market economics, it was a message well received.

But it wasn’t all business. John McAfee, the infamous cybersecurity pioneer and “techno-libertarian”, threw a Burning Man-inspired party with electronic music DJs, acrobats, performers and an overall dystopian feel. I’m not sure how many delegates it swayed, but his band of pierced and dreadlocked millennial volunteers seemed pleased.

And for those with more traditional tastes, the hotel’s bars and eateries swarmed with jovial libertarians, swapping battle stories of days, months, years or decades of service to the cause of liberty and upending the two-party system.

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A particularly creepy John McAfee fan.

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The Johnson, McAfee and Petersen campaigns collide during an intense break between votes. 

Day Three

Sometime well after the scheduled kick-off time of 9.45am, the delegates began voting for their presidential nominee – an hours-long process of excitable scribbling, shuffling and shouting. Each state delegation chair then takes to the microphone to announce the results one by one, adding in some obligatory geographic humour such as “we are from New Jersey, and we apologise for that” or “I represent the state of Nevada, home of gambling and prostitution, and the freest in the land”.

Despite a slight hiccough, whereby he fell short of an outright victory on the first ballot by just five votes, Governor Johnson eventually sailed safely into the nomination (as expected) despite a strong performance by his rivals in the candidates’ final debate last night.

The vice-presidential nomination process, however, was a little bumpier.

The division over Weld has only escalated overnight, morphing less into a rational discussion of the VP candidate’s specific pros and cons and more an ideological battle between the party’s moderates and its activist (and anarchist) base.

On face value, Weld brings some very strong positives to the campaign.  As a former Republican governor of a Democratic state, with a track record of standing up for gay and lesbian rights before it was cool as well as cutting taxes more than 21 times, he could appeal to disaffected voters from the left and right. He brings significant connections, cache and cash to the race. In the days since his name was floated as a VP candidate, he has had more mainstream media appearances than any Libertarian in history.

But for many of the delegates, 14 days as member of the party is simply not enough. Despite his pledge to stay with the party for life, his admission that he only read the party’s platform for the first time in the last week garnered boos. Moreover, as governor of left-leaning Massachussets, his record on gun rights is not quite up to scratch for these freedom-loving folks.

From an originally diverse group of VP challengers, the “Never Weld” crowd eventually coalesced around Larry Sharpe, a mixed-race, self-made businessman and motivational speaker from New York.

But ultimately the last ditch effort was not enough and Johnson’s pleas were the more convincing. Governor Weld was elected as the party’s VP nominee by a slim margin of less than 1 per cent on the second ballot, after a rowdy and no doubt nerve-wracking few hours.

In the moments since, Trump has already taken aim at his now-official Libertarian opponents, which caused a riotous cheer here on the convention floor when announced from the podium.

Libertarians believe that humans are, on the whole, inherently good, and that therefore government intervention and control is unnecessary to solve social challenges, which can be addressed through voluntary exchange and action for mutual gain.

Up against two of the most unpopular politicians in history, and armed with two candidates with executive experience in very different states, this minor party heads into the general election even more optimistic than usual.

#LegalizeFreedom

 

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With Gov. Bill Weld, Libertarian VP nominee

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LP chair Nick Sarwark faces the press.  

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Governor Gary Johnson officially announced as presidential nominee.

Credit where due

Orlando, Florida

Last night Donald J Trump officially clinched the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination.  While his two remaining competitors, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, dropped out weeks ago (meaning he has been the presumptive nominee for some time) the milestone is significant nonetheless.

Whatever you think of Trump – and likely many of you think very little – it would be ignorant to play down the decisiveness with which he won this internal party race. Just as it was ignorant of his foes to underestimate him.

The loud-mouthed billionaire has come a long way since his ill-fated run at the White House in 2000 as the candidate for the fringe-dwelling conservative Reform Party.

With sixteen years to learn from his mistakes, Trump knew he needed to join the big leagues as the nominee for one of the two major parties. Watching Obama’s popularity drop, and no doubt in possession of the knowledge that the electorate usually swings every eight years or so, he knew which of the two organisations he had his sights on (the fact that he had donated to the other for decades a mere detail).

Announcing his candidacy on 16 June 2015 for the GOP ticket, few serious analysts gave him much of a chance. To the pundits (myself included), he was facing an insurmountable challenge: a line-up of more than a dozen of the Republican Party’s supposed best and brightest – senators and governors, policy wonks and champion debaters, veterans and valedictorians and even a Bush. Over the course of one of the most heated, if entertaining, primary elections in recent memory he not only attracted more votes but destroyed them all, one by one.

He left them pathetic and lifeless in his wake, these comparatively rigid people that had spent every moment of their lives trying to become President, only to be bested by a reality TV star property tycoon.

He is on track to receive more GOP primary votes than anyone ever in the history of the Republican Party. He therefore not only beat his sixteen or so 2016 rivals, but arguably also Eisenhower, Nixon, both Bushes, even Reagan.

And now he is doing the unthinkable once again, methodically going about the process of uniting the party, reaching out to the think-tankers and conservative figures who said “Never Trump” and extending an olive branch, while Hillary and Bernie still scrap like alley cats.

Of course, he is still a long way from the Oval Office. 56 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of him, according to the latest Fox News poll, and he now needs to win support from a very different electorate – the one that went for Barack Obama twice.

Still, he has a very loyal and lively base and has been successful as casting himself as the outsider in this anti-Establishment climate. Should Clinton become the Democratic nominee (as is likely, if not certain) this will be a huge advantage for Trump, up against someone who has been in politics for forty years and has lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue already.

To be clear, I personally wouldn’t vote for Trump. While he is free to say as many sexist or xenophobic things as he likes, it’s not what I look for in a leader of the free world. More worryingly, I think there is a chance (albeit perhaps a small one) that he is an out and out tyrant in the making. He decries compromise and diplomacy as weak, rails against free trade, praises dictators and has seemingly little love for the US constitution. But then, as a foreigner and, even worse – a journalist – what I think really shouldn’t matter.

And that is the point for any international observers. You might not like his bluster or temperament, you might fear his presidency (and perhaps with good reason), but his victories so far are undeniably a win for democracy.

The blue-collar, God-fearing, oft-forgotten folks of middle America have made their choice, and they don’t give a flying fuck what coastal, city-dwelling elites think of it – let alone people overseas.

The cynic in me says their choice (while bold) will not be enough to stop the Clinton political machine, not once Bernie is out of the way and Hollywood, the mainstream media and maybe even Wall Street fall into line.

But, if the past year is anything to go by, anyone betting against Donald Trump is more foolish than the GOP nominee himself.

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“If you can’t beat them, join them”. Halloween 2015, Dallas, TX.

Published on 27 May 2016

 

Taxis and taxes

Austin, TX

As a hairy and sometimes cynical fellow prone to a political rant, I have always felt some natural affinity for cabbies.

But I acknowledge that I am part of a small minority in this regard, with no shortage of stories in almost every country I have visited detailing a lazy, smelly, rude, racist, violent or generically unpleasant taxi driver.

More to the point, I like innovation more than I like taxis and so have been an advocate (and customer) of the disruptive, ride-sharing, tech-enabled forces like Uber and Lyft that have unquestionably changed the face of human transportation.

Not only have these startups provided greater competition and customer service to commuters, their emergence has had a whole raft of ancillary benefits, giving birth to a sharing economy and flexible new workforce in control of its own destiny.

For example, when I was recently in LA, an Uber driver and aspiring actor told me his flexible new job was allowing him to continue turning up to auditions, when previously he was forced to get a 9 to 5 or inflexible hospitality work when savings ran out. There are doubtless thousands of cases where the advent of the sharing economy has allowed people to continue pursuing creative and life passions, more effectively run households and raise children or simply time out to meditate, thereby becoming a more peaceful member of society.

All of these beneficial outcomes can be attributed to the success of apps that allow ride-sharing or comparable sharing services. They have contributed to a more productive, inter-connected and innovative global economy in recent years.

And yet, governments across the US and globe have attempted to thwart their success, regulating them to the extent that they can no longer run cost-effectively and are forced out of town, using that politician’s trusty old stead of safety and security.

Here in Austin, Uber and Lyft last month announced they would be exiting the market unless some particularly onerous local regulations were repealed. The ride-sharers were successful in getting a proposition out to public vote, but the Austin City Council’s (taxpayer-funded) scare campaign had already done its damage. The proposition failed and Uber and Lyft packed up and left town, bindle over shoulder.

In a city with very little public transport infrastructure, thousands of college kids and creatives, and a world-renowned nightlife, the impact has been severe. Many small businesses are already suffering and lives will be affected. I’m not embellishing when I say I have witnessed real tears being shed over the decision.

The megacity of Chicago is now facing a similar dispute and New York City’s regulation-happy mayor Bill De Blasio only allowed the ride-sharers after caving to immense public pressure, as did Mike Baird in New South Wales.

The debate reflects one of the most enduring conflicts in political philosophy: the trade-off between freedom and security.

The fact that it has become so heated here in the US again reflects the contradictions at the heart of America, whereby its most conservative citizens pay lip service to liberty but at the same time are so vulnerable to fears and insecurities fuelled by elected officials with ulterior agendas – so much so that they will actively back government intervention in the market.

The argument against Uber (at least publicly) is that it contains inherent risks, unlike taxi drivers who are licensed and accountable, not just to their employers but to the relevant local authorities. Uber drivers could be murderers or rapists or – worse – illegal immigrants, or so the propaganda goes (because no one has ever been assaulted in a licensed cab).

Of course, the real reason is that these licensing regimes are lucrative sources of income for governments addicted to other peoples’ money. Cabbies realised a long time ago that it was easier to pay lobbyists and union bosses to stop progress than it was to actually innovate and provide a better and more competitive product to consumers. Over the last few decades, many a government has done dirty deals with the cabbies’ unions, scratching each other’s backs in a mutual bid to avoid public transport investment.

Politicians should not bend over backwards to help out Uber and Lyft, but neither should they put obstacles in their way to help out their cabbie mates and subvert to will of the paying customer. It is textbook ‘crony capitalism’.

American politicians should be especially wary, as they are reliant on votes from an electoral majority that believes implicitly in free markets and private property, even if they are susceptible to scary advertising.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

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Image source: Russian Week

Published on 25 May 2016

Adios Amigo

Washington, DC

In many ways Miodrag Djurovich was a quintessential Washingtonian. Born in Peru to Serbian parents, my old man’s first cousin – known to Americans as ‘Chuck’, Hispanics as ‘Carlos’ and Yugoslavs as ‘Dragan’ – spoke three languages perfectly, took great pride in all three cultures and was truly a global citizen.

Having lived in the US capital for forty years, Uncle Chuck knew the city intimately: the stories of its street corners, occupants of its townhouses, the restauranteurs and raconteurs. Had he not had been kept busy with a career in the public service, including the Defence Intelligence Agency, he would have made an expert DC tour guide.

In later years, he left government and embarked on a business career involving patent litigation and Saudi Arabia. We never quite understood exactly what it was he did, but we understood it would likely require great intellect.

His wide network of personal friends was lively and international. Where many others stray from their mates over the years, he kept his close and they gave him great purpose and joy, one of the many life lessons I learnt from him.

At his very sad but tasteful funeral this past weekend, a significant number of the attendees all lived in the same Northwest DC zip code. In an age – and city – often synonymous with globalisation at the expense of kinship, Dragan was still a firm believer in neighbourhood and community.

Given his love for his adoptive home, it is not surprising that he – like America – reflected some contradictions. He was intensely political, loving the sport of it as well as the more serious public policy discourse. But at the same time, he was one of the least ideological people I have known, displaying a sensible centrism  and often more interested in the views of others. He was deeply engaged with his own personal ethnocultural history and identity, but at the same time was one of the most humble and least egotistical people I have known (unlike his three Australian nephews, some of you might be thinking).

He lived a life rich with thought, experience and laughter, inspired by the Peruvian sensibility. He loved good food and good company, and implored others to do the same. He had a love of learning and deep intelligence, matched only by that of his lifelong partner, Ann, whom he adored to the end.

When I embarked on this journey, the impetus was largely to document what promised to be a monumental presidential election and to indulge my dream of immersing myself in the culture of this land that has always held my imagination.

But the past week has been a reminder that while culture and politics matter, it is relationships that ultimately provide meaning to life, and family first and foremost.

Of all the conversations, jokes and pearls of wisdom I have been fortunate enough to receive over the past ten months, I suspect Dragan’s will leave the most lasting legacy.

If there were ever a man that truly embodied the adage “a gentleman and a scholar”, it was him.

Adios Amigo. Vjecnaja Pamjat.

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My brothers and I enjoying the company of Dragan, Ann and our beloved great aunt, Baba Seka. Houston, TX, October 2015

Published on 12 May 2016.