Month: July 2015


“I’m sad about the victims, right?” A visit to FreedomFest, Pt II

“[The] ‘on demand’ or so-called ‘gig economy’ is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation, but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future” – Hillary Clinton

“Hillary Clinton’s Uber Speech Belongs in 1930s America” – National Review

Had Hillary Clinton issued her warning about the “gig economy” just one week earlier, this would be a very different article.

There’s a lot to hate about Uber, but by focussing just on the gig economy aspect of the company, Clinton has presented herself as the enemy of the entire sharing economy.

That doesn’t fly amongst young voters and, more importantly, it isn’t fair: For every company like Uber that uses the “just contractors” argument to screw workers and abdicate responsibility for driver behavior, there is another which allows millions of underpaid, underemployed workers to start earning a living wage. It’s a nuanced debate, and one that Clinton has entirely fluffed.

If this were a week ago, I’d probably write — as other commentators have — that this is an easy win for Jeb! Bush.

But that was before I went to FreedomFest, and encountered a group of young voters for whom Uber doesn’t represent the bleeding edge of the cult of disruption, but rather a coddling, lily-livered first step. If those voters get their way — and, thanks to an influx of Silicon Valley money, they just might — there will be no place in the world for Hillary Clinton or Jeb! Bush or… well… very likely you or me either.

* * * *
Planet Hollywood Hotel, Las Vegas.

It was only on day two, after I inadvertently left my badge in my pocket, that I realized there was no security at FreedomFest. Perhaps this is some kind of libertarian honor system, I thought at first. Perhaps demanding to see credentials would send the wrong signal to attendees of “the world’s largest gathering of free minds”? Ihre Papiere bitte!

But as I wandered the exhibitor hall, and ducked in and out of the event’s dizzying number of keynotes and panels, I slowly realized why the organizers didn’t care if anyone snuck in without paying the $500 entry price.

FreedomFest wasn’t so much a marketplace of ideas as it was a Costco of get-rich schemes and real estate scams. In between panels with names like “How to invest in the era of bigger and bigger government” and “ESCAPE FROM AMERICA: The American Dream is Alive and Well — Abroad!”, attendees could visit a stand promoting “investment opportunities” in the  “emerging democracy” of Burma or one of the ten or twenty million folding tables offering gold, or silver, or any one of a dozen other apocalypse-proof metals, many of which I’m convinced had been invented purely for the conference.

Sometimes the scams announced themselves from miles away — “Uruguay! The Unique Safe Haven: Easy Residency, Real Estate and the World’s Best Farmland!” — Other times, they caught me quite by surprise.

I spent a few minutes at the stand of “Grom Social” — a social network for teens, founded by Zach Marks (“Could Zach Marks be the new Mark Zuckerberg?”). Good for a Pando story, I thought. But before I’d asked my first question about the site or its founder, I was presented with a flyer suggesting I go to a presentation, by Mark’s father, on how by investing in Grom Social “pre-IPO” I could “get in on the ground floor” of an “investment opportunity of a lifetime.”

Everyone was in on the racket. The only difference between the big name speakers and the agenda-fillers was how much effort they made to disguise their call to action.  Convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza was ostensibly at FreedomFest to talk about “What it’s like to be a political prisoner in America,” but in reality was selling his critically-panned documentary on “America.” On D’Souza’s stand, a staffer explained that the film tells the truth about American, including that “a lot of native americans died from disease not genocide. And the abolition of slavery is a uniquely American thing, even though slaves were ‘all over’.” (In case you were wondering, no, D’Souza has never been a “political prisoner” in America — rather in 2014 he admitted to using fake donors to make illegal campaign donations, for which he was sentenced to five months in a halfway house.  Take that, Nelson Mandela.)

Whole Foods founder John Mackey’s main keynote was entitled  “Private Solutions to Healthcare Crisis & Poverty” but then he scuttled off to a smaller conference room to help his friend T. Colin Campbell sell books about his “whole food diet.” As Mackey sat nodding, Campbell assured a rapt crowd that simply by altering your intake of cow’s milk you can “turn cancer on and off.”

“I’m supposed to be a scientist. But I’m no longer objective,” Campbell boasted, to sustained applause, before putting up a slide promoting his online health course.

Now. Don’t misunderstand me: The shilling at FreedomFest was very different from the shilling you see at any other conference — where every speaker is implicitly “selling” a product, be that Facebook,  General Motors, Conservatism, or their own “personal brand.”

At FreedomFest, the whole event was just one brazen pitch, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by at least some attendees. As I browsed a pile of pamphlets at the Cato Institute stand, a man came up to express his frustration. “I’ve been coming to this event for seven years,” he said, “and every year it gets worse. It’s like you can’t be a speaker here unless you’re selling something.”

“We’re not selling anything,” said the woman manning the stand.

She seemed to be telling the truth: Unlike at most other stands, there seemed to be  nothing explicitly on sale at Cato.

“Well, that’s good to hear,” said the man. “I actually have some questions about Cato’s policies…”

“Well…” The woman cut him off. “I don’t actually work at Cato. They just hired me to be here for the event. I can add you to our mailing list and have someone contact you.”

The man walked off, visibly crestfallen.

I know how he felt. It would take wholesale quantities of idealism — or possibly a lobotomy — not to leave FreedomFest a cynic. It’s not just that everything was for sale, but also the way it was being sold.  Every single keynote, panel, and exhibitor stand used the exact same formula: We all know America has become a police state [murmurings of approval] and that any sensible patriot is packing his bags and heading for the airport [applause]. But, before you go, you’d have to be an idiot not to purchase this miracle product or service which will prevent your children from being raped at the border by jackbooted Obamabots [cheers, flurries of cash].

As I wrote last week, I’d come to FreedomFest to meet the stars of the libertarian movement, in the hope of better understanding the fastest-rising, and increasingly most powerful political ideology of our time. You might think I’d be angry — or at least disappointed — to realize it was all a giant infomercial. That even those stars — Charles Murray, Robert Poole and the staffs of Reason Magazine and the Cato institute — had apparently long abandoned any real principles in favor of trying to rake in as much of the government-controlled fiat currency that their unused panic rooms and prepper bunkers can hold.

What I really felt was closer to relief: Like a shorn Aslan, the political ideology that during the seventies stood for racial segregation, antisemitism, denying women a political voice, and countless other evils had in the intervening years devolved into a mildly annoying pop-up ad.

If this is modern libertarianism — scared patriots duping each other out of their money — there’s really nothing for the rest of us to fear, any more than we fear that the makers, or buyers, of Ginsu knives are going to use them to slit our throats.

That giddy sense of security — mission accomplished, libertarians! — lasted well into Thursday afternoon, until curiosity carried me into a side room where a panel on technology and liberty was already underway.

The description in the program — “Techno-Liberation Now: 3D-Printed Guns, Crypto-Currency, and Other State Hacks” —  seemed innocuous: A small panel of young activists, and a libertarian book publisher, addressing a standing-room crowd on how technology can help make us all more free. The opening waffle about bitcoin gave little warning of the darkness that was about to fall.

“Estonia has the lowest credit card fraud in Europe due to blockchain!”

God, do libertarians fucking love bitcoin.

Naomi Brockwell, formerly an opera singer, now calls herself “Bitcoin Girl” and produces videos for clients like Reason magazine, evangelizing bitcoin and the blockchain which are, of course, the real way to protect yourself from those Obamabots and their shiny leather boots.

Brockwell explained how an American company had created a digital smuggling operation which would receive payments due Greek companies and then sneak the money into the country, past government restrictions, using bitcoin.

“Thanks to bitcoin, businesses can continue to operate in Greece, and that’s fantastic!”

The audience applauded the fact that bitcoin had been so keenly embraced by the Greek people as a way to poke their leaders in the eye.

“Government has monopoly over money supply. Now we have a money that exists outside the state.”

The crowd didn’t even allow its enthusiasm to dampen when a few moments later the panel discussed the results of a recent study which revealed that bitcoin use had changed not a jot in Greece during the crisis. Rather it was those in more stable countries — France, Germany, the UK — who had bought more bitcoin, not out of necessity but as a precaution in case Greece’s woes spread across the rest of Europe. Fear.

(On that Estonia claim, by the way: While it’s true Estonia has the lowest incidence of credit card fraud per capita, if you look at a much more meaningful number — credit card fraud per transaction — you’ll see that several countries, including Poland, Hungary and Lithuania are safer. Also, none of that has anything to do with bitcoin.)

The session began its turn darkwards when panelist Stephen Macaskill — the head of a metals brokerage who recently began paying his employees in bitcoin — began to rhapsodize about Uber. Without mentioning any of the rapes, assaults, surveillance, threats towards journalists, aggressive lobbying tactics or exploited workers, Macaskill and his fellow panelists agreed that Travis Kalanick and his cab company represent a giant leap forward in building the libertarian economy of the future.

“We are moving towards a decentralized model,” said Macaskill.

It was at this point that Jeffrey Tucker took control of the panel. It’s hard to describe Tucker— the  “chief liberty officer” of Liberty.me and publisher of Laissez Faire Books. Certainly, with his bowtie and laconic drawl, there’s more than a touch of the John Waters about him, if Waters weren’t just seedy but a fully-fledged sociopath.

And then came his vision for the future, which Tucker laid out much like a sadistic killer might lay out his vision for how he intends to dismember your pet dog.

“I like to compare Uber to Red Box,” he purred. It was a good idea — “a step in the right direction” that moved us closer to Netflix.

To many, Uber represents the worst excesses of the cult of disruption. To Tucker, it quickly became clear, Travis Kalanick has barely moved an inch away from the nanny state. In a perfect future, there will be no Kalanicks reining in Uber drivers — rather the entire network will operate completely peer-to-peer with no one insisting on background checks or preventing drivers from carrying guns or — well — anything else that restricts driver behavior.

With the audience warmed up to his theme — no one in that room was going to argue that less regulation might possibly be a bad thing — Tucker segued into his real message: That libertarians should use technology to disrupt any form of regulation and laws out of existence. A world where pretty much any kind of bad behavior, particularly corporate bad behavior, is both legal and desirable. Where the market is the only thing that gets to decide what behavior is right and wrong, what is safe and unsafe. And fortunately, Tucker crowed, that world is almost here.

“Government regulation is something that is dead or almost dead,” Tucker said. “Governments rule by geography and physical property” but technology is erasing those boundaries and thus obliterating the ability for governments to rule.

“So often, Libertarians are a little confused about how experimental the state is… 100 years ago there were no passports, no qualifications required for doctors or lawyers. No taxes. And then we gave these people the ability to rule us.”

The audience burst into applause, with even a smattering of cheers. So what if Tucker was flat wrong about passports — the first of which were issued in the US in the 1700s — or about medical qualifications — the 1700s again — or about the requirements that lawyers be professionally qualified — yep! 1700s — the point is, that technology will soon return us to an “age of laissez faire.”

“You paint a rose-tinted view of The Future, and one I happen to agree with,” interrupted  Macaskill, “But does anyone on the panel worry about technology being used to do bad?”

Good, yes, well done Stephen. Let’s acknowledge that Tucker wants to transform the world into a 365 day version of The Purge.

“I’m sad about the victims, right?” began Tucker.  I allowed myself to relax for just a moment. So there was a tiny heart beating in there somewhere. “I cry a little bit about the prisoners.”

Quite right too. It’s hard to read the prison statistics — one out of nine African American men will be incarcerated between the ages of 20 and 34, often for relatively minor drug offenses — and not feel some sympathy for the “legalize it all” policies of the libertarians.

But Tucker continued…

“I cry about… my friend Ross Ulbricht…. There is so much injustice in the world… If any of you want to minister to prisoners, now is a good time.”

And that’s it. The only victims of technology that Tucker could imagine shedding any tears for are those incarcerated for using technology to sell drugs or to otherwise break the law.  Let the others rot.

“Of course [the age of laissez faire] puts the burden of responsibility on individuals. Yes it sucks that people can use new [technology] for bad but that just puts more responsibility on the individual personally.”

Listening to Tucker was the first time at FreedomFest that I started to feel real fear, as opposed to the fake plastic terror that everyone else was selling. Tucker had nothing to sell, except his plan of a world where Uber drivers aren’t hemmed in from their raping by meddling do-gooders like Travis Kalanick and his oppressive background checks and where, after you’re beaten with a hammer by your Uber driver, you are free to go to an unlicensed doctor to tend your wounds, or to engage an unregulated lawyer to sue the bastard. Who, presumably, is equally free to 3D-print a gun to blow your head off before you reach court.

More terrifying still, the audience of young libertarians was eating it up.

Old libertarianism — the libertarianism of the 70s — may have withered on the vine — but today, online and tucked away in the side rooms of events like FreedomFest, a new libertarianism is seeing its first green shoots.  One that takes the excitement generated by the cult of disruption and the genuinely exciting possibilities offered by bitcoin and the sharing economy — and mixes it with misleading, or just plain imagined, historical “facts” and noble sounding ideals like “freedom” and “liberty” to argue for a world in which any corporate evil can be explained away as progress. A world in which the only injustice is that meted out by overbearing (and anachronistic) governments against those whose only crime is trying remove friction from the marketplace.

And a world, by the way, where the word “intellectual” has been reduced to… well, here’s Tucker again…

“Edward Snowden has been on a speaking tour of the world. He is an international superstar… one of the most beloved, popular, influential public intellectuals.”

Yesterday, Fusion’s Kevin Roose warned Hillary Clinton that making Uber a proxy for economic policy might end up harming her: Uber is incredibly effective at presenting its opponents as neo-luddites who simply don’t understand the future.

To oppose Uber in 2016 is to enter a rhetorical playing field that has been booby-trapped. There are legitimate reasons to be wary of Uber’s rise, but few if any national figures have been able to oppose the company without being made to sound like regressive fogies.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before her Republican rival, Jeb! Bush, was pictured hailing an Uber at a campaign stop.

In fact, as my experience at FreedomFest made clear, both candidates should be wary of using Uber either an example of progress or of exploitation.

To a small but growing number of young, politically active Americans — raised to worship the cult of disruption — Uber represents neither of those things. Instead it’s a good “first step” to demonstrate that a world without criminal, moral or ethical limits is not just achievable, but inevitable.

In that new world, there’s no place for Clinton, or Bush. And if you’re the kind of neo-luddite who believes the government should have some role in keeping us safe at home, on the road, or even in a doctor’s office, there’s no place for you either.


Walking With Libertarians: A visit to FreedomFest, Pt I

Wednesday. Planet Hollywood Hotel, Las Vegas.

A man in a grey business suit is explaining to a young woman how he became a world leader.

“There are three requirements to start a country,” he said, “And we met all of them.”

“What are they?” asked the woman.

“One: Clearly defined borders. Two: A permanent population. And three: A government with diplomatic capabilities.”

“That’s fascinating!” She meant it.

“Under international law, we are a sovereign country. Even if no other third country recognizes that fact yet.”

“Oh,” said the woman.

“Yes!” the man continued. “We are a sovereign nation. That’s a fact.”

“How did you find out the rules?” The woman was noticably less interested now, having realized that this ‘sovereign nation’ likely only exists as a corner of the man’s basement.

“I looked in encyclopedias, mainly,” he said.

“This is all so interesting to me,” said the woman, “but so confusing at the same time. I need to find some water.”

And she was gone.

* * * *
It’s hard to fathom now, but as recently as four years ago I had no real opinion of libertarianism, or libertarians.

Certainly, I’d have struggled to name more than a half dozen famous ones. I suppose I was dimly aware that Ron Paul and Glenn Beck were espousing libertarian ideals — alongside capitalist ones — when they encouraged us to buy gold ahead of the coming apocalypse. And, if pressed, I could certainly tell you that, after Peter Thiel got rich from Paypal, he used some of his money to fund the Seasteading Institute to build an offshore utopia for other rich people. [Disclosure: Thiel is a Pando investor through Founders Fund.] I knew Alex Jones was a nut, of course, but I’m not sure I could tell you whether he was a hazelnut or a libertarian nut. And, like you, I’ve been avoiding Atlas Shrugged fanboys since college, well before it occurred to me that Ayn Rand’s sociopathic readership generally identifies as libertarian.

Four years later and, like many Pando readers, it’s Mark Ames’ fault that I can now spot a libertarian at a thousand paces. It was through Mark’s, and later Yasha Levine’s, reporting at NSFWCORP that I was able to start piecing together the powerful — and sometimes ugly — effect that a relatively small group of libertarians has had on American politics and business.

It was through editing their work that I came to be familiar with the Koch brothers: Mark and Yasha exposed their role in funding the Tea Party movement long before that became the central story in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. It was through endless editorial conferences and fierce debates in NSFWCORP HQ in Las Vegas that I came to learn about the nasty racist history of Reason Magazine, or why Mark reacts to names like Robert Poole and Charles Koch in much the same way that you or I might react to Robert Mugabe or Simon Cowell.

But just because I understand their own distrust of libertarianism — and, let’s be clear, the facts in Mark’s and Yasha’s reporting speak for themselves — doesn’t mean that I share their ability to see libertarians lurking in every shadow or lying under every bed. Travis Kalanick notwithstanding, it certainly doesn’t mean I’m comfortable using “libertarian” as a synonym for evil.

As the old saw goes: Some of my best friends are libertarians. If you live in Silicon Valley, that’s probably true for you too. And why not? They’re the ones most vocal on the need to reduce government interference in the sharing economy, on legalizing pot, on strengthening personal freedoms and, of course, cutting taxes.

Certainly, Pando remains institutionally agnostic when it comes to libertarianism; just as we remain agnostic on conservatism, liberalism, communism and everything else short of fascism. On any given day you might see articles defending and attacking any or all of those. Hell, Peter Thiel was an early investor in the company, as was Michael Arrington, another cheerleader for small government and for being able to do whatever the fuck he wants.

Regardless of your view on libertarianism as a set of political ideas, and on libertarians as a group of individuals, there’s no denying that libertarianism is on the rise, particularly in the tech industry. It is having, as the media like to say, “a moment,” in large part due to the vast wealth amassed by people like Thiel and Kalanick, and their willingness to spend that money pushing for libertarian ideals.

A growing number of Silicon Valley founders — wary of government regulation and over-taxation — reflexively identify as libertarian. Candidates like Rand Paul are finding their campaign coffers swelling with donations from wealthy benefactors. And thanks to those pro-disruption, pro-pot stances, libertarianism isn’t just popular in America — it’s cool.

And so, as we head toward an election in which libertarian ideas and libertarian money will play a larger role than ever before, I decided it was time to take my understanding of libertarianism beyond what I’ve been able to glean from the excellent reporting on the pages of NSFWCORP and Pando. To take off my editor hat, put on my reporter shoes, and actually spend some quality time, walking with Libertarians.

All I needed was the right opportunity: An event with a large enough concentration of libertarians that I could sample their many flavors and collect their many pamphlets, and still get home in time for tea.

And then, late on Tuesday afternoon, I saw the media alert. Beginning the very next day, at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, was “FreedomFest: “The world’s largest gathering of free minds.”

As the event’s website boasted, this would be “the greatest libertarian show on earth,” bringing together all of the movement’s stars: from Glenn Beck, Charles Murray, and Peter Thiel to senior staffers from the Cato Institute, Freedomworks, and the Heritage foundation. And if that weren’t enough, the organizers had seen fit to invite a ragtag band of conservatives, racists, and convicted felons — Grover Norquist, Donald Trump, Dinesh D’Souza  — to join the party.

The speaker list read like a who’s-who of characters I’d come to think of almost as cartoon villains, including of course the editorial team of Reason Magazine, the house journal of the movement, and which Mark had described as a “cesspool” of homophobia, racism and holocaust denial. Holy shit, Robert Poole himself was to be in attendance. Ames wrote here on Pando about how Poole was responsible for many of the ideas that led to Ferguson.

My plane ticket to Vegas was booked inside the hour.

* * * *

“Thank you for not smoking” — Planet Hollywood hotel sign posted at the entrance to FreedomFest

The first thing one learns on registering for FreedomFest is that freedom is not free. Specifically, to attend the event as a member of the media, you have to pay a $99 press “registration fee.” This, the organizers explain, is to prevent “non-legitimate media professionals from claiming a media pass to get into FreedomFest for free.”

Still, it’s deliciously ironic that FreedomFest — an event celebrating the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution — is the only event I’ve ever attended that slaps a $99 tax on the First Amendment.

Or maybe it’s fitting: the perfect intersection of the Bill of Rights and good ‘ol American capitalism. Why stop there? Why not add another Benjamin for anyone who wants to arrive packing heat? “Don’t want to be unlawfully searched or seized during the conference — that’ll be $50 please!” “Right to a fair trial? Oooh, that’ll cost ya!”

I paid my money, tucked my press pass into its FreedomFest lanyard, and was soon milling around the exhibitor hall, where maybe a hundred companies were setting up their stalls, ready to serve the several thousand patriots due to arrive in just a few hours.

It was a little after 1 pm and the conference didn’t officially kick off until 5,  so there was plenty of time to wander the hall, learning about groups like “The Atlas Society” (“Seize the moral high ground for freedom”) and “Young Americans for Liberty,” or to pick up my copy of “Insider Account” — a book revealing “what really happened at Benghazi.”

Tucked away at the back of the hall I found a stand bearing the name and giant photograph of Dinesh D’Souza, the filmmaker who made the anti-Obama conspiracy film, “2016: Obama’s America.” Today, he apparently has a new project to promote: “America: Imagine the world without her.”

Just. Imagine.

It was less difficult to imagine a world without Dinesh D’Souza: His stand was unmanned and the man himself was nowhere to be seen. I scooped up some American flag candy from a bowl, but then poured it back. Spangled or not, you probably shouldn’t accept candy from a convicted felon.

At a nearby stand, an elderly man peddling precious metals — “not gold!” — was explaining the bona fides of his company to a much younger man dressed in a business suit.

“Ron Paul worked with our founder,” said the older man, “You know who Ron Paul is, right?”

“Of course,” said the younger man. “Rand Paul’s dad.”

Aww.

I was so distracted by conversations like that, and by the FreedomFest merchandise stand — branded ties for the men, yoga pants for the ladies — that Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne was already well into his opening keynote when I took my seat in Planet Hollywood’s “Celebrity Ballroom.” The room was packed with maybe 1,000 attendees and almost as many beards.

A man dressed head to foot in American flags ran up and down in front of the stage taking photographs as Byrne warned the crowd about the dangers of Wall Street. Specifically, Byrne was furious that no one had taken seriously his warnings of impending financial doom.

“We had this hard data, showing criminality. Why did no one listen?”

“More titles are being sold than property available… more Chinese aluminum is being sold than exists,” Byrne told the appreciative crowd. Warm applause filled the room.

All of this data, Byrne explained, was proof that Wall Street — and the corrupt regulators who allowed it to destroy the world — needed to be “taken behind the barn and murdered with an axe.” To make the point, the video display wall was filled with a cutesy animation of Wall Street being murdered behind a barn with an axe.

Cheers from the crowd now.

Byrne’s solution was simple: He had created a system, much like bitcoin, which would replace Wall Street with peer to peer stock ownership. “We’ll use the blockchain to completely remove the need for Wall Street,” he said.

Suddenly a lone voice yelled from the audience: “Who will issue stock certificates?”

Clearly a liberal. Or at the very least a luddite.

“There are no stock certificates… there’s just a…. well, the coin…” Byrne said. “I can explain the details in a moment.”

Sadly, Byrne ran out of time before he could explain those details, and also before he was able to get into the fact that his issues with Wall Street stem from his long campaign against “naked short selling” of Overstock shares which he blames for driving down the company’s stock price. In the New York Times, Joe Nocera wrote about this “New Crusade for Master of Overstock”:

WHEN last we looked in on our old friend Patrick M. Byrne, the conspiracy-mongering trash-talking lawsuit-filing chief executive of Overstock.com, it was late February. Mr. Byrne had sued Rocker Partners, a short selling hedge fund, and Gradient Analytics, a small equity research firm, accusing them of conspiring to drive down Overstock’s stock price….

To better monitor naked short selling — and try to lower the number of “failures to deliver” — early last year the S.E.C. instituted something called Regulation SHO, which compiles what the agency calls a “threshold” list of companies in which there are more than 10,000 shares that have “failed to deliver” in the allotted time. Overstock has been on the threshold list pretty much ever since Reg SHO came into being. Which, to Mr. Byrne — though to virtually no one else — means that shadowy, bad people, who lurk in the darkest corners of Wall Street, are breaking the law and creating “phantom shares” of the stock through the practice of naked shorting.

As Nocera reports, Overstock was also investigated by the SEC. Byrne’s own father — former Geico boss John J. Byrne — stepped down as Overstock’s chairman “after saying publicly that he wished his son would spend less time crusading and more time running the business.”

Byrne closed out his presentation by reading from an article on Politico about Byrne’s idea for the “first-ever digital security, a corporate bond that does not need SEC approval”:

As for the later stages of that revolution, in which the blockchain’s most enthusiastic backers predict it will threaten the livelihoods not just of financial middlemen but many government institutions themselves, Byrne says the world as it is should not be taken for granted. “These central institutions didn’t come out of a burning bush.”

The audience really got a kick out of the burning bush part. Applause and more cheers as he left the stage, all thoughts of stock certificates and logistics long forgotten. Well forgotten except by one guy: “Fuck you!” came a lonely shout, barely audible over the ovation.

The applause — and the “fuck you” — was still ringing as the moderator — a perky fellow who didn’t seem to have a name — introduced the next two speakers: Lily Williams and Bert Dohmen. Williams, she told the audience just slightly too loudly, had emigrated from China to the US several decades earlier, after a successful early career as a lawyer. Dohmen had been brought to America as a young boy from post-war Germany by his father. Each, the moderator explained, had been invited to share their stories and explain why they had chosen to make America their home.

The crowd settled in for a rigorous debate on immigration and the American dream. What they got instead, much to their delight, were two patriots warning how America — once the land of the free and home of the brave — was fast becoming unrecognizable. In many ways, in fact, it was coming to resemble the places — Communist China and Nazi fucking Germany, mind you — that they’d left behind.

“Common core is Communist,” said Williams, “like in China.” The audience went nuts.

“This country has gone from the free country I love to a socialist country like China!”

No it hasn’t, Lily, but carry on.

Then it was Dohmen’s turn to tell his story: A heartwarming tale of a boyhood watching American planes being shot down over his hometown. The audience wasn’t really sure how to handle that — but Dohmen won them back, reminiscing how the orange flight-suited yanks would sometimes wave to the school children as they parachuted down to earth, before being carted off to POW camps the rest of the way.

Dohmen was just getting into his stride when a throwaway remark threatened to throw the stage, and the conference, into chaos.

He had just finished telling the room how, in the 1950s, everyone trusted American politicians to do the right thing. That was too much even for the moderator:

“Did they really?” he asked.

“They might have been wrong, but they really did believe that,” Dohmen insisted. “But today, if you said you trust politicians, people would think you were smoking something you shouldn’t.”

Silence.

Then the shrieking voice of the moderator — the sound of a man who knows his audience well and wants to avoid a riot: “What’s wrong with smoking?!” he demanded.

“Oh, uh, well..” Dohmen tried to explain he had only meant that…

But it was too late. You don’t tell an audience of libertarians that they shouldn’t be allowed to smoke anything. You certainly don’t suggest that they shouldn’t smoke pot.

Williams cut him off. “YOU SHOULD SMOKE WHATEVER YOU LIKE IN YOUR OWN HOME.”

I edged out of the ballroom as the conversation devolved into a debate about whether pot should be legal in Nevada. The last thing I heard as I made it back to the conference hall was the moderator, still trying to win back the room, insisting, “I wish I could smoke some pot RIGHT NOW.”

That was quite enough for day one. On Thursday, the conference proper gets under way, beginning with Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey and his “Private Solutions to Healthcare Crisis & Poverty.” The Las Vegas strip sucks the life out of you — especially in July — and I wanted to be refreshed and ready for the main event.

And what an event it promises to be. As I headed down the escalators towards the taxi rank, a man in a FreedomFest lanyard came bounding towards me, running up the down escalator, almost sending a small boy tumbling to his death. The man didn’t care: He had places to go, and wouldn’t be bound by Planet Hollywood’s — or Obama’s — fascist elevator rules.

America’s future.

Part Two:I’m sad about the victims, right?

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