Month: November 2015

Freedom in Film: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

When the first film of the Hunger Games series premiered, Cascade’s Sarah Wolf wrote about the themes of human freedom found in the popular novels by Suzanne Collins.

“In a society where rules and oppression define the lives of its citizens,” she wrote, “the fictional Katniss shows that freedom is not completely lost, despite the external constraints on her freedom. She still has the will to make choices based on what she believes to be right and wrong, often in defiance of the expectations of her government.

“Even in the darkest of circumstances, personal choice and liberty can prevail if only we don’t cave in to the immoral expectations of our leaders and peers. Good can overcome evil, one small act at a time.”

If you missed it, you can read Sarah’s review here.

The Acton Institute’s Dylan Pahman has written an insightful take on the third Hunger Games movie, which opened in theaters earlier this month.

“While some would criticize the series for lack of depth, ‘Mockingjay, Part 1,’ offers more than just a shallow cast of good guys vs. bad guys, acting as a window into the messy realities of tyranny, class, and freedom,” he says.

Pahman points out the role that beauty can play in defending freedom. In the movie, the fashionable Effie Trinket says “she has been ‘condemned to this life of jumpsuits’—skewering the conformist dress of the militaristic District 13.” Does Effie sense the connection between the loss of expression of beauty through dress with the denial of the intrinsic worth of each human being under an authoritarian system that squelches personal expression and human difference?

Consider the themes of tyranny and class dynamics in The Hunger Games, a subject that I reflected on last year with reference to ‘Catching Fire.’ In ‘Mockingjay,’ which like past films in the series does an excellent job of bringing these themes more to the forefront than their source material, we see again a clear rejection of ‘us vs. them,’ class warfare dynamics in favor of greater nuance and complexity.

Which brings me to Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks). Effie epitomizes the shallow lifestyles of Capitol denizens…..[However], another side of Effie comes to the fore. Plutarch scolds her that the revolution is happening and there is no going back to the extravagant life she once had, calling her, ‘replaceable,’ just like everyone else. But Effie counters that certainly Katniss, who the rebellion so wants to be their mockingjay, is not replaceable, and neither is she. Her self-worth may be inflated, but she also hints at the error of Plutarch’s way of thinking: no person is replaceable, an inherent dignity violated year after year by the Hunger Games themselves….

Commenting on France under Napoleon III, Lord Acton once said, ‘The victims of the imperial despotism are for the most part its instruments.’ Panem has far more victims than the willing instruments of the Capitol, but nevertheless ‘Mockingjay’ shows that even the Effies of the world, the symbols of self-serving tyranny, may themselves be tyrannized and worthy, too, of liberation. If we can look more than skin deep (past, no doubt, copious layers of concealer), we might see even those we believe to be shallow or adversarial to possess the irreplaceable dignity of the image of God.

You can read the rest of Pahman’s thoughts on Mockingjay here. Hopefully, you will find food for discussion about the story’s themes of freedom and human dignity to share with moviegoers you know this holiday season.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

(A version of this article was originally published December 12, 2014.)




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This Thanksgiving, Are You Part of the One Percent?

You may not have learned this in school, but prior to the 1623 Thanksgiving celebration in the Plymouth colony it had the equivalent of a modern-day socialist economy. Land and crops were held in common; and food was distributed based on need, not on production. Able young men were often unwilling to work hard for the benefit of other men’s families.

After several disastrous harvests, each household was given its own plot of land. They could keep what they produced, or trade their crops for things they needed. Private property and a free market economy resulted in a truly bountiful harvest in 1623 and beyond.

Today, most Americans are actually rich, thanks in large part to retaining those private property and free market traditions. Perhaps not rich in relation to other Americans, but rich in relation to people around the world.

If your family earns more than $32,400 per year, you are in the top one percent of all income earners worldwide. Recently, half of all American families earned more than $51,939, and the average family earned $72,641. Even the lowest family income group by race, African Americans, had a median income over $33,000. Looked at this way, most Americans are part of the world’s one percent.

Things are far from perfect, but most of us have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Freedom in Film and Fiction: A Cascade Series

Since 2013, “Freedom in Film and Fiction” has been an occasional series of book and film reviews housed on Cascade’s blog Cascade Insider. We’re moving this series to Cascade’s main website. Join us as we explore themes of freedom and timeless truths in literature and art.

(originally published February 27, 2013)

Great truths come to life through great stories. Some of the best arguments in favor of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity are found in works of literature and art. A good plot will stay with you when you’ve forgotten a good essay; a vibrant scene will convince when arguments fail.

So, please join us periodically for an exploration of themes of freedom and timeless truths from works of art you already may know―and some you may have missed. And if you have suggestions for reviews, please e-mail me.

Let’s begin with a recent Cascade guest review of the novel voted “the greatest book of the 20th century.” An epic story by a perceptive critic of the modern world, J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings illustrates the battle between overweening power and personal freedom. Totalitarianism depersonalizes the individual, undermines self-government, and corrupts community and civilization, destroying life, beauty, and virtue in its path:

“Perhaps the most profound insight of [The Lord of the Rings] is that self-government requires governance of self. Freedom is not license. To be free you must exercise control over your own will, which often means doing what you would rather not and expressing your individuality in solidarity….” read more

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

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Educational Savings Accounts: The “Smartphones” of Parental Choice

Yesterday the Senate Interim Education Committee of the Oregon Legislature held an informational hearing on Educational Savings Accounts, or ESAs. The focus of the hearing was the recently passed ESA legislation from Nevada, which will make 93% of Nevada students eligible for ESAs in 2016 and all students eligible by 2027 (at the latest).

Educational Saving Accounts allow public school students to take money the state would spend on them and put it on a restricted use debit card. Parents can spend this money on a wide variety of approved educational options, such as private school, individual tutoring, and distance learning. Any money not used is rolled over for parents to spend in the future.

State Senator Scott Hammond of Nevada, an architect of the Nevada law, addressed the Committee via speakerphone. During his introduction of Sen. Hammond, Steve Buckstein of Cascade Policy Institute referred to earlier school-choice ideas such as tax credits and vouchers as “the rotary-dial telephones of the school choice movement.” He encouraged the Oregon Legislature to consider legislation modeled on the Nevada law—which to continue the analogy is like a smartphone with unlimited apps.

The hearing set the stage for Oregon ESA legislation to be introduced in a future session. ESAs would give families who can’t afford to pay taxes for the public school system, plus tuition for private options, real opportunities to meet their kids’ individual needs, learning styles, and interests.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute. CSF-Portland is a partner program of the New York-based Children’s Scholarship Fund.

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That “old technocratic central planning impulse” is alive and well in Oregon

One of the most memorable and talked about lines from the November 10th Republican presidential debate came from Senator Marco Rubio, who said, “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

The fact-checkers quickly came up with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to counter his earnings claim; but the larger question might be whether the president, or any level of government in America, should use the power of the state, and taxpayer money, to choose one career path over any other for students in a free society.

In Oregon you can find lots of politicians who are sure that our state education system needs to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, or STEM for short. Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian wants to return shop classes to high schools. In 2013 the Legislature created the Oregon STEM Investment Council (under John Kitzhaber’s Oregon Education Investment Council, which no longer exists).

To encourage certain students to pursue technical or vocational careers is one thing. But pretending that the state knows what is best for all students and that it should set goals for college participation (such as Oregon’s 40-40-20 goal) and STEM education is another. As former Reason magazine editor and author Virginia Postrel noted a few years ago,

“The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or ‘green’ industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.”

Those in and around Oregon government and educational arenas seem to always be concerned about attracting good manufacturing and “green” jobs to the state. But, as Postrel says, much of this talk is “just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise.”

So, for sure, let students with an aptitude and interest in technical and vocational careers know about the opportunities and earning potential they offer, but don’t ask the state to pick winners and losers between STEM and other educational pursuits. And don’t let the state tell us how many students need to complete four-year degrees, versus two-year degrees, versus simply graduating from high school. Those are decisions best left up to students and their parents.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.


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Oregon Scraping Bottom in State Integrity Rankings

This week the Center for Public Integrity released a report grading the 50 states on governance. The metrics used to measure integrity included the categories of “Public Access to Information,” “Lobbying Disclosure,” and “Ethics Agency Enforcement.”

Oregon was ranked 44th among the states, with a grade of “F.”

Oregon’s poor ranking was not a surprise given the nationwide coverage of the Kitzhaber-Hayes influence-peddling scandal. By any standard, the behavior of our former governor was unacceptable.

But this was only the headliner issue. Beneath the surface are many less-glamorous problems that will be difficult to address. For instance, there is virtually no meaningful oversight of state expenditures. Legislators spend tax money to promote their own agendas, and the budgeting process is deliberately opaque in order to keep citizens in the dark.

Also, the law allowing us access to public records is constantly abused. Agencies frequently play games of “20 questions” in order drag out the process; and when they do offer up the requested documents, they impose massive fees that most citizens cannot afford.

Unfortunately, no amount of “oversight” will solve the problem. Government is unable to police itself. Once a taxpayer sends money to the state, it’s too late.

The best solution is to dramatically prune the weed patch of regulations and programs. A smaller government, focusing on a few core functions, will have more integrity than a larger one.


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Policy Picnic – November 18, 2015

Please join us for our monthly Policy Picnic led by Cascade Founder and Senior Policy Analyst Steve Buckstein

Topic: “Right to Work” Reaches the Supreme Court  

Description: The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association this fall. Will the Court side for teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, or for the powerful union that wants to collect dues against her will? If the Court rules for Rebecca, what does that mean for forced unionization across the country? Steve Buckstein will tell us.

“We’re asking that teachers be able to decide for ourselves, without fear or coercion, whether or not to join or fund a union. It’s that simple.”

–Rebecca Friedrichs

There is no charge for this event, but reservations are required as space is limited.  To reserve your free tickets, click here.

Admission is free. Please feel free to bring your own lunch.
Coffee and cookies will be served. 
Sponsored by:
Dumas Law Group
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Get Oregon out of the Liquor Business

There are still eighteen so-called “control states” in America that exert substantial control over the sale of liquor. Oregon is one of them, virtually monopolizing its warehousing, distribution, and sale through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). You would think that independent-minded Oregonians would have rebelled against such control by now. Next year, they might.

The grocery industry now plans to place a measure on the 2016 General Election ballot that would allow consumers to buy hard liquor in the same private grocery stores where they can already conveniently purchase beer and wine.

While there is likely to be a lively debate over the pros and cons of making it easier, and possibly cheaper, for adults to purchase the alcohol of their choice, this debate should be about more than how one type of consumer product is sold.

It should also be about the role of government in a free society. In that context, we should remember that government in America was instituted to protect our lives, liberty, and property. Oregon state government was not meant to provide our jobs through picking winners and losers in the marketplace, our entertainment through the Oregon Lottery, or our alcohol through the OLCC.

Next November we can hopefully do something about that last item—getting state government out of the liquor business.


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