Monday, April 15, 2013

How Thatcher changed this Soviet man's heart and mind

By Oleg Atbashian

It wasn't just Margaret Thatcher's steadfast economic and foreign policies that helped to defeat the Evil Empire and to bring down the Iron Curtain. She also changed hearts and minds — and this author, who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, has a personal story to tell.

As many Soviet kids did in the 1970s and 1980s, I occasionally tuned my shortwave radio to Voice of America or the BBC Russian Service, hoping to hear their alternative take on world events and, if I was lucky, get the latest rock-music updates. One of the functions of the Iron Curtain was to keep us, the "builders of communism," blissfully unaware of the outside world. All our news had to be processed by the state-run media filter and approved by the formidable censorship apparatus.

In contrast, foreign Russian-language radio broadcasts, courtesy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, gave us unfiltered news and commentary. These programs were to the Soviets then what Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are for many Americans today — a gasp of fresh air for some, enemy propaganda for others, and an object of demonization for the official state-run media.

Produced mostly by ex-Soviet exiles, these broadcasts never failed to satisfy my curiosity. The problem was that our government was mercilessly jamming their signal. I learned that this radio jamming was more costly than the actual broadcasting, but no expense was spared to maintain our ideological purity, paid for by our own tax rubles. Oh well, at least we knew the Motherland cared.

At times the broadcast quality was almost undecipherable: imagine trying to watch a movie while your neighbor mows his lawn. The noise occasionally trails off to the other end of the property, but mostly it hovers below your window, and you know that the lines you missed had to be the best.

A few times my friends and I tried to tape these programs simultaneously in our homes, so that later we could combine salvageable parts from two or more reels. That resulted in a much clearer compilation. We mostly did this for rock and roll programs, but political commentary would get into the mix as well — and it was just as fresh and exciting.

If we had ever been caught, we could have been easily expelled from our state-run schools (paid for by our tax rubles) and become marked for life as "politically unreliable." But we were too young and too reckless to think about it.

Whenever tuning to Voice of America or the BBC Russian Service produced nothing but the made-in-the-USSR rattling chatter, I would switch to English broadcasts. These were coming through clearly, mostly because the government couldn't jam every single frequency. They also helped me with my English studies.

Apart from music tapes, radio was my only source of authentic spoken English. The Iron Curtain made sure that even if a real English-speaking person were to visit my Ukrainian city, he or she would be supervised at all times by authorized personnel. Similarly, foreign travel for the "builders of communism" was out of the question: even if we could make it past the border alive, we would have no means to move around, since almost all of our earned income went to the government so it could provide us with our basic needs — such as, ensuring our ideological purity by jamming radio broadcasts for our own good.

   This vintage Soviet "Radiola" looks exactly like the one described in my story. It was once owned by my parents and had the most beautiful, organic sound. The wooden frame may well have been made at some old-fashioned piano factory. It made every jazz band sound like Glenn Miller. This is how I also heard Thatcher's voice for the first time, while trying to listen to the so-called "enemy voices."

One night — it had to be late 1982, when Margaret Thatcher was running for her first re-election — my shortwave radio caught a BBC broadcast of the Iron Lady's campaign speech.

To be sure, all my prior knowledge about Margaret Thatcher was limited to her unflattering portrayal in the official Soviet media. She busted the unions, privatized the economy, and was a sworn enemy of the USSR and socialism in general. In fact, the very moniker — the Iron Lady — was given to her by the Soviet Army newspaper Red Star in 1976, before she even became prime minister. Later I also learned that she readily took it on as her own, telling parliamentary constituents a week later that she was proud to wear a "Red Star" evening gown and to serve as "the Iron Lady of the Western world."

Listening to Thatcher speak confirmed everything the Soviet media was reporting about her, and more. In a deep, powerful voice, she accused her socialist opponents of destroying the British economy through nationalization and presented the proof of how privatizing it again was bringing the economy back to life. The free markets worked as expected, making Britain strong again. The diseased socialist welfare state had to go, to be replaced by a healthy competitive society.

To the average consumer of the Soviet state-run media, that didn't make any sense. When exactly had Britain become a socialist welfare state? That part never passed the Soviet media filter. Our media had made it explicitly clear that all Western nations, especially Britain and the United States, were officially governed by the ideology of anti-communism and unfettered capitalism. Their ruling classes had established the ultimate police states in order to protect the sanctity of private property — a criminal misconception which allowed the few rich, cigar-smoking, top-hat-wearing fat cats to brutally exploit the powerless masses.

So if everything had always been in private hands, what exactly did Thatcher privatize? And where did the free, cradle-to-grave government services come from?

Gradually, the news sank in: if Britain was indeed a socialist state, then everything we were told about the outside world was a lie. And not just any lie — it was an inconceivably monstrous, colossal lie, which our Communist Party and the media thoroughly maintained, apparently, to prevent us from asking these logical questions: if the Brits also had free, cradle-to-grave entitlements like we did, then why were we still fighting the Cold War? And what was the purpose of the Iron Curtain? Was it to stop us from collectively surrendering to the Brits, so that their socialist government could establish the same welfare state on our territory — only with more freedom and prosperity minus the Communist Party?

The next logical question would be this: if Great Britain wasn't yet as socialist as the Soviet Union, then didn't it mean that whatever freedom, prosperity, and working economy it had left were directly related to having less socialism? And if less socialism meant a freer, more productive, and more prosperous nation, then wouldn't it be beneficial to have as little socialism as possible? Or perhaps — here's a scary thought — to just get rid of socialism altogether?

And wasn't it exactly what Margaret Thatcher was doing as a prime minister?

What started with me listening out of curiosity ended up with a sudden realization that she was right on all points. I instantly became Thatcher's fan. The experience was inspiring. I remember how on the following day in school I described that speech to my friends, argued the prime minister's points, and even attempted a voice impression, emphasizing the confident manner in which the Iron Lady spoke. Never before had I heard a speaker so full of conviction.

I then began to suspect that all the unorthodox things the Soviet reporters attributed to Ronald Reagan — his radical positions on the economy and fighting the Cold War — might be true as well. The same reporters earlier described Jimmy Carter as an evil imperialist warmonger, so I initially doubted their coverage of Reagan. What government official would ever advocate for a smaller government? It seemed too fantastic to be true. But this time the media got it right — which, by my newly discovered standards, made Reagan a good man and a wise leader. It's those whom the Soviet media praised that were the real trouble.

After I moved to the United States years later, I also discovered Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. But Thatcher was one of the earliest prominent guideposts in my intellectual journey, for which I am forever grateful.

Unlike the current U.S. president, Thatcher didn't have a well-oiled propagandistic social media organization in the style of OFA. Nor did the "progressive" world media advance and reverberate her message; that free service is reserved for the political left only. For Thatcher, it was quite the opposite.

And yet she exerted great influence over people. She did it merely by being who she was: informed, unwavering in the face of adversity, brave in defending the truth, and confident in her belief that the free markets are a force for good, while socialism is a force for evil. A few Western leaders may have agreed with her in private, but they didn't have the courage to say it openly in the twisted moral climate brought on their countries by the false promise of socialism.

What Thatcher showed to these men is that when one has no fear of speaking the truth and possesses enough moral conviction to push back, miracles happen. Britain's resurrection as an economic powerhouse was one of them.

Her message came through despite all the hostile efforts to jam it around the world, shattering not just the Western establishment's media filters, but the Iron Curtain itself.

It still resonates; if only today's leaders could listen.



The Great Grab Has Begun

An American Cyprus on the way

President Obama recently released his 2014 budget and, of course, everyone focused on the aspect of spending.  In fact, it was almost like the magician who diverts your attention to their right hand while the trick is being set-up with their left hand.

Much to the credit of the mainstream media, they found the little item — capping IRAs — on page-18 of the budget, which is a very good source of revenue with an estimated $9 billion over the next decade.

Yet, unfortunately, the media has once again missed the important point.  It’s not just IRAs, but also 401Ks, Roth IRAs, and perhaps even deferred compensation, municipal bonds, insurance policies, and annuities that will all be affected as evidenced by this excerpt from Obama’s budget: “Limit an individual’s total balance across tax-preferred accounts.”  This statement is so broad that it fully opens the door for governmental interpretation.

The mass media also focused on the fact that the cap was $3 million.  Yet, once again, this is not exactly the case.  The actual budget declares to “limit an individual’s total an amount sufficient to finance an annuity of not more than $205,000 per year.”  Given the current artificially low interest rates, the number needed in order to achieve such a cash flow is $3 million.

However, if interest rates rise, as most of the world assumes will happen eventually, then the $3 million instantly becomes a lot less.  And if hyperinflation hits, that $3 million could hypothetically be reduced to a mere pittance.  (It’s all relative.)

The final unanswered question (and even unasked question) is as follows: If it is determined (sounds like a new official government department is needed — Obama job creation) that your lifetime savings of IRAs, 401Ks, Roth IRAs, municipal bonds, and even annuities, are all collectively over the government’s maximum amount, what happens?  Are you required to liquidate and pay taxes?  Or, does the government simply say, “Sorry, yours is mine, we need it, have a nice day.”

Didn’t the government say the exact same thing on April 5, 1933, the day FDR seized Americans’ gold?  At that time, at least the gold holder received something in return, approximately $20 per ounce.

Yet, only a few weeks later, those same previous gold owners watched as gold was revalued at $35 per ounce — an approximate 50% haircut.  Of course, the mass media accepts all of this, from 1933 to the present-day, as simply the government’s comprehensive understanding of the exact needs of the individual citizen.  It starts with taxes and ends with seizure.  But, of course, according to the mainstream media, it can’t happen here because we’re not that island country known as Cyprus — not yet, anyway.



The Obama budget

Charles Krauthammer

The cards laid down by the White House are quite unimpressive. The 2014 budget is tax-and-spend as usual. The actual deficit reduction over a decade is a minuscule $0.6 trillion — out of a total spending of $46.5 trillion. And every penny of this tiny reduction comes from tax hikes. Nothing from spending cuts, which all end up getting spent elsewhere.

Moreover, where’s the compromise? The Obama budget calls for not only more spending than the GOP’s, but more than the Democratic Senate’s as well. For just fiscal 2014, it even contains $160 billion more spending, and $128 billion more deficit, than if the budget — that Obama purports to be cutting — were left untouched!

True, President Obama has finally put on the table, in writing, an entitlement reform. This is good. But the spin, mindlessly echoed in the mainstream media, that this is some cosmic breakthrough is comical.

First, the proposal — “chained CPI,” a change in the way inflation is measured — is very small. It reduces Social Security by a quarter of a penny on the dollar — a $2,000 check reduced by a five-dollar bill.

Second, the change is merely technical. The White House itself admits that the result is simply a more accurate measure of inflation. It’s not really cutting anything. It merely eliminates an unintended overpayment.

Finally, the president made it clear that he doesn’t like this reform at all. It’s merely a gift to Republicans. This is odd. Why should a technical correction be a political favor to anyone? Is getting things right not a favor to the nation?

What the budget is crying out for is some entitlement reform that goes beyond the bare-minimum CPI revision that just about every deficit commission of the last 15 years has recommended as an obvious gimme. The other obvious reform is to raise the retirement/eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare to match longevity. These programs were meant to protect the elderly from destitution, not to subsidize almost one-third the adult life of every baby boomer.

Given the president’s distaste for even chained CPI, it’s hard to see him ever agreeing to a major reform on the retirement age. Nonetheless, the proposition deserves testing — through a major GOP concession on revenue.

By way of tax reform. The landmark 1986 Reagan-Tip O’Neill tax reform was revenue neutral. It closed tax loopholes and devoted the money to reduce tax rates. As I suggested last month, the GOP should offer Obama a major concession: a 50 percent solution in which only half the loophole money goes to reduce tax rates. The rest goes to the Treasury, to be spent or saved as Congress decides.



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