The Ghost of the Mother of Trusts

Butler Library (Columbia University)
The architecture of Columbia University towers over its students and faculty but not their individual initiative. Public domain.

The 94th Academy Awards ceremony on March 27 saw misunderstanding erupt into an acrimonious conflict: The battle of the ghosts of Reitman, Reagan, Ramis, and Roosevelt.

Bill Murray paid tribute to the memory of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, while the Academy also marked the 15th anniversary of Jason Reitman’s Juno. The junior Reitman recently directed a Ghostbusters sequel in which generations joined forces to commemorate Murray’s departed fellow Ghostbuster Harold Ramis.

Meanwhile, four Oscar nominations yielded zero wins for Don’t Look Up, in which the world is endangered rather than saved by private enterprise out-muscling the state during a crisis.  The parallels between its villains and the Ghostbusters is no coincidence, since co-writer David Sirota’s book Back to Our Future is admittedly inspired by what the Bernie Sanders speechwriter considers a nefarious undermining of trust in government by such 1980s heroes.

Sirota views American popular culture as so dominated by Reagan-era renegades that citizens are blinded to the beneficence of public service.  Yet partisans on both sides of the aisle were happy to seize on the iconography of “busting” ever since Ghostbusters ruled the 1984 box office.  That year’s presidential election featured dueling “Fritzbusters” and “Reaganbusters” takeoffs on the iconic anti-ghost logo. Each advocated the other candidate as a substitute rather than a downsizing of the presidential power available to either.

Ghostbusters imagery has even been retrofitted to previous administrations, with the 1990s educational TV show Histeria! providing trustbuster Theodore Roosevelt with an off-brand proton pack to blast corporate piggery.  The overpowering of Main Street by Wall Street is treated as a natural result of market consolidation, as if Reagan’s chimpanzee costar Bonzo matured into King Kong.

Gabriel Kolko observed that the Progressive Era was in fact marked by “intense and growing competition” outpacing the “economic expansion and … greater internal concentration of capital” of the largest companies, whose owners welcomed regulation burdening smaller upstarts more than themselves. Free traders of the time called protectionist policy that sheltered domestic firms from foreign competitors “the mother of trusts.”

Kolko led a generation of historians to rediscover how supposed archenemies big business and big government actively encouraged the development of each other, as if Beowulf monsters Grendel and Grendel’s mother reproduced in a continuous chicken-and-egg cycle.  Severing the apron strings that connect the two would cut both Walter Peck-style bureaucracy and Gordon Gekko-style plutocracy down to size.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a senior news analyst at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.


  1. “The ghost of the mother of trusts” by Joel Schlosberg, Miles CIty, Montana Star, March 31, 2022
  2. “The Ghost of the Mother of Trusts” by Joel Schlosberg, CounterPunch, April 1, 2022
  3. “The ghost of the mother of trusts” by Joel Schlosberg, The Daily Star [Hammond, Louisiana], April 2, 2022
  4. “The Ghost Of The Mother Of Trusts” by Joel Schlosberg, Ventura County, California Citizens Journal, April 2, 2022

Family Matters Frustrate Attempts to Enforce Political Ethics

Virginia Thomas looks on as her husband, Clarence Thomas, takes the oath of office to become an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. Public domain.
Virginia Thomas looks on as her husband, Clarence Thomas, takes the oath of office to become an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. Public domain.

Supreme Court associate justice Clarence Thomas “faces growing ethics questions,” The Hill‘s John Kruzel reports, “after recent reports of his wife’s aggressive effort to overturn former President Trump’s electoral defeat and participation in the Jan. 6 ‘Stop the Steal’ rally have renewed scrutiny of the justice’s refusal to step aside from related disputes that have come before the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, under pressure from a public beginning to notice the striking correlation between membership in Congress and a sharp eye for the best investments, Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced bills to ban members and their families from buying and selling stocks while in office.

The  overlap of these two sets of ethics problems — a judge’s possible prejudice in favor of his spouse’s views and affiliations versus an elected official’s potential ability to trade (or have a spouse or child trade) stocks based on inside legislative scoop — is the family angle. That creates a third ethics problem running in the other direction.

Virginia Thomas isn’t her husband. She’s neither a Supreme Court justice nor an employee of the federal government. She’s thus presumptively entitled to engage in whatever kind of political speech and advocacy, and affiliate with whatever political organizations, she pleases.

The spouses and children of congresspeople are, likewise, not themselves congresspeople. If they want to invest their money in stocks, bonds, cryptocurrency or losing bets on the Kansas City Chiefs to beat the Cincinnati Bengals (yes, I’m still sore about that), it’s their money and nobody’s business but theirs.

It’s one thing to impose restrictions and guidelines on people who have sought and accepted particular jobs. They agree to those restrictions and guidelines as part of the deal.

It’s another thing entirely to assume such authority over people who haven’t even sought, let alone been offered or accepted, such employment and who, especially in the case of children, may not have even been consulted on the matter of the other person’s political or employment ambitions.

The former makes sense. The latter is just … well, unethical. And while not doing it just because it’s unethical doesn’t solve those other two problems, neither would doing it.

Suppose that the spouses of Supreme Court justices were forbidden to endorse candidates, donate to or work for campaigns, hire on at political organizations, etc. Does anyone believe that such restrictions would stop Virginia Thomas from expressing her opinions to her husband over dinner, or that those opinions would have any less (or more) an effect on his rulings?

Suppose that the spouses and children of congresspeople were forbidden to invest in particular companies. How would that stop those congresspeople from trading their insider information for, say, future “revolving door” employment opportunities, or just having old law school buddies, sisters-in-law, etc. do the investing for them?

For obvious reasons, Virginia Thomas shouldn’t be allowed to argue before the Supreme Court while her spouse sits on it, and Justice Thomas should recuse himself from any cases that represent a plausible conflict of interest due to her affiliations.

Likewise, members of Congress who get caught using their privileged access to information for insider trading, even through proxies, should be punished.

But trying to run these family members’ lives isn’t an ethical, or effective, solution to the problems involved.

What, short of eliminating all these government positions (which I favor), might constitute such a solution? How about a constitutional amendment reserving such positions to unmarried, childless individuals?

That seems like a hard proposal to sell our politicians on. And, as the history of the Holy Roman Catholic Church demonstrates, it comes with its own set of equally intractable problems.

The imperfect, but probably better, solution: Rigorous investigation and harsh enforcement of conflict of interest and insider trading violations where government officials themselves are involved.

Which we’ll probably get about the time flying pigs taxi for their takeoffs from the frozen surface of hell.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Global Food Shortages: How Does Your Garden (or Pantry) Grow?

Community garden along Mission Blvd in Cherryland, California. Photo by Naddruf. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Community garden along Mission Blvd in Cherryland, California. Photo by Naddruf. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

“President Joe Biden and other leaders of the world’s major industrialized democracies pledged action on Thursday  [March 24] to address food shortages caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine,” Politico reports.

Biden says food shortages “are going to be real,” although he seems to see them as an opportunity to increase US grain production and food exports rather than a real threat to Americans’ own well-being.

After a year of continuing his predecessor’s “trade war” policies, Biden seems to be getting some free trade religion, which is nice, but he may be under-estimating the scope of the problem.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine — and the US/EU/NATO sanctions response — doesn’t just up-end the global supply of grain crops  (Russia and Ukraine are both top exporters of wheat) and other foods.

As Reuters reports, it also affects the global supply of the fertilizers that power farming elsewhere. Russia is the world’s top fertilizer exporter, followed by China, a top “trade war” target of the last few years.

What does this mean for Americans? Probably not starvation in the streets, but food prices are going to keep soaring, probably even more so than they have the last couple of years. More of our incomes will go to putting food on the table, and less to other things. We’re getting, in a word, poorer.

If you had the foresight to go full “prepper” years ago — a basement full of freeze-dried meals, a large garden and annual canning operation, etc. — good on you.  Unless things escalate we’re probably not looking at the apocalypse, but you’ve  been vindicated nonetheless.

As for the rest of us, at least a little “prepping” is definitely in order. It’s not too late to start stocking up on canned food BEFORE the next big price increase. And, if you have a yard or access to a community gardening space, to put some food in the ground for harvest later this year.

Personally, I’ve had gardening ambitions for years — I spent part of my childhood on a subsistence farm and enjoyed it — but until last week I limited myself to a little raised bed affair with some salad and stir fry items.

This week I invested in a tiller and an assortment of “heirloom” seeds, with the expectation of getting to work on a much larger garden next week. I’m fortunate to live on a full acre in northern Florida, where I can reasonably expect to get two growing seasons in this year.

If worse comes to worst, doubling up on the cans in your pantry and growing a little romaine for Caesar salads won’t save your life. But if not, they’ll save you some much-needed money in the harder days to come.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.