Upside-Down Libertarianism

Jason Brennan often argues (here, for example) that democracy is a bad idea, because voters are idiots with respect to social science, and that it should be replaced with something he calls "epistocracy." What he has in mind is some kind of test of basic knowledge - if you pass, you can vote.

Much like a UBI, I consider this kind of thing to be "upside-down libertarianism." Brennan takes an important implication of libertarianism at face-value, and then makes exactly the wrong prognosis.

The heart of the issue is that democracies leave important decisions in the hands of those least equipped to make them. Brennan is certainly right to highlight that shortcoming of democracy. Logically speaking, though, there are only two ways to address this problem:

  1. Make a change to who, within the political process, gets to make the important decision.
  2. Take the important decision out of the political process entirely.
In plain language, the government is probably too powerful if we are using it to make decisions that require the expertise of a small number of university professors. The government ought not be making those kinds of decisions, democratically or otherwise.

Notice that, under this argument, we work our way toward a truly libertarian objective: smaller government.

By contrast, reducing the number of people who are allowed to participate in the democratic process without making any reduction in the size or scope of government sets on the path toward greater levels of despotism than what already exists. And this is generally true of all states, not uniquely true of mine or yours.

My critics might argue that there is no political appetite for smaller government in the current environment, so isn't Brennan's "epistocracy" a good, next-best option? My answer is no, because there is even less of an appetite for voting restrictions than there is for smaller government. Both ideas seem like political long-shots, but as long as we're choosing from a list of long-shots, why not make the choice that results in a smaller, less-intrusive state?

But regardless of which policy stands the greater chance for implementation, we can see that certain new-fangled "libertarian" policies just seem like an upside-down or Bizarro version of libertarianism, in which we tackle the problem of increased despotism with ever-increasing levels of despotism. This is the philosophical version of a nanny state, where our epistemic superiors aim to save us from ourselves.


Introducing The BEG

What with all the libertarians out there attempting to write justifications for a Universal Basic Income, i.e. a welfare payment from the government given to every man, woman, and child simply for existing, a thought occurred to me. That thought was, If a Basic Income Guarantee is justifiable under libertarianism, then so ought be its opposite, a Basic Excise Guarantee.

What I mean by "Basic Excise Guarantee" (hereafter, BEG) is not the "certainty of death and taxes" we've all heard about before, but rather the literal opposite of a UBI. The UBI is a guaranteed payment from the government that you get simply because you exist. The BEG, then, is a tax justified by nothing more than the fact that you exist. You pay a tax not because you own certain kinds of property or engage in certain activities, not because our government needs funds to enforce the social contract, nor as a behavioral-economic "nudge" to prevent you from smoking. No, a BEG is a tax you pay because you exist, and by virtue of your own existence, you owe money to your state. No matter your place in life, your age, your ability, your means, or your demographics, a BEG would charge you a single tax level.

If you prefer, you can consider the BEG a negative UBI, in the same sense that the UBI is, as Samuel Hammond has recently argued, a negative income tax. However, income taxes are not levied universally, but rather they are only levied on those who earn income, whereas most formulations of the UBI are truly universal. The BEG, then must be universal in exactly the same way as the UBI.

Please note: My purpose here is not to advocate for a BEG, but rather to highlight the fact that a BEG is equally as justifiable as a UBI. In doing so, I aim to highlight the important shortcomings of arguments in favor of the UBI, for if they fail to justify a BEG, they must also fail to justify a UBI for exactly the same reasons.

I thought I'd start by going through the various cases that have been made for the UBI in the economics and libertarian blogging landscape over the years, and addressing the arguments directly. This has two primary benefits: First, I'll be able to learn a lot about the arguments for a UBI as they were being made during the time they seemed to have been most convincing, i.e. in context. Second, I'll be able to build on my arguments against the UBI in the same sequence that the arguments justifying them were made. 

Today I'm taking a look at Jessica Flanigan's 2012 blog post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on this topic, and searching for weak points.

A BEG Mitigates Coersion

At the time it was written, the authors at Bleeding Heart Libertarians were attempting to differentiate themselves from "hard libertarians," mostly Rothbardians of the Lew Rockwell variety, by framing arguments in terms of "social justice." But "social justice" is an ambiguous phrase, and there was a lot of controversy across blogs as to just what it meant, and whether such a concept was even compatible with libertarianism, "hard" or otherwise. Thus, Flanigan states early on in her piece:
When I say ‘social justice,’ I mean UBI. Below are several arguments for a basic income. I don’t endorse them all, but I’m including them all to show that there are many libertarian paths to this kind of ‘social justice’ conclusion.
For Flanigan, then, "social justice" (to paraphrase Adam Gurri)  just is a Universal Basic Income.

The problem with this point of view is that Flanigan assumes that which she needs to prove. There are a few different angles here, too, but the most difficult to swallow is that a UBI is sufficiently powerful to redress all other social justice issues.

Let's consider that claim by way of example: I happen to think that African-Americans have experienced a long history of social injustice as a result of early America's complicity in the slaving system, and the bigoted culture it produced even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Few people would disagree with me. Under Flanigan's conception of libertarianism, whatever the lasting social impacts of this matter might be - including some thorny legal issues as-yet unresolved - a libertarianism that includes a Universal Basic Income is sufficient to address this sort of social injustice.

Do we really believe that paying African-Americans a monthly welfare stipend - one which also went to every white person in the country, no matter how priviledged - would correct the kind of social injustice experienced by people of color in America? I certainly don't.

Now let's consider a BEG. Given that privileged, white, wealthy people have carved out an unfair systemic advantage in America, couldn't we re-frame social justice as libertarianism with a compulsory, universal tax? That is, perhaps we can close all those unfair tax loopholes by mandating a universal tax paid by every man, woman, and child. Granted, this would place a significant burden on poor people and people of color, few of whom benefit from egregious tax loopholes, but by levying the BEG on the wealthy, we could partially correct outcomes in terms of social justice.

That sounds like a decent justification for progressive taxation. I wonder what Flanigan might think of it? I can't know for sure, but here's what she wrote in her blog post (all emphases in the original):
So any state-run property system is impermissible, but moral reasons still weigh in favor of certain property systems over others. In particular, the balance of moral reasons tells against adopting a system of property rules that causes innocent people to starve (a totally ‘free market’ system) and also against a system that requires constant interference in everyone’s lives and leveling down (an egalitarian system). A UBI balances our claims that states not prevent us from 1) meeting our basic needs and 2) pursuing important projects, including economic projects, without excessive interference. 
This position is not absolutist- I just mean that to the extent that states coercively prevent either 1) or 2) the property system is morally worse. This view also doesn’t hinge on the idea of positive duties, about which I remain ambivalent. Rather it is just to say that people have claims against coercive interference, and that a UBI will mitigate the wrong of a coercive system of property better than a totally free-market or egalitarian system.
Flanigan uses the phrase "egalitarian system" to denote the sort of progressive taxation scheme I've just mentioned. Apparently she rejects such a system on grounds that it "requires constant interference... and leveling down" and that "people have claims against coercive interference."

Notice, however, that both a UBI and a BEG (read: "egalitarian system") involve coercive interference. Flanigan is simply choosing which one she prefers. In her defense, she admits that this isn't a "full argument," but all she's really done is sketched out a case for a minimally invasive social justice policy - not any policy in particular. Thus, she cannot reject a BEG/"egalitarian system" on the grounds she presents thus far; nor can she justify a UBI.

A BEG Is Market Friendly

Flanigan's next point is that the UBI is market friendly:
Second, the UBI is relatively market friendly. As Hayek (also a fan of the UBI) argued, states provide services in ways that distort markets and crush private competitors that would better reflect the diversity of our values.
So, too, is a BEG market friendly in exactly the same way. Gone are loopholes, tax credits, and write-offs in the tax code that serve to benefit some kinds of economic activity over others. Just as Hayek would have preferred to replace the entire welfare system with a UBI, so too, ought we replace the entire tax code with a BEG to avoid distorting market behavior.

Flanigan says the UBI minimizes "adverse incentives" and keeps government small. A BEG would likewise eliminate the need for a large Internal Revenue Service in charge of administering tax complexities and replace it with a simple, easily enforced question: Did you pay your BEG this year, or didn't you? It would also spare households the indignity of having to report the intimate details of their financial lives, risking embarrassment (at best) or identity theft (at worst) just to pay the government what they owe.

A BEG Justifies The Existence Of Government

Flanigan's third justification for the UBI - really, a set of justifications - is as follows:
Third, consider libertarian types like John Tomasi, Loren Lomasky, and Gerald Gaus, who argue that a UBI makes state power justifiable. Tomasi thinks that impartial institutional designers would first choose to protect important liberties (including economic liberties like contract and ownership) but then they would endorse redistributive policies to benefit society’s worst off within the limits of said liberties. Lomasky argues that a coercive system of property is only justifiable to everyone if it gives everyone enough to pursue their projects and have meaningful lives, and this may require a UBI. Gaus thinks any reasonable citizen must accept that some modest redistribution is permissible. I also suspect that this is what Jason was getting at earlier, but I’m not sure. In any case, I’m not convinced by all this Rawlsian public justification and moral powers talk, but if you are, these are reasons for the UBI.
A major upshot of the BEG is that it renders all of these arguments irrelevant. By assumption, a Basic Excise Guarantee is what you owe your government by virtue of your own existence. You come out of the womb with a debt to your masters, and without paying that debt, you cannot hope to expect proper enforcement of liberties or redistributive policies. Thus, you would have no reasonable expectation for a meaningful life.

Flanigan likely wouldn't be convinced by such an assumption, but if you are, it's a reason to implement a BEG.

In truth, though, Flanigan ought to be convinced by this argument. Why? Because in her very next paragraph, she writes this:
Even if you were entitled to your property holdings, you are not entitled to coercive public enforcement of those holdings. Just because we have negative rights doesn’t mean that those rights merit full public accommodation. Once libertarians start demanding that their property is protected and their rights are publicly enforced, we can think of taxes as the public fee for that enforcement.
Flanigan has made my case for the BEG on my behalf!

Look, you don't buy and drink a gallon of milk before you pay for it - you buy it first, and then drink it. Even in restaurants, where we typically do eat first and then pay, there is an a priori assumption made as soon as we place our order with the wait staff that we will pay our bill in full. So it goes with liberty: you can't have it unless you pay for it, which means you owe your fee the minute you begin enjoying your supposed liberty, i.e. at birth. There should be no reason to think that you will receive public enforcement of your liberties, including property rights, unless there is also reason to assume you will be paying your fee. That is, after all, what a social contract is all about.


Alternatively, some people think that paying taxes promotes an overall feeling of civic involvement. (See above.) Or, say you think that freedom requires the ability to leave a coercive workplace without terrible consequences. A BEG will ensure that no employer is so monetarily privileged that he can create coercive workplace arrangements with his employees, according to this thicker conception of voluntary. The BEG also doesn't take a stand on how people spend their money, and in this way, it avoids paternalism, unlike, say, a marriage tax credit. Additionally, a BEG would reduce some of the stigma associated with tax debt, and while the government isn't required to encourage people not to be social freeloaders, it would be nice. Finally, maybe positive duties to pay into society do exist, even in the absence of a system of taxation. If so, a BEG could help on that front.

These arguments for the BEG also explain why libertarianism at its best is aligned with the state. The world is really unjust in part because states coercively enforce laws that make people really badly off. On this we agree. Sufficiency is on the path to priority or equality, so for a while, libertarians and statists can walk the path from here to social justice together.


* Note: This entire section is a paraphrasing of Flanigan's exact language.


Loss Of Status As Anti-Immigrant Backlash

One of the reasons mercantilism was so difficult to defeat among the kings of the western world centuries ago was that it's really difficult to convince somebody that they are wealthy if they're not staring at a huge vault full of gold bars and coins.

You might, for example, own a mortgage. If you spend $1500 in rent every month, and then move into a home and take on a mortgage that costs $1500 per month, you won't feel any richer than you were before, but in fact you are. And the more you pay into your mortgage, the wealthier you'll be. A mortgage payment isn't really an expense in the same sense that your electricity bill is an expense, because as you pay into your mortgage, you retain a part of that payment in the form of equity, i.e. wealth.

In this way, your wealth grows even though your lifestyle hasn't noticeably changed. You won't consider yourself any wealthier than the next-door neighbor from your old apartment complex because you're both spending $1500 a month. Only after decades will you realize how much better off you became.

The Small-Mindedness Of Comparative Wealth

There's a comparison between that situation and the freedom of labor movement across national borders. Our lives improve every day as a result of worldwide economic development, but our incomes are rising much slower than they are in, say, Mumbai. We feel like we're losing something because our way of life seems more common, less exceptional. We look to politicians to do something about it, by managing trade and immigration restrictions, to keep our firms and our salaries "competitive," meaning higher than they are in other countries. It's an understandable desire.

But why do Indians have to suffer in poverty just to make us feel better about our lives? Why can't we simply be happy that we have all the iPhones and craft beer we can get our hands on, and Chinese people are getting more and more access to that lifestyle, too? Why must we define our prosperity in relative terms? In short, if everyone's lives are getting better, why is it particularly important that American lives are getting exceptionally so?

What is it about the poverty of foreign peoples that make us feel better about ourselves?

On Immigration

Tyler Cowen responds to Bryan Caplan on anti-immigrant "backlash" in the United Kingdom. (Caplan makes his main claim a little better in this older post, so start there.)

Caplan's claim is that social opposition to immigration is strongest in the areas where immigration happens least. He cites some specific examples, but I think the conclusion is fairly intuitive: A small community is going to react more harshly to a single unusual newcomer than they will to dozens of them. Consider American attitudes toward divorce: when it was rare, society treated divorcees harshly; as it grew more common, attitudes changed. The same has held true for Chinese restaurants, atheism, taco trucks, K-pop, and alternative sexual identities. The more unusual something is, the more push-back it will face. We see it all the time.

Cowen responds to this idea by saying that "changes often have different effects than levels." What he means is that a community that experiences a 10% increase in immigration will tend to experience more backlash than one that experiences a 1% increase, even if the latter results in more total immigrants (e.g., if it is a larger community). This is a thoughtful, albeit weak, point since, in the case of a small community, the first few immigrants to arrive would represent the largest percentage change in immigration. In other words, it's a story that is fully consistent with Caplan's.

Cowen makes two other points: (1) There is a selection bias in the type of person immigrating, i.e. Cowen believes that pleasant immigrants (intelligent, skilled, highly assimilated) end up in London, while unpleasant immigrants end up in Birmingham. (2) The current "backlash" is a symptom of post-1980s changes to UK immigration policy, so if those changes aren't fast enough to avoid what Caplan's talking about, then nothing will be.

Regarding that first point, it's worth noting that Cowen doesn't actually make this case, he simply asserts that it's true. Even if it is true, it requires more analysis. For example, the only immigrants to Iowa corn fields are people who intend to farm corn. That's a function of the corn field, not on the attributes of the immigrant. Moreover, immigration is low to corn fields, so this hardly weakens Caplan's claims at all.

Cowen's point about backlash is less obviously wrong, but I feel more strongly about it, and it's the one that inspired this post. The "backlash" thesis relies on the assumption that the distress over immigration is directly tied to the specific policies in question. That's a tough claim to prove, and it's likely true that the UK would have experienced a significant increase in immigration even had its policies remained unchanged. The Caplan thesis would predict that backlash against immigration would have been even stronger in that case, and I that may be true. Who knows? (Once again, Cowen doesn't really defeat the argument at all.)

Even if not, though, it's important to consider why, beyond the changing appearance of a neighborhood, people are voicing any backlash at all. Here is where mercantilism comes in.

Back To Mercantilism

What if all this isn't really backlash against immigrants, but rather against stagnant nominal wages dressed up as anti-immigrant backlash? What if the western world is experiencing a large and painful real wage deflation as it faces stiffer competition from non-western labor? The Chinese are already far better than the west at manufacturing. The tech world commonly outsources its coding work to low-priced programmers in India, Pakistan, and the Ukraine. Textiles haven't really been made in the west for a long time now, aside from luxury tailoring. And while agricultural output is still substantial in the United States (thanks largely to immigration, please note), the west could hardly be considered the breadbasket of the world's food supply. The one area of commerce in which the west seems to excel is the least economically meritable: bureaucracy (corporate and public).

In light of this trend, it's important for people to remember that their wages will continue to stagnate whether or not the immigrants come. Look at the tech world: we're being out-competed even over VPN! Should governments make immigration even more difficult than it already is, and the immigrants stop coming, then the backlash we see against immigration will convert itself into an anti-trade backlash as people come to believe that foreign products, rather than foreign people, are to blame for their woes.

Meanwhile, though, we are living better at similar income levels - all of us, western and non-western. We are better-educated than ever before. We have access to technology that has literally revolutionized our way of life for the better. We have better health care, more entertainment, greater access to things previously considered "luxury goods" (like Caribbean cruises, which can sometimes be had for hundreds of dollars, well within middle class reach), a cleaner environment (despite challenges), and pretty much more of everything.

But we don't feel it unless we're able to point to some other country and see, "There! Misery! I have it so much better than they do!" This is lunacy.

Nor is this mainly a macroeconomic problem. When Walmart arrives in town, people weep for the loss of their precious mom-and-pop shops despite the fact that Walmart brings prosperity with it. The fact that the owners of mom-and-pop shops often enjoy their lifestyles at the expense of the community, in the form of high prices, is lost on many people.

And, hey, it's understandable. If you've made a comfortable living for yourself by charging more for products and services than your competitors, simply because your community can't gain access to outside markets, you'll be highly resistant to those outside markets when they finally come knocking. Musicians rue the losses they've suffered at the hands of music broadcast systems. Data-crunchers gnash their teeth in the face of automated cloud-based services that render their Excel sheets obsolete.

The story is always the same: The steady march of economic progress raises wealth by lowering prices, and the price that gets lowered is often an income, often your income. It's pointless wringing our hands over it, but it's particularly ill-advised when our collective lot in life is getting better with every step. That's freedom, for you.

Freedom, however, is not something people are accustomed to anymore, and many of us would simply rather be better-off than Joe, rather than being better-off in relation to ourselves.


Constitutional Amendments?

The news is a-flutter with word that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton intends to introduce a Constitutional amendment aimed at over-turning the "Citizens United" Supreme Court decision.

My reaction is only this: As president, Hillary Clinton would prioritize that constitutional amendment over, say, an Equal Rights Amendment.

Nice to know what we're getting from our presidential hopefuls.


Fitness Tracking As Augmented Reality

For a long time now, I've struggled for the right words to explain why I like fitness trackers so much. It's not that I'm obsessed with the data, and I was already a fitness nut before I got any of this stuff. What is it about these apps that I find so engaging?

A few days back, I downloaded Pokemon Go and gave it a whirl for a few minutes. It was fun, but it also seemed to use a lot of data and battery power. I also didn't like how I had to keep my eyes glued to the screen, rather than walking around with my head held high, enjoying the scenery. After a quick walk around the neighborhood, I uninstalled the game.

But don't get me wrong: I saw the appeal. What could be more fun than going on a little treasure hunt, no matter where you are in the world? What's more literally engrossing than having your own surroundings become the location of a video game? It was cool.

Over the course of the next several days, I observed the tsunami of Pokemon Go virulence via social media. That was not as much fun, but whatever. People are talking about what is currently the most popular game out there. People talked about Angry Birds, Farmville, Cards Against Humanity, and etc., too. People talk about football basically non-stop. People like to talk about games, and more power to them.

But what I came to realize as I read the various social media posts and articles about this particular augmented reality game is that I already have an augmented reality game of my own, which I have been playing for years now. I'm talking about the "game" I play when I use my running watch / fitness tracker - currently the Microsoft Band 2.

Like a "true" augmented reality game, I go out into the world, and my game follows me there. I interact with the digital augmentation of reality via my wearable tech and collect points along the way. I can compete with my friends for these points, track my progress over time, improve my score, and so on. The only difference between my game and everyone else's is that mine is merely augmented information, as opposed to the augmented imagery of a true AR game. Augmented metaphysics, if you will.

The criticism you could offer here is that tracking your health data isn't actually a game. Fair enough, but it's as much of a game to me as anything else is. I don't spend a whole lot of time playing video games on my phone, but on the other hand, I'm always anxious to interact with my fitness trackers and data. 


Sleep, Insulin, And Wearable Tech

I woke up with extremely high blood sugar yesterday morning, which I fought to reduce all day long, to only partial satisfaction. And yet, there didn't seem to be any obvious reason why this would have been so. I had a very healthy, low-carbohydrate dinner the night before, took the appropriate dose of insulin, took my Levemir, had a really nice, low-stress evening full of great conversation with my spouse, and headed to bed at a reasonable hour. I slept through the night and had a nice dream.

What happened? Well, this happened:

Output from my Microsoft Health sleep dashboard

On this graph, orange represents time spent awake after clicking the "sleep" button on my Microsoft Band 2. Light blue represents light sleep, while dark blue represents deep sleep. As you can see, on Thursday I got plenty of sleep, but absolutely no deep, restful sleep whatsoever.

As we diabetics know, a lack of sleep causes the body to produce cortisol, which both raises blood sugar and increases insulin resistance. It's a double-whammy of increased blood glucose levels and a reduced ability to bring them down. My blood sugar was high all day yesterday, and now I know why.

To better manage my blood sugar, I should look into how to get the most out of the sleep I get, but that's a huge problem. A more immediate solution would be to simply check the sleep output from Microsoft Health and adjust my basal insulin intake accordingly: Less sleep should mean more insulin to get me through the day.

News pieces are still coming out about some of the design flaws in the Microsoft Band 2, and almost all of them are serious problems with the physical durability of the product. This is a real shame, because, as I have written elsewhere, the actual functionality of the Band 2 is basically the best of the best. By pure functionality, the Band 2 wins on virtually every metric you can throw at it. This thing can do almost everything you'd ever want a wearable fitness watch to do. The fact that such a powerful device breaks so easily is very disappointing. I guess there are reasons to look forward to the next generation of fitness trackers, after all.


Album Review: Redemption - The Art Of Loss

Album cover art for Redemption's "The Art of Loss"

Over the years, Redemption has consistently delivered strong, hard-hitting power-metal-inflected progressive metal. Their sound has developed into something consistent, and to most of us fans, great. Still, if there were one criticism to make of Redemption, it might be that they never stretch themselves beyond their platform; they know what their comfort zone is, and they tend to stay there.

Enter: The Art of Loss. This album finds the band exploring somewhat slower (read: mid-tempo) paces and more expressive rhythmic structures. This allows the songs to benefit from some significant breathing room. The upshots here: the listener gets better insight into the guitar/keyboard interplay, lead vocalist Ray Alder doesn't need to work quite so hard to cram all those lyrics in, the more atmospheric song sections groove a lot better, and more attention paid to bassist Sean Andrews.

The signature Redemption sound consists of tight rock song structures decorated with prog-metal embellishments. For listeners who don't spend much time listening to progressive music, this has the benefit of "sneaking prog into" otherwise straight-ahead hard rock music without jarring the listener. For prog-metal fans, by contrast, there is always a risk that we might underestimate the technicality of the music, although it's generally safe to say that the average prog-music fan is attentive enough to music that s/he will catch all the goodies.

There are a lot of goodies to catch on The Art of Loss. A standout here is the angry "Thirty Silver," which features a lot of pretty intense lead guitar work, yet despite all that, manages to captivate me with its bass and drum work. Musicians know this is a hard thing to get right - it's hard for every player in the band to be working that hard, all at the same time. One risks over-loading the listener with a flurry of notes if the song isn't well composed. Redemption nails it.

Even so, it's not all bombast here. This band has always had a penchant for approachable melodies, and this album features plenty of material to hum in the shower. And speaking of melody, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the album's biggest surprise: a cover of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me." Typically Who covers are staples of the punk-rock scene, not the prog world, but it's crazy - this just works. Chris Quirarte's drumming truly shines here, and again the magic ingredient is musical space. Particularly during the guitar solos, he manages to put in some Keith Moon-inspired, but almost Rod Morgenstein-sounding drum fills that are an absolute delight to hear.

The bread-and-butter for prog fans, though, is sure to be the album's closing epic, "At Day's End." For me, this song is representative of the spirit of The Art of Loss album as a whole. From its atmospheric beginnings, to its groovy and spacious verses, to its progressive musical interludes, this is one prog epic that delivers the goods, and might be the best one Redemption's written yet. Note the keyboard tones. Note the many times when bass takes the lead. The band really must have had fun writing and recording this one - and it certainly shows.

For me, this is an extremely refreshing album. I can always count on the guys from Redemption to deliver hard-hitting prog-metal and incredible, technical performances. But it's nice to hear them groove a little more. It's nice to hear their musical evolution move ever-so-slightly away from the GO! GO! GO! pacing of their previous work and into a relaxed and mature band with a fuller command of their art.


Tough Love And Another Failed Narrative

Taking a trip through the narratives of our past reveals the emotional complexity with which society was once equipped. I sometimes worry that we are more poorly equipped these days.

"Babylon and On" album cover
Image courtesy Groove Music

I've been revisiting an old, old album from my favorite 80s band, Squeeze, Babylon and On. This was a hit album at the time, but in hindsight it was not their biggest album. While many people recognize the band's biggest hits, such as "Pulling Mussels from a Shell," and "Tempted," the only people who would recognize the hits from Babylon and On at this point are dedicated Squeeze fans.

The third track on the album is called "Tough Love." Here's how it begins:
There she sits in an empty room
The look on her face says it all
A bruise appears round a crying eye
As the tear drops sadly fall
He knocked her over he hit her
And told her she's stupid
He's high as a kite once again*
So a woman sits alone, with a black eye, which she got from her husband or boyfriend, who was drunk and/or high at the time. Before you guess how the story ends, here's the final couplet of the first verse:
She knows that tough love is needed
To save the love of her friend
The rest of the song tells the story of how the protagonist uses tough love to help her man get clean. She throws him out of the house, he sobers up, they talk and argue about the whole issues, and eventually he stops "the drugs and the drinking" and "he's back in her arms once again."

Importantly, the song ends with the words, "She knows it's tough love that she finds in her heart to dissolve the pain." So this is not just a story of how he got clean and she forgave him.  It's also a story of compassion and forgiveness. She loves him, and she is strong when he is not. Her love and her compassion not only see her through the difficult process of helping an addict get clean, but also help her heal her own heart at the end of the process. It's not happily ever after when he gets clean; it's happily ever after when she takes the time to heal her own wounds after helping him through his demons.

Lucky guy.

What strikes me about this song is that it's the kind of good story that would never be told today. In today's world, getting high and beating your wife is verboten, as it should be, but it's also unforgivable. A fictitious character who does such a thing in the year 2016 is an unabashed villain. He's not worth saving. Of course she's stronger than he is, so she would leave him. If he managed to clean himself up after that, it's none of her business. At best, they would come to a friendly understanding of each other and move on with their separate lives. But under no circumstances would he ever find himself "back in her arms once again."

This narrative is coupled with the another significant one, which is the belief that addiction is simply a disease, that addicts have no control over their actions. Once you catch this terrible, hereditary disease, you are stuck and there's nothing you can do except never touch drugs or alcohol ever again. Period.

In today's world, addicts aren't allowed to heal and rehabilitate themselves. They're given the opportunity to simply acknowledge their disease, make amends, and then proceed as forever-broken people whose only "second chance" is finding a new circle of friends, a new family, and etc.

Longtime readers of this blog know how critical I am of drugs and of addiction. Still, the modern treatment of these very real situations leaves everyone who ever has to experience them with two choices: (1) Girl leaves boy and boy becomes a chronically diseased, broken person, or (2) Boy dies of his addiction disease. Neither of these options seems particularly therapeutic to me.

Way back when, society still had narratives that enabled recovery and healing along multiple possible trajectories. Maybe there is still hope - maybe if you get clean she can still find it in her heart to forgive you, and the two of you can move beyond your past mistakes. Maybe you can build a positive future for yourself.

But in today's emotionally stunted world, it's scorched earth. He hit her, therefore he is evil; he takes drugs, therefore he is diseased; the only viable solution is for them to break up - she'll live happily ever after she finds a good, non-diseased, perfect guy; and he'll live miserably but wisely ever after once he acknowledges his disease and wears it on his shirtsleeve until the end of time. Maybe if he's lucky, he'll find some equally broken woman, and they'll both brood together in their brokenness. But happiness is for perfect people who don't ever make mistakes - especially not bad mistakes.

The problem here is that people make terrible mistakes, and that emotionally mature human beings are capable of compassion and forgiveness. Not every person who ever makes a terrible mistake deserves our forgiveness, of course, but that doesn't mean that there is a list of mistakes out there which, if any one of them is committed, means that all love and compassion falls off the table and we cast the sinners out into the outer darkness of broken-people-land.

That's just not rational.


* On my copy of the album, in place of the lyric "He's high as a kite once again," vocalist Glenn Tilbrook sings, "He's out of his head once again." 


The Failure Of Modern Narrative

Here's a letter from the past, from four years ago to be exact, which means it was also an election year.

The challenge for me, two sentences into this blog post, is to choose the right excerpt from the above link. I need something that introduces the topic I want to write about, something that showcases the parallel between now and then beyond "it's an election year." But if I give the whole game away in the second paragraph, I'm going lose my audience, since I intend to challenge their beliefs. I don't want to lose you until I've challenged you.

Since this is a quasi-libertarian blog, I'll start with the passage that is most relevant to that group. Bold highlights are mine.
This is why blaming the dummy is pseudo-libertarianism. It seems that we don't want any restrictions on our freedom, we want to be free to do things even if they are harmful; but that freedom is always predicated on "some other omnipotent entity"'s supervision. We want our freedom to eat unhealthily as long as it is "USDA Grade A" meat from a "Board Of Health" restaurant, cooked not by Mexican illegals with no training in handwashing but by chefs-- sorry, not precise enough: "...cooked by Mexican illegals as long as they are called chefs." We want things to be as regulated as possible with two absolute conditions: 1. there must be symbols of the omnipotent entity's existence showing we are being cared for, like a Grade A seal or the absence of the 13th floor or the word "chefs"; 2. the implementation of the power must be invisible so we can disavow it. And at the very last step of a carefully managed outcome we can bask in the freedom of our pretend choice. In other words, the fact that we are allowed to choose something dangerous must mean that it isn't really that dangerous, which is more accurately but confusingly translated: the fact that we are allowed to choose something dangerous causes it to be safe. And thank God. "There is no God." Oh, that explains all the passive voice.
Think about that for a moment.

Not The Reality - The Connotations Of The Words

The post I've linked to and cited is about that old news story - remember the one? - about the guy who died of a heart attack after eating at The Heart Attack Grill. The Last Psychiatrist wanted to make the point that the name of the restaurant is not ironic, i.e. that if you eat there you really might have a heart attack, and that our nascent belief that the restaurant's branding was "ironic" was a defense mechanism deployed by us to justify our eating there.

Get it? If the restaurant's name is ironic, then that means the food isn't really unhealthy. It would only be unhealthy (says our subconscious) if the name were unironic. But it's not, right? Wrong: the name really is unironic, and the guy who had a heart attack proves it.

Aw, phooey, he says it so much better than I do (but again, bold emphases are mine):
"Hey dummy, what did you expect would happen if you ate at the Heart Attack Grill?" 
Why did you expect it? 
Take an alternative headline and meditate: "Man Has Heart Attack At Hooters." Hooters food is poison but there the implication is that the waitresses' boobs were to blame. But the Heart Attack Grill has equally sexy waitresses and no one blames their boobs. 
So the expectation is exclusively the result of the names "Hooters" or "Heart Attack" and the connotations they carry. Not the reality-- the connotations of the words. But connotation is the purpose of branding. So "hey dummy, how could you go to the Heart Attack Grill and not know you'd have a heart attack?" reveals our secret hope about branding: that it is true, that it has power to affect reality.
Here's a quick re-cap of what I've written so far, before I move on:
  1. It's an election year.
  2. I'm going to challenge your beliefs.
  3. We only seem to want freedom if that freedom is predicated on the supervision of an omnipotent entity.
  4. Expectation "is exclusively the result of the names... and the connotations they carry. Not the reality - the connotations of the words."
  5. Connotation is the purpose of branding.

That's My Brand!

Not long ago, a professional photographer friend of mine shared some photos he'd taken at a recent Trump rally. More accurately, he took the photos outside the rally, where there were apparently two groups of protesters, representing the "pro-Trump" and "anti-Trump" "sides." The two groups had clashed outside the rally, and some of them had come to blows. One Trump supporter had reportedly called an African-American anti-Trump protester a "slave," and there were white supremacists in the crowd that day, making Nazi salutes and otherwise carrying on.

I thought back to those photographs this morning, when I happened to spot an African-American woman in a car, sporting a "Hot chicks vote Trump" bumper sticker.

Your reaction to the existence of that woman tells me something about your preferred set of branding.

I don't watch the news; I own a TV, but it only functions as a Netflix machine. So I don't have any exposure to the daily campaign rhetoric, i.e. the connotations of the words, the branding. I only know that it's Trump versus Hillary, and that their stances on the issues appear to be quite similar. Absent any other context, had I seen an African-American woman showing support for a political candidate whose positions were roughly similar to those of Hillary Clinton, I wouldn't have batted an eye.

But to those who see the President Donald Trump Brand as being little more than crass, racist populism, the idea that a black woman in the South would support such a man defies their sense of reason. That's because branding is more important to the anyone-but-Trump crowd than it is to people like me. And when I say "branding," I mean "the connotations of the words. Not the reality."
I think the key to understanding the success of someone like Donald Trump is to set aside the connotations of words for a minute and marvel at the salesmanship: Donald Trump has managed to sell large groups of crass, populist xenomists who only ever vote Republican on a set of policies that reflect the Democratic party platform. Hillary only wishes she had that much cross-over appeal!

Think about it.

I Did It In Self-Defense

Recently, I was trying to explain that our social narratives have failed to explain the bad behavior we witness in the world. Part of the reason is because our narratives - especially our political narratives - are, essentially defense mechanisms. They are designed to prevent the mental work of change.

While I'm on that, here's another excerpt from that four-year-old Heart Attack Grill blog post:
The purpose of defense mechanisms is to stop you from changing. So that after the trauma or the break-up or the loss you are still you. More sad/ashamed/impotent/enraged/depressed is fine as long as you're the same guy.

This is what makes treating narcissism particularly difficult: the pathology's Number 1 characteristic is identity preservation. "I want to change." Nope. You want to be happier, sure, more successful, feel love, drink less, but you want to remain you. But that won't work. The identity you've chosen blows, ask anyone. Change is only possible when you say, "I want to stop making everyone cry." The first step isn't admitting you have a problem but identifying precisely how you are a problem for other people. But I'll save you the trouble, you'll fail at this, too, because of the Number 2 characteristic of narcissism: inability to see things from the other's perspective. "This isn't really therapeutic, jerk. You call yourself a psychiatrist?" Mother's Day is Sunday, get her anything? I know, I know, she's a jerk, too.

You're Doing It In Self-Defense, Too

The reason I came back to this old blog post from The Last Psychiatrist four years later is because something doesn't jive with the active political narratives circulating in the press right now. A majority of voters in the United Kingdom elected to leave the European Union, against the advice of all the good, right-thinking people. This, apparently, is a clear parallel to the Donald Trump presidential campaign, they say, and the evidence they have presented thus far is this:

Get it? The political implications have to be the same because the two guys look the same. Except, that's not an argument, is branding. The reality is unimportant, only the connotation matters.

However, if this is in fact a rainbow ruse - a political narrative qua defense mechanism - then we have to be told both things at the same time. We have to be told that Brexit is crass, racist populism, but that it has a point. So, the explanation that has burst forth like a tidal wave is:
This narrative ought to strike you as being really odd because it means that the ones who insist they are saving you from despotism are the ones most passionately arguing for the strengthening of central authorities. Weird, right? "We have to assume control so that nobody assumes control." How dumb do I have to be to swallow that Orwellian howler? It turns out, not so dumb after all, because a lot of very intelligent people are regurgitating this narrative over and over.

It's equally as self-contradictory when you try to parse it. On the one hand, free trade is the rising tide that lifts all ships; on the other hand, "Leave" voters have been the losers of the globalization process. On the one hand, localized democracy threatens our freedom; on the other hand, the central E.U. authority is the archon of the post-Communist age. On the one hand, these neo-reactionary lunatics popping up around the world are ignorant economic losers; on the other hand, Trump voters are richer and better-educated than average.

Here's The Last Psychiatrist at ibid:
All psychological defenses have a common structure: that two legitimate but contradictory beliefs are held simultaneously, one consciously, one unconsciously, alternating variously. That way all possibilities are covered. Change is neutralized.

Not The Reality - The Connotations (Reprise)

So, if you listen to all the right-thinking people, the libertarians, the free-traders, the educated, and so on, society is facing a choice between free-market liberalism on the one hand - represented by the European Union and the Democratic Party - and ignorant Dark Ages anti-trade racism on the other hand - represented mostly by Donald Trump. And, as I've just shown, this is mostly branding - if the reality mattered as much as or more than the connotation, then it would be impossible to frame our choices that way. Our dominant political narrative would evaporate. But the branding is important, or as fellow Sweet Talker Randall put it, "rhetoric matters."
Well, perhaps it does. Maybe I'm wrong about all this. Maybe what's happened is that I've placed too much credence in an anonymous internet psychology blogger who seems to have retired. Maybe eight years of Barack Obama really haven't resulted in the same kind of drone strikes and mass-deportations and surveillance statism that defined the George W. Bush years... it's possible...
But if I'm not wrong, then the question we'd want to ask at this point is, "If this political narrative is insulating us against the hard mental work of change, then what change are we talking about here?" To answer that question, we'd all have to speculate. I'd welcome readers' thoughts on that, because I'm not sure I have a good answer, myself. 
I tend toward contrarianism, so when I read a full onslaught of opinion pieces in every major news publication worldwide, all giving more or less the same opinion, I start to wonder why that's the only message I seem to be getting. (Out of curiosity just now, I checked the headlines in the Opinion section of the Fox News website. I guess there's the other side of the story, but now I have another problem...) When I see firsthand reports of Trumpist racism, and then become a firsthand witness of Trumpist diversity, then I start to think that the dominant narratives aren't really doing their explanatory work. I thirst for a better explanation than what I'm getting, and I'm disappointed that I don't have one.
I do know, however, that Frank Zappa was right when he said "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible." Jeffrey Tucker reminds me that "No bridges have been blown up. Britons can still buy plane tickets. People from abroad can still visit and work."
The world hasn't come to an end, and while our freedom is not guaranteed, I'm not so sure that our political narratives have put a change for the better within our grasp. Maybe it's time for us all to think a little harder about this.


A Musical Easter Egg

I did some Googling this afternoon to see whether I could find anyone else on the internet who has mentioned this thing that I am about to mention. I couldn't find a single person who had.

Now, obviously I'm not going to say that I'm the only person to have ever noticed this, but what I will say is that in a world where virtually every piece of information everywhere has been documented somewhere on the internet, it's very difficult to come across something that isn't on the first page of a Google or Bing search query.

Lucky me! I've found something. And now I get to share it with you.

"Jacob's Ladder" is a song written by John and Bruce Hornsby - you know, the famous Bruce Hornsby - and made famous by Huey Lewis and the News. It was, in fact, Huey Lewis' third number-one single and appeared on their fourth long player, Fore! 

The guitar solo starts at about the two-minute mark, and it begins with a melodic passage that may sound somewhat familiar to some music fans:

If you can spot the melody, give yourself a pat on the back. That particular melody is a quotation from a wonderful song by the band Traffic, called "Every Mother's Son." Here's the original, for context:

Huey Lewis and Bruce Hornsby are both famous for being pop music icons. Lewis has never pretended to be anything other than a working-class blues singer who got lucky. Hornsby made a name for himself by writing popular songs for many artists, including himself.

Traffic, on the other hand, is mostly famous among musicians and fans of progressive rock. They are critically acclaimed, but are not usually listed among the list of pop radio stars. They're cult favorites, excellent musicians, and highly progressive.

So pop rock and art rock don't often meet. If you've followed Bruce Hornsby's later years, you know he's gone deeper into more artistic forms of musical expression, and that's good for him as an artist, and for us as the audience. But it's nice to know that even way back in his pop writing days he was still giving a wink to the Steve Winwood fans out there.


Some Links

  • Pushy parents make their children prone to depression.
  • This is interesting: A simple sugar called mannose is not susceptible to dietary intake; i.e., even if you eat a big piece of cake, your blood mannose levels shouldn't rise, even though your overall blood sugar certainly will. Anyway, a new study indicates that higher than normal blood mannose levels indicate type 2 diabetes risk. So they are getting more accurate at testing blood sugar now.
  • I'm not a betting man, but this article suggests to me that Conor McGregor may lose his rematch with Nate Dias. Why do I say so? Because he's still blaming peripheral things like "diet" for his loss, when it's obvious that he let his guard down and got caught by a surprise hit. His ego is as large as ever despite effectively losing the match to a single punch. Oh, Conor.
  • Microsoft loses a $10,000 case over the compulsory Windows 10 upgrade. The woman's experience with Microsoft customer service roughly reflects my own: First they try to deny your claims, then they make a calculated judgment to determine whether fighting back will cost them more money than simply giving in. If I had one piece of advice to consumers, it's: Don't give up at the first attempt with Microsoft customer service.
  • Here's an interesting fact I didn't know, found in this article about some considerations for running a marathon in the desert:
If traveling by airplane, drink water or sports drink during the flight. They started serving drinks in airplanes because they recognized early on that going up in the plane, at altitude, is dehydrating. The longer your flight, the more dehydrated you can become.

  •  This article on the health impacts of artificial light is interesting, even if I'm not sure about all the claims it makes.


Various Brexit Stuff

Emily Skarbek:
Many of the people I have discussed this with in academic and policy circles want a freer, more open society. This led some to vote remain and others leave, based on divergent predictions about which course of action would lead to a more open society.
But in answer to Skarbek's point, Dan Sanchez has this to say:
Advocates of international unions and super-states claim that centralization promotes trade and peace: that customs unions break down trade barriers and international government prevents war. In reality, super-states encourage both protectionism and warfare. The bigger the trade bloc, the more it can cope with the economic isolation that comes with trade warfare. And the bigger the military bloc, the easier it is for bellicose countries toexternalize the costs of their belligerence by dragging the rest of the bloc into its fights. 
A small political unit cannot afford economic isolationism; it simply doesn’t have the domestic resources necessary. So for all of UKIP’s isolationist rhetoric, the practical result of UK independence from the European economic policy bloc would likely be freer trade and cross-border labor mobility (immigration). Political independence fosters economic interdependence. And economic interdependence increases the opportunity costs of war and the benefits of peace.
Now here's Russ Roberts:
Hard 2 fix something you don't control. Don't despair. UK (which includes 48% voting remain) will now create something new.
Now for a few thoughts of my own:

  • I did not short-sell anything, but looking at the markets this morning, it's clear that I should have. It's not that I could have predicted that Brexit would happen, it's just that it was likely enough to have justified a gamble in this case. I'm certain a lot of people are making some good money in the marketplace today.
  • Governments must compete, and more competition is a good thing; that's just basic economics. So to go from n = 1 (EU) to n = 2 (UK, EU) is a positive move, in my opinion. There are rumblings that Ireland and Scotland may opt out of the UK now, which would mean that, at least in the short run, there would be n = 4 (Ireland, Scotland, UK, EU), at least until the other two joined up with the EU.
  • I'm pleased that secession is still possible in the modern world. It's nice to know that a referendum can be held and that people can occasionally vote for greater levels of local sovereignty rather than lower levels. It's a big "philosophical win" for libertarians.
  • Still, I realize that nationalism and fear of immigration were driving forces in the vote, and so I'm not naive enough to suggest that Brexit is a clear win for liberty. Brexit enables a potential win, but it doesn't guarantee it. How the UK proceeds from here will determine what happens to freedom there.
  • Many of my friends are scratching their heads as to why the UK would want to leave the EU. I think these friends ought to reconsider the benefits of sovereignty. Sure, it comes at a price, but it's not immediately obvious that the price isn't worth the gain.


Concert Review: Steve Winwood And Steely Dan

If you're as much of a music nerd as I am, then you know that the American concert event of the summer - or at least a strong contender for that title - is the tour Steely Dan has put together, featuring Steve Winwood as an opening act. Both acts are some of the most highly praised in rock music history, by fans and critics alike. To put both of them on the same ticket is a dream come true for people like myself.

I won't waste your time with a long-winded and unnecessary biographical introduction to the musicians. If you've heard their names, you know who and what they are. I'll get right down to business.

Steve Winwood

Although his band could have benefited from more involvement from the people in charge of stage lighting, Steve Winwood performed what has to be one of the top-three concert performances of my lifetime. There is no way words can do it justice, but I'll try to explain anyway.

I had never seen Steve Winwood perform before, so it's possible that at age 68 his stage show has lost a bit of energy. But what I saw last night was, as Steve himself told the audience, "something a bit more vintage" than what audiences are used to hearing nowadays. I have seen many old video clips of fans breaking down in tears upon hearing the great icons of the 1960s perform - this was the closest I will have ever come to such an experience.

So what makes a Steve Winwood performance so different, and so special? 

The band consisted of five musicians: guitar, drums, hand percussion, a multi-instrumentalist who played percussion, reed instruments, keyboards, and backing vocals, and of course Winwood himself on either his trusty organ or Fender Stratocaster. These five players filled the sonic space beautifully, with intricately arranged performances of Winwood's beautifully written songs. You'll notice there was no bass player in Winwood's band: Steve handled that responsibility himself by playing his organ's bass pedals.

Now, for those of you who might not know, bass pedals were once standard fare on organs, but gradually fell out of favor over time. Most modern keyboardists don't even know how to play them. In point of fact, playing bass pedals and keyboards at the same time is a very difficult thing to do, especially while singing lead vocals with a voice that, to my ears, sounded as fresh and healthy as it does on the old Traffic records. But it was an absolute treat - a truly rare experience - to see the "Jimi Hendrix of keyboards" playing bass pedals in his band.

Winwood played a mix of classic songs from his most critically acclaimed era and his more "modern" hits, such as "Higher Love." However, given the setup of the band - hand drummer, vintage organ, reed instruments - the songs were presented in a decidedly 60s way. Each song included extended jamming, and the band jammed along in a way that is almost foreign to modern ears. We're not talking about jazz sessionsists trading solos, nor did it sound like the music you'd hear on the "jam band" scene. These are classic songs presented exactly as you might have heard them "back in the day," where the players augment the songwriting with melodic lead work that doesn't scream "Look at me, I'm jamming! Look at me, I'm soloing!" This is the level of playing to which all musicians aspire. 

The crowd initially took to Winwood's set in a rather passive way. I'm not sure they fully understood what they were getting while they sat through the first couple of songs. But by their third, the crowd had come around to what was going on, and soon enough Winwood was receiving multiple standing ovations.

The performance moved me to tears. As a society, we are losing our ability to even recognize music like this, much less play it. Music has slowly devolved into repetitive chants hammered in between chunky, quantized, crude, elementary themes. None of today's artists - even at their best - could present a song like "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," with its slow and delicate, but deliberate rise from haunting softness, to the crushing emotional crescendo of its extended solo section, then back down to its eerie final tones. Music like this requires not just technical proficiency, but a deep understanding of what it means to play a role in a musical ensemble. Everyone puts a piece of their soul into the song, something bigger than themselves, and works together to perform a unified piece of music that is far more than the sum of its parts. There is a humanness to it, like the gravitas we feel when we keep extended eye contact with someone we love. If you don't bring that to your music, then you're merely pretending.

And we don't realize how much musicians are pretending until we experience performances like Steve Winwood's. It was wonderful.

Steely Dan

Next up was Steely Dan. You have to hand it to them, it takes some serious courage to take the stage after Steve Winwood. 

The band came out first, sans Becker and Fagen, and they performed a high-energy jazz instrumental that I didn't recognize. (No, it was not "East St. Louis Toodle-oo.") From the first note to the last, it was obvious that this was a band of very excellent and capable jazz musicians.

When they finished, the Dan duo themselves walked out on stage and struck up a two-punch combo with "Black Cow," possibly my favorite Steely Dan tune, and "Aja." So, the first three sets were an excellent foray into some of the more technically challenging Steely Dan material. Soloists from the band would walk up to the front of the stage as they did their thing, and the crowd was delighted. From there, the setlist ventured into more of "the hits." They weren't all there, and those fans who came to see "Do It Again" certainly left disappointed, but the band played for a long time, and every song was a major or minor hit. Sometimes I forget just how many they've had.

Of all the players in the band, the drummer definitely stood out. He played each song with an energy usually reserved for hard rock shows. That's not to say that he played like a rock drummer, he just played with that kind of energy - you could really tell he was loving it. And in playing with such energy, he elevated the rest of the band right along with him. He was definitely the MVP of the night.

But the story of the set, for my money, was Walter Becker. I don't think anyone would call Becker a bad guitarist, but he also isn't one to make the various lists of "100 Best Guitarists," either. This is a shame. From start to finish, Becker played like an absolute demon possessed. While it's true that he's not a specialist in fast guitar playing, his note choice is nothing short of genius. His complicated and melodic soloing weaved its way through each and every song in the set. It was truly impressive. I'd never heard a guitarist improvise with such inventiveness and with such ease in coming up with really unique and interesting ideas. I guess it's stupid of me to point out now, after 50 years of Steely Dan, that Walter Becker is one of the most unique voices in rock music, but better late than never. I was thoroughly impressed.

That said, Steely Dan, even with its army of hired guns and ingenious songwriting, simply couldn't live up to the stage set by Steve Winwood. Donald Fagen's voice was weary with age, the stage sound was heavily compressed and focused in the midrange, to try to squeeze as much sonic energy out of the performance as possible. Nothing they could do could match the musical gravitas of their opening act, a man who probably shouldn't be opening for anyone anymore.

So, on another ticket, I likely would have walked away quite impressed by the show Steely Dan put on. But you just can follow an act like Steve Winwood.

No one can.


Some Links