Third Parties, Or, Why Does Everything Cost So Much?

The impact of third parties on markets is a general price increase, funded through economic rents. That sentence is rife with jargon, so let's take a closer look at what this means.

The Health Care Market
In the market for health care, there is a third-party intermediary standing between the buyer and the seller: the insurance company. Insurance companies can potentially introduce market failure into health care markets by interrupting the normal sequence of signals sent between consumers and producers.

Suppose you require a surgical procedure that is priced at $1 million. Unless you are in an income bracket much higher than mine, this is essentially a non-starter; you cannot pay, you cannot receive the procedure. You go home and write your will.

In a more "standard" market than health care (one without intermediaries), a surgeon would only offer a $1 million procedure a finite number of times before either (a) ceasing to offer the procedure altogether, or (b) offering the procedure at a price that is actually relevant to the market. If there 3,000 patients in the city who require this procedure, the surgeon would certainly love to perform that procedure 3,000 times at a total revenue of THREE BILLION DOLLARS, but as noted above, it is unlikely that most patients would be able to afford the procedure. In a normal market, the surgeon would instead lower the price to something more attractive to patients, say $250,000. Even at $250,000, many patients will be unable to pay; but more of them will be able to pay than before. Suppose 1,000 patients can afford the procedure at $250,000; the surgeon earns $250 million dollars in revenue, pay the overhead costs, and walk away with a tidy net profit for herself.

But that's not how the health care market works.

In the health care market, insurance companies extract a steady income stream from all potential patients (or their employers). They invest this money and earn a profit from the proceeds of their investments. They are profitable before any patient requires any procedure, because they charge you money, which you give them, and then they invest that money for themselves, and take home the interest as income for themselves. Theoretically, the insurance companies keep this money in relatively liquid investments, which they can use to pay out for occasional claims for medical expenses (in return for the steady income stream you have agreed to pay them).

In practice, though, insurance companies negotiate long-term contracts with health care providers (the surgeon, in this case). They agree to pay for all surgeries deemed medically necessary, at the asking price. The surgeon is very pleased by this, because she may now charge a higher price. But in exchange for this agreement, the surgeon must agree to lower her price.

Now, pay attention. In a "standard" market, the surgeon must choose a price that is attractive enough to "ordinary people" to generate an acceptable income stream for herself. Her asking price is the mechanism by which she entices patients to undergo the procedure. In the real world, the surgeon is offered something very close to an "all or nothing" deal. She has only to set a price attractive to one, very wealthy customer: the insurance company. She must set a price lower than $1 million, but now has the ability to set a price higher than $250,000.

It does not matter what price she chooses here. If the insurance company attempts to force her down to a $250,000 price, the surgeon will simply refuse to accept payment from the insurance company, and instead she will deal directly with the consumers, i.e. the patients, in the "cash market for health care." If she chooses a $1 million price, the insurance company will refuse to deal with her at all. Therefore, any price between $250,000 and $1 million is a good deal for both parties.

Patients, meanwhile, are no longer directly involved in the market transaction. If they want to improve their lot, they must attempt to negotiate for lower insurance premiums. But that is the insurance market, not the health care market. Patients, direct health care consumers, have no impact on the pricing of health care services because they are not participants in the market for health care.

Where does the "extra money" come from? It comes from the return on the insurance company's investments. It collects small premiums and invests them elsewhere, attempting at all costs to avoid paying insurance claims so that it can continue earning investment returns. Because interest on investments accrues over time, the insurance company also has an incentive to delay claims payments, even if it does eventually agree to pay them. You probably have plenty of personal experience with this.

Thus, the impact of third-party market intermediaries is an increase in the asking price for the relevant good or service.

Intermediaries In Other Markets
Naturally, the above analysis applies equally to any market in which a third-party positions itself as an intermediary between the buyer and the seller. Can you think of any examples?

One example is the market for homes. While the buyer and the seller do, technically, negotiate with each other over the price, in most home transactions, the buyer does not have enough cash on hand to afford to purchase the property outright. Instead, the buyer must secure a mortgage from a financial intermediary. (This intermediary then interacts with many other intermediaries: the title company, the city, various contractors, perhaps additional financial services providers, and so on.)

Indeed, any purchase that commonly involves a loan is an example. Lenders are intermediaries between the producer and the consumer. Lenders have an incentive to offer the producers higher prices than the buyers themselves would tend to offer (since the buyers do not have enough cash-on-hand). Producers, then, have an incentive to charge higher prices. The difference between what consumers would otherwise offer and the real-world price is the economic profits generated by the lender from the interest charged to the consumer. Here again, the lender doesn't simply give up the full interest value. Instead, the lender invests the interest charge and earns a profit from it, only a part of which is offered to the producer in the form of a higher price.

Another extremely important market featuring costly third-party intermediaries is the education market. In the market for higher education, the above holds true: a lender agrees to provide college loans to students in the same way that a mortgage lender offers a mortgage to a home buyer. The price then increases.

In the other education markets, the grift is a little different (but economically equivalent). Standing between students (or their parents) and teachers is an enormously fat bureaucracy, funded by the taxpayer. Rather than negotiating on an agreeable price for primary or secondary education, local governments simply levy any tax rate they so choose. If the consumer does not pay, the consumer goes to jail. If the consumer chooses not to make use of public schools, the consumer must either pay a separate set of fees and fill out an intense set of home-schooling paperwork, or go to jail. We often hear that public education is under-funded, and yet the system is still funded by economic rents unfairly extracted from the consumers. All those rents that do not end up in the hands of the actual producers (teachers) instead end up in the coffers of the teachers' union bosses, the school district administrators, the superintendents, and so on. The system is flush with money, despite all claims to the contrary.

What do all of these markets have in common? All of these markets are extremely costly, represent a large share of our economy, are heavily regulated (if not entirely socialized), and involve an obtrusive third party standing between the consumer and the producer.

In today's world, if we wish to decrease prices and increase efficiency, we should devise ways of getting around the intermediaries, so that consumers and producers can interact directly with one another.


You Can't Speak To Someone Who Won't Hear

Robert Murphy exposes the plainly obvious lack of good faith in a recent Paul Krugman blog post. Add that to the other 189 posts on Robert Murphy's blog dedicated to dissecting and disproving things Paul Krugman says.

No, scratch that last sentence. Add that to the other 189 posts on Murphy's blog, and the blog maintained by William Anderson, the sole purpose of which is to dissect and disprove things Paul Krugman says. Then, add it to the thousands of posts throughout the economics blogosphere dedicated to dissecting and disproving the content of Paul Krugman's blog.

Do you see where I'm going with this? I would not be courting controversy were I to advance the argument that the contents of Paul Krugman's blog are inflammatory at best, frequently contradictory, and at times entirely wrong.

Paul Krugman Is An Awesome Economist
Krugman is a man who was awarded the John Bates Clark prize. Krugman is also a man who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. (Yes, I know it's not technically a "Nobel Prize," you sticklers.) One can criticize the validity of these two prizes if one so chooses, but I think doing so would be an incredibly audacious demonstration of a lack of good-faith. The fact of the matter is that these are two of the most prestigious prizes in the field of economics. They are not handed out lightly. Moreover, discounting the fact that virtually every human decision is somewhat political, both of these prizes have done a good job of ducking the kind of flagrant political maneuvering that marrs the Nobel Peace Prize.

What I mean to say is that Paul Krugman earned his fame, fair and square, by being a fantastic economist. Anyone who denies this is arguing in bad faith. If you don't believe or agree with me, do yourself a favor and delve further into Krugman's serious academic work, then get back to me. It's possible - or even likely - that you'll discover plenty of objectionable ideas. What you won't find, though, is a pile of weak academic work. You'll find strong ideas, well-defended, that have contributed to society's understanding of various economic problems.

Whatever else can be said for Paul Krugman, he is a great economist.

Paul Krugman Is A Paid Political Pundit
So what gives? One of the most highly honored economists, among the greatest of his generation, propagates lies, falsehoods, and contradictions on his blog?

Well, yes. And he's also not particularly shy about it. Paul Krugman writes a column entitled "The Conscience of a Liberal." He his fair, open, and honest about his biases. Not only does he not hide them, he makes them the centerpiece of his work at The New York Times. All of his columns and blog posts consist of economic-flavored arguments for ostensibly leftist political policies. In many cases, Krugman highlights arguments advanced by those he perceives to be right-wing or corporatist, and spins them another way, providing his predominantly leftist readers with some ammunition against arguments that oppose leftist policy or ideology. This is the whole purpose of Krugman's work at the Times. It is what it is.

None of this, by the way, should alter how we view Paul Krugman's legitimate scientific contributions to economics. At the time he performed his breakthroughs, he was being paid to research, conjecture, analyze, and develop good theories. He was a star employee, a model of what it takes to be a great economist in this day and age.

Just as today, he is the perfect NYT economics blogger. He buttresses all the policy stances taken by the NYT editorial board with economics-y sounding arguments, cheap potshots, spin, slant, quick wit, and an appealing writing style.

Where Does That Leave Us?
I see many bloggers out there pulling their hair out over the things Krugman writes on his blog. (Those few economists who have hair, anyway.) I recall a lengthy back-and-forth between Paul Krugman and John Cochrane, for example. I felt sorry for Cochrane during that very public exchange because Paul Krugman is a very smart guy who is simply ahead of his peers... Not in terms of economic understanding, but in terms of having his finger on the pulse of economics blogging.

What I mean is, Krugman knows that he doesn't really have to prove his case. He knows that it's not even his job to make an airtight case for the ideology he supports. Paul Krugman, more than any other economics blogger out there, understands that the public isn't any hungrier now for awesome economic analysis than they were when he was toiling away in obscurity, making good contributions to economic theory as an academic. Krugman knows that all readers want is a plausible-sounding argument for what they already believe. And, he knows that his readers happen to be leftists, predominantly.

So, Krugman panders to his audience, and does so quite effectively. That's fine, so why don't the other economics bloggers understand that? When will they figure out that responding to Krugman's points is a waste of time because it misses the mark? When will people figure out that Paul Krugman isn't in it for the dialogue? You can't win an argument with someone whose only goal is to make you look like a jerk in the court of public opinion.


A Unique Aspect Of Music

Among art forms, music holds a unique place in human psychology: people appear to hold stronger opinions about music than they do any other art form.

Exhibit A: Paintings
To highlight this point, let's consider another art form: painting. There have been many "movements" throughout the history of painting, like "realism," "surrealism," "cubism," "impressionism," and so on. Most everyone - whether they realize it or not - will tend to prefer paintings from one or two of these movements over the others. Despite that fact, people generally have a positive, and for the most part highly tolerant, view of paintings in general.

True, there have been controversial paintings in the past, works of art that have stretched the limits of human tolerance for radical art. Perhaps the best example of this is the painting "Black On Black" by Ad Reinhardt, shown below.
For obvious reasons, I have chosen to post a photograph of the painting on display, rather than a mere photograph of the painting itself.

Now, among ordinary people, paintings like "Black On Black" typically elicit a response of this sort: My six-year-old nephew can paint something like that! He should be a famous artist, haw haw haw! We all view this sort of criticism with varying degrees of concurrence. Obviously, artists will be less sympathetic to such criticism, while staunch fans of realism will be the most sympathetic.

But at any rate, even the people who levy such criticism against art of this kind view it as a passing chuckle, and quickly move on. The bottom line is that "Black On Black" does not much occupy the thoughts of anyone who dislikes it. Even those who hate it vehemently hardly think much about it.

Furthermore, stores that sell home furnishings are replete with art prints both famous and obscure, the vast majority of which is abstract art, but much of which is every other kind of art, too. People in general have a hunger for a wide variety of art, and it is not uncommon to see both a realistic painting or print and an abstract piece in the same household or office.

Exhibit B: Music
Analogous points can be made for sculpture, dancing, and most other fine art forms. However, when it comes to music, the case is entirely different.

To put it succinctly, when people love music, they love it dearly. And when they hate it, they detest it with such a passion that their distaste completely overwhelms them. A physical reaction wells up inside people when they hear deeply moving music (positive or negative), and it has a deep impact on their mood, an impact that lasts for hours on end in many cases. Sometimes the impact even lasts for days. Unlike other forms of art, music gets "stuck in a person's head," very often for days; and this can be true whether or not the person enjoys the song. As far as I can tell, only music holds this position in human psychology. It is a unique aspect of music.

Like other fine art forms, people like what they like and want to make it a regular part of their daily experiences. Unlike other art, though, people appreciate it narrowly and intolerantly. That is to say, when people dislike music, they will often not even tolerate being in the same room as the music they dislike.

Perhaps even more puzzlingly, while the layman consumer of paintings will often gravitate to those works that demand the most pure technique, the opposite is true of music. Laymen prefer simple music to complex music. Laymen prefer music that involves little technique.

I would be speculating if I attempted to explain why music is so unique in this aspect. Perhaps it is because music is an inherently social art form, and people will tend to dislike that in which they feel they cannot participate. If they can't dance to it, can't sing along with it, and can't play it themselves on an instrument at home, then perhaps they don't see a lot of value in it.

Perhaps sound itself holds a unique aspect in human psychology as an evolutionary mechanism. That is, perhaps complex, dissonant harmonic interaction is instinctively interpreted as "noise" in the human brain. And perhaps "noise" is instinctively interpreted as "danger," as in the case of a loud boom or wild roar. Meanwhile, perhaps a small number of voices resonating harmonically provides an instinctive evolutionary signal to us, since things like perfect fifths and parallel thirds can't exist in nature without peaceful cooperation among human allies.

In other words, perhaps there are rational, scientific explanations for why people react more strongly to music than they do to other art forms. And, indeed, perhaps these explanations provide insight into why people prefer the music they prefer.

The Result: Intolerance And Homogeneity
But, at any rate, the fact is that when people love music, they will love it dearly; and when they dislike it, they will hate it vehemently. The result of all this is that over time, music has become progressively more homogeneous. People - whether or not they are even musicians - hold strong opinions and personal "rules" about what makes music good versus bad. Once they have established these rules, they will mock and ridicule any piece of music that does not conform to the rules.

Rightly or wrongly, it appears that music - more than any other form of fine art - must adhere to the social order. A deviant artist whose medium is sculpting, or dance, is often seen as someone who makes something that only appeals to a small group of people (and it is true that they do). But a musician who makes music that only appeals to a small group of people is considered a ridiculous poser, a hack, an amateur, or a pretentious knob.

Puzzling though it may be, the fact remains, minority artists in the visual arts are socially rewarded even if not for their art. They are seen as people doing the necessary work of expanding the boundaries of art. Minority musicians, on the other hand, are deeply resented and ridiculed.

It is a fascinating sociological fact.


Insipid Pop Weekend?

As I previously mentioned, I have a huge backlog of music that is written, but unrecorded. I intend to speed through the recording of a lot of this material, and I managed to wrap one up this weekend.

This is an old song. I believe I wrote it in 2008, for Prime Numbers. We used to play it live, and it came off pretty well. But, honestly, without the other guys, this song just doesn't sound right. Figures.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. It's called "Force of the Flow."


An Experiment

After numerous complaints about the infeasibility of commenting on Stationary Waves (that means you, BA and CH), I've taken the drastic step of eliminated word verification from comments. That means now even robots can comment here.

If all this results in excessive spam, I may elect to "moderate" comments, which you should all know doesn't mean real comment moderation. I believe in letting people speak their minds. I'm taking steps to facilitate that. I hope that this doesn't result in my having to approve every non-robot who wants to participate in the discussion, but it may.

If it does, I will likely have to ditch Blogger once and for all, and transition the blog onto another platform. For now, though, let's see if this works.


Music As Art

The genre of music that is today known as "jazz/fusion" became an insufferable joke forty years ago. Today, it is has about as much cultural relevance as the joke, "Why did the chicken cross the road...?" In other words, it's not even funny anymore. Like the chicken joke, it has become a phrase invoked to indicate that one is joking.

The same is true of the Shrapnel Records record label. It is a label that was once well-known to those of us who, in our teens, scoured the back pages of guitar magazines to discover the next unknown schmo who could do eight-finger tapping or play alternate-picking solos at 370 beats per minute or whatever. It was home to many "shred" guitarists who once made a good living by playing technically athletic guitar solos that seem today more like scale exercises or studies of Baroque harmonic rules. The musical merit of such work was called into question a generation or two ago, and certainly failed to win the PR battle of the grunge ascension of the early 1990s.

The above two facts mean that jazz/fusion and Shrapnel Records are both unlikely places to find truly inspiring, and above all genuinely artistic music. Every generalization, however, comes with such a profound counter-example as to negate the whole thing.

Greg Howe
So it is with Greg Howe, a guitarist who spent the first half of the 1980s playing pop music covers in the Pennsylvania club scene with his brother. Howe was such a remarkable guitarist, however, that his pyrotechnics landed him a contract with Shrapnel Records. That contract resulted in the release of his first solo album in the twilight years of the 80s metal heyday, 1988.

Owing to Howe's absolutely remarkable technical proficiency, that solo album became a major success, and Howe released two additional pop metal albums - both featuring his brother on vocals - on the Shrapnel label, under the band name "Howe II." (How-to. Get it? Get it?) Recall that this was during a time in musical history when everyone was looking for the next "Eddie Van Halen," and so bands were popping up which, like Van Halen, were named after the last name of their most prominent member. A few additional examples: Winger, Dokken, L.A. Guns, and so on. Even Steve Vai got in on the action, forming the one-album super-group "Vai" with Terry Bozzio, Devin Townsend, and T.M. Stevens.

The music produced by Greg Howe during this time fit well into the overall Shrapnel Records vibe. The late 80s were an 80s-metal party. Everyone was doing it, much the same as everyone is doing the same stupid auto-tuned singer-songwriter stuff today (think Lady Antebellum or Goyte), or the same stupid drum-machine r&b records today (think Lady Gaga or Ke$ha). It was what it was. If you're a musician and X sells, why not write X? And if X seems to align well with where you're going artistically, what's wrong with that?

Well, two things are wrong with that.

The first is that the 1980s did not last forever, and when they came to an end, they crashed hard. After 1991, no one wanted anything to do with artists on Shrapnel Records anymore. No one cared about neo-classical guitar exercises.

The second is that artists of Greg Howe's caliber cannot be confined by such limitations, even if they try. This could not have become more obvious as when Howe released his 1993 landmark album Introspection.

Introspection was a shock, because nothing like it had ever existed before. Try to remember what it was like in the early 90s. At the time, if you were a good guitarist, you sounded like Joe Satriani or Marty Friedman, or maybe Stevie Ray Vaughan. At the time, if you played jazz/fusion, you sounded like Allan Holdsworth or John McLaughlin, or maybe Mike Stern. Then came Instrospection, and it instantly gave rise to a kind of music that never existed before.

Greg Howe is not merely a good guitarist, he is so phenomenally good that listening to his leads makes you either want to become a rock star or quit entirely. This was always true, even in the 1980s, when he was playing 80s metal. But when he released Instrospection, he was playing a strange-sounding jazz/fusion. Strange, because it didn't suck. Strange, because it was all the best of 80s guitar pyrotechnics combined with intense be-bop licks previously only played on saxophones. Strange, because it was a mature artistic statement coming out of two artistic movements - jazz/fusion and Shrapnel Records - that has never produced something so profoundly artist (before or since).

1993 was just the beginning. Over the following two decades, Howe would release a series of records, each one better the one prior. He is one of those rare artists who seem to improve in both skill and artistic delivery with each passing year.

Today, Howe plays with some of the best, most accomplished jazz musicians in the business, and yet he does so in a unique "Greg Howe" style that only he can pull off. His impact and influence on the guitar-playing world is so profound that many people don't even realize when they play certain licks that they are imitating Greg Howe. A great example of this is Guthrie Govan. Govan is an accomplished guitarist in his own right, but everything "new" that his fans hear in his music is territory already well-tread by Greg Howe.

Before Howe, jazz/fusion was a joke and Shrapnel Records meant 1,000 Yngwie Malmsteen impersonators. Greg Howe has given rise to a genre of instrumental expression that is both awe-inspiring and artistically powerful. Do yourself a favor and take a deep dive into his unbelievable music.

Here, I'll get you started:


The Evolution Of The Projects-Driven Lifestyle

Last year, I wrote about Motivation and the Projects-Driven Lifestyle. I defined the problem as follows:
Like many people with a wide variety of interests that they take somewhat seriously, I often found myself short of time. It started getting difficult to, for example, record an album, plan a series of gigs, write articles, and work out hard, while still meeting my day-to-day obligations such as household tasks and, uh, going to work. Not being able to "do it all" is a problem we all face from time to time. This problem compounds itself the more seriously one takes one's hobbies.
The solution I came up with, was this:
Rather than focusing on what I want to do "in general," I instead decided that I needed a paradigm shift. I know conceive of all my objectives as a series of projects. The major advantages of projects is that they are associated with specific deliverables. Focusing on these deliverables costs nothing, because there is an associated end point. It becomes a matter, not of opportunity cost, but of inter-temporal substitution. This has the rather amazing effect of clearing items off my plate and also allowing me to accomplish more of them.
I still consider this to be good advice. In fact, writing this blog post had a big impact on me at the time, and I launched into a particularly productive period. I also recall a good friend telling me that it made an impression on him, too. (I am happy to report that his various projects have really taken off, and he has probably taken this concept to a whole new level.)

Too Many Items On The Menu
Having said that, though, I find myself in a situation where I now have too many projects and not enough time to complete them.

Sure, I have my excuses. I relocated to a different country, which is obviously a disruptive process. Such a relocation involves not only logistic and time challenges, but also a long list of things that must be re-established once you get from Point A to Point B, i.e. one's routine. I won't bore you with the gory details, but it takes time and effort to reach a point in one's day-to-day life where one can simply relax and start clicking-off the projects.

Notwithstanding all the excuses, though, I am discovering that my list of pending projects is much, much longer than I would like it to be. This presents a dilemma: Which of these projects will I complete first?

You can compare it to going to a restaurant with a big menu, versus one with a small menu. The bigger the menu, the longer it takes to decide what to order. Then, once having ordered, one is often fraught with doubts as to whether some other choice might be better. Later, one feels inclined to return to the same restaurant to try some of the other menu items. If one does go back to that restaurant, the whole process is repeated. If not, one often does not because one wants to try food at other restaurants!

To be sure, having a surplus of good choices is the kind of "problem" one is thankful to have. But on the other hand, just how is a person supposed to get anything done? Projects - particularly long and involved projects undertaken when time is scarce - require a lot of commitment; when one project is undertaken, the others suffer. It's frustrating.

The Challenge
I'll give you an example: In just the last two weeks, I've written five instrumental pieces, but only managed to record one of them. Add that to the literally dozens of songs I have written recently but have yet to record. Realistically, I am looking at two or three albums of material that is fully written, rehearsed, and ready to be released. But, at this point, I am so far behind in the recording process that I would rather write something new then "go back in time" and record something that has been placed on the back-burner.

The challenge, then, is to deliver on this immense backlog of existing projects while keeping track of new ideas as they come along, and yet not running completely out of time.

How To Succeed
Considering all this, I have come to the conclusion that the one and only way to sustain high productivity for long periods of time is to become extremely obsessive and miserly over one's time. Of course, one shouldn't drive oneself crazy, but how else can one apportion time appropriately?

We live in a wonderful, technologically advanced society. We carry little calendars in our pockets, capable of interfacing with the calendars at which we stare all day when we are at work or any other time. Technology surrounds us at all times, instantly accessible. It begs for us to use it.

While we can easily become distracted by all this technology (here I am blogging right now - could I have used this time to write a song?), we can also bend it to our significant advantage. One can use technology to learn a new language.

I've been using Google Calendar for some time now. I absolutely love that I can integrate this calendar with my phone, with Windows Live, with my blog, and so on. To accomplish what I want to accomplish, perhaps all I really need to do is track my time a little better. This time-tracking can follow me around everywhere. If I put the time in correctly, I should be able to stop losing out on lazy moments that I let slip through my fingers.

More importantly, I should be able to put project-specific time toward a specific project. That is, if I have time set aside for music, writing down exactly which musical project I'm working on will go a long way toward ensuring that I spend that time on Project X instead of Project Y.

Well, we'll see how it goes. It may not be a home-run, but it should improve the situation a bit. The bottom line is that I now find that motivation is not the main obstacle in a "projects-driven lifestyle," but rather the amount of surplus creativity I have is churning out more potential projects than I can realistically achieve in the near future.

So, I'll try to use my time a little more wisely, and in a more organized way, and hopefully overcome the "curse" of being buried under a heap of good ideas that I can't seem to make much traction on due to the sheer number of them.

A Brief Episode Of Navel-Gazing

What follows began as a preamble to my next blog post, but grew too large and too distracting to remain as such. I thought had better turn it into its own stand-alone blog post.

When You're Here, Expect Ongoing Evolution
In some respects, we can consider Stationary Waves a traditional weblog that has been dressed-up in a three-piece suit.

By "a traditional weblog," I mean that I tend to blog about the things I do and/or think about on a daily basis. The headline of the blog says, "Economics + Fitness + Music + Philosophy," which is a concise summary of my hobbies and interestes. When I watch movies, I write movie reviews. When I read books, I write book reviews. When I attend concerts or buy new CDs, I write music reviews. When I write and record new music, I publish it here. When I train for marathons, I write about that. When I get focused on diabetes management, that's what I end up writing about. Hence, this is a pretty traditional weblog of the online diary school.

By "dressed-up in a three-piece suit," I mean that I am not content to merely muse about my day. I am a highly systematic thinker. Rather than be content with a series of passing thoughts, I like to process the things I think through the mechanism of a consistent, underlying ("all-encompassing") philosopy, complete with its own lexicon and foundational concepts.

Therefore, what you get on this blog is the evolution of my ideas as I live the course of my life. What I wrote before may not exactly align with what I write today, but rather than a contradiction, I see this as an evolution, the development of my own thoughts. To me, it's interesting. I hope it's somewhat interesting to you, too.


Some Links

Somehow, I knew this would happen.
I’d thought he was saying that if a pregnancy occurs, God must have wanted it, which would seem to be an instance of the general principle that if anything occurs, God must have wanted it. Now we’re told that there is no such general principle — from which I am left to conclude that the only way to tell what God wants is to ask Richard Mourdock.
- Steven Landsburg elucidates the Mourdock platform.

Sonic Charmer sure has been on a roll lately! Here he is on racism and protest. Here he is on the practicality of open borders immigration policy. And here he is on Trump's pending Obama revelation.

Meanwhile, in the real world...

Another reason why it's more about fitness than it is about diet.

In very few words, and one amazing picture, Sean Burch shows us the dividends of being a hyper-fit adventurer.

I can't think of a better place to eat a second breakfast.

Did I Miss Something Here?

CNN reports that the USADA's "Armstrong report vindicates those who raised doping alert." Among those vindicated, according to the article are "Kathy LeMond, the wife of cyclist Greg LeMond," and "[a] Texas insurance company that once refused to pay Armstrong a promised $5 million bonus for winning a Tour de France, citing reports that he had doped[.]"

Something has been bothering me about this since even before I wrote my last blog post on the Lance Armstrong situation. I wanted to include this idea in that post, but I felt that what I had written was already too much for the casual reader, so I'm going to write it here.

The USADA's report to the UCI, as well as the UCI's decision itself, constitute no new evidence in the Lance Armstrong case. Does everyone understand that? Does everyone understand that it has never been proven at any point in time that Lance Armstrong actually doped? Does everyone remember that the federal grand jury in charge of prosecuting Lance Armstrong for illegal activity dropped its case back in February?

Look, I'm not naive here. It may very well be that Lance Armstrong lead a so-called "doping conspiracy." But it strikes me as being fairly odd that so many individuals and groups are behaving as though the USADA's report offers new, legally relevant information on the matter.

Let's suppose you and I are engaged in an intense game of Monopoly. Suppose during the course of that game, I decide to break the rules of the game, and this leads to my winning the game. Suppose also that you and I were breaking the same rules, and that our actions constituted a set of "house rules" to which we had both agreed. Then, after we had finished the game and we had gone home, someone else took it upon himself/herself to "clean up the game of Monopoly," leading an investigation in which a parade of individuals testified that I had broken the official rules of Monopoly during our game, and instead adhered to our agreed-upon "house rules."

Now, if I agree to abide by the authority of the person leading the investigation, then I certainly must abide by the terms of that agreement/authority. That person's findings against me as a "Monopoly cheater" may have a downstream impact on my future "career" as a Monopoly player.

But how on Earth would that person's findings have a legal impact on my life? How would the collected testimony of other people against me warrant sufficient legal evidence to sue me?

The answer is: it wouldn't. Lance Armstrong may be a cheater for all I know, but there is no legal case against his cheating. A federal grand jury already attempted the legal case, and failed to collect sufficient evidence. The legal question is as good as settled. And since February, no new material evidence has been brought against Lance Armstrong.

So what is everyone even talking about?


Of Debates And Moral Causes

Against my better judgment, I watched last night's final presidential debate. The predictable result was that I spent the duration of my time cringing as I watched two very dishonest men saying alternatively embarrassing and genuinely dangerous things to each other and to the American people. The whole experience left me with the realization that we Americans find ourselves amid a few very important moral causes today that are being aggravated and escalated by all participants in the political system.

I say, "realization," but of course that is not quite the word I mean to use. "Realization" implies that this notion about the moral causes of our times dawned on me when I watched last night's debate, but naturally I knew it far prior to the debate. What watching the debate did was sharpen this notion in my mind to such a degree that I cannot stop thinking about. (I know! I'll blog about it!)

As faithful Stationary Waves readers know, I consider capitalism to be one such moral cause; indeed, it is one of the principal moral causes of our times. It's a human rights issue: the right to peaceably assemble, the right to free association, and the fundamental human right of ownership, including self-ownership. But this is only one of the several very important moral causes we face today. There are others.

For example, the US occupation of multiple Middle Eastern nations is a serious issue. Few nations have embarked on such an ostensibly imperialistic foreign policy, and all those throughout history that have chosen to do so have earned a reputation of hostile aggressors. Those of us who condone this kind of approach to foreign policy must be made to answer for their own morality.

Part-and-parcel to this occupation are the repeated drone strikes that result in the murder and terrorization of countless, innocent Pakistani civilians, including women and children. The results of these strikes include severe post traumatic stress disorder among the victims, the destabilization of a community not at all hostile to the United States, the brutal murder or maiming of people who are not enemies of our government, the evisceration of any concept of rules of engagement and Rule of Law, the denial of basic human rights to ordinary, hard-working people, and the series of secondary moral questions raised by using video game scenarios to dole out death and destruction, thereby stunting the moral functionality of the perpetrators of the crime.

Next on the list is the near one-in-ten US incarceration rate. When such a high number of US citizens spend hard time in hard prison - more often than not for engaging in victimless crimes that appeal primarily to the poorest segments of our society - we raise moral questions about what our society is and why our laws exist. Readers of this blog understand my strict and unwavering view that the consumption of recreational drugs is morally repugnant, but when nearly one-in-ten US citizens are incarcerated for participating in a set of behaviors that many more than one-in-ten US citizens find morally acceptable, it is time to start asking the difficult question. Can we continue destroying the lives of people in our own communities simply because we disagree with the choices they make about their own bodies? Certainly not!

The moral causes I have just mentioned - capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-war-crimes, and the legalization of victimless crimes - are so incredibly important to American society today that I find them impossible to ignore. The truth is, we are all so incredibly hungry for an end to these atrocities, and yet they have become so commonplace that at times we can't even see how hungry we are.

So it is more than disappointing, it is tragic to watch presidential debates in which both candidates double-down on their commitment to foreign occupations and drone-killings, double-down on their commitment to the drug wars, and double-down on their opposition to market freedom. It is heart-wrenching to watch a debate moderator ask questions about the moral authority we have to kill Pakistani children with flying robots, only to hear both major candidates advocate for this monstrous, horrific policy of death. It is emotionally eviscerating to hear them argue over which one of them is more capable of destroying trade relationships with our Chinese friends. It is downright disgusting to hear them speak of their using the mechanisms of the US federal government to cripple the economies and steer the political direction of faraway regimes that have no impact on the lives of ordinary Americans like you and I.

When will we all agree to stop the madness? Will you commit, here and now, to condemning these monstrous, evil policies regardless of which party perpetuates them? Will you advocate for a return to a free and peaceful United States?

Let me guess... I'm the monster for suggesting it?

Movie Review: Passport To Love

Note: There may be spoilers in the following post, although I have tried to avoid them.

I may be a little bit behind the times on this one, but I only recently watched it, thanks to the fantastic free movies feature on YouTube (another great Google innovation). The movie premiered back in 2008, and was officially released in Vietnam in 2009.

Passport to Love tells the story of two young Vietnamese men who go from Saigon to Los Angeles to study at an American university. Khang (Binh Minh) is a rich, spoiled, womanizing slacker who stands to inherit his millionaire father's company if he can only manage to get serious, earn a degree, and otherwise change his ways. Hieu (Huy Khanh) is a modest, poor, studious young man who dreams of becoming the next Bill Gates. He is in every way Khang's opposite. He is serious and hard-working, and he is committed in his relationship to the lovely Thao (Tang Bao Quyen).

When the two friends arrive in the United States, they quickly fall into their own respective patterns of behavior: Khang takes to partying and womanizing, while Hieu studies hard and talks to his mother and to Thao on Skype every night.

Then one day Khang gets arrested for DUI and spends a night in jail, where he meets a beautiful police officer of Vietnamese decent. When she is unimpressed by his charms, Khang commits to earning her respect, which means confronting his character flaws and turning over a new leaf.

Meanwhile, Hieu takes a job teaching Vietnamese to an Asian-American pageant queen, Jennifer (Ngoc Diep), the daughter of a family friend. Although Jennifer is more the kind of hard-partying, flighty girl who would appeal to Khang, she and Hieu strike up a romantic relationship. This new relationship starts to interfere with Hieu's dedication to his studies - to say nothing of his dedication to Thao.

Will Khang be able to earn the respect and win the heart of the far more serious woman with whom he has fallen in love? Will Hieu choose to stay true to his traditional, hard-working self, or will his heart lead him to a new, less-serious life?

While the film's plot seems like a bit of a throwaway, the major strength of Passport to Love is its exploration of a person's moral character and how it impacts our lives. The recurrent theme of the film is the notion that being a serious, faithful, hard-working person will take you positive places in life, whereas being a careless slacker will take you negative places. In contrast to the moral grey zones preferred by North American films, Passport to Love underscores this point again and again, in dozens of different ways, never wavering. It is safe to say, then, that this is the moral of the story. The way it's delivered very much has the flavor of an English novel from the turn of the century: the moral always wins; the immoral always fails. It is message as well as a plot device.

Another recurring message in the film is the notion that if a person "loves with their heart" then nothing will ever go badly for them. This message may seem a bit implausible to those who have loved and lost, or those who have fallen in love with the wrong person. It is, however, the kind of feel-good and non-falsifiable literary theme that always sounds good. (After all, if you had a bad experience with love at some point, can you really say that you loved with your heart?)

The best thing I can say about this movie is what I said to my wife about halfway through the film: "This is like a Hindi movie, only in Vietnamese." To some, that may sound like a derogatory remark, but I meant it positively. As faithful Stationary Waves readers know, I am a fan of the Hindi movie, i.e. Bollywood, genre. When English-language films attempt similar movie concepts - family-friendly, romantic, coming-of-age films with music and dance sequences - it typically comes off extremely hackneyed, owing probably to the fact that the American frame of reference for this sort of thing is Broadway. Broadway, though, is a completely different medium.

In Broadway productions, and films inspired by Broadway productions, there is a decidedly New York flavor to it all. The dialogue is coarse, crass, and campy in a way that appeals primarily to the same kind of people who appreciate other aspects of New York culture. It's loud, it's jazzy, and above all, it feels like a play.

In contrast, Hindi movies offer similar content on paper, with a completely different cultural reference point. These films started out as films, not as stage productions, and the musical backbone is Indian popular music, not big band swing. So, instead of coming off like something out of a 1940s speakeasy, Hindi films come off more like old fashioned melodramas, complete with character archetypes and expected plot devices such as wedding scenes, dream sequences, and parental wisdom. There is virtually no North American equivalent.

Enter: Passport to Love, a Vietnamese film containing all the elements of a Hindi movie, but in a different language. The film is a romance, a coming-of-age film, and a slice-of-life drama with wedding scenes, dream sequences, parental wisdom, and a light dose of Vietnamese popular music. To someone acclimated to the genre, it is an instantly appealing film, although those with less exposure to such films may find it a little hammy.


Capitalism Is Peace

Capitalism is synonymous with peace. This point has been neglected for far too long by advocates of market freedom. But they mean well, so today I'd like to explore this idea a little.

When you submerse yourself in libertarian literature, you discover all kinds of points about free markets and their importance to human society. This is so much the case that those of us who have read a great deal of this literature tend to forget about the fact that most people have never heard these arguments before. The most important such argument is the fact that free markets are not merely "more peaceful than the alternative," but rather peace is an inherent attribute of capitalism. An argument against free markets is an argument against peace; an argument for peace is an argument for capitalism. The two go hand-in-hand.

This is the single best case for free markets, so it is a bit frustrating that capitalism's advocates spend so little time making it. It is a topic not directly covered by any libertarian thinkers that I know of, except Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. Rand, in fact, only makes this point convincingly* in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Mises, for his part, makes this point in many works, but as I said, few have taken the kind of deep dive into libertarian writings required to discover Mises' words on this topic.

Capitalism Is The Only Way To Resolve Major Conflicts Peacefully
You have something that I want, but you would rather use it for yourself than give it to me. Among savages, I have few options for procuring it myself. I could steal it from you clandestinely; I could attack you violently until you either relinquish the item or die; I could assemble a posse and coerce you with the mere threat of violence or ostracism. Clearly, these are all acts of aggression; these are evil means by which to forcefully deny you what you have and take it for myself.

Alternatively, I could persuade you to give it to me freely. There is always the possibility that I can make a convincing case for why you should give it to me. Sometimes, that case is an appeal to your sense of generosity, your desire to be nice to me because I "need" the item more than you, and you value me as a person. If we are strangers, though, or if the item is very valuable, such an appeal would seldom win you over.

The more reliable way to persuade you is to offer you something of equal or greater value. This is commerce.

Hence, conflicts over resources end in either force, generosity, or commerce. Here, one could make the case that the good will you receive through an act of generosity is a type of exchange. I won't make that case, but the reader can surely see where it leads: all peaceful resolutions to conflicts over resources are acts of free trade.

Nearly all conflicts among human beings are conflicts of resources, property, and so forth. The remaining conflicts, for the most part, involve violation of social convention. For example, killing another human being is taboo, and for good reason: If it were "okay" to kill others, then there would be no civilization whatsoever. A basic respect for human life is paramount.

A less serious example would be the ostracism felt by minorities within homogeneous communities. Minorities face a kind of ostracism - not always intentional - that can seldom be explained to the majority. For the most part, it is a lack of understanding. It creates a deep wound in the members of the minority that can often build to a profound resentment of the majority. Surely, just sitting down and talking to each other would alleviate the problem, but in order for that to happen, both parties require a good motive.

Well, in a free society, commerce provides exactly that motive. When people are allowed to trade resources freely with each other, they find themselves face-to-face with those they are accustomed to shunning. The shunners need something that the shunned has: commerce proceeds. If the shunners wish to keep the peace, they will have to maintain a good working relationship with the shunned, and vice-versa.

Note that each party could choose to retreat into their respective enclaves and refuse to deal with each other. A refusal to trade is an unofficial rule against trade. The free market no longer exists: a barrier to trade has been erected, either officially or unofficially, but the result is the same. In such a case, two communities live beside each other, competing for the same resources yet refusing to engage in commerce. This is when conflicts arise. Capitalism actually prevents this.

Now let's return to the more serious example of killing each other. A person's motivation for keeping the peace is to maintain his/her place in the community. One who kills others cannot hope to positively interact with the community in any way. He/she has broken the trust he/she shares with fellow human beings. The community cannot trust that the killer will not also kill them next. They will cease all dealing with the killer, and he/she becomes an outcast. Maybe he/she doesn't care, but the fact remains that one who undermines the social order cannot expect to gain anything from it.

Thus, peace in the community is a powerful motivation against breaking the rules. One who goes against the grain can only hope to be a part of the community if one brings something to it in the form of trade. Free trade breaks down social barriers; abstinence from trade puts the barriers in place.

People can only hope to interact peacefully with each other in an environment of free trade.

A Misleading Economic Term
Economists tend to root their advocacy for open markets in concepts like low prices and economic efficiency. These are good arguments, for sure, but the word "efficiency" means something in economic jargon that most laymen don't fully understand. When someone extols the "efficiency" of the market, people have in mind something to the effect of production efficiency, some picture of a well-run factory, churning out products at an "efficient" rate.

Laymen perceive some notion of achieving maximum profit at minimal cost; this to them is "efficiency." That is certainly part of it, but when economists use that word, they are speaking more to the broad social effects of well-run factories in general. To wit, if "efficient production" is the rule within a society, not an exception, then society will enjoy greater production of all things - important things like food, water, housing, health care, etc. - and their abundance will lead to low costs. More stuff at cheaper prices is good for everyone, especially the poor. This is generally what economists are arguing for when they tout "efficiency" as a major benefit of free markets.

Abundance certainly promotes peace, but it does so indirectly. No one steals penny candies, except for very petty children, hence abundance has a tendency to reduce conflicts between people. Clearly, though, this is an indirect benefit of free markets, and market critics could easily attribute that kind of peace to something other than capitalism. So, it is not really a home-run argument for capitalism.

Advocates of free markets owe it to society to do a better job of making the case for capitalism; and, while economic efficiency is a great reason to love capitalism, I think the fact that capitalism is peace is a more important case to make. This is especially true in the world of never-ending war in which we find ourselves today.

So, from today, I commit myself to hammering this point home. Capitalism isn't just good for business, it is the one and only way to maintain peaceful human interaction.

* She does make the point elsewhere, but buries beneath obtuse statements like, "Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins."


Why I Am Amazing, But Usain Bolt Is A Wimp

Okay, I don't really mean that. However, this morning, I came across a fascinating blog post (hat tip to Tyler Cowen) exploring the fact that endurance athleticism is what humans do best. With regard to my headline above, here is what Daniel Lieberman has to say:
The other reason we often discount the importance of brawn in our lives is that we have a very strange idea of what constitutes athleticism. Think about the events that we care about most in the Olympics. They're the power sports. They're the 100-meter dash, the 100-meter freestyle events. Most athletes, the ones we really value the most, are physically very powerful. But if you think about it this way, most humans are wimps.
Usain Bolt, who is the world's fastest human being today, can run about 10.4 meters a second, and he can do so for about ten or 20 seconds. My dog, any goat, any sheep I can study in my lab, can run about twice as fast as Usain Bolt without any training, without any practice, any special technology, any drugs or whatever. Humans, the very fastest human beings, are incredibly slow compared to most mammals. Not only in terms of brute speed, but also in terms of how long they can go at a given speed. Usain Bolt can go 10.4 meters a second for about ten to 20 seconds. My dog or a goat or a lion or a gazelle or some antelope in Africa can run 20 meters a second for about four minutes. So there's no way Usain Bolt could ever outrun any lion or for that matter run down any animal.
Hence, Usain Bolt is a wimp. Don't object - a scientist said this!

Okay, okay, I'm having a little fun with this. Lieberman is actually discussing the idea that, from an evolutionary perspective, "brawn," aka the physical attributes of the human species, is a lot more important than "brains," aka the intellect. Throughout the article, he makes a good case for something that I have believed for a long time; namely, that human beings are capable of fantastic feats of physical prowess - especially in the realm of endurance - as a general rule, that it requires little or no training, and that it is largely a banal fact. Consider how Lieberman describes marathon running:
The marathon, of course, is a very interesting example. A lot of people think marathons are extraordinary, and they wonder how many people can run marathons. At least a million people run a marathon every year. If you watch any major marathon, you realize that most of those folks aren't extraordinary athletes, they're just average moms and dads. A lot of them are charity runners who decided to raise money for some cancer cause or diabetes or something. I think that proves that really your average human being can run 26.2 miles without that much training, or much ability to be a great athlete. Of course, to run a marathon at really fast speeds is remarkable, but again, it just takes some practice and training. It's not something that's really extraordinary.
We're actually remarkable endurance athletes, and that endurance athleticism is deeply woven into our bodies, literally from our heads to our toes. We have adaptations in our feet and our legs and our hips and pelvises and our heads and our brains and our respiratory systems. We even have neurobiological adaptations that give us a runner's high, all of which help make us extraordinary endurance athletes. We've lost sight at just how good we are at endurance athleticism, and that's led to a perverse idea that humans really aren't very good athletes.
Over the course of the blog post, Lieberman explains why "brawn" is important. He also provides a good description of how human beings have evolved to become excellent long-distance runners. It is an excellent blog post that I highly recommend.

Three key messages come out of this Lieberman post. First, human beings are incredible endurance athletes. Second, we humans don't think we're incredible athletes by animal standards, because we happen to be obsessed with the wrong kind of athleticism, e.g. muscle power and sprinting. Third, sedentary lifestyles are basically a phenomenon no older than 100 years, and over the course of human history, being sedentary is a total anomaly.

It's an excellent read.


Are There Busking Rules On The Internet?

Anyone who has ever watched a street performer has some experience with what happens after the show. Typically, after delivering a performance, the artist delivers a short speech about how he or she is more than happy to entertain the masses free of charge, but that in the interest of fairness, anyone who enjoyed the show should voluntarily elect to make a small cash donation in exchange for services. This kind of voluntary transaction has, in fact, sustained the performance-art communities for millenia, and provides a small but reliable income for street performers all over the world.

In today's world, wherein we have access to a wide variety of technologies that enable us to enjoy music anywhere, at the touch of a button, live music performance is somewhat of a dying art form. (Whether it will ever really die is, in my opinion, unlikely, but also outside the scope of this particular blog post.)

What we have instead is a variety of internet websites that provide a medium to the artist, through which he or she can reach an audience. This technology has been (so far) funded by pay-per-click advertising schemes. The artist provides the performance, the website provides the medium, the firms provide the advertising. From the sales generated, everyone takes a cut in proportion to his or her contribution to total profit. Simple microeconomics.

The question I have is: As in the case of a street performance, is there a moral (i.e., not an economic) responsibility to click on the advertisments of those who provide entertainment you enjoy? I don't mean this in a hard-and-fast sort of way. I mean only to pose the question: What do you think? Do you think you "owe it" to those who entertain us to click on their AdSense content?

I see this as potentially going both ways. First, it is a simple and harmless way to contribute to content you enjoy. In other words, why not?

But second, mindlessly clicking on any advertisment attached to the content you enjoy may send the wrong market signal. If it does not reflect a genuine curiosity about the product being advertised, it may reduce the value of an individual click, which may reward artists in the short run, but diminish their potential incomes in the long run.

Or, should such content merely be free - and free of advertising - in all cases?

I refrain from voicing further opinion on this, including my direct take on the matter at hand, in hopes of generating a robust discussion on the matter.

Three Self-Delusions And What You Can Do About Them

This week, I have been talking a lot about self-delusion. (See posts here, here, and here.) Today, I'd like to be a little more helpful. It's one thing to point out and criticize the world's delusions, it's another thing to try to arm the reader with a little perspective to help them overcome an unhelpful fantasy.

After all, it can seem a little pessimistic to discover that one has bought wholesale into a delusional fantasy that one can only maintain if one conspires with oneself to pretend to believe it. I mean, that's not a very pretty thought.

But on the other hand, this kind of mental attitude is part-and-parcel of being a human being, and having a human experience. We all do this to one extent or another, and such behavior probably serves some evolutionary purpose of some kind. I leave such questions to the cognitive-scientists, socio-biologists, social evolutionists, and other hyphenated pseudo-sciences that attempt to squash our notions of free will. ;)

Moreover, it need not be unpleasant to discover a few of our delusions and set them straight. Don't ever be afraid of being wrong about anything. We are all wrong more often then we are right; wisdom comes from having made sufficiently many mistakes in a single area of life that further additional mistakes become statistically unrealistic. (Ha, ha, ha...)

So, let's take a look at three self-delusions culled from the headlines and what we can do about them.

Delusion #1: Heroes Are Faultless
Here, I am referring to Lance Armstrong, of course. In the wake of the USADA's published investigation details, corporate sponsors have been bailing on Armstrong, and now even on the sport of professional cycling itself. The world has reacted to the doping scandal in indignation. Everyone feels cheated of something.

Unless a person admired Armstrong specifically for being clean, though, the fundamentals of Armstrong's situation remain unchanged. He still beat cancer. He still managed to create one of the most successful cancer-fighting non-profit organizations in the world. He still managed to out-train his opponents and win seven consecutive Tour de France championships without an unfair advantage.

I think a person who feels upset by the doping "scandal" is really putting himself/herself through the wringer unnecessarily. We need not torture ourselves over the fact that our heroes are imperfect. Perfection is not the reason we are inspired by heroes, heroism is. If disproportionate athletic ability, unparalleled humanitarianism, and triumph over cancer aren't all examples of heroism, then what is?

So don't suffer any further delusions over Lance Armstrong, but also don't feel bad about the ones you had. Accept reality: Armstrong is imperfect, and he is a hero. Knowing this, there is more than enough in the Armstrong story to feel inspired for a long time.

The same hold true, of course, for any other hero you might have.

Delusion #2: Presidential Candidates Are Super-Geniuses Who Will Save The Country
The world held a lot of hope for change when the people of the United States elected Barack Obama in the wake of the awful Bush Administration. We all wanted peace. We all wanted the world to return to the way it was before 9/11. We all wanted to go back into airports without being groped, we wanted to be able to travel freely throughout the world again. We wanted to stop being spied-on and manipulated by our federal law enforcers. We wanted to stop having to explain ourselves at every dinner party held abroad. We wanted our political discourse to regain civility and to become less polarized.

We were kidding ourselves. No matter how amazing Barack Obama might have seemed, no human being on Earth is capable of reversing the course of history. Not even the most powerful mind can wave a magic wand - or sign a magic piece of legislation - that can heal a nation's wounds and restore wisdom and sanity to government that is by all accounts corrupt, bureaucratic, and expansionary.

The truth is, you cannot merely "elect the right guy" and expect the world to change. Change comes from human society, not from its institutions. You cannot outlaw ignorance or nastiness.

You can, however, improve yourself and aim to persuade others of the goodness within ourselves. You can lead by example and teach your children how to be good, kind, generous, and free-thinking human beings.

This is, in fact, the only way the world's political situation will ever improve. We won't achieve lasting peace by electing people who help us delude ourselves into believing that far-away governments solve problems easily without our input. We can certainly achieve it, however, by becoming relentless critics of the divisive doctrines that pit us against each other and by refusing to tolerate such views in others. Enforcing social condemnation on all those who oppose freedom and who instead want to control other human beings, combined with leading lives of private, personal virtue is how we do our part to affect society positively.

In short, leading a life of virtue is the only thing you can do to improve the world. All else is wishful thinking.

Delusion #3: Our Past Mistakes Will Not Turn Out To Be Mistakes If We Wish It To Be So
This delusion refers to several different recent issues. One particularly important issue is the daily murder of innocent civilians via radio-controlled robots. Another important issue is our nation's having the world's highest incarceration rate, and the moral questions it presents to us. Another such issue is the Britney Spears legal battle with her former manager, who claims she was addicted to methamphetamines. There are additional issues, but let's stop the list there.

What do these stories have in common? Each is an example of people engaging in unquestionably destructive and immoral behavior, and then continuing to live as though it won't have an impact in the long run. If we believe that we can kill and terrorize innocent Pakistanis with R/C robots without it coming back to haunt us in the future, we are fooling ourselves. If we believe we can incarcerate a large and growing number of US citizens - even putting many of them to death at the hands of the state - without the arrival of our own "judgment day," we are very foolish. If we believe we can consume large amounts of drugs without people attempting to take advantage of us and ultimately smear us in the tabloids and the courts, we are delusional.

This is a scary one because it involves confronting the ugliest truths about ourselves. But, despite being scary, it is an easy problem to solve. All we have to do is privately internalize the notion of what's going on. We need only admit to ourselves the ugly truth we're ignoring, and take responsibility for our own complicity. (Okay, you might not be complicit in Britney Spears' drug use, but you might certainly be complicit in your own, or someone else's.)

What you'll find is that it is not a particularly unpleasant thing to do, taking responsibility for your moral shortcomings. It seems hard before you do it, but it is pleasantly cathartic and sets your life on track in an important and positive way. We cannot be a nation of drug-abusers, drone-killers, and police-statists. This is not what our nation was destined to be. More importantly, this is not the person you know yourself to be.

We are good people. Sometimes we just have to call upon ourselves to be who we know we really are.


Of Armstrong And Self-Delusion

So the reporters have come out of the woodwork to finally condemn Lance Armstrong for doping. I think a good example of this is today's Gregg Doyal column at CBS Sports. Note the particular case Doyal sets out against Armstrong:
Even people who supported Armstrong, people like, ahem, me -- right here, in January 2011 -- assumed Armstrong was guilty. But we were OK with it for two reasons. One, his cancer-fighting Livestrong foundation had helped raise so many hundreds of millions of dollars that we were willing to forgive the cheating, to see it as an ugly means to a beautiful end. And, two, Armstrong technically hadn't been caught cheating. So even if he was dirty, and even if he was lying to us about not being dirty, people like me could find a small island of doubt, just enough of a safe harbor to embrace Armstrong for the cancer-fighting force of nature he has been since 1997.
In other words, Doyal isn't upset that Armstrong cheated at all. He's upset that he can no longer maintain his previously held illusions about Armstrong.

Why Is This Lance Armstrong's Fault?
Fascinating, isn't it? Armstrong is alleged to have engaged in a "doping conspiracy," whatever the heck that is, and the likes of Doyal are only upset because they no longer feel they have sufficient means to maintain a fantasy about who Lance Armstrong is.

This is, of course, yet another example of what I was describing yesterday in my post about politicians. Doyal had a certain amount of faith in Lance Armstrong, in that Doyal wished to believe something about Armstrong despite not actually possessing any real evidence for that something. Doyal wanted to entertain the notion of a faultless, flawless athletic super-genius who, through the power of determination, could beat cancer and rise to near-mythological heights without the aid of chemicals. (One of the reasons this is silly is because, as I have previously mentioned, EPO is prescribed as part of many chemo-therapy regimens.)

The important thing to keep in mind here is that Lance Armstrong didn't actually do anything to upset Doyal. Doyal admits that he forgave Armstrong for cheating. It isn't Armstrong's fault that the USADA marched ahead with its anti-doping case. Armstrong fought it for as long as he could. It's the USADA who burst Doyal's bubble, not Armstrong.

Furthermore, no one asked Doyal to fall in love with the Armstrong legend. No one begged Doyal to make up excuses despite what Doyal himself considered to be mounting evidence against the case. No one twisted Doyal's arm. His falling victim to a sham facade is hardly the facade's fault.

This Is Faith, Undone
But all of this is emblematic of what happens when people lose their irrational faith in something. They cannot lash out at those they perceive to be telling the truth, because they must maintain faith in something, after all. Instead, they lash at those who they feel duped them. They always feel that being duped was somehow "unfair."

Thus, the man who loses faith in Christ resents The Church; the man who loses faith in Mohammad awakens a despiser of Islam; the man who loses faith in communism becomes an anti-nationalist; the man who becomes disillusioned by the government he believes in becomes an anarchist. And, yes, the man who wished to believe in the mythos surrounding a cancer survivor and Tour de France champion finds himself resentful of that "liar," Armstrong.

So it goes. They cannot - they must not - blame themselves for being tricked. They must maintain their innocence through all of this. If they themselves admit that they were only pretending to believe all along, then Pandora's Box is opened up. Sports, after all, is an extremely trivial matter. If one maintains such a preposterous faith when it comes to sports, then what must one conclude about one's beliefs in god and government? And ethics?

Few among us have the kind of strength to genuinely second-guess their most deeply held beliefs. Those who refuse to do so will respond with anger and fear whenever their illusions are burst. This is merely personal weakness. It takes an unflinching courage to evaluate one's beliefs and accept one's rational shortcomings at face-value.

So much easier to declare the universe a mystery and condemn all those who expose the lies we tell ourselves for what they are.


The Wisdom Of Perspective

I didn't get much sleep on Monday night, so when I woke up yesterday, I was extremely tired. I felt tired all day long, and my condition didn't improve until this morning, after a good night's sleep.

I was tired, and thus not looking forward to my daily seven-mile run. So what did I do? I could have taken the day off, sure, but I didn't want to lose the good fitness-momentum I have been generating for myself lately. Instead, I opted to have an easy day! My easy day consisted of replacing my seven-mile run with a four-mile run at about the same pace.

This is significant because, when you put in fewer miles of running per day, you reach a point at which having an "easy day" isn't an option.

Think about it. Let's say you run three miles a day. When you get tired, you could theoretically go for a one-mile run, but hardly anyone feels that going for a six-to-ten-minute run is worthwhile. You don't get much bang for your buck with a run like that. It's an option, just not a particularly useful one. A runner who puts in three miles per day is far more likely to take a day off than to go for a comparatively easy run.

When you rack up a few more daily miles, you wind up with two options (a day off or an easy run) instead of one (just a day off). This is part of the perspective one gains from pushing oneself up to the next level.

One gains a certain perspective when one gets accustomed to a more ambitious way of looking at things. This is precisely what I mean when I encourage people to adopt a longer cognitive time-horizon.

We can see this from another angle, too. Training for a big race, or undertaking to get in shape in general, requires that a person maintain a persistent long-range vision. If you can't commit to daily exercise for months on end, then you can't change your overall fitness level in a meaningful way. Through every step of the process, you will feel like a beginner. Every workout you do will be painful and difficult.

It is only by stretching your perspective across the months required to get in shape that you begin to feel that your workouts are pleasant and refreshing. Part of this is simply remembering how much a given workout used to hurt, and this requires a long-term sensory memory. An additional part of this is knowing what you have to look forward to in the future, and this requires a good sense of what you're working for, i.e. a goal.

And It's Not Just About Running
We gain perspective any time we challenge ourselves to think or act bigger than what we're doing. If, for example, one were to commit to saying something kind to coworker or family member every single day, then before long, one will find giving compliments incredibly easy. More than that, one will discover many new and important ways one appreciates the people around him/her. Before long, such a person will hold an entirely new perspective - or, even if not an entirely new one, a much more optimistic one.

Any commitment we make toward the improvement of our lives provides a correspondingly significant improvement in our own perspective. It seems a bit obvious when I put it that way, but still - it's true.

The key to actually pulling this off is:

First, choosing an idea that is unambiguously positive. Really this isn't a necessity, because any idea to which you commit will impact your perspective. However, most people agree that committing to a bad idea is unambiguously negative. You can certainly diminish the positivity of your perspective by committing to a bad idea, but this is horrible advice. So choose something good, for heaven's sake.

Second, once you've chosen an idea, you have to really commit to it. It isn't sufficient to simply declare that you want to climb Mount Everest. If you want to do it, you have to commit to that idea. And if you'd rather commit to eating out less, or cleaning the house more, then that's fine, too. But you must commit. You must take regular, forward strides toward achieving your goal; then and only then have you committed. (Otherwise, what does "commitment" even mean?)

Try it out. Write it down somewhere, commit to a happy or positive idea and take regular steps toward achieving it, whatever it is. In three months, ask yourself how your perspective has changed. Did your workouts get easier? Did your house get cleaner? Did you start to feel happier and more relaxed?

The Lies That You Believe

All the flings and the flaws
Let me cling to someones clause
All of us are lonely souls and all of us mend broken laws
How come I always try to cross

Even though I know the bridge is burning?
How come I take it when I know that you fake it?
I tell myself I'm learning

The lies that I believe are simple

The lies that I believe are true
The lies that I believe are so beautiful
The lies that I believe are true
- Ian Thornley, "The Lies That I Believe"

Recently, Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger expressed dismay over the Obama campaign's propensity to call their opponents "liars." He put it this way:
The Obama campaign's resurrection of "liar" as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it.
The next day, though, fellow WSJ writer James Taranto offered a light dissent. In contrast to Henninger, Taranto "tends to agree with Henninger that the 'resurrection of 'liar' as a political tool is odious,' but we're ambivalent. It also strikes us as infantile, and as such hard to take altogether seriously." [Note: For idiomatic purposes, Taranto always refers to himself in the first person plural when he writes.] While Henninger warns that accusing one's opponents of lying is crossing a serious line, Taranto's belief is that it is more childish than anything; but that stating that "all politicians lie" propagates "a kind of mindless cynicism."

One hates to be a cynic, but on the other hand, why is belief in an objective fact "cynical?" There is no question that all politicians lie. I blogged about this a short while ago. Here's what I said a month ago:
For the most part, I have avoided commenting on the conventions because I still believe what other people seem to forget when the conventions are happening: politicians are all liars.

There is no doubt about this, no uncertainty. One need only compare a candidate's pre-election promises to their actual behavior once in office. Here I choose not to cite specific examples because I want the reader to fully understand that this is a pan-partisan fact. It is no "more true" of one group of people than it is of another. The spin doctors like to call it "flip-flopping" and peg it to one or two politicians, but it is true of all of them. They were all for it before they were against it, and vice-versa.
A couple of quick additional points here, and then I'll cut to the chase.

First, The Onion quite effectively drove this point home yesterday with a piece entitled "Nation Tunes In To See Which Sociopath More Likable This Time." At the risk of stealing Taranto's material, if politics has lost The Onion, then it's lost Middle America. The fact of the matter is that satire of The Onion's ilk more accurately reflects the nation's mood than anything a couple of lying, scheming politicians say.

Second - and this is an important segue - it continues to baffle me why any normal person can in seriousness call one party's politicians "liars" and not also those of the other party. There can only be one explanation for this, and this is where the above-quoted song lyrics come in.

Pretending To Believe
As I have invested some time in describing recently, faith is the act of replacing what we wish to be true with what we know to be true. It is important to keep this in mind when one exposes oneself to the world of politics because it can be easy to fall into the politicians' traps.

We must always accept the fact - the fact - that politicians are lying to us. The moment we lose sight of this fact (fact), we slip into a groundless faith more "mindless" than anything Taranto thinks of our "cynicism."

I had hoped that this was perfectly obvious in 2008, because up until that point, I had never seen a politician who so unabashedly played the people's faith against themselves as Barack Obama. Every speech he gave since "the big one" in 2004 was as vacuous as a vacuum can be. His rhetoric was vague and empty, he said things that everyone clearly agreed with, but which were also not in the least bit controversial. He cooked-up slogans about "hope and change," and then left a big, gaping hole when it came to what he actually stood for.

The result of this tactic was not that people saw through it, as I thought they would. Instead, the public took the bait and filled the hole Obama's rhetoric left with their own personal desires. Rather than evaluating the Obama platform and recognizing it as totally vapid, people inserted their own policy desires into it. They were sure he'd close Guantanamo Bay. They were sure he'd bring the troops home and set us on a course of peace. They were certain he'd adopt Bill Clinton's economic policies.

Instead, what they got was a man who drones children in Pakistan on a daily basis, subjecting them to a nightmare the likes of which you cannot begin to imagine, much less sympathize with. They got a psychopath who lambastes anyone who dares to disagree with him, a man who wags his finger at the Supreme Court justices from the bully pulpit, a man who blames his every failure on other people, a man who wages class warfare and who completely disregards the US Constitution; a man who states in one breath that he believes in free enterprise and in the next breath takes over whole industries and subsidizes expensive pet projects.

But, look, Obama isn't anything new here. Obama is nothing more than the latest example. And, disturbingly, he is fully transparent in his lying. And so is Romney. When the two campaigns accuse the other of lying, they are (hilariously) telling the truth.

What they hope is that we, the American public, will simply do the legwork ourselves. They hope that we will convince ourselves that one party's lies are true, or truer than the other party's lies. What they hope is that our faith in them will carry them onward.

Sadly, there are still people I know who are doing this. But at a certain point, they will have to ask themselves what they (my friends) gain by having a mindless faith in millionaire politicians who are not acting in the best interest of my friends.

Get it? The first step to real freedom is releasing yourself from carrying the burden of excusing the lies of politicians. Election day is still a short ways away. There is still time.


Brief Running Update

Remember when this used to be a running blog? I don't, either...

Actually, it's been a little over a month since I discussed exercise in general, and shortly before that I had expressed hope that I would be able to begin training for a marathon.

Well, despite all the silence, I have been running regularly for the past three months. No, not just regularly; rather, I have been steadily increasing my mileage since August. I put in 42 miles of running in August, which is remarkably low by my standards. I followed that by running 50 miles in September. Now, here it is halfway through October and I have already run 50 miles. I've been building my endurance base slowly and comfortably. At this point, I am putting in about seven miles on a daily basis. (Actually a bit more than seven, but a quarter mile here, a quarter mile there...)

So the endurance base is coming along. Yesterday, I even felt like my old marathon-running self again. To adhere to my own 18-week training regimen, I should have a strong endurance base built by this coming Sunday, October 21st.

Having said that, seven miles daily is not quite the endurance base I would prefer for a marathon training regimen. So I am not certain that starting the 18-week plan is right for me at this point. I don't want to risk another injury.

What I would like to do is get up to nine or ten miles daily, and then see where to go from there.

That's the plan, as of today. We shall see how it goes. Fear not, however, I will diligently pull you along for the ride.


Movie Review: Seven Psychopaths

Like the movie poster above, Seven Psychopaths is a movie straight out of the late 1990s, offering little more than another send-up of irreverent-humor-and-brutal-violence. But despite a few good moments, a strong cast, and some very fine performances, the film falls short of the predecessors that built the genre. 

Seven Psychopaths tells the story of a Hollywood film writer and possible alcoholic, Marty (Colin Farrell) who is unsuccessfully trying to write a film script entitled "Seven Psychopaths." Along the way, he is "helped" by his best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), whose possibly-well-intentioned endeavors to help Marty sober up and finish his script lead to various hijinx.

We, the audience, don't know very much about Billy. He may have a girlfriend. He may be an actor. What we do know is that he lives alone and spends his time stealing dogs from Hollywood denizens with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken), and then returning the dogs to their owners and claiming the reward money offered. The three men wind up in a world of trouble when Billy steals the dog of brutal gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson).

It is difficult to say much more about the plot of the film without giving away important spoilers, so I will try to avoid it.

What I will say is that, while movies like this were once seen as cutting edge - one could fit them in the same genre as the average Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino film - there is something very by-the-numbers about these pictures now. The graphic violence is no longer a shocking counterpoint to the irreverent humor. The irreverent humor is, thanks to movies like Ted, no longer particularly irreverent. What we are left with is a film that wants desperately to be Reservoir Dogs or Kingpin, but instead feels like an episode of Miami Vice.

It's not all bad, of course. There is some strong writing during the first half of the film, and all-star cast delivers many excellent performances. Of particular note is Sam Rockwell, a remarkable actor whose compelling performance provides the backbone for the entire movie. This is really saying something, because it is rare to see someone out-shine Christopher Walken, particularly in a movie like this. Walken, for his part, delivers another strong performance, but his character feels better-suited to a man like Jack Palance. (Then again, who but Walken could be cast in such a role, now that Palance has long since left us?)

The strange thing about all of this is that Colin Farrell plays the lead role. His performance isn't weak, by any means, but this is the second major film release of the year for Farrell, and he has yet to knock one out of the park. His character certainly has a kind of softness not typically seen of a Farrell character, but the audience can't help but feel they're looking at Quaid from Total Recall all over again: A man with a strong jawline, squinting into the situation, unable to understand the events surrounding him. The character feels a little clunky sitting beside the others.

As I mentioned, however, the movie's major shortcoming is its anachronism. Gone are the days of Trainspotting and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Pulp Fiction is nearly twenty years old. The blood-spattered and irreverent comedy genre has out-grown the likes of Seven Psychopaths and has frankly expired. The world of film has moved on. Watching this movie felt like I was staying up past 1:00 A.M. with HBO on in the background. Come to think of it, even HBO airs different material after 1:00 A.M. these days.

Don't get me wrong - I loved the late-90s. But they're over. This was a good movie, but the time for such films has come and gone.