2013-02-26

Common-Sense Dieting And Eating More Seafood

I seldom like to discuss diet on my blog because, for one thing, I doubt anyone cares what I eat, and for another thing, I am not too impressed by fad diets in general. I have written about the dangers of paleo dieting, and I hold the general point of view that we as a society have a tendency to over-intellectualize the topic of food and diet to the point that common-sense truths start to disappear. This, to me, is the real danger of modern dietary trends.

For example, the cholesterol scare that popped up in the late 80s and early 90s was good because it got people thinking about the fatty foods they were consuming; but it was bad, because the over-intellectualization of  the topic created the high-carbohydrate dietary trend. This, in turn, subjected people to a lot of bad food advice. Obviously eating a diet comprised primarily of refined carbohydrates comes with its own set of problems.

Of course, paleo dieting is (in my opinion) misguided for the same reason, but in the opposite direction. Eating multiple eggs per day, and large amounts of fatty meats, is not the kind of dietary practice that common sense would indicate. It is not the kind of diet that should be sustained over a long period of time. Ketosis, as I wrote previously, is not a natural condition of the human body.

At a certain point, common sense must kick-in.

As a diabetic, I have had to analyze my food intake "three-ways-to-Sunday." I am required to compare changes in my food intake to changes in my blood sugar. As a result of this, I have a good working knowledge of what seems to work well, at least for diabetics like me. Interestingly enough, "what seems to work well" is common sense.

For example, common sense would suggest that stuffing yourself with pancakes and breakfast sausage in the morning is going to make you feel unhealthy. Sure enough, my experience (and the data I keep) reveals that whenever I eat a lot of rich carbohydrates or fatty meats at breakfast time, my blood sugar rises more than it should. Carrying this trend out for extended periods of time results in a body that simply doesn't feel great.

By contrast, it is almost impossible (but not completely impossible) to make myself feel bad by eating a large amount of vegetables. Certain very rich vegetables - cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, and the like - can and do take their toll. But common sense tells us that "the healthy vegetables," things like spinach, kale, chard, cabbage, broccoli, and so on, will almost never impact our bodies in an adverse way. My personal experience - supported by my data collection - confirms common sense in this case. There may indeed be an unhealthy quantity of broccoli, but most people would have to try very hard to consume that much.

One final note I'll add here pertains to seafood. Seafood makes up a large part of the so-called "Mediterranean Diet," and also a large part of diets in the Far East. Basically, wherever there is saltwater, there prevails diets rich in seafood. For the past couple of weeks, I have tried to replace traditionally "North American" protein sources (chicken, beef, and pork) with seafood. This undertaking has been a smashing success. I have felt pure and energetic. Over this past week, however, I have been travelling, and therefore unable to pursue my typical seafood regimen. What I have noticed is that my body really misses the seafood, and is not responding particularly well to the chicken and turkey with which I have replaced it.

So, it seems to me that a diet rich in seafood - which may or may not be supported by "common sense" - yields very good results for me. Whether or not you are diabetic, I recommend giving a seafood diet a try. All you have to do is eat normally, but restrict your protein consumption to eggs, dairy, seafood, and vegetable sources. Try it for a week and see how you feel. Then give your old diet a week and compare notes. I'm certain you'll reach the same conclusion I have.

2013-02-25

Trade Makes Life Better

This morning's particularly excellent Cafe Hayek post from Donald Boudreaux is a glorious exposition on what it means to succeed in the export business. It really got my gears cranking, as Boudreaux's posts tend to do. Here is a small sampling (all emphases in the original):
Fifth scenario: American producers employ labor, capital goods, and raw materials to produce goods that are routinely loaded onto big cargo ships.  These ships sail safely to foreign ports.  The American-made goods are unloaded, and in exchange Americans receive money – Australian dollars, euros, yuan, yen, rubles, you name it.  When this money is sent to America, Americans eventually spend it in Australia, Europe, China, Japan, Russia, you name the foreign location.  The more Americans export, the more Americans can import.  And that – the ability to import – is the point of trade.  In the ability to import lies the purpose and value of exporting.
So when, for example, historian Chris Wickham writes that some late-empire-period economies ”depended substantially on exports for their prosperity,” what he must mean (whether he knows it or not) is that those economies depended substantially on trade for their prosperity.  Trade, not exports.  Mr. Wickham could just as accurately – indeed, more accurately – have written about these economies that they “depended substantial on imports for their prosperity.”  To the extent that exports played an important role in creating prosperity for denizens of those economies, exports played that role only insofar as exports enabled the denizens of those economies to enjoy more imports.  The prosperity is found in the increased consumption made possible by greater imports.
Exporting isn't good because "we" are selling "them" stuff. Exporting isn't good because "they" are buying "our" stuff. Exporting is good because people are engaging in trade.

Why is trade good? Because when you trade, you get more of what you want. Period, end of story. There is no such thing as "fair" trade versus "free" trade. There is only trade. Trade is a voluntary (emphasis on the voluntary part) exchange of X for Y, made by two or more parties. By definition (i.e., not by supposition or by conjecture or by philosophical assumption), all parties who engage in trade walk away with more of what they want.

We can argue all day about whether $4 per gallon of gasoline is a "fair" price, but in the end, the only thing that matters is whether you bought it willingly from a willing seller. If this fact is true, then (again, by definition), you end up with more of what you want, and so does the seller.

In the abstract, this all seems so terribly obvious: "Of course, of course! Everyone knows that free trade enriches both parties to the transaction! We all know how it works in textbooks!" But allow me to demonstrate how some of you are not quite following along...

What if I were to say, "Rob over-payed on a gold ring by $500!" Most people would not be particularly impacted by a statement like this. Gold rings can be $2000 or more dollars, and they are a luxury. Anyone who over-pays by $500 is still getting an expensive chunk of gold.

Now, consider this alternative statement: "Monique over-payed on her hospital charges by $500!" Suddenly, people are of the opinion that a tragedy has befallen poor Monique. Like a gold ring her hospital charges can be $2000 or more dollars. And yet, because it is "health care," then suddenly everyone believes that Monique "ought" to pay very little money. Because, after all, isn't health care a noble good and a human right?

People who fall for this kind of rhetoric are unaware of the fact that Rob and Monique both walked away from their situations with more of what they wanted. Rob wanted a gold ring more than he wanted the $500; had he not, he never would have paid. Monique wanted whatever treatment she received at the hospital more than she wanted the $500; had she not, she never would have paid.

Trade always results in a surplus for both parties. This is because trade is voluntary. Unless someone sets his mind on undermining his own interests, he will always be made better off from trade.

It is an unavoidable fact.

2013-02-24

The Individual, Part III

Previous installments of my series on individuality can be found here and here.

Part Three, Some Specific Conflicts Between Individualism And Collectivism
Previously, I discussed the idea that collectivism is closely tied to our sense of morality, while individualism is closely tied to our sense of existence. In that sense, human beings are both collectivist, social animals and individualist, existentialist ones.

Next, I spent some time elaborating on the value of individualism in that it provides our lives with a deep sense of meaning and fulfillment. The social/individual duality of human nature means that our more collectivist pursuits satisfy important needs we have, but that the same is true for our individualist pursuits. The reason I felt the need to spend time establishing that fact is that, in this day and age, individuality is a less-emphasized aspect of human nature.

It may be that the absence of individualism in society has been filled with an over-emphasis on collectivism - and there are those who make that case. But it may also be that the absence of individuality in society has not been filled by anything at all. Perhaps it is just a gap. Whichever the case, this series on individuality is my attempt to provide some balance, to remind my readers of the value of individualist existentialism, and to perhaps win over some to "the cause." But please bear in mind that "the cause" is not so much about individualism ahead of collectivism as it is about individualism in balance with collectivism.

The truth is, there are plenty of times in life when we feel a very real conflict between our social/collective obligations and our personal/individual ones. Today, I'd like to discuss those conflicts.

Most often, this conflict is explored from the standpoint of an implied preference toward collectivism. The child who complains that someone else is playing with his toys is admonished for being selfish and encouraged to share. The employee who objects to the way business is being handled is reprimanded for "not being a team player." The Uncle Scrooge is criticized for letting his ambition get in the way of his personal relationships. We are all very familiar with these situations. They are a part of our culture, which means that they are part-and-parcel to our social nature. Obviously, we would expect this to be the case - these situations reflect a preference for collectivism over individualism.

Less familiar to us are tales and descriptions of "the other side" of these same stories, the individualistic side.

The child who will not share is, after all, a child. If we accept the premise that children are not born with a perfect understanding of themselves, and with a need to self-actualize and get along with others, then we must not conclude that the child is simply being wicked and greedy. The truth is, the child is not yet mature enough to understand our concepts of private property and social inclusion. It takes experience and parental guidance for that child to understand that his toy still belongs to him, even when he shares it with others. It is incumbent upon us to teach our children that sharing is a kind gesture offered to others that helps others understand that we value their friendship, and to set a precedent for further cooperation between us in the future. Therefore, we should think about the child's potential confusion before we chastise him for "failing" to share. Private property and cooperation are concepts that many adults do not understand; a child's confusion should be understood and forgiven. When we correct such behavior, we should do so with that confusion in mind.

Many books could be - and have been - written on the topic of office politics. I certainly claim no expertise on that subject, although I can claim some experience. Perhaps, in days gone by, the workplace was an easier environment to navigate because both roles and job descriptions were much better-defined. In a factory or on a construction site, for example, work is often divided according to specific tasks: the inspector inspects, the drywall hanger hangs drywall, the framer frames, the foreman oversees, the estimator estimates, and so on. Each employee knows his or her specific task to complete, and knows precisely to whom he or she can escalate difficulties. There is not a lot of room for complex office politics in more "traditional" forms of employment precisely because responsibilities and obligations are all very well-established.

We can contrast this sort of organization to a modern, service-industry organization, such as a consulting firm. A consulting firm contains a team of people who all share a roughly homogeneous skill set. To the extent that each consultant performs a different task, this determination is made by the project manager, whose own skills are roughly the same as those of his or her team members. Each individual team member, given sufficient time (and authority), would be able to perform all of a project's associated tasks himself or herself. The reason a project is performed by a team instead of an individual is not due to any individual's shortcomings, but rather due to the fact that it is more efficient for tasks to be divided up and worked on simultaneously. And yet, there is an extensive organizational hierarchy in any consulting firm: the employees exist on a totem pole with "junior analysts" at the bottom, performing "grunt work," while "consultants" or "senior consultants" perform mid-level tasks; most of the organization and planning is performed by "principle consultants" or "project managers." This all seems fine enough in theory, but in practice, when do we know we are performing "grunt work," versus "mid-level" tasks? When do we know we have sufficient "experience" to act as a "senior consultant" versus a simple "consultant?" To a great extent, these determinations are arbitrary. Someone does, in fact, determine what is what, but that determination is made according to that person's own ideas, and only justified after the fact. The employees in this latter kind of organizational structure are, therefore, confused about who has authority over them, who has the responsibility of training them and assigning work to them, who is their direct point of escalation when things go wrong, and when they can even say that they have finished the job that has been asked of them.

All that is to say, in the more traditional, old-fashioned workplaces, someone who complained too loudly or disagreed with the work plan probably was indeed being a bump-on-a-log in most cases, because work was well-defined and the hierarchy well-established. Today's workplaces are entirely different. Authority is often claimed, rather than earned. The team's decisions are often a rather fuzzy consensus, as opposed to being a foreman's work schedule. A junior employee may never gain a promotion simply due to the fact that he or she never moves to claim authority. Others may act to claim it, but somehow rub the rest of the team the wrong way. All such conflicts create "office politics." It is not exactly clear that someone with strong and divergent opinions really lacks for team spirit. The next time you encounter these conflicts in your own office, you may want to take a step back and consider whether the problem really is an absence of teamwork, or whether the odd-one-out does indeed have a point.

The most abstract of the three conflicts I have mentioned so far is the one involving an individual's own, private ambitions, and the way these ambitions affect that person's relationships with other people. If that person's ambitions are professional, then everything I have just described about office politics also applies. Still, the conflicts associated with personal ambition must be disambiguated from office politics.

A person's circumstances play an important role in how their lives unfold. Two people may behave almost identically in two highly comparable situations, and that behavior may affect success for one person and failure for the other. It should come as no surprise, then, that many people become envious of people close to them when they observe similar behavior resulting in good success for their friends, but not for themselves.

It is only natural. It's our sense of justice at work. Justice means that good things come to good people who do good things, while bad things come to bad people who do bad things. When the cake of life is distributed unequally, it tastes bitter.

To unravel this conflict, we need to remember the duality between our collectivist nature and our individualist nature. Where there is moral conflict, there is existential hope. Where there is existential conflict, there is moral hope.

Knowing that a good friend or colleague has succeeded reflects well on us. Our sense of empathy and our respect for our friendship inspires us to feel happy for the successes enjoyed by others. Where we would be inclined to feel an existential disappointment with the failure of our own good deeds to result in personal success, our moral and social sentiments - our collectivist nature - suffices to soothe us. We may also keep in mind that friends in higher places confer social benefits to us ourselves. On the other side of things, the person who enjoys some success must keep in mind the many other, similar people around them who engaged in near-identical behavior, but whose circumstances did not provide the unique opportunities that lead to success. This is a fancy way of saying that "success is when hard work meets good luck." But keeping this in mind will prevent us from believing that it was solely our own genius that produced our success, and therefore prevent us from believing incorrectly that we are morally superior (remember: collectively, socially) than those around us.

Thus we see that an existential issue is resolved by keeping some moral/collectivist perspective.

On the other hand, the conflict can cut the other way. Personal success can mean that the group reacts harshly and resentfully against an individual. Even worse, a group can conspire against a potentially successful individual, preventing him or her from achieving any measure of success at all. This, in contrast to what I said above, is a moral conflict that can only be resolved existentially. Individually,  a person must decide whether his or her relationship with the group at large confers as many benefits for him or her as it does for the group. Unfortunately, in cases when the group is excessively invasive on a person's individuality, an individual's existential needs must outweigh the value of group membership. The individual must sever ties with a bad group and search for a healthier one. That individual must continue to hold a high sense of self-esteem and put his or her ambitions ahead of cloying clutches of a group that can only be described as negative.

Naturally, wherever there are mentally healthy individuals engaged in healthy social interaction, all of the above conflicts will exist in harmony and balance, and we will be able to easily navigate through all situations without hurting each other.

2013-02-22

Minimum Wage: Facts Versus Ethics

This morning, over at Cafe Hayek, Donald Boudreaux points to a Wall Street Journal editorial on minimum wage versus unpaid internships for members of Congress.

Boudreaux writes about
...the hypocrisy of politicians who, in one breath, boast of the great benefits that their offices’ unpaid internships offer to young men and women, and who then, in their next breath, pontificate self-righteously about how their support for a higher legislated minimum-wage is evidence of their special concern and care for low-skilled workers.
He then continues:
How gratifying that Ms. Waters is among those who “feel better” about themselves for forcibly shrinking the range of employment options open to low-paid workers.  It’s public-policy as puerile theater-therapy for the ego-greedy elite.
Meanwhile, Dwight Lee's WSJ editorial makes similar points:
Internships at the White House, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington introduce thousands of young people to working in government and to the discipline and industry needed to function in any workplace. Yet these unpaid positions are almost by definition reserved for the offspring of the well-to-do who are least in need of such an advantage.
And later:
Increasing the minimum wage would make this path to a better financial future harder than it needs to be for the young people who already face the most difficulty. These are the young who don't have the advantages of a stable family life, parental role models at home, and teachers in good private or public schools instilling in them the joy of learning.
These young people don't have the financial security to go to a university right out of high school and then continue on for a professional degree. And they can't afford to take unpaid internships, whether in Washington or with nonprofit organizations.
For these young people, the first jobs they find are seldom those in which they start out being productive enough to be worth even the current minimum wage of $7.25. The teenage unemployment rate reported in January was 23.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One wonders how much higher it has to go before Washington wakes up.
As we can see, these statements are emotionally charged appeals to our greater sense of morality. In the same sense as I have been frequently discussing here on my own blog (here and here), there is an inherent collectivism about these sorts of emotional appeals. They are intended to demonstrate that there are significant moral problems with raising the minimum wage, and that doing so will result in powerful negative consequences on the more vulnerable members of "our" society. By implication, "our" society is made better when "everyone" is allowed to find a job.

But, of course, this is not so very different than the equally collectivist claims made by minimum wage advocates. For that group, we may simply replace the phrase "find a job" with "draw a living wage." In any case, they are appealing to our collectivist desires to ensure that everyone in "our" society is adequately provided for.

Perhaps libertarian economists like Boudreaux (I will not speak to Lee's ideology because I am not aware of it) are so inclined to make the ethical case for the abolition of minimum wage laws precisely because their political opposites are making the same kind of claims in favor of minimum wage. Perhaps the intention is to highlight that morality need not always favor socialism or the state. Perhaps the idea is to demonstrate that the socialists do not have a monopoly on ethics.

If so, such exposition is unlikely to win over new converts. The reason for this is that those who favor higher minimum wages view the world unlike economists. Economists see the world as an array of competing resource allocation schemes. Scarcity exists, therefore nobody can have all that they want, therefore schemes that maximize resource allocation and minimize deadweight loss are preferable.

Unlike the economists, socialists view resource allocation through a lens of competing class interests. They believe that the only reason the poor do not draw higher wages is because the rich people are taking a larger share for themselves. They also believe that the reason many people are unemployed is because the rich refuses to hire them. (The argument is that hiring more workers who must be paid "fairly" cuts into the profits [notably, not revenue] of the rich.)

As such, Boudreaux's remarks miss the mark. Luckily, Mr. Lee's editorial has another side to it, which we would not know about, were we to rely solely on the excerpts provided by Boudreaux. Lee also makes the existential case in favor of lower-than-minimum-wage work (emphasis added):
The president and other champions of a higher minimum wage clearly recognize the value of entry-level work. Washington interns do much of the phone-answering and mail-processing chores that await first-time jobholders in offices across the land. An entry-level job is much more important for many young people than making a little summer money. It is the best opportunity they have for getting the training to develop skills they need to earn a good income later in life when they will have more financial obligations.
As Lee rightly points out, there are clear, non-monetary benefits to working an unpaid internship with the US federal government. With regard to internships, almost no one disagrees. The "hypocrisy" of the minimum-wage advocates is not that they cruelly wish to deprive the poor of work, but rather that they themselves understand full well that some work confers important benefits beyond the mere monetary value of it.

This fact is impressively encapsulated by the "server's wage" earned by waitstaff, which is much lower than the minimum wage. Servers earn this lower wage because everyone understands that being a waiter or waitress comes with the important non-wage benefit of exposure to gratuity. A server can earn much more than minimum wage - much more than even some well-paying non-service-industry jobs - solely by virtue of the fact that they have access to gratiuties.

The existential case against minimum wage is the simple fact that not all job compensation is monetary in nature. Sometimes having the flexibility of working, say, a 10-hour work week is more important than earning another $2 per hour. Under a minimum wage regime, many such employment opportunities are lost because 10 hours per week at minimum wage is too costly for the employer to justify, but 10 hours per week at a slightly lower wage might in fact make a lot of sense.

So flexibility, access to gratuity, access to high-profile experience, and so on, constitute important non-wage benefits that can be had in a world without minimum wage legislation. To a lesser extent, these opportunities still exist. The existential reason to abolish minimum wage, however, is that opening up the job market to more such opportunities would confer important economic benefits on low-skill, or low-wage, or even just entry-level employees.

2013-02-21

What Direction Are We Heading?

I am happy to know that - at the very minimum - I am not the only one who has the very uneasy feeling that American society is progressing in the wrong direction.

Over at Spootville, Tim asks, "Why Do You Watch The News?"
There could be a concentration camp in this country.  Maybe if there is we will hear about it, maybe we won't.  Do you think that the media would report anything of the sort if it had a direct link to our President?

If our President shot a republican, would the media claim that the president should be removed from office, or would they claim that the republican had it coming?
It all reminds me of a conversation I once had with good friend and faithful Stationary Waves reader TR, about life in the former Soviet Union. TR told me that people were curious about what was going on within the country, that much of the protests and the desire to change things in the government came - not from an ideological desire to overthrow communism and replace it with capitalism - but rather a simple desire to know WTF was going on out there. Could they trust the government numbers? Could they trust the news? They heard the stories, but what was really happening?

Meanwhile, Oscar Pistorius is being prosecuted for murder while the lead investigator building the case against Pistorius "has been replaced after it was revealed that he himself faces murder charges." Correction: Make that seven counts of attempted murder, including opening fire at a tour bus. Botha - the investigator and alleged murderer - has been replaced a day after falsely stating that he had discovered steroids in Pistorius' home, and admitting that the police possessed absolutely no evidence contradicting Pistorius' account of the night in question.

Now, I have no idea who is guilty and who is innocent in this vain charade. But as the details of the case against Pistorius have emerged over the last few days, I have found myself in the dubious position of not believing the police investigators at all.

Why not? Because police officers right here in the United States shot up a large chunk of the West Coast in pursuit of a man who they eventually burned alive; no evidence, no case, no trial. The police tell us that Dorner murdered other people. They then launched a small army of police officers and some unmanned drones to hunt Dorner down and kill him.

I ask you, which is more terrifying: An accused murderer on the run, or an army of police officers who can unleash hellfire and fury, and killer drones, hunt a man down, and kill him in cold blood without a fair trial?

There are those of you who will certainly suggest that the LAPD would never have done this if they did not have adequate evidence against Dorner. You will claim that the LAPD would never lie about such a thing. How horribly naive you are.

The media's stunning silence on the failures of the state are one item on the list. The murderous police state that can do anything it pleases is another item on the list. The occupation of several sovereign Middle Eastern nations is another item on the list.

My friends, I ask you, is this the direction we want to move as a country? Is this the kind of power we want to allow the state to have? Does it honestly fill you with a sense of national pride? Does it make you happy when you stop to think that every four years we elect a man to a position we readily describe as, and believe to be, "the most powerful man in the world?"

It is a mark of true cowardice to watch these events pass by and say nothing. How despicable, then, is it to make excuses for what the state has become, and how low to actually voice support for such madness? Wake up, America.

2013-02-20

The Individual, Part II

Read Part One of my series on individuality here.

Part Two: The Search For Meaning
It cannot be said enough that every human being is in some respect a collectivist and in some respect an individualist. While political and ideological pundits will attempt to make us choose between our proclivities, this kind of dichotomy is highly unrealistic. A person who aspires to an ideal of total individuality will neglect his or her invaluable personal relationships. A person who aspires to an ideal of total collectivism - or total altruism - will wind up becoming either a nihilist, believing in nothing in particular, or some sort of resentful martyr who gives everything to others and faces the crushing rejection of never being the beneficiary of that level of altruism on the part of other people.

But you won't catch me saying that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle." Instead, what seems to be the case is that people pursue social relationships to achieve satisfaction on some levels, and pursue self-actualization to achieve satisfaction on other levels. What we discovered yesterday was that our social endeavors are a reflection of our ethics, while our self-actualization is a reflection of our sense of existence, or what the Existentialists called "Authenticity."

Because I am writing about individuality, and because there is enough information out there on the problems with being anti-social, I will focus today on some observations associated with being anti-individual.

While "anti-individual" may seem like a loaded term, I do not intend it to be. "Anti-individual" really means a regular pattern of self-neglect, ignoring one's own needs, persistently being harder on oneself than one is on others, putting the desires of the group ahead of one's own, lending others more credibility than one lends oneself, and so on. To put it succinctly, being anti-individual is a pattern of behavior in which oneself always has less credibility than one's chosen peer group. We can also extend the notion of anti-individuality to those people who ascribe ill motives to people who do choose to look after their own needs, desires, and best interests. However, I would argue that when such criticism is unwarranted, the anti-individual doing the criticizing is quite often engaging in projection.

As I wrote yesterday, a lack of individuality creates problems of an existential nature: feelings of meaninglessness, aimlessness, laziness, a lack of ambition, an absence of responsibility or conscientiousness, and so on. But is this really true?

Consider the popular blog ZenHabits.net. A short while ago, its author Leo Babauta wrote down some advice for his children, which included the following:
All you need to be happy is within you. Many people seek happiness in food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, partying, sex … because they’re seeking external happiness. They don’t realize the tools for happiness aren’t outside them. They’re right inside you: mindfulness, gratitude, compassion, thoughtfulness, the ability to create and do something meaningful, even in a small way.
This certainly is good advice, but it seems a little rich, coming from a website devoted to Zen. Zen, like all the various strands of Buddhism, primarily teaches its practitioners to accept the "suchness," or the "now-ness" of the universe. Zen's adherents believe that achieving perfection, enlightenment, happiness, and so on, involves accepting and becoming one with the universe as it currently is. Forget the past, don't think about the future. Think only about the present - and actually, don't really think about it; just experience it. You are not you, you are a mere part of the universal whole.

...And so on, and so forth. As you can see, Zen is the practice of obliterating one's cognitive time-horizon and aspiring to literal self-abnegation, culminating in ritual suicide.

As such, it should surprise no one that practitioners of Zen would be most concerned with their existential problems. For many, it was these very problems that lead them to Zen, not realizing that the answer they'd be given would be, "Just stop thinking about it." Zen compounds a person's existential problems by providing a non-answer and admonishing anyone who experiences existential difficulties for engaging in "wrong thinking."

I am not at all surprised that among Leo Babauta's first set of advice to his children is a reflection of his own struggle, an existential one. We observe similar struggles in all collectivist stereotypes. The more dedicated one becomes to an in-group, the more time one spends satisfying moral causes, the less time one spends on existential causes, the more likely it is that the sources of one's dissatisfaction will be existential rather than moral.

Naturally, Zen is not unique in this regard. It is generally true that religion is, for the most part, an appeal to our sense of right and wrong, a dedication to the rules governing our behavior with respect to other people. When a person finds that he lacks meaning in his life, religion moves quickly to fill that void, inviting a person to double-down on their religious commitment, contribute more time and more money and dedicate more thought toward religious (moral, social, collectivist) fulfillment.

And it need not even be a religious dedication. Any moral cause or social commitment works the same way. It might be a political cause, or perhaps a charitable one. It could be the ASPCA or the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Or, it might just be time you spend with your friends and family. Indeed, I know many people who often voice existential problems to me, but who are basically terrified of being alone. They constantly surround themselves with friends and family members in an effort to fill the void in their lives, but the void is never filled because it is a different void that needs filling.

Please understand that I am not indicting group affiliation or moral causes. The fact of the matter is that time is finite, and the more time you spend doing X, the less time you have to do Y. If we take an extreme example, we could say that at the minimum human beings need both food and sleep. If one spends all his time sleeping, he will starve; if one spends all his time eating, he will collapse from lack of sleep. Collective and individual needs are a lot like food versus sleep: both are vital, and you can't do one and the other at exactly the same time.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you are deliberately ignoring or negating the individualist part of you, you will soon find yourself wanting for all the things that the stereotypical collectivists desire: A sense of self, a sense of meaning and purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, a Monument. Few truly dedicated collectivists understand that the deep, unwavering sense of meaninglessness they feel is a direct result of their self-abnegation, their refusal to attend to their individualistic needs, their existential desires.

I hope I have impressed upon you the value of individualism as human need. Thus far, my goal has been to establish the fact that all human beings possess individualistic desires and an existential yearning that cannot be satisfied by dedication to collectivist practices. As such, individuality is inherently valuable, because only individuality can satisfy our various existential needs.

2013-02-19

The Individual, Part I

Part One: Individualism As A Human Need
Humans are paradoxically both decidedly individualistic and intensely social beings. In some circles, these two aspects of life spawn the famous collectivist/individualist debate, but they need not. There is nothing about mankind's individualistic nature that negates our social nature, nor vice-versa. Those who like to pretend otherwise are probably over-simplifying.


Science and literature are both replete with great works dissecting and analyzing the inherent problems with being anti-social. It's clear enough to most of us that being an anti-social person makes one feel alienated (by definition) and generally dissatisfied. There has been some evidence in support of the fact that old people who lack a strong connection to other people - such as a close circle of friends or family - more quickly deteriorate both mentally and physically. Loners and outcasts can range from depressed to violent. The kinship of our fellow human beings is incredibly important to our happiness and mental health.

On the other hand, anti-individualism is a much less-explored topic both scientifically and in art and literature. Oh sure, there are some great works in political theory from the 18th and 19th centuries. There was that whole Ayn Rand thing, of course. There was Carl Rogers and his ideas about self-actualization; there were the Existentialists and their ideas about Authenticity. But beyond that, I am aware of no serious research that aims to study what happens to a person (or group of people) who is (are) denied their core sense of individuality.

One reason for this is, I believe, the fact that it is difficult to conceive of an absence of individuality. Even the most collectivist people among us put collectivism in an individualist's terms: Everyone has a role to play; Do your part; Do your duty; and so forth. This fact has lead many a philosopher into the many hilarious verbal paradoxes surrounding sentences like, "I am a collectivist [or socialist, or communist, or whatever]." One cannot even declare one's affinity toward collectivism without first declaring one's individuality.

The less-attentive among us stop there, and simply content themselves with the belief that collectivism is a philosophical contradiction. But there is a larger issue involved here.

It has long been understood that collectivism owns the language of Ethics. That is to say, within the philosophy of "right" and "wrong," it is almost always the case that the discussion involves to how best to treat other people, and why that is the case. Even individualistic ethical arguments tend to be descriptions of the many ways by which other people make out best when individuality is most rigorously maintained. Consequentialist ethical arguments appeal to the many positive consequences of our ethical schemes; whether those schemes are based on individualism or collectivism, the consequences are always described in terms of all people in general. Deontological ethical arguments have always traditionally been collectivist in nature. Utilitarian ethics are really just a special subset of the Consequentialist ones. Only Eudaimonism provides any kind of expressly individual ethical appeal, but it does so vaguely and has long since fallen out of favor.

The fact that collectivism owns the language of ethics is a real sore spot for individualists. How can one promote individualism when it appears so at odds with society's core moral concepts? Why be an individualist if individualists aren't ethical?

Yet, here we see that existence is inherently individualist. As I noted above, the language of existence - who and what you are, how you see yourself, whether you are alive or dead, and in whatever large or small way you happen to be defined - is entirely individualist.

Fighting against the concept of "collectivism" may well be a lost cause, precisely because our sense of ethics drives us to analyze how we should treat other people. On that level, "the collectivists" have won by a mile. But a fight against the concept of "individuality" is a fight against existence. Thus, we can easily see why the Axiom of Existence was so important to Ayn Rand. This, too, is what I mean whenever I claim that certain ideas are nihilistic or that certain actions are "acts of self-abnegation."

Those of us who become anti-social soon discover the horrors of denying the collective: loneliness, ostracism, stress, exclusion, and so forth. This is well-documented in scientific research. Equally as obvious, though not as well-researched, is the fact that becoming anti-individual leads to its own set of horrors in the form of existential threats: meaninglessness, aimlessness, laziness, lack of ambition, irresponsibility, et cetera.

2013-02-16

Nine [Dollars] Is A Magic Number

Greg Mankiw asks a useful question:
There is one question I would like to see some reporter ask Alan Krueger, the president's chief economist: How did they decide that $9 per hour is the right level?  Why not $10 or $12 or $15 or $20?  Presumably, the president's economic team must believe that the adverse employment effects become sufficiently large at some point that further increases are undesirable.  But what calculations led them to decide that $9 strikes the right balance?
From his chair in Boston, Massachusetts, it is probably difficult for him to understand the political genius behind a $9 minimum wage. It is incumbent on someone who lives in Utah, or Montana, or Oklahoma, or... Texas... to point out why Obama would like to set the minimum wage at $9 instead of >$10. So let's get to it.

Consider this useful link from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides the following tables, showing metropolitan and non-metropolitan data for cashiers:

Metropolitan areas with the highest employment level in this occupation:
Metropolitan area Employment (1) Employment per thousand jobs Location quotient (9) Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage (2)
New York-White Plains-Wayne, NY-NJ Metropolitan Division 106,250 20.99 0.81 $10.28 $21,370
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL Metropolitan Division 89,400 24.95 0.97 $9.93 $20,660
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA Metropolitan Division 85,340 22.32 0.86 $10.84 $22,540
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 57,660 22.60 0.87 $9.44 $19,640
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 54,480 24.45 0.95 $9.39 $19,520
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metropolitan Division 47,290 20.47 0.79 $10.39 $21,620
Philadelphia, PA Metropolitan Division 43,950 24.21 0.94 $9.97 $20,750
Dallas-Plano-Irving, TX Metropolitan Division 42,220 20.65 0.80 $9.39 $19,520
Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 35,120 20.68 0.80 $10.97 $22,820
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 34,290 20.04 0.78 $9.82 $20,430

Notice how none of these metropolitan areas have an hourly mean wage below $9.

Now let's take a look at the same data as applied to non-metropolitan areas:
Nonmetropolitan area Employment (1) Employment per thousand jobs Location quotient (9) Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage (2)
Kansas nonmetropolitan area 11,450 30.08 1.16 $8.56 $17,800
Other North Carolina nonmetropolitan area 9,990 34.20 1.32 $8.78 $18,250
Eastern Texas nonmetropolitan area 8,600 31.04 1.20 $8.73 $18,160
Balance of Lower Peninsula of Michigan nonmetropolitan area 8,210 29.77 1.15 $9.62 $20,020
Western Central North Carolina nonmetropolitan area 8,170 33.73 1.31 $8.88 $18,460

Interesting. Only one region shows a mean hourly wage above $9, and that is a the non-metropolitan region of Michigan that is nearest to Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Toledo.

A deeper dive into the BLS data reveals that California's mean hourly wage for cashiers is $9.81, while that of South Carolina is $8.67. The mean hourly wage for cashiers in New Jersey is $9.16; in Nebraska it is $8.79. In Massachusetts it is $9.57, while in Missouri it is $8.86.

There certainly does seem to be something magical about $9 per hour. It seems that highly populated, metropolitan, left-leaning regions of the country - those with existing "living wage" laws, for example, will be unaffected by the impending unemployment that comes with a rise in minimum wage.

On the other hand, sparsely populated, rural, right-leaning regions of the country will suffer greater unemployment as a result of this law and will be, cruelly, politically impotent against it.

2013-02-14

How To Have A Happy Valentine's Day

I have never really understood why single people hate Valentine's Day. Even when I was single - indeed, even when I was soul-crushingly single - I always understood that Valentine's Day was a fun day set aside for lovers to be happy that they are lovers. Today, I'd like to spend some time appreciating it.

It's Not You, It's Them: All Criticism Against Valentine's Day Is Either Stupid Or Mean-Spirited
One argument that consistently pops up is that Valentine's Day is a corporate concoction created to sell a bunch of useless crap to us hapless fools who can be duped into buying anything, just because some evil suit has given us a passable excuse. There are many problems with this idea, but I think my principle objection to it is that I don't find any theory very convincing if its principle basis is that most people in the world are idiotic sheep. I'll even take that a step further and say that any theory that requires us to think highly ill of other human beings is hateful, short-sighted, overly simplistic, and basically dismissive of life's complexities.

Another criticism of Valentine's Day is the idea that people who "really" love each other do not require a "special day" to express that love; they will express their love any time they feel like it, and make that a regular occurance in their relationship. This is a tempting argument to believe because there is nothing false about that stand-alone statement. Where it falls flat is that there is an implication couched behind these words that it is wrong to use Valentine's Day as one such excuse to express the love we feel for each other every day.

That's pretty stupid. Just like someone who loves to drive will think up any excuse to take his roadster out to the grocery store or the mall or the hardware store or pretty much anywhere else he has to drive, someone who loves to express love will do so in the fact of any imaginable excuse. If there were a "national drive your sweet roadster day," you can bet that sportscar enthusiasts would be out on the road, spending their money on gas and having the time of their lives. This isn't because they're driving under false pretenses, but rather because even a stupid excuse to do what you love to do is a good excuse - because life is all about doing what you love to do!

And I can think of something that pretty much all human beings like to do more than almost anything, something that involves boxes of chocolates and sparkly jewelry and novel underwear and fancy sheets. No, we certainly do not need a dedicated "Valentine's Day" to practice this extra-curricular activity. But then again, any excuse is a good excuse to do what you love to do.


The other major criticism of Valentine's Day is that it is a terrible, depressing day if you are single, because it underscores the fact that you don't have anyone with whom to share in the celebration. This criticism strikes me as being incredibly mean-spirited. Just because Peter doesn't have a girlfriend doesn't mean Paul should not get to be happy with his. Similarly, just because Ted does not have any friends doesn't mean that Terry should never be able to spend time with his large circle of friends. Likewise, just because Shelly cannot golf doesn't mean that Sharon never should. Just because Amy is poor doesn't mean that Annie shouldn't spend a part of her millions on luxury goods that make her happy. Just because Ryan is cursed with type 1 diabetes doesn't mean that Reggie shouldn't go out and eat some ice cream and enjoy his long life and functional pancreas.

The fact is, people deserve to be happy. We all have our fair share of unhappiness and bad luck to deal with in life. Some of us even have to deal with much more than their "fair" share. But this is no argument against the rest of society enjoying a happy, fun-filled, carefree existence. And because this is true for every second of every day, then it is also true for every second of that one day that we call Valentine's Day.

But Wait! There's More!
The Valentine's Day haters are enough to get under a person's skin on Valentine's Day, and hopefully you have found my dissection of their preposterous arguments useful and uplifting. But the assault on Valentine's Day also comes in a far more subversive form: children.

I know, I know. They are precious little dears, aren't they? So cute, so innocent, so wide-eyed and wonderful. I don't disagree. But the thing is, if you invest too much time on your child's Valentine's Day experience - with its candy hearts and Snoopy Valentine's Day cards and its pink and red construction paper - you are basically going to ruin one of the most romantic days in the year.

It is tempting to make every holiday about "the children." Christmas is about the children. Independence Day is about the children. Thanksgiving is about the children. Even Mother's Day and Father's Day are inexplicably all about the children. Gosh, we love to capture their experiences on video tape and stuff. That's great, it really is.

But Valentine's Day should not be about the children. It should be about the adults. Why? Because romance can only really be appreciated by people who have achieved a certain base level of maturity. You're not going to find yourself in the right Valentine's Day headspace if you're sitting around saying, "Gosh, gee whiz, wasn't it cute when my little Bobby passed a piece of construction paper over to your little Suzy?" Sure, it'll warm your heart, but - forgive me here - Valentine's Day is about warming a little more than your heart. It's about igniting your heart and pretty much anything else your heart is connected to.

And cutesy isn't passionate. So knock it off. Your relationship will be much better if you set aside one day of the year to explode in unabated passion.

There is a reason for this. It's called happiness. As I said above, people deserve to be happy.

Oh God, Oh God! So Much Pressure To Live Up To!
At this point, a small subset of you are getting all freaked out because you now think that you "have to" explode in unabated passion this Valentine's Day, and you're not sure if you can live up to that expectation. I mean, what if you try to explode, but you screw something up? What if you're not sure what you'd like to do will work? What if you can't find any nice restaurant that will take a last-minute reservation? What if you're feeling self-conscious about the holiday pounds you haven't yet fully dropped? What if...? If...? What...? But...

Just take it easy. Stop for a moment, clear your head, and then think of the ten most passionate experiences in your lifetime. To be sure, a few of those experiences will have involved something fancy, like a beach vacation, or a big wedding, or an expensive exchange of gifts, or whatever.

But at least some of the experiences on your list will involve some stupid, insignificant set of circumstances that were no great production at all. At least some of those experiences are things that could easily have happened on basically any Tuesday. Or at least any Saturday.

It doesn't take much to have a happy Valentine's Day. You don't need a lot of imagination. We've all seen movies. We've all read books. All you really need is two willing participants.

Not sure where to begin? Here's the best tip I can give you, considering that I think it's best for people to pretty much figure these things out on their own: Go find that person you're thinking about right now and stand close enough to each other that you can feel each other's body heat. Think about it as it happens. Then just stop thinking. The rest is going to take care of itself, guaranteed.

Conclusion
So you are now armed with a crushingly effective argument against the haters. You are aware of the fact that you don't need to put heaps of pressure on yourself. You (hopefully) have a willing participant. And, you have an excuse to make your heart do a little racing today. 

So, for heaven's sake, stop reading my blog.

2013-02-13

Quote of the Day

From Doug French, at the Laissez Faire Book Club:
A year ago, a poll showed that 83% of Americans are all for using unmanned drones against suspected terrorists overseas, and nearly six in 10 strongly support the practice.
Maybe that doesn’t get your blood pressure up, but in the same poll, people were asked if they supported using drones to target American citizens who are suspected terrorists. Two-thirds said they supported using drones on Americans too!
That kind of result makes me think the rest of us should sleep in shifts.

The Truth Does Not Lie Somewhere In The Middle

Let's imagine someone who possess extremely negative personality traits. For example, let's imagine someone who is an incorrigible drug addict. Each day, he bounces from bender to bender. He is indiscriminate in his drug consumption. Like many addicts, he steals in order to consume more drugs, and he sells himself. He spends every waking moment of the day - and a large majority of sleeping moments - under the influence of highly destructive addictive substances, compromising his health, his relationships, and his ability to meet the basic needs of social interaction. He is in a constant state of denial about his addiction, and he lies compulsively.

Now let's consider the polar opposite of this extreme. Let's consider someone refuses to ingest any substance that isn't fully vetted by medical science, conclusively proven to provide health benefits. He will even ingest foods he finds completely disgusting, simply because they are medically proven to provide health benefits. He spares no expense on pursuing healthy ingestible substances, spending the vast majority of his earned income, and even incurring manageable debt loads in some cases, to procure healthy foods, supplements, and medicine. He invests a great deal of his time studying medical research so that he can determine exactly what is beneficial and what is not. He also rigorously adheres to every law on the books, no exceptions. He tells the truth, not just all the time, but he goes out of his way to speak the truth, even when doing so makes other people feel awkward.

Shall we agree that these two men, with respect to their actions, are polar opposites?

Now, a number of people will a "resolution" here in noting that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle," or that both of these men are examples of "extreme" behavior, which can be corrected with "moderation."

But consider the alternate possibility. Consider the possibility that a third man ingests massive amounts of recreational drugs, but also massive amounts of substances with proven scientific health benefits. When he interacts with others, 50% of the time he lies egregiously and the remaining 50% of the time he speaks truths that make people feel awkward. All of his time is spent consuming either recreational drugs or health foods and supplements. He spends all of his money on one or the other kind of substance.

Note that this third kind of person is also a sort of "equilibrium" between the "extreme" addict and the "extreme" health nut.

Sometimes a "happy medium" consists of a careful avoidance of unquestionably negative behavior. But in many cases, it consists of people who readily engage in various kinds of destructive behaviors that can be rationalized to "balance each other out."

Hence the dieter who eats M&Ms and then punishes herself with exercise (recipe for bulemia). Hence the many people in the world who spent their youth in a drug-induced stupor and their later adulthood pursuing healthy living. Hence the work hard/play hard crowd. The list goes on and on.

Sometimes it's important to remember that being somewhere in the middle is not an inherently good thing. What's important is not how extreme or moderate one's life is, but how correct it is. You can't cheat the truth.

2013-02-12

What Can We Afford?

To almost unanimous world condemnation, North Korea conducted a test of nuclear weaponry. Meanwhile, the government of Iran confirmed the conversion of enriched uranium into nuclear reactor fuel. As the so-called "first world" winds down its involvement with nuclear weapons and energy, the poorest countries on the planet heighten their interest in it. Why?

I tend to look toward the economic answer first. Once fully developed, nuclear programs are extremely efficient. No other type of electricity generation produces as much electricity for as little effort. No other form of weapon unleashes as much destruction as a nuclear weapon.

The problem, though, is that the nuclear program must be fully developed in order for use of nuclear technology to make economic sense. If a single company or entity of some kind were solely financially responsible for the development of either a nuclear weapons program or a nuclear energy program - without the aide of government subsidies - the project would never get off the ground. The considerable cost of the project overhead would preclude these technologies from existing in the real world.

But, with the clout of substantial public debt, the impossible becomes possible.

This is true of all sorts of things, including "social security," "universal" health care, wars on terrorism and drugs, and so forth. There is a long list of government undertakings that are government undertakings precisely because they are impossible to justify under the conditions of essential liberty.

Please understand that these sorts of social programs are not impossible merely because "the rich does not want to pay for them." There isn't enough money across an entire generation of human beings to make social programs affordable. In order to fund them, money must be deducted from future generations and transferred to the current set of recipients. This is what government debt actually is.

Most of my readers understand this already, but sometimes it can be beneficial to articulate thoughts like these in the interest of clarifying the matter.

The point here is that, considering the fact that US government debt is higher than US gross domestic product, and growing at a rate several times greater than the growth rate of GDP, it is becoming ever-more-obvious that destructive government spending cannot really continue like this. We're running out of the future generations' money. Those generations are entering the workforce with record-low job prospects. The machine cannot continue as is.

The tools employed by governments to restrict our freedoms - from expensive war machines to welfare traps - can only be paid for on a short-run basis. If the government cannot capture adequate freedom over the course of a few decades, the empire collapses, and the people get to keep most of their freedoms. The fact that the government is finally started to fold under the weight of its expenditures is good news for libertarians. If we can make it through this rough patch, then we will retain most of our freedoms for the next couple of generations.

2013-02-08

No More

I read a lot of blogs. What you see on the right-hand side of my blog are what I consider to be the best-of-the-best in terms of what I read. I've also omitted a few blogs that everyone follows, that everyone loves. Like XKCD.com. It would be duplicitous to advertise for a well-known and universally loved blog like that. But at any rate, I read an enormous amount of blogospheric material.

Because I read so much of it, it becomes necessary to focus only on those blogs and websites that produce material worth reading. I cannot be bothered to comb through a blog post to find the single nugget of wisdom that it might contain. A writer will either deliver the goods, or he/she will not. I suppose I am not sufficiently charitable a reader of expository writing to look for the needle in a haystack of poor writing or bad argumentation.

Generally speaking, I stop reading blogs when the balance tips too far into personal insult, cantankerous whining, "clever" comment moderation, concept-spam/punditry, and so forth.

The bottom line seems to be, I stop reading when subsequent blog posts don't offer anything new for me to think about. If a writer chooses to engage in personal insults, I will at first be inclined to think through the idea of why that writer is doing so. You know, is X economist really "a lunatic," is there something behind that kind of a claim? Is it worth thinking about? Or, is the writer just doing the ad hominem thing? Is the writer using grumpiness for rhetorical flair, or does he just have a bad attitude? Are there genuine problems in the comments section, or is the moderator skewing the discussion to make the writer look better? Do new posts offer some new thought the writer has been considering, or is it just "NGDP, twenty-four hours a day?"

Too much of the bad and not enough of the good will lead me to just stop reading. So much of the blogosphere is self-referential that I usually don't miss out on much by not reading, say Paul Krugman's or Matt Yglesias' blogs.

Well, add Scott Sumner's Money Illusion to my list of foregone blogs. I think the guy is really smart, but he seems to have hit a blogging peak at about 2009. No real point continuing with that one, really.

2013-02-07

Manipulation

In a perfect world, people would deal with each other honestly and decently. In the real world, there are a lot of manipulative people out there.

Manipulation is a psychologically interesting topic. There is an inherent irony built into it, one which I think a lot of people fail to recognize. That irony is that a manipulator attempts to dominate and control every situation, yet this implies that the manipulator would feel he or she lacks control in any situation in which he or she fails to engage in manipulation.

Think of it this way: Here I am, sitting at a desk, typing a blog post. Were someone to ask whether I felt completely in control of the operation of my car, I would answer yes, even though I am not currently driving it. Similarly, I feel I have adequate control over my own little universe, even if I do not happen to find myself controlling every single situation I'm in.

Put another way, I can even let someone else drive my car sometimes. I can ride in the passenger seat. What matters in life is not who steers my car, but whether my actions can affect meaningfully positive outcomes. What does it matter who drives the car to the grocery store if my goal is to go grocery shopping?

To manipulators, who drives the car is something that matters a lot. It seems to me that the reason for this is because a manipulator fundamentally feels out of control in his or her natural state. That is, a manipulator will feel out of control in any situation until he or she gains control (or thinks so) by engaging in manipulation.

This results in two key phenomena.

The first is that those who are most susceptible to manipulation will easily hand control over to the manipulator for the reasons established by the manipulator. That is, if someone is easily manipulated because he seeks approval, the manipulator will withhold approval until the manipulator gets what he/she wants. If someone desperately seeks to avoid controversy, the manipulator will cause a scene - or at least threaten to do so - unless the manipulated gives in on the matter. And so on, and so forth, on down the list of ways manipulators do what t hey do.

The second key phenomenon is this: Those who feel they are in good control of themselves and their lives will do little to stop the manipulator's behavior. This is because the behavior of the manipulator matters very little to those who cannot be manipulated. For example, what does it matter if the neighbor's toddler throws a tantrum in the grocery store because he was not given a piece of candy? It might matter to the toddler's mother, but it is irrelevant to the neighbor. So, there is no point to doing anything about the manipulative tantrum the toddler decides to throw. In fact, the more in-control a person feels over his or her life, the less that person is inclined to do anything about a manipulator.

So manipulative people continue manipulating those who can be manipulated, and will do so unobstructed by people who cannot be manipulated.

The only way to stop a manipulator is to out-manipulate him or her. Typically, those who are in the best position to do this - those who cannot be manipulated - are in the worst position to do it, because they are least practiced in the art of manipulation. They can see through the whole charade, but lack either the knack or the nerve to exploit the manipulable in order to put a stop to the manipulator.

I'm not sure how to resolve this issue. It's a tough one. We cannot prevent weak people from being manipulated, no matter how much it offends our sense of justice or morality. It would be nice to experience a life in which manipulators didn't exist and confound the situations into which they insinuate themselves.

But some devils can't be vanquished by angels, only by bigger and more terrifying devils.

2013-02-06

A Quick Thought On Immigration

I generally regard arguments against immigration - illegal or otherwise - to be basically economically ignorant. This is because, despite being an introvert and a bit of a hermit and a homebody, I think people are a net good. The more, the merrier. There is also overwhelming economic evidence and theory supporting open borders. Finally, preventing human migration across "public land" is a clear violation of basic human rights.

Nonetheless, I had a thought today...

Many arguments against immigration revolve around the idea that immigrants enter the country and then become welfare cases, costing "our" society a lot of money at the expense of the "foreign" residents.

Hold that thought for a moment.

Now, consider the nearly universal understanding that one of the major threats to the US welfare state is the fact that the Baby Boomers - a huge blob in the population graph - have started to retire and are going to place a high burden on the welfare systems we have in place. The idea here is that there will be too many non-working recipients of government assistance, and too few working non-recipients, tipping the system over into bankruptcy.

As an economist, when considering both ideas simultaneously, the following idea pops into my head instantly: Why not allow more immigrants into the country so that they can start working, produce tax revenue, and "save Social Security?"

The conservatives have this one all topsy-turvy. If they wish to oppose immigration, their argument should not be that immigration costs the state money. On the contrary, the conservative case against immigration should be that an open-borders policy further enables the welfare state to survive.

But what does that say about me, who favors both open borders and the dismantling of the welfare state?

Movie Review: Race 2

I watched the new hit Bollywood film Race 2 over the weekend, and I'm just getting around to writing the review now. This should already indicate to the attentive reader how well I liked the film.

Race 2 continues the story from the previous Race film. Like the prequel, Race 2 provides plenty of action, double-crossing, plot-twisting, and high-class heists. This time, there is a hefty dose of revenge injected into the film. The movie's plot is so thin that any additional details I provide will basically give the whole thing away. This is not a deep dive into the fine art of filmmaking. This is the shallow end of the Hindi film pool.

This is a difficult one to review, because, while I cannot pinpoint exactly what I hated about this film, I did hate it. Perhaps, as I just described, it boils down to the fact that there is not a whole lot to this film. It almost feels as though 45 minutes would have done it justice. Instead, it stretched on for two and half hours.

Let's begin with the female roles. While the basic modus operandi of female lead roles in Hindi films is to provide serious eye candy, and perhaps inject a little emotion-based reasoning into otherwise testosterone-fueled plots, the heroines in Race 2 were a bit too over-the-top. Their purpose in the movie seemed to be to provide, as Frank Zappa might say, "half a dozen provocative squats" apiece. There was no shortage of skimpy costumes and bathing suits - and who can object to that? - but it is always disappointing to see an actress as good as Deepika Padukone relegated to the role of a body with dialogue.

Not that expanding her role would have improved matters much. The dialogue in the film was so poorly written that even Hindi legend Anil Kapoor couldn't inject much life into it. Kapoor, as usual, outshined his fellow cast-members in a reprise of his fruit-eating character from the first Race film. Yet, where his character in the first film served as both comic relief and a final plot twist at the end, this time around, he was more of a buddy character, which feels inappropriate for an actor who commands the audience's attention whenever he appears on-screen.

So, if the best two actors in the film are confined to such a degree by poor writing, what can we expect of the films other characters? John Abraham and Saif-Ali Khan have obviously both been working out. Unfortunately, this is not a film about exercise. Abraham's character is ostensibly evil, but with Abraham's boyish features and comparatively weak acting, the character comes off a bit like a disgruntled teenager. And while Khan acts well, there is not much in the script for his character to do other than grimace.

What else can be said for Race 2? Not much. My recommendation: Avoid.

2013-02-05

Some Links

Wired, of all magazines, covers the changing definitions in martial language, and their impact on the safety and security of accused Americans.

CBC offers some "unclear" news regarding TV time versus sperm count. My theory is that sedentary men have diminished levels of testosterone as compared to active males. What's yours?

Home prices seem to be heading up again. While, yes, it might be a new mini-bubble, it nonetheless appears that the time to buy may be winding to a close. Ironic that most people are just now coming around to the idea that they might want to invest in a home again. What did I just say?

It would appear that decades of casual sex and drug use are finally catching up to the Me-Generation. I guess all those out-moded social mores that the Boomers had to break down actually served some purpose after all? Nah, keep doing drugs and screwing like minks. It's just more MSM lies, right?

Two high school students must play tug-of-war a lot differently than I do...

Unappealing Theories

Suppose I posited the theory that every instance of the color blue in the known universe was actually a subset of the color purple, that pure blue didn't actually exist, and that the human brain had developed a means by which these variations of purple were merely interpreted as blue at the level of cognition.

On the one hand, you would be justifiably tempted to invoke the principle of Occam's Razor. That is, the notion that the color blue does not actually exist in the universe and that we merely perceive a conceptual blue in response to certain kinds of purple is unnecessarily complex. It demands too many assumptions. It may very well be a valid and consistent set of logical principles, but it makes more assumptions than required to simply call blue blue and leave it at that.

On the other hand, what is the practical difference between something that is truly blue and something that the brain considers blue, regardless of what is claimed by the author of the Stationary Waves blog?

And, on still another hand, even if we assume that my theory is true, what is the value of our new-found knowledge? We will have to go around replacing all common-language references to "blue" with "special purple" or some equally laborious phrase. The way you live your life will certainly not improve or deteriorate much.

So, on the whole, a theory that demands too many assumptions and offers too few benefits is not a particularly appealing theory at all.

Eternal Suffering
Some think we're experiencing times of unyielding hardship. Consider the following:
The global economic meltdown that began in 2007 has brought suffering to countless millions. We have all witnessed—and in many cases experienced—the devastation.
But it didn’t have to be this way. This kind of financial devastation has been predicted again and again—decade after decade—by propo­nents of the Austrian School of economics. Ludwig von Mises, one of the most prominent Austrian economists, summed up the perennial cri­sis in the title of one of his many books, Planned Chaos (1947). Mises, especially in The Theory of Money and Credit (1912) and Human Action (1949), maintained that the boom-and-bust cycle that has afflicted mod­ern economies is both unnatural and unnecessary. It worsens living conditions for just about everyone. Since the publication of his books, abundant scholarly studies have validated the Austrian view. Yet few people—even among those teaching economics in colleges and universi­ties worldwide—know or understand the Austrian School.
That is the lead-in to today's Mises Daily article, written by Harry C. Veryser. Mr. Veryser continues:
The crisis that began in 2007 should be seen, not as an isolated inci­dent, but as part of a continuing drama that has its origins in US govern­ment manipulation of markets and currency. It is merely part of the cycle that has been the scourge of the West since 1913—which gets us to the story of our modern condition.
The pessimism continues. Veryser asserts:
  • "These new theories—however well-meaning—have had profound and often devastating consequences around the world."
  • "The world has needlessly suffered unspeakable misery as a result of theories and policies that ignore these principles." 
  • "We have all paid the price since."
  • "For years now, we have endured a barrage of bad news: businesses going belly-up, people losing their jobs and homes, government debt soaring."
Now, we all know that I am sympathetic to the Austrian School of economic thought. But, on the other hand, if I knew nothing about the Austrian School and this were my first exposure to it, I would think that the author is proselytizing for a cult. Veryser gives us epic tragedy, a war fought over the course of ages, and a promise of a hard-won victory in the future, with its attendant redemption and salvation for us all.

No, thanks. I'm not into new world religion.

Considering The Whole Message
I certainly do not mean to pick on Mr. Veryser unfairly. His article is a recent example in what I see to be an overall terrible message being promoted by certain members of the libertarian camp. But I want to make clear that I don't actually think these folks intend to convey the message they end up conveying.

Veryser is trying to tell us that if we take the time to reassess certain assumptions in mainstream macroeconomic theory, we have the opportunity to acquire a more accurate economic viewpoint, and this viewpoint will greatly improve not only our scientific understanding of the economy, but also our policy outcomes. That's a great point, and I agree.

The other day, libertarian celebrity Jeffrey Tucker offered the following on his Facebook page:
Mechanic paraphrased: "People who buy new cars are nuts or just willing to pay a high price for vanity. The new models are made mostly of plastic, have terrible visibility, and made to please the regulators not consumers. Used cars, in contrast, are great deals right now, if you are willing to pay cash. You get a much better car for the price."
In a recent article at the Laissez-Faire Book Club website, Douglas French writes:
Houses are black hole money pits that hold a psychic spell over owners, causing them to make irrational financial decisions because of the memories made at the house.
Travel light, avoid the intrusive paperwork, and rent. The money you save and flexibility you gain will be well worth it.
Why all the doom-saying? There's a message being crafted here that extends far beyond the author's intent. It's one thing to get people to second-guess their assumptions. Second-guessing one's assumptions is a highly beneficial self-auditing process that ensures we're always revising our knowledge in favor of truth.

Fine, but we should still consider the whole picture. Interestingly enough, Tucker himself does just that in his review of French's new book, The Failure of Common Knowledge. (See? Failure again.)

A Message With Scant Personal Benefit
Tucker writes:
It takes a shockingly long time for the masses of people to pick up on new realities. This is especially true if the new realities reverse very old trends that have burrowed certain false assumptions in our minds.
As examples, most people even today assume that you should:
  • get as much formal education as possible
  • buy a house as a solid investment
  • look to the stock market as an economic barometer
  • trust the Fed as the nation’s money manager.
Another thing that everyone knows: Prisons keep us safe from predators.
But what if all of these things are wrong, and not just a bit wrong, but wholly incorrect?
Indeed! What a great question! What happens to you when you start to question your basic assumptions about the value of formal education and home ownership? Consider how the world might change if these things prove to be "failures of common knowledge."

Just consider it. Consider a world in which most people eschew formal education. Consider a world in which most people rent their homes. Consider a world in which people completely ignore the value of stocks on the stock market when considering the overall performance of the economy.

Then, by definition, this would be a world in which most people lack formal education and own little if any real-estate, a world in which few people invest in the stock market and most people allow their general impressions of the economy rule over their conception of what is going on in their economic universe.

We've just described every poor, developing nation and destitute country town I've ever been to.

Like a universe in which "special purple" takes the place of "blue," the universe accidentally being described by the Tuckers and Frenches and Verysers of the world offers us great deal of second-guessing our prevailing assumptions. In return, we get to conceive of a "better" world in which few people are formally educated home-owners and stock-market investors.

Forgive me, but the is the exact opposite of the libertarian utopia I would rather see.

Walk The Other Way
Let's revisit The Stationary Waves Principle Of Coming Out On Top, shall we? The principle states: When you see a crowd of people all going one direction, that's your queue to go the opposite direction.

Here, we have a trickier application of the principle, because these an-cap libertarians are positioning themselves as the "alternative" to the supposed "mainstream" way of thinking. This is a highly effective branding of the issues.

But, it's wrong. The libertarian universe is almost completely dominated by Jeffrey Tuckers and Lew Rockwells and Tom Woods's. Most people who hear a libertarian message hear theirs. And their message seems to be: Don't waste your money on a college education [note: all of these men are highly educated], don't waste your money on real estate [note: some of these men have earned a lot of money by investing in real estate], reject conventional wisdom and learn to be an anarcho-capitalist.

The fact is, in recognizing the market bubbles that exist in real-estate, education, and stocks, these very intelligent men are mistakenly forgetting the many years they engaged in formal education and market investment.

It is not unlike the rich, successful businessman who, after years of hard-work and financial success, urges people to shrug off the chains of materialism and spend more time stopping to smell the roses.

What I mean is this:
  • Only the very well-educated folks are in a position to talk about the comparative merits of higher education. It takes a great deal of education to get to that position of criticism.
  • Only those who own a great deal of real estate are in a position to advise against buying more. They already own that magic amount real estate that is economically beneficial; they don't need more.
  • Only those who buy low and sell high are in a position to say, "Don't buy stocks." They already bought their stocks and are preparing to sell.
Get Some Perspective On This Stuff
The story goes that a student once asked Euclid why bother studying geometry, to which Euclid turned to another person and scoffed: "Give him threepence, since he must needs gain from what he learns." Many will students around the world will continue spending large sums of money pursuing knowledge in the form of formal, higher education. In the end, few will consider that time wasted, because knowledge is inherently valuable.

Similarly, as Douglas French scoffs at those who dream of home ownership so that they may acquire the fond memories of events that occur within those walls, those dreamers are laughing all the way to the bank - the memory bank.

As a young man or woman, you have to start somewhere. Much to your chagrin, you cannot emerge from your teenage years and magically become a rich and knowledgeable wandering playboy (or playgirl) without putting a lot of time and hard work toward acquiring that knowledge, money, and expertise.

In a way, I feel that the libertarian vision being promoted here - probably quite by accident - is a false one. It is certainly possible to become self-educated in anything, but it is also a lot of hard work, and your life will be fighting you every step of the way. It is certainly possible to live a happy and fulfilling lifetime in a string of rented apartments, but real estate offers you a stronger credit rating a reasonably liquid stock of equity that can be leveraged toward additional investments.

The point is, however much a particular market bubble exists, that bubble is not a sufficient argument against plodding forward with one's chosen life path. I have a college degree, and frankly, I treasure that knowledge. I own real-estate and I am extremely happy that I do. Both have proven to be quite lucrative for me.

In order to gain from these things, I had to march to the beat of my own drum. While others were studying "business administration," I studied economics. While others were building new homes, I was investing in income property.

Bubbles always apply, but so does insight.

Conclusion
There is much more to be gained with an optimistic, insightful, and nuanced world-view than there is from questioning absolutely every conceivable thing you have ever come across. At a certain point, it doesn't matter whether blue is blue or whether it is merely a cognitive hiccough. If you want access to higher paying jobs, you will need to acquire certain market signals, such as a college diploma. If you are going to spend hundreds of dollars a month on the roof over your head, you may as well acquire equity while you're doing it.

The point is, it's always fair to question your assumptions, but in doing so you should keep in mind that which will actually benefit you. Adhering to a nebulous conception of ideological consistency while simultaneously shooting yourself in the foot will give you a small boost of personal integrity at the expense of a large dip in quality of life.

Besides, many of the people telling you to avoid diplomas and houses already have theirs.