My Big Tax Reform Idea

I have a brilliant tax reform idea that will cut through the political gridlock and solve our fiscal woes without placing an unfair tax burden on anyone, and without the need for a particularly convoluted change to the existing tax rate structure. It is a simple plan, easy to implement, and satisfies absolutely everyone across the political spectrum.

Here's how it works:
  1. Step One - Freeze the Existing Tax Rates: The first step we need to take is to make the current tax rates "the status quo." Make the Bush cuts permanent and henceforth refer to the current rates as "what the tax rates are," so that we all stop talking about our own private historical period that featured our own preferred rate. Regardless of what we all prefer, let's just start the discussion from what we currently have and stop referring to the past.
  2. Step Two - Let All Those Who Think Taxes Should Be Raised Opt-Into Higher Rates: Simply stated, if you think tax rates are too low, you may opt-into a new tax rate structure consistent with the Obama Administration's preferred tax regime. So Warren Buffett can start paying his higher rates, as can any other rich person who insists that they can afford higher taxes. Also, any middle- and lower-class Obama supporter who feels strongly about raising taxes to afford increased welfare spending can certainly also opt-into the new rates. As a matter of practicality, their Social Security Numbers can be appended with an addtional 3-digit suffix so that people who opt-in can be properly accounted for at the Internal Revenue Service.
  3. Step Three - Let All Those Who Oppose Higher Taxes Abstain From Opting-In: If, on the other hand, you don't want to pay higher tax rates, you don't have to. You can keep paying the same status quo rate, as per usual. Your overall tax burden is unaffectted.
No more arguing, no more politics, no more B.S. Those who want to pay more, pay more. Those who don't, don't. I assume this means that the majority of Democratic politicians will opt-into the higher rates, and the majority of Republicans will not. Furthermore, I imagine that the majority of Democrats and liberals across America will opt-in, and the majority of Republicans will not.

Democrats and liberals get to have their social welfare morality play, and Republicans and conservatives get to have their economic welfare morality play, and the general public gets to play choose-your-own-tax-regime. Everybody wins.

Who's with me?


Finding Fault

Peras imposuit Jupiter nobis duas.
Propriis repletam vitiis post tergum dedit;
Alienis ante pectus suspendit gravem.

Jupiter has placed upon us two wallets.
Hanging behind each person's back he has given one full of his own faults;
In front he has hung a heavy one full of other people's.

- Phaedrus, Fables, Book IV. 9. 1

The typical cliche with respect to finding faults is that we never do a sufficiently good job of acknowledging our own, and that whatever faults we see in others are typically representative of what are own faults truly are. So, the man who first proclaims others to be greedy is more typically the greedy one; the bigot is a closet homosexual; the compassionate activist has a loveless marriage; the psychologist's kids are all screwed up; the economist is poor; and so on.

Enough has been written about this apparent phenomenon across the eons that I do not wish to expound any further on the topic here. Besides, I see things a little differently.

In my experience, a person's faults have more to do with what that person imagines he or she deserves. Whatever a person feels most critically entitled to, that will be the thing that governs his or her faults.

How about a nice personal example? This may surprise my faithful readers, but I have a tendency to construct long, convoluted arguments in favor of my personal world view. (Go figure, right? You'd never have thought that.) Part of the reason I keep this blog is that so my lengthy expositions find an unoffensive repository out of the sight (and email inboxes, and message boards, and Facebook pages) of my friends and family. If I'm writing about it here, I need not write about it there. All this is to say that I have a penchant to talk too much about things that only I deem important, and put a lot of extra effort into proving my point in no uncertain terms. At its best, it makes me a decent rhetoritician. At its worst, it makes me an insufferable and all-consuming nuclear blast of argumentation.

Not good. It's a fault. But wouldn't it be something if I were to claim that the only reason I argue so much is because I myself won't hear the arguments of others! Actually, that's not it. In order to respond to something at all, I must first hear it and second consider it.

Instead, the truth is that I feel the need to argue so much because I have a long and sordid history being ignored and dismissed regardless of how little I may have had to say. Dismiss a man long enough, and he will soon feel an overwhelming urge to be noticed and properly considered.

So, for me, that's a lot of what's going on in my head. I'm comfortable admitting it.

Not too many people can compare their faults to the one I've just expounded upon, but everyone certainly has faults. Rather than assuming that whatever they're going on about is a window into their own personal inventory (or "wallet," as Phaedrus would have it), I suggest that we all consider what it is driving a person to their faults.

The usefulness of such an exercise does a few important things:
  1. It builds compassion for one's opponent in a debate.
  2. It helps you more directly address a person's concerns.
  3. It helps you avoid getting sucked into a fact of psychology, and therefore helps you stick to the discussion at hand.
  4. It helps you know when to give up and walk away.
As I mentioned yesterday, there are many good reasons why capitalism is better than its alternative, but none of those reasons really meet capitalism's opponents where they stand. A view into "the anti-capitalist mentality" reveals that folks hold no particular dearth of logical ability or appreciation for justice.

In the reality, the difference is merely one of psychology, caused by a very different set of experiences and resulting conclusions; different from those of a capitalist, anyway. And what's true of capitalists-versus-non-capitalists is true of any other two parties in the midst of a disagreement.


Movie Review: Jab Tak Hai Jaan

WARNING: This movie review may contain spoilers (although I do not think so).

Any movie that stars Shah Rukh Khan alongside two of the hottest working Indian actresses - Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma - and featuring a soundtrack written and performed by the legendary A.R. Rahman is bound to be interesting and wildly successful. But when that movie is also the last work of Bollywood legend Yash Chopra, released posthumously, you can bet it deserves some special attention.

So I am going to give some special attention to the rather remarkable new Hindi movie Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Truthfully, it deserves it. Not only do the aforementioned traits make it legendary before the opening credits roll, this happens to be the first genuinely surprising Hindi movie I think I have ever seen.

Surprising, because of its underlying message, a theme controversial in any country, but in India truly shocking.

Jab Tak Hai Jaan tells the story of Samar Anand, a wise-beyond-his-years, hardworking Indian every-man living and working in London, working two jobs and scraping together a living with his unemployed Pakistani roommate. Samar's life is difficult, but he gets through it happily with a forceful optimism and the wisdom of a real guru.

One day, Samar meets the beautiful Meera. A bit of an every-woman herself, Meera is a somewhat typical member of London's privileged Indian immigrant population, daughter to a highly successful corporate businessman, pampered throughout her life, and hoping to marry a handsome Englishman some day. Meera also has the habit of making deals with God. Whenever she wants something, she prays to God and asks for it, promising to give something up in return. All her life, Meera has gotten everything she ever wanted by dealing with God this way.

Next, a little classic Hindi cinema unfolds. Samar falls in love with Meera immediately, Meera insists on a friendship, the friendship blossoms into a great love affair... Because Meera is already engaged to a nice Englishman, she forces Samar to pray with her to God, asking him to punish them both if they "cross the line" into romance. Samar objects vehemently to this, but ultimately does it to satisfy Meera. When they inevitably do let their romance blossom and Meera breaks off her engagement, things go great, until Samar gets into a car accident. As the ambulance arrives, Meera swears to God that she will never see Samar again if God saves his life...

Samar lives. The rest of the movie depicts the aftermath of Meera's hasty deal with God.

Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a shocking movie in that its story is not at all friendly to God. The underlying message is that we should place our faith in each other, not in God. Samar wisely out-matches every other character in the movie who places their faith in God above all else.

And, to be clear, this message is underscored again and again in every scene of the movie. When one character says a little prayer before diving into a cold lake on a dare, she nearly drowns and must be saved by Samar. When Samar's roommate devotes his time to prayers and Koranic reading, Samar is busy outside working, making enough money to support them both. When Meera is praying for her and Samar to be apart, Samar is calmly and confidently embracing love between two human beings in the face of what Meera calls "her belief." Samar places himself in harrowing situations to save the lives of others, tempting God to strike him down, but his ingenuity and confidence in himself always sees him through - always.

One has to admire the unwavering consistency with which the movie drives this point home, from the beginning, all the way to the end. This is a movie about the childish shortcomings of letting faith rule your life with pointless sacrifice when love and joy are available to all those who will simply choose to take advantage of the opportunities they are given.

Throughout the movie, Samar is the wise one, the sane one, the good one, the hard-working one, who shows us that we can and will be happy if we work hard and stay true to ourselves and others. Meera is a coddled woman who has never had to work and never will, and who attributes this life of privilege to childish prayers she made to a God who surely has better things to do than worry about whether or not she will marry an appropriately rich Englishman.

The movie is not without its faults. In fact, the vast majority of the movie's second half is preposterously unrealistic and disappointing. I could hardly believe it was made by the same people who created the first half of the movie. Nevertheless, the movie's underlying theme remains consistent to the end, and for that I rate this movie good, but not great.

Watch this movie to appreciate its humanist undertones, but don't expect to leave satisfied.

Good Arguments For Capitalism - And Who Cares?

There are plenty of good arguments for why an unfettered market is better than a fettered one.

For one thing, in nearly every market that I know of, an unfettered market will produce more output for less input. That's an unequivocal win for everyone because (a) we can all have more of everything, no matter our income, and (b) we waste fewer resources in the process.

Opponents of free markets typically point to "workers" as sufferers in this process. "Workers" might lose, if they end up with lower wages for the sake of everyone else's plenty. This argument falls short because it ignores (a) above. Another way to look at it is this: If I can pay you $1 less while substantially reducing the price you have to pay to buy what I'm producing, then what do you care? Whether you get $1 more for working or have to pay $1 less for living, what is the difference? The difference is nominal-only.

Another good argument for unfettered markets is that they are more just in the sense that all people face exactly the same set of rules, no matter their incomes. We treat poor people exactly like we treat rich people.

Opponents of free markets sometimes argue that being rich entitles you to more of everything because you have the ability to pay for things that poor people cannot buy. This is true inasmuch as having more of anything enables a person to enjoy more of that thing's unique benefits. A person with a greater ability to play basketball has the ability to play professional basketball. Is that an injustice? (Serious question.)

But there is a problem with all these great arguments for capitalism: They all assume that the person hearing them actually looks at the universe that way.

Having more of everything at a lower cost is only a good thing if you desire more or have no problem with the insatiable desires of others. If you feel that society in general desires too much and produces too much and consumes too much, then my first good argument for capitalism is not much of an argument for anything other than greed.

Treating all people equally under the law is only "justice" if it is consistent with one's personal definition of justice. If you feel that the weakest members of society deserve uniquely protective treatment under the law in order to prevent them from falling victim to the rest of us, then my second good argument for capitalism is not much of an argument for anything other than leaving the weak at the mercy of the powerful.

As long as someone is inclined to believe that society produces too much and ignores or exploits the weak too greatly, then there is no reason to believe in capitalism at all. No matter how well we provide for each other, we will only be increasing our consumption to ever-more-shameful levels; no matter how much legal equality we achieve, we will only be throwing the weak to the wolves.

The underlying philosophy of capitalism's critics is Polylogism. So long as a person believes that more is bad and that reality shape-shifts according to personal income, then there is no hope of convincing that person that capitalism is anything other than a quaint 18th Century ideal.

So why debate it?


How I Lost Ten Pounds In Just Three Days!

One bad case of food poisoning, and I've dropped ten pounds or more.

It seems incredible that a healthy guy like myself can drop weight so quickly simply because I ate at the wrong restaurant, on the wrong day, at the wrong time, and chose the wrong menu item. But that is precisely what it's like, living with diabetes.

Why? There are a number of reasons.

First, diabetes impairs the body's ability to heal simple wounds. This is why it takes you so much longer to heal when you accidentally cut your finger or something, compared to how it was before you had diabetes. If a simple wound takes so much longer to heal, you can only imagine how long it takes to heal a big wound. This, friends, is how diabetics lose limbs. What starts out as a simple sore persists for days, then weeks, then longer. Eventually, the tissue gets gangrenous, then the gangrene spreads, then you're facing amputation. Not good.

But of course, it's not just limbs and gangrene that we have to watch out for. It's also infectious disease, because the same mechanisms are at work here. Bacteria and viruses inside the body will react similarly to bacteria and viruses infecting a flesh wound, which means you won't have to worry about gangrene, but you will have to hunker down for a long recovery phase.

Second, infection naturally pushes your blood sugar higher than it would normally be. Your body is attempting to use additional energy to combat your internal infection. Additional energy requires additional glucose. Unlike the normals, though, additional glucose does not translate into additional insulin for us diabetics. We soon find ourselves swimming in a vat of our own sugary internal soup.

Elevated blood sugar is hard on the body any time. When you're sick, you've already got a strike against you. Your rising blood sugar in the context of illness means it's strike two. Your energy levels deplete, your nutrient absorption declines, your water retention dwindles. Things start to get worse. And when you're dealing with something like food poisoning - which already greatly dehydrates the human body - this becomes a very substantial strike two. Where most people are fighting for a recovery, we diabetics are now fighting against hospitalization. Yuck.

Third, we have to eat, and yet there is nothing we can eat. Faced with something like food poisoning, a normal person can commit to drinking juice, isotonic beverages, tomato soup, and so on. As they act to keep themselves hydrated, they can do so by consuming liquids that also contain calories and nutrients that can be at least partially absorbed. Diabetics, on the other hand, can only consume calories if we also inject insulin. We can potentially do this at mealtimes, which is fair enough, but it is difficult to consume sufficient quantities of tomato soup at mealtimes to replace all the calories we're losing to the food poisoning. While others can take a few calories every hour or so, diabetics can take a few calories, three times per day, and hope for the best.

Add it all up, and you have a recipe for disaster: Decreased ability to fight infection, rabidly rising blood sugar levels leading to further physical impediments, and a near-impossible ability to replace lost calories.

Everyone feels ill when they have food poisoning, but for a diabetic, it's over-the-top. That's how I lost ten pounds in three days.


The Emperor Has No Clothes

As so-called "market monetarism" quickly rises to its ultimate ascension upon the turrets of economic intellectualism, it is important to keep a certain perspective in mind when considering what this actually means.

Their circular reasoning may enamor them to those less inclined to consider each step in the logical chain (those with a shorter cognitive time-horizon), but one need not wade into the depths of minutia with Scott Sumner to pull the curtain on this one.

All that really needs to be said about Market Monetarism is that even its supporters readily admit that there is so far no way to actually target nominal GDP.

Here, I'll say it again: Market Monetarists support a policy they themselves don't know how to implement.

At least, that's what I get from this recent Bill Woolsey post. No worries, though. I'm probably the idiot in this case.


Music As Art

Some days, you just luck out. Yesterday was one such day for me.

There I was, working on my laptop with my headphones on, listening to music as I worked. Eventually the moment came, as it so often does, when nothing I had heard previously seemed to be appealing to me. I had grown tired of all the songs to which I had access. I needed new music!

Now, I am a veteran music listener. I have been through the YouTube video recommendations, the video discovery tool, Pandora, Last.fm, and all the rest of it. I have scoured the liner notes of every music album I own, searching for artists I may not have heard before. I have devoured every measure of music I could get my hands on. I have always tried to discover the best music I can, using every means available to me.

Sometimes, though, you just have to stumble on something. So I pulled up YouTube and entered "instrumental music" into the search field. There were a few noteworthy results, but the majority of it seemed to be either karaoke backing tracks or new age music, neither of which appealed to my mood at the time. Strike one.

I decided that perhaps what I needed to do was search for "fast instrumental music." I gave that a try, and came up with a few more interesting pieces. But none of the results really stuck with me. Strike two.

Afraid of getting a thousands links to Hedras Ramos videos, I nevertheless decided to run a search for "instrumental guitar music." Here, things got a little more interesting. Third time's the charm, I guess. Under that search string, I came to a series of videos posted by a character on YouTube with the amusing username "shatnershairpiece."

The first video I clicked on was a nearly hour-long improvisation entitled "Dank Domain."
What an incredibly musical and interesting piece of music! Intrigued, I descended deeper into shatnershairpiece's YouTube channel and discovered a series of live performances from an incredible rock jam band trio, perhaps the best of which is this thing of beauty right here:
And finally, my journey lead me to the holy grail: this musician's probable BandCamp page.

Between the YouTube channel and the Bandcamp page, there is more than enough incredible improvised guitar music to keep a hungry listener occupied for several days, if not weeks.

Now, I can't say what you will love about this music, but I can say what I love about it. I love how the artist is able to explore many musical ideas - for hours on end - without repeating himself too much, and while keeping the listener deeply interested. I love how the artist need not rely on fancy guitar techniques to satisfy my hunger for great chops and excellent melodic and harmonic ideas. I love how each and every track contains a multitude of melodies. I love his sense of rhythm.

This is a truly random discovery - the absolute best kind, from a listener's perspective! It is much like discovering a hidden cave of treasures. Suffice it to say, this is a cave I'll be exploring for quite some time, and I urge you to do the same.

A-Bomb, Ha Ha! I Win!

Unfortunately, the following is a post I feel obligated to write.

Recently, I have discovered an interesting piece of human psychology, something I have dubbed "the intellectual 'nuke' button." We could also call it the "get-out-of-thought-free card."

The intellectual "nuke" button is the psychological defense mechanism we invoke to prevent ourselves from having to admit that, not only are we wrong in our beliefs, but the other person or people with whom we are speaking happens to be correct. This defense mechanism can be very complicated indeed, and it takes on many different forms.

Nuke Buttons: Specific Examples
The simplest of all forms is a profound fear or panic. Some people, when confronted with being wrong, recede into absolute panic. First, they will simply try to end the conversation as quickly as possible. If pressed to continue, they become frantic, and within no longer than a minute or two, they may start to cry and hide their face. I call this the simplest form because it common among very small children who do not like to be questioned. When a child lies or misbehaves and are compelled to answer for their misbehavior, this is a common observed reaction. Clearly, there is no proceeding with a child who throws a tantrum, which is precisely why children throw tantrums in the first place. It is a last-ditch effort to avoid responsibility and get what they want. As we mature, we quickly drop this kind of behavior.

Nonetheless, we do see this in adults from time to time, and it is not fair to simply dismiss such adults as immature babies. The point here is not that their choice of defense mechanism is worthy of criticism. The point is that they have a defense mechanism at all. But, again, this is merely the simplest form.

More complicated "nuke" buttons exist. For example, many very intelligent people develop elaborate (but wrong-headed) theories about why those with whom they disagree are wrong, irrational, unintelligent, etc. The important thing to note here is that there is a difference between directly dissecting the arguments of those with whom one disagrees, and hunting for weaknesses in the minutia, as though flaws in minor points invalidate an opposing argument in toto. Many fallacies are often at play in this kind of "nuke" button, but the "nuker" is typically oblivious to them.

Another type of "nuke" button is more emotional in nature. In this case, the one doing the "nuking" often becomes incredibly indignant with respect to the opposing argument. The goal here is to highlight an emotional sentiment that the opposing argument could never hope to touch. A lot of racial or socio-economic indignation falls in this category. If the person you are arguing with maintains that you cannot ever hope to understand their unique set of experiences, then they are invoking this kind of "nuke" button. They have special, secret knowledge that you cannot even understand if you happen to know about it. It is tantamount to receding into an untouchable inner world that only that one person ever truly understands. It becomes scorched-Earth.

The point of these various "nuke" buttons is to completely invalidate any criticism aimed at a given person, to protect a person from criticism and from being wrong. Rather than responding to an argument levied against a person's beliefs, they simply "nuke" the entire argument and claim victory.

It is a cowardly thing to avoid ever having to be questioned, to avoid ever having to justify one's own beliefs and opinions. It is particularly problematic, though, to hold fast to very passionate beliefs without ever expecting to have to analyze the merits of those beliefs. We can go through life in a protective bubble, insulating ourselves with lies and self-delusions, but the question I ask is: Is that kind of life intellectually satisfying?

Self-delusions can protect us from temporary emotional discomfort, but this protection comes at the cost of long-run emotional health. It is certainly possible to live a lie, but in doing so we under-value the profound comfort of a life lived in honesty and curiosity. For that reason, we owe it to ourselves to check our premises from time to time, to make sure we're not turning our deeply held beliefs into a bit of a psychological Santa Claus.

Perhaps most importantly, we can more effectively communicate with others if we start by being honest with ourselves.

In a total coincidence, David Henderson has a related post on EconLog today. The way Henderson tells it, the problem with being polemic is that it's harder to self-correct. That point is fair enough, and especially applicable to the academic world. But the matter is often much smaller than that. As my wife likes to point out, people don't like to admit when they're wrong. Sometimes the simple truths are the more profound.


When You're Ill: To Run Or Not To Run

The conundrum that runners face when we start to catch a cold of some kind is knowing whether or not it's okay to keep running despite feeling ill. For non-runners, there is no conundrum: When you feel ill, you rest up and get healthy. We runners, though, have a tendency to feel like our training suffers if we don't run for a few days.

The truth of this sentiment is probably debatable. For one thing, it may be impossible to separate the impact of being ill from the impact of not training for a few days. Maybe we just feel sick, and that explains why we don't bounce back immediately after recovering. For another thing, a great deal of this phenomenon is obviously mental. Taking a week off means losing a full week of training, which in "running psychology" feels like you've "fallen a week behind" all those other runners out there.

Nonetheless, all experienced runners have conflicting past experience with running while ill. In some cases, running when you have a cold is a great way to give yourself bronchitis. We've all been gone on an ill-advised run, only to return feeling a few orders of magnitude worse than when we left. But in other cases, going for a run seems to get us "over the hump" of the cold and somehow makes us feel a lot better than we did before. The problem is that there is no apparent regularity to these results.

I won't say that there is a steadfast rule for all people or all situations. Many people swear by one strategy or another. What I will say is that the lack of consistency in the results of running while ill seems to indicate that there is more than a little psychology involved here, and that this probably influences things more than any virus.

In the end, it makes the most sense to rest up and recover. There is at least a scientific basis for this; it seems to make logical sense. I believe that the counter-claim, the idea that you can sometimes recover more quickly if you run when you're ill, is a bit of runners' mythology.

So if you're feeling a little under-the-weather and wondering if you should take the day off, I say, yes. Take the day off. It won't hurt your training as much as you think it will, and you won't have to worry about the "risk" of making your cold worse. Just stay home and rest up.


On Public Policy

In the world of public policy, we begin from the assumption that there is a problem that needs to be solved. From there, we hypothesize a series of policy solutions and estimate the impact of each. The one with the most "pros" and fewest "cons" represents the probable optimum.

Economists are typically the people tasked to come up with policy solutions, and across the generations, they have wrestled with the many problems of public policy. The early economists believed that utility was cardinal, i.e. that a perfect solution existed, and if everyone heard about it, they would all agree that it was the best solution, objectively speaking. Eventually, more refined economic thinkers appeared, and the so-called "subjectivist revolution" occurred. Utility could no longer be considered a cardinal or objective thing. Economics because "radically subjective" and the idea that different people prefer different things (which is common sense) became an economic truism.

This left public policy analysis, or "political economy," in a bit of a pickle, since there was no longer any clear consensus on what "best" means. An economist could design one solution that many people would prefer, while another economist could design an entirely different solution that many other people would prefer. The radical subjectivists postulated that the only viable solution in a subjective world is the absence of policy. This more than simply "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." It is more like, "if anyone is made worse off, then it would be unjust to act." Most of us have heard the more formalized version of this latter sentiment: primum non nocere, or "First, do no harm."

For what it's worth, I believe the medical analogy in this case is apt.

But economics continued to blossom long after the subjectivist revolution, and today we have behavioral economists who propose that we design public policies that "nudge" people into making choices that are said to be better for the economic actor than the actor herself would choose, left to her own devices. The obvious objection to the "nudge" paradigm is that it nullifies the revealed preference of the actor. If she chooses to do something other than what the policy designer believes is "the rational choice," then it is in the behavioral economist's power to proclaim that choice "irrational" and to design a nudge that "corrects" it.

In life, some of us are spendthrifts and some of us are misers, and most of us fall somewhere in between. Realistically, though, it would be impossible to arrive at a supposed "correct" level of spending versus saving, one that fits all people, all the time. And so it goes for all kinds of things: some of us pollute while others attend to the environment; some of us engage in unhealthy habits like smoking and drugs, while others are health freaks; some of us work 80-hour weeks, while others prefer scraping by with a part-time job; and so on. There are as many lifestyles as there are lives. Any policy designer who seeks a cardinal optimum is doomed to fail.

For this reason, I believe that most policy designers and behavioral economists are really interested in designing policies that result in a preferred choice, whether or not it is cardinally optimal. As soon as "policy designer" or "behavioral economist" became a valid job description, the job itself was validated. That is, because people can earn a living designing policies that the rest of us must obey under penalty of law - or additional financial burden - it stands to reason that any policy that optimizes the designer's annual job review is the policy that will be aimed for.

In other words, designers of public policy are not necessarily shooting for a social optimum, they are engaging in the same kinds of things the rest of us do at work. We all aim to please the boss, earn a raise, get tenure, add to our alottment of vacation days, etc. We all modify our workplace performance to reap personal rewards.

Therefore, if the boss says "reduce CO2 emissions," or "produce more solar panels," or "ensure that a higher percentage of people buy a health ensurance plan," or "bomb more countries," then that is precisely the policy that will be designed.

See, there really is no such thing as a social optimum of anything. It all comes down to what the heads of state prefer. They may prefer Policy X because it is what the voting public wants, or they may prefer Policy X because it is what the heads of state themselves prefer, or they may simply be trying to impress the hot new intern in the state office. The underlying reasoning doesn't matter. It matters only that the heads of state determine what the optimum policy is.

So please do not take matters of public policy too seriously. There is never any compelling reason for Policy X or Policy Y. The reasoning eventually boils down to the fact that whatever policy is being debated is the policy that the state wants to see implemented. And it will be implemented, regardless of the ensuing debate.

Today, we debate environmental regulations/policies because that is what our heads of state want us to debate. They are simply looking to implement the policy being debated. There is no point opposing it. We debate wars in foreign lands. There is no point to the debate, the invasion will occur anyway. We debate nationalizing the health care sector. There is no point to arguing, the sector will be nationalized. We debate tax hikes. Why debate? Our taxes will rise, regardless.

The very least we can do here refuse to behave like pawns. If the heads of state and policy designers want to create policies that force us to endure certain conditions, they can do so. We have no choice. We live under their rules. But let's not legitimize tyranny with a list of pros and cons.


Video of the Week

Today I've uploaded an old favorite from the Prime Numbers days. I hope you enjoy it.


Here Comes Heroin

The above graph shows the Google Trends for various drug-related search terms. Yellow is ecstasy, blue is heroin, green is meth, and red is cocaine. Although the following interpretation relies solely on visual analysis of the graph, as opposed to careful data analysis, I am willing to put this "out there," and welcome whatever criticism anyone might have.

Frank Zappa once pointed out a reality later confirmed by all sorts of researchers: Drug use goes through trends. For a while, users prefer one drug or one type of drug more generally, and then after a time they switch to another preference. I have no insight into the why of this particular fact of life, as faithful readers well understand.

Recently, I've observed a bit of a spike in references to heroin. In some cases, the references are comedic, in some cases they are not. Most recently, you may have heard about the reported heroin overdose of Jon Bon Jovi's daughter in her college dormatory. This is not an iconic example, it is simply a recent example.

Because I seemed to be hearing about it more, I thought I'd check to confirm my suspicion that heroin is becoming the preferred drug within drug culture. A look at the Google Analytics graph above confirms the following:
  • Ecstasy use is clearly and unequivocally on a long-term downward trend.
  • Cocaine use is on a long-term downward trend, but may be experiencing a slight upward trend during the last two years.
  • Methamphetamine use is highly correlated to cocaine use, although the total number of users (as estimated by Google searches) is lower.
  • Most relevantly, heroin is trending upward.
The caveats here are that, once again, I'm simply looking at what I see, not running any kind of statistical analysis on the numbers themselves; and, I am using Google searches as a proxy for actual use. To this second point, it doesn't particularly matter what the "absolute number of searches" is, just as it doesn't particularly matter what the absolute number of reported users happens to be. The point here is solely that many common drugs are trending down, while heroin is trending up.

Why Do We Care?
Long-term readers of this blog know very well that I am opposed to drug use. I favor legalization, but strongly oppose the use of drugs. While I have laid out my reasoning extensively in the past, I feel it's good to touch on past topics from time to time, and this is one such case.

Nearly every recreational drug works the same way, as far as the human brain is concerned. Active dopamine levels are increased, active serotonin levels are increased; re-uptake of both of the above is decreased; euphoria ensues. It is important to keep this in mind because the mechanism of action involved with most recreational drugs is such that using drugs diminishes a person's ability to experience emotions such as "reward" and "satisfaction" in normal circumstances. In short, drug use calibrates the brain to expect more pleasure than it reasonably should expect.

Heroin, though, works differently from other drugs. It works on the opioid-receptors in the brain, which are tied up in the body's pain-detection system, rather than pleasure-seeking system. This is what makes the rise of heroin use interesting from a philosophical point of view. Heroin is less of a "party drug" and more of a "whatever drug." Withdrawal involves an intense feeling of dissatisfaction which can be partially understood if one considers that heroin itself is a pain-killer. The psychology of heroin use would appear to be quite different from the psychology involved in other recreational drugs.

The impact of this on our culture has been drastic. We hear quite frequently that we have become an "instant-gratification" culture. How did come to this? It's true that simple pleasures are more readily available than they once were, but it is also true that millions of ADHD patients receive the medical equivalent of a recreational drug at early ages. It is true that such patients tend to seek out recreational drugs later in life at a higher incidence than the general population. It is true that even once-off experiences with drugs like cocaine can lead to irreversible neurological consequences with respect to the mind's expectations of pleasure.

The idea that recreational drug use would not adversely impact society is a bit of a fanstasy. Logic and science indicate the contrary.

It remains to be seen what the impact of a heroin trend will be on today's world. We know what it has looked like in bygone periods. We watched it in the 1990s, in the 1950s, at the turn of the Century, and so on back into history. It rarely coincides with a very happy period. We shall see what happens this time around.


Some Links

Gary Becker suggests that the best way to solve the illegal immigration issue is to set citizenship at a price of $50,000 (although, his number is mostly arbitrary).

The great Sonic Charmer reminds us that when a person experiences severe head trauma and permanent damage, we don't get to stop calling them people just because it makes plug-pulling decisions easier on the conscience.

Daniel Henninger asks, what is the implication of the "permanent campaign?" Are we headed for agitprop? Should Republicans also wage a total war of information? But I ask, where on Earth has Henninger been?

Speaking of agitprop, The Civic Arena offers us a window into the emotionally confusing and Kafkaesque (specifically, The Castle) world of presidential form letters.

On health care, Rick Perry remembers the Alamo. I wonder if anyone else will. (Okay, no I don't. I already know that no one else will, because the facts don't matter when it comes to health care.)

I tend to be incredibly skeptical of studies like these, but take it for what it's worth: the more oxytocin you have in your system, the more faithful you are as a romantic partner.


How To Prove Everyone's Taxes Need To Be Raised

As Congress and the President prepare to stage a grand debate about raising our taxes, I thought I should write a few brief words about how much of a sham it all is.

Recently, at dinner, I overheard a couple of people discussing tax "fairness." Before I go on, let's consider what is meant by the term "tax fairness." Tax fairness is the concept that follows from a few key principles:
  1. We all have to pay taxes, period, full-stop.
  2. Because we all have to pay taxes, the tax rates should be arranged in a way that seems "fair" to everyone.
  3. I know what "fair" means, and you don't.
The first item in the list is as much a truism in this day and age as anything else. Ever since Mark Twain told us so, death and taxes are the only certainties in life. You can't escape the tax man. He will hunt you down and take his cut. It has been thus for thousands of years.

If we were libertarian-minded people, we might conceivably hold a conversation about whether taxes are either fair or necessary. What would be the harm in simply doing away with taxes? For one thing, the assumption that we owe our governments a slice of everything we produce or purchase is tenuous at best. For another thing, it's not as if tax revenue covers our government's expenditures, right? So, considering that there is no hope whatsoever of making up this gap, even if we tax the rich at 100%, why not just scrap taxes altogether and accept the fact that our nation's government spends more than it takes in. So long as the debt is perpetually growing, why not keep as much of our take home pay as possible?

But let's not assume that we are all libertarian-minded people. Let's not have that conversation.

Instead, let's take Point 1 above as given. Then, Point 2 follows directly from Point 1 and the additional stipulation that - at least in nominal terms - we do not actually want to be unfair to anyone.

Setting aside alternate definitions of the word that do not apply in the present usage, "fair" can mean one of two things:
  1. Free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice; or
  2. Legitimate, or proper under the rules.
Let's start with the low-hanging fruit. By the assumption that our government is legitimate, and that its rules are always "internally proper," then I think it can safely be said that any set of rules about taxation are always fair under Definition 2. Anyone have a problem with that statement? Let me know about it in the comments.

If I'm right about that, then all discussions about "tax fairness" are either (a) ignorant of the considerations involved in Definition 2, or (b) not inclusive at all of Definition 2. Because "fair" is an incredibly common word in English, I am going to go out on a limb and merely speculate that "tax fairness" discussions do not involve Definition 2, ever, at all. I can't prove this, naturally, because that would require that I step into the mind of anyone who has ever discussed "tax fairness" and make that determination for sure. At any rate, I think it is a safe assumption to make.

Which leaves us at Definition 1. A "fair" set of tax rules can only be those rules which are free from bias, free from dishonesty, and free from injustice.

To the question of bias, I point out that we have what is called a "progressive tax code," which means that the more you make, the more you pay. This scheme is a literal bias built into the code. By design, our tax code fails the "bias" component of Definition 1. Period. Full-stop.

But, perhaps "tax fairness" only means that the tax code is free from "dishonesty." Well, I have been to the library, and I have seen the tax code. It's all there, in black-and-white, every rule that applies to every conceivable tax situation you might face, and even rules about tax situations you never even thought of before. There are no lies about the tax code. The rates we all pay, and the deductions we can all claim, are all fully elaborated upon. Nobody that I know is lying about it. So this seems to indicate that our tax code is fair under the "dishonest" component of Definition 1.

Now the only question left to consider is whether our tax code is "just." If it is, then our tax code is fair. If it is not, then our tax code isn't fair.

Justice is a big question. Plato wrote a whole book on the topic. In the end, he didn't really solve the puzzle of the question "what is justice?" I strongly doubt you and I could, either.

What I will say is that our tax code levies steeper taxes on the rich than on the poor, allows for deductions from our tax burden during times of financial loss (e.g. educational expenses, children, mortgages, capital loss, foreign tax burden, business losses), and reduces to zero for those of us who are truly poor. From a bird's eye view, the tax code at least appears to make considerations of "fairness" with respect to the amount of tax we all pay.

So why do so many of us insist that so many others of us aren't paying a "fair share?"

I suggest the answer to this question is that, no matter how much some of us pay, it will never be enough for others of us. This is either because others of us want our government to do more than it is currently doing, or because others of us want to pay lower taxes and know that the difference must be made up somehow, or because others of us want to use the tax code to reapportion income according to their own personal value system.

In short, "tax fairness" is not about fairness at all. "Tax fairness" is about changing the tax code according to our own personal vendettas.

So, is that fair?


Let's Train For A Marathon

Today is the official "Day #1" of my latest batch of marathon training. This time, rather than using my own, time- and mileage-intensive training regimen, I thought I would opt for Nike+ Running's "Advanced" marathon guide, which is available on their Facebook page.

Why have I opted for someone else's workout plan? Well, there are a few reasons. First, with my increasing commitment to my YouTube channel, I have less total time on my hands. Rather than using running as my primary source of entertainment, I'm spending the majority of my free time writing and recording music, some of which appears on YouTube. The reduced time constraints means that I cannot necessarily spend an hour every morning, and another hour or two in the evenings, training for a marathon. (Remember, folks, my marathon guide is not for beginners!)

Second, when I reviewed the Nike+ guide prior to deciding to use it, I saw that it was remarkably casual and low-mileage. Both of these align with my other priorities, as expressed above, and they also allow me to train for a marathon without feeling like I'm moving heaven and Earth to do it. I don't expect to come anywhere close to winning or placing in this marathon, so a nice, casual, fun training guide is just what the doctor ordered.

Finally, it's always nice to try something new with your exercise regimen. I know how to push myself. I know how to train myself. I know what to expect from me. Variety is the spice of life, or so they say. Sometimes it's nice to sit back and act as co-pilot. You might learn something from the way other people approach things. Or, you might simply appreciate not having to do all the work yourself all the time.

All said, choosing this marathon guide was an easy decision to make. All that's left to do now is work on motivation.

Marathon Motivation
Sometimes, motivations isn't a problem. Sometimes it's easy to jump out of bed, tie your shoes, and hit the road. Sometimes it's easy to spend a few hours at the gym, enjoying the process of working out and getting in great shape. Other times, it's a real piece of work.

There are various different points during a multi-month training process at which you lose your motivation. Since this is Day #1, I'll focus on the first point.

The first couple of weeks of training are some of the most difficult weeks to get through. One reason for this is because you haven't yet invested a great deal of time or effort into your training. You can still easily back-out of the whole deal. It's only been a few days, right? If you decide not to do it now, you have countless excuses to give to your friends: the timing of it all didn't work out, you're not ready to take on something that big right now, something else came up, etc. Because you don't yet feel like you're committed to the marathon, the cost of backing out entirely is very low.

Another reason the first few weeks are difficult is that training hasn't yet become part of your daily routine. So, instead of waking up with the knowledge that you have to hit the pavement first thing in the morning, you wake up feeling like you've taken on a big project that's forcing you out of bed. Ouch, what a drag. It's not easy doing something to which you're unaccustomed. All your ordinary habits are begging you not to go work out. This makes things a challenge.

Of course, the fact that what you're doing is a new set of physical imperatives doesn't help, either. Your muscles hurt as you start to demand more of them. Your appetite changes, both in terms of how much you need to eat and what kinds of things you feel like eating. You get hungry at different times in the day. You start to notice particular sensations in your body as your senses get more in-tune with your new training. All of these things can often add up to a general sense of physical discomfort.

It is important to remember that all of these feelings are both normal and temporary. It is to be expected if you lack a lot of motivation during the first couple of weeks of training. To come out successful, consistence is the key. Just keep getting out there, even though you don't want to. Keep your eye on where you're going: a marathon.

Over the coming weeks, you'll experience different kinds of motivational lapses, and those require some different treatment to keep you going strong. But during these first few weeks, the path to success is in nothing more than blindly carrying forward until it's not a problem anymore.

Fundamentally, we're talking about habituation.


Burn It To The Ground

One last post on this topic, and then I'll move on to more interesting things.

Yesterday, someone on Facebook linked me to the following Rachel Maddow diatribe, saying "It's amazing."
Pretty amazing, huh? I mean, like, wow. Republicans exist in an intellectual bubble and Democrats have science, reason, and reality on their side. I mean, I've never heard anyone claim that before, have you?

In an unrelated, but conceptually linked, comment to me, the great Sonic Charmer has this to say:
I do not believe the political left, by and large, acts in good faith, no. I await evidence to the contrary. But on this issue, I can only echo Matt’s comment below: ‘mandate’ talk is used by electoral winners to shove their agenda down the throats of the losers. It is a form of intellectual bullying, or at least hoodwinkery: ‘you should go along with me because I have a mandate’. What is the objective definition of ‘mandate’? Insert self serving sophistry here.
Can there be any doubt whatsoever that in an exactly symmetric electoral situation with the tables turned, the person saying this would never ‘go along’, as the ‘mandate’ logic implies? That is the definition of bad faith. In saying this, I have not ‘eliminated good faith’ but merely recognized its absence. It is a scam. People who fall for scams are called suckers.
To be honest, I have not encountered the kind of bellyaching or animosity against Rs or Ds that has been reported in the news and by my fellow social networkers. So, for one reason or another, I have been mostly spared of all this nonsense.

...That is, I have been spared of it to such an extent as is even possible. The complete and utter lack of good-faith in America is so all-encompassing and palpable that it infects every interaction we have these days. Frightening? Sad? Weird?

Torch It. Nuke It. Winner Takes Everything.
In the political sphere, I think a person has finally reached a point where they have absolutely no good faith in the opposition when they espouse one of two doctrines: despotism or anarchy.

Despotism is the only strategy available to a person who believes she knows so much better than other people that she no longer thinks they can be trusted to make decisions for themselves. Rather than leaving the people with a degree of liberty to exercise their own choices and live their lives as they see fit, she instead deigns to protect them from themselves, and from each other, and sculpt a society in her own image. True, we all have our own ideas about how things would work best, but only a would-be dictator believes her knowledge is so complete that it simply doesn't matter what objections are raised by others. In the mind of a dictator, all objections are beside the point because they are based on faults, flawed reasoning, ignorance, and superstition. Only the dictator and her cohorts can reasonably attest to the right and the true.

Anarchy, on the other hand, is the strategy one adopts when one decides there is no longer any point in discussing anything with anyone. The anarchist believes in allowing people their own lifestyles and their own choices, but that all political decision-making is hopelessly poisoned by power-hungry monsters. Essentially, it is the belief that if the discussion doesn't go in the preferred direction of the anarchist, then she will have no conversation at all. It is a total withdrawal from political discourse. True, we all have ideas that will never be accepted by the public majority, but only an anarchist believes so completely in her ideas that she will no longer accept any discussion to the contrary.

To put this another way, anarchists and dictators hold much the same belief about their fellow men, but while the dictator responds by assuming total control, the anarchist surrenders completely and recedes into a mental safe zone.

The Result
Between the dictators and the anarchists fall the large majority of the rest of us. We're neither ready to surrender nor to assume total control. But the slow disintegration of good-faith in public discourse is gradually inching us all to one side or the other. Some of us want "our team" to win and quickly implement the party platform in its entirety. The rest of us are withdrawing from politics and proclaiming that there is no hope, therefore also no point to it all.

It should surprise no one that political systems are becoming more despotic. The only ones who still retain an active, participatory interest in politics are the ones tending toward dictatorship. Those tending toward anarchy are simply throwing up their hands and walking away.

Well, you can't reason with those who won't reason. The dictators don't believe anything you say has any thought behind it; the anarchists don't want to talk about it at all. That's all well and good, but where do we go from here? Do we bide our time until the dictators take over and kill us all? Do we watch from the sidelines as our society slowly disintegrates around us?

I don't have the answer today. I'd appreciate some comments. Share your ideas with me, and each other. I see this as the primary political challenge we face today.


At A Certain Point, People Just Forget

Human knowledge does not last forever. We, as a society, do not retain every small thing that we know simply by virtue of the fact that we knew it once upon a time. Knowledge, if not used, disappears. It has happened before, it will happen again.

Gothic Art
Contrary to what some may believe, Gothic-period art was not the result of an artistic movement per se. Gothic art is the result of European society's having literally lost the knowledge once commonly held by the Greek and Roman empires. Consider that icon of the period: the Gothic arch:
Courtesy wetcanvas.com
One is free to believe that Gothic arches are beautiful as architectural structures. Setting aside questions of aesthetic value, however, the fact of the matter is that Gothic arches came into existence because Europeans forgot how to do this:
Courtesy Wikipedia
How did they forget? Well, it's simple. Their religious leaders told them that the pagans and their witchcraft was evil, so they burned the libraries and destroyed the knowledge. After a while, everyone who once knew how to do these things died off. For aesthetic reasons, we may take solace in the fact that the loss of this knowledge resulted in another kind of beauty, found in the Gothic arch. But the Roman arch wasn't just beautiful, it was also useful. It was the literal foundation of the Aqueduct.

But, the whole Gothic period of art represents failed attempts to recreate the art of the Greeks and Romans. Gothic paintings, for example, are nearly bereft of depth perception. Like the drawings that young children produce, "far away" objects are shown small and high up on the canvas, while near-field objects appear large and at the bottom. The art is crude and poorly expressed. This isn't a matter of taste and preference, it is nothing more than the loss of knowledge. The Gothic artists were attempting realism, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans did. But the medieval artists didn't know how to do it. It wasn't until the Renaissance that the required techniques were rediscovered.

That is precisely why the Renaissance is called "The Renaissance." It was a rebirth of artistic knowledge that was thought to be lost forever.

The Cognitive Time-Horizon
Those who chose to destroy the Greek and Roman libraries obviously had a very short cognitive time-horizon. They could not think past their silly religious myths, and they doomed the ages to one thousand years of ignorance with respect to the Roman achievements. Think how long a thousand years is. An eon. A millennium. Their preposterous myopia, fueled by their dictatorial religion, resulted in misery for fifty generations of human beings. Fifty generations, think about that.

Clearly, when we are talking about fifty generations, no one person has sufficiently long a cognitive time-horizon to provide meaningfully for the future. We cannot possibly expect the knowledge of a few Roman geniuses to endure that long, while the dogmatists are burning books.

What we see in modern history, however, is that it does not take longer than a single generation to eradicate knowledge in a single society. Consider Bangladesh, for example. The Pakistani government slaughtered Bangladeshi intellectuals during the violent period of the 60s and 70s. Once they were gone, the Bangladeshi people had to rediscover all the art, language, philosophy, history, etc. that previously flourished in the region. In some sense, when one travels to Dhaka, one has the impression that this knowledge was never truly rediscovered. In the meantime, the people of Bangladesh have established a new set of knowledge, a new way of doing things. No matter what the benefits of these new ideas are, the old knowledge once held by the intellectuals of the first half of the 20th Century is gone, for the most part. The future is all that they have.

We also see this phenomenon in the Western world, with respect to nuclear physics. Because nuclear energy is highly controversial, and because nuclear weaponry is widely understood to be an atrocity, the field of nuclear physics - and especially its more practical subsidiary, nuclear engineering - attracts few new students these days. If we do not nurture this kind of knowledge, it will soon be lost as all the experts retire and die off.

War And The Cognitive Time-Horizon
We also see knowledge dying off with respect to America's wars in the Middle East. The destruction of the World Trade Center occurred over a decade ago. Since then, the United States has been at war in the Middle East.

The wars have dragged on for so long that American citizens no longer really understand what it means that their country has occupied a whole region of the world with military force for a period of over ten years.

When we think about drone strikes, we think about them with a very short cognitive time-horizon in mind. Any given drone strike seems reasonable to us, if the intelligence is reliable. Why not bomb a terrorist if we know where he is and what he is up to? The problem with this sort of thinking is not in the lone drone-bombing, but in the fact that the drone bombing have been ongoing for a period of over ten years. No one community should be forced to endure multiple-bombings-per-week for a period of months, much less years. What on Earth are we doing? How can we justify these atrocities?

We cannot. And what's more, none of us do, because none of us conceive of these bombings as they really exist for their victims. We have no concept of "multiple-bombings-per-week-for-a-period-of-years-on-end" because whenever we think about drone killings, our cognitive time-horizons are focused on the short run.

Today, I argue that we are no longer in the short run. Our wars have been going on for over ten years. Whatever the supposed merits of a few drone attacks, they disappear when applied to the time-horizon of years. Whatever were once the benefits of the so-called "war on terror," those benefits disappear when we consider that this has been going on for over a decade.

It cannot continue. It is not tenable any longer. We cannot be the lone aggressor in a ten-years-war against a group of people who have no political designation and no clear, hierarchical leadership.

Like the medieval dogmatists who burned down the Roman libraries, we are acting in defiance of the future. We are careening down a murderous path without perspective on the fact that it is now ten years later and ten years of war takes a toll on the occupied nations. We're losing touch with the knowledge that we are bombing real people - innocent people, in many cases. We're losing all perspective.

The result of this loss can only be a desensitization to war. Even this past election cycle, the debate was over "defense spending." Defense spending, not the funding of a decade-long occupation of multiple Middle Eastern nations. We don't even use the correct language anymore.

Frankly, it's frightening. No one can justify this.


The Secret Ballot

Today's post is a difficult one for me to write because I myself am guilty of what I am about to condemn. Faithful readers will understand, though, that Stationary Waves is nothing if it is not a dedication to exposing our most deeply held lies and myths, in hopes of promoting a world in which logic, reason, and ethics prevail.

On with it.

How My Facebook Friends Helped Undermine Civil Discourse
It is the day after Election Day. Log onto Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and so on, and observe what you see. Understandably, most of what you see consists of reactions to the outcome of the US presidential election. Within that sizable majority of commentary, in a good proportion of it - on my Facebook feed, anyway - people are revealing how they voted, expressing satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the outcome of the election, making their own personal presidential choice known to the world.

If you want to know why civil discourse has disintegrated these days, you're looking at it.

There are two reasons why ballots are kept secret. The first seems unnecessary to contemporary Americans because we are not currently in a political situation in which it is relevant. The reason is that if Party X knows who is voting for Party Y, then there is an opportunity for Party X to threaten and intimidate - if not physically attack - supporters of Party Y in an effort to sway the results of the election. Thankfully, America is in no such situation. Nevertheless, we cannot be so blind as to pretend it is not currently happening elsewhere in the world, most recently and notably, in the Middle East.

The second reason why ballots are kept secret is what I actually want to discuss today. When you go public with your support for a political party, you undermine civil discourse, you destroy your credibility, and you make it impossible for anyone to discuss anything with you. Some of you will be surprised by this claim, so let's flesh it out a bit.

How "Going Public" Destroys Our Dialogue
When two strangers sit down to discuss any issue, they will hash out the comparative merits of Choice A versus Choice B, on the strength of each aspect of the issue. The various benefits of Choice A are weighed against those of Choice B, and the same with the drawbacks. Once the benefits and drawbacks are revealed, the strangers will undertake to assign value and likelihood to each benefit and drawback, until they reach a point where a decision can be made. If the two strangers happen to disagree, the disagreement boils down to one of the following: (a) They disagree as to whether a benefit or drawback actually pertains to the respective choice; (b) They disagree as to how important a given benefit or drawback is; (c) They disagree as to how likely it is that a given benefit or drawback will occur.

In civil discourse, in Good-Faith Discussion, these issues can be hammered-out and compromises can be reached. The issues are relatively simple to state and discuss, even if the ultimate decision is a difficult one.

Now suppose that the two strangers know that one is a Republican and the other is a Democrat. How will that impact the ensuing discussion?

Simply stated, it destroys the credibility each one has. Now, rather than considering a benefit or drawback brought to light by Peter, Paul has a built-in incentive to view it as a claim of pure partisanship. Peter, meanwhile, has ever reason to believe that his arguments are not being given proper consideration because he feels that Paul is dismissing his ideology, rather than his point.

Suppose, for example, that Peter and Paul are considering the matter of whether to divert funds from the local public school to the repair of a local bridge. As non-partisan strangers, a real and useful discussion can occur. But if Paul believes that Peter is ideologically driven to "de-fund public education," or if Peter believes that Paul is ideologically opposed to "using public funds for the benefit of corporations on the other side of the bridge," then there is no longer any point to their having a discussion.

Consider what happens when we open the discussion up to the public at large. If party affiliation comes to the fore, the public will soon descend into repeating party mantras. That's bad, but it is especially bad if the public debate becomes a public vote. In that case, members of the public are no longer merely casting a vote for their preferred funding allocation. Rather, they are casting a vote for party affiliation. Others present will see how they vote and will know where they stand with respect to the party, and what to expect from that person when future issues are discussed.

Maintaining a secret ballot, on the other hand, allows people to disagree with their chosen party - or with any party at all - with respect to one particular issue, i.e. the matter being debated. When ballots are secret, people are free to vote their conscience (or their mere preference) without being seen publicly as a party affiliate. People casting their votes in secret have the luxury of having any preference they choose, without that one preference impacting the way their opinions are perceived by the group at large.

Secret ballots don't just protect people from intimidation and threats, they protect the usefulness of the dialogue. They help us dissociate issue from ideology. Making your every vote public has the effect of making you look like nothing more than a partisan zombie. Know well that others will surely see you that way, too.

We hear all the time about the sad state of civil discourse and partisanship in this country. Sadly and predictably, this too descends into partisan squabbling. ("It's the obstructionist Rs who are at fault!" "No, it's the uncooperative Ds who are at fault!")

It's certainly easier to blame everyone else for the sad state of communication among us today. If we're grown-ups, though, we have to be able to take responsibility for our own contributions to this sorry state of affairs.

One way you, personally, have contributed to this ugly horror is by making your political affiliation public. Don't get huffy - I did it, too. I can freely admit it, and I'm ready to take responsibility for it.

Are you?


The Puzzle Of Democracy

I'm not sure if you know this, but... Today is Election Day in the United States of America. Today, and over the past weeks, we have been accosted from all sides by those urging us to adhere to a particular philosophy on voting. Let's see if I can cover the major points made.

In a blog post endorsing Gary Johnson, Scott Sumner urges us to vote libertarian. Sumner offers a pragmatic take on the virtues of voting:
If I lived in Ohio and God told me I’d have the deciding vote between the top two candidates in this election, I’d vote for Johnson.  The whole point is to sway policy, and you don’t do that by winning elections, you do that by getting votes.  If the libertarians ever start stealing 5% or 10% of the votes from one of the two major parties (or both) you can be sure that next time they’ll shift their position closer to the libertarian direction.  Obama will think twice about sending in the Feds to shutdown those medical marijuana clinics in LA.
As Sumner has it, "the fact that Gary Johnson won't win is exactly why you should vote for him." Sumner wants to have an impact on the issues some time in the future. This demonstrates an admirably lengthy cognitive time-horizon, and for that I applaud him.

Meanwhile, over at Mises Daily, the often-acrimonious Danny Sanchez argues against voting for anyone whomsoever:
For one thing, a vote helps provide a mandate for all of the elected officer's policies, whether the voter supports those policies or not. As one author has said, voting "just encourages the bastards."

Furthermore, every vote for a federal office is a vote for the hyper-state known as the US federal government, and for hyper-states in general. It is effectively an endorsement of centralized power and a vote of no confidence in localism.
Sanchez is not alone among so-called libertarians who oppose democracy. All libertarians of this stripe draw heavily on the arguments of the like of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, author of the book Democracy: The God That Failed.

And so liberty-loving people and average, every-day Americans alike are faced with a puzzle. Given that precious few of us actually buy into the whole platform of one candidate or another, what do we do?

On the one hand, we can vote for the so-called lesser evil. On another hand, we could vote for someone who most closely represents our views in hopes that one day our liberty-loving demographic will be appealed to by mainstream politicians when it finally achieves a critical mass. On a third hand, we could refuse to vote at all, and therefore spare ourselves having to offer an "endorsement" of any one set of atrocious policies.

The Democracy Problem Is A Real One
Modern society has managed to get itself into a real catch-22 here. If voting is our means of affecting a change we can believe in, yet no option on the ballot represents a significant change for the better, then where does that leave democracy?

It would appear that casting a vote in this kind of environment is not so much an endorsement of a particular set of policies - since few of us actually seem to buy into the majority of any candidate's platform - but rather an endorsement for "democracy" in the abstract. When we head to the polls, therefore, we are doing so merely because we seem to hold some hope that a democratic system, rigorously adhered-to, will produce favorable results for us.

Reality is much different. The last three presidential elections have been neck-and-neck. The voting population seems to be at a roughly 50-50 split between the two major parties, and the only ones whose vote actually counts are those in the so-called "swing states," where the race is so close that voter turnout becomes a material issue in deciding the winner of the election. Blue citizens in red states, therefore, have no voice in the general election. Likewise for red citizens in blue states. And for those of us unlucky enough to feel close to either major party, there is no voice for us in the general election at all.

Another problem with democracy is that it is remarkably susceptible to mob mentality. One major national news item can be enough to provoke a call for major federal policy changes from the electorate in general. The prevailing notion is that any change will do. "We" want change, and "we" proclaim our desire for it; then, the overlords come up with some hare-brained "solution," and the issue devolves into a choice between ratifying the solution offered or "favoring the status quo." Lost in the noise is any consideration for whether any change is necessary, or whether we should be offered a choice between, say, the best of five solutions.

So, in a democracy, we lack a true voice, and the options proposed are insufficient to solve the problems they purport to solve. Democracy does not seem to be working. What to do?

Some Thoughts
I'm no genius. I don't have all the answers. I think this particular problem is so large and so serious that it requires a great deal of thought from some of the most powerful minds in the world. But I can offer my own thoughts as a consolation prize.

First of all, please keep in mind that the presidential election is not the only election going on today. When you vote, you will be voting to elect people into a variety of local government positions, too. While you may not have a sufficient voice to impact the presidential election, your vote may be very important in the scope of local politics. Don't get so caught up on the national race that you forget that you might be able to affect a local one.

Second of all, and on that same note, we may all be well-advised to make participation in local politics a priority in our lives. The city bylaws under which you live more directly impact your day-to-day life than does trade policy with China. Don't get me wrong, both may be important matters. The point here is, though, that a major shift in local politics will have a more significant impact on your life than an incremental shift in national politics.

Third of all, therefore, in society today, we may start to discover that relying on the federal government to solve all of our problems is not only less potent a means to improve our lives, it is also a less democratic means. Perhaps, given the many wonderful improvements in technologies, we are better-equipped to solve some problems locally than nationally. If so, our local solutions may be far superior to anything cooked-up in a faraway land. Maybe it's time to start empowering our communities to solve their own problems. Federate, if you will.

Finally, a vote is just a vote. However important it may be to your political situation, it is something that only happens once every couple of years. In the meantime, there are myriad other ways to impact your community, whether through personal charity, or ideological contributions, or philosophical waxing, or educating, or whatever else.

Voting is only part of a participatory government, not the whole thing. It may be the attribute of our government that makes it "democratic," but there is more to the story than mere democracy. There is also federalism, philosophy, and community involvement.

So, cast your vote today, if you like. If you don't want to vote, don't vote. But whatever you choose to do or not do, and for whomever you choose to vote, don't forget that there will be four years between today and the next presidential election. If you want your political system to improve, you'd better start thinking up some ways beyond a mere vote to make things more like you want them to be.

Good luck.


Movie Review: Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana

Hindi movies generally tend to be about rich, privileged Indian young people who travel to exotic locations and major world economic hubs to strike it rich and find love. The general pattern of these movies tends to be as follows:

The male protagonist - the hero - is a bit of a slacker, a no-good-nik, who doesn't take live or love seriously. He's still mentally in high school, "doing it all for the lulz," so to speak, but he's starting to reach the point in his life where he needs to get serious and focus on his career. Furthermore, it sure would be nice, according to his parents, to find some nice, well-mannered Indian girl and produce some babies. Then, one day, he meets a haughty-but-extremely-attractive young Indian girl, with whom he falls in love at first sight. She is typically a career-driven, modern woman who absolutely doesn't need a man. Or maybe she already has a nice boyfriend who looks very good on paper. At any rate, she's got her own thing going. She doesn't need the hero. He's a jerk. The rest of the movie tends to be about how the hero turns his life around and finds independent wealth and respect, all to win the heart of this fabulous young woman, who eventually falls for his new, more upstanding self.

When one becomes familiar with the genre, the fun about watching Hindi movies is no longer necessarily about any one movie's plot, but rather what plot-devices that particular movie employs in order to achieve the same result. It's sort of like becoming a wine connoisseur: It's all about the unique aspects of the wine you happen to be drinking, within a particular style. You will have had many bottles of Bordeaux, but each particular bottle has its own merits and demerits.

Considering all of that, it is especially refreshing when the core plot of a Hindi movie deviates substantially from the usual thing. Such is the case with Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana.

A Movie About Normal People
Although it isn't obvious during the opening scene of the film, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana is fundamentally a film about ordinary people from rural India, not rich and glamorous playthings in the bustling cities. This immediately sets the film apart from most in the genre.

The movie tells the story of a young man, Omi (Kunal Kapoor), living "his dream" in London. His occupation isn't obvious. What we know about him is that he spends a lot of time drinking, womanizing, and stealing money in London night clubs. Then, one day, a brutal gangster walks in, beats him up, and demands repayment on a large sum of money Omi has apparently borrowed from him. The gangster sends Omi back to India to get the money from his family, only then can Omi return to London in order to "live his dream."

So, Omi returns home and the audience discovers, through a series of flashbacks, that Omi's family is somewhat poor. In order to get to London, Omi had to steal money from his grandfather and leave in the dead of night.

As you might predict, the bulk of the movie depicts Omi's internal struggle with confronting the fact that he is basically a "rascal," who has never done much for anyone, told through the plot devices of his trying to find the money to repay his debt to a London gangster.

The setting of the movie is absolutely gorgeous - but it is India, not some exotic world city. The beauty we see in the movie is the natural beauty of a small Indian city. Over the course of the movie, both the audience and Omi discover the beauty that they might not have seen before. That beauty is expressed in familial love, in personal ethics, in a picturesque landscape, and so on.

It's not a revolutionary message, but the story is well-told, the script is well-written, and the acting is superb. Despite a few cheesy moments, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana is a great movie with a good moral.


Rhesus Pieces

This week's Rhesus Piece is something called "Improverished." As the name indicates, the focus of this piece is improvisation. Specifically, I started by improvising a bass line, then recorded over it with an improvised clean rhythm guitar, then recorded over that with a lead guitar improvisation, panned right. Next, I muted the first take of lead guitar and re-recorded an entirely new improvisation, this time panned left. Finally, I un-muted the first lead guitar part and let both improvisations cohabitate the piece.

I have made two different videos for Rhesus 4. The first, features the video for the first improvisation, shown in a sepia tone. The viewer's ear will naturally focus on the guitar panned right, because it is consistent with the visual cues. That video is shown here:
The second video is shown in a blue tone and features the second improvisation. The viewer's ear will naturally focus on the guitar panned left, because it is consistent with the visual cues.

Note, however, that the audio in both of these videos is identical, so the psychoacoustic focus is simply an "aural illusion" caused by the fact that your brain is watching something that syncs-up with the guitar part in question.


What Is The Next Phase?

Today's blog post is inspired by some recent internet finds.

The first was an article in the MIT Technology Review, entitled "Why We Can't Solve Big Problems." (The hat tip goes to Tyler Cowen.) In the article, author Jason Pontin begins by describing the unimaginable possibilities that seemed to be on the horizon back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the US government was flying people to the moon. After describing this wishful thinking, Pontin switches gears, and asks, "what happened?" Pontin suggests that "we" have not accomplished what "we" thought "we" would. We don't have flying cars and we haven't cured cancer. We haven't discovered clean energy. Instead, argues Pontin, we are "distracted" by mere trinkets, such as iPhones and Facebook. We have technologies whose primary purpose appears to be entertainment. The thrust of Pontin's article seems to be that, for most of us, we have become so focused on casual, day-to-day entertainment, that few of us undertake to solve the so-called "Big Problems" anymore. Readily available entertainment has served to provide us with a disincentive to innovate, since innovation is a lot of hard work.

In a significantly different vein is the second inspiration for today's post is yesterday evening's "Debate With Goolsbee," written by John H. Cochrane and posted on his blog. (No hat tip here - I'm a regular reader of that blog, and you should be, too.) There, Cochrane is once again riffing on the issue of the US economy's stunted growth rate, and what might be required to restore it. After some discussion of the growth rate facts, Cochrane tells us the following (note that when Cochrane says "productivity" up above, he's taking some liberties with the actual economic definition of the term):
Growth, growth, growth. It’s not a secret. Growth ultimately comes from productivity. New ideas, products, technologies, businesses, and processes. The dismal 1970s coincided with a sharp productivity decline. Following the Reagan recovery, perhaps sparked by deregulation and tax reform, economic growth, trended up for two decades, which, as you see in the previous graph, is what paid off the Reagan deficits.
There it is again, a reference to the winding-down of things in the 1970s, and a "sharp productivity decline." Cochrane feels that in order for the US economy to grow, we need "new ideas, products, technologies, businesses, and processes." In short, Cochrane is looking for innovation, and finding it nowhere. Of course, if Cochrane added a narrative about how the United States has historically enjoyed many great built-in advantages, he would basically be summarizing the contents of Tyler Cowen's now-famous essay, The Great Stagnation.

Finally, there is an interesting Frank Zappa video I came across on YouTube, in which he discusses the lack of ambition in the "Acid Generation."
Again, the third verse is the same as the first and second verses: The 1970s marked an end to ambition and innovation in America. We somehow evolved from being a nation of ambitious, entrepreneurial innovators to being a pop-culture obsessed, drug addled, group of slackers.

This is the concept to which I often refer as Whore Culture.

Progress Is Necessary
As I see it, the problems described above are a serious problem for human society. Students of world history will note that the trajectory of human progress has been interrupted before (the Dark Ages), and it can be interrupted again.

Since the days of Thomas Malthus, economists have understood that new innovations are the device by which human beings can enjoy a general increase of wealth. Forget what you've read about "stimulus" or "commerce" or "aggregate demand." Each of those might be important to the short-run health of an economy, or they might not. But in the long run, the only way for society to enjoy expanding wealth and a successive increase in the standard of living, successful new ideas and new technologies must be developed and implemented.

At issue is this: The economy alone won't do the job of making us and our posterity better off. For that, we need progress, i.e. innovation. We need to solve new scientific problems, we need to cure disease, we need to create new artistic movements. Society cannot merely rest on its laurels for an extended period of time. Without innovation, the stagnation we experience wears on and on; it feels like regression, even when it isn't.

Humans need progress in order to feel as though they are gaining. This is as true for money issues as it is for any other source of happiness. We've all experienced this in our own lives. When you're stuck in one place, one job, one set of circumstances, it starts to wear you down. Unless you make some sort of headway in terms of increasing wages, or improving fitness, or meeting new friends, or finding the love of your life, or starting a family, you will start to feel as though you're not getting anywhere. You will start to feel in some sense impoverished. The desire to improve our conditions is part of what makes us human in the first place.

This Is A Social - Or Cultural - Issue
Pontin's article indicates that we as a society won't be able to solve "big problems" until we have the right "institutions" in place, supporting those who undertake to solve them. Cochrane's article indicates that the US has no hope of returning to the "correct" growth trajectory until it (really, its citizens) start innovating again. Cowen's essay makes a claim similar to Cochrane's. Frank Zappa was of the opinion that popular culture, the media, the government, and drugs were all creating a perfect storm that was destroying America's ambition and making us all in some sense "brain dead."

Even if you don't buy any of the arguments they make, it is probably undeniable that healthy human progress rests on the shoulders of people who choose to do more than just work hard. It rests on people who choose to solve previously unsolved problems, on people who choose to create new things and concepts that previously did not exist, on people who find ways of using existing things in entirely new ways.

In some respects, it is almost random when an exceptional person - an innovative person - is born and takes it upon themselves to contribute something new to society. But I doubt that even the staunchest advocate of genetic determinism would suggest that parenting and social environments play no role in the values that ultimately take root in a person's psyche.

What I'm getting at is, we all have a responsibility for providing social rewards for people who go against the grain, who do new things, who attempt to create things that are genuinely new. While not every new thing qualifies as an innovation, we are not always aware of what is truly innovative until years or decades later.

All of us, as individuals, bear some responsibility for creating new things so that human progress can take place. So when you're at work, try to make things better. When you're with your kids, try to help them dare to be different. When you're learning something new, push the boundaries of what you're being told; ask the kind of questions that have answers, but whose answers may be difficult to answer.

As a culture, we are responsible for human progress. We need to make progress a value, a virtue. Without it, it's the Dark Ages all over again.