Guitalele Improvisation

Here's a little something for a Saturday night. Improvised on my Yamaha guitalele.


There Is No Marriage Debate

Nor should there ever be. "It's not natural" is not an argument. "It goes against scripture" is at best an appeal to a non-universal authority. "Society is conducting a grand experiment that has not boded well for past civilizations" is spooky doom-saying based primarily on the idea that the movie Caligula was a historically accurate account of said "past civilizations."

The entire issue can be boiled-down as follows:
  • Point: Homosexuals would like US laws to treat their committed, life-long, romantic relationships the same way US laws treat heterosexual relationships.
  • Counter-Point: That makes some heterosexuals uncomfortable.
Are we considering the value of laws that are specifically designed to treat citizens differently, depending on their marital status? No, we are not. Are we considering whether laws should be crafted in such a way as to avoid making people uncomfortable? Ha! Don't make me laugh.

A more conspiratorial libertarian than I might suggest that this debate is a statist tool to control the dialogue. In other words, so long as we are arguing about whether The Law ought to apply equally to hetero- and homosexuals, no one is considering disobeying The Law itself. The masses are thus fully controlled by their overlords, who will either choose to dole out the King's favors or not; but in any case, the authority of the King shall never fall under our scrutiny.

Well, I'm not sure I go for the conspiracy theorist's take on this issue. I think the "traditionalists," or whatever word we're using to describe people who feel that they and their religions own the word "marriage" and all its legal ramifications, are sorely out-numbered, out-reasoned, out-gunned, and out-smarted. They have nowhere else to go with this. They can duke it out in the Supreme Court all they want, but they will never win, because "it's a sin" is no more an argument against legalized homosexuality than it is an argument in favor of outlawing gluttony or adultery. 

Countries don't draft laws according to which behaviors make you uncomfortable, but rather according to which behaviors infringe your rights. So, if you oppose gay marriage, then you are on the wrong side of philosophy and the law, and you can provide no more justification for this than "but it makes me uncomfortable." Balderdash.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is not the fact that you are on the wrong side of philosophy nor of law, but rather history:
The gradual development of equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it has the principle characteristics of one: it is universal, it is enduring, each day it escapes human power; all events, like all men, serve its development.
And, I might add that the phrase "providential fact" is a reference to god. You can crank against the gears of logic, and the legal system, and of society itself, but you cannot overturn a providential fact. No one can. Gay marriage already exists; legalized gay marriage is inevitable. Stop fighting the inevitable and instead turn your attention to the TSA, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Education, and Department of Defense, all of whom are groping you, spying on you, turning your mind to mush, and brutally killing you in the name of upholding these arcane laws that you refuse to extend to people whose romantic choices are less like your own.

Gain some perspective, for heaven's sake.


The Individual, Part IV

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

Part Four, The Artistic Method
It seems uncontroversial to suggest that human beings possess both collectivist and individualist tendencies, and that both of these sets of tendencies influence our lives in important ways. That lone claim makes up the bulk of my thesis statement in this series on individuality.

The other large part of my claim is that our collectivist tendencies speak specifically to our moral sentiments, while our individualist tendencies speak to our existential sentiments. For a discussion on that particular claim, I encourage you to review Part One in the series.

If I am correct in my claim, then this leads us to some specific conclusions when it comes to artistic performance. (Note that here I will be using the phrase "artistic performance" to indicate the physical act of creating art incarnate. The act of painting or sculpting corresponds to the act of performing a dance, or a piece of music, and so forth.) Today, I'd like to explore those conclusions.

The Collectivist-Individualist Dynamic In Art
People are drawn to artistic performance for a variety of reasons. On some level, everyone who engages in artistic performance simply finds the art interesting. But if you ask artists why they do what they do, you will often hear references to "self-expression" or personal "creative outlets." That certainly sounds like existential motivation to me, and in that sense, art is inherently individualistic. It's all about exploring an artist's thoughts, emotions, and psychology by use of the chosen medium as interpreted by the artist.

What I mean is, the cited motivation for creating art is existential self-expression, and that artistic performance is always John's painting according to how John thinks paintings ought to be created. Or Ralph's song according to how Ralph thinks songs ought to be written. 

Wouldn't it be odd if Fred chose to express himself through John's artistic method? What might that look like? 

If John happened to invent Impressionism, for example, then John would simply be painting according to what he wanted to see. For John, it isn't really "Impressionism," it's just a painting the way he thinks it ought to look. Impressionism was a radical departure from Realism, but the first Impressionist painter wasn't imaging that his/her paintings were a new artistic movement. Rather, the idea was just to put some visual ideas down on the canvas.

Once Impressionism was created, though, it gained its own internal set of rules. Depart from those rules, and you are no longer engaging in "Impressionism." It doesn't mean you aren't creating art, it just means you're not creating art according to the established rules of a particular artistic movement.

Back to Fred. Fred lives in the year 2013, and Impressionism as a contemporary movement has basically come and gone. When Fred chooses to pain in the Impressionist style, he is - in a way - using John's artistic method to express his [Fred's] existentialist concepts. 

Fred didn't invent Impressionism. He's not really expressing his ideas in an unbridled, self-actualizing way. He's patterning his thoughts after a movement with which he identifies. But this is not his identity as an individual, it is his group identity. Really, Fred feels connected to the way in which Impressionists expressed themselves, and he is exploring the parts of himself that feel a connection to Impressionism as an artistic community

Thus, art can indeed reflect a genuine pursuit of self-actualization, or it can also reflect collective affinity or group identity. Art can be either individualist or collectivist (and perhaps a blend of the two).

Artistic Collectivism Is Difficult To Escape
As much as many artists combine collectivist and individualist sentiments when they engage in artistic creativity, it is important to distinguish what is what. For that, I am going to have to resort to a priori reasoning, since we would never be able to explore these concepts in the real-world without the heavy-duty psychoanalysis of a wide sample of people we all unanimously agreed were artists representative of the general category of people called "artists."

In other words, a priori reasoning is the only way to make any headway here.

The artist must adhere to a set of rules in order to create art. In the case of painting, for example, a fundamental set of rules are: there must be a visible difference between the substance being used as paint and the material used to display the paint. In the simplest terms, this must mean that there at least canvas and paint - and that includes all forms of painting for which "canvas" is a loose term (like wall paintings, paintings on glass or rocks, etc.) and/or "paint" is a loose term (as when an artist paints with substances other than paint, such as pudding, mud, chalk, spaghetti sauce, or whatever). Another rule might be that there is a point at which the painting ends and the rest of the world begins - be it a frame, a glass case, a line of police tape, or whatever. Rules can also be more elaborate, as in the case of the rules that define particular artistic movements: Cubism, Renaissance, whatever...

Insofar as the painter adheres to the established rules, it would be impossible to suggest that the artist is engaging in individual expression. The mere act of putting paint to canvas is an agreed-upon rule; we know it is art because we have epistemologically defined the act of putting paint to canvas as painting

At the crudest and most rudimentary levels, then, virtually all art of an existing category is collectivist. It is the use of someone else's idea to explore one's own thoughts. Observe, however, that new art forms are a revolutionary form of individuality. The first person who used computers to draw a picture, for example, employed a previously unknown medium toward his or her art. All subsequent computer-based artists, though, were not engaging in individuality when they decided to use a computer for artistic performance. (Whether the output of the act was individualistic is the real question.)

The choice of topics for a song might be an act of individuality, for example... unless the artist believes that he must write a love song, in which case he is merely adhering to what he sees as an artistic rule or social expectation for his art. The powerful pressures that exist for the artist, the urge to conform to existing expectations for what are "should be" are incarnations of collectivism in art.

It may seem counter-intuitive that there is such a high degree of collectivism involved in an act that we so often associate with liberating individuality. But the fact remains that audiences, societies, and the artists themselves all apply a set of expectations for how art ought to be rendered. As the artist seeks to meet these expectations and adhere to these rules, he is engaged in nothing more than social conformity. To be sure, it is a level of conformity that requires a great deal of skill and talent, but it is conformity nevertheless.

Individuality begins where the rules and expectations end.

Self-Expression And The Artistic Value Of Individuality
Until now, most of the benefits of individuality I have described have involved resolving internal conflicts. It is very true that individuality serves this purpose. But if this were the only reason to pursue it, then individuality would be nothing more than a last resort to unravel life's most complex dilemmas.

Individuality offers us so much more than that, and here is one very profound example of what the pursuit of individuality offers us: artistic revolution.

Just as the first caveman who deliberately cooked-up a colored substance so that he could paint hieroglyphs on the walls of his cave revolutionized the art of painting forever, so, too was the first person who employed a computer to create art a revolutionary. Innovations in the media employed in artistic performance are perhaps the most revolutionary kind of individuality in art. The act of taking an item that has never before been thought of as a way to speak symbolically, and use it to communicate an idea or emotion to other human beings is such a profound act of individuality that words nearly fail me here.

That first idea, thought of by a particularly unique individual, serves to change the way the rest of us look at whatever it is we might be talking about. Thus, computers go from being mechanized calculators of very large numbers to being generators of wholly new art forms. Such a thing is impossible until an individual considers the possibility, and thinks to herself: "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to take my computer, and use my existing knowledge to change pixels on the monitor, not for the purpose of displaying words and numbers, but to create something that looks like a tree!" Then, she codes just such a program, and the tree looks like what she thinks a tree should look like.

We had previously discussed the existential soothing that individuality offers people when they are faced with internal conflicts. We now see another, far more satisfying advantage offered by the pursuit of individuality: artistic revolution.

Certainly, there is a connection between artistic creativity and scientific creativity. It would not be such a stretch to suggest that the same existential, individualistic force that drives us toward new ways of conceiving of art are capable of driving us toward technological innovation. Individuality - that great opposite of following the existing set of collective behavioral patterns - is the road toward not only artist progress, but human progress.

It stands to reason that a society in which individualism flourishes is also one in which progress in general flourishes.

The Slipperiest Slope

The always-entertaining James Taranto flexed his logic muscles when he wrote yesterday's installment of "The Best of the Web Today." His lead item covers a recent New York Times op-ed by one Sarah Conly, who took time out of her busy schedule of writing apologies for the nanny state to... defend the nanny state!

Taranto's command of logic and irony are always impressive, but in this case, he really out-did himself. Conly  made the following argument in her piece in favor of the Bloomberg soda ban:
Do we care so much about our health that we want to be forced to go to aerobics every day and give up all meat, sugar and salt? No. But in this case, it’s some extra soda. Banning a law on the grounds that it might lead to worse laws would mean we could have no laws whatsoever.
If you're quick on the uptake, you may already see where Taranto went with his criticism. If not, I won't hold you in suspense. Here's his response:
The best part is that conclusion. Essentially she's saying that if you accept one slippery-slope argument, you have to accept all slippery-slope arguments. Therefore, slippery-slope arguments are unsound. 
Taranto goes on to call this "the slipper's paradox," but if we want to get technical, we must stop short of calling it a paradox. More accurately, it's just sloppy reasoning. The reason we cannot accept a slippery-slope argument is that, for example, hypothetical and even-more-intrusive health laws offer no direct refutation of a soda ban. What I mean is that there is nothing about a hypothetical future regulation that directly addresses the problem with a currently proposed regulation. We might venture to suggest that the soda ban may provide sufficient "jurisprudence" for a more invasive regulation in the future, and that there is value in avoiding such a mistake - and that would be a good argument against (not a logical refutation of) the proposed soda ban. But the mere possibility that some more invasive law may perhaps come along does not argue against the soda ban.

It's important to note that Conly didn't make the logically valid argument, she made the invalid one. As Taranto noted, she suggested that slippery-slope reasoning against a soda ban would lead to slippery-slope reasoning on every conceivable legal issue; i.e., a slippery-slope-slippery-slope. If Conly thinks we ought not resist encroachments on liberty, she is a poor advocate for her cause.

But I'm not exclusively interested in the logical irony of it all. I'm also interested in offering some further objections to Conly's point. Let's set aside the fact that she hasn't managed to argue her case very well and tackle her claims more directly.

The penultimate paragraph of Conly's article reveals the core belief at the heart of her soda ban views:
In the old days we used to blame people for acting imprudently, and say that since their bad choices were their own fault, they deserved to suffer the consequences. Now we see that these errors aren’t a function of bad character, but of our shared cognitive inheritance. The proper reaction is not blame, but an impulse to help one another.
Conly's argument is that nanny state regulations that, for example, prevent us from being able to engage in the "error" of drinking too much soda at once reflect an impulse to help one another. I have no real argument with that claim; I don't doubt that nanny statists have a real desire to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. No, what strikes me about this argument is Conly's belief that making choices like drinking too much soda are incarnations of a cognitive bias, a "function of our shared cognitive inheritance." According to Conly, people don't drink too much soda because they're being "imprudent," but rather because "we often don’t think very clearly when it comes to choosing the best means to attain our ends."

The general idea here is that drinkers of very large sodas are hapless products of thousands of years of human evolution. If they weren't cognitively biased, then they would never choose to drink soda. They would choose other means to attain their ends.

The question is, who is in a better position to assess what those ends are: Conly, or the soda-drinkers? Perhaps Conly is correct, and I am open to that possibility, but in order to demonstrate this, she must say something to convince me that she knows better about the ends sought by the majority than the individual members of that majority themselves. (Strangely, that majority is apparently not writing New York Times op-ed pieces about its ends. Or, are we to believe that Conly speaks for that majority? If so, why? Again, I am open to the possibility that Conly is speaking for the majority, but let us first establish that this is the case.)

To underscore this point, consider the following passage from Conly's editorial:

Is it always a mistake when someone does something imprudent, when, in this case, a person chooses to chug 32 ounces of soda? No. For some people, that’s the right choice. They don’t care that much about their health, or they won’t drink too many big sodas, or they just really love having a lot of soda at once. 
But laws have to be sensitive to the needs of the majority. That doesn’t mean laws should trample the rights of the minority, but that public benefit is a legitimate concern, even when that may inconvenience some.
So, there is no question about the fact that Conly assumes she writes for the majority. That majority is one consisting of people who are simply unable to say "no" to taking their own initiative to purchase large sodas from New York City restaurants, because their cognitive biases convince them - incorrectly - that the large soda is the best means of meeting the ends they had in mind when they decided to purchase the soda.

Does this sound like anyone you know? Do you know anyone who is unable to buy anything other than a large soda to meet specific ends, when in fact something other than a large soda would better serve those ends, whatever they are? And if you do happen to know such a person, do people like that comprise the majority of people you know?

I just realized how many logical fallacies are invoked in Conly's piece. Here's a list of all the ones I found, but do feel free to add to the list in the comments section:
  • Slippery slope fallacy (described above)
  • Appeal to authority (reference to Nobel Prize winning research on cognitive bias)
  • Bandwagon fallacy (appeal to the concerns of the majority, also described above)
  • Argument from fallacy (if the slippery-slope argument is wrong, then the argument against the soda ban is wrong)
  • Ecological fallacy (statistics on human cognitive bias do not indicate that individual soda-buyers are cognitively biased in the purchase of their soda)


Fitness State Of Mind

While we're on the subject of identifying with comic book heroes, take a moment to imagine what you might feel like if you yourself were injected with Captain America's marvelous serum.

One moment, you would be you, the you we all know and love, lumps and all. You'd be the you that plops down on the couch after a long day, the you that eats a second helping of pie, the you that jokes that you never run "unless chased," the you that considers Olympic athletes to be amazing quirks of human biology, born that way. You already know what that feels like. It feels exactly the way you feel right at this moment. No need to imagine it.

But the next minute, you'd wake up at a higher level of human operation. You'd feel like an Olympian, your muscles would be large and powerful, you would be capable of running speeds, jumping heights, and lifting weights greater than anyone else you know. Your immune system would be more resilient against infections. Your energy level would be higher than it is now. Your mental alertness would be on average much more advanced than your current operating state, even if you are already a very intelligent and alert person. You would be the best possible incarnation of you: same personality, but physically superior in every conceivable way.

If you were capable of speaking the truth to yourself, even when the truth sounds vain, you might feel something like this:
"When you push yourself to the limit in the gym, you begin to get feelings of vigor and power and self-esteem," he told a visitor in 1989, as quoted in the New York Times. "Body builders don't walk on their powerful legs — they float. They actually feel a little sorry for the average person, struggling to feel worthwhile, wasting his vitality, watching his body deteriorate."
That's from an article that appeared two days ago in The Los Angeles Times, covering the recent passing of fitness icon Joe Weider. Fitness amateurs, and those who have never been truly fit in the whole of their adult lives, will find Weider's comments insulting and off-putting. But those of us who have spent any time in our adult lives in a state of real physical fitness know that Weider wasn't being uncouth.

If you've never been fit, then let me assure you: Being fit feels much different - and much better - than anything you have ever felt before. One who has experienced this feeling cannot help but feel a little sorry for those who - by their own choice, understand - have never taken the time to show themselves what it feels like to be that physically superior version of themselves.

Please understand, it's not as though anyone thinks you're a lesser human being. It's more like being at a party where everyone is laughing and having the time of their lives, and then over in the corner, you notice that poor Walter is stuck in the corner, suffering from a cold. You have to feel sorry for Walter - he's not having any fun. He's got a terrible headache and his nose is running. He's coughing so much he can barely think straight. The room is kind of swimming. You do feel sorry for Walter, and it's not as if you look down on him.

But still, you're not going to stop having fun at the party just because Walter has a cold.

Walter's lucky, since he will eventually get over his cold and come out to the next party, ready to beat everyone at the karaoke competition or whatever. People who refuse to exercise are more like people who pretend that they are genetically predisposed to suffer when everyone else is having a good time at a party.

Joe Weider knew this, and he capitalized on it. His marketing genius drove him to promote fitness as a way of life, a way to make yourself feel better, floating on your powerful legs and taking advantage of every precious moment of your vitality. We are all a little worse off with his passing, but think how much he did for us! Weider helped make the fitness world is what it is today, and is responsible for a good chunk of my own physical fitness. (I owned a Joe Weider lifting machine for a few years in my mid-20s, on which I trained every single day.)

In a completely unrelated conversation that happened the day before I learned of Weider's passing, my wife, having just returned from a particularly fruitful workout, asked me whether people who don't exercise know what they're missing out on. I told her no.

The analogy I gave her was that it was like dying on the planet Neptune. All of us know that if we were to travel to Neptune, the temperature, gravitational force, and toxic atmosphere would conspire to kill us. We know that on an intellectual level, but we have no idea what that would actually be like, because it is an event that is totally foreign to the human experience. There is only so far that deductive reasoning can take us with that image, after which our mind blanks. We know it would be death, we have no other understanding of it.

So it is with people who don't exercise. They understand that it makes their bodies feel good. They understand, logically, that this feeling amplifies and increases as they continue to pursue greater and more challenging fitness goals and exercises. They are aware of the many descriptions we give about our heightened mental clarity, the feeling of complete agility, of resilience to infection and physical shock. They've read the magazines, they know what we've said. But aside from the verbal descriptions it is a physical sensation utterly foreign to their own life experience. They have a vague notion of what exercise-induced mental clarity is, but they do not know what it means in their own lives.

No one will ever come along and inject you with a magic serum that turns you into the physically perfect version of yourself. But, lurking just beneath the surface of your mind, just below the mental puddles left by those things you tell yourself to justify not exercising, below the fear and the procrastination... There lies your inner Captain America, the person inside of you who reveals himself or herself when you invest good time and effort to feeling fit.

And that's not just fit enough to walk around the block a few times a week or fit enough to run a 5K. Your inner Captain America is the person inside you who, with proper training, could reach the top of Mount Everest. Your inner Captain America is the person who could win a 5K or a body-building competition. Your inner Captain America is the person who walks with such poise and confidence - won by years of dedicated exercise - that a roomful of people cannot help but marvel (pun intended) at how good you look.

It's just a fun motivational concept. Use it, if you like. Use it if it motivates you to push yourself harder. But if you don't exercise, you might never make it to 93 years of age like Joe Weider, and even if you do, you'll otherwise never know what it feels like to run 100 miles in a week or bench press more than your body weight. What are you waiting for? The serum is your spirit. You were born with it.

That's Crazy

The other day, someone on my Google+ feed posted a link to the following video from libertarian philosopher Stefan Molyneux:

I must confess that I found the whole the rather odd. Molyneux starts with a flawed premise: that those who derive the most enjoyment from fictional, fantastical tales of heroism are the people least likely to engage in true heroism (because they're nerds lol!). He then proceeds to reason that all heroic fiction is designed to teach us that heroism itself is a fantasy, and that the only thing we can ever hope to do is be a mindless cog in the state-led machine. Molyneux concludes the video (spoiler alert, I guess) by declaring that we all have it within us to be heroic, and that heroism just happens to be... pretty much engaging in the kind of lifestyle Molyneux himself would prefer that you lead.

Let me begin this discussion by stating a few important points.

First, I sympathize with Molyneux's libertarian world-view. Faithful Stationary Waves readers know me to be an outspoken libertarian myself. So, I would ask you to keep that in mind as you read my criticism of Molyneux's video. I certainly don't intend to criticize the concept of freedom, nor do I consider it "unheroic" to take a philosophical stand in favor of freedom, individuality, and all the other aspects of my creed that Molyneux also shares.

Second, it appears to me that Molyneux's entire premise rests on the notion that people who enjoy comic books, fantasy novels, and science fiction are weak, cowardly nerds, and he buttresses this claim with nothing other than a rhetorical appeal to the viewer's own biases against nerds. It is as if Molyneux is simply saying, "Think about who likes fantasy. Nerds like fantasy. You don't want to be a nerd, therefore we can all agree that fantasy is for nerds. Therefore, it must be that fantasy encourages people to become nerds. Therefore, it must be that the authors of fantasy want people to be nerds. Therefore, fantasy must be, at its core, a statist concept. Therefore true heroism is libertarianism. QED."

I am in a charitable mood today, so I will temper my true reaction to this argument and respond as follows: By appealing to a bandwagon fallacy and his viewers' aversion to being thought of as nerds, Molyneux is the one who sounds like he's trying to brainwash people. (Of course, I leave open the possibility that Molyneux has simply brainwashed himself.)

Either Way, This Video Is Weirdly Alarming
To be honest, when I watched the video, I recoiled in disgust. The core analysis is sloppy and hinges on the idea that anyone who likes fantastic fiction (we might as well start calling it Romanticism, since that is the proper literary term for fiction that appeals to our ideal types) is some sort of a philosophically stunted child. That is a claim so preposterous that even responding to it legitimizes it. There is absolutely no need to "respond to" that claim in an attempt to "refute" it, any more than there is a need to refute the idea that the Matterhorn is made of chocolate or that Brad Pitt is the criminal mastermind behind the kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby. Just because someone levies a claim against an individual or a group does not mean that the accused needs to craft a rebuttal. It is Molyneux who is making the claims here. Let us consider the evidence. Oh wait, he didn't supply any.

Even so, if we accept Molyneux's point as true, then his video is all the more off-putting, for in it he slanders the victims of the state. In order to get viewers on his side, he first insults them, calls them weak and unheroic, and then dares them to comply with his own personal view of heroism. It's manipulative. Think about it: If this happened in a romantic relationship, it would be called abuse.

From the assumption that Molyneux's ultimate conclusions are correct, his method is highly coercive and underhanded. From the assumption that Molyneux's reasoning is sloppy and flawed, his conclusions have nothing to offer us. Either way, the video sucks.

Forces At Work
I can only really see two possible explanations for a video like this, and in all likelihood what's really going on is a combination of the two. Let's consider them now.

The first possibility is that Stefan Molyneux, who quite often posts videos, writes articles, and makes public speeches that reference psychology, knows enough about psychology to employ his knowledge in the crafting of his message. That is, Molyneux knows that he is being manipulative when he is being manipulative, and he's doing it because he thinks it's for the greater good.

The analogy here is sort of like when a parent says to a child that taking too much Halloween candy is "greedy" when what the parent really means is that eating too much candy is unhealthy and grabbing huge handfuls of free candy is taking advantage of your neighbor's generosity. The parent knows that the full explanation for exactly why a child shouldn't take too much Halloween candy would be lost on the average five-year-old, so the parent contents himself/herself to give the topic the "because I said so" treatment. With a single word ("greedy") the child can (perhaps) learn both not to eat too much candy and not to take undue advantage of a neighbor's kindness.

Similarly, Molyneux might be arguing against living with one's head in the clouds, believing that the word "heroism" only applies to strong, near-perfect beings who confront world-threatening danger and subdue the unyielding terrors that threaten the universe. Molyneux might simply be saying, Look, you have more heroism in you than you realize. You just have to learn to see that anyone can be a hero by standing up for what they believe. You don't have to be a wizard or a super-hero, you just have to actively pursue the world you would like to live in. The whole, "What are you, a statist nerd???" thing might just be there to simplify the message.

But notice how this explanation requires us to believe that Molyneux is a parental figure, or that he possesses a greater understanding of such things as individuality and heroism than the cowardly nerds who desperately need him to tell them how to be truly heroic. There is something overweening about that attitude.

The second possibility going on in this video is that Molyneux has become so practiced at applying his unique brand of "everything you know is a statist lie" reasoning, that he really does believe that anyone who ever wrote an entertaining story about a super-hero saving the world was a statist hell-bent on stunting your mind, harvesting your labor for the benefit of the state, and nefariously plotting the next step toward total control of the collective populace.

Of course, the ironic thing about this possibility is that, in order to believe it, we must believe that Molyneux's view of politics is a literal incarnation of the kinds of stories being told in the comic books and sci-fi movies he so criticizes. And if this second possibility is true - if Molyneux actually does believe that the state deploys Romanticist artists to stunt our philosophical heroism and control us, body and soul - then Molyneux himself is the greatest nerd of all. For it is he who has crafted a fantastical fiction about an evil plot to rule the world, one that can only be overturned by a libertarian revolt against the state's mind control.

The whole thing borders on paranoia.

These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible that Molyneux not only knows enough about psychology to create manipulative videos, but also that he is creating manipulative videos with the express purpose of sparking a revolt against the statist knaves who are trying to control our minds. Fight fire with fire, if you will. Or, that there is some blend of these two things. For example, perhaps Molyneux tells himself that when he insults his target demographic and then challenges them to win his approval, he is just crafting a "persuasive argument" for his ideas. Further, he might not believe that all Romantic literature is statist, but he might believe that enough of it is statist to present an existential threat to impressionable young minds.

In fairness, this is the more likely scenario. It is probably the case that Molyneux sees videos like this one as being persuasive, not manipulative; and he likely sees the state as willing to propagandize rather than devoted to mind control. But these concepts are gradients of the same thing. It is akin to saying that perhaps Molyneux is not so much a bad man as he is terribly confused or deeply flawed in his reasoning.

I can temper these statements so that they more easily appeal to those of my readers who are fans of Stefan Molyneux. But the fact remains: Molyneux has at least publicly claimed that Romanticism in literature is statist mind control. As the subject line of the blog post indicates, that's crazy. I'm sorry, but it is.

Another Way Of Looking At It
From my perspective, the frustrating thing about this video is that it is so completely unnecessary. There is no need to tag Romanticism as statist. There is no need to declare that fans of sci-fi and fantasy are cowardly, nerdy weaklings. Why on Earth should anyone take it so far?

Here at Stationary Waves, we too believe in individuality and dispelling our illusions. It is the de facto mission statement of my blog.

But when I tell you to set aside your illusions and live in reality, it is not because I think the state will get you if you don't. No, living in reality is beneficial to you because you are more capable of comprehending life and what's going around you, and that will make you better-equipped to deal with the challenges you face in life. And that's all there is to it. I am not after your donation to support my blog. I am not after your ideological commitment to my own personal political ideas. I don't even know most of you! I want you to live in reality because overcoming my own illusions works well for me and I personally believe it will also work for you. Period.

And when I tell you to pursue individuality, it is not because I am antagonistic toward collectivism, but rather simply because I see individuality as being existentially satisfying. That has been my own personal experience, and individuality has been good for my own personal mental health. That is the message I want you to take away from my blog. It has nothing to do with a war between competing world views or a challenge to rise to my concept of heroism.

I believe every human being deserves to be happy. I believe life is what you choose to make of it. The happier we all are, the better off we'll all be. We'll be healthier, we'll treat each other better, we'll be less inclined to harm or distrust each other. It's just a belief I have, a theory. So when I write about it, it's because I'm thinking about it and I want to share my thoughts with others, to see if they also feel this way.

But that's it. It's not a movement. It's not a team. It's not a political objective. It's a conversation. That's why I blog for free, and that's why I like to write. Join in the conversation, rub up against my ideas, challenge them, put your own thoughts out there, too.

And if I'm qualified to give advice about videos like the one above (and really - I'm not qualified), then my advice is to steer clear of intellectual poison designed to make you feel ashamed of being "a nerd" so that you will join somebody else's political cause. That's crazy.

See? When you say it out load it even sounds crazy. And it's certainly not happiness.


Wealth And Income

Many people try to make the point I am about to try to make, and most of them fall flat. So it should prove to be no surprise if my attempt also falls flat. Despite my probability for failure, I am going to give it the old college try, in hopes that what I am about to say resonates with you in a way that was never true of other authors who have attempted to make this point before me.

Defining The Issue:
Most of us have a vague notion of what I mean when I contrast the terms "wealth" and "income," but few people have ever bothered to think through the differences and their implications. Let us begin by simply defining the terms.

  • Wealth (at least, according to Wikipedia) "is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions."
  • Income (same source) "is the consumption and savings opportunity gained by an entity within a specified timeframe, which is generally expressed in monetary terms."
If you are a human being with normal cognitive functionality, then your brain has already jumped three steps ahead and you are finding some ambiguity between the two concepts. After all, what is a "consumption and savings opportunity," if not an "abundance of resources or material possessions?"

And yet, we must resist the urge to jump ahead. The key to the definition of income is not merely the opportunity to consume or save, but more specifically that opportunity which has been gained within a specified timeframe. For instance, you have no new opportunity to consume or save now than you did five minutes ago. Thus, while you maintain the same opportunity to consume or save now versus then, you have no additional opportunity specifically attributable to that five minute period. 

No, the only way you can gain an additional opportunity to consume or save - i.e. an income - is by generating some sort of income through labor or investment. Otherwise, all we are really talking about is the potential consumption of your acquired wealth

Get it?

The Superficial Relationship Between Wealth And Income
Any six-year-old with a weekly allowance knows the difference between the pennies that are already in your piggy bank and the new ones you are about to put there. Our inner six-year-olds also understand that income is the means by which we can acquire wealth. A six-year-old will, unfortunately (and forgivably - after all, six-year-olds have much to learn) conflate wealth and income in precisely the same way our brains were trying to do so when we read the definition of those words above. 

It is our inner six-year-old who is trying to conflate those terms. It is our inner fifty-six-year-old who has the wisdom and restraint required to understand how important it is to keep things separate. Let's take a look at a couple of examples.

First Example - John:
John is a twenty-year-old day laborer on a construction site. He works very hard, from before dawn to after dusk, building homes, roads, offices, and so on. He's not rich, by any means, but he's making good coin for his age. He gets his paycheck on Friday, cashes it, and heads to the local sports bar for an evening of drinking, rabble-rousing, carousing, and so forth. He works up a hefty bar tab, pays in cash, and goes home. The next day, he hits the grocery store and pays off his urgent bills. He spends much of the rest of his money on video games, beer, his girlfriend, and the occasional tattoo. By Wednesday, he is extremely low on cash and compelled to eat Instant Noodles for lunch and dinner until the following Friday, when he can begin the cycle anew.

Although John is making what many would consider a nice middle-class income, many of us would say that John is not very wealthy. Our common-sense reasoning would be that John is not "putting anything away." He's spending his money as it comes in, living paycheck to paycheck despite the fact that he has ample ability to save. Technically, we could say that John has access to the same things of value to which anyone with his income has access - but John chooses to spend his money on things that do not retain value over a long period of time. The value of his beer expires as soon as his buzz wears off, for example. 

John has plenty of income, a good degree of wealth, but his cognitive time-horizon is more reflective of his inner six-year-old than of his inner fifty-six-year-old.

Second Example - Ralph:
Ralph works at Starbuck's and studies anthropology at the local university. Ralph's income is much lower than John's, and yet like John, Ralph lives in a modest apartment. Ralph might not own John's nice Ford F-150 truck, but he does own a pretty cool bike, which reliably gets him from his apartment to work, to school, around town, and anywhere else Ralph needs to be. He saves a lot of money this way, since he doesn't need to shell out valuable money for gasoline, car payments, and auto insurance. Ralph does his fair share of drinking, but usually does so in the form of house parties with his friends. They'll all bring over a bottle of something and a dish of something homemade to eat, put on some music, and have a long night of fun. 

Even so, Ralph's pattern of behavior is a lot like John's. He gets paid on Friday, heads to the grocery and the farmer's market for some fresh groceries and a couple of bottles of alcohol. He enjoys his house party or whatever, pays his rent and utilities bills, his tuition or student loan installments, maybe buys a few new pieces of trendy vintage clothing from the second-hand store, and by Wednesday, he's feeling the squeeze. He'll have to spend the next couple of days scrounging for hummus in the back of his refrigerator and maybe eat some pasta without pasta sauce in order to last until Friday. Still, he's happy with his life. After all, he's got friends, he's got food to eat and a roof over his head, and he's doing just fine. He doesn't need more than what he already has. John could learn a thing or two from Ralph.

Ralph has scant income, but about the same amount of wealth that John has. Even so, his cognitive time-horizon reflects more of his inner six-year-old than his inner fifty-six-year-old.

John And Ralph - A Discussion:
Despite the difference in their incomes, John and Ralph live very comparable lifestyles. If we understand the word "lifestyle" to involve the same kind of things involved in wealth - abundance of valuable resources and material possessions - then these two guys are about equal. John has a truck, which might represent wealth that Ralph does not possess. But Ralph's lifestyle also precludes him from needed a truck. In that sense, Ralph might not feel any wealthier if he owned a truck than he does now; and it would certainly cost Ralph a lot of income that he is not currently generating.

Our knee-jerk belief is that Ralph is investing more in his future than John is, since Ralph is pursuing a college education. That may or may not be true. For one thing, a degree in anthropology is not particularly valuable on the labor market. For another thing, John's investment in a truck is helping him build a higher credit score, which will prove very valuable to him, should he ever choose to make more long-term investments in real estate, financial instruments, or a wedding ring. On this, I would again put them at about par, since they are both engaged in activities that may prove modestly fruitful in the future, even if they are not as fruitful as more savvy and longer-term investments.

The key point here, though, is that the approximately the same level of wealth can be had within a broad range of income levels. 

A follow-up question might be this: would raising John or Ralph's income make a significant difference to their overall level of wealth? How about their standard of living? Personally, I do not think so. 

For one thing, I believe that if John were given a raise, he would consume more of the same sorts of things: More tattoos, more accessories for his truck, more beer, and so on. There are a few key areas that John could improve if he took the time to do so: (1) he could apply his raise almost exclusively to groceries and enable himself to enjoy better meals all week long; (2) he could upgrade his truck, which may potentially save him gas money or improve his job performance, if he buys the right kind of truck; (3) he could radically extend his cognitive time-horizon and invest in better tools for his job, enabling him to perform better, win better job contracts, get better bonding, or potentially start up a contracting business of his own some day. But three is the least likely scenario for a guy like John, thus it seems most likely that a raise will not make a major impact on him.

As for Ralph, it strikes me as unlikely that he has any immediate upgrade to his lifestyle, other than John's number (1), above. A raise may enable Ralph to greatly expand the scope of his existing consumption, such as better quality food, better alcohol, trendier clothes, etc. But his lifestyle precludes him from making any immediate upgrades, and this may be the one wealth differential between Ralph and John. Nevertheless, there is always the remote possibility analogous to John's (3). Ralph could always radically extend his cognitive time-horizon, change his major to something more practical, while he simultaneously trades his barista job for a stint running accounts receivable reports at the local bookstore. This would open up a whole new world of wealth-generation possibilities for Ralph - and I have known many Ralphs in my life who have opted for this choice. Nonetheless, that kind of choice is more than just a change in Ralph's cognitive time-horizon - it is a change to his whole way of life. In a sense, he'd no longer be Ralph if he applied himself in that particular way. I have also known my fair share of Ralphs who deliberately chose not to do something like this, because they valued their bohemian lifestyle more highly than their potential for greater wealth.

There is much to say about a topic like this, but I think I will leave it at that for today. The crucial points I am trying to make are:

  • There is a difference between wealth and income
  • The same level of wealth can be experienced over a broad range of incomes
  • This implies that some low-income people are potentially experiencing more wealth than some middle-income people.
  • Changes to a person's income have a less important impact on their relative wealth than changes to a person's psychology.

To increase wealth in the long run, both John and Ralph would have to go through a bit of a catharsis. As I mentioned above, John would have to resist the urge to spend through his paycheck quickly and instead start investing his money in ways that yield higher returns in the long run. Ralph would have to reevaluate his bohemian life choices and decide that he might be better off pursuing more "mainstream" life choices. The unfortunate thing for both of them is that this is plainly and simply a choice between their current chosen lifestyle and a lifestyle that is drastically different.

The new lifestyle may or may not be what John or Ralph need to experience "true happiness." It is entirely possible that they are happier in their current state than they would be if they pursued greater wealth. But if they decide that greater wealth is a key to their own future happiness, they must be willing to make the corresponding life choices.


Some Scattered Thoughts On Wages

First Scattered Thought: How Wages Are Set
According to Ludwig von Mises, wages on the free market are basically a bidding process between the employer and the employee. Regarding the method for the setting of wage rates, Mises wrote as follows:
The upper limit of [the employer's] bidding is determined by anticipation of the price he can obtain for the increment in salable goods he expects from the employment of the worker concerned. The lower limit is determined by the bids of competing entrepreneurs who themselves are guided by analogous considerations. It is this that economists have in mind in asserting that the height of wage rates for each kind of labor is determined by its marginal productivity. Another way to express the same truth is to say that wage rates are determined by the supply of labor and of material factors of production on the one hand and by the anticipated future prices of the consumers' goods.* 
This is as concise an explanation as can possibly be provided, without weighing things down with economics jargon. Still, the wording of it reflects the clunkiness of a highly intellectual and academic author writing in a second language. So, allow me in my vanity to attempt a rephrasing of Mises' words:
A person's wage is a value between two extremes. The upper extreme is the maximum value your employer imagines you can contribute to your company in your current role. The lower extreme is the lowest possible wage your employer could conceivably get away with paying someone similar to you for that same role. The more people like you there are looking for jobs like yours, the more likely it is that one of them will be willing to work for less than your wage. The higher the price your company's product fetches on the retail market, the greater the maximum value of workers like you.
To some of us, it may seem pedantic or condescending to spell it out like this. Nonetheless, it is important to understand what exactly we are discussing when we have "national conversations" on wage rates generally, and mandatory minimum wage rates in particular.

Second Scattered Thought: Why Raising Workers' Pay Won't Work
The perspectives of many so-called "progressives" reflects a basic ignorance of business management when it comes to the wage issue. For example, faithful Stationary Waves reader CH (who may object to my calling him a progressive, despite the fact that this is what he is as a matter of revealed ideology) argues that one of the principle reasons the poor are poor is that "the rich" (here understood to mean employers) won't raise their wages.

This is a superficially convincing argument if we keep in mind that employers are more likely to coincide with demographics we may term "rich" and (non-employer) employees are more likely to coincide with demographics we would not term "rich.**" Therefore, the reasoning goes that the rich are rich because they dole out all the work; the poor are poor, on the other hand, because they are in no position to do so***.

Note that all such reasoning ignores the practical considerations of operating a business. Let's assume that you operate a fast food restaurant, and you decide to commit to paying your employees a livable salary of, say, $35,000 per year. Let us further assume that it requires approximately twenty such employees to operate the restaurant. The labor costs alone of operating such a restaurant are $700,000 per year. Now, according to chacha.com, the approximate price of a McDonald's Quarter-Pounder is $3 apiece. If we accept this as the market price for a fast food hamburger, then your restaurant must sell 233,334 hamburgers per year to cover labor costs alone. This corresponds to selling 640 hamburgers per day. (By comparison, the average US McDonald's franchise sells about 328 hamburgers per day.) If we assume that your restaurant operates from 10am to midnight, fourteen hours per day, then this number corresponds to selling 46 hamburgers per hour.

Please take the time to consider that this means if your restaurant goes for more than a sum total of fourteen minutes during any individual hour of operation (for every hour of the year, assuming you are open all 365 days of the year) without selling a hamburger, then you have lost money - and that takes into account only labor costs. This says nothing about the money you spend on the actual hamburger ingredients, nor the grill, nor the utensils, nor the building and its cost of utilities and maintenance. And it goes without saying that you still haven't collected a profit.

Of course, their is an easy solution to this problem. You can still compete with McDonald's by approximately doubling the price of your hamburgers, to $6 apiece. Now you only have to sell about the same number of hamburgers as they do, and your twenty employees can draw "livable" salaries. There remains only one problem...

Who on Earth is going to spend $6 for Quarter-Pounder? (That's $6 without fries, without a beverage, just the burger alone.) I have certainly spent $6 on a hamburger before. I've spent $15 on a hamburger before. But it wasn't at a fast food restaurant, it was at a nice, sit-down restaurant with a pretty waitress and micro-brews on tap, and romantic lighting. I had to wait a good 20-30 minutes before it was ready, and it was a drastically different experience. My hamburger was a prepared by a chef, not a teenager.

Interestingly, $35,000 per year is the approximate starting salary of a chef in America.

Third Scattered Thought: A Response To The Progressive's Anticipated Response
Naturally, progressives will have two things to say about what I've described above.

The first thing they'll say is that they don't expect McDonald's to start paying its employees $35,000 per year, they just expect McDonald's to pay them more than minimum wage. Well, on average, they do. The minimum wage is $7.25, and the average employee's hourly wage is about $7.80 for the burger-flippers. But if this still strikes you as being unreasonably low, then how does $17 per hour sound? Better? $17 per hour is more than $35,000 per year.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the initial complaint I attributed to CH above, namely that the poor are poor because the rich won't pay them more. In other words, poor people aren't poor because they're flipping burgers, but rather because the rich should pay them as much as $16 per hour even if they are merely flipping burgers... which still corresponds to an annual income that is far from rich. So now we are paying McDonald's employees as though they are chefs, and they still have no hope of being rich.

That's important, but I'll get back to it in a moment. For now, let us simply keep in mind that most of us think drawing a sous chef's salary at McDonald's is definitely excessive for the fast food work.

The second thing progressives will have to say about my fast food example is that none of them mind paying extra for food if they know it's going to "support" a business model that includes livable employee wages. Neither do I mind if they pay extra for that food at those restaurants. But minimum wage discussions have nothing to do with where progressives choose to spend their disposable incomes and everything to do with forcing those who make different choices to align with the progressive choice.

That is also important, but I'll get back to it in a moment. For now, let us simply acknowledge that few progressives spend much of their money at McDonald's. Instead, they spend their money in trendy local restaurants that employ chefs are the market wage for chef work, and are enthusiastic and vocal supporters of socially responsible, local businesses.

From the above, we have learned three things about progressive attitudes on wages:

  1. Paying low-skill employees wages that correspond to high-skill employment is an objectionable concept even to progressives. When this is pointed out, they will quickly move to say that they "just" want low-skill employees to make "more." They will probably invoke some word like "balance" or "moderation."
  2. Raising wages to levels that strike progressives as being more reasonable (like $35,000) still fails to make any low-skill laborer rich.
  3. Progressives are not frequenting very many of the businesses that employ low-skill labor and sell goods and services for low-skill prices.

Fourth Scattered Thought: Getting Back To The Things I Said Were Important
Now let's return to the two points I made above: First, that raising low wages fails to make anyone rich; and second, that no one who believes in increasing wage rates for the poor shops at the relevant businesses anyway.

Take the time to understand the implication of these two points. The first suggests that progressives' goal is not really to enrich anyone, but rather to increase their salaries to a level that strikes them as adequate. The second suggests that none of the business models for which wage-increase discussions are had appeal to progressives in the first place.

The implication is clear. Progressives are less interested in enriching the poor than they are in preventing the rich from being rich. To them, it is the pursuit of wealth that is despicable, not the fact that low-skill employees aren't rich. The solution to the problem, in the progressive view, is not to increase society's wealth, but to decrease society's desire for it. Their chosen methodology is to devise punishments on the wealthy and regulatory regimes that discourage wealth-generation.

See, what progressives really want is for everyone to just stop craving Quarter-Pounders and instead go spend their money in the local fair trade, organic coffee shop. None of us will be rich, but that's not really the point, is it? The point is that the barista can afford to serve drinks all day and still pursue her folk music career. The point is that if we weren't producing so darn many hamburgers, none of us would be victims of the obesity epidemic. And while we're talking about it, why on Earth is anyone eating meat anyway? Meat is murder.

Final Scattered Thought: What It All Means
Considering all this, I am left with the impression that the progressive vision of the world is altogether different from everyone else's vision of the world, and this difference forms the basis of the political climate in which we find ourselves today.

Some of us want to make money for ourselves, to afford nice things and enjoy a better quality of life. Other people, meanwhile, believe that a certain kind of lifestyle is what provides us with a better quality of life. So, whereas I might work hard all day, pull a big paycheck, and go spend it on nice things around the house, comfortable and nice-looking clothing, a college education for my children, and maybe a nice estate for my progeny when I finally go - so that they, too can enjoy nice things and big houses and swimming pools - a progressive on the other hand might find a job that satisfies their social conscience, in a neighborhood that provides them with plenty of micro-brewed beer and organic coffee beans, where there are artisan shops and modern art museums nearby (within biking distance, of course!), and anything beyond that is simply excessive.

The crux of the matter here is that I honestly don't care if progressives want that kind of lifestyle. They are free to pursue it, and I don't look down on them for wanting it. After all, this is what makes them happy, and every human being deserves to be deeply and profoundly happy.

So, why do I get the impression that progressives don't feel the same way about the rich and their lifestyle?

* Mises, Ludwig von, Human Actionhttp://mises.org/humanaction/chap21sec3.asp

** I must point out here that nobody really thinks that all employees are poor. Most of us are not. It goes without saying - and is a far less important point - that not all rich people are employers.

*** Yet, isn't it interesting that whenever a poor person finds himself in such a position, he awards himself the highest salary, strips the rich of their money and power, and condemns society at large to live in poverty? Cf. Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Imelda Marco, and so on...


Why Very Demanding People Always Win

In school, we say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In the workplace, we say that we must learn to toot our own horn a bit in order to get noticed in order to advance our careers. In politics, we say that it is necessary to raise awareness of an issue in order to affect change. These are different ways of saying the same thing: Those who make their demands known are those who get their demands met.

Before I tackle this idea, let me first make it clear that there is a positive aspect of this and a negative aspect of this. The positive aspect of this would be the fact that, whenever we have emotional or physical needs, it is important to communicate with others so that we can get the help and support we need. This kind of communication is an unequivocally good thing. No disputes here.

The negative aspect of this is when one demands more than one's due, or when one's demands become a burden on others, or when one makes consistent demands to the detriment of others.

In order to differentiate between the two, we apply a sense of justice. A full discussion of justice is out-of-scope here, however, and we will simply have to accept it as given that each of us has a reasonable and acceptable sense of justice, even if we don't always reach the same conclusions*.

The Many Ways People Are (Negatively) Demanding
Let's start with a few examples.

John is an ambitious consultant. In the workplace, he is quick to ask questions and to request that other, more experienced consultants help him solve the problems he encounters in his project work. He spends a great deal of time having one-on-one interaction with his supervisor, dominating the supervisor's time and cultivating a closer relationship between them than the other employees have, a relationship based solely on the fact that he has spent a disproportionately greater amount of time with the supervisor. When John's projects go over well, John is quick to dispense his advice and lessons learned to his colleagues. When John's projects do not go over so well, he is quick to blame the project's other contributors for the problems they all faced. When interacting with larger groups of colleagues, John condescends to his peers in order to make himself appear more knowledgeable, while at the same time he supplicates to his superiors beyond the call of good taste, thereby captivating their attention and preventing them from noticing other employees. In all ways, John is totally over-bearing.

Ralph is always in crisis**. No matter what seems to be going on in anyone else's life, Ralph's thoughts are dominated by his own problems. When Ralph talks to his friends and family members, he steers the conversation toward his problems and how they can be solved. When he is actually required to respond to the problems of other people, he is only capable of re-framing the problem in such a way that its essential characteristics are the same as one of his problems. Therefore, if his friend is dealing with a difficult coworker, Ralph will discuss his friend's issue as though the coworker is exactly the same as someone difficult in Ralph's own life. This perspective will not merely be informed by Ralph's problems, but rather Ralph will be unable to see any aspect of his friend's problem unless he (Ralph) assumes that the problem is exactly like Ralph's own problem. When Ralph solves one problem, the celebration is fleeting. He quickly advances to the next crisis, which then begins to occupy his every thought. In all ways, Ralph is totally over-bearing.

Fred is not the center of his own universe, nor does he live in constant crisis. Nevertheless, Fred has emotional issues that he is trying to work through. These issues take up a lot of space in his thoughts, and as a result of that, Fred falls into a pattern of analyzing all things from the perspective of his own emotional issues. Whereas Ralph will only be able to understand problems that Ralph himself is going through, Fred has a good understanding of other people's problems, and a large amount of empathy. Unlike Ralph, however, Fred has created a world in which his own personal issues are the primary problems of the universe in general. Fred's explanation for all problems - even those experienced by other people - is the same as the explanation he has developed for his own emotional issues. Therefore, whenever any discussion comes up, Fred's lone contribution to it is to find a way to rationalize the issue from the perspective of his emotional issues. If Fred believes his issues were caused by another person's lack of generosity, then Fred will see heavy automobile traffic as being caused by a lack of generosity, he will see the nation's political issues as being a contest between those who are generous and those who are not, he will see his own relationship problems as being traceable somehow to the comparative amounts of generosity possessed by the relevant parties. If, on the other hand, Fred believes his issues were caused by another person's lack of attentiveness, then Fred will see heavy automobile traffic as being caused by a lack of attention, he will see the nation's political issues as being a contest between those who are attentive to others and those who are not, he will see his own relationship problems as being traceable somehow to the comparative amounts of attentiveness possessed by the relevant parties. If, furthermore, Fred believes his issues were caused by another person's lack of maturity, then Fred will see heavy automobile traffic as being caused by a lack of maturity, he will see the nation's political issues as being a contest between those who are mature and those who are not, he will see his own relationship problems as being traceable somehow to the comparative amounts of maturity possessed by the relevant parties. No matter what Fred's particular explanation is for the issues he has, Fred will apply that explanation to each and every situation he and anyone else faces. In this way, Fred is totally over-bearing.

How Being Demanding Affects Others
I have called John, Ralph, and Fred over-bearing because most of us will agree that their behavior is very much so. Yet, if it were so easy to declare someone over-bearing and walk away, the story would simply end here (or, more realistically, I would never have started writing this blog post).

The reason being demanding or over-bearing is a problem is due to the fact that the rest of us are extremely tolerant of this behavior. We have good motives for tolerating it. We tolerate John because we wish to appear cooperative in the workplace, and we wish to succeed on projects even when we must work with John. We tolerate Ralph because he is a dear friend or family member whose well-being is truthfully very important to us. We tolerate Fred because he is a good listener and an empathetic person, so we recognize the value he adds to our lives.

Unfortunately, if we indulge the demanding people in our lives, John will throw us under the bus, Ralph will ask for much more than we are even capable of giving him, and Fred will unwittingly pull us into an emotionally fragile world in which everything about the universe is rooted in a psychological wrongdoing that occurred only in Fred's life. Thus, indulging the overly demanding people in our lives subjects us to the threat of (1) looking bad, (2) taking on undue hardship ourselves, or (3) getting sucked into someone else's emotional problems in such a way that they can adversely warp our own perspective.

Each in their own way, John, Ralph, and Fred all take advantage of us. John takes advantage of the fact that the person who first acts over-bearingly in the workplace controls the social dynamic; this is social manipulation, basically. Ralph takes advantage of our desire to be supportive. Fred takes advantage of our respect for his point of view.

All of this is true, but there is also one other crucial aspect of the dynamic of very demanding people.

Social Cooperation And The Desire To Smooth Things Over
We humans have an inert and probably instinctual desire to facilitate social cooperation. Every event in human history is testament to that fact. We need not study history to see it, of course. Every moment you spend with others is a moment in which you are working to facilitate cooperation among you, on some level.

Being very demanding is highly unpleasant, and clearly uncooperative from a social standpoint. However, when individuals violate minor social mores, they are not ousted from the group immediately. Whenever someone rubs up against the group in the wrong way, the group will immediately respond by giving the individual the chance to either redeem himself/herself or take a mulligan.

Consider situations in which someone accidentally says something embarrassing. The group's reaction is often to stay silent in hopes that the offender will diffuse the situation voluntarily. Sometimes the group responds with laughter, which is an attempt to dismiss the offense by turning it into a humorous anecdote.

Whatever the specifics of the reaction, people ensconced in social circumstances experience great discomfort when one group member commits an offense. The social pressure of the situation seems to inspire us to devise ways to forgive the offense while simultaneously maintaining all members of the group. We make allowances for the transgressor, our minds create excuses and opportunities to allow the offender to "make up" for what has been done.

The Power Of Escalation
Now let's return to our very demanding people.

John understands (at least, on some level) that his actions violate the social norms, but he also understands (again, on some level he understands) that the group will be highly reticent to dole out punishment for his behavior. The few that dare to do so will only make the group dynamic more uncomfortable, and then they, not John, will receive the group's wrath.

Ralph, too, understands that his problems make other people uncomfortable. In fact, he expects this to be the case since, after all, his problems also make he himself uncomfortable! Ralph's whole motivation is alleviating his own discomfort, and he knows that those who take the time to listen to his problems will be moved to express some form of sympathy. They would be uncomfortable behaving otherwise, and even if not, Ralph could quickly escalate the situation by claiming righteous indignation at the fact that they had failed to express their empathy. The resulting escalated social conflict would be sufficiently uncomfortable as to inspire the desired sympathy.

Fred understands the respect we hold for his point of view, and he values our friendship. However, Fred desperately needs his phantom psychological explanation validated by other people in order for him to maintain its illusory explanatory power. So, if we disagree with Fred, he will staunchly repeat his explanation again and again until the listener acquiesces. Minor disagreements among friends are insignificant; major disagreements wound deeply. Therefore, Fred is willing to create mountains out of molehills if it serves his illusion. Dealing with Fred is particularly tricky, since he will soon respond to a prolonged conflict by creating a rationalization for why the listener, too is guilty of the same underlying problem that has caused Fred so many emotional problems in the past. The listener, on some level, will pick up on this dynamic, and will work to assuage Fred and maintain a positive relationship with him.

Hence, in all three dynamics, the very demanding person will employ escalation tactics to manipulate other people into behaving in ways that serve their demands. Meanwhile, the rest of us are all too willing to give in to their many demands to maintain the social order and to avoid further group conflict.

At some point, demanding people have learned just how elastic the social order really is. They have learned better than others that much can be demanded of the group before it starts to break down or wear thin. Of course, people are individuals, and we all have varying levels of tolerance for the demands of others, as well as for the particular kinds of demands being made. But because many of us are highly indulgent of any demands (we want to be socially cooperative, we want to be socially successful, we want to be well-respected and highly regarded), we often find ourselves trapped in situations with very demanding people who easily ask too much and leave us to suffer the social consequences of their actions.

What's important to remember is that we will have to face these consequences regardless of how we choose to respond to the demands being made. A quick, eviscerating "No!" will sacrifice a great deal of our own respect within the group, but will spare everyone else's having to endure prolonged social conflict. Excessive indulgence will not only prolong the group's suffering, but will also expose us to personal social and mental health risks. A moderate approach is our obvious tendency, but this really just constitutes "splitting the difference" rather than arriving at a true "balance" based on behavioral efficacy.

The reason demanding people always win, then, is because they are in control of the whole problem. It is they who initiate group conflict while the rest of us act to maintain order. It is they who escalate conflict while the rest of us act to mitigate it. There is simply no way we ourselves can solve the problem, because it is not our problem. We are neither the aggressors, nor the escalators, nor the ones making demands in the first place.

The key point is this: No matter how much a demanding person will use social cues and our innate sense of cooperation to manipulate us into meeting their demands, the problem is not really a social one. That demanding people are so demanding is their own, personal problem. Nothing we do will change that. There is no right answer because there is nothing for us to do. The problem is in their minds, their psychology. It merely appears as a social problem.

It is not a social problem, it is a personal one. There is nothing you can do to help.

* Defining justice has always been one of the great philosophical problems. In fact, Plato wrote a whole book on the topic, and he wasn't the only one. So it is unlikely that I will be able to unravel the concept of justice here. We will have to accept that the definition of justice is a matter of further philosophical interrogation, and I leave you to it. I recommend you start with Plato's The Republic and proceed from there.

** For more on the mindset of constant crisis, see this excellent blog post from Simon Grey.


The Decline Of Music Continues

In a surprisingly interesting article covering the SXSW Festival, Mikael Wood of the Los Angeles Times is full of fascinating observations, culminating in this beauty:
All these overlapping agendas led to an atmosphere of frenzied excess, and they raised a question: If everyone comes to be noticed at SXSW, isn't the net effect the same as if no one came?
He's right, of course. SXSW began as a local music festival. When I was growing up in the 90s, I remember reading it as a place where "local" undiscovered talent went to be part of the indie music scene. Of course, back then you simply weren't cool if you weren't an independent artist. Bands lost their cool the moment they  were signed to a major label. (Those of you who are young enough to be curious about where the phrase "indie" comes from, that's it. "Indie" didn't used to be a musical genre, it was an indicator of whether your were a corporate sellout or a true artist.) So they all flocked to SXSW, or NXNW, or etc. etc. in order to have a celebration of the music that was really cool.

Of course, since it really was cool, it didn't take long for the recording industry to start siphoning off the most corporate-ready acts. Festivals like SXSW became the fertile waters from which the "best" would be culled by corporate talent scouts, and awarded with a recording contract. Thus "independent music" became the victim of precisely that which it was attempting to avoid; SXSW became commercialized. First came the talent scouts, then came the corporate sponsors, then came the bands that had already been signed by labels, and now... well, most of the article linked above discusses Prince's set (one of the most commercially successful songwriters of all time).

Mr. Wood makes the point that, in today's musical environment, even the established hit-makers must clamor for attention, on seemingly equal footing with the independent plebes. Thus we gain exposure to yet another artist-driven source of modern music's decline: the desperate, pleading, whining, clamoring for attention. Think about the most beautiful woman you've ever seen. Does she clamor for your attention, desperately trying to be the most-noticed thing in the room?

Great art, like great beauty doesn't beg to be noticed. But turn on the radio and your ears will feast on over-compression, bass frequencies boosted beyond the capacity of stock audio speakers, non-existent high frequencies, and a blaring midrange. Female voices dominate, with their more-piercing vocal timbre, and of those females, the ones with the most accosting bleats - Beyonce, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, et al - are greatly preferred. What few male voices remain are nearly all tenors, the most womanly of male singers.

Midrange. Distortion. Compression. Piercing voices. All of this is designed to grab you by the ears and dominate every thought you have; and just when you think it can't get any worse, the song ends and the radio advertisements begin to play - at a higher volume, a greater level of audio compression, and a spectral skew even further toward the midrange frequencies.

It's all such a desperate cry for attention. Records are produced that way, songs are written that way, festivals are designed that way. With each passing year, every aspect of music creation is nudged further toward a desperate whine for more attention, calling to mind memories of your college friend's, whining, begging, scheming to get you to come out to their next show. You don't want to listen to the radio anymore, and you feel this way for precisely the same reason you didn't want to go to that college friend's gig: It's all a bunch of unpleasant noise.

And please note: I don't mean this in the crotchety-old-codger sense of the term "noise." I mean it in the literal sense: fewer sonic options spread across fewer sonic frequencies, every artist clamoring for your undivided attention, using every aspect of modern audio production to grip you and force you into listening to it, this is what produces terrible, gut-wrenching, mind-obliterating white noise.

Good music doesn't require coercion. Great art doesn't demand your attention. It doesn't beg to get noticed. It doesn't travel around to little-fish festivals to present itself as the pond's undisputed leviathan.

Great music is simply beautiful when you hear it, and it matters little whether the artist responsible for it is rich or poor, famous or obscure, young or old, cool or uncool. But in today's world, artists care more about fame, success, getting noticed, and generally being the center of attention than they do about the quality of their art.

The artists themselves, though, continue to blame the faceless specter of corporate involvement. Please! No more whining.