On Politics in the U.S.

I touched on a few of these points in a previous post, but herein I expand:

Politicians.  I can’t distinguish between politicians. Republican or Democrat, they’re all the same to me.  It’s a big game and the purpose of the game is for the individuals in the game to maximize their personal gain.  Whether it’s power or money or fame or whatever, politicians want to keep their jobs and they will say and do whatever it takes to do so.  As a result, I don’t believe anything a politician says they believe.

Republicans.  The Republican headline is that they are fiscally and socially conservative, preferring a limited government while ensuring maximum freedom is reserved to individuals.  This is mostly bullshit. 

  • Fiscal conservatism.  Just look at budget deficits for the last 30 years (at least) to see that Republicans are not actually fiscally conservative.  The reality is that they like to spend money just as much (or more!) as Democrats, only on different things.
  • Social conservatism.  If you equate “social conservatism” with Southern Baptist morality, then, sure, Republicans are socially conservative, but they are also just as weak or hypocritical as anyone else.  Just think of Republican leaders caught in affairs or other shenanigans. So much for practicing what they preach.
  • Limited government.  I don’t believe the federal government has shrunk (by any measure) under any Republican leadership in my lifetime.  In their view, the government should be limited…unless it is to pay for the things that Republicans want to spend money on or to enforce their socially conservative principles, in which case, government is great!
  • Maximum freedom.  Freedom is permitted only to those who believe and act in ways that are consistent with their socially conservative principles.  The rest are constrained, but it’s ok, because Republicans know best and the rest should humbly accept the lessons offered by these masters.

Democrats.  The Democratic headline seems to historically have been “Hey, we’re not Republicans.”  Congratulations.  Your lack of definition makes your self-interested amorphism less susceptible to attacks on the basis of obvious hypocrisy, but whatever your selling (this cycle), I’m not buying.

The tax code. I don’t think it’s wise to use the tax code to try to encourage this or that behavior.  So much of modern politics is “how will we use the tax code to favor our constituents or our party’s base at the expense of ‘the others’.”  This is problematic.  I would impose a flat tax with no credits or deductions available to anyone. All transfer payments would need to be specified and paid in outgoing checks from the U.S. Treasury. Subsidies that are currently hidden would be explicitly and openly made to corporations, industries and people, so we all know where everyone stands without tax code rhetoric to blind us.  The ambiguity inherent in the current tax code hides of multitude of sins, which is why politicians love it.

Divided Government.  Given my cynicism, you might think I’m an anarchist or communist or monarchist or antichrist or some other –ist.  On the contrary, governing is the process of establishing a ruling authority over people, and of all the options I have studied (I use the term here very loosely), the framers of the Constitution chose brilliantly. The brilliance of this country (and many other modern countries) is in its structure – division of power.  This division is multifaceted, among three branches of government, between the federal and the states, among the 50 states, between “the people” (the House) and the states (the Senate). This is a tremendously powerful idea, and one that gives me great comfort.  Notwithstanding the fact that sociopaths run this (and every other) country, at least I can take comfort in the fact that there’s no one sociopath who runs this country unchecked.  Division of power ensures that some of the sociopathy on one side cancels out the sociopathy of the other, and we stumble along the edge of tyranny without actually falling off.

Participating in Politics.  Vote for whomever you want for whatever reasons you want, but it doesn’t really matter most of the time. But be watchful for when one person or party gets to be too powerful (or crazy or some other negative adjective), and join or incite the populace to keep them in check. How involved you want to be otherwise is up to you.  In deciding how much time and energy is reasonable to devote to participating or watching politics, I wholeheartedly and wholemindedly endorse and recommend the view espoused in this recent op-ed by David Brooks:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/03/opinion/brooks-the-stem-and-the-flower.html?_r=0

Sounds to me like someone’s got a case of the “s’pose’das”

I recently shared my views of the word “should”.  Its close cousin is “s’pose’da” (supposed to).  I often hear this used in the expression, “everything will happen as it’s supposed to” or “everything happens for a reason” or “that’s not how it’s supposed to be” or variations thereon.  The context where these types of expressions are used is typically when faced with a difficult or ambiguous choice or scenario. 

The reason the diction is interesting to me is that it attempts to shift responsibility entirely to some force outside of oneself.  It betrays an underlying belief in fatalism and rejection of your responsibility for the consequences of your choices or of your responsibility for the situation you find yourself in. It fails to consider the complexity of the situation, but rather summarily dismisses the complexity as if it did not exist at all.

I understand the urge to simplify when you begin to feel overwhelmed. To be able to summarize a series of ambiguous or complex actions, choices or scenarios can be hugely relieving.  But it cheapens human experience when, like with s’pose’da, the summary overshoots, and simplification veers to willful ignorance of reality or abdication of one’s will.

As a fairly simple example, I recently replaced the front door to my house.  I had watched some videos online to ensure that what would be required would be within my carpentry skills, and I was fairly confident that I could do what was shown in the videos.  However, my confidence waned slightly as I considered the actual dimensions and construction of my door and its framing. 

Nevertheless, we went to the local home center and purchased a door.  Upon returning home, we began to tear out the old door and ran into a snag – the construction of the exterior molding would necessitate far more removal of material than any of the videos we had reviewed anticipated.  “This is going to be a big job,” I sighed to my wife, as I considered how many layers of material we were removing and how each would need to be replaced. 

My fear of getting in over our heads was palpable, and I could have let myself become overwhelmed at the complexity of what needed to be done or even started to cast about for something to blame.  At a certain point, we passed the point of no return – there was no way the old door could be salvaged, and if we wanted a door to our home that night, we would need to figure it out and no amount of “this wasn’t how it was supposed to go” would help.  At that point, the point of no return, the fear vanished, replaced with determination.  “Well, there’s nothing to do now but get it fixed,” I remarked to my wife.   And so we did, step by step, layer by layer, until, a few hours later, the new door opened and closed beautifully. 

People are remarkably adept at adjusting to their circumstances, no matter how difficult or ambiguous, once those circumstances are accepted, provided that they also embrace the opportunity and responsibility to change those circumstances.  Conversely, humans function remarkably poorly when that responsibility is viewed as a burden unfairly placed on them by life or God or fate.  But this is what many do.  For some reason, it seems easier for many to abdicate responsibility for choices and/or their outcome into the ether, like blowing on a dandelion and letting the wind take the seeds where they’re “supposed to” go. 

However, the blowing wind does not rend the responsibility for our choices from the responsibility for the consequences of our choices. Yes, the wind may blow the seeds of our choices to fertile valleys or to barren deserts, but consequences sprout from those choices and from nowhere else. S’pose’da obfuscates this view of reality.  It reinforces a belief that you are weak or incapable – that you can’t deal with difficult situations, whether brought about by your own poor choices or not, that you are merely a victim of an (clearly callous) external force.  What must necessarily follow from this belief is that if you are not responsible for the consequences of your choices or situation, then there’s no ability to make new, better choices or to improve your situation. You are trapped by the whims of fate. There’s no point in learning, no potential for growth, so you remain like a rat in an electrified maze, unable to change and cowering in fear awaiting the next shock.

If, however, you accept responsibility for the consequences of your choices, including that of a situation not entirely of your own making, you always retain the power and ability and confidence to make new, perhaps better, choices.  Like my door, if you break it, you can fix it; if someone else breaks it, you can fix it.  We are responsible for our choices because we and we alone will bear the full brunt of the consequences of our choices. We are responsible for our situations because we and we alone must live in the situation we find ourselves in and in which we choose to remain.  

This is not some motivational speech either. Princes obviously have a different set of choices than paupers. You can’t just positive-think your way from poverty to riches, from paraplegic to marathoner, from Nazi death camp prisoner to free man.  If your situation is truly such that it cannot be changed, your array of choices to influence the external world may be incredibly narrow, and that sucks.  But regardless of your situation, options exist, and you have the opportunity and responsibility to choose among whatever limited set of options you may be given. No matter your situation, you still choose how you treat the people you come in contact with, what you think about, what you love.

A final note – this post does not remotely address the issue of a person’s responsibility to another or the appropriate manner of relating to “the unfortunate”. As a result, it is not intended as a speech a rich person reads to a poor one with the “advice” to “lift yourself up by your bootstraps, you lazy bum”. It is solely a discussion of a person’s relationship to herself – the idea that personal responsibility leads to personal freedom, within the confines of each person’s unique sphere of possibility. 

 Title from an episode of the Simpsons. 

Should

should /shood/

verb.  1) used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.  (Google result for searching “should definition”; accessed at the time of writing).

I despise the word “should”.  It’s bullshit.  Ok, maybe that’s not fair.  It’s just a word.  But it’s the concept that I despise, and it is everywhere.  The most appropriate response when someone tells you what you should do (pre-decision or action) or that you shouldn’t have done something (post-decision or action) is: “Fuck you.”

“Should” works on layers of hidden insinuation. When anyone uses the word “should”, two things are happening: 1) they are elevating themselves above you, and 2) they are thinking more about themselves than about you. And if you countenance it, you will have no one to blame but yourself for what will follow.

“Should” may be convenient shorthand when teaching a 5-year old to look both ways before crossing the street, but it’s application becomes less appropriate the longer into life it is used. “Should”, by implicating an “obligation, duty or correctness”, insinuates that the speaker knows something about you or about life that you don’t. After all, if you already knew what was right, why would you need to be told or reminded of it?

Of course, in the scenario where you want to learn some new knowledge or a new skill, seeking a teacher who shows you how to correctly achieve what you want is clearly a wise direction. But what about life questions: With whom should I become friends? Should I go to that party? What should I read, watch, or do tonight? What should I study at university? Where should I work? Should I go for that big promotion? Where should I live? Whom should I date? Marry? When should I have kids? How should I raise them? From where should I seek my happiness? What should I believe? How should I vote? Or most fundamentally – who am I or who should I be? What are the right answers here? The interwebs (those of a world-wide interconnected nature, almost like a net) are replete with stories about overbearing parents making just these types of decisions for their children because the decisions are “too important” to allow a lesser being (such as an adult child) to attempt them. However, none of these questions are appropriately answered by anyone other than he who seeks the answer.

There are no “right” answers to these questions (if there were, by what standard would you be able to measure their rightness?). The answers to these questions are found in you – what you want, what you believe, what you value. Who knows these things? More importantly, who determines these things? Why would you believe that anyone other than you is better situated to know or determine these things? If you rely on someone other than you to answer these questions and things go sideways (as they inevitably will at some point), who will bear the consequences? Will they? They say that you really find out who your friends are when the shit hits the fan; this must be especially true when they’re the ones who counseled you to start throwing shit.

Moreover, whether or not anyone knows more than you or not is irrelevant because when they “should” you, they are not thinking about you – they are thinking about themselves. It may be direct manipulation; it may be direct or passive-aggressive controlling; it may simply be rote recitation of thoughtless, “safe”, trite advice. In any case, their focus is on their own narrow opinion– a case of “what I would do in your position”.

This neuters you, whether intended or not. It transforms your opportunity to approach a choice from an attitude of “what could be” to “what might happen”. It insinuates that you lack the knowledge or skills to make the “right” decision as discussed above. Ironically, those who see themselves as teachers are not teaching you how to live; those who see themselves as friends are not permitting you to live. Life requires the ability to deal with ambiguity, to deal with loss, to deal with fuck-ups and when someone is willing to rob you of that, carefully consider of what else they will rob you.

No one is more invested in the outcome than you. No one will reap the benefits or bear the pain of the outcome more so than you. As a result, no one is better suited to bear the responsibility for the decision than you.

Reject “should”. There is no “should”. There is no mysterious duty or obligation or right answer in response to many of life’s questions. What life gives you is choice and consequence.  Instead of asking, “What should I do?” or “What’s best for me?” ask, “What do I want? What do I think? What do I feel? What do I value? What are the implications of choosing various options?” and make a choice.  If you’re wrong, if you don’t like the consequences of your choice, so be it. Deal with it. Life will go on. Make another, different, choice. Sometimes, you have to follow what you want, even though it is “wrong” by some measures, in order to learn what it is right. 

“Should” implies some great offence if you go against the grain, if you make a mistake, if you try to do something in your own way.  But that’s the thing – the price of failure is always limited. Failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to try again and to find your own way.  There is nothing – NOTHING, from which recovery is impossible (well, that’s not true – I suppose suicide pretty much kills your chances).

Should-ers would not have you believe that; they instead implicitly say, “you can’t do it, you can’t figure it out, and you never will; if you try you’ll just fail and ruin your life; better rely on me.” Ever heard of eternal damnation as the price for breaking tradition?  Ever been threatened that your decision to go against a parent’s wishes will destroy the family? I have. Don’t believe it. It’s bullshit.

To paraphrase a friend of mine, what other people think of you is none of your business. Certainly other people can offer their experience, their thoughts and their wisdom, if that’s what you seek, but ultimately, they will not have to live with the consequences of your choices. You will. So don’t defer to them. It’s your life. Live it.

P.S. To those who genuinely wish for the best but fear missteps or who thoughtlessly deal in “should”, consider providing relevant advice or experience, but rather than telling WHAT the right decision is, show the process of HOW to make a good decision. Allow the person the dignity of struggling. Allow them to own it. Trust that they can figure it out even if they meander into forbidden paths. They will not be lost so long as they have someone waiting and watching for them if and when they choose to return. There are fathers such as these, who set their children free and who will see their children return while they are yet afar off.

P.P.S. To those who maliciously castrate their “loved” ones with “should”: go to hell.

Intellectual Porn

“The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.”
– Abraham Lincoln.

Internet porn is a feast for the eyes and the penis.  In the space of a few minutes, your brain can see hundreds, if not thousands, of tits and ass.  Your penis may even be simplistic enough to think that this spread of T&A is all available for mating.  It’s a lot to process.

The problem with internet porn is that it is not satisfying.  It requires ever greater novelty and numbers to maintain an interest, and even an erection.  And it lacks certain aspects of real sex that may, from a certain angle, even increase its appeal compared to real sex.  It presents an idealized version of a woman – a woman sans complaint, who never lacks desire for the viewer, who never requires anything for herself or who’s never un-showered or smelly or otherwise not ready to be taken in any environment, from any angle, at any time.  She’s PERFECT!  I’ll take two…thousand….per minute.  Got a delivery system for that?

The insidious thing about internet porn is that while it temporarily satisfies the penis, it does not satisfy the soul, and even worse, it lowers the viewer’s capacity for enjoying real sexual intimacy.   It is fake sex.  Real sexual satisfaction can only be arrived at via the process of real sex.  Real sex includes a real woman – a woman who sometimes can go for periods of time without complaint or needs (whether in the bedroom or out), but more often than not has unsexy real-world problems and stresses; who sometimes wants you and sometimes doesn’t; who sometimes is freshly showered and totally prepared for a rendezvous, but more often than not is busy doing or worrying about other things when the mood may strike.

Real sex also requires more time and energy than simply walking up to a woman, lifting up her skirt (who wears pesky underwear!?) and going at it for 30 seconds like a couple of baboons in the wild.  The foundation of satisfying real sex is an investment in a woman’s soul, which requires regular and routine maintenance. To the foundation, a framework of finding time in a busy life to focus on each other must be erected.  A roof and walls of sensual touching and talking finishes the basic structure.  Only then is the table set for the real feast to begin.   For more on this fascinating subject, watch an excellent talk entitled the Great Porn Experiment given by Gary Wilson at TEDxGlasgow, available at the time of writing at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSF82AwSDiU.

Internet quotes are the intellectual’s equivalent of internet porn.  In the space of a few minutes, your brain can consume tens of quotes, distilling hundreds of years of wisdom into the space of a few sentences.  One might even be forgiven for a sense of smugness as one nods in agreement with this quote or that.  Using quotes as a reminder of former explorations is one thing, but trolling quote sites, such as Pinterest, as the main source of intellectual nourishment is wholly another.

The problem with internet quotes, as with internet porn, is that this is fake intellectualism, and it is just as insidious.  It robs the viewer of real intellectual pursuit, while leaving the viewer believing he has been edified as a result of an intellectual pursuit.  In the meantime, a pattern is born where the viewer spends less and less time actually thinking of the topics covered by these quotes while being spoon-fed stylized intellectual T&A.  It can be quite intoxicating, but only superficially, since no real learning occurs.

Much like real sex, real thought requires a build up.  It requires intimacy from foundation to framework to roof and walls.  Even the meandering or boring detours contain insight.  Fleshed out with a broader context, the thought embodied in a quote gains more meaning, not less. Distillation doesn’t give you “the good stuff”; it leaves behind the impurities that gave the thought its essential character.

More importantly, by meandering through real writing, like a disciple with a master, a reader learns a process – a process that can then be replicated when one begins to walk alone.  The nuance of one’s experience can be lost when one knows only how to seek the headlines.  The world perhaps becomes more black and white, and the reader loses the ability to see and accept the gray world as it really is and concomitantly loses the ability to navigate the complex thoughts, emotions or situations that will invariably arise in the real world.

Wisdom, therefore, is not a commodity, despite its widespread distribution.  It cannot simply be consumed via voyeuristic intellectuo-tourism.  It can only be arrived at as the product of a head-long journey into the unknown; otherwise it’s just some nice words in a pretty font.

The Pope is wrong

No, no, this isn’t a post about religion. It’s about economics. Reuters recently declared that the Pope “attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’…” 

The gist of the economic portion of his “apostolic exhortation” is that “the prevailing economic system” “reject[s] the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”  He goes on to discuss society’s responsibility for caring for the poor and to blast income inequality, etc.

Now, I have no problem with the Pope’s concern for the poor. I have no problem with his call for state control over the economy. I have no problem with any of the religious stuff in the document (and I’m not Catholic). I won’t quarrel with any of it! It’s his opinion and he’s entitled to it! Preach on brother! Whatever!

My one and only problem with this document? He attacks a “prevailing economic system” that doesn’t exist! I don’t know of any economic system anywhere that is free from state control. Even Republicans in the U.S. who scream about free markets and government regulation and bureaucracy and blah blah blah lack the courage to create a truly free market in the United States.

“What?” you say. “I’m a Republican, and by God we believe in free markets! Cut taxes and regulation to unleash the creative force of America and we’ll raise tax revenue by creating more growth!” Yes, yes, yes, I hear you. Now sit down and wipe that spittle from the corner of your mouth.

First of all, I’d like to distinguish between the wealth-creation part of the economic system and the wealth-re-distribution part of the economic system. From a purely wealth-creation view, your choices fall on a spectrum. You can have dispersed control (a free market) or centralized control (a planned economy) or some mixture of the two. This determines how you decide where capital and resources are allocated. For my part, I think a free market will do this job more efficiently than a planned economy – and more efficiency means more aggregate wealth and less aggregate waste. Witness the last 100 years of human history, and there’s a reason China has exploded in productivity as it has opened up its markets. But that’s just my opinion and is neither here nor there.

The wealth-re-distribution aspect I like to think of as synonymous with taxes, which seems to be state-controlled across the globe. The problem, it seems to me, is that sometimes the taxation part is lumped in together with the wealth-creation part.  This can happen explicitly like in a purely socialist system or it can happen implicitly, like in the United States, when the tax system is used to incentivize or de-incentivize capital and resource allocation. And here is where Republicans fuck it up.

Republicans love the rhetoric surrounding “cutting taxes” because they have a nice story about it by linking it to wealth creation (notwithstanding that such government intervention is the very essence of socialism!). But it’s really just an indirect transfer payment to Republicans’ favored constituents.  No, the U.S. Treasury doesn’t necessarily cut a check to corn farmers or corporations or whoever gets subsidies or tax breaks (and they are too numerous for me to even begin to touch on it), but it’s a re-distribution of wealth nonetheless. At the same time, Republicans scream about the direct transfer payments that Democrats prefer to make to their favored constituents. Call me a cynic, but in both cases, politicians are just buying votes! If Republicans had balls, they’d legislate what they say they believe – everyone would be taxed on a basis separate from taxation’s impact on wealth creation, i.e., they would just let the market create whatever it’s going to create without trying to exercise centralized control over it (i.e., tax incentives) and they’d tax the wealth coming out of it at whatever rate they argue for. This way, all you have are direct, non-hidden transfer payments and you can argue over what payments to make to whom and how much.  All above board!  But politicians don’t like that.  A post for another day.

Anyway, Pope Francis, that’s my problem with your statement – there is no such thing as an economy free from state control, even the world’s largest “free” market economy is not anywhere close to free. If you’re going to rant against something, at least call it by its real name.

P.S.  Ok, so when I said “my only problem”, I was exaggerating, but the rest of the Pope’s statement is so confused and lacking as to defy response, so I won’t attempt it, i.e.:

    • From para 202:  “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any prob­lems. Inequality is the root of social ills.”  Ummm…what? Care to identify the ‘structural causes of inequality’ for us? Care to identify any market that has ‘absolute autonomy’? No? How about explaining the causality in the statement ‘inequality is the root of social ills’?
    • From para 56: “While the earnings of a minority are grow­ing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ide­ologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Con­sequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules… The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of in­creased profits, whatever is fragile, like the envi­ronment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” Hate to break it to you, bro, but you’re not describing capitalism – you’re describing every society, under any economic system. Chavez? Not hurting for money (when he was alive). Castro? Nope. Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Caesar, Genghis, Hitler? Not them either.
    • From para 53: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the sur­vival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” From para 56: “…the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good…”  I don’t know about you, but if you think a rich individual is powerful, what about an individual wielding the power of a state? Think Putin is a paragon of piety? What about those other leaders listed above? Want any of them running around again? I’m sure they’d humbly accept acting in the service of vigilance for the common good.
    • Throughout, there’s this weird juxtaposition of “consumerism is bad, stop consuming so many goods” and “the poor would be happy if only we gave them more goods!”  I mean, I know what he’s getting at, but all together, it just isn’t a cogent view of how to deal with the problem, or perhaps it betrays the lack of an educated understanding of what the problem even is!

Notwithstanding the problems of a constitutionally limited representative democratic republic, such as the United States, and a “free”(ish?) market economy and the tyranny, nepotism, political favors, etc. inherent therein, weighed against the centuries of other systems, I’ll take my chances with decentralized control.

As far as Popes go, I like the guy – shaking things up, practicing what he preaches.  But…maybe stick to the religious angle, your view of economics and state power leaves much to be desired.