The Welfare of Society is not the Welfare of the State

Yesterday I had a short, mysterious post.

I’ve long been fascinated with the ominously named “Dark Ages”.  (As if Rome had electricity).  I just finished reading James C. Scott’s, Against the Grain: a deep history of the earliest states and it got me thinking about this again.

From a big picture view, the Roman Empire was like the Soviet Union in many ways.  Most of the people under its rule were subjected against their will.  Massive forced labor initiatives for vanity projects, public works, and military conquest.  Walls and fortifications, not only to keep non-subjects out, but to keep subjects in.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, it didn’t plunge Eastern Europe and Russia into darkness.  The visible from space monuments and state projects abated, and power dispersed from the center to several peripheries.

The fall of Rome was similar.  Not so much a big, dramatic, single event as a gradual process of decentralization, the inevitable result of the Roman state squeezing the goose laying the golden eggs.  The sheer cost of forced labor, massive slave populations, and constant efforts to prevent unhappy subjects from exit and revolt were unsustainable.  The center collapsed, bleeding power back to dispersed modules.

It didn’t all go dark for the former subjects; not any more than the million or so who left the City of Detroit over the past five decades.  Former Detroiters aren’t in a dark age because their old city is a shell of itself.  They’re in Chicago, Portland, Tampa, and the lovely suburbs of Oakland County.  Their lives likely improved (why else would they leave?).

Society and the state do not share the same progress chart.  The welfare of one doesn’t positively correlate with the welfare of the other.  In fact, most of the time, there is an inverse relationship.

Historians and archaeologists have a very difficult time documenting society, while state projects and written records are much easier.  The latter, of course, proclaim the glories of stupid boondoggles and the honor of conquest, mass murder, subjugation, and slavery.

When a state falls (and they all do eventually; not because of the wrong leaders, but because they are states), some people suffer.  Namely, state leaders and the rent-seeking monopolists in bed with them.  But on the whole, the shift in power away from easily identified state centers to dispersed, shifting modules is not bad for humanity.  Society tends to push in this direction for a reason.  Did the New World enter a dark age with the end of the British global empire?  Surely some state connected and supported actors suffered.  But how many slaves and subjects improved their condition?

In a thousand years, absent all the digital data, historians and archaeologists might discover grand statues and massive works of military and monumental prowess in the former Soviet Union.  They might realize these great works came to a halt, along with unified written narratives of the great leaders who pushed them.  They might conclude that the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the final straw for this great empire, and that a dark age descended upon eastern Europe and Russia.

Logically and historically, society precedes the state.  In fact, Scott’s work reveals that states are quite an anomaly, their fragile existence a factor in the minority of societies for short periods of time.  They are a parasitic pattern that pops up from time to time where conditions are right, then dies under their own incentive structure after a few decades or centuries.

We’d be wise to not conflate the welfare of societies with the welfare of the states that sometimes feed off them.

“Applebee’s Cool” and Campus Currency

My good friend and colleague TK Coleman tells a story about a guy he used to work with at Applebee’s.  This guy ran the show.  He was cool, customers loved him, staff loved him, he had a way with the ladies and he was clearly the alpha dog.  He’d been a cook at the location since it opened and was still a cook.  If you wanted to be cool at Applebee’s, you had to get him to think you were cool.

But that was at Applebee’s during working hours.  This guy had worked there way too long and hadn’t really done anything else with his life.  Outside of that tiny local venue, he had little social standing.  All the specific things rewarded at Applebee’s didn’t matter much in the real world.

College campuses have a similar effect.

Why are there so many crazy protests and ideas and shenanigans and crackpot philosophies at universities?  It’s not because there’s a critical mass of thinkers.  It’s because there’s a critical mass of people not earning a real paycheck.

Without market incentives and real profit and loss, campus currency evolves.  “College cool” or social points are counted in ways totally disconnected from the real world.  In the real world, anyone who shouts down a speaker at a public event is probably going to suffer high costs with little benefit.  On campus, you can score points.  You have no real financial risk during your time there, so you can afford to get weird.

When people exit higher ed. and enter the real world something interesting happens.  They stop joining causes and marches and saying weird stuff in public.  This isn’t primarily because they “sold out”, it’s because they started earning a paycheck.

A group of young Praxis participants was gathered recently and a conversation about current controversial events came up.  A few of them said they were really concerned about this or that political movement.  A participant who’d been in an apprenticeship for a while spoke up.  He said he used to be really worried about this stuff too, and he’d spend hours scouring the web keeping up on it, forming opinions about who’s right and wrong, and getting into debates.  Then something happened.  He got an apprenticeship at an awesome, fast-growing startup that’s creating real world value with a great product.  He said, “Suddenly, all that stuff ceased to matter.  I’m enamored in crushing it in my role.  I’m obsessed with new ways to make the mission of the company succeed.  What I’m daydreaming about is how we could document and systematize and optimize this conversation, not who’s right and wrong in some news event!”

He started earning a paycheck.  He entered the real world and became an independent producer, not a dependent consumer.

Fears of what’s being done and said on campuses are as overblown as that cook’s cool factor at Applebee’s.  Once people eventually move on and have to earn a paycheck, they attain an entirely different cost/benefit structure.

I Want a Secret Legacy

Sounds way more fun, doesn’t it?

Humans crave the feeling of being important beyond their own lifespan.  “Make a dent in the universe” and all that.  I do too.  I want to build awesome stuff that creates life-changing value for people and enhances human freedom in all its forms.  But I don’t care if my name is associated with the results.  In fact, better it not be.

The kind of legacy I’m interested in is the cultivation and inspiration of what Albert Jay Nock and the prophet Isaiah called, “The Remnant”.  I hope my kids, my customers, and my friends have more valuable lives because of what I do and create and who I choose to be every day.  I don’t care if they recognize it as the result of my actions.  I like knowing that, perhaps stealthily, I’ve left a mark that will continue to spread.

I’d rather break a thousand chains unknown than become famous only breaking my own.

All this business about “Great Men” and legacy is silly.  I don’t care much for role models, and I don’t want to be one.  I love great ideas, and don’t wish to be worshipful or spiteful of the men and women who moved them forward.  I don’t want to answer for their deeds or misdeeds.  I hope my ideas, and what I create, improve the world and set people free.  Not my personality or brand.

I don’t care much for movements, and I don’t want to represent one.  Movements are political factions where people sacrifice individual identity in exchange for meaning in us vs. them paradigms.  I don’t want to be the us or the them.  I’m the me, and if anything I do improves the world unheralded, I’ve done my work.

Statues and monuments and record books and histories are an exercise in vicarious living.  Real living isn’t vicarious.

I hope no one makes a statue of me. I’d rather be forgotten than used as a rallying point for idiots.

I want a vast legacy.  And I don’t care if no one recognizes it.

If a Worldview Makes You Unhappy, It’s a Bad Worldview

Notice I said ‘worldview’, not, ‘fact’.  Nearly every gut objection to the above will stem from confusing the two.

Facts aren’t good or bad.  They just are.  They can make you feel good or bad, but that feeling is the result of the lens through which you interpret and give meaning to the facts.  That’s your worldview (or ‘paradigm’, etc.)

The fact that it’s been a rainy summer is neutral.  The fact that it’s harder to play basketball in the rain is neutral.  The fact that on my preference curve, the cost of wet basketball exceeds the benefits is neutral.  These facts (some changeable, some not) result in me playing less basketball. I like playing basketball, so I’ve done less of something I like.

All facts.

If I interpret these facts through a lens that says this has been a ‘bad’ summer, and therefore suffer emotional and psychological bummerness, I’ve got a worldview that makes me less happy.  I think that’s a crappy worldview and I want to abandon it for a better one.

A good worldview doesn’t ignore facts any more than a bad one.  There are billions of facts.  I can decide which to focus on, include in my picture of reality, and weight to varying degrees.  I can also choose how to orient myself and my expectations around those facts.  This summer I also had a baby boy.  This makes me happy.  He also cries a lot.  This makes me unhappy.  I could go on.

Facts don’t do anything to my enjoyment of life on their own.  I could add or remove facts all day long without changing it.  Only the meaning and beliefs I form about facts, and the frame through which I interpret them, generate my fulfillment.

So, if a given set of facts makes my life worse, it’s not the fault of the facts, but the fault of my worldview.

If your worldview makes you unhappy, it’s a bad worldview.  Ditch it and create a better one.

The Data Don’t Matter

Last week I read an article about how research shows screen time and social media are causing kids to be less active, more depressed, lonely, and unsatisfied.

Then I read an article about how research shows screen time and social media aren’t actually hurting kids, but adults.

Both were sort of interesting I guess.  But here’s the thing: whenever I see “Research shows”, or, “Study finds”, I treat it as entertainment, not enlightenment.

It’s easy to start reading theses articles and looking into research on everything, and getting sucked down a “what if” negativity hole, crippled by questions of what the data say about your every decision and how it will affect you or your children.

The studies don’t mean squat for you and your children.

My kids have some clear challenges and opportunities because of their digital immersion.  None of those changed because someone did some research.  My kids unique screen time pros/cons existed before I read stats from a study, and they exist after.

The only study I really care about in an actionable way is the study of my own situation.  Reading about effects on others can be helpful in framing things, but I’m not an average data point, I’m an individual person who has to live an actual – not aggregated – life.

This is great news!

It means I don’t have to read a bunch of competing studies and decide the ‘right’ side, and choose the One True Course of action for humanity.  I don’t need to get baited into a binary debate.  I can ignore all of that.  I just have to decide my own relationship to screens (or diet, exercise, caffeine, work, or whatever else is being studied in a public panic).

If I lived my life by studies, I’d look more like a pathetic schizophrenic than a happy person.

I Want to Rent Everything

Rented house, lawn and cleaning service to maintain it.  Set out my used laundry every week to get picked up and a fresh box gets delivered.  Same for linens, furniture, beach and outdoor equipment, and everything else.

This is my dream.

Living without closets.  Traveling without cars or luggage.  Hail an Uber. Rent the clothes when you get there.

Really all I want to own is my laptop, iPhone (where my digital money is stored in the cloud), and guitar (she’d be sad without me).  The rest can be better rented, without taking up physical or mental space.

Why buy stuff only to use or wear every so often, and store it, decaying and depreciating, the bulk of the time?  Barbaric.  Bring me fresh T-shirts on the regular, take the old, and let me think about stuff other than stuff.

We’ll get there some day.  Once it’s practically possible, I’ll have to do some work to get my wife on board.

Judge More Books by the Cover

The old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a pretty simple, useful aphorism.

Still, I prefer to judge as many books by the cover as possible – literally and metaphorically.

The basic point of the saying is to be cognizant of the fact that your first impression may be flawed.  True and important.  But the take-away for me isn’t to stop judging books by the cover, but to get better at cover-judging.

How much time should you spend on something to decide whether it’s worth your time?  How many pages deep should you go before making a judgement?

The fewest possible.

Awareness of your error rate in snap judgement is important.  But there’s an acceptable error rate, otherwise you’d spend your time doing nothing important because you were so busy trying to dig deep enough to determine if something’s important.  Most things aren’t.  Most books aren’t worth reading.

If you want to get a lot done, judge more books by the cover.  But constantly check and improve your cover-judging skills.