Happy Easter

Whether or not you follow any of the various religions that celebrate Easter, or other celebrations of rebirth and new life this time of year, there is beauty and power in the symbols that accompany the season.  The emergence from winter’s death and dormancy; the wild, erratic, uneven surge of growth; the sights and sounds and smells are impossible to ignore.  Breath in the Spring air, let it fill your lungs, and contemplate the power of life, creativity and change over death, repression and stasis.

If you are so inclined, enjoy this post about the Christian tradition around this holiday, and what it has to remind about the life-giving power of freedom vs. the violence of political power.

Environmental Protection is a Consumption Good

Originally posted here.

People love a clean, healthy, beautiful natural environment. The trouble is, not everyone can afford it. If you are lost in the woods on the brink of starvation, you are less likely to look at a frog and think, “I hope that species of frog survives” than “I wonder how much meat is on that frog.”

If you live in grinding third-world poverty, you may want a cleaner stream in the village, but you cannot afford to do anything about it while your children are malnourished. You may want a low-emission heater for your hut, but since you have neither the money nor the electricity, the fire pit will have to do for now. In a world of scarcity, there are tradeoffs. You cannot afford precious time, energy and resources beautifying your landscape and protecting “greenspaces” if you are fighting hunger and disease.

Environmental protection is a consumption good. Not only that, but it is further up on the hierarchy of human needs than goods like food and shelter that ensure your family’s survival. If a forest was experiencing a natural, healthy fire and a child was trapped in it, even a passionate environmentalist would not say, “Let it burn; the forest is more important than my daughter’s life.” Few would disagree that this is a normal and necessary ordering of human preferences.

Like all consumption goods, you cannot purchase more environmental protection until you can afford it, and you cannot afford it without economic growth. Economic growth, not legislation, is the key driver to improvements in environmental quality. There is a great deal of mythology that suggests passing laws is the key to a healthy earth. Similar to the myth that laws ended child labor in the United States, cause and effect have been reversed. Try banning child labor in the third world. Not only will many people die, but enforcement will be nearly impossible because so many people rely on it for survival. Try clamping down on pollution in the third world, and, again, lives are at stake and enforcement is not realistic. Only when a great majority of people can afford such laws and only when they are rich enough to spend time thinking of the welfare of others or the earth do such policy changes occur.

Policies that were tacked on to the tail end of naturally occurring trends typically get the credit for the change. Make no mistake; it is economic growth that has raised the American consciousness about environmental quality, and approval-seeking politicians have jumped on the bandwagon when it was convenient to do so — i.e., when most of their constituents could afford it.

The narrative above might suggest that as long as you’re rich enough to afford it, government efforts to protect the environment are OK. This is incorrect for two reasons. The first is that the process of government itself systematically produces special-interest favors, rent seeking, monopoly protections, and all manner of other policies that benefit small interests at the expense of the rest. The information and incentive problems in legislative and bureaucratic bodies make them consistently fail to achieve their own stated ends. (See work by Mark Pennington for excellent analysis on this topic, as well as Richard L. Stroup’s book Eco-nomics.)

The second problem with passing environmental legislation once you can afford to do so is that many people still cannot. Environmental protection measures — taxes on oil, land-use restrictions, emissions standards, ethanol subsidies, etc. — affect more than just the rich people who advocate them. They raise the price of basic survival goods — food, water, land — across the globe. The wealthy can deal with the higher prices; indeed as I’ve said many of them may be happy to purchase perceived environmental improvement for a few bucks more at the pump. The poor cannot. Many suffer and some die.

Environmentalists want to protect the environment because they have reached a point on their hierarchy of needs where a healthy wood is the next highest good. There are no poor environmentalists. This is all well and good until they attempt to force their preferences on others via legislation. In a market, the rich are free to act upon their preferences and purchase goods others cannot afford. They are also free to try to persuade poorer people that they should value luxury goods more than basic goods. But can you imagine a law that forced every citizen to purchase a luxury car? If those who valued the sight of roads full of beautiful cars lobbied to force everyone to drive luxury cars it would be considered outrageous discrimination against the poor. Why is environmental activism not seen in the same light?

(It bears mentioning that some environmentalists are motivated less by a clean earth for its own sake and more by an obligation to future generations. This does not fundamentally change the reality that environmental protection is a consumption good that can only be addressed after more basic needs are met. Who considers the life of future generations more important than the life of their currently living children? You don’t think five generations out until the current generation is secure enough to afford you the luxury.)

Everyone, including environmentalists, has needs more basic than a pristine environment. We don’t worry about the earth until our survival is secure. This is a natural ordering of needs. Yet environmentalists, after meeting their own basic needs, want to force the poor to reverse their preferences and put the earth before their own survival. I don’t think most environmentalists intend this, but it is the inevitable result of using the force of government to enact protection measures. This is neither desirable nor effective in the long run.

You may be able to do great harm to many of the world’s poor in exchange for some government attempt at environmental improvement (more likely to result in special-interest enrichment), but in the long run it is impossible to convince people to subjugate their survival to the perceived needs of their ecosystem. The real promise for environmental improvement is economic growth. Until people are wealthy enough to consider paying the cost of a cleaner environment, the fight to force their choices is inhumane and ultimately ineffective.

Environmentalists should seek the freedom that creates economic growth among the poor so they can afford to care about the earth. They should peacefully persuade those who can afford it to place a higher value on the environment relative to other nonessential goods. Economic growth and persuasion, not legislation, will make a greener world.

Voters are Liars

I recently heard a political commentator bemoan the results of surveys and elections.  He said the sad truth, whether libertarians wanted to hear it or not, is that Americans want big government.  They want handouts, high taxes, regulatory interference, and on and on.  They vote for people who talk about it.  They re-elect them when they deliver it.  On opinion surveys they favor entitlement programs and broad intervention.  I couldn’t help but laugh.

A person who studies only quarterbacks is likely to interpret an NFL game as the result of QB play.  A person who immerses themselves in politics is likely to interpret society as the result of political opinion and activity.  In the former case, there is at least plausible evidence that QB’s are a major factor.  In the latter, it is almost entirely an illusion that politics and political sentiment reveal the broader health of liberty.

Voters are liars.  They tell the truth about their opinion in the abstract, free from trade-offs and constraints, but this has little to no meaning when translated into the real world.  If I asked you to vote between a person who offered a better world, and one who offered a less bad world, and promised that your vote was guaranteed to not change the outcome either way, what would you do?  What could I conclude about your preferences from your vote?

If I polled you and asked whether or not you like the idea of someone giving you something for free, again promising that how you answered had no bearing on the real world, what would you say?  What could I learn from that about your values?

Voting and surveys are free ways to express a sentiment or indulge in a real or desired preference.  Not only that, the sentiments expressed are not about the real world.  Politics is a zero sum game, completely unlike nearly every other arena of life.  Imagine how different your preferences would be if everything were zero-sum like politics.  What if you had to choose once for all between brands of coffee, cars or clothing?  What if you could not go back, at least not for several years, and try another?  What if whatever a majority in your area voted on would be applied to everyone else?  Under this scenario we could poll people and ask which of three or four brands they prefer.  We’d get some data, but it would reveal nothing whatsoever about what people actually value if they were choosing in the non-zero-sum marketplace and bearing the full costs and benefits of their choices.

Back to society today.  Do people really favor less liberty and more government?  Elections and polls are a very poor measure.  Let’s not look at stated preferences about the artificial political world, but revealed preferences in the real world of win-wins, marginal decision making, internalized costs and benefits, and trade-offs.  If you examine the market, what would you say people are “voting” for?  Radically individualistic technology.  More and more choice.  Freedom from being lumped in with groups.  The ability to choose everything.  Private alternatives to government dominated services like transportation, information transmission, education, protection, rule-making  social norms and values, health maintenance, and on and on.

Don’t listen so much to what people say, look at what they reveal by their actions.  Nobody admits to loving Barry Manilow, but the guy sells a ton of records.  No one says they want to abolish public education, but they keep putting their resources into alternatives to it.

Frankly, I don’t care what people say in polls or who they vote for in the fairyland of politics.  What I see around me – the revealed preferences of billions of earth’s citizens – is a vote, indeed a mandate, for more freedom.

Interview with an Actor: Dominic Daniel

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Dominic Daniel is a hard working guy in the entertainment industry. You’ve probably seen his face on national TV ads, TV shows or movies. I first met Dom when he delivered a powerful performance in a theater production at my alma mater many years ago. He’s an actor, writer, producer and forward-thinking creator in a dynamic and highly competitive industry. I’ve always been curious how people manage the thrive in Hollywood, and Dom was gracious enough to answer some questions.

IMM: Your life in one paragraph?

DD: A constant element of surprise. If you commit yourself to being an artist than that means mainly every thing in your life has to be flexible. And I thank God that my wife is so understanding.

IMM: Most people don’t really know what it’s like to be a working actor. Are you just having fun all the time?

DD: To be a working actor means you spend most of your time working to get work. Driving all around town for auditions (basically interviewing for work), getting doors slammed in your face constantly (you must have a thick skin), and then doing it all over again. The fun part is being on set for a couple of days, when you finally book a job. And the pretty handsome check that comes with it.

IMM: You have a pretty impressive acting resume spanning commercials, movies and TV shows. Does this mean you’re professionally secure now and work will continue to flow in, or do you have to continue to grind it out? Are you ever worried about getting the next gig?

DD:(See answer above). There’s probably only a handful of actors who are professionally secure, and I am not one of them. But I’m not really worried, although, it’s always a concern, of course, as a family man because this is how I feed my family.

IMM: What made you think you had the stuff to cut it as an actor? A lot of people go to Hollywood and end up waiting tables, so why did you think you’d be different?

DD: My mom told me shoot for the moon and if you can’t be a moon be a star. So I started out trying to be an astronaut and when that didn’t work out… Actually, it was really simple. I believed my entire life that God uses entertainers to spread messages to the world and I just knew I was a messenger.

IMM: What is your message?

DD: It’s kind of complicated but I can sum it up by saying that as only the messenger and not the sender, I feel that the overall message is about finding ways to help people connect. Most of the work I am doing right now as a writer/producer is all about giving a voice to different groups of people who we normally don’t hear from. And by doing so, close the gap between people of different backgrounds – race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, etc. – which I hope, will foster a stronger bond with the creator by exposing a greater design for life than the one we presently know.

IMM: What are some myths and misconceptions people have about the business?

DD: Well, a common misconception is that it’s easy and anybody can do it. But hey, you wouldn’t let a guy who decided yesterday that he wants to be a mechanic work on your car, right? Or a guy who’s never been trained, be your surgeon. Then why pay millions of dollars to a goofball who isn’t dedicated to working on honing his acting craft. And the myth that I always hear about is the actor who became an overnight sensation…only to find out that they’ve been a working at it for years before they became famous.

IMM: Do you see yourself as already doing what you love, or getting work that gets you ever closer to it?

DD: Yep, I get payed to use my imagination and expand the imaginations of those who watch me.

IMM: How much are you motivated by fame, and how much by the desire to create, even if no one sees it?

DD: I’d say I do what I love and everything else is just a byproduct of the work. For instance, I have been writing scripts and stories since I was 12 and out of all that time I’ve only submitted one of those.

IMM: Best and worst thing about being an actor?

DD: Best: It gave me the opportunity to meet my lovely wife and it keeps me sane. Worse: It can drive you crazy, mainly, because of all the people you have to deal with.

IMM: Thanks Dom. I look forward to continuing to follow your career!

Redistribution and Time Travel: A Thought Experiment

A means of effective time travel has been invented. People can freely traverse time, travelling from the present to any point in the past and vice-versa. Access to time travel is pretty universal, and due to this, knowledge of conditions at all points in time is acute.

For those who believe there is a moral obligation on the part of the better-off to help the less well-off, and who believe in redistributive policies to do this, play along and consider the situation.

People in the present are outrageously wealthy compared to people in the past. Even the poorest Americans today have access to abundant clean water, hot and cold water, heated shelter, air conditioning, an overabundance of cheap, calorie-rich food, more clothing than they need, refrigeration, telephony, transport by internal-combustion engine, laundry facilities, bathing facilities, vaccinations, pharmaceuticals, emergency care, and on and on. These present poor are better off by almost any measure than even the wealthy a thousand years ago.

Do people in the present have an obligation to give some of their wealth to those in the past? Is there some minimum standard of living that we need to keep the ancients up to? Do the poor among the rich (present day poor Americans) have an obligation to the rich among the poor (the well-off a millennium ago)?

What kind of redistributive policies should be enacted? Would they work? What might some side-effects be? Is it required to fulfill a moral duty? Is it wrong for someone born in the present to enjoy the relative luxury and wealth they are inheriting from their era, by no merit on their part? Should they pay an inheritance tax to support people in the poorer past?

What about future generations. What if the future is also poorer; does the present owe them a chunk of our wealth? What would be the result of efforts to redistribute from the present to the future? What if the future was wealthier; do they owe the past a portion of their bounty? What would happen if resources flowed to us from the future, in order to ease our relatively lower condition?

Spanning all of human history, would we have a moral obligation to attempt to make all people across all eras more equal? Would we be obligated to narrow the gap between the caveman and the flying-car-owning future woman? How big could we let the gap be? Would narrowing it be possible? Would there be any side-effects of efforts to try?

What is the difference, morally and practically, between redistribution across time and that across space?

Why Don’t Universities Try Something Crazy?

What if a university decided to try something crazy: What if they hired professors based entirely on the quality of their research and/or teaching?

Imagine if the hiring committee dropped all other criteria.  They ignored where the applicant got their degree, or even if they had one.  They ignored who they studied under.  They ignored which journals they were published in, or where they presented papers.  They examined in depth the quality of the research; the ideas, the writing, the breadth and implications of the work, the ability to draw on multiple thinkers to make a serious and credible case.  They tested, in front of real classrooms, the teaching skills and took seriously student feedback in person and things like ratemyprofessor.com.

If they wanted top researchers, they focused only on that.  If they wanted great teachers, they focused only on that.  If they wanted someone who was good at both, they focused on both.

This would seem common-sense in any other business, but it sounds radical in academia.  Of course there is value in the filtering mechanisms of degrees granted by prestigious programs, of publications that make it into the top journals.  There is value to the university in hiring people with prestigious repuations.  School ranking, the protective journal publication process, and all the credential hierarchies exist for a reason and they provide valuable signals.  They make the hiring committees job easier, as they have to do less serious digging themselves, and can rely on the stamp of approval given by others.

All that is well and good, but still I wonder what would happen if a pioneering university just scrapped it all. Would they suffer?  In what way?  If a university made very public that they no longer cared about anything but excellent teaching, excellent knowledge of subject matter, and excellent research, wouldn’t it attract some excellent job applicants, some of whom may not have PhD’s at all?  Wouldn’t it attract some interesting and excited students?

I understand the basic incentives in the university system, but it still seems to me there would have been by now some entrepreneurial president who would have tried to break free from the institutional norms and tried something like this.  Maybe the time is near.

More Public = More Private

It seems people with a high public profile almost never publicly discuss or reveal their private lives and thoughts.  They try to maintain as large a scope as possible for personal privacy.  They don’t post pictures of their kids at the park, or status updates about fights with their spouses, except when carefully crafted to present a certain image.  That image is typically constructed and maintained not as a way to let people in to their lives, but as a protective barrier to keep people out of the real thing.

People with no public profile on the other hand, who are not household names, tend to put themselves out there with regularity.  You can learn astounding amounts of highly personal information and get a real slice of the personality of non-celebrities today through the prolific sharing on social media.  People voluntarily offer huge glimpses into their private affairs, perhaps hoping that more people get to know them.

I’m not sure what to make of this.  It seems possible that, the more people know who you are, the fewer people really know you, or at least the harder it is to get to know you; and the fewer people know who you are, the more people have a chance to get to know you easily.  I don’t know if this is because your preferences change as you become more well-known, and you no longer seek to be known as much as rare privacy, or if it is because the type of people who put everything about themselves out there all the time are also the type who do not have the qualities that tend to result in becoming famous.  Or maybe it’s something else entirely.  I’m not done with this thought.  Maybe I’ll come back to it in another post.

What’s Wrong with Social Justice?

Originally posted here.

What does “social justice” mean? To the extent that it is about justice—outputs being aligned with inputs; effect being aligned with cause; reaping reward and punishment in right proportion; proper alignment between humans in regards to what is owed and what is not—it is a wonderful thing. But then it’s justice, and needn’t be modified with the word “social.”

Though I’m not entirely sure what the term means, it is often used in reference to creating more material equality among people.  It implies that material relations between people are unjust, and to bring justice to them requires rewarding some at the expense of others. It aims to make the poor richer by making the rich poorer.

In other words, it is not really justice at all, as justice is about humans being in right relation to an objective (though subjectively discovered and understood) standard of right and wrong that is the same applied to all persons. Social justice is quite the opposite of justice, as it is about a desired relation between individuals against the subjective standard of other individuals. It is not about “where am I in relation to right,” but about “where am I in relation to you.” (Most people don’t put themselves in the equation when talking about social justice. Instead they think, “Where is one group of persons in relation to another group of persons.”)

Not only is social justice the opposite of justice as properly understood, it is also a purely material concept. Justice is a moral or spiritual concept, which can have material consequences: you have violated a moral law by stealing, so to right yourself with that law you must pay restitution. Social justice is a material concept, which can have moral or spiritual consequences: This person has fewer possessions than that person; therefore we should feel outrage and redistribute goods. In this regard, social justice is a type of human and material idolatry. It makes other humans the standard against which to measure, and material possessions the unit of measurement.

Still, we wish to help those who need help. If material inequality causes unhappiness for the poor (though I sometimes believe it causes unhappiness for the rich as well through guilt and shame), there are two ways we can attempt to alleviate the unhappiness. The first is to try to reduce the amount of material inequality in the world. I address why such attempts fail in another article. The second way is to help people stop measuring their happiness against others.

Instead of putting it in terms of others, let’s start with you.

You are not free as long as your happiness is contingent upon the relative happiness of those around you. Rather than submit to this covetous instinct and try to raise yourself to their level or bring them down to yours, make the covetousness submit to you. Subdue it, overcome it, conquer it, and be free. It is deeply destructive to you and society to allow covetousness to go unchecked—indeed to feed it and condone it with attempts at making everyone more materially equal.

Do not be mistaken, behind the desire for material equality is the desire to be as good as or better than your neighbor. Those who feel the world is not right so long as some people have more things than others are not far from wishing ill upon the “haves” because they incorrectly assume this will bring good to the “have nots.” For your own happiness to be contingent upon the unhappiness of others—the rich, the talented, the beautiful, the undeserving—is a spiritual sickness. Covetousness may be tolerated and even praised if it is cloaked in the language of “social justice,” but it is covetousness still.

Advocates for material equality sometimes claim that fighting against the sin of greed is the motivation for their meddling with and redistributing the possessions of the rich. It is doubtful taking from someone will help them conquer their greed. Nonetheless, even if the rich are greedy of their possessions, it is better to remove the plank of covetousness from your own eye before removing the sliver of greed from your rich neighbor.

The desire for social justice is really not about society at all. Nor is it about the rich, nor is it about the poor. It is about you. You must win your internal battle. You must overcome the tendency to make your own fulfillment contingent upon the wealth and poverty of others.

We all have the impulse to wish ill upon our neighbors as a way of making us feel better about ourselves. It is destructive, but difficult to overcome. I am ashamed to say I often cheer when a great sports team loses. It makes me feel better about the teams I love to see the teams I don’t lose. This is the same impulse behind activism for social justice, but at least in the arena of sports my desire is harming only my own spirit. I am not acting on that desire and seeking to pass legislation to take the trophies and salaries of the winners and give them to my teams.

How much more destructive when this covetousness leads us to condone and even take joy in the breaking up of a large business or the forcible extraction of money from our rich neighbor. These actions are meant to bring one down ostensibly to bring another up. We enjoy these actions when our heart does not find fulfillment in an objective standard of right, but in comparison to those around us.

I do not mean to imply that any desire for improvement—material or otherwise—is bad or that ambition is bad. Indeed the desire for progress is natural and God-given, and if we ever lose the desire to move and grow it will cause an unhealthy stagnation. The key is to know yourself and discover what it is that you need to seek to be fulfilled. Discover the standard, the direction in which you need to move and channel your ambition and desire for progress toward that. The moment we become seduced by those around us or the standards they have set for themselves we lose sight of our true self and what makes us free and fulfilled.

Do not be a slave to the position of others. Take joy in the success of others and sympathize with their failures. Seek to be free from covetousness, and when you are, others will be drawn to that freedom in you and begin to realize it in themselves.

Political agitation for social justice treats the problem as the remedy. It focuses on making us more materially equal and encourages us to look not within ourselves or a fixed standard of right to find fulfillment, but to our position relative to those around us. It draws more attention to our material positions relative to each other, and distracts from our spiritual position relative to Truth.

It is good to help those who are suffering, but not by making them more like others, but more like themselves. There is no virtue in trying to make people more materially equal; there is great virtue and freedom in finding fulfillment despite material inequality.

It’s Not Always About Scalability

In the business and startup world scalability is the word of the day.  Products that can be built once and used infinite times by infinite consumers are the ultimate prize.  The hype might cause us to overlook other valuable products and services.

The quest for scalability makes sense with software, online products and social media applications.  They can be built relatively cheaply, honed in beta mode, and then sold an infinite number of times at no additional production cost.  But it’s not true that scalability equals profitability, nor is it true that the inability to costlessly scale means lack of profitability.

There are countless examples of great products and services that are non-scalable, yet highly profitable.  Personal trainers, legal counsel, health care, home repair, tutoring, food production, etc., etc., are not scalable.  Sure, they realize some economies of scale as they grow, but each new customer means new inputs like labor, raw materials and time.  It’s also true that some of these like legal or health advice or general education can be produced once and shared infinitely at zero marginal cost online.  But that is not the same as a visit with a physician who gets to know your unique symptoms and gives a tailored recommendation.

In fact, most of the best things in life are not scalable.  I can’t produce quality time with the family, or a night out at a fancy restaurant with my wife once and reuse it over and over at zero cost.  There is no demerit in a product that is not scalable.  One of the great virtues of the things that are scalable is precisely that they free up so much time and so many resources that can then be devoted to things that are not scalable.

Modern technology opens a world of possibility and the ability to realize amazing returns on small investments due to scalability.  But don’t overlook the innovation, benefit, and profitability of non-scalable or less scalable products.

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