We Are Gods

Not content with smoking logs and larval bogs,
We wrought from dirt a burst of light,
It’s sinewy veins spontaneous in their order, living bricks and mortar,
Anything we want we get, here and made to order,
We fly, we’re telepathic, teletransporting, telekinetic,
We write in dreams and dream in I-beams, anything it seems,
Our existence we redeem, reclaim and redirect, ideas we erect,
On the bones of ideas before, we move beyond and we restore,
In one finger more power than all men once had, our stats we pad,
Notions we explode like the frozen forests we once rode,
From that lowly abode, we emerge and we encode,
All that we survey, all that we desire, flies freely from our minds without a wire,
Brighter than fire and hotter than embers,
We don’t even care or need to remember,
The future is ours, we make the odds,
Have I not said we are gods?

Abortion and the Idolatry of Law

After Roe v. Wade, something amazing happened.  New organizations, care centers, adoption services, and support networks for pregnant mothers popped up all across the country.  There’s a powerful lesson here about the corrosive effect of law.

Whatever you feel about the morality and legality of abortion, more help for women with unwanted pregnancies is a good thing.  Today, there is a vast network of privately funded crisis pregnancy centers, counseling, even housing and food for mothers who fear retribution because of their pregnancy.  What’s startling is how recent this support network is.  Why did it take the Supreme Court ruling that abortion was legal before all of these alternative services became so widely available?  Because often those who feel most strongly about their beliefs are the first to do nothing once the state gets involved.

Surely unwanted pregnancies too place before the Roe decision.  Abortions also took place.  With greater medical and personal risk, and fewer places to turn to talk over the situation.  As long abortion was illegal, those who wanted mothers to choose not to abort, or even just to have someone with them during the pregnancy, did very little to help.  Instead of offering comfort and assistance to those in a tough spot, courts and cops were relied on to prevent and punish.

There is a serious moral decay that comes with law.  When the state says you can’t do drugs, drink alcohol, gamble, pay for sex, eat unhealthy foods, or engage in any other activity commonly deemed dangerous or immoral, the very people who worry most about those activities largely give up on trying to help those who engage in them.  Whether or not any of those things are bad, without freedom to choose, people’s preferences and often their struggles are pushed under the rug, into the back alleys, and out of the public consciousness.  The problems that can arise are no less acute, but the availability of help and alternatives vanish.

Even if you think abortion should be illegal, the fact that almost none of the crisis care, counseling, and adoption services available today existed when it was ought to give you pause.  Where else are you failing to live up to your own moral standards, but instead letting the clumsy coercion of law do the work for you?

A Good Feeling

For several years, I used this blog as a place to store a few odds and ends and articles. At the beginning of this year, however, I felt like I was in a rut and needed a new outlet for creating. I decided to start blogging regularly.

I wrote a post every single day, seven days a week, for just shy of six months. It was an amazing experience and re-inspired me in many ways, some of which had no direct relation to blogging. My creative juices got flowing fast, and so many big ideas emerged that I now have an overflow of exciting stuff to work on. The exercise served its purpose.

It forced me to produce something every day, and made me more comfortable putting ideas out there into the stream of society, even if they’re not fully formed, not all that great, or not paid attention to. It hopefully improved my writing a bit. It also surprised me how many things I put little thought into were of great interest to others, and how many things I found fascinating that got little notice.

I was in a rut when I began daily blogging and now, thanks in large part to doing it, I’m occupied with more projects and ideas than I can keep up with. It feels great. My need for creative expression had no channel, now it has several. I’ll be putting more effort into these things, and less into blogging, at least until I need it again the way I did to start the year.

I’ll probably post every so often, but not with the regularity I have been. I hope it’s been fun for those who’ve read a few or several posts, and for the handful who’ve read every day. I hope you’ll dig through the archives and read more.

Until the next post, thanks!

Justice and Morality

It seems there’s a difference between justice and morality.  I’ve never quite come to a comfortable conclusion about the nature of the two concepts and their relationship, but it’s worth exploring.

Suppose you jump in someone else’s car parked in the valet entrance at a hotel and speed away to get your wife in for an emergency C-section.  You’ve saved the baby and possibly the mother.  It would be strange to call this immoral.  In fact, it might be very moral, even heroic.  But it also seems clear that the owner of the car has been wronged.  She was unable to make her meeting in time, some of her gas was used up, and maybe you even got a few dings in the door.  She has suffered an injustice.  So even though you acted morally, it’s possible you acted unjustly.

Let’s say you have a deep hatred for your neighbor.  One day an envious rage takes over so you pick up a rock and throw it at his new car, hoping to shatter the window.  You miss.  No one sees the action, and the rock rolls harmlessly into the weeds.  It seems likely you’ve acted immorally by trying to destroy his property.  But it would be odd to say any injustice was done.  Your neighbor hasn’t suffered a wit from your failed attempt at vandalism.

Justice is about living with other people, while morality is about living with yourself.  Justice is about right relation to others as measured against the mores of society, while morality is about right relation to right itself, as measured against your own beliefs.

Whether or not justice exists objectively or is entirely a social construct, it has an unmistakable universality.  The particulars, and the process of discovering and remedying injustice differ in each society, but the basic tenets are the same.  No society has ever praised or rewarded breaking a promise, stealing, or murder.  There are instances where such acts are called by other names or given a pass under special circumstances, but that’s just it; they always require justification.  The default human position is that coercion is bad, and social systems evolve to mitigate it.

What would justice demand from you in the car theft scenario?  The nice thing is, we don’t have to decide in the abstract.  Justice always takes place in a social context, and the process seems just as important as the outcome.  For productive cooperation, the systems that determine and deal with injustice are best when they are transparent, stable yet flexible, knowable in advance, and not applied preemptively.

Even though everyone may acknowledge that your theft of the car was unjust, if the process allows arbitrators to consider circumstances, they may let you off, or they may ask only that you pay the owner a small fee.  These contexts are rich, and the owner has a lot to consider as well.  Perhaps she hears your story and decides not to pursue any recompense.  Maybe she is really ticked and wants to, but realizes the social approbation she’ll get for doing so isn’t worth it, even though she would win her case.  Since justice exists only in a social context, and for the use and benefit of humans, even if it is violated, there needn’t be black and white, always-and-everywhere rules demanding uniform punishment.  Though a uniform and recognizable process is needed, uniform outcomes don’t seem to be.  This is why common law is so much more effective than legislation at maintaining peace.

Morality is trickier.  I might be using the term differently than most people in this post (I have often used it more loosely myself, many times on this blog…don’t hold it against me!), but I think morality is something that exists in all of our minds, whether or not it exists “out there” objectively.  We have a conscience.  We have beliefs about right and wrong that are distinct from our sense of justice.  That’s why nearly everyone would agree that you acted immorally in story number two, even though justice demands nothing of you.  Our sense of morality changes over time, and is very different from person to person.  Part of life’s journey is discovering it and constantly adapting to it.

I’ve known people who genuinely believed it was wrong to have a drop of alcohol.  Whether or not I agree, it was clear that if they did, they would feel a lot of guilt.  They would be violating what they know to be right.  Some of those same people’s views changed over time, to where years later they no longer thought it wrong to drink, and they could do it with a clear conscience.  Morality doesn’t seem to be about the acts themselves like justice does.  It seems to be about whether or not a person is violating their own sense of right.  Many spiritual traditions talk of being in unity with oneself, being of one mind, or having an undivided heart.

It’s easy to conflate justice and morality, in part because we deliberately do so with children.  It’s more convenient to wrap everything up into right and wrong, and train kids to do and don’t do based entirely on these words.  I don’t think it’s helpful for kids in the long run, but it requires less work, so most adults do it.  Kids are told to say hi when someone says hi to them for the same reasons they’re told not to take Johnny’s toys; because it’s the right thing to do.  Yet the first is not unjust and probably not immoral, while the second is definitely unjust and probably immoral.  Children are also trained to obey the law because it’s right to do so.

They’re not often told that justice demands an abstention from coercion, even if the law doesn’t, or that the law may ask them to do something they feel is deeply immoral.  This oversimplification and lumping everything into basic right/wrong categories has the potential to result in atrocity.  Those who allow the law to be a shortcut for justice or morality, for example, can find themselves rounding the neighbors up and sending them off to prison, or worse.

There’s more to be explored on this topic, but I’ll save it for another day.

UPDATE: Check out this post with a handy-dandy 2×2 matrix to visualize these concepts.

Milton Friedman on Risk, Choice, and Regulation

A while back I came across one of many video clips in which Milton Friedman insightfully responds to a tough question.  The question is about Ford making a car with a part that saved 13 dollars, when studies showed that using the more expensive part could reduce harm in the case of collision and potentially save 200 lives.  The questioner feels this is a clear example of the callous, money-grubbing nature of the free market, the implication being that some regulatory body should prevent Ford from making such calculations.

Friedman asks how much Ford should be willing to spend to reduce the risk of a single death.  The student refuses to answer.  Friedman’s point is that the question was not over any principle, but over what amount of money Ford should be willing to pay for a single life.  It’s about costs, benefits, and trade-offs.  The student doesn’t seem to follow, but Friedman is dead-on.

Let’s say Ford decides to install the more expensive part.  Their profit margin goes down, maybe some shareholders start selling shares.  How do they make-up the difference?  Maybe they lay off a few low-wage workers.  Maybe they raise the price of their cars, putting them out of the reach of a few low-wage consumers.  Is it worth it?  Maybe these consumers would have been happy to buy the cheaper car, even if it was less safe.  Aye, there’s the rub.

Friedman mentioned this, but in the short Q&A there wasn’t sufficient time to really hammer it home. This real discussion is not about what Ford should make and sell, or how much risk is too much. It’s about who should decide how much risk is acceptable.  That’s the principle worth debating.

Advocates of free-markets like Friedman believe that each individual is in the best position to decide how much risk they are willing to incur.  In every action, every purchase, and every sale, there are costs, benefits and risk involved.  You are the best person to decide whether you should buy a motorcycle, or not buy the most expensive dead-bolt, or produce and sell an extremely sharp cooking knife.  The principle Friedman was referring to is that of freedom to choose what decisions to make and what is in your own interest.

Those who favor regulatory intervention want such choices made once for all by bureaucratic bodies.  They want a set standard of tolerable risk to apply to every human in every situation, no matter how costly abiding by it may be, or how much poverty or even death may be the unintended result.  These regulatory bodies are in the perfect situation to be captured by the largest, most connected businesses who will get them to pass regulations that help them and hinder smaller competitors, with no concern for what it does to consumers.  These bureaucracies are also most attractive to the very kind of unscrupulous, greedy sociopaths that interventionists worry about in the marketplace.

If Ford sells a risky product it may be a bad move on a variety of counts, but no one has to buy it.  Government decisions are the only ones that every single person is forced to abide by, no matter how bad they may be.  Regulatory intervention not only falls far short of free-markets on moral grounds – coercing everyone to make choices set by elites – it dramatically reduces the benefits to all.  It destroys wealth and the incentive and space to innovate.  It rewards political gamesmanship over consumer service.  It interferes with valuable signals sent by and to all market participants about what level of risk people want, and what makes them happy.

There are trade-offs all around us.  The question is not which decisions are correct for other people – we have a hard enough time figuring out which are correct for ourselves.  The question is, where should these decisions be made, and by whom?

Compound Your Worth

Would you prefer to have one million dollars in one month, or have a penny, doubled every day for that same month?

It’s a popular question that illustrates the power of compounding.  The penny, doubled every day, equals more than five million dollars in a thirty day month, and nearly eleven million in a thirty-one day month.

Compounding is powerful even if you’re not doubling every day.  And it works with more than money.  If you assign a numeric value to something, even arbitrarily, it can illustrate the transformational ability of this effect.  Let’s say the value of you as a person – your abilities, output, and offerings to yourself and the world – is 100.  If you resolve to improve your self by one percent every day, in just a month, your value will be 135.  In a year, it will be more than 3,700.  However imperfect this quantification is, there is no denying that a small, daily improvement has immense power to enhance your worth.

How do you improve, even by just a little each day?  By doing.  What things matter to you?  What do you want to produce, or be skilled at?  Once you pick something, just do it.  Do a little every day.  Sure, you can read about cooking, counseling, playing the oboe, writing, tennis, or investing.  That’s fine, but it won’t be of much use unless you’re also doing those things.  It’s not that intimidating when you realize the power of compounding.

Improve yourself every day, even a tiny bit.

A World of Kramers

Nobody knew what Kramer actually did.  He was always doing something, but it remained a mystery how he obtained the resources to pull of his schemes, let alone pay for rent and food.

Kramer had a brand.  He was the crazy, out of the box guy who’d help you overcome a problem in an unconventional way.  He was a fringe entrepreneur and occasional activist.  He was relentless in pursuing whatever was his latest fancy.  He somehow made a living just being himself.  This is increasingly possibly, even for less quirky types.

I can think of at least a dozen people I know personally who somehow live a good life, despite the fact that I’m not really sure where their income originates.  It’s so easy now to sell a product, start a business, market and distribute ideas, and connect with partners, customers and investors.  It’s entirely possible to draw a circle around the stuff you care about, become the guy or gal who’s known for doing and talking about that stuff, and with enough hard work, get a living out of it.  It starts by giving your audience things they like.

If you’re known for providing something others value – even if it’s just good jokes on Facebook – you can generate a following.  You can offer to write a book, if your fans will pledge the money via Kickstarter.  You can ask for donations to keep producing whatever it is you produce.  You can sell your services to people all over the world with very low transaction cost.

Before long, apartment buildings could be full of people who don’t commute to an office every day, but instead spend their hours doing an assortment of bizarre and interesting projects.

Regulation Schmegulation

The number of hurdles to jump before you can legally create value is astounding.  There’s a law at every corner, working to impede the peaceful pursuit of profit.

Highly resourceful or talented people simply find ways around it.  They pivot, contort, or even work to alter the law to achieve their goal.  They devote entire divisions of their companies to overcoming these arbitrary obstacles.  But eventually, they can overcome them.  Some entrepreneurs have an amazingly high risk tolerance, and choose to ignore the laws entirely and provide their products illegally.  Others aren’t willing to risk prison but have the smarts, connections, or wealth to navigate and comply with the labyrinthine legal system.

So what’s the problem with state intervention in the market?  Visionaries can find a way to achieve their vision, laws or not.  The problem isn’t for them.  It’s for everyone else.

People with limited means and average ability suffer.  The barriers are often too much for them to overcome and too risky to ignore.  Their ideas languish.  Each new obstacle sucks away too many resources and leaves them unable to move forward.

Even those who with no particular entrepreneurial vision suffer.  The immense dead-weight loss of all the creators devoting resources to fighting, influencing, or complying with the regulatory state destroys value for all.  I’ve met business owners who devote ten or twenty percent of company resources to state created problems, meaning ten or twenty percent fewer resources are available to solve customer problems and make everyone better off.

People think economic regulations hamper big businesses and rich people.  The opposite is true.  If an idea is big enough and an entrepreneur driven and resourceful enough, it can come to fruition, despite the state.  But there’s no way to comprehend just how many smaller ventures never got started, or how much more wealth would be created for all if the ham-fist of regulation were entirely replaced by the invisible hand of the market.

A Law Colleges Love

I’ve often wondered why so many people go to college instead of learning on the job by offering to work for free for a company they like.  Turns out, it’s not that easy to work for free.  In most cases, it’s illegal.

Consider the absurdity of this setup.  Young people are supposed to do something to enhance their earning potential.  Without any knowledge or experience, they do not produce enough value to be worth hiring in most promising career areas.  So they’ve got to do something to gain skills.  Since they’re not worth paying, and it’s illegal to have unpaid workers, they can’t get on the job experience.

It’s supposed to be illegal to have unpaid workers because we wouldn’t want poor, unskilled people being taken advantage of.  Instead, they’re directed to college, where not only do they not earn money, they must borrow tens of thousands just for the privilege of not being paid.  They have limited choice as to what skills they learn, as a huge number of courses and credits are required in areas of little interest to them.  It takes at least three or four years to finish.

When they do finish, it’s often the case that they are only a little more valuable to employers than they were before – and much of that is a product of them being four years older and more mature, not any particular knowledge gained.  Most of the needed skills still must be learned on the job.  Most graduates have no idea what kind of job appeals to them or what they excel at, because they spent time in classrooms, not at workplaces trying different things out.

There are, of course, complicated work-arounds.  Non-profits and degree granting institutions can setup legal unpaid internships in some cases, and some businesses can do certain types of apprenticeships, on the condition that they create no value.

Let me repeat that: as long as unpaid apprentices do not help the business in any way – better yet if they destroy value – it’s possible to have one.  You think I’m joking, but read this language, pasted directly from the SBA website where they list the guidelines for a legal, unpaid apprenticeship.  This is number four in a list of six criteria:

“The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded”

We want young people to learn how to create value, but certainly not by actually creating it!  We want businesses to create wealth, but not if trainees do it!

You reap what you sow.

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