The Art of Science

A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this week claimed that great scientists needn’t be good at math.  E.O. Wilson argued that big ideas, not number crunching, are the source of major breakthroughs.  In other words, it’s the art of science, not the science, that inspires the game-changers.

I think there’s something here that applies beyond the physical sciences.  The social sciences, in particular economics, have been in a race of sorts to see who could mathematize fastest.  While complex modelling and statistical analysis can illuminate, they cannot generate.  Data is meaningless without a theoretical lens through which to interpret it.  Path-breaking work comes not from those with the best “hard” skills, but from those with the best paradigmatic innovations.  The best work seems to come from seeing the world differently, constructing theories from the new lens, then running some numbers to see how they look from the new vantage point.

This bit about seeing the world anew has never been more profoundly communicated to me than in a book by the novelist Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation.  Koestler sets out to reveal general rules of creation that apply across media – from the creation of a joke, to a work of art, to a technological invention.  It is a stunningly informative and ponderous work.

Koestler describes worldviews as matrices of thought; well-worn knowledge and assumptions that we carry along with us and use as shortcuts for understanding our world.  The eureka moment – the burst of laughter in a joke, the flow in the making of a sculpture, the sudden insight that unlocks the innovation – comes when two separate matrices intersect.  Koestler calls this intersection “bisociation”, and sees it as a kind of relieving of tension as two paradigms moving in what appears to be unrelated directions suddenly converge.

A poignant example in the book is Archimedes’ discovery of how to measure the purity of gold in a crown.  Archimedes knew the weight per volume of gold vs. other metals, but he could not melt the crown down to figure out its volume.  The thought matrix relating to weights, volumes and metals was completely unrelated to Archimedes afternoon bathing.  Yet as he slipped into the tub and noticed the water level rise, matrices collided and the bath solved the measurement problem of the crown.  It was not new, fancy calculations that resulted in this breakthrough on determining purity in oddly shaped gold items.  Instead, it was a bisociation of existing knowledge on water displacement with that on metallic weight.

Not only is creation about seeing familiar facts in new ways, it’s about allowing oneself the time and mental play to do so.  Some of the greatest eureka moments have come upon waking from a dream, going on a long walk while the mind wanders, or taking an explicit break from the problem at hand.  It is true, the great innovators have been versed in the science of their craft.  But what separates creators from specialists is not better technical expertise, but new eyes that generate new ideas.

Think big.  Explore.  Don’t let a lack of mastery keep you from probing the mysteries that fascinate you.

Five Myths About NASA

Most people agree that government programs are wasteful, and many are unnecessary.  But even small government advocates have a soft spot for NASA.  It’s pointed to as an example of a worthwhile government program because, after all, not only does it have a really cool mission, but it’s also resulted in microwaves and memory foam!  These are valuable contributions that justify it’s value, even if space exploration itself hasn’t proven enough.

Not so fast.  Let’s put on our economist lenses and look a little closer to expose five common myths about the value of NASA:

Myth #1: It’s worth it.  This is a claim without a test.  Without a profit and loss model, how can anyone know the value of NASA inventions and spin-offs products compared to the cost of the program?  Why not let a voluntarily funded outfit do space exploration work and pay for it by selling usable discoveries they make in the process?  That would reveal the value of such inventions to consumers over and above the cost of research.

It’s impossible to judge the value of big expenditures absent a market.  Imagine a company that picked an ambitious effort, like digging the worlds largest, deepest pit, and continued to fund it to the tune of billions a year.  I’m sure some interesting and useful stuff would be found down there, and some new technologies would result from all the efforts to dig deeper.  But it’s hard to imagine these side benefits being sufficient to draw an entrepreneur into such a venture.

It’s not enough to simply point to cool gizmos as proof of the value of a program.

Myth #2: We’d never have a bunch of cool tech without NASA.  This is of course impossible to know.  But what we do know is that the existence of NASA attracts many great technological and scientific minds.  These are not minds that would otherwise be sitting idle.  They would likely be doing much the same thing – inventing, solving problems, and creating stuff.  Many of the spin-off technologies from NASA would certainly have come from other organizations.  Maybe even better things would have resulted.

It is also worth remembering that none of the NASA technologies were created in a vacuum.  Invention is an incremental and messy process, full of simultaneous discovery, back and forth modification, and adaptation.  Because NASA gets the credit for something doesn’t mean it emerged from the secret NASA chambers untouched by any other researchers in the world.  This was stuff that was being tinkered with the world over.  If it has commercial value, there’s a good chance it will be discovered and put to use.  Who has more incentive to do so; an organization that doesn’t need to make widespread use of its technologies to survive, or a business that does?

We can’t know what would and would not have been invented without NASA, but it seems pretty odd to grant the assumption that a government agency is more likely than a market institution to innovate.

Myth #3: It’s doesn’t cost that much.  Maybe $18 billion a year is not that much compared to all the other stuff taxpayers are being forced to pay for.  But the costs of NASA are not just monetary; there’s opportunity cost.  In high-tech areas with highly skilled workers, the opportunity cost is very high.  What else might those people be doing to create value for the world if they weren’t there?  What projects are not happening because NASA is?  Opportunity cost is a big deal.

Not only is NASA an attractive option for a lot of really smart people because it sounds cool, but the fact that every other industry has become so heavily regulated and restricted makes other options artificially less attractive.  We all lose as a result.

Myth #4: They can spend our money better than we can.  Economic value is subjective.  As such, it’s impossible to know whether someone is happier with how you spent their money for them than they would be if they spent it themselves.  The best proxy is behavior.  What people freely choose to do with their money reveals what they value most at the time of choosing.  The mere fact that government programs can’t get by asking for voluntary contributions reveals that people value the uses to which they would put their money more highly than what government does with it.

When people spend their own money not only do they put it to their highest valued use, but their actions affect prices, which in turn send signals to producers and entrepreneurs indicating what kind of stuff people want more of.  More effort goes into producing more and better of that stuff, which creates even more value.  As preferences shift, so do production patterns.  This is an important process with complex feedback mechanisms that help to continually create real value for individuals in society.

You can’t create progress for all by taking money from everyone and giving it to a small group with no requirement that they respond to the demands of the many.  If you try, not only do you rob people of short term value by taking away their first-best spending option, you mess with the signals and incentives in the system ensuring that less of what people value will be produced in the long run.

Myth #5: Those smart scientists will innovate rather than waste money.  This may come as a revelation, but scientists are people too.  People respond to incentives.  When your lifeblood is determined by the political process, you will cater to the demands of that process.  Public Choice reminds us that the political process results in irrational, uninformed, biased and downright silly decisions.  It rewards all the wrong things, and punishes all the right things.  NASA faces the same calculation, knowledge, moral hazard, and incentive problems every other bureaucracy faces.  Explore the boundaries of the laws of physics though they may, they cannot break the laws of economics.

Conclusion: Relax, I don’t hate space exploration and neither must you to oppose taxpayer funding for it.  You may counter these myths by saying, forget spin-offs, space exploration is so important it trumps any other consideration.  You may say, sure, non-government space exploration is happening now, but without NASA we wouldn’t have had it for the past 60 years.  If we didn’t put a guy on the moon back then, would that be such a loss?  Maybe all those resources could have produced better things in that time.  Maybe the demand for space exploration wasn’t high enough, or the costs not low enough, until recently.  Maybe NASA was crowding out other space exploration alternatives.  Who knows.  What we do know is that free people have proven, throughout all of history, to be far better at generating progress for humanity than government schemes and programs.

Life Inside the Bubble

I used to work in the state legislature.  There was an insider political newspaper that all the lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists, and staff read every day.  Among other tidbits, it included a “quote of the day” from the goings on the day before.  Every morning, the first thing every member of the political class did was look to see who got quote of the day – or more accurately, if they got quote of the day.  It was a big deal.  Except that it was not a big deal at all to anyone outside the political bubble.

Tons of other gossip and updates filled the newsletter, and every bit was important to the weirdly sheltered state political circuit.  All the buzz in this world was about this world.  “Can you believe the committee chair held all the members there until midnight?”.  “Do you think she’ll have a primary challenger after those comments about teachers unions?”  The fate of the state hinged on every detail according to the people involved.

Of course nothing of the sort was true.  The petty bickering, posturing, and drama had almost no bearing on the world outside the bubble.  It was like a reality TV show, where every little alliance is a big deal in the context of the show, but meaningless to the world outside the artificial construct of the set.  Occasionally, politicos would get crude reminders of this fact.  They would proudly set up meet and greet hours in their districts so the people could come before them and present their troubles.  They assumed this kind of access was demanded by their constituents, and would be greatly appreciated.  But no one came, save for a few rather senile members of society with too much time on their hands.  Part of the reason was that no one knew who their state representative was – most didn’t even know they had one.

The shock of reality was severe for lawmakers who had been in the bubble for many a week and emerged to find that no one knew their name or what bills they introduced.  No one even knew that they had made quote of the day last week!  In the bubble, they were important.  Every lobbyist, journalist and staffer knew their name and their favorite drink.  They were called “Honorable”.  But outside the bubble, they were just some guy wearing a bad suit and talking about boring things.

One particularly poignant reminder of the contrast between life in and out of the bubble took place at a basketball game.  I was in a luxury box with my boss who was a then well-connected lawmaker.  Food and drinks were free, and the lobbyists who’d provided the tickets were cheerfully chatting us up and flattering us.  I looked across the court to the other side of the stadium.  There in the cheap seats, all by himself, was a rather dejected looking fellow.  It was the former governor.  My boss noticed him too, and seemed a little troubled.  He leaned over and said, “That’s good for me to see.  I sometimes forget that, when I’m term-limited out next year, that will be me, not this.”  A rare moment of foresight for someone in the bubble.

It’s easy (and quite fun!) to point out the absurdities and perversions of the artifice of politics.  But there’s a broader lesson as well.  We all have bubbles.  We have them for good reason and they serve a purpose.  We find people and places we identify with and invest ourselves there.  In these bubbles, we are interesting to our friends, and our shared goals are the most important thing in the world.  In these bubbles, we belong.  That’s a good thing.  It’s good to have a social circle that cares about you and shares your worldview.  It can also create problems if you never step out.

It’s good to move beyond the bubble from time to time.  You gain perspective.  You stay humble.  You realize that all the debates you had in the bubble about various interpretations of that world-changing idea don’t matter to the outside world.  They don’t even know the idea exists in the first place.  You can be famous in your bubble, but it doesn’t mean you’re famous anywhere else.  You need to be reminded of this.

Find your niches, make your friends, dive in, get connected.  You need it.  But step out of your circles as well, into the great unknown where you are just another person.  You need it.  It’s useful to maintain a firm belief and a tacit understanding of two facts at the same time: you are a really big deal, and you are nothing.

Interview with an Eight Year Old

As part of my further exploration into the interview format, I decided to test it on my eight year old son.  It is pretty much uncut, except one long soliloquy I removed.  I thought it was enjoyable to do, and hopefully it’s fun to read.

IMM: Tell me about yourself.

NSM: Seriously?

IMM: Yeah, describe your life.

NSM: What about my life?

IMM: What are you all about?

NSM: Give me time!  [Long pause]  I don’t mean to brag, but I’m creative.  I kind of like machines.  I have a temper, that’s for sure.  I like Legos.  I suppose I find interest in liberty.

IMM: What is your passion in life?

NSM: Just being creative.

IMM: Do you look forward to growing older, or do you wish you could stay a kid?

NSM: I wish I could stay a kid for a long time.

IMM: What’s great about it?

NSM: One, you’re not a person who just has to do work, work, work, sitting in an office all day.

IMM: You think you’re the type who wouldn’t enjoy sitting in an office all day?

NSM: Yes.

IMM: What kind of thing would you enjoy?

NSM: Watching TV and eating snacks.

IMM: So you don’t want to sit in front of a screen at work all day, you want to sit in front of a screen on the couch all day?

NSM: [Laughs] Yes.

IMM: What’s the difference?

NSM: You’re not having to press buttons and do all the work and write articles and stuff.  All you have to do is sit there, relax, and watch the moving cartoon figures.

IMM: If you could work in a coal mine all day, or you could work in front of a computer writing and thinking, which would you rather do?

NSM: [Pause] A coal mine, if I get to use TNT.

IMM: What’s one thing people think about kids that’s not true?

NSM: That they’re so irresponsible.

IMM: Do you think you’re pretty responsible?

NSM: Who knows?  I can’t really tell, can I?

IMM: You think kids are more responsible than adults, or less?

NSM: More.

IMM: In what way?

NSM: In a way.

IMM: What’s your greatest triumph in life so far?

NSM: Hmmm…defeating Rocky Rhino on Zombie Farm.

IMM: That’s your greatest triumph in life so far?

NSM: Yes! I defeated Rocky Rhino!

IMM: What do you think your life will be like in 20 years when you’re my age?

NSM: Boring.

IMM: Why do you think it will be boring?

NSM: Changing diapers, doing workouts, writing articles for about fifteen hours…

IMM: Hold on, hold on.  That sounds like my life.  Do you think your life will be just like that?

NSM: Grownups all do the same thing.  That’s what makes it even boringer.

IMM: Grownups do lots of different things.

NSM: No, it’s all just a simple life.  Walk over, push button, write article for fifteen hours, go downstairs, do awful killer workout, lie down, forget something, go do it, keep forgetting things, never get a rest, and change poopy diapers.

IMM: OK, so what would you like your life to be like in 20 years, if you could do anything?

NSM: Maybe do some sports.  I’m getting interested in tennis.  Go down, swim at the pool.  Maybe call a few people.

IMM: You like to talk?

NSM: I don’t really know.  Just chill out, that’s what I want to do.

IMM: If you could take a trip to anywhere, where would you go?

NSM: New York city.

IMM: Why New York City?

NSM: Because it’s big, and there are hotdogs.  And there’s ice cream.  And there’s lots of different treats, and lots of fancy hotels.

IMM: Hot dogs and ice cream are everywhere, aren’t they?

NSM: Well, they come around a lot more in New York.  There’s a hot dog or ice cream cart strolling around just about everywhere.

IMM: Would you like to live in a city like New York?

NSM: Well, if I go on a trip there, I’d check it out first.

IMM: What would make you decide if it was worth moving there?

NSM: I just mentioned it.

IMM: If they had tons of hot dogs?

NSM: Yes.

IMM: What makes a place exciting?  It can’t just be the hot dogs.

NSM: Well, being around lots of cities and buildings, and fancy hotels, and restaurants and things.

IMM: Tell me something about yourself most people don’t know.

NSM: I can dance pretty good.

IMM: Why don’t most people know that?

NSM: I’m too shy to show them.

IMm: What makes you shy about dancing?

NSM: Geez, do we have to go there?

IMM: No.  What do you think is a good question to ask someone in an interview?

NSM: Wait…we’re recording this?  An interview about an interview?  [Pause]  Well, maybe ask someone if they believe in something that’s like a myth or something.  Take aliens for example, or maybe King Kong, or Godzilla.  Just made up things.  Just pick one.  Any one!

IMM: Do you believe in the Greek myths?

NSM: I believe possibly it could have happened.  Maybe it did.  We don’t know everything, and it’s not like we can just warp back into time and see for ourselves.

IMM: Would you like it if they were true, or would you prefer that they just be myths?

NSM: I’d like it if they were true, except for some things.  The gods were kind of gruesome…yeah.  The Minotaur ate human flesh. [Long story about Greek myths]

IMM: What about aliens?  Do you think they exist?

NSM: I think Martians exist.

IMM: You think there are people on Mars?

NSM: Not necessarily people.  Now, there are types of bacteria, but I mean, like, human-like life.  Maybe there’s some secret.  We don’t know.  It’s not like we’ve gone deep into Mars’ volcanoes or all the way to the center of Mars or anything.  We don’t know everything about the planet.

IMM: How likely do you think it is that there is intelligent life on Mars?

NSM: Ahh…pretty likely.

IMM: Even though scientist think it would be really hard to live on Mars because of the cold and lack of water?

NSM: What if there are creatures that can survive the cold?  What if they need it to survive?  What if they use ice caps?  Everybody says, “Martians don’t exist! Martians don’t exist!”  It kind of makes me feel bad.  I don’t always listen.  I still think about Martian theory, even though no one believes it.

IMM: Is there any evidence that would make you not believe your theory?

NSM: Not really.

IMM: Not even if you could go explore it yourself, underground and all?

NSM: Maybe.  But maybe if they weren’t there, it just meant they got too hot or too cold or got some kind of plague and abandoned Mars for some other outer planet or something.

IMM: You’re pretty connected to these Martians, aren’t you?

NSM: I want to meet a Martian someday.

IMM: What about aliens from other planets or galaxies?

NSM: I don’t believe they exist.

IMM: Really?  Why?

NSM: Because Mars is the most similar to earth.

IMM: What is your idea of a good weekend?

NSM: TV, not doing anything, TV, potato chips, hot dogs, staying up late, more TV.

IMM: Do you like to read books?

NSM: Some books.

IMM: What makes a book good?

NSM: Underwear.

IMM: So only books about underwear?

NSM: There are lots of books with underwear; Captain Underpants, Dinosaurs Love Underpants, and others.  But I like other books too.  Like Hoot.  It’s pretty interesting.  Never judge a book by its cover.  At first I thought it was some awful baby book.

IMM: Anything else you’d like to add?

NSM: [Long pause]…..uhhhh…mmmmm….no.

IMM: Thank you.

Steel Yourself

Take a breath, relax, enjoy the moment, and contemplate if you are ready for the next leap.

If you want more than incremental moves to add to the heap of accumulated stuff, it will cost you.  If you want to dive into something big, the outcome can’t be predicted.  You will put an end to boredom, listlessness and slough; but you will also put an end to the illusion of security, and the feeling that you are slowly scraping together more things to add to your pile of comforts.  That pile will no longer be yours.  It’s in the past.  All you’ll have is the unknown future and the knowledge that you’re going after something big, and something that is fully you.

If the cost is just too high, let it go.  Enjoy your present and the more bounded expectations of the future you will methodically build.  Let life move and come to you bit by bit, and be at peace.  Don’t regret your choice.

If the potential payout and the effort itself are powerful enough for you to accept the costs, then steel yourself.  The costs will come.  It will be the hardest, most uncertain and wild ride you’ve ever been on.  You can’t know how or in what way ahead of time, but you can know for certain it will be difficult, and many people will not understand.  They will feel you are throwing away all you’ve built, and all you could build if you continued stacking brick on brick.  You must be prepared for their offense and confusion.  Few will see that you want more than a pile of bricks or even a cathedral when all’s said and done; that you would rather have nothing and have tried something other than stacking.

Neither path is right or wrong, but whatever you choose, be of one mind about it.  To choose one and wish you’d chosen the other is to tear yourself in two, diffuse your energy, and diminish your quality of life and creativity.

Five Assumptions About Fire Codes (why laws are less important than we think)

Originally posted here.

A friend and I were discussing the provision of fire services, and he made a comment in passing about how, thanks to government fire codes, fires have dramatically declined. It is true that fires have declined over the last 35 years (at least), but is it true that government fire codes are the reason?

There are at least five untested assumptions behind the idea that fire codes are the cause of a safer world.

Assumption 1: Cause and Effect

The most obvious assumption is that fire codes cause a reduction in fires. It is easy to see how unlikely this is when you perform a simple mental exercise: Imagine enacting US fire codes in, say, India. In India it is not uncommon for electricity to arc between two buildings or for people to pirate electricity by tapping in to an existing power line with a makeshift wire draped across the ground. Surely fire codes would prevent the dangerous electrical fires that sometimes result. The problem is, fire codes already exist in India, but nobody follows them. Why not? Because no one can afford to follow them.

Before government regulations can be broadly followed, they first have to be of limited consequence. Child labor laws only take effect once there are very few children in the work force, due to economic growth. It is well documented that OSHA regulations only came into effect after workplace accidents dramatically declined on their own. If you tried to impose the U.S. minimum wage on a very poor country, no one would follow it because if they did many would die for lack of work, income and food. You cannot wave a magic wand and demand that people take on major costs if the majority of people are not already able to bear the cost. Government regulations have a damaging effect to be sure, but it is primarily on people at the fringes of the economy—the poorest.

Government fire codes receive the credit for reducing fires, when in reality it is economic growth that makes people wealthy enough to spend money on safer construction. The codes come after the fact and claim the credit.

Assumption 2: Irrational Consumers

The idea that government fire codes reduce fires also assumes that, absent such codes, people would not protect themselves from fire. Are people so short-sighted that they would not think to protect their own property if the government didn’t force them to?

It is in everyone’s interest to protect their property from catastrophe like fire, and as such the vast majority of people do. Insurance is a common way to do so, but people also seek safe construction and other assurances against disaster. In fact, insurance companies have a tremendous incentive to only insure buildings with good fire prevention techniques in the first place (except when, as is not uncommon, the government interferes and prohibits insurers from placing stipulations on policies).

It can hardly be granted that people are too foolish to protect their own property from fire damage at all, so maybe it is assumed that people will merely protect their property at a minimum level and not “enough” without being forced to. But what is “enough?”

Assumption 3: Less Fire is Better

Fires are on the decline, and this is universally good, right? Not necessarily. Economist Steve Horwitz gives a question to his students that goes something like this: If a massive earthquake hit a city, what would be the economically optimal number of buildings destroyed? The answer: greater than zero.

How could that be? We all know destruction is not good for the economy (everyone, perhaps, except Paul Krugman). Consider that the cost of making the least valuable shanty in town entirely earthquake-proof is probably more than the value of the building itself. The same goes for fires. Not all structures are of equal value, and not all structures have equal risk of burning down. Because of this, it makes sense that people will have different risk preferences when it comes to protecting their property.

If I own a pole barn full of ice far away from any other buildings or woods, I am unlikely to invest in sophisticated fire prevention or suppression technology (unless compelled by the state), whereas a fancy condo owner in a downtown location is far more likely to pay for the best of the best. It’s easy to see how silly it would be to mandate that every single structure be built to withstand F5 tornadoes, category five hurricanes, massive floods and epic earthquakes. The same principle applies to lesser degrees of protection. For many structures, government fire codes are not worth it and the risk of a fire is lower than the cost of prevention. For others, government codes are not nearly sufficient and much more stringent precautions are in order.

The problem with government codes is that they are blunt and uniform and force everyone into the same mold, squelching innovation and disallowing the kind of marginal risk assessment that conserves resources. Not only are less valuable structures forced to overprotect, but often government codes are so widely accepted that more valuable structures are perceived to be sufficiently protected if they meet government standards, when in fact they may be better off with more.

Assumption 4: Irrational Politicians and All-knowing Bureaucrats

For fire codes to be the cause of enhanced safety it would require irrational political actors. Elected officials and bureaucrats would have to act not in their own rational self-interest, but on behalf of the public at large. To choose just the right amount of fire protection and just the right technologies to supply it requires not only a denial of potential individual profit (by cozy deals with some companies, etc.), but also a superhuman knowledge of what kind of construction everyone needs in every situation.

In reality we see that “rent-seeking” is prevalent everywhere the government intervenes—indeed, it could not be otherwise. How is a politician to choose the physical properties that must be present in caulk used between drywall and copper piping in a commercial building? Without the expertise they—or a wide array of public agencies—must rely on the information provided by competing companies. If it all sounds the same, do you think the company that donates to the right political campaigns might get an advantage? It is a fairy tale to imagine political actors wise and selfless enough to pick exactly the right amount and type of fire protection for every application. Every time they do pick, it reduces the options available to consumers and stunts the discovery procedures of the market in finding the best methods.

Assumption 5: The Government Did It

A final assumption is that the codes and norms of fire safety are, in fact, created by the government. In our discussion my friend mentioned government fire codes but also added a, “Thanks to UL.” UL is Underwriters Laboratory, a non-government organization that certifies goods for safety. They have built up quite a reputation in the marketplace and are highly trusted. (So much so that one professor has taken to chewing on UL certified power cords to prove how safe they are!)

It is often assumed that the order we see around us is the result of a government mandate—after all, mandates do exist for almost everything. But more often than people realize there are private entities and institutions doing the heavy lifting—UL is just one of them. There is a market demand for fire codes, and the market supply is far more complex, subtle, efficient and diverse than a government could ever be.

Conclusion

It is easy to assume government ought to get the credit for a great many life improvements. After all, government agents are constantly taking any opportunity to claim credit for everything under the sun, and to pass laws and regulations that demand certain improvements, whether or not they already exist. The existence of indecent exposure laws is not what keeps me from running naked through the shopping mall, and such laws shouldn’t be credited with my propriety. It’s naïve to assume that fire codes are the cause of a safer society, not merely a reflection of it.

Laws are less powerful than we think they are.

What if ‘The Least of These’ are Criminals?

Nearly every religious and ethical system places a high value on helping those who need it most – those who can do little to help themselves, and who have fewest opportunities, and fewest advocates.  But who are “the least of these”?

People who feel a calling to help the down-and-out often work in cancer research, the Red Cross, international humanitarian organizations, or soup kitchens.  These are all noble efforts.  But in a way, these are the easy targets, and the ones who get the most attention from charity workers.  There are other individuals who actually have significantly less access to assistance, and who are more consistently abused and taken advantage of.

Who are “the least of these”?  Illegal immigrants.  Drug dealers.  Prostitutes.  Felons.  Those accused of crimes who are assigned a public defender.  It is these members of society who are most consistently abused, and who have nowhere to turn and no one who thinks them worthy of assistance. They are in the most difficult position of all, precisely because they are not all wonderful, innocent people.  Some of them might be scoundrels, though innocent of whatever particular charges they face.  Some of them may be decent people.  No one knows, and they rarely get a chance at a fair hearing.  All the incentives are against them.  Law enforcement and prosecutors pad their stats and claim they’re making the world safer by abusing and locking them up.  Public defenders have no incentive to prove them innocent.  The general public assumes that because they seem less than trustworthy in some things, or because they’ve broken the law, they’re probably guilty of whatever they’re accused of and deserving of whatever punishment.  Who would stick their neck out for them?

Working with cancer patients or the innocent poor of the third world is not only fulfilling for many people, but it also makes them look good in the eyes of the public.  But helping accused criminals, drug dealers, prostitutes or illegal immigrants might destroy your reputation.  It’s relatively easy to help people who are seen as good people on hard times.  But what about risking your reputation to help the seedier members of society who are on the wrong side of the law?

What if you told me your one passion in life was to help those least able to help themselves: What if I told you the way to do the most good for those that most need it was to help illegal immigrants avoid harassment by state officials, or to fund legal defense for those accused of crimes who are given a public defender?  Would you do it?

I don’t think anyone is obligated to take a career helping others.  Nor do I think charity efforts are the only or best way to help others.  Indeed, producing, creating and exchanging in the free market, and cultivating the ideas of freedom to do so are more powerful in the long run than all these efforts.  But for those who feel the most fulfillment helping the least of these in the short term, it may be worthwhile to consider deeply who the least are.  Yes, it is a subjective evaluation – a rich and famous person without a friend may be desperately needy.  I am not claiming we can know in any objective sense who are the least.  But we might try expanding our paradigm.

Consider those labelled scoundrels.  Consider those called criminals.  Jesus risked his reputation by hanging out with the unclean riff-raff of society.  Not just the noble poor, but the prostitutes.  He didn’t care that the law condemned them to death.  He dealt with them on their merits as human beings, not their status in the man-made legal system.

Most assistance efforts have a non-criminal record as a precondition to receiving help.  Maybe that blocks the very people who need the most help from getting it.  The laws of man do not determine who is and is not worthy of help.  Don’t let them distract you from offering it.

The Seduction of Guarantees

We want guarantees in life.  We are risk-reducing creatures who want to plan and plot and know as much in advance as possible.  We want tight and definite parameters around the possible outcomes of our actions and our world.  Whether we like it or not, they don’t exist.  Still, we persist in fabricating them and acting offended when people acknowledge the impossibility of our desired guarantees.

I recently heard two libertarian philosophers discussing social justice.  One made the case that social justice is a good goal, and that it is congruent with liberty because a truly free society results in the best-case scenario for the least well-off; something even John Rawls would approve of.  He said free-marketers should proudly fight for social justice and remind the world that a free economy will improve the absolute conditions of the poor more than anything else.

The other philosopher responded by saying the world is awash in guarantees   We are not suffering for want of guarantees, but for want of opportunity.  He said guarantees create expectations; when these are not met, they result in complaints, frustration, blame and disillusionment.  We needn’t coddle the unrealistic desire for a sure thing, but encourage an embrace of the risk and uncertainty in life and the courage to create and try even when the end results are unknown.

Even if it is true that free-markets result in better lives for the poor, is it really helpful to make the case for freedom to specific individuals as one that promises this?  To say that freedom will make you better off is appealing to everyone, because everyone wants a guarantee.  And it is correct in a general sense.  But the truth is no system – not a free society or a totalitarian one – can guarantee a specific outcome to specific individuals.  Will markets produce better results than interventionism?  You bet.  But can either system promise what will happen to each individual?  No way.  To hinge the case for liberty on guarantees is to utilize the same false advertising tyrants have been using since time immemorial.

Liberty is beautiful.  It promises nothing but the freedom to be, to act, to try, to create, to produce.  It does not promise what effects will follow cause, only that cause will be unimpeded so long as it does not impede anyone else.  The desire for a guarantee is the very desire that causes people to tolerate and advocate their own enslavement.  This desire itself is dangerous.  Better to disabuse oneself of the myth of a guarantee.

Anyone who’s done sales knows the danger of relying on expected results instead of actual results.  Don’t count the money until the check clears.  If you cultivate a guarantee loving mindset, you’ll find yourself bitter at all the unrealized expectations in life.  You will feel as though everyone, society, the system, or reality itself is your enemy.  Really, by choosing to accept the unreality of guarantees, it is you who have made yourself the enemy of what is.  Why?  It accomplishes nothing but to stunt your own creative and cooperative capacity and replace it with an adversarial outlook towards your fellow man.

The world is uncertain.  We seek to make the most out of it and eliminate hardships, but every course of action only brings probabilities of success, not guarantees.  That’s OK.  In fact, it’s wonderful once we make our peace with it.  Stop debating which ideas can guarantee what, and embrace the fact that guarantees are a serum that slows us down from acting to achieve our ends.  After all, it is the process of seeking just as much as the ends we seek that brings fulfillment   Guarantees put all the emphasis on the sought, and none on the seeking.  Even if our ends are realized, this mindset deprives us of half the joy.

I am not making the case that freedom ought only to be embraced because it’s “right”; far from it.  Freedom will produce better outcomes than statism, and this is the best reason to advocate it.  But what those outcomes are specifically, and how the manifest in each individual’s life is unknown, just as the results of statisms deprivations and favors are unknown.  What is knowable is the fact that freedom produces an outcome for every individual that no system of control and dependency ever could; but it is not an external or material outcome.  It is a sense of pride, of life, of self-worth that is impossible in a system built on false guarantees and dispensations from authorities.  The freedom to experience the effects of one’s cause, regardless of whether it is for good or ill, produces a sturdiness and fullness that humans need to be fully human.  The dignity of uncertain freedom is orders of magnitude greater for the human soul than the patronizing promises of central planning.

Everything as a Joke

Sometimes things get too serious.  Subtle stresses build up, multiple to-do lists compound in the back of the mind, over-analysis creeps in, and the smallest misunderstandings or miscommunications cause deep consternation.

Most of us aren’t working our fingers to the bone in the field anymore. Most of us have thinking jobs.  Sounds easy.  In many ways it is; I wouldn’t trade it for a life of hard labor.  But it is taxing to think through every idea you encounter in a day, decide what’s worth while and what needs to be discarded or altered, reformat it, repackage it, and transmit it to the appropriate party in the right tone.

If you work in a field all day, you know that you need to give your body sufficient rest between shifts.  You also need to give your body other forms of activity like sports or recreations.  It’s not so different when your work is mental.  Your mind needs rest.  Your mind also needs other forms of recreation.  It needs to be engaged with the world in a way that is entirely different than what your daily work demands.

Humor is the best medicine for a worn-down mind that needs more than rest.  It allows you to fully engage your mind, but from a completely different angle.  It’s like changing the view, or putting on a new pair of lenses that reveal an entirely different world in front of you.  It’s a shock of fresh, cool water for a dehydrated brain.

Take a chunk of time to deliberately see everything as a joke.  Go scan your Facebook feed, the headlines, your RSS reader, your inbox, or your neighborhood.  Think of it all as hilarious.  You’ll be surprised how often it actually is hilarious, but you failed to notice in serious mode.  Make fun of everything, laugh at everything, take nothing seriously.  It’s a very powerful catharsis, and you might make some healthy discoveries in the process.

Reset Expectations

Think of a person you care about who perpetually frustrates you.  Now imagine you are just meeting them for the first time, right now, just as they are and just as you are.  Given what you learn about them – their strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities – and what you know about your own proclivities, what would your expectations be for the relationship?  I suspect it would differ greatly from the expectations to which you currently hold it.

We have different expectations for each relationship.  Oddly, those we care most about and those we’ve known the longest tend to be those who fail to meet our relational expectations most frequently.  We drag in a lot of our previous desires, their previous tendencies, and preferences and feelings we’ve grown beyond, but cling to because that’s how we used to relate to those people.  It’s helpful sometimes to release ourselves from this baggage.

Whatever efforts we’ve expended getting people to do what we want and be who we wish they were; whatever past disappointments we’ve met can be shed.  They are sunk costs.  They are irretrievable.  Don’t color your present expectations with what’s past.  Take a realistic look at those close to you and asses what they are capable of and what you are capable of in the relationship going forward.  Make that the expectation.

It’s easy to get pulled in to the sunk cost fallacy in gambling and economic decisions.  Relationships aren’t so different.

The Paradox of Survival

People who live the fullest lives have a loose grip on everything. They don’t cling too tightly to relationships, possessions, health or life itself. They are free from mood-controlling fear and worry. They take the prospect of terminal illness or the loss of a job with ease, because they don’t find their solace in their present material position relative to others, but in something deeper and more unshakable.

The ability to let go of things is useful in every arena of life. Let go of your kids rather than lamenting their choice of hobbies, or the fact that they grow and change. Let go of your fear of losing and put yourself into your sport with abandon. Let go of the desperation to be loved or else you are likely scare others away; to be less lovable. Let go of fear of death, and what life you have is richer.

All this freedom found in letting go, yet humans are programmed to seek their own survival above all else and against all odds. Are we to fight our own hard-wiring? And why are humans so universally inspired by stories of fighting cancer, fighting the odds, resisting the inertia of world, not giving up, not letting go? There is something noble and heroic about refusing to roll with the punches.

How can we square these competing approaches? If suffering from a serious sickness, is it best to let go of our fear of pain and death and find our zen, or should we fight the degradation of our bodies with every fiber?

Both.

There is a way to reconcile a loose grip on life with a refusal to let go of our dreams. I haven’t mastered it. Few have. The space between freedom from worry over the vicissitudes of life, and intense focus on how to overcome them, is the place where greatness emerges. I’ve seen it in sports. Think about Michael Jordan playfully taunting his opponent at the free throw line. He was so free from the worry of missing the shot, or of embarrassment that he closed his eyes while shooting – a loose grip on the game. At the same time, he was so focused on dominating the game, being the best, and making the shot. Greatness.

The key is to hold on to what we have and keep climbing the obstacles that impede us to obtain what we want. The key is also to let go of what we have and be free from the fear of not obtaining what we want. Now all you have to do is both at the same time.

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!