25 April 2016

Just Break Up Already!

“What am I allowed to expect?” This was the question I kept asking myself in the waning months of my previous relationship. We had been together for five years and appeared to be on the conveyor belt to matrimony. It was a foregone conclusion, despite our constant friction.

I’d been through many relationships before, so I knew that rough patches were transient. I was experienced enough to not fret at the first sign of trouble, and I was confident enough to help my partner through her feelings of doubt. Over time, we built a strong foundation for our relationship that helped us navigate the many, many obstacles that got in our way. On one hand, that sounds like an amazing bond, and I felt like I had found the secret to a lasting relationship.

But the obstacles weren’t external; they came from the friction of two incompatible people trying too hard to coalesce. After so many breaks and repairs, the relationship started to resemble a hobo’s suitcase. We patched it up with tape and scraps, but it kept falling apart on an almost-daily basis. Eventually, what had been a source of pride — our ability to stick together through shitty times — began to feel like a burden. I started paying attention to all the little problems, keeping track of the big ones, and asking myself over and over: “What am I allowed to expect?”

Pop culture will give you the impression that the average relationship is fairly rocky. Usually hinged together by some form of pride or momentum, two distinctly different individuals grapple with each other in a subdued, drawn-out battle to see who will give up first. They sabotage each other’s futures through compromise and obligation, remain bitter the entire time, and cling desperately to their memories of the beginning when it was all sex and romance. This was supposedly what I could expect for myself.

Luckily, my relationship deteriorated to a point where I was confident that, no matter how little I was allowed to expect, I wasn’t getting half it. I broke up with her.
Upon this turn of fortune, I almost immediately found myself in another relationship. I really do mean “found myself” — neither of us expected it to happen — we were just having fun and we suddenly realized that things were working better than we ever could have imagined. This confounded us both because we simply didn’t think it was possible to be so congruous with another person this easily. But that’s when I finally had a good answer to my question.

What am I allowed to expect? A lot.

I used to say that that compatibility was overrated and adaptability was key to a lasting relationship, but I also felt extremely lucky to be where I was and I didn’t realize that things could be better. My last girlfriend and I were not naturally compatible at all, but we made it work for a very long time because, despite our many differences, we romanticized the stubbornness of sticking together through all the rough spots. I thought that time and familiarity would erode our mismatched edges until we rested against each other like stones in a wall. What we experienced instead was a perpetual grind between two diamond-hard wills until we both were dust.

You never realize the damage of a dysfunctional relationship until you’ve escaped it. I had viewed myself as a solid rock and my previous girlfriend, in her own words, was the wave that crashed around me. However, as the tide recedes, I’m finding that I’ve been eroded to a much greater extent than I was aware. Early on, like a skittish pet, I would tread gingerly around my new partner, fearing an outburst or a cold shoulder. I would constantly wonder if they were secretly furious at me, but I would ask and receive an answer that told me I had nothing to worry about. And as I slowly unclench from my defensive stance and life continues to flow in this peaceful vein, I will sometimes have moments of clarity that make me cry with relief.

My most profound realization is that I was never actually myself in my old relationship. I was lazy, selfish, and guarded. It was confusing at the time to experience this because I perceived myself to be generous, compassionate and open, but there was something about our dynamic that made me close up. Now that I am with a person who complements me so well, I find that I have no shortage of energy attending to their needs, empathy for their intense feelings, and no shame in sharing my honest thoughts.

It’s good to be myself, like I always knew I was.

If you’re not getting what you need out of your relationship, do yourself and your partner a huge favor and just break up already. Culture your independence and wait for someone who brings out the you in you. The happiest moments of your life, happier than you ever thought you deserved, are waiting.

(This article originally appeared on The Listserve on March 8th, 2016.)

10 March 2016

Capitalism: The Religion of Greed

In a capitalist society, a human's worth is based on their contribution to the economy. Your task: get a job, produce capital, consume goods, pay your bills, and involve yourself in the economic churn as much as possible. If you are unable do this, you are an economic outcast and thus a burden to society. Your needs will not be met because you offer nothing in return. We counterbalance this pressure by offering welfare, social security, and charity to the disadvantaged and incapable, but we ostensibly hold it against them by calling these remedies "entitlements" and constantly seek not only to reduce these programs, but also to dehumanize those who depend on them.

The moral intention of a capitalist is to whip all of society into a collective machine of prosperity. Those who do not participate are merely benefiting from the hard work of others. A man is allowed to keep the majority of what he makes, even if his hoarding of wealth prevents others from earning their share. The morals do not jive with the reality, because a capitalist is motivated to decrease costs and increase income by any means allowed, lest he fall victim to another capitalist.

This partly manifests itself through globalization and technology: we outsource labor to countries where it is cheap and further reduce the local workforce by integrating robotics into manufacturing. Opportunities for participation within the economy are vastly diminished, while the meager few jobs that are created by this change require more expertise to fill, making the participation in the economy an exclusive benefit, instead of a human right. This is the trend and it will only continue.

This is not an indictment of globalization or technology, it's an indictment of capitalism. Philosophically, we're supposed to believe that things naturally balance themselves out in a free market. I've written a lot about how this philosophy is complete hogwash, but even if we accepted that it was valid in theory, we still could still not achieve a truly free global market in actuality. And once you realize that no market is free, the entire concept breaks down. We have to start paying attention to the gaps in the capitalist ideal; the people who are caught under the treads of the big economic machine.

The solution is to stop pretending that the markets are free at all. They are rigged at almost every level to protect those at the top and will continue to trend in that direction unless a governing body steps in and forces the action in a different direction. Natural market disruption may potentially topple giants, but they are only replaced by more giants with the same selfish agenda. Meanwhile, the individual cog in the machine will soon be replaced by a more efficient mechanism and he will be left without any opportunities to participate within the economy like he is expected to.

Need I remind you for a moment that we are all human and we are all deserving of dignity?

Let's stop expecting everyone to be able to participate in the economy. Collectively, the human race is capable of producing food, shelter and infrastructure in abundance. If you told me that the reason why a man does not have a roof over his head is because he hasn't earned it, you'd be wrong. The reason is because he has been boxed out of the dignity of shelter and sustenance by those who only value others by their economic contribution, or do not value them as equal humans at all.

The world still needs the vast majority of people to be producers and consumers, but we can still make the next step toward abundance, which is a more even distribution of wealth (and, existentially, respecting our fellow humans regardless of their economic contribution). Elect leaders who understand this, not ones who gladly accept money from moneyed interests, as they are only acolytes in the religion of greed.

12 February 2016

The More You Know, The More You Bern

I keep hearing that Hillary Clinton would be more "effective" as a President than Bernie Sanders. This is, somehow, the reason why we should vote for her. Effectiveness. It's a good word, but I'm extremely wary of it. I don't doubt that Hillary can get things done as Commander in Chief. The question is what are those things, exactly? To me, the choice between Bernie and Hillary is not one of effectiveness, but about policy. I hate to Godwin this post off the bat, but it makes my point fairly clearly: Hitler was effective. It was his policies that sucked. Hillary is not nearly Hitler, but her policies, loyalties, and general ethics do suck. An ineffective Sanders presidency, to me, is preferred over whatever society Hillary feels like she can build with her effectiveness.

However, I am not willing to concede that Bernie won't be effective, or even that he'd be less effective than Hillary. If you ask a group of informed conservatives (oxymoron, I know) which candidate they respect more, the majority of them will respond with Sanders. Ralph Nader recently said as much, too. Sanders also recently worked across the aisle with John McCain on a bill for veterans. The idea that his "far left" ideologies would die in Congress is merely speculative and no more to the point than thinking Hillary, an Establishment Democrat (and female, at that), could somehow be more effective than her predecessor, President Barack Obama, who faced an absolute quagmire in Congress throughout his terms. The point: if Bernie can't be effective with his policies, then Hillary surely couldn't be any more effective with the same policies. The problem is that she doesn't have the same policies, so any effectiveness you might reach to attribute to her would be applied in the wrong direction.

Let's be clear: nobody in their right mind believes a word out of Hillary's mouth. While many conservatives respect Bernie, both conservatives and liberals alike distrust her. She won't release the transcripts of her Goldman Sachs speeches because they would reveal where her loyalties lie. Even her campaign trail route is duplicitous. One day, she'll claim that she'll bring the big banks to heel, the next day, she's holding a fundraiser with the very people she'll supposedly be regulating. It makes absolutely no sense. The drama with her private, unsecured email server that she transmitted confidential information through might have been easily dismissed during the early Democratic debates, but now the FBI has formally announced that it is investigating her. As well, some of her non-confidential emails were recently released through the Freedom of Information Act. They show her aides literally feeding leads to the media and instructing them on the language they should use when reporting them. Why do we want this person as President, again?

You may look at Bernie's platform and say, "The President doesn't have control over those things." This, also, is beside the point. If you agree at all with Bernie's ideas, regardless of his chances of putting them into action, you must vote for him. Here's why: the very fact that he has people actually discussing his policies in the main stream, crunching the numbers, and trying to find ways to make them work is an enormous leap forward in public policy. People want his solutions - attainable or not. It doesn't matter if you're a pragmatist or an idealist, pushing forward requires momentum and Bernie Sanders has it. We were gearing up for an election season filled with horrible claims about Planned Parenthood, objections to gay marriage, and griping about whatever religion each candidate is. But you don't see that, do you? No, because Bernie has single-handedly shifted the discussion to new and important topics. If he can do that with a mere political campaign, imagine what he can do in a position of power and respect.

Speaking of momentum, have you been following the polls? Bernie has done nothing but gain on Hillary. He was a no-name Senator from Vermont a year ago, now he's nearly drawn even with the former First Lady to the most popular President in ages and Secretary of State. To what do we attribute this? Information is additive. That is: as time goes on you only gain more knowledge through constant influx of information. Now, despite Hillary having friends in high places throughout the media, Wall Street, and the entire Democratic party, Bernie Sanders has cut through all of that and is close to overtaking her. What this says to me is that the more information that an individual has about both candidates, the more likely they are to vote for Bernie. Put another way: before Bernie came along, Hillary was the de facto Democratic Party candidate. She has done nothing but lose her lead because as people learn more about both her and her opponent, they are changing their minds.

It stands to reason that the more a person knows about either candidate, the more likely they are to choose Bernie. So, if you're still in the Hillary camp, I have to ask: how much do you really know about your choices?

22 January 2016

The American: An Island

There's a lot of pride in accomplishing things all by yourself. If you overcome huge challenges in your life and manage to improve your situation, it's very American to look at what you've done and declare yourself the sole source of effort, momentum, and success. This is one of the many reasons why the working class is so distrusting of the term "Socialism." To them, it foretells a society where the people who do all the work have to foot the bill for those who don't pull their own weight. It also undercuts their potential as hard-working super-motivated dynamos because all of their accomplishments will have asterisks beside them, noting that they were coddled by government handouts.

The American Dream is a sick one. The self-important pride that it infuses into the average Joe does more to stagnate their success than drive it. The whole concept of a man as an individual responsible for their own destiny is so saccharine and seductive that it pushes them toward being blind, selfish, and conceited. The narrative is repeatedly hammered into our culture by politicians who pander with their own stories of bootstraps and dirt under their nails. It's all a spiteful lie we tell ourselves to avoid feeling compassion.

The source of the lie is fear. Fundamentally, we feel that we cannot truly know anyone but ourselves. The thoughts and feelings of others are masked behind the actions and words they choose to present outwardly. We ourselves lie and cheat, so we know others may lie and cheat as well. We conceal, so we know that there is much we'll never know. The only person to trust is ourselves. Compassion, therefore, is a gamble we take only with those we know best, who are most like us.

In this model, an individual is all but required to conceptualize themselves as an island and cognitive dissonance takes care of the rest. Empathy becomes an allergy. Explain to a prideful white male about his inherent privileges and he will lash out in annoyance. "Don't give me that white guilt bullshit," he'll say. He doesn't believe the argument applies to him. He sees his condition and struggles as a baseline for everyone, assumes that his fight is on par with that of others. Besides, since when is being white a crime?

There's no crime, of course, but the concept of privilege is a direct attack on a man's individualism. It's difficult to accept that the vast majority of your success was only made accessible by favorable starting conditions. More subtle than that, it coldly lumps this individual into a larger group and strips away their unique achievements. They are no longer an example of their own fortitude, but yet another product of the white infrastructure.

People are parasitic to undeserved pride. They cling to it righteously because it is so tentatively theirs. Factor in the immense value that our society places on pride itself and you can see why it is so persistent. To accept yourself without your individualism requires deep personal change, not just an epiphany. It requires humility, empathy, and an examination of the lives of people unseen to you. Ironically, it sets you apart from the others of your culture because you're now viewing the world without the lens pointed at yourself.

Political statements are personal statements. They reveal your priorities, the scope of the world you live in, and they shed light on how you perceive yourself. Whether you're a drone regurgitating the quick hits you got from a website, or you're a deliberate thinker who weighed the pros and cons carefully, your politics provide a candid peek behind the mask that you thought you were hiding behind. So, think about it: what do your politics really say about you?

29 October 2015

Tragedy of the Banal Economists

It’s just another day when I scroll down my Facebook news feed to find a “friend,” or a friend of a friend spouting off about how we need to “free the markets” and let the “invisible hand” sort things out. They post idiotic memes about Bernie Sanders supporters waiting anxiously for their “free stuff.” Spotting Libertarians in the wild is as exciting to me as watching pigeons on my lunch break. Invariably, the people I see saying these things are straight white males. Oh, there are definitely some women and minorities who hold these economic beliefs, but 94% of American Libertarians are white. 68% are male (compared to 48% of the whole population). There definitely has to be a reason; let’s look into it.

Success, to a Libertarian, is a product of one’s own making. When you get accepted into that nice college, it’s because you deserved it. When you landed that sweet job, it’s because you were the most qualified person. When you found an attractive partner, it’s because you’re just a great mate. And when the business that you own later in life obtains client after client, it’s because there is nobody better. That’s right. It’s all your own doing. Every last bit of it.

Along comes the government. They say they need 35% of your income (or more) so that they can redistribute it to other people. “Hell no,” you say, “I earned every penny with my own two hands. If someone else needs money, they can go earn it just like I did.” You are a free person! You pay for what you consume. You can walk into any store and buy anything you want. You can dine in any restaurant. You can cross any border. If someone does something illegal to you, you can get them arrested. The world is there before you, awaiting your pleasure. Why should you have to make allowances for others in this open, equal society?

It makes sense that a Libertarian would see the government as the last obstacle that stands between them and complete self-reliance. They see themselves in control of most everything in their lives, except for the things that the government has a stake in. The government is infringing upon their absolute freedom, therefore it is bad and every person who would sooner grant the government more power is a blind fucking idiot.

There’s a term you might have heard in popular use these days: privilege. Its definition: a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most. The thing about privilege is that those who have it don’t like to admit to it. The use of the word privilege has become an accusation of ignorance, so the reaction to it is often defensive or denial. Plus, if you tend to believe that you are the custodian of your own success, privilege is your worst enemy.

The reality is that nobody is totally responsible for their own success; not the straight white male born into the middle class who owns their own landscaping business, and not even the black transexual Nigerian born into abject poverty who now lives in a two-story house in Wisconsin. The difference, though, is that the straight white male never faced a fraction of the challenges encountered by the latter. The sheer arrogance of pride they feel for their accomplishments is more ignorance than the residue of success.

Meanwhile, when you are born into a broken family where your single parent works 80 hours a week to earn a meager living for you and your siblings, and your skin color is feared, and your neighborhood is dangerous, your options are limited. A lot of times, your future is chosen for you, and it’s not the government that does it. Actually, when you find yourself in that situation, the government is the only thing between you and destitution.

Why don’t you get a job? Well, there are hundreds of people just like you, and the market in your area isn’t robust enough to support as many jobs. And you can’t get a job outside your area, either, because you did poorly in school because street knowledge was far more important to learn than multiplication tables when your life was in danger as soon as the bell rung. Someone beats you up and you can’t call the police, because they’re more dangerous than the thug who just took your wallet. Come on, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Landscaping guy over there is a shining example of what hard work can do. Why don’t you be more like him?

It’s a truly sad state when we vilify the have-nots as mooches. At best, it’s pure ignorance. It’s a shame that, with all their privilege, they couldn’t find the time to obtain some compassion.

The standard Libertarian counter-argument is always the same: the free market would provide for these people. It’s such a tragic understatement of the larger issue, that I struggle to find words condescending enough to convey my true feelings. There is no market force than can overcome systemic racism. The private sector won’t make a poor neighborhood safer. There is no magic in the invisible hand. It’s an outdated fantasy and an insidious delusion harbored by blind, sophomoric thinkers.

22 June 2015

6 Essential Elements of Being an Intellectual

So, you fancy yourself an intellectual, huh? Nobody gave me any authority to say whether you are or you aren’t, but it occurred to me that being an intellectual requires a bit more than just intelligence. Like many things, it’s not about how high your IQ is, it’s how you use it.

1. Remember that everything is fallible.

This doesn't mean that nothing can be known or that all knowledge is unreliable. It just means that everything has the potential to be incorrect. It is a prompt to think critically, spot inconsistencies, and work to iron out the wrinkles in every story you hear. The truth is that very little of the information we receive is communicated clearly and competently with no error. It would be irresponsible to take it all at face value without vetting it first.

Think about the act of receiving instruction from a veteran craftsman. They will impart their technique and their philosophy to you, but there is still much room for error. They could be using an outdated technique. You could hear them wrong. They could be leaving something out. Or, they could just not be as good at teaching as they are at their craft. All of these possibilities must be acknowledged for you to truly appreciate what you’re learning. Supplement their instruction (and all information-gathering) with independent inquiry.

2. Embrace being wrong.

Nobody wants to be wrong, and you shouldn't necessarily want to be either. But if you are wrong, lean into it and let it happen. Learn to appreciate the feeling of letting go of your false preconception. It means that you've just learned something. Being wrong is the first step to being right. Seek opportunities to test your ideas and look for vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It's easy to justify something based on its positive traits, but a truly useful idea must also stand up against adversity.

3. Be domain-independent.

Imagine a medical doctor who believes in superstitions - they do exist (the doctors, that is). This is an example of someone who has gone through many years of intense scientific training, yet has somehow failed to apply everything they’ve learned about how the world works to their own belief system. Maybe they thought those two domains are inherently separate. An intellectual, however, is ruthless in their application of critical thought, no matter how personal the subject. While you may specialize in one subject or another, it behooves you to branch out and learn about all others you interact with.

4. Think in concepts, not facts.

Facts can be mistaken or misremembered. Concepts are processes that allow you to reconstruct the facts. This is the difference between memorizing multiplication tables and actually knowing how to multiply. One is quick, limited in scope, and easily botched, the other is slow, but more versatile and reliable. Conceptual thinking also allows you to be more creative because you get to decide which parameters to experiment with.

My favorite example of this is a romantic relationship. Most people have hard and fast boundaries for relationships (monogamy, strict fidelity, no sex until the third date, man and woman, etc.) because they’ve been told by their peers and elders that these are necessary for a relationship’s success. However, a conceptual thinker throws all of that out the window and instead works backwards from their relationship goals to imagine their own boundaries. They may end up at the same conclusions, or they may prefer a polyamorous triad with two members of the same sex. The point is that they weren’t burdened by conventional wisdom in developing a plan for themselves, so their range of potential conclusions is more broad.

5. Break the law.

If you've never done anything outside the boundaries of what you've been told is acceptable, how would you know if the boundaries are just? How could your worldview be anywhere near complete if you’ve never seen it from the other side of the line? This goes beyond legalities. Everything has boundaries; concepts, conversations, processes, even objects. Push them, bend them, forget them. Fearlessness is necessary in this endeavor, but remember one thing: laws are imaginary, however consequences are not.

6. Always be optimizing.

Don’t simply accept things for what they are; imagine what they could be. See beyond the situation and look for possibilities for where it can go. Think about how you would do things differently. Take the ideas around you, improve them and make them your own. Intellectualism is just masturbation if it doesn’t strive to impact the world to some degree.

17 January 2015

Conservativism is Immoral

I hear a lot of people qualify themselves as "socially liberal, but fiscally conservative." This would include libertarians, young Republicans, and, surprisingly, a lot of smart people who would otherwise rather not label themselves politically. This is disappointing because, as I am going to try to explain, all political conservativism is immoral.

The definition of conservativism has changed over the years and it can mean very different things when applied to different concepts, so I am going to limit my statement to the two most commonly referred-to arenas: social policy and fiscal policy.

Conservativism, in both cases, protects those who have a strong foothold in the mainstream and "encourages" outsiders to fall in with them. It is comforting, self-affirming, and stoic. However, it is downright brutal to those on the fringes. And that's the core of my argument: an ideology cannot be moral if it does not nurture all people.

Social Conservativism

Here, we're talking about "traditional family values" and other veiled excuses to hate, denigrate, ostracize and exile those who don't fit the mold of a heterosexual, nuclear family that goes to church on Sunday and whose two (2) central figures perform missionary sex whenever the patriarch deems necessary. It's not even ironic, but actually quite insidious, that social conservativism leverages the word "morality" like a gun at a peace rally. In fact, if not for the keen use of language, the social conservative movement would be laid bare. But none of this is really controversial and this is not what you're reading this article for. You knew this about social conservativism already.

Fiscal Conservativism

It's incredibly easy to advocate for fiscal conservativism. In fact, it's probably the biggest no-brainer that any political hack can stumble into. Don't spend more than you earn? Balance the budget? Reduce bloat and overhead? Sign me up! These are all reasonable goals, however the means are often overlooked because the ends are so blatantly desirable. There's a seedy underbelly to this philosophy that its advocates haven't even thought past.

Many people who advocate fiscal conservativism do so because they feel like taxation is the true immoral practice. For them, the argument stops there; any practice that minimizes their taxes is therefore better than one that increases them. But if a government's eye on your wallet is at the limit of your moral looking glass, allow me to lend you a telescope.

Let's imagine a world where taxes are minimal. The government could not be very robust; only large enough to support a few agencies central to administration and infrastructure. Everything else would be left to local municipalities and private corporations. The "invisible hand" would supposedly balance out all of the market forces and the world would be a place of complete freedom and self-reliance. Right?

There's only a billion problems with this concept. The first is that the "invisible hand" is an idea based on the economics of 240 years ago. We're talking about local markets controlled by the upper social classes and absolutely none of the financial and social technology that we have access to today. The assumptions (and they are assumptions) made by classical capitalist economic theory are simply no longer valid in today's world. It's a lovely idyll to daydream about, but I would never actually entrust an economy of 300 million people to it.

The second (of 1,000,000,000) problem with the small government concept is that no neutral party is looking out for the little guy. This means that the big guy can bully, or even lock out the little guy at will. Without the invisible hand to somehow balance things out, the little guy has no legal recourse against the "fair and square" method in which he was squeezed out of his livelihood by a manipulative tactic. Regulation requires funds (and yes, a little bureaucracy) to enforce.

Third, relying on market forces actually elevates the almighty dollar to a new height of importance - and that's bad. In this world, a person's worth is determined by their contribution to the economy. This means that the elderly, sick, and the handicapped are screwed. The go-to argument against this point is that charitable donations would increase if people had a larger portion of their income to spend. The counter-argument to that is two-fold: For one, I don't believe it for a second. Two, having individuals decide which charities their money supports is actually a terrible idea. In fact, that's the fourth problem.

A social safety net is crucial to a good economy. However, if you want to let the "free market" provide things like health care, social security pension, minimum livable wages, paid time off, and financial assistance to those simply unable to work, I'm 100% confident that you'll end up a few sides short of a polygon. (I'm just gonna let that metaphor percolate for a while.) The capitalism-drunk USA is a country where currently only workers protected by unions can expect paid leave. And look how charities work today: they have to compete and posture for funds. In fact, lecherous firms like Susan G. Komen exist mostly as marketing and litigation juggernauts, with very little of their funds going to actual charity. So what you'll end up seeing in the free market is only the most marketable and popular causes will get support (with only a fraction of that support working to make a difference), while the unpopular ones will mortify and slough off like humanely castrated goat nuts. Where's the morality in that?

We need a neutral party in the middle to provide the social safety net without bias. That's fine, one might say, but the government can't be trusted even in that capacity. It's a fair point. There's also a lot of waste in government. Not to mention the havoc governments can wreak when they are afforded too much unchecked power. These are all very real and important concerns. But they are not actually arguments against taxation and government spending. They're definitely concerns that need to be addressed intelligently, but leaning on them as the pillars of your exclusionist fiscal ideology is a short-sighted, selfish and apathetic stance.