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.

09 October 2014

Me vs. The Agenda

Unless you are a _______, are an expert in _______ culture, understand and utilize _______ lingo, and have nothing but neutral-to-positive things to say about _______, you should never, never, never ever discuss _______.


Don't do it. You'll be wrong and labeled an anti-________ no matter what you say or how eloquently you say it. In fact, despite not having said anything myself, I'm running the risk of being wrong just by saying this. I can see it now:

Me: <<says the sentence above>>

Someone else: Andrew, you are saying that _______s are closed-minded and irrational? That makes you an ignorant and bigoted asshole and everything else that comes out of your mouth is garbage!

Yep. I'm a white American male, endowed with nearly every social privilege known to liberals. I am categorically unqualified to say anything critical about any social issue that doesn't affect me directly. I lack the necessary perspective to truly understand it. That is, unless I become a white knight for the cause, but that would preclude me from saying anything remotely negative or general about it.

Doesn't that sound a little silly to you?

Agendas, man. They're everywhere.

I follow a few black bloggers on Tumblr, so I come across a lot of pro-black, anti-white politics that make me shake my head. They're not wrong because they're black. They're wrong because they're making the same mistakes as the wrong white people. But I'm not allowed to say anything. That would make me racist. Actually, I confess; I have spoken up and said something before. And yes, I was called a racist.

Recently, I've seen my fair share of so-called sexism. The recent herpes-like flare-up with Sam Harris spouting an off-the-cuff conjecture which led to a tsunami of backlash was a spectacle to behold. In the eyes of the accusers, the man could say nothing to defend himself. The slight had been released out into the universe and forever labeled him a sexist pig, regardless of the actual makeup of his character. In fact, his rebuttal, though pre-approved by three female editors, served only to salt the wound of the offended.

This hyper-reactivism is absolutely absurd. Racism, sexism, and bigotry are the new clauses to Godwin's Law. We're simply not allowed to say anything remotely critical or suggestive about the socially underprivileged. Not in humor, not in curiosity, not in ignorance, not in wisdom, and may FSM help you if it's by accident. Language is so important to these people that the mere utterance of a misplaced word sends them into a frenzy.

With a clear head, one might be able to see how this could stifle meaningful conversation.

"But Andrew, there's nothing good that can come of this. We've been down this road before. We're trying to move forward."

I'm not buying it. I'd rather have a substantial conversation than avoid hurting someone's feelings. In the eyes of The Agenda, any conclusion which damages the image of a member of its protected in-group is always wrong and the originator of said conclusion is evil. That's it. That's the end of the discussion. Any attempts to rehash, defend or explain will only dig one's self deeper into their hole. There is no way to be correct if you say anything remotely generalizing. The only way to be forgiven is to publicly renounce your point and throw your lot in with them.

I have no desire to go into further specifics. As I have pointed out, it is a losing fight. My only hope with this post is that it serves to sober up at least one fanatic.

05 October 2014

It's OK to Criticize Religion

It stands to reason that when you put Ben Affleck in an intellectual debate with Sam Harris, you're likely about to witness the equivalent of game between the local Tee-ball League All-Stars and the 1999 New York Yankees. In fact, the only way the Tee-ball team could hope to escape the encounter with any dignity would be to sabotage the proceedings and make up their own rules. That's pretty much what happened this past Friday, on Real Time with Bill Maher. Just like the allegory of playing chess with a pigeon, Affleck knocked over the pieces and shat on the board by screaming bloody PC murder while completely ignoring the rational points being laid out before him by his intellectual superior. But we can't write this off as the buffoonery of just one man - this is how most liberals play the game, which is the very point that Sam Harris was making.

There are many reasons why liberals are resistant to criticizing Islam, but none of them are good. What it often boils down to is a lack of any real thinking. Case in point: the entire concept of Islamophobia. Criticize Islam and you're called a racist (as Ben Affleck did to Harris). However, these geniuses failed to recognize that Islam isn't a race. Islam is a set of ideas - a set of very bad ideas - that should be open for criticism. If this point even manages to get established, the next position to fall back on is that not all Muslims share the nasty beliefs that are giving the religion a bad name. As I am about to explain, this statement is both false and irrelevant.

You don't need to reach as far as the atrocities that extremist sects like Islamic State are committing to find problems with Islam. At its core, modern Islam is anti-feminist, anti-gay and culturally brutal (the penalty of apostasy is death). Most followers of Islam today uphold these values. These are not fringe beliefs acquired from warped interpretations of scripture. These are the tenets of mainstream Islam.

However, it is true that many Muslims are kind, well-meaning people who would not hurt a soul. This is because they are human and this is the default behavior of most humans. If they are good, they are so despite their religion, not because of it. There is nothing about their religion (or any religion, for that matter) that pushes them to be good beyond what they'd already be capable of without their beliefs.

At the very best, religion gives context to our inherent desire for cooperation and happiness. However, there is no benefit to religion than cannot be achieved through secular means, so we're left to analyze the potential downsides, of which there are many. Despite the well-behaved majority of humanity, most religions and many political ideologies provide a framework for justified brutality. Just because a religion's followers can be good does not remove the tool of brutality from the toolbox. It sits there, waiting for someone to come along, pick it up, and use it with the full justification of the same religious text that everyone else follows.

Therein lies the biggest reason not to criticize Islam. To do so is to open all religions up to criticism, and who wants to fight that war?

What if the act of criticizing religion was just a moot point, anyways? We are all humans, and humans thought up the brutal religions in the first place, right? Throughout history, countless people have suffered because someone felt justified in causing them pain for the good of all humanity. Could religion simply be a single facet in our polygonal nature to do this to each other over and over?


The procession of society would all seem like a hopeless cycle of brutality if not for one reassuring fact: collective human knowledge is cumulative. To justify the original creation of today's brutal centuries-old religions as human nature is to assume that they were created in the same intellectual environment as exists today. Clearly, that isn't the case. What's the last brutal religion to arise from the laws of the universe as understood through the day's most advanced knowledge?

Granted, more recently, newer ideologies which are brutal are not so much religious as they are political. The formula still matters, though; they are based off flawed understandings of the world. They are based off of ignorance. What you're not seeing is new brutal ideologies emerging from intellectual sources, using modern knowledge for their justification.

Everyone wants to do good. Everyone wants the world to be better. However, if your understanding of the world is flawed, your solutions for how to make it better (and your ideals for what is "better") are going to be flawed. The more we know about reality, the more we study about ourselves, and the more we actually apply this knowledge, the less brutal we become. Yes, many have suffered as a result of flawed science, but it's only gotten better as we learn more. Not worse.

To paraphrase Sam Harris, have you ever seen a society suffer because it became more rational?

Religions must be criticized. To hold Islam in an unassailable category of its own makes zero sense. None whatsoever.

30 September 2014

Health Insurance Is Not Health Care

This is just a rant, but I needed to get it out and into the wild before I burned up from grinding it down in my head. Americans, you must never ever ever ever ever confuse health insurance for health care. Never make the mistake of thinking health insurance is a necessary part of the health care process. Never be grateful to your health insurance provider. Never take pride in having "good" insurance. This is akin to a slave being proud of having a master who does not beat him.

Health insurance is not there to protect you from the high cost of medical care. Medical care costs a fortune BECAUSE of health insurance.

Health insurance is the middle man between your health and the maintainers of it. It does more than just pay your doctor for you. It lords over the care that you receive. Your health insurance provider is not a medical advisor, yet it gets to determine how and how often you get treated. It makes these decisions not for your own good, but for its bottom line.

For instance, if you have a therapist recommend that you visit her once a week, that is a doctor-prescribed 52 visits a year. However, your health insurance likely has a limit to the number of psychiatric visits you're allowed. This number can be as low as 20 visits a year. That means your generous and benevolent health insurance provider will only allow you to receive 38% of the medically recommended care that you need. Sure, you can always pay out of pocket for the rest, but let's not forget how much things cost - as a result of health insurance.

Let's also say that a doctor prescribes medication to you. You drop the prescription off at the pharmacy and the pharmacist runs it by your insurance. Your health insurance provider can then simply say that it won't cover you for that medication. But why? They might tell you that the medication is normally prescribed to a different age group. Who the fuck are they to tell you what medication you can take? We know the real reason is that your insurance is always looking for a reason to not provide coverage. That way, they save money. That's it. You receive no benefit.

Here's another scenario: you get injured, so your primary care physician gives you a referral to a sports medicine facility. However, upon arriving and trying to make an appointment, you're told that the soonest the doctor can see you is two and a half months out. Why is this? Well, there is only one doctor in the whole facility who takes your insurance, and he's only in once a week. Why not blame the other doctors for not taking your insurance? Because doctors negotiate with the insurance providers on compensation and if they don't take your insurance, it's probably because your insurance company is so greedy that it couldn't make a deal with at least one more fucking doctor. And now you have to put your life on hold for 10 weeks because your injury won't heal on its own.

These are the stories of the "insured." These are people who pay money out of their pocket to receive health care, but receive bureaucracy instead. Nobody deserves this.

If you paid attention to the Affordable Care Act, it states that most adult Americans are required to purchase health insurance. There are so many things wrong with this. Again, health insurance providers are not medical care providers, they are corporate entities that exist for the solitary purpose of making money. And now our President has forced us into bed with them, as if this was the best solution to the problem. Out of some bizarre allergy toward anything remotely socialist, blinded by the false assertion that our capitalistic health care was somehow superior to that of other countries, we avoided adopting a single-payer system or even a national health service. Instead, our nation's leaders wrote a big fat check to the very institutions that are responsible for deteriorating our quality of life in the first place.

The worst part is that you're pretty much helpless against all of this. That's the system. It could likely be simpler, less stressful, less controlling and cheaper, but the leaders that you voted for have turned around and fucked you. Don't posture too much, though. The leaders that you didn't vote for would have fucked you even worse, but in a different way. So let's all be proud of having a leader who at least has the courtesy to use lube.

17 September 2014

Review: Waking Up

I'm always in awe of Sam Harris for his ability to identify the blind spot in our collective discourse and then proceed to write a book that fully illuminates it. For too long, there has been a rift between rationality and spirituality. Those who orbit around the heft of scientific thinking often dismiss spirituality as a distracting waste of time, while those who embrace spirituality often bastardize scientific knowledge to a frustrating degree. Finally, someone has managed to bridge the gap in an elegant and intellectually honest way that makes it OK to say you're spiritual, without having to believe in all that mystical crap.

It was never enough to simply leave the religious folk to their boundless love and speaking in tongues while dismissing it as self-delusional brain-hacking. Harris rightly points out that though those people are mistaken as to the essential cause of their religious ecstasy, it does not diminish the fact that they are indeed experiencing it and they are justified in seeking it out. The greater point that the entire book revolves around is that every experience, sensation, and mental state that a religious adherent can achieve may also be achieved by an intelligent, rational, and disciplined individual without ever having to believe a single false assertion as to the nature of our universe.

Of course, the use of the word spiritual doesn't hit the brain the way one would hope. It's not perfect, but the alternatives fall much shorter. Throughout the book, Harris works with a surgical scalpel to separate what he means by the word from the excess baggage that many would ascribe to it. It can be tedious, but it makes the point all the clearer to see.

One of the bolder statements that Harris makes lies in his comparison of the major religions along the axis of introspection. If you guessed that the western Abrahamic religions fell short in this evaluation, you'd be correct. Western society, as groomed by these faiths, would sooner laugh at the thought of an inward gaze than to entertain its potential benefits. I'm grateful, then, that Harris is hardly bashful in touting Buddhism as his framework of choice when going down the spiritual path. The core teachings of Buddhism, he explains, are merely an empiricist's manual for how to harness your own mind.

I've written before about mindfulness and its benefits, so I will skip that part. For me, the real sense that I was learning something came when Harris began deconstructing the source of consciousness in the brain. Split-brain experiments have always posed the most interesting dilemmas for people who believe in souls or their like. How are you one person if the two sides of your brain behave differently and often in opposition to each other when they are separated? That's not the mind-blowing part. Harris drops the mic on that segment by tossing out the possibility that our brains are already split. If your brain demonstrates that it houses at least two separate centers of consciousness when it is surgically split, what's to say that these centers aren't separate when the brain is intact? What could be likely is that your feeling of self is in fact a conglomeration of many separate centers of consciousness blending together, overlapping and stepping aside in a dance just beyond your perception.

By far, the most entertaining segment is the one about spiritual gurus and the disastrous pitfalls of spiritual submission. Harris spends such a huge chunk of the book espousing the process of learning from a spiritual teacher that it's almost comical when he nearly goes Gallagher on the whole concept in a few easily-devoured pages. He pulls up just in time, with a healthy warning of vigilance, and the point is received. But I couldn't help but wonder how a follower would find a guru in the first place. Do they have Facebook pages? One story involved a group of people literally wandering around the mountains and caves in search of a teacher, but I can't imagine Sam himself used this method to find the many mentors he personally studied with. I guess you have to run in those circles.