Search This Blog

Monday, August 28, 2017

New Place

After nearly 29 years in the same home, I've moved. In order to make the transition a more positive experienced, I've splurged and rented a nice place for a year, after which I'll find something more permanent.

The following picture was taken yesterday at sunset from the deck off of my new living room.

As a bonus, and one of the reasons I rented this place is it's less than a mile from my younger daughter's high school. She's a senior and it'll make her commute really short - she can even walk in a pinch.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


"Homophobia" is an interesting word and in my opinion has evolved in a way that muddies the relationship in society between gays and non-gays. Let's start with phobia:

1.a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.
"Phobia" is derived from Phobos, the Greek god of fear, and virtually every phobia definition defines some fear. For example, acrophobia is "a pathological fear of heights," nothing more, nothing less.

But homophobia is doesn't fit the pattern:

1.unreasoning fear of or antipathy toward homosexuals and homosexuality.
Suddenly "antipathy" is added to "fear" and the British definition from the same page pushes it further: "intense hatred or fear of homosexuals or homosexuality" with "intense hatred" coming before "fear." It's probably not uncommon to hate that which one has a "pathological fear" of, but it's far from inherent and that brings me to today's story.

Once upon a time, long ago (summer of 1980) and far away (in Boston, Massachusetts), when I was still in college, I was invited to a party with free beer, and being a young college party animal, free beer was a huge draw. The party was thrown by the friend of a girl friend of one of my friends. That's pretty indirect, but there was free beer. The party thrower was one of five housemates. Two of the housemates were gay males, the other three were not and it was planned as a party mixing gays and non-gays with free beer. So, enticed by free beer, a group of seven of us decided to attend.

At the last minute, the three non-gay housemates pulled out of the party, making it a gay party. Or more accurately, a party with 80 gay guys and the seven of us non-gay, intrepid, free-beer seekers. Since we had absolutely nothing against gay guys, we decided to go anyway. Did I mention free beer?

We went to the party and we talked to various gay party goers for a while and we eventually retreated to hanging about the keg. The keg was at the edge of a dance area. As the party progressed, the gay guys started dancing and it was no big deal. Then they started slow dancing. Then, while slow dancing, they started kissing and grinding and fondling. And two guys at a time would head into a bathroom at the edge of the dance floor for a minute or two before emerging with smiles on their faces.

Suddenly, I had a overwhelming panic attack and found myself literally running out of that house. I couldn't stop to tell any of my friends I was leaving nor could I stop to say goodbye to the hosts and thank them for the free beer. There was no hate involved. There was simply overwhelming fear - in other words, a phobia.

I found what happened next quite interesting. There I was, quite surprised at my reaction. After all, I had intentionally gone to gay party because as far as I knew, I had no problem with any aspect of homosexuality. "All sex is good sex" had been one of my frequent (and apparently naive) sayings up until that point.

So there I was, miles from home, in the days before cell phones so I couldn't let anybody know that I left, my ride was still at the party and as a poor student I couldn't afford a taxi, so I was readying myself for a long walk home.

I looked up as I was getting ready to walk, and there were two of my friends on the sidewalk who had left the party before me. The same thing had happened to them - they had also completely freaked out and exited the party at a rapid pace without telling anyone else. We were trying to decide what to do when out of the door came two more of our friends with panicked expressions on their faces (it was comical) and fortunately one of them was our ride. We exchanged our embarrassing stories with lots of nervous laughter (ok, I'll admit it, we were giggling like junior high girls) and decided to do "rock, paper, scissors" to determine which two of us would somehow find our courage to go back inside to the "scary gay party" (yes, we knew how unbelievably ridiculous that sounds) to let the last two of our friends know that we were leaving and if they wanted a ride, now was the time to say goodbye to the free beer and the rest of the party. Fortunately, before we even finished "rock, paper, scissors" the last two friends exited the party. They weren't particularly panicked but admitted to "significant discomfort."

Seven out of seven.

Seven out of seven guys who intentionally went to a gay party because they were completely confident that homosexuality didn't bother them at all had negative reactions ranging from "significant discomfort" to complete panic. Maybe the two with merely "discomfort" wouldn't qualify as homophobic, but at least five of us were clearly homophobic. And this was a self-selected group that was willing to go to a gay party. Seven out of seven in this self-selected group indicates to me that our reaction isn't terribly unusual or abnormal. I believe that the majority of homophobia is simply like that which happened here.

There was no hate. None of us hated gays. I don't hate gays now. I just panic or feel fear when seeing gay physical intimacy. At this point, I've been sensitized, so I feel mild panic when I see a couple of guys with arms around each other or even holding hands. I realize that's totally my problem just like my fear of heights (which isn't quite a phobia - I go rock climbing for example) is my problem.

It's moderately popular among some groups to hate homophobics. They think that they're hating haters, an attitude which I think has some problems anyway because it legitimizes hate. But I'm not a hater and I have no more control over my reaction to homosexual physical intimacy than gays have control over being gay. Yet I'm supposed to support them, but they and their supporters are supposed to revile me. And when I tell this story to those that revile me and those like me, they simply call me a liar and continue their hate.

Ah well, nobody said life was fair.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Individual Versus Collective

When I was 16, I was a communist, or at least very impressed by communism (I never signed on to a communist party or organization). I still consider "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" to be the single most powerful non-religious idea of all time and it's very simple and easy to understand as well. Over time, as I observed the world, read more about economics and politics, and interacted with others who had communist leanings, I started to become disillusioned with it. In 1983, I visited Czechoslovakia and Hungary (while still communist), and my disillusionment became complete (the folks in those countries were clearly very, very miserable). Talking to socialists and seeing communism in action were great cures for any affinity I might have maintained for that ideology. It was both the utter lack of opportunity and the completely lack of freedom that I found overwhelmingly problematic. Marxist communism is a very powerful idea, but it turned out to be a powerfully bad idea.

Since then, I've been "libertarian leaning" as libertarianism directly addresses both the opportunity and freedom issues of communism. Over time, interacting with libertarians, for example at Cafe Hayek, my enthusiasm for the libertarian ideology has lessened. I've concluded that I'd probably like all of these ideologies a lot better if they didn't involve people - people just always ruin everything! :-)

Communism is a form of collectivism, where collectivism identifies the collective as the entity of primary importance and the individual having less importance and perhaps way, way, waaaaay less importance.

On the other hand, the libertarian holds the individual sacrosanct and the collective as non-existent other than a simple, but utterly unimportant, grouping of the individuals. Because of this, the State/government are considered to be necessary evils at best and more often as unnecessary evils foist upon the unsuspecting masses by corrupt and power hungry politicians and bureaucrats. From this perspective, most actions of the collective and State are held to be morally wrong. Since the individual is sacrosanct, anything he produces is his so taxation is theft or taxation is slavery. Almost all restrictions on individual behavior, for example trade, are considered abhorrent, leading to slogans like protectionism is robbery.

My flippant response to the libertarian slogans above is that if taxation is theft or slavery and protectionism is robbery, then theft, slavery and robbery must not be inherently immoral so I ought to start engaging in such practices more often. Slightly less flippant is that there's a reason we have separate words like "taxation"; trying to equate them with words whose definitions they possibly have something in common is, to me, an attempt at a sort of Orwellian double-plus-good libertarian Newspeak. I mean, okay, but just trying to redefine words isn't particularly convincing to me.

But it is partly a matter of perspective. If the individual is sacrosanct, then it does seem to lead to slogans like taxation is slavery.  Since such slogans seem absurd to me, I've concluded that the principle of the sacrosanct individual is also absurd.

My 17-year-old daughter is extremely tenderhearted - scarily so some days. For example, if she sees an ant walking across the counter, she'll catch it, bring it outside, and release it. I haven't had the heart to break it to her that an individual ant cannot survive (and certainly has no purpose) without access to its colony and by removing the ant from the ant trail it's on, it has been effectively removed from its colony and is a dead ant walking. I'm afraid if I tell her that, she'll stress out every time she sees an ant inside the house; she doesn't like bugs so she won't want to just let it be and she won't want to cause its death by removing it from its ant trail. Yup, life has many tough dilemmas.

An individual ant can't survive without its colony. Can an individual human survive without a collective? If you were dropped off in a random wilderness area with nothing (perhaps not even clothes) and you weren't allowed to interact with any other people or utilize anything made by anybody else, how long would you survive? Even if you had extensive survival training? How long until you cut yourself and the infection killed you? How long until something you drank or ate made you so sick that you died? How long until a series of storms caused hypothermia? Etc.?

Personally, I'd be dead in short order. I've done enough wilderness camping to know that even with modern gear, it's not trivial surviving for moderate to long periods of time. My guess is that maybe 1% of people could survive a year with training, maybe 1 in 1,000 could survive 10 years. Eventually, one of the many things that could go wrong would catch up to almost everybody. There's safety in numbers and there's support in numbers.

But now let's add the last wrinkle. Not only do you have to survive, but you have to have a mate and have at least two children and have the children survive until adulthood. Without any help from anybody else. Ever. All I can say is "good luck with that!"

In other words, just like an individual ant isn't really something independent, neither is an individual human. Humans evolved while being part of collectives (tribes in primitive times). Humans' ancestors evolved while being part of collectives (tribes and packs). A few humans might be able to survive as completely independent entities but it is, at best, not optimal.

Humans are more complicated than ants, and, as a result, our collectives can be much more flexible and varied than an ant colony. We can have tribes and nations and states and empires and commonwealths and subcultures and all kinds of political and economic structures and structures within structures and each individual can be part of numerous collectives and those collective can be overlapping. The possibilities are endless and dizzying. And fortunately, unlike the ant that can only belong to one specific collective, humans can, to some degree, pick and choose which collectives they wish to belong to.

We're all part of collectives. Within each of our collectives we are bound by loyalty, contract, agreement or something like that to others in the collective to some degree. By definition, we are "bound" by "bonds" and "bondage" is composed of a set of "bonds." Furthermore, "bondage" and "slavery" are very closely associated.

It's not taxation that's slavery, but rather the circumstances of human existence that requires us to be bound to others in what might actually be slavery (slavery/serfdom has been one of the most common forms of human existence for all of history and prehistory) or what in a free(ish) society might be termed co-slavery where we're bound to each other, where I own you (you have obligations to me) and you own me (I have obligations to you) though indirectly through the collective.

To me, this makes the collective primary and the individual secondary. My starting point is that the largest and most powerful collective of which we are part actually does completely own us and has the right to all of our output and the right to control each and every aspect of our behavior and lives. I'll get to why this isn't nearly as abhorrent as it sounds in a bit so please don't freak out quite yet. Well, you can freak out a little, but please keep reading. :-)

With the collective owning us, taxation is neither slavery (we're already owned by the collective) nor is it theft. In fact, what isn't taxed is basically given to us by the beneficence of the collective. Protectionism isn't robbery at all but rather some non-protected trade is allowed due to the kindness and lenience of the collective.

While I'm serious about taxation not being slavery using the logic above, I am kidding about the collective having "kindness" or other positive human attributes. A 300,000,000+ person collective cannot have human attributes such as kindness - at least not in any way that an individual human can understand.

But a collective does have one attribute that is understandable by humans - Will to Power.
Each form of life has a particular constitution, with its instincts having different strengths, such that certain conditions will favour its form of life. This brings different types of life into conflict with each other, as each wants different conditions to prevail: ‘life itself in its essence means appropriating, injuring, overpowering those who are foreign and weaker’ ... though this language suggests that such activity is immoral, when it is simply a function of being alive.
A collective is a life form, though not one comprehensible to the individuals who make up the collective (similar to a brain being incomprehensible to a neuron). Its "instincts" will push it to evolve in order to adapt so that "certain conditions will favour its form" enabling it to succeed at "overpowering those [collectives] who are ... weaker." There are some subtleties, but this is very similar to survival of the fittest applied to collectives instead of lifeforms as described by Nietzsche. In other words, collectives compete and evolve. This has certainly happened throughout history and isn't much of a surprise.

How does a collective succeed in surviving and exerting its Will to Power? How does it manage to fend off and even "overpower" competing collectives? Well, that's the rub. It depends on the collective and the environment within which the collective exists. Evolution doesn't have a direction but is really always co-evolution, with each entity evolving relative to the current state of all other entities. Even worse, except for some very small and very well defined collectives (for example, a company that operates a restaurant), the collective and the environment within which it operates has complexity far, far, far beyond the capability of human understanding.

The collective that we call the United States of America is one result of billions of years of biological evolution and tens of thousands of years of cultural and political evolution of homo sapiens in the context of uncountable events around the world and the context of its North American location. It could not have been designed by people and people could not have and can not, from a blank start, design anything better.

Given that I believe that the collective that is the United States owns us and has absolute power over us, why do we have any freedom at all? One answer is that while the collective owns us, we also own the collective and can therefore influence it. However, I don't think that's the main answer.

The main answer is simply that collectives with free(ish) individuals in today's global environment end up being the most powerful collectives. Across the globe, freedom and power per capita are closely related. Within limits, freeing individuals to do what they think best seems to allow for innovation and productivity and those two things are an important part of the basis of increasing power.

Our prosperity and our rights have evolved to this point primarily for that reason, in my opinion. Not because of some intangible moral arguments about peace and love and non-aggression and what's right and what's good. Not because the individual is sacrosanct or because of god given human rights. While there is feedback (the ideas had to come from interacting individuals) and it is a bit of a virtuous cycle, ultimately we have our rights and freedoms because they brought us power and those opposing collectives who didn't give those rights and freedoms to their members lost in the battle of Will to Power. Are there other factors? Of course, but I think this is a very important one.

For additional power and sustainability, should the collective allow more freedom or less freedom? More regulation or less regulation? More rights or fewer rights? I have my guesses but I don't really know and I think I'll leave those guesses for other posts.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Free Market Morality

In a column for The Stone ("[An NYT] forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless), philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan posed a set of questions for free-market moralists.

She prefaces them by juxtaposing John Rawls A Theory of Justice" against Robert Novick's subsequent Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

At the risk of doing unintentional violence to both arguments, here they are in summary:

Theory of Justice: Hypothesize an original position which requires devising principles of justice from behind a "veil of ignorance". That is, no foreknowledge of one's place in society. Because of that ignorance, subsequent principles anyone derives will be inherently fair, because the veil of ignorance prevent privileging any class of people.

Because there is no way of knowing a priori one's position in society, such principles of justice will recognize the risk of ending up badly on the other side of the veil: each member has an equal claim on societies goods; natural attributes, because they are down to luck, do not change this claim; therefore, the only allowable inequalities are those benefitting the worst-off members of society.

In reaction to Rawls, Novick argued for a minimal state (minarchist libertarianism) limited to protection of private property and mutual individual liberty. Such a state, by definition, could not extend to the sort of redistributionist policies inherent in Rawl's theory. According to Nozick, "[any distribution of wealth] is just if it arises from a prior just distribution by legitimate means". For our purposes, all voluntary exchanges, are, by definition, legitimate.

Consequently there is no a priori pattern (e.g., Marx's "from each according to ability, to each according to need") to which a just distribution will conform; whatever distribution results is just to the extent that it results from voluntary exchanges. Yes, there will be people who inherit wealth they didn't themselves earn, just as there will be those born into penury through no fault of their own, just as some will be born with more talent than others — which is really inheritance in a different form.

Moreover, because talents and motivations vary so much between people, no Rawlsian patterned principle of justice will persist without the state continually interfering in individual decisions.

Now, having walked the tightrope, probably falling off both sides, between tl;dr and summarizing Rawls and Nozick beyond recognition, here is the gist of Srinivasan's article: refuting Nozick through four questions:

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

I'm going with yes, yes, yes and yes, her ill-considered hypotheticals — which would be an insult to any serious forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless, although The Stone has never shown any sign of being such — notwithstanding.