Can money buy happiness?

February 14, 2016

UnknownMoney does buy a lot of things that enhance well-being; and many of life’s problems can be solved if you have enough money. But past that point, scientific evidence suggests, more money may not make you happier. (Though still the quality of life is better, and I’d rather be rich and miserable than poor and miserable.)

Some profess bafflement why people who have enough still want more. As if that were not fundamental to human nature. Yet wanting more is labeled “greed;” and wanting more, globally, in the form of economic growth, likewise gets tarred as a kind of greed. There are even those (like climate activist Bill McKibben) who deem economic growth a bad thing. But that’s supercilious in a world still far from the point where everyone has enough to live decently.* (And, no, redistributing all the wealth of the rich wouldn’t do it.)

It’s also argued that wealth inequality actually reduces everyone’s well-being. At least some wish that were so, to bolster their anti-wealth political agenda. But I doubt the rich are much perturbed by inequality. Indeed, there’s evidence that on average they’re stingier, less charitable, and just less nice. It’s not clear whether wealth makes one mean, or being mean helps make one richer. But either way, many (though not all) rich people feel superior and disdainful.

UnknownHowever, if lefties then arguably have a point that wealth tends to go to the “wrong” people, that seems to be a basic fact of human society that cannot be undone without destroying the sources of economic growth and progress – that is, people striving to better their personal situations – that have meantime made the world as a whole so much richer, especially in the last century, eliminating so much squalor and misery.

Getting back to happiness, what the word actually means is a big and difficult question. But people generally seem born with (or to develop) a set-point along the happiness/unhappiness spectrum, to which they tend to revert eventually after the impact of any vicissitude. One element of a happier personality is a sense of gratitude – not taking one’s blessings for granted.

images-1A related key reason why, beyond a certain point, added wealth doesn’t increase happiness is what social scientists call the “adaptation effect.” One adapts psychologically to a new higher living standard; the surprise wears off and the “new normal” becomes what you now expect and take for granted.

Also relevant here is a set of Kenyan socioeconomic experiments reported by The Economist. In small villages, sizable cash grants were given at random (echoing the typically unequal distribution of economic growth). Recipients’ feelings of well-being measurably rose. But for neighbors, they fell, by even more. (Though all these deviations wore off after a while; the adaptation effect.)

But notably, as The Economist explained, “it was not inequality in general that bothered the unlucky, so much as a decline in their own wealth relative to the mean.” That is, their sense of well-being was governed not by their absolute wealth levels but, rather, by the comparison against their peers. The cash grants raised a village’s average wealth, making the non-recipients poorer compared not just to the recipients but to the average.

images-2“Keeping up with the Joneses” is a very real psycho-social force. As The Economist further says, in evaluating one’s relative position one tends to look at those above rather than below; so, “when our own lot improves, we shift our reference group to those who are still better off. In other words, we are never satisfied, since we quickly become accustomed to our own achievements.” The adaptation effect again. “Perhaps that is what spurs people to earn more, and economies to grow.” (My emphasis.)

imagesConclusion: to keep people from getting rich would not be good for the poor, but bad.

 

Presidential politics: Republicans heading toward the abyss

February 10, 2016

UnknownWhat was supposed to happen was that Marco Rubio, surging with momentum out of Iowa, would do very well in New Hampshire, conceivably even winning; Bush, Christie and Kasich fall away so Rubio consolidates the backing of the sensible wing; while Trump and Cruz divide the wing-nut vote; Rubio gets the nomination; and defeats Hillary with all her baggage; making my November 12 prediction prescient.

Well, as Aristotle said, there’s many a slip between cup and lip. And on Saturday night I watched Marco Rubio blow the presidency in ten minutes. I sat there dumbfounded at maybe the worst debate performance I’d ever witnessed. I was frankly bitterly disappointed because I had a high opinion of Rubio, and really hoped after Iowa things would play out nicely as I described above.

imagesSo what we have now is Donald and the Seven Dwarves, more or less. We’ve already had the ridiculous spectacle of the gaggle of lower-polling candidates attacking and even running negative ads against each other, all struggling for the right to be the non-Trump, while Trump himself gets a free pass on the vilest candidacy in memory. It’s now altogether possible that Trump walks off with the nomination without winning more than about 35% of the vote in any primary.

Despite her predictable loss in New Hampshire, at the end of the day it still seems likely that Hillary will wind up as Democratic nominee. And so we could have a race between Hillary and Trump – incredibly, the two figures on the political scene with the highest negative poll ratings. Oy oy oy.

Unknown-1How could this happen? Well, democracy is messy. And there are no inevitabilities in history; contingency reigns supreme. It didn’t have to be this way. What people do matters and changes events. As Marco Rubio unfortunately demonstrated Saturday night.

Albany’s high school boondoggle

February 6, 2016

Last fall, a referendum in Albany on building literally the costliest high school on Earth, at $196 million, narrowly failed. Now, a revote is scheduled for Tuesday – low turnout guaranteed — on a new proposal scaled down to “only” $180 million.

Proposed

Proposed

We’re told the bulk of the money will come from the state, so it won’t cost local taxpayers all that much. But already the city’s budget has a big hole, sure to grow much larger because our landfill is almost full, presaging both loss of revenue and higher costs. Can this city afford a Taj Mahal high school?

Existing

Existing

We’re also told the existing school is in bad shape. OK, there are some problems, but I’ve been there, it’s not falling down. Is a building only forty years old really so wrecked that it’s a total loss, and can’t just be fixed up?

And where do they propose building the new one? Same site. Don’t worry, they say, the old one can be demolished while the new one is erected with minimal disruption for students. Yeah, right. Remember Boston’s “big dig?”

We’re told, too, that surely our kids deserve the best facilities we can provide. Yet given the parlous state of education, especially for minority and lower income students, to spend $180 million on a spiffy new building seems a colossal misallocation of resources. Is a dilapidated building the real problem? I don’t think so. I’ve been reading Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids, on the growing class divide between better educated and less educated Americans. He highlights myriad reasons why poor and minority kids finish high school (if they do finish) ill equipped for a hopeful future. But run-down school buildings are never mentioned.

imagesThe $180 million works out to something over $80,000 per existing high school student. Just imagine if that kind of money were spent instead on some sort of intensive program to actually help kids benefit from their education – like hiring a corps of life coaches/mentors/tutors/big brothers?

I know – if the new high school is voted down again, the money won’t instead be spent on things like that. More’s the pity. images-1Just shows the stagnant thinking that pervades the education establishment, that so poorly serves minority and disadvantaged people.

It’s not the building. It’s what happens inside.

The creation story: religion vs. science

February 2, 2016

Unknown-1The Judaeo-Christian creation story is pretty straightforward – God did it (don’t ask where he came from). Science says it was a Big Bang. Superficially the two may seem equivalent. However, science today has a great deal more to tell us about the Big Bang than simply that it banged.* And importantly, this isn’t just story telling like the Bible’s, but confirmed by empirical evidence. Science is not just another “faith.”

We know more about the Universe’s beginnings than the average person probably realizes. This includes a quite detailed nanosecond-by-nanosecond account of its event-filled first moments. One key issue is how it got so large if it started from a Big Bang – that is, from virtually zero size. There doesn’t seem to have been enough time.

imagesThe answer is inflation – a quick early burst of expansion at faster than light speed. Of course Einsteinian relativity says light speed can’t be exceeded. But that only applies to motion within space. Inflation expanded space itself.

This might sound like a “just so” story, invented (implausibly) to patch a hole in the Big Bang idea. Not so. Indeed, physicists have figured out why, given the conditions existing in that first nanosecond, inflation must have occurred.

The key is that gravity, normally a force of attraction, can also, in very special conditions, be the opposite: repulsive. And during that first nanosecond, conditions would have been chaotic. Specifically, the Higgs field would have undergone wildly fluctuating energy levels.

The Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider

(The Higgs field permeates everything; it’s the underlying substrate upon which matter and energy do their thing. Its reality was recently confirmed by the discovery of the Higgs particle, at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider.) It’s the Higgs field that can make gravity repulsive; and with all the fluctuations, at some sub-nanosecond it would have hit the sweet spot triggering repulsion. Then – whoosh! After blowing the Universe up to vast size, another Higgs fluctuation would have returned gravity to its normal functioning, slowing the expansion to a more stately pace.

The Universe’s expansion was discovered by astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 through careful observation that distant galaxies are all moving away from us. And it was realized that if that film is run backwards, the galaxies all crunch together – giving us the Big Bang. Until recently, it was assumed that gravity would cause the Universe’s expansion to continue slowing down. But then further careful observations revealed that expansion is now in fact accelerating.

Scientists hated this counter-intuitive finding, and tried hard to explain it away. But science is based on facts and evidence, not dogma, and acceleration was duly accepted.

images-1The acceleration began about midway in the Universe’s 13.7 billion year history. The cause is dark energy – so labeled because we don’t (yet) know exactly what it is. However, note that gravity’s strength is inversely proportional to the distance between objects; expansion increased that distance; until the push of dark energy became stronger than the diminishing pull of gravity, causing the slowing expansion to speed up.

Not only does all this jibe with the known laws of physics, and not only is it also confirmed by astronomical observations, but furthermore, the entire Big Bang/inflation schema is confirmed by data from the 1992 COBE satellite, which measured with incredible exactitude the temperature of the cosmic background radiation – literally, the radiation left over from the Big Bang. The overall reading, as well as the observed infinitesimal variations, agreed exactly – exactly – with Big Bang/inflationary cosmology. Bingo!

So, again, we know what happened all the way back to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. But we can’t get to Time Zero itself because there you encounter what physics calls a singularity, where its (thus far known) laws don’t work. Nor can we peek into the time before that – the very idea may be considered meaningless since Time itself began with the Big Bang. So we are left with the ultimate question: why and how did it bang? Why does the cosmos exist at all? Or, how can you get something from nothing?

images-2I’ve written about this before. In considering physicist Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing, I noted disputation from religious quarters over what “nothing” really means. Whereas Krauss talked about the Higgs energy field that exists even in a vacuum, the retort was to postulate a deeper nothingness, without that. Well, one can postulate that the moon is made of green cheese. We know it’s not, and we also know a Higgs field pervades everything – even “nothingness.”

This is crucial because it’s a good bet the Big Bang resulted from that field’s energy fluctuations. Quantum mechanics (a branch of physics) tells us that even if a field’s energy level at a given moment is zero (as “nothing” as you can get), it’s still subject to fluctuations around that value, so in the next moment may be other than zero.

This too has in fact been proven, in the laboratory. Physicist Hendrik Casimir figured out how to actually measure the effect, now called the Casimir Force. This confirms that even seeming nothingness hosts an energy field which may be zero but undergoes jittery quantum fluctuations around that value – and just such a fluctuation could quite plausibly have produced the Big Bang.

Untitled-1You may still prefer to believe the whole thing was the work of an imaginary quasi-anthropomorphic being. I prefer the adult version: reality, elucidated by science.

*I’ve been learning more about this from Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos.

 

Bloomberg on a white horse?

January 28, 2016

imagesMy political awakening was in 1964, backing Barry Goldwater. Some saw his nomination as politically suicidal – as Trump’s or Cruz’s would be. But Goldwater was a serious man, a principled candidate, a prophet before his time. Trump is a bomb-thrower.

images-2Indeed, his candidacy has no philosophical grounding. It’s all atmospherics, finger-shoving, and personality — an odious personality at that, which bizarrely seems to work to his advantage. He gets the jerk vote. There’s also the “successful, can-do businessman” thing. Which is bunkum too, as columnist Ross Douthat points out, envisioning an ad campaign savaging Trump’s wreckage-strewn business history.

images-1The left likes to link conservatism to fascism supposedly on the “right.” Yet fascism was really closer to communism or socialism, all of them centered on a domineering state – which true conservatives abhor. Trump is no conservative; and his campaign does have an unmistakable whiff of fascism. His chin-thrusting braggadocio evokes Mussolini, posturing as the strong leader who will sweep aside namby-pambies and set things right. He’ll deport all the illegals and build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He’ll make the trains run on time. (For the record, it’s a myth that Mussolini did that. Power and competence are two different things.)

images-4“Make America great again”? More like a banana republic.

Cruz is just about as bad, a smarmy con man. Maybe it’s no surprise that evangelicals taken in by preachers and a fairy tale man-in-the-sky would likewise fall for the political equivalent.

Unknown-1The angry old white man vote might carry the nomination, but not the country. Republicans went over a cliff with Goldwater, but at least he stood for something worthy. It seems nuts to go over the cliff for what juvenile jollies Trump provides. To nominate him is to elect Hillary. But (though I normally refrain from saying this of those I disagree with) rational thinking is no part of the Trump phenomenon. This is what you get from years of Republicans stoking anti-intellectualism and crude cultural resentments. It could destroy the party if an anti-Trump tsunami sweeps out its legislators too, handing control of gerrymandering to Democrats. The presidential electoral map already strongly favors them, and demographic trends do as well.

Part of the trouble is the sensible Republican vote being diluted among too many candidates. The party’s serious leaders need to unite behind just one – surely Marco Rubio. He would defeat Hillary, really a weak, damaged candidate, with all her baggage. But instead, regarding Trump, the Republican “establishment” now exhibits the classic stages of grief – it started with denial, and ends with acceptance.

images-3But what if – the nightmare scenario – both parties nominate unelectable candidates? I wrote long ago that Hillary could be felled from the left. All the energy is with Sanders. His taking both Iowa and New Hampshire might spike Hillary’s juggernaut. But while Democratic activists have veered sharply left, they’re deluded to imagine the country receptive to their message. This is still a center-right nation, leery of left-wing class warfare. In November, just one word – “socialist” – will sink Bernie, no matter his disingenuous attempts to redefine it.

The rise of ridiculous candidates like Trump and Sanders is symptomatic of America’s broken politics – dominated by fire-eaters of both left and right, neither grappling realistically with our challenges, let alone coming together to tackle them. This, and its disheartening results, is what makes voters susceptible to the likes of a Trump. I have long argued that a possible way out of this mess might be via a centrist third party candidate, of serious stature, well-funded, talking sense to voters as adults, and calling out both major parties for their dysfunctionality.*

Unknown-2Reportedly Michael Bloomberg is considering it. Conventional wisdom says it’s doomed. But remember Perot in 1992, a somewhat similar though deeply flawed candidate, who nevertheless got 19% of the vote – and a three-way race could be won with 35%. We’re also told Bloomberg couldn’t win because he’s pro-choice and anti-gun – though just such a candidate actually did win the last two elections. Bloomberg is imperfect in other ways, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. I’d gladly support him. And whereas Perot contended against two plausible candidates (Bush 41 & Bill Clinton), Bloomberg would be far stronger vis-a-vis a Hobson’s choice of Bernie versus Trump.

This rational optimist wants to believe, like David Brooks in his latest column, that our great country will, at the end of the day, never elect a Trump, Cruz, or Sanders. It’s customary to genuflect at the ultimate wisdom of the electorate. But voters in other countries have made some pretty horrible mistakes. America is not necessarily immune from this pitfall of democracy. Trump too could win a three-way race with only 35%.

* See my own presidential announcement speech; click here. Alas, I did not get a groundswell of support.

Grannies killed by college exams

January 24, 2016

imagesIt’s true. College exams are deadly for students’ grandmothers. A study determined that granny death rates spike tenfold before a midterm, and nineteen times before a final exam. One theory is that grannies’ health is undermined by anxiety and stress when their grandchildren face exams. Indeed, the study found that failing students are fifty times likelier to lose a grandmother in the run-up to an exam, compared to non-failing students.

This is reported in Dan Ariely’s book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke.

images-3But seriously, what’s really going on is that students commonly make up grandmother deaths as a pretext for requesting exam postponements. Shocking.

The book’s main theme is that we all lie and cheat. But that doesn’t make us sociopaths. In fact, we tend to lie and cheat only so much that we can still look in the mirror and see an honest ethical person. We sometimes lie to ourselves.

UnknownAriely invokes numerous laboratory experiments. In a typical case, test subjects are asked to solve a set of puzzles within a time limit, earning a payment for each one solved. But on an honor system: they self-report their performance. Most fudge it upward, but only by a little.

images-1I found much of this suspiciously artificial and unlike real life. In another example, people were asked to gauge whether more dots appeared to the right or left of a line. Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes not. But when told they’d be paid substantially more for saying “right” than “left,” the answers skewed rightward. This Ariely called dishonesty. I disagree. If told I’d be paid more simply for saying “right” rather than “left,” I’d shrug and say “right” every time. That’s just a rational response to the rules.

Perhaps I’m quibbling. But most of Ariely’s lab tests entailed honesty along a gradient, falling in shades of gray. Whereas in everyday life ethical questions are often either-or. For instance, in my coin business, I normally send out orders before payment. Perhaps if, Ariely lab style, customers calculated their own bills, there might be some fudging. But when it’s just paying versus not paying, over 99% pay. Some even correct errors made in their favor.

This bespeaks honesty of a high order. Maybe my customers are not a representative cross-section, but I don’t think collectively they’re that unusual. Nor is my business. Most of the world’s commerce proceeds on a basis of mutual trust between trading partners; it’s our default assumption. Unknown-1I once got an e-mail from a stranger in Africa selling coins. I gave him a substantial order. He didn’t know me, but assumed that an American businessperson would likely pay. And I did pay him after receiving the package. That’s how it works.

This basic level of trust is a fundamental underpinning of civilization. Of course we know we must watch out for violators; we lock our doors. Yet still you assume the average person whose paths you cross won’t bash your head in and grab your stuff. Or that a store won’t sell you defective goods. And so forth. Otherwise civilization could not function.

A recent poll found a significant decline in the percentage agreeing that most people are trustworthy. There’s no evidence we’ve actually become less trustworthy – only that we think people have. images-2Ariely seems to, pointing to scandals like Enron. But were businesses more ethical in bygone times? I doubt it; indeed, it’s harder to get away with scams in today’s interconnected media world of constant scrutiny and exposure. Yet that parade of exposures – Volkswagen is a recent example – does make people believe misfeasance has become rampant, compared to a romanticized past. I also suspect that decreased face-to-face personal interactions undermines our acculturation to the idea that people are generally trustworthy. But if that makes us less trusting, the decline in perceived trustworthiness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Joe Krausman, Monkeyshines, and heightism

January 20, 2016

UnknownMy friend Joe Krausman is a truly amazing fellow. Everywhere I go – whether it’s a lecture, open mic, party, whatever – Joe is there. Maybe he’s stalking me. But, among his many talents and accomplishments, he’s a very droll poet. Now he’s finally got a little book of poems, titled Monkeyshines.* It’s great.

One poem I particularly enjoyed features a hypothetical, enticing personal ad:

ATTRACTIVE VIBRANT ENGLISH PROFESSOR, 35, INTERESTED IN
CANDLE LIGHT DINNERS, BICYCLING, GOOD BOOKS, SEEKING TALL
GOOD LOOKING PROFESSIONAL, FINANCIALLY SECURE, UNDER 40 . . .

images-1The poem goes on to lament all the ways in which its author (Joe) would fail to make the cut – height being one of them. I myself had noticed, back when I was working personal ads, that women do often toss in that word “tall,” perhaps almost unthinkingly.

I’m 5’4” but shortness doesn’t actually figure in my self perception; I’m surprised when anyone else sees me that way. Like the law professor who began a letter of recommendation saying, “Frank is a little bit of a guy, but . . . .” That seemed bizarre to me.

Nevertheless, when dating, I couldn’t avoid being aware of the height factor. Most women want it. Or believe they should. Even short women. Men below a certain height tend to be sexually invisible to them.

Unknown-3This is a product of biological evolution. Throughout our long prehistory, bigger really did mean fitter; a bigger man could better protect a woman from marauders. That preference got coded into our genes. That’s why, even absent any marauders today, short men still get short shrift.

Gals wouldn’t always put it baldly in a personal ad, yet still it lurked. One who didn’t use the T-word in her ad nevertheless ended what had seemed a very simpatico date with, “Well, I’m really looking for someone taller.”

But this is not just about sex. That evolutionary history favoring height also affects men’s attitudes. They too have an unconscious heightism. A taller man is imagined to be an abler man. So, while I did alright in my professional life, I can’t help wondering how my career path might have differed had I not been seen as “a little bit of a guy, but . . . .”

Unknown-1Our society is much concerned about racism, sexism, discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation, you name it; even fat people are recognized as victims of bias. But even here short men** are disregarded. We can’t get any respect even in the victimhood game.

Anyhow, Joe’s poem contains another personal ad, more promising for guys like him, yet in some elusive way perhaps less alluring:

FRUMPY WOMAN, GOES SHOPPING WITH CURLERS IN HER HAIR,
TENDS TO PUT ON WEIGHT WHEN BREATHING, INTERESTED IN
WATCHING DAYTIME TV, LOOKING FOR SHORT MAN TO ANNOY.

Unknown-4*Published by Rootdrinker Institute’s Benevolent Bird Press. (Their website is unfortunately not kept up to date!)

** “Vertically challenged” is, I believe, the politically correct term.

The angry, illiberal left and right, and the silent majority

January 15, 2016

UnknownOur politics is riven between a left whose anger is largely economic and a right whose is largely cultural. Both are illiberal in the classical sense.

Classical liberal philosophy (not modern American “liberalism”) stressed the worth of the individual, and human flourishing through openness and freedom to follow one’s own path. imagesToday’s American right and left both are hostile to that sort of openness. The left always liked big government telling people what to do, and now wants to close us off from a global economy seen as threatening; and to close off debate by delegitimizing opposing viewpoints. The right wants to close off America from immigrants, “the other,” and from cultural evolution.

UnknownThe latest example of the intolerant left’s allergy toward openness is the movement for campus “safety” – that is, making students “safe” from ideas they might supposedly find unsettling. What a travesty of what a university should be. They prattle about “diversity” yet hate the kind that really matters – diversity of opinion.

The right, or conservatism, used to stand for basically classical liberal ideas, aimed at opportunity for all people. But the perversion of those ideals is epitomized by far the vilest presidential candidate in memory. “He says what he thinks, what others won’t say.” Well, that’s because it’s rancid.

images-3Republicans, for decades, frankly exploited base cultural resentments to get votes and hence the power to promote their worthier policies. But that created a monster that’s now swallowing the GOP. The yahoos it coddled are taking over the party with ugly, disgraceful policies. For all today’s mantra-like invocation of the word “conservative,” this isn’t any kind of principled conservatism – or Republicanism – that this child of ’64 can recognize.

If ever there was a time for “the silent majority,” this is it. I still do not believe the shrill bigots of today’s right and left together represent America. They’re just louder, drowning out more temperate voices; and that turns off the reasonable people toward politics altogether. images-4I myself feel, politically, like my namesake Robinson Crusoe, marooned on deserted island. Yet I will continue to argue for what I consider to be genuinely liberal, humanistic ideas, and against the illiberalism of both left and right.

Regulation, poverty, and hot sex

January 9, 2016

imagesTacna is an industrial park set up by Peru’s government. It even offers exemption from corporate income tax. Yet Tacna stands empty. Why? Because of the red tape for setting up there.

I read this recently in The Economist, discussing Latin America’s economic stagnation. The article also mentions that to build a gas pipeline in Peru requires 4,102 separate permits.

We constantly hear about world poverty and inequality, and remedies as economically clueless as they are radical. But the more I learn how the world actually works, the larger looms the unsexy yet critical issue of excessive regulation.

UnknownFirst of all, “unfettered capitalism” is a straw-man caricature. Nobody believes business should have no restraints. Just as individuals are subject to societal laws, against littering and murder, to protect us all, so too for businesses.

But that actually concerns only a tiny fraction of business regulations. They have a natural tendency to metastasize, with the idea that if a little regulation is good, more is better. Unknown-1Thus we get OSHA regulating how many inches apart a ladder’s rungs must be.

There is a psychology that fears and hates life’s uncertainty and disorder, imagining they can be controlled with sufficient regulation. And believes “society” somehow knows better than individuals and should supplant their decisions and choices, putatively to make a more orderly world.

But there’s a huge downside. Like in Peru’s case, all this regulation stifles economic activity. My local newspaper, the Times-Union, recently had a piece very revealing about how New York’s governmental regulation impedes would-be small business entrepreneurs.

Over-regulation is much worse in many other countries, especially – seemingly counter-intuitively – poorer ones, making it difficult if not impossible to do business. Many have sought to emulate the rich nations in establishing elaborate bureaucratic rule-books, indeed outdoing them in an orgy of regulation for regulation’s sake.

images-1You think I exaggerate. But look at Peru; Nigeria; Egypt. India is the standout poster boy, with a jungle of nonsensical rules (the “License Raj”), many actually the product of an anti-business mentality. For example, that same Economist issue elsewhere mentions an Indian law banning storage of large quantities of various commodities – supposedly to deter “hoarding.” It actually deters investment in warehouses and cold storage, so much farm produce just rots (in the land with the most malnourished people on Earth).

images-2Also, some poor countries intentionally create a morass of fiddly rules to give officials opportunities to extort bribes to bend or overlook those rules. Or else rules may be well intentioned but fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. Many nations (especially in Europe) have regulations making it difficult and costly to fire employees. The aim is job security. But the result is unemployment because businesses become reluctant to hire people in the first place.

In many places it’s so difficult and costly to comply with all the nitpicking regulations that businesses just give up and operate, if at all, in the black market – limiting their access to finance and growth, and of course neutering the consumer safeguards regulation ought ideally to provide. No way to run an economy.

If you have scant sympathy for the businessmen stymied by over-regulation, consider all the jobs that might otherwise be created. And how much regulatory costs add to the prices of goods and services purchased by the poor. images-3Those prices are also inflated by lack of business competition – another true aim of much regulation, at the behest of politically powerful firms. (Taxi companies worldwide are mobiilizing to squelch the competitive threat of Uber – often by means of regulation.)

Bottom line: over-regulation hurts the poor. It limits their opportunities to rise to better lives through honest toil and commerce, and aggravates inequality. This is a bigger issue than anything in Piketty.

The world (and especially its poorest) would – literally – be better off with no regulation of business (apart from obvious criminality like fraud). Wouldn’t many people be harmed? Certainly. But that would be vastly outweighed by the benefits of more jobs, lower prices, more goods produced more cheaply and more consumption, thus overall greater economic growth.

images-4This isn’t just theoretical. I give you China – despite its “Communist” label (and authoritarianism), China in fact is the closest thing in the world to that mythical creature, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” It’s a wild west where private business is just about not regulated at all. Yes, there have been some scandals. But China’s average real-dollar per-person income has soared, since 1979, more than THIRTY-FOLD – over 3000%. Human betterment on a vast scale, unprecedented in history, with hundreds of millions rising out of poverty. That’s what you get with no business regulation.

So what about the “hot sex” of my title? Well, no one (few anyway) would read something prosaically titled “Regulation and poverty.”

What do we live for?

January 3, 2016

“God, make me chaste – but not yet.”

Augustine

Augustine

That was Saint Augustine, famously wrestling between his worldly desires and desire for holiness. He’s profiled in David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character.

Brooks’s theme is that a truly good life requires controlling, even sacrificing, personal desires — but it’s an advantageous trade-off. This is what Augustine struggled over. He knew his pursuit of worldly success, pleasures, sex, wasn’t making him happy. But could he change?

Brooks profiles people he feels did resolve the dilemma and hence did live good lives.

Marshall

Marshall

George Marshall, for example, a model of soldierly devotion to duty and country. In WWII, Marshall ached to lead the D-Day invasion, and believed he’d earned the prize. But he forbade himself from ever putting personal desires first, and when FDR asked him point blank if he wanted it, Marshall could not utter the word “yes.” So it went to Eisenhower.

Eisenhower too is profiled in the book, along with Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, George Eliot, Frances Perkins, and Samuel Johnson; all certainly admirable characters. Each made sacrifices for the sake of a higher good, exercising self-control over personal impulses which might have entailed transient rewards but which conflicted with larger goals. The key is understanding what is really important, and the strength of will to put that first.

This again was Augustine’s struggle. But, unlike the others profiled, his greater good was not to achieve something in the human realm. While Ike and Marshall served their country, Randolph the cause of equality, Day and Perkins the downtrodden, etc., for Augustine it was God. It was to get right with God that Augustine finally summoned the will to reorder his life.

The others were serving something real; Augustine, something imaginary. So what is the moral lesson there? Brooks’s chapter on Augustine is all theological mumbo-jumbo, convoluted and false; indeed, absurd. You cannot live a truly meaningful life if the whole thing is grounded in delusion. Only when you overcome false ideas about existence, and grapple with the world as it really is, can you live a life of authentic meaning and virtue.

Unknown-4In concluding his chapter on Augustine, Brooks speaks of “faith against pure rationalism.” Mark Twain defined faith as believing what you know ain’t so. My rationalism isn’t “pure,” since humans are imperfect. But we must try.

Brooks talks of a broad cultural shift from an ethos of “moral realism,” controlling the self in service to some larger good (a la Marshall) to one of self-actualization, “be all you can be,” or condensed to “the big Me.” imagesAnd like others who put things in such terms, Brooks is censorious, albeit mildly; he thinks the shift has gone too far, and we’re losing a deeper kind of virtue.

Here’s my take. For most of human history, conditions of life were unforgivingly harsh, such that Brooksian “moral realism” was not just a virtue but a necessity. Of course selfishness and greed always operated too, yet survival required individuals to conform to societal strictures. That’s what has changed. No longer will a little free-spirited self-indulgence throw us back to living in caves. Modern advanced societies have at last mastered the problem of subsistence, freeing us to seek personal fulfillment in whatever ways feel nourishing to us, without having to be George Marshall about it.

Most of us still do try to serve others, and a larger good. But it’s not the only way to live meaningfully. In a utilitarian calculus of increasing the world’s sum total of human happiness, seeing to your own needs and desires is at least equal in importance to worrying about someone else’s. Indeed, you have a special duty to yourself, and you are the one person best positioned to know what’s good for you.

As Garrison Keillor has said, if one’s purpose in life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others?

UnknownIn his summing up, Brooks’s point number one is: “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” But the explanatory paragraph actually says nothing of God, it’s about moral ambition. If we live for such “holiness,” why so? Ultimately it’s always about personal fulfillment – doing that which makes us feel good. The ascetic starving himself in a cave does it because, on a level most important to him, the suffering makes him feel good about himself. “Happiness” is a suitable word for this concept. It is what everyone lives for.


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