Archive for the ‘life’ Category

My mother’s 100th birthday

November 18, 2020

My mother, Lotte Robinson, turned 100 on November 16, and I went to California for the party.

Lotte Dreyfuss was born in Nurnberg, Germany. Her father had taken a bullet for his country in WWI. The family was affluent and Jewish. In 1937 they sent Lotte safely to school in England; she arrived in the United States as a refugee on May 14, 1938. The rest of the family followed, though a grandmother died in a concentration camp. Lotte went on to marry and raise two children in the quintessential American way. Hitler’s dead 75 years, but Lotte is still here.

Lives in her own home (able to afford full-time care). Still has her marbles. Short term memory shot, but no dementia, and still a very positive attitude, constantly repeating how lucky she is. Though she’s been everywhere and seen everything, she’s the farthest thing from jaded. Her favorite words have always been Gorgeous, Marvelous, and Unbelievable.

Being in California less than 24 hours made my return less complicated, under New York’s travel restrictions. In two days I had six flights, stopping in four different cities (Detroit twice). But I reminded myself that the entire peregrination took less time than just getting home from Somaliland last December.

Flying over the vast American expanse, seeing it through an airplane window, has always inspired emotion. This time more than ever. Returning from my mother’s 100th; returning home to my beloved wife. And my dark anxiety for my country having lifted; it’s been saved, with my own proud participation. The whole world looks brighter. We still face grave problems, but help is on the way. Looking out that airplane window, my heart was full.

Normal People

November 15, 2020

Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People is about people. No subject fascinates us more. It’s why storytelling arose. Helping us understand the people we live among.

The novel challenges readers to understand its two chief characters. Are they the “normal people” of the title? Not exactly. In fact they themselves are prone to questioning whether they’re “normal people,” like others of their acquaintance. But what is “normal?” Everybody is different in their own ways. These two are different — but different within normal parameters.

The book follows them over four years, in high school and college, in contemporary Ireland. Connell is a footballer, social, popular with his friends, without much in the way of issues. Normal enough it seems. Until his entanglement with Marianne, who is more of a “case.” Very smart and a quintessential loner, she observes the social jockeying among her classmates with anthropological bemusement, content to hold herself apart. For that, they in turn consider her something of a freak.

Connell’s mother works as a sometime cleaner in Marianne’s more affluent home. That link leads to sex. But Connell dares not acknowledge their relationship openly, to protect his social standing. For a prom-like event, he asks a different girl. Marianne is hurt to an unexpected degree, beclouding her connection with Connell.

Yet it continues as he intentionally follows her to college. There Marianne, freed of her high school baggage, soon molts into not quite a wild party girl, but something in that direction. Now suddenly attractive to males, she finds she likes it, and uses it. She has a boyfriend. Connell has a girlfriend. But meantime their bond with each other endures and deepens.

Are they actually in love, after all? Not a simple question. Sometimes it is one, in human affairs, but often it’s more complicated. The book puts these two people’s feelings under a microscope. It’s not enough to just report what they do and say. There are underlying reasons, sometimes multiple and even conflicting reasons. Such nuances the author exquisitely, sometimes Proustianly, explores.

And where does it all end up? Just when the pair seem to have given in to the fact of their being inextricably together, it ends not with a bang but a whimper. That seemed very fitting. Ambiguity is not banished. Life can be like that.

In reading such a book, one seeks to better understand other people, but also oneself. Unsurprisingly it made me ponder upon my own ancient history in relation to the characters. I could identify somewhat with Marianne, except that the social business she consciously disdained was in fact completely invisible to me. Reading something like this makes me think — was all this kind of stuff really going on, all around me, during my school years, and I had no clue?

It still seems a miracle to me that I eventually grew into a husband and father. A normal person. In some ways at least.

My love for Trump supporters

November 7, 2020

We all have multiple allegiances. My central allegiance is to my species. Our great human project, since our dawn, has been to facilitate good rewarding lives, striving for fulfillment, surmounting the challenges of an uncaring cosmos.I’m part of that, thus inspiring a fundamental sense of affinity with everyone else. This is my love for people. Collectively and individually.

This fundamental truth overwhelms our differences, including particulars of what people think and believe. My entire life’s been lived among other people mostly holding profoundly different metaphysical ideas. Ones that, frankly, I might consider insane but for being so widely shared. Yet of course that doesn’t make me see them as bad people or enemies. We all struggle to understand our ineffable reality.

So too for Trump supporters, with beliefs repugnant to me. That doesn’t make them bad people either. Loving their families, supporting their friends, doing their jobs, fulfilling their responsibilities; all of us human beings just living our lives as best we can, taking part in the great human story. Trumpers too come under the umbrella of my love.

America has always been a wonderful place for humans living out that story. We have just been sorely tested; and as a people we passed with flying colors. But the country still now faces powerful challenges. One is how we can live together. We need for Trump supporters to join with us in the great work ahead.

The Black Swan

October 19, 2020

You get fed every day. All you can eat. Treated very nicely too. As such days go by, you grow ever more confident they will continue. Then comes Thanksgiving — and you are a turkey.

Or a sucker, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Like that turkey, we are all suckers of a sort in failing to anticipate the possibility of a dramatic discontinuity in our reality. What Taleb calls a “black swan.” We may believe all swans are white, until a black one comes along, blowing up that assumption.

The book is fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking. It was published in 2007, just before a big black swan, the financial crisis. And reading it in 2020 gave it special added force. The Trump presidency makes many of us feel like that turkey. And then of course the pandemic hit.

The book’s watchword is unpredictability. Taleb considers it an inherent characteristic of existence. Yet we go through life seeming to ignore that. Thinking we know what’s going on, when in a deep sense we do not. Taleb is from Lebanon, his perspective shaped by the trauma of its 1975-90 civil war — coming after a thousand years of sectarian comity, this unforeseen black swan utterly changed the country.

Taleb divides things between Mediocristan and Extremistan. In the former, as its name implies, matters cluster around a middle, dictated by averages, conforming to a bell curve. Take height for example. Outliers like three foot dwarves and seven foot basketballers exist but disappear into the average, hardly affecting it because of the vast numbers closer to the middle.

But while in Mediocristan you do get people 50% above average, for something like wealth the outliers are thousands of times higher, with big effects on the overall picture. That’s Extremistan. Taleb sees reality as more like Extremistan; yet again we behave largely as Mediocristanis.

Trump’s election prompted an avalanche of analysis. Seemingly a tectonic cataclysm, but remember it was extremely close. Had it tipped the other way, the after-talk would have been totally different. His 2020 defeat will be, in major part, attributable to the pandemic. But for that, history might be going in a very different direction.

However — those things are not in fact black swans as Taleb defines the term. (He’d actually call them gray swans.) His black swan is something not just unforeseen but unforeseeable (except in hindsight). Taleb says we retrospectively paste our explanations onto past events as though they were (or should, or could, have been) foreseeable. But history just doesn’t work that way.

Reality is complex to an extreme degree. To navigate it, one’s mind creates a representation of it that is perforce vastly oversimplified. I’m reminded here of “LaPlace’s demon,”  hypothetically knowing literally everything about the Universe at a given moment — what every particle is doing — enabling it to predict the next moment (and the next). Of course humans are way short of that. One of Taleb’s key points is insufficiency of information available to us. Especially what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns” — things we don’t realize we don’t know.

The book mentions the “butterfly effect” — a butterfly flapping its wings in China causing a storm in Kansas. I’m not sure that can ever literally happen, but the point is that a very small cause can trigger a very big effect. A black swan. Which we cannot foresee because we, unlike LaPlace’s demon, cannot assess every small thing happening in the world at a given moment. And, Taleb argues, the black swan’s disproportionately big impact renders what we do know about the world pretty much nugatory.

While most of us did not expect Trump’s presidency, we did at least see it as within the realm of possibility. And many voices had long been warning of a pandemic, someday, much like what we’ve got. It makes sense (though not to Trump) to prepare for such things. Los Angeles has preparations for an earthquake bound to happen someday. But in human psychology, “someday” is not an immediate concern, and for all practical purposes Angelenos live their lives in disregard of the earthquake threat. Just as we all did regarding the possibility of a pandemic. That’s actually not crazy.

Taleb is scathing about hosts of so-called experts, analysts, economists, etc., calling them frauds who are anchored in Mediocristan and oblivious toward Extremistan. Who don’t know what they don’t know. Taleb cites psychologist Philip Tetlock’s famous study of political and economic “experts,” analyzing their predictions compared against results. Their predictions stunk. And the bigger their reputations the worse they stunk. Taleb comments: “We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control.” I recall hearing one forecast Taleb would have applauded: a “psychic” who predicted “unpredictable weather!”

Taleb’s particular bête noir is the Gaussian bell curve, which he deems an artifact of Mediocristan with scant applicability to the real world. I disagree, considering the bell curve a useful conceptual tool for understanding. For example, regarding the mentioned distribution of heights. Though of course one has to know when not to apply a bell curve. A black swan can blow it up, as Taleb insists.

For the stock market, you might expect daily ups and downs to fall along a bell curve — that is, most clustering around the average daily change, with the more extreme moves growing in rarity as they grow in size. That would be Mediocristan. But again Taleb thinks that’s not reality. He presents an analysis showing that if you remove from a fifty year stock market chart the ten most extreme days, the total return falls by half.

Another point is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Taleb cites the story of the ancient philosopher (Epicurus) shown portraits of sailors who prayed to the gods and survived shipwrecks. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Of course those couldn’t testify about their experience. That’s absence of evidence, or what Taleb calls “silent evidence.”

So what should we do? Taleb says (his emphases) “the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that . . . . This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty. Much of my life is based on it.”

Reading this charitably, Taleb spent most of his life in financial markets, and that’s the context he’s mainly talking about. But as advice for life more generally — it’s insane.

One problem with his above quote is that if something really isunknown, you can’tguess its effect. But even in the realm of the knowable, myriad possibilities for disasters could conceivably strike us. We may not be able to gauge their probabilities with precision, but we can in fact know they are individually very small. A life spent trying to avoid every remote danger would be absurd. If you actually followed Taleb’s advice and focused on the potential (very large) impacts in disregard of their (very small) probabilities — you would never get out of bed in the morning.

No, we cannot know everything, and can be hit hard by things we couldn’t foresee. But we do the best we can. Evolution gave us minds — and psychologies — that, for all their undoubted limitations, are actually pretty darn good at equipping us to navigate through life and avoid pitfalls. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

Mortimer Adler: Ten Philosophical “Mistakes”

October 3, 2020

Mortimer Adler (1902-2001) was an American philosophy impresario. His shtick was promoting philosophy to the masses, at least the intelligent masses. I picked up his 1985 book Ten Philosophical Mistakes at a library sale, because it was there.

Philosophy is important, in two key respects. The first is understanding existence itself; the second is how should we live? Of course one can go through life without such pondering. Many do, untroubled. But it can help.

However, I am not a fan of “philosophy” as practiced by modern “philosophers,” mostly academics who write papers and books, likewise academic. Meaning that instead of tackling big questions, they go down rabbit holes of minutiae, unedifying to non-initiates.

I hoped Adler’s book on philosophical mistakes might aid my own thinking. It didn’t.

His relentless pounding the word “mistake” reminded me of how Stalinists applied it to ostensibly trifling ideological deviations made to seem so criminal the penalty could be death. (See also political correctness in today’s American universities.) You might imagine Adler is identifying real big bloopers. Instead most are subtle points that are at least arguable. Thus his castigating “mistakes” by thinkers like Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill (and others with multisyllabic names) felt overbearing.

He’s often attacking straw men. Example: Adler calls “mistaken” Hobbes’s idea of people in a “state of nature” agreeing to a social contract to resolve their predicament. Never happened, says Adler. Well, of course it didn’t. Hobbes was not writing history. He was instead seeking to elucidate the moral logic underpinning society.

Adler’s writing style doesn’t help. Actually, his book is painstakingly written to ensure every sentence says exactly what he means. But that very carefulness impedes communication. It felt stilted, abstruse, and opaque. Concrete examples would have aided intelligibility, but those are few. He often seems to dance around a point without ever grabbing it by the throat. Frequently it’s just hard to discern what the heck he’s talking about. This was a tedious read.

I will delve into just one of Adler’s disquisitions — one at least sufficiently clear that I feel able to.

This concerned Hume’s famous dictum that you can’t get an ought from an is. Or, how things arecannot tell us how they should be. Moral truths can’t be derived from any factual truths. “The Earth is round” is a provable statement of fact (notwithstanding dissent from latter-day flat earthers). “Murder is wrong,” in contrast, is an unprovable feeling or preference, no different really from a preference for chocolate.

This has vexed thinkers for centuries. We want there to be moral truths. Calling Hume mistaken, Adler seeks to find some premise that can be considered factual that can be parlayed into ethical facts.

He posits that what qualifies as a fact is something for which the contrary cannot be imagined as true. That is, a self-evident truth. His candidate is “right desire.” Which “consists in seeking what we ought to desire or seek.” But that, he says, “cannot simply be the good, for whatever we desire has the aspect of the good whether or not our desires are right or wrong.

That’s the kind of writing I found so maddening. Not to mention that saying we ought to desire that which we ought to desire seems a wee bit tautological.

Nevertheless — Adler goes on to distinguish between “natural desires” (“inherent in our nature” and thus the same in all humans) and “acquired desires” unique to each individual. That is, differentiating between “needs” and “wants.” Adler asserts that “[w]hatever we need is really good for us. There are no wrong needs. We never need anything to an excess that is really bad for us.” It’s only our “wants” that can go to an excess bad for us.

Excuse me? When an addict seeks a fix (concrete example), that may not be a “natural” need in Adler’s sense of human commonality, but for the addict it sure feels a lot like a need. A need “to an excess that is really bad for” him. On the other hand, “need” for sex certainly does meet Adler’s criterion for naturalness, but it’s clearly untrue that no one ever needs it to excess. All rendering problematic Adler’s dichotomy between needs and wants.

Nevertheless, it leads him to “the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire what is really good for us and nothing else (his emphasis).” This, he says, qualifies as self-evident.

And he does offer an example. “All human beings naturally desire or need knowledge (which is tantamount to saying that knowledge is really good for us) . . . we ought to seek or desire knowledge.” Extending this reasoning, he says, “can produce a whole set of of true prescriptive judgments.” And “solve all the problems that modern thought has posed [!]”

It’s not clear to me how this devolves from his dichotomy between “needs” and “wants.” The quotation above actually conflates the two. And it still seems fundamentally tautological — saying we should desire what’s desirable. Providing no guidance for determining what is good for us. Which is kind of central.

Take his own example of knowledge. In fact, saying all people “desire or need knowledge” is patently untrue. Lots of people positively shun knowledge lest it disturb cherished illusions.

Furthermore, Adler has, at best, offered only a partial solution to the is/ought problem. Addressing the aspect of moral philosophy concerning what’s good for oneself. But a big part of what we mean when we talk about “moral philosophy” is how we relate to others. That actually seems excluded by the “and nothing else” part of Adler’s formulation. Telling us to desire what we should desire is fine, albeit perhaps actually meaningless, but offers no help for when our desires conflict with those of others. A pretty large issue.

Hume was not “mistaken.” He was right that moral precepts cannot be facts in the “Earth is round” sense. But they don’t have to be, and I don’t think Hume was saying we’re morally at sea if they’re not. “Murder is wrong” is an opinion, but it is not a mere bald opinion, it is one premised upon a great deal of rational logic about how all people can, collectively, live the best lives possible.

The foundational premise for my own moral philosophy is that the only thing that ultimately matters is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. From this precept a full morality can indeed be derived. And it actually meets Adler’s criterion for a fact, since I cannot conceive of a refutation that makes any sense (correctly assuming there’s no god).

That’s my answer for the is/ought problem. Better, I think, than Adler’s.

The Ginsburg seat: into the abyss

September 19, 2020

We were already at Armageddon. Pandemic and economic collapse, schools closed, racial turmoil, and our political tribalism climaxing with the most divisive and consequential election ever, likely headed for a fought-over result.

And now this. Armageddon squared. Buckle your seatbelts, it will be hellacious.

Weeks ago I wrote a blog post hypothesizing Justice Ginsburg’s death just after a Trump election defeat — and suggesting nonviolent resistance to stop his nominee’s confirmation. But now Republicans can’t be stopped from ramming it through.

The religious right has fought forty years for this, and won’t be deterred from grabbing what’s probably their last nick-of-time opportunity. A Supreme Court majority ending the right to abortion. Which only a narrow minority of Americans actually supports. Such a ruling, in this febrile political climate, would be insanely divisive, shredding the Court’s already frayed legitimacy, and indeed that of our entire civic edifice.

They don’t care, obsessed with this one issue. Willing to burn the house down to get their way on it.

Trump’s likeliest court nominee is Amy Coney Barrett, who seems to feel her religious beliefs supersede the constitution and rule of law. Putting such a person on the Supreme Court is also insane. But why not go for broke?

Only 27 years ago Justice Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3. That was in a very different country. We’ve always had intense political battles, to be sure, but with all sides committed to bedrock democratic values. That meant accepting pluralism, recognizing opponents’ legitimacy. But Republicans have given up on that. Exploiting levers of power to illegitimately manipulate the system. Like trying to win elections by keeping as many citizens as possible from voting.

And seizing a Supreme Court majority to undo Roe v. Wade, likewise contravening the essence of democratic culture. Simply filling a vacancy might have been legitimate — except for their having previously stolen a seat by blocking Obama from filling it. Their dishonest pretext for that should apply equally to the present vacancy, but of course they’ll hypocritically compound the dishonesty by flouting their own precedent.

Pro-lifers rationalize all this as necessary to combat the supervening moral evil of abortion. But such ends-justify-means thinking is always morally fraught. While a rational analysis of the abortion issue makes it far from black-and-white. And ironically, a Guttmacher Institute study found no link between a state’s abortion restrictions and its abortion rate. A new factor here is increasing use of abortion pills, with no office visits. Probably making the anti-abortion crusade doomed anyway.

Meantime pro-lifers’ refusal to consider the consequences of their single-mindedness is itself profoundly immoral. Consequences like degrading our civic culture by putting a sociopath in the White House. Undermining America’s character as a democratic society founded on truth and reason. This has global impacts on human lives. Two hundred thousand of which — not embryos — have been lost so far in America’s Covid-19 disaster, most of them thanks to Trump being president.

Thanks to the so-called “pro-life” movement.

Rhapsody in Blue

September 17, 2020

I’m no music buff. But being human I enjoy music; mainly music inspiring positive emotion. Often supplying my own words to go with it.

I visit New York City for a yearly midtown event (pre-covid). And hurrying through the rumbustious streets of this city of cities, my inner ear always hears Rhapsody in Blue. Setting the experience to music.

What a pleasure to find in The Humanist magazine an article about Rhapsody by arts editor Daniel Thomas Moran. Discussing its 1924 composition by George Gershwin. But also its meaning. Moran beautifully expresses my own feelings evoked by this music.

It was a sound track for New York, but more, for all of America and what it represented. I can’t improve on Moran’s words:

“[I]t embodies all the hope and exuberance of America at its finest. It was the Jazz Age and the Industrial Age, and the time of an American artistic renaissance in culture and literature . . . .

“It was a time when all our best years seemed ahead of us, when the cauldron of culture and national identity and the embrace by all of that thing that we felt was American was at full boil, in full blossom.

“[W]hen we as a nation and a people seemed to be lifted skyward both literally and figuratively. We were strong and sure and passionate, inspiration was abundant, and we were willing to do the work and take all the risks.”

Yes, this is what I hear in the music. But notice that the foregoing is written in the past tense. That American spirit of Rhapsody in Blue did endure for several decades more — but then lost steam. And in the last few years has fallen off a cliff. Today the country’s psychic ethos is very different. No longer is Rhapsody the anthem of a vibrant American heart and soul. Instead we have the empty, truculent mockery of “Make America Great Again.”

Yet I will end with the words Moran did: “Even in the exuberant echoing vibrato of the opening notes, we can recognize the distant sounds of hope.”

Economics and sex

September 10, 2020

(NOTE: the following was actually written before the pandemic (I have a backlog). Question for discussion: how is this analysis altered, if at all, by the new economic environment created by the pandemic?)

I heard Professor Paul Hohenberg review Binyamin Applebaum’s book, The Economists’ Hour. That title plays off “The Children’s Hour” with a hint that economists don’t do much better. The book chronicles recent decades when they had much influence on policy. Hohenberg says two things ended that: the 2008 financial crisis, leaving economists with egg on their faces; and Trump’s election, blowing up the whole idea of relying on expertise.

Government used to be dominated by lawyers, Hohenberg noted. But that was when it didn’t do much. That changed with the Depression, WWII, and the rise of the welfare state, with government now seen as managing the economy.

The basic challenge there is stability. Its textbook is John Maynard Keynes’s 1936 opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Positing a tradeoff between unemployment and inflation. If unemployment is low, businesses must compete for staff, driving up wages, which must be recouped through raising prices — inflation. Which tends to feed on itself by shrinking the value of paychecks, driving workers to demand still higher pay. It was thought some optimal unemployment level would keep things in balance.

But the ’70s brought “stagflation,” high unemployment coupled with high inflation, breaking Keynes’s law. The explanation, Hohenberg says, was demographic. Baby Boomers reaching adulthood flooded the workforce. Also women, now much freer to work outside the home. These extra working hands produced much wealth and higher living standards, but the economy couldn’t create new jobs fast enough, hence high unemployment. While higher family incomes boosted consumer demand, pushing up inflation.

It took a serious recession to break stagflation, thanks to Fed Chief Volcker aggressively raising interest rates. Since then, the problem has actually been to get enough inflation to avoid deflation, a different economic curse.

Keynesianism also meant government stabilizing the economy through the stimulus of spending when it’s weak, borrowing the needed money, then reversing course when the economy is strong. Stimulus does seem to work, notably in 2009. But it’s unfortunately addictive, and politicians like to keep the spigot open even when the economy is booming.

Meantime the anti-Keynesian stagflation episode brought to the fore a different economic theory — monetarism, personified by Milton Friedman, arguing that it’s really through regulating the money supply that government controls economic ups and downs. But just as Keynesianism proved oversimplified, monetarism too is not the whole story.

There was also “supply-side” economics, touting tax cuts as stimulus, arguably engendering enough added economic activity that the cuts would actually pay for themselves. This has been widely derided. However, there ought to be some optimal level of taxation, enabling government to collect enough revenue while maximizing the economic activity that produces earnings to be taxed. Whether tax cuts “pay for themselves” probably depends on how they’re structured and who benefits.

With my bodyguards in Somaliland

Hohenberg also discussed free market fundamentalism, trying to limit regulation so that business and industry can just get on with wealth-creation. I have noted, apropos my Somaliland visit, how government’s scant regulation there actually leaves businesses vulnerable to predation and thus inhibits economic activity. Here again the issue really isn’t regulation versus no regulation. It’s having the right kind of regulation that protects the right things, thereby maximizing economic opportunities. But that’s hard to do, and government hasn’t proven very good at it.

Also a butt of ridicule is so-called “trickle down” economics. This relates to the cause du jour, inequality. There’s a notion of equalizing things by just taxing away the wealth of the rich. (Sanders says billionaires should not even exist.) It’s legitimate to have affluent people pay a greater share if government needs the money to fund what it does. Taxing them simply because some envious people feel they just have too much is not any kind of “justice,” social or otherwise.

Hohenberg observed that, ironically, economists get attention when there’s debate but not when there’s consensus. They almost unanimously support a carbon tax; politicians almost unanimously demur. And while practically all economists say trade is beneficial, few politicians have the courage to argue this, and so the public increasingly rejects it.

One audience questioner posited we should just seal America off from global trade and meet all our needs domestically. At least we’d all have jobs. Whereas trade leaves too many without — increasing our impoverishment, ever more Americans unable to afford all the goods being imported.

This idea is indeed commonly believed. But it’s quite false. As Hohenberg explained, the autarky envisioned by the questioner would send consumer prices through the roof; buying stuff cheaper from China than we can make it ourselves saves us money and thus enriches us. The savings we can spend buying other stuff we do make ourselves. It’s also untrue that the average American has been growing poorer. Average incomes have been rising, and trade plays a role in that.

And it’s also untrue that “we don’t make anything anymore.” We manufacture as much as ever, but can do so with ever less labor; it’s advancing technology and automation, far more than trade, that’s responsible for reduced manufacturing employment. But that increased productivity also makes us richer. It frees up labor to do other things, particularly in services, which consumers increasingly spend money on. There’s a notion that producing intangible services is somehow less real than manufactured goods. That’s yet another fallacy; people’s willingness to pay money for something decides its value.

And finally, what about the “sex” promised in my heading? This illustrates another concept of economics. Called “bait and switch.”

My beautiful birthday brunch buffet

September 8, 2020

I’ve always loved food buffets — being able to taste many different flavors. (Maybe my welcoming immigration is psychologically related.) One of the reasons I’ve so enjoyed cruises, with a buffet at every meal. Of course, that kind of experience has been unavailable for half a year. Indeed, I’ve lamented to my wife that food buffets may actually never return at all. Something I regard as a tragic loss to our quality of life.

Yesterday was my birthday, and she surprised me with: a brunch buffet! A lovely gourmet spread, with some of my favorites: olives, cheese, cherries, dates, cupcakes, pastries, banana bread, chocolate pudding, orange slices, and more. Everything absolutely delicious.

But not as delicious as she is — my best birthday present, every day.

“I’m not making this up” — Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits

September 3, 2020

This book was in my cupboard for years — okay, decades. I noticed it was published during the Reagan administration when I pulled it out and decided to read it, as a counterpoint to having just finished philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s The Power of Ideas. Dave Barry would have titled that book The Power of Boogers.

I say “cupboard” but it’s not a “board,” actually a bunch of boards assembled into what might more correctly be termed a cabinet. Nor has it any hooks to hang cups. What made me call it a “cupboard” in the first place puzzles me now, but never mind. It’s where I put volumes bought at used book sales on the deluded theory that I’ll someday read them. I also intend to sort my drawerful of assorted size screws someday.

Anyhow, the foregoing represents my lame attempt to capture the flavor of Dave Barry’s writing. He’s no Isaiah Berlin. But then, Isaiah Berlin was no Dave Barry either.

My local paper used to carry Barry’s humor column. His accompanying photo, with its ridiculous smirk, looking like he’d just swallowed a mouse and was about to burst out giggling, always said to me, “Seriously?” Regretfully, googling didn’t turn up that picture to show you.

This book, Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, begins with a chapter titled, “Why Humor is Funny.” (Berlin might have seen a tautology there.) The chapter is a probing disquisition exploring humor’s historical antecedents from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Woody Allen. I’m not making this up (as Barry himself would say). And it’s all contained within less than three pages. Of fairly large type, no less.

The best source for jokes, Barry asserts, is the Encyclopedia Britannica. No, really — its article on “Humor and Wit,” which he calls a “regular treasure trove of fun.” To substantiate this — well, actually to assure us he’s kidding — he quotes “a real corker.” Tell this joke at a dull party, Barry says, “and just watch as the other guests suddenly come to life and remember important dental appointments!” (Exclamation point in original.)

Here is the said joke:

“A masochist is a person who likes a cold shower in the morning, so he takes a hot one.”

Far be it from me to dispute Dave Barry on what’s funny or not, but I laughed out loud. In fact, the above is a conceptual mate to what is actually my own favorite joke:

Two guys in a bar start chatting. One confides, “I’m a masochist. I love pain and suffering.”

The other says, “Funny thing. I’m a sadist. I enjoy inflicting pain. In fact, I’ve got my basement all set up as a dungeon, with whips and everything.”

“What are we waiting for?” says the masochist.

So they go, he’s stripped to the waist, chained up to a post, and the other guy gets out this great big whip, and he’s cracking that whip, and cracking it, and cracking it.

“Well?” the masochist says impatiently. “Aren’t you going to whip me?”

And the sadist says, “No.”

We’re told that if you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. Jokes work through ironic confounding of expectations. Here, the sadist actually does inflict pain, by denying the masochist his heart’s desire; in the shower joke, the masochist does it to himself. But both jokes have a further layer. Denial of what the masochist craves makes him suffer. Yet isn’t suffering what he really wants after all? This raises deep philosophical questions about the meaning of suffering, and of happiness, that Isaiah Berlin might address.

But it is, admittedly, a weakness in both jokes that neither involves boogers.

Here is my second most favorite joke:

A bald man [note, this is an important detail; the joke is less funny if you’re not picturing the man as bald] walks into a doctor’s office with a frog atop his head.

“What seems to be the trouble?” the doctor asks.

And the frog says, “I have this man stuck to my ass.”

Do you see what I did there? Once again, jokes are about twisting expectations. Here of course one expected the man, not the frog, to answer. My drawing particular attention to the man’s baldness served to heighten that expectation. This is the difference between mere joke telling and comic genius.

But Dave Barry really is a comic genius. One of his chapters I found especially amusing told about a 452-page document printed under the auspices of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, with every single word crossed out. That by itself was not a laugh riot. We actually expect such absurdities in the realm of government. No, what really tickled my funny bone was that the document was on sale by the Government Printing Office, for $17 — and Barry related that 1800 copies were sold. For the record, that’s more copies than were sold of my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. Perhaps mine was less wonderful. Or perhaps my publisher missed a good thing by printing it with no words crossed out. Live and learn.

Being myself a person who has often written about religion, I thought I’d conclude with this trenchant observation from Dave: “The problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending sincerely religious people, and then they come after you with machetes.”

I’ve indeed experienced this.