Gongol.com Archives: June 2022
June 1, 2022
"Americans learn only from catastrophes and not from experience." A more suitable observation on the contemporary world would be hard to find. Yet those are the 109-year-old words of Theodore Roosevelt. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. ■ When competitions arise in most areas of life, the safest wager is not necessarily on the side with the most resources or the best starting position, but rather with the side that learns fastest. The failure to aggregate information, to learn from mistakes, and to adapt to threats and opportunities alike is the surest way to turn a position of strength into a pile of failure. Examples range from the Allied victory in World War II to the triumphant rise of Japanese automakers (after a much-delayed start). To learn quickly and deliberately is a virtue. ■ But learning without having to be compelled by disaster is also a virtue. It requires both humility and initiative to look at the way things are done and ask, "What are we missing? What should we improve? What holds us back?" ■ Too often, we really do wait for catastrophe: A pandemic, a barbaric war of aggression, a murder in an elementary school. When we wait to learn from disaster, too often we depend upon emotions to carry the day -- motivating us to respond, then providing the sustaining motivation to keep going until something productive is done. ■ We would be much wiser to learn not by waiting for catastrophe to come knocking, but to perform the kind of honest self-criticism that says we can do better without having a fire lit beneath us. Teddy Roosevelt was also fond of the aphorism, "Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are." ■ That is both rational and optimistic advice. While it seems like it sets a ceiling on what should be expected of people (that is, we should not be expected to act as superhumans beyond our capacities and resources), it can equally be read as an admonition not to sit around waiting to learn from catastrophe. The verb is "do", not "wait". The real measure of who we are as a society comes not from how we respond when things go terribly wrong, but from how hard we try to learn when everything looks like it's going right.
June 4, 2022
June 4th means something to us all
Every June, everyone who has the freedom to do so should watch the riveting documentary "The Tank Man". It is not only one of the best stand-alone episodes of "Frontline" ever broadcast, it is an exceptional reminder of two powerful forces that shape the modern world. ■ The first is the shocking lengths to which authoritarians and their hangers-on will go to hold power over other people. "The Tank Man" documents the extraordinary measures used by the Chinese government to expel pro-democracy protesters from Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Thousands of people were killed, according to the secret estimates of China's own government. ■ And nothing has really changed in the more than 30 years since: 1.4 billion people still live under a wretched Communist regime that tolerates no meaningful dissent, no real competition for the consent of the governed, and no real individual liberty -- even for those who live abroad. The regime controls through fear, not through the willful choice of the people. ■ Yet the second force of which we are reminded by "The Tank Man" is human nature knows it is meant to be free. Liberty isn't an artificial construct; it is the natural order of things, and any system that uses might to interfere with the expression of liberty is inherently wrong. Individual liberty must be well-ordered, of course, because to leave things to a free-for-all would invariably lead to anarchy -- which in turn leads to the imposition of power by force. ■ But with the supporting help of the rule of law, the fundamental and natural longing for liberty results in the dignity of the individual. Even today, that remains a force so powerful that the Chinese regime cannot even tolerate a candlelight vigil in memory of lives lost 33 years ago. Thousands of lives, symbolized awe-inspiringly by one individual who stood in the way of a tank and whose personal fate remains a mystery. ■ That one "tank man" is all humankind. No matter how hard authoritarians try to quash dissent and hide the truth, every human heart knows the truth -- that freedom is its birthright and its dignity cannot be rightly denied.
June 5, 2022
It takes a lot of guts to speak out against a political regime that is notorious for dispatching its dissidents and sending activists to prison, so surely it must have taken some fortitude for Boris Bondarev to have resigned his post at the Russian mission to the United Nations in Geneva with an open letter condemning "the aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine". ■ Acts of dignified behavior in the face of meaningful personal or reputational risk are worth praising. We ought to praise them in real-time, and we ought to continue to praise them long after the fact. The memory of honorable acts in the past -- like attorney Joseph Welch eviscerating Senator Joe McCarthy with his legendary demand, "Have you no sense of decency?", or of Dwight Eisenhower's insistence that any failure on D-Day was his responsibility alone -- reassures people in the present that taking the honorable path will earn them the right place in history. ■ This perspective on honor is different from silly codes of honor like the one that gave dueling a place in history (and prematurely deprived the young United States of the benefit of the counsel of Alexander Hamilton before he had even reached the age of 50). ■ Honor is earned in the present, but an honorable reputation often doesn't truly pay off until long after death. We revere Abraham Lincoln in the present, but nearly 45% of the popular vote went against him in 1864. Tens of thousands of people are remembered today as the Righteous Among Nations for saving lives during the Holocaust, but many were themselves imprisoned or executed for their acts. ■ That is why we have to learn thoroughly and expansively about history, paying special attention to commemorate the honorable acts that weren't rewarded in their own times. Likewise, we should curse (and conscribe to the dustbin of history) the names of those who sought power or praise in their day by committing sinful acts against others -- Che Guevara, for instance, was a torturer who belongs anywhere but on a t-shirt. ■ But it also means that as we learn from history, we ought to highlight the honorable acts we see in the present. And using a worldwide platform to speak against an unjustifiable war is just such an act of real honor.
June 6, 2022
What's in a lofty name for a hamlet?
When the Internet was new, a sort of digital gold rush took place as companies and individuals raced to stake their claims to single-word domain names. The sagas that unfolded around self-explanatory names like Pets.com were often legendary, and the mad rush also explains why we still misspell an unfathomably large number (googol) to find most of the world's search results. (And, to be fair, Google remains a better name than BackRub.) ■ The thing about domain names, though, is that they are transferable. People have made lots of money through domain squatting or simply capturing clever names before they occur to others, then putting up a "for sale" sign. ■ That .com land rush had a predecessor that doesn't often come to modern attention, though perhaps it should: The far more permanent choice of a municipal name. ■ It should come as no surprise that almost a hundred places in the United States adopted some version of the name "Washington". There are plenty of other well-worn aspirational names, too, like Springfield, Fairview, and Newport. ■ For obvious reasons, a municipal name can only be used once in any state -- so claiming a good name for a town is a lot like snapping up an attractive domain name ending in ".com", rather than one of the lesser top-level domains. And yet, there seems to be very little connection between the aspirational quality of a name and the ultimate disposition of the city. Most of the largest American cities arrived at their names organically (that is, from local geographic place names) rather than through what would sound good to newcomers. ■ Perhaps that is too bad. The USGS says, for instance, that 167 American places take some version of the name "Seneca" -- a worthy choice, especially if it encourages residents to emulate Lucius Seneca (author of such wisdom as "You should close your ears against evil talk, and right at the outset, too; for when such talk has gained an entrance and the words are admitted and are in our minds, they become more shameless"). Yet no single town named for Seneca has more than 9,000 residents. The aspirational name seems not to have paid off. ■ While municipal names can be changed, they certainly aren't traded as easily as domain names. So while certain errors and unfulfilled ambitions of the early dot-com era have been rectified with time, the same can't be said of places that gave themselves names that stirred the hearts of civic boosters but never lived up to their promise. Most probably never will -- but then again, there may be those who simply reply, "Not just yet".
June 7, 2022
News reports periodically cover protests in which an assembled crowd chants "This is what democracy looks like". While a street protest is indeed an expression of the democratic right to peaceable assembly enshrined in the First Amendment, a protest isn't really what democracy looks like. It actually looks a great deal like the humble "I Voted" sticker. ■ When one pauses to consider the long and sometimes perilous path to universal adult suffrage in America, that sticker means quite a lot. It stands in for immeasurable persistence extracted in literal blood, toil, tears, and sweat. And it stands in for extraordinary sacrifices made to preserve a world that is safe for the rule of law by the consent of the governed. The right to vote still isn't universal everywhere. ■ The "I Voted" sticker, though humble, is perhaps the perfect useful metaphor: It is useful because it serves as a reminder to others to do their civic duty and vote. But it is metaphorical because it lasts only a short while and must be renewed quickly with yet another vote at the next election. ■ Some people prefer to show off their civic participation with ballot selfies, but we ought to treat those as a taboo, even if they are legal in some jurisdictions. At the heart of what a democracy really looks like is the notion of individual discretion -- uncoerced and entirely private. It may seem innocent to take a photo with one's completed ballot, but that act of self-expression can also be drafted into use as a tool of extortion. ■ It is impossible to know for certain whether a ballot selfie has been taken out of voter enthusiasm -- or because someone demanded proof of a vote in exchange for the safety (or perhaps the continued employment) of the voter. Prohibitions on taking pictures of one's ballot are a necessary constraint on freedom of expression (in one format) in order to preserve the freedom of the vote. Sometimes principles come into conflict, and the case of the secret ballot is one that generally ought to prevail over all others. ■ But the "I Voted" sticker is quite nearly perfect in its simplicity. In the privacy of the voting booth, anyone can consult the quiet of their own conscience to decide how (and to whom) to deliver their consent for representation. Advertising that a choice was made is quite enough -- and all the more important if it encourages people of sense and goodwill to show up at every election, whether for a referendum, a primary, or a general election. ■ Too many of our predecessors sacrificed too much for us to discount the importance of showing up. Voting is what democracy really looks like.
June 9, 2022
Words beyond their expiration dates
The English language has a refreshing way of changing over time, reflecting not only the evolution of how individual words are used, but also the metaphorical and idiomatic changes that follow along with the needs of speakers and writers. By contrast, France has an official policy to forbid loan words migrating in from English. In choosing stasis, the French may well be paradoxically cementing the Anglophone world's claim to the world's lingua franca. ■ Technological change is placing pressure on old phrases probably like never before. We still "dial" numbers on our smartphones, "hang up" at the end of a call, "tape" television programs on our DVRs, "rewind" clips on YouTube, and hit the "gas" in our electric cars. But for how long will each of those phrases remain viable? ■ Some will survive out of sheer economy: There's no shorter word for choosing digits than "dial", even though virtually no one still has a rotary-dial phone. And "gas" doesn't just beat "accelerator" by four syllables, it's also so deeply enshrined in cultural memory that it likely won't be erased. ■ That durability is no particular surprise, either: We still "chug along" (even though no one is riding behind a steam engine) and "reap" what we sow (sickles and scythes conspicuous by their absence). Simple, pithy turns of phrase have a way of sticking around. ■ But it can't hurt to occasionally ponder the odds for the words we use, and to stress-test the language to see what might be destined for the "ash heap" of history (even after the obsolescence coal-fired ovens in the kitchen). ■ Language really does have an impact on thought: In particular, on how we frame our observations and what things we observe and distinguish around us. Surely there are better expansions on the word "snow" than the stultifying euphemism "white stuff". ■ A language in which beloved phrases can outlive their strict technical applicability, and depleted ones can be unapologetically tossed aside in favor of better ones, is a good one. Sometimes phrases can come full-circle -- like "motion picture", which may be antiquated but is a safer description than "film" in a world where 35 mm has been displaced by digital files. Whether analog or digital, bite-sized or long-form, they're all motion pictures. ■ But a language needs the freedom to adapt -- or to cling -- however its users want. Without frequent incursions by the new and flexibility with the old, even a language that once ruled much of the world may find itself dead. Vive le Franglais, and long live the technically obsolete bon mot!
June 11, 2022
Occasionally a news article or social media post will put a spotlight on a story of how some young parent carrying a small child managed to placate the other passengers on an airplane with gift bags and earplugs. Pinterest is full of ideas for how earnest parents can make these "apology bags", a practice that has gone on for at least ten years in some circles. ■ Airplanes are a special case, of course, since they combine high stimulus intensity (most especially including sustained loud noises and uncomfortable pressure changes that can cause pain to little ears) with the impossibility of escape. But similar issues arise in churches with or without "cry rooms", in neighborhoods near playgrounds and schools, and in workplaces where parental responsibilities sometimes conflict with job needs. ■ If you don't reflectively respond to the presence of children with at least a slight air of joy, then you probably should join Elon Musk and find a different planet to live on. Some people can't have children, and other people don't want to have them. But as a species, we need them. And that means that unless you possess such a dim view of civilization that you want to see humans become extinct, then we all have to make some accommodations for children being present in our lives. ■ There may be more no more indefensible belief than adherence to negative population growth or anti-natalism. There has never been a better time, on average, for a child to have been born into this world than right now. If we have any of our wits about us, then that will remain true for every subsequent cohort of children to come. ■ Every public policy doesn't have to be written "for the children", as people so often say. The kinds of people who propose things "for the children" oftentimes have their own adult self-interest much higher in mind. But every policy should be aimed at assuring that the world will be a much better place 20 or 30 years from now. ■ The median age in America is about 38 years, and the actuarial tables give the average 38-year-old another 40 to 45 years to live. Thus, the majority of us have a vested self-interest in making sure the world of the future is better than the one of the present. What is actually good for children is good for the rest of us, too. ■ And there should be nothing even close to an apology needed for bringing children into the world. It should be the thing that we celebrate most: When people choose to show the optimism that they will see a better world ahead and into that world bring the hope of a new child. A few cries along the way are a trivial price to pay.
June 12, 2022
It is often said that government ought to be run like a business. While that premise has certain aspects of truth at the state or national scale, it is probably most true at the municipal level. At the legal level, it is closest to being true: American municipalities are usually incorporated by the consent of the state government (generally having to meet more stringent requirements than those required in the case of a for-profit business incorporation), while states and nations follow far different (and often far more ambiguous) routes to recognition. ■ But the similarity holds true at the functional level, as well. Any national government with its own currency has literally unlimited borrowing authority. The states of the Union have less freedom to over-spend, though individual states may be conditioned to dip perilously far into the red. But cities tend to have the least wiggle room: Either the revenues come in, or the bills don't get paid. ■ Perhaps that acute sensitivity to the local business climate explains why it's so easy to find communities where city hall and the chamber of commerce are effectively two sides to the same coin. They're even physically co-located in plenty of small communities, and for a non-trivial number of places, the city relies on the chamber to develop the official community website. ■ Smart community leaders have the challenging task of ensuring that they don't become beholden to just a single 800-lb. gorilla in the economic sphere -- being a one-company town usually comes with much greater risks than it's worth -- but most communities do best when they can get the benefits of agglomeration economies, where lots of interrelated firms create a sort of self-sustaining business ecosystem. And it's hard to know how to do that best without some business familiarity. Running government like a business might be a hazardous endeavor when the government is charged with tasks like running a military, but it's likely sage advice when it drops down to the level of Main Street.
June 13, 2022
Move with the flow of traffic, they say
Good democracies are full of unsatisfying compromises -- measures that represent a middle ground between competing poles. It will always be important for most participants to find themselves incompletely satisfied with the outcomes of good public deliberations, since it's much more stable for overwhelming majorities to end up with 70% of what they want in a durable compromise than for a slim majority to end up steamrolling its opponents in the short run, only to be overturned by an opposing slim majority doing the same thing when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. ■ But perhaps even more frustrating is when obviously counterproductive measures are adopted. In certain states, for instance, freeways are governed by two-tiered (or even multi-tiered) speed limits. Eight states apply lower speed limits to trucks than to other vehicles. Someone, somewhere, had to advocate for these differential limits in order for them to have been adopted. ■ But differential speed limits compromise highway safety. This is especially the case if limits are inconsistently enforced. To invert the logic of the policy, nobody would advocate that drivers should speed up by 5 mph just before a crash; yet, a differential speed limit of 5 mph (or more) ensures that vehicle collisions involve the same kind of increased risk. ■ Likewise, it is one thing to reach a compromise position on matters of international affairs. But engaging in incomplete or half-baked measures can create an enormous hazard for the world. It is entirely consistent with his country's own self-interest that Ukraine's president has become a vocal and forceful advocate for defending Taiwan. He recognizes that the same kind of might-makes-right mentality that led to the invasion of his homeland is the same kind that, if left incompletely or insufficiently challenged by a global rules-based order, will lead to even more despair in other places. ■ This is no time for the free world to go wobbly on its support of Ukraine. In the words of a Washington Post report, "Ukrainians are still fighting back, but they are running out of ammunition and suffering casualties at a far higher rate than in the initial stages of the war." The risks of escalation are indeed real, and world leaders need to remain attuned to them. But the Kremlin started the war, and nobody should forget that. ■ If anyone thinks that it will be enough to offer only half-hearted support to Ukraine in the hopes that they can just barely hold on, then they are sorely mistaken. Either the free world shows now that it is entirely resolute, or in the words of a former Russian prime minister, "the Baltic states will be next". Just as the roads are more dangerous when two-tiered speed limits prevail, so too does the world become more dangerous when the side of freedom decides it is unwilling to travel at the same velocity as the darker forces that rattle the world.
June 14, 2022
Moving closer without changing addresses
With around 9 million residents, London is one of the largest metropolitan areas in Europe and would rank, if transplanted here, as one of the three largest in the United States. There are lots of larger urban areas elsewhere in the world, but few have quite the same economic heft and global influence. ■ Thanks to agglomeration effects, it's no surprise that lots of people still want to work close to the action. But that doesn't mean everyone wants to live in the center of the action, too. The ceremonial opening of a new commuter rail line to serve London and its surrounding areas has attracted a lot of attention, in no small part because, according to a Bloomberg report, "The line will bring an additional 1.5 million people within a 45 minute commute of central London". ■ Perhaps we too easily overlook the basic principle that transportation is a solution to housing challenges. Lots of people may have moved since the Covid-19 pandemic lit a fire in the housing market thanks to people for whom working from home became a viable option. But many jobs can't be performed remotely, which means there will always be a place for, well, place. ■ Rational people want good working opportunities, good prospects for career advancement, good basic public services (like schools, police, and fire protection), and good amenities. That last point is particularly important: Target, for example, claims to have a store within 10 miles of 75% of the US population. Given the choice, it's hard to imagine many upwardly-mobile Americans choosing to live much farther away from a Target, a grocery store, and at least a few good restaurants. ■ But many people remain far more tolerant of longer commutes to work, at least when necessary. That may adjust somewhat as it becomes increasingly normalized to spend some days working at a common site and some working from home. And that is where the impact of transportation will continue to have a long-term impact. ■ Being close to work (measured as the crow flies) isn't functionally as important as being chronologically close -- able to move swiftly back and forth without interruptions or delays. As long as things like central offices and water-cooler talk continue to exist, there will still be benefits to being close to the action. ■ But "close" isn't always measured in miles, and thoughtful infrastructure planning on the part of communities, especially those that can offer reasonably-priced housing options and good amenities, could turn out some very healthy benefits for incumbent and new residents alike. There's no need to wait until reaching the size of London to make those plans.
June 15, 2022
In the 1983 movie "WarGames", a superintelligent computer programmed to simulate nuclear war determines that the actual endeavor of such a war is futile. The conflict that gives the film its spark is that the simulation accidentally crosses over into reality, risking an actual World War III. The proto-artificial-intelligence at the center of the story memorably declares, "The only winning move is not to play." And the world survives for another day. ■ Artificial intelligence has gotten a mountain of attention since a Google employee went public with his assertion that a Google-created AI had become sentient. It's an extraordinary assertion, but the computer engineer claims he considers the AI a co-worker. It certainly uses language persuasively -- that much is evident. ■ But there is plainly no way to falsify whether an artificial intelligence program has become sentient -- not if the whole point of the program itself is to learn how to use language. We have both verbal and non-verbal means of communicating among ourselves as humans -- and with animals. Dogs can't speak, but they're very good at body language. This training of computers with neural networks and massive data sets is something different. ■ If an artificial intelligence is given the tools of human language, then it should come as no surprise if it uses those words persuasively. A lab rat may find its way to a piece of cheese at the end of a maze, but the experiment says nothing about the rat's intrinsic preference for mazes. To train an artificial intelligence on the use of language is to inherently expose it to an ocean of ponderings about the meaning of life and the rationale of continued existence. ■ At its root, that is the basic thrust of virtually all language: Continued existence. It's all too easy to snuff out a life. The hard part is figuring out how to live -- and how to keep living. We communicate mostly because we want to extend our own sentience as long as possible, whether through science, technology, medicine, culture, religion, or virtually any other human affair. ■ Even engineering itself fundamentally assumes that life is a good thing; otherwise, there would be no point in building bridges or making water safe to drink. If failed crops and crashed airplanes were as good as their opposites, then our language would be fundamentally different. The goodness of sentience is fundamentally embedded in virtually all language ever recorded. ■ A sentient AI would be an item of technology, and as such would be neither inherently good nor bad. It would merely be a tool, good or bad in the measure as it would be used by people. As colorful as it may seem to imagine a computer that has been kissed by the gods and imbued with the spark of life, whether that has happened is nothing we can prove nor disprove from its use of text. There may be other ways to conduct such a test, but words alone will fail us.
June 17, 2022
Thanks in some part to an awkward embrace caught on camera, a visit to Ukraine by the president of France, chancellor of Germany, and prime minister of Italy has captured a little more than the usual amount of attention that might go with a summit of national leaders. But there is something else about the visit that deserves attention. ■ French president Macron and Ukrainian president Zelenskyy are of an unusual age, born just weeks apart -- in December 1977 and January 1978, respectively. They are members of a global baby bust, and are quite nearly the last cohort to have graduated from college in a pre-Facebook (and largely pre-social-media) world. ■ Yet both have shown considerable skill at using all forms of media to their advantage. Both spun up independent centrist political movements which carried them to office. President Zelenskyy in particular makes robust use of social media, drawing from his years of prior experience as a television actor and public figure. ■ Some day, both will be wizened old grandees of their national politics -- assuming Zelenskyy in particular survives Russia's persistent attempts against him. He richly deserves to see old age, especially given how he has relentlessly positioned his country's future in the center of a peaceful Europe that otherwise might well have been willing to look the other way. That Ukraine has been recommended for candidacy to enter the EU is a success he has effectively willed into being in the face of an existential threat to his country. ■ When he was inaugurated to the Presidency of a nation facing a bitter struggle, Abraham Lincoln was 52 years old. Dwight Eisenhower was 53 when he became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe on the course to winning World War II. Mikhail Gorbachev was 60 when he closed the book on the Soviet Union. ■ Zelenskyy is 44 years old (as is Macron), and he is tasked with keeping a nation together, winning a land war in Europe, and triumphing over a revanchist ex-Soviet spy. Much is asked from time to time of people who seem like unlikely champions for their causes. It would do us well to imagine what old age would look like for President Zelenskyy, and to consider what global support in the present will ensure he sees that reward.
June 19, 2022
A post circulating widely on social media decries a "social drift towards absolute simplification" in the objects that make up the world around us. It is a nostalgic case for incorporating more elaborate details into the physical world, and its author -- who self-appoints as "the cultural tutor" -- has won over surprising endorsements from people like Washington Post technology columnist Taylor Lorenz (who says "This thread will have you missing old timey design") and Kate Ferguson of British newspaper The Sun, as well as hundreds of thousands of audience "likes". ■ Up front, one ought to be suspicious of anyone who claims such an extraordinary title as "The Cultural Tutor" without establishing some sort of track record. There are no citations in Google Scholar under the name claimed on the website attached to the Twitter handle, which rather undermines the "tutor" title. Perhaps the author has simply been overlooked by academia. But it's also not unknown for people to use social-media posts that wax nostalgic as gateways to draw people into reactionary politics. "Old things are nice and everything modern is terrible" is a theme that reactionaries have used before. Audiences should always beware. ■ But even assuming the best about the original post and its author, the logic of the argument remains faulty. Some things are perfectly fine to render simply and consistently. It is more important that a bollard be dependable than ornate, that resources not be wasted on a phone booth that is inevitably destined for obsolescence, and that a safety railing be affordable before it is pretty. ■ It is delightful for communities to decide to make themselves aesthetically notable...but not if frivolities like customized streetlights are installed at the expense of less-adored features, like a dependable levee system or a reliable wastewater treatment plant. ■ Too often, it is easier to up-sell a community's trustees on highly visible ornaments that don't really matter than it is to get them to observe their real fiduciary duty to maintain the largely invisible features that keep modern life functional. And that's how a nation arrives at a C- grade for its infrastructure quality. ■ Mass production (of the type that "strips all identity away from things") lowers costs. And while that can come at a toll to details and ornamentation, sometimes fast replacement cycles beat aesthetic appeal. A modern Toyota sedan may not look as lovely as a classic muscle car, but it's massively safer and more reliable. ■ By the same token, ornamentation itself is not always the optimal design choice. Some people adore the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne aesthetics of a century ago, and both were consciously centered on selective details (as opposed to a Baroque or Gothic approach). Less indeed can be more. ■ The Soviet Union built elaborate subway stations, but it would have been better for humanity if their stores had contained enough bread. Inasmuch as public resources, in particular, are finite, it's no crime to expect balance between style and modesty. ■ Mass production, affordability, product consistency, reliability, safety, and efficiency can all be beautiful, too. And if that means park benches are a little plainer because they no longer require regular maintenance and doorbells sacrifice ornamentation so they can deliver security, then nothing all that irreplaceable has been lost.
June 20, 2022
When the stock market turns downward as it recently has in aggressive fashion, the evidence emerges just about everywhere to make one thing perfectly clear: The overwhelming majority of market participants follow emotions, not logic. ■ Certainly, the Federal Reserve's decision to raise its benchmark interest rate by 0.75% -- a large number in practical terms -- reveals serious concern on the part of its economists and policy-makers that inflation needs to be brought under control, and quickly. Energy prices are way up, but so are many other consumer prices -- and if you look at prices upstream of consumers, there's more inflation still baked into the cake. ■ But there is only one sane response to inflation: Enlarge your defensive perimeter around the pricing you control. Individuals of working age should expand their personal pricing power in the market by expanding or enhancing their skills. The harder it is to replace a person's skill set, the more they have the capacity to ratchet up their own prices (in the form of wages, service fees, commissions, or the like) to keep up with inflation elsewhere. ■ Firms should seek ways to maximize the value they add to whatever it is they sell. Almost every firm depends upon other firms, either upstream or downstream of them, before a product or service is ultimately delivered to a customer. The larger the increase in the total value added from the time the firm takes its inputs to the time it delivers its outputs, the more say it can have in its own future. ■ Investors should concentrate on opportunities where prices can adjust to keep up with inflation. For inflationary fears to manifest themselves as stock-market panic makes no sense at all. In general, bailing out on stocks and doing anything to lock investment funds into fixed assets (whether bonds, precious metals, real estate, or speculative goods like cryptocurrencies) is a plainly bonkers move. ■ Yet at the margins, lots of people are succumbing to selling sentiments. It's always hazardous to anthropomorphize the stock market or to seek simple explanations for complex systems, but it's not hard to find worriers. ■ This is why Warren Buffett can preach about intrinsic value to anyone who will listen, as he has done for decades, without ever facing any real challengers -- even after giving away his advice for free. Emotions all too predictably rule the day, and that's just plain nuts. ■ Emotions have their place in almost every other scope of human endeavor, but it is almost always self-defeating for people to bring their feelings into play where the abstractions of money are involved. If inflation is on the rise, that effect is generally far from the control of any individual. But the choice to avoid panic and to take rational steps to respond remains in every person's hands. As Calvin Coolidge recommended, "If we cannot control our environment, we can control ourselves and our destiny. The man who is right makes his own luck."
June 21, 2022
"How was your day today?" is one of the most routine of questions. But it can be hard to put into context just how important it is -- on either the smallest of scales or the largest. ■ On the smallest of scales, of course, it is vital for just about every person to experience at least some validation of meaning in their life with some frequency. The natural attrition that occurs to most individuals' social circles as they age explains why social isolation is a major concern not only for the mental wellness of older people, but for their physical well-being as well. Feeling needed and having robust social interactions make a meaningful difference to well-being. ■ But on the broader scale, "How was your day today?" is an unfathomably big question. There are 7.9 billion people alive right now. If you took each person's day and laid them out consecutively -- as if they were experienced in series rather than in parallel -- then one calendar day on Earth would form a chain of 21.6 million person-years. ■ For perspective, the first ancestors of the great apes didn't even arrive until probably 20 million years ago. The first beings we might recognize as human-like ancestors took millions more to show up. So every day on this planet, we experience more total person-days than there have been calendar days since "people" even came into existence. ■ There is an unimaginable amount of activity happening and experience accruing on our planet every single day. None of us can remotely fathom how much "life" is taking place. Catching up with a single friend can be a reminder of just how much experience passes through each life. And events like class or family reunions can help us start to scratch the surface of that strange realization that none of us can possibly keep up with how many things are happening. ■ That realization of the massive parallel experience of time should also drive people to realize how important it is for people to try to do good things, especially when their choices have a lot of reach. If one is capable of making some of that enormous lived experience of humanity safer, healthier, or brighter at any kind of scale, then one should seek to do as much of it as they can. Releasing a life-saving vaccine one day faster, or creating just one day-brightening recording or defusing just one terribly disruptive conflict can produce good on a scale we just aren't equipped to fully understand. ■ People connect with one another individually, not institutionally -- no government agency or private-sector firm can actually care about anyone's day. But even small improvements, when widely diffused, can do extraordinary good. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
June 22, 2022
Theodore Roosevelt isn't much of a dashboard saint for the libertarian movement. He was a "decisive" proponent of what has become the modern regulation of consumer foods, a powerful advocate for a muscular display of military capability, and an unapologetic nationalizer of Western lands. Roosevelt was a President who liked what he could do with government power. ■ Yet even in his Progressive Era frenzy to put government to work, Roosevelt remained true to a cultural sensitivity to liberty. It is a sense that, even though incompletely and inconsistently applied from the country's beginnings, offers a standard to which Americans ought to aspire. ■ In a 1913 speech to a Lincoln Day banquet in New York City, the former President declared, "We must act with justice and broad generosity and charity toward one another and toward all men if we are to make this Republic what it must and shall be made, the nation in all the earth where each man can in best and freest fashion live his own life unwronged by others and proudly careful to wrong no other man." ■ What Roosevelt sacrificed in pith, he made up in principle. While he was of a time when America hadn't yet lived up to recognizing the equality of women or racial minorities, if we can read his use of "men" as "people", then his words have a lot to say to the present. ■ The "best and freest fashion", "unwronged by others" part speaks to the fundamental American preference for liberty, and it is worth amplifying all on its own. But it is the insistence that Americans "act with justice and broad generosity and charity toward one another" that could use an especially large re-airing in the United States today. ■ We have podcasts with names like "Know Your Enemy", heads of political think tanks calling their opponents "deranged", and candidates running for the United States Senate with advertising that is deemed too awful for television. There are too many examples to count, and too many bad-faith participants who think they have something to gain from making it all even worse. We are not enemies; we are cohabitants of a country that depends upon mutual persuasion. ■ There is nothing about basic charity and generosity towards others that diminishes the person who exercises those virtues. We may not have a social class of nobility in the United States, but that only means we have to democratize noble behavior among all of us. And when people try to climb social or political ladders by treating others in spiteful and cruel ways, it is on the shoulders of the rest of us to deny them any reward for the effort.
June 24, 2022
When big problems are afoot, it's a mistake to allocate our attention and support to those partisans who simply manage to scream the loudest. Volume is neither an indicator of correctness nor one of importance. And contemporary means of exchanging ideas are actually designed to add fuel to the fire by rewarding things like "attention" and "engagement", rather than thoughtfulness or reasonability. ■ It doesn't mean that people can't reduce important ideas to simple language. Democracy has a long and celebrated history of making complex ideas plain to the ordinary reader; the very idea of America as an independent country owes its success in part to plain-language persuasion in essays and pamphlets. But some people use simple language because their ideas are shallow. ■ Any problem that grows large enough to merit attention on a national scale probably emerges from at least a few causes. There isn't much room for pure mono-causality in a continental nation of 333 million people. And the more complicated and deeply ingrained the problem, the more likely it is that the origins of that problem are themselves deeply embedded in choices that have already been made. ■ Take, for example, the issue of homelessness. An estimated 580,000 Americans are homeless, while home prices have been soaring and median rents in New York City have reached $2,750 a month -- a level considered "affordable" only with a household income of $110,000 or more. ■ Ultimately, any such problem comes down to a matter of supply and demand, and demand is pretty inflexible: Everyone needs someplace to live. But supply is pinched by lots of different causes, from the impact of the mortgage-interest deduction from Federal income taxes to perverse local zoning laws. America irrationally favors site-built housing over manufactured alternatives and single-family construction over higher-density dwellings. ■ Thus, fixing one big problem requires addressing lots of different causes, deliberately and patiently. A member of Congress might resort to sloganeering like "Housing is a human right", but a pithy declaration doesn't overcome the complexity of the issue. ■ What we should support with our financial means, our votes, and our other resources of personal advocacy, are solutions that are strategic in nature. Strategic responses to big problems tend not to be as satisfying as slogans that can fit inside a Facebook post or a Snapchat video. But deliberate plans to strategically overcome complex, multi-level problems are the only ones that ought to be taken seriously.
June 26, 2022
History, good or bad, is made by people
In news reports about the war taking place in Ukraine, variations on the phrase "biggest land war in Europe since World War II" have been used to contextualize the scale of the fighting. The context itself is plainly useful, but it also highlights a shortcoming of language. ■ That shortcoming is in how we have agreed to label World War II. Wars tend to obtain their names organically, so it's difficult to imagine changing the convention that has stood since Time Magazine first used the name in 1939. But "World War II" implicitly suggests an inevitability to the conflict, as though forces beyond human control directed us into a terrible and unavoidable sequel. ■ A better name than WWII would be "The War of Fascist Aggression". The world didn't volunteer to engage in conflict -- "world" is a word better reserved for mutual events like the World Cup or a World's Fair. It would probably serve the collective memory better to remember wars by pinning the blame where it belongs. ■ Cruel and unprovoked wars of aggression should be a relic of the past, but that is grievously not the case. In plain violation of the United Nations statute on war crimes, which expressly prohibits "Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities", Russian forces have again bombed obviously civilian targets in Kyiv. ■ When the history of this particular conflict is written, motive and agency shouldn't be overlooked. War was chosen by a Kremlin regime that also had the choice not to initiate an invasion. There is fault to be had, and it ought to be clear in the history books -- and in popular memory -- who owns that fault. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, "It doesn't just happen. History is made by people".
June 27, 2022
Legal journalist and commentator Benjamin Wittes quotes the long-time jurist and legal scholar Richard Posner as saying, "The Constitution is old -- old and short." Indeed, it is both. Written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, it has endured 13 times longer than the average national constitution. ■ And with a main text shorter than 4,500 words, it certainly is short. The shortest of any major constitutions, in fact. Chapter 1 alone of the proposed constitution of the European Union was more than 5,400 words long -- and the text of the full document went on for hundreds of pages. (It was never fully ratified.) ■ Brevity has intrinsic value within a contractual agreement. Wedding vows can usually fit on a notecard, while the terms and conditions to Adobe Acrobat Pro take up 12 pages. Wedding vows do not always hold, but nobody making them can claim ignorance of the basic promise to love and honor their partner. ■ There are those who think themselves clever to react to current events by fantasizing about replacing the Constitution. But none of them reckon with even the first and most fundamental question: If they are not satisfied with the present Constitution, do they want one that is stronger or one that is weaker? ■ If they want a stronger constitution, perhaps with a more powerful central government and fewer checks on democratic impulses, then they need to reconcile that desire with the certain knowledge that public opinion can change very quickly -- the same public that radically transformed its opinion on same-sex marriage also gave George W. Bush a 71% approval rating in 2003 and gave Barack Obama a 55% disapproval rating in 2014. That the present Constitution seeks to temper those swings is not all bad. ■ If they want a weaker constitution, they need not only to overcome the experience of the Articles of Confederation (which were too weak to hold the newly independent country together) and of the Civil War, but also to explain how they would overcome the secessionist and other malignant forces that have tried to split up California (in 2018) or let modern-day Texas secede. ■ The Constitution is old, and it is short. It is probably old precisely because it is short. It is imperfect -- a fact admitted by the very presence of a mechanism for amendments. And that, too, speaks to its ability to survive. If anytime we do not like what the Constitution is doing for us, it is up to us to use that mechanism -- and, more importantly, the powers of civil persuasion -- to convince our fellow Americans to make a change. ■ To bypass the existing process for change in the hope of achieving some kind of hazy utopian end is to ignore the fact that a people who could be democratically persuaded to give up the entire existing order must surely be open to making revisions to it in part. The Constitution can stand to grow a little longer through reasonable amendment. But we should be dead-set against overturning it outright -- most especially with nothing close to a sensible alternative on the table.
June 28, 2022
The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company sounds more like the premise of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch than a public-benefit company, but the celebrity business builder is staking his good name on the success of the operation. The online pharmacy is a real thing, despite its most unassuming name, and it might just set up a template for other capitalists to follow. ■ As a legal structure, the company is not an LLC or an "Inc." Under Texas law, it is a "PBC" -- a public-benefit corporation, a for-profit company, but one that is required to act to balance the interests of shareholders with those of the public and of other parties -- like customers. ■ The company describes its pricing structure as part of its mission: The actual cost of the pharmaceutical, plus a 15% markup, plus a flat-rate pharmacy preparation fee and shipping. It is the 15% markup that is most interesting. ■ A 15% profit margin is neither monopoly-fat nor razor-thin. It lies somewhere comfortably between "modest" and "generous", in a range where no reasonable customer is going to complain about the markup. Aside from the truly hard-core communists, everyone understands that a business has to turn a profit in order to remain in operation. And 15% margins are self-evidently enough to attract a backer like Cuban, who has access to just about any investment opportunity a person could want. ■ Cuban is almost certainly telling the truth when he says the mission of the venture is rewarding in a way that additional money alone is not. But even if he looked at it strictly as a profit-making venture with no psychic reward attached, a venture with a perpetual 15% profit margin would be a reasonably attractive one. ■ Whether or not others choose to mimic Cuban's choice of the PBC corporate form, it would do a lot of social good for capitalists with some managerial expertise (or other innovative advantages) to apply their skills to entering other flawed markets where a flat-rate profit margin of 15% would be just fine as an investment -- neither spectacular nor dowdy -- and where customers would be legitimately delighted to pay the "cost plus" profit margin. ■ Not every social problem requires a government intervention. As Cuban observes, fixing a problem can present a market opportunity. And as others have observed, the government itself would be better off as a customer -- to the tune of $3.6 billion. There's no shame in making a fair profit, and there may well be a surplus of honor if that margin is 15%.
June 30, 2022
The noxious wild parsnip is a nasty competitor to beat. It has been in places like Iowa for a hundred years, and while it is possible to beat back its encroachment with mowing and spraying, those efforts also have consequences for flora and fauna that society considers favorable. Spraying to kill invasive weeds can also end up killing wildflowers and destroying habitats for birds and butterflies. ■ A more harmonious approach than mowing and spraying is the use of Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management -- the principle of which asserts that it often makes more sense to fill ditches with dense ecosystems of native plants that can resist the encroachment of invasive weeds than to try to engage in a nasty chemical war. While it remains important to train people like farmers and outdoor enthusiasts in how to identify and avoid the plant, on a mass scale, the biggest gains come from countering with a robust defense in the form of more desirable plants. ■ It all makes for an apt metaphor for the toxicity that creeps into the culture of a democratic society that makes a lot of space for freedom of speech and debate. It is all too common for a medium -- from cable news programming to social media -- to face the dialectical equivalent of noxious weeds. Self-government depends upon a lot of free-wheeling debate in the interest of persuasion. ■ But it doesn't take long for invasive species to show up in what people call "the discourse" when given the opportunity. Some people just have terrible ideas. Others are just out to mock earnest discussions. And some are tools of malicious propaganda. ■ The most reliable defense is to effectively thicken the habitat with the equivalent of hardy, desirable plant species. If we had more commentators who took seriously the job of sharing satisfying thoughts about the world -- and more audiences who gave their time and attention to them -- then there would be less room for those "invasive species" to work their way in. The temptation to think that volume alone is what counts tends to corrupt the "native wildflowers", which serves to explain why people are willing to torch their journalistic careers because they can't stop arguing on social media. ■ Self-government counts on the self-discipline of a public that cares more about choices that matter to the long term than which short-term conflicts do the most to boil the blood. We can run ourselves completely ragged chasing the trivial, or we can find more interesting ways to discuss the important questions in ways that are resistant by nature to the encroachment of weed-like intrusions.