Gongol.com Archives: September 2022
September 1, 2022
A general impatience is a long-running feature of the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville made note of it in Volume II of "Democracy in America": "It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare; and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it." ■ Restlessness with the state of affairs that are unjust or inadequate is a virtue, of course. If a real injustice is uncovered, it is for the best that the people of a democracy recognize it quickly and seek to purge it swiftly. Attitudes on same-sex marriage are a prominent contemporary example; according to Gallup, support grew from a small minority (27%) in 1996 to a majority (53%) in 2011, and now stands at a super-majority (71%). ■ In retrospect, that pace of change is remarkable by historical standards. But it most likely felt altogether too slow to those who campaigned for it. From 1996 to the present is just about one generation. Change often seems unsatisfying when it involves lots of individual decisions, as most matters of public opinion do. ■ It's worth recalling that humans have always been this way -- we are not unique today in requiring time to come around to new ideas, nor in being dissatisfied with conditions that don't quickly come around to our point of view. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus declared, "All great things are slow of growth; nay, this is true even of a grape or of a fig. If then you say to me now, I desire a fig, I shall answer, It needs time: wait till it first flower, then cast its blossom, then ripen." ■ Epictetus died around 135 AD. People are still discovering and re-discovering his ideas more than 60 generations later, but they have to be learned in order to be valuable. The same goes for any other philosophy or perspective on the world. It's easy to slap a motivational quote on a poster, but nobody has ever "Successoried" their way into a fulfilling worldview. ■ The same goes for a great country -- one that is, at its center, an idea about the rights of individuals. There are those who demand radical social and political changes of one flavor or another, often lashed to long wish-lists of individual policies, often quite radical in ambition. ■ Americans need to recognize our own tendency towards that impatience identified in our predecessors by de Tocqueville. We also need to acknowledge the inescapable fact that if we want to conserve what is fundamentally right with our country, then we have to commit to learning it for ourselves and patiently teaching it to our own children. ■ Epictetus was right; all great things are slow of growth. Great things are never achieved overnight. But bad ideas, like fast-growing weeds, can work their way in and choke out the slow-growing good things if we're not diligent about cultivating those good things over the long term. The risk is especially great in times when impatience is widespread. Getting and keeping good things requires thinking far down the road.
September 3, 2022
People in very serious roles sometimes propose most unserious responses to problems. San Francisco, for example, has a notorious housing shortage. Rents are among the highest in the world, with single-family homes selling in some neighborhoods for well over $1,000 per square foot -- five times the median rate in an affluent community like West Des Moines, Iowa or Naperville, Illinois. ■ Yet one of San Francisco's city/county supervisors wears his advocacy for rent controls as a badge of honor and declares (without evident self-awareness) that "The unregulated [housing] market is the problem, not the solution." ■ Reasonable observers would note that San Francisco's problem is largely one of supply. It's one of America's largest metropolitan areas, blessed with beautiful views, a fantastically mild climate, and an enviable economy, so people naturally gravitate there. But the city simply doesn't permit housing construction at nearly the rate it should, with a population-adjusted rate of new housing permits half that in Washington, DC, and barely a quarter that in Austin, Texas. ■ Language is no small part of the problem. It may feel satisfyingly self-righteous for a local politician to declare that "Housing is a human right", but it's neither helpful nor true. Housing is a universal human need, and knowing the difference between a universal need and a human right is no small matter. ■ A human right (like freedom of speech) is not subject to material constraints. It belongs to a person by right of birth, takes on no material form, and can only be taken away, usually by the interference of oppressive powers. ■ When China's government denies the right to freedom of conscience, it violates a human right by taking it away from the individual. When, for far too much of our past, the United States tolerated chattel slavery, it violated a human right to freedom and personal autonomy. Abraham Lincoln implicitly acknowledged this in the words of the Emancipation Proclamation: "I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God." ■ By contrast, someone has to answer a vital question about every universal need: "How can we encourage an abundant supply?". In the case of housing, there is no magic wand to wave that will conjure housing out of thin (perhaps foggy) air. Someone has to build it. And in the mayor's own words, "For years, San Francisco has made it too hard to approve and build new homes. That must change." The government there has, if anything, obstructed the function of a market-based housing industry. ■ People seeking to make money within a market will rarely leave any good opportunities on the table, and in the case of housing, it should be plainly evident that with developers are perpetually eager to seek their fortunes -- ones they can only make by building things. If enough developers aren't building, the most likely reasons for housing shortages just about anywhere come down to insurmountable constraints: Either there isn't enough available land or there are too many regulatory prohibitions. ■ Where land is in short supply, the choice can often be made to effectively create more by building vertically. But where regulatory constraints are the ones limiting supply, it's not "the market" that is the problem. ■ We should take care to call things by their appropriate names, and a thing that takes on a material form needed by everyone isn't a "human right", no matter how good it may feel to say. The material form makes it a human need. Knowing that distinction -- and taking it seriously -- is the only way to engage in the right mindset for solving the problem when there isn't enough of a good thing to go around.
September 5, 2022
Labor Day remarks tend to be platitudinous. People and organizations that feel obligated to mark the day can usually go the safe route with some version of "Workers are the backbone of the American economy". Left-leaning politicians usually insert something celebrating organized labor unions. Right-leaning ones frequently offer some kind of praise for small business owners and other proprietors. ■ It would be more productive to take Labor Day as an annual trigger to have real debates about what would be broadly useful to the American workforce. The mere statistics of union membership don't tell much of a useful story. For instance: Are workers better off in occupations where they feel union membership is worth the dues, or is low membership a sign that employers are voluntarily satisfying worker expectations? Particularly in a time of 3.7% unemployment (low by most historical standards), a private-sector union membership rate of 6.1% might just be a symptom that many workers are getting what they want. ■ A more interesting debate would ask questions like "What policies or practices would ensure that more people in the labor force were able to convert their work into capital ownership?" Or "How can employers in the public and private sectors alike be rewarded for investing resources in long-term skill development?" These and others might be much more productive questions to discuss than merely lining up along tired old divisions. ■ Those divisions are tired because, now more than ever, workers can't be centered on a single employer or a single occupation for an entire career. The marketplace is dynamic, and there is no sheltering the American worker from technological and international competition. If research analysts, sales managers, and computer programmers are among the occupations most at risk of displacement by artificial intelligence, and management jobs are being eliminated by the auto industry's shift to electric vehicles, then we need a much more holistic approach to the question of "What's good for labor?" than a boring old dichotomy of "labor versus capital". ■ And that's even more the case because having a prudent retirement plan requires almost everyone to become a share-holding capitalist in the financial markets. Only a slim minority of workers are even engaged in defined-benefit pension plans, and even they should probably have some kind of backup plan that involves personal investments in the financial markets. It's not "labor versus capital", it's "labor and capital". ■ Not many people have the right incentives to fire up discussions about a subject like Labor Day that won't fall within predictable boundaries. But it shouldn't be that way. Labor Day shouldn't just be the last hurrah of summer, nor just a day full of platitudes (and some pandering). It ought to be a healthy annual reminder that economies are dynamic and people are often adaptable, and success on a civilizational scale comes in part from making sure that adaptability both enhances and takes advantage of that dynamism.
September 7, 2022
Few genres are as congested with a surplus of content as the subject of parenting. In addition to the thousands of books that can be found in bookstores and libraries on the topic, there are mom blogs, parenting Facebook groups, and podcasts aplenty. That's not to mention the well-established industry of parenting-related periodicals. ■ Millions of barrels of ink have been spilled on matters like raising kids to be successful in life (like a "Tiger Mom", for instance), or imposing the kind of discipline that won't scar the child emotionally, or instilling "grit" into young minds. But it's rare to find anyone who talks about raising raising children to become interesting adults. ■ Not materially successful. Not religiously devout. Not academically credentialed -- or simply capable of performing basic tasks without ironically calling it "adulting". Just...interesting. ■ The omission is odd, because if one has children at an average age (somewhere in the late 20s through the 30s), and lives to a median age (into the 80s for those who survive through the typical child-rearing years), then one will spend far more time with their offspring as adults than with them as children. As in, decades more. ■ People talk a lot about doing things "for the children" or "for future generations", but quite selfishly, we ought to want to turn out adults who are fundamentally interesting people. There's probably some correlation between being interesting and having other virtues. But it doesn't have to be anything other than its own justification. It is quite enough to simply want interesting people around when one reaches later life. And some of the people most likely to remain around are one's own offspring. ■ "Interesting" comes in all sorts of flavors, of course, but it generally starts with having interests -- a sense of curiosity and of openness to ideas and experiences. It also calls for having at least some motivation to do things, rather than existing passively. ■ It's not very interesting to be defined by what products or media one consumes. Helping children to find those motivations and interests is not only a way to produce more interesting adults (whom parents can enjoy as they grow into peers), it is also a way to help insulate children against some of the hazards of this age -- especially the still-new and still-evolving pressures that come from living in a world saturated by social media. ■ It's not an obvious responsibility to help a person become interesting -- but it can be a gift. And though there are not yet any search results for "How to raise interesting children", there ought to be. In more ways than we realize, the future depends upon it.
September 8, 2022
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years over not just her home country, but as the nominal head of state for 14 "realms" within the Commonwealth. Her passing marks a good time to bear in mind the duality of human nature. ■ An institution (like the monarchy) can be built on a foundation containing many wrongs, yet still be venerated even by some of those wronged by it. The very idea of someone in England inheriting the right to be "sovereign" over the people of Jamaica, for instance, violates a whole host of notions of logic and justice. But that doesn't deprive the people of the Commonwealth from feeling a sense of attachment to the royal family, if they so choose. ■ Likewise, a person can be a reluctant figurehead -- then-Princess Elizabeth wasn't born in the right order to become monarch. But they can also rise to occasions of need, overcoming personal preferences in the course of offering a most public face emerging from a sense of duty. ■ While kings and queens make for easy fairy-tale fodder, it's no surprise that so many people appear to struggle psychologically when born into royalty. Despite the obvious material riches and social deference, it's fairly clear -- even from the case of Elizabeth's own grandson -- that a monarchy gives the blue-blooded all of the known perils of celebrity but without even the sense of choice whether to pursue it. At least the politicians in a republic must choose to run. ■ The basic duality of human nature was defined well by Alexander Hamilton: "The truth is, in human affairs there is no good, pure and unmixed; every advantage has two sides, and wisdom consists in availing ourselves of the good, and guarding as much as possible against the bad." ■ A person who is mostly good can find themselves embedded in a system that is mostly rotten; they must make the best of it they can. An institution with a terrible legacy of discrimination can still be meaningful to some of those it historically discriminated against. People can be sad at a basically humane level for the passing of another human being, yet still wonder whether it is time to turn the page on the structures that elevated that person to public attention in the first place. ■ People are often attracted to simple narratives built around "battle lines" and confrontations between pure good versus pure evil. But the hazier reality is that aspects of good and evil are within all of us, and it is only through choice -- inasmuch as any individual has the freedom to choose -- that we can lend power to one or the other. ■ In the words of Margaret Thatcher, the eighth of Elizabeth's 15 prime ministers: "Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose." That truth makes for a lot of gray within human lives, whether "royal" or common.
September 9, 2022
Amid its continued effort to expel the invasion from Russia, Ukraine undertaken efforts that would look crazy in peacetime, but which make complete sense in wartime. One example is the bombing of bridges. Nobody would ever voluntarily destroy critical infrastructure in a time of peace, but photos and videos are circulating on social media showing the obliteration of bridges to cities being targeted for liberation. In destroying the bridges, the Ukrainian forces are seeking to isolate and trap their Russian enemies. ■ A truly fascinating broad-based history of warfare could be told through the story of bridges. From the distant past through the present, bridges have often been as important as arms. ■ We marvel in the modern day at the aqueducts of the Roman Empire, but their bridges depended upon much of the same technology -- and those bridges were in some cases central to the projection of power far from the seat of government itself. ■ In the 20th Century, the capacity to destroy and selectively replace bridges was often a decisive factor in the battles of the land war in Europe during World War II. The US Army Corps of Engineers proved to be a substantial force multiplier through its ability to speedily install bridges in France, Italy, and Germany. ■ Even in domestic American history, the attentive student of history would note that George Washington crossed the Delaware River in a boat, and that his forces were badly hampered by trying to cross an icy river using boats. Bridges would have made the attack far easier. ■ Bridges present us with a fascinating case of embedded knowledge. If one knows where the bridges are, one knows where the obstacles are. But bridges also tell us where to find things of value. We ordinarily take them for granted, but bridges represent a huge share of what humans "know" about our places without really thinking. ■ Pittsburgh may have an almost unreasonable number of bridges, but it's no small matter that the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Chicago Skyway have meaningful places in their respective local lores. Americans are fortunate that we have remained at domestic peace for so long that the destruction of any of those bridges would be unthinkable, but it's no mere coincidence that the US Army has trained its Corps of Engineers on bridge-building since the nation was new. ■ Many things evade our attention during periods of normalcy, and the indispensable role of bridges in warfare is one of them. But that role is being put in the spotlight in Ukraine right now, and it is a historical story worth telling.
September 11, 2022
Never, never, never, never give in
A cartoon has circulated since well before the time when memes were shared on the Internet, dating back to the days when clever jokes were shared via fax machines and office photocopiers. It depicts a seabird -- a pelican or a heron -- swallowing a frog. But the frog is defiantly choking the bird on its way down, creating a stalemate not unlike Aesop's fable about the greedy boy with his hand stuck in a jar because he knew too little to let go of what wasn't his. ■ It's hard not to think of that frog, never giving up, every time news of further progress issues forth from Ukraine. The most recent bold strikes to recover territory may well be remembered as a turning point in the war. ■ In October 1941, well after World War II had come to England but before it had drawn in the full force of the United States, Winston Churchill admonished an audience to "[N]ever give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy..." ■ Morale has real-world value. A sense of the moral right really does matter. Willingness to stand and fight and spit in the face of darkness can be a force multiplier. ■ The war isn't over for Ukraine; it needs a sustained supply of heavy arms and munitions from other countries that realize the urgency of putting up a fight. But the people of Ukraine also deserve credit for learning and adapting quickly -- not just being defiant. ■ The cartoon frog choking the seabird is, metaphorically, a lot like the porcupine strategy for small countries facing the threat of attack from much bigger foes. The larger adversary might have more resources to commit to an invasion, but the defenders can make themselves too painful to digest. ■ What is worthy of admiration in the present case is that the metaphorical frog isn't just choking the bird into a stalemate, it's trying to bring the bird to its knees so that it flies away and never returns. No matter how this war ends, Ukraine and Russia will still be neighbors sharing a border hundreds of miles long. ■ It will easily be at least a generation before anything resembling mutual trust can be established across that border, though probably more. The "never" in "never give in" will have to last a very long time. ■ It's going to require permanent vigilance on the part of the defenders who appear to be on a hot streak. But it will also require a permanent commitment on the part of others (most especially Americans)to remain well-informed about and interested in the big picture of world affairs. ■ A peaceful world order doesn't happen spontaneously. It depends upon the assurance that the forces which would perpetrate evil will encounter righteous defenders who will "never, never, never, never" give in -- and allies committed to the idea that they should never have to.
September 13, 2022
Straight-line projections of things like social change are often woefully inaccurate ways to anticipate the future. In many cases, things change very slowly for a long time, then quite suddenly. It's no particular surprise; we are social creatures and we make many of our decisions socially. ■ Religion is no exception. Religions are often defined by things like movements, revivals, schisms, and reformations. This quality makes it very difficult to take too seriously any trend-line projections about the future of faith. ■ Notwithstanding that skepticism about forecasting, it's illuminating to look at the evolving nature of religious identification in America, because it has indeed changed considerably in just the last few decades. The Pew Research Center has examined those trends and come up with a forecast saying that -- if present trends continue -- half of Americans might be religiously unaffiliated by 2070. ■ That number is already 30%. This isn't a new development; it was observed more than a decade ago that "former Catholics" would make up the second-largest denomination in the country, if identified together. Other denominations have been in long-term decline, as well. That didn't happen overnight. ■ But whether or not organized religions maintain a hold on people and their identities, people will forever be engaged in a search for meaning, a quest for belonging, and a ritualized way of experiencing significant life events. Organized religion, whether Christian or non-Christian, has long offered a structured route to satisfying some of those basic human longings. Zoroastrianism is probably 3,500 years old. ■ "Spiritual but not religious" is now one of the most popular ways for American adults to self-identify. It seems exceptionally unlikely that it means "I have independently satisfied all of the longings which religion so often addresses". It seems much more likely that people who have become dissatisfied with organized religion are turning to other outlets -- from politics to video games, from exercise programs to role-playing -- to try to make meaning out of each life's inevitable complexities. ■ What may be especially interesting to watch is whether and how the mainline branches of Christianity respond to the growing -- demand? need? opportunity? -- for missionaries to the agnostic and the disaffiliated. Catholicism, for instance, has a long history of syncretism -- absorbing and co-opting local practices in order to entrench itself with new converts. Will orders like the Jesuits and Franciscans establish modern-day missions for the "spiritual but not religious" in American cities and suburbs? ■ Will Episcopalians offer unconventional, environmentally-themed services for those who are reluctant to use the Book of Common Prayer, but who bring a quasi-religious fervor to their regard of climate change as an overwhelming existential threat? ■ Will Presbyterians take their social justice advocacy to unconventional online platforms to mediate a pathway to reach people for whom political protests and demonstrations take the place of gathering with a community in religious worship? ■ The changing state of outward religious practice may or may not be cause for alarm -- either as it regards individuals' souls, or as it affects society at large. Religion itself may have laudable effects on a population, or it can be used as a tool of oppression. But religious instincts are almost certainly not in the same kind of decline as religious identification. ■ British rabbi and philosopher Jonathan Sacks wrote that "[R]itual is to ethics what physical exercise is to health. Medical knowledge alone will not make me healthy. That requires daily discipline, a ritual -- and religion is the matrix of ritual." What is yet to be seen is whether the sects already well-established in American culture will engage in bold adaptations at missionary outreach that match the accelerating pace of their relative decline.
September 14, 2022
It's the economy, but not stupid
There is no form of misplaced confidence quite like that of the person who thinks they can forecast the state of the economy on a global basis. And make no mistake: The United States is just about a quarter of the whole world's economy, so any forecasts of the US economy are estimates of the global one, and vice-versa. (A wall isn't a house all by itself, but a four-sided house wouldn't be a house if one of those walls went missing.) ■ We may give it a holistic, all-encompassing name complete with definite article ("the" economy), but this amorphous thing we talk about doesn't exist in a mechanical space. It's the aggregation of the uncountable trillions and quadrillions of individual choices made by billions of human beings. "The" economy may be subject to specific trends and forces, but it is also deeply tied to human emotions. ■ That emotionality ensures that waves of irrational behavior will prevail from time to time, and it also ensures that fundamentally unpredictable events will have consequences that no rational forecaster can see coming. If anyone had confidently known in February 2019 that a pandemic was coming, they certainly failed to tell the rest of us -- and yet, can anyone name a single more significant influence on the world economy in the last five years than Covid-19? ■ Lots of people are being paid to try to guess what will happen over the next couple of years, and if any of them were fully honest, they would merely say "If present trends continue, this is my best guess at what would happen in the absence of any surprise events. But there will be surprise events that could easily ruin this entire forecast, so don't read very much at all into this." ■ The very best anyone can or should attempt to do is to draw modest conclusions about the likely trends in specific areas based upon fundamental conditions, and to indicate what kinds of events could influence those trends. ■ For example, the rate of inflation, which is unusually high, should not be expected to ease for a while. The Federal Reserve is using interest rates to try to corral it, but the Fed is working against a huge increase in the money supply -- one that has been ongoing since the economic panic of 2008/2009. Lots of money has been pumped into the economy in effort to keep it from crashing. But much of that money has moved extremely slowly by historical standards, and only a slight uptick in its velocity (like the one encountered recently) can easily be enough to keep prices on the rise. ■ There are other titanic factors at play, too. Take the mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce, who are being succeeded by a much smaller generation of managers and experienced workers. ■ Or take the expense of rearranging supply chains to build resilience against further lockdowns in China or trouble in freight transportation. Or consider the consequences of having to re-make a substantial portion of Europe's energy balance because of the recklessness of the Kremlin and its assault on Ukraine. Or the influence of huge sums of "relief" spending that haven't even been allocated yet. ■ All of those are fundamental reasons pushing in the direction of further inflation for some time to come. Maybe lower than it has been over the last couple of quarters -- but maybe not. The only certainty anyone should have is that it's foolish to make forecasts with any certainty, even in stable times. And these times are hardly stable.
September 16, 2022
The past just isn't what it used to be
Almost without exception, life is simpler for children than it is for adults. Children don't have to worry about mortgage payments, occupational licensing, or paying their taxes. The very few exceptions tend to prove the rule that they are free from anything approaching life-and-death concerns -- and when they are, it is often because they have been swept up in the currents of problems which adults have created. ■ When this generally low level of angst is combined with the natural tendency to forget pain and remember good times, there are very few routes straight to adults' hearts than nostalgia. Fairy tales, period pieces, and oldies radio all tend to exploit the longing for what in retrospect almost invariably seem like simpler and better times in the past. ■ But it would be a gross over-simplification to imagine that human civilization was objectively better-off in those purportedly "simpler" times. There's no doubt that the modern world is vastly more complex than any time can reflect upon in history. But anyone who has lived through the first decades of the 21st Century has witnessed what is most likely the most gobsmacking period of progress in human history. ■ Smashing progress has been made against evils like child mortality, unbelievable numbers of people have been moved out of abject poverty and into the global middle class, and communications have put people in touch with one another in ways that were completely unimaginable even half a century ago. ■ But those facts don't stop some people from offering a revisionist view of what they view as "traditional" history. Some of them sneak into conversations by waxing poetic about seemingly innocuous aspects of the past, like sharing pictures of past artistic triumphs and and giving them brighter colors. There is a grain of truth to is: We shouldn't imagine that the world of the past consisted entirely of black, white, and gray. ■ Beneath the surface, though, when people show off the distant past in a flattering light, they are too often only a short step from advocating for a revival of "traditional" ways that are incompatible with the world our species has made. Astonishingly, there are those who, today, in the 21st Century, try to argue that the Enlightenment was a mistake. Sometimes they say so directly and literally. Sometimes they merely lead others to believe it as a "natural" conclusion. ■ The major peril lurking beneath the social-media posts shared by accounts with officious names like "Cultural Tutor" and "Historical Images" isn't that they are often staged or misrepresented, though that is often the case, but that they are all too often deliberately intended to sow discontent with modernity. ■ What starts with an innocuous observation -- for instance, that people used brightly colored paints in the distant past on objects and architecture that are mostly faded today -- can swiftly turn into ludicrous complaints like one that "the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and Modernism have made the Middle Ages almost incomprehensible to us". ■ This is portrayed as though there were some mysterious lost Middle Ages wisdom we could and ought to recapture, if only we were to reject "the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism". Life wasn't fundamentally better in the Middle Ages; people died of plagues, smallpox, and ordinary infections. They drank contaminated water (a problem humanity barely understood at all until the 1850s. They submitted to the will of unelected elites. They enjoyed neither household refrigeration nor air travel. ■ It isn't wrong to look at pictures of colorful, ornate architecture from the past. Indeed, even emphatically forward-thinking people can enjoy them. But critical thinkers need to ask, "What is the message someone is trying to send?" and "What part of the story does the picture omit?" ■ No sensible person would reject the civil-rights advancements of the last 50 years, much less those of the last 500. But those advancements don't show up in gauzy social-media posts about "beautiful" old buildings. Many of the victories of the Enlightenment (and the modern thinking descended from it) have more to do with how people live than what we build. And they are far more important. ■ Simplistic posts that uncritically valorize the distant past and cast aspersions on modernity are much worse than brief indulgences in classic television sitcoms or the popular music of one's youth. A depiction of classic art restored to its colorful origins doesn't tell the story of the staggering costs of building things like Gothic cathedrals. ■ Because human culture evolves, we have to trust that there may be some embedded wisdom in the decisions about what our forebears passed down -- and what they did not. The process isn't perfect, but it tends to organically capture the wisdom of a great deal of trial and error along the way. ■ We should certainly look to the past from time to time to see if good ideas got left on the cutting-room floor. But we shouldn't let anyone fool us into the false belief that some utopian past can and should be recovered, especially not by rejecting the stepping stones that brought about the world of today. As we find good things along the way, we ought to conserve them for our children and grandchildren. And as others are found no longer useful, we serve our descendants well by casting them off.
At 44 years old, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is just one year older than George Washington when he was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. May Zelenskyy, like Washington, have plenty of time to make more good history.
There are entire cities buried under the soils of Italy that don't feature as many tiles as one extraordinarily gaudy residential bathroom in New Jersey.
September 17, 2022
You don't know what you're missing
If a piece of wisdom is supposed to be transcendent or beyond dispute, it's often framed as maternal advice: "Like your mother told you", or "Just like Grandma used to say". As a literary device, it works. Strictly from a biological perspective, nobody is more certain of their investment in a child than a mother. Paternity may fall into dispute, but maternity can't. ■ This almost iron-clad faith in the goodwill of the advice of mothers is nothing new. The first chapter of the Book of Proverbs contains the 2,500 year-old passage, "Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching; A graceful diadem will they be for your head; a pendant for your neck." ■ How plainly astonishing, then, that so little of the wisdom of those mothers and grandmothers makes its way into the canon of philosophical literature. Under-valuing the wisdom and intelligence of women is a mistake human civilizations have made over and over, through the course of millennia, and it's a travesty that we have no obvious recourse to get it back. ■ We can't retroactively enroll more women in Plato's Academy or read what the Founding Mothers might have written, at least not much outside of the context of the letters of Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison to their husbands. ■ That there were so few women heard from isn't because they didn't have things to say. Nor is it excused by the woeful inattention to the education of women provided in past eras (a condition lamented by Benjamin Franklin, among others): We still study the works of Leonardo da Vinci today, even though he had no meaningful formal education. Surely there have been at least as many women as naturally gifted as the men we study today, but we just don't have records of most of them. ■ What's missing is vast, either because it was never written in the first place, or wasn't preserved because it wasn't valued. But the prospects of artificial intelligence and massive digitization might make it possible to either reconstruct or to synthesize small portions of what's missing. ■ Reconstruction, or reverse-engineering what may have been said by looking at the artifacts of what was recorded by others, would be the most authentic. We can begin to reconstruct some of what Elizabeth Hamilton wrote in her lost letters by looking at the content of what Alexander Hamilton wrote in reply. But reconstruction assumes the existence of a record. ■ Synthesis may be useful for those many cases where finding a record is impossible, because it never existed in the first place. We may be able to turn to tools like the OpenAI GPT-3 to write what was never written in the first place, allowing us to ask questions like, "What would Aristotle's older sister have written after studying and debating with him?". ■ The value in these exercises (and in others like them) would be to offer a sort of placeholder in the literature of big ideas, to acknowledge that women were left out of much of the process of creating what we accept now as the Western intellectual canon, but that we should be cognizant of that absence. It is too easy to passively overlook what's missing unless some kind of marker reminds us. ■ Civilization is going to need those reminders for a while -- it's only been for a single century that women were even allowed to study at many elite schools or even to vote. Parity in the intellectual canon is going to take a long while, but like reserving a seat for the deceased or putting on a missing-man formation, sometimes we need to see symbolically what's missing. We live in an exciting moment when it may begin to be possible to put some worthy symbols in place.
The normal distribution of weightlifting
The wear patterns on a weight machine tell a highly "normal" story about how much people like to lift. But it's also curious to note how many users evidently feel compelled to round up and lift 100 lbs. instead of 95. Apparently, people don't like to lie to themselves in matters of strength.
September 18, 2022
A bloviator with a broadcast audience has been caught on record ranting against a sign in a child's classroom which said "The world is better because you are in it." His cantankerous rejection of the merit of that sign was merely that "What has any fifth-grader done to make the world better because he or she is in it?" ■ It is a misfortune that broadcasting outlets still prop up the reach of people who are so eager to dismiss the humanity in others. The remark itself was offhand and self-evidently not particularly well-developed, and it's not the first time a broadcaster has said something remarkably stupid because those were simply the first words to pop into their head while trying to stretch out the clock. ■ But it doesn't take much heavy-handed scrutiny to ask a basic question: If someone took a seat next to you in a public space -- a hotel bar, an airplane seat, or in a pew at church -- and offhandedly chuckled to himself, "What good is a ten-year-old girl?", would you not be alarmed by both their judgment and their fundamental decency? What kind of civic decay are the advertisers and program directors of the world encouraging when they deem a commentator of that sort to be worth propping up and placing before an audience five days a week, for three hours a day? ■ Putting aside the obvious objective rebuttals to the question of what good a fifth-grader has ever done for the world (Mozart had already performed solo concerts by that age and was about to write his first opera), there is a much simpler moral refutation. It is that every life has value, intrinsically, and without any regard to what they might have "done to make the world better". ■ Most people are inclined by nature to try to be good and to try to do well, at least for themselves and their families, but often for broader social circles and even for complete strangers. Fifth-graders have done great good: Saving everyone on a school bus from likely disaster, saving a choking classmate, and donating the profits from a home-based business to children's hospitals. But doing that sort of good isn't a prerequisite to their humanity. ■ An enlightened view of personal responsibility, of course, compels everyone to do his or her duty to try to create more good in the world than they extract. But creating some sort of measurable net good in the world neither confers humanity, nor does failing to do so detract from it. Wantedness isn't a precondition for intrinsic human value. And that human value does, indeed, make the world better. ■ A person who dismisses the fundamental worth of others' lives, whether in the midst of a carefully-scripted rant or in passing remarks meant only to fill the time, is not a person worth elevating for larger audiences to heed. When we grant blowhards a platform, we implicitly co-sign with their worst impulses. The First Amendment assures the right of Americans to hold and announce really bad ideas. It does not, however, require that those bad ideas be shamelessly elevated.
Protests have broken out after a 22-year-old woman was killed by Iran's "morality" police over the mandatory use of a hijab
Typhoons to our left, hurricanes to our right
Alaska is dealing with a dying typhoon, while Puerto Rico is getting hammered by Hurricane Fiona
Self-propelled, self-balancing "micro mobility", say the proponents. Or just a really great way to cause more concussions.
The Storm Prediction Center puts most of southern Iowa (including a substantial share of the state's population via the Des Moines and Iowa City metro areas) under advisement to watch out for supercell thunderstorms
George Washington was born in the same year (1732) that Benjamin Franklin began publishing "Poor Richard's Almanack"
Arresting images of a bridge that was toppled by the quake
September 19, 2022
In 1753 -- nearly a quarter of a century before he took part in writing the Declaration of Independence, and a full 34 years before he signed the Constitution of the United States -- Benjamin Franklin offered some poignant advice in his Poor Richard's Almanack: "Sudden Power is apt to be insolent, Sudden Liberty saucy; that behaves best which has grown gradually." ■ Considering how impatient so many people are in the present age, Franklin's advice could use a modern-day signal boost. It's not to say that people shouldn't be impatient when their rights are on the line: Too much patience in the face of tyranny only gives the tyrannical more time to entrench themselves. ■ But Franklin's advice does say something meaningful about how we, as a self-governing people, have to think about transitions like the handing over of power to subsequent generations. People are not born as responsible participants in a democratic society; they have to be trained, preferably first by loving families, and then by social institutions like their schools, churches, and scout troops. ■ Even then, many a freshly-minted voter still embraces radical views thanks to the passions of youth. What's dangerous, though, is when people remain prone to those "insolent" and "saucy" habits because they refuse to take part in "growing gradually". ■ Much has been written about political polarization, and much more will be written yet. It's hard to tell sometimes whether the phrase "What radicalized you?" is really tongue-in-cheek or a statement of reality. ■ Growing so that we "behave best", as Franklin put it, requires a commitment to remaining open to new and improved ideas along the way, while resisting the radical urges that arise out of passions. Nobody is fully equipped with wisdom at the age of 18, but nobody has all of the right answers at 78, either. ■ In a functional democratic society, no one gets to be satisfied with outcomes 100 percent of the time. Wisdom consists in learning to take satisfaction in a good process and outcomes that come closer to giving everyone 60% of what they want, rather than giving 60% of the people everything that they want. Adults have a deep and abiding obligation to learn that lesson and pass it along. Ben Franklin's advice has had more than a quarter of a millennium to ring in America's ears. We shouldn't be found careless in ignoring it.
Uber's computer systems hacked
"The person who claimed responsibility for the hack told The New York Times that he had sent a text message to an Uber worker claiming to be a corporate information technology person. The worker was persuaded to hand over a password..."
September 20, 2022
One of the heavier social issues of the moment is housing affordability. The gravity of the problem varies a lot by market, but there are fairly dependable indications that the situation is broadly felt. One is the National Association of Realtors' housing affordability index, which tells a story of rapidly-rising costs that outstrip prospective owners' ability to pay. Another is the surging share of renters spending more than 30% of their income on rent. ■ There have always been -- and always will be -- people eager to make money by building and selling or renting places for others to live. So if the market is characterized by painfully high prices, then the most likely culprit is some kind of constraint on supply. After all, anyone who was willing to build housing at pre-surge pricing is likely to want to build even more as market prices rise. ■ Some of the big constraints on housing supply come from zoning regulations, imposing restrictions like minimum lot sizes in single-family neighborhoods. And there are lots of widely-found restrictions on any construction of medium density or greater. ■ Those restrictive practices basically guarantee difficulty in pacing housing supply along with demand, especially as urbanization (broadly speaking) remains a dominant trend. Individual cities may shrink, but on balance the United States continues to urbanize (just as it has been doing at least since the Baby Boom). ■ Certain attitudes about housing trail public needs. A number of architecture critics flipped out over an offer made by Charlie Munger to subsidize a huge new dormitory for the University of California Santa Barbara -- using high-density single rooms, many of them interior and without windows. An "abomination", some called it, even though it was a novel solution to a very real need to house more young people in a compact way at a growing university. ■ Yet one can find advertised options to voluntarily rent a windowless interior cabin on a cruise ship for $2,500 a week. Obviously, context matters: On a cruise, passengers are paying for destinations, food, and entertainment. ■ But it seems exceptionally unimaginative of us to see the plain evidence of the need for innovative housing solutions in America's cities on one hand, and the chronic insistence that we chain ourselves to often inflexible criteria on the other. Windowless rooms may be suboptimal, but homelessness certainly isn't better -- nor is being priced out of access to opportunity, which is what happens when there aren't enough dorm rooms on college campuses or affordable places to live near growing business districts. ■ If a windowless cabin on a cruise ship can be so creatively and thoughtfully designed that it is desirable at a market-clearing price of $2,500 a week, then that experience must offer at least some transferable lessons we could apply as a society to getting more people safely and affordably housed on land.
September 21, 2022
It wasn't Joseph Stalin but rather the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky who wrote, "The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!". Whatever its provenance, the phrase lingers because it contains a real truth. We overlook lots of terrible things because they happen in large numbers, but can be driven to concentrate on other terrible things when they happen to just one person. ■ In Iran, just such a case is unfolding. 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being arrested by the state's "morality" police for breaking their rules on what women are permitted to wear outside the home. Iran is a very large country; with 86 million people, it is more populous than Germany, France, or the UK. And the "morality" police have troubled many of them -- probably millions. ■ But this single case -- transparent in its cruelty -- has ignited vigorous protests not just in one or two places, but all over the country. Many people have had enough. Their contempt for their oppressors is boiling. ■ Americans like to talk about how exceptional we are. And the American system has indeed proven to be -- quite literally -- exceptional. 4% of the world's population produces 24% of its annual economic output, holds profound cultural and technological hegemony, and buys 40% of the world's armaments. ■ But we, as people, shouldn't mistake that aggregated exceptionality for being all that different as people. We're phenomenally fortunate. The incredible good luck of either birth or successful immigration that makes a person American shouldn't be discounted. But the things that animate us don't really differentiate us from others; they ought to bind us closer. ■ People everywhere have these things in common: Most of us want to be good people, to do well by our families, and to go about our own lives making decisions untrammeled by the overreach of authority. And those aren't just true of people in the present; they've been true of human beings for as long as we've been building something that looks like civilization. ■ History is full of stories of slave revolts and freedom narratives. It isn't exceptional to want freedom; it is perfectly normal. From east to west, it is entirely normal to demand agency in the course of one's own life. ■ What is happening in Iran could well turn dangerous, and indeed it already has. The rest of the world owes the people there goodwill and support. We also owe them solidarity: They do not choose their oppression, and like us (all across humankind), they have every right and instinct to want liberty from arbitrary and unjust oppression. They are only human, and so are we. And the more we see ourselves the same, the better we see why they're right.
September 22, 2022
A tax, but one to give right back
The appeal of the all-you-can-eat buffet isn't necessarily the abundance of available choices, but rather the suspension of any need to consider trade-offs. Life is full of trade-offs which force us to make small decisions every day, and being liberated from the need to make them can be like a vacation unto itself -- hence, the appeal of the all-inclusive resort. ■ Trade-offs remain both natural and unavoidable in the real world, though, and the failure to properly account for them in their totality is one of the main reasons that economics needs the concept of externalities. All things come with a balance of good and bad, which requires us to think about both. The indirect or unintentional consequences of our choices usually deserve accounting. ■ Pollution is perhaps the most notorious of the negative externalities. While progress has been made towards addressing the conventional pollution of the air, water, and soil, one of the most vexing problems is how to deal with the deposition of excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. ■ The consumption of carbon -- in particular, via the burning of fossil fuels -- has been treated like an all-you-can-eat buffet since the dawn of the industrial age. That liberation from choices has meant that people simply haven't been forced to reckon with the negative externalities. And thus we get climate change. ■ It is one matter to decide whether or not this excess carbon is really a problem. It is another to decide whether to do something about it. And it is still another to decide how best to go about doing it. ■ The evidence suggests that it is a real problem (and even if not, the costs of guessing wrong appear devastatingly high). Thus, many of the advanced industrial countries have decided in the affirmative on the second question -- to do something about it. ■ Even those who may not agree that it is a problem, or that action is worth taking, still ought to engage in deliberation about the best way to "do something": Even if you're trapped in a vehicle going to a destination not of your choosing, you would still want to have input on what plays on the stereo, how the temperature should be set, and whether the driver stays between the lines. ■ If we really want to reduce the deposition of excess carbon into the atmosphere, then instead of introducing vexing new regulations or imposing massively expensive and command-style plans from above, the most prudent strategy is probably to impose a tax on the release of carbon into the atmosphere. ■ New taxes, of course, are unpopular by default. The way to introduce the least amount of pain in association with such a tax is to rebate back the preponderance of it directly back to the public. If the funds raised through a carbon tax where overwhelmingly returned back to the public on a per-capita basis, the tax would be progressive (in the sense of raising more from the wealthy than from the poor) by default. Consumption taxes tied to a rebate system tend to do well at making those who consume the most shoulder the biggest part of the burden. Those earning the least income would benefit relatively the most from a rebate. ■ A truly wise tax design, if functioning like a "sin" tax, would impose some kind of deterrent effect. One would not want to rebate all of the revenues from a carbon tax back to the people being taxed -- perhaps most, but not all. With a portion of the tax revenues raised, the government could subsidize research and development, using inducement or innovation prizes. ■ A tax imposed on carbon consumption could mostly non-coercively nudge people away from the behaviors that cause carbon-related pollution, while minimizing the amount of decision-making required along the way. Instead of complex regulatory impositions, a carbon tax would put the most useful information in the easiest-to-understand terms: Prices. Choices resulting in more carbon pollution would come with higher price tags, all else being equal. ■ And if a small portion of funds raised through such a tax were devoted to inducement prizes -- prizes that only be pay out upon demonstrated performance -- the government would only have to pay when the job is done, making for a highly accountable form of public spending. Structured correctly, those prizes could reward high-priority technological innovations (like, for instance, better battery technology or improved small-engine efficiency), and the terms of accepting the very large reward could include turning over the innovation to the public domain for immediate royalty-free use by the private sector. ■ Climate change proposals (and no small amount of grandstanding) will remain on display for the full week of general debate at the United Nations. The scale of the problems may be global, but the answers will come from national decisions suitable to the people living under them. For the United States, at least, moving away from the buffet table and towards a simple pricing-based mechanism likely makes the most sense of all.
September 23, 2022
The Economist publishes an obituary in each weekly edition, and it has recently featured two exceptionally prominent departures: Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II. Gorbachev was commemorated with 1,044 words, and the monarch with 1,039. These obituaries, like most of The Economist's writing, assume an educated and curious readership seeking to be informed by writers mindful of their time and rival interests. ■ In a sense, a thousand words is an arbitrary limitation. It's roughly what fits into one of The Economist's pages, with its spartan layout across two compact columns. The length isn't an Economist exclusive, either; consider Stephen Marche's "A Thousand Words About Our Culture" in Esquire, or the industry-standard 750-word op-ed column published in (and still solicited by) many newspapers. ■ Within that range of 750 to 1,000 words, a good writer can lasso the reader's attention, construct a defensible case on a matter, and exit without exhausting the audience's attention. Calvin Coolidge, as a post-Presidency newspaper columnist, got by in even fewer. Certainly, physical limitations -- like the number of words that fit on a magazine page or within a literal column of a broadsheet newspaper -- have helped to shape the nature and expectations of the written form. But there's something more to it. ■ Considering how long the format has endured, it's not unreasonable to conclude that it has an organic appeal. Assuming a well-educated reader can generally trawl through 250 to 500 words per minute of non-technical material, a thousand-word column begs only about two to four minutes of time. ■ But stripped of the limitations imposed by the printed page, many of the writers on digital platforms like Substack have abandoned those word counts for much greater heights. It isn't hard to find "columns" in the digital world that exceed not just 1,000 or 1,500 words, but that tilt the scales at 2,000 words or more. While it can seem luxurious to the writer to have no upper bound on what they are capable of publishing, there's only so much that readers should be asked to endure. ■ The answer isn't necessarily reducing down to the "smart brevity" model touted by an outlet like Axios. Bullet points and bold fonts aren't a substitute for writing clearly and distinctly. ■ But there is most certainly something to be said for asking writers to exhibit a little bit of self-imposed discipline. "Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel" used to be the old axiom. Writers today may not have to buy pixels by the barrel, but they ought to act like it. Reading from a screen can be fatigue-inducing in its own right, but it's even more exhausting when writers fail to hold back, concentrate on a discrete point, and move along to writing something new for the next deadline. ■ If an entire life can be summed up in about a thousand words (or its achievements rebutted in about 750), then most arguments can be made with more economy of language than is often the case in digital publishing. Just because we can drone on indefinitely doesn't mean we should.
September 26, 2022
Personality is built, not bought
Judging by Google search traffic, "self-care" has never been more popular than it is in 2022. Taking care of oneself is, of course, an entirely prudent thing to do. ■ But it's hard not to detect at least some undertones in the ascendant cult of "self-care" (and some of its allied movements) that are meant to hobble its adherents, handcuffing them to routines that emphasize escape over accommodation. Life can be hard, and there is no amount of goop you can buy from a celebrity's website to make the hardness go away. ■ There is something of a mirror to the cult of self-care in the cult of faux masculinity. It doesn't take much searching to find examples of men dressing up in military-surplus costumes or turning ordinary consumer products into inexplicable confirmations of manhood. The aesthetic is all too often tied to an overcompensatory rejection of feelings as weakness. ■ Of these two, the first is almost always associated with a welcoming, open-minded mindset. The second is seen as closed and hostile. The first looks like it could shatter at any moment, while the second would have you believe it is prepared for the worst. ■ The problem in both of these cases is that popular culture has these ideas all jumbled up. Open-mindedness -- towards ideas, people, and approaches to problems -- is a vital tool in the kit of any well-functioning adult. It's a powerful weapon to be open to persuasion and difference; Dwight Eisenhower counseled in favor of this kind of liberality when he said, "A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations." ■ But no amount of openness can be of much use unless it's tied to a sense of resilience. Sure, everyone needs to take a break once in a while. But celebrating fragility over resilience -- internalizing every setback, hurdle, or frustration as an injury in need of repair rather than accepting the inevitability of setbacks as a fact of life -- is a sure way to teach people a sense of helplessness. ■ People can (and should) be both kind and strong, both compassionate and gritty. Under circumstances far more trying than Americans encounter today, Booker T. Washington wrote, "I am learning more and more each year that all worry simply consumes, and to no purpose, just so much physical and mental strength that might otherwise be given to effective work." ■ Perhaps the underlying problem is the drive to commoditize personality, to convert "Who you are" into a thing that can be sold from a rack. Such things cannot be done, any more than a child becomes a real ghost by putting on a Halloween costume. Personality is built, not bought. ■ Though it may seem quaint to call an experience a "character-building exercise", fundamentally it is true: No small part of the construction of any person's true self will take place under challenging conditions. We share a common interest in encouraging people to show open-mindedness to others and to the world. But we also have a vested interest in seeing those open-minded people develop an interior robustness. No life will go without obstacles, and it's no use becoming convinced that the answer is a helpless attachment to frequent surrender.
September 28, 2022
Joni Mitchell famously admonished that you don't know what you've got until it's gone, but it's also entirely true that once something is gone, it's hard for those who never knew it to imagine what life was like when it was still around. That's often fortunate, too: Nobody living with paved roads and modern sanitary sewers knows what it's like to walk through streets dodging horse manure and suffering with the chronic stench of waste. ■ Pressure continues building to drive the free advanced countries away from internal combustion. Much of that pressure has come from climate concerns, though increasingly, it also comes from political concerns about dependence on unreliable and even hostile counterparts for the necessary fossil fuel supplies. ■ The electrification of almost everything is well underway. From electric vehicles (now with a 5% market share in the US and 17% in Europe) to robotic battery-powered lawn mowers to even the emergence of electric air taxis, it's becoming evident that engines may be on their way out. ■ This presents an interesting little slice-of-life change that may well go unnoticed by today's children as they grow up. Combustion engines are noisy things, and they're all around us. We are so used to their noises that some electric vehicles have artificial noise added. Pause to consider how many overlapping engine noises are heard in a residential area: Airplanes flying overhead, motorcycles and cars rolling down the street, the two-cycle engines on leaf blowers and string trimmers being ramped up and down by homeowners. ■ It's not unrealistic to imagine that those noises are largely on the way out. Things will still make noise in an electrified future, of course -- but quite possibly, they'll make a lot less of it. And nobody will really remember much about them, because they aren't going to stop with a grand flourish. They're being turned off slowly and quietly, like a pop song that fades out. ■ And like ""Hey Jude", that fade-out may last almost as long as the main theme. But it is already underway, and it might be hard to explain what's missing someday to those who never knew when it started.
September 29, 2022
The way some people talk about their political rivals, one might get the impression that the United States was being overrun by evildoers bent on a level of plunder and destruction not seen since Genghis Khan. It isn't hard to find outlets sensationalizing that narrative on television, radio, websites, and social media. But it hardly comports with the lived reality of anyone who really pays attention. ■ People can be wrong about a lot of things. Good people. Even ourselves. But the leap from "Good person with whom I disagree" to "Evil person out to destroy everything I hold dear" is too easily and too often taken by the people clamoring to get famous, rich, or powerful by fanning the flames of existential angst. ■ There is no other individual with whom any thinking person agrees on every subject. Not a spouse. Not a parent. Not a best friend. Nobody should even agree completely with themselves, at least not over the course of time. Benjamin Franklin's advice to "Let every new year find you a better man" should be a reminder to shed old ideas when new evidence, better arguments, or the accumulation of wisdom compel us. ■ But just as a conscientious person ought to be tough on his or her old self, so too ought they to be forgiving of others who haven't come to the same conclusions. Sometimes, it's only a matter of "not yet" -- who doesn't hold a few cockamamie ideas as a young person? (And it's even more important now to be forgiving of past indiscretions, now that 13-year-olds can share their dumbest opinions on Facebook or become "influencers" before they can write cursive.) ■ Sometimes those differences will soften or even disappear with time. Sometimes they will persist. But aside from the extreme cases of the truly psychopathic and anti-social, most people are neither as different from one another as they might seem, nor as inclined to cause harm as the agitation propagandists would have us believe. ■ When the propagandists make claims like "They hate you" or "They're trying to destroy the country", it's imperative to ask: Who are "they", and where precisely are all of these supposedly terrible people hiding? In the workplace? At church? Around the neighborhood? In the bowling league? ■ If even one out of every hundred people at your place of worship seemed like a real evildoer, wouldn't their presence stand out? If every ten people with whom you did business included at least one real crook, wouldn't that raise serious alarm? If every residential block or floor of an apartment building were home to someone you could legitimately fear were out to destroy the Constitution itself, could that escape your attention? ■ A self-governing society can contain a whole lot of differences, even very large ones, as long as the people inside it are capable of distinguishing between a bad idea and a bad person. The mindset of "You just don't agree with me...yet" works a lot of magic to bring differences into their proper perspective. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were able to reconcile after a bitter rivalry. Stephen A. Douglas rallied support for Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. Harry Truman enlisted Herbert Hoover to help reorganize the Executive Branch. ■ There's nothing wrong with spirited arguments -- those are a feature of the system, rather than a bug. Robust debate is a basic ingredient to successful decision-making among self-governing people. But there is something awfully wrong about assuming levels of bad faith (or worse) that have no basis in evidence. If anyone were surrounded by the same ratio of actual evil in real life that the agitators would have us believe, then perpetual crisis really would be at hand. Sensible people keep their wits about them by realizing there is no such tidal wave of malfeasance.
September 30, 2022
An institution undergoing severe decline may undertake what is called a gamble for resurrection: A bold or even foolhardy effort to do something extraordinary when the odds seem stacked against them, in what can be a desperate effort to try to salvage the outcome. It's been observed in banking, in militaries, and in business. ■ From the beginning, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has displayed characteristics of a gamble for resurrection. The Putin regime sits atop a country with a stagnant economy, demographic decline, and a woeful state of civil affairs. ■ It didn't have to turn out this way. Russia has vast natural resources, a significant place in world affairs, and a long-standing reputation for academic and scientific achievement. But even a good leader couldn't oversee the government of a country so large for so long without becoming sclerotic. And Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for more than 20 years, isn't a good person. ■ He knows that others are aware of his vulnerabilities, which may explain not only why so many critics are killed, but also why he might have undertaken a massive and unprovoked invasion. A successful invasion would have looked -- superficially -- like a demonstration of strength. ■ As the invasion of Ukraine is repelled, it's entirely possible that Putin will go even farther in this gamble for resurrection. If it becomes likely that he himself will be forced out of power, then it seems likely that he faces an existential threat to his own person. (Things rarely end well for deposed dictators.) And that, in turn, raises the stakes that he might act in ways that may raise existential threats for everyone else. ■ It is very good news that there has been global condemnation of the sham annexation referenda in some of the Ukrainian territories Russia has occupied. But it is very bad news that four countries abstained from a UN Security Council vote to denounce the referenda. ■ Safety lies in large part with people making rational decisions even within the irrational system imposed on the Russian state. The larger the number of individuals who realize the fruitlessness of further escalation and who gather how essential it is that they put the brakes on an autocrat's worst impulses, the better. ■ One man may be gambling for resurrection -- and willing to go all-in with many others along with his own life -- but safety rests with ensuring the broadest possible understanding among those below him that a resurrection is possible without the gamble. They have to see the possibility of a future their strongman cannot himself conceive.