Gongol.com Archives: November 2023

Brian Gongol


November 2023
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November 8, 2023

Business and Finance Running (a business) scared

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, ever keen to discourage indulgence in strong feelings, warned his readers to "check" and "curb" the sense of pleasure "as those who stand behind men in their triumphs and remind them that they are mortal." His warning was a reference to the Roman practice of reminding triumphant generals that all victory is temporary, and that they too would someday die. ■ It's hard to travel far across the United States today without seeing an Amazon delivery van, a Prime-branded semi-trailer, or one of a few hundred Amazon fulfillment centers near a major highway. The company is enormous, with a top-ten market capitalization and 1.54 million employees -- more than the entire population of Hawaii. ■ As a business, Amazon is a titanic success. It's such a success that it gets singled out for regulatory scrutiny and is a frequent favorite target of antitrust regulators at home and abroad. ■ All across America are the relics of Sears stores, once even more ubiquitous than Amazon fulfillment centers. The remaining number of operating Sears stores today is perhaps a dozen. The faded ghost signs of their predecessors are like the characters described by Epictetus -- whispering "memento mori" throughout the executive suites at Amazon. Their enterprise, too, is mortal. ■ It's unlikely that regulators will ever have the power to bring down Amazon (and they probably shouldn't). But the same market that once built an enterprise big enough to finance the then-tallest building in the world is also the market that can crush that same enterprise if it doesn't deliver what the common consumer demands.


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November 9, 2023

News Such nonsense

As a printer by trade, Benjamin Franklin had a vested interest in convincing other people to publish their thoughts. But he also had an acute awareness of how history would view him -- perhaps even more than any other member of America's founding generation. Thus his dictum: "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." We quote him still today, 285 years after he put those words in print. ■ The universality of publishing tools via the Internet means that literally nothing material stands in the way of anyone sharing their writing with the world, whether it consists of great profundities or merely toilet thoughts. And, as is so often the case with technologies, the younger the person, the more likely they are to use those publishing tools with great fluency. ■ The paradox, though, is in how that fluency conflicts with the self-discipline and wisdom required to really consider which will truly be "things worth reading", and which will be regrettable. An entire educational field has even taken root around the concept of media literacy to try to address this void. ■ As easy as it might be to dismiss it as a problem isolated to "kids these days", the problem is much more widespread than that. A 38-year-old Presidential candidate spouts incredible nonsense about building a border wall with Canada. A 52-year-old billionaire imagines feverishly that due to artificial intelligence, "There will come a point where no job is needed". A 47-year-old member of Congress unapologetically amplifies the language of genocide. ■ These words, while most often captured in digital form, are going to be around -- searchable, re-discoverable, and attributable -- for decades to come, while their speakers (presumably) remain fully alive. Why say them, knowing they will be like the ghosts of intemperances past? Why not think of the future? Why not commit just a little more restraint in the present to make sure that those ideas will be worth reading later on? ■ Reputations matter while people are alive, but the expectation of being remembered well after death should loom over us, too. A mild grasp of either consequence should perhaps serve as more of a warning than it evidently does.


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November 10, 2023

Broadcasting De-localizing the news

Deep in the history of radio station (and later television) call letters, the attentive person can uncover a backstory that often goes unrecognized today. Chicago's WLS, for instance, was named by Sears: WLS was meant to signify "World's Largest Store". Minneapolis has WCCO, for Washburn Crosby Company (a forerunner to General Mills). Nashville's WSM was National Life and Accident Insurance Company's way of plugging the slogan "We Shield Millions". ■ Those vintage call letters often hearken back to the early days of broadcasting, when commercial broadcast advertising as we know it today was in its infancy. Large companies often took a swing at starting their own stations as a way of having captive messaging channels for themselves. Having survived a century-long ride that made lots of people fantastically wealthy, though, the profits from commercial broadcasting are contracting dramatically. ■ In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the #62 market in the United States, KTUL-TV is decamping its news operation to Oklahoma City. The station's licensee, Sinclair Broadcast Group, is consolidating the Tulsa station with its other operations in the larger metro. ■ If local TV news isn't economically sustainable at that level of market #62, bigger than Honolulu, Omaha, or Des Moines, then that's a symptom of rapid economic deterioration. Radio advertising revenues have been cut in half since 2005, and television ad revenues may be surpassed by in-store advertising within five years. ■ Assuming that the local ownership and/or operation of media outlets has some intrinsic value -- and that, to at least some extent, has long been an animating assumption for parties ranging from Thomas Jefferson to FCC regulators -- then the collapse of marketplace conditions sustaining that local character ought to be taken seriously by sensible onlookers. We probably aren't headed for a revival in captive local ownership as in the 1920s, but something very different from the status quo may be inevitable.


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November 13, 2023

Computers and the Internet Mindless quotation is like distracted driving

After the widespread arrival of cell phones, it took a while for people to realize the dangers inherent to their use while driving. Mobile phones are tremendously useful tools, but it takes a considerable effort to do the education necessary for people to realize that the seduction of alerts and text messages needs to be tuned out while conducting a vehicle down the road. ■ Laws aren't always the solution. Some things that are bad for us call for awareness more than legislation, either because they demand self-discipline that can't easily be enforced, or because the harms they create are not fully intuitive and highlighting them helps people to see the need for voluntary compliance with good behavior. ■ Just as we collectively have internalized the dangers of texting while driving, we need to internalize the dangers of amplifying provocateurs. There are many running about, and they are responding to a feedback loop of incentives that encourages them to say things of escalating absurdity in their pursuit of attention. Say enough outlandish things to a devoted audience, and it might just land you a show on a disreputable cable channel. ■ Those provocateurs have to be tuned out, not just by people avoiding them in their own news and social-media feeds, but also by those who erroneously believe they are performing a public service by quoting the provocations in order to express revulsion. When, for example, a Presidential candidate espouses an utterly preposterous proposal to lay off half the country's civil service, he is not trying to be taken seriously. He is attempting to be so outlandish as to draw an outlandish response from others. ■ The temptation to point and shout in the direction of outlandishness is strong, but it has to be balanced by the self-discipline to realize that amplifying craziness, even to criticize, still serves to amplify craziness. If an absurdity must be pointed out, it can be done without using the provocateur's words or likeness. When they act in bad faith, the rest of us don't need to go along.

Science and Technology A great storyteller returns

After a hiatus of more than a quarter-century, the remarkable television presenter James Burke has revived -- or, perhaps, appended -- his "Connections" series. The programs did a remarkable job of telling the very non-linear story of science and technology: How seemingly different and widely-separated events and innovations eventually converged to produce unexpected outcomes. ■ Burke's ability to tell a riveting story is brilliant on paper. It is even more fantastic when delivered with a flair for the dramatic on-screen, like his perfectly-timed build-up to a rocket launch. That is a skill set worth celebrating in Burke and cultivating in others. ■ It comes as news to no one that we struggle to keep pace in the social sciences with progress in the technical sciences. A lot of developments come to fruition far before a legal framework is ready to accept them. That imbalance turns some people into Luddites and others into anarchists. ■ But Burke espouses a different view: "You're either optimistic, or you jump off the bridge, and I don't intend to jump off the bridge. The best thing is to stick around and do something." And his storytelling style -- particularly in its embrace of the unexpected, seemingly-random connections that cause changes in nothing like a linear fashion -- is a great model to embrace. ■ Nobody can know it all, and that's just fine. But we can (and should) be eager to learn some of it along the way, and to form useful heuristics for approaching new developments not with fear, but with sensibility.


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November 14, 2023

News Out in the cold

The city of Chicago, like a number of other major cities, is struggling to deal with the most pressing basic needs of an influx of migrant families. Some 3,000 are living, for now, in Chicago's police stations and airports. The effort to provide even temporary housing has created friction with some existing residents, who see the new arrivals as competitors for scarce social-service resources. ■ The city reports that 21,000 asylum-seekers have been taken in since August 2022, and that more than 12,000 are currently in shelters. Many others have been resettled or "reunited with sponsors". But even with those relief mechanisms, it's still the equivalent of absorbing the population of a small city. ■ The plight is acute, because winter is imminent, and at least 1,500 of those migrants are living in tents with virtually no insulation from the cold. The city is trying to assemble "winterized base camps" in a handful of sites, including a vacant grocery store, using tents large enough to shelter hundreds of people at a time. ■ Chicago had a significant population of homeless people before the arrival of the asylum-seekers. And projects like converting a foreclosed hotel into a temporary shelter for that incumbent population are helpful, but only in limited fashion. ■ The obstacles to speedily delivering safe, low-cost, permanent shelter for 21,000 new arrivals only serve to highlight that the very same obstacles stand in the way of aiding the incumbent residents who needed shelter before them. It should not tax our civic imaginations to such an extreme to figure out how to quickly get (permanent) roofs over heads. ■ Housing will always be a basic human need -- one of the most basic of all. And there will always be events that cause sudden surges in demand for it, from wars to famines to natural disasters. We ought to be clever enough to find replicable solutions that can be set up at low cost, at scale, in a hurry. If those answers can be found -- especially if the price can be brought low -- then other resources can be spent on the much wider range of social services that people in crisis also need.

Computers and the Internet Some Internet journalists need to stay off the Internet

A columnist for a reputable national newspaper has taken to social media to engage in what appears to be an escalatory spiral of conspiracy embrace and hazardous equivalency over health issues and international affairs. The columnist's beat is "technology and Internet culture", so it's perhaps no surprise her exposure to strong-to-extreme views is greater than for most people. ■ That raises potent questions about the prudence of assigning "Internet culture" journalists largely on the basis of youth and perceived closeness to the subject. There is something paradoxically naive to the assumption that the best people to cover Internet culture, such as it is, are the digital natives, rather than those who may otherwise view it with some arm's-length detachment. ■ To be sure, it's possible to over-correct: It would be ridiculous to have someone try to approach Internet culture like some pith-helmeted explorer reporting for the March 1922 issue of National Geographic (right beside Alexander Graham Bell's recollection of the "Prehistoric Telephone Days"). Complete bemused detachment (as rendered by someone like a modern-day Andy Rooney) would seem inauthentic, considering how much time and energy most people devote to their connected activities. ■ But maybe there was some latent value in the training people received as teenagers some thirty years ago, when MTV News and ABC News appeared on different channels, requiring a conscious choice to switch between them. Perhaps that created a reflexive understanding that Kurt Loder wasn't trafficking in the same material as Peter Jennings, and that it was entirely appropriate to shift gears when digesting what one heard from each. That's much harder to do when information is consumed as a non-stop stream (as it is via social media). ■ It's easy to romanticize the past, and it's a tradition nearly as old as civilization to complain about the indiscretions of youth. But particularly for institutions that go to significant lengths to buttress their credibility, it might be wise to bring level heads, clear eyes, and quite possibly an approach consciously designed to avoid the cultivation of celebrity to covering an online "culture" that is scarcely distinguishable from the one experienced by most people every day.


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November 15, 2023

News Even unelected politicians crave legitimacy

The regime governing China is so far removed from democratic legitimacy that in a country with 691 million women -- more than twice as many females as the United States has people -- it refuses to place even one woman in any of the two dozen seats of its Politburo. A government can be representative without being fully democratic, but China's government is neither. ■ Yet even though the Communist Party directly controls the army -- it is a "party army", rather than one independently loyal to the state -- it still has to show some concern for public perceptions of its legitimacy. A mostly unarmed population might have to struggle to overthrow an armed political party, but there are lots of non-lethal ways people can bring down a government that loses their faith altogether. ■ With a rare summit happening in California between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, CNN's Jim Sciutto observes, "The CCP's and Xi's legitimacy rests on the now crumbling promise they will deliver prosperity in exchange for unbridled power and popular submission to their authority. Xi's 'Chinese Dream' is looking emptier and emptier." ■ Xi has driven China away from the political reforms that might start to confer electoral legitimacy, so that road is closed for the foreseeable future. And 4% to 5% annual GDP growth would feel like a boom if it could be sustained in America, but it's much slower than China's regime has been counting upon for decades. ■ For the 6.7 billion residents of Planet Earth who are not made subject to the rule of the Communist Party of China, it's good to be alert to the turmoil likely to come soon. There's no obvious way to reverse some of the structural problems ahead: The disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic made friend-shoring a (nearly) household word, and the many other hazards of economic entanglement with a country ruled by authoritarianism have made at least some economic decoupling permanent. (No meeting is worth risking an arbitrary detainment or a sudden disappearance.) ■ And if that decoupling means China's economy is up against some hard limits to further growth, there's not a lot else the Communist Party is prepared to offer as an incentive to keep the public from growing restless. If the potential rewards run low, then the risk of the party using force (both brute force and intimidation) grows high. And that simply cannot be sustained indefinitely.


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November 18, 2023

News Take a deep breath

Jacob Levy, who teaches political theory at McGill University, muses, "I would really like inspirational posters and self-help books and so on that instead of advising boldness and seizing the day and going getting it and so on, advised taking a breath, thinking about other people, lowering your voice a little, waiting your turn." ■ A jest, perhaps, but also not a bad idea. We are sometimes lulled into a fairy tale that we can simply expect people to behave better today than in the past through some sort of automated process, as though manners and grace were dominant traits found on a chromosome. In reality, we have to be honest with ourselves: Humans are at the top of the animal kingdom, but we're still animals nonetheless. ■ That means our instincts aren't to put on pants and write well-reasoned letters to the editor. Our instincts are to fight, to reflexively defend our turf, and to pursue those things that look they'll bring us glory (and thus the esteem of the other members of the pack). That's what nature puts into us. It takes a conscious program of nurture to try to tame those animal instincts and turn us into better beings. ■ So, as quaint as it seems, we really do need to amplify those civilized virtues -- patience, consideration, tolerance, accommodation, and many others. We shouldn't expect them to get transmitted by DNA (they won't) nor for them to be passed along without our help (they can't). ■ Inspirational posters and self-help books really might be a part of the mechanism of transmission, but even more important are the other vectors where they compete with the animal instincts: Cultural artifacts like music and movies, classroom lessons and religious lectures, and all the places in life where coaches, teachers, mentors, guides, and (most especially) parents have options about which behaviors are worth summoning, and for what purposes. ■ If we're not deliberate about which of the civilized virtues we cultivate, we shouldn't be surprised if and when some people revert to animal instincts that are better suited to strife and zero-sum games than cooperation and progress. ■ It's easy for the aspirational virtues to sound cloying, sentimental, or over-earnest, especially if they're framed as a return to some kind of mythical past. There is real work to be done in showing how they are suited to very modern behavior in the face of very modern problem -- which they are, even if many of the authors of culture are out of practice in making it seem that way.


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November 19, 2023

Threats and Hazards Protesters close the Bay Bridge

In the very early 2000s, the widespread adoption of cell phones and Internet access gave rise to the first flash mobs. While some people saw them as nuisances and others saw them as amusing cultural phenomena, it was obvious to at least some people that flash mobs defied conventional security processes: Their very purpose was to evade anticipation. ■ Flash mobs have now been around for 20 years, and yet it often seems as though the people charged with ensuring public security still haven't given them the slightest thought. This came radically into focus with a protest that shut down the Bay Bridge when some 80 protesters stopped their cars -- 29 vehicles in total -- and tossed their keys into the bay before starting their protest. ■ It took hours of work and 250 California Highway Patrol officers to get the bridge back into operation, this at a time when the APEC summit was underway in San Francisco. Some very sober examination will need to take place into why and how such a vital artery could be shut down by such an uncomplicated operation for so long at such a high-security time. ■ But there also needs to be a turning of public opinion, loudly and harshly, against these kinds of consciously disruptive protests. It's not just that they create massive inconvenience for other people (though they do). They create real and severe unintended consequences for innocents, too: The protesters who shut down the bridge put at least three different organ donations at risk. ■ Bridges have been identified with protests at least since the Selma to Montgomery March, with the notorious brutality imposed on peaceful protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But that protest wasn't about shutting down a bridge; it was about getting to someplace else. ■ It was the violence done by police officers against the protesters in Selma -- and the peaceful persistence of those protesters in defiance of that violence -- that made the bridge significant. Today's protesters -- whether their causes are climate, vaccines, or geopolitics -- need to absorb a message: Shutting down a bridge doesn't confer moral supremacy on a cause.


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November 22, 2023

News A new North Star banner

Minnesota is late in the process of selecting a new state flag, having whittled a giant contest down to six finalists. The process is to be completed by a "State Emblems Redesign Commission", authorized by the state legislature, by the end of the year. ■ Opinions, naturally, will vary about the half-dozen finalists under consideration. But every single one of them is a hands-down winner in a head-to-head contest with the current state flag, which is a well-intentioned but unholy mess of a banner. It expressly violates three of the five principles of vexillology (and doesn't do very well on the remaining two). ■ And while two finalists (a double-layered star pattern and a negative-space North Star) are most deserving of selection, the state will in any case end up with a symbol more worthy of its stature. ■ Minnesota is a state of 5.7 million people; if it were an independent country, it would be in the same population weight class with Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Norway, or Slovakia -- all of which have proper, distinctive, and pleasing national flags. ■ We all too often discount the fact that most American states are big enough to have meaningful symbols and recognizable cultures. We're better, of course, bound together in a vast continental union, but even our smallest state still has more residents than Malta, Iceland, or the Bahamas -- each of which has an identity all its own. ■ A flag is merely a symbol, of course, so we shouldn't read too much into any one banner. But to the extent that a state (or even a city) takes itself seriously enough to use symbols that matter and have a meaning worth sharing, that is an indication of valuable self-confidence. ■ In a time when complex problems are all around and civic actions will have at least some bearing on the outcomes, perhaps starting with achievable goals -- like finding a flag worth rallying around -- is what we need most to do.


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November 23, 2023

For the last several years, it has been fashionable for news outlets to publish articles about avoiding politics over Thanksgiving dinner. The advice is generally unoriginal and often downright risible. ■ The problem, though, is that boundaries about what not to discuss don't really leave us with much upon which to build. In the words of Calvin Coolidge, "The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good. The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults." ■ It can be hard to show gratitude -- even to an abstraction, like the meaning of a country. It can be even harder to show thanks to another individual, especially without it sounding forced or contrived. But we ought to try, and Thanksgiving is the most logical time to start. ■ The rabbi and philosopher Jonathan Sacks once noted, "How tragic it is that we so often keep our gratitude to ourselves, speaking it aloud only when the person to whom we feel indebted is no longer here, and we are comforting his or her mournedrs." And maybe that is the article journalists should be writing instead of "How to avoid politics over turkey": How to thank others constructively.


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November 24, 2023

Computers and the Internet Reach out and touch someone

Evidence from a study -- and a replication -- suggests that people would like to hear from old acquaintances who haven't been in touch for some time. This seems consistent with other things we know about people: That we are generally social creatures who thrive on contact with others, that we enjoy reviving interests in things we previously found enjoyable, and that we like to be esteemed enough that others think of us from time to time. ■ Lots of us have friends with whom our only routine one-to-one contact is an annual birthday greeting on Facebook. That once-a-year dopamine hit, while nice and certainly better than nothing, isn't really frequent enough to give an interpersonal relationship the kind of care and feeding it needs. ■ The problem of our time seems to be that the immediacy of digital messages, whether emails or Snapchats or chats, places a sort of deadline pressure on conversations that the old analog ways of communicating did not. It's easier to keep track of a much larger roster of friends and acquaintances online when you don't have to maintain an address book full of street names and ZIP codes, but there's an inevitable awkwardness to the time pressures involved. ■ If an old college buddy pops up with an instant message and they can see that you're online when they send it, then you're under an implicit obligation to respond right away, whether it's to engage fully or to promise to catch up soon. And once two people are engaged in a chat session, there's the eternal question of how to politely call for a time-out. (The medium itself doesn't really matter; it's the same feeling whether the conversation is taking place over text messaging, Facebook Messenger, Twitter direct messages, or anything else -- just like it once was hard to walk away from an AOL Instant Messenger chat.) ■ It's never been more evident that social disconnection has bad consequences. The Surgeon General has even produced a 68-page advisory on the "loneliness epidemic". ■ What seems to be missing is a way to regulate the frequency of contact with others so that it's manageably periodic -- like sending a letter to cross the ocean via steamship once was. Not so prohibitively infrequent that the correspondents forever feel like they're delivering dusty old highlight reels, but not so often that it feels like taking on a whole new appointment task just to engage in a conversation. ■ There are technological solutions available to address the problem, and it would be a real social good to see them implemented in a practical and appealing way. Most of us probably need to keep better track of our friends, and our friends on us. The options to do so ought to be much greater now than they've ever been.


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November 25, 2023

Threats and Hazards The pain of liberty denied

There aren't many characters less sympathetic than those who use the vestiges of authority to exact brutality on other people. Thus it is difficult to summon any moral defense for the former police officer who was convicted of killing George Floyd "willfully and in callous and wanton disregard of the consequences". ■ But it is a dangerous thing for anyone to celebrate the news of his reported stabbing while in a Federal prison. The point of a rules-driven criminal justice system is that society decides the penalties for bad behavior dispassionately and through an orderly process. No matter how strong our personal feelings about a convict, we shouldn't count on extrajudicial penalties to restore justice. ■ Some people seemingly salivate at the prospect of convicts suffering some kind of additional penalty while behind bars. That may seem satisfying on an emotional level, but it's contrary to the point. ■ Any society can dole out pain and suffering as retribution for breaking the rules. That's no more than a response to basic human motivations -- most of us seek to avoid pain. Every authoritarian regime uses cruelty to make incarceration into a weapon. ■ The fear of being sent to the Gulag wasn't something the Soviet Union employed out of abstract principle. And when China's government uses "threats of physical violence, forcible drug intake, physical and sexual abuse, and torture" against political and religious prisoners, it's resorting to the same base motivations. The pain is the point. ■ But free societies have something abstract but enormously valuable to take away from those found guilty of violating the law: They can withdraw personal freedom. To be deprived of freedom in a free society ought to be much more painful (at least psychologically and emotionally) than to be similarly deprived in an unfree state. After all, no one is really free under an authoritarian regime. ■ To lose one's freedom ought to hurt much more than to sleep on an uncomfortable bed or to take a cold shower. If it doesn't, then we should examine why we take liberty so cheaply. And all of that is to say nothing of the knowledge that some non-trivial number of innocent people will be wrongly convicted. ■ How much we value personal liberty -- that is, how much we think it ought to hurt when it's taken away -- is an indication of our civic heath. Prisons don't need to be luxury hotels, but they shouldn't have to rely on cruelty, pain, or the threat of violence to be a deterrent. That's even the case when the convicts themselves are guilty of the most heinous crimes. We have to believe enough in both law and liberty to trust the process.


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November 26, 2023

Science and Technology As the blades turn

There is an oft-recited axiom in business that Google's one-time CEO Eric Schmidt touted as, "Revenue solves all known problems". It's not exactly true; no scale of revenues was going to fix the catastrophic reputational implosion of Arthur Andersen after the Enron disaster, just for example. But under most circumstances, revenue is an elixir for most problems. It may not always be the singular solution, but it is rarely unimportant to the remedy. ■ In society at large, the closest analog is probably energy. It may not be the solution to every problem, but there aren't many problems that can be seriously addressed without it. ■ Want to remove pollution from the air, soil, or water? Bring energy. Want to run computers harder to solve big problems? Bring energy. Want to build resilience against climate shocks in the food supply? Bring energy. ■ And while it is possible to massively scale up the production of renewable electricity -- Iowa's largest electric utility produced as much renewable energy as its retail customers used in 2022 -- the process takes a long time, a fair bit of luck, and an array of incentives to nudge the decision-making process. Meanwhile, as almost everyone knows, every utility still needs an alternative source of base-load generation that isn't subject to the whims of Mother Nature. ■ Thus it is great news that Illinois is poised to lift a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants. Build them soon, and build them plenty. ■ If it's really vital that we curtail carbon generation, then whatever can safely expand our supply of energy without dumping new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a net gain for society. It doesn't seem like Illinois is often at the forefront of a positive legislative innovation, but in this case, its leadership should be applauded.


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November 29, 2023

News Charlie Munger, underrated philosopher

It seems unlikely that self-regarding academics will give Charlie Munger so much as a footnote in the serious records of philosophy. That is a shame in a moral sense, and it may also come to be regarded someday as a consequential oversight. ■ Munger, who has passed away after 99 years, didn't write dense treatises on the nature of existence that people lie about having read, nor was he tortured by questions about existence and transcendence. He was unapologetically a person of business, commerce, and markets. And, aside from a handful of lectures and long-form interviews, he was known mostly for pithy observations that could fit on the back of a business card. ■ But what Munger did, better than anyone else of his or our time, was to make the case for putting rationality in service of virtuous behavior. The order of those words is important: Some people try to logically deduce behavioral rules from logical foundations -- think, for instance, of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. ■ The less-rigid philosophy of which Munger was so vocally a proponent says, instead: "If you've exposed yourself to enough of history, then you probably have a fair sense of intuition about what's right and what's wrong. Follow that, because a logical assessment of the consequences will support following that intuition." ■ His most memorable comments were generally shorter than that. They came in the form of maxims like, "Rationality is a moral duty" and "It's dishonorable to stay stupider than you have to be. That's my ethos. You have to be generous, too." He advised that "A lot of places work better when they operate with a high degree of earned trust" and "The way to get a good spouse is to deserve one. The same thing goes with a partnership in business. If you behave yourself correctly, it's amazing how well it works." ■ The thing that stands out about these pronouncements is that Munger wasn't speaking in abstractions or burying his thoughts in complicated jargon ("You shouldn't assume that just because the language is highfalutin, it's better."). He was speaking as a billionaire who continued working into his 99th year of life. ■ And he used his platform, as an indisputable winner under (and proponent of) the capitalist system, to say that there was no excuse for a capitalist not to deliberately seek to be good and to consciously behave with honor. His innovation, in a sense, was to say that good behavior was virtually always logical behavior, and quite usually profitable behavior, too. That sort of message is pretty vital if we think that markets are going to continue (which they will) and that people need to hear messages from credible sources (which he was). ■ You don't get to pick your ancestors, but you can always choose the people who influence your thinking. And any of us could do a whole lot worse than to pick Charlie Munger as one of those influences.


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