Baseline Propositions

Stay with me on this…  Government does, or can do the following:
  1. Establish and maintain national defense – intelligence gathering, war fighting, maintaining a fighting force, supporting that fighting force after the fact.
  2. Serve as a counterweight to the forces of paleocapitalism – where the people with the most money want to consolidate and build empires no matter the cost to society as a whole, government is theoretically the bully to bully the bullies back.
  3. maintain social order, which facilitates regular, predictable interactions in the public sphere, whether they be financial transactions, establishes a mechanism to protect people from grievous harm…  really, this is another way of looking at the bully to out-bully the bullies argument, except this time applied to black markets and criminal enterprises.
  4. organize large projects for the common good that could not be accomplished by individuals acting alone: infrastructure, public parks, and the like.
Each of these roles plays up against the other – sometimes the fourth and the second inform each other, in the case of preventing oil companies from pouring their toxic byproducts directly into a river, for example.
Some of these functions can only be accomplished by a federal government: you wouldn’t necessarily want North and South Dakota to develop intelligence capabilities against each other, or to develop their own armies in case of resource scarcity or invasion.  And what is South Dakota going to do against a Russian hacking incident?  The efficiencies of scale dictate that, in this application, we’re best to have this function organized for everyone vs. having 50 different methodologies for providing national defense.  Similarly, when corporations operate across all 50 states, it helps to have a single bully to counteract the less noble tendencies of ever-man-for-himself capitalism.
But for the most part, the arguments between conservatives and liberals used to be about what the right balance was between order and chaos.  The conservative faction has argued for greater chaos in the public sphere (commerce, environment, trade) and more order in the private sphere (sexuality/identity, personal responsibility, recreational drug use, protecting belief-based discrimination, so long as the belief is Christian).
An interjection of inconvenient evidence: the argument for personal order and public chaos is largely ideological rather than pragmatic – the historical record is pretty clear that chaos in the public sphere brings us greater income inequality, more social unrest, and poor economic outcomes.  Both the Great Depression and the Great Recession are tied to Republican sweeps of the Senate, the House, and the White House.  States where the leaders have had great faith in the notion of public-sphere chaos bringing prosperity have tangible evidence to suggest that this article of faith is baseless.  Check Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Kansas.
On the other hand, the liberal position is for greater order in the public sphere (regulation of banks, regulation for environmental impact, more investment in projects that benefit everyone) and greater chaos in the personal sphere (bodily integrity for women, collective responsibility, a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality and identity, deregulation of some recreational substances coupled with science-based support to individuals with addictions).
These originating propositions have long-since been obscured by emotional manipulation. But who cares what you believe and which political proposition you align yourself with?  Let’s start with a true or false proposition: money is the major driver behind society’s big gears – policy, politics, etc.
The next true/false proposition: Companies have a vested interest in individuals’ political and commercial behavior.
If you think companies (as a whole) are enlightened entities out to serve the common good, I’m not sure we can have this conversation.
If you believe that commercial concerns – Exxon, Walmart, McDonalds – are primarily driven by the desire to generate profit…  then do those companies have incentive to support political behavior that furthers their ability to generate profit?  How is that best accomplished? I would propose that fear is one of the most effective sales tools imaginable.
Which brings us to this: what are you afraid of, and who is profiting from that fear?
Baseline Propositions

The Most Dangerous Idea

Question your fears.

I’m not saying give them up.  I’m saying sit with them for a second and ask them questions…  First and foremost, who benefits from this fear?  What increases this fear?  What behavior comes from this fear?  Who gains the most from this fear?  Is the thing I’m afraid of real?  Is that corroborated by people who don’t agree with me?  What is the evidence?  What comes along with this fear?  Is the fear helping me live a better life?
Those who are the least afraid are the hardest to manipulate.  The individual who cannot be manipulated is the biggest threat to the forces that seek to keep us afraid, seeking permission, and consuming.
The Most Dangerous Idea


Over the past two months, there has been so much damn talking.  In the past two weeks, so much damn freaking out.  This is where normalization begins: fear is exhausting.

There are some among the subscribers to this blog who I suspect find my fear of Trump’s administration ridiculous and over-dramatic.  For those people, consider how concerned you were about Hillary’s candidacy and then keep in mind that she never said she wanted to upend your second amendment rights.  Trump has out and out stated that he wants to revisit the first amendment because it goes too far.

I fear for marginalized groups.  My grandfather, Nazi resistance fighter in Holland during World War II, said “Well, you’ve elected another Hitler.  But you’ll be fine.  You’re white.  Just keep your job.”  He’s probably right, save the fact that a solid 50% of the people I love aren’t white.  I fear for increasingly militarized police with a Justice Department headed by someone who doesn’t give a shit about a citizen’s rights, so long as that citizen is brown.  Not all Trump voters are racists and bigots, but all Trump voters elected someone who is openly tolerant of racism and bigotry.  I have family members among that group, which is difficult to accept.

But we are here, and there are things I want to talk about.  But first, the single most helpful voice in all of this has been Mark Blyth.  It helps that he has a Scottish accent, as most things are improved by a Scottish accent.  But he also provides a global and historical perspective.  This talk at Brown University from the day after the election has been particularly helpful in shifting my perspective…  We aren’t looking at the beginning of Hitler, we are looking  a reincarnation of the French Revolution.  For now, the rage has been directed at brown people–a useful distraction if you happen to be of the 1%–but the pitchforks will eventually point in the direction of Wall Street and those who have implemented and fought for wealth redistribution in the direction of the already wealthy.

Which isn’t to say that I’m not alarmed for minorities, those who are marginalized, and the vulnerable.  I’ve donated to the ACLU and will continue to do so.  I’ve subscribed to support journalism.  I’m committed to the first rule, which is don’t be an asshole.  I’ve written to my Senators and I now have a list of all the people who represent me across all levels of government.  I’m prepared to do what I can in my sphere to speak up against cruelty.

Meanwhile, there is a bigger play here, which is a perspective I had lost.


Smart Rules: Fear

Don’t trust anyone who is attempting to increase your fear.  

Fear is well-known among those who want something as an effective way to get it.  Salespeople are taught (or learn on their own) that the fastest way to close a deal is to convince the buyer that, unless a decision is made right now, the buyer is going to miss out.  (Salespeople tend to dislike it when you call them on this: try it with a salesperson at a gym sometime.  I brought this up to a salesman at Gold’s Gym and he got super huffy with me.)

The reality is that they want your money more than you want whatever item they have in front of you.  The salesperson will want your business just as badly tomorrow as they want it today.  You are in the position of power unless you allow them to make you afraid, in which case the power dynamic shifts over to their advantage.  There is always another car, another house, another way from point a to point b.  

Don’t give away your power.  Fear shuts down your capacity for thinking critically and without prejudice, and that makes you vulnerable to bad decisions.

There are no exceptions to this rule.  

Shut out anything that seeks to increase your fear: news programs that are breathless with manufactured danger, advertisements that raise your anxiety about whether you are rich/smart/sexy/pretty/skinny/young enough, politicians pointing their fingers at an “other” who is out to get you.  

If you hear a claim that scares you, first ask what the claimant has to gain from your fear.  Then do your own research.  Read both sides of the argument.  Look for hidden motives.  Follow the money.  Figure out who gains from your fear.  Find the evidence.  Perform the whackadoodle test: ask what the chances are that the person selling the fear is wrong.  A whackadoodle will tell you that there is no chance that they could be wrong about whatever they claim.  A reasonable, considered person will allow that there is something that they don’t know that would change their conclusion.  Go with the reasonable person’s assessment of the evidence over the whackadoodle.  

Now you can decide if fear is a reasonable response and what constructive thing that you can do with that fear.  The constructive thing probably doesn’t require that you spend boatloads of money.  It may not be as satisfying because real solutions are usually boring and incremental and require sustained attention and hard work.  

Bonus thought: get rid of your TV.  Its primary function is to mainline anxiety into your brain.  Think of how many advertisements want to make you afraid…  if you don’t have a viagra-enhanced package, she’ll leave you.  If you don’t take this anti-psychotic drug on top of your regular anti-depressant, you’re going to be miserable forever.  If you don’t call your Congressman to make sure we don’t bail out Puerto Rico, you’re going to get a huge bill in the mail for your medical costs… it’s a domino effect (that doesn’t follow logically from one thing to the next).  There isn’t that much news on a given day to justify 24 hours of CNN, and there is even less news that you can actually do something about, so worry about the stuff you can do something about, and CNN won’t be able to tell you about those things within your sphere of control.  

Smart Rules: Fear

The Matrix

Katherine Otto is a relatively new addition to the blog.  We have had a comments discussion over on about entrope, and it has turned into something deserving its own post.

Trust in the institutions of American life are in the crapper.  My faith in the “system” is at an all time low.  You can go to Ms. Otto’s blog for her take on, for example, the tangled beast that is housing finance.  She and I seem to share an inability to distill it all out to a single subject per post.  Instead, I tend to bounce between interrelated points of wtf that seem related to me but perhaps not to anyone else.  There is a reason I’ve enjoyed going back and forth with her.

Anyway, let’s start with Congress being a cesspool of special interest money.  Wall street characters belong in Dante’s Inferno.  People claiming Christianity sell snake oil to old ladies in order to buy their second Benz.  The weather is going nuts.

I’m scared/horrified/angry too.  And when I try to think through all of the forces aligned against “normal” people…  people with jobs living paycheck to paycheck, hoping the roof doesn’t go or the lump isn’t cancer because we’re just barely holding it together and hoping for just a little more cushion in the bank account…  Hell, the beginning of a cushion would be nice.  And while we’re not even close to the 1%, we aren’t at the bottom of that continuum either.  It only gets scarier as the resources erode.

So what do you do? And what kind of life is there when you are consumed by the sense of helplessness?  I feel that helpless rage too, but that also feels like one more incursion, one more shackle in a system that is stacked against “us.”  A market that is stacked against “us.”  Laws that are written for anyone but “we the people.”  Aren’t we easier to manage when we are afraid and helpless/hopeless?  Who benefits most from the system?  Who benefits the most from a population that survives on a daily diet of anxiety?  Not you and me, that’s for sure.

News is paid for by advertisements.  Advertisements are purchased by companies seeking to sell you shit.  You buy the shit, advertisers pay the news.  Whatever tenor of news sells the most shit is the tenor of news you are going to see.  And guess what?  Scary news sells the most shit.  No one is going to go buy a new distracting gadget to feel better after a National Geographic special on unlikely animal friends.  You buy that distracting item because everything is horrible and you might as well distract yourself while you still can.  Honestly, I think the most revolutionary thing you can do is to refuse the fear that is being used against us.

Again: what do you do?  I think, I hope, you focus on the stuff that isn’t a commodity and can’t be exploited by those systems we most mistrust.  Joy in simple things.  Connecting to other people.  Volunteer with the elderly, or the homeless, or tutoring underprivileged kids.  Find a pet.  Take up a hobby.  Knit baby hats for the ICU.  Garden.  Watch the sunset.  Look for reasons to be grateful.  Do those things that don’t require someone else’s permission to make your little corner of the world a better place.

And refuse.  Refuse the fear and anxiety.  Refuse the value system that puts money above everything else.  Love with baked goods or time spent instead of plastic crap.  Hang out with your family without agenda.  Play board games.  Dance.  Sing in the shower.  And when you see an opportunity to function outside the system, take it.

I’m not saying let’s be all Pollyanna about this.  I’m saying don’t let them have your joy.

The Matrix


Let’s start by reiterating the advisability of every environmentally-minded person watching Pandora’s Promise.

When I was younger, I used to argue with my dad about nuclear power.  My main concern was the horrors of nuclear waste.   We shouldn’t risk it when the true scope of the risk is unknown.

Here is the problem with that argument.  The true scope of the risk associated with oil-based electricity is known.  You say no to nuclear, you say yes to coal, an industry with risks we know very well. Okay, so then you break out the promise of solar  or wind.  Sure.  Except both require batteries.  The environmental destruction and risk that happens in the name of solar is only displaced: you are outsourcing the end of the world to factories in the developing world.  Just because you can’t see it from your back door doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  The sheer volume of solar panels that you would need to power the world is absurd.  No matter what advancements they make, a solar panel is like a cell phone: give it a few years and it won’t work quite as well as it did when you got it.  Now you have to dispose of it and it is full of yuckies.  Not that we shouldn’t be pushing forward with the technology, just that it isn’t an answer to the energy crisis.

Wind too. You have to have battery back up for when it isn’t windy.  Which happens.

Did you know that a lot of the anti-nuclear funding came from the oil industry?  It is like the tobacco industry funding research that says pot is going to turn you into a crazed criminal.  Is pot ideal?  Depends.  If you need help with pain and muscle spasms (and possibly epilepsy) then pot is actually a godsend.  If you had to choose between cigarettes and pot, you’d be better with pot.

Same here.

Yes, there are risks.  But the background radiation at Chernobyl isn’t statistically significant when compared to other places  on the planet.  And there are plant designs that are much safer, but were never more than pilot tested due to public pressure, paid for by the oil industry. 

Besides, the BP oil spill didn’t make us all decide to quit driving.  The known risks that we all share from emissions haven’t stopped us building coal-fired plants.  As unpopular as France might be, they have been on predominantly nuclear power since the 70’s.  Their emissions are enviable. 

Personally, I am terrified of what the world is going to look like if we keep ignoring pretty damn awesome because we want perfect.  Solar and wind aren’t perfect, and they can’t do what we need done fast enough.  The longer we go along with public policy paid for by Shell and BP, the more certain our demise via climate change.  Nuclear is necessary to a reality-based plan to slow up climate change, and those bastards at the top of oil companies screwed us all by funding bogus science to scare the crap out of us. 

Never trust anyone trying to sell you fear.

With the nut test in mind (anyone who is 100% sure they can’t be wrong is a nut), go watch Pandora’s Promise.  Call it a thought experiment on what would happen if we had the technology to significantly curtail carbon emissions on a large scale right now.


Good Enough

This is something I’ve talked around in various and assorted posts, but not something I’ve ever addressed directly.

Enough is not a meaningful measure.  What is “enough” anyway?  Who gets to call it?  A house that is big enough for me wouldn’t be nearly big enough for a Kardashian.  Enough is a relative measure, entirely subjective, and it moves constantly.  Because as soon as we reach a point where we would have called it “enough” before we got there, suddenly, it is no longer good enough.  Because we’re there and a lot of us (not all, but many) are convinced we’ll never be enough so if we can do it, then the “it” that needs to be done must be a little further ahead.

A year ago, I would have told you that swimming a mile every other day would be more than enough.  Now I’m doing two miles every other day and I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t be pushing myself to do a little more because maybe two miles isn’t good enough.

That’s just ridiculous.

On the other hand, this striving for a target of enough that we move beyond our grasp isn’t all bad.  Doubt is a good thing.  It keeps us open-minded, it keeps us learning, it keeps us growing.

But for functioning in life, for moving forward, for taking a leap of faith, am I good enough is a pretty rotten question.

The reality is that you’ve gotten this far.  You’ve made some mistakes, you’ve screwed some things up royally.  You’re still here.  You’re still breathing.  You’ve survived some shitty days and you still have a sense of humor.  That’s pretty amazing.  Even better, you still have this marvelous opportunity embedded in today (or tomorrow, since it’s late) to show up.  Get the ego out of the way.  Dispose of the judgement and whatever concerns you might have regarding other people’s judgement.  Your gift is your presence, for whatever the task at hand is.  You don’t have to be good enough.  Good enough is a feeling, it isn’t a fact.

You just have to show and you’ll be way ahead of everyone else who is paralyzed by the idea that good enough is a real thing they have to achieve before they can do something great.

Good Enough