Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Would you buy coffee from a cafe run like the DMV?

Experiencing government-run organizations parallel to private-run organizations puts the issue of socialized healthcare in a new light, and an eerie light when it looks as though, given the political zeitgeist, socialized healthcare is inevitable. My thoughts and meditations, from a day of errands:

Monday, October 28, 2013

Japan's future

**DISCLAIMER: Though I've studied the culture, I've never actually been to Japan, so I would encourage anyone who has to share their experiences and critiques in the comments section below.**

This article came out in The Guardian a few days ago, and as I read it, the fascinating and alarming decline of Japan gave me some insights about the cultural situation in the United States. I highly encourage you to read it in full, but knowing you probably won't, I'll give a brief synopsis here.

Japan is dying, sexually. Young men and boys are growing up in a conservative culture, and do not have the knowledge or skills to start, let alone maintain, relationships. Many of these young men--old boys, really--live with their parents well into their 30's, secluded from the world, recluses, even called "parasitic singles." Of the more successful, independent ones, many are "engaging in a kind of passive rebellion against traditional Japanese masculinity," ditching the tandem responsibilities of a stressful career and romantic relationship entirely. 25% report feeling disgusted at any kind of sexual contact. I was particularly struck by a sex-worker-turned-therapist being interviewed, who said that the first thing she has to do with many of her male clients is to get them to "stop apologizing for their own physical existence."

Women, in the mean time, are beginning to discover their place in the workplace, and often reject marriage (and thus dating more generally) to protect their employment. Supporting a child is such an expensive endeavor in Japan that both parents would need to work to support the child, but 70% of women leave their job after their first child. This is sufficiently incentivized by both the economic demands of parenting and the pressures of a brutally judgmental and conservative culture. According to the author, "romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery," and as a result, 90% of young women hold the single life to be preferable to marriage.

In short, Japanese relationships aren't working due to a combination of archaic cultural norms and the backlash-counterculture response, and as a result, emotional health is abysmal and childbirth rates are dwindling. Given current trends, it's entirely possible that Japan, an economically vibrant, technologically advanced industrial nation of the highest order, might dwindle into a hollow demographic shell of its current self in a single generation.

Let that thought and its implications rest on your mind for a moment.

Now, culture is something that populations grow and nurture over time. What is reaped is often beyond the lifetime or perception of those most responsible for producing it, so it is something we should consider and watch, accept and reject, individually, publicly and often. In the case of Japan, it would seem that an old and clearly inferior culture--in regards to maintaining healthy relationships--was not corrected or rejected soon enough. The expectations and stresses of living the 18th century lifestyle collided with 21st century living, an impossible demand to place on an entire generation.

It was while thinking about the effect of Feminism on Western society, especially American society, that I first picked out this article from Reddit's list of news, so I want to be very careful in how I proceed here. Feminism is not the problem in Japan. If anything, in fact, they could probably use a little bit of second-wave feminism, or a kind of individualistic, rights-based philosophy of some kind to cure them of their sexism and semi-xenophobic racism. To preempt any charges of racism myself, I want to clarify that we're talking about cultures here, not skin color, or place of birth, or whether you have attached earlobes or not (no less arbitrary than skin color), or whatever. Some cultures really are superior to others, and populations that adapt their cultures by taking in the best from others while avoiding the bad parts will end up with better societies. To demonstrate this, imagine that you're a lonely single looking for a romantic partner, and ask yourself whether you'd want to try your luck in Japan or in the United States.

Culture is a double-edged blade however. America is currently going through a viral phase of multiculturalism, which does two things very effectively. First, it takes away the dominant and superior parts of culture's ability to defend themselves on a moral level. Second, it lets in and then actively promotes and supports inferior or minority cultures. In other words, America is doing in a politically radical style what Japan was doing in a politically conservative style: trying to rig which cultural bits would come out on top.

The record of such attempts to plan out what culture should be like is very telling. The socially conservative culture in general is usually supported in order to preserve the family and to protect social order. Japan would be a classical case of central planning accomplishing the opposite of its intended goals (I'm reminded of stories of purity-ring rituals in the conservative Christian south, where society attempts to pressure women to stay celibate until marriage...the same region and culture is naturally home to eight out of ten of the states with the highest teenage pregnancy rates).

But of course, culture isn't solely responsible for Japan's plight. Economics plays a huge role in whether young people decide whether marriage, or sexual life generally, is worth pursuing...but it's difficult in this instance to talk about economics without talking about culture, specifically gender expectations, and provies a good segue into what's going on in the United States. In case you haven't been following the bitter Feminist/MRA battles, online and in legal policy, and even in video games, I'll attempt to summarize the entire complex history in its relevance to the present subject in two sentences. Feminists, in their effort to protect women and advance their rights, inadvertently put men in a situation where the financial, legal, and cultural incentives no longer make marriage (or even sex, sometimes) an attractive option. I'd encourage you to research this subject yourself, from both perspectives, but suffice to say that the incredible dual threat of alimony and child-support--the latter can be incurred even if it is not the father's own child--coupled with the statistic that most divorces are initiated by the woman, and on the grounds that the marriage isn't "satisfying," and the ever-looming danger of a malicious rape allegation, all of these combine to make marriage a discouraging and unattractive prospect for men, however attractive the lady may be.

Fortunately for our country, biology seems to be winning the battle against rational economics in decision-making, but we'd be better off by far if the two were on the same side. It isn't beyond the scope of possibility that the culture of feminism, if left unopposed, could inch us nearer to the demographic quagmire Japan has found itself in. Given our current economic state of affairs, the timing could not be much worse.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What is a dollar? A difficult question, with a depressing answer...

George Washington couldn't tell a lie (supposedly), and the man on the five is "honest Abe." You'd think that the basic units of our currency would have something to do with integrity, or at least a kind of trust. I don't think this is the case however, or at least not any more, and the situation we've found ourselves in with currency, as a country, has the potential of getting a whole lot worse. The problem arises when you ask the seemingly innocent question of what a dollar is.

Allow me to first illustrate what I mean by analogy. For variety's sake, I'll try my hand at emulating old Aesop (while we're talking about old historical men):


The Fox's Pepples

A cow, a dog, and a fox lived together. The cow produced milk, the dog provided security from wolves, and the fox provided them with pebbles. A pebble, the fox explained to them, holding one up, is a unit the three animals could use to measure and keep track of their contribution to the farm. It had no value itself, but represented real value. A gallon of milk from the cow would be worth 3 pebbles, and a day's worth of protection from the dog was also to be worth 3. "My service of providing, maintaining, and balancing a serviceable amount of pebbles, is worth 4 pebbles a day," said the fox, and the animals felt that this distribution was fair enough. And so life went on for a time, with the animals paying each other for their services in pebbles.

Soon enough, however, the cow and the dog realized that while they had to save up enough pebbles to buy security or milk, the fox had a seemingly endless supply. "Where do you get all of these pebbles from?," asked the dog one day. "You buy as much milk in a day as I can afford in three, and you only make one third more than I do." The fox replied: "I get more pebbles to spend by making them. I go to the river and retrieve as many as I want and come back in five minutes." Noticing the alarm in the dog's expression, the fox recovered: "Ah, don't worry about perceived unfairness, my friend! It's all very complex and mathematical, but it's fair, I assure you. Besides, I'm bringing pebbles onto the farm that ultimately pay you for your work. It's for your own benefit."

But the cow was unconvinced, realizing that she would never attain the real value promised by the pebbles she had been given, and she was angry about the deception. "You told us all this time that pebbles represented value. Now I see that they only measure our gullibility!"

At the risk of ruining the allegory by explaining it, I'll try to put my little parable in context. There are essentially two kinds of politically involved people in the United States, for the purpose of our discussion: people who are mortified at our national debt, ringing in at $17 trillion and growing by over $1 trillion more per year, and people who think that the debt literally doesn't matter at all. Why does the debt not matter? Because, they say, the government can just print more money. They can mint as much as we need. As much as they need.

Here's where definitions become important. Back in the day, a dollar used to represent a fixed amount of gold or silver. We've since moved on from that, but the idea that monetary units represented value has been the persistent underlying idea behind money. If it didn't represent something, why would I care how many little green slips engraved with the faces of dead presidents I possessed? But typing in a number and pressing a button doesn't create value. If I make a pair of tennis shoes, that creates value, and I can use twenty five dollars that someone else purchased my tennis shoes with to accurately represent that value. Creating money doesn't do that. That's why we have laws against counterfeiting, after all.

So when people say "don't worry about the debt, we can just print more money to pay it off," what they're actually saying is far more cynical than that. What they're saying, in a way, is that money doesn't represent actual value anymore. So why does it matter? What does money represent? Trust, they might say. Or at least that's the answer I've heard most often when debating the issue. Money doesn't need to represent actual value because the government is basically too big to fail. Yes, people actually say that, even after 2008. Another family member recently told me that dollars represent units of energy moving through the economy, but even this is a kind of trust; trust that the market will continue to always move faster, if you're going to use that as a justification to print more money.

Except what they're talking about is people's trust in some kind of value that may or may not be there. As we pump more dollars into the economy, it's increasingly likely to be the latter. So what dollars will represent if we attempt to buy our way out of our debt by printing more money? Dollars will be a metric for public credulity and naivete. Dollars, instead of being units of value, will literally be units of gullibility.

That's in philosophical principle, of course. Pragmatically, they'll still represent value. Just a whole lot less.

It's the story of every market bubble: people assume on faith that something can't fail,when it does or will only go up, or, most reprehensibly of all, that when it does finally crash in a fiery explosion of death and destruction, they'll be one of the smart ones ready for it, having played everyone else along the whole time. They'll have a chair when the music stops. Obviously, this was what the bankers and credit-raters were banking on several years ago; the problem was that thousands of people were looking at a dwindling number of chairs, knowing what was coming, and dancing as though the music would never quit. Surprise! It did, and left them standing there looking stupid for refusing to look reality in the face. Now, I'm no economist, and I don't know what a monetary bubble-burst would look like in comparison to the sub-prime mortgage credit bubble, but $17 trillion sounds like a  lot to me. At the rate we're going, we could find ourselves at $20, or even $30 trillion dollars of national debt in the next few years, and that's only national debt. We're completely ignoring private debt, which also operates almost exclusively on guess which currency? Yes, the very same dollar.

So how to handle the debt becomes a question that our politicians and, more importantly, the populace that elects them, will actually have to address instead of running away from, or throwing the weight of responsibility at the next generation. Do we want a functional monetary system and universal unit of exchange or not? If the answer is yes, and I suspect that it is for all but the most antisocial members of society, than fixing our debt isn't something we can wave a wand and hocus-pocus our way out of. It will require a great deal of pain and sacrifice, and how that suffering is distributed among the different parts of society is a question that might deserve its own debate. But the decision, with any wisdom and foresight, is really not an economic decision at all. To go for an actual fable of Aesop's, it's about whether we want to be grasshoppers or ants. The grasshopper, dancing and chirping through the summer and the fall, laughs at the ant's silly and dreary pragmatism and toiling preparation right up until winter comes. The decision is whether we want to think in the present like toddlers, fooling our selves in measurable units of credulity, or plan for the future like adults.

The currently trending choice between these two among our politicians isn't looking good.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Brave New World?

I was watching The Tempest earlier this morning, and was reminded of the title of Aldous Huxley's famous book title. The line it was derived from reads, in full:

"O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in it!"

The irony appears when one considers that the speaker, Miranda, is a young lady (15 or so) who can count the humanoid acquaintances she's known since she was 2 on one hand. The new people she's looking upon in this scene are not beautiful, or even numerous, but bedraggled sailors who've recently survived a shipwreck and a stressful adventure on the island. When one considers the types of people in Huxley's "brave new world," with the notable and beautiful exception of Helmholtz Watson and arguably John, the irony is doubled back on itself.

The title's more literal and obvious (less literary) connotation was what struck me however. Courage is not the greatest virtue--perhaps one could even say it's not really a virtue in itself--but it is the characteristic necessary for all the other virtues. Philip Zimbardo and Salmon Rushdie, each in their own separate ways, have made the case that the courage of the current generation will determine how things go in upcoming decades. The natural follow-up question is, of course, how are we doing?

On the one hand, we have seemingly fearless whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning dominating headlines, and some politicians putting their necks on the line to try new things. Whatever you may think of Obama's aggressive and successful push for the affordable health-care act, or the Tea Party's extreme response in recent months, it would be hard to deny that they took a big risk in doing what they did, and would count, at least in my book, as courageous. Even the 9/11 truther folks can't be ignored on this issue; when they're willing to come out in the public and state their opinion, knowing they'll get laughed at and be thought of as kooks, it's actually pretty noble.

On the other hand, the number of whistleblowers might not match where it should be, given the extent of illegal and unethical operations in businesses and the government, and the Tea-Party/Liberal-progressive Democrats hardly make up the majority of the government, which carefully and cautiously sticks within its voters defined lines and dares not take a contentious stance, read, "saying what they really think," on an issue for fear of potentially alienating voters. Achilles' retort to Odysseus comes to mind: "More hateful to me than the gates of hell is the man who hides one thing away in his heart and utters another."

Perhaps more importantly, how individual students and youths in their late teens and early twenties measure up isn't very heartening. As part of a film-project for a class on propaganda, I asked a dozen students at Bellevue College what they would think if they found out that the government or the school administration was violating their first amendment rights by limiting what they could say or write, and by extension read or hear. Of the 12, three volunteered that they would rebel. One specified that he would "violently" rebel. Needless to say, when I pointed out to them that this wasn't a mere hypothetical, but was actually happening, there was no subsequent protest, or even a sit-in or petition, let alone a violent rebellion by 8% of the school.

I had the same kind of pay-lip-service-to-one-value-and-advocate-another experience when I first started criticizing Islam in print, namely from my family, but from a few friends and acquaintances too. Even an old girlfriend of mine, when I told her I was joining the military, was extremely upset. When I asked her if she thought that the military should be manned, generally, she said, essentially, "yes, but not by you." Touching yes, but if people make decisions based on concerned family-member's and friends' discouragement of acting on principle, and telling you to keep your head down and your nose clean, then the inner courageous lion within us doesn't do us any more good than being cowards in the first place.

Only time will tell how things play out, but in the mean-time, I would like to advocate two rules of action, if you find this line of thinking convincing. Number one, ask yourself, and others "on what principle are you deciding to do X?" It's a subtly different and more powerful, pointed question than the more basic, "Why are you doing X?" Number two, if someone is doing something principled and noble, don't try to talk them out of it on pragmatic grounds. I'm not talking about their eloquent defense of drunken skydiving, obviously, but suppose a friend of yours decides that the wars in the Middle East are bothering them, and they decide to quit their job, pack up their things, move to the hills of Afghanistan and try to run a school there. An extreme example, sure, but it's a normal, friendly knee-jerk reaction to try to talk your semi-crazy friend out of adventurous ideas like that. Are their lives really going to be better off doing exactly what everyone else does, instead of taking a life-shaping adventure, however risky? If you really want to be their friend, try to help them figure out the logistics, or maybe offer to watch their pets while they're gone, or something like that, instead of talking them out of doing what they think is right for themselves and for the world. The question becomes trickier, of course, when legal conflicts come into play (e.g., whistleblowing), but the thought-process is the same: don't ask "is this the a safe choice?," but "is this a wise choice?" Sometimes the answers are different, and supporting your friends' and family's courageous decisions will be better for you, for them, for your relationship, and for society at large.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Demon-Haunted House

Our government isn't actually haunted, as far as I can tell, but you might be tempted to assume so with the number of demons claimed to occupy it nowadays. I ran across this article on Reddit today, tellingly entitled "Republicans who Support the Tea Party are Traitors." The author claims that the Tea Party is attempting to destroy the Constitution, which is being valiantly defended by the political left, and that Republicans who support the Tea Party in its mission to do so are, and should be thought of as, traitors.

For obvious reasons, one article on the internet is hardly cause for alarm or righteous indignation, but there is a building trend of ratcheting rhetoric that someone would have to be almost completely removed from politics not to notice. Consider Senator Elizabeth Warren's railings on the Senate floor, for example, or virtually any article from's political section. I stopped reading Paul Krugman quite a while back, but he is among the most widely-read journalists alive today, and one could summarize every column he's written in the last few years in 4 words: "It's the Republicans' fault." One can only imagine what he's been writing in the last few weeks. I know I can, and quite accurately too.

I hear grandiose indictments of the opposing political party--"Republicans/Democrats are what's wrong with this country!"--from friends and family members on a regular basis, and I'm sure that if the reader is remotely interested in politics or has obnoxious, politically-inclined friends (like the author) who are, they've heard similar statements, or perhaps even uttered it yourself. The senators, representatives, and even partisan citizens who vote for the other side are either racists and corporate pigs that don't care in the slightest for anyone but themselves and their compadres, or they're socialists/communists who hate freedom and hate America, and can't handle personal responsibility. I have a slightly different contention: people who demonize the other side, particularly without understanding their perspective and arguments, are what's wrong with this country. And I urge you, the reader, to join me in publicly and repeatedly demonizing the demonizers.

Allow me a slight digression; I don't really watch TV much, but there are a few shows I enjoy, and one of them is a wonderful little call-in show out of Austin, TX called The Atheist Experience, hosted by Matt Dillahunty and other members of the Atheist Community of Austin. In one of the episodes, a caller asked one of the hosts (Jeff Dee, if I'm not mistaken), an "atheist book" to get started on, no doubt expecting a recommendation of Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens. Instead, the host recommended Carl Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World, which is less about religion and belief and more about advocating a scientific way of thinking. The implication of the title is, of course, that although we used to think of the world as inhabited by spirits, gods, and even devils and demons, closer inspection, reason, evidence, and science can show us better explanations. There are no real demons.

So too, in my own view, are there no demons in the Senate, or at least FAR fewer than the true believers on each side of the debate would have you believe. I can't really claim this as an original idea of my own--Jonathan Haidt made this point years ago, and even advocated "demonizing demonization," but I think it's a point that bears repeating (again). It's a point that Penn Jillette has made over and over again as well, that if you pick the person, they're all good, but most people still seem to assume that everyone out there is at best an asshole and at worst, outright evil... everyone except them and the person they're talking to, of course.

Liberals who are reading this, conservatives generally assume the following about you:

  1. You don't know anything about economics
  2. You don't know anything about history, particularly American history
  3. You don't have any sense of personal responsibility
  4. You expect the government to take care of you

    And let's not forget,
  5. You hate freedom
  6. You hate America
  7. You're a fascist
If you're a liberal, the absurdity and offensive nature of these assumptions is obvious, but how can they not assume these claims to have a grain of truth when the people you vote for have the following to say about them?

Conservatives are:
  1. Greedy and money-loving
  2. Practically vampiric in their willingness to take advantage of others
  3. Scientifically, economically, ethically and politically incompetent
  4. Racists, sexists, and bigots of all shades, every one of them
  5. Generally stupid
  6. Anti-American
  7. Fascists
Know that conservatives reading this list are laughing and crying on the inside (or perhaps even out loud) just as much reading this list as you were reading your own politically-biased descriptors. The lists are equally inaccurate, as well as about equally insulting, but are both widely held to be true by their respective political partisans. If you are one of those people who believe that the other side is just a rabble of ignorant fools, then I have a message for you: they aren't what's wrong with America. Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama and Dianne Feinstein aren't what's wrong with America--you are.

I'll close on an uncomfortably conciliatory note, by quoting two uncharacteristically prescient and wise passages from the Bible. In Matthew 7, Jesus tells his followers to worry about the plank in their own eye before they hypocritically attempt to remove the speck of dust from their brother's eye. For safety reasons, it's inadvisable to attempt to remove foreign objects from other people's eyes, generally speaking, but allegorically it's sound wisdom, and one Christians as well as non-Christians should meditate on a bit more; more than they demonstrate by their actions, that is. Secondly, in Mark 3, Jesus tells his disciples that a house divided against itself cannot stand. I'm not sure that this is actually true generally; healthy disagreement is good for the pursuit of knowledge, truth, beauty and wisdom, but too much strife and you end up with the exclusive psychology of teams and tribalism, and the dangers that lie within, of which we've seen plenty throughout human history, particularly in the 20th century. We're much further down that path than is safe and healthy for a country, and violence, even civil war, isn't beyond the realm of possibility, unlikely though it may seem in the moment. Don't think 'it can't happen here.' As Sam Harris has said, we have two options: we can either solve our differences through a battle of ideas, or through a battle of physical violence and force. When you dismiss the other side of an argument as evil instead of merely being incorrect--as a demon, in other words--without honestly allowing a legitimate battle of ideas to take place, you're moving us away from the liberal, Enlightenment ideals of the former option, and ever closer to the Dark Age latter. The Government isn't haunted, and if you're one of those people claiming it is, you are the demon.