Being Positive, vs. Anti-Negative

Thursday, July 20, 2017

From a recent reading of Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication comes the following amusing lesson about using positive language to make requests (be they of others or oneself). The author, disappointed in himself for failing to use his own communication techniques during a televised debate, had vowed never to repeat his mistakes again:

A chance to redeem myself came the very next week when I was invited to continue the debate on the same program. All the way to the studio, I repeated to myself all the things I didn't want to do. As soon as the program started, the man launched off in exactly the same way he had a week earlier. For about ten seconds after he'd finished talking, I managed not to communicate in the ways I had been reminding myself. In fact, I said nothing. I just sat there. As soon as I opened my mouth, however, I found words tumbling out in all the ways I had been so determined to avoid! It was a painful lesson about what can happen when I only identify what I don't want to do, without clarifying what I do want to do. (loc. 1468)
This reminded me of advice I received early in my stint in the Navy: When filling out your preferences for Permanent Change of Station Orders, only list where you'd prefer to go. Why? Because if you said where you didn't want to go, whatever that place was, is what would be in the mind of whoever later processed the form.

Rosenberg's anecdote, amusing and instructive on its own merits, is so in another way, but unintentionally: The author clearly failed to follow his own advice when naming his book. I blame his altruistic moral philosophy for that oversight, along with many other shortcomings of his nevertheless valuable book. The influence of altruism on Rosenberg's thinking was so pervasive that at every level, it was often necessary to think carefully about what made a given point good or bad. This is on top of the fact that the author never defines what he regards as "violent": The closest he ever got was, towards the end of the book, was when he referred to the way most people communicate as, "life-alienating communication" (loc. 3646). So communication is supposed to further "life", but since Rosenberg is an altruist, he skirts around lots of points that would really hit home if expressed in egoistic terms. (Instead, he either misses or evades lots of connections that someone familiar with Ayn Rand's ideas will often make without much effort.) It is somewhat fitting, then, that the author also misses out on a positive title, which might have been something like, Mutually Beneficial Communication.

-- CAV

P.S. For anyone familiar with Nonviolent Communication or interested in Marshall Rosenberg's work, I am passing along, with permission, the following announcement from the Thinking Directions Weekly newsletter:
II. Free Webinar

Rationally Connected Conversations
Sunday, July 23, 2017
3:00 - 4:00 p.m. Eastern

(12 noon PT, 1:00 p.m. MT, 2:00 p.m. CT)

Defensiveness on either side of a conversation kills the connection and dooms communication. In this talk, Jean Moroney will introduce a method for unilaterally eliminating defensiveness from both sides of a conversation. The method is egoistic interpretation of the work of Marshall Rosenberg. When one person uses it, it brings out the rational best in both people.

Register here:
Do note the even more egoistic title than I came up with in the post above.

I first heard about Nonviolent Communication from someone who had learned about it from the Thinking Directions site. After benefiting from other books I'd heard about there, I knew it would be worthwhile and am glad to have read it. This should be an interesting and valuable webinar.

Best Buy, Amazon Converge

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Los Angeles Times carries a story about why Best Buy, which looked like it would succumb to Amazon only a few years ago, has returned to profitability. The strategy looks like an interesting mix of (1) better exploiting any advantages they already had over Amazon, (2) eliminating any advantage Amazon had that they could do something about, (3) learning new ways to serve customers from Amazon, and (4) devising new ways to outdo Amazon.

One of the first moves by Hubert Joly, appointed CEO in 2012, was to match Amazon's pricing. This both eliminated one of Amazon's advantages and turned "showrooming" into an advantage for electronics customers: They could look at potential purchases and even get advice from a human being -- and then not have to wait for delivery. But Joly very wisely didn't stop there:

"We don't see ourselves as a brick-and-mortar retailer, we're a multichannel retailer" that combines the stores, Best Buy's website and its phone app to boost sales, Joly said in an interview. And he's planning to expand Best Buy's services, including its Geek Squad support arm, to generate more product sales.
Joly makes Amazon sound one-dimensional to me, here, and it is clear that I'm hardly the only one to have noticed. The article later mentions something I'd already been hearing about off and on lately: Amazon's forays into brick-and-mortar stores and customer service. Like Sears before it, Amazon is hardly killing retail: It and its successful competitors are revolutionizing it.

-- CAV

Winners and Losers

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Wall Street Journal story about an estimated "subsidy" of $1.46 per Amazon box delivered by the U.S. Postal Service brings up the common conservative lament about the government "picking winners and losers" when it meddles in the economy:

I do not know which stores in my neighborhood will be gone five years from now, but I am certain my household will continue to receive numerous boxes from Amazon. I also believe that society would be better off if competing retailers, online or brick-and-mortar, continue to thrive. Congress should demand the enforcement of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, and the Postal Service needs to stop picking winners and losers in the retail world. The federal government has had its thumb on the competitive scale for far too long. [bold added]
I agree that the government should stop "picking winners and losers," but simply enforcing a rule about the operation of an agency that shouldn't even exist isn't the way to do this. Why? Because anything the government does outside its proper purpose of protecting individual rights constitutes "picking winners and losers." When the government, in violation of the right to contract, establishes a monopoly in some enterprise, the principle that adults should be free to exercise their best judgment loses. Consequently, those who might innovate in that industry are impeded or thwarted along with their potential customers -- and those who fear competition on merit win. When government subsidizes an enterprise (like the post office), it compounds the same sins with theft at the expense of the productive -- leaving the unproductive as winners. Do note that, due to the nature of principles, there are always more losers than meet the eye (and, thanks to precedent and the fact that controls breed controls, vast potential for more losers). This pool of losers often includes the "winners," whose gains may be illusory and, in any event, are not protected by the now-violated principles. Furthermore, any material gains are wholly dependent on the continued prosperity of those now hobbled by legal parasitism. For example, I can't help but wonder, in this story, about whether this "gift card from Uncle Sam" even begins to make up for all the taxes Amazon, the "winner" in this story, is paying. (Clearly, if the author gets his wish, even that wouldn't be for long.)

It does not matter whether Amazon lobbied in some way to continue getting this "gift card" or it is simply taking advantage of a dumb state of affairs not of its own making: Anyone truly serious about the government getting out of the business of "picking winners and losers" should question the whole premise of the government entanglement with the economy. The problem isn't that (at worst) a company that would get along fine without a "subsidy" is getting one, it's that we are being ordered around, and having our pockets picked for the privilege. Those subsidies come from somewhere, and, since money doesn't grow on trees, that means they come from someone.

I'd happily pay a little more for the convenience of shopping at Amazon, but I suspect that shipping might actually be a lot cheaper without (for example) the government forcing us to support the Post Office or strangling new technologies, such as commercial drones, with the uncertainty of bureaucratic regulatory whim.

-- CAV

P.S.: For yet another equally ridiculous conservative effort to "level the playing field", please refer to my old column on "efairness". Oddly enough, Amazon is the persecuted minority there, too.

The ADA vs. Opportunity

Monday, July 17, 2017

In a book review of Russell Redenbaugh's Shift the Narrative, John Tamny notes that its author, blinded during high school, might not have had much of a chance to prosper had the Americans with Disabilities Act been law shortly after his graduation:

[B]arriers to Redenbaugh's self-reliant, working narrative continued to reveal themselves. While his fellow classmates were inundated with suitors during year two, Redenbaugh "had forty-nine job interviews and not a single offer." Finally Cooke & Bieler, a then small investment counseling firm in Philadelphia made him a Wharton-style hard pitch: they offered him a job while telling Redenbaugh that "if it doesn't work you'll have to leave." By the 1970s, Wharton's first blind MBA was the firm's chief investment officer, partner, and its biggest revenue producer.

Interesting here is that Redenbaugh notes how the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would have rendered illegal Cooke & Bieler's conditional offer. Despite that, he laments the ADA's passage. Redenbaugh believes a principal driver of rising unemployment for the disabled springs from firms being reluctant to take risks on them in the first place. It's difficult to hire those whom it's similarly difficult to fire.
Like countless unskilled workers who are willing to compete on price and are shut out of the labor market by minimum wage laws, disabled Americans (and their potential employers) are being robbed of opportunity by being legally barred from making themselves more competitive.

That the government feels the need to stick its nose into any contractual agreement between consenting adults (that doesn't violate individual rights) is bad enough. The fact that it does so in the name of "helping" someone with a disadvantage -- and makes things worse than they already are -- is an outrage.

-- CAV

P.S. In the name of even-handedness, I must acknowledge the following:
[T]he architectural standardization brought on by ADA requirements, he mentioned, which tend to put things like door handles (easier to manipulate than knobs) in rote places, were a boon for unauthorized entry.
So, to be fair, the ADA actually does create opportunities for some people.

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, July 14, 2017

Four Things

1. Awhile back, I hit upon a (probably temporary) solution to variants of "Are we there, yet?"

Most days, I pick up my four-year-old son from daycare before my daughter, who, by that time, is working on her reading with the aid of an iPad app. This means I'm in a small waiting area having to entertain him for an eternity of five to ten minutes' duration while Pumpkin finishes up. Needless to say, he started repeatedly asking me if she was done yet.

Fortunately, in only a couple of repetitions, I realized I could help him answer the question himself and put him to work for me.

I explained to him how he could tell for himself: As long as his sister was sitting down in front of an iPad, she wasn't done. Then, I had him check for me. Now, he takes a look every few minutes and updates me on her status, which is cute, rather than annoying. Sometimes, when we get there, I'll ask him if she's done yet to set the tone.

2. Here's a clever idea I hadn't thought of myself:

[E]very time I make an appliance purchase -- vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, car -- I go to a repair shop [for advice]. They're always excited to talk to someone who will listen. They may even have a used model that will last you for years. [bold added]
And if they don't have a used one, they tell the author which models are durable enough to be worth repairing. Preceding this paragraph in the whole post is the insight that will make sense of the advice, and so make it stick.

3. The following, from an A. V. Club article on Pilsner, makes me think of the explosion in popularity of "big" craft beers in the United States over the past couple of decades:
Pilsner was invented by accident. The beer-obsessed Czech Republic town of Pilsen built a new state-of-the-art brewery during the industrial revolution. In the 1840s, a man named Martin Stelzer oversaw the construction, drawing inspiration from the latest innovations of Bavarian breweries. He also recruited a Bavarian brewer named Josef Groll to the project. Legend has it the town expected Groll to brew a brown Bavarian lager, but the first batch came out golden and effervescent, with a creamy head of snow-white foam. In a time of thick, turbid beers, this refreshing brew from Pilsen was a revelation. [bold added]
Similarly, the advent of craft brewing came against a backdrop of "lawnmower beers." (HT: Snedcat)

4. I'll end with the following inspirational quote:
"If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you're not sure you can do it, say yes -- then learn how to do it later!" -- Richard Branson
This comes by way of a Forbes article titled, "9 Simple Ways to Make More Money in Your Current Job."

-- CAV

A Still-Unknown Ideal

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Two writers (one of whom is an academic) at Fast Company take Nancy Pelosi's misleading description of our mixed economy as "capitalism" and run with it in an article titled, "Are You Ready To Consider That Capitalism Is The Real Problem?" As an advocate of capitalism, let me first concede that I might -- if I also accepted this assertion as my idea of "capitalism." But my scholarship -- hell, my mental hygiene -- is better than that. (Do note that this description comes from the same woman who urged us to pass ObamaCare unread so we could "find out what is in it.")

I am not going to waste my time on a point-by point rebuttal of this smear piece, which, for example, uses a deadly fire -- in a government-operated housing block -- in London as part of its fact-free indictment. (Oddly enough, the article at the link repeatedly cites the higher-than-government fire safety standards of an American organization funded in large part by insurance companies strangely interested in not having to pay out fire claims. To read the Fast Company article, you'd think those fat cats would fry their customers after collecting their premiums, if only they could get away with it.)

That said, what Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk take as the "prime directive" of capitalism is simply ridiculous:

[T]here's something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on.

Because let's be clear: That's what capitalism is, at its root. That is the sum total of the plan. We can see this embodied in the imperative to grow GDP, everywhere, year on year, at a compound rate, even though we know that GDP growth, on its own, does nothing to reduce poverty or to make people happier or healthier. Global GDP has grown 630% since 1980, and in that same time, by some measures, inequality, poverty, and hunger have all risen. [links omitted]
Really. This might describe the end-result of the less-capitalistic aspects of Pelosi's status quo, but that's not what I got from Ayn Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, which at least offers a definition of the term:
Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.
She and others argue at length why a system that protects individual rights is actually the best protection against people being taken advantage of (as alluded to above) or being made into cogs of some sort of GDP machine. But it was the mention of GDP that triggered my memory of another excellent book on capitalism, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins of the Ayn Rand Institute. Within that book, Brook and Watkins demolish what they call the "argument from greed," an attack on the ethical base of capitalism that implicitly motivates much of the Fast Company piece. Towards the end of Free Market Revolution, they note:
The attack on selfishness is an attack on the pursuit of happiness, and it is over the pursuit of happiness that the battle for America's future will be waged. We need to fight for economic freedom not on the grounds that it promotes GDP, or the "public interest," or any other collectivist ideal. We need to fight for it on the grounds that your life belongs to you: Each of us has an inalienable right to act on our own judgment, to produce and trade free from force, for the sole purpose of making our own lives as successful and joyous as they can possibly be. We have to be unequivocal in rejecting the notion that we are a means to the ends of others -- or that others are a means to our ends. [bold added]
Hickel and Kirk pose as defenders of the individual, but it is against a tired, old caricature of capitalism. Whether or not they know or care, or most of their reader notice, they drop such a pretence as soon as they start advocating massive theft of private property. See the bolded sentence above, and imagine someone taking something from you on the basis of someone else not having it.

But they are right about a single aspect of their proposed solution, which they intimate wouldn't look like every other socialist cesspit in history despite their egalitarian/confiscatory rhetoric: "None of this is actually radical." Yep. It's the same old altruism-collectivism that pervades our culture, hold the facts, and add a dash of wishful thinking.

Hence the title of Brook and Watkins's book.

Try reading that if you share my disgust with the status quo, need inspiration, and want leads towards a real, radical, and effective solution.

-- CAV


Today: Minor edits  towards end.

Exports, Unreliables, or Central Planning?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Francis Menton, aka the Manhattan Contrarian, takes a look at a Wall Street Journal article about a recent blackout in Adelaide, Australia. Part of Menton's criticism focuses on the print headline: "The Energy Shortage No One Saw Coming," but the internet headline ("How Energy-Rich Australia Exported Its Way Into an Energy Crisis") bears mention, too, and for similar reasons. As a reading of Menton's post will show, the real cause of the shortage was central planning guided by an emphasis on the kind of "renewable" energy sources fossil fuel advocate Alex Epstein has more accurately described as "unreliables":

... Has environmental religion penetrated even the Wall Street Journal's news pages to such an extent that they can't give an honest account of what is going on? Sure the gas plant's unavailability that day was the immediate precipitating cause of the particular problem. But what goes unmentioned is that the South Australians have painted themselves into a corner where one after another of such situations is inevitable, and if they didn't see it coming they are really blinded by their environmental faith. First they increased renewable capacity, particularly wind, to the point of getting over 50% of their power from wind when it blows. Then they forced closure of all coal capacity. Then they prioritized the power from wind in the dispatch scheme, leaving the few remaining natural gas plants sitting idle much of the time and having no clue when they might be required to crank up at a moment's notice -- a regime under which the gas plant operators can't make money. And finally, they claim to be "surprised" when the wind suddenly stops blowing and the gas plant operators can't or won't come on at a few minutes' notice. Why should the gas plant operators contract to buy gas that they may never need at prices that they can't recoup? [emphasis in original, minor format edits]
In other words, this shortage was quite predictable, and exporting natural gas was hardly to blame. Menton quite ably nails that point to the wall. But there is another theme that bears mention, even if it lies outside the scope of Menton's analysis, and it is this: The religion of central planning has so penetrated Western culture for so long that its role in this mess may entirely escape notice. I don't blame Menton for missing this (if he did), because relatively early in the evolution of electric utilities, central planning snuffed out once-vigorous free market competition.

In his book, The Innovator Versus the Collective , Brian Phillips notes the following from a study in 1938:
Six electric light companies were organized in the one year of 1887 in New York City. Forty-five electric light enterprises had the legal right to operate in Chicago in 1907. Prior to 1895, Duluth, Minnesota, was served by five electric lighting companies, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, had four in 1906. ... During the latter part of the 19th century, competition was the usual situation in the gas industry in this country. Before 1884, six competing companies were operating in New York City ... competition was common and especially persistent in the telephone industry ... Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, among the larger cities, had at least two telephone services in 1905. (p.54)
Phillips, who notes that, "Clearly, entrepreneurs and businessmen across the country thought that they could make a profit in utilities," then notes the effects of an alliance between "businessmen" who wanted government protection from competition and power-hungry "progressives":
In America's Electric Utilities: Past, Present, and Future, economist Leonard S. Hyman notes that standard texts assume that utilities became regulated because they were monopolies. But he questions this assumption, citing a study that concluded that "the concept of state regulation was both compatible with the ideas and political needs of progressives [who were calling for more government regulation of businesses] and expedient for safeguarding the material interests of the utilities. From 1907 to 1913, philosophical compatibility and commercial expediency combined to produce a political necessity."[48] The political goals of progressives -- government control -- served the financial interests of the electric utility companies -- guaranteed profits through a prohibition on competition. (p. 55)
Consider for a moment what might have happened in an Adelaide powered in a free market. Among the possibilities would have been several companies competing on merit at once or a small number that rose to the top on merit. I have a hard time imagining a company that has to compete for customers, in part by maintaining a reputation for reliability, making the kind of mistake we saw here. (And if it did, customers could and would jump ship, an option they don't have here.) In any event, nothing would stop a company from investing in wind power, if it could be made sufficiently profitable, and nothing could force an entire city to "rely" on it, either.

Adelaide's blackout wasn't at all a result of Australia's exporting of natural gas, nor was it simply because it has incompetent central planners who imagine "unreliables" can be trusted to power a modern grid: It would have been nearly impossible in a free market.

-- CAV

P.S. Economist George Reisman has some choice words for anyone who imagines that central planners can even be competent.