Free Stuff and Its Consequences

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Among news stories covering the sham "reelection" of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela -- many of which broke with the practice established during the financial crisis of never using the word "socialist" -- were two short paragraphs in the Guardian that pretty much tell you all you need to know about that political system:

Vote for us or starve. (Image of CLAP box via Wikimedia Commons.)
At a campaign rally in the western city of Barquisimeto, Maduro put it this way: "The Fatherland protects you and gives you everything. And you must give the Fatherland political power."

But just to make sure, the government has banned the two most popular opposition politicians -- Leopoldo López who is under house arrest for inciting violence and Henrique Capriles who faces trumped-up corruption charges -- from running. [link added for details on "incitement"]
Don't be fooled by the lack of a substantial difference among Maduro and his opponents: This is socialism in a nutshell. That said, I still think American admirers of Bernie Sanders should pay a visit or seek employment there. The linked Wikitravel site contains the following warning from the U.S. State Department:
WARNING: The US State Department advice [sic] to reconsider travel to Venezuela due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens. Some areas have increased risk. Do not travel to certain neighborhoods of Caracas due to crime. The tourists areas are considered today relatively safe for tourists, however. Read the newest Travel Advisory here (January 10, 2018) Venezuela Travel Advisory[.]
Many of these same people will dismiss this as imperialistic propaganda, while both (1) admitting there are problems, which they will blame on the United States and the "big" oil corporations that first developed Venezuela's resources; and (2) working overtime to continue broadening the role of our government well beyond its proper scope. Conservatives might chuckle at such hypocrisy (while often sharing it), but the naiveté worries me.

Just for starters: The whole idea that an all-powerful government is a good thing rests on the foolish assumption that it will act in ways one deems beneficial. But what is beneficial and what is the best way to achieve a good goal? Has a supporter of socialism ever been in disagreement with another person about anything? And what happens when the person who disagrees with you has the gun? It is a sobering thought that large numbers of people who fail to ask such obvious questions can visit such horrible consequences on themselves and everyone around them.

-- CAV


Marxism vs. Productivity

Monday, May 21, 2018

In Deep Work, Cal Newport describes a common problem among modern knowledge workers:

Marx's corpus notwithstanding, thinking can be a highly productive activity. (Image via Pixabay.)
... They want to prove that they're productive members of the team and are earning their keep, but they're not entirely clear what this goal constitutes. They have no rising h-index or rack of repaired motorcycles to point to as evidence of their worth. To overcome this gap, many seem to be turning back to the last time when productivity was more universally observable: the industrial age. (p. 60) [bold added]
Newport goes on to describe the old Efficiency Movement, whose methods of measuring productivity are being misapplied. Newport makes similar points to an article I mentioned some time ago, noting that, for example, metaphors -- like David Allen's "cranking widgets" -- can lead to what Newport calls, "Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity."

I have to agree that metaphors must be used carefully, but I cannot help wondering whether the saturation of our culture with Marx's labor theory of value makes the problem much worse than it ought to be. For example, how hard should it be for an academic to understand that "cranking widgets" might, in his case, consist of reading or concentrating on a problem for several uninterrupted hours? Conversely, consider how many people, including some in management, don't think management does any "real work." Work is not just physical activity, and its physical products will not always be bulky or widely appreciated, no matter how revolutionary.

Why, then, measure them in the same way one measures factory production?

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, May 18, 2018

Blog Roundup

With today's post, I bring back the once-weekly blog roundup. You can expect to see these on occasional Fridays. Enjoy.

1. The blog of the Texas Institute for Property Rights recently marked May Day by taking up John Lennon's musical invitation to "Imagine". An excerpt from a chapter of Brian Phillips's new book, Principles and Property Rights, serves as an aid:

There's no need to "imagine" in Venezuela. (Image via Wikipedia.)
While history provides us with untold examples of this principle, over the past several decades two nations -- Venezuela and China -- have demonstrated it in different ways. One nation has slowly rejected Lennon's vision and enacted greater protections for property rights. The other nation has rejected property rights and moved closer to Lennon's ideal of a society with no possessions -- private property. The well-being of the citizens of the two countries reflects these trends.
Having enjoyed two other books by Phillips, I expect I'll end up reading this one, too. The rest of the chapter is available for free from a link at the end of the post.

2. The Ayn Rand Institute has a new blog by the name of New Ideal. One recent post calls out "The UN's Unscrupulous Attacks on Israel":
Let's begin with [the] member states [of the UN Human Rights Council]. Which of these six countries -- (a) Saudi Arabia, (b) Iran, (c) Egypt, (d) Libya, (e) Cuba, (f) Russia -- has served on the Human Rights Council? The correct answer: "All of the above." But these nations are all egregious violators of individual rights, and many have literally murdered their own citizens in the streets. That fact alone should have disqualified them from membership in the Human Rights Council. Take a moment to think about that -- it's like putting the mafia in charge of the police force.
Journo, too, is the author of a recently-released book, What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

3. Writing at The New Romanticist, Scott Holleran takes on Black Panther, the latest Disney comic book movie. I really enjoyed this review after also finding the film exhausting:
Boseman's ripped king gets tricked out with James Bond gadgets, Euro-electronica ala Bourne Identity accompanies an elaborate car chase, and a trip to South Korea (does every action movie have to have an Asian connection? Is South America off limits?) goes awry. Fast-cutting fights are disorienting. Drumbeats pummel the audience. Subplots turn over and over. This onslaught slips into sameness and gets stale. The plot spins and spins, lulling the audience into a bit of a slumber. In Marvel's universe of wise-cracking white men gussied up in industrial gear and snapping lines to one another, a movie about a mythical African nation and its aristocratic superhero ought to achieve a distinctive quality or uniqueness, no? Does no one in Wakanda listen to jazz? The men go around shirtless, why not the women? Is no one in Wakanda gay? Not a single Wakandan apparently watches television, goes swimming or grooves to Lou Rawls, Sade or Johnny Mathis. Does every Wakandan have to be a 24/7 'badass'?
I expected the social justice subtext, which permeates practically everything from Hollywood these days, but thought the movie might have a bit more entertainment value than it did. Even setting aside that and my normal reservations about the whole idea of superheroes, I ended up in a similar place.

4. From a Thinking Directions blog post a few years back comes some great advice on making New Year's resolutions, or making any major change for that matter:
If you're not mentally ready to make your resolution on January 1, I suggest starting a New Year's Campaign to learn how to achieve that important goal: what concrete, specific form it will take, what doable steps will lead you to it, and what less important activity it will replace. You can always set a mid-year resolution once you know your goal is clear, doable, and important.
If you don't need that advice, head on over and consider the preceding three steps.

-- CAV


Is Systemic Racism a Destructive Myth?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Writing at Quillette, Coleman Hughes considers what he calls the "racism treadmill." In the process, Hughes goes a long way towards (1) explaining why the left seems oblivious to the great progress American society has made against racism, and (2) why that obliviousness is a bad thing. The article is lengthy -- but only about 3500 words, so don't let the scroll bar scare you off! -- and I think it's a worthy complement to Shelby Steele's "Why the Left Can't Let Go of Racism."

A couple of Hughes's closing paragraphs should serve to illustrate his main points and how he approaches them:

Those who say we have made no progress might keep us from crossing the finish line. (Image via Pixabay.)
The War on Racism, though intended to be won by those prosecuting it, will, in practice, continue indefinitely. This is because the stated goals of progressives, however sincerely held, are so apocalyptic, so vague, and so total as to guarantee that they will never be met. One often hears calls to "end white supremacy," for instance. But what "ending white supremacy" would look like in a country where whites are already out-earned by several dark-skinned ethnic groups (Indian-Americans top the list by a large margin) is never explained. I would not be the first to point out the parallels between progressive goals and religious eschatology. [Ta-Nehsis] Coates, for instance, professes to be an atheist, but tweak a few details and the Rapture becomes Reparations -- which he has said will lead to a "spiritual renewal" and a "revolution of the American consciousness."14

Staying on the Racism Treadmill means denying progress and stoking ethnic tensions. It means, as Thomas Sowell once warned, moving towards a society in which "a new born baby enters the world supplied with prepackaged grievances against other babies born the same day."[15] Worse still, it means shutting down the one conversation that stands the greatest chance of improving outcomes for blacks: the conversation about culture. [notes and links in original, bold added]
If Hughes errs in his essay, it is on the side of being generous to some who appear to have ulterior motives in keeping us on that treadmill. But if so, he more than makes up for it by explaining in a way almost anyone can grasp how it is that a lack of racial progress can sound so plausible to so many.

-- CAV


Cal Newport on GTD

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Deep Work author Cal Newport identifies a big problem in the productivity system David Allen describes in the famed Getting Things Done:

Sometimes, this isn't a joke. (Image via Pixabay.)
Creating real value requires deep work, which is a fundamentally different activity than knocking off organizational tasks.

Deep work cannot be reduced to clear next actions. It is, instead, a philosophy that must be cultivated. If you read Robert Greene's Mastery, for example, you'll encounter story after story of remarkable people who didn't carefully organize tasks, but instead marshaled their energy toward the obsessive (and often messy) pursuit of something new.

...

To Summarize: David Allen's universalism is seductive, but ultimately flawed. Cranking widgets cannot create results of lasting value. That requires something deeper. [links and formatting in original]
To be clear, Newport is not completely dismissing the kinds of tasks GTD is good for: He uses the system to organize what he calls "shallow work." But it is clear that, say, listing "spend many hours obsessively doing deep work on problem X" as a next action does not help much when the time arrives to do this. Anyone who has tried implementing GTD and found it not to be a cure-all might want to consider Newport's idea that there are different kinds of tasks that should be tracked differently. That line of thinking may well be more productive than, "You're just not trying GTD hard enough."

-- CAV


GOP Dropping the Pretense?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Peter Suderman of Reason Magazine argues that, "Under Trump, Republicans Have Become the Party of No Ideas." Suderman makes some disturbing connections of data with his thesis, such as the following:

Ayn Rand's image of the hollow oak seems particularly apt, but this will do. (Image via Pixabay)
... Republicans are not merely struggling with difficult vote math, or with converting broad ideas into legislative form. They are abandoning the notion of a policy agenda entirely.

That abandonment can be seen in the slew of GOP retirements -- more than two dozen so far, including a large number of committee heads, who have historically taken charge of writing legislation and moving it through the congressional process.
In a very real sense, the Republican Party, or at least the party as we have known it, is calling it quits.

The most notable of the retirees is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a veteran lawmaker who built his career as a legislative entrepreneur, the closest thing the GOP had to an idea man, pitching a broad policy agenda he at one point dubbed "A Better Way."

Even among Republicans, Ryan's ideas, especially on entitlements, were always more popular in theory than in practice, and Ryan's status as a deficit hawk was often overrated. But at the very least his ideas served as a sort of ideological placeholder, a sense of what the party should, or could, aim for in the absence of a more promising program. [bold added]
Signs of this were evident during the campaign, as Bret Stephens noted in the Wall Street Journal back in 2016, when he commented on the leadership of the GOP folding like a cheap law chair after Trump became the nominee:
What isn't normal is the ease with which so many conservative leaders, political and intellectual, have prostrated themselves before Mr. Trump simply because he won. In July, Dan Senor, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, tweeted that he had once commiserated with a Midwestern governor about how unacceptable Mr. Trump was as the GOP nominee. That governor? Mike Pence.

As for conservative thought leaders, the book that comes to mind is Julien Benda's 1927 classic, La Trahison des clercs, "The Treason of the Intellectuals." Benda railed against a new class of European thinkers who specialized in "the intellectual organization of political hatreds," the "desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action," and above all "the cult of success," based on "the teaching that says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt." [bold added, links omitted, format edits]
But lest you think Stephens is some kind of prophet, consider the following words, written over a half-century ago by Ayn Rand:
[T]o those of you who do wish to contest [this country's uncontested collapse] -- particularly those of you who are young and are not ready to surrender -- I want to give a warning: nothing is as dead as the stillborn. Nothing is as futile as a movement without goals, or a crusade without ideals, or a battle without ammunition. A bad argument is worse than ineffectual: it lends credence to the arguments of your opponents. A half-battle is worse than none: it does not end in mere defeat -- it helps and hastens the victory of your enemies.

At a time when the world is torn by a profound ideological conflict, do not join those who have no ideology -- no ideas, no philosophy -- to offer you. Do not go into battle armed with nothing but stale slogans, pious platitudes, and meaningless generalities. Do not join any so-called "conservative" group, organization, or person that advocates any variant of the arguments from "faith," from "tradition," or from "depravity." Any home-grown sophist in any village debate can refute those arguments and can drive you into evasions in about five minutes. What would happen to you, with such ammunition, on the philosophical battlefield of the world? But you would never reach that battlefield: you would not be heard on it, since you would have nothing to say.

It is not by means of evasions that one saves civilization. It is not by means of empty slogans that one saves a world perishing for lack of intellectual leadership. It is not by means of ignoring its causes that one cures a deadly disease. [bold added]
This is what Rand said of the conservatives back then, when they still were pretending to offer an alternative to the left. Suderman and Stephens rightly observe the effects of what Rand discussed then, but they don't go far enough. It's not just that the conservatives failed in 2016 or now -- it's that they are no longer even bothering to pretend to be serious opponents of the left. Whether that be because they don't know or don't care what will happen as a result of failing to do so, is as irrelevant as they will prove to be in the long term.

As for anyone not wishing for a Bernie Sanders's version of the American dream (as is being realized today in Venezuela), I strongly recommend reading the entirety of Rand's "Conservatism: An Obituary." We need ideas, and if Donald Trump has given us anything more than a few random rollbacks to particularly bad regulations, it is this: He has shown -- sooner rather than later -- that the GOP is not the "party of ideas" we need for an actual return of America to the greatness of capitalism.

-- CAV

Updates

Today: (1) Added a title. (2) Added missing quotes from title of Rand essay.


Pinch a Penny, Blow a Buck

Monday, May 14, 2018

Over at Inc., business columnist Suzanne Lucas considers advice she unexpectedly received after sharing an anecdote online. The elastic band in a garment gave up the ghost after twenty-three years, and several people said she should sew in a new band, in the name of thrift. She had wisely trashed the old garment and ordered a new one. Here is part of her analysis of that advice:

Image of symbol extolling the waste of time as a virtue, via Pixabay.
Then, I have to measure the elastic, cut it, pin it to the slip, and sew it in. I do know how to sew, but I don't do it often. All in all, if I worked quickly, and had no problems with the cloth or sewing machine, I'd guess the whole process would take about an hour. You may be able to do it faster. You may have extra elastic in your sewing box, but I don't.

So, all in all, it would take me about 1 hour and 30 minutes to put new elastic into cloth that would be old enough to drink. To save what? $15?

Is my time worth $10 an hour? Or is it worth more?

It's absolutely worth more. In fact, using the time I saved by buying the new slip, I can write this article, for which Inc will pay me.
Lucas even discusses other possible benefits from doing the repair, anyway, and found them wanting. For example, as a chance to teach her son some sewing, this case was wanting because elastic would have made for too tricky a lesson for a beginner.

To people who have had penny-pinching -- or worse, recycling -- drummed into their skulls from Day One, it might sound like Lucas over-thought this. I would beg to differ. While considering value propositions thoughtfully does take more effort than blindly applying a rule about saving money, it isn't that hard once one has made it a habit, and it leads to better productivity (and often, ultimately more money since making money is often an alternative to saving less of it).

The lesson here is that if one cares about maximizing value in life, it is an error to fixate on the dollar cost of one or a few things. Many things are more valuable, dollar-wise, and some things one should consider cannot even be quantified in terms of money. See also Ayn Rand's teleological measurement of values.

-- CAV