Forced Cosmetic Surgery of the Ears

A Hard Look at Brazil’s Kidnapping Industry: Well, this is sobering.

The men had to prove they were serious. Her family needed to know they’d do whatever the kidnappers demanded. So the men cut off her ears.


In the video, her ears are immaculate. You would never know criminals had sawed them off. This is São Paulo, Brazil. Kidnappings are so common here that an industry of plastic surgeons specializing in ear replacements earns millions every year.

Charity and Personal Responsibility

One of the defining characteristics of your political view is how you think a government should balance charity against personal responsibility.

Charity is the government giving aid in the form of social programs for the economically challenged: welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, mortgage debt relief, etc. Helping people in need is generally accepted as a hallmark of civilized society and is very much inline with the Christian ideals that the U.S. still overwhelmingly supports.

That’s clearly good, right?  So let’s give out as much charity as possible, case closed.

Unfortunately, the opposite side to this argument is that government charity decreases the need for personal responsibility. If people know that there’s a safety net for them, then they won’t exhibit responsibility in their personal behavior. The chronic result of this will be a society of people who don’t feel the need to work hard for anything because “the system” (the government’s social programs) will always be around to save them, so their ambition and motivation dries up and they just live off the system to some extent.

This is a perennial argument in politics, and the side taken on it will very much affect whether you see yourself as a conservative or liberal.  Liberals generally believe in greater charity, while conservatives believe in less charity and greater personal responsibility. Liberals don’t believe that the poor are poor because of personal choice and that social justice therefore compels us to help. Conservatives believe in a “tough love” approach, that anyone can improve their circumstances if they are sufficiently motivated to do so, and that too much charity kills that motivation.

(This New York Times article summarized a lot of the research that says assistance does not corrupt the poor. But, in reading that, know there are no-doubt similar examples on the right.)

The sad fact is that both sides are correct, based on how they view the group needing charity. This is one of the biggest problems in arguing about this – both sides tend to think that everyone in a demographic group is there for the same reason. Both sides have created strawmen (go read that link) of the recipients of charity, and based their arguments around supporting or destroying that strawman.

When we consider “the poor” as a mass group of people, the two extremes look like this:

  1. They are poor because of circumstances outside of their control
  2. They are poor because they’re unmotivated and don’t work hard enough

And this is how many people view the situation – they pick one of the above, and paint everyone in the group with that brush.  The truth is that there are a lot of reasons why someone might be poor, and different people fall into different groups.


  1. A single mother with four children and a deadbeat ex who doesn’t pay child support. She might be working as hard as possible, but just can’t make ends meet, so has reluctantly applied for food stamps but is trying to find a way off them as soon as possible.
  2. A high school dropout who refuses to get a job and just sits around a smokes pot all day, only leaving the house to cash his welfare check. So long as the government is going to pay him to play XBox, then why should he do anything else?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that we, as a society, want to help the single mother, but the high school dropout can dry up and blow away for all we care. The problem is that social programs are not great at sorting these two groups out. We’re expecting finely-grained targeting with a sledgehammer, essentially.

Now, it’s an over-statement to say that each political view  thinks the poor is completely comprised of one or the other, but the two sides do disagree on the proportion.

Liberals think that most of the poor fit the profile of our single mother – people who work hard, but just can’t make ends meet due to specific circumstances out of their control (the deadbeat ex, for example), or due to larger forces brought about by the wealthy (“the 1%”) involving income equality, depression of wages for the working class, erosion of worker rights, etc.  Social programs need to exist because we have failed the poor as a country by allowing (even encouraging) oppressive economic environments to exist.

Conservatives think that a larger proportion of the poor are not sufficiently motivated, either due to their acute lack of personal ethics, or because they’ve simply grown up in a society that has chronically rewarded inactivity and has therefore ingrained a lack of motivation in them. They believe our society has minimized moral hazard (read that link too) by building larger and larger social programs. Cutting social programs might not fix the personal responsibility problem immediately, but a generation growing up with less charity will be forced to develop more personal responsibility therefore strengthening the country over time.

I think that both sides have the same intent – we don’t want people to have to rely on social programs as a necessity of life – but there are different ways of solving the problem. Liberals think that the problem needs to be solved by the community, and that the poor cannot raise themselves up until we solve larger issues of our social structure like the aforementioned income inequality. Conservatives think that the problem is a lack of personal initiative, and that relying on social programs should not be a comfortable situation, which risks that people simply want to stay there rather than improve their circumstances.

In the end, both sides have set up strawmen for each other. Conservatives think that liberals are naïve and get taken advantage of. Liberals think conservatives are heartless and care about money more than people. If you believe one of these scenarios, then it’s very easy to disagree with the other side and think they’re idiots.

If somehow we could get to a point where social programs existed but only helped those who truly needed help, then both sides would likely be happy.  I have no doubt that the average conservative very much wants to help the single mother get to a point of self-sufficiency, and I also have no doubt that the average liberal wants the high school dropout get off his ass and find a job.

But, until we get to that day – which we likely never will – there will be a constant argument over what level of charity we should provide as a society, and what effect different levels have on our individual personal responsibility.

The Politics of Getting Re-elected

One would hope that politicians always act in ways which they think will directly benefit the country.  But, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they do things that actually go against their better judgement. Sometimes they do this in a specific situation, and sometimes they just adopt long-term positions which they might not completely agree with.

Why is this?  Because they need to get re-elected.

If a politician could get into office and stay there with no threat of ever getting kicked out, then they would be free to act in ways completely true to their beliefs (one would hope). Sadly, the actions of a politician are always somewhat covered up by artifice, because they have to be re-elected and this will influence their behavior.

There are three things you usually must have to get re-elected:

  1. The support of your party
  2. A lot of money
  3. The support of your constituents

Obtaining and retaining these three things will influence the actions a politician takes while in office.

First, you need the support of your political party.  If you’re a Conservative, then this is likely The Republican Party, and if you’re a liberal, then it’s The Democratic Party.

The parties hold considerable power during a political campaign – they have a lot of money they can choose to spend or not spend on your race, and they often hold the key to getting endorsed by more powerful members of your party. If you’re a Democrat running for office and you get an endorsement and a couple of campaign commercials with the sitting Democratic president, well that’s huge for you. With any luck, he’ll even stop by your state and make an appearance with you.

This means that you have to have your party behind you before you run for re-election. To do this, you have support “the party line” over the years – you have to mostly vote the way party wants you to vote. Your party helped get you elected, and you are expected to support the party’s policies, projects, and philosophies in return. In most cases, you were going to vote the party line anyway (or else, why would you be a member of that party?), but in some specific case, you might have wanted to vote differently but were coerced into following the party line.

If a party — Republicans or Democrats — want to pass something, for example, they each have a position called The Whip.  The Whip is a special congressman whose has the unenviable job of “whipping” his colleagues into shape when the party needs to come together on a vote.  Whips enforce the party line.  This is the person who visits the offices, arranges for vote trading (you vote for my bill and I’ll vote for yours), and I’m sure even threatens people with the withdrawal of political support.

(Future president Lyndon Johnson was famous for this when he was in Congress — look at this picture, for example. Johnson was a physically imposing man, and sometimes his “persuasion” bordered on physical threats.  And remember Frank Underwood from House of Cards? He was the Democratic Whip in the House, and you can see how he treated people that didn’t support him. The Whip’s job is to enforce party discipline by whatever means necessary.)

If you don’t vote with your party most of the time, you can expect to pay for it come election season. Your party might withhold funds, they might support your challenger in the primary election, or they might offer only lukewarm endorsements from prominent party figures.

This sounds vindictive, but it’s just common sense. They obviously want to spend money and influence on someone who will be an asset to the party, and if this isn’t you, then they’ll find someone else.

Whatever the consequence, it won’t be pretty, and you likely won’t survive.

Second, you often need a lot of money to run for re-election, especially if your challenger is popular (or if you’re unpopular).  Political campaigns are insanely expensive, and it’s a sad fact that you can largely buy elections in this country.  I don’t mean that you can get anyone elected, but if most everything else is equal, the candidate spending the most money will usually win.  You know that political advertising that drives us nuts every other fall?  Well, sadly, it works.

A lot of this money comes from your party (see above), and certainly some of it comes from everyday people who believe in you and donate to your campaign.  If you’re rich, you can even pay for some of it yourself – in 2008, Mitt Romney spent $35 million of his own money trying to get elected president.

Unfortunately, there’s another option – so-called “special interests.”  These are often individual companies, but also groups of organizations that band together into what are called “political action committees.” These groups are seeking out some kind of political goal, and they donate money to political campaigns to achieve it.

This takes two forms:

  1. A general donation in the hopes of getting a politician elected that will further the goals of the organization.
  2. A specific donation in return for an implicit favor, in the form of a vote on something the organization wants.

The former is relatively innocent – we’re all allowed to support politicians that we agree with.  The latter, however, gets pretty sleazy pretty fast.  You can’t actually trade money for a vote, but it’s fairly clear that if a certain company donates a ton of money to particular candidate, that candidate is going to vote their way if they get elected. Additionally, when facing down an important vote, a lot of politicians will likely take stock of who donated to their last campaign, and how this vote will affect them.

Here’s a quote from a news article about Comcast (the cable company):

Comcast even in normal years is a major political donor. The company spent more than $3.5 million during 2011 and 2012 on a slew of Democratic and Republican candidates, and it has shelled out just under $2 million already in the 2014 cycle, according to federal records.

Why do you think Comcast is spending that money?  Because they want something in return.

You have to consider cause and effect here – which came first, the political position, or the money?  For example, consider these three things:

  1. Comcast does not want the Internet classified as a public utility, because it would affect the way they set prices
  2. Comcast has donated a lot of money to the campaign of Senator Ted Cruz
  3. Ted Cruz has opposed classifying the Internet as a public utility

So, which came first?  Did Ted Cruz always oppose this (point #3), and Comcast thought, “This is guy we want to keep in office, so let’s help him stay there” (then #2)?  Or did Ted Cruz not have an opinion, and Comcast donates a bunch of money (#2), and suddenly Ted Cruz forms an opinion which miraculously coincides with what Comcast wants (then #3)?

For the record, I don’t know, and Comcast has donated to a lot people, not just Ted Cruz. Cruz is a conservative in favor of smaller government, so he very well might oppose the public utility option purely on principle, and Comcast donation had nothing to do with it.

Furthermore, understand that this happens all the time. Every politician takes money from special interests (here’s a website that documents special interest donations; here’s the donations to our own Tim Johnson, for example), so it’s tough to single anyone out.

This sounds a lot like bribery, but the politicians’ defense is that their positions came first, and the money came second. However, I’m quite sure the reverse is often true – some politicians will form (or reverse) a position in exchange for donations, and I’m also sure that some blatant vote-selling happens (“Donate $X to my campaign, and I will change my vote for you.”).

Finally,to get elected, you have to have the support of your constituents. This is clearly a no-brainer – you have to get people to vote for you.  And remember that even if you’re serving the entire nation as a U.S. Congressman, the only people that vote for you are the people in your district back home, so you will do things to make them happy.

What’s one of the best ways to make them happy?  Bring them money in the form of federal projects. The federal government has money to spend on stuff, and your goal is to get the government to spend as much money has it can in your home district, so you can show your constituents all the money your brought home and consequently get them to vote you back into office.

This is called “pork,” or “pork barrel politics.”  Pork is stuff you managed to get the federal government to spend in your district.  Some of it might be necessary and justified.  Some of it, however, is clearly unnecessary and is done simply because a Congressman worked hard to make it happen.

(This brings up the question of who a Congressman is supposed to serve — their country, or their district?  Should they always act in the best interests of the country as a whole, or should they freely screw the country and other states if it will benefit their own district? People have different opinions here.)

This spending can be in the form of all sorts of stuff – you can get the government to bring disaster relief funds after a hurricane, you can get the Army to open a new base in your hometown, you can get the Department of Transportation to spent $100 million on a new interstate, etc.

The late Senator Robert Byrd was famous for this.  He was from West Virginia and was a master at steering federal money back to his state.  They called him the “King of Pork” and he got so many federal projects back to his state that there’s a Wikipedia page listing all the things named after him because of this. He was quite proud, saying:

I lost no opportunity to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home.

This was a good strategy. Byrd served in Congress for well over 50 years, he was re-elected over a dozen times (by overwhelming majorities), and technically never left office — he died while actively serving in Congress.

Pork politics might get you to do things that go against your philosophy and label, which always seems to get overlooked.  For instance, conservatives who campaign against “big government” will usually ease off this language when there’s a chance for millions of dollars in federal spending in their home district.  The general adage is, “We need to cut government spending!…except if the government is spending it in my district, then it’s cool.” And it goes both ways — a liberal who wants to cut the military budget might shockingly support a proposed Army base in their district…

And consider George W. Bush, who campaigned as a conservative in favor of small government, yet pushed for Medicare Part D, which was a historic and expensive expansion of a social program. He did this during his first term, leading to cynical speculation that he was just trying to lock in the senior citizen vote for his upcoming re-election campaign.

Military base closures in particular are a great example of pork politics in action.  Many politicians admit that the U.S. military needs to close several bases around the country because they not necessary.  But a military base is usually a huge impact to the regional economy – the average base has thousands of people working there, and contributes millions and millions of dollars to a local economy.  Ellsworth Air Force Base out in Rapid City is a great example – if it ever closed, it would devastate that part of the state.

So, politicians want to close military bases in general, but not in their home districts. Indeed, when Ellsworth was threatened with closure some years ago, all three of South Dakota’s Congresspeople (a Republican and two Democrats, at the time) united in a massive (and successful) effort to save it.  I don’t know if that was justified or not, but no matter how badly a politician wants to cut military spending, you can bet they don’t want to cut it in their own backyard.

Now, this all seems very cynical, I know.  I don’t mean it to – I’m sure many politicians are very principled people who genuinely want to do good things.  But the fact that remains that to do anything in office, you have to stay there first.  If you’re not in office, then all your raving about your political philosophy isn’t going to do anyone any good.

Senators have it easy – they get six years, so they can forget about getting re-elected for a while and concentrate on governing.  The president and most state governors (48 of them) are a little worse off, as they only get four years.

It’s the Representatives (and two state governors) that have a hard time, because they only get two years in office, which means they’re essentially always campaigning for re-election.  The minute they get put back in office, they have to start thinking about the next election and how they can get re-elected again.

As sad as all this is, it’s the reality of it.  The need to get re-elected will influence what a politician does in office, because they need the support of the party, money from special interests, and votes from their constituents in order to keep doing what they’re doing.

Why Labels Matter

We’ve talked a bit about the “conservative” and “liberal” labels, but you might be wondering why they matter. Indeed, why wouldn’t a politician just eschew labels and say “I’ll do what’s best for the country in all situations”?  Wouldn’t that be great?

The problem is that politicians have to get elected, and to do so they have to engage in a form of marketing.  They have to “position” themselves to voters.  When voter sees a politician’s name in a commercial or in the voting booth, that voter needs to think, “Oh yeah, this is the conservative (or liberal)…” followed by “…and this person will (or will not) support the things I think are important.”

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from mounting a political campaign by saying, “I have no political inclination either way! I’m just smart, and good-intentioned, and I’ll make good decisions!”  This sounds great in theory, but the problem is that no one would vote for you.

This is because most voters want simplicity. Life is complicated, so the average American voter wants to categorize things as easily as possible.  We like it when things fit into nice little boxes, and when things bleed over the lines, we get annoyed. If we can’t fit something into a box, we tend to not want that thing to exist.

Furthermore, we don’t want a politician to handle just the issues we know about right now. They’re going to be in office for two, four, or six years, so we want to know that they will be able to handle issues in the future in ways that we think are appropriate. These are issues that we don’t know about, and might not even be able to speculate on. We’re trying to put people in office to project our views into the future. The only way to know how to do this is to consider their overall philosophy on governing, and do this, we want to know their label.

Additionally, many American voters categorize themselves.  They apply a “conservative” or “liberal” label to themselves, and they want to vote for someone that matches that label. They want to send themselves to Washington, essentially, and they want to do this by voting for someone who thinks the same way they do.

Even better, they want to vote for an entire block of people who match that label.  Many voters would simply like to vote for a political party, not an individual candidate, and just sent a whole mess of people to Washington that they believe agree with them more-or-less and will support the issues in the same ways.

There are “straight ticket voters” who simply check all the Republican or Democrat boxes on the ballet without knowing anything about the actual candidates. These voters are voting for a party, or more abstractly, a philosophy they think that party represents.

(Indeed, in many countries, this is how it’s done – you vote for a party, not a person, then the party elects the people who will actually serve.)

It should be obvious by now that political parties are the easiest way for a politician to position themselves. By becoming a Republican or a Democrat, they instantly align themselves with a philosophy, and thus with a huge block of voters. Being the Republican or Democratic candidate can almost guarantee election in some parts of the country. Democrats don’t do well in Texas, and Republicans don’t do well in Chicago because of the demographics of those regions.

This is also why non-aligned candidates (“Independents”) have such a tough time getting elected.  Running as an independent automatically gives you an identity crisis with the voters. They don’t know how to categorize you. To understand what philosophy you espouse, they would have to listen to all the different things you say or write, analyze them, and make a decision. Most people don’t want to do this.

I’m not saying that politicians don’t have personal beliefs and philosophies that they use to make decisions. I have no doubt that there are many very principled people in Washington.  (For example, I’ve heard from several people I trust that both our senators – Tim Johnson and John Thune – are genuinely good, honest men who act in ways that align with their personal beliefs of what is the right thing to do. Good for us.)

What I am saying is that politicians have to embrace a public persona in order to get elected.  They have to market themselves to voters in such a way that the voter identifies with them, thinks they will represent that voter’s interest, and will therefore check their name in the voting booth.

The easiest way to do this is to apply a label to yourself publicly, and then promote yourself in that way.

Labels and Contexts

When discussing labels like “conservative” and “liberal,” it needs to be acknowledged that there are different contexts in which they apply. People can be both conservative and liberal at the same time, about different things.

There are three major contexts in which you might apply these labels:

  • Fiscal policy: things which affect the economy and taxes
  • Social policy: things which affect how citizens relate to and regulate the behavior of one another
  • Foreign policy: things which affect how the U.S. relates to other countries

When it comes to fiscal policy, conservatives believe in minimal government involvement in the economy and keeping taxes and regulation low. Keeping the government out of business affairs allows the market to regulate itself. Liberals believe that the market needs regulation,and that when left to itself it tends to be unfair to lower income classes through income inequality. Liberals believe in increasing taxation in order to exact policies and programs to make society better.

In social policy, conservatives believe in what they would call “traditional values,” which generally means they oppose laws allowing gay marriage, support laws restricting abortion, support the death penalty for certain crimes, are against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and support the freedom to own and carry firearms. Liberals tend to be on the opposite side of those issues – abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage should be legal; the death penalty and gun ownership should be restricted.

In foreign policy, conservatives believe in a strong national defense, and in the leadership of the United States around the world by projecting our power where necessary to protect our interests and the interests of our allies. Liberals believe in less defense spending, more cooperation with other countries, and more emphasis on the United States as an equal member of the global community.

You can slip from one label to another, depending on the context, or the laws and policies under discussion.

It’s not unusual, for example, to be a “fiscal conservative and a social liberal.” This would indicate that you support conservative policies when it comes to the economy, but you don’t care so much about people’s personal behavior so long as they’re not harming anyone else. As such, you can’t be pinned down under a single label.

Obviously, there’s no enforcement of labels.  You can generally be considered liberal, but have strong opposing views in one particular area. You might be very fiscally conservative in general, but support more funding for the food stamp program because you were raised by a single mother and never had enough to eat as a kid. Everyone has personal idiosyncrasies that cause them to waffle a bit on various issues.

A more practical example: it’s quite common for Democratic politicians in South Dakota to strongly support gun ownership, giving our hunting traditions. In fact, during election season, most Democrats in this state make a specific point to release pictures of themselves hunting, just to counter the natural political assumption that they’re anti-gun.

The bottom line: labels are not absolute. Someone who absolutely doesn’t step out of the traditional boundaries of how they label themselves is probably trying very hard not to, perhaps in order to prove a point.

However, given that these positions usually tie back to a philosophical basis and worldview (remember our discussion of The Individual vs. the Community), people often fall into general groups about issues.  If someone describes themselves as a “conservative,” you can usually make some accurate assumptions about the issues they support and the positions that they take.

On the Interestingness and Usefulness of Books

I’m reading more now than at any time in my life.  I set a 2014 goal of one book per week (52 in all), and as of the second week in November, I’m at 58.

Additionally, I’ve been keeping track of my reading at Goodreads, and I try to write a short review of each book when I finish it. This has the effect of forcing me to think critically about each book and what I might have gained from it.

More and more, I’m encountering a phenomenon where a book is “interesting but not useful.” These are books that are very entertaining, and that I enjoy reading, but that don’t stay with me in any meaningful sense.

This has laid bare the fact that I read for two reasons:

  1. fun
  2. education

I enjoy the process of reading – working through new chapters of 2-3 books each morning over coffee is truly one of the great joys of my life.  But I also enjoy the legacy of reading, which is the hope that reading a book makes me a better person in some way – that it leaves “footprints” on my life, and develops me mentally and emotionally.

The best books are both “interesting and useful.”  These are books which you love to read, and that educate you at the same time.  I thinking now of Where Good Ideas Come From and The Innovators and Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea – three books I couldn’t wait to read every morning, and that have extended me as a person. I refer back to ideas and concepts from both books often.

Books that are “interesting but not useful” are books that are fun to read, but have no lasting impact on your life.  Malcolm Gladwell is famous for this. He writes books which are essentially collections of fascinating anecdotes wrapped around some flimsy premise that ostensibly ties them all together (but which usually doesn’t).  I love to read Gladwell, but he doesn’t effectively make a case for anything, and I can’t say I come away from any of his books better educated than when I started.

Right now, I’m reading The 20% Doctrine, which is about the idea of “20% projects” as a source of innovation. It’s a collection of business stories which ostensibly prove that 20% projects can be a source for great ideas.  The stories are great – for example, the last chapter was about the Off the Bus project that HuffPo did for the 2008 campaign.  But can I draw any larger premise out of it?  Is there a lesson to be learned?  Can I say I’m better off for having read it? …. No, sadly, I really can’t.

Can a book be “useful but not interesting”?  Maybe a textbook or something else that’s extremely information-dense. Perhaps we don’t enjoy reading it, but we learn a lot.  However, for me, learning a lot makes me enjoy it, so this would be a harder sell. (There are, however, books which are so dense that I get frustrated because I find the topic entertaining, but there’s just so much information to absorb that I can’t take it all in.)

How about fiction?  Can it be both? Mostly, fiction is about entertainment (interest), but it can be useful. Historical fiction, for instance, can teach you a lot about how the world works. So-called philosophical fiction can make you think about the world in new ways (sadly, I abandoned Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a quarter of the way through).

Additionally, fiction can give you points of cultural reference that you might not have otherwise. I’ve gotten through five of the seven Harry Potter novels, both because they’re fun reads, but they’re also cultural touchstones of the last decade-and-a-half. I can’t count the number of references to Harry Potter that I notice now which I wouldn’t have before (“Ten points to Gryffindor!”).

I’m currently reading War and Peace.  I’ve actually gotten into the story quite a bit (which surprised me), but it’s manifesting other benefits as well.  It forced me to research the Napoleonic era and the things Napoleon did in Russia just after the turn of the 19th century. Additionally, it’s introduced me to the vagaries of Russian naming, which is critical to understanding all the characters, and I’m beginning to understand the social protocols of a bygone era, which are considerable (and seemingly arbitrary).  I’m looking forward to the second half of the book (I’m precisely at 50% right now) when I’m told that Tolstoy expounds on several philosophical concepts about war and life.

So, is “interesting but not useful” all bad?  I don’t know.  Obviously, I’d rather have both interesting and useful, but perhaps the former category is useful, but just over a longer term. I absorb something from everything, and perhaps these books resonate later in my life in various ways. Perhaps I absorb small things that bounce around in my head and come out somewhere down the line, in some morphed form, when combined with other ideas.

Without a clear answer, the only reasonable strategy is to read as much as possible, of all types of books, at all times. That’s a burden I’m happy to live with.

(And before anyone complains about the title — I checked, and both “interestingness” and “usefulness” are legit words, even if my spellchecker disagrees. Wikipedia even has a page on interestingness discussing how the concept is not a valid measure for if something gets page on the site.)

The Individual vs. The Community

Your personal political philosophy is highly influence by how you view the way individuals relate to their larger community.

For example:

  • Conservatives view the individual as the prime mover. The individual is the engine of the economy and the engine of the community as a whole.
  • Liberals view the aggregate of individuals – the community itself – as the prime mover. The community that individuals create together is the engine that moves us forward.

This belief drives to what extent you believe the community (the government, in some form) should influence the actions of the individual:

  • Conservatives believe in individual liberty above all else. Leave the individual to themselves, and they will work things out to the general betterment of the larger community – their individual actions will work toward advancing the aggregate.
  • Liberals believe that the community should assist individuals to achieve greater things and that individuals themselves tend to act in their own self-interest to the detriment of the community. The community has a responsibility to enforce the fair rules of the game.

So a person’s political philosophy often comes down where their natural focus rests: on the individual or on the community?

This parallels the results of a survey by Pew Research.  People were asked what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.”

The results:

  • United States: 58% freedom, 35% guarantees
  • Britain: 38% freedom, 55% guarantees
  • Elsewhere in Europe: 62% guarantees

Roger Cohen from the NY Times sums it up:

This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance. Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency.

Last year, I read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, which was an examination of exactly this concept – why people can have such profoundly different views of politics. What Haidt stated was something similar to what I said above – it largely comes down to how people view the individual in relationship to the community.

In fact, Haidt recounted a study which revealed how fundamentally different this view can be, based on your personal culture or background. Given a picture of a living room, someone from Culture/Background A might see the room itself in aggregate (“this is a living room”; the community), while someone from Culture/Background B might see the things that comprise the room (“this is a couch, a table, and a lamp in a room”; the individuals). One person immediately extrapolates the individuals to a larger community and that’s the thing he’s looking at. The other sees the individuals and stops there – he is, of course, aware that they comprise a living room together, but that’s not what he’s looking at.

So, do we view ourselves first as independent actors operating in the world, or do we think of the world first as something we are a part of?

These subconscious inclinations are ingrained in us as children and explain why some countries accept things like single-payer health care as natural and completely reasonable, and other countries damn-near go to war over it (ahem, us).

Effort and Potential

Almost everybody has heard of “The 10,000 Hour Rule,” which says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything.  I actually read the original study (PDF) last year.

But I’ve often wondered about the limits of this theory. Does there exist people who simply will never master something, no matter how much they practice?

I wondered this quite a bit when trying to teach my late mother how to use her computer. We managed to get basic things, sure, but I found myself wondering if I could make my mother an expert computer user, or even a programmer, if I had to.  Would she have the temerity for it?  The ability to think abstractly and in analogy? That just wasn’t the way my mother’s mind worked.

And what of people who just, well, aren’t smart?  We hate to talk in terms of pure, genetic intelligence, but it’s silly to pretend this doesn’t exist. Some people are just born smarter than other people. Somehow, it’s acceptable to say someone is “naturally athletic” (and thus imply the opposite – some people are not naturally athletic), but it’s rude, even sinister, to say some people are just not naturally intelligent.

Uncomfortable or not, it’s sadly true. There are people who are just not gifted with good memory, advanced reasoning, abstract thought, pattern recognition, etc.  These are the things that make up what we’d call “intelligence.” They exist in people in varying degrees – some people have a lot of them, some people have very little.

At the very lower ends of the intelligence scale are people for whom life is going to be difficult. These are people that can have the biggest hearts in the world, the most willpower, and a genuine desire to better their circumstances, but there’s an upper limit to what they might be able to accomplish.  For them, holding down a job stocking shelves at Walmart might be a huge victory.  (And, sure, there are people who suffer from actual mental disabilities, but hovering right above this group are people who might not have a diagnosable mental defect, but who clearly just aren’t all there.)

Do I think these people can absolutely better their circumstances through hard work and persistence? Yes, absolutely. Are they ever going to become college professors or make a six figure income?  Probably not.  Is applying the 10,000 rule going to allow them to become an expert at anything they choose?  Nope.

(It feels elitist even writing this.  But don’t shoot the messenger.)

A study this year called The 10,000 Hour Rule into question:  Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions

We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.

So, what is the rest of the difference?  Likely some form of natural ability.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized The 10,000 Hour Rule in his book Outliers.  But even he has since said that he was misunderstood.  In a Reddit AMA, he said this:

The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.

So, practice only amplifies natural ability, which has to exist first.

This article in Slate essentially echos the same point, and puts a political spin on it: The 10,000 Hour Rule Is Wrong and Perpetuates a Cruel Myth

Societal inequality is thus justified on the grounds that anyone who is willing to put in the requisite time and effort can succeed and should be rewarded with a good life, whereas those who struggle to make ends meet are to blame for their situations and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. If we acknowledge that people differ in what they have to contribute, then we have an argument for a society in which all human beings are entitled to a life that includes access to decent housing, health care, and education, simply because they are human. Our abilities might not be identical, and our needs surely differ, but our basic human rights are universal.

Essentially, if we blame everyone for their situation – as if their current circumstances are based solely on their effort and nothing else – then we can justify economic and social inequality.  If we acknowledge that people are successful in some degree because they were gifted with great genes, then it gets tougher.

As with everything, there’s a fine line.  It’d be wonderful if we could easily determine to what percentage someone is living up their potential, where we consider “potential” to be the highest possible circumstance they could achieve with the natural gifts they’ve been given. Then this would be easy – someone living up to 100% of their potential is to be admired no matter what that potential looks like on an absolute scale.  Someone at 10% of their potential is to be scorned, even if Mommy and Daddy paid for Harvard and a Mercedes.

In the end, are we looking for results, or genuine effort (meaning effort in an absolutely honest attempt to get better, not just effort to make it look like you’re trying hard)?  In my mind, genuine effort is the correct yardstick.  I have great admiration for someone who has overcome any limitation over which they had no control – be it intelligence, athletic ability, childhood upbringing, physical catastrophe of some kind – and achieved some level of success in spite of that.

But this isn’t easy to measure. You don’t know everyone’s story, so I have no idea that the weathered lady riding the bus is actually doing phenomenally well despite the fact that she was sexually abused as a child, has never been naturally intelligent, and had a husband who ran off leaving her with three kids to feed.

Instead, we admire the idiot in the sharp suit and BMW, not knowing that he dropped out of three colleges, got the BMW for Christmas from his parents last year, and is managing to hide a thousand-dollar-a-week cocaine habit because his Daddy gave him a cushy job in the family business to essentially just occupy an office for eight hours a day.

Eight hours a day means he should master being a lazy douchebag in about five years.

The Human Tie and the Lack of Corporate Morality

I own 25% of my company, which is a significant percentage. This chunk of ownership binds me to this company, in the sense that I see the company as a sort of extension of myself in many ways.  I’m not a minor owner – I’m a significant part of the day-to-day operations, and my input goes a long way towards steering the company.

Thus, if Blend started doing things that were morally objectionable, my personal persona would take a hit. If Blend suddenly did something bad to our employees – cancelled their health care, for example, to increase our profit – word would get around, and people would think, “Wow, Deane is jerk.”

I stand to benefit from the profits of Blend, so if I do something to increase those profits at a human cost to someone, then I am placing money above human welfare.  Conversely, if I reduce my personal profit in exchange for a human good, then I’m placing humanity above money. Good for me.

This is a check and balance of my moral leadership of Blend. I am compelled to guide Blend to act morally (sometimes in opposition to profit) in part because it is a reflection of me as a 25% owner. Put another way, there is a significant “Human Tie” to Blend. Blend is less a company by itself, and is rather a very direct aggregation of the morals and ethics of the four owners.

With such direct ownership, humanity shows through. I do not think Blend has any morals itself — it’s a legal entity, and thus knows nothing of morals. Any morals it appears to have are just the morals of its owners, reflected by what the company does.

Now, let’s contrast this to, say, IBM. That company has almost 1 billion shares outstanding. Thus, “ownership” of IBM is almost theoretical.  I can own a single share, and say I’m an owner of the company, but I have no real ability to steer it anywhere.

As of this writing, the largest single owner of IBM shares is Berkshire Hathaway, which owns 7% (just over 70 million shares). Berkshire is, of course, a holding company, putatively owned by Warren Buffet, but in which you can also buy shares. Berkshire has 1.6 million shares outstanding, of which Buffet himself is the largest owner, having about 32%. This effectively means that, filtered through Berkshire, the person of Warren Buffet owns about 2% of IBM.

The largest direct owner of IBM shares is a guy by the name of Steve Mills (he’s also one of their VPs).  He owns about 153,000 shares, or .2% of Berkshire’s ownership, and only .01% of the company as a whole.

What this means is that there’s much less of a Human Tie to IBM.  What IBM does as a company really isn’t a reflection of anybody.  Buffet is the most influential single owner, and even he owns only 2% of it, and he would have to wield that 2% to the benefit of Berkshire and its other shareholders.

When a company like this does something bad – screws its employees, burns the rain forest, ignores human rights abuses, whatever – I find it a little funny that people say, “IBM should be ashamed itself!”, because this means nothing. IBM is a legal entity, incapable of shame.

What they mean to say, I think, is “The decision makers at IBM should be ashamed of themselves!”  In this, they likely mean the managers and directors.  But they’re not the ultimate decision makers. They simply have to reflect the wishes of the owners.

So, let’s say this: “The owners of IBM should be ashamed of themselves!”  Here we have the truth. But without a strong Human Tie, there’s really no way to enforce this shame.  The only way for this shame to reflect on a human is for some human to identify with this company as an extension of their morality.

If I’m Steve Mills, I own .01% of IBM.  Even as an officer, I doubt he looks at IBM In any way as an extension of himself. It doesn’t reflect his values or morals or ethics.  He’s just a tiny owner in the big picture (even if he is the largest direct shareholder). He doesn’t own enough of this company to possibly feel shame at anything it does beyond his personal decisions in his position.

In this way, the U.S. economy has devolved into ownership by proxy.  At scale, few people really “own” anything in the sense that it reflects them as humans and that they feel a driving personal need to operate the company according to their private moral code. Even if any owner wanted to exercise their personal ethics, they would have limited ability to do so.

Large, publically-held corporations have essentially become automatons, beheld to nothing but their share price.  Any why wouldn’t they be?  The vast majority of their ownership only relates to the company through that number – if it’s up, things are good, if it’s down things are bad. For most of their ownership, that is the sole barometer of success.

I believe that as any financial market evolves, it will gradually strip out pesky problems like morals and humanity. Financial markets are designed to evolve in service of profit, and they do this very well.

Yes, yes, companies have charitable giving programs and employee benefits, but how much of this is in service to PR and employee retention?  Consider this article in the Wall Street Journal: “The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility

Very simply, in cases where private profits and public interests are aligned, the idea of corporate social responsibility is irrelevant: Companies that simply do everything they can to boost profits will end up increasing social welfare.

I feel like this sums up the thinking of most of corporate America – trickle-down economics works, and if we simply create as much profit as possible, it will all work out.

Here’s another line of thinking: “When Corporate Theft is Good

Shareholders tolerate a certain amount of what looks like corporate philanthropy because some customers like to see it, and so become more inclined to buy the company’s products. Used in this way, philanthropy is simply part of a firm’s marketing. And it must be justified in the same way as any other marketing effort: Does it increase revenues by more than it does costs?

So, charitable giving is marketing, essentially.  We’ll do it so long as it benefits us, but not just because it’s the right thing to do.

In 2002, the WSJ did a survey of corporate recruiters, asking what traits they look for in MBA candidates. The results were obvious: corporate citizenship was last.  Worse:

Recruiters might even regard good deeds on a resume as a negative factor. “If an M.B.A. student spent a summer building houses for Habitat for Humanity, that person could be seen as soft and not ready for the rough-and-tumble world of investment banking,”

And this makes sense, because notions of objective right and wrong – an absolute moral standard – exist only in the minds of humans: we are the only true things that contain morals.  To a corporation, the only objective standard it knows is profit, so deciding it’s cheaper to allow 180 people to burn to death rather than fix a fuel system problem (PDF; see page 6) is a perfectly valid action when compared against that standard.

In the end, corporations are inherently greedy by design, and they will act in the interests of the only standard they can be held to: their bottom line.  This is not their fault – these are just the rules of the game we created.

What we hope is that their owners will have a strong enough Human Tie that they desire to operate the company as an extension of their humanity.  Sadly, the chances of this become more and more remote as the number of owners increases. More owners means that each individual human – each container of morality, inasmuch as only humans can be true moral actors – gets further away from the company. With dilution of actual ownership comes dilution of the Human Tie, and with that, the dilution of any need to act toward the good of anyone or anything else.

As with a lot of things in life, there is no real solution to this, short of artificial legal rules that may or may not work, but would be a constant source of legislative turmoil either way. This is just how markets evolve, and this is a price we pay for freedom and liberty and the other (considerable) benefits that provides.

I’ll conclude with a quote from Ron Paul’s book, Liberty Defined, which I read a couple years ago:

We need to become tolerant of the imperfections that come with freedom, and we need to give up the illusion that somehow putting government in charge of anything is going to improve its workings, much less bring on utopia.

Why Marketing Bothers Me

I was thinking about marketing this week while I was on a trip, and two things occurred to me that I find distasteful about the discipline. I’m not claiming all marketing is like this, but I’d call it a majority, certainly.

  • Marketing is often about lying. A lot of marketing is simply overstating your product and positioning it in a space or claiming that it fills a need that it does not in fact fill, or can only be considered appropriate at the very edges of imagination. Call it “marketing by wishful thinking.”  We hope that you’re buying this overpriced thing because you have disposable income and are making a prudent fiscal choice, but we’re quite sure that 99% of the time, it’s a huge mistake for anyone. And, of course, Super Sugar Smacks can be part of a well-balanced breakfast, but they hardy ever are.
  • Marketing is often about making people feel badly about themselves. We sell things by filling a need, and when that need doesn’t exist, marketing creates that need by making people feel badly about their current situation. Hell, pretty much every women’s fashion magazine is predicated on this entire idea – page after page of people prettier than you are. We know you thought you looked fine, but after closing this magazine, we’re hoping you feel like a troll and go out and buy our makeup. And sure, your car is practical and reliable, but it sucks compared to this new thing, so come out and spend more than you can afford to make yourself feel better.

I absolutely concede that marketing doesn’t have to be this way, and my hats are off to companies that avoid these two traps. But it’s rare, and society is worse for it.