Monday, December 30, 2013

Be Back Soon

As I have been unusually silent for the past week or two, doing little more than reprinting a few old posts, I thought I should take a moment to write a quick post, if not explaining my uncharacteristic silence, at least announcing when it would end. Though I am not exactly certain, as I may maintain this unusual lazy streak for a little longer, I am fairly certain that, once my time off from work ends in the middle of next week, I shall probably return to, if not my one time pace of two or three posts a week, at least get back to one a week, perhaps more. So, for those who are wondering where I went, I can only say that I gave myself a much needed vacation, not only from work, but from all sorts of schedules, and shall probably go back to those schedules all at the same time. And so, check back sometime after the start of the new year, as more than likely I will have something posted. (Though at the moment I can't imagine what it might be.)

And until then, happy holidays, merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy New Year and all the rest, and check back soon.

Monday, December 23, 2013

I Have Seen The Light


NOTE: As I posted one of my weaker parodies ("Democratic Baseball"), I decided I should publish two of the better ones. I admit, I haven't written much about protectionism recently, so these may seem out of place, but at the time I wrote them, Buchanan and a few others were making a lot of noise (and the Bush protectionist measures were much more recent history), so the topic was much more timely.


(With apologies to Frederic Bastiat)

I have been wrong in dismissing protectionism for so long, and I have finally seen the light.

For a long time I thought that this mythical division of labor benefited us, and that shipping low skilled jobs overseas made us richer by letting us concentrate on those jobs at which we excelled, while making labor intensive products cheaper for us as consumers, but I now see that that is just a lie. The real goal is to keep our country engaged in as much labor as possible without thought of costs or results, that it is simply the quantity of labor which matters.

So, I am applying this to my own life.

I used to give my wealth away to the grocer in exchange for food, thinking it was better for me to work at a job at which I was skilled while letting skilled farmers produce food. But that outsources jobs from my own household and minimizes the labor I do, thus impoverishing me. So I am quitting my job and building a grain silo in my back yard. We can use the den as a threshing room, and I think I can fit a millstone in the basement. No more slave to the farmer am I! I am going to make sure I do as much labor as possible for my food.

In fact, to make sure I am not deprived of the all important full employment, I have also decided to eschew grains which actually grow in my climate and concentrate on rice and quinoa, neither of which will grow here without a huge amount of human intervention. But since before getting those grains required shipping my wealth overseas, growing them myself must be beneficial. And if that doesn't fill my day, I think I shall set up the first citrus and banana farm in Maryland, just to make sure I reach full employment of all my available time.

And my wife won't be doing any more outsourcing either. She used to work foolishly as a nurse, a lowly service job! Now she will be employed full time in gainful manual labor. Rather than buying those clothes from stores and thus outsourcing our labor, she will be spinning the threads from the flax I grow and making her own fabric from which she will then sew our clothes.

I do admit I am a bit upset that we recently bought pots and pans, as that deprives me of the chance to prospect for bauxite in my back yard, which I can then refine into aluminum and cast into new pots. But, my son is growing, he may need braces soon, so there is a chance for me to indulge in amateur metallurgy and increase greatly the number of hours I work.

Not to mention his education! No outsourcing of education for me! I won't be giving wealth to other households. I have plenty of trees whose pulp can be made into paper, and my memory should suffice to compose a few textbooks. And as for the teaching, why those are a few more hours of labor we won't be giving away to others! How rich we will become!

So, everyone, I have adopted a policy of total autarchy. Expect to see me gracing the cover of Forbes any day now. For if this is the path that will make a nation rich, imagine what it will do for me!

POSTSCRIPT

There may be a small interruption in the blog thanks to my new policy. While I have a computer already (shamefully purchased rather than made from scratch), and I can generate electricity fueling a diesel generator using my home grown rape seed oil, I have yet to figure out how to create my own ISP connected to the internet. All the ideas I have had so far require shameful payments of tribute to people outside my own household and are thus unacceptable.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/06/30.

STOP BIG PORCELAIN NOW!

NOTE: As I posted one of my weaker parodies ("Democratic Baseball"), I decided I should publish two of the better ones. I admit, I haven't written much about protectionism recently, so these may seem out of place, but at the time I wrote them, Buchanan and a few others were making a lot of noise (and the Bush protectionist measures were much more recent history), so the topic was much more timely.


I have held my tongue long enough! It is time I was heard! I have been subject to villification and abuse, but I will not be silenced by them any longer! We must free ourselves from the grasp of big porcelain now!

Look in your bathroom, what do you see? Porcelain! And who makes it? Probably a one of a cabal of three or four companies. For years this cabal of big porcelain has controlled the market, making supply and demand a joke! And it is time that we broke this death grip they have on the American bathroom!

Sound silly?

Well, replace porcelain with oil and I bet half my readers would be nodding in agreement. So why is it silly when talking about bathroom fixtures and sane when talking about oil? What is the difference?

If the free market works, then it works for oil as well as for toilets. And I just don't see how anyone arguing against it can call themselves conservative. Yet time after time I hear "conservatives" telling me we need to seal the borders to foreign goods, or control the "big oil companies" or string up speculators.

Perhaps it is me. Should I find another movement? Is Pat Buchanan really the voice of conservative thought? Is it now the party not of small government and free markets but of... whatever else is left? Sort of a Mike Huckabee/George Bush Frankenstien's monster of  big government, social handouts, and business regulation mixed with anti abortion, pro-gun, mandatory prayer policies?

If that is the case, maybe it is time to find another party. I joined for federalism and free markets, limited government and individual freedom. And I am afraid bashing speculators and oil companies is just not a good fit with that. I thought that was the province of liberals and the Democrats, but perhaps I am mistaken.

Well, I will see what replies I get. Until then...

DEATH TO BIG PORCELAIN!!!

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/06/28.

Utopian Pipe Dream


NOTE: I have not had a lot of time to write any new posts, and so I am taking a page from the professional pundits and publishing old articles once more and hiding it by calling them "classic posts". Actually, they are some posts of which I am rather fond, but my head isn't quite big enough for me to dub any of my scribbling "classic".  (Though, if I continue to find so little time for writing, my next ruse is to publish all my old "stupid quote of the day" series as yet more "classic essays".)


I have been a fan of science fiction since my youth, but I have to say one of the concepts which appears over and over in science fiction has to be the silliest idea ever, and, sadly, it is a concept that many people seem to embrace as some sort of goal. And that is the idea that at some utopian point in the future money will disappear. We see it all over science fiction, from Star Trek to video games to utopian films. In each one, the biggest sign of an "advanced" culture is the elimination of money.

However, money is an essential part of human society, and, in some form, will always exist. Regardless of how advanced society becomes, the factors that create a need for money will always exist, so, unless our futuristic descendants revert to pure barter, something will be performing monetary functions for them as well.

Let us start with the basics. Humans have only a limited span of life, so their time is inherently limited. In addition, labor is generally seen as onerous, so most humans will not toil for every waking moment, which means that only some percentage of that limited life span will be spent working. Yet, despite the limited time, human wants are unlimited. Until you have reached absolute bliss where any change could only make things worse, there is still some improvement possible. So, if you spent some effort, you could improve your lot. The question is whether that improvement is worth the effort, or whether you would rather have the time to enjoy in idleness or recreation1.

Now as humans have wants, and have to act to fulfill those wants, humans will engage in some sort of productive labor. even in the futuristic world of Star Trek, with the ability to convert energy to matter, someone has to provide that energy, as well as design the matter into which the energy will be converted. You simply cannot get something for nothing, even with high tech energy to matter conversion. The energy must still be provided and the matter must be shaped into something useful. Even more important, someone must invent the new "somethings" into which you can convert energy to fulfill needs better or to provide service never before conceived. So, no matter how high tech, someone will need to work to provide for their needs.

So, unless the future is comprised of autonomous individuals providing each for himself, there will also be trade of some sort. Individuals who are better at one profession will specialize in that, and in exchange for their services will expect some goods from their fellows. Nor will any technology or change of human society change this2. As we have established, work is onerous. So, people will only work if they receive something in exchange for work of more benefit than the burden work places on them. If not, then to work for no benefit would be irrational, as it would amount to taking on a burden without recompense, when one could be enjoying oneself3. So, to induce someone to work he must either enjoy the immediate fruits of his labors (such as farmers at harvest time) or expect to receive future benefits (such as farmers at planting). If a worker is producing for others, rather than for immediate personal use, he must expect he can trade his produce for something he needs. And, once again, unless we expect the future to run on barter, that necessitates the use of money.

Of course, that is not the only reason for using money. Nor is it event he best. The other reason for using currency is the same reason I expect we will not see futuristic economies being run in a socialist fashion. As I explained in "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", a money economy, with prices freely set in a competitive market, is the only way to properly allocate scarce resources. And, as I argued in my footnote, labor is the most basic of scarce resources. As even the most futuristic economy will still require labor, without a money economy we will not know where to allocate that labor. So, unless we want a futuristic economy run like the old Soviet Union, with people waiting in line for tribble chow just because it is the only good available, while no one can get the phasers they need, then we will need a way to properly allocate labor4.

And that brings me to the reason I bothered writing about something as frivolous as science fiction plotlines. It is not just limited to science fiction, many people seem to believe that the existence of money is itself a sign of imperfection, a stage out of which we will eventually evolve. But just as those who denounce "greed" misunderstand the role of self-interest in properly ordering the economy, or those who condemn "profits" as something unseemly, those who think of money as something debased are off the mark as well. Money is the only possible way to organize a complex economy based on exchange. Any other attempt to manage the economy, based on non-monetary factors, will inevitably leave the vast majority less satisfied and will likely end up increasingly inefficient. Money is the sole means to keep an economy properly focused, any alternative leads, sooner or later, to degeneration and collapse5.

So, far from being something that will "wither away" the free market and particularly money will be with us forever. Unless the future brings a collapse that causes man to revert to total autonomy, or simple barter, it is impossible to conceive a future free of money. Especially if that future is anywhere near as advanced as those found in science fiction.

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1 I eschew the normal ECON 101 argument that "resources" are limited, because with sufficient ingenuity, any resource can be replaced with a more or less appropriate substitute. Petroleum replaced whale oil, coal replaced wood, iron replaced copper and bronze, and so on. A substitute can be made for any missing resource given sufficient time and effort. The one resource for which there is no substitute is human labor. Yes, brute force and every skilled manual labor can be replaced with automation, but human invention was required to create that automation. At the root of every solution is an investment of human effort or thought. So human labor is the single resource which cannot be replaced, so I speak only of labor and not of natural resources.

2. The Soviet experience proves this. in order to try to encourage productivity, the Soviets had to introduce all sorts of non-monetary recognition for productive workers. And int he end it still failed. Without benefits for working, workers will always do the bare minimum, as they receive the same benefits either way. It is only rational to provide only what is required, as any excess is simply given away for no benefit.

3. Charity work and volunteer work does not negate this, as those doing such work believe they are receiving spiritual or personal rewards more than making up for the burden. Were they not to find some sort of spiritual benefit or personal satisfaction from such labor, they would not do it. And for those who think future money-free society would be based on such volunteerism, I would point them to the chronic staffing shortages of almost every volunteer group and ask if they want to base an advanced economy on such a fragile structure, when simply allowing currency makes such inconsistency irrelevant.

4. In reality since the two areas of labor seem to be energy provision and design, I would imagine a "command economy" would emphasize energy, to create impressive numbers, and neglect new creations, leading to an economy oversupplied with what amounts to raw materials, but sorely lacking in new products. In the unlikely event we discover energy to matter conversion, I would foresee dictatorships suffering from stagnation, while free economies would be less well supplied with energy but awash in novel designs.

5. In the present day command economies, such as China or the former Soviet Union, can use the price information provided by the free economies, which gives them something of an approximation of the desires of their citizens. It is still imprecise and a poor fit, as evidenced by the misdirected production of both nations, but it allows them to persist longer than would a world of all command economies.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/06/08.


A Great Quote


NOTE: I have not had a lot of time to write any new posts, and so I am taking a page from the professional pundits and publishing old articles once more and hiding it by calling them "classic posts". Actually, they are some posts of which I am rather fond, but my head isn't quite big enough for me to dub any of my scribbling "classic". (Though, if I continue to find so little time for writing, my next ruse is to publish all my old "stupid quote of the day" series as yet more "classic essays".)


During my vacation I started reading again the first volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is one of my favorite explorations of the weaknesses and strengths of an autocratic government, as well as just a fun read. I don't agree with all of Gibbon's theses, but it is still enjoyable.

What I did not expect to find was any economic insight. However, while reading a section I had forgotten from the last time I read it, I found a very eloquent statement of a point I have often made, the argument that by simply spending their wealth the "idle rich" help not only advance mankind, but to even out the inequities of wealth.
Such refinements, under the odious name of luxury, have been severely arraigned by the moralists of every age; and it might perhaps be more conducive to the virtue, as well as happiness, of mankind, if all possess the necessities, and none of the superfluities, of life. But in the present imperfect condition of society, luxury, though it may proceed from vice or folly, seems to be the only means that can correct the unequal distribution of property. The diligent mechanic, and the skillful artist, who have obtained no share in the division of the earth, receive a voluntary tax from the possessors of land; and the latter are prompted, by a sense of interest, to improve their estates, with whose produce they may purchase additional pleasures.
I was thrilled to find such a brilliant restatement of a point I often make, but not so happy that it made my point better than I ever did.

Well, there is always the next essay. Sooner or later I will get it right.

POSTSCRIPT

Gibbon also provides a single quote which struck me as quite informative:
His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
As some of my favorite presidents (eg. Cleveland) served in times over which history classes regularly elide, I find it amusing to think that history's habit of ignoring them is, more than anything else, a proof to the quality of their governance.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/06/01.


Democratic Baseball


NOTE: I have not had a lot of time to write any new posts, and so I am taking a page from the professional pundits and publishing old articles once more and hiding it by calling them "classic posts". Actually, they are some posts of which I am rather fond, but my head isn't quite big enough for me to dub any of my scribbling "classic". (Though, if I continue to find so little time for writing, my next ruse is to publish all my old "stupid quote of the day" series as yet more "classic essays".)


In light of the new realities of the world, as we live in new times in which the antiquated and outmoded rigid rules of baseball no longer apply, I am proposing a new set of rules, a Democrat baseball more suited for our modern age.

First, no more teams of identical sizes, as this clearly favors the wealthier teams with better players. The payrolls of each team are compared and the number of players are apportioned based on those ratios. For example, if one team pays twice as much as the other in salaries, then one team consists of 9 players on the field at any one time, the other 5. (We round up for fairness.)

Second, the inflexible dogma of foul and fair needs to be rejected. Life is full of nuance. The umpire will call each ball as his life experiences and empathy instruct. That is, after all, the only way of harmonizing the conflicting interests of both teams.

Because players may differ in their circumstances, some benefiting from the accident of birth, having been unfairly blessed with greater strength or parents who provided more opportunities for them to practice, we will institute a handicapping system, similar to golf. Players will be divided into three categories. The best will need to run the traditional four base home run, while the others will consider a home run to reach second, or first, respectively. In that way even the least advantaged player will be placed on a "level playing field" with the others.

Obviously there will need to be additional changes, as these three rules will not undo the many inequities and unfair social assumptions built into baseball. However, given some time and little experience with these rule changes, I am sure we will be able to devise many more rules that finally make the game both fair and enjoyable to all, and will bring "baseball justice" to our society.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/06/02.


I Don't Get It

NOTE: I have not had a lot of time to write any new posts, and so I am taking a page from the professional pundits and publishing old articles once more and hiding it by calling them "classic posts". Actually, they are some posts of which I am rather fond, but my head isn't quite big enough for me to dub any of my scribbling "classic". (Though, if I continue to find so little time for writing, my next ruse is to publish all my old "stupid quote of the day" series as yet more "classic essays".)



I was reading comments and again ran across someone claiming to be a conservative who is saying absolutely nonsensical, and certainly not conservative things. For example:
Where does the Bible teach that the poor have a duty to give a part of their subsistence to the rich? Medved would have us believe that the poor and rich alike are commanded by the Bible to give equally. Usually the super rich got rich because they were very lucky, fortunate, or have some crooked scheme that worked. Plain rich people often get rich because they are innately shrewd and hard working, and lucky and fortunate.
And:
Not everyone is so lucky, so fortunate. But Bill Gates making billions off of a stupid computer operating system monopoly is more of a parasite of society than all the Sicilian mobsters in New York. The super rich should get supertaxed, and the rich should pay more than the poor. The present levels and proportions are close to fair.
That's the way it is, and that is as it should be.
It is late, so I will have to defer this until later, but I have two questions. Firs,t how does Gates have a "monopoly"? He has a huge market share because the market decided Microsoft was the best system available, at least in terms of what the market needs.*

Second, if Bill gates didn't provide an OS, where exactly would this OS come from? How would we mysteriously get all these products but for someone providing them? And if we didn't not reimburse them, would people be so eager to provide the things we want and need?

Finally, how do we distinguish between "super rich" and "rich"? And why would one have moire "luck" than the other? Sorry, but  wealth is almost always earned. And those who do inherit it rarely keep it without making some productive use of it, either creating new goods or services, or lending it out to newcomers who then make new goods in services. In fact, inherited wealth, far from creating an inherited elite, often helps newcomers by creating a pool of capital that can be used to fund new enterprises. Without such investment funds, many newcomers would have no chance. Which means death duties and heavy taxes actually harm newcomers more than the wealthy. After all, does Paris Hilton care if she has $100 million or $1 billion? But those $900 million lost could have funded a LOT of new ventures, men who now will continue in poverty due to a lack of funds, not to mention all the potential goods and services the rest of the world will never see.

So, please, stop running down the rich, especially if you claim to be conservative. The rich usually earn their keep, but even if they did not, their wealth tends to benefit mankind. If a writer could understand this in the 18th century, why can't we get it now?

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* Tech types love to talk about how OS X or Linux or something else is "better" than Windows using some preferred technical criteria, but that assumes some absolute value, that some technical feature is always desirable, which is simply false. Windows does excel in ease of use for those who don't want to learn all the minutiae of computer programming, and that alone often makes it a better choice. In addition, it is, in many ways, easier to administer Windows machines, which also means it is lower cost, at least in terms of staff. Not to mention that the way Windows limits what a user can configure makes it harder for users to break things, which is very desirable in many settings. These and other features make it easy to see why Windows would be preferred, even ignoring its early market dominance, which also helped it keep preeminence, but that only goes so far. OS2 had a big share at one time (and Apple had a bigger share as well back in the IIe days) and it failed, so Windows definitely offers more than just early market share. And this comes from a FreeBSD volunteer, who runs Unix machines at home and thinks C and assembly language are the last word in programming.

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POSTSCRIPT

I have intended to write for some time on the absurdity of an inheritance tax, and this comment, though not directly on point, has encouraged me to do so. As the same arguments are used against inheritance and the "super rich", I will probably merge the two and write about both. So check back soon, as I hope to address this topic in greater detail in the very near future.

POSTSCRIPT II

This comments quoted above also seems to embrace a form of the specious argument I dismiss in my post "Specious Argument" (what an appropriate name!), that the government must favor the rich or the poor. It is an absurd idea, but one we hear often.



Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/06/23.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Chasing a Receding Goal

It seems to be taken for granted among many conservatives, and even a number of more liberal thinkers, that our culture is suffering a noticeable decline. Whether it is blamed on declining intellectual standards, the loss of religion as a cultural influence, the denigration of western culture, ethical relativism or a host of other candidates, many on both ends of the spectrum seem to agree that society is not what it once was.

I have written on this topic many times before1, but in each case I treated only one aspect of the issue. So, for the benefit of those who have not read those older posts, as well as those who read them but did not see the larger picture, I am now going to offer a relatively simple description of what I believe is the mechanism behind the declining standards of our society2. At its root, the process is quite simple, and rests upon one simple change, but as the effect is so all-pervasive, I suppose it will take a slightly longer explanation to both make it clear, and persuade readers of its relevance.

Throughout the past, the pace of change was relatively slow. At least in terms of culture. Technological and philosophical changes moved at various paces in different ages, some quite rapid (eg the Industrial Revolution, or the relatively rapid advances in the Mediterranean in the classical age), others quite slow. But while technology, philosophy, even art, could move rapidly, the social structures in which they existed tended to remain relatively constant3. Even in modern times, while the Industrial Revolution was changing the world quite dramatically, the culture of the European states seeing the greatest advances were still undergoing very few changes4

Then again, this really should come as no surprise. Despite all the sociological debates over the function of social structures, I doubt anyone would disagree with me if I claimed that social structures, taken as a whole, are relatively conservative entities. After all that is their basic purpose. Social structures exist, for the most part, to provide a consistent, predictable environment5 for members, and they do so by rewarding those who obey the norms of that society, as well as, in various ways, chastising those who don't. Thus, society in general exists to ensure that social structures change as little as possible.

And historically that was precisely what society did. The young, as always, were prone to some degree of rebellion, and society recognized this. The very young, of course, were allowed great leeway, and even teens and young adults, though being groomed for mature society, were still allowed to "sow their wild oats". However, society did not allow infinite license. As one left young adulthood behind, there was an expectation that he would begin to conform to social norms. Those who did were granted many benefits, and those who could not were, in various ways, punished, even ostracized. Thus, society saw a predictable pattern in each generation. A silly, playful childhood, followed by teen years and young adulthood filled with varying degrees of rebelliousness, after which one was expected to return to accepted patterns of behavior, and was accepted or rejected to the degree to which those expectations were met.

Unfortunately, the pattern was broken about 60 years ago6. Two mutually reinforcing changes made a shambles of this ancient pattern, and resulted in the modern society we see around us, in which it seems that social norms are in a state of constant turmoil and that each generation becomes more permissive, and in many cases more destructive, or self-destructive, than the one before.

The first foundation of this trend was to be found in simple economics. In the years following the Second World War, teens and young adults became consumers for the first time, and not just consumers, but consumers with a considerable amount of disposable income. With these groups enjoying much more independence than in the past (a consequence, in part, of our other influence), they were logical targets for advertisers, film makers7 and others seeking to garner some of that disposable income. As a result, many aspects of our popular culture began to cater to that demographic group, the now well known 18-25, as well as about 5years on either side of it. It did not happen all at once, but, with the culture at large also becoming more youth centered (as we shall discuss very shortly), it was easier and easier to focus entirely on the young, as their elders began to share the same values. Thus, many aspects of film, or television, of advertising, even of art and literature, started to target the young.

The second factor, as just mentioned, was the cultural change that began in the early 60's, or perhaps late 50's, when society as a whole began to change, placing ever more focus on the emulation of the young8. We can see it expressed in its earliest form in the media obsession with "Camelot" and their focus on a young president. However, there were more subtle expressions as well, the focus on beaches and beach resorts, a fascination with "fitness" and other youth oriented concepts. By the later 60s this changed even more, finding its ultimate expression -- even if ti was not a mainstream position -- in the famous aphorism about not trusting anyone over 30. But, of course, it did not stop there. From the 60's to the present, it has become ever more pronounced, with the values of youth, from dress to films to music to literature9, being adopted by their elders in one form or another, ultimately resulting in the youth culture coming to almost supplant the culture of their elders.

The situation these two influences create is pretty easy to comprehend. Teens and young adults, at least many of them, have a strong desire to establish independence in some way, and many find this in rebellion, in rejecting the values of their parents. It is for this reason so many find "pushing the envelope", breaking the rules established by adults, to be a worthwhile endeavor.

However, advertisers and others of a like mind are quite well aware that not only is the youth market a lucrative one, but that many adults also follow youth trends, seeking, for whatever reason, to themselves adopt the values of the young10. and thus these advertisers and others tend to adopt the values of the young. Perhaps it is a slightly dated version, one or two iterations back. But, in general, it is still close enough to make the present youth values seem stodgy and mainstream.

Even worse, from the perspective of rebellious youth, is when this slightly dated, and perhaps watered-down, version of youth values is then adopted by the mainstream. Again, it is probably even more out of date at that point, maybe two or three cycles behind the current cutting edge, but it is still close enough that whatever is currently trendy seems just a little too conventional. Worse yet, if the young continue to behave in the same way, most likely first advertisers and movie makers, but later mainstream culture, will begin to catch up and they will themselves become middle America.

Thus, the young have no choice but to continue pushing the envelope. As one form of rebellion is co-opted by advertisers and, eventually, absorbed into pop culture, they have no choice but to rebel anew. And since the earlier rebellion is no longer seen as shocking, often the new rebellion must be something even more extreme, even more shocking. After all, though youth want to be rebels, they also are a part of their own culture, and they share its values, even if they try to reject them. Thus, when they rebel, they tend to violate the least difficult norms first. That is why the earliest expressions tend to be in terms of codes of dress, use of language, music, art and (for self-serving reasons) sexual mores. Once these superficial rebellions are embraced by society, they have no choice but to attempt more extreme deviations from the norms. Which is why, over time, youth behavior seems to grow more contrary to social standards.

Of course, this antinomianism is self-limiting, in away. Once one has broken every rule and rejected every standard there is nothing left against which to rebel. On the other hand, it seems increasingly unlikely we will ever reach that point, because of two other influences. First, there is a tendency, within the young themselves, to balk at certain behaviors. As I said, they too are part of this culture, and thus they share the same values as adults, even if they try to reject them. And so, at certain points, there is a youth backlash, a step backwards toward more conventional behavior. It does not last long in most cases, but for a time it provides a respite from this continuing cycle of societal collapse.

The second factor is much more significant, and frightening. As the young behave in ever more deviant ways, it is likely that their behavior will frighten mainstream society. This sort of situation has historically been an easy one for a certain type of politician to exploit. From Germany of the 1920's, to France in the same era, to the US in the 1960's, there has always been strong support for those who claim to be able to restore order, no matter what the cost. ("Juvenile Culture and Totalitarianism") And thus, far more likely than a total collapse into anarchy, this endless cycle of youth rebellion will most probably bring about some sort of authoritarian solution, though what sort I cannot say.

Clearly, this topic could be examined in much greater depth, and the role of several other contributing factors in our societal decay could be examined. But, that shall have to wait for another essay. For now, I shall leave my readers with my somewhat ironic conclusion, that rebellion most likely will end in tyranny.

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2. Not that this is the only reason for the many ills we see around us, it is but one way in which our beliefs betray us. However, it is a very powerful one, and the force responsible for most of the more obvious declines, and thus one that needs to be made as clear as possible.

3. Of course rapid changes did take place in some circumstances, such as conquest, total social collapse and similar situations, but without tremendous pressures society tended to remain pretty static.

4. This seems to contradict the argument offered by many that our rapid cultural changes are simply the result of our technology. Yes, our society is seeing rapid technological change, but so did the period from, say, 1800 to 1900, and the social changes of that era were quite small. So it does not seem technology alone can provide an explanation for the speed and scope of our social changes.

5. I have argued at great length for the advantage of predictability (eg. see "Predictability", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Traffic Lights, Predictability and Conservatism", "Inflation and Uncertainty" and "Juvenile Culture and Totalitarianism"), but even for those who do not agree with the high value I place upon consistency, I think we can agree that social norms, which dictate behaviors, provide for common language, common connotations, an entire behavioral and linguistic shorthand, are, above all else, a means for providing an intelligible common framework for interaction, which, of necessity, must be predictable and consistent.

6. Of course, the groundwork was laid long before these beliefs found expression. In this case, as I argued in "I Blame the Romantics", "Revival of an Old Romantic Folly", "An Immature Society", "Children's Programming Versus Self-Improvement" and elsewhere, it was formed almost 200 years earlier when the Romantic philosophy was formulated, placing value upon novelty and youth for their own sakes. However, though the ideas existed for quite some time, it took a long time for society at large to embrace them. (There is also a secondary foundation in the similar foolish philosophy of Rousseau. See "Primitivist Delusions", "Happiness", "The Hunter-Gatherer Mistake" and "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy".)

7. The history of American International Pictures (AIP) shows how successful this could be. Focusing on car racing, juvenile delinquency, popular rock music and the like, they managed to make movies on shoestring budgets and sell them to the newly proliferating drive in market for considerable profits. Without the youth market, it is unlikely AIP and their many lesser emulators could have succeeded as they did. (Similar successes can be seen in those producing science fiction and horror -- sometime+s including AIP -- in the 1950s', counter-culture movies in the 60's and 70's -- again including AIP -- or slasher films in the 1980's.)

8. I wanted to write "veneration of youth", but anyone who knows a hint of Latin could tell you why that is an absurd formulation.

9. A good example of this in modern society would be the prevalence of "young adult" fiction which has been adopted by the mainstream. From Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games to Orson Scott Card's Ender series and so on, it seems works which would have once been purely the province of teens are now being accepted into the adult world and finding considerable success.

10. It does not matter if they do it to try to avoid getting old, to appear trendy, to "keep up with Joneses", or any other reason. All that matters is that many adults do adopt youth trends.


Slippery Slopes


NOTE: These thirteen posts have been reproduced here from their original printing in Random Notes because they are cited in my essay "Chasing a Receding Goal".

I was writing my post on the Band of Bloggers Facebook page, listing my recent articles and providing a brief summary of each, when it struck me how the process through which our current cultural tendencies lead to rapid collapse of social norms ("Pushing the Envelope") is almost identical to the way that many "slippery slope" legal processes work, starting with small steps, slowly undermining the entire edifice, taking years or decades to become established, after which there is a sudden flurry of activity, rapid change, and almost total victory for those seeking change.

First, let me say that by "slippery slope", I mean two different things, related but not identical. The first is the traditional meaning, though I think I may allow for a definition slightly broader than most. These are legal principles which are accepted, but accepted only with the understanding that they will have a limited scope, apply only to a small set of circumstances, or are otherwise limited. In other words, rulings which would logically entail far reaching changes, but which are allowed only because those changes are explicitly excluded. Some such cases would be the Griswold ruling which preceded Roe ("It Doesn't Matter What the Court Says"), or the Boumedine ruling, which I have argued will reach much farther than even critics allow. ("Be Careful What You Wish For", "Somehow The Media Missed This", "More Relevant Than I Thought")

The reason such rulings are called "slippery slopes" is that, despite the explicit exclusions, the rulings are almost never limited by the restrictions placed upon them. Griswold, for example, limited protection to married couples, a restriction which quickly disappeared. And the reason is obvious. If you accept a principle, it is hard to then argue that, while the principle is true, you should do the opposite because the court said so in a case. Basically, once we accept a principle, we accept all the logical implications of that principle. For example, despite the claims of many, once we accepted the rights of man as the foundation of our nation, slavery was doomed. We may have tried to ignore it for political reasons, but there was simply no logical way to retain slavery with the principles on which our nation was founded. The Civil War made it a moot point, but even had that war never happened, slavery would have eventually disappeared.

And that is why I use "slippery slope" to describe a second set of principles, one I discussed in "Inescapable Logic" (as well as "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention" and "The Cycle of Compassion"). This principle is almost the same, but is divorced from explicit legal rulings. Instead, I argue that once a principle is accepted in politics, the party accepting it is bound to follow through to the logical conclusion whether they accept it or not. For example, while moderate Republicans claim to be for smaller government, once they accept principles agreeing with economic intervention or bigger, more powerful government, they are forced to accept those principles. ("Defending Freedom?", "Why We Lose", "Giving Away the Game", "The Single Greatest Weakness",  "What We Deserve", "What is Wrong with Us", "Pyrrhic Victories", "Who Is To Blame?", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "The Difficulty of Principle", "Damn the Torpedoes!", "You Lose When You Think You Win" , "How Conservatives Defeat Themselves") And, again, the reason is obvious. If the Republicans accept one argument for big government, they cannot then argue against another application of the same principle. So either they embrace big government, or they appear hypocritical, in either case ceding victory to the opposition.

I mention all of these because they are essential to understanding the way our society changes, and why such changes tend to move in an exponential manner, starting with very small, slow movements,taking a very long time to shift even a tiny amount, gradually developing some momentum, seeing changes coming at a more regular pace, and, finally, ending with rapid, dramatic changes, until the original situation is so far removed from present circumstances it seems almost alien.

Allow me to give one example, from a relatively apolitical topic. I recall not so very long ago, smoking was allowed in most workplaces, and not just in "smoking areas", but in many cases in any area not designated "No Smoking". I recall in 1986 and 1987 I could smoke in the hallways of my community college, and I smoked at my desk while conducting phone surveys in the year following. But, about the same time, smoking came under attack by those who were interested in putting an end to it. Oh, there had been previous assaults, the aforementioned slow, quiet period had started with the cigarette labeling requirements and the very quiet efforts to paint smoking as something not just unhealthy but almost immoral. ("Twisted Priorities", "Practicality Versus Dogma", "Socialism on the Installment Plan") However, it was not until the late 80's and early 90's that we saw the attacks begin to accelerate. First, smoking was banned on flights, then smokers were pushed into smoking rooms at their places of work. Then shopping malls banned smoking. Smoking ages rose. So did taxes. Smoking was forced outside in everyplace bu bars and restaurants. Some towns even tried to ban smoking outdoors. 

All of which brings us to the present where one fells almost evil for lighting a cigarette, and holding a lit cigarette is certain to gather dozens of angry sneers from those one meets on the streets. What started as a supposedly "limited", "common sense" set of restrictions to ensure nonsmokers had a few places away from smoke ended up a moral crusade against smokers which has reached the point where some call for declaring smoking around children a form of abuse, and at least one town has tried to ban smoking in apartment buildings, duplexes, townhouse and other conjoined dwellings.

Then again, smoking is a touchy subject for some, and I know even a few conservative sympathize with those who ban it entirely*, so perhaps another topic would help illustrate this principle.

In my last post I talked about the use of obscenities in society, and, as a specific example, in popular entertainment. There too we can see this pattern. For decades, television saw almost no use of the banned words. Even euphemisms for them were avoided, as were many topics such as pregnancy, sexual intercourse, defecation and a few others. In the seventies we saw a tiny shift, with the use of euphemisms to describe those forbidden topics. Language was still kept clean, but some topics started to appear which had once been off limits. Suddenly, in the 80's, we saw the first cracks in the wall, as the less offensive obscenities ("damn", "hell" and later "b**ch") began to appear. They were still rare, used only for emphasis, and not officially approved. But, after a few years, the floodgates opened, and more and more words became acceptable. And so we reached today, where there is a real debate whether using f**k as an adjective might be acceptable to the FCC**, and where those less offensive obscenities are used regularly enough that few recall they even are obscenities.

The reason for this pattern is found in the way these things come about. First, there is the intellectual assault. Thinkers begin to take the current paradigm to task. Criticizing traditional values as the prejudices of blue noses and busy bodies, arguing for freedom of expression, they gradually make some tiny headway in the popular culture. At first, they keep their ambitions modest. Be it banning smoking on planes as "nonsmokers have nowhere to go" or allowing "Match Game" contestants to make veiled references to sex, they gain some very small concessions. However, the concessions also establish that their basic principles are correct, and, once that is done, they have won.

Oh, it takes time. Those first concessions must be around for long enough that they seem natural, that people no longer find them novel. But, once that point has been reached, those first examples are brought out to justify more radical changes. Since the original change worked, goes the argument, why should we not allow a bit more freedom? Clearly, they continue, the old rules were not needed, as our changes did not cause the world to end, so why keep restricting individual freedom for no good reason? And, with that argument, the process begins to accelerate. First the low hanging fruit gets plucked, the most modest changes, the least objectionable examples. But, once society has accepted those change, they too are used as arguments for more change. And thus the process accelerates. And soon, having seen so many changes in such a short time, the public becomes unable to resist any more changes. Seeing the old rules completely destroyed, they lack the will to fight any longer, and in short order, all remnants of the old traditions are gone.

Of course, none of this is inevitable. At every step it is possible for us to reverse the process. Even when we have reached the end of the line, when all standards have vanished and total license rules the day, we can still go back to what we once knew. However, as I pointed out, the process becomes more difficult as time passes. The people become apathetic, the new situation becomes familiar, the arguments for returning to the past situation sound "stodgy" and "archaic". It is possible, but it becomes less likely as more and more rules fall.

Which is why I continue to argue that we must not grant such concessions. We must not try to adopt a middle of the road position, must not embrace some amount of authoritarianism while saying we embrace freedom. If we truly want to preserve individual freedom, restore the value we once found in our culture and its traditions, then we must be careful to never concede the arguments of the other side. Only by being vigilant, and continually maintaining our principles can we keep from having to fight the long and difficult battle to win back what we lost to supposed "reformers".


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* For the record I do smoke, though I am trying to cut down or quit as it exacerbates my health problem and can cause attacks. Still, even were I to stop smoking, I would not agree with the attack on smoking. I do not use drugs (except by prescription) and I still think the war on drugs is nonsensical. Similarly, I drink very rarely, if at all, and yet I do not agree with health based assaults on drinking. But I also know many believe in the faulty argument that "health" overcomes any argument to the contrary, and so I won't bother arguing this point here. Instead, I refer readers to "Absolute Values",  "The Right Way", "It Doesn't Matter to ME..." and "Drug Legalization".

** Do not take this to mean I endorse the FCC or the idea of government censorship. (See "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas", "My Censorship Is Your Discretion", "Culture and Government", "The State and Morality", "A Bit More Explanation") I favor using social pressures to enforce good behavior and social norms. However, in this case, I am simply using the process to illustrate how such things take place, and since the force banning behavior was the FCC, I am forced to use that example. But it does not imply any sort of approval of their actions.

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POSTSCRIPT

As I mentioned my health in the footnotes above, and as a few of my regular readers know about my many health woes ("Standing By My Principles", "It Doesn't Matter to ME..."), I feel I ought to share my news with them. As of two weeks ago, I have an official diagnosis. (Which is a bit sad, as my first major problem appeared in June of 2006, and lesser problems appeared earlier in January of that year.) About a year ago my neurologist confirmed I have small fiber neuropathy in my hands, arms, feet and legs, but not the cause of it. Well, I finally know. Thanks to a lot of blood tests and other analysis, I know I have porphyria. According to the hematologist, it looks like acute intermittent porphyria (see here and here), but it appears to be environmentally induced, not genetic.  (Which is great news for my son, and by extension for me.)  Unfortunately, there is no real treatment. I need to avoid proteins, make sure I get enough glucose, try to avoid fasting, and avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking. I have been avoiding two of those last three for a while anyway, and I have always had a sweet tooth, but I am guilty of forgetting meals with alarming frequency (my weight can shift 20 or 30 pounds in either direction for no specific reason, even before I became ill), and smoking is the one vice I seem unable to shake. Still, as far as diseases go, it is much better than when a previous neurologist thought I had ALS, so I am relatively happy.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/11/18.



Pushing the Envelope


NOTE: These thirteen posts have been reproduced here from their original printing in Random Notes because they are cited in my essay "Chasing a Receding Goal".

I wrote several times about our society's shift from venerating age and tradition toward the idolization of youth. (See "Trophy Spouses", "Cranky Old Man?", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "More Off Topic Musings", "Some Absurd Statements", "The Problem of the Counter-Culture" and "A Sign of the Times".) I talked about the many consequences of this shift, but the one I mentioned several times was the rapid erosion of all standards of behavior. ("In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "The Fascination with Change") In the posts I wrote I described it as a consequence of children's need to "push the envelope" to prove they are independent. However, as our cultural fascination with youth and novelty forces adults to adopt the values of children or teens, the envelope against which the children push is often just a variation on the values they themselves hold. Where, in the past, children would rebel, then grow up to adopt their parent's values, leaving those same values for their children to rebel against once more, our new social model leaves children growing up, but maintaining the same values, even adopting the more liberal values of their own children, leaving those children to rebel against an ever more permissive set of standards, forcing them into ever more extreme acts while destroying all social norms. ("Our Complete Lack of Creativity", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Graphic Novels, Comic Books and Cultural Barometers", "Tired and Annoying Theme", "A Thought On the Watchmen", "Self-Interest Versus Narcissism")

Just today I thought of an ideal example, as it shows not only how standards can quickly erode, even when there exist forces trying to hold those standards in place, but what consequences that erosion brings, and also how subtle those effects can sometimes be, causing changes no one notices until much, much later.

And what is this perfect example? Simple. It is our attitude toward the use of obscenities in public.

This occurred to me when I was watching television today, and realized how many casual obscenities are tossed around today, so many that we sometimes seem to forget they are even obscenities. For example, think back to prime time television of the 1970's, and recall that you could not even say "damn", much less "as*" or "hell". Oh, all three could be said in very specific contexts (damn as an act of condemnation, as* as a beast of burden and hell as a specific element of Judeo-Christian theology), but saying any of the three as an interjection would likely land you in trouble. At the very least it would make others see you as uncouth.

But today, these words and stronger are tossed about on television, on the street, in mixed company, even around children without anyone raising an eyebrow.

Which is exactly what I would have imagined would happen, had I been thinking about social evolution back in the early 80's, when "b**ch" was first uttered on network TV (Dynasty to be specific). But I was not even a teen yet, and so I had other things to consider (Was Darth Vader really Luke's father?), and so I did not notice until the process was pretty well advanced. But, since many of us probably overlooked it as it took place, let us examine the ways in which we have treated obscenities, how they parallel our general social change, especially the erosion of standards, and what consequences have come about as a consequence.

Let us start by looking at the function of obscene words. I know for some they work as an all purpose filler, the way "um" or "like" function for others. They simply insert their favorite obscenity every two or three words to cover up their lack of ideas. But they are the exception. For the most part, obscenities function as a form of emphasis. It is, admittedly, an easy out, a way to create energy without having to think about word choice, but as many people are not terribly adept at communicating, the obscenity has long been the favored form of emphasis, when an extreme reaction is needed.

Yet, thanks to our cultural changes, we are losing this ability to apply emphasis. By allowing obscenities to become not only tolerated, but acceptable, even commonplace, they have lost all emphasis. If you doubt me, think of the most famous parting line from Gone with the Wind, not only did the use of the word "damn" make the statement shocking, the fact that a man would use it when speaking to a woman gave special emphasis.

Today it would be impossible to convey the same message without using hundreds of words. The meaning implicit in the use of an obscenity in mixed company, as well as the special emphasis given by using an obscenity at all, that spoke volumes in a single word. But today, as we have lost that meaning, we need to communicate at much greater length if we wish to send the same message. Though, more often, we simply accept that our conversations are impoverished, and just allow our discussions to convey much less information.

To see how this works, think about the world around you today, and compare it to Gone with the Wind. If you were to hear a man say "I don't give a damn," would it even give you pause? Would you find it anything other than a passing statement of indifference? Even if he pointedly said it in the presence of a woman, maybe even to that woman, it would convey no special meaning. Even if he used a much stronger word, it would probably carry little meaning*, at most indicating he felt strongly about the topic, giving it the use of an obscenity the same function as a slightly raised voice. Nothing more.

It may seem a trivial loss to some, the fact that we cannot now convey the same meaning we once did with the same economy. Or, in fact, may not be able to convey the same meaning at all, as some of the emphasis is lost by using more words. But that loss may not matter to many. However, it is part of a larger picture. This specific loss may not mean much, but there are others which might. For every loss that does not matter to you, there is likely another that does. And every day, as we "push the envelope", as we cherish novelty for its own sake ("The Fascination with Change", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "Self-Interest Versus Narcissism",  "Hoist By Your Own Petard"), as we embrace the folly of youth as our highest good, we lose more and more of our cultural heritage. We no longer possess the social controls which made us behave through persuasion ("Shame and Behavior", "Our Rude Behavior", "Social Controls", "Changing Thoughts on Marriage",  "A Brief Thought on Patience", "The Sky Is Falling! Again! Really! We Mean It This Time!"), and so we find ourselves turning to the state to either bully or bribe our fellows into behaving well. ("The Carrot and the Stick - Or How to Create a Fat, Lazy, Surly Donkey")Likewise prison no longer caries the stigma it once did ("Violence and Culture", "Shame and Behavior", "Social Pressure"), and so we find ourselves inflicting ever more severe punishments. ("A True Conservative Platform", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Compassionate Execution", "The Death Penalty", "A Rational Approach to Punishment", "The Ends Justify the Means?", "Fair or Functional?", "Not Completely One Sided", "Motives Unimportant", "Sunday Morning Talking Heads", "Civilization and the Fear of Death") 

And the list could go on forever.

The loss is there, if we but look for it. And it is a serious loss, even if the severity is not recognized by many among us. Perhaps constant exposure, and the gradual nature of the early stages have made us blind to the changes. Perhaps we have come to embrace enough of the cultural norms of our new, juvenile culture that we no longer question the ever increasing permissiveness. Or maybe, having been overwhelmed by the more extreme forms of license we see around us, the lesser forms pass unnoticed. Whatever the reason, we need to remain vigilant and fight to keep our culture from eroding any more. At least if we wish to preserve those things that we prize in our traditions.

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* I grant there is a difference in the degree of sensitivity to obscenities, largely varying with geographic location, though social class plays a part as well. However, as our pop culture tends to create a homogeneous culture, and our emphasis on youth tends to reduce that culture to the most permissive version, these differences are rapidly fading outside of intentionally insular communities.

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POSTSCRIPT


The most interesting aspect of this particular form of license is that it is often pushed by self proclaimed intellectuals, who believe that eliminating stodgy old rules about expression and removing artificial constraints on speech, they will be able to express themselves with more clarity. However, by eliminating any social meaning attached to obscenities, by making them into nothing more than alternate interjections, they have actually impoverished our speech, and left us less able to express ourselves.

Of course, that is nothing new. Many found the worship of youth and novelty and "energy" a font of limitless creativity, but time has shown that the destruction of norms, the flight from any sort of value judgments in art, or judgments apart from the completely arbitrary, has not unleashed a wave of creativity, but has led to juvenile efforts to shock,  trite jokes meant to "enlighten", and pointless trivialities such as white canvases. ("Self-Interest Versus Narcissism", "Our Complete Lack of Creativity", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Juvenile Intellectuals")

It is interesting how often supposed "liberation" doe snot truly free, but rather enslaves us to even less pleasing norms. Perhaps freedom and license are not identical as some think, and having some norms may actually provide us a better framework in which to freely express ourselves than an entirely licentious environment.

POSTSCRIPT II

I know I come across to some as a stodgy, boring old philistine. ("Cranky Old Man?") Before assuming that, I would mention that I am a rather unsuccessful fiction writer, and my writing is far from what many would imagine having read my blog. In fact, my politics have very little influence on my writing at all. Religion and philosophy in general have more influence, but even there I am more fascinated with the conflict between ideas rather than espousing a single point of view. 

It is odd, the times in which we live. It seems that both the right and the left are unwilling to stand for tradition with any force. And those who do tend to go to the wrong extreme and endorse using government coercion to enforce their own view of tradition. I want to make clear, I am not in that camp. ("Culture and Government", "The State and Morality", "A Bit More Explanation") While I think tradition and received values are of inestimable worth, it is still an individual choice to follow them. Society can apply pressure to make it more likely others will do so, but I do not agree that we should use force to make others adopt society's values. All I want is for our culture to return to its former practices, to valuing received wisdom, to understanding that youthful folly is not something to be embraced by adults, and to no longer fearing to using social pressures to demand others live up to our established standards of behavior.

That such a position is seen as radical by most (and too weak by the "social conservatives") is frightening to me. And it makes me worry for our future.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/11/16.