Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Wealth Creation is Not Building -- It's Selling

"This man is creating wealth," someone remarked about the video embedded below.

It is certainly very impressive what can be made with very simple technology and raw materials. But is that wealth creation? Or is it merely consumption of raw materials? Arguably, when you cut down trees to build yourself a house, you are merely consuming the resources at your disposal. But when you sell what you build to somebody else,  you have created wealth.

Wealth has no objective existence apart from a social situation in which the value of some objects is compared with the value of others. Without a market, there can be no wealth.

I once went to look at a house and ten acres when I was shopping for a new home. The house was in a desolate, wooded area. The owners had lived there for years and had cut down all the trees on their acreage, using them to heat their home. They now told me proudly how they felt they had improved the land by clearing it. But I came from the big city, and I was looking for land with unspoiled woods on it. From my perspective, the property lost value when the trees were cut down.

What is more important: hard work, creativity or raw materials? I know people who can argue about this for hours on end and never come to an agreement. Why? Because there is no objective, universal answer to this question. It depends on the circumstances. Important to whom? That is the question they don't seem to grasp.  Some  are under the impression that standing trees are not valuable, but lumber is. There are even those who think that by clearing their land, they are improving its resale value. In this fantasy, you can have your cake and eat it, too. You can consume the wood, and what remains is even more valuable! It's like eating your dinner, and then selling the waste for fertilizer. It can be done, my friend, but it depends entirely on the market.

An excerpt from Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way
Sometimes, good fertilizer is hard to come by, and people will pay for our night soil. Sometimes, nobody wants our refuse, and we have to pay to have it hauled away. Like beauty, value is in the eye of the beholder. The market decides, and the market is just the shifting opinions of a large number of people.

What is of greater value today: the structures built by the man in the video embedded at the beginning of this post, or the right to own the land on which the structures were built? If you own the land free and clear, you can choose what to do with the trees and the lumber. But how much would an army to keep other people out cost? And would the market value of those wooden structures be enough to pay for it?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Welfare is not Free

Back when I was practicing law in the 1980s, social workers pressured women to leave less than perfect husbands and to go on welfare. Welfare in those days was called AFDC - Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Once a mother went on welfare, the Federal government would turn around and garnish the wages of the father of her children, to recoup the cost of paying her support. So in the end, the welfare wasn't free. It came at a terrible cost.

Welfare was not just a way to tax other people to pay for a poor woman's children. It was a scheme to separate families and to use the money stolen from the breadwinner to decide how to raise the children. Once the woman was on welfare, social workers checked on her and judged her with impunity, and often they found ways to take her children away from her. By this time she was alone, and there was no one to help her fight the social workers, because her husband had been banished and his money taken from him.

Yes, a lot of those men were not model husbands and fathers. Some were alcoholics or addicts, some were abusive and some were just deadbeats. Many of those men had lower IQs than their wives -- or at least they had not finished high school, while the wives had. The social workers used this fact to convince the women that their husbands were beneath them. They tried to tell the women that they could do better. But the demographics of the dating market were such that the women could in fact not do better. If they had been able to find better husbands, they would have married better men in the first place.  They were a lot worse off under the thumb of the social workers and the Federal child support enforcers than they had been when left to their own devices in their less than perfect marriages.

I wrote about some of these issues in The Debt Collector.

Today, with the ACA mandate, more families are coming under the thumb of Federal welfare, because people who used to be self-supporting and ineligible for Medicaid are now being forced to enroll in this Federal program in order to avoid tax penalties. But once they are enrolled, they often find that they have lost a lot of their civil liberties. Their prescription drug use is subject to scrutiny without any privacy. Their children are subject to social worker visits. And none of this is actually free -- when they die, the Federal government will confiscate their homes and other assets to pay for the Medicaid expenditure.

Many progressives think that anyone opposed to the ACA must not care about the poor. But this program is engineered to create more poverty and to take more and more rights away from those currently only on the brink of poverty. Welfare is not free. Its highest costs are borne by those forced to submit to its tender ministrations.  This is how welfare has always worked.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Spiritual Impulses and Common Sense

What is the difference between being religious and being spiritual?

Religious people follow received doctrine, often based on a holy text that is then interpreted for them by clerics and priests. They may never have seen a god face to face or heard the voice of a demon or experienced a miracle, and usually they don't ever expect to do so. But they believe -- or profess to believe -- what they have been told by religious authorities.

A spiritual person has direct experiences of a spiritual nature. He sees visions, hears voices and receives messages directly from the spirit world. His holy knowledge originates in his own mind, and he is more likely to find himself at odds with authority. That is why genuine visionaries are so often martyred.

Religious people by and large are non-limerent, Spiritual people experience limerence both as a personal unidirectional attachment and as a general flow of ideas. They do not study; they are inspired. They do not "work at a relationship"; they fall in love. They do not memorize doctrine -- they receive epiphany.

In Our Lady of Kaifeng, Marah Fallowfield is spiritual, though non-religious. Ted Sesame is religious,  but decidedly un-spiritual. The conflict between their points of view can be seen  most clearly in this scene:
Sesame was cross. “Fine. Then here's your answer. Mr.
Ch'en is a deranged dope fiend. If he thinks that we can build a
whole airport for American planes to land just outside our
camp, without the Japanese noticing, well, he's completely
“And besides,” Gilkey said. “we have over fourteen
hundred people here, most of whom are either elderly, women
or children. There is no way that we could make any sort of
exodus from this place without the majority getting killed or
dying of exhaustion en route.”
“In Exodus there were women and children and infants
and elderly people. And there were no airplanes or airports.
And they got out okay,” Marah said. “They went on foot, and
all they had to eat was some unleavened bread and gold that
they stole from their neighbors. Which you would think would
not be any good for purposes of ordering food in the desert.”
“Well, yeah, but they had manna dropping from heaven
and Moses to part the red sea for them,” Sesame replied.
“And we don't?” she asked. “We have a camp full of
saints and martyrs, social workers and philosophers and
clergymen, and nobody can perform miracles? Can't Eric Liddell
part the China Sea for us? And you, Mr. Gilkey, who are so
good at creating extra space just by redistributing rooms,
couldn't you work a loaves-and-fishes miracle for us, too?”
“This is real life, Marah, not the Bible,” Sesame said.
“So you don't actually believe!” she cried. Here before
her stood a professed Christian who said he believed in the
literal transubstaniation of matter in the Eucharist, and here
was she, the staunch atheist, and yet he had faith in nothing but
compromise when it came to practical reality, whereas she
believed in miracles ...
People with common sense are rarely spiritual.  Visionaries are usually low on common sense. Great religious movements are built on the hard work of plodding multitudes with common sense, but no vision. But without the visionaries, how would they ever get started? And once the people with common sense take over the faith, how can the vision be maintained?

 Kipling had an apt verse on this head:

He that hath a Gospel
To loose upon Mankind
Though he serve it utterly—
Body, soul and mind—
Though he go to Calvary
Daily for its gain—
It is His Disciple
Shall make his labour vain.
--Rudyard Kipling

Beware of the false spiritualist, though. That would be the person who tells you that spirituality leads to a calming effect and will make you reconciled to the status quo. Such people are soap peddlers. No real spiritual leader ever had as his goal the perpetuation of the status quo. Visions don't work that way!

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Queen Isabella and the Paradox of How Tyranny Drives Exploration

This blog post is a follow up to my earlier post about why we have not colonized Mars yet.

I got a comment recently to the effect that "If you are free you can use your power to reason and act on it and huge advancements are made. Going to Mars is a stupid idea relative to how we are now. It is not beneficial."

It's actually quite a bit more complicated than that.

  • The greatest freedom does not necessarily lead to the highest degree of technological advance, because if you are happy with your current situation, you tend to have less incentive to change things.
  • It's not "stupid" to want to go to Mars. That is a value judgment. Some people are naturally interested in exploring the world and learning what is out there, even when there is no "need" for a new invention or more space. Not everything in life is about dire "need". The only issue is who will pay for the curiosity itch. Under free enterprise, the curious pay for their curiosity themselves.

Chimpanzees and human hunter-gatherers in their natural habitat have less technology than people living in the Scandinavian countries or in habitats that are not naturally suited for apes to live in. Why? Partially, because there is no "need" and hence it would not be "beneficial", as the commentator said about colonizing Mars.

But whenever conditions get too crowded in the environment in which we evolve, some of us are spurred to move out and travel great distances and go to places where food does not just grow on trees, and you have to find ways to heat during winter and to store seeds and grain and dead meat, and do all sorts of things that do not come naturally and require thought and planning. Later, when people who have done this look back at their ancestors and their contemporary cousins who are still in the natural lifestyle, they think they themselves are much more advanced and the others seem primitive and lazy. But necessity is the mother of invention, and if you don't have to work for others in order to survive, why should you? Arguably, there is less freedom under more advanced technology, because things that nature gives us for free in a tropical paradise-- warmth and food -- have to be worked for, and people find themselves specializing in certain skills and trading with others who have other skills. As long as people work only for themselves and not to support others by force, it's still free enterprise, but when property taxes to pay just for getting to hold onto a plot of land are figured into the equation, people are forced to work for others to pay the cash for the taxes on the property every year. Once health insurance becomes mandatory, they have to work for others just for the right to exist. And now freedom to decide how to live is gone, which is a great incentive to move someplace else where one might be able to find more freedom from serving others by force.

That's one side of the issue. The other side is that there will always be people who are curious about what is found beyond the distant horizon. Scientists want to know -- they pursue knowledge for its own sake. Explorers are people who want to travel far from where they live. They don't care if they profit. They have the itch. But who will pay for it? Many space aficionados admit openly that the Statist desire to beat other countries is the motive behind the funding they hope to get from their government. Take Leslie Fish's song, "Queen Isabella", in which it is explained that Christopher Columbus got state funding that was entirely motivated by colonial expansionism and misguided missionary zeal. The would-be space explorer realizes that only through an arms-race competition with other nations did NASA land a man on the moon. And the hope is that some new Queen Isabella, equally deranged, will continue to fund the space program.

It is not "stupid" to want to visit Mars. It is not "stupid" to try to teach an ape human language. The thirst for knowledge for its own sake is as old as mankind. The only problem is: how to pay for the experiment? As long as it is privately funded, no experiment need be "beneficial" -- because it does not involve unwilling participants.

Questions like "what do we need?" or "what is beneficial" depend entirely on the person asking them. In a free society, what one person wants is not what another wants. Each decides what is beneficial to himself. And no question is stupid. Knowledge for its own sake is fine, as long as you pay for it yourself.

Freedom does not entail constant growth. Science does not serve technology; it is a value in its own right. Expanding technology is not necessarily a product of free enterprise. In a free society, people are left to be as lazy or as industrious as they like -- as curious or as lethargic as their own nature dictates. There is no norm. There are no rules -- except that you don't force another person to work at something that he does not choose to do. If you want to go to Mars, you pay for it yourself.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Earthquake in Taiwan

Yesterday, I was cleaning off my desk, and I ran across some souvenirs from my time in Taiwan. These were not the kind of souvenirs that you collects as a tourist, but just things that accumulate in your life when you live in a country for a while. You stock up on stamps, and then you never have occasion to use them all up.

I was in Taichung, Taiwan in 1999, when the terrible earthquake took place. My daughter was two months old at the time. The earthquale itself did not hurt us -- we came out of it completely unscathed  -- but dealing with rationing of electricity and water afterwards was pretty tough.

In my desk while cleaning up yesterday, I found a scrap of paper from an English language newspaper at the time giving details of the rationing plan so that we could know what to expect.

The odd thing about my urge to clean out my desk yesterday and digging out that scrap of newspaper is that it all happened right before there had been another big earthquake, this time further south, that day.

A former student of mine who is now in Kaohsiung reported safe on Facebook. There was no facebook at the time when we were there, and it took a while for my family in the US to learn that we were safe.

If you want to read a fictionalized account of my experiences before, during and after the earthquake, you can read it here:

The Once and Future Nanny

The new earthquake has occurred just in time for Chinese New Year, making it hard for people in Taiwan to travel home for their celebrations. I hope it all turns out better in the aftermath of the quake for the people there right now. An earthquake can be a terrible thing, and fatal to some,  but the real suffering for fortunate survivors happens afterwards when power and water are cut off for hours and days at a time.

Though I have never been through a war or the rationing that it can entail,  I did draw on some of my experiences in the Taiwan earthquake for the feel of my forthcoming novel, Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way.

In the short term, disasters have a way of making us lose weight and become more fit. I remember how much better I looked after having to haul groceries, including water, up nine flights of stairs to my apartment for a week. Of course, my new-found fitness did not last. As soon as power was restored, I started using the elevator again.

My daughter and I after the earthquake

Here's hoping that all the babies are plump and healthy in Taiwan today, and that if any of the mothers caring for them lose weight, it will all be a temporary improvement in their health, and not a permanent hardship.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Autoism versus Altruism

[This is a Vlog post, so the text below is a transcript of the video.]

A lot of times when people talk about the virtue of selfishness, they do it in the context of having to defend themselves from people who say that there's an unequal earning capacity and maybe this person does not deserve to earn as much as they do, and maybe, in fact, they should contribute more or give back more or give back to society. And it's the Ayn Randian concept of the virtue of selfishness that says: "No, We don't have to give back. I mean, after all, we haven't taken anything away from anyone. This is what I earned, and so it's okay."

All right, then. Yes, there is that aspect of the virtue of selfishness, but there's a lot more to it, and if you read The Fountainhead, and you see how Roark stands up for his architectural ideals, and how he turns down good, paying jobs just because he does not want to alter his design, then you see that there is a great deal more to the virtue of selfishness than just doing that which pays the bills or earns you a lot of money. It has to do with integrity. And if it's okay to turn down work that you really need in order to pay your rent, then aren't you being, perhaps, what other people might consider a saint?

So what is a saint? Is a saint an unselfish person, because he doesn't consider his own profit on the marketplace? Is a saint somebody who throws his life away -- somebody who ends up on the cross, maybe, for his beliefs? Or is a saint someone who looks inwardly to determine what is valuable, rather than outwardly?

In Our Lady of Kaifeng, Father Horvath has this idea of autoism rather than altruism. Now, of course, the term autism had not yet been coined or was in the process of being coined, and he wasn't aware of it, so he called it autoism, because he simply etymologically deduced that the opposite of an altruist would be an autoist. And he tells Marah that she's a saint because she's an autoist -- because she listens to her inner voice rather than to the voice of society. And that's where sainthood comes into play.

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Yaron Brook, Ayn Rand and the Virtue of Selfishness

Mars, courtesy of  NASA, a government agency
Last night I watched a video of Yaron Brook expounding on Objectivism in Tokyo, It was very interesting to me in a number of ways, which I will discuss in greater detail after you watch the video with me.

One of the things Yaron Brook pointed out is that due to government intervention, we have not had a real technological breakthrough in ages. Yes, there is Silicon Valley and innovations come from there all the time, but the scope of the innovation is very limited, and we still use the same mode of transportation that was developed at the turn of the twentieth century: cars, trains and airplanes. Why haven't we colonized Mars yet?

It is not clear to me that laissez faire would necessarily drive us to colonize Mars. I think we will only do it if we lose all our freedom here on earth. Freedom is not just freedom to innovate. Freedom is also about being allowed to maintain our lifestyle intact. Many people want that much more than they want to go to outer space.

If we do end up colonizing Mars, it is more likely to happen because we will have lost all our freedom here on earth and we will be desperately looking for a way out.

Freedom is a value in its own right. Technological advancement is not the justification for freedom -- nor is it the only thing that freedom is good for.