You Don’t Get Credit for the Moral Advances of Others

Oh, you’re anti-racism, hmm? You believe women should have equal rights? You’re against war? You think Nazis are bad?

Good.

But that belief (and repeating it on social media, etc) doesn’t make you a hero. Being “more enlightened” than your ancestors in these ways doesn’t actually make you smarter or wiser.

All of these beliefs are good, of course. But once a belief is mainstream (as these examples are), once it’s accepted, you don’t get to call yourself “good” for holding it. If you’re learning that belief in school, church, and home growing up, you can be sure that other people did the hard work for that belief.

Those people – the people who deserve credit for defeating segregationism or Nazism, for instance – lived before us, and they are gone or passing now. They deserve the credit, though I doubt they would accept as much as you do. They stood against evil when it was unpopular, psychologically uncomfortable, and physically dangerous to do so.

What made them so good was not just that they held the right beliefs when no one else did, but that they had virtue in concert with those beliefs. They spoke the truth courageously at risk to themselves, they put their lives on the line, and they even showed compassion to enemies. They were *good* in a way that requires much more than mental orthodoxy.

Virtue is much, much harder to acquire, and it will probably not bring you accolades when you first begin to follow it. But the feeling of growth and meaning from living virtuously is much realer than the feeling of pride in having better beliefs than your ancestors.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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State Priorities, Not State “Capacity”

In the last few years, social scientists have started heavily appealing to “state capacity” to explain the wealth of nations.  Why do some countries prosper?  Because they have great state capacity.  Why do others flounder?  Because they have crummy state capacity.  What do floundering countries need to do in order to prosper?  Build state capacity, naturally.

Many of these same social scientists see the coronavirus as a great vindication of their research.  Which countries are coping well with coronavirus?  The ones with great state capacity.  Which countries have been devastated?  The ones that lack state capacity.  How can we resolve our current crisis?  Again, build state capacity.

Two years ago, I heavily criticized the state capacity fad.  Weak and question-begging empirics aside, the whole literature is conceptually confused.  But the current crisis has convinced me that I’ve been overly generous.  How so?  Because the coronavirus crisis plainly shows that Western democracies have overwhelming state capacity.  Check out the muscles on these governments!  They haven’t just effortlessly raised and spent trillions of dollars.  They handily shut down their entire “non-essential” economies.  In a matter of weeks, they casually disemployed many tens of millions of workers, shuttered millions of businesses, and virtually sealed their borders to trade as well as travel.  After this staggering exercise of power, I don’t see how you can fairly attribute any shortcoming of these governments before the crisis on lack of state capacity.  The sheer capacity of these states beggars belief.

Why, then, do most of the Western democracies seem to be doing such an incompetent job?  Perhaps most egregiously, the U.S. federal government spent over two trillion dollars on relief, but next to nothing on testing or research.  As Alex Tabarrok summarizes:

We would also save medical costs by suppressing the virus. (The focus on ventilators has perhaps been overdone given that ventilators in no way guarantee survival–better to stop people needing ventilators.) We would also save lives. Thus, a program of mass testing seems like a no-brainer. Yet, there is no direct funding for anything like this in the $2.2 trillion CARES bill which is stunning. Here’s Austan Goolsbee:

We literally put in a tax break for retailers and restaurants to expand their capacity but not money for production of more COVID tests.

Here’s Paul Romer:

We have an economic crisis because it is not safe for people to work or consume. Our Congress just passed a bill that will spend $2.2 trillion to deal with the crisis. Can anyone identify any spending in this bill devoted to making it safe for people to work and consume?

What’s going wrong?  Simple: Despite fantastic state capacity, the U.S. government has absurd state priorities!  Instead of squandering trillions on poorly-targeted relief, the U.S. government could have spent a few hundred billion on testing and vaccine research.  Better yet, it could have offered hundreds of billions in prizes for progress in these areas – prizes open to anyone on Earth to win.

So why didn’t this happen?  Simple: Because the people in charge in virtually every country are irresponsible, disorganized, innumerate, impulsive, and emotional.  Blaming their failures on “lack of state capacity” is like blaming Bill Cosby’s imprisonment on “lack of financial capacity.”  Cosby’s in jail because he’s a serial rapist, not because he lacked the money to hire a good lawyer.  When your resources are superabundant, the top remaining explanation for failure is your own terrible choices.

My point: As a matter of logic, success and failure depend on two factors.

Factor #1: The total resources you possess – your “capacity.”

Factor #2: How you choose to use those resources – your “priorities.”

Isn’t this obvious?  It is to me.  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a fan of state capacity research acknowledge this obvious point, much less try to fairly adjudicate it.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a fan say, “You could say that some governments fail because they squander resources that are more than sufficient to handle their problems.  But using our new measure of squandering…”  I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a fan say, “You could say that some governments would succeed if they simply revised their priorities.  But using a new data set on priority revision…”  I’m tempted to say that appeals to state capacity are tautological, but even the tautologies are half-baked.

The underlying confusion: When a person doesn’t do X, we often casually announce, “He can’t do X.”  That, my friends, is a total leap of logic.  Yes, perhaps the person in question genuinely can’t do X.  On the other hand, maybe he’s simply made X a low priority.  The only way to really know is to see what happens when the person in question unambiguously makes X his absolute priority.  In slogan form: “Can’t implies won’t.  Won’t does not imply can’t.”

The same goes for organizations, including governments.  The Soviet Union failed to grow enough food to feed its people.  That does not imply, however, that the Soviet Union lacked the capacity to do so.  The real story, in fact, is that the Soviet government doggedly prioritized military might over civilian diet.

So what?  At minimum, we need to audit the entire state capacity literature.  To what extent can the problems it attributes to “state capacity” instead be assigned to “state priorities”?  Unless we miraculously discover that capacity, not priorities, explains 100% of all sub-perfect government performance, the next step is to dial-down the multitudinous simplistic pleas for “increasing state capacity” – and replace them with pleas for better state priorities.  Instead of pretending that the coronavirus crisis somehow confirms everything they’ve been claiming, this is a time for the fans of state capacity to engage in poignant soul-searching.  Western democracies have decisively displayed their gargantuan capacity.  But what good is gargantuan capacity in the hands of short-sighted, power-hungry demagogues?

There’s a great scene in Kill Bill where Vernita Green tells the Bride: “That’s being more rational than Bill led me to believe you were capable of.”  And the Bride responds, “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack; not rationality.”  Next time a researcher sees poor government performance and blames “lack of state capacity,” tell them, “Perhaps it’s good priorities it lacks, not capacity.”

Then tell me how they respond, because I’d really like to know.

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The New Normal

It’s time for us to accept that this pandemic, and social isolation, are here for awhile.

But in addition to that, our reality has changed, possibly for good.

We’re in a new normal.

Some things that have changed for many of us:

  1. A sense of restriction: We’re not able to do our usual things — not only work and school, but things like haircuts, dentists, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, shops and more. That can feel very restricted.
  2. Heightened uncertainty & anxiety: Things are incredibly uncertain right now, for all of us — for our health, the health of loved ones, the state of the world, the shaky economy, our individual financial situations. And that’s just the start of it. All of this uncertainty is triggering feelings of stress, fear and anxiety in most people, in different ways.
  3. A feeling of isolation but also (possibly) togetherness: For many people, social distancing has created a feeling of isolation that can be very hard to handle. But for many, there can also be a feeling of togetherness – we’re all in this together, no one is excluded. Some are creating that feeling of togetherness by doing video calls, by connecting others online, or by taking part in community or group efforts to help.
  4. Contraction when we’re feeling overwhelmed: It can all be too much. And when we feel that sense of overwhelm, we can want to shut down, exit, turn away, avoid. We avoid hard tasks, we go to distraction, we avoid our healthy habits. This is all completely normal!
  5. A sense of disruption: Our old habits have been disrupted — we can’t do all the things we’re used to doing, and that gives us a feeling of being upended. It’s frustrating to have things disrupted, and can make us feel afloat.
  6. Irritation with others: Being isolated with the same people every day can cause friction. And that brings up all of our issues, all the ways we respond (and they respond) when we get triggered.
  7. Wanting it all to be over: Impatience! We just want to go back to normal. It’s hard to accept the way things are.
  8. Wanting to feel something meaningful: This can all feel very unanchored. And in this feeling of groundlessness and instability, we can yearn for some kind of meaning. Some sense of purpose.

You might not be experiencing all of these, because every person is experiencing the new normal differently.

But it is a new normal.

So the question is: will we resist it, or can we use it as an opportunity?

We can complain about the new normal. Hate it. Stew in frustration about it. That’s one possibility.

Another possibility is to use it as a growth opportunity.

The Opportunity That Life is Giving Us

Life is always opening doors for us, giving us a gift. We just don’t often recognize it.

For example, this morning, life gave you an amazing gift of a new day. Many people who are on their last breath would give anything for such a miraculous gift — and yet, we often will take this gift for granted. Fritter it away. Complain about much of it.

We waste the opportunity that life has given us!

So being aware of this … how can we use this new normal as an opportunity and a gift?

The first idea I’d like to offer is that the new normal is just highlighting the difficulties we often felt before, but could more easily ignore.

We could pretend that we weren’t constantly being disrupted, that we weren’t very restricted, that we didn’t have massive uncertainty in our lives. We could pretend that we weren’t craving connection and meaning, that we weren’t irritated by others.

We’re very good at fooling ourselves.

But now, we can’t pretend (as much). We are faced with these realities, and we can either resist and complain … or we can look them squarely in the face, and accept them.

The second idea is that these are opportunities to grow — to train, to become more resilient.

So for example, we could train in each area I mentioned above:

  • If you’re feeling restricted, let yourself feel the feeling of restriction. It’s probably something you’ve felt many times before but didn’t face it. Can you shift this feeling, after you’ve felt it, to see the sense of openness and freedom and gift in each moment?
  • If you’re feeling isolated, can you use this to connect to yourself more, as if you were a monk in a monastery? Can you let yourself feel the feeling of isolation, and give yourself some compassion?
  • Let yourself feel the craving for connection and meaning. And then see how you can create that for yourself, each day, without any certainty about whether you’re doing it right.
  • If you’re irritated at others, can you rise above your narrative about the other person, and see that you’re both feeling fear and pain? That you both are dealing with this with anger, irritation, frustration? That both of you are resorting to old (unhelpful) patterns? Can you practice compassion for them (and yourself) instead?
  • If you’re impatient and wanting it all to be over … can you practice patience instead? Let yourself be with the pain and frustration you’re feeling, and be willing to face it and sit in the middle of it? This is an incredibly powerful practice that will strengthen us for whatever we face in the future.
  • Can you practice this patience with everything you’re feeling: overwhelmed, irritated, frustrated, anxious, uncertain, fearful? And bring self-compassion to that as well?

So you can get a sense that we’re practicing a few things with whatever we’re facing:

  • A willingness to feel what we’re feeling
  • A willingness to face and sit in the middle of difficulty (patience)
  • Compassion for ourselves and others
  • The ability to create connection and meaning

What would it be like to use the gift of this new normal to get stronger during this crisis? To practice these incredibly transformative practices?

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“We All Know” – Three Dangerous Words

Anything that “We” all know for certain should be questioned.

The most dangerous beliefs are those considered “settled” or “consensus”. Those are the ideas that close minds, kill curiosity, and end exploration.

Those are also the ideas that have people supporting the harassment, caging, and killing of dissenters.

It doesn’t matter whether the consensus idea is true. What matters is not shutting down those who disbelieve it, no matter how crazy they are. It’s cowardly, unbecoming, and evil to do so. It reveals a thoughtlessness and lack of imagination, curiosity, and compassion.

As Milton said,

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

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4 Mindfulness Practices That We Need Right Now

In the middle of the chaos of the world right now, what can we do to take care of ourselves?

Let’s talk about a handful of simple mindfulness practices that can be helpful.

  1. Breathe deeply into the belly. This is one to start with, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. We get caught up in our heads, stuck in a cycle of thoughts that are rarely very helpful. So to get out of our heads and into our bodies, we can do deep breathes, into the deepest part of our bellies. Do several breaths like this, maybe for 30-60 seconds if you have time. This not only calms you down, but helps you to be more present with your body and surroundings.
  2. Check on your feelings, give yourself compassion. Turn your attention to the sensations in your body, and notice how uncertainty and fear/anxiety might feel for you right now, as a bodily experience. This, again, helps get you out of your thoughts, but also it’s important to notice how you’re feeling. Practice giving these feelings some space, letting them be (it’s OK to feel anxiety!). Then see if you can give them some compassion, to take care of yourself when you’re feeling uncertainty or frustration.
  3. Find calm in the middle of a storm. When the world is full of chaos, can we find calm? Find your breath. Let the swirl of thoughts calm down. Notice the light around you, notice sound. Notice the beauty of the moment. Widen your awareness beyond yourself, and feel the peace of a moment of stillness. You can still take action, but from a place of calmness.
  4. Send compassion out to others. Once you’ve practiced compassion for your own uncertainty and fears … once you’ve found a moment of calm and centeredness … you can open your heart to others right now. They’re afraid, they’re feeling anxious. Open your awareness beyond your home, to the others in your neighborhood and city, to others around the world, to your loved ones and strangers. Feel the worry they’re feeling. Send them compassion, from the deepest place in your heart. Let it flow out as a healing salve to everyone. Notice how this feels. Notice how it might change how you interact with others.

Let these practices help you through this troubled time, my friends.

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Dealing with the Immense Uncertainty of the World

The world is in a state of fear and uncertainty right now, and it’s stressful and overwhelming for most of us.

This kind of fear, stress, uncertain and overwhelm can have some really strong effects on our lives:

  • Constant fear and stress can cause anxiety problems, worsening sleep and health, depression and anxiety
  • In a place of fear, we can often make bad decisions
  • People can panic, overreact because of fear, and cause widespread confusion and disruptions
  • Our relationships can deteriorate when we’re operating from a place of fear
  • We become less productive, less focused, when we’re stressed
  • It has an obvious impact on our happiness, including the impacts from all of the above

These are just some of the strong effects from a constant sense of fear, uncertainty, stress and overwhelm.

So how do we cope with this?

Obviously, there’s no easy answer. Let’s talk about what I’ve found to work, and what I recommend right now.

Dealing with the Uncertainty & Fear

The first thing is just to acknowledge that we’re feeling a lot of uncertainty and stress about the world situation. Bring awareness to the feelings you’re experiencing, and acknowledge their presence.

Often we want to ignore the feelings, or we’re just operating on autopilot and not really aware of it. But then we’re operating from that place of fear and stress, and these emotions are driving us without us being aware of it.

Next, see if you can give the fear and uncertainty some space. That means to turn your attention toward it, and let it be in your awareness … but with a sense of spaciousness, as if you’re giving it a wide open room to just be. You don’t need the feelings to go away or change, they are just going to be in your awareness with a feeling of having space around them, letting them exist as if you could even welcome them.

This is a way of taking care of yourself. When we’re feeling fear, it’s important to nurture ourselves, take care of the feeling. Give it space, and allow it to be in your awareness.

Third, see this as an opportunity to practice. We often close ourselves off to fear and uncertainty, but they can be really powerful things to practice with. They are incredible teachers! Let yourself pause for a few moments to practice with this, because uncertainty and fear and stress will always be a part of your life – you won’t ever be free of them! They show up whether you want them or not, so why not get good at being with them?

This is an opportunity to practice mindfulness with your fear and uncertainty. Open to the opportunity, instead of turning away to distraction and busyness.

Fourth, practice welcoming it and giving it unconditional friendliness. This might sound strange when it comes to fear, because for so long we’ve had an adversarial relationship to fear and uncertainty. We don’t like them, because they feel like stress and pain. But we don’t have to relate to fear this way. We can be more open toward it, even friendly.

So start by trying to welcome it. Allow it into your experience. Even be warm towards it, as you might welcome a good friend.

Then try to give it some unconditional friendliness. It’s an amazing practice. See if you’re able to bring the kind of warmth and friendliness towards it that you do with a loved one. You don’t need the feeling to be any certain way, you can be friendly with it no matter what.

Fifth, let yourself feel the openness of the moment. This one is a little harder to explain, but bear with me. If you can relax and open your awareness wider than the narrowness of your thought patterns or narrative … you can experience the openness of this moment.

Let your awareness open wider than your body. Let it take in the room all around you — light, colors, shapes, sound, textures, sensations on your skin. Feel the relaxed, open nature of the moment — fluid, changing, not fixed, unknowable, dynamic, spacious. This is the nature of our world, the root of uncertainty. It’s actually beautiful to behold. Let yourself relax into this openness.

That can take practice, don’t worry if you don’t feel it right away. Keep practicing with it!

Sixth, open to feeling connected to others through your uncertainty and fear. As you sit in stillness, as you feel the sensations in your body, as you welcome the feelings and practice friendliness with them, as you experience the openness of the moment … you can also feel a connection to others.

Think about everyone else in the world who is experiencing similar feelings of discomfort and uncertainty. Similar levels of stress, fear, overwhelm, anxiety. You are not alone — so many others feel it right now! In this way, you are all connected. Let your heart feel this connection to others going through similar experiences. Send them compassion and love, wishing them well.

In this way, our fear and uncertainty, in these very uncertain times … become an opening for connection and compassion. This is transformative. Try it right now.

The world is in a state of intense mass uncertainty. Don’t shut yourself off to it, ignore it or try to control, distract or exit.

Open yourself to this, because it is a powerful time to practice.

Learn More with Me

If you’d like to practice with me, there are two offerings this Saturday (March 14) and one ongoing program where you can join me:

  1. Zen Dharma talk on Fearlessness with Susan O’Connell (and Leo) on Saturday: I’m joining my Zen teacher Susan in giving a free dharma talk on the idea of fear and practicing fearlessness. It’ll be my first dharma talk ever! It’s tomorrow — Saturday (March 14) at 10am Pacific / 1pm Eastern. Watch online here.
  2. Fearless Purpose Online Workshop (Saturday): A couple hours later, Susan and I will be conducting a 3-hour workshop called Fearless Purpose. The in-person event has been canceled, but you can still participate online. We’re still holding this workshop because we believe it’s so important right now. It will be from 1-4 pm Pacific / 4-7 pm Eastern. You can still sign up for online participation here.
  3. Fearless Training Program: I also offer an ongoing program called Fearless Training, where we train with uncertainty in the mindfulness methods I talk about in this article. I invite you to join us and train together! Check out Fearless Training here.
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