By The Time We Notice We’re Hungry, It May Be Too Late

“[A]s the top U.S. watermelon-producing state prepares for harvest, Reuters reports, “many of the workers needed to collect the crop are stuck in Mexico …. Without the workers crops could rot in fields throughout the country,” starting in Florida and California where major harvests begin in April and May.

As you can probably guess, the problem stems from the COVID-19 panic. The US State Department has halted routine visa applications and consulates are limiting both staff numbers and staff contact with applicants. That’s making it difficult for the quarter million migrant workers who normally pick America’s crops to get here and get to work.

Most Americans aren’t hungry. Yet.

But unless something changes, we’re going to start GETTING hungry in a couple of months.

And by then, it will be too late. Planting cycles don’t turn on a dime for our convenience and ripe crops don’t wait. They get picked when it’s their time, or they go to waste. We get the food while the gettin’s good, or we don’t get it at all.

There’s a non-trivial chance that Americans are rushing headlong into a horror we haven’t seen since the Civil War — mass starvation — or, at the very least, malnutrition on a scale we haven’t suffered since the Great Depression.

We can’t avoid that outcome with stimulus checks in our mailboxes. All the money in the world won’t buy you a cantaloupe if there aren’t any cantaloupes to buy.

We can’t hold it off with corporate bailouts, either. It’s not money Big Agriculture’s lacking for, it’s permission for its workers to come pick the crops.

If we want to keep eating, our politicians are going to have to knock off this “shutdown” nonsense and let people get back to work.

Yes, even if that means that COVID-19 remains a problem or becomes a bigger problem.

The varying probabilities of catching the disease, and the varying probabilities of dying from it, pale next to the absolute, indubitable, 100% certainty that if we do not eat, we WILL die.

Politicians can’t just shut down major parts of an economy at will, start them back up, and expect things to go well. They can’t throttle the food supply chain without consequences.

We gotta eat.

Which means we’re going to have to insist that the politicians hang their Mussolini costumes back up in the closet and magnanimously permit us to get back to our lives.

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You Are Not Alone

Nobody asked but …

I just read two case histories on coronavirus. In one, a young mother died, in another a young mother lived. Both people had to face their outcomes alone. But many others were affected.

I don’t know if there were clear choices that could have been made, nor whether either of these young women were free to make choices.

But there is no guarantee of good, even if you check every box.  One is an individual, and one’s circumstances roll out unpredictably.

 … never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

— John Donne

We are all susceptible.  This is not a commercial, however, for fatalism.  I believe that every course has a point, maybe points, where the individual could exercise an option.  The option may be more or less clear.  But no option has guaranteed alternatives.  The natural laws on unforeseen consequences still apply.

The important thing is to be as prepared as possible with rational information.  For instance, politicians rush in regardless of their ability to effect change.  One should keep a jaundiced eye toward their theatrics.  You still have to make the choices.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Do Intellectuals Make Life Any Better?

There’s a path my life could have taken – could still take – toward the life of an intellectual.

I’ve just about always been interested in one or more of the favorite intellectual subjects of philosophy, history, politics, theology, economics, psychology, and sociology (whatever that is). I’ve always liked to have big opinions on things. And I’ve always preferred toying with ideas to toying with numbers or machines.

But I’m beginning to think this is an aptitude worth resisting. It’s not obvious to me that intellectuals as such bring a whole lot of benefit to the world.

Obviously this will be controversial to say.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using a Wikipedia-derived definition:

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking and reading, research, and human self-reflection about society; they may propose solutions for its problems and gain authority as a public figure.”

Let me be clear that I think everyone ought to engage in critical thinking. It’s in the rest of the definition that the problems start to emerge.

Every intellectual is a person who not only has a pet theory about what’s wrong with the world – but who makes it their job to reflect/research on that problem and write about that problem.

When you think about these intellectuals, what do you think of?

My mind wanders to the endless number of think-pieces, essays, and books with takes what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with society, or what’s wrong with intellectuals (that’s right – I’m currently writing a think-piece. Shit.) The history of this produce of intellectualism is an a stream of lazy, simplified pontifications from individuals about things vast and complex, like “society,” “America,” “the working classes,” “the female psyche,” etc. in relation to something even more vast and complex: “human life.”

It’s not that thinking about these things are wrong: it’s that most of the ink spilled about them is probably wasteful. Why?

Because core to the definition of intellectualism defined above is its divorce from action. Intellectuals engage in “reading, research, and human self-reflection,” “propose solutions,” and “gain authority as public figures,” but none of these acts require them to get their hands dirty to test their hypotheses or solve their proposed problems.

The whole “ivory tower” criticism isn’t new, so I won’t belabor the point. But I will point out two consequences of intellectualism’s separation from practical reality.

First, intellectuals don’t often tend to be great people. Morally, I mean. Tolstoy left his wife in a lurch when he gave up his wealth. Marx knocked up one of his servants and then kicked her out of his house. Rousseau abandoned his children. Even Ayn Rand (whom I love) could be accused of being cultlike in her control of her intellectual circle. Those are just the notable ones – it’s fair to say that most of the mediocre “public intellectuals” we have aren’t exactly action heroes. While they may not be especially bad, they aren’t especially good on the whole.

There seems to be some link between a career which rewards abstract thought (without regard for action) and the mediocre or downright bad lifestyle choices of our most famous intellectuals.

The second major problem with intellectuals springs from the fact that nearly everything the intellectual does is intensely self-conscious. Whether it’s a philosopher reflecting on his inability to find love and theorizing about the universe accordingly or an American sociologist writing about the decline of American civilization, the intellectual is reflecting back upon what’s wrong with himself or his culture or his situation constantly, usually in a way that creates a strong sense of mental unease or even anguish.

Have you ever seen an intellectual coming from an obvious place of joy? The social commentators are almost always operating from malaise and malcontent, which almost always arise from a deep self-consciousness.

Of course it’s anyone’s right to start overthinking what’s the matter with the world, and to feel bad as a result. The real problem is that the intellectual insists on making it his job to convince everyone else to share in his self-conscious state of misery, too.

How many Americans would know, believe, or care that “America” or “Western Civilization” was declining if some intellectual hadn’t said so? How many working class people, or women, or men would believe they are “oppressed”? How many humans would be staying up at night asking themselves whether reality is real? Both are utterly foreign to the daily experience of real, commonsense human life. And while the intellectual may draw on real examples in his theories, he’s usually not content to allow for the exceptions and exemptions which are inevitable in a complex world: his intellectual theory trumps experience. The people must *believe* they are oppressed, or unfulfilled, or unenlightened, or ignorant of the “true forms” of this, that, or the other.

I’m wary of big intellectual theories for this reason, and increasingly partial to the view that wisdom comes less from thinking in a dark corner and more from living in the sunshine and the dirt. The real measure of many of these theories is how quickly they are forgotten or dismantled when brought out into daily life.

People who use their intellects to act? The best in the world. But intellectuals who traffic solely in ideas-about-what’s-wrong for their careers? More often than not, they are more miserable and not-very-admirable entertainers than they are net benefactors to the world.

The ability to think philosophically is important. But that skill must be used in the arena. Produce art. Produce inventions. Be kind. Action is the redemption of intellectualism.

Disclaimers

*By “intellectuals,” I don’t mean scientists. On the humanities side, I don’t even mean artists. The problem isn’t artists: it’s art critics. It’s not scientists: it’s people who write about the “state of science.”

There are exceptions to the bad shows among intellectuals, but usually these are the intellectuals who are busy fighting the bad, ideas of other intellectuals: people like Ludwig von Mises fighting the ideas of classical socialism, or . The best ideas to come from people like this are ideas which don’t require people to believe in them.*

And don’t get me wrong: this is as much a mea culpa as a criticism of others. I’ve spent much of my life headed down the path of being an intellectual. I’m starting to realize that it’s a big mistake.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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What You and the Pandemic Virus Have in Common

What can the COVID-19 virus teach us about philosophy?

With any virus – but particularly with an especially infectious one – we get a perfect working metaphor for the relationship between individual actions and society.

Namely: the only thing that spreads as far and as fast as a pandemic are the consequences of your moral actions.

If you contract a virus – say, for instance, the COVID-19 coronavirus – you immediately become a member of a great chain. Someone before you had the virus. Now you have it because of them. And more likely than not, someone else – multiple people, really – will have it because of you. When you become a carrier for a virus, everything you do becomes a potential vector for infecting people. And you alone can infect hundreds or thousands of people if you do things badly enough.

As a member of a chain of infections, though, your contribution to a pandemic can be far worse than just infecting a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people. Those people you infect aren’t just sick because of you – they’re carriers too because of you. They can now infect dozens or hundreds or thousands more.

It is in this way that a single human being – a “patient zero” – can be responsible for infecting hundreds of millions or billions of people.

This viral example brings home the significance not just of personal hygiene but of all personal ethics and personal action. We live in networks and chains, and all of our actions “transmit” something to the people around us. If we transmit fear, that fear “infects” the people around us, then the people around them. If we transmit

These networks are how an abusive father’s actions can lead eventually to mass prison camps, or how a friend’s faithfulness can lead to the defeat of a great tyrant. The content of our actions transmits virally, and at scale it can become something very dangerous and destructive, or beautiful and healing.

Take time during this time of pandemic to reflect on the vast significance of your own actions and your connectedness to others – not just in health, but in everything.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Paul Krugman, COVID-19, and Broken Windows

The jury is still out on which of two things — COVID-19 or the panic over COVID-19 — will cost more lives and do more damage to the global economy. My money’s still on the latter. In the meantime, I’ve developed a surefire, Groundhog Day type test for whether the emergency is over:

Watch for Nobel laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to start trying to convince us it was, all in all, actually a GOOD thing.

Krugman on 9/11: “[T]he direct economic impact of the attacks will probably not be that bad. And there will, potentially, be two favorable effects.”

Krugman on Fukushima: “[T]he nuclear catastrophe could end up being expansionary, if not for Japan then at least for the world as a whole.”

Krugman would even have us believe that Pearl Harbor ended the Great Depression (which actually ended more than half a decade later). “If we suddenly had a threat of war and a military build up,” he once asserted on ABC News’s Roundtable,  “you’d be amazed how fast the economy would recover.”

Krugman is the 21st century’s foremost evangelist of the Broken Window Fallacy.

In Frederic Bastiat’s “parable of the broken window,” a shopkeeper’s son carelessly breaks a window pane.

A witty onlooker — Paul Krugman’s ideological ancestor — considers this a good thing because it creates business for the glazier who replaces broken windows.

As Bastiat points out, though, while the cost of replacing the  pane is seen, other things aren’t:  That was money the shopkeeper could have spent on a new pair of shoes, or on a book he wanted to read.

Instead of buying something that improves his life, the shopkeeper has to spend that money just getting back to his previous condition.

To cover costs like replacing the window, he probably raises prices, meaning his customers have to spend more on his products, leaving them less to spend on other things they might like.

Even the glazier’s customers get screwed. Broken windows increase demand, which means higher prices. The man building a new house has to pay more, and wait longer, for new windows.

The matter is a loss, not a gain, for everyone except the glazier.

Can we expect to see some long-term beneficial consequences from COVID-19 and its associated hysteria? Yes.

Two likely outcomes are large, permanent increases in “telecommuting” (working from home instead of traveling to an office) and “distance learning” (taking classes from home instead of traveling to a university campus).

Those two trends were already noticeable, but fear of contagion is boosting them tremendously. When the fear subsides, the benefits will be remembered. Not as many people will be returning to offices and campuses as left them. That means lighter traffic, lower energy consumption, and more spare time for many workers and students.

Those are good things, but we could have had them any time we wanted them, with or without COVID-19 and the associated mass hysteria. Contra Krugman, any “bright side” to catastrophe costs more than it’s worth.

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Panic Not a Good Survival Strategy

Here comes Coronavirus; the threat of the month.

How scared are you? How scared should I be? I’m not scared or even worried.

When Coronavirus hit the news I did some research on it at some reputable, non-sensationalist medical websites and decided it wasn’t anything to hyperventilate over. In fact, they classified it not as influenza, but as a cold virus. A virus everyone will come down with at some point during our lives. This variety may be worse than the usual strains, but I’m not going to freak out.

I’ve been around long enough to see scare after scare come to nothing.

The Y2K thing fizzled, Ebola dropped from the news, and Hillary wasn’t elected president. Life on planet Earth goes on pretty much the way it has — but with more robots, rockets, and batteries.

There are still looming shadows on the horizon: human-caused climate disaster, failure of the power grid, a robot apocalypse, and more. These are all things people can panic over. Then they can make foolish decisions because of the panic. Foolish decisions such as saying “There ought to be a law.” Decisions that will have worse consequences for more people than the original threat — a threat that may be real or may be a figment of the imagination.

Someday a real pandemic or widespread disaster will happen … and be worse than we were warned it would be. Won’t I look silly, then? But so far, not allowing myself to be panicked has worked out well.

Do you really want to spend your life bouncing from one threat of disaster to the next, or are you willing to learn from the past?

Sure, there are occasional school shootings, impaired drivers, disease, and other human tragedies. That’s life. But the track record of global doom and gloom scenarios should inspire optimism if you’re paying attention.

It can be fun and exciting to prepare for the worst-case scenario. I do it, too — in ways more fun than frightening. Panic is not a good survival strategy, even if something bad is going to happen. A panicked person doesn’t think straight or behave rationally. They are more likely to make fatal mistakes.

Don’t let anyone cause you to panic … unless panicking is what you want to do.

In that case, I won’t try to stop you, but please don’t allow your panic to affect my life, liberty, or property, or that of my friends and family.

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