Including the Renegade

In the last six months, I’ve found myself stuck in two separate Sermons on Inclusion.  These were public events.  Neither was branded as left-wing.  Both, however, gave the floor to speakers who explained the supreme value of making everyone feel included in the community.

In each case, my mid-sermon reaction was the same: “I don’t think I’ve ever before felt so excluded in all my life.”

Why would I react so negatively?  It’s not because I disagree with the one-sentence summary of the sermons.  Sure, be friendly to people.  Make them feel welcome.  It’s common decency.  So what’s the problem?

I’m tempted to blame the glaring hypocrisy.  It was obvious that the speakers had zero interest in making Republicans, conservatives, macho males, traditional Christians, veterans, or economists feel included.  In fact, the Sermons on Inclusion were full of thinly-veiled accusations against members of these groups.

Yet on reflection, glaring hypocrisy is too ubiquitous in life to explain why I personally felt so excluded by the Sermons on Inclusion.

The real reason I felt so excluded was that the preachers of both Sermons on Inclusion spoke as if human beings naturally value their cultural heritage.  Frankly, I usually don’t.  I don’t value my religious heritage.  My mother was Catholic, and I was raised Catholic.  But I deem the religion false and don’t care about it.  My don’t value my ethnic heritage.  My mother was Irish, my father was Jewish, but neither identity matters to me.  I don’t support Ireland or Israel… or any other country for that matter.  My parents raised me to be an American nationalist; my schools taught me about the wonders of democracy.  But in all honesty, the only institution I really believe in is business.

So what am I?  A renegade.  And I’m not alone.  Lots of people turn their backs on the religion of their birth.  Lots of people never feel – or lose interest in – their ethnic heritage.  Lots of people dissent from “their” political culture.  Cultural loyalists may call them traitors, sell-outs, self-haters, or gusanos.  Yet despite our cosmic diversity, we renegades have one thing in common: We refuse to be ruled by the circumstances of our birth.  And any sincere Sermon on Inclusion ought to acknowledge our existence and outlook.

Unfortunately, this omission is hard to correct.  Why?  Because one of the main goals of Sermons on Inclusion is to foster group pride, and the existence of renegades is an affront to group pride.  You can’t favorably discuss the assimilated Irish without tacitly snubbing people who cherish their Irish identity.  You can’t people who leave Orthodox Judaism without tacitly snubbing Orthodox Jews.  Et cetera.

But don’t Sermons on Inclusion lionize some renegades, like anti-war veterans or the transgendered?  Sure.  But since the the Sermons barely acknowledge the existence of these renegades’ groups of origin, there’s little tension.  It’s easy to welcome renegades from group X if your default is to exclude typical members of group X.

Are efforts to promote inclusion therefore self-defeating?  Not if you’re careful, because actions speak louder than words.  As I’ve argued before, the best way to make people feel included is just to be friendly and welcoming.  Sermons divide us.  Common decency brings us together.

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We Wanted Tech

“We wanted workers, but we got people instead.”  This line from Max Frisch didn’t just give George Borjas the title of his most recent book.  At last Friday’s immigration conference in St. Cloud, Borjas declared it his all-time favorite immigration epiphany.  The point, he explained, is that immigrants aren’t just machines that produce stuff; they have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.

Borjas is right, of course.  In fact, he doesn’t go far enough.  After all, even machines aren’t just machines that produce stuff.  They too have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.  If you look closely at any major technological development, you can justly say, “We wanted tech, but we changed society instead.”

Consider cellphones.  When they were first introduced, you might picture them as more convenient phonebooths.  But they’ve revolutionized not only our society, but our psychology.  Many human beings now interact with their phones more than they interact with fellow human beings; go to any public place and you will see this to be true.  Even when we are talking to fellow human beings, cellphones have changed the tone and tenor of our conversations.  When I casually chat with my friends, for example, we often fact check each others’ assertions.  And cellphones are crucial for social media, which has dramatically swayed not only public discourse, but elections and policy.  Without Twitter, would Donald Trump’s candidacy even have been able to get off the ground?

When driverless cars come, they’ll disrupt our whole society again.  Commuting time will plausibly skyrocket, especially in high-rent areas.  If you can relax – or even sleep – in your car, why pay $1M for a tiny apartment downtown?  Indeed, once you get rid of the driver’s seat, we’ll probably turn cars into small motorhomes, so “living out of your car” could become an alternative lifestyle rather than a tale of woe.  And what will happen to all the truck drivers, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, and delivery drivers?

Still not convinced?  I trust you’ll admit that nuclear technology did more to the world than slash electric bills.

Verily, we wanted tech, but we changed society instead.

How should you react to this truism?  You could say, “Duh, everybody knows this already.”  That’s my knee-jerk reaction to Frisch’s quote, too.  But both “duhs” are too dismissive.  “Obvious once you think about it”≠”Obvious.”

What else is there to say?

1. You could retreat to agnosticism.  “Well, there are direct economic benefits, plus an array of intangible social effects.  We don’t know how to measure these intangibles; we don’t even know if they’re good or bad.”  This is basically what Borjas said about immigration in his Friday talk.  There’s no reason we couldn’t generalize it.

Reaction: Philosophically, agnosticism of any kind is incoherent sophistry.  We always have some information.  We can and should combine this information with common sense to form reasonable guesses about whatever question is on our minds.  Crucially, “information” includes psychological evidence about the errors to which the human mind is prone.  And one of the best ways to keep your guesses reasonable is openness to bets.

2. You could start by measuring the direct benefits, then see if any of the broader social negatives are plausibly in the same ballpark.  If not, the standard conclusion still goes through despite the complexity of the world.

Reaction: Once you factor in the value of time, this is typically the best approach for laymen.  It’s a quick way to resolve a wide range of policy disputes, especially if you embrace some version of weak deontology rather than consequentialism.

3. You could try a lot harder to study the measurement of so-called “intangibles.”  This might require a massive research program to fill in the enormous gaps in our knowledge.  Or perhaps if you play around on Google Scholar, you’ll discover that many researchers have already measured the stuff you imagine “no one knows.”

Reaction: This is the best approach for experts.  If you do good work and/or publicize it, you also help laymen reach the truth with modest mental effort.  So earn your paycheck!

Whatever you conclude, know that immigration is nothing special.  Everything has broader social effects.  These complexities are no reason to defer to popular prejudice, which is what I suspect Borjas hopes we’ll do.  Instead, these complexities are a reason to think broader and work harder to get the best answers we can.

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“Toxic Masculinity” is Propaganda

The term masculinity is supposed to refer to cultural trends within sex that influence behavior, not the actual behavior. Since we live in an incredibly complex and diverse society with many subcultures, trying to define what exactly our society promotes as masculine is ambiguous. What someone would anticipate of my behavior based off of my sex is widely different in various parts of our culture.

This doesn’t even comment on the word toxic. The word toxic should never be used in social sciences. Social sciences should remain descriptive. For example, the Austrian school doesn’t prescribe libertarianism, and it doesn’t say anything is bad or good … it is valueless. Of course, most fans of Austrian economics are libertarians because they like people and they believes libertarianism is good for people based off of their ideas in Austrian economics. However, someone could be a communist tyrant and fully comprehend and believe in Austrian economics … they’d just have to hate people.

The term toxic masculinity is a shit term that is only useable as propaganda. The fact that each word in the term is so rich in content but people don’t tend to define it shows that it is used as propaganda, and the term is being predominantly used by people claiming to be social scientists but are really just propagandists.

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The FDA’s Assault on Tobacco Consumers

We’ve all heard horror stories about the run-amok regulatory state. Enabled by open-ended statutes passed by Congress and signed by presidents, regulatory agencies have acquired virtual carte blanche to write rules governing peaceful behavior. Even when a seemingly narrow purpose has been set out, regulatory rule-making has engaged in mission-creep with alarming frequency.

Here’s an example that gets little attention because it directly impinges on the freedom of only a small number of Americans. For the last 10 years the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been writing draconian rules governing the makers and sellers of cigars, smokeless tobacco, pipe tobacco, and even the pipes themselves (which of course are not made from tobacco) in what appears to be part of an effort aimed indirectly at eradicating these products from the marketplace. The fanatical campaign, reminiscent of America’s earlier campaign to prohibit alcoholic beverages, ought to concern everyone, including nonsmokers, because if it succeeds, other products could well be targeted on the grounds of public health. It is not just tobacco users who need to worry about the regulatory state’s tactics.

The assault on all forms of tobacco use, as well as the use of vaping devices, or e-cigarettes, which don’t use tobacco, is defended on public-health grounds, but we must not be fooled by this appeal. As Thomas Szasz showed throughout his career as the top critic of what he dubbed the “therapeutic state,” this assault is moral, cultural, and political, not scientific or medical. The anti-tobacco campaigners are not content merely with providing useful information, leaving people free to use it and the products as they wish. Instead, they support the use of state force to achieve their objectives; their advocacy of force is aimed not only at ostensibly protecting other people from smokers (which could be accomplished through contract and other consensual practices), but ostensibly at protecting smokers from themselves. (I should say “ourselves” because I’ve been a devout pipe smoker for over half a century.) Medical science can tell you what may happen to your body if you ingest a substance, but it cannot reasonably assert that in light of that information the state ought to prohibit or penalize the use of that substance. A physician qua physician has no special qualification to counsel when the use of force by the state or anyone else is justifiable.

Before describing the insidious campaign now underway (which will span a few of these columns), I want to establish a badly overlooked fact. The anti-smoking, or more generally, anti-tobacco, or more generally still, anti-nicotine campaign assumes that use of the relevant products entails costs but no benefits to “society.” Of course, that cannot be correct. How do we know? We know this because individuals choose to consume the products; what’s more, they pay money (that is, they give up something of value) to do so. If consumers received no subjective benefit from the products, they would not buy or consume them. Lots of people have quit consuming them after deciding that the benefits outweighed the costs to them.

Among the benefits, which people of many cultures have enjoyed for centuries, are the well-known pleasant and useful effects of nicotine (as an aid to relaxation and concentration) and the palate-pleasing nature of the tobacco leaf. That those benefits can’t be quantified is no good reason to pretend that they do not exist. If tobacco products could effectively be banished (which they can’t be because of the robustness of black markets), the people who now enjoy them would be less well off in their own eyes; that is, the quality of their lives would be diminished. Why don’t those individuals count in the public-policy discussion? Are they lesser persons?

The campaign against tobacco and its consumers goes back several decades, but in 2009 it took a giant leap. In that year Congress and President Barack Obama enacted the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the statute empowering the FDA to regulate whatever it deems “tobacco products.” Later, we will see why the word deems is so important. That authority would be given to the FDA should seem odd since tobacco is neither a food nor a drug in the pharmaceutical sense; people don’t eat it or treat (real or imagined) illnesses with it. (Recreational drugs are under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency — unfortunately.) If the issue were consumer welfare, establishment types might have wanted the authority given to the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Federal Trade Commission. So why should the FDA have anything to do with tobacco? The answer lies in Szasz’s term the therapeutic state. The government can claim plenary power over virtually any peaceful behavior simply by claiming that the public’s health is at stake.

At any rate, the word family in the name of the legislation is meant to suggest that the goal of the legislation is to keep children from becoming cigarette smokers, a worthy goal if pursued without the help of government. The first “finding” listed in the act is this: “The use of tobacco products by the Nation’s children is a pediatric disease of considerable proportions that results in new generations of tobacco-dependent children and adults.” (We’ll leave aside the Szaszian question of how the use of a product can be a disease. Behavior may lead to a disease, but it is not in itself a disease.)

While we can stipulate that smoking cigarettes constitutes a personal health risk (as many other legal things do), we may reasonably doubt that children are all that the bill’s supporters have in mind. Children are unlikely customers for premium cigars, tobacco pipes, and premium pipe tobacco, which are not within a typical child’s means. (Government campaigns to keep children from doing something will likely be undercut by the forbidden-fruit phenomenon: if the government thinks an activity or substance is that much fun, then it must be tried. Better leave such matters to families and voluntary associations.) Thus, it is hard not to see the act as part of the larger campaign to rid America of tobacco and non-tobacco nicotine products. Through this lens, the FDA’s actions since 2009 have a certain logic, but it is a logic that is inimical to individual liberty and responsibility. We’ll explore other features of the anti-tobacco campaign in future columns.

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America’s War Culture

For most of the opinion-making class in America today, war is the default position. Representatives of establishment newspapers and TV news operations are not likely to grill someone who favors U.S. military intervention somewhere — anywhere. He or she will have no burden of proof to sustain. But those who oppose a new war or call for an end to an existing one are sure to be treated like oddballs if not traitors. They’d better have an extraordinarily strong defense of their position because the burden of proof will be squarely on them; even a strong defense, however, won’t get the heat turned down.

Need I point out that a presumption in favor of war is toxic to a society that fancies itself free and humane? Continuing wars and readiness to intervene anywhere in the world costs money and, worse, lives. A war state cannot long coexist with strict limitations on government power and spending. Moreover, it impedes people without influence from prospering because military spending diverts resources from consumer investment and production to weapons and other things irrelevant to consumer welfare.

Let’s face it, empire is bloody expensive.

So why the presumption in favor of war? (The general population is split, but opinion seems driven by partisanship and therefore is subject to opportunistic shifts, Glenn Greenwald writes.) Part of the answer simply is Trump Derangement Syndrome. Trump has occasionally talked peace since his presidential campaign began, and therefore his opponents apparently feel they have to favor war. Whatever Trump wants, they want the opposite, even if it is something they once may have favored.

While he has pushed obscenely large increases in Pentagon spending — increases that dwarf Russia’s entire military budget — rattled his saber at Iran, and made aggressive moves in Russia’s direction (arms for Ukraine’s government, withdrawal from the INF treaty, sanctions, etc.), he has also made some welcome overtures toward retrenchment, most notably with North Korea, now Syria, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. (What’s the point of cutting the U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan merely in half?)

Alas, any overture toward peace has prompted most of the pundit class and most politicians to unload on Trump. He has been accused of being a traitor or Russian agent just for talking about exiting a senseless war. His decision to get out of Syria — although many times he said would get out — was described as sudden and erratic, not to mention as a payoff to Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen says Putin wants the small and uninvited U.S. force to stay in Syria as a partner in the battle against terrorism.)

Of course, we can’t be confident that Trump will follow through on Syria or other pro-peace initiatives — he can’t help equivocating — but we surely ought to be encouraging him to do so. The pundits and politicians, in contrast, apparently see their role in discouraging him by portraying him as disloyal, loopy, or both whenever he talks peace. The lethal attack on Americans in Syria the other day was immediately used to pressure Trump into changing his mind about withdrawing. It hasn’t occurred to the war class that the troops would not have been killed had they been removed.

When a news interviewer gets push-back from a guest who supports a Trump peace move, the interviewer typically switches gears: “But do you approve of how Trump is going about it?” No word on behalf of scaling back the war state is allowed go unchallenged. If a mainstream media representative can’t score a point against a proposal to get out of a war, he’ll go after the “process.” Overlooked is the fact that Barack Obama intervened in Syria in defiance of both Congress and the American public. When has that process been challenged by the intelligentsia?

Speaking of process, the media delight in going after Trump for not meekly deferring to allies and generals, apparently forgetting that the U.S. government is supposed to be run by elected civilians, with the military strictly subordinate. The pundits cheer whenever a war-mongering military officer or national security appointee publicly undercuts Trump’s declared intention to withdraw from or avoid a war.

The media also delight in impugning the sanity, character, or “loyalty” of the rare public figure who favors a Trump peace overture. Opponents of intervention are routinely smeared as sympathizers of whoever rules the country in question, as though it followed that if you don’t like a country’s ruler, you logically ought to favor obliterating his country. In this video, Glenn Greenwald reminds us that those who objected to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Libya were accused of being soft on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

To see the presumption of war in action, watch this recent exchange (beginning at 1:12) between CNN’s Jake Tapper and Sen. Rand Paul, who has applauded Trump’s announcement about Syria.

Tapper says: “I do want to ask you one philosophical point and I don’t want you to think I’m being rude here, but I’m just wondering, in the last 20 years is there any act of U.S. intervention with military force abroad that you support?” The implication here is that unless Paul has supported at least one war, his support for an end to U.S. intervention in Syria is suspect.

I wish Paul had turned the question around and said, “Jake, let me ask you this: is there any U.S. war in the last 20 years that you opposed?”

Instead, Paul told Tapper he supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, though he was not in Congress at the time. That’s too bad of course, but to his credit, Paul reminded Tapper that subsequent interventions have no authority under the resolution passed by Congress with respect to Afghanistan. He also added that he opposed nation-building in Afghanistan: “I would have declared victory and come home long ago.” He also schooled Tapper on the fact that as long as the U.S. military is present in Muslim hands, terrorism will be a risk.

Finally, Paul pointed out that withdrawal from Syria would not reduce the U.S. government’s ability to intervene one iota because it has military forces ready to pounce everywhere.

True, but that’s part of the problem.

Advocates of peace and liberty have no nobler mission than to overturn the presumption in favor of war.

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Reflections from my Panama Cruise, I

I just returned from my Panama Canal cruise.  Reflections:

1. As I’ve mentioned before, cruises are in one sense a great test case for open borders.  Workers from all over the world come together to run one some of the world’s most sophisticated technology and please some of the world’s most demanding customers.  Most of the workers’ lives are harsh by First World standards but great by Third World standards.  And wherever they’re from, the staff work together like Prussian officers.  It’s a marvel of multinational management.

2. As I’ve also mentioned, though, the entire cruise industry also depends on immigration restrictions.  Cruising is affordable because labor costs are very low by First World standards.  Under open borders, these well-trained, highly motivated maritime workers would take advantage of the far better job opportunities available on dry land, drastically raising the price of cruising.

3. If you’ve ever wondered if capitalism is turning human beings into machines, taking a cruise will feed your fears.  The cabin stewards, for example, spend 10-12 hours a day making every room on their watch spotless.  Then they disappear into the lightness belly of the ship, re-emerging the next day to begin their duties again.  An occasional shore leave aside, they work seven days a week.

4. If you’ve ever wondered if cosmopolitanism can really function, taking a cruise will feed your hope.  Filipinos, Mexicans, Ukrainians, Romanians, Jamaicans, Chinese, Brazilians, and dozens of other nationalities don’t just “get along.”  They show more team spirit than any American workforce I’ve seen.

5. Modern American politics vanish on a cruise ship.  There’s zero social justice rhetoric or attitude to be found; passengers and crew all take severe inequality for granted.  You might think that’s because the customers are demographically Republican, but there’s also zero nativist rhetoric or attitude to be found.  Elderly American Republican guests interact amicably with foreigners of every description.  There’s no sign that they’re “making an effort” to overcome their xenophobia; they just apolitically accept the cosmopolitan world that surrounds them.  The cruise culture runs on good manners and shared humanity, not identity politics.  And yes, you really can turn the identity volume dial close to zero – which is where it belongs.

6. What does the crew think about global development in general, or immigration restrictions in particular?  I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I didn’t ask… but their actions speak louder than words.  I’d guess that 90% of the workers originate from the Third World.  The fact that they’ve left their home countries behind to serve spoiled First Worlders is a deafening vote of no confidence in their societies of birth.  And when I see the this massive ship running like clockwork, it’s easy to see the wisdom of their decision.  Business isn’t perfect, but it far more deserving of their admiration and loyalty than the demagogic governments they’ve left behind.

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