Don’t Start a Movement

I used to believe that making a big impact on the world required a movement. I thought you had to get a bunch of people to believe certain things, and get those people to get more people and so on.

I don’t like movements anymore. In fact, I like the opposite of movements.

Think about the iPhone, or Apple in general. No movement existed or was needed to make them change the way the world interacts with technology. Sure, there are pockets of True Believer Apple fans, but what actually moves the market isn’t a Movement, but a great product. They just solve a problem and create value for individual customers. Really well.

Wal-Mart’s an even better example. There are no fanboys or fangirls. In fact, there are many movements that exist for the sole purpose of disparaging or destroying Wal-Mart. Yet Wal-Mart is here, and has done more to raise the standard of living across America than every movement combined. They just solve a problem and create value for individual customers. Really well.

Movements are exhausting, and inevitably degrade to inward-looking, ingrown, inbred, inner-circle posturing and purging. They are self-righteous and generally annoying.

Things that actually move the world in a positive direction relentlessly focus on making something that makes someone’s life better every day, offering it to them to accept or refuse, and adjusting to what people choose.

I want to create products and experiences that make people’s lives better, as evidenced by the fact that they willingly part with their resources to obtain it, whether or not they know what they are a part of philosophically.

Adam Smith’s great insight was that we didn’t get our meat from the benevolence of the butcher, but by his regard to his self-interest. Yet lover and haters of Smith alike spend so much time appealing to benevolence, instead of creating stuff that makes it in our self-interest to engage.

I don’t want fans. I want customers. I want to make total stranger’s lives better, not just rally a mob.

I don’t want a movement, I want to move the world.

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Two Cheers for Denver: Let’s End the War on Unapproved States of Consciousness

On May 7, voters in Denver, Colorado narrowly approved a measure de-criminalizing “magic mushrooms” — mushrooms containing the consciousness-altering compound psilocybin. The measure, National Public Radio reports, “effectively bars the city from prosecuting or arresting adults 21 or older who possess them. In the ballot language, adults can even grow the fungus for personal use and be considered a low priority for Denver police.”

Those are both great things. A third great thing would have been an order to Denver’s police to simply ignore “magic mushrooms” altogether, effectively legalizing sale of the fungi as well (assuming there would be much of a market for something that’s easily found “in the wild,” growing on everything from rotting wood to cow patties) . But hey, two out of three ain’t bad. Yay, Denver.

The political justification for this measure (and others like it pending in other polities) is the growing evidence that psilocybin can be useful in treating depression, anxiety, and migraines. How many have needlessly suffered due to the research delays caused by its illegalization?

The practical justification for complete legalization of psilocybin (and all other drugs) is that humans have sought altered states of consciousness for as long as we’ve been humans and are always going to, no matter how many are imprisoned or killed for it. Psilocybin use goes back at least 6,000 years (per prehistoric cave art depictions of its use) and some even plausibly theorize that it was the biblical “manna” consumed by the Hebrews as they wandered the desert for 40 years.

The moral justification for complete legalization (and all other drugs) is that what you put in your body, and for what purpose, is your business and no one else’s.

Alcohol prohibition and the century-long “war on drugs” are proof that it’s impossible to imprison enough people to change that fact of human nature. In fact, the world’s drug warriors haven’t even been able to keep drugs out of prison itself! How, then, do they hope to eliminate drugs from society at large? And why should we allow them to continue trying? The “war on drugs” is completely immoral, not to mention insanely expensive both financially and in terms of the effects it has on our communities.

This is not a complicated issue:

Don’t want to eat magic mushrooms? Don’t eat magic mushrooms then.

Don’t want to smoke cannabis? Politely decline the joint when it’s offered.

Don’t want to drink a beer? Order a nice frosty mug of root beer instead.

Don’t want OTHER people to eat magic mushrooms, smoke cannabis, or drink beer? Learn to mind your own business instead of asking politicians to bust heads because you won’t. Problem solved.

Yes, it really is that simple. Thanks again, Denver.

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“SPD”- Statist Personality Disorder

I’m seeing more and more evidence that statism is more than a quirk; it’s a full-fledged mental disorder.

It will never be officially recognized as such, of course, because most of those who with the power to recognize it also suffer from it. And they aren’t likely to recognize their own mental illness as a mental illness, or admit it is even if they realize it.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it is one.

Statist Personality Disorder shares a lot of characteristics with Narcissistic Personality Disorder– maybe it’s a subcategory. There also seems to be a lot of neuroticism mixed in.

It’s self-centered and self-important; scared and cruel.

It’s the temperamental spoiled toddler and the overbearing parent.

Evil claiming to be goodness.

Greed pretending to be generosity.

Insanity posing as reasonableness.

I have no respect for those who exhibit signs of Statist Personality Disorder.

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On Obstruction, the Mueller Report is Clintonesque

On April 18, US Attorney William Barr released Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the probe into “Russian meddling” in the 2016 presidential election. The report cleared President Donald Trump and his campaign team of allegations that they conspired with the Russian government in that meddling. But on the question of “obstruction of justice,” Mueller punted in an eerily familiar way.

Return with me briefly to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Specifically, July 5, 2016. As I wrote then:

“FBI director James Comey spoke 2,341 words explaining his decision not to recommend criminal charges over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to transmit, receive and store classified information during her tenure as US Secretary of State. He could have named that tune in four words: ‘Because she’s Hillary Clinton.’ Comey left no doubt whatsoever that Clinton and her staff broke the law …”

Mueller’s report likewise cites evidence of multiple attempts by the president to obstruct his investigation. “[T]he President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” he writes. “These actions ranged from efforts to remove the Special Counsel and to reverse the effect of the Attorney General’s recusal; to the attempted use of official power to limit the scope of the investigation; to direct and indirect contacts with witnesses with the potential to influence their testimony.”

But before the evidence, the punt: “[W]e determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has issued an opinion finding that ‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions’ in violation of ‘the constitutional separation of powers.’”

Translation: Anyone else who did what Donald Trump did would find himself buried under obstruction of justice charges. But Donald Trump is the President of the United States.

The difference between Comey’s treatment of Clinton and Mueller’s treatment of Trump is that Clinton’s immunity to laws meant for mere mortals was unofficial — based on her prominence as a ranking member of the political class — while Trump’s similar immunity is a formal function of his holding a particular office.

Did Trump “obstruct justice?” I’m no lawyer, but Mueller’s report indicates that Trump abused his power to attempt to impede the investigation. That sounds like obstruction to me.

Does it matter that the investigators found no underlying crime after overcoming the obstructions? Some people think so. I don’t.

If you were accused of a “missing body” murder you didn’t commit, and asked someone to give you a false alibi (because you were actually in bed with someone other than your spouse and didn’t want THAT known), or gave a false tip to the police, you’d face charges independent of the underlying crime even if the supposed victim turned up alive.

Why? Because (in theory at least) a criminal investigation pursues the truth of the matter, not just a particular suspect or verdict.

Trump’s conduct was aimed at frustrating that pursuit of truth. Immune or not, that’s wrong.

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Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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What If You Killed the What-Ifs?

I was talking to a friend this morning who was in a bad place. He’d forgotten to do some work over the weekend, and he wondered how to handle the inevitable let down when his supervisor found out.

He asked what he should do. I asked what his options were.

He said there were two. He could try to fake that he’d done the work and do a terrible job on his deliverables. Or he could preemptively fess up, say sorry, and ask how best to make it up this week.

I said option two sounded like it had a higher probability of limiting the damage than option one.

He responded with a series of ‘What ifs’. He was imagining all the bad things that might happen. I said okay, what about option one? Same what ifs.

I asked him if he could control what the supervisor did in response to whatever approach he chose. He said no. I said, “Then forget the what ifs. They are irrelevant. They’ll happen regardless. Focus on what you can control and pick the course of action with the highest probability for the least painful outcome. Then stop thinking about it.”

He felt paralyzed by the what ifs. Stressing over eventualities he couldn’t control froze his decision making process. He was going to default to option one, not because he thought it was better, but because he never had time to think clearly and choose due to all the worry about what might happen two steps down the road.

Kill the what ifs. Take the step in front of you based on the best evidence you have. See what happens. Take in the feedback. Adjust. Choose the next step.

That’s it. It really is that simple. But it’s hard. We worry a lot about many things out of our control, or only potentially in our control in the future based on a series of responses out of our control.

If you want less stress, think about fewer things. But think about them well.

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