Are You Properly Enjoying Your Wealth?

I know what you’re thinking.

“I’m not wealthy. This blog post isn’t for me.”

Actually, it is. Historically speaking, you are one of the wealthiest individuals who has ever lived.

It takes relatively little effort to provide for your own really essential needs: food, water, shelter, clothing. Setting aside people who feel the need to give their kids or spouses lots of unnecessary doodads, vacations, etc, the “bare necessities of life” have never been cheaper, particularly if you live in the West. A small amount of labor can keep us alive – anything over that is just bonus.

But how many of us really appreciate or enjoy the freedom that comes with that wealth?

Commutes, 9 to 5 commitments, and inflexible job-centric living suck away most of our days. We spend the best parts – the sunny parts – inside. We plan to be tied down. We force ourselves to tolerate things and people we don’t enjoy. We worry about the opinions of those people. And we never quite experience the full fruits of the freedom we have.

I’ve been seeing some of that freedom as I’ve experienced voluntary unemployment. I feel rich – particularly in time. If I want to go browse an outdoors store or stock up on books from Goodwill, I just do (I did today). I don’t care if it’s 1 PM. I don’t have to worry about being at somebody’s desk. If I want to go to the cemetery and read a book in the sunshine, I can (I did that today, too).

I’m already doing hunting-gathering for income sources, so I’ll be adding some constraints back to my life soon. But just having this brief space of time is useful. Having full possession of my time now is showing me how I want to feel even when I don’t have all my time to myself. I want to feel as wealthy as I am in fact.

What about you?

Are you savoring that many of life’s best things (nature, time with friends, books) are free or cheap?

Are you savoring the time you save from not having to work all that much?

Are you savoring the fact that you can go anywhere you want anytime you want?

Are you savoring your freedom?

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Don’t Scare Kids with Political Fears

I remember the panic I felt about tornado warnings as a child. It didn’t matter whether my family was in danger; I wasn’t informed enough to know whether we were. I didn’t understand that worry isn’t helpful, and I wasn’t able to change things. There was nothing meaningful I could do.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard of local children scared that World War III had begun. They’ve overheard adults talking about it and were worried. I did my best to explain things and calm the fears of one kid; hopeful that she’d calm her friends.

It would be great if adults would stop acting like scared children; overreacting about politics, science, and other things they don’t understand as well as they imagine they do.

This pattern repeats both locally and on a global scale.

In recent months an angry Swedish teen gained attention because she believes the planet is being destroyed by carbon dioxide. She’s scared … and she blames you.

All because she has been shown one side of a debate by people who don’t want dissent. Their political agenda — their power and position — depends on the narrative going a particular way. She is being used as their political pawn.

I’m not even claiming she’s necessarily wrong. Regardless of what you’ve been told, no one knows. Climate predictions about the long-term are not much better than a guess. But the way she has been frightened and used is wrong without question. Do you really want to ruin a young person’s life based on speculation?

Political events may even be worse. To pretend you know for certain that one politician having another politician killed is going to cause a world war — and scaring children with this kind of talk — is irresponsible. Or worse.

If you want to worry, go ahead. But to scare kids with this kind of thing isn’t right.

I’m not saying to keep them ignorant. You can discuss the facts without sharing scary doomsday conclusions.

It’s different to educate a kid on the dangers of getting into a stranger’s car. They have control over this. None of us can save or destroy the planet, and politicians are going to do what politicians do. In fact, you can’t be certain which path results in destruction and which one comes out better in the long run. You can guess. You can apply your beliefs. But you can’t know.

To scare children over things no one can know for certain is child abuse.

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The Fatal Weakness of the God of Cynicism

We live in a culture of overpowering cynicism.

We assume the media is bending truth. We assume people won’t speak their full minds to our faces. We assume companies, organizations, and governments will try to pull one over on us. We assume love, friendship, and honor are hollow ideals.

As products of this overpowering cynicism, we tend to view sincerity as impractical. And so we hardly ever encounter it.

It would be reasonable to view the rarity of sincerity as evidence of its weakness. That would be a mistake. To a culture of overpowering cynicism, sincerity is now rare enough to have the strategic advantage of being a surprise.

To tell the truth at risk to your own reputation? To celebrate virtue? To say what you think to someone’s face? No one expects this behavior anymore, and so it is unsettling and difficult to counter.

If you set yourself against a cynical society, your sincerity can be a great advantage.

This relentlessly sincerity can’t be born of naivete. It has to look cynicism straight in the eye and know it. It has to be a sincerity “in spite of” – in spite of the cost of doubt, in spite of excuses, in spite of accusation, in spite of mockery, and in spite of the fact that cynicism is a “safer” and more “realistic” option.

No one will know what to do with a sincerity like that. A sincerity that can persist despite a culture of cynicism unsettles that culture of cynicism. It’s what might start to change things.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Trump versus Iran: Power Doesn’t Just Corrupt, it Deludes

On January 8, US president Donald Trump addressed the American public concerning a casualty-free Iranian missile attack on US bases in Iraq, where just last week Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike.

If the speech was remarkable in any way, it was for the comparative restraint Trump displayed: Rather than pledging another round of tit-for-tat, he announced new sanctions on Iran, vowed that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” called on NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process,” and rambled aimlessly about the “Iran nuclear deal” that his administration abrogated in 2018.

What was unremarkable — and unfortunate — in the speech was the obvious assumption underlying it: That the United States enjoys, and SHOULD enjoy, absolute power in international relations.

Trump is hardly unique in publicly stating, or in operating on, that assumption. The claim of such absolute power has been the tacit US doctrine of foreign relations since at least as far back as the end of World War Two.

America emerged from that war as the world’s sole nuclear power and, unlike other combatant countries, with its wealth virtually unscathed and its industrial capacity increased rather than demolished. Its rulers saw themselves as able, and entitled, to dictate terms to almost everyone, on almost everything.

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton was referring to individuals (“great men are almost always bad men”), but his observation is just as true of institutions. And above and beyond corruption, absolute power creates delusion.

The post-war “consensus” on American power around the world began to fray almost immediately.

The Soviet Union acquired “the bomb” and settled in for half a century of dominating eastern Europe.

The US found itself fought to a draw in Korea and defeated in Vietnam when it tried to throw its newfound weight around.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the US learned that Michael Ledeen’s re-formulation of the doctrine — “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” — tends toward big price tags and negative returns.

Yet the delusion persists. It substitutes hubris for humility, sacrificing the blood and treasure of Americans and foreigners alike on the altar of a false god and in pursuit of an imaginary paradise.

The foreign policy recommended by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address —  “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” — was, and remains, the common-sense alternative to the nonsensical assumption of absolute American power.

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The Soleimani Assassination: Worse Than a Crime, a Mistake

In March of 1804, French dragoons secretly crossed the Rhine into the German Margraviate of Baden. Acting on orders from Napoleon himself, they kidnapped Louis Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Enghien. After a hastily convened court-martial on charges of bearing arms against France, the duke was shot.

“C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute,” a French official (supposedly, but probably not, Talleyrand) said of the duke’s execution: “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”

That terse evaluation came immediately to mind when news broke of a January 3 US drone strike at Baghdad International Airport.  Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ “Quds Force,” and nine others, died in the attack. US president Donald Trump claimed responsibility for ordering the strike and has subsequently defended that decision.

The duke’s execution outraged Europe’s aristocrats, and in particular brought Russia’s Alexander I to the conclusion that Napoleon’s power must be checked. The international reverberations created by Soleimani’s assassination are already shaping up in similar fashion.

Yes, Iran’s government is outraged and vows revenge, but that’s not surprising. It would be hard for US-Iran relations to get much worse short of all-out war.

Five of those killed in the strike were Iraqi military personnel from the country’s Popular Mobilization Forces, including their deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Iraq’s outgoing prime minister denounced the strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and  of the US/Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. The speaker of the country’s parliament vowed to “put an end to US presence” in Iraq. Powerful Shiite religious and political figure Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia forces bedeviled the US occupation after the 2003 invasion, is re-mobilizing those forces to “defend Iraq.”

NATO, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and several leaders of regimes putatively allied with the United States have likewise responded negatively to Soleimani’s assassination.

Trump’s order wasn’t even remotely legal, according to Hoyle, under US law or the 400-year international order since the Peace of Westphalia.

The attack occurred without congressional approval or even notification, let alone the declaration of war that the ever-deteriorating US Constitution requires. Unfortunately, while Congress perpetually rumbles discontent over such things, it’s likely to continue enabling, rather than punish and rein in, such abuses of presidential power.

The attack occurred on the supposedly sovereign soil of a putative ally, killing that ally’s officials and invited guests. While it’s merely an escalation, not a new phenomenon — the previous president, Barack Obama, also claimed and exercised a “right” to murder on foreign soil at will — it’s a significant escalation by a president with fewer and less loyal friends on the global stage.

Whether Trump is “wagging the dog” in an attempt to distract from impeachment, or playing “6D chess” in an attempt to get the US out of Iraq at the demand of the Iraqis themselves (I’ve heard both claims), he’s turning friends against him and currying renewed European sympathy for Iran.

The prospects for peace on Earth have receded significantly since Christmas Day.

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The Christmas Truce of 1914: Proof that Peace is Possible

As 1914 drew to a close, Europe had been at war for months. On the Western Front, opposing armies faced each other across a stalemated front line running from the North Sea to the Swiss border.  On December 24, 100,000 soldiers from both sides of that line decided to create some peace on Earth.

They decorated their trenches with holiday spirit. They sang carols to each other across “No Man’s Land,” then walked into the space between their trenches, met, smoked and drank together, and exchanged what gifts they could round up. Chaplains conducted Christmas services for all comers. Impromptu football matches were played between shell craters (Germany’s Battalion 371 beat the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 2 to 1).

A similar truce occurred on the Eastern Front between Austro-Hungarian and Russian troops.

The “Christmas truce” didn’t end “the war to end all wars.” It dragged on for nearly four more years,  at a cost of more than 20 million lives.

But for a brief moment peace reigned, proof that the already hardening hearts of opposing armies could at least temporarily melt and that soldiers could treat each other as human beings rather than as mortal enemies.

Not all of them, certainly. A young Austrian soldier is apocryphally said to have sniffed that “such a thing should not happen in wartime.”

The high commands on both sides suppressed press coverage of the “Christmas truce,” and resolved to prevent it from happening again. In 1915, artillery barrages and raids were pre-planned for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to prevent peace breaking out a second time.

More than a century later, does the “Christmas truce” offer any lessons we can take to heart, or hold out the prospect of similar pauses in the wars that have consumed the US, the Middle East, and Central Asia since 1991?

One obvious argument against such prospects is that the current wars tend to pit people of very different religious views against each other. The west has become far less Christian and far more secular over the last century.

On the other hand, Jesus does hold a high place — just not the highest — in Muslim esteem. And Muslim combatants have been known to observe truces for their own high holidays.

As for lessons, the greatest one may be this: Wars may be planned and ordered governments, but they’re fought by PEOPLE. People who mostly, unlike the Austrian soldier mentioned above (his name was Adolf Hitler), prefer song and sport and friendship to mindless mutual killing.

Those people — not just soldiers, all of us — can decide at any time to stop cooperating with the murderous plans of our masters and instead choose peace on earth and good will toward each other.

That choice embodies the spirit of Christmas.

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