“Politics Awaits”

Consider this scene from Quentin Tarantino’s WWII epic, Inglourious BasterdsGerman movie star (and war hero) Fredrick Zoller is trying to persuade Joseph Goebbels to switch the venue for his new movie’s premiere.  Zoller’s real motive is to impress his would-be girlfriend, Shosanna, who owns a small theater.

GOEBBELS: How many seats in your auditorium?

SHOSANNA: Three hundred and fifty.

GOEBBELS: That’s almost four hundred less than The Ritz.

FREDRICK:  But dear Goebbels, that’s not such a terrible thing. You said yourself you didn’t want to indulge every two-faced French bourgeois taking up space currying favor. With less seats it makes the event more exclusive. You’re not trying to fill the house, they’re fighting for seats. Besides, to hell with the French. This is a German night, a German event, a German celebration. This night is for you, me, the German military, the high command, their family and friends. The only people who should be allowed in the room, are people who will be moved by the exploits on screen.

GOEBBELS:  I see your public speaking has improved. It appears I’ve created a monster. A strangely persuasive monster. When the war’s over, politics awaits.

[Table chuckles.]

While this is all fiction, it’s profound fiction.  Ponder Goebbels’ last phrase: “Politics awaits.”

Fredrick shows zero understanding of policy.  Indeed, it’s hardly clear that he even understands the optimal way to plan a movie premiere.  So what has Fredrick displayed?  A talent for demagoguery.  He scorns foreigners – “every two-faced French bourgeois taking up space currying favor” and “to hell with the French.”  He panders to nationalist identity: “This is a German night, a German event, a German celebration.”  And Fredrick scorns and panders eloquently enough to bemuse the Minister of Propaganda himself.

When you watch Inglourious Basterds, Goebbels’ reaction to Fredrick’s appeal seems obvious, even banal.  Why?  Because Goebbels is speaking like a generic politician, not a Nazi.  And when he does so, we all nod, because deep down we know the ugly truth that demagoguery rules the world.  We’re just afraid to say it.

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I’m the Little Brother

I’m the one who was never big enough, fast enough, strong enough.

I’m driven by proving the perpetual big brother voice wrong. Being doubted, disbelieved, and disrespected drives me. Fighting to survive and surprise as an underdog. Then one day you land a blow. You win a game of one on one. After years of trash talk and dismissal, you do it. And guess what? You get no credit. No acknowledgement. It’s downplayed. Forgotten by everyone but you. You’re still the little brother.

Par for the course. Bring it. I love to be underestimated. I love to fight the world and win.

That’s the story that weaves through the back of my mind as I go about building my life. And it’s the story that’s working for me today.

My actual big brother is a good dude. He’s probably my biggest supporter. This is not a story about true and false facts. It’s a story about my identity in the universe. I am the little brother with something to prove. I always will be, no matter how much I prove. I choose to embrace it and be empowered by it. I will surprise all comers with the fight in me. I’m used to taking shots and getting back up.

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Reflections on The Sopranos

I just finished re-watching the entirety of The Sopranos, HBO’s classic Mafia drama. I saw it season-by-season when it originally aired (1999-2007), and I still hew to the allegedly philistine view that the ending was not only bad, but insulting. Overall, though the show’s reputation is well-deserved. Here are the top social science insights I take away. (minor spoilers)

1. Human motivation is overdetermined. For any important action, people usually have several plausible reasons, and pinpointing the marginal factor is nigh impossible. Thus, does Tony kill Ralph because he believes Ralph torched their racehorse? Because Ralph denied doing so? Because Tony had stolen Ralph’s girlfriend, and didn’t believe Ralph was OK with it? Or was it all because Tony never forgave Ralph for murdering his own pregnant girlfriend a season earlier?

2. Humans are unbelievably petty. By providing readers with an array of credible motives, the show leads us to think that small grievances at least occasionally cause massive reactions. When Paulie murders his mother’s elderly frenemy, for example, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that he wouldn’t have done so if the frenemy hadn’t tried to wrongfully appropriate his mother’s dinner rolls. Similarly, Carmela doesn’t try to divorce Tony because he’s a serial adulterer or brutal criminal. She’s known both for years.  Instead, she tries to divorce him because Irina, Tony’s ex-girlfriend, calls Carmela’s home to tattle that Tony slept with Irina’s one-legged cousin.

3. Out of sight, out of mind. In The Sopranos, criminals and non-criminals routinely interact. The non-criminals would have to be fools not to realize that the criminals aren’t merely violent, but murderous. Still, as long as the non-criminals do not witness the violence with their own eyes, they barely care. Even when they discover details that would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the horrifying had happened, they look the other way. Thus, everyone except Adriana’s mother gets over her disappearance (murder, actually) with minimal cognitive dissonance. Never mind that her boyfriend was a junkie who repeatedly beat her; Adriana must have just decided out of the blue to leave New Jersey and never talk to her family or friends again.

4. A disciplined organized crime family can act with near-impunity. It’s easy to catch the typical murderer because the typical murderer murders someone he personally wants to murder. A crime family, however, can handily re-allocate its crimes so everyone lacks a personal motive for the crimes he personally commits. Criss cross! When Adriana tries to get Chrissy into witness protection, he doesn’t murder her. Instead, he tells Tony, who delegates the job to Silvio.

5. Organized crime families are not, in fact, disciplined. Criminals are overwhelmingly impulsive, macro males. So even though they have a great social technology for manufacturing ironclad alibis, they routinely fail to use it. Early in the series, Chrissy shoots a random baker in the foot in broad daylight. A great way to get caught… but Chrissy felt slighted, so he shot anyway. Ralphie beats his pregnant girlfriend to death in the Bing parking lot because she insulted his manhood.

6. Hedonic adaptation is mighty. The leading criminals on the show aren’t just filthy rich; they’re very popular with the ladies. Yet these criminals almost never count their blessings or stop to smell the flowers. Instead, they’re deeply bitter – and constantly on the edge of throwing temper tantrums. The wives of the leading criminals objectively have even less to complain about; they enjoy their husbands’ riches without ever facing the danger and brutality of acquiring those riches. Even so, the mob wives spend their days complaining and feeling sorry for themselves. Carmela, Tony’s wife, is the clearest case. Her main happy minutes come when she unwraps new jewels and furs. The rest of the time, she’s crinkling her nose with crankiness.

7. Rooting for the bad guy is easy… as long as he’s got charisma. If you neutrally described the typical Sopranos episode, almost anyone hypothetical juror would hand down centuries of jail time.  As you watch, however, righteous verdicts are far from your mind. Why? Because the criminals have amusing personalities. My family’s personal favorite is Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri; we can’t stop quoting this scene:

Paulie: As far as f***n’ bears are concerned, I say, get rid of them all. They had their turn, and now we got ours. That’s why dinosaurs don’t exist no more.

Dancer: Wasn’t it a meteor?

Paulie: They’re all meat eaters.

Chris: Meteor, me-te-or.

How can we feel such affection for a sadistic killer like Paulie?  Because he’s hilarious, and we’re in no danger.  Oh, and how he loves his mother!

8. Psychiatric language is largely a set of excuses and power-plays.  The Sopranos addresses anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, sociopathy, Borderline Personality Disorder, and much more.  Yet in virtually every case, it acknowledges that there is, to quote psychiatrists’ psychiatrist Elliot Kupferberg, a reasonable “pre-therapeutic” take on the same situation.  Yes, you can say that addicts are helpless victims of a “disease.”  But you can also say that addicts are people who willfully place their own self-destructive habits over family harmony.  Indeed, The Sopranos standardly insinuates that psychiatric language mostly boils down to Social Desirability BiasIf a character has ADHD, he’s sick and needs help; only a monster would growl, “Man up and work harder.”  But as the plot plays out, attentive viewers will notice that it’s the no-nonsense approach that fits the facts and improves behavior.  Even psychiatrist Dr. Melfi reverts to old-fashioned theories of personal responsibility when she exits her office; if you cross her, she’ll lash out no matter what psychiatric labels you carry.

The only clear-cut exception to this psychiatric skepticism is Uncle Junior’s dementia.  Even here, he starts out as a faker, feigning dementia to delay his trial.  By the end of the show, however, Junior’s run out of money – and can’t remember where he stashed his emergency funds.  Indeed, he barely knows who he is anymore.  The lesson: Dementia, unlike the other mental problems characters face, is a hard constraint rather than an exotic preference.

9. Despite ubiquitous ambiguity, right and wrong is fairly obvious if you calm down and detach yourself from your society. In season 3, a lone righteous character, psychiatrist Dr. Krakower, sees through a web of wrong-doing and lame excuses in a matter of minutes.  Carmela Soprano goes to Krakower for help, and he delivers The Moral Answers.  Highlights from one of the greatest scenes of all time:

Carmela: […] [Tony’s] a good man, a good father.

Krakower: You tell me he’s a depressed criminal. Prone to anger. Serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?

Carmela: I thought psychiatrists weren’t supposed to be judgmental.

Krakower: Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament. Because of events that occurred in their childhood. That’s what psychiatry has become in America. Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade. Witness the results.

Carmela: What we say in here stays in here, right?

Krakower: By ethical code and by law.

Carmela: His crimes. They are, uh, organized crimes.

Krakower: The mafia.

Carmela: Oh so, so what? So what? He betrays me every week with these whores.

Krakower: Probably the least of his misdeeds.  You can leave now, or you can you stay and hear what I have to say.

Carmela: Well, you’re gonna charge the same anyway.

Krakower: I won’t take your money.

Carmela: That’s a new one.

Krakower: You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about. As long as you’re his accomplice.

[…]

Carmela: So . . . You think I need to define my boundaries more clearly. Keep a certain distance. Not internalize my–

Krakower: What did I just say?

Carmela: Leave him.

Krakower: Take only the children, or what’s left of them, and go.

[…]

Carmela: I’d have to, uh, get a lawyer. Find an apartment. Arrange for child support.

Krakower: You’re not listening. I am not charging you because I won’t take blood money. And you can’t either. One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.

10. Dylan Matthews and Tyler Cowen notwithstanding, the Columbus Day episode was hilarious and wise.  The veneration of this murderous slaver isn’t just shameful; it exposes the shameful essence of identity politics of every description.  And what better vessels for these truisms than a gang of self-righteously aggrieved mafiosi?

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Am I a Writer? Are You? Does it Really Matter?

I have never troubled myself with a preoccupation over the following question: “Am I a writer?”

I simply write.

Sometimes I do a decent job. Sometimes I do it poorly. At ALL times, I do it in ways that could use some improvement. The most important thing to me, however, is that I do it at all.

For me, to write is to have something to say and to face the challenge of trying to get your point of view across.

I have something to say. I’m willing to face the challenges involved with saying it. So I choose to write.

Does that make me a writer? I have no clue. That’s other people’s question to answer. Some will affirm it. Others will deny it. But I will have nothing to do with those discussions.

My job is to do the work, writing or otherwise, that my heart compels me to do. My job is to keep finding ways to say “yes” to what makes me come alive.

It’s not my job to convince others that I deserve some kind of special label or title for what I do. And it’s not your job either.

Instead of defending your status as a writer, as a creative, as an entrepreneur, or as a whatever, why not use that time and energy to show up for the work your soul summons you to perform?

It’s far more important to do the work than it is to debate your status as someone who does that kind of work.

Actual participation in the creative process has way more value than any in-group label you could chase.

We all have interests and ideas that we want to explore, but sometimes we get stuck in an identity game of thinking “I need to be the kind of person who does X before giving myself permission to experiment with X.”

That’s a trap.

You don’t need to define yourself as someone who does interesting things as a prerequisite for doing the things that are interesting to you.

You don’t need to know all the answers about who you are before you can begin being true to what fascinates you in the present moment.

You can create BEFORE you settle the identity debate.

And here’s the paradoxical thing: you’ll come up with better ideas about who you really are by trying to create things than by trying to figure out if you’re the kind of person who has the right to create things.\

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Killing the American Meritocracy

The American Dream is under attack like never before—not just the ability to fulfill the dream—but its very concept and history. At the core of the American Dream is the idea of meritocracy. There is no royalty in America, no titles of nobility, no entrenched caste system. You could be born anywhere, to anyone, and still achieve success. It was not just a story. Many real-world examples show exactly this trajectory. Poor children, and sometimes even penniless immigrants, grew up to achieve great success. Some even become titans of industry.

Why then is there such an effort underway to denigrate the idea of meritocracy? It is my belief that those who prefer a centrally planned society to one based on freedom, liberty, and personal achievement are intentionally rewriting history so as to make people believe that so-called “privilege” rather than merit has been the primary factor in achieving success throughout American history. This lie is then combined with the fallacies of communism (such as the labor theory of value and the fixed pie fallacy) in order to bolster the argument for central planning and massive government.

In order to understand the nature of the attacks on our meritocracy, we should start by understanding what a meritocracy is—and what it is not. Some definitions of the word smuggle in the concept of central planning: Merriam-Webster defines it as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.” Others try to divorce the concepts of wealth from success: The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a social system, society, or organization in which people get success or power because of their abilities, not because of their money or social position.” Neither of these definitions fully explains what meritocracy is as it relates to the American Dream, however, so perhaps a new term is required. I propose we call this the American Meritocracy.

Unlike what some of these other definitions imply, no one is necessarily being selected or moved ahead nor are wealth or social position irrelevant to success. In the American Meritocracy, a free market allows individuals to leverage all of their intelligence, talents, knowledge, wealth, connections, and even luck to get ahead. Those who are successful are correctly regarded as having earned their success, while those who are not successful are rightly considered less ambitious… or worse.

One of the most pernicious fallacies in public discourse today is that someone having wealth represents “inequality” in some meaningful manner. This idea ties in directly with the myth of “privilege” which expands the possible sources of “inequality” to include race, sex, religion, education, and any number of other things depending on who is defining it. The purveyors of the “privilege” doctrine conspicuously fail to explain the myriad success stories involving un-privileged members of society, however; it is as if these achievers do not merit their consideration. They will happily prattle on with anecdotes of the single mother working three jobs while accumulating more credit card debt each month, yet fail to mention the single mothers who save money, start businesses, win awards, and send their kids on to college. If confronted with these inconvenient tales of success, they will hand-wave them away as irrelevant outliers, falling back on statistics that prove little more than that people who are successful tend to be exceptional in many ways.

Behind the fallacy of “privilege” are two fundamental communist doctrines. The first is the labor theory of value, which posits a direct correlation between the value of a good or service and the labor required to produce it. The irrationality of this concept is easily seen in comparing two works of art. Both could be the same size, use the same materials, and take the same amount of time to complete, yet one could be worth millions while the other might be worth little or indeed be judged as truly worthless. The only difference between them is the perceived talent of the artist.

I say “perceived talent” because value is not actually an inherent quality of a good or service. Utility and scarcity may be inherent qualities in some cases, but value is always externally ascribed. Both pieces of art may be one-of-a-kind creations, so they would theoretically have equal scarcity, and both would fill an empty wall with equal aplomb, so again, their utility should be equal. Why then is one worth a million dollars and the other unsold? Because their value (like their beauty) is in the eye of the beholder. Be it because of the identity of the artist or certain ineffable qualities in his work, prospective buyers will ascribe far more value to one piece than to another with little or no regard to the quantity of labor involved in its production.

One could labor for a great many hours digging an unwanted ditch and then labor for hours more refilling it without ever having created any value for anyone. Likewise, one can spend their life in a dead-end job asking if folks “want fries with that?” without ever producing $15 worth of value in an hour. Indeed, with the proliferation of self-serve kiosks with flawless knowledge of ingredients and prices combined with perfect memories and increasing speeds, we may soon see a day when the ability to mumble about the availability of supplemental fries has no marketable value at all.

The second fundamental communist canard that underpins the delusion of “privilege” is the fixed-pie fallacy. Economist Milton Friedman summed up this pervasive error well when we said, “Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.” We hear this daily rhetoric expressed as concerns about “income inequality” and the supposedly unfair achievements of the “top 1% wealthy” who are nearly universally regarded with suspicion and envy thanks to the prevalence of this particular fallacy.

Skewed statistics suggest that these “Monopoly Man” caricatures have achieved their wealth by plundering the poor, yet these one-sided figures conveniently ignore that “the poor” are richer than ever before, enjoying far more luxuries and longer lives than their historical counterparts. Yes, the “rich” may enjoy a larger percentage of the pie today, but the pie itself is many times larger—and here’s the kicker—it has grown so much larger primarily because of the investments and contributions of those supposedly “evil” rich folks.

Look at it using simple math. If there is a 10-inch pie and you have two slices, how much pie would you have? Now imagine a 10-foot pie of which you have only one slice. To some people, this would be a tragedy, an unconscionable increase in “pie inequality” because you have just one-eighth of a total pie rather than the one-fourth you had before. But is this a reasonable way to measure things? (For the record, if you had 2 of 8 slices of a 10-inch pie, you would have approximately 19.6 square inches of pie. If you had 1 of 8 slices of a 10-foot pie, you would have 1,413.7 square inches of pie, an increase of 721%.)

While it is certainly true that state intervention has made the free market far less free than it could be, the American Meritocracy is still alive and well. Yes, due to taxes, regulations, and occupational licenses, it is more difficult to achieve success than it would be in a fully free market, but there are still virtually limitless opportunities for anyone who is willing to put in the necessary effort and to make the necessary sacrifices.

It is okay to be poor. Some people do not prioritize wealth creation, and that is their right. The problem is when they start blaming their poverty on other people or on “the rich” or “privilege” or some other external force that they claim is keeping them down. If you are poor in America, it is because you have not put in the effort necessary to become wealthy. This may seem harsh and judgmental, but that does not make it untrue. You can achieve success in the American Meritocracy, and if you do not, it is almost certainly your own fault.

Those whose ultimate goal is the eradication of the free market point to the existence of poverty as evidence that the free market has “failed.” They suggest replacing it with “universal” handouts in the form of fully subsidized education, healthcare, family leave, and even income itself. They imagine that these subsidies can be funded indefinitely by plundering the rich—ignoring that even at its current size, the government would blow through the net worth of the rich in a matter of months. In short, they want to kill the American Meritocracy and replace it with a one-size-fits-all communist utopia where the state controls everything and all the little people live in perfect equality.

Quite the fairy tale, is it not? Without “the rich” to keep growing the pie, the pie will naturally begin to shrink and each person’s “equal share” will shrink too. Add in an ever-expanding population, and the predictable economic contractions will guarantee worse outcomes across the board. Instead of some people living in poverty, everyone will live in poverty, and there will be no system in place to facilitate escaping it.

The American Meritocracy is not perfect due to government intervention, but it is still far superior to the abject failure of central planning that is on full display in Venezuela right now. After all, no one is eating zoo animals to stay alive in America.

The American Dream has always been that anyone could achieve success with enough effort and perseverance. This is still true for almost everyone who lives here. The fact that other people may achieve even more success than you does not diminish your success. Despite the fabricated doctrine of “privilege,” there is no ceiling through which you must break or systemic inequality you must overcome. If you can provide quality goods and services to which buyers ascribe value, you too can achieve success in the American Meritocracy. If you fail, you can blame your parents’ wealth (or lack thereof) your race, your sex, your religion, your education, or your astrological sign, and many people will accept your excuses—I will not.

Success in America is not a lottery, it is earned; and if you do not make the effort necessary to earn it, you do not deserve it. I am sure that holding these views makes me a heretic to the church of statism and a disbeliever in the gospel of privilege, but I make no apologies. Your life is of your own making—now go make it better!

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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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