Alice Miller: Childhood, The Unexplored Source of Knowledge (28m)

This episode features an audio essay written by psychologist and psychoanalyst Alice Miller in 2007, which comprises Chapter 25 of Everything Voluntary: From Politics to Parenting, edited by Skyler J. Collins and published in 2012. She explores childhood as a source of understanding tyranny and violence. Purchase books by Alice Miller on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (28m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Historically Hollow: The Cries of Populism

History textbooks are full of populist complaints about business: the evils of Standard Oil, the horrors of New York tenements, the human body parts in Chicago meatpacking plants.  To be honest, I haven’t taken these complaints seriously since high school.  In the absence of abundant evidence to the contrary, I say the backstory behind these populist complaints is just neurotic activists searching for dark linings in the silver clouds of business progress.  When business offers new energy, new housing, new food, the wise are grateful to see the world improve, not outraged to see a world that falls short of perfection.

Still, I periodically wonder if my nonchalance is unjustified.  Populists rub me the wrong way, but how do I know they didn’t have a point?  After all, I have near-zero first-hand knowledge of what life was like in the heyday of Standard Oil, New York tenements, or Chicago meat-packing.  What would I have thought if I was there?

If we’re talking about the year 1900, I’m afraid we’ll never really know.  Yet what I’ve seen with my own eyes during the last fifteen years has done much to cement my out-of-sample confidence.

During this time, I’ve seen the tech industry dramatically improve human life all over the world.

Amazon is simply the best store that ever existed, by far, with incredible selection and unearthly convenience.  The price: cheap.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media let us socialize with our friends, comfortably meet new people, and explore even the most obscure interests.  The price: free.

Uber and Lyft provide high-quality, convenient transportation.  The price: really cheap.

Skype is a sci-fi quality video phone.  The price: free.

Youtube gives us endless entertainment.  The price: free.

Google gives us the totality of human knowledge!  The price: free.

That’s what I’ve seen.  What I’ve heard, however, is totally different.  The populists of our Golden Age are loud and furious.  They’re crying about “monopolies” that deliver firehoses worth of free stuff.  They’re bemoaning the “death of competition” in industries (like taxicabs) that governments forcibly monopolized for as long as any living person can remember.  They’re insisting that “only the 1% benefit” in an age when half of the high-profile new businesses literally give their services away for free.   And they’re lashing out at businesses for “taking our data” – even though five years ago hardly anyone realized that they had data.

My point: If your overall reaction to business progress over the last fifteen years is even mildly negative, no sensible person will try to please you, because you are impossible to please.  Yet our new anti-tech populists have managed to make themselves a center of pseudo-intellectual attention.

Angry lamentation about the effects of new tech on privacy has flabbergasted me the most.  For practical purposes, we have more privacy than ever before in human history.  You can now buy embarrassing products in secret.  You can read or view virtually anything you like in secret.  You can interact with over a billion people in secret.

Then what privacy have we lost?  The privacy to not be part of a Big Data Set.  The privacy to not have firms try to sell us stuff based on our previous purchases.  In short, we have lost the kinds of privacy that no prudent person loses sleep over.

The prudent will however be annoyed that – thanks to populist pressure – we now have to click “I agree” fifty times a day to access our favorite websites.  Implicit consent was working admirably, but now we all have to suffer to please people who are impossible to please.  Yes, tech firms made a business decision to ramp up privacy protections; but this business decision is tainted by a barrage of thinly-veiled threats of government persecution.  In a functional world, we would have a few start-ups catering to privacy fanatics – and the rest of us could enjoy the bounty of the tech industry without this absurd digital red tape.

How, though, do I logically leap from the unreliability of populists on tech to the unreliability of populists on business in general?  After all, anyone can make a mistake.  My reply: Being negative about the tech industry isn’t just a small, isolated mistake.  Populists are applying massive intellectual energy to major issues and ending up painfully wrong.  This is strong evidence that their whole way of thinking is deeply corrupt.  They don’t deserve our trust or attention – not today, not yesterday, and not tomorrow.

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The Entrepreneur Who Became a Billionaire After Being Rejected by Facebook

Jan Koum had a rough upbringing. At 16, he immigrated from Europe to the United States with his mother and grandmother, who were fleeing political unrest and religious persecution. Jan’s mother got a job as a babysitter in California while Jan went to school and worked at a grocery store cleaning floors.

His father planned to join Jan and his mother once they were settled, but he got sick and died five years later, unable to be reunited with his family. Jan’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, to which she would succumb just three years after Jan’s father passed away.

Jan Overcame Adversity

Perhaps not surprisingly given the adversity in his life, Jan acted out in school and got into trouble. He disliked school and what he found to be the shallow relationships of high school students. He barely graduated, but during his teen years in the US, Jan began to teach himself. He became interested in computers and networks and bought books and manuals on these topics at a nearby used bookstore, returning them when finished to get his money back.

He taught himself network engineering and eventually enrolled at San Jose University to study computer science and mathematics while getting involved in online network groups and hacker communities. Like high school, college also wasn’t appealing to Jan. “I hated school,” he told Forbes.

During college, Jan took a part-time job with the large accounting firm Ernst & Young, helping with computer security audits. One of E&Y’s clients with which Jan worked was Yahoo! and he was offered a job with the tech company while still studying at San Jose University. He quit college soon after to work full-time at Yahoo!.

Jan got bored with Yahoo!. At 31, he quit and took some time off to travel the world with a friend who also left Yahoo!. The duo applied for work at Facebook, but both were turned down. Two years later Jan bought an iPhone. He saw the potential of the App Store world and began working on code to create a new application that would streamline communication and conversation. Frustrated by his inability to get it working, Jan Koun almost gave up.

American Success Story

He stuck with his invention a bit longer and in 2009, at age 33, Jan Koum founded the text messaging platform WhatsApp with his former Yahoo! colleague Brian Acton. In 2014, it had 400 million users worldwide, and the pair sold the company to Facebook for $19 billion.

They might not have gotten that job offer at Facebook, but the offer they eventually got was something far better. By 2017, WhatsApp had 1.3 billion monthly users and billionaire Koum, who spent his childhood in communist Ukraine, became an American success story, showing the transformative power of freedom, entrepreneurship, and self-education.

Koum told WIRED Magazine:

I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on…Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state – the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech. Our goal is to protect it.

Koum’s teenage self-education took place in the 1990s, before knowledge and information were so widely available and easily accessible, often at our fingertips. Today, a kid like Koum wouldn’t have a used bookstore as his only resource. He would be able to learn network engineering or any topic that interested him through free, online information portals and connect easily with people from around the world, finding mentors and like-minded peers—thanks in large part to inventions like WhatsApp.

Technology increasingly facilitates self-education, leading to new opportunities to pursue passions and uncover talents. Unlike formal education, that to many people like Koum can be stifling, self-education can be liberating. With self-education, you can become the agent of your own life and livelihood, setting your own path. As the author and entrepreneur Jim Rohn wrote: “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”

For Koum, that fortune was big, but the rest of us gained too. Freedom and entrepreneurship lead to the innovations that improve our lives and give our own dreams a boost, and self-education is the pathway to get there.

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It’s More Than Just Willpower

It breaks my heart every time I pass someone sleeping in the street. I go through a mental process, wondering what circumstances, preferences, and choices get a person to a spot where sleeping on the sidewalk is better than the next best alternative.

I do not want to deny free will. It’s possible there’s a homeless person somewhere who thinks my life is miserable and theirs is better. It seems more likely nobody really wants to sleep on the sidewalk, but somehow they get to a place where that seems better or easier than whatever would be needed to sleep indoors.

I think about my own life. There are a lot of things I experience that I don’t really want to experience, but I lack the creativity, willpower, or knowledge needed to make choices that would help me avoid those experiences. I’m always living sub-optimally in some way. It’s always a combination of circumstances and choices. I’m always choosing at least a little less than what I know would be best, and sometimes a lot.

I’ve had mostly good incentive structures around me. In part from circumstances I was born into, in part from those I’ve created. To the extent that the incentive structures are good, my behavior and outcomes are good. When those structures are neutral or bad, my choices typically follow.

I think willpower can be built over time, such that a person who’s learned to make good, tough choices gets better at it. But in the beginning, and at the individual point of choosing, I don’t think any two humans are that different. We seek our self interest as defined by our subjective preferences given our current information, resources, and understanding. Those variables of preference, information, resources, and understanding are the elements of the incentive structure.

I try to find, cultivate, and stay in good incentive structures because I know that without them, my choices are capable of leading me somewhere I don’t want to go.

So much for me. What about the people still sleeping on the street? I don’t know. That’s probably why my attention turns to my own life pretty quickly. It’s something I can work with and control at least to some extent. I don’t know what to do for them. That’s part of the heartbreak.

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Opposition Research: It’s Not Trump’s Fault That Politics is a “Dirty” Game

In a June 12 interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, President Donald Trump freely admitted that he would listen to foreigners offering him “dirt” on his political opponents: “I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening …. Somebody comes up and says, ‘hey, I have information on your opponent,’ do you call the FBI?”

Unsurprisingly, critics from both major parties pounced on Trump’s statement, condemning it on grounds of morality, patriotism, and law. Equally unsurprisingly, those critics are wrong in (at least) their first two reasons. Some are also hypocrites who should stop clutching their pearls for long enough to wash the “dirt” off them.

A quick timeline:

In 2015, the Washington Free Beacon, a (then anti-Trump) Republican newspaper, hired a company called Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on several Republican presidential primary candidates, including Trump. Once it became clear that Trump would be the GOP’s nominee, that project ended.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee used a cut-out (law firm Perkins Coie) to hire — again — Fusion GPS, which in turn hired a foreigner, former British Spy Christopher Steele, to work foreign sources (especially Russian sources) for opposition research on Trump. Steele’s output was a still-controversial “dossier” full of alleged “dirt.”

Also in 2016, three members of Trump’s campaign — Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort — met with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in hopes of getting “dirt” on Clinton.

Every serious political campaign conducts opposition research and views the information it gathers with two questions in mind:

First, is the information true (or at least plausible)?

Second, is the information useful?

Where or from whom the information comes from is only relevant in light of those two questions.

And that’s exactly how it SHOULD work.

Campaign opposition research is a primary source of public knowledge about the candidates who are seeking our votes.

If that information is true, it’s true whether it originated in Minneapolis or in Moscow.

If that true information is pertinent to our voting decisions, it’s neither moral nor patriotic to ignore or denounce it solely on the basis of where it came from.

With respect to the law, the Trump Tower meeting mentioned above was extensively (and expensively) investigated by the US Department of Justice. After two years of probing alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

While Trump still faces congressional investigations on the question of whether he committed crimes by obstructing Mueller’s investigation, and while DOJ is now inquiring as to possible misuse of the “Steele dossier” to justify the FBI’s spy operation on his campaign, he’s been exonerated on the matter of seeking foreign “dirt.” And it’s unlikely that the DNC or the Clinton campaign will be found legally culpable for their use of foreign information sources, either.

That, again, is as it should be.

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If You Hate it, You’re Not the Audience

A lot of people who work in venture capital hate the show Shark Tank.

They feel it portrays an unrealistic image of investing; one that will spread and cause viewers to misunderstand the business and then go on to make terrible choices because of it.

There’s definitely a bit of the Theoretical Man argument going on here, but it’s more than that. The investors who hate the show aren’t the show’s audience. They misunderstand the show’s purpose (besides to entertain).

They compare the show against what they would put in a TV show about investing, which is all the stuff they think is important. But they’re so deep in the business, they don’t realize how many steps a total noob must take to even understand what they consider basics.

I love Shark Tank. I used to watch it with my kids. It exposed them to tons of new concepts. The idea of building a business with someone else’s money was novel. The realization that you’ve got to have a story that’s compelling enough to convince the holders of that money to join. The concept of a “pitch”. The understanding that a good pitch and a good company aren’t always the same thing. The realization that investors can be wrong and can be jerks. And founders can be nice or idiots. The knowledge that investors might collaborate or compete with each other on deals while remaining friends.

It doesn’t even matter if the stories are real or realistic. Uninitiated viewers take away the basic insights. These are so basic that VCs forgot everyone doesn’t know them. But if someone doesn’t know it yet, there’s no way they’ll understand a Medium article about power laws and term sheets.

When you hate something popular, it’s prudent to pause and consider there’s probably something in it that is doing something for those who love it. You don’t have to love it, but it’s probably not supposed to serve your ends anyway. If you can discover the reason it brings value to others, you might navigate the world more effectively and enjoy it more.

(Still trying to understand this when it comes to Old Town Road. I’m not ready to give up yet…there must be something valuable in this song to those who like it).

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