Take Care of Your Tools

Back in May I spent a few days clearing brush with an older Hispanic man – someone far more experienced in the art of tree work than I. And every day before we started work and after we finished, he would take care of his tools.

He would tighten the chainsaw blade. He would sharpen the machetes. He would sharpen the shovels. And man, did his tools work well, despite the hard work we put on them.

I saw this every day and noticed a discipline and a level of care I still lack. This was a professionalism on the part of my coworker that I aspire to.

It’s easy to focus on getting the job done – I tend to be in this camp. I throw my energy, resources, and guts at a thing and worry about the mess later. But caring about the tools that get the job done – that’s a level up. And it’s an underrated aspect of success.

“Capital goods” are the materials that create wealth. And when what you have to work with are your machetes and your shovels and your chainsaws, those are your capital goods. If you can take care of those, maybe you will take care of the bigger capital goods (with more potential for wealth creation).

It’s also worth noting that just as acquiring customers is more costly than keeping them, acquiring tools is more costly than keeping your old ones in good shape. Our business has one tractor that’s nearly 40 years old, and it’s still in working order because of the discipline of maintenance. We could have flipped through two or three tractors if we hadn’t done that.

Finally, there’s a psychological edge to keeping tools in proper order that’s similar to the edge you might get from brushing your teeth, eating well, dressing well, and exercising in the morning. You feel more prepared for the work ahead when your tools are ready, and you feel a sense of pride that you have fought back the chaos in your world.

I’ll be trying to spend more of my time doing this in the weeks ahead: taking care of the things that take care of me.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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5 Things I Learned Debating the Harvard Prof Who Called for a “Presumptive Ban” on Homeschooling

On Monday, I debated the Harvard professor who proposes a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling. Thousands of viewers tuned in to watch the live, online discussion hosted by the Cato Institute. With 1,000 submitted audience questions, the 90-minute webinar only scratched the surface of the issue about who is presumed to know what is best for children: parents or the state. Here is the replay link in case you missed it.

Last week, I outlined much of my argument against Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet that I incorporated into our debate, but here are five takeaways from Monday’s discussion:

1. There Are People Who Believe the State Should Be Your Co-Parent

While this event was framed as a discussion about homeschooling, including whether and how to regulate the practice, it is clear that homeschooling is just a strawman. The real issue focuses on the role of government in people’s lives, and in particular in the lives of families and children. In her 80-page Arizona Law Review article that sparked this controversy, Professor Bartholet makes it clear that she is seeking a reinterpretation of the US Constitution, which she calls “outdated and inadequate,” to move from its existing focus on negative rights, or individuals being free from state intervention, to positive rights where the state takes a much more active role in citizens’ lives.

During Monday’s discussion, Professor Bartholet explained that “some parents can’t be trusted to not abuse and neglect their children,” and that is why “kids are going to be way better off if both parent and state are involved.” She said her argument focuses on “the state having the right to assert the rights of the child to both education and protection.” Finally, Professor Bartholet said that it’s important to “have the state have some say in protecting children and in trying to raise them so that the children have a decent chance at a future and also are likely to participate in some positive, meaningful ways in the larger society.”

It’s true that the state has a role in protecting children from harm, but does it really have a role in “trying to raise them”? And if the state does have a role in raising children to be competent adults, then the fact that two-thirds of US schoolchildren are not reading proficiently, and more than three-quarters are not proficient in civics, should cause us to be skeptical about the state’s ability to ensure competence.

I made the point on Monday that we already have an established government system to protect children from abuse and neglect. The mission of Child Protective Services (CPS) is to investigate suspected child abuse and punish perpetrators. CPS is plagued with problems and must be dramatically reformed, but the key is to improve the current government system meant to protect children rather than singling out homeschoolers for additional regulation and government oversight. This is particularly true when there is no compelling evidence that homeschooling parents are more likely to abuse their children than non-homeschooling parents, and some research to suggest that homeschooling parents are actually less likely to abuse their children.

Additionally, and perhaps most disturbingly, this argument for more state involvement in the lives of homeschoolers ignores the fact that children are routinely abused in government schools by government educators, as well as by school peers. If the government can’t even protect children enrolled in its own heavily regulated and surveilled schools, then how can it possibly argue for the right to regulate and monitor those families who opt out?

2. Random Home Visits Will Be a Weapon of the State

Of all the recommendations included in the Harvard professor’s proposed presumptive ban on homeschooling, the one that caused the most uproar among both homeschoolers and libertarians was the call for regular home visits of homeschooling families, with no evidence of wrongdoing.

In my remarks during Monday’s debate, I included a quote from a Hispanic homeschooling mother in Connecticut who was particularly angry and concerned about imposing home visits on homeschooling families. (According to federal data, Hispanics make up about one-quarter of the overall US homeschooling population, mirroring their representation in the general US K-12 school-age population.) She made the important point that minority families are increasingly choosing homeschooling to escape discrimination and an inadequate academic environment in local schools. She also pointed out that, tragically, it is often minorities who are most seriously impacted by these seemingly well-meaning government regulations. Writing to me about Professor Bartholet’s recommendation, she said:

“To state that they want to have surveillance into our homes by having government officials visit, and have parents show proof of their qualified experience to be a parent to their own child is yet another way for local and federal government to do what they have done to native Americans, blacks, the Japanese, Hispanics, etc in the past. Her proposal would once again interfere and hinder a certain population from progressing forward.”

Anyone who cares about liberty and a restrained government should be deeply troubled by the idea of periodic home visits by government agents on law-abiding citizens.

3. Private Education Is in Danger

Despite the landmark 1925 US Supreme Court decision that ruled it unconstitutional to ban private schools, there remains lingering support for limiting or abolishing private education and forcing all children to attend government schools. Homeschooling is just one form of private education.

In her law review article, Professor Bartholet recommends “private school reform,” suggesting that private schools may have similar issues to homeschooling but saying that this topic is “beyond the scope” of her article. Still, she concludes her article by stating that “to the degree public schools are seriously deficient, our society should work on improving them, rather than simply allowing some parents to escape.”

The government should work to improve its own schools, where academic deficiencies and abuse are pervasive. But it should have no role in deciding whether or not parents are allowed to escape.

4. State Standardized Testing Begs the Question: Whose Standard?

Some advocates of homeschooling regulation suggest that requiring regular standardized testing of homeschoolers would be a reasonable compromise. In her law review article, Professor Bartholet recommends: “Testing of homeschoolers on a regular basis, at least annually, to assess educational progress, with tests selected and administered by public school authorities; permission to continue homeschooling conditioned on adequate performance, with low scores triggering an order to enroll in school.”

During Monday’s debate, I asked the question: By whose standard are we judging homeschoolers’ academic performance? Is it by the standard of the government schools, where so many children are failing to meet the very academic standards the government has created? I pointed out that many parents choose homeschooling because they disapprove of the standards set by government schools. For example, in recent years schools have pushed literacy expectations to younger and younger children, with kindergarteners now being required to read. If they fail to meet this arbitrary standard, many children are labeled with a reading deficiency when it could just be that they are not yet developmentally ready to read.

Indeed, as The New York Times reported in 2015: “Once mainly concentrated among religious families as well as parents who wanted to release their children from the strictures of traditional classrooms, home schooling is now attracting parents who want to escape the testing and curriculums that have come along with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states.”

A key benefit of homeschooling is avoiding standardization in learning and allowing for a much more individualized education. And it seems to be working. Most of the research on homeschooling families conducted over the past several decades, including a recent literature review by Dr. Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, finds positive academic outcomes of homeschooling children.

5. Homeschoolers Will Win

There are very few movements today that bring together such a diverse group of people as homeschooling does. Families of all political persuasions, from all corners of the country, reflecting many different races, ethnicities, classes, cultures, values, and ideologies, and representing a multitude of different learning philosophies and approaches choose homeschooling for the educational freedom and flexibility it provides. Homeschoolers may not agree on much, but preserving the freedom to raise and educate their children as they choose is a unifying priority. In times of division, homeschoolers offer hope and optimism that liberty will prevail.

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Thought Experiments

I was just discussing with a friend a thought experiment I put together years ago during a debate on whether or not inequality is a prerequisite to economic exchange.

The claim I heard from some economists was that you can’t have trade without inequality. While I believe inequality is inescapable, natural, not undesirable, and an inevitable outcome of freedom and prosperity, I don’t think it is logically necessary in order for mutually beneficial trade to occur.

I emphasize logical, because thought experiments can be useful for finding errors in reasoning, but they are almost never useful for finding better explanations for the real world. I think I can construct a thought experiment that reveals that inequality is not logically necessary for win-win trade, but that doesn’t do much to improve understanding of the world. In the real world, everyone is unequal, period. We differ in taste, preference, ability, biology, etc. Even small divergence leads to different subjective valuations which is the major driver in gains from trade.

The point of the claim the inequality is needed for trade is to reveal that, for from being a danger to be feared, it’s a necessary part of human flourishing. That is true. Still, I don’t think it is logically required for trade to occur.

Here’s my thought experiment:

Two perfectly identical people live on an island. To survive, they need both fish and berries in their diet. Both have identical preferences for types of work, and identical abilities at fishing and berry picking.

In 1/2 a day, one can collect 100 berries, and in 1/2 a day one can catch 2 fish. So each individual splitting the day between berries and fish will end up with 100 berries and 2 fish, for a combined total of 200 berries and 4 fish.

But there are more abundant berries high up on the mountain. The catch is it takes an entire day to get there and back, leaving no time for fishing. And there are more fish deeper in the ocean, but it takes an entire day to paddle there and back leaving no time for berries.

The two identical people could specialize. One spends the whole day fishing in more abundant waters and catches 6 fish. One day one spends all day in more abundant berry bushes and picks 300 berries. They can trade and end up with 150 berries and 3 fish each. Both individuals have gained (50%!) from the trade due to the division of labor.

This does not require either individual to become more skilled than the other at one task. They could alternate each day who does which and still win. Division of labor and specialization coupled with trade is a better outcome than self-sufficiency even for two completely equal individuals because of the uneven nature of production itself. Each unit of time does not produce an identical outcome, and duration spent at a task may affect the marginal productivity, even without new skills gained or new capital employed.

See, trade is beneficial even in a world of perfect equality!

The problem is every assumption in the thought experiment is far fetched beyond belief. It can reveal an error in the logic of the original claim, but not its reality. Trade always arises between unequal partners because no two people are equal in the real world. Even identical twins stranded on an island aren’t. Even engineered clones under my scenario wouldn’t be, because in reality they would enhance their skill with more time invested in one task than another.

Thought experiments are not “gotcha” moments for real world claims. They may be mild rebukes of the certainty of the logical necessity, but they are so divorced from the real world, and so stripped down of variables that they allow the real world to contradict them all the time.

Just ask those economists who couldn’t discover any logical way lighthouses could be funded without government so they declared it an impossible wish, even while the very lighthouses outside their window were currently funded without government. Thought experiments are fun and occasionally useful, but more often arrogant, blinding, and dangerous.

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COVID-19: “Second Wave” or Not, No More Lockdowns

Here we go again: Fear of a “second wave” of COVID-19 infections is on world tour. Naturally, the same “experts” who demanded a global lockdown/shutdown in response to the “first wave” are saddling up for an encore. Their logic, faulty the first time around, is even more so the second.

We shouldn’t, even for a moment, set aside the hideous and lethal  immorality of placing hundreds of millions of human beings under de facto house arrest without accusing, let alone convicting, them of any crime whatsoever, or of forcibly grinding much of the economic activity that keeps 8 billion humans alive to a halt. Those were evil and stupid ideas. But at least there was an excuse, however flimsy, to justify the evil and the stupidity.

That excuse was a supposed need to “flatten the curve” of infection —  to temporarily slow down the rate of new cases so that hospitals could get enough ICU beds and ventilators in place to handle the case load.

Mission presumably accomplished, and then some. In much of the world, the COVID-19 case load hasn’t come close to taxing bed or ventilator availability, and in places where it did, the virus began to slow down as those availabilities began to catch up.

COVID-19 isn’t gone and never will be, but our sacrifices of liberty theoretically bought us time, which in turn bought us the ability to treat more patients more successfully while we wait for herd immunity, mutations toward weaker strains, or even a vaccine to turn the disease into a rare and/or minor ailment instead of a plague.

Unfortunately the “experts” — or at least the newly empowered and increasingly authoritarian politicians they work for —  are moving the goal posts, threatening a return to “lockdown” any time they decide they’re seeing “too many” cases of COVID-19.

The answer to the first lockdown orders should have been a firm,  non-negotiable, universal “no.” We each knew (and still know) our own isolation and social distancing needs far better than any politician or “expert” can know everyone’s.

Instead, we gave the politicians the proverbial inch, they took the inevitable mile, and they only gave back a bit of it when they realized we were going to take it  back whether they liked it or not.

Now they’re looking for excuses to make us run a marathon with them. And again, the answer we should be giving them is “no.”

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Police Violence: “Reform” Is Not Enough

Every few years, some particular instance of a pervasive phenomenon — police violence in the form of unjustified or at least highly questionable killings — “goes viral” with the result that America’s cities explode in protest.

Every time that happens, some American politicians complain about a non-existent “war on police,” while others promise “reforms” such as closer supervision (like the increase in body camera use following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri), civilian review boards to investigate complaints, better training, and of course more money.

After each round of “reforms,” the problem continues.

“We can’t settle for anything other than transformative structural change,” says US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). She’s right, but the bill she’s  promoting — the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 — isn’t any such thing.

The bill isn’t likely to become law. It may pass the Democratic House, but the Republican Senate and White House are already busking for support from police unions and their faux “law and order” base in November’s elections.

And even if it did pass, it’s a glass not even half full. Pelosi herself contradictorily describes it as both “full, comprehensive action” and “a first step” with “more to come.”

The bill would “reform,” rather than eliminate, “qualified immunity.” It would reduce some of the barriers that plaintiffs have to get over in holding police accountable for rights-violating misconduct, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Cops need to be held to EXACTLY the same standards as civilians when it comes to use of force.

The bill would also outlaw “no-knock raids,” but only for drug cases. “No-knock raids” are nothing less than violent home invasion burglaries. They’re precisely the kind of “unreasonable searches” forbidden by the Fourth Amendment and need to be outlawed entirely.

The Justice in Policing Act isn’t “transformative structural change.” It’s a band-aid on a gaping, traumatic wound that is, indeed, structural.

The root of the problem isn’t police violence.  It’s police themselves, and the system they serve. The purpose of police as we know them is to hold the productive class down so that the political class rule and rob us, full stop. Everything else — “serve and protect,” etc. — is incidental or illusory.

Progressives calling for “defunding” of the police are on the right track, or would be if they were serious. Most of them seem to use “defund” to mean “shift funding between state activities,” not to mean “eliminate a state activity.” They don’t want the pepper balls and rubber bullets, but they refuse to abandon the system the pepper balls and rubber bullets prop up.

“Transformative structural change” would require more than re-training and de-militarizing the police. It would require dis-empowering them and going back to voluntary community “peace officer” models of law enforcement.

Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, et al. know their control over the rest of us relies on the existing police state model. The only way for it to go is for them to go as well.

We need a real revolution, not fake “reform.”

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Every Man His Own Dominion

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

The Book of Genesis

Whatever your views of Genesis, the idea of human dominion holds water.

All humans need freedom and responsibility in their lives. Together, those map pretty well to the ancient Judeo-Christian idea of the “dominion” of all humans with regards to the creation around them.

So how do we find this dominion and sovereignty in the midst of a world full of people who want to dominate us? From bosses, cubicles, and controlling relatives to restrictive apartments, consumer debt, and backed-up traffic, we can tend to feel less like people exercising dominion and more like peasants or sharecroppers living in someone else’s world.

The answer can be to cultivate at least one thing, place, or activity you can truly call your own – where *you* are master.

Maybe it’s an art studio. Maybe it’s a woodworking shop. Maybe it’s a piece of land. Maybe it’s the animals you take care of. Maybe it’s a blog. Maybe it’s your family. Ideally, it’s all of the above. Whatever it is, it must be *yours*, something or someplace or sometime in which you are answerable only to God.

Your area of dominion should be more than just a haven from the parts of your life in which others dominate (though it can serve that purpose). It should be the spiritual heart that feeds everything you do.

Here you get to express your creativity on your terms. Here you get to bring uncommon order and beauty and attention to detail. Here you get to lavish time on the small things. Here you get to rest and enjoy or work all night through. Here you get to share with pride or keep your work secret.

Dominion brings out our best selves, and as we find more and more spaces in which to exercise it, we become better people. Pretty soon we become hard to dominate. And pretty soon we find we can exercise dominion in our whole lives.

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