The Deeper the Disagreement, the Higher the Stakes, the More Important the Honesty

Man, I thought the culture wars were bad when I was a kid. It’s cliche to say now that people are more divided along political lines than ever, so I’ll spare you. You know it. And that divide is particularly evident when people try to communicate with each other.

There’s the name-calling and expletive-flinging and straw-manning and worst-case-assuming, of course. But there also appear to be two sets of “acceptable” facts/statistics/anecdotes on any given issue. And there is a great deal of distrust between the warring parties (the right and the left) about the validity of those facts. This precludes any progress beyond a discussion of the facts of a case into the actual meat of what to do about something. Police brutality, racism, immigration, abortion, gender, climate change – these are all heavily politicized subjects with heavily politicized media on both sides supporting opposite viewpoints. It becomes hard to believe any facts which seem to be embraced by the other side, so both sides are left with not just different conclusions, but different premises.

This dynamic is worsened with each and every “fake news” story, doctored or selectively edited video, and false accusation promulgated by one side against the other. Targeted half-truths and falsehoods don’t just distort our ability to act – they destroy any of the trust needed for an actual conversation. As we lose and lose more agreements on the base reality of an issue (and we lose confidence that our opponent is trustworthy), talking becomes less and less worthwhile.

It’s ironic. The more passionately opposed we become to each other, the better we feel about “bending the truth” just a little. Yet this bending of the truth is the thing that ultimately defeats any chance of “winning” an argument or coming to a compromise. Telling the truth to your opponents – even when it’s hard – becomes all the more important as disagreement reaches a fever pitch.

You can be rude, loud, trenchant, critical, and the conversation can still happen. Some people even respect a passionate opponent more. But if you are deceitful, you and your “facts” will gain a reputation for deceit. No one will listen to you, and you will be doomed.

People often talk about the responsibility of news readers to reject fake news. This is good. But it is just as much our responsibility to reject lies and corruptions of truth in our own words and lives. We are now the media (if CNN hasn’t made a news story out of one of your tweets, it’s only a matter of time), and we do have some control in what happens next.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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You Don’t Get Credit for the Moral Advances of Others

Oh, you’re anti-racism, hmm? You believe women should have equal rights? You’re against war? You think Nazis are bad?

Good.

But that belief (and repeating it on social media, etc) doesn’t make you a hero. Being “more enlightened” than your ancestors in these ways doesn’t actually make you smarter or wiser.

All of these beliefs are good, of course. But once a belief is mainstream (as these examples are), once it’s accepted, you don’t get to call yourself “good” for holding it. If you’re learning that belief in school, church, and home growing up, you can be sure that other people did the hard work for that belief.

Those people – the people who deserve credit for defeating segregationism or Nazism, for instance – lived before us, and they are gone or passing now. They deserve the credit, though I doubt they would accept as much as you do. They stood against evil when it was unpopular, psychologically uncomfortable, and physically dangerous to do so.

What made them so good was not just that they held the right beliefs when no one else did, but that they had virtue in concert with those beliefs. They spoke the truth courageously at risk to themselves, they put their lives on the line, and they even showed compassion to enemies. They were *good* in a way that requires much more than mental orthodoxy.

Virtue is much, much harder to acquire, and it will probably not bring you accolades when you first begin to follow it. But the feeling of growth and meaning from living virtuously is much realer than the feeling of pride in having better beliefs than your ancestors.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Gloria Alvarez: The Power of Freedom for Latin America (38m)

This episode features a talk by economist and social activist Gloria Alvarez. She speaks passionately about issues facing Latin America and why an expansion of freedom would help bring about much needed change. Purchase books by Gloria Alvarez on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (38m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

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Let’s Play a Game

Kids – especially young boys – are infinitely willing to play, infinitely willing to try new games, infinitely willing to suspend disbelief if it means they can compete and practice.

Seeing this is one of the most charming things in the world.

Today I got to see that firsthand with my little cousins (boys aged 5 and 8) when they asked me come swimming with them at my uncle’s pool. These young bros were showing off their jumps from the high-dive, showing off their swimming prowess, and in all ways showing a zest for life. And the games didn’t stop.

We played water gun tag, basketball, hot potato, “dinosaur hunter” (I played the dinosaur – they shot at me with water guns), and the simple old favorite “shoot James in the face with water”.

If you have the pleasure of being around this pure energy for play and improvement, you’d better take it. This will keep you young. Kids who know how to play are rehearsing the fundamental skills necessary for a good life: physical fitness, graceful movement, and social cooperation. Who of us couldn’t stand a little improvement in those areas even in adulthood?

It’s remarkable to see them practice these skills, but even more impressive to see their capacity for game-making. They will accept literally any kind of game with any kind of parameters and rules – as my two cousins accepted most suggestions (even half-baked) I made for games. That kind of imagination can never feel boredom.

Play is the driver for the most intense learning of a human’s life, and these boys showed me the energy and imagination I’ve been missing even in my finest moments. Probably one of the best things we can hope for is to keep that passion and openness as we level up in discipline and skill.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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State Priorities, Not State “Capacity”

In the last few years, social scientists have started heavily appealing to “state capacity” to explain the wealth of nations.  Why do some countries prosper?  Because they have great state capacity.  Why do others flounder?  Because they have crummy state capacity.  What do floundering countries need to do in order to prosper?  Build state capacity, naturally.

Many of these same social scientists see the coronavirus as a great vindication of their research.  Which countries are coping well with coronavirus?  The ones with great state capacity.  Which countries have been devastated?  The ones that lack state capacity.  How can we resolve our current crisis?  Again, build state capacity.

Two years ago, I heavily criticized the state capacity fad.  Weak and question-begging empirics aside, the whole literature is conceptually confused.  But the current crisis has convinced me that I’ve been overly generous.  How so?  Because the coronavirus crisis plainly shows that Western democracies have overwhelming state capacity.  Check out the muscles on these governments!  They haven’t just effortlessly raised and spent trillions of dollars.  They handily shut down their entire “non-essential” economies.  In a matter of weeks, they casually disemployed many tens of millions of workers, shuttered millions of businesses, and virtually sealed their borders to trade as well as travel.  After this staggering exercise of power, I don’t see how you can fairly attribute any shortcoming of these governments before the crisis on lack of state capacity.  The sheer capacity of these states beggars belief.

Why, then, do most of the Western democracies seem to be doing such an incompetent job?  Perhaps most egregiously, the U.S. federal government spent over two trillion dollars on relief, but next to nothing on testing or research.  As Alex Tabarrok summarizes:

We would also save medical costs by suppressing the virus. (The focus on ventilators has perhaps been overdone given that ventilators in no way guarantee survival–better to stop people needing ventilators.) We would also save lives. Thus, a program of mass testing seems like a no-brainer. Yet, there is no direct funding for anything like this in the $2.2 trillion CARES bill which is stunning. Here’s Austan Goolsbee:

We literally put in a tax break for retailers and restaurants to expand their capacity but not money for production of more COVID tests.

Here’s Paul Romer:

We have an economic crisis because it is not safe for people to work or consume. Our Congress just passed a bill that will spend $2.2 trillion to deal with the crisis. Can anyone identify any spending in this bill devoted to making it safe for people to work and consume?

What’s going wrong?  Simple: Despite fantastic state capacity, the U.S. government has absurd state priorities!  Instead of squandering trillions on poorly-targeted relief, the U.S. government could have spent a few hundred billion on testing and vaccine research.  Better yet, it could have offered hundreds of billions in prizes for progress in these areas – prizes open to anyone on Earth to win.

So why didn’t this happen?  Simple: Because the people in charge in virtually every country are irresponsible, disorganized, innumerate, impulsive, and emotional.  Blaming their failures on “lack of state capacity” is like blaming Bill Cosby’s imprisonment on “lack of financial capacity.”  Cosby’s in jail because he’s a serial rapist, not because he lacked the money to hire a good lawyer.  When your resources are superabundant, the top remaining explanation for failure is your own terrible choices.

My point: As a matter of logic, success and failure depend on two factors.

Factor #1: The total resources you possess – your “capacity.”

Factor #2: How you choose to use those resources – your “priorities.”

Isn’t this obvious?  It is to me.  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a fan of state capacity research acknowledge this obvious point, much less try to fairly adjudicate it.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a fan say, “You could say that some governments fail because they squander resources that are more than sufficient to handle their problems.  But using our new measure of squandering…”  I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a fan say, “You could say that some governments would succeed if they simply revised their priorities.  But using a new data set on priority revision…”  I’m tempted to say that appeals to state capacity are tautological, but even the tautologies are half-baked.

The underlying confusion: When a person doesn’t do X, we often casually announce, “He can’t do X.”  That, my friends, is a total leap of logic.  Yes, perhaps the person in question genuinely can’t do X.  On the other hand, maybe he’s simply made X a low priority.  The only way to really know is to see what happens when the person in question unambiguously makes X his absolute priority.  In slogan form: “Can’t implies won’t.  Won’t does not imply can’t.”

The same goes for organizations, including governments.  The Soviet Union failed to grow enough food to feed its people.  That does not imply, however, that the Soviet Union lacked the capacity to do so.  The real story, in fact, is that the Soviet government doggedly prioritized military might over civilian diet.

So what?  At minimum, we need to audit the entire state capacity literature.  To what extent can the problems it attributes to “state capacity” instead be assigned to “state priorities”?  Unless we miraculously discover that capacity, not priorities, explains 100% of all sub-perfect government performance, the next step is to dial-down the multitudinous simplistic pleas for “increasing state capacity” – and replace them with pleas for better state priorities.  Instead of pretending that the coronavirus crisis somehow confirms everything they’ve been claiming, this is a time for the fans of state capacity to engage in poignant soul-searching.  Western democracies have decisively displayed their gargantuan capacity.  But what good is gargantuan capacity in the hands of short-sighted, power-hungry demagogues?

There’s a great scene in Kill Bill where Vernita Green tells the Bride: “That’s being more rational than Bill led me to believe you were capable of.”  And the Bride responds, “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack; not rationality.”  Next time a researcher sees poor government performance and blames “lack of state capacity,” tell them, “Perhaps it’s good priorities it lacks, not capacity.”

Then tell me how they respond, because I’d really like to know.

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The New Normal

It’s time for us to accept that this pandemic, and social isolation, are here for awhile.

But in addition to that, our reality has changed, possibly for good.

We’re in a new normal.

Some things that have changed for many of us:

  1. A sense of restriction: We’re not able to do our usual things — not only work and school, but things like haircuts, dentists, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, shops and more. That can feel very restricted.
  2. Heightened uncertainty & anxiety: Things are incredibly uncertain right now, for all of us — for our health, the health of loved ones, the state of the world, the shaky economy, our individual financial situations. And that’s just the start of it. All of this uncertainty is triggering feelings of stress, fear and anxiety in most people, in different ways.
  3. A feeling of isolation but also (possibly) togetherness: For many people, social distancing has created a feeling of isolation that can be very hard to handle. But for many, there can also be a feeling of togetherness – we’re all in this together, no one is excluded. Some are creating that feeling of togetherness by doing video calls, by connecting others online, or by taking part in community or group efforts to help.
  4. Contraction when we’re feeling overwhelmed: It can all be too much. And when we feel that sense of overwhelm, we can want to shut down, exit, turn away, avoid. We avoid hard tasks, we go to distraction, we avoid our healthy habits. This is all completely normal!
  5. A sense of disruption: Our old habits have been disrupted — we can’t do all the things we’re used to doing, and that gives us a feeling of being upended. It’s frustrating to have things disrupted, and can make us feel afloat.
  6. Irritation with others: Being isolated with the same people every day can cause friction. And that brings up all of our issues, all the ways we respond (and they respond) when we get triggered.
  7. Wanting it all to be over: Impatience! We just want to go back to normal. It’s hard to accept the way things are.
  8. Wanting to feel something meaningful: This can all feel very unanchored. And in this feeling of groundlessness and instability, we can yearn for some kind of meaning. Some sense of purpose.

You might not be experiencing all of these, because every person is experiencing the new normal differently.

But it is a new normal.

So the question is: will we resist it, or can we use it as an opportunity?

We can complain about the new normal. Hate it. Stew in frustration about it. That’s one possibility.

Another possibility is to use it as a growth opportunity.

The Opportunity That Life is Giving Us

Life is always opening doors for us, giving us a gift. We just don’t often recognize it.

For example, this morning, life gave you an amazing gift of a new day. Many people who are on their last breath would give anything for such a miraculous gift — and yet, we often will take this gift for granted. Fritter it away. Complain about much of it.

We waste the opportunity that life has given us!

So being aware of this … how can we use this new normal as an opportunity and a gift?

The first idea I’d like to offer is that the new normal is just highlighting the difficulties we often felt before, but could more easily ignore.

We could pretend that we weren’t constantly being disrupted, that we weren’t very restricted, that we didn’t have massive uncertainty in our lives. We could pretend that we weren’t craving connection and meaning, that we weren’t irritated by others.

We’re very good at fooling ourselves.

But now, we can’t pretend (as much). We are faced with these realities, and we can either resist and complain … or we can look them squarely in the face, and accept them.

The second idea is that these are opportunities to grow — to train, to become more resilient.

So for example, we could train in each area I mentioned above:

  • If you’re feeling restricted, let yourself feel the feeling of restriction. It’s probably something you’ve felt many times before but didn’t face it. Can you shift this feeling, after you’ve felt it, to see the sense of openness and freedom and gift in each moment?
  • If you’re feeling isolated, can you use this to connect to yourself more, as if you were a monk in a monastery? Can you let yourself feel the feeling of isolation, and give yourself some compassion?
  • Let yourself feel the craving for connection and meaning. And then see how you can create that for yourself, each day, without any certainty about whether you’re doing it right.
  • If you’re irritated at others, can you rise above your narrative about the other person, and see that you’re both feeling fear and pain? That you both are dealing with this with anger, irritation, frustration? That both of you are resorting to old (unhelpful) patterns? Can you practice compassion for them (and yourself) instead?
  • If you’re impatient and wanting it all to be over … can you practice patience instead? Let yourself be with the pain and frustration you’re feeling, and be willing to face it and sit in the middle of it? This is an incredibly powerful practice that will strengthen us for whatever we face in the future.
  • Can you practice this patience with everything you’re feeling: overwhelmed, irritated, frustrated, anxious, uncertain, fearful? And bring self-compassion to that as well?

So you can get a sense that we’re practicing a few things with whatever we’re facing:

  • A willingness to feel what we’re feeling
  • A willingness to face and sit in the middle of difficulty (patience)
  • Compassion for ourselves and others
  • The ability to create connection and meaning

What would it be like to use the gift of this new normal to get stronger during this crisis? To practice these incredibly transformative practices?

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