The “Solution” to Flag-Burning is Simpler Than a Constitutional Amendment

On June 14 — “Flag Day” in the United States — US Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and US Representative Steve Womack (R-AR) proposed a constitutional amendment: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” President Donald Trump promptly indicated his support for the amendment via Twitter, calling it a “no-brainer.”

The amendment isn’t likely to get approval by 2/3 of both houses of Congress and ratification by the legislatures of  at least 38 states, to become part of the US Constitution.

Nor is that its proponents’ goal. It’s just another perennial election tactic, pulled out in every Congress since the Supreme Court noticed that flag-burning is protected by the First Amendment,  that Republicans hope will gain them a few points in close races by allowing them to caricature their Democratic opponents as “unpatriotic.”

One downside of the tactic is that it exposes those who use or support it as authoritarians. Which, admittedly, doesn’t hurt Republican candidates very much since most of them work overtime to expose themselves as such anyway.

Another downside of the tactic is that it allows authoritarian Democrats to use flag-burning as a proxy for civil liberties generally so that they can pretend they support freedom.

If flag-burning is really a “problem,” it’s a problem with a simple solution:

If you don’t want to burn a flag, don’t buy a flag, soak it in kerosene, and set it on fire.

If you do want to burn a flag, don’t steal someone else’s flag, and don’t burn a flag on the private property of someone who objects, or in a way that creates a danger to others (in a dry forest, for example).

Either way, don’t try to tell people what they may or may not do with pieces of cloth they rightfully own.

Wow, see how easy that was?

Yes, I understand that many Americans care deeply about the flag. I get it. I served under it in the Marine Corps. My grandfather’s coffin was draped in the 48-star version of it in honor of his service in World War 2.

The flag is an inspiring symbol for millions. Those millions are fully entitled to their heartfelt emotions over it and to express those motions by standing in its presence, singing songs that praise it, and so forth.

For others, it symbolizes various evils to which they object. And those others are likewise entitled to voice their objections in any peaceful manner they choose, including burning it.

It’s a piece of cloth. Anything beyond that is something you bring to it, not  an intrinsic quality of the flag itself.  Feel free to express your  convictions through the flag. And tolerate others who do likewise.

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Find Community, Give, Receive, Repeat

Last night at a beer garden here in Atlanta, I got to see what a healthy modern tribe could look like.

I was meeting with dozens of new and old participants, alumni, and team members from Praxis, the startup apprenticeship program that helped launch my career. If it sounds like a staid old business conference, it wasn’t.

The atmosphere most closely resembled a family reunion more than anything. People were snapping photos and perching on picnic tables, and everyone felt free to talk to everyone else. Shared values and mission brought together people of different genders, ethnic backgrounds, places, ages, religions, and more.

Because of all the differences we brought to the gathering, there was this beautiful cycle of exchange at play – particularly between veterans and beginners. I received affirmation and welcome from mentors and role models. They received thanks and praise from me. I gave affirmation and welcome to younger, newer members of the community. They in turn honored me for my experience.

Everyone had a role to play in the cycle of exchange that comes with a healthy community – and everyone walked away with something. Communities like last night’s little ephemeral gathering provide opportunities to work, explore, play, support others, and receive support and encouragement ourselves. For me (and I suppose for many people), it felt good to play our roles well within that.

The giving and receiving of a healthy community (reciprocal respect and affirmation) is just *right*, and last night’s event was a small glimpse of what life can be like inside that flow.

What if that giving and receiving wasn’t an exception?

What if we engaged ourselves meaningfully as members of as many communities as possible? Or as meaningfully as possible in single communities?

Obviously adding value and receiving value from community isn’t something that can be done haphazardly. But given that stable, geographically-fixed tribes aren’t a thing anymore, we are going to have to work harder to replicate the feelings of closeness and reciprocal respect and love that we need.

Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to get community (and especially that reciprocal respect-affirmation cycle) in jiu jitsu classes, at church, at work, in my small group, and with my accountability partners. But even these small pockets of integrated community aren’t enough. I want to go deeper into relationship there, and I want to cultivate more areas where I can find reciprocal respect and affirmation.

I’m not one to harp on how we *need* other people (we do to some extent, just like we need independence). But community – and giving and receiving inside community – is not so hard to find and not so hard to recognize as one of life’s great gifts. Let’s make it the rule, not the exception.

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“Socialism”: The Provocative Equivocation

The socialists are back, but is it a big deal?  It’s tempting to say that it’s purely rhetorical.  Modern socialists don’t want to emulate the Soviet Union.  To them, socialism just means “Sweden,” right?  Even if their admiration for Sweden is unjustified, we’ve long known that the Western world contains millions of people who want their countries to be like Sweden.  Why should we care if Sweden-fans rebrand themselves as “socialists”?

My instinctive objection is that even using the term “socialism” is an affront to the many millions of living victims of Soviet-style totalitarian regimes.  Talking about “socialism” understandably horrifies them.  Since there are plenty of palatable synonyms for Swedish-type policies (starting even “Swedenism”!), selecting this particular label seems a breach of civility.

If this seems paranoid, what would you say about a new movement of self-styled “national socialists”?  Even if their policy positions were moderate, this brand needlessly terrifies lots of folks who have already suffered enough.

On reflection, however, this is a weak objection.  Yes, if a label’s connotations are – like “national socialism” – almost entirely horrible, then loudly embracing the label is uncivil.  “Socialism,” however, has long had a wide range of meanings.  Even during the height of Stalinism, plenty of self-styled “socialists” were avowedly anti-Communist.  The upshot: Even if you were a victim of Soviet oppression, assuming the worst when you hear the word “socialism” is hypersensitive.  And hypersensitivity is bad.

Yet there’s a much stronger reason to object to the socialist revival.  Namely: It’s far from clear that the latter-day socialists do mean Sweden.  While some (like John Marsh) plainly say so, others (like Elizabeth Bruenig) are coy indeed.  Which raises deeply troubling questions, starting with:

1. Are latter-day socialists unaware of the history of the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Given widespread historical ignorance and the youth of the new socialists, we can hardly rule this out.  A troubling thought; isn’t it negligent to champion a radical idea without investigating its history first?

2. Are latter-day socialists ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Do they look on the Soviet Union as a noble experiment with unfortunate shortcomings?  How about Chavez’s Venezuela?

3. Do latter-day socialists think of Sweden as a starting point, and something more radical as the ultimate goal?  Are there outright crypto-communists among them?  If so, do their comrades know?  Care?

4. Do latter-day socialists realize that being coy raises the preceding concerns?  Do they care?  Or is the raising of these concerns a “feature, not a bug”?  I.e., they enjoy making people wonder if they’re secret Leninists?

What’s the truth?  While I don’t personally know any latter-day socialists well, I do read a lot of articles in The Nation, which publishes a wide range of modern socialists.  So here are my best guesses about the preceding possibilities.

1. Older socialists (age 50+) know a lot about the actual history of socialism.  The younger ones (age 40 and under), however, know little and care less.  They’re negligent romantics.

2. Most historically-literate socialists are indeed ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name.  Very few will defend Stalin, but they just can’t stay mad at Lenin, Castro, or Ho Chi Minh.  Even the historically-naive socialists feel pretty good about Cuba today and Venezuela in 2015.

3. Yes, most avowed socialists have a more radical ultimate goal than Sweden.  In our Capitalism-Socialism debate, even the reasonable John Marsh mused about a future that realized radical socialist dreams without degenerating into a typical socialist nightmare.  How extreme, then, are ultimate goals of the unreasonable socialists?  While I really don’t know, videos like this make me strongly suspect that Bernie Sanders is literally a crypto-communist.  Even if I’m wrong, how many latter-day socialists would care if Sanders was a crypto-communist?

4. Latter-day socialists really do enjoy making people wonder about their ultimate agenda.  When you read The Nation, for example, authors almost never specify exactly what policy should be.  Instead, they focus on radical movement in a desired direction, with minimal discussion of their ultimate objective.  In particular, they almost never say what would be “too far.”  Of course, this describes most political movements; they want to rally the troops, not provide blueprints of an ideal world.  But when you cultivate a “radical” image but withhold specifics, you should expect critics’ minds to go to dark places.  Rather than try to calm the critics, the latter-day socialists court their disapproval.  In fact, most seem to positively enjoy the imagined intellectual trauma they’re inflicting on the unbeliever.

On reflection, then, the return of the self-styled socialist is indeed a travesty.  The reason, though, is not that the word is offensive, but that it is deliberately confusing.  If you really thought Sweden was a model society, you would just praise Sweden.  The “socialist” label, in contrast, is a provocative equivocation.  Latter-day socialists adopt it because they would rather insinuate their possible support for totalitarian horrors than earnestly promote an intellectually defensible position.

To what end?  In modern parlance, the latter-day socialists could just be trolling.  This is bad enough, but some socialists probably sincerely believe what they’re insinuating.  Or worse.  If all you want is Swedish social democracy, making common cause with such socialists is a grave mistake.

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The Small Death in First Steps

You’ve got a big giant dream. You decide to pursue it. This is exciting.

The planning is done. You start to get down to those first few steps. How do you actually execute and move forward on your big sexy vision?

By doing something so small and stupid it’s almost embarrassing.

I want to learn to beat people up, why am I waxing cars?

I want to learn to shred a face-melting solo, why am I playing scales?

I want to build a house, why am I cutting wood?

I want to own a worldwide bakery and cookbook franchise, why am I doing a bake sale?

The first step never looks like the big vision. It’s kinda boring. It’s very small. It’s not unique. It’s not going to impress anyone much. It’s easy to get mad and try to cram the first fifteen steps into one. But you can’t. You’ll lose. You need to take the first, smallest possible step by itself. Then the second. Then the third.

Taking that first small, unglamorous step feels like a kind of death. You have to let your awesome reputation for your big sexy leap idea die in order to ship the first little step. People will praise your awesome vision. They won’t be impressed by your first concrete step.

The difference between big results and small isn’t the size of the steps, it’s how many are taken.

The difference between fast growth and slow isn’t the size of the steps, it’s how quickly they’re taken.

And some steps will always be missteps. The smaller they are, the easier to re-take them properly. You’ve got to do this a lot and fast too. And never stop doing it.

Take the smallest possible step. Get it right. Take the next. Do this as fast as possible as many times as possible adjusting to bad steps as ruthlessly as possible. That’s the way. There’s no cheating the small steps.

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Reviewing Paranoia

We often hear about “movies that are better than the book,” but rarely of “book reviews that are better than the book.” Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh has just published one such book review.  Here’s Nowrasteh on Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders:

The gap in quality between the book described by reviewers above and the actual book Melting Pot or Civil War? is wider than in any other book that I can remember reading. Descriptions of “calm” and “reasonable” are the most perplexing. True, he appeals to Americans “who are willing to meet others halfway” to solve the problems that he’s identified. On the other hand, he also argues that we need to follow his policy recommendations or face a racialized civil war. That is the very opposite of a “calm” or “reasonable” argument. A better description would be “hysterical” or “paranoid.”

Hysteria and paranoia aside, what’s wrong with the book?  Salam engages in extreme reverse engineering, where even the most favorable facts about immigration somehow become extra reasons to oppose it:

For example, Salam disagrees with himself over whether the goal of immigration policy should be to increase wages and employment for low-skilled immigrants and their descendants, or per capita productivity growth in small sectors of the economy. He rightly claims that immigration barely affects wages in the United States, but then argues that a major benefit of stopping low-skilled immigration is higher wages for native-born and immigrant dropouts. Salam correctly points out that low-skilled immigrants today compete mostly against other low-skilled immigrants, so he wants to help low-skilled immigrants here by stopping more from immigrating in the first place.

Much of the book, moreover, is simply odd:

Forgetting everything that he wrote about labor markets, Salam praises a science fiction-esque scenario of “virtual immigration” where workers would work remotely by operating robots in the United States from their home countries — even though the labor market effects of that would at best be economically identical to allowing them to immigrate and work here. Salam argues that “virtual immigration will do more good than harm for U.S. workers, provided we have the right safeguards in place [emphasis added].” Salam does not explain what those safeguards are, how they would prevent competition in labor markets, and why the government couldn’t just apply those same safeguards to prevent labor market competition between low-skilled immigrants and low-skilled natives.

And:

Salam mentions the enormous economic cost to those foreigners who would be locked out of the United States under his preferred immigration policy. He proposes a package of U.S. foreign aid to bribe foreign governments to establish charter cities so that low-skilled immigrants can go there instead of the United States. Oddly, he predicts those charter cities will become “fonts of entrepreneurship and public policy solutions” and that excellent new ideas developed there will enrich America. If low-skilled immigrants are entrepreneurs who will create fantastic new ideas in these charter cities that will eventually make it to America, why not just let them come here in the first place? Why spill so much ink supporting a utopian scheme of charter cities as a solution to global poverty when immigration is a tried and true method?

You might think the “civil war” stuff is just hyperbole on the book cover, but no:

To his credit, Salam does admit that there is no private political violence in American today that is comparable to the chaos before the Civil War, but that “it is hard to shake the feeling that our luck might soon run out.” Civil war is a deadly serious topic and perhaps this reviewer is being too nitpicky, but I require more than Salam’s difficultly in “shaking a feeling” to take his worry seriously. He should have done more to show that the choice is really between his “melting pot” or a “civil war.”

Better yet, Salam should have proposed a bet.  I say that America – indeed, the entire First World – is not only too rich, but too electronically sedated, to physically fight about much of anything.  The risk of civil war in the First World is small enough to make even the trivial danger of terrorism look big by comparison.

If you think me naive, come take my money.

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What the College Admissions Scandal Reveals

A Tweetstorm.

1/ The signaling theory of education is correct.

Except a degree is not a signal of employability.

It’s a signal of adherence to the dominant social status religion of the day.

2/ Evidence is everywhere.

The mother who pressures her successful, happy, entrepreneur child to get a degree, while she proudly brags about her depressed, unemployed, basement-dwelling degreed child.

3/ The human capital theory of education is clearly bunk. Most people then conclude that degrees are bought because they are an employability signal.

This is also untrue, though it’s easy to see why it can appear that way sometimes.

4/ Not only are there classic correlation problems (e.g people with sports cars/degrees have more money on average), but social status games play a part in other games, like workplace politics, etc.

5/ The signal of social status games has overlap with the signal of employability. Some people prefer to hire other people who play the same social status games.

But employment signal is not the fundamental, causal mechanism for why people buy degrees.

6/ This is proven in so many ways but it’s hard to see until the blinders fall off.

People go into debt and suffer boredom for years “because I have to get a job” without ever asking what it would take to get a particular job.

7/ Imagine someone training for and running a marathon “because I have to to get customers for my artwork”, without every exploring the market to see what customers would need to make it worth buying your art?

8/ That is precisely how 90% of students/parents approach college. They have no idea what they want to do and whether college will help or hinder, yet they go in totally blind to the employment signal ROI, and spend irresponsible amounts of money on the degree.

9/ Why? Because they cannot resist the shame/envy/fear of being outside the dominant social status doctrine.

Again, pride for unemployed degree-holders dramatically exceeds that for successful drop-outs and opt-outs. Not even close.

10/ Multimillion dollar athletes and entertainers go back and buy degrees later in life and get treated as heroes. The employment signaling theory cannot explain any of this, because it’s not the dominant cause of degree buying.

11/ Degrees are a purchase made almost always for other people, not for you. They are made to make those around you feel comfortable with your opting in to their envy games.

12/ If an individual has a career goal and they plan the next few steps to it, if it doesn’t involve a degree, everyone pressures them and tells them they are a loser.

It it involves a degree, no one demands any plan, or any successful outcome at all and they get praise.

13/ Those who opt out of status games are a threat to the herd. They cannot be manipulated, they are unpredictable, they are bold.

They are also the only ones who every create progress and improve the lot of the herd.

14/ Make each step your step, not the step that makes everyone clap and give you cheap praise.

Make your goals about you.

Go build the life you want, don’t seek the badges that keep everyone happy.

15/ Your individual scoreboard is more important to your flourishing than your relative status on the collective status scoreboard.

16/ Fin.

Addendum:

I think it once was primarily an employment signal and status second. That became a religious belief and the social status part flipped to dominant.

Like buying a home was a good investment, that advice became religion, then people bought homes based on status.

(And subsidies and propaganda)

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