The Gods Whose Sacrifices We Neglect

The old gods have a lot to teach us.

Sure, we all know that the Greek pantheon – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Hades, Ares, Athena, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysus, and the rest – don’t *really* exist.

But there is a reason people chose these characters to personify their understanding of the world. As psychologist Jordan Peterson points out, each god (in all of his or her power and pettiness) represents some of the fundamental human drives or attributes – sex, intelligence, wrath, independence.

The old Greek pantheon is a sophisticated way for understanding the complex human mind, which is home to many powerful needs and drives that sometimes act like personalities.

Like the gods of legend, these “gods” of our personality don’t like people who spurn them. And it doesn’t take a long look into Greek mythology to know that the gods do awful things to people they don’t like. Afflictions of madness, afflictions of lust, transformation into animals – it’s not pretty.

Aren’t fighting for your rights, your ideas, or your self-respect? You are neglecting Ares (the god of war) and he will exact his sacrifice someway. Usually this will look like a gradual building resentment, with an explosion of anger toward someone who doesn’t deserve it at a time it’s not called for.

Aren’t honoring or expressing your own sexuality? You may be offending Aphrodite (who brought about the downfall of Heracles – so not someone to be messed with). She’ll have her due, in uncontrolled, warped, or frustrated desire.

Aren’t preserving your independence and purity? Giving in to the crowd? Surrendering what makes you unique? In a sense you are offending the virgin goddess Artemis, who is perhaps the scariest of them all (she’ll turn you into a stag and have your own hounds kill you).

It’s all imagination, I know. But I still find it interesting to think of my own drives or needs as personalities. With personalities, at least we can bargain. We can make the sacrifices that all good Greeks knew to make. And we can remember that neglecting any of the gods has terrible consequences.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Down Side of Impeachment

Unless there’s some dramatic change in the political landscape over the next month or so, I believe that the US House of Representatives will impeach President Donald Trump.

Unless there’s some dramatic change in the political landscape between now and Trump’s trial in the US Senate, I don’t believe the Senate will vote, by the necessary 2/3 majority, to convict him.

Taken together, those two outcomes constitute a bad thing. Here’s why:

If I’m correct on the first count, Donald Trump will become the third US president to be impeached by the House (the first two were Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998).

If I’m correct on the second count, Donald Trump will become the third US president to be acquitted by the Senate.

When Johnson and Clinton were impeached, no reasonable doubt remained that they were guilty of at least some of the charges laid in their articles of impeachment. Johnson had indeed dismissed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office after the Senate had voted not to concur with his dismissal. Clinton had indeed lied under oath concerning his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

If Donald Trump is impeached, he will likewise be charged with one or more things which he, beyond a reasonable doubt, actually did.

In theory, the House’s job is to decide whether or not an act is worthy of impeachment, and the Senate’s job is only to determine whether or not the president actually committed that act.

In real life, this will make three times out of three that the Senate engages in a form of jury nullification. At least 34 Senators will vote, in the face of facts plainly demonstrating guilt, to acquit.

Blame partisan bias if you like.

Or, if you prefer, accept some Senators’ claims that they disagree that the acts in question, though proven, rise to the level of treason, bribery, or “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Either way, a three for three record of acquittals sends a message to every future president:

So long as your party can whip 34 Senators into line to vote against conviction, anything goes.

Fans of the separation of powers envisioned in the Constitution have bemoaned “the imperial presidency” since the 1960s.

Trump has openly and routinely hacked away at that fraying separation. Impeachment and acquittal would be an injection of steroids in his sword arm.

Absent conviction, impeachment isn’t just useless, it’s catastrophic.

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You’re All A Bunch of Socialists

A fun figure from Tetlock et al.’s “The Psychology of the Thinkable”.

 

Background:

Participants were told that the goal of the study was to explore the attitudes that Americans have about what people should be allowed to buy and sell in competitive market transactions:

Imagine that you had the power to judge the permissibility and morality of each transaction listed below. Would you allow people to enter into certain types of deals? Do you morally approve or disapprove of those deals? And what emotional reactions, if any, do these proposals trigger in you?

Respondents then judged two types of trade-offs: routine (secular-secular) and taboo (secular-sacred). The five secular-secular trade-offs included “paying someone to clean my house,” “buying a house,” “buying food,” “paying a doctor to provide medical care to me or my family,” and “paying a lawyer to defend me against criminal charges in court.” The nine secular-sacred trade-offs included buying and selling of human body parts for medical transplant operations, surrogate motherhood contracts (paying someone to have a baby whom the buyer subsequently raises), adoption rights for orphans, votes in elections for political offices, the right to become a U.S. citizen, the right to a jury trial, sexual favors (prostitution), someone else to serve jail time to which the buyer had been sentenced by a court of law, and paying someone to perform military service that the buyer had a draft obligation to perform.

Libertarians are notorious for gratuitously alienating everyone who doesn’t agree with them.  Looking at diverse critics and sneering, “You’re all a bunch of socialists” is a classic example.  Figure 1 shows, however, that there is a more than a kernel of truth in this unfriendly observation.  Conservatives, liberals, and socialists are all highly and almost equally hostile to creative expansions of the domain of the free market.  Is this because the “unthinkable” proposals are too radical to appeal to anyone who isn’t a libertarian?  Not really; many economists with zero libertarian sympathies would be on the same page.

Could the socialists analogously gripe, “You’re all a bunch of capitalists”?  Not easily.  Even self-conscious socialists are only moderately outraged by routine trade-offs – and this outrage tapers off almost linearly as we move from liberals to conservatives to libertarians.  At least in this data set, libertarians are clear outliers – and the disagreements between conservatives, liberals, and socialists are marginal.  I wish it were otherwise, but it rings true.

Last point: Tetlock et al.’s data helps explain why so many people falsely imagine that most economists are libertarians.  How so?  Because they are the only two groups that routinely transgress anti-market taboos.  Even left-wing economists, for example, have been known to endorse a market in human kidneys.  Even if they disagree, most will politely discuss an issue that almost everyone else considers beyond the pale.  Upshot: When libertarians tell mainstream economists, “You’re all a bunch of socialists” they’re not merely being undiplomatic.  They’re being wrong.

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The Discouraged Suitor

Labor economists occasionally have a crisis of faith.  After years of scrutinizing the unemployment rate, they suddenly remember… discouraged workers.  Who are they?  They’re people who want a job, but aren’t officially unemployed because they aren’t actively searching for work.

This is a serious problem – and a serious flaw with official unemployment rates.  True, we should not forget the Prideful Worker Effect – the workers who say they want a job, but refuse to do any job for which they’re genuinely qualified.  But if you take introspection half as seriously as I do, you can hardly deny that lots of people find job search extremely demoralizing.  When your whole ego and sense of self are on the line,  one needs Stoic determination to keep looking in the face of multiple rejections.  Every parent has seen even the sweetest of children surrender to despair.  Does anyone seriously believe that human beings cease to have these emotions by their eighteenth birthday?

Happily, there’s a silver lining: If you ever become a worker, strong social norms rise to your defense.  Imagine you fail to find a job.  If anyone mocks your failure, virtually everyone will take your side.  The same applies if a bystander snarks, “I guess your very best just isn’t good enough, haha.”  Until you finally land a job, parents, friends, and total strangers will share a bounty of comfort, hope, and friendly advice on how to do better.

Yes, you may prefer to brood alone.  Social norms, however, insist that discouraged workers need to be encouraged even if they don’t want to be encouraged.  If you say, “I can’t find a job,” you will hear a barrage of questions: “Where have you looked?”  “Are you using social media?”  “Maybe you’re aiming too high?”  “Have you asked your friend, Jim?”  Or even: “The economy’s picking up; have you tried re-applying anywhere?”  You’ll also enjoy an abundant supply of truisms: “You’ve got to keep trying,” “We all fail, but you can’t give up hope,” and “There’s no harm in asking.”  A tad annoying, but these questions are the expression of a valuable social norm: Encourage the discouraged.

Once you take the plight of the Discouraged Worker to heart, you might wonder, “Are there any major analogous social ills that I’ve also overlooked?”  The first that comes to my mind is what I call the Discouraged Suitor.  Lonely people normally search for a mate; they’re analogous to the conventional unemployed.  Some lonely people, however, are analogous to Discouraged Workers.  Such people want to find love, but the dating experience is so depressing they stop trying.

Denying the existence of Discouraged Suitors is as dogmatic as denying the existence of Discouraged Workers.  In both cases, people face a challenge of epic proportions: convince an employer to hire you… or convince a stranger to love you.  When the stakes are this high, failure is scary.  Unsurprisingly, then, we commonly respond to failure with despair: “I’ll never find a job” or “I’ll never find love.”  Discouraged Workers silently endure deep feelings of uselessness.  Discouraged Workers silently endure deep feelings of loneliness.

There is however one major difference: Social norms on the treatment of Discouraged Suitors are none-too-supportive.  Parents and friends naturally urge the lonely to persist in the pursuit of true love: “There’s someone out there for everyone!”  Yet social norms have also long allowed public mockery of the socially awkward and unattractive: “You’re 25 and never had a girlfriend, heh!”  In recent years, moreover, norms against sexual harassment have become stricter and vaguer.*  Is asking a co-worker out on a date sexual harassment?  What about asking twice?  Sure, the probability that you will be fired for one vague affront remains low.  The typical Discouraged Suitor, however, is already petrified of rejection.  When the norm shifts from “Let them down easy” to “Zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” many lonely people choose the safe route of silent sorrow.

Personally, none of this affects me.  I met my wife when I was nineteen, and have never dated anyone else.  Along the way, though, I have met many silently suffering lonely souls.  If Discouraged Workers deserve sympathy, don’t Discouraged Suitors deserve the same?  Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that Discourage Suitors have a right to be loved or even liked.  Like everyone else, however, they should be treated with good manners.  Indeed, since Discouraged Suitors rarely speak up on their own behalf, should we not make an extra effort to consider their feelings?

* Morrissey, one of my favorite singers, has said made multiple inflammatory comments on sexual harassment, but there’s a kernel of truth here: “Anyone who has ever said to someone else, ‘I like you,’ is suddenly being charged with sexual harassment.  You have to put these things into the right relations. If I can not tell anyone that I like him, how would they ever know?”

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Did Jeffrey Epstein “Belong to Intelligence?”

In 2008, billionaire asset manager Jeffrey Epstein’s lawyers negotiated a very favorable plea bargain in Florida, under which he served a mere 13 months in jail — in his own private wing, with 12 hours of daily “work release” — on a single charge of soliciting prostitution from a minor (the FBI had identified 40 alleged victims of sexual predation on his part).

Epstein’s in jail again, this time in New York, on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. Again, prosecutors allege at least 40 victims.

A prospective 41st casualty of the case, perhaps not an undeserving one, is Alexander Acosta. As US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Acosta negotiated that sweetheart 2008 plea agreement. Now he faces calls for his resignation as US Secretary of Labor.

How did the plea agreement come about? For an easy explanation,  look to a (supposed) exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s:

Fitzgerald: The rich are different from you and me.
Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.

More money buys more formidable lawyers (in Epstein’s case, Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr). More money usually means friends with more money, and with the influence that goes with having more money. It’s just a fact of life that more money sometimes means getting away with — or at least getting off easier for — things would put you or me in jail for a long, long time.

But another possibility rears its ugly head. In an article for The Daily Beast, investigative journalist Vicky Ward quotes a former senior White House official, in turn quoting Acosta’s response to questions about Epstein during his interview with President Donald Trump’s transition team:

“I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone.”

Yes, we’re getting that quote at third hand. Unfortunately, yes, it sounds plausible.

Suppose you were a wealthy and influential man with wealthy and influential friends — not just celebrities, but business moguls and politicians — from around the globe.

Suppose you held wild sex parties on your private island and invited those wealthy and influential friends, even ferrying some of them to the island on your personal Boeing 727 airliner.

Suppose those wild sex parties included the presence, voluntary or coerced, of  young (perhaps illegally so) women.

That’s pretty good extortion material, isn’t it?

Now suppose a government intelligence agency offered to protect you from prosecution for your escapades — perhaps by leaning on a federal prosecutor to make the matter go away with minimal punishment —  in return for that extortion material?

Is that how things happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But if so, it would be far from the first time that innocent men, women and children have been sacrificed to the false idol of “national security.”

Since World War Two, the United States has built itself into a “national security state” which recognizes no ethical or legal constraints. It’s doesn’t exist to protect the American public. It exists to protect itself. And, too often, it protects the predators among us.

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The Weakest Generation

“What is wrong with people today?”

It’s a question we hear frequently, in many different forms, but all are probing at an increasingly obvious observation. Previous generations entered their thirties with families, houses, and a decade or more of meaningful work experience under their belt. They bought used cars, built small starter homes, worked their asses off, and somehow made it work. Their families grew as did their homes, they got better jobs, started businesses, saved for retirement, and dressed pretty damn well doing it.

Contrast that with the weakest generation which can’t figure out why spending a quarter of a million dollars getting a sociology degree won’t make them happy and provide them the standard of living to which they believe they are entitled. Millennials have extended childhood from 18 to at least 26 (when the big mean government forces them off mommy and daddy’s healthcare plan), while they save nothing, own nothing (other than $50 T-shirts and $200 jeans), and wonder why “the system” continues to fail them.

As it turns out, sharing a downtown loft with a horde of dysfunctional roommates, taking an Uber every time you need to travel, and using Postmates instead of going grocery shopping doesn’t exactly create functioning adults.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Helicopter parenting, participation trophies, a lack of real-world experiences and work (whatever happened to summer jobs?), and the systemic failures of higher education have all played their part. Let’s talk a bit about the last one.

America’s modern higher education system has failed to provide marketable skills to an entire generation (going on two now) while massively increasing costs due to ever more bloated administration and taking on a host of projects designed to accomplish social goals rather than to prepare people to be productive. This is not an insignificant contributor to our country’s present sad state of affairs.

They’re depressed!

Every year or so, it seems that the estimated number of depressed people increases. Current estimates claim that 15 percent of the adult population will experience depression at some point in their lifetime. Could it be that the increase in depression is less about any fundamental changes in brain chemistry and more about people allowing themselves to sit around thinking about how bad they imagine their lives to be compared to whatever unrealistic and unrealized fantasies they have concocted?

People have always felt sad, had bad days, and sometimes felt like not getting out of bed. They did it anyway. They got up, put their boots on, did their damn job, took care of their families, and focused on what mattered instead of on their aversions and phobias. Busy people don’t have time for prolonged bouts of introspection and discontent.

I understand that mental health is important. It’s a core component of well-being, in fact, but I believe that people are looking in the wrong direction. Mental health and well-being are not being improved by our modern society—they are being made worse. This hyperfocus on “self-actualization” and other pseudo-scientific nonsense is (quite literally) driving people crazy. Life will never be perfect and happiness is a decision more than it is a reaction to circumstances or environment. Humanity (as a species) has long benefited from the structure of people getting married, having children, producing wealth, and training the next generation to do the same.

Today, people are questioning the basic science of their own existence, mutilating their bodies, attempting to restructure the primary building blocks of society and humanity, all while going into debt and rejecting fundamental biological imperatives. Humanity isn’t evolving at this point. It’s (over) thinking itself out of existence.

The downside of freedom

Let me go on record as being an unequivocal supporter of individual freedom. You absolutely have the right to do or not do whatever you choose so long as you do not aggress against the life, liberty, or property of others in the process. That said, it is still possible to use (or misuse) one’s freedom in a manner which is harmful to oneself and which, if widely adopted, could lead to the downfall of the human race. I’m not just talking about excessive heroin use, either.

Among millennials (although the trend is spreading), there is a growing tendency to question everything—even basic truths and fundamental realities. They question their genders and their sexuality, their purpose in life, their reason for existence. They search for hidden and higher meanings in everyone and everything, all the while condemning those who prefer a more forthright existence. Saving the whales is no longer enough—now they want to save the planet (perhaps the next generation will task themselves with saving the galaxy) as if they are the superheroes of their childhood imaginations.

The result is something of a lost generation. They are not aimless, exactly, but by taking aim at everything, they are effective at nothing. Rather than focus on the fundamentals of career and family, they search for meaning through social justice campaigns and wars against those who hold unpopular or traditional views.

And yet they are still unhappy and unfulfilled.

This situation can be vividly observed in millions of disaffected young Americans embracing the tenets of socialism as preached by a septuagenarian millionaire who has convinced them that their happiness is contingent on torpedoing the economy for short-term gain. Perhaps they will be happy when they are reduced to eating zoo animals as has happened recently in the “socialist paradise” of Venezuela.

What now?

The solution to these problems isn’t particularly complicated, but its implementation is far more difficult. The solution is a return to the proven principles of hard work and free markets that transformed America from an agrarian colony to an economic powerhouse unrivaled in human history.

Human beings thrive when they are busy and productive. Sitting around a coffee shop debating which pronouns most effectively convey one’s chromosomal ambivalence is not the key to happiness. We need purpose and ambition for our lives to have meaning. We need work and responsibly to give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The beauty of a free market is that an individual’s drive is all that is required for success. It doesn’t require that one be born a noble or attend a royal academy. In a free market, those with talent and ambition have truly unlimited potential. Sadly, this seems to scare millennials rather than to inspire them. They want to turn off the market and replace it with a “universal basic income” so that everyone can be equally miserable in a life of perpetual navel-gazing.

I may be a millennial by age, but I have no desire to spend my life in morose self-absorption while blaming those who are successful for my mistakes and bewailing my life in a world that fails to acknowledge my genius. Life is too short to waste it wishing for an unobtainable reality—especially given how much happiness is available in our present reality to anyone with the gumption to take advantage of it.

I refuse to be a part of the weakest generation and to squander my life begging the state to care for me. I want no part of such a pathetic existence. I will make my own way in this world and I challenge others to do the same. Let’s return to the proven strategies that have successfully created prosperity for numerous past generations. They never stopped working. People did.

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