Kill the Masses

unmarketingIt seems like the 20th century was a bad dream… mass industrialization led to mass markets and mass media to sell us on mass war.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Industrialization provided goods and services to end mass starvation.

We’re in a new era: the digital era, and now we must leave “mass” thinking behind.

To succeed in the market these days, you must offer a genuine experience to each individual customer. In the 20th century, people wanted to be able to drive across Route 66 and stay in a Motel 6 and eat a McDonald’s hamburger because they wanted something familiar, and because there was no information on the random hole-in-the-wall available. Now we have Yelp to let us know if that local place is charmingly quaint or infested with cockroaches.

The new economy is not for people who want to punch a clock and go home at the end of the day. What happens to the people who prefer a structured routine? Can we assume that every person has a passion that can be turned into a skill that can launch a career? Because we all have the world of information at our fingertips, and because we have an abundance of competing material goods, the market advantage belongs to the business that provides the best customer service. The best customer service comes from building relationships. Relationships take time and risk, they’re not immediately quantifiable.

In Chapter 58: UnNetworking: Why Networking Events Are Evil, Stratten and Kramer describe two types of networking interactions that emphasize the necessary shift in thought. In the first example a real estate agent (“Never go full realtor” as Scott Stratten says) arrives at the networking event and forces his business card on people and offers to trade website exposure. In the second example, two people who have had conversations on Twitter recognize each other,

No awkward, “So what do you do?” questions with elevator-speech answers. No card exchange. Just a genuine great feeling of meeting somebody in person who you feel you already know — because you already do.

An economy based on personal relationships cannot be measured in Excel charts and metrics. You have to take the time and make the effort with no guarantee of monetary compensation. But trading business cards and offering to link someone’s website on your blog has no guarantee either.

Not too long ago, there was a lot of angst about social networks creating an illusion of connection. We are craving genuine relationships, in our personal lives and when shopping for goods and services. Take the risk of getting to know someone, and you may have a loyal customer. Or not. But maybe this is how we evolve out of capitalism, maybe this is how we stop measuring our time and worth by the number of dollars we bring in. Welcome to the digital age.

Bad Judgment


There is a famous story of a rich old man being interviewed by a young striver, who asks him for the secret of his success.  “Good judgment,” says the magnate.

His eager young follower dutifully scribbles this down, then looks at him expectantly. “And how do you get good judgment?”

“Experience!” says our terse tycoon.

“And how do you get experience?”

“Bad judgment!”

-Megan McArdle, The Up Side of Down

I tend to avoid experience– because I don’t want to make mistakes. McArdle writes about good students who grow up feeling that success meant doing things that come easily. I was that student. I was naturally good at reading and avoided music and sports. Only now am I learning the value in trying to master something that doesn’t come easily– entrepreneurship. The secret seems to be, “Just Do It” and figure out if it was the right thing to do later. I’m hoping this approach will get better results than my current strategy of sit and do nothing until I figure out the right thing to do (spoiler alert: there is no “right thing” to do).

This book is so rich, I could pull a quote from every page. Really, she touches on everything that matters: love, unemployment, video games, 9/11 Truthers, buying a home, etc.

McArdle concludes her book with a chapter on Forgiveness. She makes the argument that when we have a culture that gives people the freedom to make mistakes, they will thrive. Even when they don’t thrive, that culture of forgiveness costs less than insisting that people pay for their mistakes. She uses the specific example of programs that help the homeless by renting apartments for them, without requiring clean drug tests or a job. Even when the beneficiary doesn’t quit drugs, that program costs less than the hospital and prison stays that otherwise would happen.

The key is to practice bad judgment early in life, when mistakes don’t cost so much. Or to anticipate the worst outcome and be ready for it (ideally, with an 8-month emergency fund). And when you do make a mistake, it’s better to stop your course of action ASAP.

Most of us can look back at some moment of crisis and realize that this is when life, after years of send us more-or-less polite cease-and-desist notices, finally punched us square in the face as if to say, ‘I’m not kidding around! Cut it out, you stupid moron!’

McArdle is very adamant that you will never learn to like failure. It sucks and it will always suck. But we still need to learn how to fail better. It doesn’t mean that there’s some clear lesson in every failure, or that you should try again. Maybe it means that failure does not define you as a person (neither does success). Once we let go of defining ourselves by success or failure, we can get on with doing useful things.

Vulnerability as Strength

Schumer bookLast night, after a day of making bad decisions, I decided to go on a bender. But because I’m a huge dork, my bender took the form of blowing $100 at Book People. Included in my short stack of books (when did they get so expensive??), was Amy Schumer’s new book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

I was really surprised when I first saw Amy Schumer’s comedy and liked it. I don’t usually like comedians who talk so much (and so graphically) about sex and other bodily functions– but maybe that’s because the comedians who usually talk about that stuff are men and they were talking about bodily functions that don’t happen in my body. Also, I’m a very cerebral person, so talking about body stuff usually makes me uncomfortable.

But, of course, comedy is about confronting discomfort. And I love Amy Schumer for her form of comedy. There’s one chapter about her experience at a camp for people with disabilities and she learns how to accept that bodies are different and you have to own yours. I had a friend in college who insisted on making us all go to the women’s tub at the spa so that we could see female bodies that weren’t air-brushed. I’m so grateful for that! Of course, Santa Fe had a culture of loving natural bodies and aging gracefully and feminine power. It was a great place for me to spend my early 20s.

Amy Schumer is my age and grew up on Long Island. When I first learned this, I concocted a whole alternate childhood for myself where my parents raised me on Long Island (it’s where my mom grew up and we have family there), and Amy and I went to the same school and were best friends. Reading her book and learning about her childhood, I realized there’s no universe in an oodleplex of universes in which she and I would have been friends.

While she was off scheming about boys and trying cigarettes and beer, I was in my isolated world, reading books. I would have been the awkward, weird girl that she ignored. The weird thing is, she writes as if she was the awkward, weird girl making people laugh because she loved the attention. Twenty years later and I’m at home on a Friday night reading about her adventures instead of going out and having my own. That’s me I guess, and Schumer’s book is all about being yourself with no apologies. And I don’t regret my nights reading books, I started this blog to make myself spend more time reading books!

Schumer’s book is a very rich, human autobiography (even though she writes in the “Note to my Readers” that it is not an autobiography, I beg to differ). I was expecting a rehash of her stand-up material, instead I got a real story about her life. That’s the key to her comedy, too, she tells real stories that are genuinely painful and makes you laugh at them.

Beautiful, ugly, funny, boring, smart or not, my vulnerability is my ultimate strength.

-Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, p. 314

There are a lot of things I connected with– but I’m not going to write about them here. I only recently have been able to admit certain things to myself, I’m definitely not ready to publish them on the internet– maybe I’ll never publish them on the internet. Again, that’s me. And I’ve been learning a lot about the strength within vulnerability. It has something to do with going out into the world, letting it destroy you, picking up the pieces and doing it again. And again and again… until what? I don’t know but I’ll have to keep going until I find out what’s next. That’s another part of being strong and vulnerable, having faith that this is worth it, even when there’s no plan.

Reason versus Emotion

From The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years.  There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg.  I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion.  I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.  Morality binds and blinds.  The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal.  That was Hume’s project, with his philosophically sacrilegious claim that reason was nothing but the servant of the passions

Fascinating paradox that a “cult of reason” can’t “think clearly” about reason, but it’s something I’ve begun to realize as true.  As a freshman in college, I was enchanted by Plato and completely bought into the separation of reason from the “animal passions.”  Then I worked as a dog trainer and read the books of Dr. Patricia McConnell, who has written about emotions in dogs.  I can’t find the exact source, but it’s similar to what Haidt describes:

I also read Descartes’ Error, by the Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.  Damasio had noticed an unusual pattern of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain… Their emotionality dropped nearly to zero.  They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing.  They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ… Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all… Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally.

When I learned that people who suffered damage to the emotion center of their brain were no longer able to decide whether to put shoes or pants on first, it was like a light bulb went off in my brain.  When I make decisions, like how to make a monthly budget, I’m no longer tortured by the goal of creating the most rational budget, but I allow my gut feelings to color my decisions.  Then I can get on with my life and generally be a less anxious person.  It means that I don’t have to find the “right” answer… I can go with the answer that feels right.  I think it has made me a happier person.

Inherent moral compass

“If you force kids to explain complex notions, such as how to balance competing concerns about rights and justice, you’re guaranteed to find age trends because kids get so much more articulate with each passing year. But if you are searching for the first appearance of a moral concept, then you’d better find a technique that doesn’t require much verbal skill… Elliot Turiel developed such a technique. His innovation was to tell children short stories about other kids who break rules and then give them a series of simple yes-or-no probe questions. For example, you tell a story about a child who goes to school wearing regular clothes, even though his school requires students to wear a uniform. You start by getting an overall judgment: ‘Is that OK, what the boy did?’ Most kids say no… Then you probe to find out what kind of rule it is: ‘What if the teacher said it was OK for the boy to wear his regular clothes, then would it be OK?’…

Turiel discovered that children as young as five usually say that the boy was wrong to break the rule, but that it would be OK if the teacher gave permission… Children recognize that rules about clothing, food, and many other aspects of life are social conventions, which are arbitrary and changeable to some extent.

But if you ask kids about actions that hurt other people, such as a girl who pushes a boy off a swing because she wants to use it, you get a very different set of responses. Nearly all kids say that the girl was wrong and that she’d be wrong even if the teacher said it was OK… Children recognize that rules that prevent harm are moral rules, which Turiel defined as rules related to ‘justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other.'”

-Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind


War Between the Sexes

For the past few months, I have participated in an online reading group with the Libertia Society.  We have been reading from Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s), and last night we read an excerpt from Jane Anger’s Her Protection for Women, published in 1589.

Anger was writing to contribute to male-dominated debates on the “natural condition of women.”

Fie on the falsehood of men, whose minds go oft a-madding and whose tongues cannot so soon be wagging but straight they fall a-railing.  Was there ever any so abused, so slandered, so railed upon, or so wickedly handled undeservedly, as are we women?

First: I love the prose in this piece.  I read most of it out loud to myself, because it reminded me of Shakespeare.  It was immediately clear that this was not philosophy, and the vibrant language was part of that.  It’s more like a 16th Century op-ed– written to incite debate, not to reveal metaphysical truths.

Anger builds her argument that the cause for the war between the sexes (my term, not hers) is that women are essentially good and men are essentially bad.  Men love women for their goodness, but resent feeling the pressure to suppress their bad natures.  Because women are so good and humble and virtuous, they don’t enter the debate to defend themselves, and that’s why the men have built up such a library of work that rail against women.  Anger agrees that:

it is most manifest that the man is the head of the woman and that therefore we ought to be guided by them

But just because the men are the boss, doesn’t mean women aren’t superior:

The gods, knowing that the minds of mankind would be aspiring, and having thoroughly viewed the wonderful virtues wherewith women are enriched, lest they should provoke us to pride and so confound us with Lucifer, they bestowed the supremacy over us to man,that of the coxcomb he might only boast, and therefore for God’s sake let them keep it.

So, basically, women have all the virtues, but men have the ability to boast about them–because the gods didn’t want to tempt women with pride.  A Shakespeare-dork like me loves this kind of comedy.

We are contrary to men because they are contrary to that which is good.  Because they are spurblind they cannot see into our natures, and we too well, though we had but half an eye, into their conditions because they are so bad; our behaviours alter daily because men’s virtues decay hourly.

Confession time: I sincerely do not believe that all men are bad and that all women are good.  As one of our discussion partners stated at the very beginning: these are gross generalizations, and, therefore, useless.  But I did enjoy reading this; I delighted in it.  It reminded me of moments in college, while reading Aristotle or Shakespeare who describe women as stupid, animal, slavish.  My male classmates grinned at each other and the females bristled.  It was unfair to hear the male philosophers ignorantly describe women, so I loved seeing the counter-argument.  But that’s the whole problem with the war between the sexes–even as it’s perpetuated in the media today.  When we pick a side and make judgments on a collective of humans, whether it’s based on race, gender, age, ability, etc, we distance ourselves from real human relationships.  The problem Anger identifies, that men resent having their vices corrected by the goodness of women, is a refusal to be vulnerable.  Every one of us needs to open and vulnerable, to be humble enough to acknowledge when we are wrong.

I’m not saying anything new.

The purpose of Anger’s article is to respond to a book about the Surfeit in Love.  The male author of that book wants to warn men not to enjoy the company of women too much, because then they will suffer the discomfort of surfeit (excess or uncomfortably full due to excessive eating or drinking).  Anger responds with advice to women to protect themselves, “A goose standing before a ravenous fox is in as good case as the woman that trusteth to a man’s fidelity.”  She cites an author, Tibellus, who set rules for women to follow so that they don’t create lust in the men who look at them:

Tibellus, setting down a rule for women to follow, might have proportioned this platform for men to rest in and might have said: every honest man ought to shun that which detracteth both health and safety from his own person, and strive to bridle his slanderous tongue.  Then must he be modest and show his modesty by his virtuous and civil behaviours, and not display his beastliness through his wicked and filthy words.

Change the wording a little, and you have a modern argument against street harassment.  We still blame women for wearing short skirts or low-cut blouses when they get harassed, yet most of the women on the Stop Street Harassment blog note that they were not wearing provocative clothing when they were harassed.  Anger’s argument is that the men should be taught how to control their own behavior, instead of placing the responsibility on the women.

If we clothe ourselves in sackcloth and truss up our hair in [dishcloths], [vulgar men] will nevertheless pursue their pastime.  If we hide our breasts it must be with leather, for no cloth can keep their long nails out of our bosoms.

Anger declares that a man’s motive is never for love, but only for lust.  He will imagine that every woman he desires also desires him, and he will tell her anything and everything to sleep with her.  Sound familiar?

At the end of men’s fair promises there is a labyrinth, and therefore ever hereafter stop your ears when they protest friendship, lest they come to an end before you are aware, whereby you fall without redemption.  The path which leadeth thereunto is man’s wit, and the miles-ends are marked with these trees: folly, vice, mischief, lust, deceit, and pride.  These to deceive you shall be clothed in the raiments of fancy, virtue, modesty, love, true-meaning, and handsomeness.

Why do we continue to repeat these lies about each other?  They are repeated constantly in TV shows, blogs, articles, academic studies…

It’s tempting to believe that all men are liars, rather than deal with the painful misunderstandings that are an inevitable part of any relationship.  Women tell each other lies, tell themselves lies, to feel better about rejection.  For me, this article was like candy, and once the sugar-high wore off, I felt sick.

The Socratic Method

Last week I was able to sit in on a high school class discussion on Plato’s Gorgias.

Back-story: I went to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM.  Every Johnnie I know gets a soft smile on his or her face at any mention of Socrates.  To the subspecies self-identified as Johnnie, sitting in on a discussion-style class on Plato is like eating watermelon on a hot summer afternoon.  It’s pure nostalgia.

The class took place at the Khabele + Strong Incubator, a “school” founded by another Johnnie.  This blog is about books and not education, so I won’t go into the brilliant framework of the Incubator, but please visit their website if you are curious.

First, the group agreed that belief and knowledge were on a spectrum, that a person can move between belief and knowledge depending on the circumstances.  The example we used was whether believing in angels is the same as believing in the Big Bang.  One of the students determined that even scientific knowledge is taken on faith, until you can understand the science that “proves” it to be knowledge.

Gorgias and Socrates discuss the difference between the skills of a physician and a rhetorician.  Gorgias was a very successful rhetorician and says he has made the rounds with his physician brother who cannot convince his patients to take medicine or submit to surgery. Gorgias applies his skills as a rhetorician and is able to persuade the patient to do what the doctor wants. This led to a discussion on the power of persuasion.  There’s a difference between being knowledgeable like the physician and persuasive like the rhetorician.  The discussion leader (a.k.a. teacher) asked how to fix this problem where ignorant people could be persuaded to some belief, despite what the knowledgeable people knew about the facts.  Three solutions were proposed:

1. Teach the ignorant to not be ignorant.

2. Teach the persuasive to have integrity so that they will only persuade people of the Truth.


3. Teach the knowledgeable to be persuasive.

This lovely group of high school students explored the pros and cons of each of those solutions.

For me, it was wonderful to take a step back from the substance of my everyday discussions on public policy and look at the purer, philosophical paradigm.  That’s the point of philosophy, to exercise our minds with abstract problems, because our daily decisions are colored with historical context and emotional attachment.  Young people, especially, need space to wrestle with these problems so that they can calibrate their moral compasses before being thrown into the confusing world.


Nature Lover

The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards
The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards

Chapter 7 of The Hobbit Party discusses Tolkien’s love for nature.  I remember watching The Two Towers in the theater, when Treebeard describes Saruman has having “a mind of metal and wheels ;and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for a moment.”

Tolkien’s attitude toward the industrial revolution always made me uncomfortable.  Growing up, my family would regularly go hiking or camping and I still love to escape from the city to be among trees and water.

There is scientific support that just being out in nature is healthy for us (from Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs):

A 2010 study asked 280 subjects in Japan to take strolls in both the park and the city.  After the nature walks, the participants showed lower “concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure.”  Strolling through parks is apparently a popular hobby in Japan, and goes by the poetic and slightly racy name of “forest bathing.”

On the other hand, the kind of people who generally speak out about protecting the environment are also the kind of people who tend to place little value on human life.  They also tend to support laws that violate property rights–which I cannot support.

And so, Witt and Richards come to the man responsible for an inordinate amount of anxiety I suffered in college: Rousseau.

One mistake that Tolkien-appreciating contemporary environmentalists seem prone to is seeing Tolkien as a kissing cousin of eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau… The English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalyrmple summarizes Rousseau’s view as “the complete opposite of the idea that man is born with original sin”, and suggests that it spread quickly through Western culture “because it means all you have to do to be good is to be your true self, and since your true self is really determined, you know what your true self is by doing exactly what you like.”  The idea does more than excuse bad behavior, Dalrymple emphasizes.  On Rousseau’s telling, “doing what you like, exactly what you like, becomes virtue, which is one of the reasons, for example, why in this country now, people who get very drunk in public believe that they’re acting virtuously”

We’re back to hippies.  “Be true to yourself” is a nice concept, but it also forgives a lot of selfishness.  Virtue is not about acting on impulse or instinct, but rather, recognizing that serving others’ needs actually makes us better and happier.  Humans constantly struggle with the conflict between short-term satisfaction and long-term satisfaction, just ask the diet and fitness industry.  It’s not that “be true to yourself” is wrong, we just have to be clear what it means in practice.  Jacobs wrote in Drop Dead Healthy that he took a picture of himself and ran it through some aging software.  He used the picture of his future self for motivation to eat healthy and exercise, being true to his future self who will want to play with grandchildren and remember their names.  That picture reminded him of long-term satisfaction, which helped him deny short-term temptation to sit around and eat junk food.

I always get lost in these trains of thought… For example, communities with strong familial bonds show high incidence of longevity, because maintaining relationships is healthy.  So is it selfish to maintain a friendship because of the ultimate benefit?  Or is it unselfish, because you’re considering another’s needs?  I suppose it’s both, and doesn’t really matter.

As for environmentalism, it does not make sense to simply leave nature to its own devices.  The Hobbit Party cites Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans who identify Tolkien’s attitude as “humans are best seen as both managers and servants, gardening a natural order that is useful but also valuable in its own right.”  This reminds me of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth first sees Mr. Darcy’s home of Pemberley.

Elizabeth was delighted.  She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.

Earlier in the novel, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s home serves as the example of awkward taste.  Pemberley provides a beautiful, orderly home for the Darcys without disrupting the natural resources of the country side.  Humans and nature coexist harmoniously at Pemberley, same as the Shire.  The presence of human civilization does not automatically cause the destruction of nature, as Rousseau and his intellectual progeny believe.  Rather, as in the Garden of Eden, we are here to serve as caretakers.

A new look at Middle Earth

The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards
The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards

My mom gave me this book for Christmas, after I made her listen to the Tom Woods Show podcast during our Thanksgiving road trip.  It’s called The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards.  This book was pretty much written exactly for me, because it blends my love of fantasy with my love for economics and libertarian political philosophy.  As a bonus, there’s a bit of theology as well:

Tom Bombadil is, among other things, an exercise in one of the great theological what-ifs–what if God had created a species of flesh and blood, made in his image, but one that never reached for the forbidden fruit, never sinned, never fell?  Would such a person be a naive, insipid figure of innocence? No, because goodness does not require evil to complete it.  Instead, as an intimate friend and steward of the Creator, he would be far more likely to develop something of the verve and fearless authority–the joyful exuberance, the playfulness, and magnanimity–of a Tom Bombadil.

I love this description of Tom Bombadil.  It reminds me of Kierkegaard’s man of faith in Fear and Trembling.

Witt and Richards make the distinction between a hippie-quality of valuing disorder and self, and the Christian quality of hospitality.  I remember discussing the Ancient Greek concept of “Xenia” which is also the quality that Abraham and and Lot expressed when they protected strangers in their homes– those strangers turned out to be angels.  The Christian tradition of putting others needs before self, and Bilbo’s observance of propriety that demands hospitality, are what give Bilbo the strength to overcome his fear, to overcome the instinct for self-preservation.  Thus, he becomes a hero.

This explication clarified for me a discomfort I always had for hippie culture.  I love the music and freedom that hippie culture values, but I always felt a disconnect from the culture.  Witt and Richards identified the cause for my disconnection: it’s self-centeredness, or solipsism (one of my favorite words).  More importantly, a culture that places value on hospitality also places value on welcoming people and ideas who are different.  You can certainly see a lack of openness on many college campuses today.  Check out these draconian speech codes, compiled by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

[This] degraded view of custom and courtesy, far from being merely cosmetic, threatens our capacity to sustain culture and forge authentic connections with other people and peoples.  The loss of courtesy in the older and richer sense of the term signals a growing inability to connect with anyone but our own increasingly limited selves.

In other words, it sounds lovely to be free from schedules and bourgeois obligations, to focus on the intangible benefits of loving people freely.  On the other hand, if you can’t keep a date or are regularly late to meet up with loved ones, you disrespect their time and show love of self, not love of others.

I don’t usually identify myself as a conservative, but Tolkien’s flavor of conservatism, as described in The Hobbit Party, is something with which I can identify.  It’s a devotion to order and custom, specifically courtesy.  Courtesy, on a broader scale, becomes respect for the rule of law, respect for a consistent process.  Rule of law requires all parties to agree to contracts and rules of order so that cooperation can occur.  This book describes the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum.  Bilbo accidentally asked, “What’s in my pocket?” and Gollum treats it as a riddle in the game, although Bilbo and the author recognize that it isn’t.  You could justify Bilbo’s cheating by saying his life was in danger, that Gollum is evil, so what does it matter if he cheats a bit?  I see this type of reasoning all the time, because I work in politics.  This reasoning values the self over others; it’s dangerous because it is egotistical.  We play by the rules because we recognize that our perspective is not the only perspective.  We play by the rules because we are humble.  It’s for this reason that the CIA should not torture prisoners of war, regardless of who signed which treaties.