Lavabit, Willy Wonka and Economic Intervention

Governments tend to attract some very intelligent, educated people. They offer decent pay, benefits, vacations, sick time and the perks of working for a large, successful organization.

So why do governments on the whole seem to be so stupid?

It’s not my intention to be inflammatory. But I’d be rather surprised to learn you hadn’t thought something similar at some point in time.

Granted, governments must grapple with a wide range of conflicts and dilemmas. There are all sorts of people to please—fat cat CEOs, foreign powers, central bank chairpersons, lobbyists, the party apparatus, and of course, the teeming masses. Even then, “the masses” isn’t some homogenous body. There are thousands of interest groups and organizations that emerge from the populace—not to mention every individual’s personal opinion and agenda. It’s a lot to think about.

But the jockeying for government attention by a wide variety of vested interest groups is only a feature of our current political paradigm. It likely won’t ever totally disappear, but as a defining, driving force in society, it will fade.

The perceived stupidity isn’t stupidity at all—it’s the mentality of the politician. They want power, then they want more power. We can’t really fault them. We need some sort of government. And government inevitably has power. So it attracts people for whom wielding power is attractive. These are politicians. While we all want power over our own lives, it takes a special mentality to crave power over vast numbers of unknown others. As such, the pursuit of power is an important and necessary drive in society, like the drive to be an entrepreneur or an activist or an academic.

What emerges is the paradox of control.

Politicians think themselves in control of something wildly complex and beyond them, things like entire economies or the activities of other sovereign nations or the actions of their people.

As I’ve discussed in a previous blog and its sequel, two of the best ways government can intervene in the economy is to vocally support commerce and promote capitalism. It’s very simple, actually. Politicians are, out of necessity, good at giving speeches that’s all they must do to help set a social context in favor of commerce.

If only they could leave it at that!

I’m reminded of the case of Lavabit. Edward Snowden used Lavabit to send and receive encrypted emails to and from the United States. Power-centered bureaucrats and politicians got wind of this and, in the early days of the ongoing NSA scandal, subpoenaed Lavabit’s owner, Ladar Levison, for information on his clients.

In an admirable display of his principles, Levison refused to give up the information, preferring to shut the business down instead. It was, after all, his business’ raison d’etre to not give up personal information. He was even told that to speak about the experience with the press (and his lawyer!) would result in some unspecified, but sufficiently scary, consequences.

Lavabit filled a gap in the marketplace. It’s not illegal for people to want their information kept private, and some people do. So it’s not as if the government was cracking down on prostitution rings or drug cartels.

Government coercion, born of fear and the misguided notion that their actions could stop up a hole in the marketplace inadvertently created a destructive ripple effect. Commerce was discouraged. Someone will fill the gap, probably from outside the U.S., depriving that country from a small but significant industry. Last I heard, New Zealand’s Kim Dotcom was planning on offering a similar service.

It’s pretty easy to screw up the economy when deliberate action is taken. Increasing taxes to the wealthy results in tax havens cropping up, brain drains, decreased investment and more corruption as rich people turn to paying bureaucrats off to achieve their aims. Banning certain products or services results in black markets or offshoring. Bailouts mean more money printed, leading to inflation, and more debt. All sorts of unintended things occur. I’m reminded of the two most beneficial economic policies to emerge from the U.S. government—the G.I. Bill and the freeway system. Neither was intended as an economic intervention. Both were a boon to the U.S.

I guess the lesson is: don’t think the government is going to save you. They’re more about power than they are about your prosperity. Yet, everyone seems to have their eyes turned toward statehouses and administrative buildings, just waiting for someone to emerge—like Willy Wonka from his factory—with a sugarcoated solution and a big, silly smile. What’s government going to do? Say: “We don’t know what to do…” That’d go over well come the next election. Maybe, as has been said dozens of times in this blog, we’ve got a responsibility. At the moment, I would say that responsibility is to quit expecting so much from government. Start expecting more from yourself.

Great Dreams and the Goodness Within Us

“To this war of every man against every man, this also inconsequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues. No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” 

 -Thomas Hobbes, Laviathan 

In a sense, these are powerful, motivating words. There is a Spartan in all of us; there is a warrior, a violent individualist. Hobbes speaks to a deep, latent beast inside of us. And while he is condemning this unavoidable aspect of man, one can’t help but sense an alignment with something old, dark and natural that we all share.

Our most basic instincts are animalistic—we must survive. If we didn’t, well, then everything else is pointless.

This penchant for violence and brutality got us through some tough times as a species. The classic scene is the primordial wilderness; a night sky filled with stars, dense, steamy jungle and a small band of near-primates gathered around a fire. The dreaded saber-toothed tiger leaps out of the brush and the men, sinewy and strong, fight back, stabbing at him with their sharpened, fire-hardened sticks until they kill the beast.

Our violent nature was not only directed toward other species. The current manifestation of mankind is the distant progeny of the most deadly and heartless our species could produce. Murder was not a moral issue for early man; it was an accepted way of life. Tribal wars killed off a significant portion of the would-be gene pool no doubt. The ancient Assyrians would slaughter entire cities in a day, killing tens of thousands in a matter of hours.

The darkened annals of history hold untold scores of genocides.

One mustn’t even look to the ancients. We all know about the Nazis, you might have heard about the Kurds or the attempt to kill off Bosnian Muslims in former Yugoslavia. But have you heard of the Cathars? They were a fringe Christian sect in Southern France. The Vatican and the Parisian kings considered them a thorn in their side and over several years during the 14th Century, killed them off to the man. Perhaps a few drops of Cathar blood flow through the veins of a handful of villagers in Languedoc, but they are effectively gone without a trace. How many more races, creeds and ethnic groups that we’ve never heard of have been wiped out?

And who does that leave? The killers.

This is partially why it is so difficult for us, as a race, to actively pursue producing Goodness, to enable peace, harmony and communal existence. We must fight a raging battle within ourselves. This paradox is our Achilles Heel. It is our impediment to progress and evolution and it must be overcome.

What’s required is a conscious, active, aware use of another part of us. I believe and see evidence of something ethereal within humanity; there is goodwill. It is often brushed aside in today’s spiritual climate, where mechanistic materialists—the scientific determinists who populate much of neuroscience and evolutionary biology—and militant atheists seem to hold the floor of our society’s discussion in some great, echoing filibuster.

But it’s that part of us that film studios try to tickle with cutesy Christmas movies. It’s the part of us that awakens in even the most hardened, jaded person when they happen across a child or animal in danger. It’s the part of us that enables the existence of organizations like Amnesty International or The Red Cross. It’s the part of us that tingles when we hear one of Martin Luther King or Gandhi’s speeches, when they powerfully assert ultimate values like freedom, truth, justice and beauty.

The pain and suffering that grabs headlines and our collective attention is a web as fine as spiders silk. In between the threads is not a void, but a great many tiny successes that together, are much greater and more powerful than the darkness. If this were not the case, we probably wouldn’t exist anymore—or the fight for goodness would be long dead. And it’s not. It has survived millennia of attempts to destroy it.

What sustains us are our dreams, great dreams that, as THEE puts it, consists of “having a personal vision of a good world and believing that any goodness that comes into the world can start as easily from you as from anyone else.”

This is the answer to Hobbes’ Laviathan. And I think he tried to show us that—and succeeded to some extent.

I have great dreams, you have great dreams. We all do. Let’s hear yours.

To Be Complex and True, or to Be Simple and Easy

We like to do what’s easy, or should I say, we like to do what’s easier.

I think modern civilization makes it even easier to do what’s easier. It’s no longer necessary that every family must work their own field and raise their own livestock and govern their own tribe. I write this, by the way, as I sit in my apartment, impatiently awaiting the delivery of my new washing machine. 

Things are particularly easy in smaller doses. Of course, it’s unfathomable to our minds that everything “is one,” but we’ve gone even further. We’re not a species; we’re Germans or Indians or fans of the Philadelphia Eagles or Mormons or Republicans or BMW owners or someone who only listens to vinyl or whatever. It’s dizzying the number of ways we’ve devised to split and fracture ourselves.

One of the great maxims of science is that nothing should be conceived of as more complicated than is absolutely necessary.

From a wide angle, humans and their ways are quite complex. But from behind our own eyes, it’s all very simple. I am what I understand myself to be, everyone else rambles through my periphery, separate and distinct from my “self.”

But now these paradoxes are getting too complicated.

It’s only natural—too much sonder, as they say these days—would be confusing. Who’s got the time? To evaluate each political issue, for example, would be too time and energy consuming. Rather see what my favorite pundit has to say about it, or hold it up to my ideological scaffolding, see if it hangs.

I’m as guilty as anyone. My nickname is high school was “Commie Tommy.” I had a Che Guevara T-shirt. I listened to Rage Against the Machine, hung on every word that came from Tom Morello’s mouth. If only that was the most embarrassing aspect of my teenage years.

Now, I’m confused rather often. Where do I put new information? I’m no longer satisfied to accept or reject something based on previously held ideological notions. When something new arises, I think: “Is it good for me? Is it good for everyone else? Should I worry that it’s good for everyone else or just worry about myself? What do all the certified MENSA members in the comments section have to say? I should probably think the opposite to be safe.”

Of course, this paves the way for relativity, something rather dangerous in its own right. It’s quite good for some things, like what kinds of music someone likes or questions such as: “Do you more enjoy spring of autumn?” But for others, there does exist truth and falsehood, joy and suffering, creation and destruction.

The fact of the matter is we are more complex creatures than we are simple. Just inside our own minds is something seemingly endless. What is it? You don’t even know! If you did, please enjoy your tenured position at the Ivy League university of your choice and a legacy as long as the human race happens to survive.

Then, make it bigger. Think about society. All of those little microcosms bumping into each other, communicating, doing things, bouncing ideas and thoughts around, trying to reconcile their own will with their family, their community, their country, their race, their species.

It’s so much easier to say things like: “This group is good, that one is bad. I’ll do and think and say what they do and not what ‘the other’ does.”

But that’s not fair, it’s not correct and you know it. You live it, but you know it’s not at all accurate. It’s like a biologist saying that skin cells are good and liver cells are bad. It’s absolutely ridiculous. And it is counter-productive to the progress of biological science because it’s simply not true and it misses the whole point. Biologists absolutely must understand that it’s all part of this overwhelmingly complex system.

Is being human any different? Surely not! 

The truth, the real honest-to-goodness truth is that “you” and “we” are complex. There are all sorts of bits and pieces to us, separate in their own way, but joined together to make us human. And man, it’s hard work getting down to the truth, especially when we’ve got kids and bills and surviving on our minds.

That’s why I understand why the work I do for TOP goes relatively unnoticed, why THEE in its entirety has yet to take off. Where to begin, right? How can a grand ordering seem so chaotic? What does “RH’7” mean anyway? How do I wrap my head around a spiral or a tree or an oscillating duality? I just clicked a link to get some insights on how to make my business profitable, expecting some pithy 10-step article about location and advertising and customer service.

I know what you got. I created the link!

We are always considering how to make THEE and TOP more accessible. Someday we might strike communicative gold.

In the meantime, take my word for it that what’s going on here is important. It’s truth and beauty and symmetry and, yes, even simplicity itself at times.

And if you’ve got the energy and time, talk to us! Challenge a claim I make in the blog. Ask for clarification or give your opinion in the comments section of thee-online. Have a conversation on Twitter. Leave a comment on Facebook. Watch a YouTube video and tell us what you think. I guarantee that conversing with you would be the highlight of my workday. And we both might learn something in the process.

Confusing and Clarifying Work and Play

I never gave much thought to work. I have and do work, of course, as most of us do. There have been many mornings (or afternoons depending on the job) where I’ve dragged myself out of bed while whining: “I don’t want to go. Work is no fun.”

Conversely, there have been days when the hours flew by and I finished up the day feeling accomplished and fulfilled.

There have been many things I’ve done that were extremely stressful and taxing, though I did them purely for my own, personal fulfillment. Does that make me a masochist? Last year, for example, I released my fifth studio album and for the fifth time in a row, I lost money.

Recently, I had a yard sale. According to my European friends, this is a uniquely American phenomenon. I filled a large portion of my yard with items I no longer wanted and labeled them with price tags. My daughter and I put a few signs on the busier roads near my house and my wife took out a couple of online classified ads. Then the three of us sat on our porch for most of the day as random people drove or walked or biked up to our house to pick through our belongings and haggle us over items we were offering away for 50 cents.

We ended making a couple hundred dollars while ridding ourselves of a lot of dead weight. At one point, I remarked to my wife that it was the most relaxing day I’d had in recent memory.

I’ve had jobs where I worked in the traditional sense. My first two summers in college, I would pick up large rocks at construction sites by hand and toss them into tractor buckets. I worked with hardened cowboys in the rocky, snow-tipped mountains of Utah who, by the age of forty or so, couldn’t get through a workday without a few cheap beers.

For six years, I was a short-order cook at a series of busy restaurants. Cooks are notorious for a warrior mentality and lifelong brotherhoods are formed under the crushing weight of the peak-hour rush. Knives become a blur, shouting and profanity becomes the common language and blood boils in the heat and stress as two or three guys pump out upwards of two hundred plates. It takes an amazing amount of concentration, efficiency and focus and there’s a certain addictive quality to it. Few cooks make more than $50 a day, if that. But you don’t have to look very hard to find someone who considers it his or her calling in life. I could always hold my own, but I was never one of those guys. And when I was offered management positions, I always turned them down. I considered it a temporary arrangement and if I was going to be there, I wanted to be on the front lines.

Nowadays, I can make a few hundred bucks in a day writing marketing copy for pawnshops and payday loan outfits from the comfort of my front porch. It’s really boring and one of the highlights of my week is writing this blog for significantly less. Another highlight is writing articles for a Berlin arts and politics magazine for free.

I Could Have Just Read Your Resume. What’s the Point? 

The point is: “work” is really complex. It’s a psychosocial phenomenon. If the previous stories prove nothing else, it’s that work is only partly about money.

Sometimes work is fun, and having fun is work. But work is never play. The difference is that when it’s work, you have a sense of accountability for the outcomes, and to yourself and those you’re working for. 

Take the yard sale example. I didn’t really care if anyone bought my junk. I would have given it to the thrift store down the street if they hadn’t. Yeah, I made some money—which was nice—but there was no real sense of responsibility. And as I said, it was ultimately a very relaxing day.

On the other hand, cooks make next to nothing but they work very hard. Furthermore, most of them take cooking very seriously. Let that comfort my more conservative readers who worry when they see that a tattooed cook with a mohawk is handling their food. I can almost guarantee that your order might be the most important thing in his life at that moment. I’m sure the same goes for most professions.

I’ve just begun to embark upon THEE’s Levels of Work framework. It’s still quite new, so I’m sure in a few months or so, once I’ve properly processed it, I’ll be able to write more specifically about things. But I’m starting to think of work as concept or phenomenon in a whole new, extremely fascinating way. Check back in the blog for more developments. And while you’re at it, let’s hear some of your work experiences.