Friday, June 19, 2015

Part of the solution

There's an old saying that tells us, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." I'm not sure where it originated, but I think it's wrong.  180 degrees backward, in fact.  It strongly implies that if there's a problem, and you're not actively, aggressively, proactively taking steps to affect change in the world beyond yourself, then you're actually perpetuating the problem. 

To be sure, there is a time and a place for activisim, for argument and debate, for vociferous protest.  But sometimes active crusading against a wrong has little or no power to make it right.  Sometimes it even becomes a greater problem than that which it purports to address.  There is a very real chance that whatever action you take to oppose the problem will either make it worse or have other unintended negative consequences.  Sometimes, by trying to force a solution, you become part of the same problem or another one.

It is indeed probable that more harm and misery have been caused by men determined to use coercion to stamp out a moral evil than by men intent on doing evil.” -- Friedrich August von Hayek

On the other hand, by quietly refusing to take part in the problem, you are leading instead of just demanding.  Simply by living a principled life, you set an example for others, and the more successful you are at arranging your own life and attaining your own contentment by those principles, the more they appeal to others.  When they see you prosperous without stealing, ambitious without envy, secure in yourself without disparaging others, in control of yourself without controlling others, courageous without belligerence, proud without boasting, it often sends a message more powerful than the most ardent proselytizing or the most sweeping legislation, and without fear of foisting unintended consequences upon your fellow human beings.

These are the people who have contributed to the solution by solving themselves.  They aren't perpetuating the problem; they are the very model of what the desired end game looks like.  They aren't publicly patting themselves on the back for being enlightened, and they aren't screaming at others to be more like them; they let the way they conduct themselves speak for itself.

“The only thing a psychically-human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit.” -- Albert Jay Nock
In other words, you can rail at your fellow man to improve himself until you're blue in the face, you can pass laws to compel him at gunpoint to act as you wish him to act (and let the root of the problem continue to fester underneath,) or you can improve the only person for whom you are solely responsible and over whom you can fully and rightfully exercise control: Yourself. 

A great many activists are so absorbed in trying to perfect "society" that they have entirely neglected this most essential human endeavor of improving themselves.  Whatever the merits of their arguments, hypocrisy is hardly inspirational, and deriding those who have presented society with that one improved unit as "part of the problem" is both hypocritical and idiotic.

By all means, be outspoken if you have something to say, but don't forget that first and foremost you must be the change you want to see.  If you do no more than that, you've already succeeded beyond what some of the most vocal activists will ever accomplish.  Remember, if you're not part of the problem, you're part of the solution.*


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Cognitive dissonance is a hell of a drug

Is there anyone out there who's completely, 100% satisfied with the job the government is doing?  Has there ever been?  If so, I'm not aware of them.

Ask anyone, and you'll find some area in which he or she believes the government is making a godawful mess of things.  Everybody's dissatisfied, if not downright angry, about government's dim-witted, ham-handed, overbearing mishandling of something.

And yet...virtually every one of these very same people will passionately and adamantly proclaim that this very same government that's making a horse's ass out of something they care very deeply about, is absolutely beyond reproach in some other area. 

Mr. Conservative rails about the incompetence and ulterior motives of government trying to manage the economy...but don't you even think about questioning the absolute authority and competence of the government when it comes to war or law enforcement, you unpatriotic sonofabitch!

Ms. Liberal decries the abuses of the police state and belligerent foreign policy...but pleads for the very same organization that unapologetically perpetrates those abuses to take absolute control of the economy, and if you don't agree, you're a heartless one-percenter!

The contradictions boggle the mind.  People trust the same outfit that's been promising peace in the Middle East for half a century without positive results to regulate the climate of an entire planet!  They want the folks who gave us the Federal Reserve banking cartel, which has presided over the depreciation of the dollar to less than 5% of its 1913 purchasing power, to resuscitate the economy.  They demand that the buffoons who have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and abused countless individuals in the perpetually-failing War on Drugs manage our medical care.  They think an institution famous for racking up trillions upon trillions of dollars of debt is uniquely qualified to manage their retirement savings.

And it gets worse.  Corporations control "our" government, they'll scream, and in the next breath call for government to be given more powers to regulate the economy.  Yep, nothing makes a bad guy behave like giving him a bigger club to beat you with!

Schools are failing?  Bigger budget!  TSA is the punchline of a bad joke?  Why, it must need more money!  More agents!  More scanners!  Police departments run amok?  Make those bastards investigate themselves!  Corruption in government?  More power!

And then, when you think it can't possibly get any more ridiculous, it really floors you, because whether these things are horrible crimes against humanity, or fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way changes from one presidential administration to the next.  Obama doubles down on the War on Drugs?  You might get an awkward mutter from a progressive, where he was screaming bloody murder when W was in office.  Growing the welfare state with a massive Medicare expansion?  Why, that's just George doing what's right for seniors, say the Rs.  AND...whatever side normally champions any given government program will NEVER be happy when the other side does it.

Government has an uncanny ability to make otherwise intelligent people think and act like imbeciles.  It's all completely ass-backward from how a sane, rational person would behave in any other circumstance.  If your mechanic goes joyriding in your car, you probably wouldn't want him house-sitting for you while you're on vacation.  If your dog walker loses your pet, you wouldn't trust her to babysit your toddler.  If an employee steals merchandise from your shelves, your first thought wouldn't be to have him auditing your books. If you absolutely have no choice but to rely on someone who has proven himself untrustworthy, you'd watch him like a hawk and suspect everything he does, not grant him broad discretion to do whatever he sees fit.

But when it comes to government, humanity has the utterly astounding capacity to watch the fox rob the henhouse in broad daylight and then without a hint of irony nominate him to count the eggs.

Only a very few of us have the level of awareness to facepalm.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reform we can believe in!

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. 

Just look at all the great things about democracy!  Every election cycle, we have the privilege of choosing between candidates running the full spectrum of political opinion, from the authoriarian socialism/fascism of the left, to the authoritarian fascism/socialism of the right!  At the local level, we get to vote for a vast array of inspiring folks running for offices such as County Commissioner, Superintendent of Schools, Superior Court Judge Position 3, Insurance Commissioner, County Assessor, and a whole slew of others who inspire us to shout out loud in a rapturous fit of democratic ecstasy: "Who the hell are all these assholes, and what in god's name does the Assistant Deputy Director of Institutional Masturbation do, anyway?"   

Despite all these wonderful aspects, I think we all agree that democracy could work a lot better.  For instance, no matter how entertaining all the zany campaign hijinks are, or how inspiring the guy running unopposed for Auditor General of Public Lands and Non-tomato-based Condiments is, in the end, we are faced with the horrifying fact that for every office, one of those wastes of DNA in an expensive suit inevitably wins, and has the power to actually do actual stuff to us, and it's all downhill from there.

So here's my proposal to make democracy really work.

  • For each office, in addition to the formal candidates, a space shall be allocated on the ballot for None of the Above.
  • All eligible voters who fail to cast a vote for one of the formal candidates for any office shall be considered to have voted None of the Above for that office.
  • For any election in which None of the Above shall receive more votes than any formal candidate for a particular office, the will of the voters shall be respected, and the office shall remain vacant for the prescribed term.  Office space designated for such an office may be rented out for the duration, for the purposes of storage, arts and crafts, petting zoos, and/or sandwich vendors.
  • Any office which remains so vacated for three successive terms shall be abolished, all record of its existence shall be destroyed, and the occasion shall be celebrated with hot dogs, carbonated drinks, and Star Trek marathons on TV.

I have absolute confidence that in only a few election cycles, our democratic system will be running so smoothly, you'll hardly notice it at all.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The measurement problem

How do you measure how well some enterprise or project is performing? Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, in his classic lecture The Pretense of Knowledge, shows us that what is measurable is not always what is important, and what is important is not always measurable.  This has some very profound implications for government-run institutions such as schools and police departments, and helps explain some of the most intractable problems we see play out before us.

Before I get too far, I should make clear an important distinction.  By "measurement," I mean a mathematically quantifiable observation which can be expressed in objective units - inches, kilograms, degrees Celsius, nanoseconds, volts, or what-have-you.  It is possible to observe and draw conclusions about something without measuring it in this fashion, and in fact we do so routinely.  I can measure my weight after consuming a bowl of ice cream.  I can also assess, and describe verbally, the experience of eating it, but I cannot measure it nor express it mathematically in any meaningful and objective sense.

Now...onward and upward.

There are all sorts of factors that figure into an assessment of quality and performance, and it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to objectively quantify them.  This problem is entirely avoided at the individual level - a phenomenon analagous to knowing whether or not you like a piece of art vs. attempting to create a universal formula or algorithm of artistic merit.  This is so because value is subjective; it exists in the mind of the individual valuer rather than in any inherent property of the thing valued.

In order to understand how this throws a wrench in government programs, let's first look at how it serves in the free market, in the example of a restaurant.  Assessing how much you like a particular restaurant is deceptively easy: It pleases or displeases you to some degree, which you feel on an intuitive level.  A variety of factors figure into your assessment, including food quality, atmosphere, service, and price - and every one of them is highly subjective.  You can probably describe in words why you enjoyed or didn't enjoy your dining experience - say, to write a review, and that information can be interpreted and utilized by others, again on an intuitive level.  It is impossible, however, to objectively quantify it with mathematical precision, much less in a way that is intersubjectively comparable to another person's experience.  Any rating system is necessarily subjective and imprecise, whether it be written reviews or a scale of one to four stars.  There is not, and cannot be, a universal equation of restaurant quality.

This is where Hayek's wisdom comes in.  We can, of course, objectively measure all sorts of things about the restaurant: number of seats and tables, number of cooks and wait staff, waiting time to be seated, time between ordering and being served, weight and volume of portions, number of dishes on the menu, calories and fat per serving, average time the wait staff spends with each customer.  None of them easily correlates directly to quality, though.  How long is too long to wait for one's food, for instance, is a subjective matter.  The person habitually in a hurry may find a wait more than five minutes intolerable, while one interested in leisurely conversation with dining companions might shrug it off, or even feel rushed by too-quick service.  A long wait time, moreover, could be due to inefficient service, or to the practice of cooking each dish from scratch as it's ordered.  Similarly, wait staff might spend a lot of time per customer because they're very attentive to the customer's needs, or because they hover annoyingly, or because they get so many complaints they must deal with.

Each measurement you might take measures exactly that thing, and not necessarily whatever you hope to measure by proxy.  Most factors that make a restaurant pleasing to you, while they may be observed and stated, are not susceptible of objective measurement.  What is important is often not measurable at all, and what's measurable is seldom unambiguously important.

Fortunately, an objective quantitative analysis is not necessary, because the free market provides a built-in meter of customer satisfaction: Profit and loss.  Because the customer controls both the means to pay and the decision of whether or not to buy, his money reflects his satisfaction with the product.  His intuitive level of satisfaction is translated directly into profit or loss without the need to synthesize a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand different highly subjective criteria into a universal scale of restaurant quality.  Funding is automatically allocated to those restaurants that do a good job pleasing their customers, and the most successful models inspire imitators and emulators, so there's no need to impose a standard.

Now, compare the public school system.  Unlike in a restaurant, the customer is disconnected from the decision to buy or to abstain from buying.  Instead, money is extracted from him via taxation and the product is purchased on his behalf.  This removes the job of assessing the quality of the service from the customer and payer; someone else must decide how well the institution is performing, and thus which models of service should be supported and funded and which not.

So, how do you determine which models should be abandoned and which supported, and to what degree?  There must be some decision-making body appointed, and this body will not have access to particular knowledge of the preferences and situations of all of the individuals to be served, which would otherwise inform their own individual assessments.  Therefore, the tastes and judgments of the individual, relating specifically to his or her own unique circumstances, must be supplanted by some universal rule.  This could be done simply by having the decision-making body openly impose its own subjective preferences in dictatorial fashion.  Usually such a naked exercise of arbitrary power is not well-tolerated, though.  The common alternative is to attempt the devising of some universal and objective means of measuring the institution's performance, which will then inform the direction that things ought to take in scientific fashion.  Unfortunately, as Hayek taught, what is important is not necessarily directly measurable, and what is measurable quite often misleads us.

The traditional letter grade system is one means of assessing the outcome of education, and it is a useful one at a certain level, but ultimately still a subjective one.  A grade is, at its root, simply a teacher's opinion (hopefully, but not always, well-informed) of how well a student is learning a subject.  It cannot really be considered objective, nor can a grade from one teacher or school be compared apples-to-apples with one from another.  It is inseparable from the teacher's intuitive subjective judgments: what points of a subject to focus on, what sort of tests or other methods to use to ascertain mastery, and how the raw results of those methods are to be intrepreted.  Even the best testing does not necessarily measure what it purports to measure.  A grade might reflect a student's mastery of a subject, but it also may reflect unquestioning compliance with orders, extroversion or introversion (via a "class participation" portion of the grade), teacher bias, and student interest in the subject or the teacher's methods, just to list a few.  My Ds and Fs in high school English and literature classes, for instance, were far more representative of my extreme shyness and quiet rebellion than of a faulty command of language, and I would suspect that many similar cases exist. 

Arguably, a grade is more meaningful when it is tempered with intuitive judgment.  An "objective" grade may tell us that Sally is routinely scoring below the class average on daily assignments, and that Johnny is able to answer 85% of pop quiz questions correctly.  It does not take into account that Sally is just going through the motions because she knows the material forward and backward and feels bored and under-challenged, or that Johnny is just regurgitating answers without any deeper understanding - important details that an attentive teacher, parent, or the student might recognize.  Thus, in the quest to be more "objective" and "scientific" we end up stripping out some of the most valuable and important insights.  Without non-quantifiable individual judgment, we hamstring our capacity to interpret what those numbers or letters actually mean.

Standardized testing takes all the potential pitfalls of traditional grading and distills them to near purity.  It seeks to eradicate individual interpretation entirely, and so steps up to full Pretense of Knowledge-level error.  It does not, and cannot, directly measure a student's understanding of a subject, much less his or her capacity for critical thinking and practical application of knowledge.  What it actually measures is no more and no less than how often students provide the answers deemed correct by the test's authors.  In fact, how those answers are arrived at - whether by real mastery of the subject, rote regurgitation, being coached on test-taking skills at the expense of understanding of the subject, or even outright cheating by teachers or school administrators terrified of justly or unjustly being labeled incompetent - cannot be ascertained.  It is simply taken as given that this is a reliable proxy for, and accurately reflects, mastery and understanding of academic subjects. 

Yet that false objectivity is exactly what is demanded, and what must be demanded, by the system as it exists.  There must be at least a strong pretense that funds and resources are allocated rationally, and not merely by a politician or administrator's subjective preference or whim, and a truly objective standard is impossible. 

The accountability of the market to its customers is short-circuited.  Rather than directing progress toward a desirable outcome, the incentives become perverse ones.  Instead of focusing on pleasing their ostensible customers (parents and students) as a restaurant must, schools and teachers must please the proximate source of their funding: government.  Government, which is necessarily removed from the individual preferences of students and parents, must utilize some alternative way of assessing performance, and that way must be cloaked in a veneer of scientific objectivity.  Thus, instead of a focus on developing the skills, knowledge, and qualities that students and parents value, schools and teachers must focus on churning out classes of proficient test-takers...or at least creating the illusion of such.

This in turn creates a systemic bias in favor of the bland conformity of order-following automatons and against attentive, creative innovators and problem-solvers, and a dilemma for the latter sort of teacher:  Teach to the test and be rewarded, or teach to the individual and risk punishment.  Teachers who aspire to be mentors to their students are suppressed and frustrated.  The system encourages treating the job as an assembly line.  I know a few dedicated and intelligent teachers who have persevered and done what they could in spite of the institutional shackles imposed on them; I can only imagine how many brilliant minds have been driven from the profession over the years.

Of course, the farther removed from the individual level the decision-making power resides, the more pronounced are the perverse incentives and perverse results.  Federal government control of education is vastly inferior to local government control, but even local government control is no substitute for the individual sovereignty of the free market.

The very same analysis can be applied to such subjects as law enforcement, too, and I had intended to do so, but this post is already running long, so that sub-topic will have to wait for another day.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Democracy vs. liberty

Democracy is not the same thing as freedom.  No matter how often they're mentioned in the same sentence, no matter how many times you hear "democracy" touted as the ultimate in human liberty, they're not even remotely the same.  (And please don't start on the we're-a-republic-not-a-democracy schtick.  It's not direct democracy, true, but it's still a democratic process -  the citizens vote for rulers, the ruling class votes on legislation.)

A simple thought experiment will serve to show the difference.  Imagine a group of ten people deciding on a restaurant for dinner.  Three want pizza, two each prefer Mexican, Chinese, and French cuisine, and one wants Indian. 

In a democracy, they vote, and all are bound by the outcome, whether it suits their tastes or not.  In a straight whichever-gets-the-most-votes-wins style of democracy, assuming everyone votes for their first choice, they're having pizza.  Only three people get what they really wanted, with everyone else having to settle for a less-prefered option, maybe even one they hate.

Of course, that opens the door to compromises.  Suppose four of the seven who don't want pizza agree that they like hamburgers better than pizza, and decide to vote that way to override the pizza bloc.  Now nobody gets their first choice.  The hamburger coalition gets its way, but hamburgers might be a distant second, or even lower, in their scale of preferences.  They simply dislike them less than they dislike pizza.

It could get even messier, if the pizza bloc dislikes burgers enough that they try to shear off some of the hamburger coalition with another option.  And this is just deciding one fairly simple issue.  Imagine if some other issues were bundled with it - say, what to do for pre-dinner entertainment.  Movie, concert, theater, museum...?  Each of those contains its own subset of options, too.  The latest Oscar hopeful?  A lowbrow comedy?  Shakespeare?  Art or natural history? 

With all these choices only adding complications to their evening plans, there's the potential for a lot of conflict between our hypothetical group members.  And this is before they vote on who pays and how much!  It could easily come to blows.  Because some people's preferences must prevail over others, it is inherently a win-lose (or lose-lose less badly) proposition.  It is a scheme for enforcing conformity, and so it creates conflict over whose preferences everyone must conform to.  Opting out is not an option; you either fight, and you win or lose, or you surrender and lose.  The end result is generally a sludge of unhappy compromise that displeases the majority a bit less than it displeases the losing minority - hardly the stuff of a blissfully happy society.

Or...they could scrap democracy in favor of individual liberty, which opens up a vast array of possibilities even within this little scenario.  Every person can go his or her own way, or they can split up in groups.  They can decide their own priorities; for example, whether to have their first choice of food or entertainment, or compromise for the sake of someone's company.  The groups might shuffle between activities - dividing up along certain lines for entertainment, and forming new sub-groups for dining.  Each one is free to choose whatever arrangements suit him or her best.  Any one person will only choose to go along with someone else's plan if he deems it better than his next-best alternative.  If he doesn't, he can walk away from it.  It's win-win or no deal, and thus conflict is avoided.  Bob's decision to go have Indian food by himself doesn't compel anyone else to do anything he or she doesn't want to.  If you don't like someone else's idea of a fun evening, you're free to go your own way.  And the next time the situation arises, you can do it all completely differently if you like.  You can escape the status quo without having to convince anyone else to do so.

 The question, then, must ultimately be: Why do we worship democracy so?  Are we such control freaks that we prefer to deny others the freedom to pursue their divergent values at the expense of fully pursuing  our own?  Are we that afraid that diversity of interests will tear society apart at the seams if we don't impose artificial conformity?  (And if so, is such a society - one that must suppress individuality to survive - really worth preserving?)

Thursday, June 4, 2015


Most people seem to believe implicitly that freedom is a zero-sum game.  In order to expand the freedom of some, you must deny it to others.  So we mistakenly try to free the workers by shackling the employers; free the consumers by controlling the sellers; free the oppressed by oppressing the erstwhile oppressor in return.

All the while, most people don't realize that they've got it all backward, and all their efforts at controlling and restraining and herding their fellow human beings are counterproductive to their own stated desires of making things better for the worst-off.  Freedom is not zero-sum; it multiplies when you extend it to everyone, and it contracts when you deny it to some.  When we feel our own freedoms are constrained, rather than looking to do the same to someone else, we might more profitably look at the bigger picture, and see who else wants unshackling and deregulating.

Case in point: The best way to help workers and consumers is not with ever-heavier taxation on businesses, or mandating that employers pay ever-higher minimum wages, or imposing ever-tighter regulations on the productive.  Those things all make it more difficult for a business to succeed.  Fewer businesses means less competition for labor services, which exerts a downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on unemployment.  Fewer businesses means less overall production and less competition between producers, which exerts an upward pressure on prices and downward pressure on the diversity and quality of products.  It's like a Chinese finger puzzle: the harder you pull, the tighter it squeezes.

If you want real wages to rise, unemployment to fall, and social mobility to increase, take the shackles off employers and entrepreneurs.  Instead of futilely squabbling over the division of an ever-shrinking pie, allow the pie to expand.  The less of a burden we lay on entrepreneurs, the more people will be able to start and run their own businesses.  No, not every worker is a potential entrepreneur, but every one who does leave the labor force to go into business for him- or herself is one who no longer competes with the labor force, but instead becomes a purchaser of labor services.  The supply of, and demand for, labor are allowed to reach a more natural equilibrium.

Every dollar you don't tax away from business, or force it to spend complying with regulatory burdens, is a dollar it can spend on increasing production - more and better capital, more and better labor.  That's a real increase in societal wealth that disproportionately benefits the poorest: the more goods there are to be bought, the greater the purchasing power of even the lowest wages.  The rich benefit a lot less from a greater supply of consumer goods than the poor do.  For the most part they already are able to buy everything they want, with plenty left over for saving and investment.  It's the ones at the bottom who find themselves able to live better when the price of food or shelter or energy falls.  I don't know about you, but I'd rather be making $2 an hour and be able to buy a week's worth of groceries from a day's work, than to make ten times that and have it buy half or three-quarters as much.

I really wonder sometimes how much of the currently prevailing "wisdom" is born of good but misguided intentions, and how much is informed instead by unacknowledged evil intentions, an implicit desire to do harm to those perceived to be better off out of envy and spite.  One thing that's clear to me, though, is that the freedom and prosperity of the less advantaged will always be less than it could until we're ready to stop trying to force our way out of this finger puzzle and realize that every individual's freedom is ultimately a mirror of that which he extends to others.