Sunday, June 10

Zero Sum Games

Paul Rubin's article on human evolutionary opposition to immigration and trade is another piece of absurd logic proving economics professors are insulated by academia. His argument is based upon the idea that our brains have evolved according to a "zero sum" mentality; resources gained for one community means those same resources are denied to a separate community. The development of this type of evolutionary thinking makes perfect sense. For example, two villages live by one well. If my village’s boundaries include the well, your village no longer has any water. Your village now faces two pragmatic choices: wage a war against my village in an attempt to take the well, or trade some commodity for water.

Now, hair-brained economic purists would gleefully declare that the optimum level of efficiency would require your village to trade for water. In a perfect trade or immigration model – given two goods – the country with the lower opportunity costs in the production of one good will trade with the country that has lower production costs in the other good. According to most economists this is a logical, rational argument to which I respond, bullshit.

I understand many forms of trade are uneven. The U.S. has free trade agreements with a number of countries, yet we still provide subsidies to farmers, and our aerospace industry, in addition to import quotas on various Chinese goods. I cannot think of one case in which trade ceases to be a zero sum game. When jobs in this country are sent abroad, those jobs cease to exist here in the U.S. The only way these now unemployed workers will improve their lot is through training programs, or by developing new skills. Seeing as the unemployed are no longer receiving incomes, the government has to step in by either providing unemployment checks, or funding re-training programs. Is this an example of efficiency in trade?

Life as we know is a zero sum game on all levels. As life is created, life ends. In Mr. Rubin’s perfect trade world, everyone pays the exact price that matches his or her level of utility. What happens when one wants to pay a steep discount, or better yet, nothing at all? The whole system falls apart at the seams. Call me a pessimist, but “rising above” evolutionary thinking is illogical (Maybe even proving his point). We are pre-programmed to look after our communities and ourselves. Unless we evolve to become altruistic peaceniks, life will always remain a zero sum game. And the idea that America has risen to this challenge and lowered its barriers to outsiders is pure hilarity.

Thursday, February 22

The Silent Majority

“…Now, we must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil, which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men.”

- A line from the movie, the Boondock Saints

A cult favorite that never saw wide release, the Boondock Saints portrays two working class brothers who receive a call from God, inspiring them to execute criminals, prostitutes and other degenerates. The Bostonians become known as saints for their work in “cleaning” up the city. The brothers are a quintessential example of what I term zealous moderation. They represent the average American: blue collar, hardworking, and religious men who are fed up with infringement of the Russia mob in the heart of Irish Boston. Yet, unlike many of us, who limit our criticism of current culture to mere words, they take matters into their own hands and exact justice on criminals. The brothers are rebelling against the current mores in society, which permit perverse and immoral behavior. The screenwriter, Troy Duffy, was inspired to create this film after he had seen a dead woman wheeled out of a drug dealer’s apartment across from his.

I do not believe in capital punishment, nor do I believe vigilante justice belongs in a culture built by the rule of law. However, the quote is a stinging critique of contemporary society. The majority of people in this country could be labeled as moderate or “good men”. Our primary concerns involve making ends meet, caring for our families and maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. Most of the empty promises hurled at us by politicians are ignored. The issues really on our minds are those that directly affect our lives: taxes, health care, and sustained employment. We are a group the late President Nixon referred to as the “silent majority”.

Yet whose voices do we hear the most? The players in deep left or right field that promote agendas in sharp opposition to what may be considered rational thought. Listen to Sean Hannity or the raving ideologue at the Daily Kos and you almost want to throw your hands into the air and jump. Their contributions to political discourse are valuable, as we should respect all viewpoints. However, the venom and seething hate emanating from much of their material only has a polarizing effect. Friends and families are divided by labels and pigeonholed into stereotypes of how a liberal, conservative, Marxist or libertarian should think. So, if one believes capitalism is flawed or that abortion is wrong, are they assumed to be a socialist or a misogynist trying to deny a woman of her rights? No.

Personally, the most accurate description of my beliefs is utilitarianism. An ideology first developed by John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism defines the moral worth of an action to be derived entirely from its contribution to overall utility. In short, the objective of a society should be to increase the overall welfare of its members. Unfortunately, labor movements and international trade have ensured welfare improvements are asymmetrical. Job outsourcing, while negatively affecting the lives of people in a particular industry, allow for cheaper products to be produced, benefiting the entire population. I think where we have gone terribly wrong in this country is our intense focus on the individual instead of the community. Why is there no real incentive to fix social security, scrap farm subsidies, or establish a universal health care system? Because self-interest prevents our government from doing what is best for the country, as a whole. Though I agree with Adam Smith and his theory that self-interest drives markets and growth, it is not a catchall system (which is a topic I will pick up on at another time).

Regardless of your adherence to a religion or set of values, we do live in communities and must abide by the laws society has set forth. Considering the welfare, and ideas of our neighbors is a pursuit we seem to have forgotten. Rational, moderate people in this country, including myself, need to stand up for logical, intelligent thought, and against vitriolic backstabbing and squabbling.

Friday, January 26

Life, the Universe and Everything

What is the meaning/purpose of life?

The million-dollar question, and in most cases, a query inevitably leading one to a brief existential crisis. For anyone who has read and remembers Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, (which actually was five volumes) the answer is quite obvious. After seven and a half million years of calculations, the super computer Deep Thought arrives at the answer, 42. In what would appear to be the ultimate form of irony, the question humans have been asking since the beginning of existence may be summed up in a simple two digit numeric answer.

Humor aside, the subject does beg serious thought. Anyone asking the “life” question begins to understand how the absence of an answer simply gnaws at your very soul. Religious figures and philosophers from Saint Augustine to Nietzsche have dedicated countless years and many a written word in an attempt to understand and offer an explanation to the masses. Unfortunately, the typical sorority girl who cries about her inability to discover her identity and purpose in between shopping sprees and sessions of beer pong probably has not read Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Making matters worse, according to our current scientific knowledge, humans appear to be the only species carrying this curse. Not only can we not arrive at a conclusion amongst ourselves, but we also cannot look to man’s best friend or even our closest animal relatives for support.

The idea for this entry began almost a year ago as I struggled with the conscience whiplash I received while taking an economic development course. Unfortunately, I had neither the motivation nor the presence of mind to arrive at an acceptable conclusion. Throughout the past year I have mulled over possible solutions and have had many discussions, which were derived from the question. I spent a summer in Egypt, witnessed extreme poverty and the utter lack of compassion in the West towards this poverty. Needless to say, I was discouraged. It began to dawn on me how perverse our society is and how pop culture has poisoned our minds with a marketer’s view of how we should live our lives: more power, more money, more fame…more, more, more.

I started a new temp job this week as a data entry extraordinaire in the finance department of a large trade association. As I sat there for hours entering meaningless numbers and faceless names into a database, I felt as though my soul was dying. If any one job on earth required absolutely no stimulation of the mind, data entry is that job. If any job worth doing is worth doing well, then data entry is not worth doing well. The moment the digital clock on the taskbar read 5:00 pm, I was out the door. Upon my arrival at the apartment, I began an Internet search for anyone else sharing a strong disdain for data entry. With countless other people in the same position as myself, the odds were high another harbored similar feelings. I attempted to describe my experience to my father later that evening. An experience another writer expressed much more eloquently than I: “8 hours of data entry sucks out your eyeballs and burns them up, then starts in on your soul.”

Now, you are thinking either one of two things: 1) How does the previous paragraph fit into this dialogue in any way? 2) This is the “light bulb” moment; the perfect point when one may ask what the hell the meaning of life is. Obviously, the second option came to my mind and I began to write.

The reasons people use in justifying a purposeful life frequently blow my mind. Many religious people claim the meaning of life is to follow God’s way or preach the bible or whatever. How can you base your entire life on a premise that has no basis in reality? Nothing has disproved the existence of a higher being, but then again, no evidence exists to the contrary. That is a digression for another day. Furthermore, living life to help other people fails to account for your own needs, just as exclusively indulging yourself alienates everyone else.

So what is the answer? Drum roll please. Prepare for the anti-climax.

The meaning of life is entirely in your hands. In other words, exercising your ability to choose (free will). You decide whether another’s words or the weather will affect your mood, why not take control over how you want to live your life. Stop wondering why we are here and start living. Do not let peers or current clothing trends craft your decisions and choose your journey. Of course, if you would rather be near death and desperately trying to justify your life as a mindless zombie of the pop culture horde, you might as well jump with everyone else. There will always be war, suffering, and cruel people who exploit others. And there will always be those who look towards the heavens asking, “What is the point?” The meaning of life is not a universally applicable idea. How you want to spend your time on this planet becomes your own personal purpose.

Ironically, my thesis comes full circle seeing as free will leads people into decisions such as living with faith or choosing to let celebrities lead one into self-image depression. And my father would respond, “What stops one from deciding their meaning in life is to commit murder or theft?” By choosing to live in a society, we choose to live within its boundaries. Anyone who decides to start killing their fellow citizens will quickly come into conflict with the rest of the community and be forced to face the consequences. However, this quandary of mores is closer to the topic of morality, one saved for another day.