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This is a guest post by @FlairEcon. All editorial comments are in square brackets.

Professional Jabroni [additional expletives deleted] David Duke  asks if you can borrow power. Read it here. Let me tell you a little something about what it takes TO BE THE BEST.

Hard work. Commitment. Courage. Some people work their whole lives to be great. Other people are naturals. Me? There’s a reason they call me THE NATURE BOY. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! To be the best, you gotta beat the best. And I’m still undeafeated in the ring. That’s right: 16-time World Champion over here.

The question we’ve got here is: is the Commander in Chief a Nature Boy of the White House or is he a sniveling Jabroni that needs to be put in his place?

You see, to “borrow power”, you have to earn credibility. How are you going to pay that power back, son? How is your [expletive deleted] going to pay interest on that loan? Are you a man or a [there is a long string of very colorful curses here that wouldn’t be appropriate for broadcast television, so I omit the entire rant out of consideration for our audience. My apologies to Dr. Flair]? Remember what it was like in Merry Olde England before the Orange Revolution? The crown had a hard time borrowing for wars since the king couldn’t be sued. When the purse reverted to Parliament, against whom lenders could bring suit, the British coffers got SWOLE, son.

Where’s the equivalent here, Nancy? IT DOESN’T EXIST. SIT YOUR HAPPY [deleted] DOWN, BOY. 


“Borrowing power” is something I like: it’s theater. It’s just like what we used to do back on the old circuit in the old days. It’s meaningless unless backed with the proper incentives and political institutions to repay. Otherwise, it’s just a heel move, a simple political taking.

And if you think you’re going to see a face in the Oval Office any time soon, I have some bad news for you, son.


Borrowing Power

The chief executive officer of the United States Federal Government has climbed atop the turnbuckle, threatening to “borrow power.” Half the crowd is in a frenzy at the sheer ridiculousness of the proposition, the other half is in a frenzy at the sheer possibilities of naked power.

It tickles, though, that in other contexts, we borrow. Can power be borrowed? Is there a collateral possible for borrowing power, like reputation or other powers? Or is repaying power with interest essentially always going to boil down to a folding chair planted across the face?


With some velocity, I should hope, for the sake of continuing kayfabe, and the whooping and the hollering.

The Virtue of Pickup Artists

In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:

Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.

I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.

That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.

Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.

Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.

You may not like his aims, but in the abstract Strauss is simply an expert in human persuasion. He picks up women by using euvoluntary techniques that make the women in question want to pick up him:

If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.

Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.

As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.


Continue reading “The Virtue of Pickup Artists”

Futility Transcended, Out of the Mouth of a Babe

Jack, my across-the-street neighbor, died during the spring after a short illness. He had lived alone for about five years after his wife died of cancer. His eulogy is respectable, and, overall, he was an asset to our lives. He was a good neighbor. Today, Saturday morning, marks the day of the final disbursement of his estate: the house is sold and the stuff remaining in it has been piled, with some care, onto the lawn for a garage sale.

Consumerism annoys me, not least because of parking. For the next two days, my driveway will be the cul-de-sac for the vultures picking over poor Jack’s bones, looking for stuff amidst his stuff. It really is disgusting. I say this acutely aware of my own hypocrisy, the owner of a piece of undeveloped land not far from my house so I can make like Wilderness Man with no potable water, electricity, or any other accoutrements of home, all of which can be found in a two-minute drive down the road. There’s even a pizzeria which will deliver to my wilderness outpost within twenty minutes at the push of a button on my smart phone. Fie! Fie upon thee, consumerism!

What I really dislike, of course, is the notion that one day all too soon, my stuff will be piled onto the front lawn for the children of the same vultures to pick over, looking for stuff. I called to my younger son, whose name is Jack (8 years old), and I pointed across the street, saying to him, “There’s Jack’s stuff” (see what I did there?).

“Really?” he said, and he paused for a moment, surveying the swarm. “It doesn’t look like much.”

“No,” I said. “And one day, your stuff will be piled on the lawn, just like his.”

“That’s okay,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “I won’t need it anymore.” He looked for a moment more, then returned to his room, where his stuff is.

It is okay, the accumulation phase of life, isn’t it? After all, we need stuff. Jack-across-the-street’s stuff includes many blankets. They look comfortable.


It was weird going through someone else’s Christmas decorations; I demurred. The boys picked up a nice walkie-talkie set, with no charger, and two flashlights, batteries included. One of Jack’s daughters met me, saying, “And here it is, the entirety of Jack and Connie’s life, laid out.”

Determining What Intellectual Property is and Should Be

Peter picks up the thread with a discussion of IP-as-rent-seeking, or IP-as-regulation.

I’m actually what you might call an IP agnostic. I can see some situations where IP is having effects I like (especially giving unknown creators some leverage in negotiating with big content companies, for instance) but I definitely think that, whatever your IP ideal, we’ve gone way too far.

However I don’t think the particulars are nearly as important as the process for determining those particulars. As Thomas Sowell put it in Knowledge and Decisions:

The unifying theme of Knowledge and Decisions is that the specific mechanics of decision-making processes and institutions determine what kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear and with what effectiveness. In a world where people are preoccupied with arguing about what decision should be made on a sweeping range of issues, this book argues that the most fundamental question is not what decision to make but who is to make it–through what processes and under what incentives and constraints, and with what feedback mechanisms to correct the decision if it proves to be wrong.

Who decides, and under what circumstances, is more important than what they should decide.

The way Eli puts it is that good property institutions are more important than any specific property right.

If intellectual property had continued to evolve casuistically through common law courts, I don’t think we’d be in the situation we’re in. But the Copyright Act of 1976 ruined this centuries-old dynamic, probably forever. Now the particulars must be determined by statute, and there’s a big central law-making body vulnerable to rent-seeking from industry. As a result we get insane scenarios like copyright getting enforced as criminal law instead of civil law, and civil asset forfeiture being deployed to destroy suspected offenders before they even go to trial.

The debate should not, in my opinion, focus on what particular form we believe intellectual property should take. The debate should center on what procedural reforms should go into place in order to move us towards a healthier process of determining the particulars.

The Kind of Person You Are

Double-D paints the picture of an embittered, angry old man making life unpleasant for others for selfish reasons. He wonders how philosophy is supposed to help him talk to such a person.

As it trickles down, I’ve got to figure out what question to approach someone like Grandpa Gesticulations: “Are you a neo-Kantian fusionist with Foucault’s Post-modernity (Star Trek), or are you more in the Existentialist Woven Horizons camp (Star Wars)?”

The best morality is vulgar morality. If philosophy creates a wall outside of which we cannot talk to normal people, then philosophy is an impediment rather than a tool to moral progress or even basic moral operation.

Part of what draws me to virtue ethics is precisely that it provides a language for talking about morality that is wholly accessible  to most people even if they’ve never cracked open a book of philosophy in their lives. People balk at the categorical imperative but have a pretty good idea what you mean and what you expect of them when you tell them they are behaving like a coward.

Virtue ethics delves deep into a question that we all have a very close, emotional connection with—what kind of person do you want to become? What kind of person can you become?

David doesn’t have to invoke Aristotle or Acquinas in order to ask the grumpy gentleman or the less than noble members of his communities if this is really the person they had hoped to become.

8 Sweet Ways to Achieve Eudaimonia

In an effort to boost our page views with pleasure to the reader, and now that the fever has passed (thanks to Spivonomist’s cool, damp, washcloth), I thought I’d celebrate by transmogrifying Sweet Talk into Sweet Buzz. Lists are cool because, you know, reading. If I had some real wherewithal, I’d conjure up some animated GIFs to squeeze out some extra lulz. But without further ado, here’s how you can achieve eudaimonia. Continue reading “8 Sweet Ways to Achieve Eudaimonia”

Public/Private “No”s and Permissionless Innovation.

Hi all, my apologies for not posting lately (bar review is a pain in my butt). I was wondering if I could implore you all (dear readers and dear co-bloggers) to assault—or otherwise weigh in on—my co-worker’s post about permissionless innovation and contract law. This goes back to our public v private “no” posts. I think Geoff is right on target with regard to public “no”s:

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism.

I think Geoff is right about contract:

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord.

And Net Neutrality:

Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

But I think he glosses over certain issues regarding non-tangible property. I submit that expansive intellectual property is akin to a public “no.”  The weirdness about IP is that, unlike a broadband network or a landlord’s building, overbroad IP claims cannot be notoriously possessed except with costly and non-intuitive state delineation. If I have a patent on “doing escrow through a computer” — as in the recent CLS Bank case — I have no independent , private means of defining and enforcing the boundaries of my claim, none. Any attempt to go out in the world and persuade people to not use my big idea would be met with giggles, disregard, or aggression.

At least in the apartment or the fiber network there is rivalrous physical stuff to point to and say “stay off!” In the case of a patent to a vague idea, however, the only way to exert my claim against the world and put people on notice of my private “no” is to utilize a complex, legalistic regime that seeks to create, from whole cloth, the contours of a private right. The fact that this process is so divorced from the intuitive realities of day to day interaction makes expansive IP more like a public “no.”

It’s something you might accidentally tread over, something you might find standing in your way unexpectedly even if you’d no idea that the idea you are pursuing bears any relationship to some existing patent. Playing catch-up with the PTO and a multitude of private patent holders becomes just as bureaucratic and chaotic as persuading the FDA to license your new meds.  At this point the private right does seem to endanger permissionless innovation.

To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that this is at stake in ALL intellectual property. If the right is clearly delineated and reasonably defined then licensing shouldn’t be an impediment that draws the ire of the permissionless innovation crowd. The trouble only starts when the metes and bounds of the virtual property are so amorphous as to trap would be innovators in a near endless cycle of negotiations with both the private right holder and the public right definer.  If the intellectual landscape becomes replete with these mine-like private nos, then the would-be innovator is locked into a world where inaction is preferable to the unpredictable consequences of innovating.

Those are my half baked, bar review-addled thoughts. What are yours?  I’m sure Geoff will give me an earful. Feel free to comment on his post as well.

The Diminishing Marginal Utility of Navel-Polishing

Double D forwards an Aristotelian lament: ‘I would like to be able to improve my ability to apply what I’m learning from the Sweet Talk folks.”

In other words, what good is theory without practice, what good is #phronesis without #eudaimonia, what good is armchair philosophy? How long shall I pick the fluff of justice out of my bellybutton before I cowboy up and act with honor, courage, temperance, wisdom, and professionalism in the world of hockey fights, subway frotteurism, and militarized police?

Boy oh boy, what I wouldn’t give for a nice little nostrum, an inspiring bit of practical advice for the ordinary citizen looking to scale the summit of Maslow’s pyramid. 

I have no such advice. Moreover, it would be presumptuous of me to offer any. Virtue is personal and subjective. This isn’t to say that anything goes, but rather that on the margin, it cannot be up to me to tell you whether you’re acting harmoniously, in accordance with the highest virtues, or if you will be remembered for your good deeds. The voyage towards #arete is mere tourism if you let someone else grip your tiller (lol).

You’re right, David. There are diminishing returns to introspection. But there is some heavy mind lifting to be done in translating the virtue ethics into the applications of economics and the topsy-turvy world of abundance that would have flabbered the gast of Plato and Aristotle. Thank you for helping with that, my friends.

Feeling the Anger Flow

Last night at my older son’s hockey game (yes, June 25. We play hockey year round in the Niagara Frontier), anyway, last night at my son’s hockey game stood a man of about sixty, maybe seventy, watching intently his son or grandson play goalie. Well, to his great displeasure, my son’s team scored about twenty goals against him; by any goalie measure, that’s a bad night. After the first goal, I cheered, and this man glared at me. That’s not a good sign. And then he breathed in my general direction. From ten yards away, in a well-ventilated building with the ventilation pointing the other way, he literally gave me the vapors. The mom standing next to me looked at me as if I were the one coming to a kids hockey game completely fractured. I made eye gesticulations to indicate that it was not me. After a few goals, gramps left the building, then came back, and he breathed on us his spirits. Holy Moses! And then he himself began to make gesticulations indicating his deep dissatisfaction with his goalie grandson. It is safe to say that this man is an angry man.

It has become my lot in life that, two or three days a week, I deal with people whose best condition is hung-over. It’s not a terribly pleasant vocation, but it gives me the opportunity to put my morality where my mouth is–or, to be less flippant, to actually engage the human condition at some level, being a moral person amidst people who, at best, struggle with morality. Now that’s a tendentious statement; nevertheless, in that particular community, I am to all persons involved functioning as Morality. Police officers function as Justice. And so we make a triangle. The problem is that Justice is often angry, desirous to punish, Morality is indignant, desirous to condemn, and the guilty parties, the filthy corner of the triangle, are belligerent, pitiful, pathetic. They are, it might be said, functioning as Anger; they bring the anger of the whole world into our context. That’s a whole lot of anger. It spreads. I am not immune to the flow of anger.

Hence my deep interest in Adam Gurri’s little post on Justice, and my even broader interest in the Sweet Talk blog. Here is where, I hope, the disparate theoretical fields we bring to the social gathering, drink in hand, smiles in greeting, we can help each other in application.

One of my favorite teachers, espousing to us the wonders of Deconstruction, was put on the defensive by a recalcitrant fundamentalist, a.k.a. post-Enlightenment Modernist, who said, “All this is great in theory, but it won’t work in practice.” My teacher retorted, “Good theory makes good practice.” Man, did I love that. He’s absolutely right. Nevertheless, I also love the critique against contemporary philosophical inquiry, which, as I see it, is interested in the inquiry for inquiry’s sake. It is, as it were, good theories to make even better theories. I think Adam Gurri explained it to me as “Blackboard Economics,” or some such, as it trickles down.

As it trickles down, I’ve got to figure out what question to approach someone like Grandpa Gesticulations: “Are you a neo-Kantian fusionist with Foucault’s Post-modernity (Star Trek), or are you more in the Existentialist Woven Horizons camp (Star Wars)?” Or whatever. You get the point. I’m being silly.

I suppose I want to know the why of why we ask why. That is not to say I want to be the fellow who finally finds the shut-off valve for the flow of anger in the universe, but I would like to be able to improve my ability to apply what I’m learning from the Sweet Talk folks. There’s an angry human being on the other end of the telescope who knows nothing about Hume or Hegel or Kierkegaard. The application context, in other words, is the one that can get folks hurt.


As it happens, while I was composing this, Spivonomist posted this helpful insight over at Euvoluntary Exchange. I didn’t know economists were allowed to read Shakespeare. Seems unjust.