War is Good for Me

An application of the teachings of heraclitus

The Centennial Celebration of the commencement of WWI has brought out more than the usual decrying of the Great War and all its benefits, merely because a handful of people died in an untimely manner, the culture of Europe was mildly affected, and the seeds were sown for another cleansing in the near future. Here at Chez Duke, on the other hand, we exult in the little snot who pulled off the assassination of whatshisname, not because we have an affinity with turn-of-the-century anarchism, nor because we have a bœuf bourguignon with the Kaiser’s domestic policies, sacre bleu! No, we are popping the corks of many champagne bottles because the scouring of Europe sucked my grandfather from his idyllic childhood into a world of pain.


He was married, so that means he was born somewhere in the early 1890s, and off he went, to participate in the chain of familial military service unbroken since the beginning of time, even resuming in the War Against That Protestant Usurper, a.k.a. the American Revolutionary War, under the flag of the French King (Jacobin, Jacobite, Jacobik: tomato, tomahto; let’s hear it for Bonapartite hegemony!), where he was shot in the back by the Bosch in a terribly unfair ambush and left for dead beneath a pile of corpses. After some time (a day? two days?) he was found, alive, indeed, but gravely wounded in his man parts. He would live, but he would never, but never, beget a child, so the doctors told him. His wife heard of it and took the liberty of remarrying.

He sat down to a delicious homecoming meal with his wife, who received him with joy and thanksgiving, preparing a menu complete from soup to nuts. She developed a neat culinary shortcut, making the soup to be also the nuts, including in it a healthy dose of arsenic, which he somehow detected before he ingested a lethal dose, and he began to yell. The yelling attracted the more recent husband, who appeared in the dining room in a rather animated state, and, weakened by a morphine addiction, my grandfather departed hastily.

My great-grandmother, against her husband’s wishes, counseled her son to pursue a career as a Methodist Preacher, bundling him off to Southern Methodist University, where he found atheism, which caused him to be bundled back east, but only so far as Memphis, where he became a trolley-car driver. By some cruel twist of fate, he accidentally ran over a negro child’s head, killing him instantly before my grandfather’s eyes. He again found himself departing with haste, disappearing from the knowledge of all who knew him and loved him. Was he dead?

No, he was married. In Tupelo, Mississippi, near the birthplace of Elvis Presley (my grandmother says she knew him when he was a wee lad), Uncle Joe, as my grandfather’s moniker came to be, found an Indian woman–Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, or Creek; we don’t know–to be his wife. We do know that the Great Depression forced him out of hiding in Mississippi back to the bustling little railroad town of Cullman, Alabama, back home to his mama, hauling himself upon the veranda with his dark-skinned wife and his five children. “You have more black brothers and sisters than you do white,” he’d say when his mixed-race white children would utter unspeakable racist epithets under his shanty roof (“The Old Homeplace,” they called it. Thankfully, it burned to the ground during the night a few days after he died. My grandmother was outside with the twelfth child in her arms before the alarm was raised).

It is said that when his mother, who carried all the names of all the women in her family stretching back to the Mayflower, saw her beloved Messiah-son with that Indian woman and those half-breed children, all thirteen names screamed at once. She fainted. Son-no-longer-Messiah was dismissed, sent away to fend for himself. He did so, fathering seven more legitimate children by the railroad tracks, the ninth of whom was my father, born in 1941, when my grandfather was fifty years old.

In those intervening years, Uncle Joe had thought it wise to begin treating the morphine addiction he had acquired in France in the Army hospital. Self-medication was all he could afford in those heady days of Depression, so he developed an appreciation for something called Wildcat Whiskey. I don’t know if that was a brand-name moonshine or just a northern Alabama variety of distilled corn mash, but it burned hot, chasing away every Baptist preacher who came to condemn him for his wicked ways. The Lutheran preacher, on the other hand, found that Wildcat Whiskey reminded him of the wild winters of his childhood in Wisconsin, so he had the currency to talk Uncle Joe into allowing him to proselytize the Indian woman and the younger five children of the brood. Indeed, Dad was baptized a Lutheran–a Lutheran!–in Alabama, 1946. Are you doing the math? Lutherans and Catholics were on the same low rung in that heavily stratified society, but still one rung up above the Jews, who were just one rung off the ground, and above–you know. Ugh. A half-breed Lutheran in north central Alabama.

Wildcat Whiskey, such as it is, burns in all directions, and Uncle Joe meted out all his wrath on everyone around him, beginning with his family. To escape this horrible, sick, existence, my dad (may he rest in peace) married a pretty little German girl who was visiting her Aunt who had married a G.I. from Cullman, Alabama during the second, and lesser, world war. He rode her wings out of that life, eventually begetting me in 1973. My mother’s story is far more complex and layered than my dad’s (hint: her parents were true Aryans, even after the very end); I don’t understand it nearly as well yet.

In the meantime, I raise another glass of champagne to you, you millions who perished in the trenches, to the institutions which were utterly shattered, to World War One, without which I would not exist, and that is unthinkable.


Basic Income as a Lobster Trap

A fun little story from a doctor friend comes from when he would make trips to the deep North for extra money. On one occasion they got a distress call from an Inuit woman who cried over the radio that her baby was going blind.

They jumped in a helicopter and raced out to her small village at a cost in the tens of thousands. The doc jumped off the plane and rushed to where the baby was, took one look, and calmly let the mother know that her baby had conjunctivitis — pink eye — and that it would clear up on its own.

Canada does not have a federal healthcare system. Instead, healthcare is a provincial responsibility, within the strictures of a set of national principals. Provinces must provide healthcare which meets highly egalitarian standards of universality and comprehensibility. Similar standards of care and access are expected to be achieved throughout the country, and to the extent that the fiscal burden of each province differs,  federal health transfers — a per-capita based bloc grant — help to equalize health budgets.

As Sam Wilson points out, this kind of entitlement can lead to extremely tilted forms of implicit subsidization, as quantity-quality are in theory held constant, leaving only cost to vary. Of course theory does not exactly match reality. In the rural north of Canada, hospitals are more dispersed and offer fewer services and less qualified practitioners. Still, even these hospitals represent a far greater economic cost compared to ones based in more populated regions.

A significant part of the variation in cost comes from the healthy sums required to induce doctors and specialists to do northern tours of duty. For instance, Ontario offers a grant of up to $117,000 over four years to family physicians willing to work in under-serviced rural communities. These kind of subsidies don’t just risk locking workers in unproductive locations — often that’s their overt aim.

Yet despite this caveat I still by and large agree with Sam that a Basic Income risks locking people into unproductive locations. One example to consider comes from my home province of Nova Scotia, where seasonal workers in the fishery have for years been pilot tests of a guaranteed basic income.

Think of it as like a lobster trap. Lobsters enter the trap through the “kitchen,” enticed by the bait. Ultimately they exit into the “parlor” and the lobster is trapped. Likewise, fisherman settled in rural Nova Scotia enticed by the bait of a profitable catch. But in the winter, when fishing goes out of season, crew claim Employment Insurance and maintain their standard of living, given the dearth of “suitable work”.  Over the years this and similar dynamics have helped stall the population transition to urban centers and contribute to a glut in lobster.

A basic income would have a similar effect. In many industries workers  make a windfall for a season, like in fishing, but then face a choice for the remaining seasons. A basic income, all else equal, will allow workers to coast during the off season in unproductive if picturesque settlements. A better policy should be able to address the ‘living wage’/’living income’ concern without sacrificing production or discouraging labour mobility.


I spent the last year working for a rural development agency whose mandate was to “raise incomes and productivity”. In my region the big anxiety was out-migration, with some rural areas losing 5% of their prime-age working population every year. I wrote a brief pointing out that, if higher incomes and productivity was the goal, perhaps a plane ticket was indeed the lowest cost solution.

Needless to say, that didn’t go over well. Yet it proves the point that both cash and non-cash subsidies often end up favoring the welfare of abstract geographic divisions over their actual inhabitants, much less the “net social benefit”. This should not be a surprising result. It is in many ways the modus operandi of the nation state.

Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper

To get to Heraclitus’ hovel, drive east, way east, and onto some back roads, back to about 500 B.C.E., hang a right toward the Mediterranean, which belongs to Persia at the moment, and look for the sun-blessed property with the open-aired architecture gilded with flames overlooking the sea, and you’re there. When I went to visit, the only radio station I could coax into my ox-cart was some hippie-rock music, blaring Edwin Starr’s version of “War.” What is it good for? (Primal and thrusting grunt), absolutely nothin’; say it again! That was provocative enough, I think, to fetch the old man, and he came storming down the stairs from his deck-patio, bounding over his novelty river to walk at too brisk a pace for my comfort straight at me, shouting to be heard over the radio:

War is for the common good, and strife is the right order of things. In fact, all things come to pass according to strife and are actually made useful.

“All things?” I asked. At that very moment (let the reader understand that I swear by all that is holy and good: what I’m about to tell you really happened), “War” came to an end, yielding to John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Before I could manage to switch off the radio, the old man spoke:

If I didn’t already know that justice comes from injustice, I would drown myself in my own river for despair.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We all really hate that song.”

“All of you?” he asked.

“Well, only the dead like it.”


“Indeed,” he said, perking up.

The immortal are mortals, the mortal immortals, by actually living the death of those and by actually dying the life of the others.

I stared at him, and the blankness of my mind became apparent on my face. He showed mercy to me, saying, “Wanna come in?”

We climbed atop his hovel which staved off the sea and invited in the air, sat down together around a fire pit, and he handed me a skin of wine. “You know,” he said. “You can never drink the same wine twice.” He chuckled at his own joke while I took a drink, staring at him while he stared at the sea. “Bowdlerizing my hard work,” he mumbled. “There’s lots more wine where that came from.”

“It’s good,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Life is good, if you’re willing to die like that grape. Taste how good it is! You are that grape.” He leaned over to me, whispering, “Be the grape.” I began to suspect he had had a skin or two already. “That wine,” he continued, “will dry out your soul; then you’ll be ready to live the death of those who are mortal.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult, with a headache like that.”

“No more difficult than standing in front of an advancing army.”

“So we’re back to that again,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, waving his hand toward the sea. “Everybody gets so upset about war, the cruelty of it all, the pain, the destruction. Generally speaking, however, you’re on one side of the advancing army or the other. You can’t have a life without strife. Now, most of us enjoy a life in behalf of someone who died. Hopefully our army was able to make more live per death than their army, but cruelty, pain, destruction–the injustice of war–burns away infestations of injustice so that justice is born anew.”

“So we should wish for war?”

He sighed, “It’s a metaphor, dummy. Warfare and strife is a part of every day life. ‘Real’ warfare is a pedagogue, a headmaster of pain and inevitability, to teach us what it is we are experiencing from the moment our dreams cease until they commence again. And then we lie down to sleep forevermore, joining the chorus of the waters.”

“War is just a metaphor?”

“Just?” he repeated. “Aren’t you listening? The little indignities of this daily life gather themselves up until they are an army marching from town to town, turning over every stone, smashing down every door, and burning every stump and every field of stubble. Thus it must be; if it is not so, the little indignities persevere, as blight perseveres in the soil over the coldest and cruelest winter. Only all-consuming fire restores the garden. This town, in fact, is built upon heaps of rubble and ash, great kings whose names are forgotten causing men to throw down every stone and every skull because of some forgotten injustice. How much more beautiful are the sunsets from these heights, thanks to the cruelty of war, like the time I accidentally smashed a potted plant at the marketplace!”

“Potted plant?”

“You’re the one who thinks that war is just a metaphor,” he said. “In my own mind I was entirely justified to knock down the potted plant. She had it placed in too precarious a spot, and I refused to replace the pot–neither the plant, be it damned to everlasting perdition–nor did I apologize to that gap-toothed, gray-bearded old lady, wretched beast. She had the nerve to drag me before the magistrate, whereupon I argued my case that I ought to have been able to have had the freedom to move my elbow to acquire the necessary silver from my coin purse in exchange for some delicious dates–and I used every other kind of wince-inducing syntax to make the case that I was too dignified to be brought so low by such a waste of vapors, this market-making she-monster. The magistrate looks at her, looks at me, and says, ‘I find in favor of the plaintiff; moreover, your recalcitrance earns you the opportunity to pay her court fee as well as yours.’ Oh, the indignity!”

“What did you do?”

“I paid the fine,” he said, “and the court fees. What else was I gonna do?” He looked over at me. I was looking at him, waiting for him to impart some profundity. “Drink your wine,” he said. I lifted the skin to my mouth and swallowed. He turned his chair toward me, saying, “Do you get it?”

Continue reading “Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper”

Justice Ain’t Fairness & Some Redneck Economics

Let’s start here:

I want justice to mean Pareto-only not Kaldor/Hicks. That obviously does not work, because there are all kinds of Transitional Gains Traps out there. I usually go to the extreme of slavery. If you want to end slavery, then pay to free the slave. I’m focused on the idea of doing justice, as an individual, because I’m extremely skeptical about any political process’s ability to effect reforms that don’t create new injustices.


But I’m cool with Creative Destruction.

There lies an inconsistency.

Creative Destruction allows for new ideas to displace market incumbents without compensation for capitalized assets. That is, it is Kaldor/Hicks.

So I invent a new idea: “fairness.” (I probably picked this up from David Levy’s classes in Constitutional Political Economy and History of Economic Thought at GMU. That said, any errors or instances of “redneck economics” are my own.)

I define fairness as “that which will pass muster at the fair.” How convenient. How bourgeoisie. The fair, or the marketplace, can only survive and expand if new ideas are permitted to displace old ideas.

When one enters the fair one has to set one’s Pareto intuition about justice aside, and then pick up Kaldor/Hicks Creative Destruction fairness. There are different ethics for different settings.

Rawls tried to blend fairness and justice and just muddled both. The use of compensation to achieve abolition in Great Britain is hailed as a triumph of fairness applied to a circumstance of injustice. (But large chunks of the compensation went to the MP’s that approved it.) Behind a veil of ignorance I think most of us would approve different rules for the two settings.

Utilitarians and armchair philosopher-economists like to apply fairness as justice. My main concern with fairness as justice is that it perpetuates cycles of injustices. Perhaps we don’t see the cycle spinning so much because the Kaldor/Hicks losers from this approach don’t survive.

How would I have achieved abolition? I suggest that anyone who sympathized with a slave could pay out of his own pocket to free a slave. Many did this. Many slave-owners who came to sympathize with their slaves gave them writs of manumission. Often the state prohibited this, introducing a systematic collusive injustice.

But this creates a moral hazard. Buy a slave from a slave owner, and he will just buy another slave. Probably. Unless the slave-owner, who shares some sympathy with the manumitter, catches the sympathy for the slave from the manumitter. Is sympathy contagious? Can we close social distances through acts of sacrificial altruism? What happens in immigration debates when I self-righteously tout “They can live with me!”?

If You Can Fake That, You’ve Got It Made

My cousin, a diligent grandson, gave me a lift down to Virginia this past Saturday so that we could celebrate our grandmother’s 90th birthday. We drove back the next morning, meaning that we spent a lot of time with one another and no one else that weekend. We held up a conversation through most of it, so it was time well spent.

We kept circling back to the concept of authenticity. Jon, a film editor, spoke of attitudes towards it in film, but also in rap, and artistic creation in general. Authenticity—not originality.

On my mind was Julia Annas; a not uncommon occurrence since I read her tremendous history of Hellenistic ethics, The Morality of Happiness. The book on my mind this past weekend, however, was Intelligent Virtue, which I am currently in the middle of.  Rather than a history, it is a positive contribution to modern virtue ethics. A large part of her framework involves the idea that virtue is analogous to a skill. This is simple comparison; Annas dives deep into what it means to acquire and exercise a skill.

This section in particular was floating in my mind while Jon and I talked:

What the learner needs to do is not only to learn from the teacher or role model how to understand what she has to do and the way to do it, but to become able to acquire for herself the skill that the teacher has, rather than acquiring it as a matter of routine, something which results in becoming a clone-like impersonator.

And while describing this to my cousin something dawned on me. I always took the line “good artists borrow, great artists steal” to mostly be about originality, but if that’s all it was about, the distinction kind of eluded me. Both “borrow” and “steal” imply that the artist is getting their stuff from somewhere else, but what’s the difference between the two?

Thinking in terms of Annas’ explanation of the process of learning a skill, it finally made sense. The good artist is still learning their voice; when they take inspiration from other artists they merely borrow because their art is still fundamentally someone else’s. It is like “becoming a clone-like impersonator”. The great artist, on the other hand, steals in the sense that they make the art their own. This does not mean that they do “original” work; they still take it from somewhere, just as the pianist must acquire their skill from a teacher.

This concept of making something your own is a bit of a black box, where the human experience is concerned. The chasm between merely copying your teacher and the beginning of real understanding—how do we bridge it? Yet we all did it as children, and adults everywhere are doing it every day with new skills they acquire out of a desire to or for their work.

Authenticity is when you have made a skill, and your work, your own. That doesn’t mean it’s any good, of course—you can be authentically bad. But it’s a necessary achievement on the road to mastery.

The phronimos, person of practical wisdom, is one who has made their life their own and mastered the art of living well.

A Meditation on Bourgeois Conservatism

A bourgeois conservatism by itself can never incorporate Catholicism for bourgeois conservatism is merely the conservatism of markets.

Bourgeois conservatism is the resistance to social change on the basis that it might disrupt the economic order.

But, bourgeois life by itself is rather malleable. It is simply those habits of mind and practice that facilitate productive work.

This is why we see bourgeois conservatives like David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum and so on accepting of same sex marriage.

Change agents within bourgeois life need to articulate that “we are just like you” where the you is a respectable productive employee.

If they can win that argument the purposed change in social norms typically follows suit.

Indeed past social changes are socialized within us on these terms on the grounds of men/women and whites/blacks.

Bourgeois progessivism is not therefore a species of radicalism properly understood.

Bourgeois conservatives are the policemen of the habits of productive work.

While bourgeois progressives seek to expand who is allowed within that framework. However it is the framework that stays.

It is a framework defined by public interest, not common good.


This is not to say that bourgeois conservatism is, per se, an illegitimate enterprise.

Indeed, the expansion of rights for racial minorities and the opportunity for women to engage in work seems to be a good thing

This is to say that bourgeois conservatism is an imperfect and incomplete guide to the good.

Sometimes what is in the public interest and the common good match up.

Sometimes they do not.

Therefore our preference should be for the common good.

Capital Accumulation in the 21st Century

On Twitter, the other cartoon duck named Sam quibbles with my claim that:

Retorteth the Hammond:

 The point I had bookmarked was intended to be an extension of some of the remarks I made yesterday at EE. You see, not only might a basic income not do much to curb the production and trade in paternalistic policy, but it occurred to me that it might actually increase the demand for paternalism by amplifying productive inequality. After all, cash transfers reduce the relative price of less-productive rural living, particularly in areas with heavily restrictive urban zoning statutes. If you’re a marginal worker, why bother looking for a decent job in the big city if the IRS just sends you a check once a month? Retire early to Humpalump county, kick back with your copy of Titanfall, and pwn n00bs all the livelong day. The infinitely extensible adolescence. 

But Other Sam’s challenge gives me at least a little pause. Later in the conversation he notes that some in-kind mandates are allocated by quantity rather than price. In Canada, for example, they fly doctors above the Arctic Circle to treat folks who live in the suburbs of Nunavut. This is a gargantuan subsidy when you roll in all the opportunity (economic) costs in addition to the direct (accounting) costs. Under ten grand a year, no single citizen could possibly afford to import a medical professional from Toronto for a checkup.

Sam’s right. Quantity-allocated transfers are impressively large subsidies for living in areas where land is cheap and neighbors distant. As for cash vs. strings-attached in-kind payments, I might still be on the fence a little bit. For very low productivity folks (particularly those below the Federal minimum wage threshold), a BIG that covers rent in the boondocks plus a little left over for food and entertainment might give enough of a shove to move out of Section 8 housing and into the countryside. But for folks a little closer to the margin, the cash option might give them just enough cushion to encourage them to give it a go in the big city.

It’d be interesting to see what the general equilibrium would look like. Would a BIG worsen productive inequality, turning rural areas into transfer payment reservations? How does that compare to the status quo? Is there a capital accumulation death spiral in communities that obtain a large share of income from transfer payments? Is that necessarily a social problem? What effect would this have on popular support for immigration reform?

Between Callousness and Telescopic Morality

Tonight I encountered another critique of my formulation of telescopic morality. The original piece I wrote at the Umlaut resonated with a surprising number of people, as did the subsequent followups.  They also have drawn a fair amount of criticism.

I want to start by making sure I’ve given credit where it’s due—the formulation began with this piece by my father, back when he was writing regularly at his first blog Vulgar Morality. The newest criticism of my position equates “vulgar morality” with simply being the opposite of telescopic morality, which isn’t completely wrong, but isn’t right either:

Now, let us turn to the piece in question, by one Ian Pollock. Pollock begins with a few examples of something I might say, which frankly I couldn’t have put better myself:

  • Study basic personal finance before debating macroeconomics.
  • Join your condo board and change their pet policy before weighing in on geopolitics.
  • Help out a relative with their leaky toilet before trying to solve The Middle East.
  • Get out of the habit of snapping at your spouse before pontificating about optimal gender relations.
  • Make something someone is actually willing to pay you for, before saving the world for free.

He then advances four objections, which I will paraphrase:

  1. Saying someone is engaging in “telescopic morality” is just a tool for smearing opponents, the same way that “confirmation bias” is a thing but usually just applied to people you disagree with.
  2. There’s no trade-off between telescopic morality and local concerns.
  3. Abandoning telescopic morality means becoming a freerider on public goods.
  4. Telescopic morality is actually a great, valuable thing that not enough people engage in. We could save a life for just $200 a month but basically no one does.

Before responding to specific points, I’m going to clarify something that I tried to clarify in this piece.

I believe that the only healthy relationship one can have with the far is to consider oneself a small part of the whole, and to contemplate your contributions accordingly. The vainglorious writer in me does hope for fame and lasting influence, but writers who have such desires are in high supply and low demand. I write primarily because I value the activity in itself, and because I believe that I am making a small contribution to a much larger whole; participating in a conversation that extends back millenia and will continue for an unknowable duration into the future.

There is nothing wrong with contributing to charity, volunteering, or making arguments about far matters in public or private. But we should do so in the right way, in the right amount, and with the right attitude; all of which obviously varies with particular circumstances and roles. Expecting to change the world is delusional and taken too far it can be self-destructive. In some circumstances, such as the Internet outrage example, it can be destructive to others as well. Far concerns need to be carefully managed, to take account of our basic human limitations and to make sure we don’t poison the well of our near obligations.

Basically I think there is, as in everything, an Aristotelian mean. Just as courage does not have one opposite, but instead is the appropriate disposition standing at an intermediate between recklessness and cowardice, so too is a healthy relationship between far and near situated between telescopic morality and utter callous disregard of others. Now, Aristotle’s mean has often been misunderstood because the word has come to be synonymous with “average”; people think he meant that courage is evenly in the middle between recklessness and cowardice. The mean is contingent on circumstances; sometimes (say in the middle of a battle) it can end up being quite close to one extreme and quite far from the other.

It’s my belief that what you might call the Internet outrage machine—which also existed before the net in the form of panic and outrage news stories—has enticed too many of us out to the edges of telescopic morality.

And contra Pollock, there are trade-offs and they do matter. That is what I was getting at with this piece on media consumption—careful deliberation burns glucose; this is a well-studied fact. What you choose to carefully deliberate on, then, has opportunity costs like anything else. This isn’t static—this is a great book on how you can manage these limits and get the most out of them, but at the end of the day there are limits, and they are not going to go away. People who heavily emotionally invest themselves in far away matters are using up resources for dealing with life right here, right now which they can actually have an impact on.

And it is here that they can have an impact. Between complete callousness and telescopic morality there is investing in your community, lending a helping hand to people whose hands you can actually grasp. Pollock mentions GiveWell, and he isn’t the first critic to do so, but GiveWell is only as good as your trust in them. And perhaps they’re the ones, who will really give us the tools to do international giving right. Maybe. But the track record isn’t good. And GiveWell gives me statistics, not direct observation of the lives of the people my money impacts.

Again, I’m not against charity and I’m not even criticizing GiveWell. What I am against is a morality that skews our priorities towards that which we have the least feedback from. I happen to think that we pay too little attention to the middle space between our immediate daily surroundings and distant, telescopic matters. Far closer is the immediate community that we are a part of. Investing in that, working to improve it and the lives of the people you share it with, deserves a better shake than public intellectuals are likely to give it.

In short (too late): it’s not a pejorative term but a position within an Aristotelian mean, there are trade-offs, the true “social defection” is more likely to occur at the level of community, and I’m skeptical of organizations like GiveWell—though I do think one can give productively, if you focus your finite deliberative resources on becoming knowledgeable in a specific area of giving over time.

Meta-Judging at the County Fair

Once the boys’ wristbands were secured in a euvoluntary exchange at the ticket booth, I sat myself down in a sunny corner of the midway to do what I love most about going to the fair: judging.

The rabbits are particularly handsome this year, probably because of cooler weather. Lambs, goats, roosters, the same, but not the hens: they leave something to be desired. The pigs have a disease; the only ones here are to be auctioned off, and they cannot return to the farm. In the 4-H expo hall, someone has a strawberry-rhubarb jam that is out-of-this world. The County Fair is beautiful this way: so many blue ribbons heralding the arrival of the judging.

Judging isn’t easy; with each variety there are myriad criteria to good judging: tattoos, their placement, number, and artistic value; piercings, placement, number, and value; weight and muscle tone; t-shirt, advice and advertisement; children, harnessed, free, sugar-crazed, polite, excited, crying, laughing, bewildered, carried; facial expression, pleasant, unpleasant; teeth (one lovely Seneca Nation young lady was missing an incisor); skin color (the most magnificent African American man sauntered by, skin as black as India ink, tall, fat, the spitting image of Charles Mingus wearing whiskers in the style of a 17th Century Dutch pirate); hair, dyed, braided, combed, cut, dreadlocks, shaven, mohawk; clothing, tight, too tight, way too tight, loose-fitting, comfortable, too loose, whoa that’s awesome; comportment.


Now, comportment is a kind of sum-of-the-parts judgment, how a specimen might carry himself or herself. Audacious tattoos on the belly? Well, does she have the panache to pull it off while she licks cotton candy off her fingers, one-by-one? Lobes stretched? Indeed, but does his baby boy like to play with them while he argues with the carney about the circumference of the basketball rim?

As you can see, judging at the County Fair is not for the inexperienced or kind-hearted. We judge from experience, knowing that the deviation from appearance to lifestyle is minimal, almost background noise. Nevertheless, a good judge simplifies: I wonder if that person is happy? And, would I be happy as that person? The County Fair brings all kinds out into a common biosphere, surrounded by a fence and the bubble of the heavens. Here we all are. Are we eudaimoniac? I found myself envious of about a quarter of the specimens presenting themselves, and probably less happy than another quarter. That makes me as happy or happier than about half of the other specimens. Not a blue ribbon, but a respectable showing.

I was tired from judging after a while, and it is good for a judge, in order to recreate, to find the biggest, bestest, best-cooked bratwurst to be found east of Chicago, with a little hot mustard and (for this judge) a smidgen of ketchup, atop a healthy bed of sauerkraut within a sizable bun, with a pop. I’m not sure the exchange could be called euvoluntary because the price, at $7.50, was a steal. I settled into a bench under a shade, tucked into my bratwurst, and lifted my eyes, and behold! a judge.

It was too late for her: I had her espied, a half a league hence, from behind the mist of an exterior siding company’s expo booth, through a sea of people. She was not checking me out. Indeed, not, I was cramming my fat gob with a gigantic sausage. No, she was judging me. She wonders if I am happy. Could she be happy as me?

The boys were exhausted, and my tummy was full, so we departed the County Fair by way of the equestrian competition. Glorious creatures, horses and riders, and so I judge.