The Factory Closed

A Generation X Tale

We were kids when the factories closed. This is significant.

Can you imagine being told that if you work hard in school, keep your nose clean, and watch your social Ps & Qs you’d get a job right out of high school, and if you went to college, you’d get a career? Guaranteed?

Yes, we were guaranteed. The misery of school was therefore bearable, knowing that enduring thirteen years of it would yield a steady flow of cash and the strong possibility of upward mobility. We were treated to thousands upon thousands of stories about young and upwardly-mobile professionals, the Yuppies. There was even a very popular and critically acclaimed TV show about Yuppies, Thirtysomething. They made so much money they had problems! Real problems!

At the same time, they were inventing terms for us, the children of the Baby Boom. First, we were Generation X, the unknown quotient, which I found, immediately, insulting. Then we were the Latchkey Kids, the first generation of children ever in the history of the universe to come home from school alone, with no parental supervision. My mom and dad were wise enough to hire a high-school girl to supervise us while she watched TV and talked on the phone. Misfits records, and the like, became my surrogate parents. Other kids picked other things.

I have distinct memories of riding around on bikes and skateboards talking to my coevals about these new terms for us. We were talking about them because there was no framework for us to interpret what was happening. It was true: the stability of the middle of the 20th century was coming to an end, and it was emerging that the stability of the middle of the 20th Century was something of a pristine ideal, somewhat removed from common, everyday experience.

Here are some examples: even though culture was unified by the three television networks and endless reruns of cultural artifacts via syndication, cable television was nascent, driving a wedge into that unity. Independent radio stations sprang up, splintering pop music into a thousand shards. Proto-emo, anyone? It was on a radio station in Mobile, Alabama, circa 1988.

That’s just pop culture, right? Perhaps. Perhaps symptomatic. We talked an awful lot about divorce. There was no such thing as counseling for children whose families were splitting up. What dad did to mom, and what mom did to dad, in full view of the children, was unprecedented, at least by sheer number of cases. We ceased being individual tragic stories and became statistics, truly the heirs to our name: psychology was racing to solve for x.

Dad never wore a shirt when he drove the kids to Church and Sunday School. Two hours later, he was at Grandma’s house for Sunday Dinner.

The E.T. movie resonated so strongly because it reflected this disintegration. If you recall the setting, E.T. happened upon little Elliot and Gertie’s house ensconced in prototypical American Suburbia, a home overseen by a single mom, who was struggling to provide financial and emotional support for everyone, even for her teenage son Michael. Why was she single? Unspoken, the truth was that her husband ran off to Mexico with another woman. E.T. rescues them all with a strong resurrection motif. Effective, eh?

See? The bottom was falling out. The abyss has always been there for every generation, but Generation X is unique in that its progenitors conceived of a lie that there was a scaffolding over which to traverse the abyss in ignorant bliss. Who believed it more: the Baby Boomers or their children?

The fascistic scaffolding of school gave birth to a stillborn generation, having trained us for the factory floor or for factory management. Our parents, split up, a hopeless Penelope, stood upon the shores of Lake Erie, gazing westward, waiting for the lofty sails of Bethlehem Steel to set upon the horizon, marking its triumphant return from the Far East. We popped out of the womb into a decrepit and empty cinder-block shell. Thankfully, the nearby bars were still open, and nostalgia flowed there freely, and some of us made do until the beer ran dry.

Not all of us, at least not entirely. Angry is no condition in which to navigate the abyss. The mainsail can be repaired. We are the mothers of invention, after all; every generation is.

Ancient Egyptian Storytelling

Some instruction emerges when moderns approach ancient literature. We’ve known for quite some time that the ancients memorialized significant cultural experiences in many media, and with respect to literature, both in narrative form and in poetry form.

For a while there, the consensus was that poetry held the more reliable account of history, usually because the story was told more concisely with a few details of the event highlighted. It was reasoned in many dissertations that the narrative forms were expansions and interpretations, the victor creating the world, so to speak, with a version of history friendly to the contemporary regime.

Those dissertations sort-of wore out the subject, so some clever student turned the thing on its head (especially with the discovery of the Annals of Thutmosis III, which has been found to be a reliable description of certain significant cultural experiences in comparison to other extant artifacts and literature), declaring that whenever a prose narrative account and a poetic account are treating the same historical phenomenon, the prose account is the primary source and the poetic account is the secondary celebration.

Well, that was twenty years ago. Where are we now? The question reveals a modernistic bias that if we can somehow determine a primary source of the past, via artifact and/or literary account, we can also determine what really happened, and by having confidence in what really happened, we can get a better grip on our present reality. You know, the truth, objectively speaking.

Someone clever responds to this by saying, “If we really want to be sure about what really happened, we must build a time machine and transport ourselves to the place and time about which we are curious.” Indeed. Indeed not.

Even if you were literally present at these historically significant experiences, you’re still creating the history in your mind and projecting it forward onto a medium of some sort for the sake of posterity. That you think something is significant is significant in itself. Riding the DeLorean back to the future, that you think what they thought to be significant to be significant multiplies significances fractally. And the cat chases its tail.

A better model, I hereby posit, is that the different languages have a symbiotic relationship to each other. The narrative, for example, is a working out of the experience, trying to set order and emphasis, “topic, focus, and foreground” and how they shift and move. Poetry (and also minstrel music, a.k.a. pop music) develops focus further, attempting to reach a different realm, a further realm, of the person engaging the culturally significant experience. Scientific language is doing something entirely different: measuring, perhaps, testing and calibrating; I don’t know. Economic language likewise.

Each is a grappling with the others to invent a history for the sake of participating in it with a sense of safety, perhaps, or freedom, or progress, or something like that–the key is the participation, not the knowing. The knowing is secondary, and presumes an authority over the experience.

How many other languages attempt to realize what really happened?

Invisible Cliffs and Chesteron’s Fence

Forgive me for trying your patience from the start, but I would like to begin with a lengthy quote from Diffusion of Innovations:

Rice is central to Balinese life. The steep slopes of volcanic soil, stretching down from mis-covered mountain peaks to the sea, have been ingeniously terraced by Balinese farmers over the past eight centuries so that irrigation water descends from a high crater lake, tumbling from one sall rice plot to another, inching its way downward for miles to the sea. For centuries these rice paddies have produced up to a ton of food per acre per year, with little or no added fertilizer. Because of the ample rice yields, the small, densely populated island of Bali supports several million people. The high rice yields are made possible by a complex irrigation system that is coordinated by a hierarchical system of HIndu priests and water temples that regulate water flows. At the top of this indigenous system is the high priest, the Jero Gde (pronounced “Jeero G’day”), at the main water temple at Ulun Danu Batur, the crater lake near the peak of Batur volcano. Here offerings are made to Dewi Dano the water goddess, whom Balinese believe dwells in the crater lake.

The Jero Gde serves as the overall manager of the sacred irrigation system. Below him are a series of major dams, each with a Hindu priest and a water temple responsible for regulating water flows. Lower levels of the irrigation system consist of smaller weirs, each with a minor water temple to regulate water flows. At the local level are 1,300 subaks, each a water users’ cooperative association of about a hundred farmers. Each subak has a water shrine and a priest. Such an elaborate, hierarchically tiered social organization is needed to operate the Balinese irrigation system. Water is a scarce resource, and an efficient system is necessary to distribute the water in an equitable manner.

However, the water temple system of Bali does far more than just deliver water to the rice crops. Each rice terrace is a complex ecosystem, whose variable factors are carefully balanced by the Jero Gde and his cadre of Hindu water priests. For instance, a single farmer cannot control the pests in his small rice plot unless he coordinates with his neighbors. Otherwise, the rats, brown leafhoppers, and other pests simply migrate from field to field. The solution is for hundreds of farmers in several neighboring subaks to plant, irrigate, and harvest simultaneously, and then to leave their rice fields to fallow for several weeks. Evidence of such concerted action is easily visible: thousands of rice fields on a mountain slope will either be growing green, harvest yellow, or fallow brown. But until anthopologist Lansing began to investigate, no one understood how the decisions of these hundreds of rice farmers were orchestrated. Rice experts, if they knew of the indigenous irrigation system, dismissed it as unimportant. Lansing (1991) said, “Modern irrigation experts thought the ancient temple system was mere religious nonsense.” Throughout the world, technologists often disparage indigenous learning systems.

The Balinese ecological system is so complex because the Jero Gde must seek an optimum balance of various competing forces. If all subaks were planted at the same time, pests would be reduced; however, water supplies would be inadequate due to peaks in demand. On the other hand, if all subaks staggered their rice-planing schedule in a completely random manner, the water demand would be spread out. The water supply would be utilized efficiently, but the pests would flourish and wipe out the rice crop. So the Jero Gde must seek an optimal balance between pest control and water conservation, depending on the amount of rainfall flowing into the crater lake, the levels of the different pest populations in various subaks, and so forth.

Here is the punchline:

Indonesian government officials eagerly introduced the Green Revolution rice varieties in Bali in the 1970s. These innovations had tripled rice yields in other areas, and the agricultural change agents hoped to increase Bali’s food production. Balinese farmers were told to grow three, rather than two, crops per year, and to adopt pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The centuries-old indigenous water-and-fallow system, managed by the Hindu priests, was abandoned by many farmers. “As a consequence, the incidence of bacterial and viral [rice] diseases, together with insect and rat populations, began to increase rapidly. Imported organochloride pesticides made some dents in the rising pest population, but also killed off eels, fish, and in some cases, farmers in the rice fields” (Lansing, 1987). Instead of increasing, rice yields in Bali dropped precipitously. Balinese rice farmers promptly returned to the water temple system and discontinued the miracle rice varieties (Bardini, 1994). So much for the Green Revolution in Bali.

I have spoken of the tense balance between experimentation and taboo. I framed it in terms of invisible cliffs—some taboos discourage us from treading through areas where we might fall into such a thing.

The Balinese example shows that this is no abstraction. The highly complex water temple system managed problems that were a matter of life and death for the people that lived there. From the outside, however, it just looked like a lot of ornate religious procedures. No one considered that it might be a “knowledge system,” so no one attempted to figure out what knowledge it might contain. The Green Revolution people just reflexively brought their own general expertise, the way they would for any locality. They ended up walking them right off the cliff, a process which Lansing documented at length in his book.

Patrick has boldly stood athwart Sweet Talk’s general Burkean bent and shouted “I am a hearty skeptic of tradition. I think it has no independent value and no explanatory power.” In conversation, he reiterates his skepticism towards’ Chesterton’s famous formulation:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

What I like about Chesterton’s fence is that, unlike a lot of formulations of traditionalism, it isn’t a categorical ban on crossing a given line. It’s simply stacking the burden of evidence on those arguing against tradition in a given case.

The Bali example is much beloved by Burkeans. But the fact of the matter is that it is largely a curiosity in the much more consequential story of the spread of the Green Revolution, something that beat back Malthusian dynamics for an enormous number of the world’s poorest people. The innovations it spread have made it possible to feed the largest global population in history with much less land than we used to need to feed a far smaller population.

Sometimes an old religious system really just is ornate, and greater material betterment could be found through reform or abandonment. Sometimes being time-tested just means, as Patrick says, that something has been exceptionally lucky. Certainly traditionalists are constantly struggling against a persistent (that is, time-tested!) anti-traditional strain in traditional Western philosophical thought dating back at least to Plato. Slavery is another institution with a very long history, which has repeatedly emerged in many different societies around the world. Moreover, the conditions under which the Great Enrichment took place were very historically contingent and emerged after centuries of (again, time-tested) feudalism.

The Bali example, therefore, should not be taken as a discouragement against change or innovation, but instead a reminder of Chesterton’s fence. It should also remind us that what works in general may not always work in particular applications. Ronald Coase, no enemy of strong property rights, argued with his co-author that the national mandate to switch to private farming in China actually created a reduction in production efficiency in several specific locales. The reason is that local entrepreneurship between public and semi-private actors had actually resulted in some idiosyncratic arrangements that more effectively dealt with the particular conditions of those locales. The mandated system was good in general but not as good in particular cases. Coase and Wang believe that China’s success stems largely from the fact that this mandate was an exception—in general the system that developed was one in which provinces experimented with their own solutions and were encouraged to share what they discovered, with imitation of the most successful being left a choice rather than a mandate.

Some might think that, with Lansing’s research, we now have enough of an understanding of the Balinese water temple system and the problems it seeks to address in order to improve it rationally. And that’s certainly a possibility. More likely is that small-scale experimentation could help refine it without replacing it; such holistic systems are difficult to test true substitutes for without throwing the whole thing out.

Additionally, there are a lot of things that an economist, looking at the system, might be skeptical of—the fact that the smallest unit is a farming cooperative, for instance, rather than a privately owned farm. But it’s clear that the sacred plays a huge role in making the system work—beyond practical considerations, the religious justifications for the system have a solid, conjective reality. As with conjective matters generally, this is always up for renegotiation—when the Green Revolution experts came, many defected to their side. But an important part of what made the system work for as long as it has worked is the faith of the farmers, to say nothing of the priests. So technically superior alternatives may have a hard time achieving the same level of group coordination that the water temple system has, for purely S-Variable reasons.

Tradition is a storehouse of s-variable values; this is another reason to take it seriously.

I’m Not Saying My Opponent is Pro-Infanticide, But…

Consider Daniel Russell on vague concepts:

A classic description of vague concepts holds that a vague concept F is such that there will be ‘borderline cases’ of F, that is, cases in which no method of making F more precise could settle in a privileged way whether the thing is F or not. Vagueness thus arises because of the concept itself, not because we happen to lack a method that would settle these cases.

Russell discusses what he calls vague satis concepts; these are cases where there’s some threshold point between being X and not being X, but there is no sharp boundary. The divide is vague. Trivial examples include what counts as bald or tall. More serious examples include personhood and virtue. Russell argues that representative examples will do not due for understanding vague satis concepts, and instead you need a model.

When we try to say what personhood really is, we construct a theoretical model of what we take to be the essential features of personhood, in some kind of reflective equilibrium, and realized to the fullest degree, since the model must illuminate the central cases, not just join their ranks. This model, we should note, is an ideal, and therefore not merely a central case: you or I could stand as a central case of personhood, but not as a model of personhood, since particular persons always have shortcomings in some dimension or other of personhood, a shortcoming that the model is to reveal as a shortcoming.

Models are a tool for understanding vague satis concepts, but as Russell points out in his description of vague concepts generally, there will always be unresolveable borderline cases, no matter how accurate or precise the model.

I believe that tacit knowledge and norms fill the space that no model possibly can. And that we should take taboos in this area very seriously, lest we walk off a cliff, or persuade people to make an abominable act like infanticide morally permissible. Arguments about the personhood of infants, devoid of a belief in the soul, seem from a rational perspective like little more than drawing arbitrary lines. But precisely because borderline cases in vague satis concepts cannot be resolved with rational models, we should not cavalierly trample over the lines established by tradition.

I, for one, am glad to live in a civilization where infanticide is considered one of the most vile, most unforgivable of immoral acts.

Previous Posts in Thread

Conjective

We are allowed to rant here, right?

I said, “But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.”

Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.

Adam: “One cannot conceive of virtue without language, the consensus that bravery, restraint, wisdom, charity, fairness, and similar qualities, are in fact worthy of praise.”

This is perhaps the point of departure between Adam and I, at least in our understanding thus far. I can demonstrate charity in a way that words cannot. Words are ultimately about exchange. This is something I hope to get at in my research on Richard Whately. There are some behaviors that demonstrate virtue above that which can be articulated. Those virtues are not open to debate or discussion. They are also not amenable to imposition. They truly must be caught, and voluntarily, rather than taught, didactically.

In other words, I am not really trying to persuade anyone to adopt my ethic. I try repeatedly to say that I don’t know why anyone would adopt my ethic. But I also don’t see a way to effect reforms that reach Pareto outcomes without direct personal sacrifices. The usual response is that my ethic is vulnerable to moral hazards. Precisely. The goal is not really the reform, but the transformation of the individual. So volition is central.

So there is an ought that is merely moral, that is, conjective, or socially praiseworthy. Then there is that peculiar ethic that I try to hold myself to, that goes beyond the conjective, beyond what I can hope to persuade you to do through words, beyond that which I can motivate you unto through appeals to your self-interest no matter how long your time horizon. I’m saying my ethic is impossible. But that is why it is true religion. It is not entwined in any way with self-interest. All religion that so compromises itself I count as less than.

And that lesser religion is usually sufficient for social progress. But it cannot motivate the redemption of sinners. No simply moral religion would allow Saul, murderer of Christians, to become Paul. It is offensive to most ears, and rightly so. It says that your morality is insufficient.

I illustrate this by showing that all reform is a fail. Inasmuch as reforms are justified by Kaldor/Hicks efficiency rather than Pareto efficiency they implicitly claim that the best morality we can hope for is one that sacrifices the losers for the sake of the whole. You see, the losers of such reforms are never accounted for when measuring the success of the reform. They are dead.

Pareto efficiency is not a possibility, unless people are willing to make personal sacrifices. Then it is not a political reform really, but an anarchic mob spite-ing the illegitimacy of the regime by accomplishing what the regime cannot.

In other words, I am saying that Christians should shoulder the full burden of the reforms they advocate personally and sacrificially, otherwise they are compromising their religion.

Can a Christian, can I, remain involved in politics, continue to vote, continue to participate in the conjective? I suppose so. But I must not bring any of my radical sacrificial altruism into that exchange.

This is how I manage to remain an economist, despite my ethic. I take the Misesian / Hayekian approach as demonstrated in the Socialist Calculation debate: Given the ends specified, will the selected means achieve those ends? There is no value judgment in this. It is purely conjective. Consequently, my primary function in political discussion is to say “no.” That is, with Hayek, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” This is why economists are unpopular.

I have no ideal outcome. I am not deluded into thinking that all individuals could possibly adopt this radical sacrificial individualist ethic. Again, I don’t know why anyone would want to adopt this ethic. I think the primary function of the ethic is prophetic, that is showing that the emperor has no clothes. Showing that the tidy reforms of the past have actually prejudiced some at the expense of others. Showing that the advocacy practiced on symbolic margins is not praiseworthy. Showing the Church that entanglement with the state is ultimately a harmful compromise. Showing the Kantian duty is insufficient for motivating people to do positive good. Showing that even virtue ethics leaves something undone. All of this can be done through the simple economist’s “no.” But then overcoming that “no” in any way requires my peculiar ethic. The ethic is altogether spiteful, and in spite of existing powers. It is throwing starfish back into the sea, one at a time.

The positive good is important because progressives believe that the state can be effective in accomplishing it. Progressives are right that morality and virtue are insufficient for caring for the very least of these, but then they presume that the state can accomplish those ends. The economist says, “no.” the sacrificial altruist says, “I must do it.” Virtue ethics might be the best we can possibly hope for with respect for civic morality. And it is very good! Particularly when it recognizes that exchange is ubiquitous and essential.

a glimpse of progress

“The throne is empty and we are orphans. What shall avail us now?”

~from Lucifer, the graphic novel by Mike Carey

This weekend I read about the #SadPuppies campaign, which is an effort to take back the Hugo (prestigious scifi/fantasy awards) from the clutches of politically correct “SJWs” (that’s social justice warriors, and it’s an epithet). I have a more than passing interest in the genre, but I am no trufan. I haven’t read any new works of scifi this year, for starters. While perusing #puppygate, this tweet gave me pause. It reads:

My personal favorite on there is Robert Heinlein. Hypothetical question, if Robert Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in 2014, could he get on the Hugo ballot now? Or would he be labeled as a fascist with troubling ideas, and a product of the neo-colonial patriarchy?

I don’t know about Starship Troopers. It seems to have some genuinely interesting ideas about the Polity and the Individual’s relation to it that can’t be dismissed as mere fascism. I definitely found it too militaristic for my liking, but hey, I’m a pacifist. I do, however, wonder about Stranger in a Strange Land, one of Heinlein’s other Hugo winners. S P O I L E R to follow for whatever that’s worth for a 50-some-year-old book.

There is a kind of enlightenment that the characters in the book undergo once they start taking the Martian’s way of life seriously. As they do this, the women (but not the men) all begin to literally look and act the same as one another. The enlightened men maintain their distinct personalities (not to mention body shapes), but the women all become young, attractive copies of one another. And it’s clear from the free love aspect of the Martian’s ethos that the main purpose of the women is to act as sexual furniture for the men, with no serious life projects beyond this. Add to this a famous line by one of the female characters that nine tenths of the time women are partially at fault for rape and it amounts to an outrageously misogynistic book.

If Stranger in a Strange Land were written in 2014, I sincerely hope it would not make the Hugo ballot, even if the plot and every other aspect of the storytelling were original and compelling. The values conveyed by a novel are a fundamental part of that novel. If those values are wrong or repulsive, then that has to reflect on our total evaluation of the book. A novel is supposed to tell us something about the human condition–scifi and fantasy novels usually tweak that condition in some ingenious way and we watch the consequences fall out–but if the book gets the human moral condition vastly wrong, then it has simply failed as a novel, much as it would fail by having cardboard characters or a boring, hole-riddled plot.

Now, quickly before I’m misunderstood. Of course Stranger in a Strange Land shouldn’t be banned. Banish the thought! And it shouldn’t be stricken from the Hugo pantheon or “corrected” or suffer any other kind of hideous revisionism. And it should be continue to be read. Other scifi authors since Heinlein have read his works and their own contributions to the genre comprise a vast conversation, spanning generations. Stories are told today because other stories were told yesterday. Blotting out the bits we later discover to be embarrassing mistakes will prevent us from learning from those mistakes.

So what do I mean to say? I make no claim to non-partisanship in this scuffle. I’m an SJW straight through to my cold, dark, twisted heart. Sapient individuals (or morally relevant agglomerations) of all (or no) genders, races/species, religions, sexualities, national/planetary origins, and life-sustaining subtrata deserve the positive liberty to formulate and execute their life plans free from hostile interference, and they also deserve the presumption of dignity, defeasible only by evidence of failure to extend similar dignity and liberty to other sapient (or sentient?) life-forms. As these values (continue to) take over society, we will see fewer awards going to works where a small ethnic subset of a population of humans gets all the principal protagonist roles. There will be fewer stories where the histories and struggles of marginalized groups will be conveniently swept under the rug for the ease of storytelling. More books will be written where the lives and perspectives of all of (trans)humanity will be given voice, and more ears within the audience will be receptive to these perspectives. And yes, the video games of the future will be altogether less bedecked with the bodies of dead sex workers.

What then will we do with the great works of the past that, at least in moral terms, have failed to speak beyond their time? And what will we do with the authors and artists who fail posterity in this way? This is a constant, burning question for the moral entrepreneur, who believes moral progress is possible; the very reality of that moral progress turns the past into an eerie country inhabited by ghouls. Sacrifice realism and we trivialize our ability to condemn the worst monsters. Keep realism and our heroes appear before us with bullseyes on their foreheads for every revisionist with a vendetta. Robert Heinlein had a juvenile, sexist disrespect for women and the American Founding Fathers owned slaves.

We can try to lessen our need for heroes. We can try to focus on understanding the virtues of our heroes, and salvage something precious from Fallen souls. Or maybe wrestling honestly with this tension might just be our fate, the best we can do, impaled as we are on the horns of dilemma. Or perhaps our task is to realize that our progress, moral and otherwise, has been made possible by those who have come before us; our conjective with the past is our scaffolding. If we see further than our predecessors, it is not because we have stood on the shoulders of giants, but because we have constructed a rickety tower out of crooked corpses.

The Cinnamon Challenge

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, blanketing downwind Pacific Northwest regions in volcanic ash. I was five years old at the time, and I recall my grandmother mailing us a vial of the stuff she’d collected from her suburban Portland backyard. I would turn the vial over and over and over again, marveling at the silky smoothness of the gray soot, how it refused to pile or peak, each little hint that it might retain a slope thwarted by how gracefully it slid off itself. Unlike the hearth ash I knew, this substance was alien, magical, an elusive pen-light shining into a bizarre natural world whole generations could arrive and vanish without ever witnessing except through the tales of long-forgotten ancestors. It was only later I discovered the more prosaic reason why volcanic ash wouldn’t pile, and it had to do with microscopic friction ratios and the type of basalt in the interstitial region between the San Juan de Fuca and North American plates and so on and so forth. Once again, microscopes mercifully murder mystery.  Continue reading “The Cinnamon Challenge”

Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous

It’s motorcycle season up here in Western New York, the season of paradise finally having returned to us: six months of weather-driven ecstasy that would make a poppy field jealous. Men and women (mostly men) who are rediscovering freedom mount up on hogs to ride away from fetters upon the low rumble of open internal combustion. Commemorating the rising spring sun of motorbiking, women set out the yellow “Look” signs in their front yards, weeping and ululating as women of yore did when the warriors set off in the spring, looking for war.

LOOK_Sign_ONE_programI think they should take them down. You cannot serve two masters: you must either love danger and hate safety or hate danger. To lay a wreath of guilt upon ordinary automobile motorists is unconscionable.

  1. Motorcyclists are, by nature, risk-takers. They would not be riding motorcycles otherwise. Actuarial tables do not lie.
  2. A motorcycle is much smaller than a typical automobile, and, thereby, much more difficult to see.
  3. Motorcyclists tend to prefer the “flat-black” aesthetic in the motorcycle, the clothing, and the helmet. Black, as nature would have it, absorbs light, etc.
  4. A typical “fender-bender” involving two automobiles in a “look” situation will probably yield an angry exchange, perhaps a witty joke when heads are cooled, an assessment of damage and fault, and a repair bill that will probably not exceed the deductible of a common collision-insurance rider. The same incident involving a motorcycle and an automobile will probably yield life-threatening injuries to the motorcyclist. A safety-rated crash helmet will protect the head but will not protect the body like one belted into the cockpit of an automobile. The laws of physics prevail. The lower-end caskets start at about $1,000.
  5. We need men and women who appreciate danger, and embrace it, not fear it. A society that fears danger is already dead (let the reader feel free to supply their own qualifiers).

I once took my boys, when they were still little, around 7 and 4, to the Erie Canal to go fishing. I set the older boy up with basic tackle and left him alone to try to fish. The younger boy I took aside to the nearest bench, which was about 25 yards away, to get him set up. There was a recalcitrant knot in his line, so I was intent on that, not watching the older boy. A white-haired man approached me, laying his shadow across my work.

“Is that your child over there?” he asked, pointing to the older one.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m teaching him to fish.”

“He doesn’t have a personal flotation device.”

“Come again?” I asked.

“He isn’t wearing a personal flotation device,” he repeated. I blinked. I had no idea what game this was. He continued, “If he goes into the water, you go to jail.” In a civilized world: a) this man never speaks to me; b) his protasis has the apodosis “he may drown.”

Being a good citizen, I cowed and summoned the older boy over to me, but I was incensed. What I should have said was (l’esprit de l’escalier being what it is), “I’m willing to take that risk in order to teach the boy not to tip into the water, like a idiot.” And that really is the goal. For safety we have become barbarians to each other.


The Mrs. and I are conscientious free-range parents. They are thrown out of the house, given bicycles and other wheels for locomotion, and told the range of their freedom, which has a minimum length of time. It has ever been thus, according to our parental wisdom that they have become mature enough to experience freedom from us, and we from them. There is a risk, of course. One or both of them might get hurt, or even killed, and we do not want that. We would be devastated, and we would probably seek recriminations if possible, being emotionally-driven creatures as we are. The risk increase of their getting hurt or killed without us, as opposed to the risk of the same hurt or death coming to them with our being there with them, which is infinitesimal to begin with, is multiplying very small numbers, still giving you a very small number.

The idea, of course, is to instill in them a certain measure of wisdom to trust their instinct when it says to avoid certain situations, to reason through certain difficulties they may encounter, and to avoid high-risk/low-reward behavior. Where is the balance between risk and reward? I don’t know. Each of them will work it out for himself, hopefully with minimal pain, but not too minimal. Pain teaches. If anything, pain establishes thresholds for endurance, which builds character.

What kind of pain will you endure to acquire this object of your desire? Will it give you happiness? Is the exchange beneficial?


There is a bully across the street, an unlikely candidate (sweet boy), but his family circumstances are not good, and he is acting out (as the saying goes) by picking on my smaller boy–actually physically hurts him. Because my boy is free to come and go (unlike at school), we do not insinuate ourselves into this situation. He is free to return, like a dog to vomit, to that environment, and he is free to avoid it. Better yet, he is free to try to work out some sort of boundary with the kid. Believe it or not, he asks us our counsel without asking for our effective presence, and we give the former freely.

Naturally, his older brother is supposed to keep an eye on the situation, as a witness and as a bigger presence than the bully. He’s not very good at it yet, but that’s the point. They’re working out brotherhood and neighborhood under the wide open blue sky and the all-seeing sun.

If it is true the worst thing that can happen to you is that you might die, you are already dead.


Update: two follow-up posts.

  1. The Structure of Free-Range Parenting
  2. Battling Anxiety Through Free-Range Parenting

Hávamál and the Golden Strand

Nine days and nights did the hanged man swing on the windy boughs of Yggdrasil. Nine days of scorching sun, of suffering the stag’s teeth and the squirrel’s claws. Nine nights of bitter cold, of dodging the squirming mass of serpents, of tasting neither food nor drink. And on the ninth hour of the ninth night, in the dead of the ninth month, a broken and battered Odin swept up the runes to claim what lesser gods had perished to obtain.

Knowledge. Continue reading “Hávamál and the Golden Strand”

BV Sighting at the LOC

I was doing what David Levy’s students do at the Library of Congress this Tuesday (there were two other Levites nearby) when I came across this paragraph in which Frank Knight invokes the term ‘Bourgeois Virtues’.

I flipped through my copy of McCloskey’s first volume, searching for a link to this text or some other connection between Knight and the term. No hits.

Here’s the passage:

The evil has been that on one side the economists have taken for granted the virtues of the economy, management and thrift, while the ethicists have tended to ignore or even to disparage them. This latter attitude is no doubt in part a result of the way in which the economic side of life is treated in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. In any event, the modern mind finds it self-evident that not merely progress but civilization itself depends upon the general recognition and the conscientious practice of these ‘bourgeois virtues’; yet they have not been made philosophically respectable and one of the crying needs of the hour and for the future is that this should be done.

Frank Knight, “Forward” to Alec L. Macfie (1943) Economic Efficiency and Social Welfare, page v.

Update: Because David Levy:

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Vicarious Catharsis About Taxes

Oh, I could complain about my taxes this year, but everybody pays taxes. Those of us who are self-employed, with irregular bits of income, feel the sting of the tax law only once a year instead of every pay period, so we holler a little more than those of you who adjust the sliders on your W-9 so that the 1040 comes close to zero at the bottom, right? So we all pay taxes. Self-employment taxes, which are for Social Security, feel like punishment when they are paid, but we all pay the same amount; on your behalf your employer contributes another 100% of what you pay as withholding. Yeah.

I also could complain why the I-9 never enters into the conversation–you know, political and social reality–when we fling monkey poo at each other over “illegal” immigration.

I also could complain about election day being so far removed from Tax Day. Yeah! Let’s get fired up! I’ve got gasoline! Who’s got matches?!? Burn it all down!

What I will complain about is this:

003edThese are the forms necessary for a self-employed married person filing jointly with multiple sources of income who earns way, way less than $100,000. My accountant came up to me (with a fat bill invoice, too), saying, “You earned too much money this year.” Huh?

I didn’t qualify for certain deductions, and my Earned Income Credit was reduced, despite have an extra kid on the thing, and my health care costs didn’t apply to what-have-you, and so on and so forth until my eyes glazed over, my heart grew heavy, and my ears dull. Sighing, I made arrangements to pay the government, then I wrote a check to pay the accountant.

Perhaps my outcry this year will be the drop of water that causes the water to flow over the dike, flooding the plain.

Probably not. I’ll see you here next year, with another cri de coeur.