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10 Rules: How Closed Minds Become Closed Borders

It is my intention to provide my readers with a very valuable and unique service.  I am a voracious reader and it is my special talent to distill complex subjects down to their simplest parts and principles (if indeed such principles exist).  Much of what is written, past and present, is intentionally obfuscated for political purposes or dishonest gain, whether of the material, intellectual, or emotional varieties.  It is designed to misinform or mislead.  Even when the ideas are simply muddle-headed rather than intentionally disingenuous, there is rarely an understanding of where those ideas originated, or historical consequences of their application.   These observations are particularly applicable to political discussions, but are not uncommon in virtually any serious discourse.

I am driven to know what is.  I grew up in an intellectually closed society, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I left that religious organization in mid-life only to find a whole smorgasbord of other closed societies, whether religious, philosophical, political, or social.  There is a vehemence and even fierceness of advocacy that inhibits civil conversation and betrays intolerance of different life experiences and conclusions.  What is most remarkable about all of these is that either side in any of these debates would passionately agree with my observations herewith stated, but only find them applicable to the attitudes and behavior of those with an opposing viewpoint!

As the polemicists outshout each other in the vain belief that raising the volume of their cranky bombast is the key to recruiting you to the cause or the sale, regard for evidence, logic, scientific method, clarity, and other calm pursuits are left behind like abandoned children.   Defense of our own position usually trumps all other considerations without any awareness whatsoever of the road by which we arrived at our convictions.  My most important takeaway from my own life-altering experience  is that I am the bouncer and doorman to my own mind, and I have sole discretion over what is permitted to enter.  I am the final arbiter of what I accept, because I become what I ingest intellectually.   This is a personal responsibility that I cannot delegate to any other person, institution, or authority. In my opinion, every one of my readers shares this same responsibility for themselves, for the same reasons and with the same rewards. Bitterness and anger about years wasted in misguided belief and defiance of reality are efforts to transfer responsibility for our own past choices onto others, but in every case it was we who negligently invited strangers, in the form of ideas, into our mind unidentified and unchallenged.  Even when we absorb faulty premises in our age of innocence, responsibility to identify and correct these later in life cannot be avoided with impunity.

I frequently include book reviews on this blog, on a broad range of subjects.  All of these book reviews are at least somewhat positive in nature, because I do not waste my readers time on books that are in my opinion without at least some important redeeming values.  I am neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative, and these days, once you get past the rhetoric, it can be said their distinctions are often without differences.  I have no ideology except the value of the individual human being. Each of us is a minority of one.  Regardless of the comfort we find in each other, there is no collective brain.  Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” What we think determines what we become.

I want to share some rules of the road from my personal experience.

When I was growing up, my parents taught me to eat everything on my plate at meal times.  It was axiomatic that to waste food was wrong, even though our young minds rarely grasped the contradiction in the fact that we didn’t overload the plate with all that food, the grown-ups did.  How could we possibly know that for the rest of our lives other BIG PEOPLE would be filling up our intellectual plates with the impassioned ideas, ephemeral notions, and absolute certainties they insisted we must ingest because it is “good for us.”  As in childhood, we trust the source, the same one we associated with survival itself.

Rule #1 :   The purpose of all propaganda is to become your “trusted source.” Read more..

Everyone, it seems, has the strongest notions of what is best for us, beginning with our immediate families and extending to all the institutions of our culture.  What is accepted and practiced in one generation may be repudiated by future generations.  The philosophy that someone else knows what is best for us is nothing more than delegating to strangers what gets put on our plate.  It makes no difference whether this authority figure or expert comes in the guise of clergy, government, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, media talking heads or television and movie script writers; all of them provide us with generous helpings of their opinions and rules and they expect us to eat it, even if it gives us heartburn.  They do not like to be ignored, and most of them are happy, if given the opportunity, to harness the coercive power of the state to enforce what they know is, if not for our own good, at least for the good of the greatest number.  After all, Daddy knows best.

Everything is based on core premises, and unfortunately these are usually absorbed unconsciously from the Influential People of our childhood and adolescence, parents, teachers, news media, friends, and church.

Rule #2:  At a tender age we are neither equipped nor qualified to evaluate  conceptual content, and we know little or nothing about possible  alternatives. 

Content becomes indelibly associated with the persons and institutions of authority that deliver it.  Because of this early childhood association between content and source, we begin to develop class distinctions based on these associations.  We are more inclined to trust and believe those who dress like we do, worship as we do, get educated where we do, and who earn their living as we do.  At the most mundane level it is often said that the best place for a young man to pick up a date is at a church wedding, because he benefits by association with the joy of the occasion and the trust placed in that institution by its members. A “no” response in a different context might become a “yes” at the wedding.

Rule #3:  As children, content becomes truth when it is delivered by those on whom we depend to survive.

Once imbibed, these childhood-acquired core premises become unchallengeable, eternal truths, the template against which all new information is evaluated.  We quickly learn to block dissonance, any new information that makes us uncomfortable.  As we build the rest of our lives around these core premises, our emotional investment in them becomes such that a challenge to their veracity becomes a challenge to our identity.  There is a crushing need to shut down, shut out, and utterly annihilate such threats, and this need is all the more powerful and insidious because it is experienced subconsciously, as in dis-ease.  We experience anxiety without knowing the cause. 

When you experience something that disturbs you, it may or may not mean it is bad for you.  A bad taste in your mouth may mean a poison mushroom, or it may only mean conflict with the taste of the previous mouthful, in which case you need to cleanse your palate before proceeding.  A mouthful of lemon juice may cure you of scurvy, but it could be intensely unpleasant right after eating a sweet.  Likewise you may have been led to believe that very wise people are looking out for your welfare, and this goes down pleasantly, like a sugar cookie.  You might have had great faith in the honest intentions and competence of Bernie Madoff in handling your life savings, or you may currently be planning an extended retirement on Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist, and it tastes sweet.

Rule #4:  What feels safe and tastes good may be the prelude to the financial equivalent of a diabetic coma.

In every case, we always trusted the source.  The doorman to our mind was sound asleep.  There were red flags about what we believed, but we chose to ignore them.

That’s why I write about labels.  I sit down to lunch with people of all stripes and within minutes I can hear, and feel, the palpable hatred as my temporary companions launch into diatribes about those who think differently than they do.  The emotional intensity and intransigence derives from the speaker’s sense of certainty.  A mere label such as the name of a political party, or particular belief or non-belief excites the passions and invites the derision of the group at the table.  To belong is to share in the laughter.  The opposite is equally true and commonplace; the willingness to blithely accept nonsense if it comes from a trusted source.  We will defend what we have already emotionally invested in.

Rule #5:  It is possible to have a lifetime investment in something that is indefensible by any rational standard.  

How long have we known, and has our government refused to acknowledge, that our Social Security is history’s largest Ponzi scheme ever?

I used to finish reading any book I had started.  Like cleaning my plate at dinner, I felt compelled to finish what I had started.  I don’t always do this anymore.  Life is too short.  I always seek to identify as quickly as possible  authors’ basic premises, and even if I disagree with them, I may continue reading if only because I enjoy the writing style or because an author occasionally drops in a redeeming original thought or new twist on something.  I no longer waste my time filling my mind with garbage, but there is a balance between that and closing one’s mind.  Periodically I have to remind myself to re-evaluate my own core premises to see if they still withstand close scrutiny.  The final questions are always, Who says so? Why?  Based on what?  I am always on the alert for the hidden agenda, the sugar-coated dodge.

If some distinguished authority figure makes claims that appear improbable and  unsubstantiated by the facts as you know them, assuming they know more than you is one possibility.  Another possibility is that they have reasons to be less than truthful on this occasion.

If their explanations more accurately resemble circumlocutions, going round and round in circles and making no particular sense, you could assume that their explanation is too deep for your comprehension, given their special training, or you could also entertain the possibility that their non-answer is because they really don’t have an answer but won’t admit it publicly.

How do you spot obfuscations, disinformation, and hidden agendas?    For starters, unless you’ve taken a serious course in statistics, distrust all statistics.  Most are not scientifically sound and are intentionally manipulated for uninformed public consumption.  I could say there are a thousand ways to do this, but that would not be a scientifically sound statistic.  So we’ll move on.  In commercial matters, follow the money.  In political and institutional matters, follow the power.  Look past the easy answers.  Look past the obvious beneficiaries of a particular group action.  The secondary beneficiary is always the real beneficiary.  The primary beneficiaries receive very diffused benefits.  They are the poster children of the much ballyhooed political action; the orphans, the poor, the children, the unemployed, the elderly, the American middle class, the racial minorities.   The secondary beneficiary receives very consolidated power;  the power to bestow or withhold.   Daddy isn’t interested in your growing up.  Daddy needs you to need him.  Daddy needs to be in control of permissions, punishments and perks.

Rule #6:  If someone is selling invisible clothes, let them run around naked.  

It is better to be underwhelmed by the titles and decorations and positions of power of the so-called experts.  Who even remembers yesteryear’s Nobel prize winners and Treasury Secretaries or Fed Chairmen?  If anyone makes claims that to your mind seem like the Emperor’s invisible clothes, let them wear them.  Plan your personal life and make your financial choices around your own perceptions, not theirs.  They will usually have agendas you will never know about, and disincentives to provide full disclosure or tell the unvarnished truth.  Do they really know better than you how to direct your life?  Most American households’ finances are looking better than the governments, perhaps for no other reason than we can’t print money like the government  does.  We have been acting to correct our balance sheets, to start saving and stop borrowing.  Does that sound like what they have been doing?  Do they care about you, or are they far more concerned about polishing their credentials to the largest blocks of voters?  This goes for anyone who is offering you advice on any subject.  Would you look to the Dalai Lama for guidance on improving your sex life, knowing he is a celibate monk?

In the end it’s the same.  Money is power.  But government is money plus guns.  By guns I mean the police power of the state.  With guns you can seize other people’s money.  If you get enough people behind you, even in a democracy you can decide whose money you will take, and how much of it.  This is REAL power, and this is why groups will spend a billion dollars to secure a position of power that pays only half a million.  The most expensive seats are reserved for those who hold court, who trade in favors and gifts, and who choose the winners and the losers.  These people are not producers; they are looters who talk as if they understand production.

All ideas have a history, and if you follow the thread of an idea back far enough, there are always surprises.  Every opinion, belief, and conviction—indeed every certainty, was arrived at in a certain historical and social context, and made perfect sense to those persons in their place and time, and was almost invariably the partial result of emotional turmoil in the author’s personal life.  In other words, intellectuals, philosophers, clergymen, or brick layers, we are all made of the same dirt.  Ideas all began with real people and every single one of them had problems, issues, and emotional dilemmas.  Some of them were morons.

Rule #7:  Many of the world’s greatest thinkers would be in therapy today.

Ideological sparks at the intersection of the right time and the right population periodically ignited the imagination of masses.   New truths became eternal truths that have often reversed themselves, sometimes over and over again, everyone so preoccupied with the minutiae of their daily routines they fail to notice the intellectual roundabout on which they have traveled for decades or centuries.    The grand ideas  have all come and gone, or splintered and evolved in almost unrecognizable ways, becoming innumerable dogmas and orthodoxies,  and today they make compelling narrative for the history or philosophy buff.  Those who take the time to look more closely are sobered by the awareness that in every time period of history there were those who were willing and eager to kill or enslave those who disagreed with them.    Our current democratic society provides some cultural and legal protections against this, but a basic meanness still often lurks beneath the surface of many human believers.  I hear it in conversations at lunch.

Rule #8:  There’s a troll under many a believer’s bridge.

When belief devoid of thought is extolled as a virtue, doubt becomes suspect, opposing opinions are demonized, dissenters are criminalized, and definitions of the enemy are crystalized.  Hatred is born and mob action is galvanized.  Ascendant mobs become the state. Other groups see opportunities to advance their respective causes by hitchhiking on the coattails of the rising group, with the idea that they will address their important differences after they achieve a more favorable situation in the power structure.   The state attempts to co-opt and harness culturally powerful forces (the most powerful of which is religion) and then moves to consolidate its power by weakening, neutering,  and eliminating competing groups.  There are no enduring loyalties, just the shifting sands of temporarily overlapping interests.

This is why I champion individual rights in my writing.  The individual is the smallest group in the world.  Protect individual rights and you protect the world.  Democracies are the competition and conflict between groups, but history is replete with the horrors perpetrated by one group (even elected ones) on other groups.  Great evil has been done repeatedly in the name of God or in the name of Society.  Even in a so-called free society there is nothing more fear-inspiring than observing an impassioned closed mind reflected in the eyes of another human being, so certain of his ideas in fact, that he will gladly sacrifice your life to prove it.  On their own, they are dangerous and capable of atrocities; organized into groups with their hands on the levers of power (duly elected or not), no one is safe.  Not even the members of their group.  Every group has its purges.

There IS a problem with championing individual rights.  It puts responsibility on the individual.  There is uncertainty, and results are neither equal nor guaranteed.  What is guaranteed is that no group can by itself or backed by the power of the state, make you do or be what you do not believe in.  And you can’t do that to anyone else either.  Not everyone is comfortable with that.

Individual rights are inalienable, meaning you were born with them and do not acquire them by permission from others–no one and no group can morally take them from you, even when those others are infused with certainty about their better idea.   They may seize your property and take your life by force, but they can never do so morally.  Individual rights mean the right to pursue your own life and happiness as your highest values, and you are free to seek and perform work that sustains those values.  This includes buying and selling from whomever you choose, to your own benefit.  Individual rights means essentially the separation of church and state and the separation of economic activity and state.

Individual rights mean the government is there to protect  individual rights of all, and no one is there to serve the government.  Individual rights in practice, of necessity mean small government because there just isn’t that much the government needs to do.  No modern state, including western democracies, will ever pay more than lip service to government based on the sovereignty of the individual because all governments derive their power from the purse, which includes both confiscatory taxation and gross interference with free trade of its citizens.  The power of government is in granting permissions.  That’s where the money is.

Rule #9:  The government’s favorite childhood game is “Mother, May I?”

You can recognize individual rights in action when your government fears to transgress against its citizens.  

Group rights, on the other hand, are acquired by permission from a majority of others in society, and those permissions can be revoked.  The herd sometimes gives little or no notice of intent to stampede.  The primacy of group rights derives from the belief that your highest value as an individual  is not yourself but your contribution to society as a whole.  Individuals can  expect to be sacrificed to the group when the group calls for it. Every single favor demanded of  government by a group always implies a request for the police power of the state to be used against someone else  who doesn’t want to do the group’s  bidding.  Otherwise, if the group could achieve its ends on a voluntary basis, arrived at through negotiation, documented and signed by the parties, why would they need to involve the state?  Groups only need the state to club minority interests into submission.   I use the word minority here in the very literal sense of anyone who does not have sufficient votes to protect their interests. Group rights are the inevitable political legacy of those obsessed with the certainty of their beliefs, so much so that in their minds the ends justify their means.  Sooner or later the means include the confiscation of human life and property by the state–for the benefit of the greater good, of course.  Group rights degrade into group warfare and lead to an indefinitely expanding state, with eventually the state dwarfing all other groups.

Group rights lead to totalitarianism, which is sanctioned and even welcomed by the public in the name of efficiency.  When the cacophony of bitterly opposed groups gets too rancorous and the machinery of the state grinds down, someone with the necessary stage presence steps forward and suggests temporary consolidation of power to get through the political impasse.  We all know the rest of that story.

You can tell group rights in action when citizens fear their government.

So what is my point?  Am I advocating political activism in favor of limited government and individual rights?  Not really.  You can, of course, if you want to.  All I am encouraging is to become aware of what is happening around you, and to be aware of the ideas behind the events.  Keep your finger on the pulse of the politics in your community, your state, your nation.  Be more careful what you believe in, and scrutinize documentation with a critical eye.  In almost every location it is possible to exercise a great deal of personal freedom as long as you don’t make too much fanfare about it.  Love your life, keep your mind open and your passport current, and

Rule #10:   Know where the border is.

Closed minds eventually become closed borders.

 

Labels and Group Warfare (Part 2)

Sometimes one group finds it useful to appropriate the label used by another group and adopt it as their own.  Those who called themselves liberals 200 years ago most likely would today identify with the label classical liberals or libertarian to better distinguish themselves from the progressives who arrogated the label of liberal to their cause.  Why is the label so important?  Because folks buy labels.  Once a brand is established and trusted, it becomes invaluable. 

Very broadly speaking, Democrats became known as the party of the poor and minorities.  Republicans became known as the party of the business-rich (not to be confused with Hollywood-rich) and the financially savvy.   For perhaps the majority of voters, once these identifications become fixed in their minds, little or no further research is necessary.  These instant mental associations do not need to be accurate to be effective precisely because they serve as a shortcut for thinking and make decision-making easier.  From the point of their acceptance  on, the only reinforcement that labels need is brief but frequently repeated sound bites in the media.  As with sports, the names may change and even the entire team can be transformed or relocated, but it is still our team.  We are loyal to our brands. Read more..

Because of the blurring of boundaries when using labels, we are often unsure who we should hate.  During periods of intense competition for control over resources, we find our leaders fanning the flames of our differences, because assimilation usually means loss, defeat.  Republicans don’t want their membership showing interest in or empathy for some of the Democratic Party’s platform. (And of course, vice versa.) There can be no weakness, because we have a winner-takes-all system.  The rank-and-file then behaves much like sports fans, learning to hate people they don’t know, people with families like themselves.  There is too much at stake, or so it seems at the moment.  Politics is group warfare, and the grandstanding of the candidates has little to do with the maneuvering for the levers of power in the back rooms of the State.  The power they seek is to control resources confiscated by taxation and regulation of the producers, to be redeployed to the fulfillment of the winners’ personal vision of a better world and rewarding the pillars of their personal power structure.

Racial Brands

When I was growing up, white people called black people colored.  It wasn’t terribly important because in my neighborhood we were friends and we were all just people.  Well, somewhere along the line colored people became blacks.  I never really understood this because a lot of my colored friends were not very black.  They were just not white.  It didn’t matter.  We were friends, we went to the same church, and I thought a couple of the girls were hot.  But our new abbreviated labels made it clear we had been de-peopled.  Dehumanized.  It became easier to know who to hate.  Black versus white.  Us versus them.

Then black people became persons of color.  As Americans we were in search of better, more politically correct labels.  In trying to mitigate prejudice, we became more focused than ever on differences.  Our labels reflected and exacerbated those differences.

At one time, people who came to this country wanted to become, and be called, Americans.  What was important was not where they came from, or where they had been, but what they had become.  This was the New World, and they were thrilled to begin a new life.  The world changed on us again, and today we are distancing ourselves from our homogeneity and resurrecting and re-emphasizing our cultural differences.  People of color have now become African-Americans.  Perhaps this is because some people came here to become free, and others came here to be slaves.   That would certainly have an impact on my attitude.

But the fact is, today none of us regardless of color are free.   There are growing limits on our autonomy and our lives become increasingly circumscribed by the intrusions of the State.  In New York City as of this date, it is illegal to donate food to homeless shelters because the government does not have the manpower to monitor the salt, fat, and nutrition content of the donated food.  Read about it here http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/03/19/bloomberg-strikes-again-nyc-bans-food-donations-to-the-homeless/.   Are there really people who  imagine such micromanagement as being part of the founding fathers’ vision for freedom? The sad truth is, yes there are—a lot of them.  And obviously they have the power to turn their opinions and whims  into law.  One has to wonder, are they really concerned about the nutrition of hungry people, or are they simply trying to starve undesirables out of their city?

Do we want to be perceived and judged as individuals or as members of our group?  Is being a hyphenated American a good thing, or simply one more sign of our fractured society?  If you haven’t traveled much, you may be unaware that prejudices of one group against another are everywhere.   There is no place on this planet that is prejudice-free.  This is just what groups do.  Us versus them.  So by hyphenating ourselves, emphasizing our group-ness, are we celebrating our differences or deepening the divide already between us?  Are our labels the herald of our rise or the stigmata of our fall?  As individuals we might like each other; in the aggregate we can demonize and hate each other.  Divided we fall, while the ascendant State continues to metastasize.

The American Brand

Americans are a group.  What does it mean to be an American today?  What do we stand for?  How would a European watching our elections answer that question?  I used to think being an American had something to do with our Constitution, but today that document seems to change in meaning daily, if not hourly when Congress is in session.  Is there any philosophical bedrock to this racial and ethnic medley called America?  Some few people came here because they were tired of groups, but most came here because they were tired of their group being told what to do by another group.  America meant freedom from harassment from other groups who didn’t approve of your group.  For me, the meaning of the Constitution was simple.  In the words of Erwin Griswold, one-time Dean of Harvard Law School in a speech to Northwestern University Law School in 1960:  “The right to be let alone is the underlying principle of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”  America was an experiment in upholding the rights of the individual.  America was not about your freedom to conform, but your freedom not to conform.

Our politicians from both sides see that Constitution as a rubber document.  Yes, some of them pay lip service to a strict construction of the founders’ intent, but those philosophical pretensions evaporate as soon as they get their shot at winning a prize for their group.  The Constitution was formed to protect the smallest minority in the world—the minority of the individual.  If you protect the individual, including those individuals we don’t like and don’t agree with, then you have defanged the power of groups.  Individuals need protection from groups.  When we lose sight of that one fact, we have opened Pandora’s box to endless possibilities for injustice and evil.

 

Labels and Ultimate Truth (Part 3)

Our country was founded more than anything else on the premise of basic individual freedoms, including freedom  of religion, which also had to include freedom from religion, for those so inclined.  Most of those who came to this country were fleeing religious persecution; they were refugees from the moral certainty of their persecutors.  As American educator and historian Arthur Schlesinger stated:  “Those who are convinced they have a monopoly on The Truth  always feel that they are only saving the world when they slaughter the heretics.”  Read more..

Believer is a label.  So is the word heretic.  One indicates belonging and conformity.  The other describes a non-conformist, a deviant from some orthodoxy.  The word heretic has persisted in infamy throughout history, the cause of some of the worst crimes of man against his fellow man.  Groups get very upset when someone deviates from ultimate truth.  In every instance throughout history, the oppressors believed that in their case circumstances justified their behavior.

Among our early forebears, it took almost no time at all for the oppressed to become the oppressors.  Let’s revisit a bit of Americana we may have forgotten.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed by a business that was strongly influenced by Puritan theologians.  About 20,000 folks from England emigrated to this central part of what we now call New England.  In short order the Puritans came to blows with the local Indians because they did not understand their culture.  The leaders of the colony had to pass an examination about their religious beliefs before they could take office.  (Anything sound remotely familiar here, folks?)

One member of their community, a guy named Roger Williams, was banished (excommunicated) on the grounds of sedition and heresy (non-conformity), and the religion-dominated General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony accused Roger of “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.”  In the dead of winter, the sheriff came to pick up Roger (the Church using the police powers of the State).  Roger escaped by hiking through a blizzard 105 miles to an Indian tribe where he was given refuge.  Imagine!  A Christian given refuge by the heathens from his fellow Christians.  Roger and a few of his buddies obtained land from the Indians and called their tiny settlement Providence.  The very next year they decided that in their settlement, government would be restricted to “civil things.”  Unknown to them, they had established the first settlement in modern history with religious liberty and separation of church and state.

But wait.  The story gets even better (and worse).  About four years later the first law was passed to make slavery legal in the English colonies.  And no, it wasn’t in the South.  It was the very same religion-dominated Massachusetts Bay Colony that had made Roger Williams run for his life.  Eleven years after their infamous law was passed, Roger Williams and a colleague spearheaded the passing of a law banning slavery in their new province of Rhode Island.  The pernicious influence of the Massachusetts Bay colony prevailed however, and Roger Williams’s law was ignored and became a dead document.  Seventeen years after his death Newport, Rhode Island entered the African slave trade and remained the leading slave trading center all the way up to the American Revolution.

In one case, persecution was theology motivated, in the other case it was economically motivated.  It never really matters.  When a group wants  something, they will always find the means to justify it.  When a group succeeds in uniting with the police power of the State, minorities will suffer.  Labels are a big part of the propaganda campaigns in advance of misdeeds by isolating the target, portraying them as a threat to the greater community, an instrument of Satan or a danger to society.

Labels become a higher priority in an adversarial or judgmental context.  We know someone or something should be condemned, if only we can get the label right.  What exactly is an atheist?  Indeed, what is a believer?  In what kind of god or God?  Do you believe in an anthropomorphic God, one with human-like characteristics?  Is your God male or female?  Or do you believe in a more ancient model, a pantheistic god, a god who cannot be separated from the universe, that God and the Universe are one and the same?  Or do you subscribe to an Eastern model of God, an infinite force that is everywhere at once?  Or do you simply not know, but in talking about “God” infer something beyond human reference?  There is a continuum between your literalist, fundamentalist believer at one extreme who believes in a personal God who hears and answers every prayer and another believer at the opposite extreme who believes in God as some manifestation of quantum  physics, some indefinable energy field or force stripped of human characteristics–or believers not at all, at least not in any traditional sense.  All of the world’s belief systems fit on that continuum somewhere.  And the vast majority of them have mystical components to their spiritual lives that include good and bad spirits and ultimate rewards.  Even many atheists have churches and services, rituals, liturgies and prayers.

How complicated life can be, when all we want is your basic “us versus them” so it can be clear who has truth and who is sadly in error.  Continuums of any kind have no place in our group orthodoxy, because they introduce uncertainty and ambiguity.  It is the insistence on certainty and final truth that makes any group dangerous to their fellow travelers, whether they are believers of the religious or secular stripe.  Let any group of such believers get their hands on unchallenged power of the State, and we can be sure that whatever is left of the Constitution would be eviscerated overnight.  The primary differences in our political parties today is only which parts of our lives they most want to control.  They have no interest in the individual.  Control of groups is the source of their power.  The laws that are passed and enforced by the State’s monopoly on power are nothing more than the codification of the cultural beliefs of the majority.  As always, behavior considered deviant by that group will be punished.  You are either in or in trouble.

When we feel compelled to impose our sense of superiority or moral rightness on those around us, it is humbling to reflect that it was the Christian world that plunged us into warfare that eliminated 100 million of us during the 20th century.  America is the most religious Christian nation on earth, and we have soldiers in over 170 countries, doing what exactly, other than maintaining our military-industrial complex and doing what empires do?

Bertrand Russell once said:   “Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing.  What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.”  Every group believes their group will be different.  As a matter of fact, they’re certain of it!

The only sure  protection in any society is to enshrine and protect the rights of the individual. Otherwise life is like entering a prison where the only safety lies in quickly being accepted and protected by members of one group from the predations of opposing groups.  The government, as the warden of our society, has little interest in the individual, because what can one person offer the warden that he cannot get in greater abundance from the group?  Is it any wonder then that our Constitution has been under assault almost from the day it was written?

 

“Skepticism of Science Isn’t Supported by Facts”, editorial by Prof. Karl Dieter, Clemson University (reprinted by permission)

Accusing NASA officials of lying, a recent writer imagines Voyager I’s exploration of the solar system as a massive fraud because of frequently lost cell phone communication and satellite TV reception illustrating beliefs immune to facts or discerning knowledge.

 Launched on Sept. 5, 1977, Voyager is now 11.2 billion miles from Earth where the sunlight is 1/5,000th as bright and microwave radio signals raveling at the speed of light take 16.7 hours to reach home.  Communication occurs through NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) consisting of multiple 111- and 230-foot antennas located 120-degrees apart in the Mojave Desert, Spain and Australia.  Command signals are transmitted on a 20-kilowatt S-Band transmitter with roughly one-fifth the power of AM or FM  radio stations, while the wattage of the incoming signal is 20 billion times weaker than the power running digital watches.

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Hailing Earth with a 20-watt transmitter, the signal emitted from Voyager’s 14-foot antenna will decrease in power to one ten quadrillionth of a watt (1/25th the minimal discernible FM radio signal) upon arriving at the DSN receiver where it will be amplified and nursed by computer programs to reveal news from the edge of the solar system.  The directional 8 GHz frequency of the signal is less distorted by Earth’s atmosphere than the longer wavelength frequencies of cell-phone signals (800 MHz), while home TV antennas receiving satellite signals of similar frequency cannot compete with NASA’s 230-foot parabolic antennas and computer enhancement of Voyager’s transmissions.

While NASA’s claims may seem incredible, similar astonishing feats of signal processing are performed during MRI scans.  During Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a patient is placed in an external magnetic field causing protons of tissue and surrounding water molecules to align with the external field.  Subjected to a radio frequency pulse, an excess of 30 out of every million processing nuclei will be aligned against the external magnetic field and upon relaxing to the lower energy state generate a tiny signal (approximately 0.00001 volt) that will be amplified and transformed by computer computation to an image of the body’s soft tissue.  The technology requires generation of coherent radio frequencies and homogeneous magnetic fields to one part in a billion.  Skepticism of claims is admirable when constrained by facts.

Although NASA’s Voyager I claims are “believable” in the context of current scientific and technological knowledge, public funding of scientific research is also questioned.  The writer sees a conspiracy to waste public resources so scientists can avoid getting “real jobs.” If “real jobs” only occur in a private sector devoid of government largesse perhaps there are none, and just where did the knowledge of the physical world that the private sector exploits for profit come from?  Modern medicines, electronic devices, machine powered transportation, electricity generation and transmission and all the other cornucopia of modern technological society emerged from the intellectual curiosity of scientists.  Although public funding of curiosity-driven research is a good wager, profit and products alone do not measure its value.

Perhaps more importantly, what is the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake?  Should the market that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing alone determine the expenditures we make as a society?  Has not the market determined that big time college football programs are more important than academic departments, and that university expenditures focus more on the wishes of the children of wealth and privilege and less on the public good of broad access to higher education across all socioeconomic classes based upon ability and motivation to learn?

The ability to think in abstract terms is an accidental byproduct of our mammalian evolutionary history, and its execution requires training, practice and constant vigilance.  Too often what pass for public discourse these days are spin and distortion of fact in pursuit of personal, community and corporate greed.  Too many of us deny the facts and believe the things we do because our denials facilitate comfort, acquisition of material goods, excoriation of enemies and validation of our ideologies and self-righteousness.

The immense beauty of facts and scientific understanding is that they are independent of human hopes, dreams, needs and the pathology of the human condition.  Long before the sun consumes its hydrogen and Earth becomes a scorched cinder, the human species will become extinct.  There is beauty and consolation in this vision of a physical universe, beyond our self-absorption, that is indifferent to human existence.

Permission granted by author to reprint in full this article that originally appeared on the editorial page of The Greenville News, August 5, 2012.  Any other authors (and aspiring authors) who are brave enough are invited to submit their articles by writing to Minotspeakeasy@gmail.com. Readers comments are also welcomed.

 

Would Everyone Please Stop Shouting?

“To believe is very dull.  To doubt is intensely engrossing.  To be on the alert is to live; to be lulled into security is to die.”

This quote by Oscar Wilde is the purpose of this newsletter:  an honest inquiry into the nature of what is, a rigorous intellectual effort to sift through the barrage of information, disinformation, and misinformation available; to distinguish the credible from the propaganda, the reality from the rant.  Am I the only one who has noticed that anyone with the temerity to ask any question of political, economic, or financial significance in polite society these days risks being immediately overwhelmed with passionate polemics about Read more..

 this ideology or that political dogma?  Names and labels are immediately brought up which were not mentioned in the question, and the entire conversation is promptly hijacked and redirected to the vilification of opposing beliefs, groups, and parties.

It is the view of this writer that the intense human need for belief, for certainty, and for ultimate truth is probably the original sin, for once armed with such belief, we close the door of our minds to new and possibly contradictory information.  For intellectually honest persons to admit to contradictions would require a re-examination of cherished premises, and an admission that their current perception of reality may be incomplete or (gasp) misguided.  Therefore this newsletter is not an advocate of any group; not the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall St. party, or any other party.  Nor am I an anarchist, survivalist, or conspiracy theorist.  I have no “position” to defend other than the inviolability of individual human rights.  As stated in the American Declaration of Independence, these rights are inalienable, meaning that they can only be taken from us by force, whether that is at the point of a gun, or voted away by some group with the backing of the State, which enjoys the monopoly on the use of the guns.  The individual is the smallest minority in the world, and rarely does anyone rise up in his/her defense.  It seems the individual is only valued as one member of the herd.  It is the herd, the collective, the group which is championed, and it seems the only rights that matter much anymore are group rights, and civil discourse has deteriorated into group warfare.

We are human animals, and we have survived by herding together into packs either defined by ethnic origin or religious and ideological associations.  As adults we are no different than we were as small children, determined not to commit ourselves to an answer without surveying the level of support we will enjoy if we expose our opinion.  Political correctness is socially enforced conformity.  We see this conformity everywhere, from our college classrooms to our churches to our political parties, and even, or especially, among our media.  The newsroom has ceased to be about news, but only a coveted tool with which to bombard the public with sound bytes of advocacy.  And our politicians have no beliefs until a survey or their financial sponsors tell them what their followers want them to believe.  Actually, what the politicians believe in private isn’t all that relevant, as long as they publicly espouse whatever will gain them access to the levers of power.  Facts and accurate information are rarely sought after in honest inquiry or the pursuit of truth.  These are only the masks we wear to disguise confirmation bias, status and power seeking.

Several years ago I was invited to a friend’s house for a party, and in due course became involved in a conversation with another guest who shared that he was a stockbroker by profession.  Being a financial writer, I welcomed this opportunity to get his learned feedback on some recent financial events.  I asked a question, and for the next ten or fifteen minutes listened to his erudite discourse.  It was only later that I realized that I did not understand one single thing he said.  It dawned on me that this person’s response was not intended to educate, but to impress, motivated by vanity or an ingrained professional habit of selling by intimidation.  (He knows so much more than we do, things that we could not possibly understand, that the best we could do is put our financial future in his competent hands.)  Nothing is more indicative of such motivations than the intentional abuse of statistics and graphs to achieve desired ends.  We are all presumably sophisticated enough by now to approach all such “evidence” with caution.

I became interested in financial literacy when I realized that few were really interested in informing or educating the public, but only leading them to certain conclusions and actions that empowered those controlling the flow of information.  In reading the financial papers and magazines, I realized that society was divided between those few who “know” and the vast majority who will be told “what they need to know” by the talking faces.  I read the Economist for years before I admitted to myself how much of their financial language I still didn’t understand.  When I asked friends and colleagues questions, many of them with advanced degrees, much to my surprise I learned they didn’t know the answers either.  It made me wonder how much of such “communication” is to convey understanding and how much is the use of specialized jargon to impress, confuse, or worse, to obfuscate or conceal real intentions.  Knowledge, after all, is power.  And power is the name of the game.  The world has changed.  Human nature has not.

To my layman’s eye, much of economics has about as much validity as Tarot Card reading.  I went to such a fortune teller once, and I noticed the questions she asked me during our “interview” and how cleverly she fed my own information back to me.  She confirmed my original bias.  I thought she was brilliant.  One of these days I expect the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to show up with a red bandanna around his head, and a gold hoop in one ear.  Is he not doing the same thing, feeding back to us (and his bosses) what we all want to hear, that we can have what we want without the money to pay for it?  We can masturbate our minds as long as we want in this hall of mirrors, but reality still awaits us on the other side of the Exit sign.  It’s not a good sign when our leaders insist on staying inside the Fun House, explaining their actions with impressive circumlocutions.  Which means we haven’t got a clue what they just said.

The desired goal of much communication is not fostering independence of spirit and action, but obedience and conformity.  It is easier to control and move the herd than it is to control independent and well informed minds.  If the explanations given to us by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the bankers and investment counselors seem vague, complicated, dubious, or contradictory, how and when do we know if this is intentional or not?  Since they are the experts, who are we to challenge them?  (It is precisely when we feel this way that we should challenge established wisdom.)

To understand how the world really works requires knowledge of history.  There are two things a person needs to know about history.  1) History is never boring.  There are only boring history teachers.  2) History is written by the victors, because real history is the natural enemy of the State.  The State benefits from the shortage of accurate information, and the State always seeks to control the flow of information.  Much of what children are taught in every nation is heavily influenced by what the State apparatus wants them to learn.  We frequently call this public, or State-sponsored education.  History is where we have been, which means history is how we got to where we are.  History holds many secrets, which is why most interested parties are obsessed with requiring more acceptable versions of it.

The internet of course is changing everything.  Access to information, so far, has been harder to control.  The internet does not have the appointed gatekeepers to information as do the mainstream media outlets.  The internet is changing the face of education, and the sacrosanctness of our universities where we fashion the thinking of our thinkers is being eroded by non-traditional sources of learning. Students have increased exposure not merely to what a tenured faculty member would have them believe, but to more unfiltered global perspectives and experiences.  The income gap in the future is going to be between those few with independent minds and the ability to think critically, and those who choose to follow.  With massive grade inflation in the public school system, a four-year college degree today is often the equivalent of a high school diploma only a few years ago.  In the better schools, very little is being taught to actually help the graduates survive in an economic sense, and perhaps the best assets the students have purchased with their parents’ money are the social connections they develop with their classmates.  Some of those classmates will end up in positions of power, and proximity to power often translates into wealth and privilege.

Government is changing because of the internet.  The bargain between any government and its citizens is changing, as it becomes more difficult or even impossible to identify one’s enemies, or to stop them at the borders.  Economics and world trade are changing, and money circulates the globe at the touch of a button, and corporations become bigger and more powerful than nation states.  Financial instruments of trade are created faster than regulatory environments can identify them, and systemic complications threaten to bring the whole system down.

When the body politic is fragmenting and pulling in different directions, when each group is trying to outshout every other group, when everything is for sale, and the wealth of the nation and the future of its taxpayers are up for sale to the highest bidder, who do you want to believe?  And if you wish to cling to a group for security, which group do you want to trust your financial future with?  What happens to your future when your group is outspent by a better funded one?  Which dogma feels safest to you right now?  What does it tell you when a politician raises almost a billion dollars to buy an office that pays $400,000 per year?

There are those who fail at communication because they have a poorly developed ability to put their thoughts in order, to define what they believe, or enunciate the supporting arguments of what they believe.  These are the folks who have not arrived at their beliefs through rigorous and honest evaluation of facts and evidence, but who most likely absorbed their beliefs from their culture at large, meaning the media, family, church, schooling, college professors, friends, work associates, and other influential people.  Any critical analysis they do is mostly criticism of opposing viewpoints, and their analysis is nothing more than a search for information that confirms their existing prejudices.  In today’s information society, to even have a position is to imply that the end of all progress has been attained.

Take for example, the most amazing bias in favor of government intervention in the economic affairs of consumers.  Usually this is framed in David-and-Goliath terms, i.e. that we as individual (David) consumers are not capable of managing our transactions without the government to protect us from the Goliath of global enterprise.  The bias I refer to here, and take exception to, is the belief that government workers are somehow immune to the same selfish striving, the same or similar ulterior motives as anyone, anywhere else in society.  Somehow, by labeling commerce as profit-motivated (admittedly self-motivated), we are granting government an enormous benefit of the doubt.  For more information on this, go to https://www.financialliteracysource.com/money/why-the-federal-reserve-exists/#more-231.

Now if government is populated by the same Homo sapiens as free markets, how is it that only government workers are sin- and greed- free?  Again, history comes to our rescue.  Throughout the millennia of human existence, it has always been government, with its attendant monopoly on the use of force that has enslaved humanity.  The primary concern of the intellectual founders of this country was to protect the future generations from the grasping, insatiable, and inevitably expanding reach of their own government.  The limitation of powers enshrined in the Constitution was to protect us from voting ourselves into slavery.  Democracy by itself provides no such protection.  Nine foxes and a hen voting on what to have for dinner doesn’t bode well for the hen.

We live in a brand new, technology-driven world, a world the founding fathers could not even conceive.  They lived in an agrarian society, which evolved into an industrial society, and we are now in a post-industrial, information society.  Governments can no longer protect their citizens with any degree of certainty, neither economically or militarily.  The enemy is no longer other nation states, but ideologies that motivate and empower fanatics of every stripe to attain their goals with weapons of mass destruction. MAD, or mutually assured destruction policies have been rendered obsolete.  Likewise, financial and political decisions from Wall St. to Greece to Southeast Asia threaten to derail the financial stability of the rest of the world.  The inability of our existing government structures to provide the basic security that is implicit to the bargain with their citizens can in time undermine their legitimacy, a weakness that will be exploited whenever possible by their enemies, both within and without.

The world has never been a more dangerous place; and our future as a species is by no means assured.  This is not fear-mongering or apocalyptic scare tactics:  I have no doubt the people at the hubs of power who know far more than you or I about what goes on behind the closed doors of government and foreign policy would not disagree.

Now more than ever, Oscar Wilde’s probably offhand remark applies in a very literal sense: “To be on the alert is to live; to be lulled into security is to die.”

I am not pretending to be an expert here.  I am 62 years old at this writing, and I have lived a very varied, but always “examined” life.  I welcome your comments and open debate, and so would my other readers.  This re-launch of this website is intended to be your forum, not my pulpit.  Tell us what you have heard, know, researched, read, or wondered about–in the Comments section below.

To assure you stay in the loop, please subscribe by entering your email address at the top right side of the Home Page.  There is no fee or obligation of any kind.  You can expect to hear from my corner twice a month.  Tell me what you want to know more about.  We’ll find someone with some intelligent, understandable answers.

 

An Open Letter to Robert Kiyosaki

 

In case you don’t know, Robert Kiyosaki is the author of the Rich Dad series of books on financial literacy, and he and his beautiful wife Kim are the creators of the board game called Cash Flow, a marvelous financial learning tool for young and old alike.  I am a fan of Robert Kiyosaki.  I met him and his wife in a bar in Pittsburgh, PA.  They are very genuine, down-to-earth, and friendly people.  They are for-profit educators, and they clearly have a passion for their subject.  And yes, I really believe Robert’s story about his rich dad and his poor dad.  I don’t think Rich Dad is a figment of Kiyosaki’s imagination.  So I am a believer.  I don’t make statements like that very often.  I have something to say to Mr. Kiyosaki, a disagreement I want to air with him.

Dear Mr. Kiyosaki:

If you are reading this, you already know we are kindred spirits and I admire what you do and share your commitment to financial education.  In a recent article you wrote that some of your best financial advice is to not be average.  That comment was the source of considerable outrage on the part of your readers, judging by their comments.  Perhaps they wanted your message gift-wrapped in softer language, but I couldn’t agree with you more. 

Very few people truly comprehend the mind-numbing reach and power of their government, and its insatiable appetite for their earnings and its religious zeal to dumb them down and control their lives.  Therefore they do not understand how much the odds are stacked against them in their endeavor to break free from the rat race.  They do not understand that to be average is to have no chance.

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Up until a few years ago, if you were to ask any young person on the streets of the European Union what he wanted to do when he was of age, a most likely response was ‘I want to move to America’.  In Europe it was hard to fail, but it was impossible to succeed in a big way.  Success as in break free, to rise above; to know that your life could embrace more than go to work to the same place at the same time and then come home to the telly at the end of the day, till the end of your days . . .   Success in Europe is measured by your ability to obtain employment with a large firm or the government, work as few hours a week, month and year as possible, protect prices and businesses mostly from themselves, and hope the rest of the world goes away. 

For over a century our intellectuals and thinkers have yearned to take us to the same place.  And our politicians don’t seem to care much one way or the other as long as they get to ride in the front of the wagon. . . . .whatever keeps their free ride intact.  These ideas and ideals have become firmly entrenched in our public school system, to say nothing of the Humanities Departments of our universities that promoted them.  America, like Europe before us, is being suffocated under a wet blanket of bad ideas and the false ideals of altruism and egalitarianism.  In our overweening and fanatical quest for equality, if we cannot bring the bottom up, we are committed to bringing the top down.  We have given up our freedoms in the name of ideas whose consequences we do not understand.  As George Orwell once said, “Some ideas are so preposterous only an intellectual could believe them.”  Until of course, they work their way into the culture at large and achieve acceptance by their sheer ubiquity and mindless repetition.  So yes, Mr. Kiyosaki, if we are average, we have no chance of breaking free. 

On the other hand, one man with courage constitutes a majority.  And this is where I disagree with you.  In your writings you always emphasize the value of cash flow.  I understand what you are saying, but I have observed even in playing your own game of Cash Flow that the only way to break out of the Rat Race is to hit it big with a lucky break,  which means either starting a business or buying an asset (real estate or stock) low and selling it high.  I think there were many, many people during the real estate bubble who were attempting to do just this; catch a wave in order to bootstrap themselves up.  A fortunate few did; most drowned.  The smart ones who caught a wave invested those gains in cash-flowing assets later to preserve their gains.  They knew enough to leave the party early and take their money with them.  In your own case, it would appear the wave you caught (or created) was your invention and successful promotion of your board games and your first book, Rich Dad Poor Dad.  Without knowing what to do with your ideas, your ride might have had very different results.

Luck does have a part to play.  Financial literacy has a part to play; you have to know enough to recognize a lucky break when one comes along, and some clue how to get up on your surf board and ride it.  Cash flow becomes your salvation later in the game, after you have gotten up. Courage matters; the courage to seize opportunities and build on them, or the courage to create opportunities where none appeared to exist.  There is risk involved, risk of failure, risk of drowning.  If you succeed in getting up, you may not change the world, but you can certainly change your life.  In that way you are the one person with courage who now constitutes a majority. 

Whether they succeeded or failed, I take my hat off to all those who tried.  And some of them now have the courage to dust themselves off and try again, a little smarter, and more aware of what they don’t know.  These ones are your, and my, best customers.  Let’s help them weigh the risks and direct their courage.  Let’s help them get up.  And sometimes that means they may find an undervalued asset that they need to buy low and sell high.  Financial literacy will help them get it right and know the risks.  I don’t think we should tell them to walk away from an opportunity.  They have to get up on their board before they can ride the wave of cash flow.  They have to establish reserves they don’t have in the present, and without reserves even a cash flowing asset can be a huge liability if anything goes wrong.  Yes, they are in a bad place and they are coming from behind, and yes, their chances of success are low.  Unless, of course, they’re not average.

Above all else, none of us can give up.  Without our dreams, we are nothing more than peasants under a new name.

I read your books, love your games, and I created the Greenville, SC Cash Flow Club.  I applaud your efforts and the way you lead the financial literacy parade.  If you send me your Fed-Ex-deliverable address, I will send you a coffee cup with a photo someone took of you, Kim, Tami, and I in Pittsburgh all those years ago.

Warm regards,

John Bechtel

 

 

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING

I have decided that we humans are fundamentally lazy, that is, we travel with the herd and we will do what we have to for our own survival, but for the most part we will ride on the efforts of others as much as possible.  It is best and safest to be in the middle of the herd, for those who travel on the periphery are far more likely to be picked off by predators or somehow get separated from the herd, to their destruction.  Basically, all we want is what the members of any herd want, the freedom and safety to graze and reproduce.  Now what, exactly, does this have to do with financial literacy?  Everything, dear Reader, everything.  Read more..

Literacy requires effort, mostly mental effort, and time spent reading and thinking and conceptualizing and comparing new knowledge with old knowledge, accepting some, discarding others, and continually challenging the orthodoxy of the day.  Orthodoxy is what is generally accepted by the herd, and to challenge that orthodoxy is to place ourselves at the fringe of the herd, to be viewed with suspicion, or even to be shunned.  This would mean willingly placing ourselves in a minority of our own choosing, the minority of independent thinkers. 

 I am not speaking of pseudo-free thinkers:  those individuals who seek to differentiate themselves, not  by real thinking, but by faking its supposed trappings, meaning strange dress, odd behavior, loaded language, secret meetings, or anything that will draw attention to themselves as being fringe for the sake of being fringe.  These people are also lazy, seeking to acquire the image of independent thinking without the mental effort of achieving the reality.  They are fakes.  The most obvious example of these folks are the young, who will blindly take to the streets with little information and bold slogans to demonstrate against the status quo.  These are the same people who will adopt the dress and mannerisms of their pop idols and who in their own way become the greatest conformists of all.  For them, to be, is to be AGAINST something.  And the definition of courage is to find something worth dying for, because at that point in their life they haven’t found anything yet worth living for.  They are AGAINST whatever IS, at the moment.  As opposed to conservatives, who are against any CHANGE of what IS, at the moment.  None of this is critical, or independent thinking.  It is all nonsense and herd mentality.  But the herd exists, and it behaves as it must, as a herd.

 I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, the same as the family of the recently deceased Michael Jackson.  There was a lot of good in how I grew up, including a respect for hard work and honesty.  Honesty in some things, deception in other things.  We believed in material honesty, in not cheating or defrauding others.  That honesty did not extend to matters of the mind.  That’s where the fraud began.  One of the first hallmarks of intellectual dishonesty is to label anything that differs from our own beliefs, and to use those labels as a substitute for thinking, as a shortcut around thinking.  Instead of critically evaluating, you simply label a thing and that absolves you from the effort of genuine, honest, open thought.  There was danger in free thinking; one might be seduced by differing ideas.  The belief system must be defended at all costs.  The most efficacious way to achieve this goal is to constantly warn of the dire consequences of opening the lid to Pandora’s box by even a crack, and allowing the seeds of doubt to enter our minds.  To facilitate control of the herd, access to outside, or conflicting information needs to be closed off.  It is absolutely necessary to gain control of what information gets through to the herd.  If truth was what mattered, truth being loosely defined as reality, what IS, there would be no danger from the herd having full access to any information out there.  But truth is not what matters, belief is what matters, and therefore every power broker in the history of mankind has sought control of what information becomes available to the herd.  The politician, dictator, guru, ayatollah, or leadership insists on becoming the only acceptable channel, or conduit, of new information.  The minds of the herd need to be forcibly protected by  seizing or controlling the media.  All news is filtered and given the proper “slant”.  The editing of information and news may be subtly nuanced or flagrantly propagandistic.    Success is finally achieved when the herd polices itself, and takes over the job on behalf of the State, the organization, the enterprise.  Belief has finally taken on a life of its own and requires no further rational defense.  Belief now substitutes for thinking.  Everyone can now get on with the serious business of grazing and reproducing.

 I knew growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness that we were often labeled as a cult, and I used to wonder what that really meant.  In time I learned that it was an elusive term that seemed to take on a different connotation in every different context.  Ultimately it meant any belief system inspiring intense devotion, and that was outside the herd thinking, i.e. outside the orthodoxy of the time and location.  Cults often seemed to attract people who were lost souls to begin with, the disenfranchised, those without purpose or direction, those looking for someone to tell them what to do next with their life, or to tell them what to believe.  Many of these people had no idea what they believed, they simply sought an unearned elitism of being AGAINST something.  They identied their Devil before they acquired their God. Intellectually, they wanted something for nothing.  They were not really independent thinkers, but seeking a new herd with which to identify themselves.  They are more like the very young offspring of a species who become imprinted after prematurely losing their real parent, and who then are brought into close contact with a representative of another species and adopt that one as their lost parent.  This produces charming absurdities, as we see a duckling adopting a cat as its parent and following it dutifully. Humans who get separated from the main herd are vulnerable to becoming imprinted by any stray subgroup or guru that happens along, and strongly identifying themselves with that new group.  They develop a new, and possibly absurd, new identity.

 Jehovah’s Witnesses were no different from anyone else, but they certainly had no corner on the market of intellectual dishonesty, or trying to control the flow of information to their followers.  We knew who the enemy was:  it was the other churches, first and foremost the churches of Christendom, and extended from there to  the full range of all the Moslem and eastern religions of the world.  It became necessary to learn the weaknesses of the competiton, but to assure that the membership of the herd was not influenced by the competition.  Therefore, all higher education, meaning college education, was strongly discouraged.  Our youth were encouraged to find blue collar jobs and vocational school training.  If the children of church elders went to a college, it placed the position of the elder in jeopardy.  Who knows what contaminated ideas the young and impressionable might be exposed to at the altars of higher learning?  The Humanities departments of our universities were the breeding grounds of wrong ideas, and were therefore the enemy.  As in all herds, access to ideas had to be carefully controlled.  The irony of all this is that thought control, or political correctness, is nowhere more prevalent than on the university campuses purportedly dedicated to open inquiry.  Hence the professor who achieves tenure as protection from coercive practices of the school administration, and who then introduces punitive actions towards students who do not subscribe to his own version of orthodoxy.  Each minority, when the tables are turned, proceeds immediately to a repetition of the behaviors of the preceding majority.

 In time I lived at the headquarters of the church and was able to observe the workings of the organization at the very top.  It was disillusioning.  I did not see evil as I would define it.  I saw victims of victims.  I saw closed minds and the power of belief.  I saw true herd mentality, circular logic, propaganda, power struggles, and sex.  I saw the masses happy to be told what to do, what to believe, and how to behave.  I saw the viciousness towards any who broke from the herd; I saw the pack turn on them with a ferocity never quite directed towards those who had never belonged to the herd to begin with.  I saw the confusion of the herd when they occasionally perceived glimpses of internal power struggles and ideological conflict.  It was necessary for the herd to believe all was harmony, that there was still a final authority, and that God forbid, no one had to do any thinking of their own.  Everyone wanted something for nothing.

 When we would go from door to door, canvassing for new converts, I was amazed at finding the same phenomenon everywhere.  Someone would say, as a defense to engaging us in unnecessary or prolonged conversation, that they were sorry, they were not interested, because they were, say for instance, . . . Catholic.  I would ask them what it meant to them to be a Catholic.  I never once, in years of proselytizing received an intelligible answer to my sincere question.  As a matter of fact, the question was usually received as an absurdity, as if it was unaskable and unanswerable.  No one knew why they were a Catholic, instead of, say, a Methodist or Presbyterian, or God forbid, a Buddhist or Hindu.  They just were what they were.  It was unchallengeable, unassailable, and accepted as axiomatic, something that required no defense or thought.  Belief had become a short cut for thinking.  Something for nothing.  No mental effort required.

 Belief in God was accepted without thinking; belief in the Bible was accepted without the necessity of reading it; belief in the Koran was accepted without the necessity, not only of reading it, but of reading anything at all; belief in Communism and the triumph of the proletariat was defended and died for, without  ever reading its Manifesto; belief in economic Central Planning was accepted without any comprehension of money, production, the creation and preservation of wealth; belief in every boondoggle imaginable was accepted by virtue of its constant repetition in the media, as if anything that received enough Twitters could turn nothing into something.  The billions of parents of the world sent their own children into the furnaces of armed conflict to die for causes they never understood, but accepted and believed because they had heard the holy mantras repeated so often they must be true.  Slogans were substituted for thinking.

 Now let’s get back to financial literacy and the purpose of this blog.  Why do I write, dear Reader?  Because I have unanswered questions, and you should too, if you do any thinking at all.  And the answers matter.  In the last ten years hundreds of thousands became millionaires on paper, only to lose it and become paupers.  What was going on?  Was it the failure of capitalism, or the forceful intervention of governments into free enterprise?  Is the solution more intervention of governments, or a return to free enterprise?   What is capitalism anyway?    What are inflation and deflation?  They say we should buy gold.  Should we?  If we do, what do we do with it?  It won’t earn interest in our closet.  Who do we sell it to if paper money becomes worthless?  Will we be able to buy a loaf of bread with a bar of gold?  If the government wants our gold, what is to prevent them from knocking on our door and confiscating it?  If they do that, what recourse do we have?  They have the guns and we don’t.  What about the national debt?  They say we are mortgaging the futures of our children.  What does that mean, anyway?  Are our children all going to get an invoice in the mail, like a credit card bill, but from the government, saying they will have to make onerous monthly payments to Uncle Sam?  And if not, exactly HOW are our children saddled with our debt?  This doesn’t seem real, and so we don’t really care about it, and why should we?  None of us want to become accountants or economists, and how much do we really need to know?  Why isn’t it enough to just believe?  Like being a Catholic or a Democrat or a Scientologist or a Kenynesian or a Liberal or a Libertarian?  Why can’t we just accept a label of our choosing and go on grazing and reproducing, which is all we really want to do?

 When I was a Jehovah’s Witnesses, the herd organized lots of meetings, assemblies, conventions.  We were often regaled with lengthy dissertations so dense and obscure that no one really had any idea what had just been said.  Happily, however, it never occurred to us that the obscurantism was intentional obfuscation; that the problem was not our failure to comprehend, but that the message was incomprehensible.  After such a program, we often said to each other, in discussing the recent content, how intellectually “deep” it was.  Little did we realize that we had long ago given up the sovereignty of our own minds, and now accepted any imposter’s substitute.  Now I listen to the same intellectual sleight-of-hand in the form of endless economic and political sermonettes disseminated on the 6 o-clock news as divine truths, using jargon and slogans that gain credibility with their endless repetition.

 I have already been accused on this blog site of writing too many words.  Can’t I reduce concepts to Twitter-size feeds, or sound bytes, that tell us what to do and what to believe?  And actually, as a card-carrying member of my herd, I really don’t want to be disturbed with new information, or the introduction of conflict and mental discomfort into my carefully fabricated perception of reality.  As a philosopher said long ago, I have never seen a subjugated people that didn’t deserve it.  As I would say, if we have not the will to impose our own terms on life, we must be prepared to accept the terms life imposes on us.  And when that happens, we will have no comprehension of how we got there, but will we really care, as long as we can go on grazing and reproducing?

 Why can’t we have something for nothing?

As always, thank you for stopping in.  Leave a comment if you wish, and come again.  John Bechtel

Why We Believe: The Power of Utopia, Part II

 

In Part I of this article, I discussed how people are vulnerable to belief when they are unhappy or unsatisfied, and most people are one or the other most of the time.  In times of dramatic change, people are scared, insecure, and eager for anything that promises certainty.  Unsure of themselves, they are quick to follow any Confidence Man or Group who exudes a high level of certainty and self-assurance, whether the facts warrant it or not (and they usually don’t).  When the Confidence Man (or Group) also promises some form of utopia that people want, and if that Utopian suggests that the crowd can have what they want by taking it from someone else, few will resist that temptation.  Such plunder is always camouflaged in language of some form of altruism, of everyone sacrificing or giving up for the common good.  Such behavior is successful because historically, for millennia property existed by permission, not by right, and it was usually acquired by military acquisition, not by trade.  Those who actually produced economic values were viewed as serfs, as socially inferior to those who controlled their products by force.  In addition to this historical emphasis on property acquired by force and kept by permission, feudal society viewed the tribe, not the individual, as the core unit of society.  So when we moved to the Industrial Revolution, property earned was considered the property of the group, or tribe, rather than the individual.  The prevailing philosophy has been one of altruism, meaning that the individual was expected to give up some part of his earnings, without compensation, to the tribe.  Although technology has changed dramatically, we still cling to these ancient paradigms. Read more..

Altruism, like its political offspring, socialism, represents a view of life based on need, want, sympathy, pity, handouts.  In a society where these values are paramount, the greatest virtue is achieved by those who sacrifice their life, time, and resources to distribute to those in need.  While there is a place for charity in life, a time when those of us who have done well want to help others less fortunate, particularly through no fault of their own, and who are therefore eager to get back on their feet, something ugly happens when a person’s need becomes accepted as a moral claim on another person.  Helping then ceases to become charity, and is extended either through social pressure (guilt) or coercion (expropriation and redistribution).    I remember, almost ten years ago, when I was introduced to a professor in the Humanities Department of Ohio State University who quickly engaged me in debate over raising taxes to fund some of her pet projects of a humanitarian nature; that when I objected on the grounds that such taxes ceased to be charitable gifts but in fact became the forced and immoral seizure of private property, she looked at me with half a sneer and said ‘surely you can live without some of your precious profits’.  The point was not whether I could, or could not, live without some of my profits.  The point was that they were my profits that I earned through the use of my mind, and were for me to dispose of as I saw fit.  Her viewpoint was that my abilities, the product of my mind’s effort, did not belong to me, but belonged to the tribe or the collective.  The harder I worked the more I was to be penalized in a scheme called “soak the rich”.  She did not view my earnings as my property, but rather the property of the collective, and I could keep only what the collective decided, by their permission.

I understood this feudal attitude, because I grew up under this philosophy.  My father, for whom financial literacy was NOT an outstanding character trait, fervently believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, and so if some had more than we did, they obviously took it out of our pocket somehow.  He had no idea that this concept was a holdover from the days of feudalism when wealth was not created, but only confiscated.  The King owned all property, and he awarded land and castles to noblemen in reward for successful military service (which in fact meant the successful seizure of other people’s property).  These gifts of land to the nobles were held by the King’s permission, and “ownership” could be revoked at the pleasure of the King.

 My Dad’s sense of economics served him well.  He never understood money or wealth, had virtually no  financial literacy, and he died very poor.  Under the feudal system, people were born into their economic circumstances or social class, and no movement upward was possible, except to become a successful warrior and kill or enslave other property owners and confiscate that property.  Serfs were the producers, and they got no thanks for their efforts, other than permission to keep enough of their own  product to subsist—barely.  This was an agrarian society, and production was of the brawn, not the brain, variety.  Brawn was looked down on, and the products of brawn were expropriated by the nobles and the King.  The serfs survived by permission; the nobility survived by brute force.

 There was a psychological payoff for the serfs though.  The serf’s wife or children could not, and would not, ask him why they did not live in as nice a house as the nobleman in the castle.  A man’s lot in life was inherited and unchangeable and accepted.  In a capitalistic society, however, it was another story altogether.  With free trade, based on one’s ability and hard work, output varied considerably, and consequently, so did wealth.  So a man’s wife, could, and would, point to the better neighborhoods and pointedly ask why their family was not doing as well as the Smiths, or the Jones.  People compared themselves to others, and envy and resentments developed to a far greater degree than existed before.  The class society began to weaken, and upward mobility became a real possibility, as did a Middle Class.

 It is a mistake to underestimate the importance of this phenomenon.  From the times of earliest man, in all our tribal societies, status has been very important to our species.  In this respect we are like many other species, and we quickly develop a pecking order, a power structure, a hierarchy of status.  Among early man, pre-ideology, even pre-religion, we subscribed to a form of animism, wherein we ascribed human attributes to  animals.  Even in these primitive civilizations, enclaves, and villages, we erected totems which were not so much religious symbols, but rather symbols of  social status in the hierarchy of the village.  The taller, wider, more elaborately carved and ostentatiously decorated totems belonged to those with the highest standing in the village.  Not much has changed.  Today our totems are our luxury cars, our beautiful homes and neighborhoods, the clothes and jewelry we wear; anything to tell the outward world what our status is in the social hierarchy in which we live.  Because such comparisons are so easy, we can come to hate those who have more than us, and class warfare can set in.  We can also come to despise the system that makes such comparisons so unwelcome.  How do I tell my wife that Fred down the street was just smarter than me, worked harder than me, caught opportunities that I missed?  How do I tell her that in the marriage sweepstakes she didn’t do as well as Fred’s wife?  Rather than deal with this reality, I now resent Fred, and my wife now resents Fred’s wife.  And since we can’t afford what Fred has, we attempt to fake reality by buying the same things that Fred has on credit that we can’t afford.  Envy has a lot to do with a consumer society.  We want what others have, not so much because we  need it, but because they have it and it has become a “totem”.  The more things change the more they stay the same!

 In the case of my family, my mother developed a personal philosophy that served her well:  she knew others had more because they were dishonest.  This included all entrepreneurs and business people.  With the feudal paradigm to draw from, we had less, they had more; somehow they had stolen our birthright, our fair share of Nature.  How?  We didn’t know how, but somehow they had.  There was no reasoning with this position. We confused fantasy with reality.    Did anyone force employees to work for this businessman?  No.  Did anyone force the customers to buy from this businessman?  No.  Did anyone force other business people to sell to this businessman?  No.  Then if everyone is making their own choices with no coercion, how did this businessman steal from all of us?  No answer.  We just know he did.  This was our family’s way of evading the reality that we did not understand the creation of wealth.  It also meant that until or unless we improved our financial literacy, we had no chance of changing our economic situation.  (To our credit, we did not consider our need a claim on anyone else.  We went to the doctor only when we could afford it; we took on extra jobs, or we did without.)  Socialism operates on a principle that does not exist anywhere in Nature.  It attempts to legislate into existence an equality of result that runs counter to reality, to what IS.  Imagine trying to grow a forest where it was required that every tree be exactly as tall as every other tree.  Imagine trying to fertilize the scrawny ones to encourage them to grow faster and taller, and that failing, trying to limit the growth of the taller ones, or pruning them back, in the spirit “of fairness.”  Such is the challenge of the utopians of the human species.

 There are other historical and psychological reasons why we long to believe the utopians.  There is for example, the matter of intrinsic worth.  In a market society, you become wealthy by selling a good or service that a lot of people want.  It does not matter whether the item in question reflects good taste or atrocious taste; what matters is if it appeals to the taste of a mass market.  There are many who take great offense at this, including intellectuals, artists, scientists, educators, etc.  They may consider themselves to have great intrinsic talent, only to find that those who pandered to a more common taste earned much more money.  Once again envy comes home to roost, as we have to deal with the awkward business of comparing our totems, or stature, with others in our society.  So a professor may disdain a former student who has been much more financially successful than he, the professor, could ever be.  When the market does not reward my clearly superior talents, it is only appropriate that the government, and its elite, give me the recognition, of which  the market in its blindness, deprives me.

 Socialism always involves forms of elitism, substituting the taste and opinions of the few over the wishes of the many.  The use of force, or coercion, to accomplish this is a given.  Government subsidizes what the market will not recognize.  If you don’t believe this, go in any art museum today and ask yourself if the “market” put a lot of that stuff on the walls?  As George Orwell once said “Some things are so preposterous, only an intellectual could believe them.”

 In a free market, as in all of nature, each produces and survives according to his ability.  Those with less cannot blame it on living in a class society where they have no chance to change their station in life.  Those who compare less favorably with their colleagues and peers often hate the free society that invites such unfavorable comparisons and takes away the excuses.  I learned this lesson well in the early seventies in Brooklyn and Newark, NJ, where I developed many friendships among the Haitian immigrants of that period.  They had everything against them; some spoke poor English, many were illegal, almost all were quite poor and lived many families per apartment.  But they had good minds and a great work ethic, and the vast majority of them within a few short years became successful business owners and landlords in former slum areas burned out by the race riots of the period.  When most of the population around them were complaining that they had no chance because of racial bias,  the Haitians, who were of the same race as their neighbors, created wealth.  To this day they serve as an inspiration to me of what can be done with intelligence and great desire.

Those on the other hand who are unwilling to deal with their own limitations, and do not  work to expand their abilities may choose to find refuge in platitudes, such as “We are more spiritual; we do not trade in material things”.  Authors of little-known book titles scoff at the “material” or “poor taste” of the buying public.  They find the worth of their own writings suffused with intrinsic worth that clearly cannot be evaluated by their lack of financial success.  All of this is a form of pretentiousness, the intellectual equivalent of leasing a luxury car we cannot afford in order to fake a success we have not achieved.  Great literary works are by definition authored by people who went against the conventional wisdom of the time, and whose fame was often posthumous.  That does not mean however that an economic system that allows for others who did achieve financial success by catering to a popular taste is to be condemned.  Personally I have found some of the great classics a real treat, and with some of the others, I couldn’t help wonder by what standard they made the cut into “greatness”.  I have always had the arrogance to reserve the right to my own judgment in such things.  Just because someone tells me that a work is great art does not mean I am going to agree.  I still cannot bring myself to accept the crude scribblings of a small mind as “art” just because it came to hang on a museum wall by some fraud of the popular culture.

 When all else fails, when we observe, and envy, those who have achieved much more than we have, we can fall back on the old standby:  “But they’re not happy.”  This conclusion is more ubiquitous than one might think.  In the interests of brevity, I will only say this:  It is true that neither money, nor wealth, will bring happiness.  But it is also very true that the absence of it can bring a lot of unhappiness, debilitating stress, and grief.  For all those who bemoan the modern state of society, I can only ask how many of us would like to live without our medical science, our conveniences that we take so for granted, our mobility, our leisure time, our extended lifespans?  It is one thing to denigrate these things in “chic” social banter; it is quite another to survive as the noble savage, the primitive man who lost all his teeth by the age of 20 and who was exhausted, diseased, or dead by 30; who had no time for such leisurely pursuits, and most of whose children died before they ever reached maturity.  How very interesting that our culture considers charitable work a great virtue, but rarely speaks out in praise of all the men (and women) of the mind who created the wonderful world we live in, and whose minds keep it going.  They are often forgotten because, just like in the millenia of the past, production was expected of the competent.  Why? Because they were competent.  The producers were serfs; the nobility redistributed the value of what they produced.  The nobility were the lords of confiscation and reallocation of resources. 

 Ultimately, what is the appeal of all utopias?  It is the belief that we can get something for nothing.  It doesn’t matter whether the goal is material or spiritual, whether it is financial success, or respect,  admiration, or love.  If it is a desire to have what we have not earned, we will choose to believe what facts and reason will not support.  When you scratch the surface of all utopian philosophies, somewhere below the shiny surface is an ugliness of power lusting, greed for the unearned, envy of those who have earned it, and a desire to fake a reality that doesn’t exist except in our wishful thinking.  Utopia is the suspension of disbelief; it is the attempted triumph of consciousness over existence; the belief that we can remake what IS by no greater effort than wishing it to be so.

Thanks for visiting!  John Bechtel, Greenville, SC

Why We Believe: The Power of Utopia! Part I

About ten years ago I was asked to give a speech about the power of cults, largely because I had been raised almost from infancy as a Jehovah’s Witness, a religious organization often associated in the public’s mind with cultism.  Some of the hallmarks of cultism are a need for certainty, a conviction that you have absolute truth and are the final authority on that truth, and repression of dissent.  Some cults exercise a physical control of their members, but most of them exert a psychological control.  A true believer is someone who no longer needs coercion or physical restraint, but who now acts as if those restraints are still in place.  I can best compare it to training a guard dog; you use a choke collar with such consistency that eventually you remove the choke collar from the neck of the dog and he is so conditioned that he continues to act as if the choke collar is still there.  When, in my thirties I left this organization, I was eager to embrace a society of intellectually free people, and I was excited about the prospect of associating with others with open, inquiring minds.  I was astonished to find so much more of what I had just abandoned, only worse:  People who were born into freedom, and yet who both abused and despised it.  Read more..

Cults are all about utopias.  Everyone on this planet is unhappy about something.  Everyone has a problem that they would like to go away, everyone knows someone else who has what they want, or more of it.  Everyone believes their life could be much better, if only . . . You fill in the blank.  Cults gain adherents by claiming to have found the ultimate truth, the only solution, the compelling argument, The Way.  Sacrifices will have to be made, but that is a small price to pay, isn’t it, if you look at it unselfishly?  Quite usefully, cults  provide a devil, or scapegoat, on which to project blame for whatever our particular grievances are (Management, Jews, Foreigners, The Other Religion, The Rich, The Other Political Party)  We have enshrined in our Declaration of Independence our right to the pursuit of happiness; utopians promise the reality of happiness and fulfillment, not the illusion of its pursuit.  Whatever freedoms you may enjoy at the moment, you can be sure that utopians will require that you sacrifice some of them in exchange for their promise of better tomorrows.  Why do people believe them, often in the face of considerable evidence that their claims are a fraud and have repeatedly failed before?

Charismatic leaders cash in on the conditioning you have already experienced; you have absorbed a basic philosophical premise, from your schools, your church, your family, your books, media, movies, songs, everything that comes at you during all your conscious hours, that the only acceptable, moral purpose of your life is–others.  Not you, but others.  Your ultimate value in life is not your life, but everyone’s life except yours.  This is the moral ideal of most cultures on this planet.  The appropriate expression of this ideal is submissionEvery other life form on this planet seeks, by instinct, its own survival.  But our culture teaches us that, as humans,  our moral ideal is to promote the survival of others over our own.  Since this is an unnatural standard, and one that runs counter to our own nature as man, it becomes a standard we cannot live up to, and therefore a standard that induces guilt.  Whoever controls and manipulates our guilt load controls us.  They can now remove the choke collar from our neck, and we will faithfully follow them as surely as if there is a gun at our back.  We will go even further; we will give them what Ayn Rand called ‘the sanction of the victim.’  We have anointed our new Masters.    Once they have obtained our tacit acceptance of the premise that our life is not our highest value, and that our highest purpose is to serve others, it only remains for someone else to decide what the exact form our sacrifice, or service, should take.  When our sacrifice is in the name of God, our payoff is in the Hereafter; when our sacrifice is to Society, our payoff will be just around the next corner, after we have eliminated poverty, restored the ozone layer, reversed global warming, stabilized international trade, protected jobs, revived failed businesses, won the war on drugs, and soaked the rich.  But there is one thing about all sacrifice–it is always later.  So the first prerequisite for a succesful cult mentality is a pervasive culture of self-sacrifice.  This sets the stage for the first charismatic politician, dictator, ayatollah, or  power luster that fortune favors.

The second pre-requisite for loss of freedom to a cult is a CRISIS of sufficient magnitude to scare us out of our wits, and that wrongly leads us to believe restoring stability would be worth a “temporary” loss of some freedoms. Once these freedoms are gone, it is almost impossible to get them all back.  Why is this?  When it comes to freedom, history is not on our side.  As a matter of fact, freedom as an individual right is a very recent development.

During all of the ages of man, there have been two classes of people:  the producers and the expropriators.  Whether the producers were serfs tilling the soil, or forgers of iron or bronze, or men toiling on the pyramids, they were slaves who worked to eke out an existence, to survive, and for the benefit of their Masters, who controlled them with the sword, torture, and death.  Sometimes it was a hostile relationship, and sometimes a symbiotic relationship.  Empires rose and fell by the use of force, and the major difference between the rulers of men was the degree of autonomy they permitted their subjects.  Some of the vanquished were slaughtered, others were placed in chains, some became vassals and achieved a state of semi-freedom in exchange for paying tribute, or a tax on their “freedom”.  Man’s natural state was that of a slave, and only might made right.  Some form of slavery was characteristic of almost all civilizations throughout history.  Until, that is, the philosophical period that came to be known as The Enlightenment. 

For the first time a case was made that the natural state of a man was that of freedom, and that this freedom was his by right, not by permission.  Yes, he could still be enslaved by force, but his jailers were violating his moral rights in doing so.  Man’s highest value was his life, and it was proper and moral for him to seek his survival and his happiness.  The lower animals survived by instinct, but man survived by the use of his mind, and the use of that mind came to be his work and his means of survival.  Therefore, to rob a man of his product, to rob him of the fruits of his use of his mind, was in fact to rob him of his right to life.  Therefore, property, obtained as the product of his mind, was also his right, as a corollary to his right to life itself.  Thus, the right to independent thought (intellectual freedom) and property rights (economic freedom) came to be associated together for the first time in history.  How interesting that these two freedoms tend to disappear together as well when people are enslaved.  Since man survives by the use of his rational mind, it is not possible to separate the two freedoms; it is not possible to have one without the other.  There is no freedom without economic freedom. 

So when Thomas Jefferson wrote that man had the ‘inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, he was not writing the obvious; he was making a radical departure from the orthodoxy of all of human political history.  He was stating that man did not obtain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by permission, but by inalienable right!  This was not a group right, because a group right would have implied that his life or freedom could have been denied him by the group; no, an inalienable right was an individual right.  In this way Jefferson was championing the rights of the smallest minority in the world–and the most maligned–the individual human being.  No other person, clique, group, political party, thug, ruffian, dictator, junta, or voting bloc, could morally deprive him of his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Jefferson and the other founding fathers had another daunting task on their hands:  If wealth is to be created by innovation, invention, and production, and the values so produced freely traded, and not expropriated by military conquest, then what is the proper moral role of government in the lives of men?  Since property  derives from the application of our minds to natural resources, the only other way to acquire property is to plunder it from those who produced it.  If plunder is easier than work, men will resort to plunder, according to Frederic Bastiat, the author of the delightful treatise La Loi.  To prevent them from doing this, we give government a monopoly on the use of force.  Government is there to protect our property from plunder by foreigners and also from plunder by domestic thieves and ruffians.  But who is to protect us from our own government, if they get it into their head to plunder us? Our only protection could be Rule by Law, so that even our enemies have to abide by this law. 

Our Constitution was specifically designed to protect us from our own government, because from time immemorial the law itself has been used as the tool with which to plunder, or expropriate property from the masses.  When the law is politicized, bent to the will of the group in power, and when that group is replaced by another group, the new group simply uses the power of legislation to turn the tables on their former tormentors.  Under a rule of law, it should make no difference what the political opinions are of a potential jurist; he would have no means to bend or change the law to his ideals.  When the rule of law deteriorates into the rule by people, a civilization has attained the first step on the road to tyranny.  There is nothing to stop anyone who wants what you have.  It is theirs for the taking, because they use the law to seize it!  This degradation of the rule of law is well advanced in our society.  As we gradually migrate from a rule by law to a rule by people,  a higher premium is placed on the political opinions of candidate jurists, because the limitations and restraints placed on legislators by the Constitution are under attack by judicial activists, who believe that any small loss of freedom is more than compensated for by the compelling social benefits of their proposed new legislation.   What happens when the seemingly good intentions of the legislators turns out to be not quite so well-intentioned after all?  Even granting these lawmakers the benefit of a benevolent doubt, do they understand that in weakening the Constitution, they have weakened the Rule of Law and moved an entire nation closer to Rule by People, where any and all of us are sitting ducks for the first gang with the opportunity to capitalize on it?  The problem with all utopians is that in their vision of the world, they themselves will be pulling the levers of power.  It never occurs to them that someone else might be the beneficiary of the damage they did to our system, and that they might end up being among the victims.

We have experienced a prolonged erosion of respect for the rule of law, and a concomitant politicization of the legal process in America.  Add to that a culture that incessantly promotes the spirit of altruism, i.e. that only a life lived in the service of others is moral and worth living.  We are in the middle of the greatest global financial meltdown in history.  We have created a culture of entitlement, which means the right to confiscate and enjoy the product of other men’s labor, without compensation.  A government produces nothing; it can only seize and redistribute.  When it provides anything, any service, for nothing, it has made a slave of someone else.  That someone else is the producer.  When politicians extol the benefits they are giving us in exchange for keeping them in power, they are trading in stolen goods.  For anyone else, that is a felony.  For government it is a privilege.  If the victims of this expropriation have the temerity to complain, they are selfish and anti-social.  This is the corrupted morality of our mixed economy, and it is this anti-life morality that has rendered conservatism helpless.  Unable or unwilling to defend capitalism on moral grounds; which is nothing more than economic freedom, freedom to produce, trade, and keep the product of your trade; the conservatives hope to compete with the neo-socialists by trying to out-do them in the expropriation department by advocating “compassionate capitalism”.  What does that mean, that we’ll say “Thank you” when we expropriate the product of your mind and work??  By what definition is it compassion to expropriate, by force, the product of one man’s effort in order to distribute it to another?  And what makes government a better judge of the worthiness of the recipient’s need than the producer of the values being expropriated?  The implied answer:  The government will be “unselfish” distributing the producers goods, whereas the producer will likely be more “selfish” and may want to keep his earnings.  By what morality does a man need to feel guilty about wanting to keep what he has earned? Is this the thought pattern of a free society, or the thought pattern inherited from the endless ages of the producer as the slave so that the privileged classes can seize the product of his labor?  And yet this is what a philosophy of altruism has produced:  submission, bowed heads, and mindless obedience.  We are just as conditioned as the dog after the choke collar has been removed.  We know our place, we go along in order to get along.  Once we have experienced the power of a choke collar, we don’t actually have to be threatened with it anymore to secure our compliance.

Our free system has been weakened by the relentless assault of bad philosophy.  Freedom is lost when public attitudes change, when people cry Foul when someone picks their pocket, but think nothing of picking the next man’s.  The stage is set.  Now enter any gang of politicians with initiatives,  the worth of which they are absolutely convinced (remember–cults are identified by a need for certainty with the cult leader as the final authority), and their attempted expropriations are framed in the context of service to humanity, but which regrettably involves the confiscation of property.  Their presentations are  couched in terms of the highest moral ideals, so much so that any opponents should feel compelled to apologize for their lack of compassion and crass selfishness, and be shamed into silence!  “Big government is here to help!” It is in this incremental manner that liberty is lost.  As philosopher David Hume once said:  “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”  When the public arbiters of what private property we are allowed to keep are done with their economic coercion, the loss of intellectual liberty is not far behind.  In no time at all our attitudes, opinions, and values are monitored, and a system of rewards and punishments tells us what is acceptable and what isn’t.  This process is also at an advanced stage in this country, but that is the subject of another article.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America comments on ‘the new servitude’:  ” . . . It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd.  The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting.  Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd.”

There are soft cults, such as the situation described by de Tocqueville above, and there are hard cults, such as Stalin’s attempt at utopia, or Hitler’s brand of national socialism.  The difference between soft and hard cults is often one of incrementalism, of time and opportunity; there is always someone whose view of the world is so compelling, so incisive, and well, so right, to them at least, that it justifies the use of force against others, until of course, those others come to their senses.  And if they don’t? . . . . well, sacrifices have to be made.  Nine foxes and one chicken just voted on what to have for dinner.  The chicken lost.  It lacked vision. The funny thing is, when the foxes came for it, the chicken didn’t run, it didn’t resist.  It knew its glory was in serving the needs of the others.

Thanks for listening.  Leave a comment.  John Bechtel, Greenville, SC

The Power of Belief

 

The problem with markets is that they are composed of people, sometimes millions of them, and those people can be both unpredictable and irrational in their behavior.  Anyone who can predict what people will want to buy, when they will want to buy it, and at what price, stands to make a lot of money.  The reverse can also be true.  Large groups of people tend to adopt herd behavior, and the herd can be easily spooked into a full scale stampede, sometimes over the edge of a cliff. History is replete with countless examples of bizarre group behavior and the madness of crowds.   In financial matters, bubbles are created in one asset class or another because of certain beliefs that spread like a virile contagion, and the seed of that contagion is almost always that someone can get rich quickly and with little effort or risk.  Emotions will usually trump reason, and humans will suspend disbelief; they will suspend their critical judgment.  When even minor circumstances turn negative, however, the masses will panic and rush to the exits and the resulting market crashes can reverberate around the world. Read more..

 Most recently this happened with the bubble in real estate.  In certain geographical parts of the country, such as California, Florida, Phoenix, or Las Vegas, the demand for real estate outstripped the supply and the price of housing was bid up to unrealistic and unsustainable levels.  Everyone knew, of course, that real estate values can not go up indefinitely, and everyone knew that what went up could, and would, eventually come down.  But like the gambler at the gaming tables in the middle of a winning streak, they believed they still had time to cash in.  As housing prices skyrocketed, the affordability rate plummeted, and homes were increasingly purchased with scary financial products that came to be known as Liar’s Loans.  In high demand areas, the buyers, who often called themselves “investors”, had no intention of living in their acquisitions; they bought them to resell quickly, making an instant profit of thousands of dollars.  Sometimes the buyer fixed the properties up and sold them again, at another substantial profit.  Eventually someone had to stay on title, and to these End-Buyers these rental properties were touted as cash-flowing “investments”.  You heard the words “rich” and “empire” frequently.    In saner parts of the country, such as where I live in Greenville, SC, where property prices pretty much remained stable, and there was no real bubble, “investment properties” were hawked almost exclusively based on their ability to cash flow, meaning after all the expenses of ownership were deducted from the rental income, there was something left over on the table each month.  Over two or three years, I quite literally saw thousands of these offerings on local websites.  The magic numbers for cash flowing properties seemed to be to purchase them at 65-70% of After-Repaired-Value (ARV).  When I did the math, however, I couldn’t come up with the positive cash flow.  I started to wonder what these “investors” knew that I didn’t know.  In most cases, the answer was Nothing.  It was the triumph of hope over reason.  Euphoria prevailed.  It seemed everyone was an investor, and those few who weren’t, were making the big bucks off of “educational materials.”  One guru went on record that ‘if anyone had paid income taxes the previous year, the only plausible reason could be that they didn’t own enough real estate.’Ordinarily, property has to be bought very, very cheaply in order to have immediately positive cash flow.  Today,  in June 2009, I am hearing that properties in California are selling at 30-40 cents on the dollar and are being resold as cash-flowing properties.  My point being that for all of these past go-go years, properties selling at 70% ARV were extremely difficult to make cash flow.  The only way they could is if the buyer would make a 20% or larger down payment, and the sun, moon, Venus, and Mars were all perfectly aligned, and you didn’t step on a crack in the sidewalk.  In other words, nothing could go wrong or your profit margin would evaporate.

Was any wealth being created or accumulated during the bubble years?  In some cases yes, in most cases no.  When someone did turn a property quickly and at a substantial profit, that only became wealth if they reinvested their profit into a different, and undervalued, asset class.  Those with the cash reserves and business acumen to manage their rental properties effectively now have tangible assets to show for those years.  The rest have most likely already spent the quick cash they made flipping properties.

When we play the board game Cash Flow every month here in Greenville, it always draws a belly laugh when someone draws a Small Deal card offering them the opportunity to purchase a stock at the top of its trading range.  What idiot would buy such an overpriced asset?  A human one.  In most cases, we are much more likely to make a bad decision in the company of a crowd than a good one alone.  Where have all the investors gone?  Why, property prices have fallen precipitously in the last year!  Who would want to buy at such a time?  Where did the herd, go, anyway, does anyone know?

In saner parts of the country, such as where I live in Greenville, SC, where property prices pretty much remained stable, and there was no real bubble, “investment properties” were hawked almost exclusively based on their ability to cash flow, meaning after all the expenses of ownership were deducted from the rental income, there was something left over on the table each month.  Over two or three years, I quite literally saw thousands of these offerings on local websites.  The magic numbers for cash flowing properties seemed to be to purchase them at 65-70% of After-Repaired-Value (ARV).  When I did the math, however, I couldn’t come up with the positive cash flow.  I started to wonder what these “investors” knew that I didn’t know.  In most cases, the answer was Nothing.  It was the triumph of hope over reason.  Euphoria prevailed.  It seemed everyone was an investor, and those few who weren’t, were making the big bucks off of “educational materials.”  One guru went on record that ‘if anyone had paid income taxes the previous year, the only plausible reason could be that they didn’t own enough real estate.’

Thanks for reading.  John Bechtel, Greenville, SC

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