Sabbaths Have It Backwards

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Writing in Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics about the intellectual demands of the virtue of pride, Tara Smith discusses the problem of evasion:

Because the essence of morality is rationality and because evasion is rationality's basic rival, an ever-present threat, the person committed to moral perfection must exert special vigilance against this vice. He must look for the particular forms of evasion that he is most prone to -- particular methods of evasion, for instance, such as rushing decisions so as to avoid facing uncomfortable implications, or particular subjects on which he is most tempted to evade, such as decisions about spending or working. Perfection cannot be attained without candidly confronting all the lures that are liable to challenge one's resolve... (p. 233)
Among the things this passage reminded me of is a very common lure: The Internet. This lure is particularly dangerous because using the world's biggest library is very often necessary for one's job.

Fortunately, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, offers advice on how to manage the temptation to give in to boredom it represents. Noting that many people suggest or use what they call an "Internet Sabbath" as a means of stepping back, Newport acknowledges the advantages these offer while noting a major drawback: Like a fad diet that effects no long-lasting or meaningful change in behavior, that measure does not really help on a daily basis. Instead, Newport devotes significant time arguing that one should turn this idea on its head and schedule breaks from concentration rather than breaks from such a distraction:
You might need to take more than an occasional break from such a place. (Image of opium den via Wikipedia.)
With these rough categorizations established, the strategy works as follows: Schedule in advance when you'll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you're allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed -- no matter how tempting.

The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain's ability to focus. It's instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. This constant switching can be understood analogously as weakening the mental muscles responsible for organizing the many sources vying for your attention. By segregating Internet use (and therefore segregating distractions) you're minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so, you let these attention-selecting muscles strengthen. (pp. 161-162)
Newport further addresses such matters as jobs that require lots of Internet use, and recommends also scheduling Internet use at home.

Internet use is not, in and of itself, evasion, but it can easily lead to drift and using it is a kind of "spending decision" -- of time, which is precious and irreplaceable. It is worth noting that even if one is in control of his Internet use, Newport's approach can be applied to other instances in which one might want to make the vigilance Smith urges easier, by incorporating it into one's routine. Sabbaths from temptation worse than fail to do this.

-- CAV

The Latest Stealth "End" to the ACA

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

According to the Washington Examiner, the scheduled reduction of the individual mandate penalty tax to zero in 2019 is the final stick of dynamite Republicans too cowardly to repeal the ACA have been waiting for!

If Republican spines didn't always rubberize whenever Democrats jerked their knees, we'd be much freer and more prosperous. (Image via Pixabay.)
In fact, the only basis for the mandate's constitutionality, according to Roberts, is that it's a tax -- not a fine, penalty, or anything else. This is a vital point, because when Republicans passed their tax reform legislation in December 2017, they included a provision in the law that lowers the individual mandate penalty to $0 beginning in January 2019, effectively eliminating any hope the individual mandate could still be considered a "tax."

If the tax-less individual mandate is now found to be unconstitutional, it could very likely result in the entire healthcare law being struck down. In their 2012 dissenting opinion, four Supreme Court judges argued the ACA could not survive absent the individual mandate. Although Roberts never addressed the question in his opinion, there are good reasons to believe he should agree to throw the entire law out.
Just like there were good reasons to believe he wouldn't have pulled that "tax" rabbit out of his ... wherever he got that from. So for this tack to work, we have to hope that no one finds a creative way to avoid making a common-sense decision.

And then there's this:
This means all it would take to end Obamacare is a decision by the Trump administration not to enforce this illegal law by agreeing to settle the lawsuit brought by plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate. Such a move would likely trigger lawsuits from left-leaning states and intense legal battles, but perhaps in the process, Congress would finally be motivated to repeal and replace Obamacare -- something it has failed to do despite its leadership having promised to do so for eight years. [bold added]
And there's the rest of the problem. We should repeal -- full stop. There is no need to legislate freedom: That's what this unjust law abridges. But even when the GOP did sling around the word "repeal" in an effort to sound tough, they softened that with "replace," because they are not truly convinced of the righteousness of the causes of justice and protection of individual rights.

I am not holding my breath for the contemplated Supreme Court ruling, nor am I particularly sanguine about the prospect of the GOP scrapping the ACA and introducing other reforms to transition the medical sector to a free market. This scenario does offer a sliver of hope, but the track record of the conservatives gives me doubts, to say the least.

-- CAV

Free Stuff and Its Consequences

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Among news stories covering the sham "reelection" of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela -- many of which broke with the practice established during the financial crisis of never using the word "socialist" -- were two short paragraphs in the Guardian that pretty much tell you all you need to know about that political system:

Vote for us or starve. (Image of CLAP box via Wikimedia Commons.)
At a campaign rally in the western city of Barquisimeto, Maduro put it this way: "The Fatherland protects you and gives you everything. And you must give the Fatherland political power."

But just to make sure, the government has banned the two most popular opposition politicians -- Leopoldo López who is under house arrest for inciting violence and Henrique Capriles who faces trumped-up corruption charges -- from running. [link added for details on "incitement"]
Don't be fooled by the lack of a substantial difference among Maduro and his opponents: This is socialism in a nutshell. That said, I still think American admirers of Bernie Sanders should pay a visit or seek employment there. The linked Wikitravel site contains the following warning from the U.S. State Department:
WARNING: The US State Department advice [sic] to reconsider travel to Venezuela due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens. Some areas have increased risk. Do not travel to certain neighborhoods of Caracas due to crime. The tourists areas are considered today relatively safe for tourists, however. Read the newest Travel Advisory here (January 10, 2018) Venezuela Travel Advisory[.]
Many of these same people will dismiss this as imperialistic propaganda, while both (1) admitting there are problems, which they will blame on the United States and the "big" oil corporations that first developed Venezuela's resources; and (2) working overtime to continue broadening the role of our government well beyond its proper scope. Conservatives might chuckle at such hypocrisy (while often sharing it), but the naiveté worries me.

Just for starters: The whole idea that an all-powerful government is a good thing rests on the foolish assumption that it will act in ways one deems beneficial. But what is beneficial and what is the best way to achieve a good goal? Has a supporter of socialism ever been in disagreement with another person about anything? And what happens when the person who disagrees with you has the gun? It is a sobering thought that large numbers of people who fail to ask such obvious questions can visit such horrible consequences on themselves and everyone around them.

-- CAV

Marxism vs. Productivity

Monday, May 21, 2018

In Deep Work, Cal Newport describes a common problem among modern knowledge workers:

Marx's corpus notwithstanding, thinking can be a highly productive activity. (Image via Pixabay.)
... They want to prove that they're productive members of the team and are earning their keep, but they're not entirely clear what this goal constitutes. They have no rising h-index or rack of repaired motorcycles to point to as evidence of their worth. To overcome this gap, many seem to be turning back to the last time when productivity was more universally observable: the industrial age. (p. 60) [bold added]
Newport goes on to describe the old Efficiency Movement, whose methods of measuring productivity are being misapplied. Newport makes similar points to an article I mentioned some time ago, noting that, for example, metaphors -- like David Allen's "cranking widgets" -- can lead to what Newport calls, "Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity."

I have to agree that metaphors must be used carefully, but I cannot help wondering whether the saturation of our culture with Marx's labor theory of value makes the problem much worse than it ought to be. For example, how hard should it be for an academic to understand that "cranking widgets" might, in his case, consist of reading or concentrating on a problem for several uninterrupted hours? Conversely, consider how many people, including some in management, don't think management does any "real work." Work is not just physical activity, and its physical products will not always be bulky or widely appreciated, no matter how revolutionary.

Why, then, measure them in the same way one measures factory production?

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, May 18, 2018

Blog Roundup

With today's post, I bring back the once-weekly blog roundup. You can expect to see these on occasional Fridays. Enjoy.

1. The blog of the Texas Institute for Property Rights recently marked May Day by taking up John Lennon's musical invitation to "Imagine". An excerpt from a chapter of Brian Phillips's new book, Principles and Property Rights, serves as an aid:

There's no need to "imagine" in Venezuela. (Image via Wikipedia.)
While history provides us with untold examples of this principle, over the past several decades two nations -- Venezuela and China -- have demonstrated it in different ways. One nation has slowly rejected Lennon's vision and enacted greater protections for property rights. The other nation has rejected property rights and moved closer to Lennon's ideal of a society with no possessions -- private property. The well-being of the citizens of the two countries reflects these trends.
Having enjoyed two other books by Phillips, I expect I'll end up reading this one, too. The rest of the chapter is available for free from a link at the end of the post.

2. The Ayn Rand Institute has a new blog by the name of New Ideal. One recent post calls out "The UN's Unscrupulous Attacks on Israel":
Let's begin with [the] member states [of the UN Human Rights Council]. Which of these six countries -- (a) Saudi Arabia, (b) Iran, (c) Egypt, (d) Libya, (e) Cuba, (f) Russia -- has served on the Human Rights Council? The correct answer: "All of the above." But these nations are all egregious violators of individual rights, and many have literally murdered their own citizens in the streets. That fact alone should have disqualified them from membership in the Human Rights Council. Take a moment to think about that -- it's like putting the mafia in charge of the police force.
Journo, too, is the author of a recently-released book, What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

3. Writing at The New Romanticist, Scott Holleran takes on Black Panther, the latest Disney comic book movie. I really enjoyed this review after also finding the film exhausting:
Boseman's ripped king gets tricked out with James Bond gadgets, Euro-electronica ala Bourne Identity accompanies an elaborate car chase, and a trip to South Korea (does every action movie have to have an Asian connection? Is South America off limits?) goes awry. Fast-cutting fights are disorienting. Drumbeats pummel the audience. Subplots turn over and over. This onslaught slips into sameness and gets stale. The plot spins and spins, lulling the audience into a bit of a slumber. In Marvel's universe of wise-cracking white men gussied up in industrial gear and snapping lines to one another, a movie about a mythical African nation and its aristocratic superhero ought to achieve a distinctive quality or uniqueness, no? Does no one in Wakanda listen to jazz? The men go around shirtless, why not the women? Is no one in Wakanda gay? Not a single Wakandan apparently watches television, goes swimming or grooves to Lou Rawls, Sade or Johnny Mathis. Does every Wakandan have to be a 24/7 'badass'?
I expected the social justice subtext, which permeates practically everything from Hollywood these days, but thought the movie might have a bit more entertainment value than it did. Even setting aside that and my normal reservations about the whole idea of superheroes, I ended up in a similar place.

4. From a Thinking Directions blog post a few years back comes some great advice on making New Year's resolutions, or making any major change for that matter:
If you're not mentally ready to make your resolution on January 1, I suggest starting a New Year's Campaign to learn how to achieve that important goal: what concrete, specific form it will take, what doable steps will lead you to it, and what less important activity it will replace. You can always set a mid-year resolution once you know your goal is clear, doable, and important.
If you don't need that advice, head on over and consider the preceding three steps.

-- CAV

Is Systemic Racism a Destructive Myth?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Writing at Quillette, Coleman Hughes considers what he calls the "racism treadmill." In the process, Hughes goes a long way towards (1) explaining why the left seems oblivious to the great progress American society has made against racism, and (2) why that obliviousness is a bad thing. The article is lengthy -- but only about 3500 words, so don't let the scroll bar scare you off! -- and I think it's a worthy complement to Shelby Steele's "Why the Left Can't Let Go of Racism."

A couple of Hughes's closing paragraphs should serve to illustrate his main points and how he approaches them:

Those who say we have made no progress might keep us from crossing the finish line. (Image via Pixabay.)
The War on Racism, though intended to be won by those prosecuting it, will, in practice, continue indefinitely. This is because the stated goals of progressives, however sincerely held, are so apocalyptic, so vague, and so total as to guarantee that they will never be met. One often hears calls to "end white supremacy," for instance. But what "ending white supremacy" would look like in a country where whites are already out-earned by several dark-skinned ethnic groups (Indian-Americans top the list by a large margin) is never explained. I would not be the first to point out the parallels between progressive goals and religious eschatology. [Ta-Nehsis] Coates, for instance, professes to be an atheist, but tweak a few details and the Rapture becomes Reparations -- which he has said will lead to a "spiritual renewal" and a "revolution of the American consciousness."14

Staying on the Racism Treadmill means denying progress and stoking ethnic tensions. It means, as Thomas Sowell once warned, moving towards a society in which "a new born baby enters the world supplied with prepackaged grievances against other babies born the same day."[15] Worse still, it means shutting down the one conversation that stands the greatest chance of improving outcomes for blacks: the conversation about culture. [notes and links in original, bold added]
If Hughes errs in his essay, it is on the side of being generous to some who appear to have ulterior motives in keeping us on that treadmill. But if so, he more than makes up for it by explaining in a way almost anyone can grasp how it is that a lack of racial progress can sound so plausible to so many.

-- CAV

Cal Newport on GTD

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Deep Work author Cal Newport identifies a big problem in the productivity system David Allen describes in the famed Getting Things Done:

Sometimes, this isn't a joke. (Image via Pixabay.)
Creating real value requires deep work, which is a fundamentally different activity than knocking off organizational tasks.

Deep work cannot be reduced to clear next actions. It is, instead, a philosophy that must be cultivated. If you read Robert Greene's Mastery, for example, you'll encounter story after story of remarkable people who didn't carefully organize tasks, but instead marshaled their energy toward the obsessive (and often messy) pursuit of something new.


To Summarize: David Allen's universalism is seductive, but ultimately flawed. Cranking widgets cannot create results of lasting value. That requires something deeper. [links and formatting in original]
To be clear, Newport is not completely dismissing the kinds of tasks GTD is good for: He uses the system to organize what he calls "shallow work." But it is clear that, say, listing "spend many hours obsessively doing deep work on problem X" as a next action does not help much when the time arrives to do this. Anyone who has tried implementing GTD and found it not to be a cure-all might want to consider Newport's idea that there are different kinds of tasks that should be tracked differently. That line of thinking may well be more productive than, "You're just not trying GTD hard enough."

-- CAV