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July 29, 2010

Update 5: Brief Summer Book Hiatus With Excerpt From Chapter 1

A commenter asked last week, “So when are you going to finish [the book]?” 

That’s a legitimate question and deserves an answer:

"I don’t know."

I didn’t say it deserved a good answer.

That said, I think I’m realistically looking at the end of August. However, regardless of where I am on the book, I plan on resuming regular blogging after Labor Day (with the campaign season heating up then, I know I won't be able to resist such a target rich environment). 

In the meantime, I’m going to post excerpts from some of the early chapters, partly because it will give you a better feel for the book itself and partly because they’re done (or nearly done, since I am endlessly tinkering and copy editing).

Today, I’ll start with the beginning of Chapter 1:

Chapter 1

Shut Up, That’s Why

“Do You Know Who I Am?” – Senator John Kerry 1

You hear people say it all the time, “everyone is a moron,” but they don’t mean it, not really.  What they really mean is “everyone else is a moron,” which is a very different thing. 

The necessary flip side to believing everyone other than you is a moron is that you yourself are not one. In fact, you are obviously quite smart.

Why would you be anything else?  You’re you, after all.

But where does this attitude originate?

One obvious source is the fact that most people are very good at one or two things.  You can be a moron like the rest of us and still be an imaginative artist, a skilled surgeon, or a mathematical prodigy.  Commerce, indeed civilization as we know it, rests on the notion that most people are really good at a few things, and pretty bad at everything else.  If we were all geniuses at everything we’d do everything, or most everything, ourselves.  Instead, we do the things we’re good at and trade the product of that labor for the things that other people are good at.

You can call it division of labor if you like, or comparative advantage.

I call it the idiot-savant theory of prosperity.

In other words, our modern industrial economy and the unprecedented prosperity it creates, is built upon the enduring principle that people are incompetent.

Inevitably, people who are good at one thing, who excel at doing something all day long, particularly in professions where there are too many opportunities for overt expressions of praise and admiration, come to believe that they are, in fact, so smart that they can do nearly anything. 

This is a universal proposition that spans millennia:

“But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom.” 2

And this is why doctors lose all their money in real estate.  This is why models think they can sing, singers think they can act, and Sean Penn thinks he can think.

This is why lawyers think they can do, well, anything…

J.

July 29, 2010 at 01:39 PM in Books | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 19, 2010

Update 4: Brief Summer Book Hiatus With Final Excerpt From Introduction

Did I say "brief?"  I meant that ironically. 

Below is the final section of the introduction. I hope to make some real progress the next two weeks, and might have a near-final chapter outline to share within the week.

But then, we've already established that I'm a filthy liar. 

Introduction, concluded:

A few quick caveats:

I am not a conservative, although I share many common causes with conservatives, such as a preference for limited government, a fondness for low taxes, and a possibly unhealthy passion for good gin. Also, mediocre gin.  And in a pinch, bad gin, but only if there is no good and/or mediocre gin available.

Okay, I might have a gin problem. And by “gin problem,” I mean “I occasionally run out of good gin.”

Regardless, given the Sharks vs. Jets dichotomy of our national political dialogue, much of this book will draw examples that sit comfortably along the liberal/conservative fault line.   In most instances, when it comes to economic liberty, I’ll be sympathetic to the conservative view (if not necessarily the conservative practice).

I am also not a populist. 

The term “populist” has taken on some unfortunate baggage of late, much like “socialist,” “liberal,” and “MSNBC news anchor.” 

It is generally assumed (as by Brooks and Kristol mentioned earlier) that populists believe the average person in the street is gifted with wisdom grounded in hard work and simple pleasures, and if only he or she were granted dominion, our republic would flourish anew.

There is a problem with this view.

The average person in the street is an idiot.

But then, my argument is that the average person in the nation’s boardrooms, university faculty lounges and marble corridors of Washington is an idiot too.  The difference is those people don’t know it.

And here is where the average person in the street does have a leg up.  There is a certain humility born of a life spent on a rough and crooked road.  There is a sense of personal accountability that accrues to those who, while well aware that not all of life’s failings and fortunes are within one’s control, they are still one’s responsibility. 

Meaning your average person in the street at least has the wisdom to know he or she shouldn’t be telling everyone else what to do.

I am not a liberal. While perhaps obvious in this context, it might not be as clear if I were writing about the war against some drugs, or other social issues. For the record, though, I fully support the government sanctioning civil unions for straight people.  You want to get “married,” go to a church. You want to enter into a contractual agreement that will be governed by a body of law, go to the courthouse.  Now, can we please get back to important things like hysterical protests over Christmas crèches at public community centers?

I am not anti-intellectual.  I am in fact rather fond of intellectuals without whom my Amazon Wish List would be devoid of obscure narratives on Greek history I’ll never find the time to read.  I am however anti-faux-intellectual, and against the substitution of lockstep collectivist conformity for critical thought. And while I concede there really are “smart” people in the world (more to the point, people who are smart in areas I am not), I still don’t want them telling me what kind of light bulb I can buy.

Finally, I am not anti-government, much in the same way the Founding Fathers were not anti-government seeing as they went through a great deal of trouble creating one. Like the Founders, I recognize that government has an essential role, its only legitimate role, really, in securing individual liberty.  Also like them, I recognize its limits, and the hazards a powerful state poses to individual freedom. And yes, to those of you who maintain that any central government no matter how carefully conceived will inexorably consolidate power to the detriment of liberty, well, fine, you win that one. 

Anti-government zealots: 1
Me: 0

However, I try to stay in the realm of the possible.  The chances of our achieving some anarchic Utopia are about the same as the New York Yankees deciding that “you don’t need money to build a gosh darn good baseball team.”

So, what am I? (Aside from the obvious.)

I am a recovering libertarian with a drinking problem. 

Or a recovering drunk with a libertarian problem.

(I can never remember which.)

I believe retaining personal sovereignty should be a default position, and unless someone can make a really good argument as to why you should relent and cede decision-making authority to the government, just say no.

Foreign powers present an imminent threat to life and liberty? 

Okay, sure, sounds reasonable.

You think maybe I should lay off the salt and French fries? 8

Um, you know what? How about you leave that one to me.

A quick preview:

In Section 1, I review the ways in which those who fancy themselves to be gifted with superior intellect define “superior intellect” to include those people who demonstrate a unique talent for agreeing with them.

In Section 2, I address the ways in which this illusion is maintained and reinforced.

Section 3 explores the very real ramifications of allowing a small group of people who are not as smart as they think are, to run the country.

Section 4 attempts to take the first steps toward addressing this problem.  I say attempt because I admit up front that I don’t have all the questions, never mind all the answers. (Although, I have found “go easy on the vermouth” to come in handy on more than a few occasions.)

Besides, the first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem.

J.

July 19, 2010 at 12:46 PM in Books | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 12, 2010

Update 3: Brief Summer Book Hiatus With New Excerpt

I just wanted my faithful readers to know that I have been inspired by President Obama’s example and have released the following statement:

I am not going to rest or be satisfied until the book is finished, the manuscript has been edited and cleaned up, and the people of this country can go back to reading my blog.

In that spirit, I promise I will not take any more than three vacations in any given 81-day period until my book-writing crisis has passed!

In the meantime, below is part 2 of the book’s introduction. To my surprise, the introduction is actually useful in providing a decent feel for what the book is about. Sure, this runs the very real risk of suppressing sales, but I’ve decided to call anything over a dozen a resounding success.

Planet Moron: Grading on a curve since 1993.

Introduction, Cont’d

...Before I go further, my apologies for use of the word “they” and its counterparts.  I don’t attempt to define it clearly up front, but rather let its meaning become clear through the course of the book.  This is a respected rhetorical device known as "laziness." Most people will understand it to mean those of influence, liberal or conservative, who believe themselves to be of such high intelligence that they have an obligation to tell the rest of us what to do, from politicians to academics to pundits to, God help us, “celebrities.”  In other words, the “elite,” a word I’m even less fond of, but still find a useful shorthand in this context and use extensively.

How can you determine if you are a part of “they” or a member of the “elite?”  There’s actually a very simple way to tell:

You’re not.

That was probably easier than you thought it was going to be.

Anti-elite and anti-establishment uprisings such as what has been transpiring with both the Tea Party movement specifically and the more broadly growing notion among many independents that perhaps we should start embracing individual liberty over the creeping collectivism of the past seven decades or so is often miscast.

Conservative columnist David Brooks in a March 2010 New York Times column exploring the similarities between the “new left” uprisings of the ‘60s and today’s Tea Parties wrote:

“But the core commonality is this: Members of both movements believe in what you might call mass innocence. Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures.” 3

This is what psychologists call “projection.”

It is natural that an establishment member of the elite would assume that those who seek to overthrow the nation’s entrenched leadership structures, would believe, as David Brooks certainly would, that they are uniquely endowed with purity and virtue. 

The late Irving Kristol held a similar view, although for different reasons, elevating the wisdom of the common man above his supposed betters in order to draw a contrast with the “cultural elite” and “intellectuals” of which he was said to be generally scornful. 4

That is clearly not the premise of this book. Nor, I doubt, the premise of those who call for a less activist government.  In fact, if there is one thing I can attest to, it’s that “regular people” mostly lack the arrogance to believe their elevated virtue qualifies them to tell you how to live and tend to hew more closely to a kind of Socratic modesty:

“…So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” 5

But then, it’s easier to retain modesty regarding your abilities when you work in occupations that don’t include an endless parade of self-congratulatory awards and recognitions.

There are no Nobel Prizes presented for the expert use of a band saw, and no national media adoration when you’re named “salesperson of the month” (although you might find yourself catching admiring glances from Richard in accounting.)

And yet one could argue that my assertion that we would be better off with less government intervention in our lives suggests that I must believe I know better how to organize society, that I am elevating my judgment above those who would argue otherwise.

But that is not my assertion at all. I’m no more or less a moron than anyone else (with the possible exception of the inventor of the vuvuzela, and that cuts both ways). I don’t want to organize society any more than I want someone else to organize it for me. 

Admittedly, there are certain collective endeavors that enjoy broad-based support. Most people would agree that we need, for example, a common approach to national defense, lest the Canadians, drunk with power from their Olympic hockey gold medal victories6 swarm our northern border and force upon us a regime built around ice beer and innovative sketch comedy.

And I concede that there is little doubt that a society with less government intervention will be different from a society with more, that is, I’m trying to convince my fellow citizens to pursue a particular point of view.  However, there is an important difference between what I want, and what the collectivists want.

You can pursue all your wildest collectivist fantasies within a system of government that elevates individual liberty above the collective.  That is, if you want to “share the wealth,” live in a commune, or organize your entire life around “Star Trek - The Next Generation,” you retain the right to do so in a free society.  I have no interest in stopping you.  (Although I might want to know where you got the cool tricorder.)

However, if you live in a collectivist society there are all manner of laws prohibiting your pursuit of individual liberty, and if you insist on running around in your Starfleet uniform all day,7 you run the very real risk of encountering a violent reaction.  Okay, running around in a Starfleet uniform all day is going to increase your risk of encountering a violent reaction no matter where you live, but you get the idea. 

The reason for much of the anger you see today is because broad swaths of people who were sitting at home minding their own business are discovering that there are legions of people who want very much to mind their business for them.

I get into all this, and much more in the pages that follow...

 

The final installment of the introduction will appear within the next week or so.

J.

July 12, 2010 at 03:30 PM in Books | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 06, 2010

Update 2: Brief Summer Book Hiatus With Excerpt

As part of my Brief Summer Book Hiatus, I went on my annual beach trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my old college buddies last week believing that would be a good opportunity to make some progress on my book.

Spending a week at the beach with your old college buddies is not as conducive to thoughtful writing as you might think. Well, as I might think.  It is, however, very conducive to waking up at four in the morning sitting upright in a living room chair with a half a glass of whiskey at your side.  This forced me to reassess my priorities in life. I mean, really, what a waste. 

Of perfectly good whiskey.

In my defense, I was a little burned out from trying to write the blog and the book at the same time and so a little break will no doubt serve to revive my creative juices.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Regardless, I’ve included a brief excerpt from the introduction, just so you know I really have made some progress, with “progress” loosely defined.  This is actually one of my longer chapters (blogging has made it increasingly difficult for me to sustain a single thought for more than… hey, I didn’t know we still had cheese…) so rest assured, there is much more. 

That’s supposed to be a promise, not a warning:

 

Introduction

You Are a Moron

 “People like blood sausage too, people are morons.”  -- Bill Murray as Phil Connors, Groundhog Day 1

You will find most people in authority and their enablers, whether government officials, opinion leaders, or influential members of the media, operate under the general assumption that you are a moron.  There are two problems with this:

    1) It is insulting.
    2) It is true.

Now, before you get all offended, ranting on about how that isn’t why George Washington charged the Japanese on San Juan Hill to blow up the Death Star, stop and go take a look at yourself in the mirror.  Those shoes?  With THAT belt? 

And do you even own a comb?

But the problem is not that you or I or the guy across the street with the Sierra Club bumper sticker on his Range Rover is a moron (he is). After all, our individual actions tend to have finite, limited ramifications when we are making personal decisions. 

Let’s say, purely as a hypothetical, that you once thought it would be a good idea to consume four cheese enchiladas immediately following a three-mile race during which you had to stop at seven bars and chug a beer.  The only people you hurt are yourself, maybe your girlfriend.  The waiter.  Okay, the busboy too, but you get the idea.  (Hypothetically.)

The real problems begin when people believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they themselves are somehow immune to the general human affliction of universal idiocy and should be put in charge, saving the rest of us from ourselves through the power of their superior intellect.

What do we end up with when we turn decision-making authority over to self-identified smart people, the better to organize our lives?

Sorghum subsidies.  2

This combination of conceit and power is an intoxicating cocktail for those who have imbibed but a dangerous one for the rest of us who are left to figure out how to throw the obnoxious drunk out of the house (a task made infinitely more difficult if the obnoxious drunk happens to be the federal government).

In the pages that follow I make the case for limited government from the straightforward perspective of a person who has met too many morons who are supposed to be geniuses and too many geniuses who are supposed to be morons.  I have seen small handfuls of people assume that they are so smart they can better engineer the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans than the hundreds of millions of Americans themselves.

I have seen martinis served on the rocks.

(I still have nightmares.)

In order to believe that a small group of “smart” people are best equipped to tell everyone else how to live you need to accept three premises:

1) The criteria used to choose the smart people are based on whether the people are actually smart.

2) There actually exist people smart enough that they can substitute their judgment for the judgment of 300 million individual Americans.

3) These smart people, so empowered, will act in the best interest of those 300 million Americans and not in the best interest of the smart people.

This book primarily addresses the fist two (everyone knows you make the big bucks on the sequel)…

J.

July 6, 2010 at 07:56 AM in Books | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack