It’s Not (Automatically) My Problem

by Mark Thayer on April 9, 2018

A question you will never hear posed by a journalist with respect to any social issue: “Whose problem is it, anyway?”

There was never much of a need to ask the question for most of our history. Before World War II, roughly, problems were solved by the individual as he saw fit and did not negatively affect his neighbor. If more than one person were involved, efforts toward a solution might originate in self-organizing groups — within a neighborhood, perhaps — or private, local institutions — churches or fraternal organizations. Government involvement, if any, was limited to the lowest possible level.

That this has changed with advances in communication technology is obvious, but it is worth noting the consequences. With the advent of a 24-hour news cycle and the pervasiveness of social media, we have imposed upon ourselves an assumption that every problem is a global problem, and requires a global solution. Since I, as an individual, cannot reasonably create a global solution to any problem, no matter how minor, it follows that government must be the primary mover. The possibility that responsibility might lie elsewhere than with large governmental institutions is never considered.

We have reached the point where our default behavior goes like this: there is a problem (generally with someone else), or there is something I want or need and don’t have; therefore, government is responsible and should fix it.

The consequences of this default assumption are ignored. “The personal is the political” was first confined to issues of feminism; the idea has grown to where any problem is everyone’s problem is government’s responsibility to fix it, make it better, or make it go away.

So what? If government can solve a problem, why not let it? This attitude appeals to our inherent laziness. We have come to see government less as a protector of individual freedom and liberty and more as a provider of services. One less thing for me to worry about; even less of a concern if the issue in question, and the proposed solution, have no or only a minimal effect on me. Neither the problem, nor the solution, are my problem.

The combination of “the personal is the political,” a technology infrastructure that allows for immediate and constant communication on any issue, and government “mission creep” creates an environment with significant negative consequences. The intrusion of the political process into the affairs of private life are a direct threat to our freedom — to be free from government constraint in the conduct of our personal lives. This is obvious, but ignored. The constant and pervasive communication of every problem, real or imagined, by the news media and special interest groups creates an atmosphere of guilt — if you don’t agree that this is a problem, you are part of the problem; more importantly, our solution is the only acceptable one and debate is absolutely not encouraged. Mission creep puts decisions about our private lives in the hands of those whose only qualification is that they won a popularity contest.

Worse, it creates a condition of learned helplessness. If every problem is critical, urgent, and global, I’m not likely to believe that I can solve it myself, even on a very local or personal level. I slowly come to believe that I am, if not quite powerless, then not fully competent to deal with the challenges of daily life. I have been cowed into a certain degree of submission. Not exactly an image of the dignity of the individual.

The solution is simple to the point of being lost in the noise: ask the question.

“Whose problem is it, anyway?”

In a free society, the default assumption is that most problems are the responsibility of the individual. This preserves our freedom from coercion at the hands of other individuals or government, and protects our liberty to act in whatever manner we think will improve our lives (subject to the moral obligation to do no harm to others). Government’s only tool is physical force, which is incompatible with preserving either freedom or liberty. In a free society, the burden of proof lies with government to make a compelling case as to why it should take this authority away from the individual.

Ask the question — and we should get comfortable with the idea that a legitimate answer is “not mine.” It is not the responsibility of the individual citizen to solve everyone else’s problems, and it is infantile of any person or group to expect that the solution to his, her, or their problem is the responsibility of someone else.

Ask the question — and recognize that responsibility may lie on a continuum with the individual at one extreme, and that the challenge in question may fall within the legitimate purview of Federal government at the other. There are many levels in between: from the single individual to self-organizing groups of private citizens, to private community organizations, private/local businesses, local government, larger (in scale) private organizations and businesses, state government, national private organizations, large businesses. Solutions could evolve among many of these, singly or in combination, alone or simultaneously –we are not limited to a single solution, and there are benefits to the competition of ideas.

As each solution is considered, ask further: how many people will be negatively affected if the proposed solution turns out to be wrong? How easy, or how hard, to fix, change, or scrap? Government solutions tend to be incredibly resistant to future modification.

How much power is transferred if the decision is made at this level? Who gains, and who loses? Who gets to act, and who will be (forcibly?) acted upon? A lot of what passes for solutions to social problems are thinly disguised attempts at transferring power from one group to another. Ask the question, and put the notion of power visibly up for discussion. This tends to reveal the unspoken motives of the parties involved.

It is reasonable to ask “why not government?” We assume that we are a democratic society (we’re not); the democratic process should be sufficient to create solutions to social and other problems that should be acceptable.

To avoid creating a straw man, let’s reframe slightly. Should we not, if we believe in the value of the democratic process, have faith that government will, in the long run, find the most effective solutions to personal, social, and economic problems?

Would that it could be so. Politicians are human, and come with all the weaknesses inherent in the species. This will not change, and provides more reason to ask the question. Government’s only tool is physical force, which is incompatible with both freedom and liberty. A government solution will force you to compromise on one, or the other, or both, if you want the offered. Politicians, like everyone else, act in their own best interest. It remains unclear how much of a proposed solution is actually in the best interest of the citizenry or our elected representatives.

Beyond philosophical notions of freedom, their are more practical reasons to ask the question. The one-size-fits-all characteristic of government solutions tends to make them fragile, easily disrupted or broken by events not anticipated in the central planning process. Pushing the responsibility down to either local levels or the individual has the additional benefit of broadening the range of possible solutions. Some will succeed, others will fail, but we can learn from all of them. The smaller scale of local solutions means that an ill-conceived idea harms fewer people, and can be more quickly fixed. We become, as a society, more robust.

Most importantly, we learn to trust and respect each other. My solution may not be the same as yours, but if I value the benefits of living in a free society, then I have to give you the space to act on your own logic — as you must similarly grant me. We learn that while we may not be able to solve a global problem by ourselves, we can solve a local piece of it effectively. We become more robust not only in terms of our solutions, but also with respect to our sense of individual and communal competence. We grow our dignity. We believe, bone-deep, that we _can_.

Most Travel is a Waste of Time

by Mark Thayer on April 9, 2018

Travel is overrated, the benefits prone to exaggeration, and largely unnecessary.

To deny the appeal of travel would be futile. The imagined possibilities of travel resonate with many; the explosion of travel blogs and websites is partial proof. Stronger evidence for the attraction of travel can be found in the number of people, mostly younger, who think that if they go somewhere and write a blog post about it, someone will pick up their travel expenses. That they have little experience in either one rarely crosses their minds.

There must be something about travel that is compelling; I have met few who would admit that they did not care for it, did not dream about it, did not long to visit far-away places (the very elderly and physically infirm logically excepted). Everyone has someplace they want to go, even if they can’t fully articulate why they want to go there.

The arguments for travel (really, the arguments to travel _a lot_) are many, but vague. Travel is often recommended to young people at the beginning of their adulthood as a broadening experience. Mark Twain, in “The Innocents Abroad,” wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” There are opportunities to immerse oneself in other cultures, study a foreign language, appreciate both natural splendor and the works of man, and meet people across a broader spectrum of humanity than you might otherwise encounter at home.

To all of which I would say “maybe.”

“Broadening” as a life-changing experience and a benefit of travel, is rarely defined and most often simply assumed. All of these benefits, with the exception of sightseeing, could be realized at home. You can choose to meet people. Culture is defined by what a society or community holds as valuable, and this can be examined, critiqued, and appreciated anywhere. The benefits of travel can be realized at home by anyone willing to experience any place, any people, as if for the first time. The benefits of travel are a function of the attitude of the traveler.

Travel is something you do; it is more interesting to discuss as a verb (implying action) than a noun (implying abstraction). Travel, in our market-based economy, has been reduced to a business — tourism — whose objective too often seems to be not to expose you to the reality of leaving home, of dealing with foreign languages, unfamiliar foods, indecipherable transportation systems, and bartenders who don’t understand what constitutes a good beer, but rather to provide the perception of going and seeing someplace different while never being or doing anything different yourself. At the end of the day, it is much more about separating you from your money, and has little or nothing to do with “broadening.”

As evidence, I point to the popularity of cruise ships.

Authentic travel is the experience of embracing fully other people and your status as a guest amongst those people. This leads to the single, and powerful, benefit: travel leaves you, sooner or later, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Such experiences are a powerful reminder of our common humanity; that we are far more alike than different, and it is possible to speak differently, eat differently, attend to the requirements of daily life differently, and still appreciate that we are largely walking the same path. But this benefit only accrues when you stop being a tourist, get rid of your smartphone, and immerse yourself in the local experience.

Technology only makes this harder. Being dependent on the kindness of strangers could be as simple as asking where one might find a public restroom. As an experiment I pulled out my phone and searched for “public restrooms near me” and skimmed the results. No need to talk to anyone. As the technology becomes more pervasive, the benefits of travel will only be available to those who make a conscious decision to embrace risk and leave their smartphone behind; otherwise, it won’t be travel — it will be existing in a series of locations, by yourself.

Adventure is another assumed benefit of travel; the desire to escape the ordinary, to endure a set of experiences that are not common to everyday life is a powerful attraction to some. Adventure means different things to different people, and a concise, universally applicable definition is difficult and does not add much to the conversation. The same caveats apply. Adventure implies risk, and this is the last thing the tourist industry wants you to experience. Adventure is something you will create for yourself, not purchase from someone else.

There are arguments against travel, but you have to work to find them. There is no money to be made, no magazines to be sold, no blog posts to generate affiliate revenue, as a result of extolling the many and varied pleasures of staying home. Emerson, from his essay “Self Reliance”:

“Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

This is travel as escape. A change of scenery can be therapeutic, but if we can assume that most of our problems are internal, then relocating ourselves will not solve anything. Travel as status-signaling is interesting only to the person attempting to accumulate status; I have no interest in seeing your selfies in front of the usual tourist destinations. For many (the most lucrative target of the tourism industry) travel is little more than doing the same things in different places, and this is not always good for the destinations (I’m looking at you, cruise industry). I’m often amazed at how much travel is packaged as novelty — the experience of the new — but after staring at it for a few minutes, you realize that it’s all the same things you do at home: restaurants, entertainment, alcohol, with a side of pampering and leisure. Hardly broadening.

Most travel, then, is unenlightening and unnecessary, unless we act to make it otherwise.

Travel can be meaningful. A precise definition would take too long but we can get close enough by example. Meaningful travel is that which, on your return, finds you a changed or better person in some way. What did you learn? Did you make any friends (really, not just the people whose job it is to be nice to you)? What did you bring to the table — how are the people you encountered in your travels better for having met you? The bar for any of these questions does not have to be high, but meaningful travel will demand that you be able to answer them in satisfactory fashion.

This requires work. We should think of travel less as vacation or recreation, and more like a pilgrimage: a search or quest of some spiritual or moral significance. Again, expectations do not, and should not be, so high as to preclude any enjoyment of the experience. The idea is that travel is more meaningful when we can fully articulate the reasons for doing so.

We should leave ourselves open to risk. Embrace the possibility that we will be dependent on the kindness of strangers; seek it out. Be more of a participant and less of a spectator, always remembering that you are a guest. Conduct yourself in such a way as to be a blessing to those you meet. It wouldn’t hurt to practice this at home, in your own community, before heading off.

Habits are Leverage

by Mark Thayer on April 9, 2018

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

The self-improvement industry loves this quote. Part of its appeal is that it is continuously and mistakenly attributed to Aristotle. It was written by Will Durant, an historian and philosopher through the mid-twentieth century, in his book ” The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers.” The phrase was a summary of Mr. Durant’s interpretation of Aristotle as found in the Nichomachean Ethics. It is a great example of how the more provocative the thought, the more likely it is to gravitate to more famous origins.

But origin does not necessarily detract from truth. The challenge is to go beyond the soundbite and evaluate, for ourselves, the applicable truth of the contained wisdom.

The first sentence is a definition: something is this. The definition asserts that the quality of our state of being is determined by our actions in the real world. Fair enough.

Doing something once may produce an excellent result, but is not indicative of human excellence — a one-time event may be indistinguishable from luck. Excellence requires repetition and practice over an extended period of time. The time frame is measured in years, often in decades.

It is more accurate to say that we become what we repeatedly practice. There are many things we do repeatedly that do no make us excellent, but excellence requires learning, which requires repetition — like it or not, we learn not by modern educational theories, but by repetition. For all our theory, there is no avoiding this.

The idea of habit — (almost) unconscious, automatic behavior — contributes to practice, repetition, and the development of excellence by eliminating the need (and the required emotional energy) for motivation. There is no need to motivate ourselves; we automatically do. The more we do, the better we become. Habit becomes leverage; it magnifies our energies.

There are subtleties that require our attention. We can repeatedly do things that do not make us excellent. There are behaviors that are large-scale and obviously negative, like alcoholism or criminal behavior. There are less-obvious repetitive behaviors that can be equally damaging, such as Internet and social media addiction, eating poorly or too much, procrastination or wasting time. Evil ends can be pursued just as readily through the force of habit as virtuous ones. This requires that habits, like any other behavior, be evaluated in the context of a moral code.

The behavior encapsulated in a habit may be automatic and somewhat mindless, but excellence requires that the choice of habits to be developed and the formation of their constituent behaviors be made consciously. Think first, then act. We should take this further. Excellence requires continual evaluation of all habits, and the willingness and ability to change those that produce negative results or lead us away from excellence or virtue.

Repetition is a necessary but not sufficient condition for excellence. A habit is repeated behavior, which is (or should be) practice. Effective practice requires sufficient awareness to ensure that how we practice, and what we practice, is actually effective — leading to improvement. Obvious here in the abstract, but subject yourself to an audit of your habits. How much of the component behaviors are effective; consciously chosen based on confident knowledge that repeating such behavior will lead to excellence? How many of your habits are the result of falling into a repeated pattern of behavior, without conscious thought?

Habits are leverage, and can cut both ways.

Our Sense of Community is Dying

by Mark Thayer on April 9, 2018

We have lost our sense of community. In a modern economy where we are only dependent on a source of income and an efficient physical infrastructure, there is no immediate problem. A significant disrupture to either would demonstrate, quickly and painfully, our fragility absent a strong community.

“Community” is difficult to define. Geography was the original determinant, but technology renders this inadequate. Community might be better interpreted as that circle of people with whom we interact on a regular basis. For most, this would mean immediate family — those under the same roof — and those with whom we interact at our jobs. “Interact” is the operative condition, which because of social media and related Internet and communication technologies, forces an extension of the definition to include those with whom we interact only through these media.

But are these extensions really examples of genuine community?

We recently moved away from a wonderful neighborhood after living there for almost five years. Several neighbors became good friends, if “good” means that they will stop to talk if they see you outside, and will accept invitations to dinner or pool party-and-barbecue events. They made it a point to make our lives easier in the transition; when we no longer had a kitchen, dinner invitations were extended and gratefully accepted.

Once our household goods were on their way to our new home, I left the following day. My wife stayed for another week; her employer had asked her to remain for the additional time and there were incentives for her to do so. The additional week would run from mid-week to mid-week, with an intervening weekend. At a dinner get-together just prior to my departure, my wife and our hostess made plans to spend some time on that upcoming Saturday; a pedicure, some wine-tasting, and a drive in the country were on the list. They were excited about a girls’s afternoon together; a last bit of fun before time and distance lowered the odds of enjoying each other’s company.

That Friday afternoon, my wife called her to confirm the agenda for Saturday. Our neighbor declined with a list of unconvincing excuses; the tone of the conversation was as if my wife’s call were an intrusion. Overnight, the friendship was forgotten.

It would easy to let this imagined slight magnify itself beyond necessity. But let’s run with the assumption for the moment.

As my wife told the story, I could hear the disappointment in her voice. She was excited about the move but leaving the neighborhood was bittersweet, and she was looking forward to one last bit of fun with the woman in the neighborhood with whom she was closest. As she described the event, my mind drifted to an observation: we have lived there for almost five years; we have had these people into our home as invited guests on numerous occasions, we have gone out of our way to help them when there was a necessity and we had the ability — and yet, at the end, there is no one in the neighborhood my wife could call simply to raise the possibility of a spontaneous social get-together.

If community is solely defined by whom we spend time with, physically or virtually, then this might be understandable. Most of our neighbors work at a job out of the house, spending only evenings and weekends in their home, and by extension, in the neighborhood. Wakeful non-work time is spent almost entirely with family. Early on we decided that we would prefer to entertain at home rather than go out — local restaurants were too expensive and not really very good — so we extended dinner invitations to our neighbors on an improvised rotating basis. We learned that our behavior was unusual. The neighborhood had a history of block parties, but this was a once-a-year event. Neighborly interaction was limited to catching someone outside while walking the dog, or flagging someone down for a quick chat as they drove by.

This leaves us fragile. Work relationships only last as long as the job, and they are artificial. Few of us behave authentically at work; norms vary but everywhere there are unwritten rules as to what personality characteristics and behaviors are considered desirable. We tamp down any aspect of our personality that might come into conflict with these norms, and everyone around us is doing the same. We are play-acting, so we never really get to know anyone. Add the inevitable organizational competitiveness, and these relationships are weak, at best.

Virtual neighbors — I don’t have a better term for social media contacts, but “friends” is a term I would avoid as grossly inaccurate — are equally lacking. We aren’t our fully authentic selves on social media, and neither is anyone else, and the result is the same — community in name only.

All this is fine, perhaps even preferable, as long as the job is steady, your social media circle behaves with reasonable courtesy, and our modern infrastructure holds up. Disrupt any of these — lose the job, lose your Internet connection, break the chain on continual self-congratulation and validation on social media — and you will find yourself very alone, very quickly. Alone, we are weak.

Imagine a large-scale emergency; the exact details don’t matter. Focus only on the new reality that all of what we take for granted in our modern civilization is no longer there: fuel, water, electricity. Imagine the consequences: the transportation network breaks down, so grocery stores will run out of food in two days. Hospitals will run out of critical medications in as little as twenty-four hours. Depending on where you live and the season, it could get either uncomfortably cold or hot in your house, quickly. If you are not prepared, your immediate priority will be to secure some amount of food, water, and possibly fuel. You might have the help of capable family members, but this capability might be limited. You will need to be at least minimally concerned about your physical safety, as civil order will break down and emergency services will be occupied elsewhere. You can’t do all of this yourself. Your best and most readily available asset is your neighbor, and you don’t know him.

You don’t know if you can trust him. You don’t know what skills he might have that might be complementary to yours. You don’t know if he has the intestinal fortitude to face the reality of the situation, make some hard choices, and take appropriate action, all within the context of maximizing the potential of the neighborhood to weather the crisis. You don’t know if he’s willing to work with you, or if he’s a closet sociopath. And it’s a little late to start that conversation.

Conversely, if you knew your neighbor and he knew you — not that you necessarily had to be best friends, but far enough beyond mere acquaintance to have an accurate assessment of character — you’re vastly more resilient, and in a much better position to turn a survival situation into an inconvenience.

The physical reality of life on this planet has not changed much. The veneer of civilization, and it’s accompanying technology, is thin. Lacking connections to a real, physical, and proximate physical community, we are fragile and vulnerable. Investing in relationships, building a real and local community, makes us robust. The creation of strong local communities requires no special skills, only the ability to recognize the necessity and the willingness to act. The benefits accrue immediately — life is better when our relationships with those physically near are strong and positive. You might get a few more dinner invitations on those nights when you really don’t feel like cooking.