Friday, December 25, 2009

Christ's Special Message

It's Christmas morning and Santa has dropped off lots of trains for the boys. Time for eating candy and desserts for breakfast, listening to carols, and having an entire day to enjoy each other's company and relax.

I'll also take some time to reflect on Christ's message and think about how I may better live up to it. The message is simple, subversive, and radical: instead of hitting each other with sticks, let's love each other.

Even if we are of different families. Even if we are of different countries. Even if you do things I disapprove of. And even if you've done something bad to me.

Let's live in peace.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Joyeux Noel

Joyeux Noel is a wonderful movie about a Christmas truce that occurred on the front-lines in World War I. One would think any movie about WWI would be too dark and depressing for family Christmas viewing, but I think this will be one we rewatch many years. There is not much fighting in the movie (but plenty of suspense, especially on a first watching), and the movie delivers one of the best Christmas messages of any movie ever produced.

Read here for an article about the movie and how it is based on true events.

The soldiers were taught to hate their enemies, but once they made a truce in honor of Christmas and saw each other as actual human beings, they could no longer deal with each other without love. They could no longer kill each other and instead preferred to be subjected to their government's punishments for treason than murder men they shared gifts and companionship with.

Here we see the beauty and righteousness of Christ's commandment to love one's enemies.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stormwatch Continued

I'd like to continue some thoughts from a previous doom and gloom post. I'll present these in question and answer format.

That graph looks scary, but we haven't seen much price inflation since the spike. Is this really such a big deal?

Perhaps not. This spike is clearly unprecedented and so has been cause of much concern, speculation, and debate among economists. But since the money has not made its way into the larger economy (as banks have just held it as reserves), it really has not had much effect on prices. Robert Wenzel makes a good case here that this spike in M1 is not a big deal and to instead just pay attention to M2 (a broader description of money supply). He goes so far as to suggest that the Fed may actually safely withdraw these reserves, which would make the M1 chart "return" to normal.

However, whether or not the M1 spike is contained, it represents a massive bailout of the banking system, which otherwise would have likely collapsed in 2008. Furthermore, this bailout must have its own negative, unintended consequences. Perhaps it will not play out exactly as Murray Rothbard suggested with a hyperinflationary death spiral immediately following the bailout, but these negative consequences are nevertheless likely to be large.

Isn't this talk of hyperinflation silly to begin with? Aren't recessions deflationary by nature?

A "healthy" recession should be deflationary by nature, as the malinvestments of the previous (artificial) boom are exposed, defaults and bankruptcies spread, and credit disappears. However, if these defaults are not allowed to occur, money and credit are not destroyed. Chris Martenson argues here that this is the situation we have now; we "should" be seeing deflation but are not because losses are not being recognized.

In fact, whether inflation or deflation occurs depends on how the Fed and government choose to respond to the crisis. Do they let failures occur and market forces work to liquidate and reallocate capital? Or do they "pretend and extend", bailing out the system and attempt to reinflate the collapsed bubble?

I suspect the answer, in the short-term at least, is "both". That is, the politically connected and "too big to fail" firms (think Goldman Sachs) get bailouts and special benefits. The rest of us get to pay for it and fail if need be. Overall, we might still see some period where prices generally decline, but I believe this period will not last for more than a year or two.

Why are you so sure we will get hyperinflation?

So far I have only discussed the situation in context of the current crisis that is a "bust" from the previous "boom" led by the housing bubble. The bailouts and efforts to stimulate the economy will have great inflationary potential. But this is only part of the problem. The other part, which in my opinion cinches the deal that hyperinflation (or at least mass inflation) will occur is the enormous debt owed by the federal government.

Read Gary North here to get a picture of how the government has promised much more money than it can deliver. That is, there will be two options: default on obligations, or inflate.

For a more in-depth analysis of why there is likely to be hyperinflation, read John Williams report here.

Surely the government understands this and won't let the system collapse?

There is always danger in trying to identify black swan events that could trigger the collapse of the current system. Critics of the government and Fed tend to under-estimate their creativity in responding to crises and extending the system. We often fail to appreciate how they can change their own rules as they see fit (for example, an insolvent FDIC can seize failed banks and gift them to politically favored banks instead of bailing them out). On the other hand, the government cannot "pretend and extend" forever. If there are true systemic imbalances and plans made based on fantasy instead of reality (Social Security), at some point the check comes due. Bad debts will eventually be recognized, and debts that cannot be paid either need to be defaulted upon or inflated away.

How bad will it get?

I stand by my predictions of my first post, and I do believe that conditions will deteriorate in the upcoming years and culminate in the ultimate destruction of the dollar and massive decrease in the standard of living for most Americans.

Of course, keep in mind that I'm just a guy writing on the Internet.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tolstoy's John Galt Speech

I completed Resurrection, which was the last full-length novel of Leo Tolstoy and the only one written after his spiritual crisis. The book's introduction includes these summary remarks:

Resurrection is the great imaginative synthesis of Tolstoyism, gravid with the fruits of a lifetime's agony. 'It is a kind of shrapnel shell of a novel,' declared one contemporary critic. 'The novel is but the containing case. The genius of the author is the explosive force, which scatters its doctrines like the closely packed bullets among the enemy' - the enemy on this occasion being the whole fabric of society, the Law Courts, the prison system and, in particular, the Church.

One certainly gets the sense that the main character, Nekhlyudov, is largely autobiographical. Tolstoy's strength is in his characterization and description, particularly how he can portray the regeneration of spirit in a man. Resurrection is similar to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged in that it is fiction chasing after its author's ideals of life. However, beyond that there is little resemblance between the two: Atlas Shrugged is built around a terrific mystery and turn-paging plot, but with one-dimensional characters making pages of speeches at each other. On the other hand, the story and pacing of Resurrection is only slightly compelling, but the characters are rich and believable. In contrast to the epic 3-hour-long speech of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged (the only part of the book I skimmed through), Tolstoy's main character summarizes the author's driving point in under 2 pages. Here it is (taken from pages 449-451):

'This is what it comes to,' thought Nekhlyudov, 'these people accept as a law something which is not a law, and they do not acknowledge the eternal, immutable, pressing law that God Himself has written in man's heart. That is why I feel so depressed in their company,' thought Nekhlyudov. 'I am quite simply afraid of them. And indeed, they are terrible people - more terrible than brigands. A brigand might, after all, feel pity, but not these men: they are insured against pity as these stones are from vegetation. That is what makes them so terrible. They say Pugachev and Razin were terrible. These men are a thousand times worse. Suppose a problem in psychology were set to find means of making people of our time - Christians, humane, simple, kindly people - commit the most horrible crimes without having any feeling of guilt, only one solution would present itself: to do precisely what is being done now, namely, to make them governors, inspectors, officers, policemen and so forth; which means, first that they must be convinced that there is a thing called government service which allows men to treat other men like inanimate objects, thereby banning all human brotherly relations with them; and secondly, that the people entering this "government service" must be so conjoined that the responsibility for the results of their treatment of people can never fall on any one of them individually. Without these conditions it would be impossible in our times to commit such atrocious deeds as those I have seen today. The whole trouble is that people think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love, but no circumstances ever exist. Inanimate objects may be dealt with without love: we may fell trees, bake bricks, hammer iron without love. But human beings cannot be handled without love, any more than bees can be handled without care. That is the nature of bees. If you handle bees carelessly you will harm the bees and yourself as well. And so it is with people. And it cannot be otherwise, because mutual love is the fundamental law of human life. It is true that a man cannot force himself to love in the way he can force himself to work, but it does not follow from this that men may be treated without love, especially if something is required from them. If you feel no love - leave people alone,' thought Nekhlyudov, addressing himself. 'Occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men. Just as one can eat without harm and profitably only when one is hungry, so one can usefully and without injury deal with men only when one loves them. But once a man allows himself to treat men unlovingly, as I have treated my brother-in-law yesterday, and there are no limits to the cruelty and brutality he may inflict on others - as I saw this morning - and no limits to the suffering he may bring on himself, as the whole of my life proves. Yes, yes, it is so,' thought Nekhlyudov. 'It is true, it is right,' he repeated to himself again and again, enjoying the two-fold delight of refreshing coolness after the torturing heat and the assurance of having arrived at the clearest possible understanding of a problem that had occupied him for a long time.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Stormwatch

We'll wait in stone circles
'til the force comes through ---
lines joint in faint discord
and the stormwatch brews

- Jethro Tull (Dun Ringill)

Occasionally I get caught up in thinking about the ongoing Depression 2.0. Given the magnitude of how this may well play out, all else can seem trivial. Today I have the luxury of philosophizing about ethical strategies for eating meat; in a few years obtaining any food at any price might be my overwhelming concern.

I believe the primary root cause of this crisis is the Federal Reserve System of money and banking that was created in order to serve government spending and banking profits. The nature of centralized fractional reserve banking is that boom and bust cycles are an inevitability as well as massive inflation (see here for full size):

This graph shows a roughly exponential increase in the supply of money. The funny thing about exponential functions is that they all look alike as long as you adjust the scale on the horizontal axis. Also, you can zoom in on the graph a bit and things look relatively stable: just a year-over-year increase of a few percent. But zoom out a bit, and it looks like a near-vertical spike. With that in mind and given the exponential nature of this graph, you could argue that we have been in hyperinflation since the last vestiges of the metal standard were removed in 1971!

I believe we are entering the end-game of this system. The system has seen a series of crises over the years. With each crisis, the government can respond by letting the system (or part of the system) fail and letting market forces realign resources, or by bailing out the system. With each bailout, the economy becomes more centralized and the potential for a larger crisis down the road becomes increased. Murray Rothbard presciently saw one scenario for how the system could fail:

At some point in the possibly near future, perhaps in the next recession and the next spate of bad bank loans, it might dawn upon the public that 1.5 percent is not very safe either, and that no such level can guard against the irresistible holocaust of the bank run. At that point, ignoring the usual mendacious assurances and soothing-syrup of the Establishment, the commercial banks might be plunged into their ultimate crisis. The United States authorities would then be faced with two stark choices. One would be to allow the entire banking system to collapse, along with virtually all the deposits and depositors in that system. Since, given the mind-set of American politicians, and their evident philosophy of "too big to fail," it is certain that they would be forced to embrace the second alternative: massive, hyper-inflationary printing of enough cash to pay off all the bank liabilities. The redeposit of such cash in the banking system would bring about an immediate runaway inflation and a massive flight from the dollar.

Such a future scenario, once seemingly unthinkable, is now definitely on the horizon. Perhaps realization of this plight will lead to increased interest, not only in gold, but also in a 100 percent banking system grounded upon a revalued gold stock.

Here's the kicker: the scenario above occurred last year! The great housing bubble of the last decade fueled the spate of bad loans, and last Fall the entire financial system was on the brink of default and utter collapse. The bailout is the spike on the right of the graph above. That plot just shows currency in circulation. Here is the plot when you include money stock held in banks (see here for full size):

So given the above, why haven't we seen runaway hyper-inflation and the complete destruction of the dollar? What Rothbard didn't foresee was the new "tools" the Fed is using, and in particular the fact that the Federal Reserve is paying interest on this money and as a result it is not being lent out as Rothbard expected it would be.

Nevertheless, the solution to one crisis sows the seeds for the next crisis. Will the next one be "the big one" that results in the final death spiral of the dollar? Maybe, but probably not. While history will judge the fall of America as happening practically overnight, in real-time it takes years, not days. However, I do expect that the time between crises will continue to decrease while their potential for total systemic failure increases until we see the complete destruction of the dollar. I used to think this would occur "some time in my lifetime" but not until 2030 or so. I now expect this will play out within the next five to ten years.

Here's what to expect:

  • Total collapse of Social Security and government entitlement programs
  • Destruction of the dollar, including all savings held in dollars
  • The end of cheap imports, especially from China
  • Governments worldwide to either default or engage in currency destruction
  • Massive unemployment
  • Civil unrest

The America of yesterday is gone forever. What will be in its place? The optimistic scenario is the collapse of the federal government, re-emergence of commodity money, and decentralized political systems. The pessimistic scenario is a totalitarian state with a new fiat currency, diversionary wars, and bread lines.

For now, I'll store a few acorns for the coming winter and continue the stormwatch.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Anesthetized War and Institutionalized Violence

The original Star Trek series specialized in allegory and moralizing. One of my favorites from the first season is A Taste Of Armageddon, where the crew finds a world executing a peculiar style of war. The wikipedia summary is:

On Eminiar VII, the Enterprise finds a civilization at war with its planetary neighbor. Unable to discern any signs of battle from orbit, Captain Kirk leads a landing party to the surface where he discovers the entire war is fought by computer. Even though the war is simulated, citizens who are listed as virtual casualties still report to termination booths to be killed for real. After the Enterpriseis destroyed in an attack simulation, Kirk must fight to keep his crew from death.

Here is the episode trailer (you can also watch the full episode at youtube):

Captain Kirk is horrified that a society would execute war in such an anesthetized way and that people would willingly report to termination booths. Kirk would argue that war ought to be ugly, painful, and devastating so that we realize its full costs and make efforts to avoid it.

I like the message of this episode. However, I would extend it even further than its writers would likely have intended. I share Kirk's horrors but not just with the institutionalized system of war he finds; I experience this same horror (from time to time) with the institutionalized violence of government itself.

In particular, I find the idea of a justice system, where we institute a cold, legalistic process for judging men and doling out punishments similar to that fictional war system. In both cases, violence is institutionalized in an attempt to do away with its negative effects, but in fact the system only serves to propagate violence further. We make violence clean, dress it up with rituals and icons, and tuck it away as out of sight as possible. The horror is that men view these systems as good and willingly participate in them.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Invite the Government and You Share Responsibility for its Actions

I recommend the Amish America blog for those interested in learning about the Amish and the issues they face. A recent entry regarding the case of Amish bishops failing to report a child abuser to the police, however, is one I must take issue with. In particular, I disagree with the blogger's assertion that "clearly there is no moral question that abuse of any kind is a criminal matter, and not one meant to be handled within the bounds of a local Ordnung."

It is saddening to think of a parent sexually abusing his children. The weakness and vulnerability of a child relative to his or her parent makes such sexual abuse particularly egregious and sad, and I agree that people who are close to the situation have a responsibility to address it as best they can.

However, I do not agree that addressing the situation necessarily means reporting the abuser to the government. Once reported to the government, the abuser will be submitted to a court and law enforcement system. This system is one in which the Amish refuse to participate in as judgers or law enforcers. Why should the Amish willingly turn people over into a system they refuse, on moral grounds, to participate in?

Before you ever call the police to report a law-breaker, you ought to think about the consequences of that call. By inviting the government to resolve the situation, you become partially responsible for its actions. The government does not operate through persuasion but through force. If the use of force in that situation is not one you would morally accept, then you ought not to invoke the government.

Even if you do accept the use of force in a situation, you ought to be careful when invoking the government. For example, I would not argue if you believe that a man who sexually abuses his children should likely face a harsher response than shunning. But yet you do not control the government, and its law enforcers or judges might not act as you would expect or wish. Are you prepared for the government law enforcers to escalate the situation and use lethal force if challenged? Are you prepared for a man to be locked in a cage for an indefinite amount of time? Are you prepared for the government to break up a family? These are all possibilities when you invite the government into a situation.

Sad, unexpected events may occur when you choose to escalate a situation with force through the government. Think very carefully before you do so, as you become morally complicit in how the government resolves the situation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Illusion of Separateness

It seems to me that the cause of much moral and spiritual malaise is succumbing to the illusion of separateness. This illusion is that there exists a you that is a completely separate entity from everything else. Given this illusion, you view yourself as identical with your body, or at least with some parts of your body. You would then see your interaction with anything not-you as purely physical. That is, you receive input signals from the five bodily senses, you process them in your brain, and you respond by moving your body in some way.

The illusion of separateness arises from an abstraction that is made of the world that is useful for some purposes but should not be mistaken as the complete reality. This abstraction is that the world is comprised of completely separate objects (of which each person is one), and that they can only relate to each other through external, physical means. This abstraction seems to make a lot of sense to our experience. We look around us and see other objects, each with attributes. Meanwhile, the success of the physical sciences seems to confirm this view of reality.

However, while the abstraction of separateness works well in some areas, it fails in others. It cannot account for consciousness or even experience. It provides no guidance on moral questions and has nothing to say about the meaning of existence. These shortcomings are fine as long as we understand that the abstraction of separateness is useful for some things but not others. It's good at predicting where a ball I throw will land; it's not so good at answering why I should act well toward other people. It is when this abstraction is mistaken for a complete description of reality that we succumb to the illusion of separateness.

Given this illusion, there would seem to be no meaning to existence possible. Experience and consciousness remain mysteries, or even explained away as illusions themselves. The only justifications found for moral action are empty, utilitarian ones.

The illusion of separateness even affects many people who are religious. But for them, the idea of a God must be that of an external Being, and usually one that relates to them in an authoritarian manner, providing external rewards and punishments for good or bad behavior.

What sort of purpose in life can there be if the illusion of separateness is true?

An alternative exists to the illusion of separateness. It is to understand that the elements of reality are not vacuous things but rather lively experiences. Furthermore, each experience is a process of being influenced by other experiences, actualizing (i.e. combining these influences with an element of self-determination), and then subsequently becoming an influence in other experiences. However, one can think of the nature of this influence as actually becoming a part of, or ingression.

This shift in understanding of the world enables one to see past the illusion of separateness. The world is seen not as a pile of dead objects but as a rich web of experiences. Each experience ingresses upon all others in varying ways but also retains a degree of self-identity and self-determination.

There are many ways to describe this insight, that reality is defined by life that is all united in some way. Some people describe it by saying that we are all part of God. Others describe it by saying that the spirit of God is in everything. Some people may even discard the concept of God altogether and describe it in yet other terms (perhaps focusing on the Now, or present moment). And yet other people may just feel the truth of this insight without trying to formulate it in words.

The power of this insight with respect to moral and spiritual questions is two-fold. First, it washes away the misleading illusions that would obscure answers, or even the possibility of answers, to these questions. Secondly, this insight helps reveal the answers, but not by providing logical axioms to derive subsequent truth in words, but instead by pointing at the experience we all have that must ultimately serve as the basis of that truth. It is in that transcendent experience that we must ultimately find these answers.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tolstoy on the Hypocrisy of Church

The following passage strikingly reveals the abominable nature of Church worship. It is lifted from Resurrection, the last long novel Tolstoy wrote after his religious awakening. While this passage refers to a service performed in a prison and refers to acts performed in the prison, much of it applies equally well to most churches.

Here is the passage:

And to not one of those present, from the priest and the superintendent down to Maslova, did it occur that this Jesus Whose name the priest repeated in wheezy tones such an endless number of times, praising Him with outlandish words, had expressly forbidden everything that was being done there; that He had not only prohibited the senseless chatter and the blasphemous incantation over the bread and wine but had also, in the most emphatic manner, forbidden men to call other men their master or to pray in temples, and had commanded each to pray in solitude; had forbidden temples themselves, saying that He came to destroy them and that one should not worship in temples but in spirit and in truth; and above everything else He had forbidden not only sitting in judgement on people and imprisoning, humiliating, torturing, and executing them, as was done here, but had prohibited any kind of violence, saying that He came to set at liberty those who were captive.

It did not occur to any one of those present that everything that was going on there was the greatest blasphemy, and a mockery of the same Christ in Whose name it was all being done. No one seemed to realize that the gilt cross with the enamel medallions at the ends, which the priest held out to the people to kiss, was nothing else but the emblem of the gallows on which Christ had been executed for denouncing the very things now being performed here in His name. It did not occur to anyone that the priests, who imagined they were eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, were indeed eating His body and drinking His blood - but not in little bits of bread and in the wine, but first by misleading 'those little ones' with whom Christ identified Himself and then by depriving them of their greatest blessing and subjecting them to the most cruel torments, by concealing for them the good things that He had brought them.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Question About Your Meat

At the supermarket you are presented with an array of nice, clean-looking meats. However, the shopping experience is completely divorced from the production process of these meats. Of course we are vaguely aware that meat is produced from the slaughter of animals, but the details of how those animals are raised, fed, and killed are abstracted away. Even the butchering of the meat is usually performed in a back-room that is out of sight from the shopper.

The result is that few people make any connection between the purchase of a small cutlet at the store and the ethical questions surrounding the process of how that cutlet came to be. It is similar to how few people make any connection between their support of government and the evil that results from government.

I am not a vegetarian, and I am not going to ask you to become one. I would ask only that you consider this question, of what processes and practices you support through your purchases. Have you been to a production farm or at least seen documentation of one? Are the practices performed there ones you agree with and would be (morally) willing to perform yourself?

When I ask these questions of myself, I find that I would not be morally willing to treat animals the way they are treated at production farms. If I would not treat them that way, why should I pay others to do so? The evil that results is the same, whether I do it myself or support others in doing so.

As a result, I have begun eating less meat. I used to eat a sandwich with cold cuts in it every day for lunch, but a month ago I switched to a lettuce / tomato /mayonaisse sandwich, with a side of cashew nuts. I've found this lunch to be not only guilt-free, but also tastier, more healthful, and it leaves me feeling physically better in the afternoon than those slabs of salami and turkey did.

I still eat some meat. When we buy it, I am encouraging my household to purchase it from Whole Foods. Eventually I would like to buy it more directly from farms so I can point out into a field and tell my sons: that is where our food comes from, and this is how it comes to our plates.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Revealing the True Nature of Government

The decision to enforce a law is necessarily also a decision to use the threat of force on someone. Even more significantly, it is also a decision to escalate the use of force if resistance is met. As a result, the most minor infraction can result in severe punishment, and even death, if one persistently resists. We all know this instinctively when we see those blue lights flashing behind us, and we pull over to put ourselves at the mercy of a government law enforcer.

The greatest illusion that pro-government people wish to maintain is that the government is a voluntary endeavor we all enter into. This is why non-violent resistance is so damaging to them; it makes explicit the true violent nature of government. Witness the following video of a Keene, NH man sentenced to sit in a cage for half a year:

His original "crime" was apparently a minor traffic violation (running a stop sign).

I feel sad watching this video. I also admire Kurt for his strength in standing up for himself, and I hope many people see this video.

I know many people will respond to this video by dismissing Kurt's actions as "stupid". Surely he knew the consequences of even the meager resistance he was displaying (trying to have an actual conversation with the judge). This type of blame-the-victim response strikes me as similar to the government law enforcer's (at 3:57) when Kurt complains that he is being put in pain. He says "No, you're putting yourself in pain."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pacifism on the Road

You click a radio preset to test what the morning zoo show will be discussing during this commute. Maybe I'll pop in a CD instead, you think, but then realize (as you do so many mornings) that you've listened to these CDs too many times and keep forgetting to rotate them out. You notice some movement in your rearview and watch a Ford Explorer rush up behind you and nearly bump your car. Instead of pulling off, it keeps its close proximity, as if its driver wants to tunnel through your car. You alternate looking at the road ahead and glancing at the rearview toward the Explorer. With each glance, its headlights appear brighter. Finally, there is a straightaway and the Explorer weaves into the opposite lane to blow past you.


You can probably relate to the experience above. If it's not someone tailgating you, it's someone cutting you off, or not properly yielding to you, or perhaps not letting you merge. There are lots of opportunities to feel wronged and aggrieved on the road.

For me, these situations would induce a rush of negative feelings and sometimes even lead to dangerous retaliatory actions. Eventually I knew I had to re-evaluate my approach to driving. I had to reject the negative feelings and their justifications. Further, I realized that some of the same feelings and rationalizations that fed my responses were the same ones that lead people to justify the evil of government. In particular, there were three psychological obstacles I had to overcome before I could "let go" of road justice and instead adopt road pacifism:

1. Desire for revenge

This was the most base response of mine; the desire to pay back evil with more evil. If another driver caused me anxiety or stress, I wanted to inflict that same suffering back onto him. But the primary effect of this desire was to cause more suffering for myself! If I did not act upon my desire and instead let the other driver "get away" with it, then I would stew in loathing and frustration. But acting upon my desire would only serve to escalate the situation and perhaps even endanger myself and others.

I realized my responses were unhealthy and harmful after one incident where I tailgated a car that had just been tailgating me. I was glad to be causing the driver anxiety and stress, just as he had caused me the same a few minutes before. Now he was in the same situation I had been in, only the situation was escalated with more tension. His response was to hit his brakes, and I almost bumped into him. After counting my blessings that no accident had occurred, I understood that my desires for revenge on the road only caused suffering.

2. Justification of punishment

The desire for revenge was an emotional response to situations on the roads where I felt wronged, and it was the strongest influence that I had to overcome on my way to a more peaceful driving practice. But there is also a more intellectual counterpart to the base desire for revenge, and that is the justification of punishment. That is, once I could suppress the emotional response that I knew was unhealthy, I was still left with the thought that enforcement of rules and punishment were necessary. After all, there have to be some rules to dictate how to behave on the road, and we all had to follow them.

But this line of thinking can only lead to support of institutionalized violence. Once you start drawing arbitrary lines to justify force, you immediately justify an imaginary government that enforces your lines. And so even if I had no desire to personally "get back" at a driver, I nevertheless would approve of (and hope for) a policeman punishing him accordingly. If there was no policeman around, I took some solace in the fact that eventually he would be pulled over for a similar infraction and be punished.

It did not take me long to realize the great contradiction in my position, which was that the people who were the worst drivers on the road, who caused me more anxiety and stress than anyone else, were the police themselves!

Aside from the issue that no one can police the police, there are lots of problems with the intellectual justification of punishment. I will highlight one here that is especially relevant to driving. This is that this justification anesthetizes one to the pain caused to others. Whereas the desire for revenge makes one wish to cause pain to someone else, the justification of punishment makes one unsympathetic to pain caused to others. It was, after all, "what they deserved." Ultimately, this coldness and lack of compassion struck me as potentially more dangerous than the desire for revenge.

3. Thinking in terms of external rewards or punishment

Even after intellectually accepting that the desire for revenge only caused suffering, and that I could not justify punishment, there was one niggling issue that prevented me from accepting road pacifism. This was the more existential moral quandary of why we should do good for others instead of evil. Or more relevantly with respect to driving: why not drive like a jerk if it gets you what you want? Shouldn't there be some ill consequences for driving like a jerk?

But these questions rely on a sort of materialist way of thinking, where we think of good and evil as external things that happen to us. If we see someone drive like a jerk and get away with it, we think that something good happened to him because he met his goals without any ill effects to him. It's similar to that old childish question: why do bad things happen to good people?

I believe that the solution to these questions is to recognize that ultimately doing good can only be its own reward; doing evil its own punishment. Even if an evil-doer seems to live a plentiful life and reach his apparent goals, he has chosen the wrong goals and at the very least missed an opportunity to live a more fulfilling and happy life. Happiness can be obtained by anyone and has to do not with external wealth or conditions but with how one chooses to live.

Once I overcame this final obstacle, I could internalize what I knew to be right, which is that I should never respond to other drivers with anger and should not even hope that they are punished for bad deeds. Rather, I ought to pity them for what I know their frame of mind must be, and when faced with a dangerous situation on the road I respond by doing what I think is best for everyone's safety and well-being, even if it means letting other drivers "win".

I am not a perfect driver and occasionally I may still succumb to anger and frustration, but overall after having undergone this process I can say with certainty that my driving experience is more fulfilling, and it is one area where adopting pacifism has both spiritually and materially improved my life. Perhaps it seems like a trivial area to say such a strong statement, but if using peace and compassion can have such an effect in this area, I think of the power it can have in other areas.

Friday, September 18, 2009

In Defense of 9/11 Truthers

I don't know what exact role the federal government played in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, I do reject the official "fairy tale" version that goes like this: radical Islamic terrorists planned and carried out the attacks because they hate freedom. I suspect that at least a near-majority of people also reject this explanation of the attacks and subscribe to some form of "conspiracy theory". A conspiracy theory here is an explanation that assigns a non-innocent role to the federal government. There are of course multiple theories, and you could think of them as forming a loose continuum based on the extent and nefariousness of the government's role. Here are a few points on that continuum:

conspiracy of explanation

This is essentially the Ron Paul position, which does not question the official account of what occurred on 9/11 but disagrees over the causes. That is, the attacks are explained as blowback from years of inappropriate U.S. intervention and foreign meddling.

conspiracy of incompetence

This theory does not question that radical Islamic terrorists carried out the attacks but instead claims that the government has covered up its own incompetence regarding the events that occurred on 9/11. That is, proponents of this theory believe the attacks could have been prevented, either through better intelligence or better response on the day of the attacks.

conspiracy of weak complicity

The two explanations above do not assign a nefarious role to the government in the attacks themselves but instead view the role of government in the attacks as instigator or incompetent enabler (or perhaps both, since the explanations are not mutually exclusive). The explanation of weak complicity is that a "criminal element" within the government assisted the Islamic terrorists or else directly executed the attacks. Within weak complicity, "weak weak complicity" would be that some people within the government knew with certainty of the attack plans and knowingly did nothing to prevent them (as opposed to just being too incompetent to properly respond). In any case, the "weak complicity" explanation does not accuse high-ranking public officials of direct involvement.

conspiracy of strong complicity

The explanation that assigns the largest government role in the attack is that it was orchestrated by Bush administration officials, perhaps even with input or approval by the vice president or president. In short, "Dick Cheney took down the towers."

While I believe the government played a non-innocent role in the attacks, I don't really have a position as to the extent of that role. Any of the explanations above seem feasible to me, and I have never researched the details of each position enough to favor one. Ultimately, it is not even important to me which exact theory is closest to the reality of the events, because it would not change my view of the government in the least. Even if the conspiracy of strong complicity is not right, the important point is that it could be right. As the primary manifestation of man's desire to use force on his neighbor to get what he wants, government is capable of the greatest evils and atrocities we know. Just look at what government does in plain sight! Millions of people who have harmed no one sit in cages. Many millions more are prevented from living a better life for fear of what the government would do to them should they break its laws. Wars are executed halfway around the globe in countries most people know almost nothing about, and for reasons few understand.

I might disagree with arguments or emphases of some 9/11 Truthers, but I would not ever dismiss or belittle the general idea that the federal government could have had a role in such a brazenly evil act. The people who would want to belittle this idea are really belittling the idea that government is capable of evil. The idea that we should dismiss a possible government role out-of-hand is more dangerous and ridiculous than the position that Dick Cheney personally oversaw the planting of explosives in the towers.

Don't let pro-government people intimate dissenters who put forth a position that government is capable of evil. We know from the daily functions that government carries out that it is. If you are met with incredulity, you can even point to historical proof that the United States government is not above planning brazen terrorist attacks on Americans in order to provoke war. Read about it on wikipedia here:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why Pacifism

What “I am” depends largely on who is asking me and the context of the conversation. Sometimes I am an anarchist, sometimes a pacifist, sometimes a libertarian, and sometimes a Tolstoyan Christian. Sometimes I am even a Ron Paul Republican. These may seem highly disparate labels, but I hope there is one common thread in each: advocacy of peace and non-violence; opposition to war and government.

The exact term I use in any particular conversation would depend on the topic and who I am talking to. To most pro-government people debating national policy, Ron Paul’s position of ending foreign wars and dismantling most of the federal government might as well be one of an anarchist, so there is no point in bringing up subtleties of position at the risk of visceral reactions. On the other hand, a debate among libertarians would tend to focus on what laws are just or what the maximum scope of government should be, and then there may be more to gain from distinguishing between a libertarian and an anarchist. In general, if I want to effectively communicate my attachment to non-violence, I must put it forward in a position that meets people where they are. The important seed to plant in all cases is this: perhaps I should not seek to solve problems through use of force.

The label that jumps right to this conclusion is “pacifist”. Unfortunately, this label may be even more loaded than “anarchist”. It seems that “pacifist” is used almost overwhelmingly as a pejorative term, when one wants to accuse another of appeasing some evil-doer. Another problem I have with the term is that for most people it emphasizes the least important positions or scale of positions. On one hand, mention of being a pacifist seems to invite a cascade of what-would-you-do questions, like: what if someone attacks you? Or: what if someone is raping your wife? On the other hand, some people don’t interpret pacifism on such a personal level but instead on the opposite scale of human interaction, government relations. To them, pacifism means nothing more than the foreign policy of Switzerland. Their challenges would be more like: what about Hitler?

Labels are abstractions, and as a result they must leave out details and can never be perfect. Given the challenges of the term, however, I still suppose “pacifist” to be the best abstraction of my beliefs. This term means for me a radically different approach to moral and ethical issues than is otherwise common, even by most anarchists and libertarians. It seems to me that the misguided approach is to seek to divide all possible actions into hard categories: “good” or “bad” for moral questions, and “proper” or “improper” for ethical questions. We try to derive the “just” outcome for any scenario, as if any interaction can be approached dispassionately and judged according to some objective laws that have been formerly derived.

I disagree with this approach. I believe the alternative approach, embodied by pacifism, is this:

Do not seek justice but rather love and compassion.

This statement forms the core of my beliefs, though I would not be so attached to these particular words or sequence thereof to say it is the best statement or not open to semantic quibbling (as all statements must be).

I also do not wish to make this statement some sort of axiom from which to derive correct actions or subsequent moral laws. That would be to miss the point entirely, which is to say that the whole approach of deriving just laws is flawed and that instead we might rely on more spiritual, personal, and religious guidance in deciding what we are to do.

The desire to replace justice with love means that one builds voluntary relationships based on cooperation and mutual benefit, rather than relationships based on coercion and force. It means that one tries to serve others without demanding anything in return and without ever feeling that one is owed anything. It means that one does not seek to build great material wealth, and that one should not prepare to violently defend the wealth one possesses.

The desire to replace justice with love also means rejecting, through non-cooperation and non-violent resistance, all human institutions of government and law that enforce their decrees through violence. It means rejecting any institution that would systematize the use of force.

In any case, this is what being a pacifist means to me and are some of the ideals I strive toward.

I am far from perfect with practicing pacifism. I become angry and have bad thoughts. I pay an uncomfortable amount of tax money to governments. I can wish ill upon my enemies. I am sure there are situations where I might be moved to act violently. However, I view practicing pacifism as a process of self-improvement. For me, this requires constant meditation and self-awareness. I might not always know the way, but sometimes I at least see the next step.