The Mundane and the Mystical

I chose to believe that everything, all of it, including the stone, all of it, everything, was done on purpose. It’s the idea that all of those things, all the volcanoes, all the billions of years, all the machinations of the market, all those things, were made especially for me, right there in that moment, so that I could experience the joy of appreciating just how beautiful it all is. They were made for you too.

Those who know me, know that I was a Catholic seminarian after high school. Those who know me well, know just how deeply religious I used to be. I would often skip class to pray the rosary,  I would pray in front of the tabernacle long into the night, and I served the morning Mass everyday of my life for more than a decade. I was super into it.

I’m no longer into it in that way. Seminary was…an eye opening experience for me, and the many experiences that followed my expulsion were similarly eye opening. But, when I meet someone from those days, one question always follows. “What’s your spiritual life like now?” I get asked this question a lot. I’m grateful for the question, because it forces me to examine these things more concretely. So, what is my spiritual life like now?

I do marble and tile work. The other day, I was installing a piece of pink Ozark granite in a customer’s home when I was struck by how magnificent the stone was. It was really very pretty, and had been expertly polished. the customer should have put it outside so the neighbors could look at it too. But I was struck particularly by two aspects of the stone: the mundane and the mystical.

I use “mundane” here not in the sense that it is ordinary, but in the sense that it is material- “mundus”. I also don’t mean to imply that its mundane aspect is not beautiful. In fact, the journey that delivered that stone to me is very beautiful. People quarried that stone and placed it for sale, where it was then purchased by a stone shop who cut and polished it. Then it was purchased by a customer and finally given to me to install. That would be wondrous enough, but consider everything else along that supply chain that produced that beautiful stone. The people at the quarry used shovels. Those shovels have handles that were milled from timber cut by someone else perhaps a whole world away. The shovels had heads that were similarly extruded, refined, and shaped by unknown people in unknown quantity, working in tandem with each other while being thousands of miles apart.

The same can be said for every person along that chain, from the people driving the trucks that delivered the shovels to the store where the shovels were bought by someone who supplied a group of quarry workers, to the people who grew the food that filled the lunchbox of the truck driver who delivered the shovels to the store that sold them to someone who supplied a group a quarry workers. You could spiral endlessly in considerations of how complex the chain really is. And we haven’t even cut the stone yet. Whats more, all of this, the whole totality of the market interactions that delivered the stone to me, was all done by people with no knowledge of the whole. They were preforming a particular function which fit, perfectly, into a larger system. All of those people are similarly part of other supply chains delivering other goods. None of this process was ordered from above. There was no Tzar in charge of granite slab production from quarry to counter- nor anyone else in charge of all the other things that came together to create that system. It all just kind of…happened.

The mystical component of that stone is equally impactful, at least to me. We can think of the stone as merely a slab of rock that will be (expertly) glued down to a counter-top, but you can also look at that same stone as a tangible piece of a mystical world. The stone came from the Ozark mountain range here in southern Missouri. The Ozarks are a chain of extinct volcanoes that were born about 2.5 bIlLiOn years ago. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly a billion and a half years before plants. It was plants that pumped oxygen into the atmosphere, and it is oxygen which gives the sky its color. (Light refracts off of the mixture of oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere and that refraction appears blue in direct sun.)

As the volcanoes went dormant and then extinct, about 600 million years ago, give or take a few hundred million years, and the magma beneath the surface cooled and condensed, forming granite. So while it was true that I was looking a mundane slab of granite, it was also true that I was looking at the frozen heart of a volcano, a heart which last beat at a time before the sky was blue. Its like something out of Tolkien!

When it comes to “meaning” we’re each on our own. There are lots of different ways to look at the world; lots of different paradigms. Some can make you feel bad (like the Marxists, those people must feel very downtrodden with how horrible they perceive everything all the time), and some can make you feel wonderful. When it comes to deciphering meaning from all of this, I chose to believe that everything, all of it, including the stone, all of it, everything, was done on purpose. It’s the idea that all of those things, all the volcanoes, all the billions of years, all the machinations of the market, all those things, were made especially for me, right there in that moment, so that I could experience the joy of appreciating just how beautiful it all is. They were made for you too.

This is all completely arbitrary, yes. We’re all sort of meat-robots trying to make sense of everything, and everything is about as arbitrary as what’s written above. But, for me, seeing the world as purposeful and beautiful, that the purpose of the world is so that you can see how complex and wonderful it is, is a pretty good way of looking at things. It makes me excited. It makes me ravenous to know things and to see things and that’s not a bad place to find oneself.

Anyway, I’m super into it.

Sittin’ on the dock of the bay, wastin’ time.

It struck me that while the bridge is a really impressive project of civil engineering, the emergent order that made the building of the bridge possible in the first place is the real wonder here.

I’m in San Francisco right now in the middle of a three week roadtrip. More on that some other time, but this morning as I was drinking my covfefe and staring at the bridge, I began to think on the complicated and elaborate process by which that hunk of metal was constructed. As impressive as the construction of the Golden Gate is, what seems even more impressive to me is the emergent order that existed around the building of the bridge.

The way I figure it, there are four types of activity. There are things that I do myself, such as mow the lawn or brush my teeth. There are things that other people do, such as cutting my hair or bailing on roadtrips. There are things that happen in the environment, like rain or fog. Then there is what Hayekians call the “emergent order”. Simply, the emergent order is the appearance of orderly systems out of unplanned group activity. For example, the baker bakes bread every morning, but he doesn’t grow the wheat or design and build his own ovens. Neither does any other baker, but they are all part of a logical system of organised panning that has arisen without the need for a central planner deciding who gets what flour or how many eggs. It just…happens. As if, as Adam Smith puts it, an “invisible hand” guides the entire process.

That bridge is a monumental achievement of engineering but also blood, sweat, and tears. But, the bridge itself is only part of the story. Consider the amount of labor and capital it takes to mine the steel that goes into the bridge or the amount of effort it takes to organise the trucks that carried everything to the job site. Even consider how ultimately complicated the chain of events was to put a sandwich in the lunch boxes of the workers. It was millions and millions of people working in harmony with each other, each pursuing their own ends but somehow, almost mystically, working in concert with each other in such an efficient way that the Golden Gate was able to be constructed without the designers of the bridge having to grow the food to feed the workers or invent trucks to carry the materials.

This emergent order seems planned, almost as if it was created by design, but the fact is that this process is ultimately extremely chaotic. And yet, despite the chaos of this remarkably complex chain of allocation, resources can be readily supplied to virtually anyone who needs them- cheaply and efficiently.

It struck me that while the bridge is a really impressive project of civil engineering, the emergent order that made the building of the bridge possible in the first place is the real wonder here. Everything from the steel workers, to the builders, to the designers and engineers, to the waitresses that served the workers their morning covfefe, what great things we accomplish when we allow the natural and organic process of the market to guide our decision making.

“Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair.”

Where We Can Work with Trump

You’d think we’d be used to sleeping with the enemy by now, but even though there are several issues that can bring us on board the Trump Train, many of us feel a natural revulsion to racist, misogynistic, and nationalistic rhetoric. But let me make an argument to you: we can work with this guy.

As a good friend pointed out to me recently, we libertarians have to really take what we can get when it comes to federal politics. Gary Johnson’s lack luster performance during the last election means that over the next four years at least, we libertarians are going to have to make some strange ideological bedfellows. You’d think we’d be used to sleeping with the enemy by now, but even though there are several issues that can bring us on board the Trump Train, many of us feel a natural revulsion to racist, misogynistic, and nationalistic rhetoric. But let me make an argument to you: we can work with this guy.

Yesterday the President met with 12 of the nation’s most powerful CEO’s (including Elon Musk and Marillyn Hewson) to discuss his vision for the American economy. The whole opening speech he gives is worth a listen, but I’d like to zero in a several key points. First, I think it should be mentioned that meeting with corporations in this way smacks of corporate Fascism, but perhaps it’s not such a maniacal move. Many of these companies are more powerful than some nations, and so it makes sense in that context to meet with these CEO’s as the President might meet with foreign dignitaries.

There are two things the President said that really stroke my Capitalism boner. First he said that we are going to “cut taxes massively”. Of course libertarians jump at the opportunity to cut taxes but the obvious question that leaps to mind is “cut taxes for whom?” As long as he’s cutting taxes, I’m happy. But he stipulated that he wanted to cut taxes for the middle class as well as for business. If he can get the House to go along with him on this (and why wouldn’t they?), then I wholeheartedly welcome a major tax cut. Sure it will balloon the debt, but it’s unlikely that we were going anywhere on that front anyway.

Secondly, the President said that we were going to reduce the number of regulations “by 75%, maybe more.” And went on to say that if companies had their choice, they’d choose lower regulations over lower taxes every-time. He’s probably right on that account. We’ve seen a massive reduction in economic regulation before, during the Reagan administration, and it produced what is sometimes derisively called the “Reagan-Thatcher Economic Miracle”. I’m not saying that these policies were perfect then or will be perfect now, but what I am saying is that cutting regulations and taxes by as much as the President is promising is something that gives libertarians wet-dreams.

Of course, none of this is going to make me go out and buy a bunch of MAGA gear, and it’s also not going to soften my attitude towards the White Nationalist movement, but I’m personally reserving a lot of my criticisms of the administration until I’m convinced none of the above is actually going to happen. We’ll see. But I’m hopeful.

This is the End of the West as We Know It?

I don’t feel fine.

The Independent reported yesterday that Marine Le Pen has taken a sizable lead over former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the run up to the French general election next year. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ms. Le Pen, she is the leader of France’s Front National, a far-right political party founded in part by former Nazi collaborator Roland Gaucher. Among other things, Ms Le Pen promises to end immigration, strengthen French prestige and international influence, and pursue a slew of “France First” economic and social policies. If the margin of victory is strong enough, Le Pen is poised to deal another serious blow to European and global integration schemes such as the EU, the WTO, and others.

She is not currently projected to win the election, but those are the same sources which predicted that the Brits wouldn’t Brexit and that the Donald hadn’t a prayer of seizing the Oval Office. However, the French are far more liberal than the Brits or the Yanks, and polling data has Le Pen losing the race in the second round by more than 10 points. Still. The polls have been wrong about these things before. The rising tide of European nationalism and American populism has made many people (myself included) worried about the future of Western Liberal Democracy. Some have even gone so far as to lament that this is the beginning of the end for the West.

In the post WWII era, quality of life for most people around the globe has gone up. This is due primarily to the benefits of international free trade, and the democratic institutions which encourage entrepreneurship, creativity, and efficiency. But, despite the easily observable growth in living standards, many in the west favor globalization much less so than their former colonies and protectorates (see graph). It’s difficult to pin down exactly why this is, but some have opined that the growth of so-called 3rd world economies has left the working class in the West feeling like they’re being left behind. This is demonstrably false. Larger and larger slices of pie are going to the developing world, but the pie as a whole is also getting much larger. Everyone’s slice is bigger. That doesn’t seem to matter though. For the former great Empires, seeing a Cambodian prosper must mean that that has come at the expense of their own prosperity because, for hundreds of years, it was true the other way around.

During the age of the great European Empires, the economic principle of Mercantilism (that world wealth is fixed, and in order to have more wealth, one must take it from someone else), guided the policies of the British, French, Germans, Austrians etc. But Mercantilism was never the guiding economic policy of the United States. Instead, America pursued a system of (mostly/usually) free enterprise- the Smithian system. Freedom and liberalization is what leads to broad-based economic prosperity. The West can be saved if we keep that in mind.

This is the Vision of the Night

How bad is Trump’s economic plan? Very.

In yesterday’s post I talked about the necessity of freeing the market place in order to spur innovation in the energy sector. I wrote that the great expansion in human prosperity came as a result of the implementation of a set of ideas- ideas that were first enunciated by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations. Broadly speaking, these principles are free markets, free trade, and free immigration. Trump’s economic “Vision”,  released August 8th, and subsequently revised, rejects those principles in favor of a bureaucratic, corporate management of the economy. Hillary’s plan isn’t much better, but more on that some other time.

I should first admit that his tax plan doesn’t look half bad. Reducing taxes, simplifying the tax code, and offering a cocktail of credits is in the right direction. I have my doubts on how serious Trump is on this, though. His tax plan has already undergone several revisions, and he criticized Gov. Scott Walker for not caving to the Unions and raising taxes in Wisconsin. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt here. If his current plan is the one he pursues, America will be better off for it (providing his other positions don’t do more harm than his tax plan does good).

Trump’s position on trade, however, is frustratingly wrong. Flatly wrong. Lunacy. Trump favors economic protectionism, which is the idea that domestic firms should get preferential treatment in trade negotiations by establishing tariffs and other trade restrictions.  Economists argue among themselves a lot, but there are a few things that they almost always agree upon. One of those things is the benefits of free trade. At this stage in the game, with hundreds of years of economic study behind us, making a case for protectionism is madness. It’s a lot like when some quack tries to prove that vaccines cause autism. Utter nonsense. There’s no evidence to suggest that protectionism is economically beneficial. Therefore, I don’t have to demonstrate to you (even though I can) that free trade is the more beneficial policy, because, as Hitchen’s razor points out, what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

It’s easy for me to get fired up about trade policy, but it’s hard to put name and faces with those who are hurt but the injustice of protectionism. Immigration is a different story. Not only is Trump’s plan to deport millions of people economically and politically unfeasible, it’s also morally abhorrent. These people are coming here because there is work for them to do. They are coming here because they are desperate. We need them, and they need us. What’s often forgotten in thinking about economic issues is the way in which policy affects real people in their everyday lives. I hope that by examining the moral tragedy of deportation, you will come to a deeper conclusion about the great harm of many of Trump’s other economic policies. Our economy is fragile. It may not survive President Trump.

Wanna Save the World? Free the Market.

What’s needed in the energy sector is an innovation boom.We need to develop technologies that will simply out compete fossil fuels. What we need is to hold true to Smith’s observation: free trade, free immigration, and free markets.

I never intended to write a three part series on energy for this blog, but I felt I was starting to make an argument for something, and that I should probably do my best to finish it. However, my strict 500 word policy left me cutting corners a lot, and today’s post will be no different.

In the first part of this series, I talked about developing a new framework for thinking about energy policy (Safety, Efficiency, Economy, Sustainability), the problem with fossils fuels, possible solutions to those problems, and then problems with those solutions. In the second part, I tried to argue that a new form of nuclear energy, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, is our best solution for the world’s energy future. The LFTR is safe, efficient, economical, and sustainable. But as a friend of mine pointed out, solar and wind technologies will become more viable options in the future as technology grows. He’s absolutely right.

We have been cursed by our prosperity. There has been so much abundance since the end of the Second World War, that we take economic and technological progress as a given. I live a life filled with many more advantages than even someone like J. P. Morgan did 100 years ago.  But the truth is, for much of human history, there was very little change in personal wealth from one generation to the next. A poor peasant was born, lived, and died with almost no chance of living a life above subsistence. We don’t live in a world like that anymore. The idea that one generation wouldn’t be substantially better off than their parents is almost anathema to us.

But, if you were to ask yourself how it is that “the West” became so prosperous, you might find yourself spiraling down into a very deep rabbit-hole. Economists and philosophers have been debating this issue for awhile now, but a few things seem to be agreed upon. Adam Smith, in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, laid out a set of principles he thought distinguished rich countries from poor ones. The book is extremely dense, and, try as I might, I’ve never gotten through it all. Smith makes the observation that rich countries have better institutions than poor countries. They are generally economically freer, they value free trade over tariffs, and they are countries that attract and accept immigrants.

Smith was writing in a time when Great Britain (under the infamous King George III) wasn’t exactly a paragon of those virtues. But the United States took these principles and ran with them. It’s why the U.S. overtook the UK as the world’s leading industrial power by 1880, when it had been (only 100 years before) a rural backwater clinging to life on the Atlantic coast.

What’s needed in the energy sector is an innovation boom.We need to develop technologies that will simply out compete fossil fuels. What we need is to hold true to Smith’s observation: free trade, free immigration, and free markets.