Sunday, June 7, 2015

Robbing the World Twice

A Bad Nurse
After my wife's second C-section, she had to spend a few days in the hospital recovering. Because we had family nearby, I was able to spend most of this time with her in the hospital, while the nurses came and went. Most of these nurses had similar temperaments: they were lively and kind and seemed to be driven by a combination of empathy and an almost codependent sense of responsibility for my wife's comfort and well-being.

All except one of them. She was flustered, dour, depressed, and bitter. It's possible she was just having a bad day, but to my wife and I it seemed that she was in the wrong line of work. She was clearly someone who had the intelligence and dedication to complete the competitive and demanding requirements of a nursing degree, and she was almost certainly a good-hearted person who wanted to help others. But her soul was not suited to being a nurse and, surrounded as she was by natural nurses, she stuck out like a cat in a tub of turtles. Where the others were energized by the daily work of caring for patients, she was stressed and suffering.

Don't get me wrong here. I think there can be immense value in suffering and sacrifice. But I don't recommend it as a way of life, and I think this particular woman should have been working in some other field.


I've known a few men who were obviously in the exact right place, professionally, and I have always admired them and wished I fit into my own professional niche as well as they fit into theirs. One of them is an acupuncturist - possibly the most accomplished healer I have ever known. Another is a mechanic who runs his own shop and has been fixing cars for my family since I was in diapers. Both are tremendous blessings to the people they serve.

But the first time I really became aware of the concept of a vocation was talking to the father of an amazing kid I used to babysit. He is a goldsmith, and he gave me a couple of nuggets of wisdom two decades before I was really ready to digest them.

The first was what he called the be, do, have sequence. "A lot of people," he told me, "imagine themselves doing something, and think they need to get the right equipment in order to do it properly. A guy might fall in love with the idea of being a photographer, buy a bunch of fancy camera equipment, and then try to do photography, and thus become a photographer. The problem is he has it all backward. He's trying to have the right equipment first, so that he can then do photography, so that he can be a photographer. But a true photographer is a photographer first, in his soul. Driven by what he is, he uses whatever equipment and materials are available to him (even if they're super cheap and basic) to do photography. Then, as he grows his photographic business, he can begin to acquire and have fancier equipment. He starts by being, moves through doing, and ends up having. Be, do, have."

The second was his story of falling in love with his own vocation. He was about 20 years old, and his parents were paying for him to complete dental school - his plan was to eventually become a dentist. One day, while he was out with a friend, the friend wanted to stop by another friend's apartment for some reason, so they both headed up to this other friend's place for a quick visit. This other friend happened to be a goldsmith, and when my charge's father laid eyes on the goldsmithing studio at the top of the stairs, he was hit with a sudden certainty that that was what he wanted to be doing. From that moment on, he knew he would have to abandon dentistry and become a goldsmith. His parents were dismayed, but there was no turning back for him. He knew what his vocation was from that moment on.

A Bad Worker
I always envied his certainty, but the truth is I've had the same certainty of my own vocation since I was a child - I just haven't had the same degree of conviction. I am a writer by vocation - perhaps not a very good writer, but I will never really know until I muster the gumption (and set aside the time) to really write seriously. I haven't done so because of doubt and fear - at first I didn't think I had enough experience to write, and by the time I began to think maybe I'd accumulated enough experience, I had a family to provide for, an office job, and little to no spare time for frivolous pursuits like making up and writing down fairy stories.

I still have a hard time believing I will ever be able to provide for a family by writing - after all, how many people want to be authors (or movie stars or musicians or astronauts or presidents) and how many of them have to settle for janitorial or clerical or service work instead?

But I've been trying for close to a decade to provide for my family with boring corporate work, and am essentially failing at that anyway. I make enough to pay the bills and buy groceries, but only because we're living with my in-laws. If I had to pay rent... well, I couldn't pay rent in the area I work in - nearby housing is going for about twice what I bring home in a month. I was failing to keep our family in the black when we lived in Colorado, and would be failing to do so here too were it not for the fact that my wife's parents have given us a room in their house. My hair has gone gray with the stress and the long hours I've been working, but despite working really hard at boring corporate jobs for the last ten years, my performance is mediocre, I'm being paid accordingly, and I don't really fit in with the bright, driven, high-performance kids I work with. I feel a bit like an idiot-savant: better than my colleagues at certain technical tasks than they will ever be, but fundamentally broken when it comes to navigating the cultural currents of the world I work in. There are some things they just get - things I don't, things they seem to have no way of communicating to me.

Like the nurse who tended my wife after her C-section, I am working twice as hard to be half as good, because I am working against the current of my nature. I am also, like that nurse, robbing the world twice: first by depriving the world of the work I was born to do, and second by occupying a spot in my current job that should be filled by someone who is genuinely called to that kind of work. I don't want to be a management consultant, I am not very good at it, and I should really vacate the position for someone who really belongs there.

Failing at What You Don't Want
I used to think that the right and noble thing for me would be to put aside my silly dreams of being a writer, get a boring job like everyone else, and suck it up for my family's sake. After all, history is full of people doing work they hate so that they can provide for their families: everything from picking crops to mopping up floors to mining coal. No one really wants to do any of those things, but most of us have to because most of us are not really good enough to "make it" in our dream jobs.

Now I'm not so sure, for a few reasons.

First, while I don't think anything in this world is guaranteed, I do think it's possible to imagine an economy where everyone is fulfilled and the dirty work still gets done. It would require a greater degree of individual proprietorship than the employer/employee corporate model we currently live under, but it's not inconceivable. While I don't think anyone is called to be a janitor or a fry cook, perhaps some people are called to operate private cleaning services and burger-and-fry stands.

Second, I am failing at what I don't want. I ignored my vocation in favor of security, took the safe path, and discovered that the safe path wasn't actually safe at all. As Jim Carrey pointed out in his famous commencement speech last year,
So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it... 
My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. 
I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.
And finally, I think I am finally coming to understand that my deepest desires are often more realistic than my most banal assumptions about reality. That's been proven true for me already in my romantic and family life (I have an incredible wife and amazing children) and I am now beginning to believe it might also be true in my work life.

I'm not sure where I will find the time to write, or how it's going to work out. I'm not even terribly confident that what I write will be worth reading, much less lucrative. But I'm ready to stop giving myself to an office job, and start committing to writing in a serious way. I have my wife's support (she's twice the dreamer I am) - all I need now is to work out the transition.

Discerning Your Vocation
Now that I've accepted my vocation, it seems very simple to me (if not at all easy.) But while I was struggling to understand it, I did a lot of reading and thinking about vocation, and I have a few thoughts that might be useful if you find yourself wondering how you can identify yours.

First, read up on what other people have written about vocations. The two best sources I've found are the series on vocation on the Art of Manliness blog, and 48 Days to the Work That You Love, by Dan Miller. I was also very inspired by what Crystal O'Connor wrote about entrepreneurship in her book Unleash Your Moxie (which I edited.)

Second, what you love and desire is often buried under so much faux realism that you may not be capable of admitting to yourself what it is you really want. I always wanted to be with a woman just exactly like my wife, but I spent so much time talking myself out of those trite and unrealistic fantasies that when I finally met the woman of my dreams, I didn't know how to relate to her - I actually thought that the lack of friction and drama between us was a bad sign! Don't let that voice in your head talk you out of your dreams by telling you they are unrealistic. While it's true that not everyone can be a musician or an astronaut, it's also true that someone has to do those jobs. You can say, "Who am I to get to do such a cool job?" but remember that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Some people dream of being an actor or a CEO, but neither of those jobs appeal to me in the slightest. Your dream job isn't everyone's dream job, and maybe it's okay for you to embrace your dream instead of someone else's plans for you.

Third, pay attention to your energy levels when you think about or talk about or do things. If there's something that really makes your eyes light up, something that makes you feel excited and energized, something that makes the hours fly by like minutes... that something may be a significant part of your vocation. It may not feel like something you should do for work, because it's so easy and it's so fun, but that may be exactly why you're the right person for the job. If the current of your heart and your nature is flowing in that direction already, your efforts will be amplified by that current, and you will be much more effective at that task than at another task that is less in keeping with your nature. Conversely, if certain things bore you, turn you off, or cause you to shut down physically and emotionally, you will always be fighting against your nature as you try to get things done. Like me in my current job, you will be exhausting yourself applying 200% effort to achieve 50% results. Working with your nature is much more efficient than working against it.

Fourth and finally, pay attention to frustration and admiration in your interactions with others. Everyone I've ever met is brilliant in some ways and blind in others. The reason the human species is as effective as we are is because we have figured out ways of working together that enable us to collectively use our brilliance to fill in our blind spots. However, it is very easy to go through life assuming everyone else is more or less like you, with the same areas of brilliance and blindness. Consequently, when someone else is blind in an area in which you are brilliant, you may find yourself becoming very frustrated with them, and asking yourself what on earth is wrong with them that they can't grasp something so simple (to you.) In the same way, when you are blind in an area where someone else is brilliant, you may find yourself in awe of their abilities, amazed that something that seems magical to you seems natural to them. If you are frustrated by the incompetence of others in a given area, or others are frequently in awe of your ability to do something far out of proportion to the actual difficulty involved (for you) that is a good indication that you're gifted in that area. And gifts are meant to be used.

It's Okay To Use Your Talents

It will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one — to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. 
The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, "Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more." 
His master said to him, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy." 
[Then] the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, "Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more." 
His master said to him, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy." 
Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, "Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back." 
His master said to him in reply, "You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."
Matthew 25:14-30 
It can be scary to acknowledge that you have been entrusted with talents. What if you're not as good as you hope you are? What if you fail? What if you're wrong about your calling? What if what you're really supposed to do is to suck it up and go back to your job as a bank teller or bookkeeper or cashier? What if pursuing your vocation isn't safe?

Actually, work isn't safe. It isn't supposed to be. Nothing about life is supposed to be - not love, not family, not friends, and not work either. There is no security - only cages that look like security from certain angles.

But I have faith that there is a meaning and an order to the universe. There is a right and a wrong. You have dreams and desires and inclinations for a reason, and if we all worked in alignment with those inclinations, everything about our society would work better, and everyone would be happier. We would all be more effective, more energized, more alive. We could work half as hard, and still be twice as good, instead of the other way around.

So stop robbing the world twice. Stop taking up space in a job you aren't suited to - leave it to someone who will enjoy it and do it better than you. And start doing the work you were made to do. You may fail (after all, nothing is safe or guaranteed in life) but you can fail at what you don't want too, "so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Voluntary and Consensual

I have been watching a couple of seemingly unrelated online conversations, and found a common thread: an assumption that seems to run through them all - an assumption that I don't share.

The assumption seems to be, more or less, that consent is a binary situation; that people either agree to something, or they object to it; that the absence of consent is the only thing that makes an arrangement unjust; and that when all parties agree to something, the agreement is thereby rendered just, moral, and ethical.

I would say, on the contrary, that consent is only one element of justice (and a sometimes-dispensable one at that); that consent furthermore is not binary, but in fact runs along a spectrum from vigorous objection, through grudging acceptance, indifference, and favorable approval, all the way on to enthusiastic agreement; and that consent is not simply a matter of free agents making deals on neutral ground in a free marketplace, but is actually entirely dependent on context, relationships, and leverage in negotiations. (Theodore Seeber illustrates the role of leverage in negotiations in his post on leonine contracts.)

Both conservatives and liberals get this, if you engage them on the right topic. Conservatives generally understand it as it relates to sex, and liberals understand it as it relates to commerce. A conservative would agree that two married adults who meet and have an affair are committing an injustice against their families, and that a man who "picks up" a recently-dumped woman in a bar and takes her home for a "consensual" one night stand is exploiting her emotional vulnerability and intoxication. A liberal would agree that desperately poor people who pick lettuce or flip burgers for subsistence wages may be "consenting" to the arrangement, but that doesn't mean their employers aren't exploiting them.

The key here, for people who are accustomed to fetishize the Commercial economic relationship to the exclusion of all others, is to realize that Commerce bleeds over into War on one side (and to the extent that it does, leverage becomes increasingly important in commercial interactions) and into Friendship on the other (and to the extent that it does, mutual loyalty and obligation become increasingly important.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Property Wrongs

It was a Mexican fascist who taught me the case for reparations, although that wasn't really what we were talking about. He was explaining to me that he wanted Mexico to declare war on Spain.

"Why?" I asked. I was baffled, but I could tell he was serious.

"Because they stole our gold," he replied.

"But that was... like... five hundred years ago!" I spluttered. "All the people who did it have been dead for hundreds of years!"

"Yeah," he said calmly. "But the people in Spain today live better because of it. And the people in Mexico live worse."

And that made sense. The gold lifted from Mexico hundreds of years ago was invested in the Spanish economy and infrastructure. It built schools, businesses, libraries, and hospitals. It lifted the entire nation up economically - some more than others, of course, but the dividends on those investments are still being paid to the Spanish people. And not to the Mexican people.

José had a point, and it didn't take me long to realize that the same reasoning applied to the descendants of slaves in modern America. If my grandfather kidnapped your grandfather and forced him to labor for him for free, my grandfather would be able to pass the fruits of that stolen labor on to me, and your grandfather would not have been able to leave the fruits of his labor to you. It's not even mostly about inherited currency, either; it's about health and capital and education and opportunities and influence and a social safety net - all the things that can accrue and grow over time as wealth is passed on and invested across generations. There is a sense in which America - with an infrastructure and economy built in part on slave labor - collectively owes something to the descendants of slaves.

But the farther back and the deeper you look, the more complicated it all becomes. If I stole your life savings, it's logical to look to correct that by forcing me to pay it back to you. Push it back a generation, and it gets more complicated. If my father stole your father's life savings, plunging your family into destitution, it's possible that the end result of it all is that you are now working the drive-thru window to put yourself through community college, while I got to go to private schools, had private tutors, and am now able to give my full attention to my education at Yale, thanks to my parents paying my tuition and giving me a nice college trust fund. On the other hand, maybe my father drank and gambled it all away, while your family had some fortunate breaks, and I'm the one working the drive-thru window while you complete your Master's at Yale on a full scholarship. In the latter case, is it justice to force me to "pay back" what my father stole from yours?

Push this out a few more generations, add in all manner of circumstances that can change fortunes (conquest, changing laws, criminal activity, the ups and downs of the market, natural disasters, and health and personal issues) and the whole mess gets impossible to untangle. If the descendants of slaveowners owe reparations to the descendants of slaves, is there anything owed by the descendants of Russians to the descendants of Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs? How about the English/Irish troubles? And how will the debt to the American Indian tribes ever be repaid? When you look at the way wealth inheres and accrues to people, and how it periodically gets redistributed by various means, large and small, justice is even harder to pin down.

Let's go all the way back to the beginning - to human beings spreading out across the world. Perhaps when the first humans encountered unpopulated lands and began taming herds and building farms and cities... perhaps then each act of claiming land and livestock was legitimate, and didn't involve stealing from anyone. But how long was it before the first invasion? The first theft of land and goods, the first demand for tribute, the first act of forced labor? Each time wealth was transferred from one person or group to another by force of arms, by theft, by trickery, by slavery... each time, it was then invested in the family of the robber or thief or merchant or king or slaveholder. This wealth built generations of education, of relationships, of business structures and artifacts and industries, before it was again raided or stolen or otherwise redistributed. Every time any of us receives the benefits of wealth - every time we attend a school built and staffed by others, every time we borrow a book from the library, every time we enjoy the convenience of city streets and the peace to shop in a well-stocked grocery store... heck, every time we log on to the internet - we are receiving stolen wealth. All human wealth is bloody with the countless crimes of human history, and it is impossible to ever untangle the mess of human history and restore this wealth to its rightful owners - not only because those owners are long since dead, but because this wealth has been transferred countless times, invested (well or poorly) and grown or shriveled accordingly.

So we're left with the situation we have: all wealth is ultimately stolen, but there's no reasonable means of returning it to its rightful owners, or even of determining who the rightful owners are.

Now, I know a fair number of libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, and they all place a very high value on property rights. I would ask them: Do you believe that stolen wealth should be returned? If so, is there a statute of limitations on that - a point, after which, if you can avoid justice you are no longer obligated to return what was stolen? Is there any wealth in this country (or in this world) that isn't at least partly built on conquest, slavery, fraud, and exploitation?

Ownership is a matter of consent and monopoly. A person cannot be said to own something if no one else agrees that he owns it. A person can be said to own something if he can convince everyone else to leave it alone - or at least to ask permission before using it. This convincing can happen in a number of ways, depending on the economic level of the relationship between the parties involved.

At the level of Family, to the extent that anyone does monopolize something, it's managed within the family. My brother and I may agree that this bottle of shampoo is mine, and that one is his, but if there were only one bottle, we would work out how to share it without too much hassle, out of concern for one another.

At the level of Friendship, property is agreed to by an unspoken code of courtesy that need not be codified. I may borrow my neighbor's hammer, but I will ask first and return it in good condition because I care about maintaining friendly relations with him.

At the level of Commerce, property agreements are managed by impersonal laws. To the extent that all affected parties acknowledge these laws, peace is maintained, and everyone involved agrees to the same distribution of property because they agree to the same standards by which said property is distributed. I agree that Farmer Bob owns the calf that stumbled into my barn this morning because the cow on his farm gave birth to it, and we both agree that a calf belongs to the owner of the cow that birthed it.

When you deal with someone who does not agree to the same Commercial standards you do, you find yourself in a state of War with them. In War, the strong do as they like, and the weak suffer what they must. Consensus about who controls what property is achieved at gunpoint. I agree that the Khan now owns my herd of horses because his archers have surrounded my farm and I have to choose between that and being shot full of arrows.

Most of us are used to speaking about property as if it were some sort of absolute fact of nature, when it is actually solely a matter of agreement between people. A private monopoly on property exists only to the extent to which people agree that it exists. Imagine I claim to own a stretch of road, and to demand that anyone who uses it pay me $10 for the privilege. Now imagine that no one else who uses it pays me any mind, and that I have no means of enforcing my claim - perhaps I'm unarmed or unwilling to shoot the people who ignore my demands, and my neighbors would lock me up if I tried doing anything to the road itself. My claim to ownership is as meaningless as Joshua Norton's imperial claims.

In fact, most of the things we think of as belonging to us in some absolute sense do not, in fact, belong to us at all. At best, we are given temporary stewardship of them, and while we may have the ability to misuse that stewardship, we also have a moral obligation to use it for the greater glory of God. Things that fall in this category include not only our material possessions, but also our time, our physical bodies, our health, our thoughts, and our lives.

As Job said, after losing everything he had, "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away." Before we are born, we do nothing to earn the life that is to come; it is all a wonderful gift - a gift from God and our parents, and the whole world around them that sustains them. When we are born, we come into the world with nothing, helpless and completely dependent. Each breath we draw, each step we learn to take, each skill we learn is, again, a gift from God and from our family and our neighbors. As we grow, we accumulate the things we think of as belonging to us: goods, strength, skills, respect, honor, property. But some day, sooner or later, all those things will be taken from us, whether one at a time or all at once. When we leave this world, we go naked - even the pharaohs whose bodies were buried decked in gold did not take their earthly treasures with them. We are given control over some things for a time during our sojourn on earth, and then they are taken from us again. During that time they are a gift - ultimately an unearned and undeserved gift - but the gift is always and only temporary.

So where does this leave us? All the wealth and property that exists today is the result of an impossibly tangled chain of injustice. Property is simply a matter of agreement anyway. And all property is, ultimately, only temporary stewardship, not absolute ownership. Now what?

We have a situation today in which some few people own property they don't even know about, much less have ever visited. On the other hand, many of the rest of us inhabit houses and do all the work of running businesses that we do not own. We are kept from ever having a chance to own these homes and businesses in large part by the high rents and low wages we agree to with our landlords and employers. It's a vicious cycle that keeps the poor poor and the rich rich: if I can't accumulate enough wealth to buy my own home or own my own business, I must continue to pay high rents to my landlord and provide cheap labor to my employer.

Note that I said that we "agree to" these rents and wages. We consent to them - they are mutually consensual arrangements between landlords and renters, and between employers and employees. However, I do not (as do many of my libertarian friends) believe that consent alone makes an agreement just. In a the free market, all negotiations are about leverage: the more leverage you have, the better the terms you can negotiate for yourself. In negotiations for housing or employment, leverage favors the few wealthy over the many poor. Just because Pullman can raise rents and lower wages on the people living in his town doesn't mean it's morally just for him to do so.

In fact, I would go a step further and say that rent and wages are an imperfect approximation of just property distribution. Ideally, every family would own its own home and business. In medieval times, when a young man went to work for a blacksmith, he would start by doing the menial work the master smith was, perhaps, too busy to do himself: sweeping floors and carrying wood and water. As he got more familiar with the shop, the master would perhaps involve his apprentice more and more in the more highly skilled and technical aspects of the job: stoking the fire, holding the tongs, etc. As the apprentice grew more comfortable with these tasks, he would be shown more of the craft, until finally the smith got too old to work, and left his former apprentice to become master of the shop and pass down the craft to a new apprentice.

That is a just relationship between a master and servant: the servant is being trained up to replace the master as owner of the business. In some family businesses, that is still the way things are run. All too often, though, today's workers are treated not as apprentices, but as serfs; they are brought in at a low wage, and expected to keep repeating the same menial tasks every day at work, never being brought in to the inner mysteries of the trade, and certainly never prepped for ownership. A permanent class of workers is expected to keep working for rock bottom wages, while a permanent class of owners maintains ownership and control of businesses they neither oversee nor even understand, but which they retain all the profit from nonetheless.

We have farms owned by people who have never visited them, worked by people who will never own them. If those farms had been free open land, these people could have worked that land and retained the full profits from that work, but there is no free open land for them to work - they have to sell their labor to landowners, and if they try to farm on a landowner's unused land, they will face legal sanctions. Something is wrong with this.

I don't have a systematic solution to this, and I wouldn't trust the same bunch of pandering crony capitalists who got us into this mess to get us out of it. Our economic disease will not be healed by a jobs bill in Washington, DC, or by an amendment to the Constitution. I also don't trust a violent coup or revolution to fix things; almost without exception where a violent revolution takes place, the new crop of leaders are at least as bad as the old crop, and the situation for the common person gets worse.

My only suggestion is to begin by altering the way we think about justice and ownership. Keep in mind a few principles, let them inform your actions in the world, and share them with others:

  1. Centralization of power, influence, and wealth is a bad thing. Because of the nature of power and human ambition, wealth (like all other forms of power and influence) tends to accumulate in the hands of increasingly smaller numbers of people. However, the nature of markets and economies is such that maximum profit and benefit is generated when the largest possible group of people have independent agency and the ability to operate their own businesses and own their own homes. Wide distribution of wealth and power is a good and healthy thing.
  2. Property is a matter of agreement, and agreements can be renegotiated. For the time being, for instance, we all agree to pay back the loans that were taken out by a small number of American elected officials to "bail out" the banks that hold most of our homes and lives in hock. What if we one day decided, in large enough numbers, that that agreement was foisted on us under fraud and duress, and that our creditors could damn well go after the bankers themselves if they ever wanted to see the money again?
  3. The nature of money, influence, and authority, is that it is given, not owned. A man has wealth because the rest of us agree to recognize it. He has influence because the rest of us listen to him. And he has authority because the rest of us invest it in him.
  4. At various points in time, in American and English law, there have been allowances made for squatting or homesteading. The basic principle behind these laws was sound: if Person A owns something but can't make use of it, and Person B can make use of it but doesn't own it, squatting laws and homestead acts made provisions for transferring ownership to Person B. This is a view of property that is based less on abstractions like legal deeds, and more on physical, personal control of the property in question. Perhaps revising our notions of property to include an element of personal, physical control would be a good idea: making a path to ownership of homes and businesses for the people who live and work in them.
  5. None of this belongs to you anyway, and whatever you have is a gift. Even to be a serf on Earth is a priceless gift. Give thanks and praise to God, and use what you have been given for his greater glory and to uplift the least of your neighbors.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Human Economics

In America, we are used to speaking about "the economy" as if Commerce is the one and only type of economy that exists. In our minds, the free exchange of goods and services, regulated by government authority, is the one and only way that property and wealth are managed.

In reality, though, there are four different types of economies in which human beings operate: Family, Friendship, Commerce, and War.

On the inside, we have Family. In the economy of the Family, you don't track ownership or debt or obligations. You are loyal to your family, full stop. While you may not own things in common, your property and your time effectively belong to your family, and vice versa. The main economic activity of the Family is Selfless Giving.

A Friendship economy is built on bonds of obligation. The main economic activity between friends is Trading Favors. You can ask each other favors, and do each other favors, but they are not quite as freely given as in a Family economy. An unequal friendship, in which one friend does most of the favors for another and these favors are not reciprocated, is a friendship that will sour. The way a Friendship stays healthy is by keeping a rough balance of favors between friends, but friends are never crass enough to measure these favors by any objective standards.

Objective measurement of debt and obligation, buying, selling, and trading are the proper domain of a Commercial economy. In Commerce, the main economic activity is Trade, and peers trade goods and services with each other, agreeing to contracts and prices with one another, and honoring those agreements. Commerce is the natural state of casual acquaintances and friendly strangers.

Outside the bonds of cordiality is the state of War. In an economy of War, goods and services are not traded - they are taken by main force. In War, you don't abide by rules agreed to by all participants in the economy - you use whatever leverage you can to compete with your adversaries to take what you want. Raids, slavery, and theft are all examples of Coercion, the main economic activity of War.

Sometimes the lines between these economies get blurred. A distant or out-of-favor family member may be treated more like a friend than family, and conversely you may have a few friends who are "like family" and who you would do anything for without counting the cost, even subconsciously.

The lines between Friendship and Commerce can also get blurred. A Facebook friend might offer you his old TV for $50, and a regular customer in your store may become such a part of your life that you stop charging him for coffee, and have him over to your house on Saturdays, where he helps you debug your computer.

Blurred lines between War and Commerce occur when a business associate rips you off, or when enemy nations agree to a hostage exchange.

As you travel inward on the chart, intimacy and trust increase; as you travel outward, hostility and wariness increase. The types of economic activity typical of each economy are also tied to a certain position on the intimacy-hostility spectrum, and you can frequently encourage a different type of economic activity in a relationship by moving the trust level along this spectrum. The reverse is also true: you can increase the amount of intimacy or hostility in a relationship by engaging in economic activities that belong to the type of economy that corresponds to the desired position on the spectrum.

For instance:
  • To create distance between family members, keep track of favors done. Family bonds can be dissolved by keeping track of unreciprocated favors and grievances.
  • Conversely, to bring a friend into the family circle, remove all traces of obligation from the relationship, and make them fully welcome in your house and your life, with no strings or expectations attached.
  • To ruin a friendship, bring business into the equation: loan or borrow money, sign a contract with each other, or become business partners.
  • To turn a business associate into a friend, remove formal accounting from the relationship: you may still be keeping track of favors done and trying to ensure there's a rough balance, but this balance will be more a feeling than entries in an actual ledger. Do things for one another that don't get tracked as business transactions.
  • To make an enemy of a friendly stranger, commit an act of war against him: steal from or defraud him.
  • To turn enmity to wary cordiality, begin making deals: exchange prisoners, buy and sell goods, or hire them to perform a service for you.
I have a few observations about these different types of economies:

First, I observe that most human relations worldwide seem to fall somewhere in between War and Commerce. Truly cordial Commerce is a blessing, genuine Friendship even more so, and Family is (literally) priceless. As relationships degenerate toward the outside of the circle, quality of life goes down. The Ruler of this world, the Evil One, is constantly trying to push relationships outward, while the Living God is constantly encouraging us to move them inward. Remember Jesus' command to turn the other cheek, to give our cloaks and tunics, and to go the extra mile when pressed for one? This is all about moving human hearts and lives toward the center, however minutely or imperceptibly.

Second, I observe that our modern business/political system seems to be designed to keep us all hovering between War and Commerce. We are kept isolated from our neighbors, we lock our doors to make sure they won't break in an steal our stuff, and we are ready to call the cops and shoot intruders. This may all be prudent, but a better place for neighbors is on the line between Friendship and Commerce. Get to know them.

In our corporate business culture, we're kept from true intimacy with our colleagues by HR regulations, anti-fraternization policies, layoffs, reorganizations, and constant staff turnover, If you can't know your colleagues long enough or well enough to form real bonds of friendship, you'll never be tempted to put those relationships above the company's bottom line. In smaller businesses, ubiquitous petty laws and economic pressures make it difficult to make friends with business associates of any kind. If I can't give away my business' services to a friend without raising red flags with the IRS and prompting discrimination investigations, chances are I won't treat that person as a friend and our relationship will get pushed into the Commercial zone.

Business relationships are also marked less by genuine justice than by leverage. Sure, maybe the work you do for me is immensely valuable, but if I can get away with paying you a pittance for it, well, that's just business. Sure, the phone service I'm selling you costs me a tiny fraction of the price to deliver, but if you don't have any other local options, you should thank your lucky stars I'm not charging even more. In a meeting between equal parties of good will, free unfettered trade can happen, to the enrichment of both parties. But when negotiations are all about leverage and getting the best deal you possibly can, the landscape begins to look less like cordial and just Commerce, and more like a War where the stronger party does as he wishes and the weaker party suffers what he must. Most employer-employee relationships have taken on an adversarial character (although on occasion, the employee has more leverage than the employer.)

Pop culture constantly encourages us to keep track of gifts and favors. Did I get you a more expensive Christmas present than you got me? Does Steve not buy rounds at the bar as often as the rest of us do? Are you always meeting up with Sally at times that are convenient for her, but she never seems willing to meet you halfway? The more consciously and concretely you measure these things, the more your Friendship starts to slip into the realm of Commerce.

Pop culture assaults on the family are vicious. We are encouraged to think of our family members as exploitive and obnoxious, to count grievances against them, and to guard our time and our hearts from incursion by ungrateful family members. It's gotten so bad that many Americans have never known what it's like to live in an actual selfless, loving family that doesn't play guilt games or demand reciprocity.

Third, it occurs to me that this state of affairs has been made possible in part by our wealth and prosperity. Family bonds can only be broken when the family members in question do not rely on one another for daily survival. A wealthy family can afford to be isolated from one another - the poor do not have that "luxury," In this way, the poor really are blessed, and it can be easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to find his way into the heaven of true familiar love.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Peace Be With You

I lived for a couple of years with several insane roommates. Not leaves-dirty-dishes-in-the-sink-and-likes-lousy-music insane. On-medication-and-talking-to-themselves insane. I didn't mind. I liked them. They were, in fact, very nice people.

One of them would occasionally go off his meds because he didn't like how they made him feel. And he would begin to get manic. I'd hear him up all night laughing loudly for hours on end or pacing the floor and preaching to the walls. Sometimes he'd step outside without his shirt or shoes on, and scratch Bible verses into the snow until the neighbors would call the cops.

One day, after a fantastic local hip hop show, I was recuperating in my room. It was around 11 in the morning, my head was pounding, and I was in too much pain to stumble to the bathroom and throw up, so I was cradling my sour stomach and trying not to move or think. It was at this ungodly bright and sunny hour that my roommate (probably recently off his meds) decided to come knocking on my door. I played dead for awhile, but he was more persistent than I was, so I eventually answered the door.

"Come on outside," he told me. "I want to show you something."

I grumbled, got into my weekend lounging-around rags, and followed him out to the porch, where he proceeded to walk up and down on the lawn in front of me, and preach me a sermon. By the time he was done, I had forgotten my hangover, and sat openmouthed. I was, perhaps, not so surprised by what he had to say to me as by the fact that something so blindingly clear and obviously true had never been so much as whispered in my ear.

Here is, more or less, what he said to me:
If you asked someone today whether they believed in spirits, they'd look at you like you were crazy. Back in the ancient world, if you asked someone whether they believed in spirits, they'd look at you like you were crazy, but for exactly the opposite reason. Today everyone knows that spirits don't exist, just like in the ancient world everyone knew that they did. 
So what happened? There are four possibilities:
  1. Spirits used to exist, but don't anymore. People used to believe in them because they were real, and now they don't because they aren't anymore. This is obvious nonsense, and no one believes it.
  2. Spirits have always existed, but the ancients were wiser than us and understood this, and we moderns have lost our way and no longer recognize spiritual realities. This is what many New Agers and religious people of various stripes believe.
  3. Spirits have never existed, but the ancients were too foolish and superstitious to understand this. We enlightened modern people apprehend reality better than they do as a result of recent scientific advances, and thus we have put such silly superstitions behind us. Many materialists and atheists believe this.
  4. The phenomena called spirits by the ancients are still around today, and we moderns still interact with them, but we no longer think of them the same way. We call them by other names, and what we think the ancients meant by spirits was not exactly what they actually meant. I have met very few people who believe this.
We can rule out #1 without really bothering to give it much thought. If the fundamental nature of reality can change that much in a thousand years, there's really very little point in comparing the present day with the past at all. #2 and #3 can be pretty easily disproved with a rigorous reading of history. Ancient humans were not especially wise or foolish compared to modern humans. People have not really changed much in the last few millennia, in spite of a boatload of technological advances. 
That leaves #4 - the idea that we still interact with the same phenomena that the ancients called "spirits," but we think of them differently. Having eliminated the alternatives, we can assume that this is true. 
So what to make of the idea that a man can be possessed by an evil spirit? Well, we still see that today, don't we? We talk about becoming "obsessed" (actually this term used to have a meaning related to "possession") or "beside ourselves" or "out of our minds" or "temporarily insane," but whatever terminology we want to use, there are sometimes when a man is not himself, or not in control of himself - there is something else controlling him that is not his normal everyday mind. 
Take as an example a man with a bad case of road rage. I've cut him off in traffic, and he's followed me to where I've pulled my car over, and he's getting out of his car, out of his mind with anger. The more poetic among us might say he has been possessed by a spirit of rage, and he's on his way over to me, ready to beat me black and blue. 
Now, how should I respond to this? The man - the flesh and blood - is my brother. The spirit - the rage that's driving his actions right now - is my enemy. If I respond to his attack with anger and violence, I accomplish two things: 
First, I damage the flesh and blood, my brother. 
Second, I nourish the spirit, the rage that is driving him to violence. Worse, I give this spirit a second home in my own heart. This is clearly a bad way to respond. 
So how should I respond? I should respond in the only way that saves my brother and attacks the spirit: I should respond with love. 
That is what St. Paul meant when he wrote that "our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens." It's why Jesus tells us to "offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well." The Christian commission is a spiritual commission - it's about fighting evil, not about fighting people.

As I said, by the time he was done, I was sitting with my mouth hanging open. Why had no one ever told me this before? He proceeded to tell me that God had instructed him to tell me this.

This, my friends, is an example of prophecy. Prophets are another phenomenon that is thought of differently in modern days. In ancient times prophets were alternately admired and reviled, but either way people heard their messages. Today they're alternately medicated and institutionalized. We chemically neutralize their prophetic capabilities, and when this fails we lock them away where no one will have to listen to them.

Were the ancient prophets really like our modern day crazy people? Absolutely. John the Baptist hung out in the desert, wore camel hair shirts, and ate locusts. Compare a prophet like that with this guy here.

That's partly why I try to listen to everyone. (Um. Within reason.) It's pretty much guaranteed that everyone who doesn't know something I do knows something valuable that I don't. It would be a shame to miss out on learning it just because I'm too self-involved and arrogant to listen.

An Ocean of Sorcery

I grew up in a materialist home. I attended schools built of concrete, glass, and chicken wire, full of materialist teachers, where I read insipid materialist pablum from the glossy pages of materialist textbooks. The nation and state in which I live are governed (insincere Christian lip service notwithstanding) by materialist entertainers. And the industrial baronies and fiefdoms in which I and my countrymen labor are built on materialist foundations. All around me, my countrymen speak a toneless and dreary language - a language I myself grew up speaking, but which has always felt awkward and unnatural in my throat. They tell dull, banal stories to explain the desperately hopeless oscillations of life on their streets and highways and shipping lanes.

I may have been born and raised here, but this world of oiled gears and sterile laboratories is not my home. In the midst of a grinding, smoking citadel of stone and steel, I spent uncounted hours and days of my youth submerged in stories of the impossible - books about spaceships, spellbooks, swordfights, and summonings. Perhaps reality was as tedious as everyone around me seemed to believe, but that didn't mean I had to like it - or to spend any more time in it than absolutely necessary. Reality, I decided, was for people who couldn't handle science fiction.

On the other hand, I also spent the bulk of my childhood trying to be a good materialist. I learned how to build ethical principles on a foundation of hedonism, how to take comfort in the certainty of personal extinction, and how to appreciate the wonders of the visible and measurable world. None of this eased my revulsion and mounting frustration with the so-called "Real World." So when opportunities to escape began to present themselves, I leapt at them.

Where books left off, roleplaying games picked up. With papers and pencils and rulebooks and dice, I and my friends built imaginary universes where life wasn't safe or sterile or predictable or controlled. Certainly our universes were not as comfortable as a 20th century office building, but they were a hell of a lot more interesting.

In high school I began experimenting with psychedelic drugs and the occult. The drugs were an interesting diversion, but the highlight of my fifteenth year was when I met someone online who claimed to be a witch. Well, there was really no internet to speak of in the 90s; I met her on a BBS. (If you don't know what that is, it's a message server on an individual computer, connected to a modem. Anyone else with a computer and a modem could dial up, read the messages, leave responses, and then sign off. BBSs were pre-internet chat rooms, and were fantastic places to converse anonymously with complete strangers.) Anyway, this lady claimed to be a witch and turned me on to the world of the occult. I bought books and supplies and practiced rituals and put myself into trances.

Ultimately, occultism proved a dead end as well. No matter how exciting it sounded to be able to cast spells and conjure up spirits, the end result turned out to be no different from the goals of the dull gray world outside. A houngan may know how to call up the loas, but when he does, it's for all the same reasons a businessman sits an office all day: money, sex, health, power, influence. I was looking for excitement and adventure. I was looking (if I'd known it at the time) for meaning. And the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn could no more offer me that than the offices of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. Perhaps both could offer me the same pay and benefits, but I didn't want pay and benefits. I didn't want to go to college, learn a profession, work until retirement, and wait to die. I wanted... I wasn't quite sure, but that wasn't it.

I had jumped into the pool of occultism, and found it was barely deep enough to wet my socks. However, in my investigations, I did learn a thing or two about ritual magic.

Ritual magic is essentially mind control. Generally, when practiced alone it's about controlling your own mind, but the principles work just as well when applied to the minds of others. The magician creates a circle or sacred space of some sort, and invokes a spirit by means of associated signs and symbols. In the middle ages, apparently, there were grimoires full of lists of spirits, and their associated names, symbols, gestures, fragrances, sounds, and astrological affinities. On the appropriate day, at the appropriate time, wearing the appropriate ceremonial garb, making the appropriate intonations and symbols and gestures, the magician "calls up" the spirit, and the spirit gets to work creating whatever result the magician is looking for.

Now, even after years of experimenting with the occult, I couldn't really have told you whether or not magic worked as advertised. It seemed to... sometimes. On the other hand, if you worked a spell to make you sexier and got more attention from the opposite sex, how would you know whether it was the spell working, a coincidence, or perhaps the placebo effect at work making you more confident (and thus more attractive?) Hard to say. I certainly had some experiences that seemed supernatural, but keep in mind I was taking hallucinogens at the time too. So... hard to say.

So, I walked away from it all, and didn't miss it. I (just barely) graduated from high school, and set out wandering around the country. That, I think, was where I found the adventures I'd been looking for, and the next five years were the most interesting years of my life up till then.

During those wanderings, I moved to another city, got a job, and settled down for a little while. One day, I had an errand to run (I forget what) that took me to City Hall. I walked up the steps, opened the door, and right in front of me was a gigantic stone slab hanging on a wall. It was the seal of the city, and it was covered in various kinds of symbols - sheaves of wheat, gears, eagles, Greek goddesses - that attempted to call up ideas of prosperity and to tie them to the identity of the city itself.

It struck me then that this seal was exactly like the sigils of the spirits and entities that magicians had been inscribing in their grimoires for millennia. This seal was, in fact, part of a larger sorcerous working that brought the city into existence, sustained and fed it. I realized then how many phantom entities we live alongside in our modern world - entities that are not made of flesh and blood, that straddle the line between imagination and physical reality - entities that we summon up and sustain by means of our belief, attention, and thought. Governments, corporations, currencies... all these things are phantoms that are given real weight and power in our world by virtue of human attention and belief. A government in which no one believes is a government that doesn't exist. A corporation that does not have a place in the minds of the public is a corporation that's not in business. A currency that isn't valued by people is a currency with no substance - who would bother to mint it? But when we breathe life into these phantoms, they shake the foundations of the world.

I realized that an advertising executive is nothing more or less than a modern day sorcerer. He contracts with these phantom entities and makes bargains with them. In return for a share of the attention/souls of millions of TV viewers or passersby on a freeway, he creates powerful spells of invocation for that entity: incantations that are repeated in commercials until the jingle is stuck in your head; logos that are memorable and recognizable and always conjure up the spirit in your mind when you see them; associations that are crafted in your mind so that you are more likely to deal with that entity yourself - to buy its products and services. In return for these spells, the sorcerer is given wealth and influence. That's how sorcery works in business - there is a very similar process at work in government and finance and, in fact, in all areas of social life.

Sorcery has not vanished from our world - far from it. It simply wears different clothes. The shocking truth is that we swim in an ocean of sorcery... and it is every bit as dreary and banal as the stock markets and boardrooms where it is practiced.

Is it truer to say that the ancients understood these psychosocial practices imperfectly, anthropomorphizing impersonal patterns that really aren't alive and superstitiously calling them gods and spirits? Or is it that modern practitioners are blind to the true spiritual realities they're working with? I don't know that I'd say either is true. I'd say that reality far weirder and more wondrous than we think, and that neither the ancients nor the moderns really understand things as well as people are wont to think. What symbolic language you use to speak about these phenomena is more a matter of taste than accuracy.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Flowchart 2: Worrying

How, and when, to worry, get anxious, trip, sweat, or otherwise let fear knock you off your game: