Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Dao is Not Sentimental

The first part of Chapter Five of the Dao De Jing is like vinegar to many people. But I think that contains a deep truth that everyone should understand.
Heaven and Earth are not humane (jen),
They treat the ten thousand beings as straw dogs (ch'u kou).
The sage is not humane (jen), 
He treats the hundred families as straw dogs (ch'u kou).  
Ellen Chen trans.
I thought about this after I saw yet another weepy news story about the recent bombings in Brussels. Society is flailing and the news media is sending story after story over the airwaves. But let's think about this. According to Wikipedia, there were thirty-five deaths and three hundred injuries. Lets compare that death toll to a real catastrophe, like World War II. That war lasted a little under six years (Sept 1/39 to Aug 14/45). The total deaths due to the war in that period---including soldiers killed due to battle, civilians due to war crimes, disease, and, starvation---are estimated at between 70 and 85 million. This means that at the most conservative estimate of casualty estimates, 70 million, about 32,000 people died every day during WWII. If we want to get a little closer to home, let's consider the number of people who've died in Iraq and Syria.  According to the website "Iraq Body Count", 242,000 people have died there since the American invasion. And in Syria, according to Wikipedia, 147,000 people have died in the Civil war.

Seen from this perspective, it strikes me that our society's collective reaction to a few minor terrorist attacks is wildly, crazily, insanely, over the top.


In contrast. I've been watching the way our political classes have been responding to the prospect of runaway climate change. Various celebrities and elected officials, for example, have been going on about how unfair and "over the top" it is to expect Alberta to not be allowed any way of shipping their tar sands oil to market. In contrast to the minor casualties predicted from the terrorist attacks, there are serious climate scientists who are arguing that climate change will do things like flood all the coastal cities of the world, disrupt seasonal rains in many areas, and cause the deaths of millions---if not billions---due to drought, starvation, and disease.

Look at these two YouTube videos to explain the two points of view.

It seems so crazy that so many people go berzerk about a few people losing their jobs in Alberta or a tiny number of commuters getting blown up by bombs, yet seem so totally blase about millions of people dying nasty horrible deaths due to climate change. What makes it even worse is that the majority of these other people will admit that climate change is real, they just don't want to do anything about it. The person in the second YouTube video is bang on, if you won't do anything about preventing climate change, no matter what you say, you are still a denier.


What's going on here? It seems to me that the big problem is sentimentality. By that, I mean an emotional reaction that is un-tempered  by rational thought. Take a look at the following poster that I see on the my local bus.

What exactly is the argument here? Did a video tape slap this crying child on the side of her head? Was she strapped to a chair and forced to watch it? Was she forced to take part in the creation of a pornographic movie? Was her mommy neglecting her because she wanted to watch or make pornography? What is it? Frankly, I don't know. I suspect people are just expected to see a crying child and come up with their own ideas. This is the problem with sentimentality, it isn't based on evidence, reason or much of anything at all. But a lot of people build their lives around it.

And the thing to remember about the anti-pornography laws is that they were used to do things like prevent birth control information. Margaret Sanger, for example, found that her pamphlets written to spread information about birth control methods were considered "pornographic" and banned under the "Comstock Laws". In addition, any attempt to portray non-"traditional" sexual orientation was also considered "pornographic", which is why the gay friendly bookstore "Little Sister's" found it's gay-friendly materials being seized at the border by Canada Customs and Revenue agents.  Since women who don't know about birth control often die due to self-induced abortions and gays of both sexes often commit suicide because they cannot find a place in society, anti-pornography laws are of life-and-death importance.
Margaret Sanger, Icky Pornographer

The thing to recognize about the anti-pornography poster that I put up above is that the "hurt" that it is referring to is the sense of "icky fear" that people feel when they are confronted by emotions and urges that people don't know how to understand. For a lot of people who haven't come to terms with their "animal nature", lust is something that is profoundly scary. It puts the lie to the idea that people are somehow different than all the other animals in the world.

In fact, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote a short story about this issue, titled "Welcome to the Monkey House". The title refers to the discomfort that many people feel when they visit the monkey house at the zoo. It is clear to everyone---not matter how much they might deny it---that there is a profound resemblance between human beings and monkeys. (We are all primates, after all.) But monkeys have none of the inhibitions surrounding their bodies that human beings do. In
Kurt Vonnegut, Supporter of Icky Pornography
Vonnegut's story, this discomfort leads a druggist to develop a drug that inhibits human sexual desire and the government promotes it as a means of population control. But a rebel underground fights against this program and instead encourages a different type of birth control that leaves people's instincts whole. When a woman makes the transition from supporting the establishment and instead becomes a rebel (called a "nothing-head"), her first batch of birth control pills comes with the label "Welcome to the Monkey House".

In other words, going into the "Monkey House" is admitting that some aspects of being a human being---such as lust---should be admitted and accepted instead of ignored and denied. Women do want to have sex, so just preaching abstinence is not going to prevent unwanted pregnancies. (Not to mention the women in abusive relationships who have no choice in the matter.) Homosexuality is an innate condition, not a chosen lifestyle. So not allowing anyone to discuss it openly will not prevent it, but it will make it almost impossible for many young people to understand what they are going through. Wanting to keep on having good paying jobs in the oil patch is not going to change the horrendous consequences of runaway climate change. And refusing to put a few deaths from terrorist attacks in a larger context is bound to severely damage a free society.


Sentimentality is defined by Google as "excessive tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia". And the sentimental response to terrorism, job layoffs, and, pornography is dangerous. As human beings our sentiments need to be tempered by our reason and experience. If we don't, we thrash around like wounded bears, creating pain all around us.

That's why as Daoists we need to always remember to not be excessively sentimental. And this is part of the point that the famous "vinegar tasters" painting is meant to express. The rational way of looking at the world needs to temper our feelings. One of the traditional ways that Daoists used to teach this idea is through this image. A Confucian, a Buddhist and a Daoist are depicted surrounding a vat of vinegar, which all three are tasting. From the expressions on the faces of the Confucian and the Buddhist, you can see that both consider this a bad-tasting element of life that must be fought against or endured. But the Daoist smiles, because he sees it as just another part of existence and something that must be accepted on its own terms and even enjoyed if possible. Pornography doesn't really "hurt", it is just our inhibitions that cause the pain. A transition to a carbon-free economy is essential to avoiding disaster. And whether we like it or not, we are all going to die, so freaking out about a very small number of terrorist killings is not really necessary.

Wisdom of the Ages---May We All Absorb It!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Volunteerism, or, Yes You Should Do Work for Free

I recently got into an unfortunate exchange on FaceBook that resulted in my "unfriending" an acquaintance that I met through politics. He'd posted an image from a Batman movie that I found particularly annoying and used the opportunity to work through why it bugged me. He responded with a call to "lighten up", which I refused to do.

The Offending Image

There are two things about this image that I find really annoying. First of all, I do not like Heath Ledger's portrayal of "the Joker" in the movie "The Dark Knight". I didn't like the movie at all. It was a reactionary fantasy about a world where the biggest problems that society faces are anarchic street criminals that a "politically-correct" and hopelessly corrupt government finds itself incapable of opposing. The problem with this portrayal is that it is ridiculous. The fundamental problem that society faces aren't bank robbers, it's the owners of the banks. And the worst criminals aren't criminally-insane people who dress-up in pancake make-up and create spectacular explosions, but rather psychopathic "snakes in suits" who are able to worm their way into organizations and twist them to their own ends. The way this movie (and the entire Batman franchise) plays on this reactionary trope came home to me after Barack Obama was elected president of the US. Almost immediately, my hometown was blanketed with the posters that portrayed him as the Joker.

Obama as Joker
Frankly, I found these posters offensive and racist. What was really annoying is that my town isn't even in the USA, it's in Canada. And Obama wouldn't even be considered much of a progressive by most Canadian political parties---let alone a "socialist". But the way right and wrong are expressed in the Batman world appeals to reactionaries, so it makes total sense that someone would use the Heath Ledger Joker portrayal to riff on the "Kenyan Usurper" motif.


Even worse, from my point of view, is the message that "The Offending Image" attempts to portray. I sometimes hear from "creative types" (artists, musicians, writers) that they are being horribly exploited in that they are sometimes asked to "work for free" and that this is a vile, awful idea. The argument is that no one expects anyone else to do stuff for free, so why the heck should they? How could I possibly disagree with such an idea?

My response is that the idea that no one should work for free is supporting the idea that every human interaction should be transactional in nature. Even if no money changes hands, people need to reciprocate in every interaction. This does tremendous violence to the way human society operates. Did you pay your mother for raising you? Did the people who led your scout troupe get paid? How many human institutions would collapse if everyone who worked for them expected to be paid? No more volunteer fire departments. No more food bank. No more soup kitchens. No more community orchestras. No more political parties. No more activist groups. Linux wouldn't exist. You get the picture.


Paul Mason
I recently heard a talk on the CBC show "Ideas" by Paul Mason about his book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. He argued, among other things, that a new society is coming down the pipes, one where non-transactional (my word) relationships will become more and more important. His argument is that modern technology is increasingly dominated by processes that are almost impossible to monetize. That is to say, the information economy is based on ideas instead of things, and by definition ideas are better given away for free instead of sold.

Science and technology only flourish in a world where information flows freely through journals and conferences. If you try to monetize it through patent protection, you stifle innovation and encourage the creation of "junk science". Open source software is inherently better because it benefits from the insight and creativity of everyone in the world who knows enough to participate rather than a very small pool of engineers who are being paid to work on it. Music and literature that exist as digital files instead of vinyl records or paper books can be copied and shipped all over the world for a fraction of the previous costs. The big issue for creatives is marketing, not distribution---which means the biggest problem for most artists isn't having your work copied and shared for free, it's seeing your work being ignored.

Reactionary and neo-liberal politics is increasingly all about putting this genie back into the bottle. For example, I understand that one of the biggest elements of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement involves patent protection. As well, increasingly professions have become arbitrarily exclusionary in order to allow "rent-seeking" by those members of society that are lucky enough to have the right credentials. That is part of the reason why, for example, the legal system has become so insanely complex---lawyers don't want it to be to simple enough for an intelligent person to be able to navigate it without paying a lot of money to experts. Fighting against these attempts to limit the
Pirate Party Logo
free flow of ideas and creative content has fueled the rise of groups such as the Pirate Parties of Europe.

Mason argues that instead of trying to fight against the new technologies that make it harder and harder to reduce relationships between people into monetary transactions, government should be working to make it easier. This isn't as startling as it sounds, as what we call the "free market" is actually a government creation that was put into place through centuries of government intervention. To cite one example, the legal artifact known as the "limited liability corporation" was specifically created by European legal systems to foster the creation of large trading companies. This was because the sums of money required to build fleets of ships to travel overseas were far too large---and the enterprise too risky---for even the wealthiest individuals to attempt. So the legal fiction of the "corporation" was created which holds the liability instead of the individual shareholders who are not personally obliged to "make good" on the company's debts.

One suggestion that Mason makes is that the post-capitalist society could be fostered by the creation of a guaranteed annual income. His concern is that unless the "safety net" becomes better we will see a stratification in society between the people who have paid employment and those who do not. Moreover, the ones that do have employment will become more and more militant about keeping it. The result will be a lot of "rent seeking" in society as people fight tooth and nail against efficiencies that would shrink the work force. And without a good safety net to protect against catastrophic failure, a lot of "ideas workers" won't take the personal financial risks necessary to devote their personal time into creating "the next great idea" on their home computer. Trapeze artists always develop new moves while using a safety net. Why shouldn't inventors and entrepeneurs have one too?


One of the important points that Mason emphasized in his talk is that we are the first society in the world that has solved the problem of scarcity. That is to say, there are no absolute reasons why people should find themselves living in poverty. Any scarcity that people currently find themselves in has been manufactured by human society instead of being intrinsic to the nature of existence. Artificial scarcity can come about for various reasons. One of which is simply because society refuses to redistribute wealth. Another is to create a society where people's wants have been artificially enhanced through things like advertising to the point where people feel that they are being deprived if they lack any number of unnecessary consumer goods. Another one is to design societies in ways that make it very difficult to live without wasting resources---such as housing people in suburban sprawl so people have to use personal automobiles instead of public transit. One last way is to refuse to control population growth so that any surplus production gets eaten up by creating a surplus of consumers.

If we are going to survive past the climate change "bottle neck" however, this creation of artificial scarcity has to end. Instead, we need to create social mechanisms to enhance the ability of people to live within the current abundance instead of feeling the need to always get "more". The creation of an economy based upon the free exchange of ideas is pretty important to that. And, I believe that this is an aesthetic that is at the core of the Daoist ideal. In Journey to the West there is an exchange between two characters where they talk about living a simple life. One of them has a poem about living the simple life of a fisherman who supports his family with the bounty of the lakes and streams. He says when times are bad and there are no fish, they can always eat the leaves of the Tree of Heaven. (I wouldn't recommend this as this could very well be an example of a bad translation confusing one type of tree with another.) The point being that the man of Dao lives in a state of abundance all the time. Partially, this is because he lives a frugal life. And partially, this is because his willingness to learn from nature (a kung fu) gives him the ability to adapt to and see resources that are hidden to the majority of people.

These two old immortals in Journey to the West are living a life of simple abundance because they have made the transition from the old transactional economy based on "things" to the gift economy based on "ideas". Mason's point is that our entire society needs to make this transition now if we are going to survive as a civilization. That's why I fundamentally reject the idea that all creative people need to be paid for everything they do. It is a view of existence that is fundamentally out of harmony with the Dao.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Competition is a Very Bad Idea

I had some conversations recently that reminded me about some very bad ideas that infect many people's minds and create chaos in our civilization. I thought I'd explain one to my readers.



A fellow I know has been asking me a lot about a Canadian institution known as "French Immersion". Canada is an officially bilingual country. This means that the government has mandated that all over the nation everyone is entitled to being served in both French and English. A practical upshot of this is that lots and lots of good-paying government jobs require or strongly recommend fluency in both languages. This ranges from high ranked civil servants down to the woman who sells you stamps at the post office.

This has had a lot of results in our society. One of which was the beautiful mother and young daughter I heard talking away in French when I came back from the Farmer's Market on Saturday. This is a good thing. Another result was the fear from middle class English speakers that their children would never be able to "get ahead" if they weren't fluent in both languages. Since most parts of Canada outside of Quebec are totally English speaking, this created pressure for school boards to create public schools where children from English speaking homes are taught only in French. The result is supposed to be children who are fluently bilingual when they graduate.

This has created several big problems.

First of all, it is really expensive to create a second public school system that parallels the existing one. Second, it costs a lot of money to bus those students who's parents want their children to attend a French immersion school across town. Third, it breaks up communities as children who live next door to each other are often strangers because they do not go to the same school. And fourth, it is the most talented children with the most engaged and supportive parents who go to these French immersion schools. This is a problem because it leaves English public school teachers with a higher percentage of demanding students to look after and the schools lose the students who are often good role models for  the ones that struggle.

In essence, French immersion schools have become elite private schools that are part of the public system.

Space is limited in these public/private schools. This means that the competition for placement in a French immersion school has become intense. Parents sit in cars for days waiting for the doors to open so they can register in the "first come, first served" system. In other districts where people can register by phone, people create "parties" where parents co-operate in order to get to the first. (They all dial until one gets through then the rest pile on and register their children through that connection.) School boards are trying to deal with the issue through creating a lottery. But this doesn't satisfy parents who still want their children to get into the school but fail to win a place.

The fundamental flaw fueling this idiotic situation is the issue of competition for a limited number of positions.

To understand this idea we have to do some thinking from game theory. Let's consider a competition by a population that is larger than the limited number of slots that are open. For example, 100 couples want to get their child into one of 50 slots in a school. If one couple decides to "game the system" by taking extra-ordinary measures---such as sitting out all night in a car so they can be first in line when the doors open---they will end up increasing their chances of getting their child into the program from 50% to 100%. Unfortunately, other parents will see that this strategy works, which means that they will start camping out, which will mean that people have to wait longer and longer periods in order to make sure that they are in line. (According to one article I read, in some areas parents are already waiting for three days ahead of time.)  This is an inevitable outcome in a "first-come-first-serve" system where people are selfishly competing with each other. That's why more and more school boards are using a lottery to assign positions.

But the system gaming for placement is just a minor subset of competitive gaming. The entire concept of a French immersion school system is an attempt to "game" the labour market. Middle class parents who cannot afford to send their children to a real private school are trying to use the French immersion program to give their kids a "leg up" over the others when it comes to finding good jobs when they graduate. Again, the problem with this is that there are only so many jobs where being bilingual will give their children an advantage. So getting your child involved in the immersion program is no guarantee that they will actually get one of those jobs. But one thing we can be sure of, however, is that the more competitive we make the educational system, the more miserable we will make the children who are in it.


One of the big flaws in competition is that people almost never consider the opportunity costs  that flow from it. These can be both personal and communal.

In the case of communal opportunity costs, parents are not considering several things. First, in "gaming" the application system, they are creating a system that makes it harder and harder to go through the mechanics of actually enrolling their child. Secondly, by making such a fetish out of French immersion, they are damaging local English public schools, disrupting the community, and creating excessive and unnecessary costs for all the schools. Finally, by dramatically expanding the pool of bilingual citizens they are making competition for a limited number of government jobs just that more intense.

In terms of personal opportunity costs. The pressure that parents are putting on children to "excel" in their education so they can be more competitive with regard to the other members of their generational cohort lowers the quality of life for everyone. In other nations where society is more competitive than ours, this competition for good schools and good jobs has gotten to a place that most North Americans would find appalling. For example, my ex once explained to me that in India middle class children are usually expected not only to work hard at school, but they are also tutored in their "spare" time in order to get a "leg up" (actually, to just keep up) with their class mates. In addition, they are usually expected to do things like seriously practice a musical instrument (in order to discipline the mind.)

This same intense competition for scarce "entry tickets" to good middle-class jobs also exists in other countries such as China and Japan. Indeed one fairly successful book on this subject is "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". I haven't read it myself, but my understanding that it describes what the author, Amy Chua, calls "traditional Chinese parenting".
Amy Chua: Tiger Mom

There are several problems with this system.

First of all, it puts enormous stress on children and I suspect this damages many of them. Secondly, it is based on the assumption that it is possible to teach a child how to do "everything" or "the important things". I suspect that it is possible to teach or train a child to do many different things, but some of the most important come from unplanned or unpredictable experiences. And those things are by definition unteachable. The child needs some time to spend in an unstructured environment in order to find his or herself. I'd be interested in seeing long term studies that would show how many people who came through this sort of up bringing suffered from some sort of psychological problems in later life. I'd also be interested in seeing how many of them actually became trail-blazers in their fields as opposed to "middle-men" and technicians. I would suspect that the sort of rigorous imposed training in routine and practice costs in terms of creativity and courage.

On a macro level, this intensive pressure on individuals to compete within a system does nothing at all to change it. And that is probably the biggest opportunity cost. Society needs to do something about wealth inequality and the power dynamic that fuels it. Putting huge pressure on our children to become better and better at competing for the small number of jobs needed to support a super wealthy elite does nothing to change the system into something better. For the individual, this strategy might seem to be "more realistic", but for the society as a whole it is suicidal.


When I was young I was taken to a special event at our local agricultural co-op. The guest speaker was a famous Canadian fiddler by the name of Al Cherny. He told a little story about a man who died and when he came before St. Peter he was told that he had been accepted into Heaven. The fellow was a bit of skeptic, so he asked if he'd be able to check out both Heaven and Hell before he made up his mind about where he wanted to go. The saint said that this was OK, so the fellow went off to Hell to check it out.

Being a practical sort, the man went off to the mess hall to see what the food was like in Hell. He said that the devil chefs were serving soup that day and it looked and smelled pretty good. When the denizens came trooping in the door they were all given spoons. But they were strange in that they had impossibly long handles. This meant that when one of the citizens of Hell tried to eat the soup, it all fell out of the spoon and all they got were tiny dribbles of the soup. As you might imagine, this was pretty frustrating.

The fellow thought this was not terribly good, so he then decided that he wanted to see how things fared in Heaven. Again, he went to the mess hall. In Heaven the angels were serving soup too. And surprisingly, when the people of Heaven came in to eat they were given exactly the same types of spoons as the people in Hell! But when they ate they took the long spoons and fed the people sitting across them them at the table. Everyone had lots to eat and all proclaimed the soup was delish.

The point of the story was obvious. If we want to create a Heaven on Earth, we are going to have to help one another instead of competing!