How can Plato’s Republic help unite people?

4-26-17 Plato

To be honest, I was disappointed by Republic (amazon, wikipedia). It is incredibly speculative, authoritarian, and lacks counter-argument once it reaches the part about creating a theoretical republic. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Plato’s book is about a dialogue Socrates has at a party on the subject of justice versus injustice. Socrates decides that illustrating a perfectly just republic will best demonstrate what is just or unjust in the case of individuals. As the 2,400-year-old basis for western philosophy, I can understand its importance, but what can we learn from Republic to help unite people?

Plato writes that aristocracy is the ideal form of republic, followed by timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, in order of most-to-least ideal/just regime. This aristocracy is ruled by a philosopher king, with no personal interest to be gained by his decisions other than doing good for his people. His position is protected, his decrees enforced, and the republic defended by a socialized guard class. The rest of the populace are workers, with limited social mobility between classes. Education, music, art, and physical training are all extremely regulated by class, and there is widespread censorship to allow only what is considered necessary to cultivate the type of citizen desired. The leader may lie to his people for the public good, but no one else is allowed to deceive.

4-26-17 Plato's regimes

The Socratic view of liberty (discussed along with democracy) seems both narrow and negative. He talks about how, democracy being based on individual freedoms, must therefore lead to anarchy, as each person declares himself free of the influence of others and not responsible to the law. That anarchy eventually will lead to tyranny as someone must restore order to the republic that lacks discipline. Socrates fails to discuss how individual liberty could exist within the framework of the law (the foundation of classical liberalism), or that there are checks in a democracy (namely that voting allows freedom as long as it works within the values of the society).

Perhaps this is because Socrates had little respect for “the multitude” choosing wisely. He declared that no lover of wisdom can ever be loved by the people, and that those who specialize in catering to the desires of the masses must do so at the expense of doing what is wise and just. This is why his philosopher king was protected by a guard class, and why he feels a tyrant arises by first being the “protector” of the people. While the dangers of mob rule and tyranny of the majority are worthy of their own post, totalitarian control and censorship by aristocrats, timocrats, or oligarchs is no ideal to me.

4-26-17 censorship

If people are going to voluntarily unite, we will want it to be just, and we will want it to be durable, but all of that must exist within the legal framework of liberty and property. My liberty ends where yours begins. You are free to choose an undisciplined life, even if I and everybody else think it would be better if you were disciplined. Deciding to join a uniting world must be the best decision for your own personal well-being, not something that comes about through coercion or the decision of some philosopher king choosing for you.

According to Julian Baggini, while Republic “was wrong on almost every point, the questions it raises and the methods it uses are essential to the western tradition of philosophy. Without it we might not have philosophy as we know it.” I will take time in the future to write about how a world republic would best operate as a federation, but we can gain value from the theoretical republic Plato wrote about. The methods may have been flawed, but the aim of building a just society from a population of just individuals is something to incorporate as we look to the future.

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Is Jon Ossoff’s 48.1% a Backlash Against Trump?

4-20-17 georgia 6th

The special election this week in Georgia’s 6th congressional district is the latest yard stick by which the Democratic Party is measuring its recovery from the November 2016 election. I developed a strong sense of hope after that election, not because of support for the victors, but because the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump could actually spur people to involvement in the democratic process, instead of resigning themselves to another 4-8 years of the norm.

The greatest impact of the 2016 elections will not be the president elected or the withdrawal of Britain from the EU, but rather the people inspired to action by these results. I cannot imagine the same would occur without such massive catalysts.

4-20-17 Jon Ossoff.png

The National Review seems to think that Ossoff and the Democrats did not “even win a moral victory”. Of course, nobody actually won the congressional seat on Tuesday, so any declaration of victory or defeat is premature. In today’s world of blown 3-1 leads and losing after being up 28-3 in the Super Bowl, I think we all know to wait until the runoff election. Still, one can see the effort expended as both parties attempt to frame the vote as either support for or against national policy since January 20th.

In this article, The New Yorker speculates about whether Ossoff signals the direction for a weakened, but recovering, Democratic Party to head in. While Bernie Sanders may be the most popular politician in the United States, the general ineptitude of Trump’s first three months has allowed entrenched Democrats to find some footing from which to criticize the administration, without bending to the ends and means Bernie champions. It will be interesting to see if the progressive wing of the Democratic Party will join with progressive independents in an effective takeover of the party, split off from them as the Republicans split from the Whigs in the 1850s, or be relegated to a minor influence in the party, as the Tea Party was in the Republican Party.

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MIT Economist Robert Solow Warns Against Oligarchy

Yesterday, The Atlantic shared this post they originally published in April of 2014. The post is short, and refers to the following video interview with Robert Solow:

Most of it is echoing the thoughts of economist Thomas Piketty’s from his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which I coincidentally finished listening to just days ago. I am not saying that Solow did not have these idea independent of Piketty, but it is safe to say that, at the least, he agrees with Piketty’s conclusions. He had just reviewed Capital in the Twenty-First Century for New Republic when he gave this interview.

Wikipedia’s entry for “oligarchy” states that it is “a form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people.” Both Solow and Piketty conclude that, if income inequality is increasing, and the rich are getting richer, then they MUST also be consolidating power AND using that power to corrupt democracy in America.

4-20-17 oligarchy

I want to reserve most of my comments about Piketty’s book for my dedicated post about it, but we do have the benefit of 4 years since its publication, and 3 years since these comments by Solow. We can accept the data they reference (growing inequality due to return on capital outpacing growth in the developed world, slowly returning the wealth inequality levels to those seen before the shocks of two world wars), but we don’t necessarily have to accept their conclusions.

I am not arguing against the seemingly obvious connection between having monetary interests and wanting to use one’s available interests to protect and/or grow those interests. There is corruption in the Western Democracies. There are ways for people who have money and power to use them to try to influence the decisions of others. However, I have yet to be convinced that income or wealth inequality levels change the amount of that corruption and influence.

4-20-17 Voting-booth-006

Do Apple and Google have more influence now than GE and IBM did 40 years ago? Do Bill Gates and the Koch brothers have more influence than Howard Hughes and Daniel Ludwig did? The current democratic system system is flawed, but as long as one vote still equals one vote, people retain their right to pool their power and influence into something far stronger than any supposed oligarchy ever could.

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Hotels and Governments Gang Up Against Airbnb

In a familiar story after the growing pains Uber and Lyft have experienced around the globe, it appears hotel lobbyists are doing everything in their power to convince governments from city, state, and federal levels to impede the growth of Airbnb and similar start ups (HomeAway, VRBO). This blog post at Reason.com comes on the heels of this article by The New York Times.

The hotel lobby and trade groups exist solely to further the interests of the hotels and motels, so it makes perfect sense that they would use all available means to lessen competition. I have no problem with them existing, nor with them using every legal option they can. The governments being used as a tool to stunt competition, and the best interests of the consumers, are where I take issue with what has been happening.

4-19-17 Airbnb-versus-chart

Should Airbnb hosts be subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and local/state fire safety standards equal to what the hotels and motels are required to meet? To me, this is the most complicated issue presented. In a perfect world, the ADA and government-controlled fire regulations would not be necessary, as enterprising businesses would use disabled access as a selling point, courting those customers, while safety would be an easily-marketed selling point to the masses. “ACME Hotels are ABC Safety Certified, so you can enjoy your stay worry-free!” We do not live in a perfect world, and I cannot give you a perfect answer about whether or not such rules should apply to Airbnb. I can, however, point out that traditional bed & breakfasts are much closer in structure and resources to the people sharing their homes on Airbnb. Perhaps requiring standards and taxes equal to those met by the local bed and breakfasts is the way to go.

I am a believer in the “sharing economy” and in letting it evolve as far as consumers want it to evolve. Protectionism in any industry hurts the consumers and constrains the flow of capital. If the lack of competition (in this case due to impediment of Airbnb) leads to higher prices, some consumers will decide they can’t afford it, others will pay that higher price and sacrifice either using that money to buy something else or saving it (building capital), and the current providers of the service will avoid a major reason for delivering quality service.

4-19-17 Airbnb spending

If people are using Airbnb (and they are), it is because there is a demand for that service, and the alternative it provides to what it is competing with. Now, if the hotel companies are smart, they will recognize this demand and the money they could make by satisfying it instead of fighting to deliver a cubed gadget to a consumer who wants a ball gadget. Use those big company resources to research the in-demand locations and styles, buy small properties that fit the consumers’ desires, and provide the Pepsi to Airbnb’s Coke. Another option is for hotels for intensively focus on people who would never stay at an Airbnb, because they want the experience of a hotel. A steak house and a vegetarian restaurant can happily coexist right next to each other, because each has its own client base, and some people will frequent both, depending on the occasion.

The hotels and motels do not deserve to exist solely because they have existed up until now. They certainly don’t deserve special protection from governments at various levels to limit competition against them. Do I think Airbnb will destroy the hotel industry? No. They can both coexist, but as Airbnb claims market share, some weaker hotels and motels will probably fold. This is painful, but natural, and eventually good for the consumers, who have voted with their dollars for the services that provide best what they want. This is capitalism working.

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A few thoughts about the immigration crisis from here in Honduras

IMG_3060Almost everyone I’ve met down here has family and/or friends in the United States. I don’t ask if they’re legal, but just judging by socioeconomic class, I’m sure the vast majority are not. It’s prohibitively expensive (and difficult) for the average Honduran to even get a tourist visa to the US, and I’m sure only the rich have a shot at residency…that is unless a Honduran marries a gringo or gringa. Careful now 😉

Violence

Violence is a huge problem here. For the most part, it is confined to gangs in the big cities, but there are the occasional stray bullets. While I did write about some recent murders in my smaller city, I’ve heard rumors that these people were probably involved in drug sales/transports or were screwing around with other peoples’ wives. As my friend put it, “Nobody gets killed in Tela unless it is for drugs, gangs, or adultery.” Hopefully my big head will keep that in mind for my other head. As a related note, for a good movie that touches on both the gang presence in Honduras and the trip to try to enter the US, watch “Sin Nombre” (full movie here…shhh). It’s very well done, and gives you a sense of what all those people who did make it up to the border have gone through.

As I’ve mentioned before, San Pedro Sula is the current holder of “murder capital of the world” dishonors. In the paper a couple days ago, they had a graphic showing 2013 murder rates in my area of the country:

IMG_3113**In the map, the upper number is the raw number of homicides, and the lower number is per 100,000 inhabitants**

This is a bit disconcerting, because if you refer back to Wikipedia, La Ceiba should be listed #2 and my little city would come in at #5 (or 6 if Ceiba was in there too). Sooooooo, there must be a minimum city population they use. The average person here absolutely agrees that this is a problem, but nobody seems to think there is anything they can do about it. Fortunately, the rate did fall 8% from 2012. Maybe that trend will continue. I certainly don’t think Greater Tela is averaging 6.9 murders per month this year. Maybe 3, unless I am completely oblivious.

Economics

The whole country is in a rough place economically. GDP growth (not the best measure, but that’s what I have) peaked in 2006, before falling into recession for 2009, recovering a bit in 2010, but then plateauing in 2011-12 and falling a bit in 2013. That doesn’t entirely jive with the raw data I have for GDP by year, but either way, things haven’t gotten better recently. And of course, I can tell you from 10 months of personal experience, that everyone agrees these are tough times economically.

Here is the thing that I don’t think people in The States realize:

The minimum wage is about $400 per month down here. Not very many (I wish I had data on this, but let’s say <50% of) working age people have jobs that pay the minimum wage or more. Depending on what shift they work, on-the-books workers put in 40-44 hours per week. If we take the 40/week, at 4.345 weeks/month, that’s 173.8 hours/month or a wonderful $2.30/hour – AND THAT’S FOR THE PEOPLE LUCKY ENOUGH TO MAKE MINIMUM WAGE!

Are you beginning to understand why the risk of a husband trying sneaking into the US is so appealing? If he makes it, even making $5/hour is more than double what he could make on minimum wage down here. For some of the receptionists I know, $5/hour is more than 7 times what they make down here. For the day laborer getting $10-15/day, making $80+/day working for some suburbonite seems like a dream.

It’s not that they live some fancy life up in the US on that money. For the most part, they are extremely frugal and send money home each month, where it makes a HUGE difference for their family. I’ve heard the story of how so-and-so’s family is doing well (relatively) because of money coming in from the US at least 10 times from 10 different people.

We can debate the good or bad that illegals do in the US in the comments or in a future post, but hopefully this gives you a bit of perspective while the immigration influx gets ironed out up north.

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The Reeve Legacy: Who is a Great Person?

Just a short anecdote for you today: 01 R Williams and ReeveAfter the recent death of Robin Williams, a story circled around about how he went in to visit Christopher Reeve before spinal surgery in 1995 to cheer up his old Julliard classmate as only Robin Williams could. That story reminded me of the early 2000s, when Christopher and Dana Reeve were attending the Unitarian Church in Westport (Connecticut), where my family had been going since I was a boy.

I didn’t go every week, and neither did they, so I don’t have any genuine interactions to share, but they continued to drop in from time to time, and in 2004, when Christopher died from complications leading to a heart attack, Dana decided to hold a memorial service at the church. I was away at college.

reeveShe continued to attend and make friends up until she died from lung cancer, two years later (2006). This time, I made it to the memorial service held the Sunday after her death. I’ll never forget the opening lines of the minister’s tribute:

“When you met Christopher, in five minutes, you knew he was a great man. When you met Dana, in five minutes, you knew you were a great person.”

How amazing is that? Yes, we need great people: People to lead us, to rally us, to sacrifice for us…but at least as important are the people who can show us that we have all that greatness within ourselves. For so many years, I’ve focused on trying to become great at whatever I do. All the same, I hope that I can manifest some of that power Dana had. The power to show other people just how great they already are, in this moment, and in their potential for the future.

03 R _reeve_hmed_9a.h2

Pick either path. That of Christopher or that of Dana. The world needs more of both.

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Brokers, Climate Change, and Why the Internet has us so Confused

I’m far from the first to point out that technology is changing faster than our biology can keep up with. Today, my broker and I had a back and forth over e-mail about the following chart from this blog:

BaCC - 01 90 degree days

While I had no desire to get into a debate about climate change, my issue was with the word “plummeting” being used in the overall description of the above data. As his responses veered toward whether or not man-made climate change is real, I redirected back to a simple discussion about the chart, yet was reminded of what the internet can do to us.

The internet is this marvelous place where we can find information about pretty much anything. When it comes to controversial issues, that means people from both sides can find information supporting their positions. More often than not, this information is very convincing, cites data & professionals, and probably claims a grounding in science (unless it’s a religious issue rallying against science).

The problem here is that everyone who has picked a side gets confirmation that they are right, evidence that the other side is wrong, and little or no incentive to seek out opposing viewpoints. Let’s take a couple examples that 99.9% of you will firmly end up on one side of:

  • Beastiality – I’m not going to look, but I bet there are some pretty convincing websites out there saying why people should be having more sex with animals. (Or for another sexual example, South Park’s NAMBLA episode anyone?)
  • Vermont Secession – This is so unknown that most of you have never heard of it, but there are those who want Vermont to secede from the US.

Now, if you were an alien who had just arrived, and you read websites in favor of those examples, you may just join the cause. Imagine growing up with Hitler as your only teacher. You don’t know any better. You just accept his words as gospel. Everyone around you is doing it.

BaCC - 03 hitler-talking-to-children-at-rally

This is a danger of the sounding box that is the internet. Some very convincing people can make some very convincing cases, usually without being directly challenged. They can build up a following in some dark corner of the internet, and then their followers will go toe-to-toe with the opposition on more well-known sites.

Confounding all this is the fact that, a small percentage of the time, the contrarian view is dead-on. Remember the movie, “Conspiracy Theory“? Sure, if you challenge everything, you will eventually hit upon a lie. Natural News and PRN, I’m looking at you. Stop cluttering my Facebook feed with shit about how Monsanto investing in a company developing an Ebola drug must be a conspiracy! Who the hell can know what to believe these days? Everyone makes such convincing cases. I was such a big fan of Gary Null’s work for years, and I appreciate his challenge of so many institutionalized beliefs and the resources he has, but listening to him without some sort of check from the larger world was dangerous.

BaCC - 02 scivspseudosci3So how do we fight the confusion? I Fucking Love Science shared this a little while back. I think it’s a great reference to keep in mind when judging both the establishment and the contrarians. Better still, I think procon.org is an amazing resource (full disclosure: I have donated to them before).

Good luck out there, and do your best to keep an open mind 🙂

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