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Frontier and Establishment Generations

Susannah Fox posed an excellent question during a recent Master Class on participatory medicine at Medicine X that went something like this:

How do we adapt to a shifting landscape of polling where people expect a more participatory approach?

The translation is, “How do we connect with young people that increasingly have more control over who calls them and do not see an apparent need to participate in polling research.”

In my humble opinion, Millennials have often been poorly characterized. Employers read that they were given a lot of trophies as kids and expect a lot of feedback and praise. I believe the truth is a lot more textured than that.

I would argue that Millennials (young adults born after about 1982) are a Frontier Generation. What does that mean?

A frontier is an untamed and unsettled world. A Frontier Generation is the first group of people to arrive on the scene. The U.S. western frontier may have closed in 1890, but the virtual frontier of the Internet opened in the 1980’s and Millennials are the first to be online for most of their lives.

Being the first to arrive on a frontier means that there is almost no distance between “what you want to do” and “doing it”. If you see a problem, you band together to find a solution. If MySpace isn’t meeting your needs, you create your own alternative (Facebook) and people are free to flock to it. Who settled the Facebook Frontier? Millennials. They have imprinted on a virtual world that seems to always get better, is filled with innumerable choices, and where they are constantly in the driver seat.

At the opposite end would be Establishment Generations. They grow up in a world where things are orderly, and have not largely been disrupted for quite some time. They learn in their youth that it is futile to try to change things, not just because it’s really hard, but because it will make life worse for you. People will think that you’re crazy for challenging an establishment that –most people are convinced — was set up for the betterment of society.

The most long lived Establishment society I’ve encountered is Japan. They have many, many cultural rules and norms that have been fostered for thousands of years. The frontiers of Japan have been closed for centuries. Interestingly, while other ancient countries have seen massive disruptions (being colonized, fighting for independence, etc.), Japan’s history is far more static. They’ve largely always been independent (people could argue they lost that after WWII, I would respectfully disagree). The difference is amazing. One example is the way they park in Japan:


Flickr by andydoro

Notice how all the cars in a row face the same direction. Notice how each car is neatly parked within its lines, anyone who’s been to Japan can relate to this. Now behold American parking:

American parking

Flickr by corporatemonkey

If you want to connect with young people, it helps to understand their world.

Expectations of the World:
Frontier Generation: Changeable, engaging, with transparent exchange (i.e. What value do you want, and what do you offer in return?).
Establishment Generation: Emphasizes peace and stability, one-way, opaque (e.g. “fill out this form and don’t ask why — it’s for the greater good.”).

The Question of Syria

“We witnessed our politicians and countrymen send us to war on a surge of emotion and quickly forget about us for nearly a decade.”  ~ Former Cpl. Jack Mandaville

To test to see if Mr. Mandaville is correct, I’ve posed this question to people who complain about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Do you really care?”  Most of the time the answer is, “Well, yes!”  I then ask them, “When was the last time you wrote your Congressperson or joined in a street protest against the wars?”  The answer to that is always, “Never.”  I’m not blaming them, I’m in the same boat.

This is a dangerous place to be in.  Libertarians rightfully argue against military interventionism, but so often the answer is just to “stop doing it.”  But we can’t stop military activity altogether.  So the question is, “What are the rational military needs of a nation?”  We need to be able to defend ourselves and strike enemies when necessary, but we need to refrain from striking when it is not necessary.  How do you find such a balance?

As is almost always the case, the answer lies in equality.  The problem we have today is that the people deciding to send troops into Iraq and keep them there are not at all at risk.  This means you get the very predictable behavior where a majority votes in favor of benefits for themselves (real or perceived) where the cost is solely born by a minority.  In this case the role of underrepresented minority is played by our servicemen and women.

What is the difference between Iraq and Vietnam?  The culture war tradition handed down to us from previous generations has two main accounts of Vietnam.  One telling is that it was a matter of cowardly draft dodgers vs. patriotic Americans willing to fight against the encroachment of Communism.  The other telling is that it involved principled peace loving protesters against an unnecessary conflict vs. blood thirsty napalming soldiers.

So often the debate today surrounding Vietnam is whether or not the U.S. should have stayed or whether or not the war was really won.  The amazing thing we should be highlighting is how vigorous the public debate was during that period.  We did not “send them to war on a surge of emotion and forget about them.”  Why is that?

The truth is that people protested the Vietnam war so vigorously because they were personally at risk.  Everyone had a vested interest.  If it wasn’t you, it was your boyfriend, son, or cousin.  Things were set up differently because most all young people were more equally at risk of being drafted.  Now that we’ve done away with the draft, the vast majority of Americans have no personal stake in Iraq or Afghanistan.  They will not pay more in taxes and there is zero likelihood that they will be sent overseas to fight.  People may have strong opinions, but the truth is as Mandaville has said, we have forgotten them.

How do we maintain a balanced approach toward war — fighting when only necessary?  By having a system in place where if society wants a war, society will bear the costs as equally as possible.  That should be measure of a necessary and just war.  That is when people ask more forcefully, “What do we hope to accomplish?” and “How long will the engagement last and how much will it cost?”  Let’s give equality a chance.

China vs. Western Liberal Ideals

By default we assume that the world shares our Western views on equal protection and human rights.  They don’t — and it’s not because the world is evil, but because the idea of equal protection will always be inherently threatening to those in power who extract value from those they have power over.
Promotion of Western constitutional democracy is an attempt to negate the party’s leadership,” Cheng Xinping, a deputy head of propaganda for Hengyang, a city in Hunan, told a gathering of mining industry officials. Human rights advocates, he continued, want “ultimately to form a force for political confrontation.
Exactly.  This is why it’s amazing that such ideas of universal human rights (to life, liberty, property) ever evolved in the first place.  They can only do so under violent opposition from those in command.  This fear of losing value is why:
  • Officials in Alabama during the civil rights movements didn’t want to give up good seats on the bus, good slots in schools, and equal protection to African Americans.  
  • Plantation owners in the South did not want to give up their cotton and tobacco producing slaves.
  • Great Britain did not want to give up the 13 American Colonies which could provide ample sources of tax revenue.
These ideals are unique and fragile.  They need the strong support of principled men and women like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington — and brave Chinese citizens on the same quest.
A few other observations on the article:

These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

NEWS FLASH: The Chinese are human too and think and feel just like we do. They predictably fear the perils of a loss of value by the political class.  Chinese politicians appreciate value just like all other politicians.

The confrontation at the newspaper and campaign demanding that officials disclose their wealth alarmed leaders and helped galvanize them into issuing Document No. 9, said Professor Xiao, the historian. Indeed, senior central propaganda officials met to discuss the newspaper protest, among other issues, and called it a plot to subvert the party, according to a speech on a party Web site of Lianyungang, a port city in eastern China.”

When did the full government backlash hit? When people were trying to put a number on the amount of value that the government leaders controlled.  “Whoa, hold that right there! You people at the bottom can be subject to the accountability of market forces, but don’t try to treat us the same way. That is intolerable.  Never forget that we are not equal.  We are your superiors.”

The Real Universe is Dead

I’m not arguing that we affirmatively live in a virtual universe, just that the assumption of realness made by the scientific community cannot be independently verified.

Nietzsche described and popularized the “God is Dead” philosophical movement. If you haven’t read the fantastic account of the Madman in the market place, I’ve excerpted it here:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this?

Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?

There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]

For history’s sake, let’s review the arguments that “killed God” or rather, destroyed the certainty that He exists:

  • His existence cannot be observed or verified (to date) in a scientific fashion.
  • Belief in God, then, is superstition.
  • We don’t need God to explain the creation of the Universe or of intelligent life. Theories like the Big Bang and Evolution do that for us.
  • The Universe is governed my physical laws, with no need of God for governance (e.g. keeping the moon in its orbit).

And why was the Madman mourning his death so dramatically? Because with the death of God comes the loss of any moral authority. We each can have our own opinion about morality, but no scientific reality will help us to prove that one action is definitively more moral than another. Any true atheist can relate to this (sometimes liberating) feeling of being “unmoored”.


We now find ourselves in an strikingly similar situation. Same stage, same lines, different starring actors. This time instead of God doing the dying, it is the Real Universe lying in the back of the hearse. What a peaceful visage, but so few people marching in the procession?

As a precursor, see once again this discussion on the naturalness of the Universe.

Therein we encounter this doozy:

“Physicists reason that if the universe is unnatural, with extremely unlikely fundamental constants that make life possible, then an enormous number of universes must exist for our improbable case to have been realized. Otherwise, why should we be so lucky? Unnaturalness would give a huge lift to the multiverse hypothesis, which holds that our universe is one bubble in an infinite and inaccessible foam. According to a popular but polarizing framework called string theory, the number of possible types of universes that can bubble up in a multiverse is around 10^500. In a few of them, chance cancellations would produce the strange constants we observe.”

Throughout this discussion, it is always assumed that we live in a real physical universe — just like we used to assume that God existed. Let’s apply the same arguments that killed God to the question of the Real Universe:

  • The reality of our Universe cannot be observed or verified (to date) in a scientific fashion.
  • Belief in a Real Universe, then, is superstition.
  • We don’t need a Real Universe to explain the origin of the Universe or of intelligent life. A Virtual Universe could do that.
  • The Universe could be governed by virtual laws (computer code), with no need of space time or reality for governance.

Let’s take the statement: “with extremely unlikely fundamental constants that make life possible, then an enormous number of universes must exist for our improbable case to have been realized.” You only need 10^500 universes if our Universe is real. If the Universe is virtual than it was designed to make life possible. So which is more unlikely, a simulation on the scale of our Universe, or the existence of 10^500 universes? Keep in mind that a million is 10^6.

Even without these discoveries, even if our Universe looked pretty, orderly, and natural, there would still be a non-zero likelihood that it is virtual, especially since virtual universes can have a many-to-one relationship to real universes.

So even though the certainty of a Real Universe is dead — it never existed — we still live in its shadow and the full ramifications of its death could take decades to be realized. Stating this I often meet with blank stares. Perhaps “I have come too early, my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way.”


And finally, what would it take to prove that our Universe is not virtual? It would not be enough to show that humans cannot create such a simulation in our universe, you would have to prove that there does not exist any universe governed by any set of rules populated by any type of intelligent life that could possibly host our virtual universe.

Proving that makes finding dark energy sound easy.

Intelligent Design — Wrapped in Bacon

For years I was an atheist. I became one after serving a two year LDS mission in Mexico. I didn’t have any issues with religion or Mormonism per se, other than the fact that the Universe I was coming to know through my biology and physics classes did not seem to indicate any divine creation. I wasn’t a skeptic, just a realist, pursuing the truth wherever it lead me.

I came to understand that there are indeed no substantial refutations of the evidence in favor of evolution or of the Big Bang. Does that prove definitively that there was no divine creation? That is a question I didn’t think to ask for years.

Believers need an intellectual framework and one of the foremost adopted by the Christian Right is Intelligent Design (ID). What is the point of ID? To reconcile Biblical accounts with scientific fact. How well does it do that? Not so well. Can it account for a 6,000 year old Earth or the Flood? No, it doesn’t even try. What it does try to do is discredit or tweak our current scientific understanding. Their success here is very limited because our understanding is based on evidence, and it’s difficult to get the evidence to disagree with the evidence.

So how do we wrap Intelligent Design in bacon? Good question! This is always my favorite part.

First of all, ID goes after very well established theories like the Big Bang or evolution. For anyone remotely interested in biology or genetics, there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favor of evolution. Why ID is trying to storm the walls of such a formidable city is beyond me. According to legend, Cyrus the Great didn’t attack the walls of Babylon, that would have been suicidal. Instead, he was clever and wrapped the battle in bacon (i.e. he diverted the Euphrates river that ran under the city walls and his troops were able to march under them without being challenged).

The river that flows under all of cosmology is the dogma — the unsubstantiated belief — that we live in a real universe. If you divert this river, not only do you highlight a massive vulnerability of the scientific establishment, but you also gain the keys to the city.

For example, take this discussion on naturalness:

In peril is the notion of “naturalness,” Albert Einstein’s dream that the laws of nature are sublimely beautiful, inevitable and self-contained. Without it, physicists face the harsh prospect that those laws are just an arbitrary, messy outcome of random fluctuations in the fabric of space and time.

In order to counter the unlikelihood of our existence, scientist conjure up undetectable “multiverses”.

The idea that the ID community should be pursuing is that we live in a virtual universe. Scientists are at a loss to describe dark matter and dark energy, so it seems a fair assessment to say that they cannot prove that his universe is virtual or real. Why scientists are basing all of their assumptions an an unproven belief is difficult to fathom. From my perspective as a former atheist, you can use all of the same arguments that “killed God” to kill the Real Universe.

Is a virtual universe unscientific? Not at all. Simulations are everywhere now and we spend more and more of our time playing virtual games and living virtual lives. The main question is whether or not a simulation on the scale of our Universe is possible – a question that science has not yet addressed. If it is possible, even remotely, then one real universe could host many virtual universes. If that is the case then all else being equal, our likelihood of living in a virtual universe is much higher than that of living in a real universe. So an objective scientific view would conceded that if it’s possible that our Universe is virtual, then it’s very likely that it is. It’s a numbers game.

What does this do for the ID crowd? It completely changes the debate. Let’s take a simple question like, “How old is the Earth?” Scientists can answer “It’s 4.5 billion years old” and Creationists (or even more objective scientists) can correct them and say, “If we live in a real universe, the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. If we live in a virtual universe, then the Earth looks like it’s 4.5 billion year old, but it probably isn’t.” Creationists would go from looking like barbaric cave folk, to thought provoking members of a new renaissance.

What about evolution? Same thing. Creationist could say, “If we live in a real universe, then our bodies are the result of billions of years of evolution. If we live in a virtual universe, then it was made to appear that we are the result of billions of years of evolution, but that is probably not the case. Whoever created the simulation would certainly be smart enough to fast forward through the boring and uneventful parts. Who knows, maybe time is experienced differently by the universe that would host our virtual one.

Adopting this viewpoint would lead to a great reconciliation between believers and scientists. Instead of refuting science, we could applaud it and try to learn from what the creator of our virtual universe was saying by creating it the way he did. Scientist would then be forced to admit that the certainty of “the real universe is dead” and we could continue discovery not just looking for naturalness, but also signs of computer code running everything we experience.

It would then be truly “Intelligent Design Wrapped in Bacon”.

Final Mind Bender: The discovery of the amplituhedron makes quantum physics much easier to simulate. Maybe that’s because it is simulated.

The Value Motive

For those who speak another language besides English, you’ll know that there are certain phrases or words that exist in other languages, but don’t have direct parallels in our own tongue.  For example, in Spanish the word “ánimo” has no direct parallel, but generally means “encouragement” or “energy”.

A major gap currently existing in English, and probably in most languages, is a term or word that clearly describes and predicts human behavior.  We may use the term “self-interest”, but this has a negative connotation and is not particularly predictive.  There is a term that economists use for businesses called the “profit motive”.  As Wikipedia puts it, the profit motive “is an economic concept which posits that the ultimate goal of a business is to make money.”  This has more predictive value, but it is only narrowly applicable.  It basically says that for only one type of group (a company) and within only a certain type of society (capitalistic society with money), does the profit motive apply:

Businesses make up only one of many groups in society.  What is the goal of other groups like non-profits, government agencies, clubs, and families?  Even within a company, are all employees, shareholders, and managers focused on making a profit?  Sales people probably care a lot more about their commission than about company profits.  How can we more generally describe the goals of all players within any organization?

And what about non-capitalistic societies?  Is it true that since organizations in a communistic society may not use money that they no longer have a “profit motive”?   Does that mean they are less selfish or somehow inherently different?  Surely people and groups in capitalist societies are not the only ones that exhibit goals or predictable behavior.  Clearly then, some term is missing in the English language to describe the universal goals of people.

The term we are referring to, of course, is the value motive.  What does this mean?  In universal terms it means that all known biological life seeks to protect and increase its control over value.  That includes cacti, tortoises, companies, and communist party bosses.  Let’s take some examples.

We already established here that money is of universal value (most people want to keep the money they have and increase it, all else being equal).  The term value motive clarifies that even in societies that predate or do away with money, there are still many other things of value that humans will want to control.  In hunter gatherer societies, controlling sources of food and the means of reproduction were immensely valuable — often questions of life and death.  In communist societies where money was seldom used or nearly worthless, the ability to restrict people’s travel, control their shelter, and curtail their speech was just as valuable as having a $1,000,000 in the bank.  It also clarifies that people don’t seek fame, fortune, or power — they seek to control value, which includes all three.

So to summarize, all life — including humans — has the goal of securing value.  Understanding this clarifies a great many points.  For example, we can’t get rid of the value motive by doing away with companies or switching away from a capitalist society (as Marx or Michael Moore have proposed).  It helps us predict how politicians, emperors, bureaucrats and military leaders will behave.  Both Google and the NSA want access to our personal information because it’s valuable.  It is foolish to say that Google has a value motive (commercial motive) while the NSA does not.  Collecting our personal information is hugely valuable to politicians and bureaucrats, even if the value is not commercial in nature.  It provides jobs and career advancement for bureaucrats, and enables politicians to embarrass, ensnare or even prosecute their opponents at will.

Dear Value Motive, Welcome to the English Language!


Adam Smith, Self-Interest, and How Not to Sell Capitalism

Happy belated 290th Birthday Adam Smith!

It’s hard to imagine any one person exerting more of an influence on modern day discourse on  political economy than Smith.  He is the go-to guy.  For basketball?  Jordan.  Physics?  Newton.  Economics?  Smith.

There is one significant difference though between Smith and the others.  For Jordan, we all know the bounds of his greatness.  He wasn’t a great baseball player.  For Newton, his equations did not apply to objects traveling near the speed of light.  Not a big deal.  Those observations in no way diminish their greatness.  Smith, on the other hand, has the very grave misfortune of not having been bounded.  We haven’t identified and corrected some of his minor oversights and have amplified some of his weaker arguments until they’ve grown into society wide antagonisms — major unnecessary rifts between the political right and left.

Allow me to explain.

Smith was phenomenal at perceiving how capitalism results in prosperity; introducing comparative advantage, division of labor, pricing mechanisms, etc.  The Wealth of Nations was so remarkable in this respect, that we often want accept everything it says as economic gospel.  Unfortunately, he was not the best at describing how capitalism came to be or what exactly capitalism was.  A couple of examples:


“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

“Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to society… He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention”  ~ Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

These two quotes have been directly incorporated into most conventional definitions of capitalism:

Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, with the goal of making a profit. ~ Wikipedia

We could very well replace “the goal of making a profit” with Smith’s pursuit of self-interest, and not materially change the meaning.  Therefore, capitalism is a system based on self-interest or a profit motive.  Got it.  The major problem here is that self-interest is not in any way a distinguishing feature of capitalism.  Every system known to man is based on self-interest: imperialism, mercantilism, fascism, communism, tribalism, you name it.  And by “communism”, I’m not referring to the one written on paper, but the system as practiced in the real world by Lenin, Stalin and Zedong.  If any system stood a day, it was riding on the shoulders of self-interest.  Even the vile slave labor camps of the Nazis used self-interest to motivate prisoners and enforce compliance.

The distinguishing feature of capitalism, then, is that the butcher and baker have to please you in exchange for your value because they have no other choice.  In Smith’s scenario, if the butcher and baker desire your value, what’s to stop them from taking it?  That’s what one African tribe does to another?  What the armed samurai did to the unarmed peasants?  What Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does to dissidents that post on Twitter?  It’s so much easier to just take stuff away, so why are the butcher and baker busting their tails?  Hint: It’s not because of self-interest.

It would be far more accurate to describe capitalism as a system that — unlike most all others — strongly protects you from the greed and illicit self-interest of others.  It is a system of voluntary exchange simply because all the forms of involuntary exchange have been outlawed.  The moment the butcher can coerce you out of your value, is the moment you can no longer rely on him to work  for your good.  So to conclude, a discussion of self-interest is necessary and critical to describing “how capitalism results in prosperity”, but it is deceptive when applied to the question of “what capitalism is.”

What does it matter?  A great deal.  We have an entire generation of liberal leaning folk that look at capitalism and see a system based on greed.  “How”, they rightfully ask, “can a system founded on greed and profit motive ultimately result in more overall well being?”  They don’t believe it can.  They are right.  No such system has ever worked.  By not modifying Smith we have inadvertently fostered anti-capitalism.

The Public Good

Setting up a system where everyone’s value is strongly and equally protected is extremely difficult and rare.  It requires tremendous sacrifices and self-denial.  Did Lincoln follow his self-interest when he set about to end slavery?  The man was absolutely miserable as a consequence of the Civil War and died an early death on account of his convictions.  Such a system requires many contributors that are more devoted to the public good than themselves.  Which is what makes a statement like this from Smith problematic:

“By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

In context, Smith is largely correct.  He’s saying we’ll all be better off if we buy the best products (for ourselves) regardless of their country of origin.  That is true.  But these comments, and the misplaced emphasis on self-interest, have led subsequent writers like Ayn Rand to decry morally motivated behavior, and exalt self-interested motives.  Poor Adam Smith.

We can not create or maintain a society where everyone is strongly and equally protected solely by encouraging self interest.  We all need Washingtons, Lincolns, Rosa Parkses and Martin Luther King Juniors, to put their moral convictions above their personal well being.  We need a culture that encourages and fosters the principles they stood for — principles which protect us still today.

The Superset Essentials – Value and Control

If we had only one blog post to describe the foundations of the Superset, what would it say?  If we were hit by a truck, you could derive most Superset principles from two basic, but extremely important insights.

Insight #1: It’s not about the money, it’s about the value.

Insight #2: You own a lot more and a lot less than you think.

Insight #1 Explained

In our post modern society we often think that something is only valuable if we can put a price on it.  To calculate our net worth we add up the monetary value of our assets.  Simple.  The Superset points out that there are many things of value that are not considered as assets.

For example, as biological creatures we have many needs in common: air, food, water, shelter, and rest.  But beyond that we, and our ancestors, also need the ability to secure all of those things.  Food doesn’t just land in our laps.  Sources of clean water can still be difficult to come by for impoverished countries in Africa.  How did our hunter-gatherer forebearers meet these needs?  They labored, they traveled, they coordinated their activities by speaking to each other.  Each day they needed to be at liberty to choose their vocation.  Depending on the season they could be gathering nuts, preparing leather clothing, fishing, or searching for salt.  They needed to control their own tools and weapons – their possessions.  They needed to learn new ideas and decide what they should do with them.

So what things are of universal value to humans?  The following:

Air, food, water, shelter, possessions, labor, speech, thoughts, conscience, and the liberty to travel and choose our vocations.

Appreciating value was not an academic exercise, it was necessary to survival.  As the offspring of these survivors we are genetically programmed to protect the value we have and strive for more.  Not convinced?  Let’s take a quick example:

All else being equal, which would you rather have, $10 or $100?

Why do we all answer that question the same way?  Are people greedy?  No.  Plants are not greedy when they spread out their leafs to capture more sunlight.  They are doing what they are programmed to do.  What are people programmed to do?

1) Protect the value they have (prefer not to go from $100 down to $10)

2) Increase the value they control (prefer the increased value of $100 over $10)

This says nothing about the desires or intentions of the person wanting the value.  The more value you control, the more good you can do, so it’s implication is very limited in saying simply that humans appreciate value.

Insight #2 Explained

We often think that the things we own are the ones with our names on them: bank accounts, the title to a car or house, or a virtual stock certificate.

We’ll first explain that we own a lot less than we think.  For example, I think I own my home, but what does that mean?

Ownership: Having the exclusive and strongly protected right to control, transfer, use and capture any gain or loss of value of that which is owned.

Do I control my home if is threatened by fire?  No.  The fire department can forcefully evacuate me and take control of my property.  What if I fail to pay the mortgage or taxes?  Then the bank or government can take control of the home and sell it to recuperate the money they are due.  So we often don’t own things as completely as we might assume.

What do we own more of?  A great many things.  We often don’t think of ourselves as owning clean air, but if we breath it, it’s ours.  Do you own your own conscience?  Can you decide for yourself what is right and wrong and join a non-profit, club, or church as a consequence of your belief?  Can you read and write whatever you want?  Those things are of tremendous value, and not everyone is so lucky to have them.  If you are extremely fortunate, you control the whole enchilada.  You decide what you want to study, how you contract your labor, what city you live in, where you want to visit on vacation, etc. etc.  You capture the fruits of your labor and have full and unthreatened control over your possessions and money.  Such a protected existence is really a marvel given how many people also have an interest in controlling our value.  It’s something only the tiniest fraction of humans has ever enjoyed.

Discrimination – Still Crazy After All These Years

Will Congress exempt itself from Obamacare?  Shouldn’t we be outraged at the thought of them giving themselves preferential treatment?  Sure we should, and we would all probably be more outraged if discrimination weren’t woven into the very fabric of our society.

We (the authors of this blog) have this old fashioned belief that if the government has a right to discriminate against your peers, it has a right to discriminate against you.  So if your fellow citizen has lost a right or a fundamental protection, so have you.  If one company or industry is discriminated against, then it might be your company or industry next.  In the U.S., discrimination has been happening for so long that we often fail to recognize it as such.  We think that with the civil rights movement we righted a great wrong, and that is true, but the plague of discrimination is still as rampant as ever.

You, dear reader, look like a decent person.  Let me ask you a few questions about fairness:

  1. Do you think it’s okay to give favors to the medical profession and deny that same preferential treatment to the legal profession?  Is it fair to give a company a tax break for a certain activity, but deny individuals the same treatment for the same exact activity? 
  2. Is it okay for the highly productive to have a strong right to their labor, but to take that right away from the lowly productive?
  3. Should a health insurance company be protected as equally as a car insurance company?
  4. Do you think it’s okay for the government to target an industry, and tax them at a higher rate than anyone else just because they can?

I would hope that we would agree on all of these items i.e. that all parties should all be treated equally.  This isn’t just idealistic blather, it’s also very pragmatic.  Each one of us controls a great deal of value: our own labor, our assets, our prerogative to travel, live, study and work according to our own preferences.  We all naturally want to protect that value, and our control is more strongly protected when it is equally protected.  We should all be opposed to discrimination for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.   Here’s the list of offenses that mirrors the questions listed above:

  1. Under current law, if your employer pays your personal medical bills they can write that expense off (i.e. deduct it as a cost and not have to pay taxes on the money spent).  But if an employer pays for your personal legal expenses then the costs are not tax deductible.  Are doctors more holy than lawyers and all other professionals?  Likewise, if you spend money on your own health care, the money you spent is not tax deductible for you like it is for your employer.  Are employers more holy than individuals?
  2. The Federal Government and most State Governments currently discriminate against people with low productivity, and yes, you should be outraged about this shameful treatment of the poor and underprivileged.  How so?  Let’s say you have very high productivity.  You can program apps very quickly and you contract yourself out at $200 per hour.  If you like a job, can you choose to take less, like $150?  Certainly.  If you are desperate for work, can you lower your price to $100?  Of course.  But now imagine that you have very few skills.  Let’s say your productivity is worth $10 an hours, but you’re having a hard time finding a job.  You need work desperately, can you lower your price to $5 an hour?  No.  Because of the minimum wage, you don’t have a right to sign a labor contract at $5 an hour.  Sorry, you are not equally protected.  For those people that think the minimum wage helps the poor, you need to explain how taking something of value (i.e. the right to choose how much you will charge for your labor) away from the poor helps them?  If you want to help the poor, you should transfer value to them not away from them.  See the earned income tax credit as an example of a much better way.
  3. Under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), health insurance companies do not have the same right to decide what to do with their money as auto insurance companies.  If you’re an auto insurance company (think about a Gecko here), and you want to spend millions on advertising, that is your good right.  But if you’re a health insurance company, you are mandated by law to spend a 80% to 85% of your revenue on reimbursements.  You can kiss your ad campaign goodbye, and come to grips with the fact that you cannot pay the same in sales commissions as other insurance companies.  How fair is that?
  4. One mode of paying for the ACA, was to levy a special tax on the Medical Device Industry.  I worked with a medical device entrepreneur by the name Ray Hartman, who started a company called Theralight.  He was one of the most brilliant and energetic entrepreneurs I’ve ever met and he dedicated his fortune and last remaining years on Earth trying to eradicate staph infections in hospitals.  I once joked about how nice it was of him to pick up the tab for health care reform.  He became uncharacteristically dark and said, “It makes me want to go outside and just scream!”  Sorry Ray, you were unprotected.  That sucked.  He passed away a year later.

I have a dream, Ray.  That someday the phrase “liberty and justice for all” will be more than empty words describing a bygone Republic.  

Solving the Problem of Religion

The interplay between business interests and government in the U.S. is causing concern across the political spectrum.  Regardless of which party is in office, major industry players wielding multi-billion dollar lobbies are finding a seat at the negotiating table.  Tea Party patriots and Occupy Wall protesters seem to be manifestations of different sides of the same coin.  They worry that things have gotten out of control, that Wall Street should not have been bailed out, and that somehow financial interests are too well represented in government.

“But what can we do about it?”

As it turns out, a lot.  We can learn a little bit more about this great country we live in, which has solved this problem before — and brilliantly.


In 18th Century America one of the many perplexities that the American Founders had to cope with was the interplay between religion and government.

In Europe, the relationship between Church and State began during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who converted to Christianity and granted property to the Catholic Bishop of Rome.  Christianity later became the dominant/official religion of the Roman Empire.  Subsequently the Church as political power perpetrated many atrocities such as the Crusades and Inquisitions.  Isn’t this right?

Not completely.

For some reason in the U.S. we (myself included!) often equate “religion” with “Christianity”.  The reality is that religion has at almost all times and all places been related to political power, and for good reason.  Being able to control people’s moral convictions — their views on right and wrong, and who they obey — has tremendous value.  For example, before Constantine the Roman Empire was surprisingly tolerant of the different religions practiced by its conquered nations, but not completely so.  The Romans believed in many gods and viewed their Emperor as one of them.  There was no inherent conflict between the gods of subservient peoples and the Roman gods per se because the Roman gods were more like immortal men and women, not absolute and exclusive beings.  As tolerant as they were, the Romans did insist that one religious dogma be observed throughout the empire.  Would you like to guess what that was?  That the Emperor was a deity to be worshiped by all Roman subjects.

This is partly what led to the early persecution of Christians.  Christians didn’t recognize the Emperor as a god and were charged and persecuted as “atheists”.  Their real crime was not threatening Roman religion, but rather undermining Roman authority.

And it has always been thus.  Even today, leaders will portray themselves as moral authorities and mythic figures to gain more power over their people.  In the People’s Republic of China, the State continues to use religion to achieve its political goals (in 2013!!!).  Instead of allowing a privately operated Roman Catholic congregation loyal to the Pope, they cleverly set up a Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association that reports to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, and predictably rejects the authority of the Vatican.  Nothing like receiving Mass and nationalistic indoctrination at the same time!  It’s a twofer!

So the American Founders looked closely at a question that had confounded humankind for millennia: “What is the proper role of religion with respect to the state?”

Several of them, including George Washington and Patrick Henry, were not opposed to state sponsorship of religion.  They viewed the Protestant teachings of their times as salutary and beneficial, and thought that religion needed encouragement (e.g. tax paying support).  In the largest of the 13 Colonies, Virginia, the official religion was the Church of England (Anglican Church).  Virginians were forced by law to pay tithes, and membership in the Church was a prerequisite to holding public office.  The preaching of other religions was illegal and occasionally Baptist and other ministers would be locked up.  It’s not difficult to understand why Anglican ministers in various government positions encouraged this state of affairs — it made them better off.

But the insights that clear thinking men like Jefferson and Madison had were that religion became problematic when it was combined with coercion (i.e. the ability to force adherence).  And this wasn’t just a one way street.  It was just as problematic when the government was able to coerce religion.  So, in a nutshell, they wondered:

How do we protect people from religious coercion, and religion from political coercion?

Their solution was extremely novel, perhaps not in its rationale, but in its implementation.  The first stroke was in 1786 when the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was passed with support from Madison and based on an original draft written by Jefferson.  The second and most famous stroke was the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Most people have described these solutions as “Separation of Church and State”, “establishing a Secular Government”, or as “Religious Freedom”, but none of these is thoroughly descriptive.  For example, do churches operate in the U.S. similar to Indian Reservations, with their own laws, judges, police etc.?  Are they truly separate from the State?  No.  If a clergyman breaks the law, he is still punished.  Copyright laws apply to religious texts just as they do to secular texts.  They are not separate, then.  And for this same reason we do not have infinite religious freedom.  Except for rare exceptions like Native Americans smoking peyote, our religious convictions do not give us license to do things (like committing fraud or murder) that would otherwise be considered criminal, regardless of how sincere our belief in those things might be.

The term “Secular Government” is correct if secular means “not overtly or specifically religious”, but most often we would think of the term as meaning, “non-religious”.  Does it give the right impression to say that a government that strongly protects religious liberty, has no connection with the practice of religion?  We need a better description.

The text from the 1st Amendment is as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

In other words, Congress has no right to favor or discriminate against any religion with respect to another.  It can pass laws affecting the freedom of all citizens (like prohibitions against stealing), but not targeted laws that curtail the practice of a religious activity — like meeting in a group — that is otherwise legal for everyone else.  In effect, in America:

All religions must be treated equally by Congress.

All citizens must be treated equally irrespective of their religious convictions.

And this beautifully solved the problem of religious coercion.  The State cannot coerce religion because it does not have the power to favor or injure a specific church or creed.  By protecting religion from coercion in this way, we also protect ourselves from religious power.  Since the government cannot offer favors to religion, religion is not tempted to use the government as a means for increasing its influence.  For example, what interest would the Catholic Church have in lobbying Congress if Congress does not have the power to provide a benefit specifically to the Catholic Church?  Mormons (Latter-day Saints) cannot use the government to promote the cause of Mormonism because the government has little power to do such a thing.  It cannot outlaw the preaching of competing faiths, or conscript citizens to serve Mormon missions.

It matters.

It’s only when we have a clear understanding that religious liberty in America boils down to religious equality that we can then apply this same solution to business.  The fundamental problems with business are the same:

How do we protect people from commercial coercion, and commerce from political coercion?

And now you know the answer, the one that all Americans embrace every day with respect to religion and that has worked wonderfully for over 200 years:

All industries must be treated equally by Congress.

All businesses and citizens must be treated equally irrespective of their commercial pursuits.

More on this to come.