Thursday, January 29, 2009

When People Do Things: The Ethics of Actions

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.--Steven Weinberg

Interesting guy. Guess for his statement to be true, you have to go in for the Socratic thing, "To be is to do." So, in Weinberg's construct, if you do evil, you're evil, if you do good, you're good. That's a little harsh, I think. In fact, I could even argue that if you're starving, it's evil not to steal. If your child's life depends on some expensive medication you can't afford, is it "good" to let them die, or "evil" to steal what you need?

Of course, Sartre's point was, "To do is to be" -- or, and I'm taking some liberties here, existence is based on action. Each action, then, defines your existence to that extent. In that respect, a bad action is just a small component of your existence, not a defining one. So, a bad action doesn't make you all bad? OK, again, I could argue that George Bush was wrong to argue his Manichean Paranoia, that he could do evil means to reach good ends. Torturing people is evil, no matter why you do it.

Which leads me to one of my favorite quotes, by Kurt Vonnegut, who I miss deeply:
"To be is to do"--Socrates.
"To do is to be"--Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do"--Frank Sinatra.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Suffering, Police State, and the Ditching of Unhappiness

When I was a young, broke, but care-free philosopher in the University of Arkansas, hanging out with poets, working at a red-neck bar for beer money, and fancying myself a writer, I worried a lot. The bar had a big red button behind the counter, right above a double-barrel, twelve gage shot gun. I was told it was loaded with rock salt. Pressing the red button killed the juke box and called the cops. I only had to use those bar-back tools once, and I quit.

Even in those salad days of learning my place in the world, gaining valuable experience as the next John Prine, I worried a lot about ethics, fairness, and the pursuit of happiness. Through the heart of the dark, up-river jungle of the Reagan years, I suffered a kind of academic akathisia that only worsened as I learned more about the world. I studied the new world of Bio-ethics, ventured off into the history of War and Money, and tortured myself with Epistemology.

Nothing helped. The general malaise got worse. The Challenger exploded. Then Iran Contra exploded. That got my political attention. I started paying more attention in history classes. I drank more, but I took control of my education. I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I read more Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter Thompson. I was enlightened and horrified. I wrote some bad poetry, and a few good things that won awards that made me feel cool for a while. But the more I learned, the less able I was to be happy, and I got happy less often. One of my best friends, Randy Vincent, wrote a line that always cheered me up, even in midst of a general early 20's unhappiness spiral. Something like:
Now I know
I could skip a quarter
across the pond
and down the juke box slot
just to hear
some tonk musician scream.
Or something like that. Still makes me happy. For a minute. Then it wears off and sends me back to that familiar humid, moldy, greasy, beer-smelling, neon-lit place where the tonk scream originates. It's not a nice, clean, first rate torture chamber like Guantanomo. There aren't any power subversion enablers (as George Washington might put it) kneeing me, or freezing me, or hanging me by my wrists, or insulting my religion. Hell, I don't have a religion. I'm certainly not gentle in Eric Hoffer's sense of the word, but I am a cynic who doesn't care if there's a god or not. I don't need a symbolic crown of thorns to know that human suffering stirs my tonk musician's cover of Munch's scream. The effect of that suffering penetrates deeper than any religion can, like water poured into the upside-down sinuses of all humanity.

Then the real trickle-down torture begins: Sneeze! Cough! Take two of these... Shake it off! Our bad... Off you go now... Good luck! Don't worry! Be happy! Be careful!

You're on your own.

The most salient thing I learned in honky tonks from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee, from Branson, Missouri, to Austin, Texas, was to be careful whose nose you pour water in; a lot of southerners never learned that the rednecks were the good guys at Blair Mountain. They'd hassle the college boys (with our Clinton for Governor bumper sticker) until they got sick of us, and then they'd kick our asses or run out of gas trying. Maybe we could have been nicer to them, maybe even lie to them (had we only known they like fake cowboys so much), but eventually, I managed to carve out a rule I could live with:

Be ethical. If that's not good enough, Fuck It!
Maybe because it caused me so much trouble, it took me a long time to be comfortable with that philosophy. “Fuck It” seemed so final, as if I had given up on the world if I wasn't out picking at it like a nostril scab. Eventually, I figured out that I shouldn't be too careful with my happiness. No matter how many civilians died in the formative years of the new disaster capitalism, I had to do a little living. I had to enjoy something. While I was still beating around the bush of my raison d'ĂȘtre, I found solace in music and poetry. Certain poems and songs brought the kamikaze moth of happiness, just after sunset on a moonless night, crashing into the next brightest source of light. The intensity of each fix of happiness seemed to steadily decrease, like the monarch population near a genetically engineered corn field. I measured my happiness level and frequency often, feeling guilty if either went up. Each action of observation seemed to move the next data point, randomly (ergo coincidentally), but consistently lower.

My philosophy evolved into defining and proscribing the ethical: environmentalism, stewardship, minimizing my impact, fairness, justice, liberty, and minimizing unhappiness (since actually maximizing happiness seems so much harder). It was time to rein in the effort to something more manageable. I became a professional in the entertainment industry, the next best thing to being the next John Prine. Oh, and there were all those student loans, so a union job looked great.

So did a beautiful, intelligent, Italian (tempered and debate-trained) wife, a beautiful daughter who makes a living making people beautiful, and a son who at fourteen can already play guitar more beautifully than I. We lived in Hawaii for a year (three jobs!). Bought two houses (one before and one after Hawaii). Even without a lot of money, there was enough to get by. I had leveled off into a steady and manageable happiness.

We all get a few of really great memories, and we get to keep them no matter what happens to us. It's a kind of defense we have evolved, the ability to cherish memories when times are hard. A kind of mental snorkeling dive, away from the surface blemishes, into another dimension, surround by beauty, floating in peace, not even breathing...

The rest of the time, as some graffiti on a bathroom wall in a Beale Street bar once said, "There is no gravity; the earth sucks." There was even a crude drawing of the earth (the Western Hemisphere, I believe), with a little stick man standing on it. Just a few blocks away, a bunch of ducks live in a "palace" on the roof of the Peabody Hotel.

Every day at 11 a.m., they are led by the Duckmaster down the elevator to the Italian travertine marble fountain in the Peabody Grand Lobby. A red carpet is unrolled and the ducks march through crowds of admiring spectators to the tune of John Philip Sousa's King Cotton March. The ceremony is reversed at 5 p.m., when the ducks retire for the evening to their palace on the roof of the hotel.
I think of those ducks often, even when I'm not drinking. They live better than most people I know, like Royalty in the birthplace of the blues. Not far from the Peabody, a little closer to the railroad tracks, there's a motel that reflects the flip side of Royalty, the very soul of suffering: the Lorraine, now known as the National Civil Rights Museum.

The heart of American Folk Music and Blues is struggle, and struggle we must if we want to sing about it. In the late 80's, after my Dad retired to Las Vegas, we would visit (not enough), and I would try to convince him, a double union pensioner, to stop voting Republican. He was a mathematician. He hated taxes and studied the odds. He had high blood pressure and cholesterol. He loved Jazz. He beat prostate cancer. He drank single malt scotch in the morning and ate cheap casino steaks at night. He would tell me to be happy I still had my health. When he drove his 1971 Porsche back to Vegas from LA, he would stay in 5th gear all the way up the big hill out of Baker, which required speeds in excess of 100 mph. Our last conversation:

"You know, Dad, you can down shift on the way up the hill."

"I don't want to."
He died of an aortic aneurysm just weeks later. He liked to say that things only seemed like one in a million to us because we don't live a billion years.

Occasionally, over the eye-blink of time I've been thinking about such things, I found theories that might explain my progressive unhappiness, but they turned out to be mental Lego constructs. The edges were too jagged to make graceful ontologies; not enough points on the graph to smooth the curves.

Maybe happiness was something seductively plump that shrank, a decrease in the total available happiness. Perhaps Matt Taibbi was on to something when he dissected Thomas Freidman's graphing abilities with the theory that happiness correlates with the size of Valerie Bertinelli's ass. More seriously, and perhaps more likely, David Foster Wallace might have been onto a grand-unified happiness theory that turned out to be a Medusa.

All theories, once scrutinized, seem like Lego representations in an anti-aliased world.

Eight years of George Bush have taught me one thing: ethics are now rough, dry shit stuck in the throes of prescription-induced constipation that make Bill Clinton's lapses look like laxatives. Oh, sure, we talk high and mighty about justice, but there is no justice when the high and mighty are involved. We have plenty of punishment for drug addicts, shoplifters, and burglars. But the torturing, mass-murdering, robber barons took over the executive branch walked away very much alive and free, with pallets of I-just-paid-cash-for-this happiness. One of my complex ontologies theorizes that there's only so much happiness in the world, and the Cheney people have drained the water table (and sullied the rest). How to simplify that...?

Those people just screamed “Fuck You!” while they fucked you. Kinda screws your whole decade.

In the middle of those Fuckings, I lost my health (diagnosed with osteoarthritis), my career (due to that disability), my house (with its therapeutic pool and hot tub), my 401k (spent moving to cheaper digs), my year of state disability payments (that were less than half of what I was making), and most of my clients from my internet marketing business (which now costs more than it makes). Next, I'll be losing the health insurance. I'm 25% of the way into a two year wait for my first Social Security Disability appeal hearing. There are lawsuits in the works, but by the time I see any money from them, I'll owe it in past due bills and rent (if I can convince my landlords to let it slide for a while). I'll probably have to declare bankruptcy.

My doctors thought they were doing me a favor putting me on anti-depressants. I wound up on Prozac for a few months, which did help to keep the pain/depression spiral monsters from feeding each other. But the Prozac side effects were just too much. So, they took me off it. Now, I've discovered that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor Discontinuation Syndrome (the pharmaceutical companies object to calling it withdrawal) is the single most unhappy thing I ever experienced, save perhaps triple hernia surgery. It's been big fun for my family, too, but that's a whole other essay.

Now what's my sage advice on how to be less unhappy (aside from avoiding drugs that fuck with your brain chemistry)? Prepare for the inevitable fallout. I plead the Kris Kristofferson defense: I have nothing left to lose. I live the way disaster capitalists want me to: hand to mouth, on the brink of bankruptcy, and eager for less because it's better than none. What are they going to do, fire me?

I'm prepared! I get food stamps. Ha! Take that, Republicans! And, I have an organic victory garden (FDR would be proud). I've discovered that I can keep food alive (nothing is really growing now) even when it's negative 13 degrees outside, by building a cold frame around the garden. Engineering and biology made me happy for a while. Just wait until my Jeffersonian spring!

Guess I showed them.

I still play music, occasionally. Haven't had to hock the guitar, yet. I'll even attempt Little Rock Getaway from time to time. Hard to stop that from cheering me up1, for as long as my thin calluses and arthritis can keep up. My son's much better than I. He can play for hours, which brings me great joy, until he goes back to his video games (and other not- his-homework) and listening to his parents fight about all the things we don't have. Or the things we have too much of. I haven't screamed this much since my honky tonk days. It exhausts the throat. Sorry, kids. As Phillip Larken wrote, in This Be the Verse:

They fuck you up, your mom and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Since college, I've been searching for that perfect Tonk Scream, a kind of cathartic nirvana, maybe as reconnaissance for a pre-emptive war to save my throat. I've been hoping for something akin to Steve Goodman's You Never Even Call Me By My Name (as performed by David Allen Coe), whereby the song becomes the perfect country and western song when endowed with that final verse featuring mama, trains, trucks, prison, and getting drunk. I thought John Prine himself got close with his song It Don't Make No Sense that Common Sense Don't Make No Sense No More or maybe Souvenirs (Goodman, again, that rascal). I've made a few solo stabs at it, but I tend to be get too philosophical. Maybe I don't drink enough Jack.

One of my favorite professors, James Whitehead (who died in 2003, also of an aortic aneurysm) told me the story about my psychology professor, Dr. John Marr, who used to party at Jim's house with Tom T. Hall. Dr. Marr liked to talk about state memory recall theory, in which
"..memory pathways forged under the influence of specific chemicals, drugs such as alcohol, can be more effectively accessed again when under the influence of that drug."
So Hall wrote a song called I Only Think About You When I'm Drunk. Honestly, I'd be afraid to drink enough to remember the blurry parts of my Tonk years. Whatever clear memories I access will more likely come from the last half of my life.

Of course now I'm too tired to keep looking. As Homer Simpson put it, “...the weight of the world crushed my spirit.” Sometimes I try to work my way out of that realistic funk. To paraphrase Marty Ward, who taught me how to play bluegrass guitar while he played a mean banjo, "You're never going to find anything good by looking for it."

I'll just keep my eyes and ears open while I keep trying to pick out the lead myself. Maybe once my calluses are thick enough, I'll be able to play long enough to find it. After all, thanks to my son and YouTube, I finally learned that lead to Wish You Were Here. And as soon as I quit thinking about it all, I remembered a line from my favorite Big Jim Whitehead poem (A LOCAL MAN ESTIMATES WHAT HE DID FOR HIS BROTHER WHO BECAME A POET AND WHAT HIS BROTHER DID FOR HIM):

On his deathbed he reached out for my hand
And he said we come from where we get the wound.
How could we stop looking back at the places where we got the wounds, when we had clues like that left in our path?

1 This jazz-come-bluegrass song, written by Joe Sullivan in 1938 and made popular by Bob Crosby (Bing's brother) and the Bobcats in 1939, supports my theory that the more chords in a progression, the happier the song.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My Favorite Moment: No More Bad

President Obama makes it clear, right from the start, that the Bush Bullshit is over.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

Just one last thing, though. People who break the law must be prosecuted, or what's the point.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Endorsements for Change

The voting at is over, and the top ten ideas were presented to the Obama transition team. I'm a half-glass empty kinda guy, so I'm not expecting much, especially on the more controversial items, especially from a guy who seems to want us all to get along even at the price of not prosecuting war criminals (cause, you know, that would be too divisive, as opposed to say, breaking the law and torturing and spying on people).

These are good causes, though, and could make a big difference in the world. No matter how much our new President wants to avoid the fighting, if enough of us support these causes, and fight (and vote) to make them reality, then even he can't stop us.

So, here are the ideas I've endorsed at, in no particular order:

Here's my page. It's a great site, and I encourage everyone to join in.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fair Fines and Flatulence Taxes for the Half-Glass Empty Class

"I guess it depends if you're a half-glass empty guy or a half-glass full guy."—George W. Bush
Ever get a parking ticket when you were a half-glass empty guy? Or maybe you were a full-glass full guy, in Bernie Madoff's old neighborhood, and you've had some million dollar months? A $100 equals a tenth of a grand a month, one ten-thousandth of a million. If you make $50,000 a year (a little above the median), that ticket is 0.024% of your monthly income. If you make $12 million per year, it's 0.0001%, approximately 240 times less than the median American's unhappiness over the same violation.

A flat tax would be more fair than a flat fine. At least with flat income taxes, we'd all be paying the same percentage of our income.

Dwindling tax revenues force governments to look for ways to balance their budgets. Draconian nose amputations are showing up in emergency rooms all over America. More are on their way. Regressive taxes are just worsening the pain on the lowest earners.

From parking tickets to OSHA fines, governments charge a flat price. If the idea of these fines is to discourage a certain behavior, why isn't the discouragement equal and just? We all know that many corporations find it easier, and cheaper, to simply pay the piddly, bothersome fine rather than correct the infraction. Why should Halliburton and Harry's Hardware pay exactly the same amount for the same safety infraction? To inflict the same pain, a fair pain, we should index the fine to the company's or individual's income.

In Finland, fines for motor vehicle violations were indexed to the state's latest income data, resulting in a record speeding ticket of $103,600 for Nokia director Anssi Vanjoki (who was doing 75 km/hr in a 50 zone on his Harley). I don't advocate making the rich pay more for everything (providing your tax return with every purchase would be a bit ridiculous). But I do think that every government official in America should think twice before increasing any regressive tax during a depression recession.

This goes for fines, fees, gas taxes, sin taxes, sales taxes, carbon taxes, and flatulence taxes (a proposed flat tax levied on each dairy cow). All of these taxes discourage some behavior: driving, smoking, drinking, speeding, parking wrong, providing an unsafe workplace, polluting, lying to the SEC, or greenhouse gases (like cow farts). One argument against these taxes is the rule of diminishing returns, that you are taxing away the bad behavior, leading to less and less revenue. I'm more concerned with making the unhappiness equal. While it's true that a rich person is paying more total alcohol tax than me (because he buys better booze), it is not the same pain to his income. The percentage tax on his bottle was exactly the same as mine. Same with sales tax. Sure, he buys a more expensive car, pays more total tax, but he pays a lower effective tax rate than me. Since most Americans agree with the progressive income tax, why are so many politicians raising the regressive taxes right now, taking an even larger percentage of income out of the hands of those who can least afford it?

Sales taxes are especially good at spreading unhappiness during a recession, as they increase the money paid by those who can least afford it, while also causing a decrease in spending, leading to further job losses, and even more pain for those below them. Meanwhile, those at the top keep trying to find new and better ways to squeeze more out of those at the bottom. The incentives to cheat, lie, and steal increase exponentially as profits dry up. Think the fight or flight reflex is strong when you're facing profound losses? Try having your electricity shut off, getting evicted, or watching a loved one die because you can't afford medical care.

When prosecutors tried to put Madoff in jail for sending packages of valuables to family members (a violation of his bail), his defense was that they weren't really that expensive, just some cuff links and $200 mittens. $200 mittens? The fact that $200 mittens even exist is proof to me that money can buy happiness.

While many of my friends, most of whom are decidedly middle class, argue with me on this point, it is obvious to astute philosophers and economists that money can indeed buy happiness. In this Justin Wolfers post at the Freakonomics blog, he talks about the assumption that money can't buy happiness.
Arguably the most important finding from the emerging economics of happiness has been the Easterlin Paradox.

What is this paradox? It is the juxtaposition of three observations:

1) Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
2) But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
3) As countries get richer, they do not get happier.

Easterlin offered an appealing resolution to his paradox, arguing that only relative income matters to happiness. Other explanations suggest a “hedonic treadmill,” in which we must keep consuming more just to stay at the same level of happiness.

This definition of the relation between money and happiness seemed to catch on, as it made the optimists (most of whom, as George Bush Freudianly noted, have a only a half-glass to begin with) happier.

The evidence points to the opposite. Not only do we need at least the bare necessities to keep us from despair, but the more money we have, the happier we are. Wolfers again:
There is no Easterlin Paradox.

The facts about income and happiness turn out to be much simpler than first realized:

1) Rich people are happier than poor people.
2) Richer countries are happier than poorer countries.
3) As countries get richer, they tend to get happier.

Moreover, each of these facts seems to suggest a roughly similar relationship between income and happiness.

Not only can money buy happiness, but more money can buy more happiness. Why? Because we are animals. We react to pain with unhappiness and the lack of pain with the lack of unhappiness. As we evolved into the kind of animals that can split atoms and create credit default swaps, we discovered that some of us could go beyond the lack of unhappiness, and actually get giddy when we had money pouring in.

We have even cut out the middle man. Now it seems, money doesn't even have to purchase anything. The money itself causes happiness, almost exactly like what cocaine does to our brains. In a guest post at the Freakonomics Blog, Andrew W. Lo, the Harris & Harris Group Professor at M.I.T. and director of its Laboratory for Financial Engineering, writes in Fear, Greed, and Crisis Management: A Neuroscientific Perspective:
The alleged fraud perpetrated by Bernard Madoff is a timely and powerful microcosm of the current economic crisis, and it underscores the origin of all financial bubbles and busts: fear and greed.

Using techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists have documented the fact that monetary gain stimulates the same reward circuitry as cocaine — in both cases, dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens. Similarly, the threat of financial loss activates the same fight-or-flight circuitry as physical attacks, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which results in elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness.

These reactions are hardwired into human physiology, and while some of us are able to overcome our biology through education, experience, or genetic good luck, the vast majority of the human population is driven by these “animal spirits” that John Maynard Keynes identified over 70 years ago.

Lo goes onto to suggest that Obama host a “crisis summit”: which all the major stakeholders involved in this crisis, and their most knowledgeable subordinates, are invited to an undisclosed location for an intensive week-long conference.

During this meeting, detailed information about exposures to “toxic assets,” concentrations of risky counterparty relationships, and other systemic weaknesses will be provided on a confidential basis to regulators and policymakers, and various courses of action can be proposed and debated in real time.

At the end of this meeting, he suggests the government release the redacted minutes so we can all see just how much unhappiness these geniuses have wrought. While they're at it, perhaps they can discuss what kind of punishments could be doled out, who should be investigated for Ponzi schemes and other frauds, and how we should index their fines to their income from the last 5 years. It will be hard to get the worst offenders to fess up, of course, unless we offer them immunity. If we threatened to index the fines for such behavior to their income, they would lawyer up faster than they can offshore your job.

One thing we can certainly do for these happy people in the future is discourage them from creating unhappiness by choosing to pay a relatively cheap fine instead of following the law. While these higher fines will equalize pain as they move up the income brackets, the total amount of happiness in the world, to the delight of lower income utilitarians everywhere, would probably increase, as it almost always does when justice is served.

In a down-side up economic world where medical care, food, and energy costs are not counted in inflation calculations, where dental care is somehow separate from medical, and where work is taxed at a higher rate than capital gains, it would help to understand just how well the rich have been doing. The people at the top, or in George Bush's world, the full-glass full people (aka his "base”), have been doing quite well lately.

If you can stand window shopping, try gazing through the glass at the Cost of Living Extremely Well Index, or CLEWI, as measured by Forbes Magazine. In Peter Bernstein's book, All the Money in the World: How the Forbes 400 Make—and Spend—Their Fortunes, you can study this handy data visualization (PDF, without pictures of super cool expensive stuff), which shows that since 1982 the consumer price index (CPI) has doubled, while the CLEWI has nearly quadrupled. Before you decrease your happiness worrying about the ultra rich on the Forbes 400, keep in mind that their income has risen by a factor of 10 in the same time.

Back in the half-glass world, in 1982, the median household income was $36,811. In 2003, it was $43,318, for an increase of $6,507, or 17.6%. The full-glass people, defined in this particular case as the Forbes 400, saw their income rise by 1000%.

Income inequality has risen even more sharply during the Bush years, with the happiness getting spread all over the upper income brackets like Chinese lead from Dick Cheney's bird shot. As reported by David Cay Johnston in the New York times in March of 2007 (which also includes handy data visualizations):
Income inequality grew significantly in 2005, with the top 1 percent of Americans — those with incomes that year of more than $348,000 — receiving their largest share of national income since 1928...

The top 10 percent, roughly those earning more than $100,000, also reached a level of income share not seen since before the Depression. [...]

The new data also shows that the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. Per person, the top group received 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned, nearly doubling the gap from 1980.

Prof. Emmanuel Saez, the University of California, Berkeley, economist who analyzed the Internal Revenue Service data with Prof. Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, said such growing disparities were significant in terms of social and political stability.

Le duh! Meanwhile, we half-glassers panic over the mere sight of flashing lights behind us, in dread of a ticket that would mean skipping that trip to the dentist, or not getting that prescription next month, while the guy in the Mercedes (who blew our doors off) might get a ticket for an amount he probably has laying around on his teak dresser.

Social and political stability depend on an innate sense of fairness which has evolved for millions of years. Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University have shown that "nonhuman primates respond negatively to unequal reward distribution." ScienceDaily (Sep. 19, 2003):
These new findings, coupled with previous scientific data that demonstrate a direct link between nonhuman primate behavior and that of humans, support a new school of thought that economic decision-making is based as much on an emotional sense of fairness as on rational considerations. [...]

In this study, researchers made food-related exchanges with brown capuchin monkeys. The subjects refused previously acceptable rewards (cucumbers) if they witnessed their partners receiving higher-value rewards (grapes) for equal or less work.

No primate wants to see another be rewarded grapes for the same work for which he got cucumbers. While the primate research didn't study regressive punishment per se, I would wager that no primate likes paying grapes for the same infraction for which another pays cucumbers. Some conservatives, though, including some who measure their happiness by the price of their mittens, will likely rail that I am preaching class warfare and socialism: a brainless, straw-stuffed distraction of an argument. To keep that argument from going up in flames, those conservatives would have to argue that there is no innate sense of fairness because we didn't evolve. In that case, we can end with a Lisa Simpson quote: “Mom. They are teaching us Creationism in school. We had a test today, and every answer was ‘God did it’.”

For the sake of arguing with even those conservatives a bit further, let's assume God gave us our sense of fairness. Jesus H. Christ himself had something to say about justice, and paying your fair share. Buddha was all over the subject. Does it matter where our sense of justice came from? We experience unhappiness when we discover unfairness. It is why we evolved from improved upon Hammurabi's code, the Magna Carta, and our constitution. Social and political stability are built on a cornerstone of fairness. Undermining this cornerstone has cracked the whole structure. We need to patch those cracks before they lead to collapse.

Patching those cracks will be similar to recovering from a crack addiction. We must undergo a financial abuse recovery program. We must make investments that will pay off later, like in green infrastructure, and education. We must correct imbalances that have led to capitalism driven by marketing to create needs, rather than ingenuity to fill needs. This transformation will be expensive, and someone will have to pay. Should we unfairly burden the least able of our children and grandchildren?

As we kick the financial equivalent of addiction, we'll have our group therapy. We'll attend conferences, hold summits, and sit in on seminars. For the sake of a more fair system on which to base our recovery, we should explore the idea of making taxes, fines, and fees more progressive, not more regressive. Indexing fines to income is an especially a good way to increase taxes on only the rich who most deserve it, something with which most primates would agree.

Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican who instigated progressive income taxation, wrote in his autobiography, almost 100 years ago:
Because of things I have done on behalf of justice to the workingman, I have often been called a Socialist. Usually I have not taken the trouble even to notice the epithet. Moreover, I know that many American Socialists are high-minded and honorable citizens, who in reality are merely radical social reformers. They are opposed to the brutalities and industrial injustices which we see everywhere about us.

...many of the men who call themselves Socialists to-day are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens well afford to follow.

Perhaps we should read more from the progressive Republicans of our history, of which there were many. Our future happiness, or at least our lack of deep despair, may depend on it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Protect Precious Land, Keep Tim DeChristopher Out of Prison

On December 28th of last year, I posted a diary at the Daily Kos entitled Fake Bids as Protest: So Shines a Good Deed in a Weary World in which I made a brief excursion into the history of fake auction bids as a form of protest.

Yesterday, in this recommended diary at the Kos, JohnnyRook reported that Tim DeChristopher, whose bids at a BLM auction in Utah monkeywrenched the Bush administration's last minute oil and gas lease giveaways, is trying to raise the money to pay for the leases he "won." In which case, the bids wouldn't be fake, and he wouldn't have to go to prison.

Now, as anyone who's been reading my recent posts knows, I'm dead broke. This economy has been very harsh on my clients, and that has trickled down to me (the only way trickle down economics really works). I wish I could lease an acre or two to help this brilliant young man out. If you can, please do so. You can donate at his cool web site.

Tim needs to raise $45,000 by Jan. 9. As of this morning, he's up to $37,101. Please do all you can to help.

Monday, January 05, 2009

A Crock Full of Happiness

Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.—Robertson Davies
What a crock. Here's a man who's father was a Canadian Senator. He never went hungry or cold. His family owned a media empire. Was there anything he ever had to worry about? Did he have unhappiness to pluck treasures from, or did his treasures just show up via the family bank account?

Is happiness always a by-product? Of what? When I play guitar I'm happy. Is the happiness a by-product of my playing guitar, or is it the reason I play? I certainly don't play guitar to be sad. In a very important way, the happiness is what I am seeking when I play guitar. It is no more a by-product than the music, the vibrations, or the art. The happiness is integral. Even when I play a sad song, that reminds me of someone who's dead, or ill, I still feel better during and after playing the song.

Is happiness a matter of temperament?
3 a: the peculiar or distinguishing mental or physical character determined by the relative proportions of the humors according to medieval physiology b: characteristic or habitual inclination or mode of emotional response c: extremely high sensibility ; especially : excessive sensitiveness or irritability
This last definition helps to prove the opposite, that is, that unhappiness can be a matter excessive sensitiveness or irritability. But Davies is suggesting that happiness is a matter of inclination or mode of emotional response. Well, duh. If you're inclined to be happy, you will be. If you're unable to pay your rent because your illness has made it impossible to be gainfully employed, while your government has lowered the safety net to within inches of the floor it's supposed to stop you from hitting, well, then you're not exactly inclined to be happy.

If you worked 20 years to find that the work you've been doing has been destroying your body to the point where you can't do the work anymore, that's an inclination toward a mode of emotional response that Davies was likely unfamiliar with: fear and loathing.

Can happiness be demanded of life? Sure. Here: I demand happiness. Did that help me get any? Did my life listen to me? Did anyone? Doesn't the act of demanding something make me sound like a spoiled kid who expects his parents to provide whatever he needs and desires?

How about if I'm just provided with what I need? Would that be enough to make me happy? Well, show me the happy starving people. Show me the happy homeless people. I knew a homeless guy who was a pretty good harmonica player. He was a Vietnam veteran who begged by the freeway exit in downtown Los Angeles. I would drive by on my way to get paid for destroying my spinal cartilage. I would talk to him on my lunch break sometimes. Always gave him a few bucks, and he would play a little blues. Sounded good. He looked happy while he was playing. And then he would stop, put the harmonica back in his pocket, and look miserable again. Think maybe a room, three square, and some new shoes would make him happier? You bet it would. Are those bare necessities something he can demand? Sure. Will that demand get him those things? Not if no one who can help is listening.

What about happiness being glandular? Or, since Mr. Davies lived before modern brain chemistry science, we'll be magnanimous and say maybe happiness can be given medically. Is there a happy pill? Can some drug make me forget that I can't pay my electric bill? Can some medical treatment make me happy that I can't send my kid to college, or that my car's going to be repossessed?

As part of my pain management regimen of daily drugs, I was on Prozac (fluoxetine hydrochloride) for a while. Technically, it's more of an anti-unhappy pill, and for pain patients it's usually given in small doses. It's a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which means, if the theories are correct, depression can be avoided because the drug helps serotonin stay in the synaptic gap longer than usual, helping the receptors of the recipient cell by stimulating it. New research suggests that a persons genetic make-up may make them unable to benefit from these drugs, so, in their case, there isn't much hope for unhappiness being treated glandularly, it seems happiness is not glandular. At least not yet. The prospect of designer drugs may yet create your own personal soma, but religiously inspired restrictions in stem cell research have put that on the back burner for a while.

For other people, like me, for whom the side-effects (diarrhea, nausea, inability to ejaculate) of the happy pill only cause further unhappiness, it doesn't make much sense to take the pill. The small amount of pain relief caused by reducing the amount of depression is offset by the depression caused by the side effects. The glandular route to happiness, or less unhappiness, if it exists at all, isn't available in this case either.

For some people, Prozac, and other anti-depressants, works. It makes their lives a little more bearable. But in those cases, it seems, the drug is being used to correct a chemical imbalance in the patient's brain. Have we made them happier? In the sense that we have reduced their unhappiness, yes. But, this is only for some people. So, as a universal definition of happiness, it seems to not be glandular.

Since the unhappiness being experienced by the desperate, the poor, the sick, et al, is something we've evolved to feel, an uncomfortableness that supposedly motivates us to pluck some improved existence out of fat air, maybe we shouldn't be messing around with it. Perhaps the run of the mill unhappiness, created by forces outside of our control which we are supposed to deal with in some magic way (which the Republican Party defines as entrepreneurial free market forces coupled with hard work), should be allowed to run the mill, so to speak. Perhaps unhappiness, and the stress that works in conjunction with it, creates the impetus to do something to improve things, to end the unhappiness, to create happiness.

So, I'll write something. I'll play the guitar. I'll feel better for a while. And then I'll hear the rush of air, feel the weightlessness of free fall, and reality will rush back in like the flight or flight response. I'll send more letters to relatives begging for a loan, or work, or charity. I'll contact more former clients asking them if they need work done. I'll plow through more emails from more people telling me how hard this recession is hitting them too. And I'll be right back where I was, falling through the financial air with the greatest of ease, wondering if the "safety net" that's left after 8 years of Bush's Disaster Capitalism will stop my fall before I hit the ground. And then I will stop worrying for a moment about my ruined credit, stack of medical bills, negative bank balance, and near empty propane tank covered in snow, to see what treasure I can pluck out of my brand of unhappiness.

What a nice view.

Friday, January 02, 2009

On Unhappiness

I've been lucky. I've never been really destitute, although there have been times, like now, where I've had to eat a lot of beans. My credit has gone from bad to good to back to bad again.

But what I'm facing right now is like no other time, ever. After my disability forced me to stop working as a stagehand, I had some money saved, cashed the 401k, and managed to move out of Los Angeles and up here to upstage upstate NY, where it's cheap and we have family. I was managing to pay the bills with the small income I got from my internet marketing business.

That's all changed now. The savings are all gone. The business is drying up as this economy forces my clients to cut back, and keeps new ones from stepping up. The credit is maxed out and ruined, the bills are stacking up, cut-off notices are coming in, and the only money on the horizon isn't until a possible settlement or court decision in my worker's comp case back in California.

So, when I hear people talk about how Americans are still pretty happy, or that money can't buy happiness, or that everything's going to be OK if you just believe it, I just want to say, bullshit.

And it's not just me. Americans in general just aren't feeling the love right now. In a post about the state of happiness in the US, Freakonomics blogger Justin Wolfers goes over the evidence that this is a very unhappy time in America.

We’re still happy? No way. Life satisfaction has plummeted during the recession.

And all that crap about money not buying happiness, or money not making people any happier past a certain cut-off point. Also bullshit. Besides the obvious, I mean, sure, there are unhappy billionaires, but show me happy starving people... If you really look into the economic data, it seems that the richer you are, the happier you are.

Is that really a surprise?

I'm more interested in the down side. How unhappy do you get as they money dries up? How unhappy are the hungry and the homeless compared to those who are still, albeit just barely, getting by? How low can you go before your heart breaks, your will caves in, and you just give up?

This all is, of course, quite subjective, but we do have sociological studies into this. In these trying times, perhaps it would be a good idea to really study unhappiness, it's effects on people's health and behavior (crime rates are going up), and find ways that we can help people who are, like I am, at their wit's end.