Bright Lines for 2017
I’m thinking about and meditating on an essay I discovered weeks ago called “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F—“.
What a title! And what an essay; but peel back the vernacular language and vulgar rhetoric to find an important point:
In life, our f—s must be spent on something. There really is no such thing as not giving a f—. The question is simply how we each choose to allot our f—s. You only get a limited number of f—s to give over your lifetime, so you must spend them with care. As my father used to say, “F—s don’t grow on trees, Mark.” OK, he never actually said that. But f— it, pretend like he did. The point is that f—s have to be earned and then invested wisely. F—s are cultivated like a beautiful f—ing garden, where if you f— s— up and the f—s get f—ed, then you’ve f—ing f—ed your f—s all the f— up. [redaction added]
In other words, I can only mind so much. I am finite, and so are my concerns. Could I possibly care about everything?
Some things in life matter, and I should care about those. Other things in life are unimportant, so why care? Obvious examples include the health of immediate family members and the number of blunts an old classmate from high school smoked yesterday. (You decide which is the important one).
More often I wander the uncharted gray-zone blur between the important and the unimportant. What about that petition circulating to change my high school’s musical? What about my 7 friends who got engaged on NYE? What about whole categories of topics, like “politics” or “pop culture” which contain a dozen topics inside? These go between, filling an intermediate space, so I then have to decide which matter — and that is hard.
This all reminds me of a moment in the book Fight Club where the protagonist says that “after a night in fight club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down,” especially at work. He had realized that his job didn’t matter, but his underground street boxing club did matter, and the contrast was deafening.
Just like him, after I pour myself into something worthwhile, everything else seems a tad bit quieter. At least, it should. I could thus intentionally misquote the book to say that “after living my purpose, everything else in the world gets the volume turned down.” This became more relevant with yesterday’s slew of New Year’s resolutions.
The New Year
Consider the video “New Year Resolutions Vs Reality”:
In the Odyssey, Homer tells the story of the mythical hero Odysseus who recognized that he would be overtaken by temptation upon hearing the mesmerizing songs of the Sirens. He therefore tied himself up to his ship to avoid jumping overboard and drowning. This is what psychologists call “pre-commitment.” In essence, by pre-committing, you preemptively lock yourself in a virtuous path by recognizing the limits of your self control. In acknowledging that you will face terrible temptations to deviate from your path, you can strategize against them. A modern-day Odysseus could, for example, secure himself to his internet browser by installing software that prevents him from surfing distracting websites.
So ask yourself, what in your life is the equivalent of the Siren songs, and how would Odysseus outwit their temptations?
Pick me! Pick me! I have one.
Something happened to me on November 8th. My best theory goes like this:
Politics should be a long string of policy opinions in my brain. But on November 8th? Politics became a frame for seeing the world around me. Instead of mere abstractions or ideas that I considered true or false, I now held a pair of spectacles through which I viewed other issues. This is profoundly dangerous in the obvious sense that everything everywhere becomes political, but also in the less obvious sense that hyper-politicization kills friendships and makes everything a conflict. To view everything else through politics is to lose my self-differentiation and to become a piece of politics; my friends may well wonder, where did Ross go? because I myself ceased to exist independently of my political thought.
I have good reason to believe this. Primarily, I am me. Don’t question me on me. I know me better than you know me. Beyond that, a crude example helped me see it: I am friends with a set of twins whose birthday was last week, but I noticed only one appeared on the sidebar birthday wishes panel. It took 10 seconds of profile creeping to see that the other unfriended me, and I can (for more reasons as well) make the very reasonable assumption that it involved this. Another friend in casual conversation settled upon the term strictly political to describe my posts. These and more small mentions helped me realize that this isn’t very healthy or helpful.
So then, the Siren’s temptation is to invest more intellectual and emotional capital into politics than I should. The question remains, how would I outwit the temptation?
Back to the video:
Another issue with making resolutions is that we are very fuzzy and unclear when it comes down to which behaviors are permitted and which ones are unacceptable for us to reach our goals.
Take for example the most common New Years resolution: to eat healthier. Well what does that even mean? Can I still eat french fries? How often can I have desert? Is organic free-range ice cream still acceptable? How about a tuna sandwich with lettuce, but made with white bread, however the white bread is low-fat — is that a healthy choice?
All these decisions are incredibly demanding and end up drawing your willpower. You will consequently end up indiscriminately stuffing your face with junk by the end of the first month. Instead, counter this decision paralysis with the help of Bright Lines. Bright Lines are clear, simple, unambiguous rules that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Nothing fuzzy is left in between because the lines are bright. So going back to our goal of eating healthy, we can keep things very simple by, for example, deciding not to consume any foods that contain white flower or processed sugar, under any circumstance, no exceptions. Now that is a clear rule that makes eating decisions very simple and fast.
Straightforward enough. If I decide that I will care only about what matters in politics, then of course I will quickly change nothing; indeed, I will continue to over-value things that don’t matter.
The food metaphor exposes that we never really intended to follow-through in the first place, ourselves dashing any hope for success. Our pollyannaish minds never expect the challenge ahead: How can I possibly ask enough questions to descry what is important? Even if I could, the mental toll is too high, and knowing me, I’d take the path of least resistance every time.
In this spirit, I have decided to draw some Bright Lines in the political sand to delineate things that I will care about from things that I will not.
Here are the pre-committed behaviors that I will follow in 2017. If it does not involve one of the six approved topics, I will not:
- Tweet about it
- Retweet someone else’s tweet about it
- Write a Facebook post about it
- Debate someone else in their comments about it
- Engage someone in debate on my own status about it
- Share a Facebook image or video about it
- Read a book about it
- Write a blog essay about it
- Research it
- Make a video about it
- Enter into a debate about it elsewhere online
- Watch a YouTube video more than 15 minutes about it
- Listen to a podcast focused on it
This list is a minimum and other unlisted behavior should also be avoided.
(The only legitimate exception to these rules is when assigned for a class or similar involuntary circumstance. If given the choice for a political topic, I must choose one of the six).
Here are the pre-committed political topics that in 2017 I will care about.
- War: terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, genocide, small arms and light weapons imports and exports, territorial disputes, U.S. Department of Defense policy, proceedings in the ICJ on war crimes, inventions in war technology, biographic studies of leaders in different aspects of wars, and drone policy
- Monetary policy: the Federal Reserve, audit the Fed, end the Fed, interest rates, the exchange rate, the discount rate, inflation, quantitative easing, the impact of Fed policy on the market, strong vs weak dollar, macroeconomic trends and how the Fed responds to them, China being labeled a “currency manipulator,” hyperinflation in Venezuela and wherever else it happens, the impact of Brexit-Frexit-Grexit-Italeave on the Euro, unemployment, market liquidity, Bitcoin, fiat currency in general, stocks and derivatives, bonds, and the theory-debates between Austrian economics, Keynesian economics, neo-Keynesian economics, and whatever other post-neo-liberal economics will arise.
- “Good Governance”: this includes all meta-governmental issues. Term limits, executive overreach, political corruption, the legitimacy of longstanding institutions, crony capitalism, voting methods like instant-runoff voting, political polarization, privacy vs surveillance, pork spending, free and open elections, continuity of policy despite party turnover, political cooperation and bipartisanship, freedom of dissent, transparency and accessibility, separation of powers, constitutionalism, media that is free and independent from government, UN SDG #16, and the rule of law.
- Deregulation: cutting costly regulation, keeping helpful regulations, negative externalities, the homogeneity of regulation, the bureaucracy, the departments of government, “selective deregulation,” the revolving door effect, ALEC, corporate influence in the deregulatory process, metrics for evaluating cost and benefit of a regulation, small business health, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with respect to regulation, occupational licensing, and the history of deregulation under Reagan.
- Education: school choice, voucher systems, state policies, Betsy DeVos’s policy changes, closure rates, empirical research, separation of church and state concerns, impact on existing public schools, cost effectiveness, the price of private schools, the impact of voucher systems on non-voucher private schools, ethical/moral arguments about school choice, which types of alternative education count as “schools,” racial impact and gentrification impact of school choice, school choice as opposed to busing, overhead costs, impact on college admission rates and procedures, impact on standardized testing programs, magnet schools, ESA education savings accounts, teacher’s union politics, and virtual schooling.
- Political Theory: the philosophy behind politics, public choice theory, macroeconomic theory and debate, the process of globalization, libertarianism as an extension of the NAP, macro-historical criticism, the so-called apolitical politics of some avant garde thinkers, the ethics of moral coercion, how political theory fits with faith, the role of religion in government, the nation-state concept, Kuhnian paradigm shifting in politics, and meta-political concepts like tribalism or the social imaginary.
This excludes everything else. Here are examples of the “everything else” topics that I choose to not care about in 2017:
- The Culture War: SJWs as a movement, the Alt-Right as a movement, seeing really any of politics from within an ideological lens that requires bad historical eisegesis. “Cops have never committed a crime, cops are a thin blue line and so must be strengthened at all costs” and “Racist cop pigs are slaughtering innocent black children in the streets” are good examples. The process of cultural Marxism. Gendered bathrooms, cake-baking laws, the war on Christmas, etc.
- Fiscal policy: taxes, government spending, the national debt and the annual deficit.
- Income Inequality: it’s a good thing in my opinion and therefore the complaints about it are all just noise
- Obamacare: except where it intersects with the deregulation topic.
- Immigration: it matters but nowhere near enough to enter my above list
- Guns: does not matter to me
- Abortion: matters but has no real solution
- the VA: I do not care
- Labor Unions: except where it intersects with the education topic
- Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state: don’t care
- Eminent Domain: don’t care
- Social Security reform: barely care
- the Death Penalty: matters but already banned in Illinois and not likely to change
- the Drug War: matters but not enough
- Entitlements reform or Welfare reform: does not matter
- Texting and driving: does not matter from a policy standpoint
- Minimum Wage: barely matters but also unlikely to change
- Medicaid expansion: do not care
- Environmentalism: matters but not enough (this was the next-in)
- the NSA, the TSA, surveillance: no real solution
- Prison reform: matters but has a lot of inertia and unlikely to budge
These are hard to justify. Think of that last one. Am I really going to say it doesn’t matter? That I shouldn’t mind it? Prison reform probably matters to people who’ve been wrongly imprisoned for years, or who faced mandatory minimums for victim-less crimes, or who paid their debt to society and the system, yet carry the irrevocable scarlet letter of “ex-con” on their job applications. It certainly matters to them.
Puerto Ricans have strong, if divided, beliefs about statehood. Abortion takes away innocent lives. The repeal of Obamacare threatens to upset a regulatory equilibrium that took five years to settle down, raising costs again. The environment faces the unpresidented threat of a Trump EPA and climate change denialism. Texting and driving laws may have saved my life from the thumbs of a numskull teenager, and theirs from mine.
Notice a pattern? For every topic this is true. As the video pointed out,
Willpower is a very precious and limited resource, and dividing it among multiple overly ambitious goals will lead to none of them being completed. Confucius exposed this downfall when he wisely said that he who chases two rabbits catches none. So only pick one rabbit at a time and hunt that furry bastard down.
I already anticipate the counterargument that I can afford to take this approach only because I am extremely privileged; some people don’t have the luxury of getting to ignore prison reform, the drug war, or environmentalism, because those are destroying their communities.
Fair enough. I’ll reply that anyone else can focus on whatever issues they want. In fact, we may be doing each other a favor if we both specialize; you catch that rabbit, I’ll catch the other one. The worst approach involves us both spreading too thin and becoming ineffective.
Ultimately I must answer this difficult question:
What matters enough for me to care?
Our answers will diverge, but I hope we can agree that it is the process of deciding and finalizing, not the answers we have, that makes the difference. This process makes us less scatterbrained thinkers and more depth-oriented writers; it trades our reactivity for purposeful participation in the discussion and perhaps makes us better friends.