Our Helpless Forward Selves

I’ve been listening to Mark Spitznagel’s The Dao of Capital, which is three parts philosophy, two parts history, and one part investing advice, so if you’re into that sort of thing and don’t mind the same concept hammered home in a dozen different examples across multiple categories, you will love this book. In the chapter about the concept of “time preference,” he uses a striking turn of phrase when talking about the reality of our future selves and distant descendants.

The symptoms of this affliction [referring to our culture’s extreme focus on the now, at the expense of the future] can be found in the chronically low savings rate in our culture, ranging from financial to even fresh water, soil, and of course forests. And analagously and most incredibly, governmental fiscal deficits that deviously and increasingly rob future generations, our helpless intergenerational forward selves.

The first time I ran into this concept of a human being as a continuous being, simultaneously real across the span of his lifetime, was when reading about Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five. They perceive time as existing all at once. In the book this produced a kind of passive, fatalistic philosophy. Since all that will be already is, there was no room for the idea of free will. I don’t take that view, but the image from the book, of viewing time and the people in it the way you might look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, their past and future selves just as real as the present one, stopped me in my tracks. It puts the present, which always dominates our perceptions and emotions, into a new perspective. It echoes something Einstein used to say about looking at past and future as equally and simultaneously real with the present.

This is in a section where Spitznagel credits Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk with noticing this truth and applying it to economics, and his choice of the word “helpless” really leaped out at me. It is a word that for me instantly conjures images of the downtrodden people who it is our moral duty to help. Suddenly the ideas of saving, investing wisely, delaying gratification, sacrificing in the now for something better later, becomes more than just a strategy for self-gratification for the far-sighted. It is a moral duty to a future self and to future others, people every bit as real as you are right now, but whose condition is completely at your mercy.

This idea is not so foreign to those who speak a language like Japanese or Chinese, where the verbs make no distinction between past, present and future. But for those of us raised on English, focusing more on the canoe than the river when thinking about time, this might be a jarring insight!

Anyone wishing to change the world through politics has a duty to understand economics. As arcane as some try to make it, economics is really just the study of naturally occurring tradeoffs. It is a pair of binoculars we can use to survey the landscape of Man’s struggle against the material world to grow and thrive. The better we can see, the better we can navigate in that realm. Those who don’t will often do what seems right, but actually leads to destruction. Böhm-Bawerk was right about the importance of time. Would-be reformers like some of the Democratic 2020 hopefuls would do well to pay attention to it. The systems we create today need to avoid creating crises later on. Human affairs are unpredictable, but not hopelessly so. Through economics we actually can spot errors, learn from them, and plan to avoid them.

We today are the children of generations that traded future obligations for present benefits: borrowing to make finance payments, instituting a monetary system that slowly bleeds the value out of cash savings in order to boost the present buying power of the state, the list goes on. We live in a time of incomprehensible abundance and yet the young feel as if they have to build their lives on very thin margins. Part of this, according to Robert Kiyosaki, is a failure to pass down financial wisdom, but there has also been a failure to respect the sanctity of our future selves and our distant descendants, all of whom are every bit as real as you are right now, even if they are not yet visible.

We cannot reach back to the past to ask for the guilty to restore what they took, but we can decide what to do with the world that we now have. According to Albert and Eugen, the future already exists. The people in it depend on us in the here and now to act in their interest.

No one else can.


The social media horse has already left the barn

As far as I can tell, the differences between Cambridge Analytica and the Obama campaign are that the Obama campaign got more data, got it more easily, and got a free pass afterward because people in charge at Facebook sympathized with the campaign. It was not the intended use of the platform in both cases, and slurping Facebook data to target political messages is nothing new.

One can only speculate what’s motivating the frenzied coverage. For days, this was the sole story every time I walked past a TV showing CNN or MSNBC. Maybe the powers-that-be think that if they can take social media down a peg, it will return some lost influence over public opinion to the corporate media, which in many cases is just the deep state’s marketing department.

If that is the case, it won’t work. Regardless what happens to Facebook, the future marches on. If you kill Facebook someone will just build another one. Except the next one will be decentralized, open source, and built on top of a cryptocurrency.

Anyone can publish anything now. The only way to battle Fake News is to exercise your critical thinking skills and learn how to read knowing that the content is almost always propaganda.


Revealed Preferences in Government Shutdowns

The US federal government, thanks to central banking, has an unlimited power to spend, so it almost never has to sacrifice anything to get what it wants. But there are a few brief moments where some procedural rules force Congress to act as if it had a finite budget. These “government shutdowns” give us a glimpse into how the federal government ranks the importance of its many jobs, and a chance to confirm or invalidate one theory of the state: that “the government is us” and more or less reflects our own preferences.

An article at Vox describes what stopped and what kept operating during the 2018 shutdown. This paragraph is instructive:

Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms field offices are exempt from shutdowns; many Food and Drug Administration officials working on investigations, however, are not. The TSA is fully exempt, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to furlough a large fraction of its staff. Civil litigation efforts at the Department of Justice (including antitrust investigations) would cease; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Health and Safety Administration would be, temporarily, all but gutted.

The article lists others, and in the 2013 shutdown, Washington went out of their way, without irony, to barricade monuments.

But look closely at the exemptions. My favorite example is the TSA. By all objective measures, the TSA is at least useless and probably worse than useless. It costs about $8 billion per year to run. Without belaboring the point too much, the whole thing is security theater. It’s a farce, and everyone knows it.

So which would you prefer Uncle Sam do without in an emergency? The people who ostensibly monitor and contain diseases? The people who prosecute and resolve civil court cases? Or the useless orcs at the airport that treat you like a prison inmate for no reason? The question answers itself.

The agencies receiving unconditional support tend to be enforcement arms or payouts to powerful constituencies, regardless of their efficacy or desirability. The military, as well, carries on as usual even though soldiers are temporarily denied their paychecks. The expendable ones tend to be citizen-facing services whose absence will cause the greatest amount of discomfort without damaging the state’s ability to impose its will or pacify possible resistance.

In a Machiavellian way, it does make perfect sense for the state to defend its supremacy at all costs. This isn’t illogical in the slightest. But the shutdowns reveal this to actually be the case, and not the comforting euphemisms we often hear about the government. Murray Rothbard asserts in Anatomy of the State that the government is not synonymous with the people. It is a different thing from society, with its own interests, which can be at odds with the people it governs.