Blog

Zero Sum Thinking

One of the more enlightening ways to think about how humans rationalize their beliefs is through the lens of zero sum thinking. Zero sum thinking is when an individual thinks that a given real world situation is like a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

The name “zero-sum” comes from the fact that when you add the total gains of the participants with the total losses the result is always zero. One example of a zero sum game is the simple game of Odds and Evens. In this game, one player is assigned odds and the other evens. The two players then quickly and simultaneously thrust a fist toward each other extending their finger(s) indicating one or two. If the sum total is 2 (1+1) or 4 (2+2), evens wins. If the sum total is 3 (2 +1 or 1+2), odds wins. The game is straightforward with a clear winner and loser.

In contrast, a non zero-sum game like Prisoner’s dilemma permits both players the additional outcomes of winning or losing together. Unlike Odds and Evens, where you can only win 5 points or lose 5 points (arbitrary number), The Prisoners Dilemma has a spectrum of outcomes ranging from 0-3 years in prison for each person and potentially 4 years of prison collectively. I’ve created the following payoff matrices to highlight the differences between these two games:

The prisoner’s dilemma game (non zero-sum thinking) is often used as a model for many real world situations. Likewise, zero-sum thinking too can be applied to real world scenarios albeit in different contexts. Problems arise however when both types of thinking get applied to the same situation. This clash of thinking is in fact a clash of world views- each side thinking that their version of the ‘game’ is correct. Let’s take a look at some zero-sum thinking in the real world:

  1. Wealth Inequality – The rich get rich at the expense of the poor.
  2. Immigration – More resources for immigrants means less resources for non-immigrants.
  3. Relationships – Loving more than one person at a time means loving each person less.
  4. Skill Set – Having more skills means having less aptitude (Jack of all trades, master of none).
  5. Piracy – Every pirated download is a lost sale (See my Ethics of Piracy article).
  6. Cliques – Stronger membership in one group is weaker membership in another.

The problem with zero sum thinking is not that these ideas are outright false (indeed, there is some truth in these ideas), but rather it’s that these ideas are incomplete. The nature of zero sum thinking is viewing the game through the lens of strict competition despite an alternative path available that can benefit all participants. Whether it’s actually possibly for all participants to choose this path is another question entirely, but it’s important that we know that this is an option. Perhaps there are some things in this world that are doomed to be zero sum, but I believe it’s far less true then we often imagine.

Zero-sum thinking is certainly a legacy of human evolution. In environments where resources like mates, status, and food were perpetually scarce, it’s unsurprising that our experiences could generate this kind of psychological adaption though fierce, but successful competition. As mentioned in my Understanding a Science of Morality article, this knowledge is crucial for helping understand human behavior and ultimately developing a better society. Our evolutionary roots and its influences still has many of us thinking reality is a simple game of winners and losers with no other options available. Nevertheless, as the world advances the path of cooperation will be the only reliable way forward.

Net Neutrality and Internet Freedom

The Federal Communications Commission announced today that they are going to vote on December 14th to put an end to net neutrality rules next month. If passed this will be a disaster for both consumers and democracy. Conservatives and the Republican party have once again championed profits and private property rights in the name of “freedom.”

Despite their claims, the reality is that the end of net neutrality would be a direct path to corporate censorship and the end of the free flow of information online. The internet would be packaged just as propagandist cable television currently is- monopolistic, price gouging, speed throttling, swamp of customer service and frustration. The internet should be treated as a public utility and ought to be recognized as one, no different than electricity, gas or water.

While there are many valid arguments for market based ISP’s given the current costs, problems of infrastructure, access to information, and extremely limited competition- ending net neutrality is not a reasonable solution to the problem. Perhaps in the future when satellite and 5G networks become commonplace and these issues slowly dissipate there will be room to experiment here, but this terrain should be tread carefully.

So what can we do today? Tell the FCC why Net Neutrality is important to you. Speak with your relatives this Thanksgiving about Net Neutrality and why it’s important. Research more, and get informed. Stop taking the internet as we know it for granted.

Understanding a Science of Morality

In the following post I will attempt to organize some of my thoughts on what constitutes a “science of morality.” I believe there are two main projects for science as it relates to morality:

  1. Explain human behavior through the evolutionary process
  2. Rationalize patterns of behavior we ought to follow or avoid via utility or “well being”

These projects should be considered distinct from one another and we should be careful not to conflate them. Conflating projects 1 and 2 would make the mistake of committing the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural does not make it good. Likewise, just because something is unnatural does not make it bad. Social Darwinism is in no way a moral ideal- but understanding the implications of natural selection is of great importance for developing a science of morality.

Let’s look at project 1 more in depth. Evolution not only provides the basis for the physical structures of organisms, but the foundations for behavior of organisms as well. This of course includes humans. Evolution can thus provide powerful explanations for our ancient and intuitive ideas about our actions. Vividly so in contrast and comparison with other animals.

Before diving into evolutionary explanations for human behavior, it’s essential to understand the material basis of reality and how human brains perceive reality. It is true that a material reality exists external to the mind. However, we do not perceive this reality directly. Rather, what we experience is a model of reality that is constructed in our minds via the filters of our senses.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this famous philosophical thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well to be frank- the answer is no, there’s no such thing as sound if there is no one to perceive it. Likewise, color, smell, taste, and other sensations are not “real” in the same way. What actually exists are compression waves that travel via the laws of nature, but sound itself is a product of brains.

This is important to understand because what this means is that different organisms and even different people experience and model these waves in completely different modes. Knowing this fact, we can deduce and study how and why evolution gave rise to these different models and experiences of reality. Take for example the smell of human feces. Why does it smell bad to us?

R.G. Price explains it succinctly in one of his essays on evolution:

“It’s not because feces inherently stinks, it’s because our brains have evolved to perceive certain chemicals in feces negatively.

Volatile chemicals emanate from feces and become airborne, where those chemicals are detected by our nose. Feces, especially human feces, is a very common carrier of diseases that can affect humans. Coming into contact with feces dramatically increases an individual’s chance of contracting diseases and therefore dying. A negative perception of the chemicals commonly found in feces results in affecting an individual’s behavior so that they shun feces. The process of evolution selects for individuals who have a negative perception of feces because these individuals have a higher rate of survival as compared to individuals who do not have a negative perception of feces.

Individuals who either don’t smell the chemicals in feces, or who find those chemicals to be attractive, would be more likely to come in contact with feces, and thus they would be more likely to contract a disease and die.

Now, if we compare the human perception of the chemicals in feces to the perception of these same chemicals by flies, then we can conclude that feces probably smells good to flies. When a fly detect the chemicals in feces it most likely creates a pleasurable perception to the fly. This is because feces is a source of food for flies. Flies, since they are insects, are not generally vulnerable to mammalian diseases, so mammalian feces poses no health risk to them. Instead, the organic molecules in feces are a source of nutrition for flies.”

Perception drives behavior. Thus we can explain, at least in part through evolution, how and why our intuitive ideas relating to morality gave rise. From this knowledge we can help distinguish project 1’s “natural” morality from that of an objective morality being established in project 2.

Project 2 deals with the development of a morality of science. While the merits of project 1 is hardly debatable (because it is simply telling us what is influencing human behavior), project 2 seems to be a bit more controversial because it attempts for science to tell us what we ought to do. This criticism, while legitimate, seems to miss the point. Let me explain why.

Values are a specific type of fact. They are empirical statements about the flourishing of conscious creatures in society. Values are by definition what we mean by the word “good.” However, there exists a spectrum of competing values. People and societies make claims that some values are greater than others. This takes the proposition:

X value creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than Y value.

We can therefore use the scientific method to test these claims to see whether or not they are in fact true. For example:

Honesty creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than lying.

Often times we already have intuitions about the truthfulness of certain values. However, a science of morality would allow us to test these intuitions against real world world empirical tests. We can do this by performing simulations and then comparing their outcomes. This could even account for rarities. For instance it may be true that honesty creates more flourishing for conscious creatures in 99% of situations, but it may prove to be false in the context of honesty resulting in death or great suffering.

The point here is that there is a spectrum of competing values always at play in the real world or in other words, a Moral Landscape with peaks and valleys. We can use the scientific method to compare these values and begin the drawings of that moral map.

There is no doubt that a science of morality is in its infancy. Defining the flourishing of conscious creatures is difficult enough- how would we measure this? Wealth? Happiness surveys? Health? Brain Scans? AI Simulations? There are still limits to our tools and understanding. Nevertheless, the foundations of a science of morality are forming and can ultimately shape the morality of our future. The purpose is to expand on it, progress and educate the population like we would with any other science. That is something we certainly ought to do.

The Ethics of Piracy

I’ve been reading Intellectual Property is Common Property by Andreas Van Gunten over the last couple of weeks and it has seriously challenged many of my intuitions on the topic of piracy and intellectual property. Specifically, its been making me think about the ethics of piracy from my utilitarian and consequentialist perspective and where it fits exactly in my moral framework. I’ll be sharing those thoughts here. First, what is piracy? Let’s look at some modern definitions:

the unauthorized use of anothers production, invention, or conception especially in infringement of a copyright – Merriam Webster

the unauthorized reproduction or use of a copyrighted book, recording, television program, patented invention, trademarked product, etc. – Dictionary.com

I think a good place to begin is to question whether or not piracy is identical to theft. Theft is universally perceived as morally wrong for reasons we will soon explore. By comparing the two, we can gather insight into why we may or may not think piracy is morally equivalent. However, even if it is true that piracy is not equivalent to theft in every respect, logically it does not follow that piracy is morally unproblematic. This is important to keep in mind.

Why is it that humans universally perceive theft as morally wrong? From a utilitarian and consequentialist perspective this is because of the harm it causes through an immediate loss of value. If I were to steal a shovel from a shed, the owner of that shovel could no longer use it. The shovel can only be owned and used by one person at a time. Therefore by depriving the owner of their possession and their ability to use the shovel- I’ve clearly harmed them.

In economics, goods that can be used by only one consumer at a time are called rivalrous goods. Rivalrous goods are almost always tangible and will have either durable or non durable characteristics. The shovel in my previous example would be an example of a durable rivalrous good. Likewise an apple would be an example of a non durable rivalrous good because once an apple is eaten it is “used up” and can no longer be eaten by others.  There are also some examples of non-tangible goods that are rivalrous- notably domain names and radio bands. When people refer to theft they almost always mean the theft of rivalrous goods.

However, there are also non-rivalrous goods that exist where the cost of providing the good to an additional individual is zero. For example, Broadcast television is a non rival good because when a consumer turns on a TV set, this does not prevent the TV in another consumer’s house from working. Other examples of non-rival goods include scenic views, cinemas, national defense, clean air, street lights, and most notably intellectual property. When asking whether piracy is identical to theft, there’s another underlying question: Can non-rival goods be stolen?

https://sites.google.com/site/microeconomicsreview/_/rsrc/1296342336865/public-and-private/Chart.jpgImage via wikipedia

As Andreas Van Gunten explains in Chapter 2:

“A text in a book or a painting on a canvas are only rival-goods in the sense that the physical manifestation of the expression cannot be consumed more than once at any given time. The expression itself is non-rival. It can be consumed by many people at the same time as long as sufficient copies of the expression exist. The proponents of the current copyright system argue that the justification of intellectual property shares the same moral grounds as the justification of physical property.13 But only the physical medium has a rivalry character comparable to the physical goods by which control rights may be justified. As soon as the copying of the expression, which is what copyright law protects, does not need a physical medium anymore, which means that it can be done at zero or near zero cost, it loses its rivalry character. In other words, copying is not stealing, as the proponents of intellectual property rights try to convince us.

A printed book for example can only be read by one person at a time.14 If someone takes the book away from its owner, he can now read it and the original owner cannot. What we have here are the typical characteristics of a rival-good where the postulation of control rights may make some sense. But this changes completely as soon as a digital representation of the expression is available. In this case this would be an E-Book file or a website with the same text on it. If I possess an E-Book or have access to text on the World Wide Web, I am not limited in my enjoyment of the expression when someone else makes a copy and reads the text as well. As soon as the expression is no longer bound to a physical medium, and its manifestation is realised in a digital representation, the marginal costs for the second and subsequent copies are nearly zero and therefore it loses its rivalry character and its scarcity.”

So to answer the question: Can non-rival goods be stolen? The answer is no. However, non-rival transactions still seem to have the possibility of being unjust and morally problematic. Interestingly enough, this seems to be particularly true if the systems in place are unable to efficiently regulate and organize non-rival good distribution. In the same way, piracy is not identical to theft, but it can still cause harm to the producers of non-rival information goods because of the free rider problem.

If we were to accept these conclusions, it would seem to me that there would be multiple levels to piracy with different ethical implications. Consider the following four scenarios:

  1. Consume copyrighted movie without permission for private use
  2. Consume copyrighted movie without permission and edit the content for private use
  3. Consume copyrighted movie without permission, edit the content and share for public use
  4. Consume copyrighted movie without permission and share for public use

In each of these scenarios we are consuming copyrighted content without permission. The variables at play here are private vs public and edited vs original. Interesting to note is that scenarios 2 and 3 are actually legal in many cases under fair use in the United States, while the others are not. The mere act of editing copyrighted content makes it “fair.” Nevertheless, from an ethical standpoint scenarios 2 and 3 are ethically equivalent to scenario 1. Scenario 4 in contrast could be argued to be ethically worse for encouraging more piracy because it is sharing the original content with the public. Thus leading to a greater free rider problem.

At a deeper level, what we are really talking about when discussing the ethics of piracy is whether or not “intellectual property” is legitimate. If it is not legitimate- as Andreas Van Gunten asserts in his book- then it can be argued that piracy is simply a way of spreading creative works and increasing human innovation. Indeed, piracy could very well be a a neutral or ethical act.

My aim is not to try to solve these fundamental problems but to show that a society where intellectual property is common property has a better chance to prosper, independently of the question whether its basic values are more libertarian or more egalitarian. The premise is that the more cultural artefacts and the more scientific ideas are developed and produced, and the more freely human communication can happen, the more sustainable a society grows. This is the classical liberal argument for freedom of speech.Intellectual Property is Common Property, Andreas Van Gunten

If one accepts Guntens premise that in a society where intellectual property is common property and “more cultural artefacts and the more scientific ideas are developed and produced, and the more freely human communication can happen, the more sustainable a society grows,” then this is a society we ought to strive for from a utilitarian perspective.

Nevertheless, I can sympathize with those that are skeptical of Guntens views. They appear counter intuitive to many given the ingrained cultural status quo on copyright, patents, and other property laws. Furthermore, it may very well be the case that “possessing” intellectual property individually leads to a more prosperous society than one unable to do this. I remain agnostic.

Whatever your beliefs, I highly recommend checking out Guntens work. Piracy will continue to remain an interesting ethical question- one that is volatile to a technological environment and the laws we set in motion. Let’s see where it goes.

The Division of Labor: Wealth and Ignorance

One of the main characteristics of a capitalist economy is the division of labor. The division of labor allows for greater efficiency in production by compartmentalizing tasks and having individual workers specialize in a single domain. Perhaps the best example that illustrates this was Henry Ford and his revolutionary advances for the automobile industry.

Prior to Ford, cars were primarily produced by skilled workmen. These workmen not only had to have strong mechanical skills, but also extensive knowledge in engineering, physics and material science. In many cases, these craftsmen were capable of building an entire car by themselves. Indeed, car making was an intellectual artform and each piece was a luxury reserved for the rich.

Then Ford came along and began building cars via assembly line. Ford hired large numbers of unskilled workers, many of whom had never even seen a car in their life, and gave each individual a few simple instructions. Suddenly, these workers had become “car makers.”

fordassemblyline

The division of labor allowed these workers to know just enough in order to do their job without ever needing to fully understand the process. Amazingly, not only was this method more efficient than the cars made by the skilled workmen, but it was cheaper and faster too. Thanks to Ford, car prices dropped dramatically and became so commonplace that even the unskilled workers he had hired could afford them.

Whether he recognized it or not, Ford had expanded on the knowledge and progress from the Enlightenment and Industrial revolution from the 17th and 18th centuries. The following excerpt from A Treatise of Human Nature highlights this:

“When every individual person labors a-part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labor being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability en creases: And by mutual succor we are less expos’d to fortune and accidents. ’Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.” – David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

150 years before Ford, David Hume recognized the exponential possibilities that human collaboration had for transforming societies. Today, these “conjunction of forces” are represented in the form of large corporations. This rapid advancement in efficiency is one of capitalism’s greatest qualities- creating vast amounts of wealth through expansive production.

Nevertheless, despite the enormous benefits that the division of labor can provide to society, it is not without its faults. Karl Marx most notably criticized the division of labor with his theory of alienation and how humans become a “cog in a system of machines.” Adam Smith also criticized the division of labor for its harmful effects to democracy in The Wealth of Nations:

“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” – Adam Smith, V.1.178

Smith pointed out that the division of labor breeds ignorance because it encourages citizens to a very narrow focus of awareness. Citizen’s need to know how to do their specialized jobs and that’s it. There’s no need in viewing the bigger picture- the inter-connectivity of society, politics and rational discourse. These compartmental underpinnings explain people like Ben Carson: someone who is a brilliant neurosurgeon, but also a young earth creationist with dozens of delusional and irrational beliefs. Or as Bill Maher describes them, “Smart-Stupid people.”

The truth is that democracy only works well with equally informed citizens- and capitalism, by its very nature of making production extremely efficient, undermines this by destroying the intellectual curiosity that democracy requires. In this way, America has been able to both excel and fall behind at the same time. We are a nation of wealth and ignorance.

Smith suggests that “unless government takes some pains to prevent it,” that this is the path we are doomed to follow. The election of Donald Trump would suggest that the government has failed in this regard and will continue to do so in the near future.

I am, however, optimistic. The Internet has made it easier than ever before to learn and explore ideas outside ones expertise. Automation has and will continue to take over jobs that are simplistic and repetitive. We are a nation of wealth and ignorance, but perhaps one day we can become a nation of wealth and reason.

My 23andMe Results

Last Christmas my parents bought me a 23andme DNA test. As I unwrapped the gift my step father, in classic dad joke fashion, looked me square in the eye and said “Luke, I’m not your father.” He then proceeded to laugh hysterically. I never particularly minded the bombardment of star wars jokes growing up, but if there ever was an appropriated time he definitely nailed it.

Anyways, I just received my results and thought it would be fun to share them here. 23andMe breaks their reports down into 3 major categories: Ancestry,Traits and Wellness. I won’t go through every detail they provided, but I’ll highlight the parts I found most interesting.

Ancestry

heritage

More than 80% of my ancestry is British & Irish (56.5%) and Broadly Northwestern European (24.7%) which are descendants from countries like Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway and Iceland. The next biggest chunk is French & German (14.2%) and finally Native American (1.1%). Other European ancestry fell under (1%) and everything else was less than .1%

neandrathal

Perhaps the most interesting discovery was the amount of Neanderthal DNA variants I had. Most people with European ancestry have between 1 – 4% in their DNA and I seemed to fall on the higher end of that scale. In addition, I inherited the specific Neanderthal trait of having less back hair (can’t complain about this hehe). For those interested in how they determined the Neanderthal trait: marker rs4849721 near the EIN gene showed a change from a G to a T. It was a lot of fun looking at the raw data despite having an elementary understanding of genetics.

The ancestry reports also provided information about Haplogroups. In simplest terms, Haplogroups are maternal or paternal lineages that descend from a single common ancestor. Haplogroups help shed light on the origins of some of our ancient ancestors and on their migrations over tens of thousands of years.maternalhaplogroup

My maternal line belongs to the Haplogroup K2a3.

Origin: K2a3 is a subgroup of K. K split off the more ancient haplogroup U8 about 35,000 years ago. Since then, haplogroup K has been involved in migrations from the Near East into Europe. Notably, particular branches of haplogroup K are part of the founding and expansion of the majority of Ashkenazi Jewish populations. K is found in 6% of Europeans.

paternalhaplogroup

My paternal line belongs to the Haplogroup R-M412

Origin: R-M412 is a subgroup of R-M269. R-M269 is the most common haplogroup in western Europe, where its branches are clustered in various national populations, including in the Basque, in Ireland, and on the fringes of the North Sea. R-M269 is found in more than 50% of men in western Europe.

Wellness

wellness

The wellness reports show how your DNA may influence how you respond to certain lifestyle and environmental factors. I laughed out loud when I read I was “Likely consumes more caffeine” and “less likely a deep sleeper.” Extremely accurate, but at least I know why I’m a tea/coffee addict and don’t sleep very well now. Curse you DNA!

The rest of the report was pinpoint accurate as well with the only questionable one being my muscle composition being “likely sprinter.” I always felt I was better at endurance running, but that could just be my long distant running bias speaking. Athleticism in the form of diet, training, and other genetic factors can also play a major role in muscle performance.

Traits

traits

The Traits Reports explains how your DNA may influence your physical appearance, preferences, and physical responses. The predictions are based on current knowledge of how genetic factors influence our traits and the list above is just a portion of some of the traits they covered.

No big surprises here, but there’s certainly a lot of interesting statistics. My paternal lineage (father, fathers father, grandfathers father) all share blue eyes and my mom has hazel eyes, so it was interesting to see these percentages. I have blue eyes (or maybe greenish blue) and my sister has hazel eyes. As far as I can tell I inherited all of the majority percentage traits with the one exception being the coin flip for earlobe type. Attached earlobes are clearly better 😉

Well that about wraps it up! Each report goes into a lot detail and there’s still several reports I’m eager in dissecting further. Overall it was a really fun experience and I definitely recommend it!

The Paradox of Free Markets

No individual has had a greater influence on economic policy than Adam Smith. Smith laid the foundations of classical free market theory and most notably conceptualized the idea that profit maximizing firms interacting with rational consumers in competitive markets lead to prosperous societies. [1] For this reason, Smith is frequently celebrated by free market fundamentalists as a champion of Laissez-faire capitalism.

However, despite what his contemporary followers claim, Smith recognized the limitations of the market and the necessity of government:

“According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: first, the duty of protecting the society from violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”- Adam Smith IV.9.51

Smith believed that it was essential for government to provide certain goods like infrastructure, banking and education because they provided the foundation in which markets could flourish. Nevertheless, Smith recognized the danger of government when their authority was used only to benefit a small number of individuals. Indeed, Smith warned again and again of the collusive nature of business interests, the formation of cabals or monopolies, and the political power this gives to the richest members of society:

“It is in the age of shepherds, in the second period of society, that the inequality of fortune first begins to take place, and introduces among men a degree of authority and subordination which could not possibly exist before. It thereby introduces some degree of that civil government which is indispensably necessary for its own preservation: and it seems to do this naturally, and even independent of the consideration of that necessity. The consideration of that necessity comes no doubt afterwards to contribute very much to maintain and secure that authority and subordination. The rich, in particular, are necessarily interested to support that order of things which can alone secure them in the possession of their own advantages. Men of inferior wealth combine to defend those of superior wealth in the possession of their property, in order that men of superior wealth may combine to defend them in the possession of theirs. All the inferior shepherds and herdsmen feel that the security of their own herds and flocks depends upon the security of those of the great shepherd or herdsman; that the maintenance of their lesser authority depends upon that of his greater authority, and that upon their subordination to him depends his power of keeping their inferiors in subordination to them. They constitute a sort of little nobility, who feel themselves interested to defend the property and to support the authority of their own little sovereign in order that he may be able to defend their property and to support their authority. Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”Adam Smith V.1.55

What Smith is describing here is the foundation of corporatism. Simply put, corporatism is the control of the state by the richest interest groups. In practice, corporations will lobby the government for things like subsidies and profit reducing regulations. Free market fundamentalists will often call this level of conspiracy “crony capitalism.” They argue that by simply reducing government size that the “free market” will naturally resolve this issue. This, however, is a misguided fantasy with no factual basis in history.

Before we go any further we must identify what a “free market” actually is, or at the very least, try to understand what it implies. Let’s look at some modern dictionary definitions:

“An economic market or system in which prices are based on competition among private businesses and not controlled by a government.” – Merriam Webster

“Business governed by the laws of supply and demand, not restrained by government interference, regulation or subsidy.” – Investor Words

“An economic system in which prices and wages are determined by unrestricted competition between businesses, without government regulation or fear of monopolies.” Dictionary.com

Today, the term “free market” is often defined as a market without government regulation. Implicit in this definition is that buyers and sellers would have “prices based on competition”, markets would follow the “laws of supply and demand”, and economic activity would be “unrestricted.” Immediately we can see contradictions in this concept.

The following excerpt from Understanding Capitalism demonstrates this quite concisely:

“Without government interference there is nothing to prevent interference, restriction, and subsidy by the mafia, an activity for which we have real world examples. Without government interference there is nothing to prevent the erection of barriers to free transaction, used either to extract rents, to marginalize competition, or to punish groups of people based on any number of criteria such as race, religion, gender, etc. Furthermore, there are any number of ways in which non-governmental entities can implement rules and regulations which distort the laws of supply and demand, a classic example being the National Football League’s imposition of salary caps and profit sharing across organizations.” R.G. Price, Understanding Capitalism

So here we have a paradox. Without the government imposing rules on the market, there is nothing to stop the “free market” from restricting itself from the next powerful authority. There are countless examples of the “free market” distorting itself. To name a few:

Coca Cola paying retailers to eliminate competition

Ticketmaster obtaining exclusive contracts with venues

F.W. Woolworth discriminating against black customers

Japanese citizens erecting barriers to trade and charging tolls for the transport of goods

In each of these cases we see private actors take action to subvert the “laws of supply and demand,” distort “prices based on competition” or prevent people from transacting freely in an “unrestricted” market without any coercion from government forces. Indeed, it was the implementation of government regulation that ultimately led to a freer market in these cases.

To conclude, Smiths analysis of free markets provides a solid foundation for creating a prosperous society. However, free markets ≠ no government regulation. A freed market must have limited, but smart regulations towards the highest concentrations of capital. It must also account for externalities. And ideally, the freed market would be one that redistributes its capital to all its citizens, but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.

Songwriting 101: Lovedrug

Today I’ll be going over a song I wrote a couple years ago titled Lovedrug. This particular piece is a great example of how simplicity in songwriting can be effective. It uses the popular I, IV, V, vi chords which I previously discussed here. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading that article first in order to get a better understanding of chord relationships and why these chords work so well together. Let’s jump right in!

Lovedrug is in D# Major and is divided into two main sections using the following chords:

Verse: D# Major (I) – A# Major (V) – C Minor (vi) – G# Major (IV)

Chorus: D# Major (I) – C Minor (vi)

These chords can be very tricky to play on guitar, but there’s something we can do to make it more straightforward. We can place a capo on the 8th fret which allows us to play these chords in the open position. This makes the song easier to play because it allows us to use basic chord shapes. In practice, you could then use the following shapes:

Verse: G Major – D Major – E Minor – C Major

Chorus: G Major – E Minor

For those that are unfamiliar, these shapes look like this:

chordprogression2

 

 

 

Something to note is that we can easily transcribe songs to a different key while still using these same chord shapes by simply moving the capo up or down the neck. The reason I chose to use the key of D# Major (8th fret capo) for this particular song was because it was the best fit for my vocals. It’s often a good practice to experiment with your songs in different keys. While inexperienced singers may be limited with the keys they can use, it can provide a great deal of flexibility and even new ideas for how singers can perform the melody.  For Lovedrug I also experimented with using G Major and A# Major throughout the songwriting process.

Next let’s look at the song structure. I would categorize this song as ABABCBBC. Looking at each letter: A represents the verse, B represents the chorus, and C represents the bridge. My favorite part of Lovedrug was the chorus because the melody was particularly catchy, and therefore I wanted to emphasize this part of the song. To do this, I simply made it the most prominent part by repeating it four times in total. The only difference between the bridge and the verse is that the bridge uses a guitar riff instead of the verse melody.

Finally let’s take a look at the lyrics and melody:

I love to watch you squirm
Every time you lie
Feel the way it hurts

You get me high then you bring me down
Don’t know why I ever stick around
Hate to say, hate to say it now
Just a drug, just a drug, just a drug to me

Why did the fire die?
I want to watch it burn
Every single time

You get me high then you bring me down
Don’t know why I ever stick around
Hate to say, hate to say it now
Just a drug, just a drug, just a drug to me

The song is about an addiction to an unhealthy relationship. It highlights how we irrationally glorify the honeymoon phase with a partner and use it to justify lies and bad behavior. The lyrics are simple and easy to understand, but often times that’s exactly what a song needs to demonstrate its message clearly. I think I can accomplished that with this song.

For the melody I started with the simple idea of walking up a scale for the word “high” and walking down the same scale for the word “down.” After trying several variations I finally came up with the one I liked most. From there, I made several iterations of it and eventually picked one that ended up being the verse melody. Melody writing is often just coming up with 20 different ways to sing a single word- and then ultimately picking your favorite and expanding it.

Well that about wraps up Lovedrug. If you take anything away from this lesson I hope it’s that simplicity can do wonders with the right touch. It’s something you should always consider during the songwriting process because you may regretfully add too much. Thanks for reading.

The Case for Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the idea that all citizens of a country should regularly receive an unconditional sum of money in order to pay for basic living necessities. In practice, UBI would replace the current welfare system and it’s numerous existing programs as a more transparent, efficient, and affordable alternative. UBI would ultimately eradicate poverty and prepare us for the future economy that is rapidly changing due to technological process and automation. Let’s take a closer look on how UBI could work in the American economy.

In America, the poverty line for a single individual is $11,880. Thus if UBI were to provide every citizen between the age of (18-64) with $12,000 a year, it would instantly bring every citizen above the poverty line. This will allow a couple things to happen. First the need for a minimum wage law would become unnecessary because it would no longer have to provide a basic living, and therefore involuntary unemployment would no longer exist. Competition would thrive and people would be more willing to take risks knowing they’ll always have $1000 in the bank every month.

Secondly, women would be reinvigorated into the economy. Women disproportionately provide the majority of care taking roles in families for children and elderly which is work that is monetarily uncompensated for. UBI would thus be a transfer of wealth to care takers (and therefore mostly women) and provide them with compensation for work that they already do for free. Indeed, UBI would be the biggest feminist revolutionary act of our time.

While the economic boom that UBI is capable of providing looks promising, some skeptics have challenged it on several fronts. One criticism of UBI is that by providing people with free money is that people will have much less incentive to work. This is a fair criticism, but it is one that can be addressed by changing the tax system to a more progressive one.

In the current welfare system, benefits are phased out as workers earnings increase. This creates poor incentive to work, and in some cases like those with disability insurance, the choice is binary: work or receive benefits. With UBI, workers will only stand to gain from working and educating themselves to fit the needs of future markets.

Another strong criticism of UBI is it’s relationship with families that have a lot of children. Should UBI provide more for these families? Is this fair? And perhaps more importantly: Is this economically sustainable? This is a problem directly related to overpopulation. You can read more about this in my blog post Overpopulation: A Road to Dystopia. As far as I can tell, UBI advocates haven’t been entirely convincing on this front. However, some argue that this will be a non-issue.

UBI will require a change of mindset in the way we view work in our everyday lives. It will require us to accept the uncharted territories of a new world that has an abundance of resources, massive automation, and a diminishing need for traditional work. Despite the challenge this presents, I’m incredibly optimistic to the implementation of UBI in the near future (25-40 years) here in America. I expect this conversation to elevate onto the national level in the coming years.

For further reading on arguments for and against UBI, some recommended articles:

A Guaranteed Income For Every American

The Case for Free Money

My Second Thoughts About Universal Basic Income

Why a Universal Basic Income Is a Terrible Idea

If Robots Steal Out Jobs, A Universal Basic Income Could Help

Make America Sane Again

Last night was a spectacle to see unravel. Flipping through channel to channel, I watched as the mainstream media imploded attempting to reconcile their polling data with reality. In just a matter of hours the narrative had changed completely. The narrow path for Donald Trump to claim victory had mutated into Hillary Clinton needing a miracle. And then in a single moment it was over: Donald Trump became the 45th president elect of the United States.

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the course of this election cycle, it is this: Never underestimate the ignorance of the American people. This will no doubt be remembered as an absurd climax in American politics, but it was something that had become gradually inevitable for the wildest year in my lifetime. Indeed, 2016 included the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, massive vehicular terrorist attacks, the Panama Paper leaks, and a Chicago Cubs World series win. Still, the question everyone will be asking today and for many years to come: How?

I believe the biggest reason that Donald Trump was victorious was because of the extreme resentment for Hillary Clinton. It was blatantly obvious to anyone outside of the Hollywood, Wall Street and mainstream media bubble that she was a terrible candidate. She represented the essence of the status quo when the country was screaming for something new. Her campaign was shallow and unexciting to get behind. The Democrats failure to elect Bernie Sanders as their nominee was their biggest mistake.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that at the time of writing this piece that Clinton will win the popular vote and I suspect that she will do so overwhelming as the votes continue to come in. The majority of the country didn’t get swayed by a demagogue. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter now. Perhaps there is something to be said about an outdated electoral college system, but I digress and will leave that to the hundreds of Op-Ed pieces that will surely be coming.

Finally, a third point: Leftists have rightly highlighted the sexism, racism and bigotry throughout Trumps campaign, but have also failed to engage in these conversations honestly. Being critical of Black Lives Matter doesn’t make a person racist. Being critical of Third Wave Feminism doesn’t make a person sexist. Being critical of Islamic Terrorism doesn’t make a person an Islamophobe. The failure to distinguish and separate steel man arguments from true bigotry is a key factor in the rise of Trump and the platform he now has. We should never begin by assuming the worst intentions of our political opponents when thoughtful disagreement is possible. It’s simply lazy thinking and it’s completely ineffective for changing minds.

Emotions are high as this two year long bitter campaign comes to a close, but Leftists and Liberals now more than ever need to be rational and champions of reason. The election of Donald Trump in addition to Republican control of the House, Senate and Congress leaves the door wide open to massively regressive changes these next several years.

The silver lining in all of this, ironically, is that Donald Trump is not a traditional republican. The man has no ideology and his policies have been all over the map from the beginning. There’s much reason to believe that his ideas will continue to evolve as the realities of world politics finally settles in. In this regard, I’m hopeful that the presidency can humble the narcissistic egomaniac and make for a survivable 4 years. Don’t hold your breath.