Hi, John

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I wrote this a little while ago, in response to Acting Provost John Applegate’s letter to graduate workers. After he stepped down, I thought it seemed a bit pointless to try and publish it. But, the current Provost Shrivastav specifically referenced Applegate’s letter as rationale for his own inartful union-busting, so perhaps it is relevant to post now.


Hi John,

I read your letter to the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition, but then got confused because I thought I was accidentally reading former Provost Lauren Robel’s letter again. When I got to the end, I saw it was signed by you so I figured it out. There are some things you said that I want to reply to. I pulled some quotes and put them in bold, then responded to them.

“The relationship between graduate students and their instructors and their advisors should remain flexible and individualized.”

John, when faculty abuse their positions of power, I am powerless to push back. For example, a faculty member unilaterally moved the goalposts on my independent study no fewer than three times. I went to seek an advocate for this inappropriate behavior. My “advocate” was a member of the faculty, whose allegiance must be first to IU and not the graduate worker. They are subjected to the pressures of the system they are embedded in. Graduate workers come and go, but tenured coworkers are forever. With a union, I would have genuine advocates to work on my behalf, and a formal process to support me when people in power are abusing that power. (Speaking of flexible and individualized relationships: are you ever going to make it against the rules for professors to fuck their students? It’s not a rule that most need but, yeah…)

“[A union] would limit the ability to address and accommodate differences in student needs.”

John, I’m disabled and when a professor demanded I go to the Health Center to get a doctor’s note for missing one class due to my disability, I had no advocate. Instead, I had to go to the Health Center, waste an afternoon, pay the copay, only to have the professional attending to me ask “why are you here?” It was a great question, John. Why was I there? It wasn’t because I enjoyed the benefits of individualized accommodations. When I went through the expensive and invasive processes at Disabled Student Services, how was I benefitting then?

“The average actual value of graduate student support (stipend, grants and fellowships, tuition remission, and health/dental benefits) is in fact over $50,000.”

John, you do rigorous statistical analyses in your work as an environmental law researcher. Surely you know the most basic premises of statistics. Averages are typically not a major component of a statistical analysis because averages are incredibly susceptible to unevenly distributed data. It’s often the most basic way people misrepresent data sets. Wages are almost universally reported with medians, because that is far more resistant to distortions.

Here’s what I mean: the average of our two wages (~$16,000 and ~$600,000 produce a mean of about $308,000) doesn’t really tell us anything helpful because I experience no benefit of your generous compensation, and you didn’t lose half of your income. Though, it does make me wonder what it’s like to do 37 times the amount of work a graduate worker does. You must be a busy guy! Anyway, the departments that pay their graduate workers better obfuscates those that are paid worse. They’re called outliers, John. I’m sure you’ve heard of them.

This $50,000 figure is nonsense regardless of the childish statistical analyses. The biggest flaw is that Kroger doesn’t take “tuition remission” as payment. Benefits do carry value, but when the problem is a lack of money to buy food or pay rent, the only solution is to have more money. Also, grants and fellowships are not evenly available, and they are also a major source of distorting the average figure you reported. Student A gets no additional funding, but Student B gets a fellowship. The average rises! But Student A doesn’t feel it. And finally, IU sets the price of tuition and then (partially) remits it. That’s a neat trick to inflate those numbers. 

Let me give you an example: John, you owe me $100,000 for the service of reading your letter. I need to make some money to make ends meet, so now I’m a professional Provost Reader. But, today I’m feeling generous and will remit that cost. And unlike IU, I’ll fully remit it without assessing fees. There! I just gave you $100,000. You can take that to the bank, John.

“The IU Bloomington campus recently invested nearly $2,000,000 in graduate student support, plus $56,000,000 in endowment gifts and pledges specifically for graduate fellowships.”

John, unless that “support” is dollars in my bank account, then we aren’t communicating well here. Like Provost Robel pointed out, graduate worker wages are generally in the vicinity of half of the cost of living in Bloomington. What I need is income, and vague promises of “support” makes me think of calliopes for some reason.

Didn’t IU just raise nearly $4,000,000,000 during the centennial? Telling us we should be grateful to get nebulous “support” equal to about 0.05% of that haul is pretty upsetting when we’re out here selling blood plasma just so we can eat.
And while it is wonderful that third parties ponied up some serious money to give a subset of graduate workers fellowships, I’m a little unclear how “other people gave money to IU to give to you” shows IU’s investment in graduate workers. Pretty bold of you to take credit for $56,000,000 of other people’s money, especially with the administrative cut IU gets from that. Thanks for taking some of the money meant for us, I guess?

If SAAs were classified as part-time employees, they would not necessarily be eligible for the various forms of compensation and benefits they currently enjoy.”

John, as a lawyer yourself, I hope you checked to see if it’s legal to threaten reprisal on people trying to unionize. (It isn’t.) Why would the union ever agree to worse benefits?

“We will continue to seek out ways to improve all aspects of graduate student experience at IU.”

The search is over, John! Tell the Trustees, because we got this one in the bag. Here’s what you need to do: recognize our union (endorsed by both a supermajority of graduate workers at IU and the Graduate and Professional Student Government), and give us a livable wage. Piece of cake, especially with that $4,000,000,000 hanging out. For the low, low cost of about 1% of that money, you can provide stability and security for your graduate workers. I’m sure IU sees returns on that money far greater than 1%, especially with all the lucrative fossil fuel investments, so we wouldn’t even dent that $4,000,000,000.

Anyway, John, I know you had a job to do. The Trustees said “jump” and you had to jump or walk away from $600,000 a year. I’ve never had to make that choice, and I won’t pretend to know what I would do at that moment. I don’t know what other factors you had to consider, like family needs.

But this letter isn’t it, John. It’s rehashed from Robel’s letter last semester–making the same flawed arguments–with a sprinkling of something you read from the first result when you Googled “how to bust a union.” I mean, come on. Claims about a union of workers being some “third party” is frankly insulting. Unions are made up of the people that work together, and I refuse to believe you don’t know that.

Claiming you’re working on our behalf while ignoring the will we’ve clearly expressed is like spitting in our face. My peers put in their time, sweat, and tears into this–and their blood plasma, too. I don’t think it’s too much to ask you to take it a little more seriously. You may have to play the heel for the Trustees, but you have to at least see that we’re suffering. Do you have any pity for us, at least? 

You make several allusions to laws that support your argument. Cite them. If you’re right and we’re wrong, let’s have it. Because if there’s a law or laws that essentially say “there’s absolutely no way graduate workers can unionize at Indiana University,” that would be extremely relevant to this discussion. Withholding it is bordering on cruel, and definitely pointless.

The alternative is that you have absolutely nothing of substance in your argument.

Finally; I don’t want you to think I’m just down on the whole thing, there is one part of the letter I thought was good. I want to talk about that too. It was a moment of clarity, and it nicely encapsulates this whole situation:

“Neither state nor federal law confers a duty to recognize or bargain with a union seeking to collectively represent public sector employees.”

Devastating, but honest. Unless compelled to do the right thing, IU will not do the right thing. Heard and understood, John. What an inspiring message, combined with a blatant falsehood.

Anyway, thanks for the letter John. I hope your scholarship is more impressive than your union-busting.

Sincerely,

A graduate worker

Tao Te Ching, ch 7: useful absence

Tao Te Ching, ch 7: useful absence

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If emptiness is so useful, how far can we push that thought process? What other useful absences can we observe? This chapter is a bit perplexing but when we break it down, we can find some surprisingly simple ideas.

Heaven is eternal and so is earth.
The reason why heaven and earth are able to endure
is because they were not born
and can thus live forever.

Therefore, the master puts themself last,
and yet are found in the foremost places;
the master is detached,
and yet united with all things.

Because the master has no personal goals,
they are fulfilled completely.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 7; trans Legge/Davis

A side of cosmology

The cosmology (theory of existence) of the Tao Te Ching is rooted in the best knowledge available at the time: stuff always changes, but there’s always a planet, and there’s always a sky. Those things can be endlessly reconfigured, modified, or otherwise changed; but they do exist. For most intents and purposes, that’s functionally true: without those things, there’s no humans to wonder about it in the first place. (And if you’re willing to be even lightly interpretive; it’s reasonable to say that while our planet didn’t always exist as we recognize it now, its antecedents did. And those antecedents were contrasting elements as well. Space is mostly a void, and matter is mostly substantive.)

That’s a bit perplexing: literally everything changes all the time, but there’s always a planet and always the sky. What is the exception to this otherwise universal rule? They were not born, so they cannot die. All of their attributes can and do change, but they themselves endure. This is because they are a dichotomy: substance (earth) and void (heaven). And we quite literally live between the two, right on the cusp.

In other words: everything exists framed within a dichotomy. There is an absence of purity.

aerial photography of water beside forest during golden hour
Photo by Sindre Strøm on Pexels.com

Practical advice

Given that existing within dichotomies is a fundamental part of reality, how can an individual utilize this to navigate the world? And to what end?

The secret, as always, is to accept that everything contains both aspects of its dichotomies. And when we fully apply this logic, some counterintuitive results emerge.

Did you catch that?

First, let’s note something critical here: we are first told two examples of how the master behaves, then told the advice. Perhaps these examples are meant to pique our interest. At the very least, it’s poetic!

The true path to fulfillment

The advice itself is that the path to fulfillment is not hard work, money, connections, skill, education, or anything like that. The real path is to give up all your personal goals.

Hang on–don’t let cynicism set in. Keep all your passions, hobbies, joys, pains, and the rest. You only need to get rid of the goals. Don’t pick up a camera to take great pictures, pick up a camera to take pictures. Don’t do unpleasant things because you must, do them so they are done.

Goals are expectations of certain outcomes. And when we’re even the slightest bit realistic, it’s obvious that the amount of direct control we each have over our goals is almost zero. Or at least, that’s my experience. I can work towards and influence outcomes but I cannot control them. And oftentimes even if I get what I thought I wanted, I discover unforeseen problems. In other words, goals are a surefire way to be disappointed. So what happens if we jettison goals?

When applied, what might we observe?

Instead of trying to be first, you can just do your own thing. Wherever you land is where you are. When you’re focused on the task at hand, and living in the moment itself, you can make clear-minded decisions to the best of your ability. And ironically, because you are not thinking of a specific outcome, you are better at making decisions. No intention, just action.

And instead of trying to build connections with people, animals, plants, and the world as a whole; you can observe that all of these things are connected, so there’s nothing to force.

Pay attention to what’s around you. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Have a little faith in your ability to make good decisions in the moment. We all have our challenges, but on the whole we are all capable decision makers in the right context. The Tao Te Ching gives us tools to be in that “right context” more often.

woman sitting on wheelchair while touching her cat
Photo by Marcus Aurelius on Pexels.com

Next time

Chapter 8 goes further into the life advice, and takes a more philosophical/generalizable approach instead of piecemeal advice. It’s one of my favorite chapters! I’m excited to share it with you.

Tao Te Ching, ch. 6: empty, always empty

Tao Te Ching, ch. 6: empty, always empty

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Last post, I wrote about straw dogs and bellows to discuss practicality and utility. This chapter is a bit more perplexing in its brevity as it discusses emptiness.

The spirit of emptiness cannot be exhausted.
It is the Great Mother,
Because it gives birth to Heaven and Earth.

It is difficult to see,
but it is always present.
Use it, it cannot be consumed.
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 6; trans. Legge / Davis
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Remember that less is more

I think this chapter is an object lesson in the potency of emptiness: we’ve been told just enough to set us on a path to think about emptiness, and then intentionally set adrift. How do I know it’s intentional? Simple: none of the other chapters have been this short yet; and you’ll see as we go forward that this one is more or less uniquely short. I think the Tao Te Ching is written a bit like jazz: it’s sometimes more about what you don’t do than what you do.

The play-by-play

My commentary will be brief, too, in honor of the point of the chapter. You can’t exhaust emptiness, because there’s nothing to exhaust. You can’t make it more empty. And without emptiness (or nothingness, if you prefer) there can’t be somethingness. The absence of a thing is nothing, and the absence of nothing is a thing.

You may feel some tension between my assertions that 1) you can’t use up emptiness and 2) the absence of emptiness is a thing. Couldn’t you just fill up emptiness with stuff, and use it up that way? Not really, no. Emptiness is emptiness, it isn’t stuff. A cup’s empty part can be filled, but that is emptiness being displaced and moved, not destroyed. If I pour water into a glass from a pitcher, the displaced emptiness moved from the cup to the pitcher.

Using emptiness is difficult because it’s hard to appreciate and notice. It’s a lot easier to notice the addition of a new thing into your environment than to notice an absence. We are so keyed to noticing what’s around us (for good reason; see: attaining food, water, shelter, etc) that it’s difficult to notice the openings and gaps.

Something from nothing?

No, at least not literally. No one is out here creating matter or energy from a void. But let me tell you a story about a metaphorical box to demonstrate how to use emptiness.

Put me in a box!

One of the biggest challenges creative-types face in our respective work is emptiness. When the painter looks at a blank canvas, the question is “what do I do with this?” And the answer is, effectively, “Anything you want!” But let’s give them a starting point: they want to paint a portrait of their cat. This is a watershed moment of great potential, but no direction. This openness is not useful; it’s even stifling.

We must learn to use emptiness; and much like the emptiness of a cup is useful because it has boundaries, so too the painter will construct boundaries around this emptiness. They decide to use acrylic paints, and to work in a low-contrast, cool color palette. Why? Because it creates boundaries. Not every style or technique is suitable to these parameters.

Now that the artist has erected boundaries in this emptiness, they now have to make creative decisions: how to artistically portray their cat in acrylic with a low-contrast, cool color palette?

And just like that, our painter went from “I want to paint my cat but I have no ideas” to actively working on painting the cat. Such is the use of emptiness.

Heaven and Earth

As a final, parting note: don’t think too hard about “Heaven and Earth.” Lao Tzu was definitely not talking about anything similar to typical American theology. “Heaven and Earth” just means the ground we’re on, and the universe we’re in.


Until the eternal next time, spend some time with the void.

Democrat or Republican: is that all there is?

Democrat or Republican: is that all there is?

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I feel like a lot of our political discourse comes from a perspective of someone who has made up their mind. I haven’t fully figured out what I believe to be true yet. I might be too ignorant to fully grasp it, too. That’s why I chose to enter this discourse: I want to model that it’s ok to not know things, but it’s important to be intentional and thoughtful, which might help other people feel less defensively confident about their own politics.

I knew for a long time I was to the left of Democrats, but also I got tricked into thinking Obama was a liberal despite the obvious evidence at the time. I didn’t really think much about socialism or communism, and happily regurgitated the lies we were all taught. I was so sure that if someone was smart enough, they could find the right solution to make the current system work well enough for everyone. I believed that history was made by brilliant individuals, and that thanks to progress, people were smarter and cleverer than ever before. And, of course, I hoped that person could be me.

This is, of course, a lie we are taught, too. Collective action is literally always necessary for even these “brilliant individuals” to achieve much of anything. Even scientific discoveries are built upon prior work.

During the early pandemic, I finally understood that the Democratic Party is really, truly, ideologically aligned with the Republican Party. The difference is tone and pace.

By that, I mean that Republicans will cheer on a televised murder of a person from a vulnerable population. Democrats will give speeches about the horrors of police brutality, while directly and intentionally increasing the odds that a person from a vulnerable population will have an interaction with that same murderer the Republicans are cheering for. They don’t have that same zeal, and prefer the consequences of their choices to be distant, vague, and abstract. Like how “no more kids in cages” became “no, MORE kids in cages.”


Case in point: bodily autonomy is yet again under threat

As I polish up this draft before publishing, the Supreme Court is presently debating overturning Roe v Wade, and Democrats (who hold a majority in the legislative branch AND control the executive branch) are doing absolutely nothing about it, and have done nothing about it for 40+ years. “But separation of branches of government! Checks and balances! The executive and legislative shouldn’t interfere with the judiciary! The filibuster (that Democrats can get rid of any time they want, even without Joe Manchin’s approval)!” Bullshit, all of it. Get creative, solve the problem. That’s literally why people voted for them. We are allowed to demand the people in power act on our behalf and for our benefit. Plus, reasons for inaction aren’t even real rules or boundaries because when people break them there are no meaningful consequences, nor are they deprived of their ill-gotten gains, even when it’s very stupid and obvious. The “rules” are just excuses for inaction from the people specifically empowered to take action.


I started reading and listening to other people that have different experiences from me, and I learned a lot. I learned how our economic system effectively controls our society, and that our economic system has a fundamental flaw at its core that will make all of those progressive ideals of mine impossible to attain because achieving them inevitably means reducing profits in a system predicated on maximizing profits. And I started to really appreciate how little progress we’ve made. Sure, in some areas, things are better now than before. Lots of things now are worse than before, too. Progress, maybe. But for whom and at what cost?

Turning the corner

I was trapped in what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism.” All around me, from all sides and at all times, all I was exposed to was capitalism. Capitalism was the only choice. It was all I knew.

It was a snippet from a Kwame Ture speech that finally opened my eyes, which I’ll paraphrase here: if communism is so dangerous and deadly, why do Americans only know weird lies about it? If I lived in a place full of snakes, it would be important for me to learn about snakes: what the deadly ones look like, what they eat, where they hide, how they hunt, and so on. The snake is a threat, so I must understand it. We are told that communism is a threat, but it’s painfully obvious that Americans do not understand it in the least. It sounds more like the “threat” of communism is working class people learning about it and demanding the powerful capitalists that run our society to step aside. If it’s as bad an idea as capitalists claim it is, why not just genuinely educate us about it? If the truth is so horrible, tell it to us!

Living in capitalist realism is confusing, because nothing makes sense. The stories we’re told about how the world works, who runs it, what forces move it, and so on; they don’t really add up. Everything is messy and incoherent.

Why are public schools underfunded? The societal benefit is obvious, and an informed electorate is the best possible situation for democracy. We know that increased funding to education pays back economic dividends to the community! Why don’t police react to murders the same way they do petty vandalism? The loss of a life is far more concerning than some broken windows. Why don’t grocery stores simply donate the food that’s about to go bad? They can’t sell it in time, and it could easily help feed a lot of hungry people.

When I changed my perspective, and allowed myself to question The Thing You Should Never Question, I realized and learned that while things are still deeply complex; there’s a way to make sense of it by understanding the basic motivations and motivators for action.

The nature of humans

Uh oh, this is tortured territory. I’m not going to hit you with some kind of armchair-psycho-evolutionary-anthropology nonsense and declare that human nature can be assessed in terms of social values (good, bad, greedy, etc). I’ve got what I believe to be a Very Reasonable Take about human nature that’s well researched. Are you ready?

People are generally capable of setting goals (broadly understood) and working towards them. The rate and degree of our successes vary wildly, but it doesn’t change that motivation is the antecedent to action. People want to do things like eat, sleep, play, fuck, create, pray, and all sorts of stuff that is fun and feels good. And they’ll put in effort to attain those things.

So, yes, my observation about humanity is that people have motivations to do things and then they work towards that thing. Why is such a bland observation important?

In our society, all of the things that motivate people either cost money or are facilitated by money. Yeah, even prayer (shoutout to extremist ascetics as an exception, I guess?). It also impacts abstract things like “I want to have a vibrant, loving family.” I think it’s safe to say that a stable and safe living environment both costs money and is a major component in a vibrant, loving family. Well, maybe the ascetics win that one too, but I remain unconvinced that denying indulgence in comfort or joy is the only path to peace and joy.

Most people in our society have to dedicate a large portion of their lives to attain money to do the things they want to do during the fleeting moments of our brief and precious existence. Some are unable to attain money because we refuse to provide even basic accommodations; they are forced into a life of misery for no good reason. Others got lucky to be born into generational wealth. However you get it, more money means more access to these fun, good things that people need and like.

If a person wants money, what happens when you put lots of people together that all want money?

It’s also a basic observation to say that accumulation of money, in a system like ours, is generally desirable for every person. It’s not like people go into their boss’s office and say “cut my wages!” People do unpleasant work to get money for the things they want and need. And when we see people pursuing their goals through the accumulation of money across all levels of society, we start to see the picture come into focus.

When a company spends more money, the people that reap the profits of that company get less money. That’s why the people that run companies like to keep costs and spending low to then sell high: willingly decreasing their income would feel like intentionally taking actions that are harmful to the attainment and/or security of their goals. There’s plenty to explore about the values held by the rich, but we can see that it kind of doesn’t matter what their values are to observe that their motivations are clear and ultimately mundane.

This naturally leads to underpaying workers, pollution, low quality products, and so on. Companies motivated by profit will always try to get away with absolutely everything they think they can to maximize profit. It’s their sole purpose. And sometimes it’s cheaper to change people’s minds through PR and regulatory capture than to comply with necessary pollution reduction. There’s no secret society or fantastical stories involved. It’s just people doing obvious things so they can attain more of the most useful and important resource in our society. It’s not because people are “innately greedy” or whatever, it’s because human beings are reasonably capable problem solvers, and people in our society need money to get the things they want and need.

This is our boring dystopia. No intrigue, no thrillers. It’s just everyday people pursuing mundane goals, trying to have a good time.

What do we do instead?

That’s the most important question, isn’t it? We know that the way things are will unalive a lot (or maybe all!) of the human species in relative short order. And this is the part that I am presently stuck on. I think it was Patrick Stewart that famously asked “what is to be done?” We need to figure out how to start with our present conditions and culture and end with a different economic system, one that directly rewards mutual benefit instead of profit and greed. When we organize our society to reward mutual benefit, we become more empowered and incentivized to help each other.

Here’s what we do know: just as famous economist Adam Smith passionately argued, labor is the true fundamental resource, not commodities or money. Without labor nothing gets made, sold, or bought. Culturally, we seem to have forgotten that. Wait, no, we’ve been fed inane amounts of propaganda to tell us otherwise.

Right now, we are forced to choose between laboring for a tiny bit of money, or lingering in utter destitution and misery before an early death. It’s not a hard choice, but we aren’t really afforded the opportunity to choose without undue influence from external factors: being unhoused, hungry, and miserable. In other words, it’s not much of a choice.

photo of man lying on wooden bench
Our freedom primarily rests in “choosing” between scraping by or destitution. Photo by Levent Simsek on Pexels.com

We know that laboring for other people means we give away a large portion of the value we create with our labor in the form of profit.

We know this means the people that benefit the most from the system are reaping the profits of other people’s labor. Like Jeff himself said, his Amazon employees paid for him approach the edge of the atmosphere as he low-key builds the baseline tech prowess to seek defense contracts.

We know that successful revolutions in opposition of capitalism meaningfully improve the lives of people. The USSR and PRC fundamentally transformed their mostly feudal-agrarian societies to industrialized ones that provided for the wellbeing of their citizenry far, far better than anything that came before it. Cubans defeated a dictator, slavers, and profiteers. As a tiny island nation, it is able to provide for the well-being of its citizens despite massive sanctions and blockades imposed by the US and Europe for… uh… some reason or another.

We see that non-capitalist societies can survive and even thrive in providing for the well-being of their people, even in the face of active antagonization of the most powerful military ever known to the planet and blockades.

We know that the US is the primary antagonizer of these non-capitalist societies, too. We have a distinct advantage over every other revolution: we won’t have to fight off US-funded coups or blockades.

Can we use their playbook?

The thing is that we can’t hope to copy the ideas of Lenin, Mao, Castro, or any other revolutionary movements because we are not in the same context that they made the decisions they made. Nor would we want to, since they’re all humans with their own flaws and shortcomings. There’s plenty to criticize. But we can learn a lot from them!

Our culture and material conditions are fundamentally different in some incredible ways from those countries. The same goes for capitalism, by the way: we can’t hope to model Denmark’s capitalism or whatever because we are not Denmark. We have different cultural values and practices.

We need to figure out how to dismantle capitalism here and now, and we need to figure out what a non-capitalist America could look like. I know it’s generally presumed that a revolution must be armed, but an armed revolution is hard for me to imagine succeeding in a context where the military can and does murder American citizens using drones. And we’ve seen that the police are more than happy to treat US citizens as an enemy.

Even the gun nuts are utterly useless because tanks and armored infantry. It’s all a big joke to gun makers and tacti-cool gear manufacturers as gun weirdos playact their airport fiction fantasies of fighting off some tyrannical government with a handgun.

And… that’s about it. That’s where I’m at. Revolution must happen because we can’t expect capitalism to suddenly dissolve, but I have no idea what revolution would look like. I’m still learning, and there’s a lot to learn.

You don’t need to have all the answers to have a valid position

Sometimes we function as if you aren’t allowed to say “hey, this sucks” unless you’re ready to follow it up with a perfect solution. However, this is a very silly notion. The ability to comprehend and identify issues, and providing thoughtful analyses of them are separate skills from finding solutions.

Have you ever been around a group of friends, and one person says “ugh, I kinda feel like Jeremy takes advantage of me when I offer him help.” And then others go “oh, I totally feel that way too!” Sharing a thoughtful observation can spark realization and understanding, and even lead to identifying a challenge faced by the group. Knowing, as they say, is half the battle.

Speak up. Start talking about this stuff. Our lives quite literally depend on it.

Tao Te Ching, ch 5: let slip the straw dogs

Tao Te Ching, ch 5: let slip the straw dogs

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Last post, I talked about fulfilling emptiness. This post, I’m going to talk about straw dogs, and why we should treat people the same way.

Heaven and earth do not operate with any sort of benevolence;
they deal with all things as straw dogs.
The sages do not operate with any sort of benevolence;
they deal with the people as straw dogs.

Perhaps the space between heaven and earth could be compared to a bellows?

Emptying the bellows does not exhaust its use;
moving the bellows again will blow forth more air.
But speaking too much can quickly lead to exhaustion;
guard your energy to keep it free for more useful things.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 5 (trans. Legge / Davis )

Addressing the straw dog in the room

… y-yes?

This is a great example of why I read multiple translations. Legge refers to them as “dogs of grass” which is befuddling. LeGuin (and most others) refer to them as “straw dogs” or “strawdogs.” But some, like Mitchell, omit the idea all together. It’s a ~choice~ to be sure, but I think it’s justifiable in a sense. To explain that, I need to tell you what straw dogs are.

Straw dogs are bunches of straw (dried grass), twisted and formed into a dog-shaped figure. Some sources that I’ve seen on Google make it sound like it’s a small, hand-held figure. Others appear to be life-size, or maybe even enormous. Maybe there’s a variety of ways they’ve been made over the centuries, too.

What they are aside, the why is what makes it relevant: they’re made for ceremonies, celebrations, and festivals. The straw dogs are placed on altars and dressed up, and after the ceremony, they are discarded or even scattered to pieces.

But, surely Lao Tzu isn’t saying “make people feel special then thrown them away when you don’t need them”! A popular way to read this line is that the treatment of the straw dog isn’t based on any affection or despise. In other words, the egg shells in the trash can aren’t there because you hate them; they’re there because that’s where they go.

And this is why I can see where Mitchell is coming from: without the cultural knowledge of a straw dog, it’s hard to translate the sentence without digressing into a, well, a commentary like this. Still, I am unsure if Mitchell’s translation adequately captures the meaning with that omission. Turns out translating an old text from a different culture is pretty tough!

A practical guide to people

It’s no secret to say that people enjoy affection and kindness, and dislike anger and sadness. And, we already know that although affection and kindness are nice, they aren’t universally applicable. There are times where it is obviously inappropriate, but it can also be in a nuanced situation where you’re needing to set some important boundaries with a friend. So, how do you decide what to do the next time your friend comes around and starts talking about a traumatic experience of theirs that’s triggering for you?

Well, honestly, it’s hard to say because it depends on the specific context: does the friend need support right now? If so, it might make sense to accept the pain to try and help. The point is that we can’t hypothesize the exact conditions of every possible situation to answer what the correct action is, but what we can do is develop a useful way to think about these situations. So, a tool to use to find the right answer.

And that is to treat people like straw dogs: do not treat people according to your feelings about them, treat them according to what is appropriate in that moment. (Note: you are among the people you need to consider your actions towards!) Don’t lavish someone in praise because you like them, lavish them in praise because they did something praiseworthy. Don’t chase a fascist out of the bar because they make you angry, do it because they pose a material threat to vulnerable groups. And don’t use someone’s honest mistake to justify punishing them because you harbor a grudge.

Truth be told, there’s a decent chance that this won’t fundamentally change the the majority of decisions you make. You’re smart, you think about things beyond feelings. Even when we’re making emotional decisions, we still think about other stuff.

While the decisions you make may be similar, what happens following the decision will be different. For example: dispassionately giving your annoying coworker constructive, thoughtful, and kindly worded feedback; instead of the by-the-book, cold, corporatespeak. I don’t know about you, but those taste different in my mouth.

Of course, some times anger and perhaps even physical interventions are necessary. The Tao Te Ching doesn’t shy away from those, either. But it’s important to make those decisions with a clear mind, instead of in a moment of passion.

Yeah, but what if it was like a bellows?

whoa

We’re in that space between heaven and earth. And we see life around us in a perpetual state of simultaneous decay and renewal, and death begets more life. These bellows can just keep on going, possibly forever. Straw dogs or not, there’s an incredible number of people around you; and people constantly change and grow. Those bellows keep on churning.

But also shush

With these commentaries, I’m not taking this advice. Thinking about and talking about the Tao are ultimately distractions from the Tao. There’s really not much to be said, because it’s about a way to live and act. However, talking and thinking about a new idea are integral to the process of understanding it. Even more important to that process is knowing when it’s time to let go of thinking and talking.

Right now, we’re learning and reflecting. Some words and thinking are necessary. But we can’t hold onto them forever.

Tao Te Ching, ch 4: fulfilling emptiness

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In previous chapters, we’ve explored duality and its implications in grounded, comprehensible situations. In the first chapter, we got a warning: the Tao that can be named is not the Tao. Now all these things are crashing together, as we explore the duality of the Tao more directly… which necessitates a seemingly abstract text.

If that sounds a little “woo-woo” to you, resist that feeling. Remember, the concept of the Tao is beyond the scope of what can be captured in words. So if we try to use words to describe the Tao in such a way that’s closer to describing to capturing its essence, we’re going to end up with some odd language.

And if you’re suspicious of the idea of a concept that can’t be described, I get that and think that’s valid. But I think it’s a little less outlandish than it may first seem: your subjective experience, right this very second, is too big to be captured in words alone. And I mean truly captured, every detail. Your posture. How hungry you are. Behaviors shaped from past experiences. The air temperature… and so on. To try to use language to express every detail of just your tiny little perspective in this huge universe for a single moment; how could we accurately describe something as big and small as reality itself?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.


The Tao is empty;
It is used, but never depleted.
Deep and unfathomable, it is the ancestor of
the ten thousand things!

Blunt points, unravel complications;
dim brightness, dissolve bonds.

How quiet and still the Tao is!
It could endure forever.

Who gave birth to it?
The Tao might be older than the gods.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 4 (translated by Legge/Davis)

First, let’s define a concept. “The ten thousand things” refers to all of the kinds of things; specifically tangible things. Trees, plates, houses, dogs, and so on. In my head, I like to imagine someone sitting down to make an exhaustive list of all kinds of things. They get maybe about one thousand in, and then realize how not-fun this project is so they just declare “yup, ten thousand! Everyone, I checked, and there are ten thousand things.” Because, who would dare try to prove them wrong?

high angle view of lying down on grass
Try to get into this headspace: no thoughts, only exist. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Turn your thinker off

This is one of those times where I need to remind you to not intellectualize this, at least not until you understand it. That’s what that section in the middle is talking about: just chill, don’t think about it too hard. Dull that point. Just listen to understand. Let go of what you think you know (temporarily) to be able to learn this lesson. Again, nothing wrong with having a keen intellect, it’s just that these concepts are too simple to approach in an intellectual way.

The Tao is, in a sense, the fundamental essence of reality. It is “the way things are.” It might be older than the gods, whom supposedly are eternal. For gods to exist, they had to exist in something. That something is probably the Tao.

To put it in a less metaphysical context: what came before the Big Bang? I think Lao Tzu would assert the Tao was probably there. I’m not claiming that the Tao a scientific concept. I mean that whatever it was, that the Tao probably contains/is that too. The Tao is a concept, and a thing, and and all things, and the thing that all things exist both within and without.

Qualified claims

You notice those qualifiers in the text? The Tao might be older than the gods. It could endure. We’ll see more things like this, and that bit of humility is a major feature of the Tao Te Ching. Because we’re attempting to describe reality, we need to think and speak clearly about the boundaries of our knowledge, and separate claims from observations. This also means that the Tao Te Ching is ready to embrace learning and new observations. We cannot expect or hope to shape the Tao in any way, it simply is. If tomorrow we figure out that all of reality is a hologram and we’re in a simulation; the Tao Te Ching, and every word in it, still makes sense and still applies. There is no theology or doctrine to upset. Instead, the Tao Te Ching is a guide to deal with the ever-changing present.

man people woman relaxation
A dramatic reenactment of me, trying to be present in the moment without changing how I think. (Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com)

Why embrace the Tao?

So, when people talk about embracing or studying the Tao, they’re practicing something pretty similar to radical acceptance. Studying reality as it truly is (as opposed to what we intellectualize about it) is a wildly grounding and centering experience.

I used to struggle with this idea a lot, acceptance, because it sounded like inaction. It took me a long time to realize that acceptance is not only useful for my emotional wellbeing, but also in figuring out how to solve problems. By first focusing on accepting the problem, I allowed myself to feel my feelings, while also increasing my understanding of the problem itself. Through understanding comes increased agency and power.

To put it crudely, embracing the Tao is sobering. I think more clearly, I am more connected to my emotions, and it’s hard to upset me.

With this new found sobriety and power, how do we know how to act? Well, I’m glad I asked because that is what the next chapter begins to address.

Tao Te Ching: Legge, and a teachable moment

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I need to throw Legge a bone. I know I’m hard on his translations, but in all seriousness, someone had to begin the process of translating the Tao Te Ching into English.

James Legge, in/famous colonizer

Instead, I should be hard on him as a person: Legge was a Christian missionary, from the times of church and crown ruling Europe. Generally speaking, intentionally disrupting established cultures is not a cool thing to do. Especially as a pretext for exploitation of the people of China by European and American powers. How easy we forget, as white people, just how many other civilizations and cultures we’ve fucked with or outright destroyed because our capitalist economies need more resources. It’s truly shocking. And to be clear: I’m talking about whiteness as a social construct, not the color of my skin. But I digress.

Not only did his cultural perspective make it understandably difficult to translate such a crucially simple text, but his ideology informed how he made sense of words and concepts unfamiliar to him.

WOULD I EVER PUT SOMEONE SUCH AS YOURSELF ON BLAST LIKE THIS, DEAR READER?

No; unless you are trying to convert and colonize a nation, while poorly translating an important cultural artifact. We need to be vulnerable enough to learn. Legge needed to be more vulnerable, among other things, to have a chance to understand these concepts.

We all are trapped in our ideologies, at least to an extent. But we can, at least, put in a good faith effort to be aware of when we’re speaking from reality or ideology. Even if we can only figure it out 5% of the time, the cumulative effect of a 5% cultural shift would be tidal.

Where Legge goes wrong, and you can go right

It may seem like an innocent error, but his translation of the first line of this chapter demonstrates his limited understanding of the ideas in the text.

The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel

– Legge’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, chapter 4

This line is reasonable as a simile, but it’s missing the point: the Tao is not like the emptiness of a vessel. It is not a simile or metaphor, the Tao is the emptiness of a vessel. This matters because the Tao is all things, including the absence of things. This is because the thing and the void it creates are inseparable.

typography luck technology blur
The yin-yang symbol comes from Taoism. See the reciprocity, the interconnected nature? (Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com)

Remember, Lao Tzu has a sense of humor! After explaining the Tao is all things, he’s expanding our understanding by pointedly stating that the Tao is also no-things. A void is defined/created by the absence of matter, and matter is defined/created by the absence of a void.

A lump of ceramic without a void cannot be a mug, and neither can a void without boundaries. There is a reciprocity in everything. The Tao is this, this is the Tao.

The path forward

I want you to work towards not intellectualizing these concepts. I know it’s so tempting. Do think about them, please. And maybe an intellectual approach is part of your process toward not intellectualizing, that’s ok too. The Tao Te Ching’s difficulty comes from its simplicity. Challenge its claims, test them in your life, and figure out what it means to you. Do all of these things. Just don’t get stuck in intellectualizations. Take Lao Tzu to mean what he says. He’s playful and silly, but never insincere.

In no time at all, you’ll be deeper in your understanding than Legge!

The definitive guide to smart shopping

The definitive guide to smart shopping

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Preface: a story about shoes

Imagine two competing sneakers set side by side. They’re both basically the same shape, same style, same price, etc. They’re competitors. So how do you choose between them?

There’s plenty of reasons to pick one over the other! And everyone is going to use different factors (each with their own unique weighting system) to make that decision. Maybe you like the little loop on the back of one pair, to make it easier to slip them on. Great, there you go! After navigating the selection of shoes available, you found the pair for you.

A couple months go by, and you see on the news that the brand you just bought shoes from was caught using child labor. Again. After promising just last year to stop.

Child labor? You didn’t sign up for any of this. You didn’t hear about it when they were first caught, otherwise you might not have bought from them anyway. You remind yourself you didn’t do anything wrong, you just didn’t know. And if you could, you’d return these shoes and get something else.

We can do better, right?

You tell yourself, “Hey, I’m not looking for perfection but I feel like ‘not using child labor’ is an ok expectation to have of a brand. Until that company stops using child labor, I’m not buying from them again.” Reasonable, right?

Next week, mis/fortune strikes: the stitching on the side of your sneaker rips. Damn, child labor and poor craftsmanship? Time to shed a tear as you realize that you need to “borrow” $100 from your New Phone money to get more sneakers, but you have no choice.

You get to the store, and see the display you saw last time: the child labor sneakers with the nice little loop on the back, and their direct competitor. You even googled other brands to see who was recently using child labor (and deciding how recent was too recent to consider it a problem). The competitor doesn’t use child labor, or at least hasn’t in recent history. You buy the competitors’ shoes, bring them home; only to find that the competitor has a long, public history of dumping chemicals into rivers after bribing local officials.

Now you’re stuck. You want to be an informed consumer, and vote with your dollars. But sometimes it feels impossible…

You must be an expert in everything

The above story may be silly to you, because you might know something about shoes than the person in this example, or maybe you don’t care about social/environmental issues like that. These are big, multifaceted problems, and the products you buy is only one way to combat these things. There’s an old adage about there being no ethical consumption under capitalism, anyway.

Cynicism aside, my point is that people try to make informed buying decisions. It doesn’t even have to be about social or environmental issues: it can be about which product actually works as advertised, which one is well-made, or any number of other factors.

I’m sure we’ve all had experiences with buying something only to find that it’s poorly made, sloppily designed, and ill-fitting. If we’re lucky, we can return it to get our money back. But even then, we’ve lost time and energy addressing it.

Why can’t we have nice things?

The goal of capitalism is to maximize profits for the people that own the company. Back when there were only 2-3 brands making a given kind of product, competing on quality was a valid strategy for a company to maximize profits since learning the differences between 2-3 products was tractable, and word could get around. If your competitor makes an inferior product, and the public knows it, you can rest assured that people will gravitate to your product.

Some light research

But how do you pick when there’s 75 different choices? To make matters harder, some of these “choices” are identical, with mostly cosmetic reconfigurations, but sold as different brands at wildly different prices.

Tools for researching products emphasize things that are easily quantifiable: price, dimensions, and features. Some attempts, in a few product categories, aim to express quality in metrics. But overall, as consumers, the best we can get is reading reviews for the product online.

Instead of simply going to the store to buy something, you need to spend time and energy gaining some degree of expertise on a product category before you can make in informed decision. Using a totally non-scientific assessment, it seems like 75% of stuff on Amazon is utter crap. The alternative is to go into a depressing, miserable box store like Walmart, where maybe 50% of the products there are utter crap. Better, but not great. And if you’re lucky enough to still have access to locally owned businesses that can address your daily needs, then you’re one of the few.

We are not alone

We have government agencies that support us as consumers. Maybe the laws are a little lax at times, but generally speaking the stuff we buy isn’t going to explode in our faces (too often). What we need are better controls on industry, so we can just buy a damned pair of shoes without feeling like we need to research, or at the very least so that when we buy stuff it’s at least decent quality. I yearn for a world where products have to list their expected longevity/quality. Imagine looking at two different things, to find that the reason one is less expensive then the other is because the cheap one is only going to last a year.

There’s nothing wrong with cheap stuff, but I want to know the value of what I’m buying. Most times, after I buy a thing and it breaks, I wonder “maybe I should have spent another $20 and gotten the slightly nicer one. Maybe that one wouldn’t break.”

Better regulation for a better tomorrow?

Yes, and no. On one hand, stricter regulation can create better quality of life (consumer protections as part of that, no doubt) in capitalist countries. Take Germany, for example. At present, they have a strong social safety net and a higher quality of life. As an example of a more robust social safety net, Americans spend over 178% more per year on healthcare for worse outcomes compared to Germans.

In the past, the US had a more robust social safety net, too, and tighter regulation on business. But that’s been eroding over time, despite a broad majority of public support for these policies. (Yes, even among Republicans, especially if phrased without using GOP talking points.)

Similarly, in the past, Germany had a robust labor movement and was building a social safety net, but that got pulled apart and dismantled rather abruptly in 1933 in favor of maximizing profits. The point being that social safety nets are never permanent in capitalism, because they’re contrary to the goal of capitalism.

This isn’t a hot take. Take a look at capitalism’s biggest cheerleaders in America: Libertarians. They’re a group famous for being opposed to seemingly any and all industry regulations or social programs, because they recognize them as antagonistic to capitalism. Libertarians say capitalism functions better without them and I agree: the goal of capitalism is to maximize profits. Regulation inhibits that. I admire their ability to recognize this, but I am endlessly baffled that none of them seem to notice that they, as workers, will not get those profits.

Socialism never took root in America because the [working class] see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

– Ronald Wright, paraphrasing John Steinbeck

Regulation vs Profit

Why do we see this relationship between profit and regulation? It’s because profit and regulations are antagonistic. Regulations inevitably reduce profitability, because profit arises from producing at the lowest possible cost. Regulations put limitations on cost-cutting: it’s far cheaper to dump chemicals in the river than safely dispose of them. Third-world child labor is less expensive than a unionized, adult worker. Durable goods require more and higher-quality materials to produce, and also last longer. Planned obsolescence is a major source of income for companies: products designed to fail sooner (but not too soon) so you have to buy another. A company would rather sell you five $20 widgets than only one or two durable ones for $30.

Let’s find some stability

I’m not saying regulations don’t work. They can, and sometimes do, improve the quality of life for the masses in the short term. However, this arrangement is not stable.

We already know the regulations don’t last forever. They get eroded or even smashed, and building them again is incredibly difficult. Monied interests–such as mega-corporations or even whole industries–oppose regulation at every turn. In other words, at the very core of our society’s function is tension and antagonism between opposing forces.

Were this a fight that could be balanced, it might not be so bad. Right now, one side has almost all of the people, the people that actually work and buy stuff; the other has almost total control of the government at federal, state, and local levels. The top 1% of income earners in the US hold more wealth than the middle 60%. Influence is used to buy control of the people and systems that make the regulations. It’s not an evil plot. Influencing and controlling regulatory agencies is a simple and obvious means to increase profits, and it’s got a jargon-y name: regulatory capture. It’s a well studied phenomenon.

Remember, profit always means the people that control the means of production (executives, factory owners, business leaders, etc) will make more money than the people that they employ. So even if we reign in profit, we’re still creating a system that allows the people that want less regulations and taxes on business to consolidate wealth and power.

It’s only a matter of time until the business owners use that power to undermine the regulations and taxes that hinder their profits. And because given that they control what we buy, eat, watch, do, and read; they have ample opportunity to help convince us that they’re good, nice, and working on our behalf.

Where does profit come from?

Simply put, it is value generated by the worker that’s in excess of the cost of creating the product. If it costs $3 (in material, wages, rent, equipment, etc) to make a burger that sells for $4, that means each burger generates $1 of (net) profit. Who gets that profit? It varies, but it’s never the person that actually created that value. When is the last time McDonald’s executive put in a 12 hour shift flipping burgers?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand there’s value in administrative roles in large organizations, and there’s nothing wrong with people making money. I’m talking about profits, money leftover after everyone has been paid. (Of course, executive pay is outrageous in the US too but that’s more a symptom than a cause.)

With regulation, we could reduce profits (for the benefit of using that money to increase wages, or support social safety nets). Instead of losing 20% of all generated wealth to profits in a given industry, we could reduce that to 10%. That 10% shift could make a big difference in people’s lives, especially if it all went back into wages. But, while less theft is better than more theft, what if no theft? What could we do with the money wasted on profit?


Case study: Information Tech Industry profits vs the World

The Information Technology industry, according to the IDC, generates about $4.8 trillion in revenue a year. The industry enjoys, at least as of time of writing, approximately a 20% net profit margin. In other words, that’s just south of $1 trillion in net profit each year (~$960 billion, to be more precise). That’s after everyone has been paid, including the egregious executive wages and administrative bloat. A trillion is a really big, hard to conceptualize number, so let’s find some context.

Global problems that can be solved for less the net profits of the Information Tech Industry alone

World Hunger, total elimination (price: ~27% of net profits/yr)

The International Food Policy Research Institute has some numbers for us. We can fundamentally decrease and limit world hunger for as little as $7 billion dollars a year, but if we want to eliminate hunger entirely, we could expect to spend around $265 billion dollars a year.

World Hunger, reduce rate to 5% (price: ~5.5% of net profits/yr)

IFPRI again. Maybe that $265 billion/yr seems steep. How about $52 billion/yr to reduce world hunger rate to just 5%? For example, in over-exploited regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, hunger rates can be as high as 22%.

Global Access to Clean Water (price: ~15.5% of net profits/yr)

The World Bank estimates ~$150 billion/yr would make it so everyone has access to clean water.

Convert 80% of the world’s electricity generation to renewables by 2050 (price: ~50% of net profits/yr, until 2050)

Morgan Stanley, the bank, put together a huge report on the costs of combating climate change. While the net profits of the Information Technology Industry alone couldn’t foot the bill, they can make some big impacts.

Carbon capture and storage for all coal power plants by 2050 (price: ~9% of net profits/yr, until 2050)

Electrification of vehicles and infrastructure by 2050 (price: ~39% of net profits/yr, until 2050)


Wow! With just the net profits of the Information Technology Industry alone, we could: solve world hunger, convert to renewable energy, move away from fossil fuels, capture carbon from our worst polluters, and give the world access to clean water. And then by 2050, a most of that opens back up and could solve other problems.

Uh, what happened to talking about consumer protections?

Well, ok, you got me there. I’m sort of off-topic. Solving world hunger is not a consumer protection, per se. I can’t find numbers for costs of consumer regulations, or get global figures on those. Plus, once I realized what $960 billion dollars/yr could do for the most challenging problems humanity has ever faced, my example about buying sneakers seemed so trivial. But the bigger point is that we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

I won’t pretend that building the infrastructure necessary for robust consumer protections and industry regulation doesn’t cost money. It might cost a lot, but it certainly can’t cost more than solving world hunger, or combating climate change.

By eliminating profits, we would both free up resources desperately needed the world over and remove the means for dismantling the systems meant to keep us safe and lead a good life. We can stop climate change and make it easier to shop for an SUV, at the same time.

The more moderate approach, limiting profit, is still a good thing for the short term because it frees up resources for solving major global and national issues, which definitely includes consumer protections. But that’s only a short term solution because the system is still tipped to favor the powerful. And the powerful get more powerful by removing those protections and social safety nets created by limiting profit. Instead of the federal government funding social programs with corporate tax revenue, now the federal government subsidizes corporate profits with money meant for social programs. It’s all backwards.

What are you, some kind of Marxist?

Beats me. I mean, I agree with Marx: value comes from labor. I know we typically associate Marx with radical ideas, but even Adam Smith argued passionately about the labor theory of value. And I don’t think America should (or even could) become like the USSR of old or the China of now. Our cultural and material conditions are different here and now versus there and then. We can analyze other examples of non-capitalist societies, but we can’t emulate them. Plus, we’ll have a distinct advantage over them: if we let go of capitalism, we won’t have to be afraid of a US-led coup, or US-led blockades, or a war that kills 20% of the population to return us to capitalism.

Eliminating profits: the ultimate consumer protection

If we eliminate profits from our economic system, we would not only have oodles of money to put towards huge and seemingly intractable global problems; we’d also eliminate the driving force for making cheap crap. And remember that we’re only talking about profits here. Not a single cent of increased taxation on the working class, and even the executives are still paid their ungodly wages. I’m sure it would depress the stock market, since that is driven by profits.

But also, the stock market is not the economy. Most people’s connection to the stock market is via a 401k, but clearly we can fund massive social programs if we eliminate profits. No one’s ability to retire should be tied to such an unstable system, anyway. Imagine getting ready to retire, and the stock market crashes. Poof! There goes your hard-earned retirement.

If we give up on profits, we can re-focus our economy on improving the lives of Americans, and even people around the world, without even increasing the tax load on the working class. Seems worth it to me. What do you think?

Did academics finally discover left-wing authoritarianism?

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A team of researchers believe that they have finally found left-wing authoritarianism, long referred to as “the Loch Ness Monster” of social psychology. At least, that’s what they’re claiming. And in the rich tradition of poorly communicated science, instead of an analysis meant to convey the information in the paper to a broader audience, it is first put through an ideological blender.

Here’s the short version: this team of researchers used a different definition of authoritarianism and found that it exists on “both sides.” (Yes, there’s a lot of “both sides” in the article and the popular press articles. That alone might tell you enough…)

The value of exploring definitions

Before I get into the article’s substance, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with exploring how definitions of concepts create biases. In fact, good science relies on thoughtful definitions. However, there is no such thing as a definition without a bias. Definitions are explicitly biased. That’s the point.

Let me show you what I mean: I use the definition of the term “cat” to differentiate between my sweet Lorelei from, say, a Mack truck. My definition, when I’m searching for my cat, biases me to look for small furry things instead of metallic diesel-powered behemoths. Does that mean that Mack trucks are the “Loch Ness Monster” of cats? Because if I changed my definition enough, I could indeed fit them both into the same category of “cat.”

LOOK AT THIS VOID ANGEL

If it isn’t obvious, I’m using hyperbole to make a point. The authors of this flawed study didn’t do anything quite so outrageous but they did make some choices that undermine the findings and study. And the study certainly does not live up to the popular press reporting on it.

Because the vast majority of people will get to this study through the popular press, I’m going to start there and might do a more serious analysis of the journal article itself if there’s interest.

How the popular press talks about this study

Images

The article in The Atlantic, titled “How Experts Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left” is my case study. Right away, we see an attention-grabbing image:

Inside you there are two wolves… (Getty Images/The Atlantic)

The large, bared fangs of an obligate carnivore and its snarling muzzle are in this person’s brain. This is an animal about to attack. So before we read anything at all about the study, we are primed to fear (and thus hate) whatever we read about, because we have been signaled about danger. Now, I’m not opposed to using images to help tell a story. But what story are we telling?

Just for fun, compare this to another Atlantic article about a journalists’ experience of being embedded in the Alt-Right for four years:

Inside you is an obvious bias against the Left… (The Atlantic)

Right, got it. Left-wing authoritarianism is super dangerous and scary–so scary that it took academics 70 years to (maybe) find it. It deserves a scary image!

The Alt-Right, a prominent hate movement in the US, gets an oblique reference to their symbols. The Alt-Right is a major force in our society, with nuanced and monied propaganda machines to recruit more people. They got a President elected, and have a firm grip on the Federal government.

Anyway.

Who wrote the article?

Who wrote the article for the Atlantic? Was it someone trained in reading and interpreting social science–maybe even a social scientist?

No, it was written by a psychiatrist who works for a right-wing think-tank. The think-tank credited as being the seat of neoconservatism. They’re also pals/long time co-authors with one of the authors on this paper. They have a personal stake in this, and we can also infer (to some extent) the politics of the authors of the scholarly article too. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to further the career of someone in a think-tank that I’m ideologically opposed to…

Does this sound like an unbiased source? On top of it all, a psychiatrist is a clinical role and not a research role. They’re more like engineers than scientists. I don’t mean this disparagingly–when I need medical help, I need someone trained to help me!

Psychiatrists are skilled in diagnosing and prescribing medications, not reading and interpreting the nuances of statistics and research methodology. I’m not saying you need a degree to be able to read research papers but since we don’t know the author personally, all we can go on are their credentials and what they write.

So far, we know they are obviously biased and not formally trained in interpreting scientific research. We can’t throw away what they’ve written, but we do need to read it with a healthy dose of skepticism. So, what did they write?

The Atlantic’s analysis of the study

They give a brief overview of the history of study of authoritarianism, claiming that it’s unfairly biased to pick on people on the right. Satel (the author of The Atlantic piece) specifically name drops a scholar named Adorno.

“In the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, […] the German-born scholar Theodor W. Adorno and three other psychologists measured people along dimensions such as conformity to societal norms, rigid thinking, and sexual repression.”

– Satel

Why do we need to know Adorno was born in Germany? Why do we need to know HIS name and not the others’? These are allusions to tired right-wing talking points: Adorno is the boogeyman, and he was German and alive during WWII and the Nazis were socialists (just so we’re clear: they most definitely were not), blah blah blah. It’s a canard to “The Frankfurt School.” You know, the conspiracy theory about how “the Jews” via the Frankfurt School pushed their “postmodern cultural Marxism” to control the world. Think of it as an easter egg for neonazis. So, we’re off to a good start.

But note the dimensions: conformity to social norms, rigid thinking, and sexual repression. Sounds like typical right-wing talking points. They’re proud of their conformity, their rigid thinking, and sexual repression. There are a lot of other dimensions that Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford identified but they did indeed include the ones Satel mentioned.

What is the original conceptualization of “authoritarianism”?

Here’s what was actually examined in The Authoritarian Personality:

  • Conventionalism: Adherence to conventional values.
  • Authoritarian Submission: Towards in-group authority figures.
  • Authoritarian Aggression: Against people who violate conventional values.
  • Anti-Intraception: Opposition to subjectivity and imagination.
  • Superstition and Stereotypy: Belief in individual fate; thinking in rigid categories.
  • Power and Toughness: Concerned with submission and domination; assertion of strength.
  • Destructiveness and Cynicism: hostility against human nature.
  • Projectivity: Perception of the world as dangerous; tendency to project unconscious impulses.
  • Sex: Overly concerned with modern sexual practices.

(Thank you, wikipedia, for that handy bulleted list.)

The researchers also discuss the relationship between the above list of things with anti-semitism, ethnocentrism, and conservatism. Spoiler alert: they’re ALL highly correlated. People prone to the exhibit high amounts of the above dimensions are also very likely to be anti-semitic, ethnocentric, and conservative.

This, of course, is very upsetting to conservatives who refuse to acknowledge the consequences and implications of their belief systems. It’s also not perfect research, and the researchers had their own biases and ideas. But in short, they are saying that people that score high on these measures are the kinds of people that are also likely to vehemently support fascists like Donald J Trump or Joe Biden.

Drowning in false equivalency

“The Trump era likely deepened psychology’s conventional wisdom that authoritarians are almost always conservatives; the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this year showed the urgency of understanding the phenomenon. And yet calls to de-platform controversial speakers and online campaigns to get people fired for heterodox views suggest that a commitment to open democratic norms is eroding, at least in some quarters, on the left.”

– Satel

An armed group of people storming the Capitol with clear intention to kill or at least capture elected officials is the same thing as people not wanting to listen to someone spreading obvious lies. Great take on that one!

Satel paints a quaint picture, too. Getting people fired for heterodox views is a funny way to put it when the views in question are, say, “we should run over protestors with our cars,” or “women are biologically inferior to men,” or “trans people are all pedophiles and sex pests.” Not every view deserves a platform, and it’s awfully funny to see how upset conservatives get when The Free Market doesn’t reward them. No one’s buying what these people are selling.

Dogma over analysis

Satel repeats the tired old line here, about universities being “far to the left,” which is something I’ve written about already and you can read here. Universities are run by conservatives, and staffed by conservative faculty, carry out conservative agendas in pursuit of conservative goals. True, many faculty in some departments will Vote Blue No Matter Who. That means they support candidates that do the exact same terrible things the Bad Orange Man did, but also do it more. Is conservatism defined purely by the color-coding on the candidate? I don’t think so, but this is what Satel seems to be purporting.

Scholars who personally support the left’s social vision—such as redistributing income, countering racism, and more—may simply be slow to identify authoritarianism among people with similar goals.

– Satel, emphasis added. Always interesting when conservatives tell on themselves.

Enough table-setting, what does the new research say?

Costello and his colleagues [authors of the new research] started fresh. They developed what eventually became a list of 39 statements capturing sentiments such as “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary” and “I should have the right not to be exposed to offensive views.” Subjects were asked to score the statements on a scale of 1 to 7.

– Satel

These sound like radical statements! And to a degree, they are. Replacing the established order of fascism/capitalism is crucial to the survival of humanity. A case in point is the struggle to combat climate change. We might already be past the tipping point, too, because of the failures of capitalism despite the incalculable amount of work put in by activists historically and presently.

Self-Defense

Our society enshrines the right of self-defense, which means it’s legally acceptable to even kill someone if they’re a real threat to you. (In practice, it often means it’s legal for people with power to kill whomever they want of lesser power, as long as they can come up with a half-assed cover story.)

If we’re allowed to protect ourselves… what’s so wrong about the desire to protect ourselves? It’s radical, sure, but it’s not without reason. By removing these beliefs from context, they appear to be just as irrational as people that think we need to “preserve the white race.”

I find Satel’s analysis offensive

What are these offensive views that “The Left” wants protection from? Are they things like “Wow, I’m so glad that Chris Pratt is going to play Mario,” or are they more like “[incoherent transphobic drivel]”? The latter is dangerous. That’s the kind of offensive views I don’t want to hear. It’s not because they’re offensive, it’s because they’re violent and false.

The authoritarianism is coming from inside the house

Furthermore, Satel conveniently ignores all of the illiberal and authoritarian ideals within neoconservatism. Controlling what people do with their bodies is not very freedom-loving, for example, and it is a consistent interest of neoconservatives: the war on drugs, the war on women and reproductive rights, and the systematic/systemic oppression of Black and other people of color.

Surely there’s more to it…?

Other measures include:

  • “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech.” (Labeled as “top-down censorship” be the researchers, and interesting leap in logic.)
  • “If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most privilege at the bottom.” (Again, shaky phrasing here. Feels like a gotcha. It is coded in a way to allow conservatives to connect “privilege” to “white privilege” and there we have it: evidence that The Left hates white people; when the respondent may be talking about wealth, political power, etc.)
  • “I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative.” (Labeled as “anti-conventionalism,” another interesting leap without any consideration as to why that might be. Satel and the authors’ presumption is that conservative viewpoints are inherently valid by virtue of being conservative.)

By measuring things this way, without paying any attention to the why is how the researchers and Satel create misleading narratives. I would have a hard time being friends with someone that hates who I am or thinks we need a white ethno-state, for example. That’s not exactly “anti-conventionalism.”

Who owns convention in the 21st century?

This also shows how conservatives believe they are the true vanguards of our society and convention. They’ve got The Truth and we don’t. There’s a rich tradition in America of defying convention. In fact, that’s where neoconservatism comes from.

Neoconservatives defied the conventions of conservatives that came before them to set new standards (while pretending their new standards are very old). George Bush Senior went on record to support abortion rights, for example, when he was a senator. (His father, however, tried to do a fascist coup in America. Oops!) This was before Nixon realized he could galvanize the base with the issue.

So, who exactly “owns” conventionalism? Maybe no one party or ideology does, since they all have their own conventions. America is not, and never has been, a monolith. Except maybe about capitalism. But of course, that’s not what they’re talking about here. Mustn’t question capitalism!

So what are the actual findings?

The authoritarian mentality, whether on the far left or far right, the authors conclude, exerts “powerful pressures to maintain discipline among members, advocate aggressive and censorious means of stifling opposition, [and] believe in top-down absolutist leadership.”

– Satel

But what is their opposition trying to do? You can’t just claim these are equivalent without examining that. And pointing a finger at the left’s attempts at self-defense while ignoring whom or from what they’re defending against is just bad faith.

At the very least, Satel is honest enough to acknowledge that left-wing authoritarianism is not prevalent in the US (while right-wing authoritarianism is), and right-wing authoritarianism is far more dangerous. Credit where credit is due, I suppose.

What is to be done?

Satel has a very helpful idea:

If academic psychology had more viewpoint diversity, the political biases that distort researchers’ work would all counterbalance one another.

– Satel

Ah yes, if we just get more ethno-state fascists into psychology, that’ll help things.

More scholars producing half-assed ideological hitjobs like the one discussed here would not improve the state of discourse. It’s like saying we need a debate about race in America between Dr. Cornell West and David Duke to really get the full picture. For people that decry the ills of postmodernity, they sure love postmodernity. Truth? Reality? Reason? Who cares! As long as we believe it hard enough, it’s true and real.

I’m exhausted

There’s more I could talk about in Satel’s article in The Atlantic but my brain is melting. Did researchers find left-wing authoritarianism? Sure, if you accept their fundamentally changed the definition of authoritarianism that removes any and all context.

I’ll leave you with this nugget:

[E]ducation has become ever more highly correlated with political ideology.

– Satel

Sometimes they say the quiet part out loud.

And this is why we need major reform in education, to make it more accessible. Education (and I don’t mean specifically through universities) is our only known tool to de-radicalize people and reduce hate.

Tao Te Ching, ch 3: duality in governance

Tao Te Ching, ch 3: duality in governance

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I haven’t shown you Legge’s unadulterated translation yet, and for good reason. But maybe I could be more transparent about my process. And in doing so, demonstrate why you can’t just trust one translation.

Here is Legge’s original translation, without any influence from me:

Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to
keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles
which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming

thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is
the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties
their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens
their bones.

He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without
desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them
from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from
action, good order is universal.

Maybe I have a bad brain, but I cannot make any sense of that. Anyway, let me show you my massaged translation plus further explanation of what I’m doing and how.

Chapter 3: duality in governance

Do not hold the wealthy and famous in esteem,
and the people will not form rivalries among themselves;

Do not horde riches and treasure,
and the people will not become thieves.

Do not flaunt wealth and desire,
and the people will be clear-headed.

The Master leads by emptying their minds, filling their core, weakening their ambitions, and strengthening their resolve.

The Master tirelessly helps people forget what they know and let go of their desires;
and confuses those that presume they are intelligent

Practice not-doing, and everything gets done.

– Lao Tzu, Chapter 3 of the Tao Te Ching (translated by Legge/Davis)

There! Hopefully that’s more comprehensible. Before we get to the commentary, let me explain my translation methods. I don’t read Ancient Chinese, so I’m definitely not going back to the original source material. Instead, I am using a collection of existing translations to observe the myriad of ways a given stanza/line/word is translated to find better ways to phrase it. I personally hold Mitchell and Le Guin’s translations in high regard, but I’m typically working with about 5 or so different translations.

My goal is not literal accuracy to the original script (like Legge, though he failed in his goal), it is to capture the ideas in a way that so-called “Western” people alive today could hope to make some sense of it.

Opposites create each other

Just as we saw in chapter 2, opposing concepts literally create each other. They are interdependent. And so, much in the same way that it works in your personal life, so too these concepts can be applied to governance. This is general leadership advice, too, and not just for heads of state. As leaders in our own domains of life, we have important choices to make. Typically; we are taught to hold the powerful in esteem.

How to make thieves

At any given moment, there are leagues of people on social media lauding the likes of Elon Musk (of the apartheid emerald mine, knocking up his own step-daughter Musks) for being extremely wealthy. I suppose they think of their veneration as a type of prayer, hoping that they too will be rewarded with fame and riches. And the societal emphasis on material gain only encourages this kind of behavior. I think Lao Tzu was probably talking about petty crime when he mentioned thieves, but the same applies to the mega-rich. There is no such thing as a “good” billionaire, because they made their money by exploiting other peoples’ labor. They stole their wealth from the people that did the work. Jeff Bezos himself acknowledged it after he drifted weightless of a minute. In other words, they’re thieves.

And so many people, in chasing this illusion of wealth and fame, dedicate their lives to the hustle, the accumulation of wealth and material pleasures. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy material pleasures, too! There’s nothing wrong with finding joy in life. But it’s very easy for this to become an obsession, because that is what we are encouraged to do from every angle. The “American Dream” is material gain. Wealth. Fame.

Have you ever met a famous or wealthy person that has a better life because of their wealth and fame? Of course, those without resources need resources to have a chance at health and happiness. I’m talking about excess compared to enough.

You ever look at those fawning pseudo-news articles about the habits/routines of wealthy and famous people? They dedicate a large portion of their days to trying to feel ok. They do intense workouts, strict diets, expensive massages, and so on, for hours a day. I don’t think they’d do all that work if they were actually happy from their excessive wealth and power. What would *you* do if you had all the money in the world? I like to think I’d sit on a beach, and I have noticed that none of the mega-rich seem to be able to do that. Funny thing is, that you don’t have to have any money to sit on a beach in the first place.

Back to leadership: as leaders, we must discourage this kind of thinking. We can’t, and don’t want to, control other people. But when we make decisions, those decisions have implications. Do you praise your eldest child’s achievements in baseball, or do you praise your eldest child for their dedication and focus? Which is a more important life lesson: being a second base player, or learning how to apply yourself to mastering a skill? Because what you praise is what you will enforce, and encourage others to pursue.

What about this metaphysical stuff about filling cores?

Nothing metaphysical happening here, it’s metaphorical. So, typically that line is translated as filling “bellies,” which is both literal and metaphorical. Mitchell goes with “cores” here, and I like that one more because it invites you to contemplate the metaphor instead of risking someone only reading it literally.

Showing off wealth and fame is pointless when people go hungry. Not only is it pointless, but it makes people agitated. I don’t know if I need to convince you of this point, given the state of inequality in contemporary America.

But filling the core goes beyond a good meal, it is also emotional and spiritual fulfillment. There is no end to learning, knowing, thinking, or yearning; so trying to fulfill people this way is going to be unsuccessful. Let them navigate that on their own, when possible, and instead focus on their wellbeing.

Is Taoism anti-intellectual?

We’ll see this come up several times: Lao Tzu seemingly disparaging intellect and intelligence. I don’t understand him to be speaking out against intelligence itself, but the value we place upon it. This is both at the personal and societal level.

Intelligence, when practical, is useful and important. But an over-reliance on intelligence is the path to misery. So continue to learn and grow, but not out of lust of knowledge but because it serves a purpose. Intellect unto is useless until it’s tied to action.

Intelligence is a myth

To make matters worse, it’s seemingly impossible to define human intelligence. Any and all IQ-type tests only reveal how well the person takes the test, and those tests are written by people in a particular place with particular values and standards. The tools to measure “intelligence” mimic the societal values of the people that made it.

Let me put it to you this way, using an intentionally gross example: based on IQ tests, I am in one of those upper percentiles. I have a masters’ degree, and I’m about to finish my PhD. The point is that I have a collection indicators, based on our societies’ standards, of “intelligence.” On the flip side, consider someone that failed out of high school and has a below-average IQ. They work with their hands, repairing cars. They lack societal standards of intelligence.

Both of us can function in day-to-day life. Both of us share the same depth of emotion and profundity of experience. We both have passions, and derive meaning from connecting with and helping those around us. It’s pretty hard to find a difference so far, isn’t it?

Your car breaks down, though. It’s not as simple as a flat tire, dead battery, blown fuse, or any of the myriad of simple fixes. It’s a problem with your transmission. Even if you put me in the same shop with the other guy so we had access to the same tools, one of us is going to fix your car and the other is going to ruin it. That’s because I don’t know shit about fixing a transmission, engineering, maintenance, or how to use those tools. Hell, I’d probably sooner injure myself than fix the car.

You get my point, yes? Intelligence is too slippery to base your life or society on it.

What about “intellect”?

Thinking, thinking, thinking. So much thinking. Thinking about what is, what is not, what could be, what was, and so on. Every time we think, we imbue ourself onto the situation. Of course we do! It’s our experience, after all. Thinking–intellectualizing–has its place, but we live in the real world, not the world of ideas. It’s terribly easy to get lost in the intellectual world. It’s normal, too. Imagining the future is important. But often times we emotionally react to our imagination of how the future might be. And even worse, we map our imagined of future onto the present. Even if what we imagined comes to pass, we are not experiencing it in the present. And, we risk mistaking our imagined future with the real present. But more on that later…


Think less, do more.

Josh