Conversation Overheard at Breakfast at the Four Seasons in Amman 

“He said I should cover up. That I was showing too much skin or something, and it was like distracting!”

An American teenager, having breakfast with her parents at the table next to ours. Her parents were looking at her – patiently or adoringly or both. I couldn’t tell. She continued…

“I should cover up? Like why don’t they cover up their eyes? I mean, I have the right to wear whatever the fuck I want.”

A moment of silence. Then her father leaned over and patted her hand. “Don’t worry, sweetie. When we get to the Côte d’Azur you can walk around topless if you like.”

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7 Politically Incorrect Questions I’m Afraid to Ask

  1. We know that money doesn’t buy happiness. So why do we assume that increasing the income of poor people will make them happier?
  2. We know that if someone doesn’t want to learn, it’s impossible to teach them anything – and that if someone does want to learn, it’s impossible to stop them. So why do so many believe that we can improve education by improving schools rather than motivating students?
  3. We know that one of the very few ways to enjoy life is to work hard and well on things we value. So why do so many spend their careers at jobs they hate in the hopes of gaining happiness later when they stop working?
  4. We know that it is difficult to get homeless people off the streets. Providing shelters doesn’t seem to help. Neither do incentive systems. Is it possible that they are on the streets because they want to be?
  5. We know that there has never been a Communist state in modern history that has improved the lives of its citizens. In fact, they have all resulted in stagnant or collapsing economies and the abridgment of freedoms. So why do so many (nearly 50%) of our college students believe that Communism is a viable economic and political system?
  6. We know that war is fundamentally reductive. By its very nature, it is designed to reduce populations (particularly of young people), destroy infrastructure, cripple industry, and disrupt political, social, and economic institutions. Whatever its purported goals are, the end result is always less of everything. So why do so many believe it is a smart solution to political, social, and economic problems?
  7. We know that ideology makes sense only in the abstract and that real-life advancements are made by pragmatism. So why would anyone want to be an ideologue?
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flâneur (noun) 

A flâneur (flah-NUR) is an idle man-about-town; a casual wanderer and observer of street life. Example from the Norton Museum of Art website: “From the 19th-century flâneur… to today’s social media networkers, the need to get a glimpse of famous or notorious personalities and the compulsion to be seen within an aura of celebrity and influence has driven – and been driven by – the graphic arts.”

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A Few Financial Facts to Think About 

* After-tax income of the rich: Between 1979 and 2005, the average after-tax income of the top 1% increased by 176%, compared with an increase of only 6% for the bottom 20%.

* Inflation effects on the working class: Between 1990 and 2005, the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage actually declined by 9.3% when adjusted for inflation.

* US Debt is now $22 trillion and mounting at a trillion a year.

* Stocks vs. GDP: Normally, the stock market is worth about 80% of GDP. Now, it is worth 150% of GDP.  That’s equivalent to $14 trillion.

* Corporate pre-tax earnings are the same today as they were in 2012. Yet the market valuation is $14 trillion greater.

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The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken

Bracken made her living as a copywriter. She wrote this, her first book, in 1960 when she was 70 years old. I’m reading it for the maturity of her wit, not the recipes.

Examples:

* “Add flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”

* “A mutual dislike can be quite as sound a basis for friendship as a mutual devotion.”

* “What most of us are after, when we have a picture taken, is a good natural-looking picture that doesn’t resemble us.”

* “It is important to remember that these are your Declining Years, in which you can jolly well decline to do what you don’t feel like doing.”

* “It isn’t true… that nothing is as bad as you think it’s going to be. Some things are exactly as bad as you thought they were going to be, and some things are worse.”

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One good thing about social media is that it has made it easier to discover talent and performance outside of the main media. Hillary Klug is one such discovery for me.

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 “Is Poverty Necessary?”

I hadn’t read Harper’s in years. Like 20 or 30 years. I remembered it as a magazine of intelligently written essays about meaningful subjects. Reading it, I felt like I was using my time wisely.

In the Fort Lauderdale airport waiting for our Emirates flight to Dubai, I picked up two magazines. One was a special issue of Time on “The Science of Good and Evil.” The other was the most recent issue of Harper’s, with the irresistibly titled cover story “Is Poverty Necessary?”

As I began reading, I was trying to remember whether the magazine had a political slant. I got my first hint in the first sentence of the second paragraph. The author, Marilynne Robinson, writes, “Back then [in 1989], I shared the American assumption that such things [as environmental risks in England] were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States.”

She then tells us that “in order to understand all this, [she] read classical economics, using Marx’s Capital as an annotated bibliography.” And she wasn’t kidding.

The argument that ensues is largely based on Progress and Poverty by Henry George, an obscure American economist, published in 1879. George, Robinson says, argued that “the wage of a worker should be a share in the value his or her labor creates.” And that “this excess of value should be a resource of the community.”

I didn’t bother to find out if that was an accurate summation. If it was, I can understand George’s obscurity. Neither of those two statements makes any sense. The value of something is not a fixed thing. It’s not even a real thing. The value of anything – a product, a service, an idea, or a living being – can be established only by what someone is willing to pay for it. And that can be influenced only by supply and demand.

You can decide that your bike is worth (has a value of) $150. But if no one is willing to pay $150 for it, guess what? You are wrong. Could it be worth $150 one day? Sure. And if you are willing to wait and see, you’ll find out. But what it’s worth then doesn’t change the fact that what it’s worth now is less than you think.

Likewise, you can decide that an hour of your labor is worth $50 or $500. But again, if no one is willing to pay you that much, you are wrong.

This is the problem that Robinson runs into later in advocating government-mandated minimum wages. Because governments operate on the basis of force, they can indeed determine prices. Taxes and tariffs are ways to determine the prices of goods. And minimum wage laws can determine the prices of human labor.

But here’s the problem: There is a difference – a big difference – between the price of something and its value. This is at the core of what’s wrong with people that believe in government solutions to economic problems. The use of force can raise and lower prices. And the use of force – via tariffs, embargoes, and sanctions – can even influence the supply of goods and services. But force can never determine demand. Because demand depends on value. And only the free will of the market can determine that.

This should not be a surprise to anyone that’s spent more than a few hours thinking about economics. Nor should it nonplus anyone that has studied the history of wealth redistribution.

It doesn’t work logically because the premises are wrong. It doesn’t work theoretically because the most important facts are wrong. And it doesn’t work practically because it completely ignores human psychology.

When I read an essay like Robinson’s – a well-articulated but profoundly bad idea about economics – I wonder what level of exposure the author has ever had with the actual dynamic of a real business. My best guess is that they have spent a lifetime in academia. Or worked for the government or a non-profit. But what are the chances that they have ever worked for an actual business whose survival depended on creating value?

I’d say next to none.

In Robinson’s mind, the world is a place that has 99% poor and struggling people and 1% rich folks. She looks at all the wealth that these rich people have and she thinks, “Why don’t we simply move some of that wealth from the 1% to the 99% and get rid of all this poverty?”

Just distribute all that wealth equitably and poverty will go away.

It takes an amazing amount of ignorance to believe that.

Distributing wealth, no matter how you do it, will never eradicate poverty because it cannot.

The problem with poverty is an insufficiency in the production of wealth. And an insufficiency in the creation of wealth is caused by an insufficiency in the production of profit.

Do you want to know how to get rid of poverty?

Create something – a product or service – whose value is greater than what it cost you. Then sell it. This produces what is known as a profit. Profit is unnatural and difficult to produce. But it is the only thing that can get rid of poverty – your own poverty and anyone else’s that you want to devote those profits to.

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“Some believe the perfect society would be one where everyone was guaranteed employment, free comprehensive healthcare, free education, free food, free housing, free clothing, free utilities, and only law enforcement has guns. That exists. It’s called prison.” – Michael Masterson

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vertiginous (adjective) 

Something that’s vertiginous (ver-TIH-jih-nus) is unstable – marked by change that is so quick and/or frequent that it gives one the feeling of being disoriented, dizzy. As used by Rebecca Makkai in a NYT review of Spring by Ali Smith: “Is it possible, in this vertiginous moment, for a novel to be both timely and deep? Timeliness, these days, requires a quick trigger finger….”

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