Saturday, May 11, 2019


     Allow me to begin this tirade begin on a personal note: I’m overweight and have been for years. Not grotesquely, mind you; just about fifteen pounds. However, they’re inconvenient pounds, located in an inconvenient place that makes bending difficult. So I’m trying to lose them. As part of the effort, each morning upon rising I mount the bathroom scale and watch as it measures my current weight.

     In recent weeks that number has been trending downward, albeit slowly. That’s all right; a slow loss arising from a lifestyle change is more likely to result in an enduring improvement. So when I see a number lower than the one I saw the day before, I’m pleased. When the number is the same as the day before or higher, I frown.

     Does that behavior seem logical to you, Gentle Reader, now that you know of my aims? It should. But does it seem a complete measure of whether I’m progressing or regressing? If it does, you’re not thinking the problem all the way through.

     Why measure a particular thing? Indeed, why measure anything?

     A measure is normally tied to a goal. Imagine that there’s some goal you want to reach. If you can express that goal in measurable terms, subsequent measurements will tell you whether you’re getting nearer to that goal or farther from it.

     Any goal can be characterized in two ways:

  1. Intermediate;
  2. End-state.

     An intermediate goal is one we seek in advancing toward some other goal. An end-state goal is one we seek for its own sake. In the business world, intermediate goals are often called milestones, probably because we tend to trip over them for focusing on the end-state goal. The end-state goal will normally have direct relevance to the production of revenue: e.g., the release of a product for sale.

     The above might seem like “of course” material. In a sense, that what it is: the subconscious stratum of considerations everyone’s conscious decision-making is founded on. But now and then it should be hauled out of the shadows and examined in the light. Doing so can keep us from doing some silly, counterproductive, and outrightly destructive things.

     Many years ago, I formulated a schematic for all human action. I called it The Algorithm:

  1. Select a technique that you think will get you what you think you want.
  2. Will this technique cause you to lose body parts, go to jail, or burn in Hell?
    • If so, return to step 1.
    • If not, proceed to step 3.
  3. Do a little of it.
  4. Are you at your goal, approaching it, or receding from it?
    • If at your goal, stop.
    • If receding, return to step 1.
    • If approaching, return to step 3.

     That is how we do everything. There are no exceptions. But have a close look at step 4. It asks a question without propounding a method for answering it. What method should apply?

     In short, there must be a metric that will allow us to answer the question. The metrics best suited to some goals are more easily found than those that apply to others. Indeed, there are some goals for which the quest for the right metric is ongoing. But until the correct metric is chosen, whether we are progressing toward our goal or receding from it will be indeterminable.

     The critical word in the paragraph above is correct, as in “the correct metric.” Monitoring an irrelevancy won’t help. Indeed, by distracting us from what really matters it will likely conduce to failure.

     The central question in all of public policy has always been:

Given the goal we pursue,
What is the correct metric?

     In our time, that question is almost never answered correctly.

     Libertarian theorist and activist Kevin Cullinane once proposed a definition of progress:

     “Progress is the improved satisfaction of human desires, morally, with less effort.”

     Like “The Algorithm” of the previous segment, Cullinane’s statement implies a question: What is the proper metric for determining whether human desires are being satisfied in an improved degree? The answer is elusive for one giant reason: “our leaders” don’t want us to think about it.

     I know when my desires are being better satisfied than they were yesterday. I’d bet the mortgage money that you could say the same. But consider, as a trivial case (in the mathematical sense), the problem of marriage. How can Smith determine whether Mrs. Smith’s desires are being better satisfied today than yesterday?

     Any married man can tell you that the problem is stiff, as the married man will surely be before the answer comes to him.

     As the question is ramified by further collectivization – i.e.:

From individuals;
   to couples;
     to families;
       to neighborhoods;
         to towns;
           to counties;
             to states;
               to the nation;

     …all metrics become murky and indistinct, and all answers to the question in Step 4 of “The Algorithm” become indeterminate.

     That’s what “our leaders” don’t want us to think about. It’s also my major reason for writing, whether fiction or op-eds to appear here at Liberty’s Torch.

     On January 2, 2019, Tucker Carlson vented a subtly impassioned Jeremiad against the indifference of the “ruling class.” I didn’t see that segment of Tucker Carlson Tonight; I’m almost always in bed before 9:00 PM. Anyway, I seldom watch television other than a Yankees baseball game or a Rangers hockey game. My attention was drawn to it by a pair of opinion pieces:

  1. This one of a couple of weeks ago;
  2. This one of just this morning.

     Carlson’s soliloquy and the two articles it inspired put me in mind of the old poem about the blind men and the elephant:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: "Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 't is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake: "I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

[John Godfrey Saxe]

     Saxe might have been amused at the passionate disputes of theologians, but the point is relevant to public policy as well. Numbers of many sorts are available to the policy-maker. Many a “policy wonk” will trumpet such numbers loudly, implying that they measure something “the government” should regard as important. But do they really? Indeed, do they measure anything of importance?

     It’s become clear that no purely economic metric – take the Dow-Jones Industrial Average as an example – really measures the health of our nation. Indeed, it might mislead us regardless of the purpose to which we put it. The DJIA is a composite based on thirty stocks. There are far more equities than that being traded. But even if they were all factored into the DJIA, what could it possibly tell us?

     Tucker Carlson’s focus is on families. It’s arguably a better focus, but one to which no imaginable metric could be applied. Rate of family formation? Interesting information, but what kinds of families are being formed? Reproduction rates? Again, very interesting, especially to demographers, but there are some pretty squalid, miserably unhappy nations with high reproduction rates. These numbers are of the sort some wag once compared to a bikini on a beautiful girl: “What it reveals is interesting, but what it conceals is vital.”

     A public policy supremely concerned with families would be no more likely than a purely econometric one to bring about a “happy, prosperous, stable nation.” There are no metrics that would reliably lead us to the goal we seek…because collective goals are always illusory:

     There is no half-baked ecclesiastic, bawling in his galvanized-iron temple on a suburban lot, who doesn’t know precisely how it ought to be dealt with. There is no fantoddish old suffragette, sworn to get her revenge on man, who hasn’t a sovereign remedy for it. There is not a shyster of a district attorney, ambitious for higher office, who doesn’t offer to dispose of it in a few weeks, given only enough help from the city editors. And yet, by the same token, there is not a man who has honestly studied it and pondered it, bringing sound information to the business, and understanding of its inner difficulties and a clean and analytical mind, who doesn’t believe and hasn’t stated publicly that it is intrinsically and eternally insoluble. For example, Havelock Ellis. His remedy is simply a denial of all remedies. He admits that the disease is bad, but he shows that the medicine is infinitely worse, and so he proposes going back to the plain disease, and advocates bearing it with philosophy, as we bear colds in the head, marriage, the noises of the city, bad cooking and the certainty of death. Man is inherently vile—but he is never so vile as when he is trying to disguise and deny his vileness. No prostitute was ever so costly to a community as a prowling and obscene vice crusader, or as the dubious legislator or prosecuting officer who jumps at such swine pipe. [H. L. Mencken]

     That’s what “our leaders” don’t want us to think about. Were we to embrace the truth in it, they would no longer be “our leaders.” Indeed, we would have no “leaders.”

     When we institute political conditions that embed specific incentives and constraints – and every political system does this – behavior emerges that exploits those incentives and constraints. This is, if you like, Political Ecology 101: the metaphysical law that no legislature can repeal or modify. Ayn Rand understood it well:

     [Dagny] knew that no train schedules could be maintained any longer, no promises kept, no contracts observed, that regular trains were cancelled at a moment’s notice and transformed into emergency specials sent by unexplained orders to unexpected destinations—and that the orders came from Cuffy Meigs, sole judge of emergencies and of the public welfare. She knew that factories were closing, some with their machinery stilled for lack of supplies that had not been received, others with their warehouses full of goods that could not be delivered. She knew that the old industries—the giants who had built their power by a purposeful course projected over a span of time—were left to exist at the whim of the moment, a moment they could not foresee or control. She knew that the best among them, those of the longest range and most complex function, had long since gone—and those still struggling to produce, struggling savagely to preserve the code of an age when production had been possible, were now inserting into their contracts a line shameful to a descendant of Nat Taggart: “Transportation permitting.”

     And yet there were men—and she knew it—who were able to obtain transportation whenever they wished, as by a mystic secret, as by the grace of some power which one was not to question or explain. They were the men whose dealings with Cuffy Meigs were regarded by people as that unknowable of mystic creeds which smites the observer for the sin of looking, so people kept their eyes closed, dreading, not ignorance, but knowledge. She knew that deals were made whereby those men sold a commodity known as “transportation pull”—a term which all understood, but none would dare define. She knew that these were the men of the emergency specials, the men who could cancel her scheduled trains and send them to any random spot of the continent which they chose to strike with their voodoo stamp, the stamp superseding contract, property, justice, reason and lives, the stamp stating that “the public welfare” required the immediate salvation of that spot. These were the men who sent trains to the relief of the Smather Brothers and their grapefruit in Arizona—to the relief of a factory in Florida engaged in the production of pin-ball machines—to the relief of a horse farm in Kentucky—to the relief of Orren Boyle’s Associated Steel.

     These were the men who made deals with desperate industrialists to provide transportation for the goods stalled in their warehouses—or, failing to obtain the percentage demanded, made deals to purchase the goods, when the factory closed, at the bankruptcy sale, at ten cents on the dollar, and to speed the goods away in freight cars suddenly available, away to markets where dealers of the same kind were ready for the kill. There were the men who hovered over factories, waiting for the last breath of a furnace, to pounce upon the equipment—and over desolate sidings, to pounce upon the freight cars of undelivered goods—these were a new biological species, the hit-and-run businessmen, who did not stay in any line of business longer than the span of one deal, who had no payrolls to meet, no overhead to carry, no real estate to own, no equipment to build, whose only asset and sole investment consisted of an item known as “friendship.” These were the men whom official speeches described as “the progressive businessmen of our dynamic age,” but whom people called “the pull peddlers”—the species included many breeds, those of “transportation pull,” and of “steel pull” and “oil pull” and “wage-raise pull” and “suspended sentence pull”—men who were dynamic, who kept darting all over the country while no one else could move, men who were active and mindless, active, not like animals, but like that which breeds, feeds and moves upon the stillness of a corpse.

     Rand said it so well in the above snippet that I can add nothing to it except this, from “humorist” P. J. O’Rourke:

     “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

     If what I write here is useful to anyone, it’s because I strive to see widely and to reason inclusively. Yes, I have a value of supreme political importance: individual freedom, as if you needed to be reminded. Yes, I have my own desires and a priority scale for them. But I would not imagine that many other persons would have values, desires, and priorities exactly identical to mine.

     No one has values, desires, and priorities exactly identical to yours. He who seeks to persuade you of the opposite is your enemy. Indeed, he might be a monster.

     Believe it or not, there are persons whose highest aim is the eradication of the overwhelmingly greater part of Mankind. Many of them are considered “respectable,” even purveyors of “wisdom.” They pass the streets in safety by not saying explicitly what they seek.

     Believe it or not, there are persons whose highest aim is the enslavement of the overwhelmingly greater part of Mankind. Many of them are considered “respectable,” even “statesmen” of importance. They pass the streets in safety by not saying explicitly what they seek.

     Believe it or not, there are persons whose highest aim is the impoverishment of the overwhelmingly greater part of Mankind. Many of them are considered “respectable,” even important “humanitarians.” They pass the streets in safety by not saying explicitly what they seek.

     All of these persons can be found in the corridors of power, or straining for admission to them. They greatly outnumber those of a genuinely benevolent nature. Yet all of them claim to have your well-being as their supreme value. And all of them are villains at best, monsters at worst.

     The simplest, the clearest, and the most direct route to assessing them, to knowing them for what they are rather than what they pretend to be, is to get them to state their metrics. If their metrics are collective in nature – and nearly all metrics offered in a political context are collective in nature – they are the enemy, to be feared and fought.

     “Do not say “Trust me; rely on my word.” Only politicians say that.” – C. Northcote Parkinson

     Trust no one. Think for yourself, always.


Benny in KC said...

It took me three years to lose 35 pounds. Started with one permanent diet change with no goal of losing any set amount of weight. When weight stabilizes, then make another change and see how much weight you lose. Rinse and repeat until at desired weight.

Been weight stable for 18 months because new, smaller clothes got expensive. My weight fluctuates between 161-164 lbs over any given week.

Jim Robertson said...

Thanks for the gems of wisdom.