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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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economics of life

Life Is Easy

When I was young my mom always said to me, “life is what you make of it!” She would also say, “life is an adventure,” but she always said these things to me when I was upset about something, usually being mistreated by my sisters or dreading going to school. I can’t say the context made for very effective communication of her message.

Now that I’m a grown-up I find myself coming back to these words. Nobody says “life is what you make of it” anymore. Instead, everyone says, “life sucks, and then you die” or “life’s tough, get a grip” or “only the strong survive.” Through my studies I’ve come to know that life is, in fact, what you make of it and if you believe it is going to be hard and miserable, then your belief will become your reality. So I would like to propose an alternative belief: Life is easy and fun. I would also like to invite you to join me in living a funner, easier life. Continue reading “Life Is Easy”

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Yoyu

In Japanese there is a word yoyu which means something akin to “wiggle room,” or “having extra leftover.” You might use it to compliment someone’s riding:

“You climbed that hill with yoyu!”

or to express concern for your budget:

“I never have any yoyu at the end of the month.”

Yoyu is critical to maintaining happiness and composure on your path. Whether you are trying to achieve peak performance as an athlete (me!), or just trying to make it from one day to the next amidst the various demands of work, social life, personal health, family, bills etc (also me), protecting your yoyu can be the difference between achieving your goals and crashing in a blaze of terrific splendor somewhere midway.

Continue reading “Yoyu”

Coffee and the Law of Conservation of Energy

So, I’m working hard to heal myself from all the damage of swallowing the Standard Narrative whole with a side of Standard American Diet to go. My latest assigment from Mary is to take coffee out of my diet. She promised me it won’t be forever, but I need to go for a month without coffee. I’ve been drinking coffee since I was in high school. I never drank it because of the energy boost it claims to give people (I’ve never needed the extra boost), but more because it was a social thing and a hot beverage that had more substance to it than tea, which I’ve always registered as hot colored water. Taking coffee out of my life is going to be difficult.

Mary suspects me of having adrenal fatigue and I think she’s pretty on point with that. She also thinks that coffee is messing with my digestion. On top of that I have struggled with anxiety and ADHD for as long as I can remember, possibly from as young as 8 years old. What she told me is that coffee can actually sap your overall energy and ability to focus, exacerbating both the anxiety and the fatigue. That is the opposite of why most people drink it, so it got me to thinking. Continue reading “Coffee and the Law of Conservation of Energy”

Imposter Syndrome

The imposter syndrome is an affliction suffered by many young academics, usually beginning in graduate school but then often carrying on into their first appointments as faculty. It is characterized by an intense sense of not belonging, as if the person hired for the position is someone other than one’s self and that there has been a mistake made, something over looked, or some unspoken understanding that everyone is just humoring you.

Continue reading “Imposter Syndrome”

The Modern Yin and Yang

Historically, men and women have always existed in a kind of balance with each other, with each gender filling in its own roles that together make society work. Over time, those roles have changed, and depending on location they have started from different places as well. Recently, however, I get the distinct impression that the role of the female is being stamped out and made to be irrelevant. Our society is becoming completely yang and we are suffering for it.

Taking a grand view, the devaluation of the feminine in western society can be traced back to agriculture. Nomadic humans were “fiercely egalitarian,” as Brian and Jethalda put it in their earth shaking volume Sex Before Dawn. Sharing of work and of bounty was the most efficient way to moderate the risks of the ancient environment. Depriving women or other members of society because they were weak was simply not an option. For one thing, the smaller stature of the female enabled her to nurse young children on the same caloric intake of her male counterparts. Moreover, modern studies of female labor have proven that pregnancy and the presence of nursing infants had nearly no impact on the average 18 pounds of food per day that women gathered. Hunting, on the other hand, was comparatively more risky both in its costs and its rewards. To devalue the feminine in a hunter-gatherer society would be to expose yourself to many a hungry night.

With the advent of agriculture, women were able to nurse for shorter periods and thus became more fertile. Children were able to work on the farms from as young as four or five and so producing many children became economically advantageous to the increasingly isolated and independent family unit. Disease and malnutrition also increased with agriculture making the viability of each pregnancy less reliable. The result was that women became domesticated, along with the animals they depended on for food. Men, on the other hand, were relatively unaffected physically by the shift to agriculture.

The beginning of gender imbalance arrived with the technological shifts associated with independent, agricultural based living. Furthermore, because agriculture was a much more stable source of food on a short run scale, the focus on sharing decreased and competition increased. With each family unit responsible for itself, there was incentive to hoard food and to exchange it for services, favors or other necessities instead of share it openly. With agriculture was born capitalism.

And capitalism is responsible for the continuing degradation of the feminine. Where once fertility was a valued trait in a women, it is now a liability. Children do not increase the prosperity of a household but rather suck its resources. Producing children also becomes a trade off, putting women’s very physical nature at odds with their desires and desirability in the work force. Economic obsession with marginality and comparative advantage has also lead to the conceptual division of fertility from male and female. Where once it was believed that a child required a man and a woman (or in some places many men and a woman) to create and raise, operationally we behave today as if the entire weight of reproduction is carried on female shoulders. It then becomes a natural economic imperative to value male labor over female, particularly in industries where children are considered burdensome to production.

I think it is no accident that today activities which are considered difficult, requiring of high skill, or respectable are given male identities while equivalent activities that are mundane, or necessary but not difficult, are associated with the female. For example professors are men while teachers are women. “Cooking” is something you have to do at home so that you can feed yourself or your family and many women cook, but men are chefs. Similarly, supporting roles are assigned to women while forefront performance roles are given to men. Lawyers are male and paralegals are female. Bosses are male and secretaries are female. Sewing is a women’s task, but fashion designing is controled by men. When you look at the distinctions, there is very little difference in the actual activities involved in many of these paired occupations. For example, what does a chef do if not cook? How does one create new fashion without sewing the clothes? Can a paralegal properly type up a court decision if she does not understand the laws about which she writes? These distinctions are not in any way related to the fundamental nature of male and female so much as they are imposed from the outside in order to support the status quo of a highly competitive performance male, and an accomodating female.

The trouble with economics is that it is built upon the idea that competition is fundamentally a good thing because it raises us all up to our individual potential and guides our choices in such a way that without needing to hold a committee meeting, we can all corrdinate our activities with each other to achieve maximal bounty. What economics does not acknowledge, however, is that the rules that govern our interactions with each other — market rules, commercial law, human capital investment — are made by the very actors that are bound by them.

The difference between economic government and democratic government, however, is that in a democracy each human is worth one vote whereas in economics, each dollar is worth one vote. So in the end, equality is always a very precarious equilibrium. It only takes the tiniest sliver of advantage for one individual or group to be able to amass a majority of the wealth and once this happens all the surplus can be devoted towards shifting the rules in such a way to protect and grow that majority. Corporations are guilty of this, but men are guilty of it, too. Sadly, women are also guilty of participating in the fray. Indian culture is a prime and awful example. A woman’s value is derived primarily by the success of her eldest son. In old age it is her eldest son who will care for her. Thus a woman is driven from the start to neglect her daughters and her sisters and pour all her devotion into the men in her life — her husband who controls her present and her son who controls her future. This sad truth is a reality that was created by a society that had a surplus of power and a lack of incentive to protect equality.

I claimed that the dominance of yang over yin in our modern world was hurtful to all of us, not just our women. Men who are comparatively more yin, that is more passive and accomodating, or more gentle, are devalued just as women are devalued in general. This argument was made by Emma Watson to the UN in a recent presentation on women’s rights, but even this is not the whole story. We humans need to be complete and to live complete and full lives that accept, cherish, and nurture all aspects of ourselves. A man who has been forced into a mould that does not fit is an unhappy man just as a woman who has been squashed into a box that cannot contain the whole of her being is an unhappy woman. Yet man and woman will seek each other out and seek happiness in each other. But how can we find happiness in another when none of us know happiness ourselves?

The suppression of the yin in our world is a form of socially expressed self loathing. It is a hatred for the acceptance of the Way Things Are and a willingness to find happiness in one’s current circumstances. It is a disgust for our personal weaknesses and our inability to change the things that hurt us. It is a denial of the pain we experience on a daily basis, pain which defines us and brings us life even as it hurts us. I will even go so far as to say that the love affair with yang is a form of hubris, believing that man is superior to the nature that created him, and the nature that still defines him today. It is the belief that we as humans know better than the environment that carved out our existence so many millions of years ago and that our power to control is greater than the power of Nature to destroy, to kill, and to rebirth again.

Man can no more live without woman than humans can live without the earth. I believe that the future of humanity lies in our ability to restore the balance of Yin and Yang in our society and in our world.

Let’s All Compete Ourselves to Death

We are taught to live with “the goal of being competitive so we can make a living.

Does anyone ever stop to wonder if all this competition is wholly necessary in our world? We can’t all be competitive in the meaning used above. Being competitive isn’t just an attitude or feeling here, it’s directly linked to success. Being competitive here specifically means being better than most of your peers. By its very definition, we can’t all be competitive, so what does it mean when we insist that this is the way to design our societies?

In reading this article I was reminded of my PE teacher back in high school. We only had to take one class of physical education in the entire four years I went to high school and the teacher/coach took it upon himself to give us a pep talk about our lives. In classic form, with his foot on the chair and his body draped loomingly casual over his knee, he tells us, “These are the best four years of your life. Don’t waste them by taking naps. You’ll nap in the afternoon, then you will stay up late because you slept too much. Then you will oversleep your alarm because you stayed up late, and the cycle repeats. Push through the tired! Get up and get out and DO something! My athletes are all tough…” I don’t remember what he said after that. I was too hung up on the terrifying notion that high school was the best my life was ever going to get, and that some people didn’t understand that naps were themselves a valid activity to spend the afternoon on.

Why should high school be the best four years of our lives? I think, now that I am what people call an adult, that my PE teacher was making the critical grass is greener error. High school, unlike adulthood, does not have 30-year mortgages to pay, jobs to clock in and out of, bosses that are never pleased with your performance, kids that always need your attention and never shut up. In high school, you are young and your life is ahead of you. Your body is resilient, you are full of potential, you are forgiven for your mistakes on account of you being “just a teenager”, and your job, which is to attend class and do your homework, carries no responsibility whatsoever. To the teacher, high school kids just look like a bunch of brats who get to hang out with their friends, smoke pot, and get doted on by their parents all day, insulating them from all the harsh realities of “real life.”

But again, I ask, why should real life be so harsh? Why should coming of age be a burden? Why must it be that when we are young we have our parents and our teachers to fight for us and care for us, but when we are grown we should be abandoned and left to fend for ourselves?

The belief that being competitive is the only way to survive in this world is simply the other facet of the resignation that life is harsh. But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it? It is a choice we make together as a people.

As an economist, I am familiar with the argument: Inequality and competition are necessary to fuel economic growth. However, even as some people are losing relative to others, it is not actually a bad thing on an objective level because the growth we achieve raises the quality of living of everybody. Moreover, if you try to reduce competition or inequality by redistributing wealth or making laws that prevent people from getting profits or wages that are too different from each other, you will destroy the desire for people to make progress and the economy will stagnate. Therefore the harshness of life is both a necessary and sufficient condition for economic.

The thing that really bothers me, though, is that this is not even true. Recent research has shown that happiness correlates with income only up to a certain level (slightly above the average income level of a community) and that the extremely rich can be just as thinly spread as the moderately poor. Millionaires have been quoted saying outrageous things like “4 million dollars just doesn’t go as far as it used to…” Then there is the blockheaded insistence that bloated bonus packages for top level management are the just and necessary compensation for their entrepreneurship, skill, and willingness to bear the risks of success and failure in the name of economic progress. When stakes are very high, experiments have shown that people perform worse than when stakes are medium or low. The explanation is that high stakes means high pressure and every human, no matter how strong we like to believe we are, has a pressure threshold above which we start to crack.

Economic research, despite what we want to believe, does not support the notion that more money is sufficient to motivate people to innovate or risk new business endeavors. At the same time, is it even necessary? In other words, even if at some point more money cannot induce people to try harder or perform better, are there ways to motivate people without just increasing their income? The answer to this second question is yes. Throughout history great artists and inventors created their works not because of the material rewards they were getting from them, but in spite of the failure of their work to generate income. Two famous examples are Edgar Allen Poe and Nikolai Tessla. Both men are indisputable titans of their fields, and yet both men spent their lives in relative obscurity and suffered their work being stolen, plagiarized, and ridiculed. It was not until after their deaths that their true genius was appreciated. So why would these men persevere? The answer is that it exists within each human being the power and the drive to create.

The “starving artist” archetype is not an archetype for no reason.

So, why, I ask, why is it that we hold so desperately to this notion that harsh competition is the only way to design our lives? Even the economists who brought us this idea in the first place are tearing it down again. Ironically, the authors responsible for contradicting the sacredness of the competitive claim were merely attempting to further their own careers through new, innovative and competitive research. The master’s tools?

I often write as if I know the answers. Often I can see the environment, the underlying infrastructures, that makes otherwise perplexing behavior of humans seem perfectly rational and understandable. When I can, I try to elucidate those structures in the hopes that a better understanding will enable the empathy we need to improve our world. However, in this case, I am at a loss. Why do we cling so desperately to a notion of the world that causes us pain, despair, and a rotting of our spirit inside our still living bodies? Why do we resign ourselves to inaction as all the beauty and joy in our lives is sacrificed on the altar of economic progress? I DON’T KNOW!

I don’t know why we worship competition. I do know, though, that there is another way. I know that we as humans have access to something greater than the scraps that are thrown to us from the rich and the powerful on high. Our world is big enough and, despite all we have done to it, still healthy enough to support all of us in abundant life. Rather than design our lives around the act of getting enough money to pay the bills, we could design our lives around to goal of abundant life. Instead of fearing nature, we could venture out into it to collect our food as it grows wild in the earth, rather than buying it prepackaged and marinated in synthetic chemicals in a grocery store. Instead of spending our hard earned money on brand name items that we wear as a symbol of our success, we could buy products that give our bodies immediate physical comfort. Insteand of blaming ourselves for not being competitive enough, we could acknowledge that the rules are against all of us and instead work together to achieve the happiness that seems to elude us as individuals.

Living in perpetual competition amounts to accepting that their is not enough for all of us, and it is a sour deal. There is no rest for the competitive lest they fall behind. There is no enjoying the spoils of victory when they could be invested into even more competitiveness. Worst of all, when we are always competing, always banking our joy on the outcomes of our endeavors, we are not enjoying the process that is being alive along the way. Humans were never intended to live in perpetual competition. Even hyenas find time to play.

応援12倍

昨日サンダーの大会をまた応援しに行ってきました。品川の大井(市?)での21キロロードイベント。全日本ツールみたいな大きな大会の前のレースでした。前日連絡が取れなかったので家から自走で行きました。30分で終わった大会を、往復6時間走りました。つまり見るために12倍の時間をかけました。

幸せなもんだね~

実は、仕事がありましたけど、どうしても走りたくて、今遠慮すると一日ずっと後悔しながら集中できず仕事が終わらないと思って、走ってしまいました。サボりの言い訳のように聞こえるんですが、やっぱりそうでした。つまり、おとなしく仕事をするか、子供みたい遊ぶか、との選択を楽しいほうを選んで、それで幸せを得て、元気になって、仕事が予想よりも2時間早く終わらせられました。

ケッチな人はこう言うかもしれません。仕事が予想よりも2時間早く終わらせるために6時間走らなきゃいけなかったので、結果は4時間の無駄でした。しかし、ちゃんとした経済学者がこんな答えをします。とりあえず走りたかった。走るんなら、何時間走るつもりだったでしょうか。たとえば応援しなければ、仕事をしてから2時間ぐらい走るつもりであったかもしれません。そうすると加えた時間が6時間じゃなくて4時間だけでした。ひく2時間イコール2時間の赤字です。しかし、仕事が、多くの場合には予想通りには終わらないものです。人間のよくある間違いは時間を underestimate することです。だから予想よりも大体2~3倍ぐらいの時間をかかったりすると思えば良いのです。特に頭を回す仕事の場合。これを考慮すると、予想よりも2時間早く終わってはいなくて、7時間早かったのです。なぜなら最初は頑張れば5時間ぐらいで終わらせられるだろうと思っていました。かける2倍で、10時間ぐらいが正しい予想でした。より2時間早く終わったということは3時間で終わったわけです。ということは、節約した時間は全部で3時間の黒字でした。

まあ、結局これも遊びたかった言い訳かもしれません。けど、この世界では思うように遊ぶことがかなり難しいです。怒る人が、家族でもあり、上司や先輩、どうりょうでもあり、非常に多いのです。だが、人生は一つしかありません。その人たちのものではなく、自分のものです。喜びも、悲しみも、遊びも仕事も、全て自分で負えなきゃいけないのです。

だから昨日の経験はこう思います。どう見ても悩んだときに楽しいほうを選ぶほうが正しいという証拠でした。


English Continue reading “応援12倍”

Last Day of Classes

I remember being a student. The last exam on the very last day of classes was always a mix of dread, exhaustion and elation. Suddenly you are free of the work, the judgment and the uncertainty that built up over the course of the whole semester and you are standing on the brink of a long and much needed holiday. Now that I’m a professor, my feelings on the last day of classes are largely the same, with a slight additional twist.

This semester I tried something truly wild: I made it up as I went and put enjoyment of the class above the need to force knowledge into my students’ brains. The result was unbelievable. I got to know my students on a personal level. I asked them to think about things together with me and I made it my policy to never ever tell them they were wrong. Of course, when they were off point I would steer them back. That is, after all, what teachers are supposed to do. But I would never say to them that they were outright dead wrong. I think there is nothing more destructive to the development of a young human than to be told that they are unsalvageably wrong.

I got to hear stories about their families, their own experiences traveling abroad, their dreams and their opinions on the world. I got to hear them tell me what they really think, and to me this was the greatest achievement I could hope for. After spending nearly four months together just reading and talking with each other, I got to hear them say that they didn’t like what they had been told, that they didn’t understand why things had to be a certain way, that they wanted to try and discover their own path for themselves. That’s not something you get to hear when people are afraid of being judged. No, that is something that only comes out when people truly feel that they are safe to express themselves. This is my job as a professor.

Now, on the last day of the semester, I am actually sad to say goodbye to this group. We all grew together over these cold months. I know they are grateful to me for a good class, but do they know how grateful to them I am for the chance to learn and discover and think together? Probably not. But that’s ok. Being a professor also means that there are some things I cannot teach them.

Harder, Scarcer, Bigger, Faster.

I’m sorry, but when I originally thought of the title of this post, I wanted to talk about the messages that I had been hearing since I was young telling me that things were only going to get harder for me in whatever career I wanted to pursue because the positions available were getting scarcer and more competitive. At the same time the products I have been sold are almost always advertised as better because they are bigger, or faster. I wanted to talk about how the world that I grew up in seems to exist in a fantasy where everything is linear and only more matters.

…but then I watched the section of the Crash Course on increasing waste. I learned what I have always felt to be true:

  • That species are disappearing from our planet at exponential rates
  • That our economy takes out more resources and puts back in more waste than our environment can process
  • That even if we stopped all of it right now, most of us would be dead before the world’s health could recover to what it was just 50 years ago

…and then I learned some more.

  • At the current rates of ocean acidification, driven directly by carbon dioxide in the air, the Great Barrier Reef, my dream since I first set foot in the ocean, and one which has eluded me for nearly twenty years now, will die along with every other coral reef in every ocean on the planet, and it will die before I do.

I’m sorry because I wanted to write a philosophical, romantically tragic blog about our dying world and its capital hypocrisy, but all I can do is sit here and cry because now I’ve seen the numbers. What used to be just a feeling, a suspicion that probably humans were doing irreparable damage to the planet, is now a measurable, quantifiable, unavoidable reality. And the loss I feel is unimaginable. My dream to one day swim in the Great Barrier Reef may never be realized, and not because I can’t afford it, but because it simply won’t be there when I’m finally ready to go.

It’s such a personal loss. The monarch butterflies are dying, too. My mother loves to hatch them in her yard and watch them dry their wings. I used to chase them as a kid. They were everywhere, like flies. There are 5% of them now than there were ten years ago. Just last year the black rhino went the way of the dodo, too. These are animals I love. These are representations to me of freedom, of life itself and they’re dying and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

Could you stand by and watch your lover slowly burn to death on the stake? Imagine standing there watching everything you cared about in the world slowly and violently be destroyed and then imagine asking someone to help you save them. Now imagine that the people around all tell you they are too busy. “I’m sorry, I have a meeting to get to, but good luck with that!”

My Reef. The Great Barrier Reef was always supposed to be there. We may all be already dead and simply not know it yet.

I’m sorry, I wish I could be more help to you.

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