Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Meaning of Ron Paul

I recently received an e mail from an acquaintance of mine, Jim, a corporate lawyer of comfortable means, who owns a split-level suburban home, an SUV, has a devoted wife and children, and a dog and a cat.

Jim is a registered Republican and a Ron Paul supporter, since he likes Ron's libertarianism, which advocates shrinking of the size of government to the bare minimum, so that it gets off the backs of Americans, who will once again be free to live their lives exactly as they see fit.

Jim, whose office is downtown in a large city - the name of which is irrelevant for the purposes of this posting - was recently eating lunch in a food-fair, when he was approached by an unkempt unshaven unwashed, and obviously homeless man, who asked him for spare change. Jim gave him fifty cents, and the beggar moved on to another table.

Jim, in his message to me, wondered what should be done about the increasing numbers of homeless beggars of the kind who he gave the fifty cents to.

I replied as follows:

Hi Jim - That homeless man has more freedom than you have, since he doesn't have to get up at 5.30 am every morning to go to work in the dark, and then have to work all day, and only return home again fourteen hours later, again in the dark.

And he lives in less fear than you, because he doesn't have to worry that he'll lose his big suburban house, or lose his SUV, if he gets fired, or his firm goes bankrupt. The bridge he sleeps under at night, will always be there for him to sleep under, come rain or come shine. And he never has to go through the worry of finding spaces in town to park his SUV, because he wouldn't own one. So he's much freer than you to do what he likes.

I'll remind you of what Kris Kristofferson once said, that "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose".

But should you meet this homeless man again, and he complains to you about how poor he is, remind him of how much freer he is than you, and that being as free as he is, he would make Ron Paul proud, for Ron Paul - who would get rid of the Income Tax, the Department of Education, and the Federal Reserve - wants to make Americans as free as they were when the Pilgrim Fathers first landed at Plymouth Rock in 1608.

And you should furthermore tell this man that his plight has come about because the Federal government won't implement the economic policies of Ron Paul. This unfortunate man no doubt doesn't have a job because his potential employers can't afford to pay him the mandatory minimum wage, which Ron Paul would abolish. And he may not have been able to save any money by which, perhaps, to start up his own business, because his savings were eaten up by all the Income Tax he had to pay - the Income Tax which Ron Paul would also abolish.

Point out to him what Ron Paul has said about the Income Tax, that it takes billions of dollars out of the private sector, with many people giving as much as a third of what they earn to the Federal government, which inhibits job growth and penalizes productive behavior. Also, there are unnecessary privacy violations, and power gets consolidated at the federal level. Americans got along just fine without a federal income tax for its first 126 years, with the government raising revenues through tariffs, excise taxes, and property taxes. If Americans got along fine without the Income Tax then, why shouldn't they get along fine without it now?

If this man still isn't convinced, tell him about the Austrian School of economic thought - which so influenced Ron Paul - which says that economics is grounded in human action, that is, in the creative choices made by various individuals cooperating together under the division of labor. The tendency is to view government interference in this process of creative choice as counterproductive, and there’s an emphasis on entrepreneurship as the driving force in economic development.

Ron Paul, who recognizes that this is a huge topic, recommends several books to people, if they’re interested: "The Law" by Frederic Bastiat," Economics in One Lesson" by Henry Hazlitt, "What has the Government done with our Money?" by Murray Rothbard, and "The Road to Serfdom" by Friedrich Hayek, to name a few. Also the writings of Ludwig von Mises, particularly the work he did with Friedrich Hayek on what’s known as the “Austrian business cycle theory.”

So, suggest to this man that he go to his nearest public library, and take out these books to read whenever he's enjoying the succour of the bridge which he sleeps under at night. Only when he has read them, will he more completely understand how much his chances of economically advancing himself were thwarted, because the Federal governments, for as far back as we can remember, didn't follow the free market policies of Ron Paul and the Austrian economic thinkers.

I hope we can meet up for golf soon.


And Now For Something Completely Different:

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Human Traces

"Human Traces", a novel by Sebastian Faulks, tells the stories of two boys, Thomas Midwinter from England, and Jacques Rebiere from France, both born in the same year, 1860. Thomas's family are bourgeois city folk, and Jacques's are poor farmers.

Add to this that Thomas can speak only a smattering of French, and Jacques no English, and you'd think they'd have nothing in common. But, amazingly, they discover they have lots to talk about when they meet by chance while Thomas is visiting France with his family. Both boys yearn to know how the human mind works. Jacques wants to learn why his older brother, Olivier, hears voices inside his head and otherwise acts crazy, so crazy that Olivier has to be chained up in a stable, sharing his living space with the farm's animals. Thomas is an aficionado of Shakespeare's plays, being so fascinated by Shakespeare's acute insights into the psychology of people, that he wants the study of the human mind to be his life's work.

Thomas and Jacques talk excitedly together, in French, throughout an entire night, at the end of which, Thomas's rudimentary French has improved so much that he can speak it almost as well as his native English - testimony to there being no substitute for total immersion in a language you wish to become the master of.

In the nineteenth century, alienism (as psychiatry was then known as) was the neccessary path to studying the human mind. I believe this path via alienism is still the case today, despite the profession of alienism receiving many a black-eye over the past decades. But to become alienists, Thomas and Jacques had first to qualify as medical doctors, which required diligent study and sacrifice, just as it would nowadays. Despite their geographic separation, they cemented their friendship over those years through letters and visits, and vowed to set up a practice together after qualifying as alienists.

Thomas, as the son of a quite well-off father, had an easier time of it than the impoverished Jacques, who could not have afforded to study over the years, but for an abbe (priest) who befriended him, becoming his mentor, and helping pay Jacques's way through medical school. After qualifying as doctors, the two young men work as interns at institutions for the insane (then quaintly called lunatic asylums), which are dirty, smelly, and noisy places, and often dangerous.

Only when their internships have ended, are Thomas and Jacques able to scrape together the means to establish an alienist practice in Austria - in a castle (schloss). I'll talk no further about the story-line because it would detract from your enjoyment of this novel should you ever read it. Were I to continue on about what Thomas and Jacques got up to after this point, this discussion of "Human Traces" would degenerate into one of those "digested reads" of novels deemed by Guardian (UK) book-reviewers as not worth the time to read.

But I'll reveal that "Human Traces", at more than six-hundred pages, with its locales encompassing England, France, Austria, California, and the plains of Africa, and covering sixty years from 1860 to 1920, is written on an epic scale. It is the very opposite of minimalist, being written as novels were written in the nineteenth century, linearly, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So "Human Traces" is mercifully devoid of cute literary tricks like alternating between the first and third persons, and between the present and past tenses, and messing around with time, and eschewing punctuation and quotation marks - techniques which narcissistically draw attention to the novelist, and emotionally distance the reader from the words on the page.

Should you read "Human Traces" (and you should) you'll become aware of stuff you either never knew, or had forgotten. I became aware, for instance, of how daughters in English families were regarded by their fathers as little more than property to be auctioned off to potential husbands. With Thomas's older and much beloved sister, Sonia, it was no different, since she was forcefully persuaded by her father to marry a man of promising financial prospects and good family, even though she loved him not at all. But, being a dutiful Victorian-era daughter, she did as she was told, and smilingly made the best of it.

Lest you think Sonia's and Thomas's father an insensitive brute, remember that unless a young woman of that time got married by her middle to late twenties, she would live the rest of her life as a sort of non-person, whom everyone would call, when out of earshot, a spinster or old-maid. Sonia's father didn't want this for her, and he did what he did out of fatherly love.

A quite unrelated fact I'd forgotten about, but which "Human Traces" reminded me of, is that we can re-live our memories of anything we've ever done, or had done to us, or have experienced, going back, arguably, to the moment we were yanked into the world as mewling and puking slime-covered infants. We can re-live anything vividly if an electric charge is applied to the memory area of our brain.

Sebastian Faulks has Thomas attending an operation on a mental patient, involving sawing away part of the skull so the exposed brain can be prodded with an electrical probe to cure the afflicted brain-area. Amazingly the patient is conscious throughout, since the brain is nerveless, and local anaesthetic is sufficient to deal with any pain from the skull. When the electric prod touches the memory area of the patient's brain, she re-experiences an event at the seaside, where, once again she is a child, and is so happy to be with daddy at the beach. When the prod is withdrawn, the patient's vivid experience ends abruptly, and she is angry at the surgeon for taking away such a lovely experience.

When the prod is again applied to that area, the patient doesn't again experience the beach episode because the location of the area in the brain for any particular memory area is precise, as precise as the positioning of a TV satellite dish, which, if moved even a fraction of an inch, will cause the picture on the TV to disappear.

The novel deals with the human predilection to overlook facts which don't support a pet theory. Jacques has a female patient who suffers various physical pains and discomfort, which, according to his pet theory, he diagnoses as being hysterical in origin. He treats her accordingly, but her pain continues. Jacques refers her to Thomas who immediately sees there's something physical the matter, and orders her admitted to hospital where she has an emergency operation which saves her life.

Relations between Jacques and Thomas were never again the same, for Jacques, who had based his professional reputation on hysteria being the cause of almost all female physical ailments, felt permanently humiliated.

Central to "Human Traces" is the notion that psychosis - in the form of the schizophrenia of Jacques older brother, Olivier, who, like all schizophrenics, hears voices inside his head more real than the voices of anyone else - is the price we pay (or the price one-per-cent of us pay) for being human, since we are unique in the animal kingdom in having psychoses.

Given how recently our brains evolved beyond those of the other animals, and that new technology - which is what our newly evolved human brains are, in effect - almost always contains glitches, our uniquely human brains therefore contain the glitch which causes psychosis. It is this glitch which the older and simpler brains of the other animals don't have.

An analogy is the endemic back problems of one kind or another which afflict most of us. This is because we only quite recently began walking upright. A million years hence, we may have evolved to the point that back problems will be as rare as an Eskimo on a street in Timbuktu.

"Human Traces" also speculates that we humans are evolving to a higher consciousness, so that the perennial philosophical questions which so tax us, like whether there's a god, or what the meaning of life is, or how large is the universe, won't even be asked, because the answers will be self-evident to our higher-consciousness descendants of the very distant future. Given that advances in evolution begin with relatively small numbers in any species having more advanced characteristics, perhaps it is the psychics - who we "normals" hold to ridicule, but who seem able to perceive modes of existence which we "normals" can't - who are the precursors of how we'll all be in a million years. So we'll all be as psychic as Sylvia Browne now is, but we'll have to wait a million years.

"Human Traces" as a novel does have its faults, being in many respects a history of the development of psychiatry under the guise of fiction. So it's a didactic and philosophical novel, which, to the literary aesthete, would detract from its artistry.

I, for one, am not a literary aesthete, and neither perhaps, dear reader, are you, which is why you'll savour "Human Traces", and think about it for as long after you finish it, as did I.

And Now For Something Completely Different:

Monday, January 07, 2008

Its Dog Eat Dog, Rat Eat Rat

I will today speak, not about Barack Obama, but about McDonald's, and it's intent to take a leaf from the book of Starbucks, by installing expresso coffee bars in all its US restaurants, which will serve lattes, capuchinos, and the various other upmarket coffees, to its customers.

On learning this, I thought immediately about the very different images associated with downmarket proletarian McDonalds, compared with upmarket professional Starbucks. When you go to McDonald's, you want simply to buy a Big Mac, wolf it down quickly, and, to help it through your esophagus, slurp down some of that warm brown water which passes for coffee at McDonald's.

I realize that in describing McDonald's fare thus, I'm doing so from my memories of when I used quite regularly eat there, when, being much younger, so much younger than today, I gave nary a thought to things like clogged arteries. Then came that day when my doctor informed me my cholesterol level was unhealthily high, and that I'd better make certain lifestyle changes pronto, else I'd be meeting the Grim Reaper earlier than planned.

An ingredient of the aforementioned lifestyle changes was no more McDonald's. So I've refrained from visiting McDonald's for over two decades, excepting perhaps once or twice in moments of weakness, when I couldn't help noticing that salads were now on offer. But I never tried them because, well, the whole purpose of going to McDonald's is not to eat a salad, but to consume a Big Mac, and fries, plus the warm brown water to wash it all down. Going to McDonald's to eat a salad makes as much sense as going to a Chinese restaurant to eat spaghetti Bolognaise.

Being a very cutting-edge Baby Boomer, I belong to that huge demographic which, too, is becoming concerned about clogged arteries, and may consequently have eschewed McDonald's as they become older. Perhaps this is why McDonald's has lost some of its earlier lustre, and now seeks to regain lost ground by offering not only salads, but coffee at least barely potable.

But McDonald's embodies uniquely American values, reflecting that food should be eaten as quickly as possible because time spent eating is time spent not working - not desirable in a society which worships work as fervently as it does God. Ray Kroc, McDonald's founder, knew that Americans go out to eat, not dine, and wish to eat as efficiently and quickly as possible. So he gave Americans what they wanted - a spotlessly clean, simple, casual and identifiable restaurant with friendly service, low prices, no waiting and no reservations.

Before he developed McDonald's, Ray Kroc was an itinerant milkshake-mixer salesman, who travelled the length and breadth of America selling milkshake multimixers. His customers included two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald who owned a restaurant in San Bernadino, California, which offered very limited fare - hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french-fries, soft-drinks, and milk-shakes. They were offered at very low prices because the restaurant was operated so efficiently, reflected in the simple limited menu, and by eight milkshake multimixers whirring away day and night, yielding a steady stream of cash.

When Ray Kroc saw this, his mind began whirring like the multimixers he sold. He saw how this restaurant could be multiplied into a chain of them, and he pitched his idea to the McDonald brothers, who asked him, "Who could we get to open them for us?", and Kroc replied, "What about me?" This was in 1954.

So the McDonald's restaurant chain was begun, and so successfully that in 1961, Kroc persuaded the McDonald brothers into selling him the entire business for $2.7 million. The rest, as is said, is history.

Today, McDonald's has restaurants in over 114 countries, with annual world-wide sales of more than $41 billion, making it a veritable Gulliver compared to its relatively Lilliputian competitors. McDonald's expects its launch into upmarket Starbuck-style coffee, to yield an extra $1 billion a year in sales - not much, next to $41 billion - but it pays to keep competitors, like Starbucks, nervous.

Ray Kroc is long now dead, having expired in 1984, but McDonald's lives on and keeps growing - as quintessentially American as George Bush, the World Series, Mom, apple pie............and cheeseburgers.

I’m going to San Bernardino ring-a-ding-ding
Milkshake mixers that’s my thing, now
These guys bought a heap of my stuff
And I gotta see a good thing sure enough, now
Or my name’s not Kroc, that’s Kroc with a ‘k’
Like ‘crocodile’, but not spelled that way, now
It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat
Kroc-style, boom, like that

The folks line up all down the street
And I’m seeing this girl devour her meat, now
And then I get it, wham as clear as day
My pulse begins to hammer and I hear a voice say
These boys have got this down
Oughtta be a one of these in every town
These boys have got the touch
It’s clean as a whistle and it don’t cost much
Wham, bam, you don’t wait long
Shake, fries, patty, you’re gone
And how about that friendly name?
Heck, every little thing oughtta stay the same
Or my name’s not Kroc, that’s Kroc with a ‘k’
Like ‘crocodile’ but not spelt that way, now
It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat
Oh, it's dog eat dog, rat eat rat
Kroc-style, boom, like that

You gentlemen ought to expand
You’re going to need a helping hand, now
So, gentlemen, well, what about me?
We’ll make a little business history, now
Or my name’s not Kroc, call me Ray
Like ‘crocodile’, but not spelt that way, now
It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat
Kroc-style, boom, like that

Well we build it up and I buy ‘em out
But, man they made me grind it out, now
They open up a new place flipping meat
So I do, too right across the street
I got the name, I need the town
They sell up in the end, and it all shuts down
Sometimes you gotta be an s.o.b.
You wanna make a dream reality
Competition? send ‘em south
If they’re gonna drown put a hose in their mouth
Do not pass go straight to hell
I smell that meat hook smell
Or my name’s not Kroc, that’s Kroc with a ‘k’
Like ‘crocodile’, but not spelt that way, now
It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat
Oh, it's dog eat dog, rat eat rat
Kroc-style, boom, like that