Universal basic income

Andrew Flowers of Five Thirty Eight on universal basic income:

The idea is as simple as it is radical: Rather than concern itself with managing myriad social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would instead regularly cut a no-strings-attached check to each citizen. No conditions. No questions. Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live.


Basic income has attracted a motley crew of supporters, spanning the ideological spectrum. Efficiency-minded libertarians like the idea of streamlining the bureaucracy of the welfare state. Silicon Valley techies hope a guaranteed income would cushion the blow as automation replaces human jobs. Those with a more utopian bent, such as the organizers of the Swiss referendum, want to open up more options, to let people create art and free the world of … “bullshit jobs.”

Via Matt.

On conversation

James Radcliffe on conversation:

At its best the act of conversation can be many things; connection, communion, truth-finding, enlightenment, inspiration, a healing…  I do not overstate when I say that I have participated in conversations that have bordered on spiritual awakenings.  […]

The thing that I love about a great conversation is the same thing that I love about being part of a great gig, about making love, or participating in the creative process.  All these things are capable of rendering up jewels of light.  This is the truly good stuff; this is what makes life worth living; this is what balances the chaotic fury of flying blind thru the ever-storm of a darkening experience.

I’ve thought something of the sort recently. How my very favorite thing in the world might just be conversation, and how seldom we might consider this a possible answer.

Ideology is the enemy

In the course of answering how philosophy can make itself more relevant, Nancy Bauer writes:

Good philosophy of all stripes fosters in the practitioner the virtue of epistemic humility.

The best philosophy teachers are the ones who are able to model this virtue. They show their students, à la Socrates in at least the early Platonic dialogues, how the right kind of conversation can bring to consciousness the utter preposterousness of something that one has always taken for granted and then how to survive finding oneself turned around in one’s shoes. Epistemic humility sometimes takes the form of humbleness, but not always. It can be intensely empowering for people who have always assumed that the systematically poor way the world treats them is fundamentally the way they deserve to be treated.

The worst enemy of the best philosophy is ideology in all its forms. Philosophy at its best evinces deep skepticism about the stories powerful people and institutions tell about How Things Are. It models the virtues of not knowing what one thought one knew. The natural home of philosophy is in the agora, not the ivory tower. The question is whether the academy can bear to confront that truth.

I can’t even

Amanda Hess writes on contemporary can’t-even-ing:

For those who grew up when teenagers didn’t “can’t,” the phrase might register as a whimper, as if millennials have spun their inability to climb the staircase out of the parental basement into a mantra. At least the Valley Girls of the 1980s and ’90s, who turned every statement into a question, and the vocal-fried pop tarts of the early 2000s, who growled almost inaudibly, had the decency to finish their sentences. Kids today, it seems, are so mindless that they can’t even complete their verb phrases.

But if you really believe that teenage girls (and boys) don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s more likely that they just don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny.

Hess’s history of the phrase is interesting, but her explanation of its purpose — to shield its meaning from parents — is completely inaccurate.

As obfuscation goes, can’t even ranks as a fairly transparent colloquialism. I can’t even [believe it], I can’t even [comprehend that] — these are not profoundly difficult exclamations to decipher. A parent that’s unable to do so might benefit from laying off the Strunk & White.

The notion also reveals the self-importance of many parents. I concealed fairly little from my parents, and know many who did the same. It wasn’t because we were particularly virtuous; rather it was because parents — bless them — are largely oblivious to their children’s actual lives, and so we didn’t need to.

Hess portrays the neurotic parent who faithfully spies on their children, but as everyone suspects the kids always come out ahead.

John Waters delivers a commencement speech

John Waters delivers a commencement speech1:

You’re lucky. When I went to school, my teachers discouraged every dream I ever had. I wanted to be the filthiest person alive, but no school would let me. I bet RISD would’ve. You could possibly even make a snuff movie here and get an A+. Hopefully you have been taught never to fear rejection in the workplace. Remember, a no is free. Ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip: All you need is one person to say “Get in” and off you go. And then the confidence begins. […]

Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience. These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? Isn’t being an outsider sooo 2014? I mean, maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy – the insider. Like I am. […]

Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humour is always the best defence and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid – to you.

Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers. Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but I don’t want my memoirs to be in the gay section near true crime at the back of the bookstore next to the bathrooms. No! I want it up front with the best-sellers. And don’t heterosexual kids actually receive more prejudice in art schools today than the gay ones? Things are a-changing. It’s a confusing time. […]

My parents made me feel safe, and that’s why I’m up here today. That’s what you should try to do to your children too – no matter where you get your children these days.

Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before. Is there a better job description than that to aspire to? Here’s another trigger warning, and pardon [me] for [swearing]: Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully.

  1. Helpfully transcribed by Joe Clark.

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Alex Micek on excuses and turning thirty:

I’ve been taught to avoid excuses, first by my parents and then later in the wisdom of those I read. It was the latter that taught me an excuse for many things should never be offered when this a better explanation: “I didn’t care enough to produce the outcome you were looking for.” This is especially true when one is late. For years, if I was late, I would compose the reason in my head, what the extenuating circumstances were, why this was unusual, how I would correct it in the future.

Then, with embarrassment, I realized these thoughtfully-composed reasons skirted reality: they were simply another way to say I hadn’t cared enough to be on time. So, while I have many interesting reasons (excuses) why I haven’t written here lately, it is quite simply because I haven’t cared enough to do it. But, I can’t let my birthday weekend come and go without listing the details of it. And also, I should write here more frequently.

Not a bittersweet time machine

Kevin Conboy on the power that some places have over us:

[I] store certain memories in physical locations and can recall them when I find myself revisiting. Commonly-trod ground gets overwritten often and complexly, in a tapestry of emotions’ colors overlapping like brushstrokes. […]

This beach is where I kissed my girlfriend. That one: my former wife, wedding ring tattoo notwithstanding. Fewer overlaps and clearer memories, relived and lived anew as time marches forward, the only direction it actually can. Given this much power, these places can seem a sort of bittersweet time machine but they’re not.

A dead friend’s former home always burning unseen a block away, red-tinged, geo-located in my mind as I take my daughter to school every day. Every fucking day. The Burger King where we waited for my son to escape his school alive. The heartbreakingly-named monument to the student murdered there directly across the street.

Finding oneself

Ben Hewitt on urgency, control, and finding oneself:

There’s something addictive about the urgency of the season. I feel it year after year after year, though perhaps it holds a somewhat finer edge this spring, simply for everything that must be done to ensure our well-being come the return of cold and snow. But still. Even the force of a typical spring and all that depends on it is enough to hold me in its sway. It is times like these that my gratitude for this life runs deepest. I am grateful for the wood to be split, for ache in my shoulders after splitting, for the fencing to be strung, for the soil to be turned, for the protective husks reforming over decades-old callouses, for the cows fat with May calves, even for the snarl of the sawmill, each board I lift from its bed another piece of the puzzle that will, when finally assembled, result in my family’s shelter.

I know it’s somewhat illusory to believe we have control over our destiny; there are simply too many forces above and beyond our control, and there are many ways in which we are reliant on these forces, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.

But that’s ok. I don’t need to be in control. It’s enough to be participating. It’s enough to help fit the pieces of the puzzle together, to see how the whole is formed, and within it, how we come to know our place.

I admit that the phrase, “know our place”, makes me feel a little uneasy. It just seems too close to the command, “know your place”, which is often used to bludgeon people into suppressing themselves or their beliefs (opposite to its literal meaning).

That being said, it’s naturally important to discover where we fit in the scheme of things. After all, “know your place” can also be understood as related to the old dictum, “know thyself”. Learning where you fit in can inform your understanding of who you really are, and learning who you really are can suggest how you might fit in.

But over the years, I’ve come to believe that the first of the two is more effective. Simply asserting your identity can be gratifying, but it’s also very prone to error and fluctuations in mood and environment. To try things, to try a lot of things, and to try a lot of things some more — this seems a surer way to discover who you really are and where you fit in.

In praise of safety razors

For fifteen years, I’ve been using one cartridge razor or another to shave my face. They work well enough, but have always seemed so wasteful and expensive. Even the best cartridge generally only lasts a few shaves. And you dispose of them, not because the construction gives way, or even because the blades are no longer sharp. You dispose of them because the blades are packed together so tightly that they become blocked with hair, and can no longer function. It’s a design flaw that manufacturers probably intended, and is in any case, unfortunate as each cartridge runs two or three dollars.

My long suppressed frustration with cartridge razors has since given way, and I’ve started to use a traditional safety razor — the kind that’s been around for over a century — and I love it.

It’s easy to use, trivial to clean, and provides a very smooth shave. It doesn’t use expensive cartridges, but rather commodity blades that sell for ten cents each. It appears to have zero disadvantages.

Given this, why do any of us use cartridge razors at all? Why haven’t we all chosen the undeniably superior product, thus digging a grave for contemporary razors and all their billions of cartridges?

I think it must boil down to mass ignorance and propaganda.

The truth is, while I’ve heard of the term “safety razor”, I had assumed it referred to the modern, plastic cartridge razor. Although the cartridge razor is fundamentally unsound, I’d concede that it’s safe. Perhaps even a little too safe.

I was vaguely aware that previous iterations of razors existed, but generally understood them to be dangerous contraptions that served mainly as props in horror films. They could be used to slash someone’s throat, but not much else.

I imagine that this perceived danger has only bolstered the cartridge razor, but in these past few days, I’ve concluded the perceived danger is utter nonsense. I have yet to even nick my skin with the safety razor, and when I do, I suspect the damage will be similar to anything that’s done by cartridge razors.

However, where serious damage has occurred is in the manufacturing and marketing of cartridge razors. It’s plain enough that billions of people have unnecessarily spent many billions of dollars in purchasing an inferior product. But perhaps more importantly, a great number of lives have been wasted in engineering and developing that inferior product. A product whose total inferiority must have been known to those producing it.

I don’t believe it’s possible to improve upon the safety razor, and the cartridge razor people have been proving this for decades.

On idleness

Andrea Badgley on loafing about:

I don’t know how to loaf anymore. I’m always doing. Always going. I tried to cut back on work to make time with my family and for our home. The first day I logged off after my eight hour workday, I folded five loads of laundry, emptied the dishwasher, wiped down the kitchen, vacuumed, organized doctor and financial appointments, and did two ten-minute free writes.

I exhaust myself just thinking about it.

But I don’t know if I even want to loaf. If I did want to, I would, right? I’m trying to think if I know anyone who loafs anymore. Do grownups loaf? Grownups in their 30s and 40s, with partners or families or jobs or any and all of those things?

Much of our society is organized according to the principle that we must justify our right to exist. Our very lives are contingent upon performing a certain amount of work — often artificially increased by excess desire, and to subsidize the wealthiest among us — yet the human impulse suggests that most people seek to do as little work as possible.

As Bertrand Russell puts it1:

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

Loafing becomes feasible once we come to accept our impulse, and appreciate that existing without interference is our most fundamental right.

  1. From In Praise of Idleness, 1932.

Comedians and truth

Jerry Seinfeld on advertisers at an awards ceremony for advertising:

I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy. Because a brief moment of happiness is pretty good.

Seinfeld has a real talent for observing human behavior, locating the absurdity that often underlies it, and distilling it in almost clinical terms. If an anthropologist from Mars landed on earth and studied us, their conclusions would probably be indistinguishable from Seinfeld’s. Our reaction to them, however, would be quite different.

After Seinfeld made the remarks, the audience — largely made up of advertising professionals — laughed uproariously. People don’t ordinarily laugh when someone expresses contempt for their being, unless that person is insane or a comedian.

I wonder what that means. Do we laugh because the truth makes us feel uncomfortable? Or do we laugh because we think comedians are harmless liars?

I think the latter would be a mistake. Many comedians seem to me our greatest truth-tellers.

Living by default

David Cain on living by default:

So much of our lives consists of conditions we’ve fallen into. We gravitate unwittingly to what works in the short term, in terms of what to do for work and what crowd to run with. There’s nothing wrong with living from defaults, necessarily, but think about it: what are the odds that the defaults delivered to you by happenstance are anywhere close to what’s really optimal for you?

But these defaults aren’t like other defaults that can be readily identified. Since my defaults are different from your defaults, they might masquerade as choices.

And unlike other defaults, the defaults of our lives can’t be adjusted once or twice to meet our needs. Any adjustment soon becomes a new default, so change must be constant.