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We Are Not That Far Apart

Nearly everyone desires to live in a better world, whatever that means. Here, I will stipulate a “better world” has an abundance of resources, peace, and happiness, and less struggle to achieve them. It has been sold to us that politics is the means to these utopian aspirations. It has been sold to us that, through politics, we must regulate both government and markets to achieve these ends. It has also been sold to us there are two sides to the political spectrum, and that we must climb aboard one of the two warships to survive the political battles that will follow as a result of this pursuit.

To crudely summarize American politics: the Left sees the government as the arbiter of equality, and believes the markets must be restrained in its pursuit. On the Left, democracy is the core value. The Right, however, sees the markets as the arbiter of liberty, and believes the government must be restrained in its pursuit. On the Right, freedom is the core value.

Those four terms – equality, democracy,  liberty, and freedom – all mean different things. And they mean different things to different people. But few people would totally discredit any of those terms outright; although, individially, we will certainly be predisposed to some over others. One person may have different ideas than another on what mix of these ideals would work best in pursuing utopia. And that’s fine. It would be weird if we all held the same policy beliefs – or the same ideas of utopia, for that matter. But most would prefer a better future, in the aforemetioned “better world.”

The point is, collectively, we are not very far apart in our utopian pursuits. It is collectively that we devise programs – through politics – that tinker with government and the markets to achieve these ends. And it is collectively that we fail to analyze what human incentives work best to achieve them. This mismanagement results - in real terms - in wasted capital and human pain.

Whereas government can ignore these incentives, markets cannot. Markets must balance supply and demand at a price, monitor these pricing signals, and adjust. Likewise, whereas government can respect human irregularities and protect them as rights, markets cannot. Markets reward merit sans discretion through profits and losses. So neither government nor markets are perfect.

The fact is, neither perfect liberty nor perfect equality can ever be achieved due to basic incentives and human action toward them. We can only hope for equilibrium between the two. But both Left and Right are deluded about human action in both government and markets – and how they differ – because they are stuck on their proverbial warships.

The only way we get to a better – albeit imperfect – future is to annotate our policy goals, adapt to changes, measure the results, and alter them accordingly. We shouldn’t be afraid to overhaul or scrap systems that aren’t working. We also shouldn’t be afraid of expanding on things that work. To continually improve in government and markets – that is, society in general – we cannot live in fear that others might perceive we have jumped ship.

In other words, we don’t need politics to have a better world. Indeed, politics keeps us from a better world.

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Death of a Long Lost Friend

This morning I found out from my father that a childhood friend of mine, Charles, is dead. I have searched the Internet and cannot find an obituary for information on what happened, only that he died in 2008, at 28 years old. This is disheartening, for apparent reasons. My father found out about Charles’ death from an obituary for one of his friends, an older man who lived a full life, which stated he had been preceded in death by his grandson, Charles. Charles was my friend for only a short time in middle school, so I was kind of surprised when I broke down this morning over his death.

I took a moment to think through why I was so affected by this. Charles was not a native to our little town; I am not sure when he moved in. I met Charles in seventh grade, in middle school. Middle school is, to put it mildly, a weird time, where children become “tweens” and try to figure out who they (and everyone else) are. In elementary school, I made good grades, I liked to draw, and I ran fast; that was enough. In middle school, however, since my dad was the Principal, teachers and students were more aware of me, and more was expected. I was a hyperactive extrovert, and by seventh grade, I had been paddled 30+ times, mostly for talking and walking around in class.

That’s how Charles and I initially met and bonded; we were a lot alike in that regard.

Charles didn’t play by the rules. He was a happy kid, but kind of an outlier: smart, but not a geek; athletic, but not an athlete; gregarious, but not particularly popular. In this regard, he was somewhat enigmatic. He was, in a word, unfazed. Charles showed me another way: a way to straddle those stupid cliques, to be friendly with the popular kids and the freaks, the jocks and the geeks, and onward, and et cetera.

What I – and, I would suspect, most who knew him then – first remember about Charles is his love for music, and more specifically, hard rock and metal. He was perpetually drumming his fingers on his desk, his chair, whatever, rocking out to some imaginary band in his head. He introduced me to Guns-n-Roses, Metallica, and his favorite, Ozzy Osbourne; but more importantly, Charles introduced me to a massive back catalog of rock music that came some two decades before, of which, until that time, I had been completely unaware. It was to this music I glommed onto in middle school, and it is to this music – some two decades later – I still return when I need to feel like myself again.

Charles was the first person I witnessed up close playing the electric guitar. He was an admittedly amateur guitarist, but, dude – he could make it scream, wail and growl. We rocked out. I remember rocking out at his swimming pool with a tape player on a table blasting while we head-banged and cannon-balled and laughed like idiots: a real-life Beavis and Butthead.

I honestly cannot exaggerate how much music changed my life. It combines science and art, technique and emotion, math and literature, physics and prose – and, I suppose to 12-year old me, it provided an identity. I got part-time jobs and saved up money for the sole purpose of buying these things called “compact discs” – Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, et cetera; but mostly, I bought Led Zeppelin. I practically memorized their albums and was the only kid in eighth grade wearing Led Zeppelin t-shirts. I thought I was freakin’ awesome. If I listen to classic rock today, it’s a bit more subdued and/or nuanced, but I still have some of those CDs in my stereo cabinet, and some of those t-shirts in my closet.

In eighth grade, my father became Principal at another school, and perhaps correlation does not prove causation, but I was never paddled in eighth grade. Also in eighth grade – just like that – my best friend, Charles, moved to a town forty-five minutes away. A new beginning.

I have wondered about Charles’ life and what made his outlook so different; he was quiet on many of the details of his background. All I really know is his mother had started dating again, and that her dating life was fast-paced; I knew – even in middle school – not to ask any further. Perhaps he had seen too much too early. We fell out of contact quickly, and I wondered what happened to him in high school and beyond. I know he took up playing the cello, but that is it. I didn’t interact with Charles during our high school years, where issues become more punctuated. I saw him once more near the end of high school when my family was out for a Friday night movie; he waited our table at Chili’s Restaurant. We talked for a bit, but of course, it wasn’t the same. It never is. It never will be.

Maybe those most full of life are more susceptible to death. Today, faced with his death, I am trying – hard – not to speculate any more than I already have on the details. I want to remember him full of life, as he was then; and I am grateful to God for his presence in my life, as he helped make the world more enjoyable and a bit more accessible.

Thanks, Charles.

“You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
- Khalil Gibran

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