Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What It Means to 'Belong to the State'

As I understand it, the text above this picture reads, "The Happy Life Mao Gives Us".

Mao Zedong - ruler of communist China from 1943 to 1969 and a man to whom, just to be clear, is rightly credited with the murder/deaths of up to 78,000,000 people - believed that (his) government owned all the people of China. Notably, this was a life much less happy than is depicted in the above propaganda.

"The people" in Mao's China belonged to the state.

Government was father & mother, brother & sister, and aunt & uncle to all... All choices, all ideas, and all activities were - and often still are to this day in China - controlled entirely by the state and all production (or as much as the Communist Party could keep tabs on) was dictated, mandated and distributed through the auspices of government. All this was as it should be, if you understand the practical ramifications of communist philosophy.

By all accounts of my friends who have lived in or near China, and from my personal observations of and interactions with everyone I know who is from China, this belief in the state as the owner of the people rather than the other way around has - over the last few generations - created a culture in which concepts of autonomy and individualism are virtually unknown. The notions that people have any inalienable rights or that all people deserve the same treatment under the law is mostly unheard of even now.

This means no due process or freedom from imprisonment or murder at the hands of the state. No freedom from theft and no property rights, no control over who you associated with or what you talked about. There is no freedom of speech or expression in China and those who have fought for it over the years - such as Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo - have found themselves in jail.

Mao loved all the children so much he made sure their
dads died in wars and famines so he could read them
their bedtime stories.
But, what is almost worse than all of that is that many of the people of China believe that the state should be imprisoning people for saying unapproved things, and the state does own and control all of the citizens. So, far from merely destroying the lives of tens of millions of individuals who got in the way of authoritarian plans... The philosophies of Mao, when enforced and imposed on a population, eventually rob all the people of their fundamental dignity as human beings.

This, I think, is the greatest evil of authoritarian communism.

And many of the Chinese people I've known over the years have been - for lack of a better description - extremely fearful of liberty, and in turn, fearful of themselves. They are fearful that they cannot be entrusted with the power to run their own lives. Better (in their opinion) to have a ruler self-appointed by violence or by the absurd claims of "divine right" make all important decisions for them.

The autocrat knows best, the lowly peasant is unworthy and that is how the world was always meant to be.

Words simply cannot do justice to how depressing it is to me to watch people affix the chains of oppression and subservience on themselves, but that is exactly what happens under those kinds of regimes. It is the cruelest trick humanity has ever played on itself.

And so now I come to the point of this history lesson...

Submitted without further comment, I give you a few scenes from the Democratic National Convention:

1. "How 'Pro-Choice' are Democrats?" from Reason TV

2. "Democrats: Let's Ban Profits!" with Peter Schiff

3."We All Belong to the Government" from Revealing Politics

How do you feel about these videos?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Thinking Your Way to Success with Andrew Carnegie

I just stumbled on a Business Insider article purporting to list "21 Ways Rich People Think Differently". I will get to a breakdown of that list in a second, but first I want to talk about Andrew Carnegie.

The Business Insider article reminds me a great deal of Napoleon Hill's classic 1937 book, "Think and Grow Rich", which was basically commissioned by Andrew Carnegie as a way to study the beliefs and philosophies rich people of his era had in common in order to see if learning about that would help illuminate ways to help other people to join their ranks. But first, here's a little useful background knowledge on Andrew Carnegie himself!

As most people probably know, Andrew Carnegie grew up incredibly poor.

Andrew Carnegie at 16 [right]
In 1848, as a 13 year old boy and having just immigrated to the Allegheny, Pennsylvania from Scotland with his family, Carnegie got a job in a cotton factory for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. At 15, he got another job as a telegraph messenger boy and made it a personal mission to memorize the names, faces and positions of all the prominent businessmen in Pittsburgh. At 18, he had become a telegraph operator and secretary for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. It was there that he started working his way up the metaphorical ladder. With the railroad, Carnegie learned how to be a manager and how to run operations within a large organization.

By 1861, Andrew Carnegie was asked by his boss Tom Scott to help manage railroads and supply lines for the Union Army's war efforts during the Civil War. Scott had recently been appointed Assistant Secretary for War in charge of transportation, and Scott appointed Carnegie to the position of "Superintendent of the Military Railways and the Union Government's telegraph lines in the East". The transportation of munitions, and communication lines built by Carnegie and his team during the Civil War was unequivocally an integral part of the Union's eventual victory.

Andrew Carnegie was 26, but he was no prodigy. He had accumulated 13 years of working experience and knowledge by this point in his life.

After the Civil War, he left the railroad business and founded the Keystone Bridge Works and Union Ironworks companies and began providing much-needed rail lines and infrastructure to the railroad companies which taught him how to be good at building systems and operating companies. These companies became the genesis of his titanic US Steel and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why the biography?

Andrew Carnegie at 43
Because what most people really need to understand is that there was nothing particularly impossible or unknowable about Andrew Carnegie's success.

He worked exceptionally hard. He was smart and enjoyed learning and continued to educate himself throughout his entire life. He consumed volumes of literature. He was friendly and sociable and made sure to do his due diligence and knew who the important players were both geographically and within his industry nationwide... These attitudes and habits pervaded his life, and by the time he was 30 years old, he was doing very well, and by the time he was 50, he was one of the richest men on the planet.

Too often, I find that people don't realize or appreciate that what matters to people's lives is what they believe and which ideas form the basis of their actions.

Becoming an industrial titan isn't merely a matter of luck as perhaps our current President would like you to believe. Nor is it (as Andrew Carnegie's case fairly well demonstrates) a matter of attending a government school, using government roads, benefiting from government funded technologies or drinking clean government-managed water and eating government-inspected and approved food. None of these things were particularly available to Carnegie.

One thing was available to Andrew Carnegie, however... Freedom.

Freedom buys an individual so much more than the roads and schools and all of that other stuff provided by the auspices of politicians spending other people's money, but increasingly few people in the US seem to understand this important fact. Carnegie's father came to the United States for opportunity and a better life. Andrew Carnegie took that opportunity and ran with it like few others in human history have been able to do.

Today, many of the same opportunities don't exist for poor immigrants - and they're getting harder and harder to come by - purely because the state has squashed them, so that's definitely something to consider when reading the rest of this. However, this post is not about those kinds of obstacles.

Today I'm writing about ideas.

Carnegie believed - and I believe - that it was all a matter of the way he thought. And he passed that knowledge on to his employees and friends, such as Charles M. Schwab who started his career as an engineer for one of Carnegie's steel companies. Many of the people who learned from Carnegie became exceptionally wealthy themselves.

What are these ideas? Here are a few of my favorites ideas culled from Napoleon Hill's fine book (this will be a bit plagiarized from a few sources and mixed with my own thoughts, for the record):
  1. Thoughts Are Things:
    Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe man can achieve. Every person is the master of their own fate - because everyone has the power to control what they think about.
  2. Desire:
    There are no limitations except those we set ourselves. Both poverty and riches are the offspring of thought. Definteness of purpose and burning desire to possess it made all the difference. The real leaders of the world have always been those people who could convert their thoughts into skyscrapers, factories, airplanes and everything else.
  3. Faith:
    Faith is the head chemist of the mind. The emotions of faith, love and sex are the most powerful of all the major positive emotions. The subconscious mind makes no distinctions between constructive or destructive thoughts. It will translate either into reality. Therefore, guard carefully what you think about. You must have faith in your own ability to achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve or you cannot expect to achieve anything.
  4. Imagination:
    The imagination is the workshop of the mind where plans are fashioned. Any impulse or desire starts to take shape and form through the imaginative faculty of the mind. Man can create anything that he can imagine. Man’s only limitation lies in the development and use of his imagination.
  5. Decision:
    Procrastination - the lack of a definite decision - is a common enemy that every successful person must conquer. People who are successful have the habit of reaching decisions promptly and changing those decisions slowly if ever.
  6. Organized Planning:
    Everything man can create or acquire first begins in the form of a desire. Desire is the first part of the journey from the abstract to the actual. It’s in the workshop of imagination that plans are created and organized.
  7. Persistence:
    Persistence is essential in transmuting desire into its monetary equivalent. Will-power and desire, when properly combined, make an irresistible pair.These aren't the full gamut of ideas found in that book, but to me they are some of the most important... beginning with the first one.
Thoughts are things. That lesson is powerful if well-understood. You are what you think about most, so be careful what you think about.

FREE PDF... Public domain, ftw!
Some of this may sound like I'm abandoning logical reasoning, by advocating holding some faith-based beliefs, but this really isn't the case. Since what you believe fundamentally affect your actions and the results of your actions, it matters a great deal that the beliefs you hold are worth holding - even more than whether or not all of them are objectively "true".

Take the idea of faith.

Napoleon Hill didn't mean that you needed to have faith in some mystical spiritualism or a god of any kind. He meant that you need to have faith that you are capable of doing what you set your mind to. That's not a question of objectivity, it's a matter of belief and nothing more. You may fail. You may have never been able to do what you want to do... But if you don't believe that you can achieve your goals - if you do not have faith in yourself - you will never succeed.

This, I think, is 100% correct.

So what did Business Insider have to say? Here are their 21 ideas which they believe are shared by modern rich people:
  1. Average people think MONEY is the root of all evil. Rich people believe POVERTY is the root of all evil.
  2. Average people think selfishness is a vice. Rich people think selfishness is a virtue.
  3. Average people have a lottery mentality. Rich people have an action mentality.
  4. Average people think the road to riches is paved with formal education. Rich people believe in acquiring specific knowledge.
  5. Average people long for the good old days. Rich people dream of the future.
  6. Average people see money through the eyes of emotion. Rich people think about money logically.
  7. Average people earn money doing things they don't love. Rich people follow their passion.
  8. Average people set low expectations so they're never disappointed. Rich people are up for the challenge.
  9. Average people believe you have to DO something to get rich. Rich people believe you have to BE something to get rich.
  10. Average people believe you need money to make money. Rich people use other people's money.
  11. Average people believe the markets are driven by logic and strategy. Rich people know they're driven by emotion and greed.
  12. Average people live beyond their means. Rich people live below theirs.
  13. Average people teach their children how to survive. Rich people teach their kids to get rich.
  14. Average people let money stress them out. Rich people find peace of mind in wealth.
  15. Average people would rather be entertained than educated. Rich people would rather be educated than entertained.
  16. Average people think rich people are snobs. Rich people just want to surround themselves with like-minded people.
  17. Average people focus on saving. Rich people focus on earning.
  18. Average people play it safe with money. Rich people know when to take risks.
  19. Average people love to be comfortable. Rich people find comfort in uncertainty.
  20. Average people never make the connection between money and health. Rich people know money can save your life.
  21. Average people believe they must choose between a great family and being rich. Rich people know you can have it all.
So... That's a lot of things. Not all of which I would agree with (at least not without further explanation) or which I'd argue only apply to a very small, select group of rich people.

For example, how many rich people in 2012 are teaching their kids the tools they need to get rich?

My general observation is that usually wealth that's created in one generation is squandered in the next or in a few generations hence. And when the wealth is substantial (say, Sam Walton's fortune), often the heirs don't do all that much to maintain it but don't need to because their parent or grandparent's company is so well-organized that it remains successful with or without their help.

There may be a valuable Michael Gerber lesson there... but this post probably doesn't need to get into it.

I do think there's a lot here to really consider though. The first several stand out to me a great deal. The "money is the root of all evil" concept is a horribly damaging idea for a number of reasons. First because money is a too, no more good or evil than what it's used to accomplish. Actually a "tool" is even the wrong word. Money is lubricant. WD-40 for trading. It means that I can trade my video production services to someone who needs those for the products a farmer makes which I need to be able to eat and survive.

You might think that a tank blowing up a village is evil, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that the axle-grease had any particularly demonic properties.

Poverty is the real evil. Poverty is the material evil that has plagued mankind's entire existence and only goes away when wealth is created. That's it.

A few of these "Average person" attitudes I actually find to be incredibly pernicious. For instance, the "lottery mentality" is an abomination. If you believe getting rich - or simply having the life you want to have by whatever definition that happens to be for you - is a matter luck, you're screwed already. Waiting around for your life to be everything you ever dreamed of is the surest way I can think of to never being happy. It's a life filled with excuses.

So is doing something you hate for a living. If you don't like your job and you're not passionate about it, it's just going to be a miserable influence on your whole life. I just had this conversation with a woman who told me tonight that she basically avoids her work at all costs. She justifies this by believing that not caring about money gives her time to care more about her friends... The thing she's missing is that most rich people or people who have rich-people habits don't work hard because they feel they "have to". They work hard because they love what they're doing.

That's what I do at any rate, and it's what everyone I know who is successful does as well.

Another thing I think is exceptionally important - and which is highlighted by Napoleon Hill and also by Robert Kiyosaki in "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" - is this idea that specific knowledge over "education" is what really matters. In Kiyosaki's book, the "poor dad" was the Superintendent of Schools for the State of Hawaii. He thought that a good life would come from a masters or a Ph.D. My dad thinks the same way.

But I know too many people with multiple masters degrees to believe in that jive.

My own masters was a means to acquire specific knowledge, and I acquired it because I had a vision for what I wanted to do with it. That is how I have always approached my education.

As Sherlock Holmes puts it:
"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it."
I know brains don't really work that way, but my limited time on planet earth does constrain me from learning "everything".

I learn a lot, and I retain a lot, but I'm not generally in the habit of spending my time learning about Kim Kardashian's husband of the week. Why? Because I don't have infinite time, and spending my time on those kinds of things is a poor opportunity cost for me. My education has always been self-directed and even in high school I tended to prioritize the knowledge and skills I believed I would need to achieve my goals. Some things I had to get special permission for. For example, my school had no music theory course. So I made one. A few years later, I earned part of my living as an undergraduate & graduate student by teaching theory to others.

I never went to school or college or did graduate work simply to be "taught" whatever someone else thought I should know. I went because I had a lot of things I personally knew I wanted to learn - and I've kept learning ever since, in and out of the classroom.

Maybe most people who read this won't understand the distinction, but I think it's very important. Specific knowledge matters to success. General knowledge is only useful to the extent that you know how to apply it.

While I'm writing this lengthy blog about thinking and being successful, and now that I've mentioned Robert Kiyosaki, I may as well highlight a few things from his work that I think we should all think about as well. Here are 6 lessons, courtesy of the website, Madame Noire:
  1. Lesson One: The Rich Don’t Work for Money
    "Rich Dad was more focused on ways of creating residual money, money that increases even if you don’t work, rather than waiting for the next job with a pay raise."
  2. Lesson Two: Learning Financial Literacy
    "Developing financial literacy is key to having any success with money. Financial literacy is simply the study of managing one’s finances."
  3. Lesson Three: Mind Your Own Business
    "As mentioned in the previous lesson, the key attribute that must be developed in order to gain wealth is to focus on your asset column. The rich focus on improving the size of their investments rather than simply waiting or demanding pay raises in their income.
    This means keep your expenses low, reduce your liabilities and diligently build a base of solid assets."
  4. Lesson Four: The History and The Power Of Corporation
    "By filing as a corporation, the rich are able to mitigate their losses to only the amount they invested in the corporation. They are able to pay taxes after they pay for expenses. For people who have jobs, it’s the opposite case where taxes are taken out of paychecks before one is able to cover expenses."
  5. Lesson Five: The Rich Invent Money
    "... if you truly want to see your investments grow exponentially you must be willing to put in the money in places that show relative risk."
  6. Lesson Six: Work to Learn - Don’t Work for Money
    "As Kiyosaki recommends in the book, take a long view of life. Instead of simply working for the money and security, which are important, take a second job or take classes that will teach you a skill. He goes even further to describe the three main management skills necessary for success:
       1. The management of cash flow (assets and liabilities)
       2. The management of systems (basic economic theory, political landscape, etc.)
       3. The management of people
    If one is able to focus getting jobs that develop these three major skills sets, he is well on their way on the path to success."
Bonus... Kiyosaki's 5 main obstacles people need to overcome if they hope to get rich:
  1. Fear - Overcoming the fear of losing money. The fear of losing money is real. Everyone has it. The difference becomes how a rich and poor person handles the fear. Wealthy individuals use failure as a teaching moment and aren’t afraid to fail.
  2. Cynicism - This deals mostly with those around you. Follow your own path, because at the end of the day, wealthy individuals are a small percentage who go against the grain and don’t follow the crowd
  3. Laziness - One must be willing to put in the time and effort to build up their financial knowledge. This means being selfish and taking time out to build one’s personal wealth.
  4. Bad Habits - Reducing expenses is easier said than done, but one must be willing to break those bad spending/investing habits in order to be successful
  5. Arrogance - Always be willing to reach out to those who are successful and those you want to emulate. To become wealthy, it’s often a collaborative effort, bouncing ideas from prospective mentors.
Notice any patterns here?

Ultimately I think there's a lot of value in thinking about thinking in this regard. How do people who are successful think? How do people who are less successful or unsuccessful think? If someone is perpetually making poor choices, I want to know what I can about the way they're making decisions so that I don't fall into the same traps. Likewise, if everything someone touches seems to constantly turn to gold, I want to know how they're thinking and making decisions as well.

Much like some of the other discussions I've had lately, this is one of those areas where a lot of people are just uncomfortable talking about it. But we should be talking about it.

It's ideas that shape the world, and lately it feels like all the world has to offer are very, very bad ones.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Racism and Barack Obama

Earlier tonight, a Facebook friend posted a quote which he claimed to have been from President Obama's autobiography, "Dreams From My Father". The section he pulled was just a sentence:
"To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets."
His point was to note that for all the knee-jerk defenses of Obama against the idea that he is a "Marxist", here he himself, in his own words, was "carefully" choosing to spend time with the Marxist professors at the University of Chicago. The idea of this being that Obama's philosophies are truly based on Marxism and he's really a closet communist.

In a way, I'd buy it, since the reality of Marxist rulers is not all that dissimilar from the way Obama governs - increasing state control over the economy, passing out favors to cronies, igniting class warfare. I think it's probably very fair to say that Obama has been heavily influenced by Marxist critical theory as so many others who spend (too much) time in academia are. But of course, I have known far more than enough "real" communists over the years to know that they tend to loathe Obama and believe him to be the worst kind of state-corporatist and military imperialist there is. I agree with them.

So for what it's worth, I generally just consider Obama to be a political opportunist with an abysmal understanding of economics and who - like most people - has adopted a mixed bag of bad philosophies from the progressive left.

In any case... Being the actually skeptical individual that I am, I asked if the quote was really from Obama's book.

I haven't read "Dreams From My Father" (I rarely read political books and I certainly don't make it a point to read the ghost-written self-aggrandizements of United States presidents), but I was intrigued, and my friend provided me a link to Snopes.

I don't really know what the Snopes folks thought about all of these writings, but I did discover that the quote is part of a larger passage which, quite honestly, is far more appalling once you put it into context.

Here's a longer excerpt from the book:
"She was a good-looking woman, Joyce was with her green eyes and honey skin and pouty lips. We lived in the same dorm my freshman year, and all the brothers were after her. One day I asked her if she was going to the Black Students' Association meeting. She looked at me funny, then started shaking her head like a baby who doesn't want what it sees on the spoon.

"I'm not black," Joyce said. "I'm multiracial." Then she started telling me about her father, who happened to be Italian and was the sweetest man in the world; and her mother, who happened to be part African and part French and part Native American and part something else. "Why should I have to choose between them?" she asked me. Her voice cracked, and I thought she was going to cry. "It's not white people who are making me choose. Maybe it used to be that way, but now they're willing to treat me like a person. No — it's black people who always have to make everything racial. They're the ones making me choose. They're the ones who are telling me that I can't be who I am ..."

They, they, they. That was the problem with people like Joyce. They talked about the richness of their multicultural heritage and it sounded real good, until you noticed that they avoided black people ...

To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling conventions. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.

But this strategy alone couldn't provide the distance I wanted, from Joyce or my past. After all, there were thousands of so-called campus radicals, most of them white and tenured and happily tolerant. No, it remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names."
Yeah. Obama claims that he selected Marxist, feminist and other absurdly liberal stereotypes to be his friends. That's not all that surprising to me, and I don't know whether or not it proves that he believes himself to be a socialist. More than anything, I think it just demonstrates that he was kind of a douchebag who cared more about what his friends said about who he was than about what kind of person he was and what kind of people his friends were.

His method of selecting people to spend his time with - according to this excerpt - seems to have been entirely based on superficial presentation.

I don't know what else I might expect from a politician, or a wanna-be politician, which I suppose would have described Barack Obama at that point. And by now, whole books have been written on the subject of Obama's various reinventions and narcissism, and I don't really have much to add to that I guess, but this whole thing seems pretty disgusting to me.

It gets worse though, as far as I'm concerned.

Obama's view of this woman Joyce is about as racist as it gets, is it not? Here is a woman who doesn't want to be labeled as "black", because she doesn't believe herself to be part of any one race, and in her own words did not like to be told that she couldn't be who she was.

America's current president mocked this notion.

He mocked the idea that a person might not be comfortable being shoved into a racially-defined box. He then does precisely what I suspect she wanted to avoid by avoiding the Black Students' Association meeting: He insults her for even wanting to be thought of as not simply a member of some racial group. How bizarre is this?

Why the hell should she have to choose? Why should she consider herself "black"?

I can't even imagine there being a "White Students' Association" that wasn't immediately banned on the basis of it being claimed as a hate group or some kind of racial supremacy organization... But if there was one, I wouldn't expect Joyce to have joined that. Would you? I certainly wouldn't have made her feel bad about not joining if she didn't consider herself part of the group.

Now, I know that, being a white guy, I have it easy on these things compared to others... but the philosophical problem is what it is. If racism is bad, it's bad because it's a means of judging people based on aspects of who they are which they have absolutely no control over. Is it not? And if that's the case, then picking your friends on the basis of whether or not are not "black enough" for you is just as bad as if I chose friends no the basis of who white they are.

The kind of person sitting in the White House right now, making decisions for all Americans, is someone who not only avoided having friends who weren't black, hip and liberal enough for him... he's someone who actively made people feel bad about not wanting to be defined by their race.

What a great man.