The problem with freedom

Gender and society satire from the 1890s

A satirical cartoon on gender roles in society from the 1890s

In the 1920s, tobacco companies sought to increase the number of women smokers. So for the Easter Sunday parade of 1929, a group of public relations and marketing experts hatched a brilliant plan on their behalf. They paid a group of young, attractive, fashionably-dressed women to march in the parade and, in unison, light up cigarettes. The women proudly exclaimed to the parade goers that they were smoking “torches of freedom“. Photos and stories of the women circulated wildly. Almost overnight, smoking had become a symbol of female independence and liberty.

I learned about this historical event years ago when I was in grad school. But it recently came to mind once again, amid the debate about freedom of expression following the attack on a French satirical newspaper earlier this month.

Rightfully, following that event there has been an outpouring of sentiment in favor of free speech and in defiance of terror and intimidation. I won’t get into my own thoughts on the specifics of this event, or some or the more controversial details — namely, the arrest by French authorities of dozens of individuals for hate speech following the free speech demonstrations, or the allegedly hypocritical policies of some of the demonstrating world leaders — subjects which have been covered ad nauseum already. (A good approximation of how I feel on these subjects is here.)

On the other hand, what I haven’t seen to this point, and what I personally am yearning for, is an intelligent discussion about not only our legal rights as citizens, but what it truly means to be “free” as a human being. And I think this is a discourse that religion, and especially the Baha’i Faith, can help move forward in a big way.

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Learning about honesty from your neighborhood car dealer

car_salesman

A couple of months ago my wife and I bought a car from our local Volkswagen dealership. We needed a new car after our second child was born, and we ultimately settled on a Jetta Sportwagen, which I highly recommend for any parents out there who need a car big enough to fit two car seats, but are desperately trying to disguise the fact that they’re no longer cool.

After we agreed to buy the car and all the paperwork was signed (mostly by me, as my wife was home with the new baby), the salesman gave me a head’s up that I’d be receiving a survey via email about my experience at the dealership. “We’d appreciate it if you could give us 9s and 10s”, he said, referring to my survey responses.

At the time I didn’t think much of this comment, and just assumed he and his colleagues would benefit from some positive feedback. But when the time came came to fill out the survey — a simple, straightforward electronic form that I can only assume most people go through in a minute or less — I grappled with my answers. Did I really think the presentation and cleanliness of the car showroom, for instance, was “truly exceptional”, which is what the survey instructions indicated that a 9 or 10 response was supposed to mean? The honest truth was that the experience at the dealership was good but nothing to call home about. I had bought a car from another VW dealership a few years earlier, and I found it hard to decide which buying experience left me more satisfied. How could I honestly say that this last one was something “exceptional”?

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Is kindness economically efficient?

When I was a sophomore in college my microeconomics professor talked about gift giving as an example of an economically inefficient cultural practice. The lesson of the day was on how human beings efficiently allocate their resources. When we have the freedom to choose exactly how to spend our money, economic theory tells us, then we can maximize our own personal well-being. But when given a gift, some of this freedom is removed; in efficiency terms, it would be much better just to give cash and let the recipient figure out on his or her own how to spend it.

There was one important caveat: As my professor put it, when two people exchange a gift there are some “warm fuzzies” involved, a benefit that we can’t easily quantify. It’s one thing to go out and get what you want, but it’s particularly special and heartwarming when a loved one is thoughtful enough to get it for you. On a related note, let me digress for a moment and offer some free advice to all men reading this: Don’t ever give your wife or girlfriend cash as a gift, no matter how big an econ nerd you think you are. You run the risk of injury, death, or worse.

For whatever reason, recently I’ve been hyper-sensitive to all the subtle ways that economic efficiency and basic humanity butt heads, just as is the case when it comes to gift giving. And when it comes to this subject, the example that keeps smacking me in the face is my morning commute to work.

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What is my problem with poor people?

Homeless man and dog

Recently, I decided to try out a Greek food truck for lunch that’s down the street from the office. The line was long, but I didn’t mind. It was nice outside so I was happy just to wait patiently and surf with my phone in the meantime.

While waiting, a lady approached those of us who were in line and asked for money for something to eat. Her speech was irregular and she smelled of booze. The other people in line ignored her. As I’ve tried to do in the past in similar situations I decided to at least acknowledge her; that’s the minimum degree of respect you can show a person asking for money out on the street, I’ve always figured. She asked if I would buy her some food, and I said yes. I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket (as usual I’d left my wallet at my desk at work), so I had enough for two sandwiches. Plus, I’ve always tended to feel more comfortable giving food, rather than money, to those asking for help.

After that point it was chaos. I asked her what she wanted to eat, and she told me she wanted a chicken platter, which was $7. I told her I didn’t have enough money for that plus my own lunch, but I could buy her a sandwich instead. She agreed, but only after some awkward back and forth that drew curious glances from the other customers (it wasn’t that she was stubborn, but rather that she didn’t seem in the right frame of mind to understand the logic).

When I got the counter, I ordered one sausage sandwich for myself and one chicken sandwich for my friend. While the staff were putting these together (assuming they were both for me, I guess), they saw the lady, who it seemed was familiar to them. “What can I get you, honey?”, one of the cooks called to her, as she was standing off to the side. I opened my mouth to speak, about to explain the situation to him, when I heard her exclaim over my shoulder, “A cheeseburger!” I shut up. I paid for both sandwiches, gave one to the lady (who thanked me), and I was on my way.

It’s experiences like this one that complicate matters for me — and, I assume, many of those reading this — when it comes to giving money, food, or whatever to the poor, and especially to beggars. There is no way to write about these things risking sounding arrogant, paternalistic, or just plain dumb. But not discussing them is a worse alternative. This blog entry is more meditation than manifesto; I have no definitive answers, only personal experiences and scattered thoughts.

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Here’s what your Baha’i friend thinks about Islam

There seems to be a debate going on within American liberalism as to whether it makes more sense to defend Islam against its detractors, or criticize it in light of all the terrible things perpetrated in its name. (I say “liberalism” only, because I think the answer within American conservatism was decided long ago.) So I thought I’d just share some personal thoughts on this.

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What’s missing from the conversation on income inequality?

Income inequality is a hot topic these days here in the US, and for good reason: over the past generation or so, real gains in income for those at the bottom and middle of the spectrum have been practically nil, while those at the top (especially the very top) have risen rapidly. As a consequence, income inequality by some measures is at its highest levels since the 1920s.

cbo-inequality-after-tax-income

If income inequality has been rising for so long, why is it only recently getting so much attention? I think the main reason for the recent attention was the housing bust and financial crisis in 2008 (duh), which provided a shocking contrast between widespread home foreclosures and mass layoffs on the one hand, and generous bank bailouts on the other. But since then, we’ve had plenty of other things to keep our attention on the subject. I’m thinking the Occupy Wall Street/99% movement; the 2012 Presidential election, which forced a national dialogue on the subject; and the near-celebrity status of economist Emmanuel Saez, whose recent book has attracted huge media attention.

Within that debate, economists continue to fuss over a longstanding question: Sure, inequality is rising, but what does that mean for economic growth? Do societies in which the rich take a bigger and bigger slice find it more difficult to grow the whole pie over time?

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth has a new paper summarizing the research, both old and new, on exactly this topic. It’s a good read even if you’re not into economics, especially the overview section, which gives some nice context for this question. Among the report’s conclusions are:

Most research shows that, in the long term, inequality is negatively related to economic growth and that countries with less disparity and a larger middle class boast stronger and more stable growth. Some studies do suggest that in the short run, inequality may spur growth before hindering it over the longer term, but overall there is growing evidence that, in the long run, more equitable societies are associated with higher rates of growth.

It’s always important to differentiate between positive and normative questions in economics, and this subject is no exception. The former asks something about how the world is; the latter, how the world should be. Economists like to focus most of their time on positive issues: Does inequality constrain growth? That is an important question, and researchers and organizations which focus purely on answering it objectively and honestly are doing very important work. Nonetheless, what seems to be missing from today’s debate about inequality is a second, more normative question: If the economy continues to grow while remaining very unequal (or becoming more unequal), is that ok?

For two reasons, I’d say the answer is No (surprise!). The first reason has to do with economic theory. The second has to do with the very purpose of our lives as human beings. Continue reading

The Entourage theory of financial management

Entourage

Am I the only one that misses Entourage? The former HBO series, which closed shop a few years ago after eight seasons, was my escape from the drudgery and boredom of responsible living. Yes, Entourage was over the top, to put it mildly, but so is pretty much everything else on TV. It was at times just plain dumb (the series finale was a hasty tying of years’ worth of plot loose ends), but the show had a lightheartedness and carefree vibe that’s been missing from television ever since.

At the heart of what made Entourage work, of course, was the character of Vincent Chase, loosely based on Mark Wahlberg’s early career (when he was still Markie Mark and doing stuff like this, which some of us refuse to forget). Vince’s is the happy-go-extremely-lucky story we all love to root for: Poor kid from a blue collar town makes it big, achieves fame and fortune, and lives life in the fast lane while never forgetting his true friends or where he came from.

At this point you may be thinking, What does this have to do with finance? I’m glad you asked. (Let’s pretend you asked.) On many occasions in Vince’s fictional life, when he is warned about the imminent possibility of losing it all — by his accountant, his agent, his manager, whoever — he utters some version of the following statement:

What’s the big deal? If I lose all my money I can always go back to Queens. I was happy before when I had nothing. If I have to go back to that, so what?

This is the part in the blog post where I remind myself that Vincent Chase is not a real person (oh yeah). But a part of Vincent Chase lives inside all of us. That’s because we all, in various ways and to varying degrees, practice what I call the “Vincent Chase theory of financial management”. That is, we are all on occasion tempted to “stretch” our money, saving a little less than we probably should towards getting that bigger house, that nicer car, that more glamorous vacation, etc. After all, when times are good and the money’s flowing, why not? We can always go back to the more modest lifestyle we were perfectly happy with before, if the twists and turns of life force us in that direction.

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On the futility of politics

chess_pieces

For a while I’ve wanted to write something about why Baha’is choose not to get involved in politics. I’ve kind of dragged my feet on this, mostly because it’s a difficult topic to write about, and is fraught with potential pitfalls. But given the number of international conflicts and other major news stories that have sprouted up  over the past couple of months, and the immense attention that some of these have received in the news and social media, I figured it was as good a time as any.

If you’re wondering why the Baha’is have not stood up and spoken publicly on these various conflicts — Israel vs Hamas, Ukraine vs Russia, the St. Louis protestors vs the police, etc. — then you are probably not alone. That’s because Baha’is actually make it a point not to make their voices heard on specific stories like these. I remember during the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, for instance, as faith-based groups around the world were holding protests against the possibility of an American invasion, hearing the voices of some well-meaning activists criticizing the relative silence of the Baha’is. How can a religion so committed to peace and justice be so content, as I heard one person put it at the time, to “sit on the sidelines”?

The simple answer is that part of being a Baha’i is to make a commitment to stay out of politics, and to avoid taking sides in terms of one party, group, or nation over another, even as we stand in favor of certain principles.

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The happiness scam

Rainn Wilson, the comedic actor best know as “Dwight” from The Office, delivered a brilliant commencement speech to the graduating class at USC a couple of months ago. For those who aren’t aware, Wilson is one of the world’s best-known Baha’is, and has never been shy about broaching the topic of spirituality, especially with young people. Here he was at his best.

The topic of the speech was, more or less, how simply “pursuing happiness” can leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied, and how an attitude of selflessness can bring us a deeper feeling of fulfillment. Here’s an excerpt (a long one, but worth reading in its entirety):

Happiness is so fleeting. It’s like an amusement park ride. It’s like cotton candy. I mean, it looks so amazing: It’s delightful and fluffy and pink and you joyously eat it and then almost immediately regret your decision. Your fingers are sticky the rest of the day, and you’re undergoing an almost immediate insulin crash from the half pound of sugar that you just sucked down. You’re hungry again almost immediately and you begin the chase again for ingestible happiness right away. Happiness in our contemporary culture is something to be chased, something that’s just around the corner, something outside of ourselves. There’s a kind of a “if then” proposition about happiness. For instance: “If I get a job at a top law firm then I will be happy.” “If I get married to the perfect man or woman then I will be happy.” “If I can become more popular then I will he happy…” etc. It’s the whole point of commercialism, too, and materialism. If you buy this car, eat this cheeseburger, wear these jeans, use these headphones, then you will be happy. And you know what? Buy the jeans, eat the cheeseburger, the result is never happiness. Joy or contentment. It’s always the same. We’re never satisfied. It never meets our needs fulfills our standards. We’re left empty, wanting something more. It’s cotton candy. Fleeting, sticky, unsatisfying….

Volunteering, helping, showing kindness, sacrificing your time and energy, giving selflessly, these are the things that will give you the greatest human flourishing. And what a strange dichotomy in this “me me me” culture we live in. Focus on yourself: you’ll find only misery, grasping, depression, emptiness, dissatisfaction. Focus on helping others: joy, contentment, gratitude, happiness… So go forth young men and women spiritual beings all, with your pieces of paper, your souls and your hearts, go forth and undertake our new national motto, “life liberty and the pursuit of service”, and your lives will be the richer for it.

This is potentially tricky territory — I mean, the speaker is basically telling young people at one of the happiest moments of their lives not to strive to be happy — and I truly admire his courage. But the main message here should not be controversial. That’s because, as pointed out in the speech, science actually confirms that acts of selflessness tend to lead to greater happiness. (Nevermind that it represents a core teaching of nearly every religion.) And yet, from my perspective the fact that selflessness, rather than selfishness, is more likely to lead to fulfillment and life satisfaction gets a shamelessly low level of attention in the modern discourse. Instead, we are hit with a steady stream of messages preaching the opposite, including the semi-sarcastic-yet-inescapably-depressing image below, which I captured at our local mall food court:

Spiritual enlightenment was never so easy nor delicious

In the same tradition as the religious faiths founded before it, the Baha’i Faith in countless passages warns us not to rely on the material world for fulfillment. One of my favorite passages written by Baha’u’llah is this one (which I’ve shared before), which compares the world itself to a desert mirage:

The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality… Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion.

For us to look to something bigger than the world around us is not an unnatural act or suppressing our natural selves. The human being’s true nature, Baha’u’llah teaches, is more noble than that. In the same passage as the one above, He compares the childish obsession with our material lives with a fallen bird:

Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust.

Why is this so difficult for us to learn? How come we feel compelled to chase after things that are so ineffective in delivering real happiness? It’s universally acknowledged that true happiness can’t easily be achieved with material things. And yet, we still keep reaching for the cotton candy.

Real faith is admitting that you don’t know

Fox's "Cosmos" has been refreshingly profound

Fox’s “Cosmos” and the deeper conversation about science and faith

My wife and I have been getting into the new Fox show “Cosmos”, a reboot of the old Carl Sagan show which (I’m told) raised the country’s awareness of science and inspired countless young people. I truly hope it’s a success and stays on the air, though I’m not so sure the appetite will be there in the end. We’ll see. So far, at least, the reviews appear to be good and the show is great in terms of combining scientific content and entertainment/style.

One thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the show’s willingness to tackle the dichotomy of science and religion. This is especially refreshing to a Baha’i who was taught from childhood that the two branches of human knowledge are complements rather than adversaries. Abdu’l-Baha once said:

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.

In the very first episode of “Cosmos”, we’re introduced to a historical figure named Giordano Bruno (whom I had never heard of previously) who was viciously persecuted and ultimately burned at the stake by the Catholic authorities in the 16th century. His crime, apparently, was to insist that the Earth was not in fact the center of God’s creation, and that a limitless Creator must necessarily imply a limitless creation.* Bruno was not a rigorous scientist (Galileo, the show tells us, later proved with a telescope some of Bruno’s hunches), yet he was an astounding spiritual visionary.

After watching this I was compelled to think: Every person of faith should be a Bruno. For Bruno’s epiphany, as I understand it, was not that he had stumbled upon a new truth. It was quite the opposite: it was that he understood that the human being is but a speck of dust in God’s infinitely mysterious creation, and that God’s universe must range well beyond the outer limits of the solar system. Other words, to encapsulate God within the confines of human experience is to violate all of our previously held assumptions about the His nature.

For a religious person to claim he understands God is about as senseless as a physicist to claim he understands the origins of the Big Bang. After all, how can we understand something that originates outside of our physical universe (that is, what caused the Big Bang, or whether or not anything “caused” it in the first place)? As we are constrained by the boundaries of our own physical reality, we can begin to understand something so profound only by observing its imprints on the universe around us. Coincidentally, astrophysicists recently took a big step forward in proving the Big Bang recently, by finally detecting long-theorized gravitational waves.**

The Baha’i Writings tell us repeatedly that God is an “Unknowable Essence”, too large and overwhelming to be comprehended by His creation. It is not the first nor the last religion to preach this message. The ancient Baghavad Gita, for instance, recounts the story of Arjuna’s conversation with Krishna, the Incarnation of God in human form. In it, Arjuna begs Lord Krishna to reveal his true form. At last Lord Krishna accedes to this request, but for just a moment. The result is for Arjuna to beg Krishna to once again cover up this overwhelming vision:

O all-pervading Visnu, seeing You with Your many radiant colors touching the sky, Your gaping mouths, and Your great glowing eyes, my mind is perturbed by fear. I can no longer maintain my steadiness or equilibrium of mind. / O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered.

Like I’ve written before when discussing addiction, humility is part of being a faithful person. But humility is about more than just admitting to ourselves that our powers and capabilities are limited (a powerful tool in defeating alcoholism and other vices). It is also about admitting the same about our capacity for knowledge. It’s about admitting that our puny minds can not comprehend something as vast as the universe in its entirety, let alone the Creator who dwells beyond the cosmic curtain.

As we were watching that “Cosmos” episode tell the story of Bruno’s rejection and eventual execution, my wife aptly remarked, “No wonder so many scientists don’t believe in God.” It’s true. To any scientific thinker, the idea of God as a white-bearded grandfather or a man with an elephant head is about as believable as a giant Flying Spaghetti Monster (which is a real thing, by the way). I hope more and more scientists come to realize that there are other ways to have faith, and that some of us approach the concept of belief with the same humility and wonderment with which they themselves approach science.

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*I’m hardly an expert on this, but I realize the show may not have given the whole story on Bruno and why he was so heavily persecuted. For some discussion on this, see here.

**Science-y person reading this… please explain this in dummy’s terms for us.