As soon as I got out of the car, I knew the day would go differently than I'd planned. I'd driven up to Blue Lake, a favorite hike of mine 4 miles west of Chambers Lake. Solo hiking is as close as I get to therapy - nothing so far in my life has led me to believe the presence of an expensive judgmental stranger will be useful in unwinding the week, but the sound of a river rushing down the canyon is a pretty reliable path to "calm." I'd spent an excellent morning up here on Labor Day, and was interested to experience the other end of the season. There's plenty of tree cover throughout, and most of the route is marked by blue arrows, pointlessly pointing out that the well trodden bit between the trees is the trail.
Alas, "seasons" are differently defined at 9500 feet, compared to my idyllic foothills city - up there, the snow hasn't cleared by May 13th. Determined to make something of the day, I stumbled ahead, only occasionally ending up groin-deep in slush. For about a quarter mile, I was hopeful that it would get better as I got farther along - that the part under heavier shade from trees would have experienced more snow melt. I went to school in Ault. As with so many areas of life, my optimism remained undimmed until I'd gone far enough that turning around would have constituted significant effort - with the journey back to the car looking equally unpleasant, I conceded it would be a slow, soggy day.
The snow was deceptively firm at first. Like the crispy mashed potato on top of a shepherds pie, it sounds hard when tapped with a fork, but under no circumstances should someone stand on it. Moving tentatively but quickly seemed to be the best strategy. The descriptions of the ground in Lewis' "Great Divorce" came to mind, designed to keep you moving toward the goal by being uncomfortable to stand on for any sustained period. Having no certainty about what precisely was beneath my feet, I rapidly reevaluated the utility of the blue arrows.
And then they ran out. I hadn't noticed last time, not really needing them. Suddenly, I had no more ideas about whether to head north, south, east, or west than I had ideas about which direction actually was north, south, east, or west. Fortunately, snowpack is relatively good at preserving footprints, so I headed off in the direction most feet had printed. This is a conflicting situation to be in, though - how do I know this person went the right way? Will the footprints lead to a summit, or a corpse? To avoid dwelling on that unpleasant thought, I noticed a dry patch under a tree, and hopped down the bank to rest.
Unable to escape the feeling I was trapped in an overworked metaphor, any energy gained was used in the climb back onto the path. I resumed tracing a stranger's footprints, and felt glad it wasn't possible to confuse a person's shoes with any other animal's paws. One in the eye for all the "dogs are better than humans" people I know. Although a dog (and a sled) could have pulled me more effectively. Thinking about it, however, so could a car. Which would have had made a far more dependable track.
A discarded Nalgene poked through the snow. This didn't seem like a good sign - no one looking to lighten their load discards their water. On closer inspection, it was full of urine. Why had someone urinated in a container, when the woods are entirely capable of withstanding the deluge? This strikes me as the same sort of person who leaves the plastic film on the screens of their electronic devices. As I pressed forward, I caught an encouraging sight - enough snow had melted to form a viable path. It had been there for a considerable distance, I realized - why hadn't I moved over sooner? Mr. Footsteps hadn't either. Perhaps he, like me, had considered forward progress challenge enough without also looking for better alternatives. Walking on mostly-dry earth was a welcome relief, but the nagging sense it would end soon stopped me from truly relaxing (see "work, why vacations don't" in index).
I've no idea why I assumed summit-or-corpse were the only potential outcomes. Abruptly, halfway from the summit, footprints stopped entirely. It seemed wrong to turn around, at first - I'd been following someone so long, I'd adopted the general direction as my own. One nagging thought crept in as I continued forward, though - If I keep going and this isn't the right direction, what if someone later follows my steps?
Out in the woods by myself, thoughts of any impact on my fellow man were far from my mind. Additionally, anyone who has met me would know I come after "spitting into the wind" on the list of reliable navigators. On the other hand, I don't know anything about the footprinter I've been following, either. Any myths we believe about our lives being independent as long as we're "not harming others" vanish when we realize we're imprinting the earth with each forward motion.
I didn't turn around immediately. On some level, the danger of being an unusually convenient food truck for a bear or mountain lion would at least have spared me the walk back to the car. But it would also have permanently denied me the summit. Retreating back to the blue arrows until the path is more clear felt like defeat, but a summit next month is not a defeat. It's a summit.
This is the nicest way to express what many people seem to be saying about the past twelve months. Why, though? Because Donald Trump killed David Bowie? Given the political trajectory the year would take, the man who sang "Loving the Alien" and "I'm Afraid of Americans" needed to be silenced early. I think the reason for most people's 2016 antipathy runs a little deeper.
Facebook noticed something earlier this year which I think helps us understand our current cultural moment: they noticed that people were sharing more content than ever, but the content wasn't their own. (note to Bloomberg, I would happily have linked to your original version of this story, but it has an autoplaying ad. Please stop urinating in the internet swimming pool).
In years past, users shared their status (words about how they were doing) and their photos (evidence of how they were doing). Lately, users mostly share links to other content - badly filmed youtube clips of a stranger's kids not actually doing anything interesting, quotes wrongly attributed to Stephen Fry, etc. Most commentary at the time explained that this was due to privacy concerns - the wider our virtual circles, the less we want to share with everyone inside them. I think this hints at the right idea, but it's much more basic: our lives are complicated, and we don't know how to express that, so we opt for cat videos.
"How are you?" is a stupid question to ask under most circumstances. That's not a novel observation, but I think it gets at the heart of hashtag expletive 2016. When asked to take stock of the past year, we generally talk positively for the same reasons we ungrammatically say "I'm good" when asked how we're doing - the actual answer is tricky, and if we have to pick one of the two binary options, we'll opt for the one with fewer follow up questions. In 2016, the tide turned, and the usual response to "this year sucked" is a reassuring nod followed by "I know."
Collectively, we're all understandably jumping on the opportunity to have feelings affirmed which are usually left unexpressed. But does that mean it was a bad year, really? Or are we all so lacking in relationships deep enough and safe enough to process the good and the bad honestly, that we run toward generalizations which let us validate our more painful experiences? 2017 will be terrible and wonderful, full of celebration and sorrow. Here's to knowing and being known by those with whom we can share all of it.
These two stories have the same plot - "person uses economic system unethically to their own advantage." That one of them is filed under the website directory "crime" and the other under "business" only reflects the reality - the welfare fraudster is thwarted by the rule of law, and the biotech extortionist faces "the court of public opinion," who pursue the case only for as long as clicks generate advertising revenue.
These stories reduce our thinking about economics to something like "humans are fundamentally self interested, so the only system which will cause a society to prosper is one in which it is in everyone's self interest to make as much as they can." This line of reasoning only works in the abstract, however - our daily experiences are filled with good, hardworking people who hit rough patches from time to time for thousands of complicated reasons. It's also impossible to apply with any consistency - the benefit cheat is used as proof that such programs should be stopped, and the person driving up the price of vital drugs is merely an unfortunate side effect of a system to which there is no alternative.
In various parts of the world, people are wondering if there is an alternative. The reelection of Syriza in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labor party leadership in the UK, and the pace at which Bernie Sanders' campaign is gathering momentum are all evidence of a willingness to challenge some basic ideas which have ruled the West for decades. In response, some are just putting their hands over their ears - when challenged about the lack of affordable housing, the UK Prime Minister explained the most important strategy to solving the issue was growing the economy, not doing something practical like introducing lower down payments for people who are planning to actually live in a house rather than rent it out for twice what people can afford. In the US Republican debate recently, the only thing more certain to get a round of applause than bashing the current administration was to use the phrase "I will never support a policy which makes it more difficult to do business in America."
I have no idea where any of this will lead over the next few years, but I'm optimistic that there could be a more reasoned debate about these things. Maybe we could lose the assumption that profit rules the world, and that all of life is figuring out how to best build a society around that reality. Maybe flawed people with huge potential for good and bad elected by other flawed people with huge potential for good and bad run the world. We need systems which fight our tendencies toward laziness and greed, and help us when our lives are impacted by others' similar tendencies. We don't need systems which assume one is morally wrong and the other is inevitable.
A friend and I got into a heated conversation about this issue a couple of years ago which amusingly lead him to exclaim "It's social darwinism!" quite aggressively to a surprised server who had come to refill our water glasses. That's not particularly relevant, but it's good to end on a joke.
Just in time to count down to the new year, I finish bluffing my way through Mustang Sally on the bass, subbing in for a musician who didn't arrive. I play the bass roughly as well as I do car repair - given enough time, manuals, and privacy, I can almost get to "adequate." On this occasion, I had none of those, and with added pressure - this song was always my dad's show piece when he used to play bass in a band. It's a good thing he wasn't also 30 feet in front of me (oh, wait, he was).
January 1, 2016, 12:00am.
Paper Bird are about 1/3 of the way through their set at the Oriental Theatre in Denver, and they stop to count down to the new year. They break out a bottle of champagne to give all the band a drink, and foolishly leave the still-mostly-full bottle close enough to the lip of the stage for the front row to grab. It was never seen again. The fog machine which ran for a couple of minutes before the band came on appears to have been a waste of money, as the audience supplied plenty of their own, uh, fog.
These were both lighthearted, fun bookends to a difficult year. I'm conscious as I'm writing this that compared to most of the world throughout history, it was an unbelievably good year. I had heath, food, shelter, and iDevices. I saw some unbelievable live bands (nights watching The Decemberists, U2, and Jon Foreman will all hold a special place in my memory). I spent a brilliant week in Chicago with my dad and sister where we ran around being tourists 18 hours a day yet somehow didn't have pizza, a hot dog, or go to Wrigley, and spent another brilliant week here in FoCo with them recovering. Got a promotion. Objectively, it was an excellent year.
Disjectively (does he know that's wrong, or is he just playing with us? or is he not sure, and using this overdone device to hedge his bets?), it felt like a year in which I didn't know who I was.
I have yet to accomplish some of the basic "adult" things - having a partner, kids, house, minivan. I attempted the last one in February, but only made it halfway. In the past, I'd have said this didn't bother me much day-to-day, as there was still plenty of life to get on with. I didn't realize how much of a lie that was until this year - in truth, not having a personal life in which to find my identity was only possible because I found my identity in my work life. In 2015, I went through the most difficult period in 5 years at my current job, and found myself undone.
Running out of parts of life to find optimistic is an annoying mental exercise. The running-in-a-swimming pool feeling of our worst days is a common experience, but this year it felt as though the steps along the side to get out had been removed. Nothing truly significant was ever wrong, but however much I knew that intellectually, it rarely made a difference to my emotional state. This made me a terrible friend, as I often blew off people I cared deeply about in order to chase after any misguided interaction which might improve my personal or work life, or to wallow in self pity alone. Or, worse, to go and drink.
I am about as good at self control as I am at car repair or bass playing, and Fort Collins offers many delicious hop-and-malt-based recipes for disaster. It's an ugly journey from going for a drink because you're lost in the world to accidentally finding yourself asleep in the bathroom of a Five Guys you went into because you'd been out too long. It's a slippery, greasy, salty, cajun seasoned slope. It's remarkably counterproductive, too - the proverbial highways of 2015 are littered with relationships crashed by my drunken text messages. Note to self, replace all metaphors before posting.
Over the course of the year I would recognize this, and stay away from the bars for a few weeks, but the symptoms only stay away as long as you treat them - as soon as I thought I'd regained control, I'd lose it. The reasons I was frustrated didn't change just because of a few weeks of looking for different distractions - I was still seeing all of life through the lens of things I didn't have. I still hung my identity on things which could fall away at any moment.
The wise thing to do would be to wait to write until there's a neatly packaged ending, until a newfound appreciation for the rule of a sovereign, good creator over the world has given me rest in my current (objectively fine) circumstance. That would be a bit dishonest, though. I'm grateful for these two weeks at the end of the year to reflect and start to see more clearly, but I'd hesitate to declare any further progress than that. Whatever else 2016 is about, it can't rise or fall based on finding a partner, being successful at work, or anything else so terribly circumstantial. Reasons to live need far stronger foundations.
My apartment is disappointing. I know this, because everyone who has ever been inside has remarked on one of its less savory elements, like the fact that I don't own any tables. Or curtains. Or the fact that the windows don't open. Or the leak in the ceiling.
This was all news to me - I have remarkably little awareness of the parts of the world around me unrelated to the task at hand, which is why my shoes are always untied and I have to rely on external feedback about my breath. But now others have pointed out that my home is unlikely to attract someone to spend their life with its tenant, I have been moved from disinterest to incessant complaining. How lucky for my friends.
Whenever I start ranting about this, someone will inevitably say "why don't you just move, then?" This is a completely reasonable question, and I don't have a good answer. Similarly, if you've been around me for any length of time, you've either witnessed me drink too much and talk/text unending nonsense, or you've heard me be frustrated by my tendency to do so, and an inevitable question of the same kind arises - "why don't you just stop, then?"
Regardless of the inventiveness of my response, the truth is that if I'm not willing to take any of the more direct steps to fix those problems, then there are some things I consider worth more than their resolution. This isn't wrong in itself - very few things are ultimate. I consider the lack of men's 29" length jeans available for sale FREAKING ANYWHERE to be a significant problem, for example, but I wouldn't want to pass a law requiring stores to stock them. In so doing, it becomes clear that for all my whining, I value certain things about a free market more than I value the convenience of being able to purchase clothes that fit.
This self-awareness of the way we communicate our values is missed from the public sphere sometimes, I think. One common economic conversation goes like this:
Person A: "Corporations are amoral, so we need to obligate them to contribute to the country and pay workers fairly through taxes and wage requirements."
Person B: "But we can't do very much of that, because they'll just go to another state/country, and then what would we do?"
Person B would likely not say they think corporations rather than governments are the final authority in the world, anymore than I would suggest I enjoy beer more than I hate the consequences of drinking too much of it, but the options we consider "off the table" communicate more about what's really going on in our heads and hearts than the words we say.
When nine people were shot in Charleston ten days ago, the first reaction of several was to say "we must not use this moment to talk about gun control." Franklin Graham said the problem was not guns, but Hollywood's corrupting influence. Rick Perry said the problem was not guns, but drugs. Facebook was full of well thought out political discourse, such as memes which said "no one blames the car in a car crash" and "Cain killed Abel with a rock." Would changes in gun laws have made a difference in this instance? I don't know the facts or the potential solutions well enough. But when a person's first/loudest response to a shooting is to protect their right to keep and arm bears, it communicates more than just opposition to gun control. It shows the things they consider less important than maintaining the current levels of access to guns.
No hidden fees! No contract! No one forcing you to eat lawn clippings!
Are you interested yet? Does it matter what I'm selling, when the terms are this good? Does it even matter if I know what I'm selling? Do you want to be forced to eat lawn clippings? Those are the choices - my nebulous shadow of an idea, or everyone being forced to eat lawn clippings.
I knew you'd come around.
This is roughly the proposition Ted Cruz offered students of Liberty University last week. Cruz' speech announcing his candidacy was the first major announcement of the 2016 campaign, and hundreds in the Liberty audience applauded his every word. Almost 40% of Republicans polled this week said they would consider voting for him, twice as many as prior to the speech. I have three questions for them/you/pronouns:
Why are the accomplishments of a leader's family important?
Cruz' first 10 minutes were spent describing how his mother and father rose from poverty, prison, and vice into education, entrepreneurship and Christianity. I'm sincerely pleased for them, but I'm pleased in the way I am when people talk about their March madness bracket. I'm glad you're excited. The difference is that (with a few exceptions) people aren't trying to get me to change my worldview based on their ability to predict basketball results.
Cruz, however, wants us to believe that his presidency will allow Americans to pull themselves up by the laces of their Converse because his parents did the same. Unfortunately, you cannot simultaneously ask people to like you because your parents were good, hardworking Christians and ask people to like your vision of America where all you need is a work ethic to succeed. I'm not discounting the contributions parents make in instilling the kinds of values needed to contribute usefully to the country, but many of us have had great parents and become total train wrecks, and vice versa. It isn't relevant to the discussion.
Why are platitudes to which we all can agree important?
"Imagine, instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth."
"Imagine young people coming out of school with four, five, six, job offers."
"Imagine that every single child, regardless of race, ethnicity, wealth, or zip code has a right to a quality education."
I'm on board with the above quotes. Everyone who runs for office in every country in the West is on board with the above quotes. Perhaps a good rule would be that if every single candidate in a given race could make a particular statement, we shouldn't applaud it from any candidate. If it's something that Megan Fox could say if she ran for office, it shouldn't be enough for a prospective president to gain approval.
Why do you trust someone before they have presented any realistic plans?
Toward the end of the speech, Cruz got slightly more specific about things he would do differently than the current administration:
Repeal the Affordable Care Act
Abolish the IRS
Repeal Net Neutrality
Repeal Common Core
You might agree with Cruz' assessment that the current administration has failed in these areas - but he didn't provide any alternatives, and these aren't binary issues. "No regulation of healthcare, tax, communication, or education" does not solve the problems created by those issues any more than closing Facebook would have solved the problem that people believed they could "do their part" for American Sign Language by dumping ice water on their heads.
Politicians are often cornered into saying things like "I'd rather people voted for the opposition than didn't vote at all," and we seem to associate some virtue with lining up for the ballot booth. I think we can raise the bar a little bit this time. As we gear up for another 18 months of mudslinging, complaining about mudslinging, and some pesky voting at the end of it, let's make our reactions to this campaign season about specific, positive policies, not personality, platitudes, or unfocused anger with the current regime. Let's aim to see everyone proud not just to get something that says "I Voted", but that they cast a vote informed by the specific policies they believe will make our country a better place.
Longer pieces never really go well for me on stage (the below is actually long for me...), so I've only attempted this once, but as the relevant news story has reared it's head again, I thought I'd post my notes in written form.
The following is a dramatic reenactment of a recent news story.
Hey Bill, isn't it great being up here on the 493rd floor of this building?
I don't know Johnny, I'm getting kind of worried.
Why's that Bill? Is it because he gave us both the same voices?
No - something even worse. I've heard they're going to implode the building.
Oh no! What should we do, Bill? Or am I Bill?
I don't know, I've forgotten. I think we need to get out of here... But I've been here on the 493rd floor all my life, since my mother gave birth to me.
Did she had the same voice as us?
Probably. But the point is, we need to get out of here, leave the 493rd floor before they blow up the building. Let's go as far away as I can think of, somewhere we will be safe during the implosion... Floor 490.
Are you sure we can get there in time?
Oh yeah, we'll be fine. Plus, when we get there, there's a vending machine!
Perfect! Yes! If we run away as far away as we can think of to floor 490 and eat all the food in the vending machine, we'll definitely be safe when they implode this 10,000 story building.
-That was two bison, running away from the Yellowstone volcano.
I'm not sure if Netflix has a "shuffle" button. They didn't the last time I used the service, but that was about a year ago, and paying for a month just for the purpose of the blog seemed like an extravagance. But imagine with me for a moment that you can, with one click, serve up a randomly selected movie from Netflix' vast catalog. Then imagine that you watch one third of it before turning it off and writing a review of the entire Netflix service based on this abbreviated, random experience. The results would not likely be worthy of a Peabody (or even a #ghostpee-body), but this was the strategy employed by Collegian staff reporter Haleigh McGill to review the Monday night Open-Mic Comedy at Hodi's Half Note.
Fortunately for all of us, the 45 minutes that McGill endured included the excellent Richard Kennedy, who was rightly featured in the article. The character Richard slips into on stage is not only the perfect vehicle for his great lines but also some great crowd work, and he regularly accomplishes the difficult task of making an audience laugh at something against their will. I'm glad the writer liked Richard, and he was certainly the highlight of the show up to the point McGill and her collection of friends (whom I suspect included disappointed "interviewee" Brittany Carpenter) made their exit, but I'd like to suggest for a moment that maybe Haleigh missed the point.
Erik Lindstrom said to me once that "music feels authentic, and standup actually is." I think he's right. The immediacy of one man and a microphone, or one woman and a womicrophone, and an audience that aren't expecting anything specific, creates the possibility for literally anything to happen. You might hear Dan Jones recounting a drunken exploit with such confidence that he seemed determined not to learn anything from the encounter, and succeeded. You might hear French Accent mixing every type of joke imaginable together over the same two chords at such a speed that you don't have time to decide whether or not you like them. You might hear Ryan Nowell dropping one perfect adjective after another, making you wish he'd follow you around and narrate your day, except that you wouldn't get anything done as you'd be laughing too hard. Miles Harmony might say 25 monotone words over five minutes and leave the audience sure it was funny but unsure exactly why. And Bob Gaudet might hold the whole night together with well crafted, perfectly timed stories and an uneasy undercurrent that is difficult to define as more homicidal or suicidal.
Space and laziness prohibit me from mentioning the many other excellent comics who may or may not drop in, and may or may not be brilliant. Certainly some nights are slow to get started, and certainly some venues provide less than ideal circumstances - how Hodi's manages to be hotter than the outside in the summer and colder than the outside in the winter, I'll never understand. But the joy of standup - especially open mic standup - is that at any moment one comic could grab the whole room by the attention span and transform the evening. At Hodi's for almost four years, and at several other venues across Fort Collins, this very nearly always happens, and it definitely happened in the later part of the evening that the Collegian reporter missed. Live standup is real, raw, and unpredictable, and the knife edge separates it from watching specials on Netflix. In open mic comedy... I was going to say "the view is worth the climb," but that sounds too fortune-cookie. Maybe to contextualize for the Collegian I could say "the finished building is worth the construction," but that's far less likely to be true than my actual point. The laugh is worth the uncomfortable silence. And you will laugh.
I don't write about faith much - this is the first time on this blog. Because it doesn't permeate my speech as much as it should, and because I know a lot of you in a context that doesn't naturally bring those conversations about, I worry that reading this will feel like a bit of a bait-and-switch. I don't have anything to offer to correct that, but I feel it important to acknowledge. I hope I'm always honest when the subject comes up, but there are situations where it doesn't, and that's ok. It would be ridiculous to say "here's how I think Jesus would have designed this piece of software", just as it would be to reference to God in my standup just to assuage my conscience.
Social media is filled today with thoughts about the triumphs of 2013 and the possibilities of 2014. No doubt all of us had a year of highs and lows - but I find it difficult to write about the year because, sitting here tonight, the lows are louder. It's not that there weren't great moments - there were - but I can't think of those without also musing on the things that didn't go as well, and so the whole thing ends up pretty downcast. No one wants to read a comfortable middle class 25 year old feeling down about the things that annoy him (and for what it's worth, I'm not talking about anything in my life approaching a real problem, rather things that feel overwhelming regardless of how serious - though I believe this argument also stands for huge things like long term unemployment or the breakdown of a significant relationship).
I think I'm pretty chipper (or at least neutral) in person, which probably makes it a little weird that I can't think of anything nice to say about 2013 without negativity crowding in. I don't think I'm pretending in person, the voices of doom that descend when I'm on my own don't tell the whole story anymore than occasional attempts at wit during meetings do, but it's difficult to hold the two things in balance. The world offers several responses to my melancholy, and they are unhelpful:
"Be grateful." It's easy to assume someone feeling weighed down by things in life is taking too much for granted. This suggests that humans are incapable of feeling more than one thing at a time - but anyone who has made a difficult decision in anticipation of something better knows that this isn't true. It's totally possible to feel deep gratitude welling up about good moments while still hearing the constant voice of those things you wish were different.
"Stop being a victim." I'm treading carefully here because I risk saying something I don't mean. But for those who look at every unhappy person as a victim - look me in the eye and tell me that 100% of your successes were the result of effort, and 0% was happenstance. I promise, you cannot. Yes - fight for change with all of your might, all of your days - more on that in a minute - but there has to be a way to handle the possibility that we could fight our weaknesses our whole lives and lose.
"Hope in next year." In this category, I'd argue that the pessimists have the intellectual high ground. Nothing magic happened between 11:59 and 12:00 last night. All the things you hate today are there tomorrow, and will be the day afterward. In this same category is "it can only get better from here,"which isn't even appropriate if read from a fortune cookie after eating bad Chinese food - you might still throw up.
So what do we do about this? There are lots of ways that "hope in Jesus" could answer this, but before you dismiss me as trite, let me offer one specific answer:
Hope in the future. Not next year - unimaginable millions of years into the future. Hope in the fact that this future has been secured by someone who is not you. The perfect life and death of Jesus is the grounds by which God accepts you into a future which has not been ruined by our rebellion. Then use that reality (that the only future that counts is not based on you, and therefore you can't ruin it) to fight to do the right thing in this life. The assumption that we have to have our most comfortable life now is ruining everything - and you know that, because it's lack of comfort that is ultimately causing the melancholy. Things will still go wrong, and a lot of them will be your fault. But if you, like me, find yourself a bit confused about how to feel at the end of the year, set your hope in 2014 on Jesus, who secured a future reality not based on your performance.
It's time I lay my red cards on the table. I'm not retiring from the world of professional soccer refereeing, rather, I'd like to make an entirely unoriginal point about the free market. The notion that people will "vote with their dollars" as a way of regulating commerce assumes that:
We always make good overall decisions with our money
The sum of everyone's individual decisions equals the best decision for the group.
This is probably true in the world of smartphones. Samsung and Apple's users vote for whichever phone's features they like better by buying that particular phone, and because Samsung and Apple both want to stay in business, they keep improving their phones to poach customers from each other. This results in both sides producing better phones - a win for everyone. But it only works because what happens to smartphones doesn't matter. I enjoy the incredible devices that are available- but if the tide turned and everyone started buying cheap phones and drove Apple and Samsung out of the phone business, it would be difficult to mount a case that this was morally wrong.
But what of important things? A little while ago, the FDA began to require the full calorie count to be displayed on certain products (so that soda companies can't suggest that their 12 fl oz can contains 3 servings of 100 calories each). This came up in conversation and I remarked that it was a great example of a government agency doing something useful. A friend suggested "I think it's sad that the market couldn't have produced the same result." (As a side note - this was a flippant comment made in passing, and I'm not suggesting it represents all of his considered views on the subject.) But I found it interesting, because it's a problem the market will never solve. If a company prominently displays the true calorie count on its products, fewer people will buy those products, and a company isn't going to make a poor economic choice for the public good. Additionally, if one company starts doing this and others do not, the public isn't going to buy the more accurately labeled product merely out of principle. When we move beyond the realm of preference into the public good, the market cannot effect change.
Another example - in the industry where I work, the last five years or so have seen considerable government action to enforce the notion that certain products are unacceptable to sell. While some of that regulation has been unnecessarily heavy-handed, the overall impact has been positive, as customers have been weened off of low cost, low quality products. However, market forces were incapable of producing this change. I am sure our industry would love to sell only high end solutions, but as long as there were companies selling low end solutions, everyone had to sell them to stay in business. Equally, customers would have loved a better solution, but couldn't justify the cost as long as a low end one was available. When we move beyond the realm of preference into the public good, the market cannot effect change.
I say all of this to make a point about the smoking ban. Fort Collins is extending theirs next year, and I was amused to discover this weekend that Ault disregards the one which has been in effect for the last 7 years. The argument usually made when people dislike these regulations is "each business should be able to decide for themselves if they should allow smoking." This presents the same problems as in the examples above - no business is going to make a decision which reduces the number of customers. Therefore, the question is not "is it the government's decision or an individual business' decision to allow smoking?" The question is "is the decision to allow smoking a matter of preference, or the public good?" And to answer it, we don't need politicians or economists - we need scientists. Let's stop making arguments about rights and freedom, and take a hard look again at whether it's demonstrably bad to be around smoke. It could be that the impact of second hand smoke is negligible enough that the government doesn't need to impose any rules - if that's the case, it's a matter of preference and the market will sort it out. And if not, then the government should restrict it in the way they are planning. When we move beyond the realm of preference into the public good, the market cannot effect change.
A small postscript before the whole internet piles on top of me: this is not a post in favor of, or against, the expanded restrictions Fort Collins is proposing. I'm just suggesting a better place to put the goal posts. The interesting question is "has it been shown that the impact of second hand smoke in a patio environment causes sufficient public health risks to warrant government regulation?" I have no idea what the answer to that is, but that's a much more useful argument to have, I think.
The following is a conversation I had with myself, standing outside a friend's house this weekend.
"I'm half an hour late. That's ok, isn't it? People aren't on time to things. At least, I'm not on time to things. Am I always the last person to arrive at everything? That can't be, because I distinctly remember forming the opinion that it's basically fine to arrive after things start because someone else did that and it wasn't a problem. What if that was the only time they'd ever been late to anything? And I chose that moment to form a habit of being late to social events? Nothing happens in the first half hour of a social gathering anyway, perhaps some people will have taken their shoes off already. I reckon I'm pretty quick at that, so I'll be fine.
I should double check the invite to make sure it's not tomorrow or yesterday or at someone else's house or involves dancing.
The invite lists the time in Central time, but the app has helpfully converted it to Mountain.
Do they know that? Was that on purpose? Or did they mean Mountain time? Am I now half an hour early as well as half an hour late?
Should I just go in? If I do, should I acknowledge that I don't know when it starts? Do I explain why I'm confused? No, that won't work, they'll suggest I stay, and I'll either be awkwardly sitting on a couch or feebly trying to help and making a mess of something, like trying to get a glass of water and accidentally starting the house on fire. I suppose I could say "I'll come back," but then it's just a more understated kind of weird. What if , on the way back down, I pass someone else who is genuinely coming early? Do I explain to them that I'm just leaving for a bit because I'm incompetent? Or if I don't explain, what if they ask where I was going when they get inside, and the others have to explain?
Maybe I should go in now, and if I am early rather than late, I'll just not say anything. Act completely normal. Will that work? Is half an hour too early not to explain? What would I do if someone came to my house half an hour early? Actually, I'd be quite annoyed as I thought I still had that time to myself, but that's not something you can tell the person who arrived, so I'd overcompensate by being extremely nice so they didn't notice. I don't think I can handle wondering if that's going on in someone else's head as well. No. If I go in now and I'm early, I'll have to explain and either be awkwardly there or awkwardly not there.
What if I leave it a few more minutes? What's the maximum time I could be potentially late to something and not have it be weird, while also being ok if I'm early instead? If I'm 40 minutes late or 20 minutes early is that better? 45 minutes late or 15 minutes early? Fifteen minutes still seems long enough to have to explain if it turns out I'm early, but now the explanation is worse, because in addition to having got the time wrong, I'm also admitting that I would have been 45 minutes late, which doesn't sound good. Could I risk being either an hour late or on time? If I am an hour late, I can explain the time difference thing, and if I'm on time, everything will be fine. Yes, that's a reasonable plan. I'll risk being 60 minutes late to seeing some friends I genuinely want to see, to avoid any of the awkward worst case scenarios I've developed for being 30 minutes early. Perfect."
I wandered around the street for 30 minutes, and then went in. On time. I can't help feel this isn't the way normal people solve problems.