The Parable of the Cave, Traditionalist Version

Once there was a cave where a small group of people lived. These people had never seen the outside world, but they were well aware of its existence. The people were not chained down, and they could wander freely in the cave. They could even leave the cave, but they prefered the dark and cool environment of the cave.

The cave was quite dark, and the people could only make out basic, simple shapes. During the day the bright sunlight outside made it impossible for them to look out of the cave, and the avoided the doorway to the outside. At evening time, when the outside light was subdued, they would sometimes sit at the exit and look at the little they could see of the outside world.

The people valued knowledge, and they realized that there was much more to the world than what they could see in their cave. They also valued the lifestyle they had developed in the cave, and they knew that outside they would not be able to maintain their traditions. They even felt that not only their traditions would dissapear, but they would not even be able to maintain any sort of society, as the great expanses of the world outside the cave would let everyone go in their own direction and spread far from each other. But yet they valued knowledge, and did not want to be limited by their life in the cave.

The elders of the people took counsel how to satisfy the people’s yearning for knowledge while also maintaining the society they had cultivated for so long. The leaders did not reach any conclusions of their own, but they took note of a recent habit of the young people, which showed them the solution. The young people had begun painting the walls and cieling of the cave with images of what they had seen from outside, and what they had heard of it from people who had gone outside and from the the occasional visitors who came in. The elders looked approvingly at these paintings, and saw in them a way for the people to know of the world without having to leave the cave.

With time the walls and cieling of the cave were covered with paintings. On the walls there were trees and animals and the larger representations of human society which could not develop in the cave. On the cieling there were the sun and the moon and stars, as well as birds and clouds and some atmoshperic phenomena.

The paintings were of course only caricatures of the world outside the cave, and hardly reflected the true reality. Yet the people valued them and studied them, seekng to increase their understanding of the real world. The people in the cave even had some ancient texts which had come to them from their long-forgotten ancestors, who had lived outside the cave. The texts were short and cryptic, and studied in depth. The people often compared these texts with their paintings to better understand both, and the cryptic comments often reaffirmed the accuracy of their paintings as representations of the outside world.

There were those people who would occassionaly venture out of the cave, and people from outside would sometimes venture within. These people would sometime observe to the people of the cave that their paintings were not faithful representations of the outside world. The people would respond by telling of their great dedication to the truth and how exacting they had been in making the paintings. They would also point to the ancient texts which reflected the reality of the paintings, and to new texts their scholars had written recently which very clearly connected the reality of their paintings with the truths of the ancient texts.

The travelers and the visitors would try to show them how their texts were quite fitting for the outside world, and that for someone familiar with that world it was quite impossible to apply those texts to the paintings in the cave. Yet the people who had never left the cave could not relate to that possibility, never having seen the external reality. Their interpretation of their texts and their paintings became so fundamental to how they thought that they could not allow anyone to challenge either, for any challenge was a heresy against their books and a mockery of their reality.

The people of the cave soon reached the point where not only was leaving the cave a threat to the stability of their society, but any interaction with the outside threatened the ideas which held them together, and which allowed them to understand the world. Despite the still imperfect state of their paintings and the limitations of their understanding of their ancient texts, they decided that they had reached the limit of the possible extent of their knowledge. Any further exposure to the world outside the cave would lead to more loss of knowledge and understanding than it could contribute to further scholarship. The elders had the people block the entrance to the cave, forever perserving the truth of their paintings as the exclusive intellectual posession of the people of the cave.

I don’t know why I bother to write a parable to present something obvious. The impetus to write this was a conversation I had recently with an acquantance who lives in an ideological cave, and it really struck me that not only was he ignoring the real world, but that he had constructed a full caricature of it, which formed the basis of his understanding of the world. He was essentially studying his own creation, and thinking he was studying the world.

Nothing in this little parable should be seen as against religion. I am religious, and quite in favor of religion. Religion often does lead to people seeing the world through their own misunderstanding of religion, and to people retreating from the world in order to protect their religious beliefs. This is a failure to correctly utilize the teachings of religion. Religion must be applied to the real world, and only through the study of both can either one be known.


The Violence of VAWA

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is up for renewal. While it is expected to be renewed it is having a hard time, and the last congress did not pass it in its current form. The debate mostly centers around the question of the effectiveness of the law. Other challenges are its unequal assumptions about the gender of violence, and the misallocation of funds.

I think a better question is if the proponents of the law actually care about any of these issues. It seems like for them it is only money, power, and social engineering . Effectiveness, fairness, and oversight are annoyances to be silenced, not issues to be resolved.

There is bigger problem with VAWA, which has not received much attention. The problem is that VAWA is violent, and leads to more violence. The primary function of VAWA is the strong and immediate response to domestic violence., but even where the violence actually occurred the response is generally disproportionate. Arrest and removal from the home are extremely aggressive responses, and hardly likely to break a cycle of violence.

The violence of a police response is generally ignored since it is “legitimate violence”. Without debating its legitimacy, we cannot ignore that it is violent. If the accused does have “anger management problems” and tendency to violence, a call to VAWA will only provoke him, and the violence will soon be repaid. VAWA becomes a source of violence against women, as its name ironically indicates.

Most men are not violent, as most women are not violent, but there is a distinct subset of both men and women who are prone to violence. There is however a significant difference between them. While men are directly violent, women will have someone else do the violence for them, giving them a veneer of innocence and plausible deniability. The pretense of fighting domestic violence is really allowing violence by proxy, and allows the women to violently overcome the man. This is oddly presented as an attempt to reduce violence, while obviously being a provocation for greater violence.

VAWA and similar approaches to fighting domestic violence are heavy-handed, forceful attempts at social engineering. They do little to deal with real problems, and nothing to encourage marital harmony. They are simply attempts to violently disrupt the balance of relationships, and mostly to give power to the external organizations which implement the laws. Violence begets violence, and trying to fight violence with more violence predictably does nothing to reduce domestic violence.

Don’t Sign That Contract, Marriage is All about Love

Emily Yoffe, Slate’s bad relationships columnist, advises a reader not to sign a postnup. The questioner’s husband had seen to many of their neighbors getting screwed in divorce court, and did not want to live out his marriage being exposed to that threat. He asked his wife to sign a postnup giving her only 20% of the joint property, reflecting her expected contribution, instead of the 50% she was legally entitled to. He also wanted to keep the house in case of divorce, since he had fully bought it on his own before they married. He threatened to cut his risks and divorce her if she would not agree to sign it.

Yoffe explains to her that she should not sign it, since it promises her less than she is legally entitled to, and people should not consider the risks of marriage:

…your husband’s demands are ludicrous, especially given the fact that if you refuse the postnuptial and your husband becomes your ex, you will get a much larger chunk of his assets.

I hope your husband can wake up and stop treating his wife and child as depreciating assets he wants to get off the books. Maybe with help, he will realize that the damage he is about to do to the two people he should love most in the world is going to be incalculable.

So on the one hand her husband is wrong for paying attention to the risks involved in the relationship, and on the other hand, she should never give up anything of her promised cash and prizes in case of divorce. That would make marriage not profitable enough for her.

A realistic response would recognize that her husband should not have to expose himself to undue risk in exchange for investing in their relationship, and that given the unfairness of the legally mandated 50% split, and assuming she is committed to the marriage, there is no good reason not sign. Her refusal to sign actually confirms her husbands fear of exposing himself to the risk of being married to her, since she refuses to limit her options to divorce later. Yoffe says that this is a psychological problem, and probably her husband is already getting involved with someone else (it seems to be her habit to invent bad behavior to explain away men’s rational behavior). She oddly rejects his expressed rational explanation – the way he saw his friends getting screwed in court – and invents a silly explanation why he might otherwise want this marriage contract. More sane advice would encourage the woman to sign, as a way to ensure her husband that he can trust here. A reasonable response to the question would be along these lines:

Your husband is simply responding rationally to modern divorce law. You would not want to put yourself in a situation where you risk to much in case of divorce, so why do you expect your husband to take that risk? You should also need to realize that when your husband sees what his friends wives are doing to them, he asks himself how he can trust you. Signing the contract is the best way you can reassure your husband that he can trust you. If you do not sign, and especially if you do not sign for financial considerations, you are only signalling to your husband that you are a high-risk investment for him. Even though he loves you and has a child with you, it would be irrational to expect him to continue investing in you, when you cannot give him this basic reassurance, and instead you tell him that you need to keep open you option to profitably divorce him. Marriage is not about how much you take when you divorce, its about giving everything for the two people you should love most in the world. Let them know they can trust you, otherwise the damage you do to them, and to yourself, will be incalculable.

(Of course from a purely pragmatic standpoint Emily Yoffe’s advice is also wrong. Leaving all romantic consideration aside, she is probably better off going for 100% of assets during marriage+20% on divorce, rather than 50% of holding now., when they are relatively young and do not have significant assets. She will go for the 50% anyway, rather than risk getting only 20% in the future. This is all about the principle, not gross financial considerations.)

I hope this woman has many, many years as a single mother to consider the implications of her principled stand against acknowledging the financial risks and considerations of marriage. After all, marriage is only about the people you love.

Help! My Husband Fixed What I Complained About

Slate’s Emily Yoffe, a.k.a. dear Prudence, regularly dispenses bad relationship advice. Recently she had a question from a woman who didn’t know what to do after catching her husband reading her online rants about him.
(Bold added.)

Lately my husband has also been really good at changing some of the behaviors that have always driven me up the wall, and now I know why. While using his laptop, I happened to notice him logged in as one of the members of my group! He created a fake persona and has seen every gripe I ever typed about him! I haven’t confronted him on this, and to be honest it has been a convenient way to indirectly communicate my frustrations to him. So should I tell him I know who he is, quit the group, or just let this be?

Now, he had not challenged her for ranting about him, and he wasn’t trying to use her rants against her in divorce proceedings. He was just trying to fix the things she had been complaining about, and she had even noticed the positive changes. But now she discovered he was a member of this group where she ranted, and now she really didn’t know what to do. So far, at least, she has not even confronted him for listening to her.

It is really unclear what her problem was. From the tone of the letter it sounds like she somehow felt cheated, as if she caught him looking for other women online, or snooping on her emails. I guess she felt like her public online forum was a place to vent privately, and felt betrayed that her husband was invading her private space. More likely, she just wanted to complain, and

Many of the commenters pointed out that this woman is married to a saint. Instead of taking umbrage at her online ranting about him, he quietly goes about fixing what she was complaining about. Emily Yoffe has hard time seeing the positive:

I’d find your version more believable if it turned out your husband was remaking himself to please you in order to divert you from exploring the fact that most of his time online is spent looking for kinky sex partners. It’s also possible that you haven’t paid enough attention to the male poster on this site who complains that his hypercontrolling witch of a wife doesn’t even appreciate when he makes the changes she wants.

So she invents some bad behavior as an excuse to ignore his good behavior.

She then suggests that this women lets her forum friends know that her husband has undergone a remarkable transformation, and then she should move to face-to-face communication with her husband. She has found a way to successfully communicate with her husband, so she gets advice to blow that up and have “real” communication instead. I have often thought the meme of “its all about communication” was somehow an escape from real responsibility. This advice takes it to a new level, suggesting face-to-face communication as a way to solve the problem that they have managed to successfully communicate.

Both the woman’s question and the answer she received seem to see ranting and complaining as relationships basics. This woman seems to have never wanted her husband to change. She just wanted to complain about him publicly, Emily Yoffe is surprisingly attuned to the problem, and advises her on how to re-assert her right to complain and reintroduce conflict to her marriage. It would have been a lot nicer to see a response reminding her that her problems with her husband should never be the focus of her relationship or regular material for discussion. At this point she does not need to move to face-to-face communications. She needs to realize that she has worked out some major problems and now it is time for her to contribute positively to the relationship.

Joseph and the Egyptian Road to Serfdom

There is a very interesting article by Dan Kaganovich and Jeremy England  on Joseph’s centrally managed emergency response to the Years of Famine, and how he led Egypt down the road to serfdom.

A response here makes the additional point that Joseph had inside information about the upcoming famine which no one else knew about. I don’t think this is true, or relevant. Initially Joseph was the only one who knew, but his massive new emergency tax and new storehouses would have given away the secret. Even if it is true that Joseph was the only one with any interest in preparing for the famine, he still could have organized local storage committees, which would have decentralized the program.

I am not sure about the assertion of Kaganovich and England that the famine was a manufactured crises. The free market is quite resilient, and it is always a better solution than central planning, but a seven-year drought will destroy any agricultural economy. On the other hand, the Egyptians were selling themselves by the end of year two, and it is likely that a free market, even without any advance warning, would have had enough reserves to hold out longer than that.

Another factor which we do not have much information about is the existing Egyptian culture. If there was no free market before Joseph came along, then a decentralized solution would not have been an option. Now was not the time to begin inculcating a libertarian attitude in the Egyptian culture. Being a primitive, agricultural society, I would expect that they did have an independent attitude, but they were probably very weak on the long-term planning, and they probably did not have much experience with sophisticated independent organizations. It is very possible that central planning under Joseph’s oversight was the best option to ensure that a sufficient amount of grain would be saved.

While I think central planning is always a bad idea, central organization is often effective, and is a better bet when something must get done. Joseph did not plan the economy. He had one temporary program with a specific goal which was centrally managed, and which was ultimately quite effective in reaching its stated goals. It is a mistake to confuse central organization with central planning, and here Joseph’s approach, even if it can be criticized, was fit for achieving the main goal. This is especially true here that there was a specific and temporary need. There was no reason that the private economy could be expected to build all the necessary organization for a short-term risk-management project.

Joseph could have decentralized his program without leaving it all to the free market. He could have allowed each province to take care of its own grain stores, and allowed private storehouses. This would have increased efficiency without jeopardizing the main concerns, and without concentrating all the power at the top.

It also does not look like Joseph was trying to make all of Egypt his serfs. After they gave him their land and themselves as slaves, he returns the land to them (with a permanent tax) and leaves them free men. It is possible he was trying to consolidate Pharaoh’s rule, though it is not clear to me how much he would have gained. The extra taxes were also nice for Pharaoh, but nothing in the story suggests that Joseph had any motivation to spend so much effort just to increase the tax rate.

I would suggest that possibly Joseph was trying to demonstrate to the Egyptians the threat of central government, by letting them see how the path to serfdom developed. He wanted them to be aware of what his centrally organized plan was doing to them, and when they failed to protest, he let it go to its natural conclusion. He confiscated large amounts of grain for long-term storage, challenging the Egyptians to demand some commitment to return it to them in the future. They failed to complain, and Joseph continued collecting. He built large storehouses in the cities. He did not try to keep his stores out of sight. He placed it deliberately in front of them, and had the local people guarding it. He was almost challenging them to demand control of their local storage and distribution, but they did not. When the famine came he sold it back, and there is no record they protested. Joseph allowed them to follow the path to serfdom, without any coercion.

Joseph demonstrated to the Egyptians how easy it was for them to let themselves be enslaved. He made sure they would be able to look back at the end and see the road to serfdom they had voluntarily followed. After buying them all as slaves he transferred them to other cities, and then freed them and returned the land to them, leaving a significant task. They would not easily forget their experience, with their new locations and taxes to remind them of their mistakes. Joseph’s central planning seems to have been meant as a lesson through experience rather than a trap.

There is no indication that the lesson was learned.

Emotional Capital

Rick Lavoie nicely presents a way to look at emotional state as something quantitative. Our actions affect our self-esteem, giving us more “emotional poker chips” for positive interactions, and costing us “chips” when things go sour.

Emotions obviously cannot be quantified with an exact value, but they can still be seen as a volume which goes up and down. The lack of an exact measurement does not stop us from understanding the basic dynamics. We can talk about money the same way, also without needing any exact numbers. A parallel lesson in basic money management would sound like this: “Everyone has some money in the bank. Some have more, and some have less. You add money to your account when you provide other people with goods and services. You lose money when you spend it on goods or services. You need to always make sure that you have enough money in your account to cover your spending.” The lesson is clear, and the exact countability of money – and the amorphous nature of self-esteem counters – is irrelevant for understanding this basic idea.

I think that Rick Lavoie unfairly limits his idea to self-esteem, instead of expanding his talk to cover all emotional relationships. Every relationship can be seen as stacks of poker chips, where each side needs to consider how many chips they have to “spend”. If you are in a relationship with someone and you have never done anything for them, you cannot ask them for any special favors – you don’t have any “chips” in that relationship balance. This feeling would easily be expressed as “I don’t owe you that”, and is easier understood when we see all relationships as requiring an emotional balance which can be drawn against.

Lavoie gives an example in his talk of a father who puts down his difficult kid every morning, which he describes as taking away his self-esteem “chips”, which the kid needed to get through the rest of the day. In this example, there is another type of “chip” which the kid does not have – those chips which represent his connection to his father. The father wants something from his kid, but the account is empty, because every morning he takes “chips” away by putting the boy down, instead of increasing his balance by providing a pleasant and reassuring morning schedule. The father presumably expects his son’s devotion as part of the natural order, and will never understand how nature became perverted and his son grew up hating him. The hatred would just be the natural reflection of a badly overdrawn emotional account, and would be exacerbated by the fact that this emotional account is the most important one to keep in surplus.

Self-esteem is probably the most important emotional “account” because it is the one we draw against ourselves. Whenever we want to take a chance in life, we need to invest the self-esteem chips, as Lavoie describes. Lavoie talks about it as “self-esteem chips”, but it is more correctly the self-esteem balance. The currency of the account is emotional capital. We lose emotional capital from the self-esteem account – from our own personal emotional store – when bad or unpleasant things happen to us, and when we do things that we do not want to do.

The same emotional capital is kept in balances for all our relationships. We have neighbors we speak to occasionally. That is a low-balance account. We exchange pleasantries and will do occasional favors, but don’t expect anything big from each other. We have the people we deal with every day. We expect more from them, and invest more effort in generating more emotional capital between ourselves. We have close friends, with whom we have built up over the years a very significant stock of emotional capital, and we expect to be able to draw on that if one day we need a really, really big favor, and we likewise expect to extend such a favor if they will us ask us for it.

When an emotional balance goes too low, we act as Lavoie describes. We will either be reckless with the relationship, or we will be very hesitant to invest in it, hoping to preserve what little there is. Either way the relationship cannot survive without an infusion of emotional capital from the other side, which will justify the demands of emotional capital which they are making on us.

Someone who is unattuned to the balances of their relationships will overdraw them, exactly as people will spend too much when they do not look at their bank account balance. People will often not realize how much they are taking, emotionally, from the other side in the relationship, and then when they are rebuffed one day they cannot understand why. More often people will take the relationship for granted and not build up the emotional capital they will need later. (In marriage in particular there is a different problem, that people try very hard to build up the emotional capital in the relationship, but they fail to understand the relationship dynamics, so all their effort leave them drained of emotional capital, but the joint account is also empty.)

Often the emotional cost of what we do for another is completely subjective, and depends on how much we care about the relationship. Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, and they were in his eyes as a few days, so much did he love her. He did not focus on how much he was investing, and justify such a massive investment because he cared enough about her. If he had considered the magnitude of the investment, and maybe even magnified it because of all the future uncertainties, he would have done it anyway, but then they would have begun their relationship with an empty emotional account. Instead he looked at it as a minor investment, because his love for her justified ranking seven years of work as a completely reasonable effort.

The biggest mistake anyone can make in a relationship is to think that the emotional connection can be taken for granted, as part of the relationship description. It is romantic to think that emotions are too strong and too special to be assigned a number, or to think of them as something that can get used up. The romantic thoughts will not build a relationship, and will not save it when the other side feels emotionally overdrawn. Having a bank account does not let you spend freely, and having a relationship does not grant you unlimited expectations.

The Jewish Marriage – The Begining of the Jewish Family

Look at the marriage of the Jew! It is not gallantry, flirtation, and delusive romance that join the hearts and hands of Jewish husbands and wives. When man and wife unite, they do so in full awareness of the sober realities of their married lives, and for the purpose of living by those realities. Their love is based on their inspired eagerness to fulfill life’s duties together, and on the desire of each to enhance the happiness of the other. That is why the longer they are married the more they will love each other, and the consecration of their lives grows only deeper as they go through life’s vicissitudes together. Their wedding is not the pinnacle of their lives; it is only their springtime when their first love begins to grow. Subsequent years only add links to the chain that bind their hearts and spirits together forever.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Collected Writings vol. II, Kislev VI, p. 264