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Arctic Texas and What Freedom Requires
Why harmful self-interest often isn't checked and why restoring the lost virtue of public-mindedness may be the answer.
Hello, inspired humans! I hope you are all staying warm and doing well. Here in Texas, we’ve had a wild ride this past week. It is now sunny and 70 but we had over a week of freezing temps, snow, and icy rain. Sounds laughable to northerners but without any infrastructure (no road salt, snowplows, insulated pipes, etc.) this got hairy for a lot of people. Many friends and family lost power. A buddy of mine stayed inside for 6 straight days with no electricity and temps in the 30s because he wanted to run the water so his pipes didn’t burst. Stories abound of people leaving their homes once the inside temperature dropped into the 30’s then returning days later to find icicles hanging from the ceiling fan, or the ceilings caved in because pipes burst in their attic.
Neely, the kids, and I were very lucky. We stocked up and had another mini-lockdown. I had to walk to the store a couple of times (which I loved) and we had to let all our faucets drizzle for about a week straight so the pipes would not burst. That was the worst of it. I’ll include some fun pictures and videos at the end of what was a very memorable, while unfortunately unproductive week.
On that note, between potty training Brixie, spending 4 hours and 37 minutes every day dressing toddlers in snow outfits, and other interruptions...
… I was less productive than I’d hoped to be. This week I’ll share a shorter Stuff to highlight some of the great content I’ve been devouring and the shared thread I’ve been marinating on.
I hope you enjoy!
ONE FROM THE AGES
Marcus Tullius Cicero, famed Roman statesman and speaker on good books:
“For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Michael Pollan on the industrial food system:
“I asked Todd Dawson, a biologist at Berkley, to run a McDonald’s meal through his mass spectrometer and calculate how much of the carbon in it originally came from a corn plant…. In order of diminishing corninness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets, (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French Fries (23 percent)... This is what the industrial eater has become: corn’s koala.”
“Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.”
Source: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
ONE FROM US
I’m currently reading two phenomenal books: The Omnivore’s Dilemma (part of Justin’s top 15) and Historian Thomas Ricks’, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How that Shaped Our Country. Both books share an emphasis on public-mindedness—that is, the recognition that you are a part of a whole which you depend upon and which your actions either nourish or degrade. To the founders, a general sense of duty to maintain public-mindedness must exist in a society in order to make a republic work. We the public-minded people were supposed to be a check on self-interest. The founders knew that they could not rely on public-mindedness (what they called virtue) alone - that they had to more deliberately check the ever-present draw of self-interest. But they also knew that these checks and balances would not alone suffice. As Benjamin Franklin put it:
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” - Ben Franklin
The father of free-market capitalism, Adam Smith, saw similar cause for public-mindedness among a free people, writing that:
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.”
Smith predicted the “crony-capitalism” and lobby-centric, “political prostitution” we see today - where conflicts of interest run amok, politicians spend the majority of their tenure returning favors, and congressional approval is always below 20% because each representative will gladly harm every other district in order to serve the interests of his own. As much as he embodies the opposite of public-minded virtue, this contributed to Trump's election. To millions, he represented the man who would “drain the swamp” and end the political manipulation we’ve all felt helpless to stop. Naive, yes, but a contributing factor nonetheless.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan goes through every aspect of the food industry to trace the path of all the ingredients of a few selected meals. We see the devolution of our food and how it has happened. At many points it has reminded me of parts of Michael Moss’s Pulitzer prize-winning, Salt, Sugar, and Fat, when Moss chronicles how the food giants infiltrated schools, specifically targeting Home Economics to change the eating habits of the nation. ADHD Nation, by Alan Schwarz, and Bad Science, by Dr. Ben Goldacre, tell similar tales of the pharmaceutical industry. And then, of course, there is Big Tech.
In a culture that is distinctly NOT public-minded, there is no real punishment for bad actors at any step along the way. Everyone from Big Tech to the food companies, to the media and our politicians have been able to benefit themselves greatly while harming the whole and then to justify this behavior as the only way to stay in business. Without a public-minded population that will unite in punishing bad actors for nefarious behavior, the entire cultural landscape begins to depend on these manipulators for daily life. Early concessions eventually lead to a grand web that we can’t help but begrudgingly rely upon. Big tech, big food, and big pharma pervade nearly every aspect of our daily lives making it all but impossible to live free of their influence.
To some degree the situation we find ourselves in is the inevitable result of billions of dollars of marketing research and ever more addictive and powerful technology. Social cohesion and public-mindedness were especially high in America in the 1940s and early 50s when the distinguishing characteristic of American life was active group participation. But the expansion of the TV and the marketing power it facilitated changed the American character more than anything. The power of screens to change culture has only grown. But as this won’t be changing, it is necessary for us to begin adapting more intelligently.
A major emphasis of the book I’ve been writing is the role of public-mindedness in combatting the failed cultural model we’re handing our kids. With the expansion of hyper-addictive technologies, the increase in technological power, and the potential for that power to breed destruction, we must upgrade ourselves. I don’t see a path forward that doesn’t require a massive re-imagination of how schools operate so that we can create a far more public-minded people with a greater capacity to discern truth and a greater inclination towards self-development. As Daniel Schmachtenberger recently put it: “It’s cultural enlightenment or bust.”
And now, to leave you on a lighter note:
Also, my wife just showed me this video from last March, almost a year ago now. Hilarious.
And, finally, a couple of the resources I mentioned today:
Listen: I ended with a quote from Daniel Schmachtenberger. He is a leader in the Game B movement, aimed at imagining what civilization will need to look like in order to persist. A little heavy, I know, but he is a brilliant, thought-provoking thinker, who I’ve always found to be oddly comforting. He recently had a three hour conversation with Bret Weinstein on the Dark Horse Podcast which is well worth the time. In fact, I’ve started to re-listen to it. They struggle to build steam at the beginning, but this is as good and important a reflection as there is on what it means to be a human in the 21st century. I only wish we could be dissecting conversations like this with every high-school student in the country. That is what is necessary.
Read: A free chapter from The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Thank you for reading today. Please share with anyone you think would enjoy.
Life is too short to be normal,