Monday, December 21, 2009

Kilroy Café #60: "The Burden of Choice"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The Burden of Choice
More options aren't necessarily a good thing.


Choice is good-or so we are told. 500 channels are better than five. 30 flavors are better than three. In theory, the more choices you have, the more ways you can solve your problems.

In practice, though, too much choice can be a burden and often leads to bad results. The more choices people have, the more opportunity they have to screw themselves up, especially with choices they are not qualified to make.

"Get out and vote!" the public is urged, but this advice only draws uninformed voters to the polls who don't have a clue who they are voting for, so we end up with inept public officials. Likewise, when people have too much choice about their investments, health or nutrition, they are likely to make poor choices that are statistically worse than making no choice at all.

The healthiest diet is usually one where someone sets a meal down in front of you and says, "Eat this!", but that's not the way most of us do it. In the commercial world, we are bombarded by choices-a glorious buffet of them!-and the more we have, the more likely we are to eat poorly and far too much.

In general, it is best to preserve your future options whenever possible. You shouldn't choose for a whole lifetime if you have the option to choose for a year then choose again later. On the other hand, every choice is stressful and uses up resources in itself.

If you have 500 channels to choose from, then you have to take time to go through all those options and evaluate them. This wasn't the case when there were only a handful channels: You always knew what was on, and your relative lack of control was a natural limit on how much you watched.

Unlimited choice is a delusion. Instead of 5 channels of crap, you now have 500, so the healthy choices, if any, are buried in the noise.

It is the natural aim of marketers to create new choices based on increasing trivial criteria. Why buy an ordinary laundry detergent when you can get one with blue freshness crystals? Modern commerce gives you endless choices, but it also extenuates and deadens your ability to choose. If you are spending too much energy on the trivial choices like laundry detergent, then you can't be paying enough attention to the big and important ones.

But choice isn't necessarily a panacea for the big decisions either. At every crossroads, it is good to dwell on your future direction. Huge amounts of energy can be saved by choosing a wise path at an early stage rather than enduring the long-term defects of a badly chosen route. Yet, at some point you have to accept the path you are on and work with it.

For better or worse, each of us has already made a number of choices that are difficult to change. While it is a fallacy to say you have "no choice", you are probably going to stick with your current path unless there's a reason to alter it. Breaking an established route takes courage and effort, and it may not always be wise.

Choosing the right path is only part of the journey. The other part is traveling the path you have chosen. You aren't going to get anywhere unless you actually start walking, committing yourself to resolving whatever obstacles you encounter along the way.

It is a mistake to call it an absolute commitment, one you will never break, but it is okay to turn choice off for a while. You can say to yourself, "I'm going to climb this mountain," and once you have made a route selection, you don't have to revisit it every hour. You just accept the path and get on with it.

The balance here is between freedom and structure. If you have too much freedom, you won't know what to do with yourself, and you'll make uninformed decisions based on superficial criteria. If you have too much structure, then you won't have the ability to change paths should a better one come up.

Choice is expensive! It soaks up your time and energy, and the lure of it is often irresistible. How many of us can go into a sumptuous buffet and choose only the healthy items and portions? Most of us will gorge ourselves because we aren't truly qualified to handle all that choice.

So what's the solution? You don't go into the buffet! Likewise, you can avoid the burden of 500 channels by simply not subscribing to the service. If you treat small choices as a package, you can be more detached about the decision and whether it is good for your health. Then you are less burdened with the micro-choices within the big one.

Instead of choosing all the time, you can manage yourself as you would a child, presenting to him only the choices he can handle. It sounds silly, but it works! If unhealthy choices aren't available, then they aren't a temptation.

Sometimes, the greatest wisdom is knowing when you are unqualified to choose and limiting yourself accordingly.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Birchim, Indiana.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kilroy Café #59: "The Limits of Charity"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The Limits of Charity


Your only real meaning on this planet lies in somehow making it a better place. The problem is how to go about it. Giving selflessly to others may seem noble, but that's not the issue. Simply giving away what you have isn't necessarily going to improve anything.

Each of us has limited resources. You have only a certain amount of time on Earth, and that's all you've got to work with. Some of this time can be turned into money, power or knowledge, but no matter how rich, connected or skilled you may become, that influence is limited, too. Even the wealthiest philanthropist can't make a dent in the world's problems if his resources are used indiscriminately.

If a beggar asks you for money, do you give it to him? Your emotions may say so. It feels good to be generous, but generosity alone doesn't guarantee a positive outcome. Is the money going to be used for drugs? Will the ease of his getting it discourage him from getting a job? In those cases, giving to the beggar may actually hurt him, not help.

An extreme response is to not give anything to anybody, but what's the point in that? So you accumulate resources all your life and then die. Your skills will be lost forever, while your money will be passed to your heirs who will either use it wisely or they won't. You're essentially dumping your own problem onto them!

The solution lies in "strategic" giving. You apply your resources in clever ways that multiply their effect. Just feeding the hungry doesn't necessarily help. You want to attack the real sources of hunger, like war or overpopulation. You want to see the problem at the highest level possible and look for solutions there.

But there is futility in trying to attack all the world's problems at once. It isn't clear that by giving to any global cause you are improving things any more than by giving to a beggar. The amount you can donate is usually trivial, and no worldwide movement is without its potential feedback flaws—i.e. the risk of unintentionally making things worse. If you place your resources in the hands of others in the blind faith that they know what to do, there is never a guarantee of the results you intend.

No matter how you intervene, there is potential for both good and bad. It isn't enough to have a theory about what works, you have to see how the object of your charity actually responds. To get the most from your resources, you have to be able to monitor the results. Then you can adjust your intervention accordingly.

This implies a balance between global and local. It is unproductive to dwell on the whole galaxy but also to devote too much attention to a single person or local cause. You want to focus on areas you understand well, viewing them from a distance but without losing your connection to real people.

Simply the fact that someone is in desperate need does not mean you should help them, because there may be other places where your resources are more effective. In almost every charitable venue, need will far exceed your resources, so you have to be cagy about how you use them. You will say "yes" in the right circumstances, but more often you will have to say "no". You have to conserve your gifts for their most productive use, and this means turning away most applications.

You also have to preserve your own ability to give. Your life is a tool, and you can give to others only to the extent that your tool is well-fueled, well-maintained and growing in and of itself. If your selfless charity begins to intrude into your own self-maintenance, then you won't be helping anyone in the end, because your own system will collapse.

If your life is a machine to help others, you shouldn't be running it at full capacity. From time to time, you have to shut it down for scheduled maintenance. You have to upgrade the technology. You have to confirm, on a daily basis, that the machine is really doing what it is supposed to. While you attend to these matters, people may die, but the long-term productivity of your machine depends on this seemingly self-absorbed behavior.

Most importantly, you can't let people become dependent on your machine, because eventually they are going to have to live without it. Ultimately, people have to help themselves. They will have to come up with their own solutions that don't involve you. These may not be solutions you approve of, but you have to let them be.

The world is a hard and desperate place, and your hopes for changing it must be modest. You intervene where you realistically can and step aside otherwise. Much suffering will go on because you failed to help, but you can't save everyone.

In the end, you are but a visitor here. The problems of the world were here before you came and will continue after you leave. Your task is mostly an academic exercise: to see how much you can accomplish during your brief assignment here. If you apply your resources wisely, without obsession, delusion or waste, you can step away satisfied.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Lexington, Kentucky.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Recession is Over! (So Says I)

The Recession is over! That's my assessment. I'm no economist, just an amateur soothsayer who happens to have lived through several of these things.

Upon what do I base my analysis? A single statistic: In November, the US economy lost almost no jobs. (Just a statistically insignificant 11,000 jobs instead of a predicted 130,000. See news story.)

This is in spite of the fact that that layoffs seem to be everywhere. Many local and state governments, for example, are only now laying off workers as their budgets reach the breaking point. I see these as lagging indicators, however. Government layoffs are a reflection of how the economy has been over the past year or two. Business layoffs, on the other hand, tend to be more pro-active, reflecting present and anticipated conditions.

If government layoffs are still happening, but the total job numbers remain steady, that implies that somebody out there is hiring enough workers to compensate. It can only be business doing the hiring, and it would do so only if sales are actually picking up.

Saying that the recession is over does not mean the pain is over. Big sectors of the economy are hurting and will continue to hurt for years. Governments continue to be in dire straits. New workers being hired now might be getting only a fraction of their former wage. Some industries will never recover, but this is mainly because their time has come and gone.

All that matters when defining the beginning and end of a recession is the current growth of the economy as a whole. Somebody out there is engaged in economic activity, and it's apparently enough to bring up the numbers. Maybe the good times we knew will never be back, but "recovery" is defined only by growth relative to the trough.

The world took a massive hit from the housing collapse, but the economy as a whole may have already discounted that. One should never underestimate the ability of U.S. Capitalism to roll with the punches. What emerges from the ashes is a new, different economy, based on different assumptions and probably much lower expectations. Some individuals, industries, cities and countries based on the old assumptions will continue to founder (Las Vegas, Dubai), but wily new operators will take their place as the leaders of growth.

Oh, in addition to the job numbers, I have one other indicator that the recession is over: Glenn Beck and others in conservative media are urging people to buy gold! I remember gold fever in the past, and every time it happens—every time the average sucker is talking about it at dinner parties—gold prices collapse. When stupid white people start buying gold, they're investing in the recession. It's the reverse hysteria of the boom years: Gold can't rise forever any more than housing prices can.

Sooner or later the economy is going to factor in all the excesses of the past, and growth is going to resume along a different track. Then everyone is going to want to be out of gold and into the market. Glenn Beck's groupies will take a bath, just like the conspiracy believers in every past recession.

Greed will be back, you'll see!

Glenn Campbell
Laramie, Wyoming

NOTE: I don't necessarily believe one aspect of the graph above: that the next peak in the economy will be bigger than the last. (That would be a big bubble to blow!) I only believe that the trough has been reached.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kilroy Café #58: "Russian Roulette: Childbirth..."

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Russian Roulette

Childbirth is one of the world’s most dangerous and costly games of chance, but the gamblers keep playing.


What would you think of an extraordinarily expensive recreational activity that had a 10% chance of resulting in death or lifelong disability for one of the participants? Is it wise or moral to take part?

People do it all the time. It's called childbirth.

Having a baby is spinning a genetic roulette wheel. Genes of mother and father are mixed up in random ways, and the result could be an Einstein or Mozart. It is far more likely, however, that the experiment will fail and the offspring will have a serious disability.

Birth defects occur in 3-5% of all live births. If you add mental disorders, diseases and accidents of childhood, 10% is a reasonable failure rate. No matter how you add it up, when you create a child there is a substantial chance he will die, suffer trauma or become profoundly disabled before he reaches adulthood.

Most people would engage in no other activity with such a horrible safety record. Why, then, do they choose to make children?

It's not like the human race is in any danger of dying out. There are plenty of children already here and never enough resources to care for them. Why, then, would anyone of conscience want to add still another needy child to the mix?

It is noble to address the needs of a neglected child. The net nobility vanishes, however, when you yourself created the need. It is like digging a hole only to fill it up again: Yes, you worked hard, but at the end of the day the world is the same as when you started.

Raising a child is monumentally expensive, not just in time and money but in the parents' loss of freedom and potential. Responsible parents cannot take risks; they have to follow a relatively safe and conventional path. Years of your life devoted to child rearing can't be used for other things. They might have been great things that helped many existing children, but you will never know.

Only in recent times have people have had the right to say "No." For most of human history, if you obeyed the sexual urge then babies followed. With birth control came the ability to disengage sex and mating from procreation. You could choose to procreate; it wasn't a requirement. At the same time, the world population exploded to unsustainable levels. The ethical response is to not further contribute to the agonies of Man but use your resources for better things.

When you create a child, you create a liability that didn't exist previously. If something goes wrong with this Frankenstein experiment, you will be responsible because you are the one who initiated it. Even if everything goes right, you are essentially deferring your problems to the next generation. You expect your children to do great things instead of you.

So why do people do it? Narcissism, mainly. It isn't done for the child, it is done for the parents, who are trying to fill some hunger or emotional void. It is an off-the-shelf solution to an absence of meaning in their lives.

This is a politically sensitive topic, because all of us our products of childbirth! You can't argue against it without insulting your forebears and a fair number of your friends. When talking to someone who has already invested in this belief system, you have to carefully watch your words, because they are now imprisoned in their choice and have to believe in it.

Furthermore, it is next to impossible to talk anyone out of having a baby. Childbirth is a religious practice, and like all forms of religion, it is immune to logic. By the time you learn about it, the decision has probably been made, so you can only offer the usual congratulations.

Creating a life requires a huge and delusional ego. Like other gamblers, parents think they're special. They inflate the odds of success and discount the possibility of failure. They believe God will protect them. Even if they are not religious, their explanations are invariably filled with self-serving sentiment and circular logic.

Why do they really do it? People hit a blank wall and don't know what to do with themselves. Their romance is running down and going nowhere. They want to buy a ticket on some train that promises to give their life purpose.

If you try it, yes, you'll have purpose! You've just dug yourself a big hole you are obligated to fill over the next few decades. Now you have to believe!

Parenthood can be joyful and will certainly to keep you busy. But that's not the same as knowing who you are, having real creative direction and doing something positive for the world.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photos)
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.