My Dad

October 2 was my Dad’s birthday; later October was the one-year anniversary of his death. He struggled with Alzheimer’s disease several years before he died. Some thoughts and memories:

– He majored in mathematics at Pepperdine, tending as in all things toward the methodical approach, as opposed to my tendency toward the intuitive. He enjoyed physics. One time, he tried to explain to me how it could be that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I knew that was right (I don’t think it seemed that way to Dad), but I wanted to understand it, and it seemed to me impossible. Eventually, he produced an explanation that satisfied me.

– I take a stronger interest in philosophy in most people, including Dad, but I always look for glimmers of interest in philosophical questions in people who don’t spend much or any time systematically studying it. Some memories of conversations and other things. o When I was twelve or fifteen, he discussed with me the difference between the modern scientific approach and that of Aristotle- not in casual conversation, but not in a systematic or deep discussion either.

o On multiple occasions, he discussed with me the story of Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac. The Biblical narrative is very matter-of-fact, leaving you to read between the lines as to what both Abraham and Isaac must have thought. At Pepperdine, a class of his had spent at least a month reading between those lines, and it made a major impression on him.

o Also at Pepperdine, he took a class in communication or somesuch. The professor had as his motto “man cannot not communicate.” You might not always be talking, but you’re always communicating with someone- another person, yourself, God…I don’t really know why, but this impressed him greatly.

o Late in life, as the disease was taking a pretty strong toll (it must have been about 2006), he read a book about the brain and related to me that the author mentioned Ludvig von Mises and Austrian economists’ belief in the subjectivity of value. He was fascinating that economists’ ideas could be related to the study of the brain. I discussed the question of whether these ideas extended to ethical values, and he made a thoughtful reply. It always feels sad when I think that I hadn’t fully come to understand his thinking by the time he started losing the ability to think. The very earliest signs of the disease were 2001, when I was sixteen or seventeen.

– We often read a book called The Way Things Work, about the way things work. I wanted to learn about computers and calculators, he wanted to teach me the basics of levers and fulcrums. We did a little of both. Zippers were especially a puzzle for me. (A theoretical puzzle, I mean. Did you ever consider how a zipper works? Well, also a practical puzzle. I often break the zippers on my coats.)

 – I liked basketball as a kid and so we played all the time. Dad always liked tennis and bicycling, so we did some of that. Sometimes we played some baseball or Frisbee. There was always a feeling that maybe we should do more of that sort of thing, but looking back we actually had a remarkably well-balanced life. Night after night we would play King’s Quest adventure computer games (mostly you typed what you wanted your character to do, but with some transitional involvement of the hot new “mouse.”) Dad used to be a computer programmer and always worked with technology. Most kids my age had to figure out computers on their own, but I always had Dad fix mine. He always had me watch him fix it, but I never got very good.

– Family was the whole focus of his life. When doing finances or projects or fixing the car, he always involved us kids. He also involved Grandpa in as many projects as he could.

– He liked to cook hamburgers and salmon for dinner, and he liked to cook breakfast. Recently I made pancakes, in commemoration.

On Redistribution

–         The moral case for not taking things from people (whether private individuals are stealing or government taxing) runs something like this: that thing belongs to that person, because he did something for the previous owner that made the owner agree to give the thing to him. 

–         The practical case for not taking things from people is that people will not do things for each other if they cannot earn and keep money for doing so.  People won’t work as hard.

–         A case for redistribution, as I understand it, is that some poor people work just as hard as some rich people.  Some unemployed people would work just as hard as rich people if they could find a job, which they are trying rather hard to find.  So money should be a moral reward for someone’s intention to do good.

–         But, in the first place, there is nothing particularly moral about hard work.  Usually we would rather be doing something other than working hard, but if work brings us benefits to outweigh its costs, we will do it.  Working hard is just accepting a trade-off, revealing a subjective preference, which may have no moral status, good or bad.

–         Moreover, very often differences in pay do reflect different degrees of willingness to work hard, or to take on other costs.  If one for some reason takes the position that money should be a reward for moral intentions, a willingness to do things for others independent of ability, one still runs into the problem that not everybody possesses that willingness equally.  Will redistribution more or less accurately reflect people’s willingness to work than lack of redistribution?

–         Permitting inequality is necessary to maintain incentives to produce, even though it will lead to different results for people with the same motivation to produce, due to differences in luck and abilities.  If people are to turn what luck and ability they have into productivity, there needs to be incentive to produce, even though that incentive rewards the luck and ability along with the desire.  This is a distinction that I think is sometimes lost.  Lefties take the fact that people with the same intentions can achieve different amounts of wealth as a knock-down argument, while righties for some reason want to argue that people are rich only because they work hard, and poor only because they do not work hard.

–         This is because people labor under the misconception that money is a reward for moral worth, and that, again, hard work is a measure of moral worth (see bullet point four).  But, the moral case for property has nothing to do with the objective moral value of the person with the property, and everything to do with the process by which he acquired it (see bullet point one).  Trades are all about subjective values; if Babe Ruth’s bat is objectively worth two Mickey Mantle rookie cards, I’m not going to bother trading Ruth’s bat for Mantle’s cards, because I won’t get ahead.  If I subjectively value one more than the other, then now we’re getting somewhere.

–         Why do people want money to be a reward for morality?  When we buy something, we understand that we aren’t placing a moral value on the person selling the thing, but only on the thing being sold.  But somehow, in the aggregate, if someone makes lots of money, that person is supposed to be entitled to social esteem.  People tend to respect hard work and ability, and money partly reflects these things.  But then egalitarians say: we’re all entitled to equal social status, therefore, we’re entitled to equal wealth, or as little inequality as is compatible with sufficient incentives to produce.  Their quarrel should be with the value people place on ability and hard work, if anything; money is only a symbolic proxy for these things.  Spreading money evenly, so that it no longer reflects ability and hard work, won’t fool anyone.

–     If our culture is silly for attaching respect to money-making abilities, it has ways of dealing with its own irrationality.  There is a social taboo against talking about how much money you make.  The ninety-nine per centers and those who agitate about growing in a way break this very useful taboo.