Who are the best writers?

I often hear from writers that their best work happens when they aren’t writing to get published, but writing exactly those words that gets their point across. In other words, they write for themselves. The end product, I guess, happens to be something publishers like.

I’ve found this to be true in my own writing. Most of my best work wasn’t written with a particular target audience in mind. I was writing down my thoughts as exactly as I could. I didn’t pick the topics or choose the words based on how I expected them to go over with the publisher or my readers. In fact, some of my most popular articles have been sections of papers I wrote for class—words I had expected only my professor to read, he or she being more concerned with the structure and evidence for my argument than my tone or voice.

But deep down, I doubt that this type of thinking can carry a writer from good to great. Sure, most writers might actively fight the impulse to “write for the publisher.” But what about the best, most popular writers? Stephen King, Malcolm Gladwell, J.K. Rowling—do they really not think much about their reader when they write? Are they absent-minded geniuses whose written private thoughts happen to be words, arguments and stories to which the whole world can intimately relate?

I once asked this question to the executive editor of a major print and online magazine. We were grabbing lunch before he lectured at my college. He said it goes both ways. Some writers write for themselves. Their submissions are anywhere from incomprehensible and totally unrelatable to downright genius. Others are keenly aware of public opinion and the type of person they expect to read their work. They write with particular people in mind and sometimes end up saying very little at all, too aware of counterarguments and likely misinterpretations to get their point across with any expediency. But these types rarely put out terrible work—they’re too self-conscious for that.

I can definitely think of writers in both camps. One of my favorite writers, David Bentley Hart, falls firmly in the first one. His work can be almost impossible to digest, often full of references to things only people with his specific training would understand. But it’s also deeply personal. After reading his work, I’m left with little doubt that I understood him correctly—not just the words he used, but the thoughts that gave rise to those particular words. I’d even bet that I’m fairly certain of how he thinks and how he’d react to this or that essay or claim.

Another of my favorites is Malcolm Gladwell, who I think falls square into the other camp. He’s keenly aware of what the public wants. He writes at a level that maximizes the size of his potential audience, given the average reader’s intelligence. I can’t be sure, but he seems to write with that audience always in mind, choosing topics and examples highly-relevant to his work’s real-world political and cultural context. When reading his work, I don’t think I’ve once stopped to wonder why he chose this or that example, why he used this or that word. His tone is completely natural. He’s a briliant written conversationalist.

These are both theories, of course. I can’t read other people’s minds. Maybe that means I’ll never know the answer. But I’m at least convinced that thinking about how these approaches differ and finding some happy medium is the key to writing well. Or perhaps what really matters is the act of searching for this medium—not necessarily finding it.

QE over? Brace for inflation.

Lots of people began worrying about inflation when the Federal Reserve began QE back in 2008. Some even predicted “inflationary disaster,” warning that the monetary base cannot quintuple without a correlating rise in consumer prices.

For a while, I believed these guys. I was an undergraduate economics student at the time, and their logic made sense to me. Increasing the money supply will increase nominal prices, right?

Not quite. It’s true that increasing the supply of money will increase nominal prices, but QE didn’t increase the money supply, per se. It’s immediate effect is to increase the level of base money, which doesn’t change the supply of circulating money. What matters for price inflation, of course, is circulating money.

The reason we didn’t see the type of inflation these inflation-hawks warned about is because the new base money did not increase the M1 money stock (circulating money) like they predicted. They didn’t account for the Fed’s ability to control the rate at which this new money raises the M1 money stock via the interest it pays on base money accounts. And of course, the Fed has every incentive to keep inflation under control.

I’ve written about this before. When the Fed creates money, they don’t inject it into the economy with the intent that it has an immediate, proportional effect on consumer price levels. They deposit the new money into banks’ accounts at the Fed, where it collects interest. This has the effect of increasing bank reserves relative to the M1 money stock. It’s up to the banks, then, how they use these levels of reserves to increase lending activities and grow their balance sheets. By and large, banks have been quite conservative in this regard.

To put it simply, what these inflation-hawks should have been watching was not the amount of QE or growth in the monetary base, but the rate at which base money sparks more lending. That rate has been pretty low.

Now back to the title of this post…

The reason QE’s end should raise inflation fears is because, on the margin, banks will begin lending more to make up the difference from revenue lost because of QE’s end. For years, these banks’ reserve accounts at the Fed have been growing and earning interest. Now they’ve stopped growing (though they still earn interest).

Of course, banks don’t necessarily have to make up this difference. It’s just base money, and big banks aren’t anywhere close to being reserve-constrained. But as I said above, this tendency will happen on the margin. Not every bank will increase lending, but their incentives have now changed in favor of more lending and less hoarding.

I think the reason why we should fear inflation more now that QE is over is clear: Banks have less incentive to hoard cash in their Fed reserve accounts, as these accounts will now grow at a slower rate. The only way to make up this difference is to invest elsewhere. This will have the effect of turning base money into circulating money more often (technically, this is an increase in the M1 money multiplier, which we indeed saw every time QE ended in the past six years).

But prices respond to more than just changes in the money supply. These extra-monetary influences are likely to be stronger in the short-term—especially the appreciating dollar. So I’m not saying to brace for hyperinflation next month, or even any inflation next month. These things take time. Price inflation always lags behind monetary inflation. But I do predict that banks’ propensity to lend will increase, ceteris paribus. This type of inflation–not price fluctuations due to things like fluxing foreign demand, appreciating dollar, etc.–is what matters from a business cycle perspective, and what drives robust, sustained, real monetary inflation in the long term.

True identity, free invention

The concept of identity, when not employed on an exclusively individual scale, is inherently reductionist and dehumanizing, a collectivist and ideological abstraction of all that is original and creative in the human being, of all that has not been imposed by inheritance, geography, or social pressure. Rather, true identity springs from the capacity of human beings to resists these influences and counter them with free acts of their own invention.
Mario Vargas Llosa

How not to argue with the Pope (or anyone)

In a recent speech, Pope Francis affirmed his belief in the theory of evolution, noting its compatibility with Scripture.

The Big Bang, which is today posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creation; rather, it requires it. … Evolution of nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

This made a few young-earth creationists mad. For those who don’t know, young-earth creationists interpret Genesis 1 very literally—they believe God created the universe in six consecutive 24-hour days about 7,000 years ago (or thereabouts). By implication, this means they believe the theory of evolution is wrong. Some of them even think evolution is heresy, or that believing in evolution is a form of disbelief in God.


from Wikimedia Commons

But my point here is not to get into that debate. I’m not ready for that, and probably won’t ever be. What I want to show is how not to respond to people you disagree with.

Below is a comment given in response to the Pope’s by Brian Thomas at the Institute for Creation Research.

Either God really created the cosmos the way He said He did and when He said, or He did not. If He did not, then we should jettison Scripture. Fortunately, historical science—like young-looking spiral galaxies, fast-fuel-burning blue stars, heat-emitting Saturn, and still-icy comets—clearly confirm the Bible’s history.

There are several things wrong with Brian’s response. Some of them have to do with the specific context of this debate, so my apologies to those who haven’t read much about evolution vs. young-earth creationism. But all of them are, I think, examples we should learn from before attempting to debate with our peers.

First, Brian misses the whole point of the argument and instead assumes his position’s truth from the very outset. His evidence for his opponent’s fallacy then derive from that assumption. This is not an argument, but a mere assertion. It also has nothing to do with what Pope Francis said—that God’s plan for creation included evolution.

Second, Brian cherry picks examples. Sure, “young-looking spiral galaxies” and “heat-emitting Saturn” may provide some evidence in favor of young-earth creationism—evidence I’m willing to consider. But there’s lots of evidence against young-earth creationism, too. He doesn’t mention these. Instead, he levels only those pieces of evidence that seem to be in favor of his position (this is my larger problem with the young-earth creationism community in general, by the way).

Third, his response opens Pandora’s box and makes an argument concerning the validity of Scripture as a whole, when all Pope Francis discussed was how God may have created the universe. Why must we “jettison Scripture” if Genesis 1 is found to be less-than-literal? In the context of a formal debate, Brian would have to defend that position before any other rebuttals of his opponent would fly, since he uses that assumption to (try to) undermine his opponent, who he knows believes in the truth of the Scriptures.

Just some thoughts. There’s a lot more to discuss here, but I’ll leave it at that.

Public accommodation and social engineering

That’s the title of my new piece at Mises.org. In it, I outline the problems with public accommodation not just in terms of the types of problems it creates, but logical flaws with the doctrine itself. I highlight three specific problems:

1. Public accommodation turns the law into a mechanism for social engineering.

2. Public accommodation leads to unenforceable laws.

3. Public accommodation seizes control of businesses from their rightful owners.

This is by far my most controversial article yet. Public accommodation comes from the Civil Rights Act. It’s the vehicle by which the state enforces desegregation. Criticizing it entails undermining what the vast majority of people understand to be the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement.

But truth is truth. Public accommodation is a vehicle for tyranny. There are far better ways to advance the cause of equal rights—a cause I totally support—than with state-endorsed violence.

The problem is public accommodation

Media pundits like to pitch cases like Hitching Post as attacks on religious liberty. Religious freedom issues are great for ratings, after all. They rile people up.

For those who don’t know, the owners of Hitching Post Wedding Chapel were recently ordered to conduct a same-sex wedding ceremony despite their religious objection. If they refuse, they face jail time and up to $1,000 in fines for every day they continue to refuse.

But cases like Hitching Post aren’t really issues of religious freedom—at least not directly, or in terms of how the law is written. They’re about economic freedom. They have to do with the doctrine of “public accommodation,” by which the government can force businesses to service particular types of customers. As the law stands, any business open to the public must service customers regardless of race, disability, sex, sexual orientation. Business owners’ beliefs and opinions, including their religious objections, don’t matter.

LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.

That’s the fundamental problem. It started with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Some might counter that Hitching Post’s objection is rooted in religion and not the racism targeted by the Civil Rights Act. Therefore, it’s not really an issue of public accommodation akin to a white hotel owner refusing black customers. It’s a matter of being forced to behave in ways contrary to an intimately-held religious belief.

But racism could conceivably have religious roots, too. In fact, it unfortunately did for centuries. Until those who care about their liberties are willing to put aside their fear of social and political ostracism and admit that the letter of the Civil Rights Act itself is a problem, they’ll never get anywhere. Slowly but surely, their respect for “political correctness”—even if unenthusiastic—will leave them, us, with nothing left to defend.

Remember Elaine Huguenin? She lost her case last year after refusing to photograph a lesbian wedding ceremony on the grounds of public accommodation. Rulings like this will happen over and over again because they’re the only ruling consistent with the public accommodation doctrine. Expect nothing different until that doctrine is rigorously challenged.

I have a longer, more formal piece on public accommodation being published tomorrow. I’ll post a link here when it’s available.

Brace for more stupid, unwarranted Islamophobia

Mark my words: Mainstream media pundits will make a big deal out of the fact that the gunman in Ottowa today was a Muslim. In fact, they usually only use the word “terrorist” when the perpetrator was a Muslim.

That’s sad, because most terrorists aren’t actually Muslim. In fact, between 9/11 and 2012, only 33 of the more than 300 Americans killed by terrorist acts died at the hands of Muslims. I don’t want to downplay that number, but consider that more than 180,000 Americans were murdered during this time for reasons unrelated to terrorism, or that the Virginia Tech shooter alone killed 32—just one less person.

I also notice a tendency among media pundits to blame Islam when a criminal is Muslim like they blame guns when a criminal is either insane or has no obvious motive. Many accept the first tendency yet decry the second by pointing out that only a minuscule fraction of guns are used to kill innocent people. But we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. If blaming guns is wrong because guns are almost always used responsibly, then blaming Islam must also be wrong because Muslims are almost always not terrorists.

No matter what anyone tells you about the “inherent violence of Islam” or Muslims’ tendency toward terrorism against Western targets, remember that more than seven million Muslims live in the United States today who have never committed a terrorist act. These people live in our neighborhoods. Their children go to our schools. They work at our banks, our pools, our grocery stores, our city halls. Saying Islam is inherently violent is like saying driving is safer than flying–it’s simply false, based entirely on ‘gut feeling’ and not on real-world data.

I don’t want to defend Islam. I’m not a Muslim. I think Muslims are wrong. I hate the way many of them treat women. But I also hate false information–especially when it leads to unwarranted fear.

A new blog theme, again

Regular readers of my blog—all three or four of you—probably noticed that I changed the theme of my blog. I realize that my old one was only three months old, but I wasn’t sold on the theme I had chosen. It was too busy. I used to like that, but I’ve changed my mind.

My new theme is called Ryu. It was designed for readability. It’s clutter-free. It leaves absolutely no distractions from the content in each post. My hope is that this helps emphasize the quality of my writing, in addition to the ideas and theories behind my work. Having links to my favorite blogs on the side-column in my old theme was nice. It helped people, I think, see where I’m coming from and the thinkers that influence me. But in the end, it only distracted from my own work.

I’m unabashed about my desire to become a writer. I want to put my existing content in the best light possible. I hope this theme does that.