Revisting Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

One of the most beloved, but misunderstood, poems in American literature is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” For a lot of people, the poem is a call to live an exceptional life, eschewing the usual script and instead embracing the extraordinary. However, that wasn’t Frost’s intention with the poem.

“The Road Not Taken” is a relatively short poem, but it packs a lot into a few words. Perhaps the most famous line from the poem is:

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference

It’s not unusual for people to read that line and think Frost’s narrator is encouraging them to take the road less traveled in order to live an amazing, successful life. But that’s not what the narrator is saying. Four different times in the poem, the narrator tells the reader that both paths are equally untraveled. He’s not saying to take the road less traveled. Instead, in the lines preceding the famous line, the narrator says:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence

The narrator did not take the less traveled road, but he knows that at some point in the future, he will lie to himself and say that his life is what it is because he took the road less traveled.

There are two things I want to do with this blog post. First, I want to examine the background of “The Road Not Taken.” It has a funny, but tragic, backstory. Then, I want to share an analysis of the poem by writer Hugh Howey. I was struck by the thoughts on the poem Howey shared on Twitter, and I’d like to share them here.

First, let’s take a look at the entire poem:

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

–Robert Frost

In 1912 Frost moved to England and befriended fellow poet Edward Thomas. Frost and Thomas often took walks to clear their heads after a day of writing, and to discuss each other’s lives. These walks were very important to both men.

Thomas had a tendency to regret his choices. After their walks where Thomas would choose the route, he would express his fear that a different route would have been better. His dissatisfaction over the path they had taken became a joke between the two men.

Upon returning to the United States in 1915, Frost sent a copy of the poem to Thomas. As discussed earlier, the poem was not intended to be a call to action. Instead, it was a wry jab at Thomas for worrying so much about the path that was taken and the decisions that were made. But like so many people in the years after the poems publication—first in The Atlantic in 1915, and a year later in Frost’s poetry collection, Mountain Interval—Thomas took the poem to heart and read it as a call to live boldly, choosing the path less traveled.

Frost couldn’t have known that the poem would encourage his friend to give up his life as a poet and join the British Army during World War I. And he must have been devastated when he learned that, two years after enlisting, Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras.

Despite Thomas’ untimely demise, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has encouraged countless people to shun the common and live exceptional lives. But, of course, that was never Frost’s intention. Hugh Howey makes this point quite eloquently, and he compares The Road Not Taken with another of Frost’s most popular poems, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.

From Hugh Howey:

Frost’s greatest gift — and the one most difficult to access — is his use of the unreliable narrator. His poems lie to us. These untruths conceal deep and profound truths.

Frost’s most famous poem is perhaps the most famous poem of all-time, the Mona Lisa of poems, his THE ROAD NOT TAKEN.

The most fascinating thing to me about THE ROAD NOT TAKEN is that most people get the title wrong. Which is incredibly meta. Because I’m about to blow your mind. The poem is about two paths that are identical in one aspect: Neither path has ever been walked down.

People often refer to this poem as “The Road Less Traveled.” This comes from a line toward the end that is 100% a lie. And here is the genius I mentioned in the opening Tweet: Robert Frost lies to us, because he’s writing about us, and we lie to ourselves all the time.

Frost tells us FOUR TIMES that the two paths are the same in terms of wear. This is not a long poem — he has to be economical with his words — but he tells us FOUR TIMES that neither path is the one less traveled.

See if you can find all four times.

The reason they have the same lack of wear is because these are life choices yet to be taken. The narrator has come to a crossroads in life, a great decision. College or gap year? Get married or keep dating? Settle down or move abroad?

These decisions give us pause, and so we sit at the crossroads and we study our choices, try to gauge how much we’ll enjoy each of the two paths before us. As Frost demonstrates, it’s impossible to tell! We haven’t walked either one before.

The lies begin in the third stanza with this line:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

The only exclamation mark in the poem. The excitement of childlike mania. The insanity of naiveté.

The lie hardly lasts. Over the next two lines, we see the excitement of that exclamation mark dissolve into resignation. The narrator knows they’ll never come back. You can’t live both lives:

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

We’ve all felt this, the desire to live two mutually incompatible lives. Nest, but roam. Dabble, but commit. Sample, yet dive deep.

We want to live unconventional lives, but have all the comforts of convention.

The big lie comes at the end. What’s amazing is that the narrator KNOWS they are going to lie to themselves. At the end of their life, they will say that they took the path less traveled, and that it was the correct choice, but they will never know.

The hint isn’t just the four times we were told the paths were the same for lack of wear. The hints are the sigh with which the lie is told, and the halting nature of the telling of the lie.

… and I–

I took the one less traveled by…

He hesitates. He almost tells the truth. But the only way to hold the ego together is to convince himself he didn’t make a mistake, because the tsunami of regrets for all the paths he couldn’t walk down would drown him.

The lie is the thing.

And so we can’t even remember the name of the poem, so deeply do we want to believe the same lie. We claim we took the road less traveled, when the OPPOSITE is true.

Each of us took the only road we traveled. The other road we left undiscovered.

Back to STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING:

STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

Whose woods these are I think I know.  

His house is in the village though;  

He will not see me stopping here  

To watch his woods fill up with snow.  

 

My little horse must think it queer  

To stop without a farmhouse near  

Between the woods and frozen lake  

The darkest evening of the year.  

 

He gives his harness bells a shake  

To ask if there is some mistake.  

The only other sound’s the sweep  

Of easy wind and downy flake.  

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,  

But I have promises to keep,  

And miles to go before I sleep,  

And miles to go before I sleep.

–Robert Frost

Can you spot a possible lie in this poem? Even if your brain can’t, your heart might. Your subconscious might. I think all of our hearts do.

Like THE ROAD NOT TAKEN, this poem gives us three stanzas of truth before we get a final stanza of outright rebellion.

The dark woods are death. The narrator recognizes the end:

Whose woods these are I think I know

The absence of a farmhouse, this place between a frozen lake and the woods, no place to support life.

The primal urge to resist, our subconscious fear of death, is his horse, ringing its bells, shivering and confused, urging him forward.

To ask if there is some mistake.

Such a brutal line. Brutal.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

Something enticing about the end of a long and difficult journey. Almost alluring to succumb to it. But then we get the final BUT:

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

The last sad lie is right here, repeated twice, as we often repeat things while our attention is drifting or our energy flagging.

I have so much I want to do before I die.

I have so much I want to do before I die.

I promised myself I would do these things. I promised.

But I know whose woods those are. And the animal inside me is ringing a bell, hoping there is some mistake.

The two poems tell the same story of a life too short for all it hopes to contain.

Both poems are about the things left undone.

In one, the lie is that the choices were the correct ones.

In the other, the lie is that there’s time yet to live.

The truth is simple and sad:

We have but one life; it will be shorter than we wish; live it deliberately and wisely.

 

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Twenty Years Later, The Terrorists Won

It’s hard to believe it has already been twenty years since the United States was attacked by terrorists, hijacking commercial airplanes and flying them into the World Trade Center in NYC, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and an attack thwarted by brave souls on Flight 93 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. The wound is still fresh. For most of us who were alive on that fateful day, we think of September 11, 2001 often.

In the aftermath of the attack, Americans came together in unity and a sense of national purpose. We were determined to “not let the terrorists win.” President Bush encouraged us to go on with our lives, get back to normal, and show those that meant us harm that they could not defeat us.

We went to war in Iraq to “combat terrorism.” Later, our war on terrorism spilled over into Afghanistan. All tolled, we lost more than 3400 members of the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 330,000 civilians were killed.

At home, we agreed to give up certain liberties in an effort to keep us all safe and to make sure than we didn’t suffer another deadly terrorist attack. We agreed to undergo significantly increased security measures in order to fly on commercial airlines, including allowing TSA personnel to feel us up to make sure we weren’t carrying bombs.

We learned words like “waterboarding” and “FISA courts,” heard about places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the Department of Homeland Security was created and became a behemoth within our government, Muslim hate crimes became common, and a ban on Muslim immigrants was attempted.

The good news is that the wars in far off lands and the changes at home have kept us safe. Although it may be true that correlation doesn’t equal causation, the fact is, for nearly twenty years, we have not suffered another large scale, mass fatality event in the United States. The bad news is, in the end, the terrorists won.

If the terrorists goal was to kill a bunch of Americans and send our lives into chaos, then they succeeded. Sure, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack, we felt a closeness to our fellow citizens and a willingness to bend a little for the common good, but those days are long behind us.

Today, twenty years after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history, we are divided like never before. One of our political parties is pushing us to abandon our democracy in favor of authoritarianism. Their rhetoric and actions led to an insurrection in January 2021,  and their continuing efforts have accomplished what the 9/11 terrorists could have only dreamed of. There is a clear, direct line that can be drawn from the 9/11 terrorist attack to the efforts by the 1/6 insurrectionists.

In addition, about 25% of our citizens refuse to do the simplest things to keep us all safe from the ongoing pandemic. Unlike those who came together immediately after the 9/11 attack, these Americans refuse to do the work our nation is desperate for them to do. These people have chosen their own narrow interests over the common good of the nation. If the 9/11 terrorists thought they could disrupt the American way of life with their attack, we’ve proven them right.

Just a few days before the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, President Biden issued vaccine mandates for U.S. government employees and contractors, including the military, and he ordered businesses who employ more than 100 people to require their employees to get vaccinated or be tested weekly for COVID. These requirements are being implemented more than a year-and-a-half after we first became aware of COVID, and several months after a safe, effective vaccine was developed.

If you’re thinking these requirements shouldn’t be necessary, you’re right. In the 9/11 attacks, nearly 3,000 people were killed. Today, that many people die from COVID every couple of days. We’ve lost more than 650,000 Americans to COVID in the past eighteen months or so, but nearly a quarter of the population still refuses to wear a mask or get vaccinated in order to stop the deaths and get COVID under control.

The reason people refuse to do what is right varies from person to person, but all of the reasons are based in ignorance, selfishness, and misinformation. Right wing media has railed against masks and the vaccines in the name of freedom, many Republican politicians have stood against masks and vaccines as a political ploy, trying to advance their careers and agenda, and a significant chunk of Americans have blindly believed the lies, even though those lies defy logic and the facts are easy to find for anyone that wants to know the truth.

On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I remember those who died in the terrorist attacks, and I mourn our loss of civic pride, patriotic duty, and a united America that was willing to make the tough choices and work together for the common good. Those qualities were poisoned on 9/11, and the divided, ignorant, weak-minded country we live in now is the result.

Twenty years after the attack, the verdict is in. The terrorists won.

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Cletus’ Field of Dreams

Tonight, The New York Yankees take on the Chicago White Sox at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. The field is very close to the one that was featured in the hit movie, Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, and James Earl Jones.

In honor of the historic game, I’m sharing a short story (a parody) I wrote several years ago that was inspired by the movie. It’s the story of the bonds between a father and son, the way baseball touches each of our lives, and its about a man’s love for a woman he barely knows, even if that love is purchased by the hour.

Without further ado, I present:

Cletus’ Field of Dreams

The year was nineteen-ought-six. Ella Fitzgerald was in the White House, the “Hustle” was all the rage in the dance clubs, and excitement ruled Europe after Germany announced they had discovered a new type of potato salad. It was also the year that my family migrated from the old country to become Americans.

My father was a proud man. He came to this country with just thirty-nine cents in his pocket and a couple of formal gowns in his suitcase. But that didn’t stop him from realizing his dream of buying some acreage and becoming a dirt-poor farmer.

A few days after my seventeenth birthday, I decided it was time to leave the farm and see the world for myself. With enough money for bus fare and little else, I headed off to the Big City.

On my first night in town, near the bus depot, I met a girl leaning against a lamp post.

“Are you looking for a date?” she asked.

I was taken by surprise. “Who, me?”

“Yeah, you. Are you looking for a date?”

She was a beautiful woman with big brown eyes and bright red lips. For me, it was love at first sight. “Well, what’s your name?” I asked.

“What do you think my name is?

I took a guess and said, “You look like a Roxie to me.”

“That’s exactly right,” she said. “You’re a smart one.”

I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say.

“So, Smarty, do you want a date or not?”

I nodded my head so fast it made me dizzy. “I sure do.”

“Then go up to that house right there and tell them you want to date me.” She pointed at a big, older house with a wide front porch.

Back at home, it was customary for the boy to ask out the girl, not the other way around. And usually, if you wanted to take a girl out on a date, you asked her, not her parents. Already, I was learning that things were done a lot differently in the Big City.

Roxie’s dad was sitting on the front porch. He was a big guy and was wearing a white t-shirt without any sleeves. He had a tattoo on his right arm, and he held a baseball bat. .

“Hello, sir,” I said. “I’d like to ask your permission to date your daughter, Roxie.”  I was nervous and couldn’t stop looking at my feet.

Roxie’s dad laughed a kind of ugly laugh and said, “You need to talk to the woman in the house.”

Just as I was about to knock on the screen door, a large woman appeared in the doorway. “Can I help you?” she asked. She was smoking a cigarette, and when she talked, smoke came out of her nose and mouth.

“Yes ma’am,” I said. “I’d like your permission to date your daughter, Roxie.”

“Who?”

“Your daughter.” I pointed at Roxie who was still out by the street lamp.

“Oh, that one. She’ll be twenty dollars.”

“Pardon me?” I was confused.

“If you want to date Roxie, it will cost you twenty dollars.”

As best I could tell, in the Big City, you had to pay the parents – or at least leave a deposit – if you wanted to date their daughter. The problem was, I didn’t have twenty dollars.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but I don’t have that much.”

“How much you got?”

I took all the money out of my pocket and counted it. “I have a little more than nine dollars.” I looked hopefully at Roxie’s mom.

“Sorry, kid. Roxie’s twenty bucks an hour.  I have another girl you could have for ten dollars.”

I wondered for a moment why she would charge less for one daughter than another, but it didn’t matter. I was in love with Roxie, and I was determined to ask her out on a date. I turned, dejected, and walked by Roxie. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I‘m going to earn some money, then come back for you.”

“Okay, Smarty.  I’ll be right here,” she said.

* * * * *

I had to have Roxie, but how was I going to get the money to pay her parents?  And what was that about twenty dollars per hour? That had to be a mistake.

That night, I couldn’t sleep, trying to figure out how I could get the money for Roxie. I wanted her so bad. I also couldn’t sleep because I was laying on a slab of concrete under a highway overpass. In the morning, my back was stiff, my head hurt, and a crazy man was standing over me.

“What do you want?” I scurried away from him.

“This is my bridge,” he said.  His voice was gruff and menacing, and one of his eyes was the color of sour milk. “Why don’t you go back to the farm where you came from?”

“The farm? How do you know I come from the farm?”

He looked me up and down with his one good eye. “What? Are you stupid? You’re wearing overalls, you’ve got manure on your shoes, and you smell like a pig.”

“We don’t have pigs on our farm,” I said.

“I don’t care. Just get away from my bridge.” The man began hissing like a leaky tire. He threw a fit, moaning indecipherable words and flailing his arms. When he began chucking rocks at me, I had an idea. I knew how I was going to get the money for Roxie. I climbed out from under the bridge, and up on the highway, I began thumbing a ride.

* * * * *

I’d been hitchhiking for about twenty minutes when a Volkswagen van pulled over in front of me. I ran to the van and got in the back. Inside, two men were sitting in the front seats.

“Hi, I’m Ray,” the driver said.

“And I’m Terry,” the passenger said.

“I’m Cletus,” I said. “But my friends call me Clete.”

“Nice to meet you Clete,” Ray said. “Where’re you heading?”

“I’m heading out to farm country to find a job as a hired hand. I need to make enough money to pay for my girlfriend.”

“Those girlfriends can be expensive.” Terry let out a deep, guttural laugh.

There was something familiar about Terry’s voice. “Hey Terry,” I said. “Your voice sounds familiar to me. Did you do one of the voices in The Lion King?”

“No,” Terry said too quickly. “I’m a writer and a software developer from Boston.”

Both Terry and Ray got real quiet after that. We had been driving in silence for a while when Ray pulled over to pickup another hitchhiker. “We can use all the good karma we can get,” Ray said.

The hitchhiker got in and closed the door. “Thanks for stopping. I’m Archie Graham.”

Terry and Ray just looked at each other. I extended my hand. “Hi, Archie. I’m Clete.”

Terry and Ray introduced themselves. “Where’re you heading?” Ray asked.

“I’m a ball player,” he said. “I hear there are teams all across the Midwest that will help you find a job if you play for them.”

Ray and Terry were quiet, so I spoke. “Archie, let me ask you a question. Do you think I smell like a pig?”

Archie looked at Ray and Terry, but they refused to return his gaze. “I don’t know,” Archie said. “I can’t smell anything. I have a cold.” He turned away from me and stared out his window at the passing countryside.

* * * * *

When we got to Ray’s farm, I saw that he had plowed under some of his corn and had built a baseball field. There were guys in white uniforms playing on the field.

“Hi Ray,” one of the ball players yelled from the field.

“That’s Shoeless Joe Jackson,” Archie said, amazed at what he was seeing.

“That’s right,” Ray said. “Why don’t you head out there and join the game.”

“Really?” Archie asked.

“Sure, go ahead.” Archie grabbed his baseball glove out of the van and ran onto the field. I looked away from the field for a moment and when I looked back, Archie was wearing a uniform just like the other players. I looked at Ray for an explanation, but he just smiled.

A blond-haired woman and a little girl came out of the house. “Welcome home,” the woman said to Ray. She gave him a kiss.

“Terry and Clete, this is my wife, Annie, and my daughter, Karin,” Ray said. “This is Terry and Clete.”

“It’s nice to meet you both.” Annie was unusually chipper, like an aging cheerleader on speed.

“Hi,” Karin said.  She looked up at me and scrunched up her nose. “You smell funny,” she said.

Ray laughed. “Let’s all head down to the field.”

We sat on bleachers near first base. We had only been sitting there a few minutes when one of the ballplayers came over and asked Ray, “Is this Heaven?”

“No. This is Iowa,” Ray said.

A red-haired guy I had once seen on “Thirtysomething” walked across the field, right through the game, and up to the bleachers. “Ray, you’ve plowed under some of your most profitable acreage. You can’t afford to pay your mortgage. I’m sorry Ray, but we’re going to have to foreclose on the farm,” he said.

“But what about the players?” Karin asked.

“What players?” the red-haired guy asked.

“The players out on the field. What about them?”

The red-haired guy looked out at the field and then back at Karin. “There are no players out there.” Then, for no apparent reason, the red-haired guy grabbed Karin and began shaking her. Karin fell backwards off the bleachers and lay motionless on the ground. She wasn’t breathing and her face had turned purple.

Annie gasped and stood up. “I’m going to call an ambulance.” She started to run toward the house, but Ray stopped her.

“Wait a minute, Annie,” Ray said.  He looked out at the field. “Doc,” he yelled.

The ballplayers were all standing on the field looking our way when Archie walked toward us. When he crossed the first base line, Archie’s uniform disappeared, and he was suddenly wearing an overcoat and carrying a black bag. He had aged about a hundred years.

“What the hell?” I said, but no one seemed to hear me.

“What seems to be the problem here?” Old Archie asked.

“She fell,” Ray said.

Old Archie looked Karin over and said, “This child is choking.” Old Archie then turned Karin over and hit her hard on the back. A large chuck of hot dog flew out of Karin’s mouth and landed on the grass next to the bleachers. Karin began breathing again and she opened her eyes.

“Oh, thank God,” the red-haired guy said.

“What do you mean ‘thank God?”  I asked. “You’re the SOB who did that to her.”  I wound up and punched the red-haired guy in the gut. He doubled over, and tears formed in his eyes. He stumbled backwards and struggled to speak while catching his breath.. “Hey, there are players.”

“Are you going to finish that hot dog?” I asked Karin.

Karin looked at the hot dog lying on the ground and shook her head.

“Cool,” I said and picked it up. “Thanks, I’m starved.”

“You shouldn’t have hit him,” Ray said to me.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “He almost killed your daughter.”

“Well, that’s the thing. I’m not really sure she’s my daughter.”

I was about to comment on what Ray had said when another one of the ballplayers came up to us and asked Ray, “Is this Heaven?”

“No,” Ray said. “This is Iowa.

Terry stood up and gave a speech about the history of baseball and how people would come to Ray’s farm and would pay to see the field. To be honest, the speech started out good, but got boring pretty quickly. When Terry finished, I said, “Are you sure you didn’t do a voice on The Lion King?”

“No,” Terry said. “Quit asking me that.”

“Do me a favor, Terry,” I said. “Say, ‘This is CNN.”

“No. Leave me alone.”

* * * * *

We were watching the dead-but-not-gone ball players from our seats in the bleachers. Annie and Karin were cheering. The batter took a big swing and hit a fly ball into deep left field. Shoeless Joe Jackson ran after it and caught the ball just in front of the corn. The way he ran was smooth and graceful, like he was gliding.

“They say that Shoeless Joe’s glove is where triples go to die,” Ray said

“That’s horrible,” I said. “Doesn’t Shoeless Joe like cripples?”

“Not cripples,” Ray said. “Triples.”

“So, Joe likes cripples?”  I asked.

“No,” Ray said. “I mean, I don’t know.”

“Why doesn’t Shoeless Joe like cripples?” Annie asked.

“He does. Or he might,” Ray said. “I don’t know anything about cripples.”

“What’s a cripple?” Karin asked.

“It’s someone who can’t walk,” Annie said.

“Why do they go to Shoeless Joe’s house to die?” Karin asked.

Ray was exasperated. “They don’t go to Shoeless Joe’s house. They go to his glove.”

“How do they fit in his glove?” Karin asked.

Ray stood up and faced us. “Okay, I’m going to say it again, so listen carefully.  They say that Shoeless Joe’s glove is where TRIPLES – Understand? TRIPLES – go to die.”

“Oh, that makes more sense,” I said. “You should have said that the first time.”

“And you shouldn’t speculate about how Shoeless Joe feels about cripples,” Annie said.

Ray put his head in his hands. “I give up.”

Everybody went back to watching the game. I scooted over by Ray and said, “I didn’t want to say anything before, but you look a lot like that guy from The Untouchables. Anybody ever tell you that before?”

Ray looked at me for a second and then said, “Yeah. Once in a while at the feed store, people will say things.”

“Yeah, I know how you feel,” I said. “A lot of people tell me I look like Tom Lester.”

“Who?”

“You know, the actor Tom Lester.”

Ray scratched his head and said, “I’m afraid I don’t know Tom Lester.”

“He played Eb on Green Acres. You know who I’m talking about now?”

Ray shook his head. “I don’t really remember what he looked like.”

“He looked like me.”

“Oh, yeah. Right”

The game ended and the players were picking up their bats and balls. One of the players walked over towards us and asked, “Is this Heaven?”

I had had enough. “No, this is not Heaven,” I screamed. “Look around, for God’s sake. This is a baseball field surrounded by a corn field. In fact, there are corn fields in every direction for as far as the eye can see. Do you really think that Heaven would look like this? Why don’t you think a little bit before you ask dumb questions?”

The ballplayer was stunned.  He stood in front of us, trembling. Shoeless Joe walked over and told the trembling ballplayer to join the others. He gave me a dirty look and then said, “Ray, we’re going to take off.”

“Okay, Joe. Will we see you tomorrow?”

“I don’t know.” Joe pointed at me. “Is Stinky going to be here?”

“I don’t think so. Clete is looking for a job.”

“In that case, we’ll come back.” Shoeless Joe then turned his attention to Terry. “Hey Terry, you want to come with us?”

“Where? Out there?” Terry pointed toward the corn field.

Joe nodded.

“What about me?” Ray protested.

“I didn’t invite you, Ray. I invited Terry.”

“But I built this field for you. I plowed under my corn for you.”

“What are you saying, Ray? That you did all of that and now you deserve a reward? Is that why you built the field, Ray?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” Ray said. “It’s just that, I don’t know. I built all of this and yes, I guess I deserve a reward.”

“Ray, it doesn’t make sense for you to go,” Terry said. “You have a family and a farm to take care of. I don’t have any strings. It makes sense for me to go.”

“You’d better tell me all about it,” Ray said.

Shoeless Joe and Terry walked toward the corn. Just before they reached it, I yelled, “Hey Joe, can I come with?”

“No” Joe said without turning around. He and Terry disappeared into the corn.

“Hey, wait,” Ray yelled. “I thought I was supposed to have a catch with my dad”

Suddenly, a booming, familiar voice said, “Luke, I am your father.” The voice came from a large spaceman-looking guy dressed all in black.

“His name’s Ray,” I said.

“Oh, right,” the spaceman said. “Ray, I am your father. Want to have a catch?”

“Sure, Dad.”

As I watched Ray and his spaceman father playing catch, I noticed a long line of cars making their way to the farm. I had an idea.

“Ray, I’m going to go up to the house and help park cars, okay?”

“Sure Clete.”

“Can I keep any tips I get?”

“Why not?” Ray said.

Later that night, I had collected enough money from tips and loose change I found inside the cars I was parking to head back to the Big City to date Roxie. As I was leaving, I walked past the field. Ray was in the outfield and the spaceman was using a light saber to hit fly balls to him.

“Hey Ray,” I said. “I’m heading back to the Big City to date Roxie.”

“Good luck.”

I walked a few more steps and thought of one other thing I wanted to say.  “Hey Ray. Don’t make Waterworld.”

He didn’t seem to hear me.

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COVID-19 Has Been Cured! (This is Almost Certainly a Lie)

COVID-19 has been cured! Well, probably not. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Last night I had a Twitter conversation with Adam Gaertner, an independent virology researcher who claims to have cured COVID. As you can imagine, he had some pretty interesting things to say.

Our conversation began when I sent out a tweet critical of Adam’s claim that hospitals are being negligent for putting COVID patients on ventilators, saying the ventilators do nothing for the patient and that hospitals should be treating the patient rather than ventilating them. He went on to encourage attorneys to file class action lawsuits against hospitals and doctors who don’t follow his recommendations. (Later in our conversation, Adam pointed out that the idea of a class action lawsuit wasn’t far-fetched, considering that the Indian Bar Association (in India) has sued a WHO scientist who made comments against treating patients with Ivermectin, one of Adam’s favored drugs for treating COVID patients.)

At this point, I had no idea who Adam Gaertner was. I was surprised when he responded to my tweet, and was impressed that he was civil and seemed to have a firm grasp of COVID infections and protocols. Of course, what do I know? I’m a liberal arts guy wading into a scientific world. All I know is he used big words and seemed to know what he was talking about.

So, I checked out his Twitter profile and Googled his name. Adam has a colorful history. His most famous claim is that he discovered the cure for COVID in April 2020. That’s quite a claim, and big if true.

Adam also claims that the coronavirus was manufactured in a lab. He sent an email to Dr. Anthony Fauci in March 2020 detailing the exact method used to manufacture the virus. However, he provided no evidence to support his contentions or to prove COVID had indeed been intentionally manufactured. That email went viral on Instagram, thrusting Adam into the COVID spotlight.

Since that time, Adam has been a controversial voice on the COVID front. He has written extensively about COVID and its supposed cure (which involves a few different drugs, including hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin). I’ve read some of his writing, and despite the fact that much of it is well over my head, there is one claim that stinks of QAnon-type conspiracy theory.

Adam’s writing on scientific matters seems plausible, if not credible, to my liberal arts mind, but his contention that big corporations and world governments are working in concert to hold station with the pandemic colors everything else else he says about the disease.

For instance, when I asked him why hospitals would insist on using ventilators rather than his recommended treatment, Adam wrote this:

“Hospitals aren’t treating because of probably the most extensive campaign of corruption the world has ever seen, to prevent it. We are in the middle of WW3. Welcome.”

To be sure, that is a rather sensational, albeit vague, answer. But he has written more on the topic. Here is what he wrote on July 22, 2021 about the ulterior motives mega-corporations and governments have for keeping us in a state of perpetual pandemic:

“With the inane, arbitrary measures being imposed on the public, from nonsensical mask mandates, contrary to all scientific evidence of their lack of efficacy, to selective and limited lockdowns effecting the closure and destruction of countless small businesses, while leaving mega-corporations largely untouched and seeing record profits, to the halting attempts to implement movement licenses, under the guise of vaccine passports, it is quite clear, to most that are paying attention, that the pandemic is being used to implement a significant change in the political world order. Numerous world leaders have pledged their allegiance to the “Build Back Better” program, the brainchild of the World Economic Forum; with a view to the implementation of the “4th Industrial Revolution,” a vision of totalitarian, almost Star Trek-like automation and communism, political leaders across the world have every incentive to prolong the global state of emergency until this mission has been accomplished. Despite the real and present threat of the virus, it is abundantly clear that the various measures being taken are not in pursuit of ending the pandemic or returning to a normal way of life. Rather, the relentless push toward the “new normal” goes on, all premised on the plausible threat of COVID-19. Simultaneously to this, the above noted effective treatments and prophylactics have been subjected to a relentless campaign of propaganda, censorship, fake science and dishonest, unethically conducted trials, and in some countries outright bans, to muddy the waters around their effectiveness, prevent their use, and prolong the death and destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Kind of a dark vision of the future, isn’t it? It’s also a word salad of gibberish that adds up to nothing. Just a bunch of words strung together lacking logic or meaning. Let’s take a closer look.

First, Adam says that our current situation is some kind of conspiracy between “mega-corporations” and governments around the world (The entire medical profession is apparently in on the plot, as well). Does that ring true to you? Do you believe that there was some sort of conference were mega-corporations and government leaders (and doctors?) got together and agreed to anything? It’s preposterous on its face.

Next, this supposed agreement will lead to small businesses being crushed and mega-corps picking up the profits left behind. This could only be written by someone who doesn’t understand how the economy works. Mega-corps are dependent on small business. Without small businesses, what products will Amazon and Walmart sell? Where will GM and Ford get their parts and all of the other things from design to safety that they rely on small business for? These mega-corporations are getting wealthy (wealthier?) due in large part to the relationships they have with small businesses.

In Adam’s fantasy, while mega-corporations are reaping the benefits of no more small businesses, governments are controlling the movement of individual citizens through the use of a vaccine passport. Adam calls this a “movement license,” and it presumably allows governments to dictate where individuals can go and how they can get there. But why? Why would governments want this kind of control over their citizens? What benefit is there to the government? Adam doesn’t say. At least, not exactly. Instead, he claims that it somehow leads to the final goal of perpetual pandemic: the 4th Industrial Revolution.

According to Adam, the 4th Industrial Revolution is “a vision of totalitarian, almost Star Trek-like automation and communism.” Sounds like Adam has been reading too many sci-fi novels. Putting aside for the moment that the first three industrial revolutions took place without the necessity of totalitarianism, communism, or large-scale automation, let’s think through Adam’s picture of the future.

The pandemic rages on with no end in sight. Governments and mega-corporations work hand-in-hand to keep us sick, monitoring us and controlling our movements through the use of vaccine passports. Lockdowns are common and vaccines are mandatory.

Our One World communist government has ushered in an age of automation to run their factories and…

Wait a minute. How do all these mega-corporations own factories in a communist state? Doesn’t the government own the means of production in communist countries? Okay, ignore that. Let’s move on.

These mega-corporate-owned factories pump out products at breakneck speed, using automation to manufacture, warehouse, and distribute at a pace never seen before. The factories will…

Whoa, hold up. If people are sick because of the pandemic and jobless because of automation, who’s buying all of the mega-corporation products? Nothing about Adam’s dystopian vision of the future makes sense.

I haven’t even gotten to Adam’s contention that the mRNA vaccines we’re taking (like the ones from Pfizer and Moderna) contain prion proteins, which will ultimately kill most of us or turn us into zombies. It’s not really clear to me which, but in either case, it won’t help mega-corporations sell their goods.

I honestly don’t know if Adam Gaetner is a snake oil salesman or a good faith researcher who is simply misguided. In either case, his claims don’t hold water. Our best medical, scientific, and public health minds agree that our way out of this pandemic is through large-scale vaccinations. We don’t need crazy conspiracy theories or manufactured scare tactics. We need good, solid information (which we already have) and a willingness for everyone to do what is in their and our best interest (Sadly, that is lacking at the moment).

Believe what science tells you. Believe what the experts tell you. Ignore the noise and fearmongering. Get vaccinated.

 

UPDATE:  Journalist Matthew Sheffield, had a Twitter take on this subject (Not about Adam Gaertner specifically, but some of the claims he made) that I thought was quite informative. Here’s what he had to say:

“Logical fallacies and Covid-19.

Everyone is susceptible to logical errors in our thinking, especially in areas in which we have no direct experience. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this tendency because of its high survival rate for most people.

Given that the vast majority of healthy people survive Covid w/o any medical treatment, some will conclude that anything they did made the recovery. This is “post hoc ergo proper hoc” thinking, the idea that a thing that came before caused the thing afterwards.

As finite begins, we’re also highly susceptible to esotericism, the idea that there is “hidden” knowledge that is being “suppressed” by nefarious elites. Sometimes, this does happen, but in the case of various purported cures for Covid, it’s simply that they haven’t been proven.

Advocates of ivermectin claim it’s being “suppressed” due to pharmaceutical companies’ profiteering. They never discuss how their argument is utterly disproven by the widespread use of cheap and readily available corticosteroids to treat some Covid symptoms. If the greed of Big Pharma was so powerful and authoritarian, steroid treatments for Covid would not be happening. But they are for millions of people. Because, for many of them, they actually have been proven to work.

Ivermectin advocates love to hype faulty research, or of India, and claim that it supports their theories. They never mention that India’s government has formally withdrawn all support for ivermectin and doesn’t believe it works.

Unfortunately, these types of logical errors are very common in public conversations about health and medicine, because most people have little direct knowledge of them. It’s easy to have opinions about things that affect you that you don’t understand.

Unfortunately, the American legal system has also deliberately tolerated the existence of junk medical science. The tragic irony of this industry is that its greed and power have shaped government policy against consumers! The FDA has been trying since 1973 to have the power to regulate and evaluate commercial claims that various supplements can cure or prevent diseases. The agency’s efforts have been thwarted at every turn by lawsuits and lobbying from dietary supplement companies.

People pushing junk medicine for Covid and anything else claim that conspiracies are suppressing their ideas. The literal opposite is true. Dietary supplements is a multi-billion dollar industry with very powerful connections to many of America’s top Republicans.

This Harvard Law School article is out of date on some of the numbers, but the history and policy analysis is still very solid, if you’d like to know more about regulation of dietary supplements.

As @RMCarpiano and I recently discussed on a @TheoryChange episode, some actual medical practitioners have also become convinced by medical falsehoods. Almost always, however, these doctors/nurses have no direct training or experience w/virology or public health. Believing their Covid opinions are credible is like asking a middle school English teacher for help with your college calculus assignment. Sorry @RandPaul.

Citing doctors and nurses with no relevant Covid credentials is an example of an appeal to unqualified authority, another logical fallacy.

I’ll end with another fallacy we often see here, the argument from incredulity. We see this most in opposition to MRNA vaccines via the idea that because the person doesn’t know of the technology, it must be unsafe. This is invalid reasoning. Personal ignorance isn’t an argument.”

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You Never Know

Let’s call him Ryan. Truth is, I don’t know his real name. He was sitting on a median at a Florida intersection dressed in shorts and a threadbare T-shirt. He had a backpack sitting next to him, and he was holding a small sign, too small for everything he had written on it. The only word I could make out was “Homeless.” The rest was a mystery.

Ryan had short-cropped hair that looked like it had been cut by a non-professional, several days growth of beard, and a bearing that suggested defeat. He sat slumped over, with his head down, staring at his shoes, his feet tapping to a beat only he could hear. His sign was asking for help, but his body gave the impression that he had already given up.

I’d seen Ryan a few days earlier at the same intersection. On that day, the traffic signal turned green as I approached, so I only saw him for a moment. I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought when I saw him was, He’s a young, able-bodied guy. Why doesn’t he get a job instead of just begging?

The reason I’m ashamed of having that thought is that I always try to remember that you never know what people are going through, what hardships they’ve suffered or challenges they’ve faced. You truly never know. It’s easy to judge people. It’s harder to understand them and give them the benefit of the doubt. On that day, I took the easy way.

The second time I saw him, I had a red light, so I stopped a couple of cars back from Ryan. My heart was in a different place when I looked at him. I had no idea what his story was, but I was fairly certain it wasn’t a happy one. I waited for him to look up, but he just kept staring at his feet. I rolled the window down, and the heat rushed in. The day was oppressively hot, the sky devoid of clouds.

“Hey,” I yelled. I wanted to sound friendly, but be loud enough so he could hear me.

He looked up but didn’t move. It wasn’t clear if he saw who had called out to him. I held my arm out the window, a $20 bill in hand. Now he knew who had called out to him.

He stood, then walked toward me. Ryan was thin, his clothes baggy. His shorts, which hung below his knees, were dirty, and his T-shirt sweat-stained.

“How are you?” I asked, holding the money out to him.

He took off his sunglasses and stared at the $20 bill for a moment. His eyes brightened. A smile spread across his face revealing a couple of spaces where teeth used to be.

“Oh man, thanks. Thank you so much.” His voice was gruff, gravely, and he had a noticeable southern accent.

His eyes weren’t quite right. They didn’t move in unison. Was he mentally ill? Did he have some sort of disability?

“I hope this helps,” I said.

“This is great. Now I can get something to eat.” He was visibly excited. I wondered when he had last eaten.

The light turned green and traffic started to move. “Have a good day,” I said.

“Yeah, you too, man. Thank you.” Ryan looked again at the money, then stuffed it into his backpack. As I pulled away, he grabbed his sign and hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder, then walked toward the nearby Burger King.

“You never know,” I reminded myself. “You just never know.”

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$50 Million or Twenty-Five Years Old?

Here’s the question:

If you were given the choice, would you accept $50 million tax-free, no strings attached, or would you return to your life when you were 25-years old, taking with you all the knowledge and experience you possess today? Whichever you choose, why did you choose it?

I asked this question on my Facebook page, and was surprised by some of the answers.

Several people made the point that if they were given the choice, they’d happily go back to when they were twenty-five years old. A few of them, pointed out that, with the experience and knowledge they’ve gained over the years, they could easily make $50 million or more as a twenty-five year old.

Others said they would stay the age are now and accept the $50 million. Their reasoning was that they could do so much good in the world with the money, including helping their loved ones.

There were even a few people who said they wouldn’t choose either option. These people say that they have already been blessed in life and wouldn’t change anything. It might be these people I envy most, although, wouldn’t $50 million make their already blessed lives even more blessed?

On Facebook, I didn’t answer the question, although I had a complicated answer already in my mind. Here’s what I was thinking:

My kneejerk reaction is that I would go back to when I was twenty-five and live my life over again, but this time with the benefit of a lifetime of experience and knowledge. I’d have a second chance to do more with my life, I could correct or avoid mistakes, be more productive, more effective, and as others stated, make a significant amount of money from my knowledge and experience.

But there’s a catch.

Unless I re-lived my life exactly as I previously lived it, I likely wouldn’t end up with my two kids. And losing them would be a deal-breaker. Sure, I could have other kids, and they’d likely be great. But they wouldn’t be the kids I have now. And there’s no way I’m going to lose them.

My latest novel, The Ones That Got Away, is all about the chance to go back and re-live a life that was less that satisfying. The thought of getting a second chance at life has always intrigued me. But the truth is, if I was offered the chance, I don’t think I could do it. I couldn’t risk losing my kids.

I guess I’ll just have to settle for $50 million.

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Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things?

Why do smart people do dumb things? I’m not talking about ticky-tacky little things like backing the car into a garbage can or touching a hot stove. After all, people are human, and humans make mistakes. What I’m talking about is choosing to do the wrong thing even when you know it is wrong.

For instance, several years ago, a friend and I got into the cattle business. Roger, my partner, had been a farmer his entire life and knew how to run our operation. I was a newbie, a city kid who wanted to be a new age cowboy. I paid the bills. Roger made all the decisions.

Our cattle business was what is called a seed stock operation. We bought the best cattle we could afford, and we set out to improve their genetics—things like weight, pace of growth, temperament, age of weaning, etc.—with the goal of selling those cattle to other farmers to improve the genetics of their cattle.

Seed stock operations can be very profitable, but it can take years to become established enough to turn a profit. So, to help pay the bills, we sold off steers (castrated bulls with less than ideal genetics) and older or undesirable cows to farmers who would finish them (feed them until they reached slaughter weight) and sell them for beef.

To improve the genetics of our herd, we would artificially inseminate our cows with semen from bulls with genetics that would complement the cow’s genetics and improve the traits of the offspring. However, AI breeding is not foolproof, so we would put a “clean up” bull out on pasture with the cows. The goal was for the cows to calve during the first quarter of the year, so we had to make sure that breeding took place in late spring or early summer.

Calving during the first quarter of the year (January, February, or March) provides a lot of problems for farmers like us in Wisconsin. Those months are usually bitter cold, often snow-covered, and good nutrition for the cattle is at a premium. During the winter, cattle are brought in out of the pasture and are confined to pens where they are easier to feed. The pens are often crowded, muddy, open to the elements, and full of manure. It was not unusual for us to lose several calves each year due to the harsh conditions.

Because I was new to cattle ranching, I was open to new ideas, since I didn’t have old ideas to crowd them out. Roger gained all of his knowledge through experience. I had to learn mine from books. I don’t remember where I first read it, but one author suggested calving in spring or even summer, when the weather is better and food is much more plentiful. He said that cows in less harsh conditions and better health are less stressed when they give birth. That made sense to me. So, I suggested to Roger that we move our breeding program to the fall so calving would take place in the spring or summer.

Roger said “no.”

I thought I was on to something and I didn’t understand Roger’s reluctance to change our program. Naturally, I asked him why.

At first, his answer was, this is the way it’s always been done. He was right, cattle ranchers throughout our area calved at about the same time. During calving season, the discussion between farmers in the first few months of the year was about how calving was going. When a cow gave birth later in the year, it was considered a mistake.

As far as I was concerned, “That’s the way we always do it” was not a good reason. I pressed Roger. His response? “Farmers are looking for feeders (cattle ready to be finished on feed shortly before they reach slaughter weight) in October and November. In order to get them big enough by then, we have to calve at the beginning of the year.”

That seemed reasonable until I gave it a little thought. What Roger was talking about seemed like a chicken and egg problem. Was calving taking place early in the year because farmers needed feeders in October/November or did farmers buy feeders in October/November because cattle were calving early in the year? I asked the question and found out that, while a lot of feeders are purchased in October/November, there is a market for feeders year-round. The October/November time frame is just the main feeder season.

Then why couldn’t we start calving later in the year? Roger finally came clean and told me the real reason he didn’t want to change the program: He didn’t want other farmers looking at him like an outlier. Changing our calving schedule would embarrass him, and he didn’t want to deal with that. We never did change our calving program.

Let’s review:

  1. Conditions early in the year in Wisconsin are harsh;
  2. Harsh conditions can lead to difficult births, which is hard on the cow, the calf, and the farmer;
  3. Farmers lose money when calves die;
  4. There really is no credible argument against calving later in the year;
  5. Even so, we didn’t change our procedures because we were afraid other farmers would judge us.

We knew there was a better way, yet we stuck with a worse way to avoid potentially looking foolish in front of other farmers. We were smart people purposely doing a dumb thing.

This phenomenon is not confined to farmers. In fact, it happens to all kinds of different people in all walks of life. As one example, in 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in a game against the New York Knicks. Of his 100 points, 28 came from free throws. Chamberlin made 28 or 32 free throws, an 87.5% success rate. This was unusual because Chamberlain was not considered a good free throw shooter. In fact, he was a 51% free throw shooter for his career. How did he do so well in this one game?

During his first two years in the league, Chamberlain was a miserable free throw shooter. His teammate, Rick Barry, one of the all-time great free throw shooters in NBA history, offered to work with him. Barry had a different way of shooting free throws. Rather than shooting from in front of and slightly above his head like most people, Barry shot underhand. He convinced Chamberlain to give it a try.

Although Chamberlain was reluctant, he finally agreed. During the 1961-62 season, the season that included his 100-point game, Chamberlain made a career high 61.3% of his free throws. His work with Barry was a paying off. The next year, he went back to shooting overhand and his free throw percentage dropped. Chamberlain played for fifteen seasons in the NBA and he never had a better season shooting free throws than he did in the 1961-62 season. Why would he quit shooting underhand?

In his autobiography (the one where he claimed to have slept with more than 20,000 women), Chamberlain admitted that he was wrong to give up shooting free throws underhand. He knew it at the time he quit. But he did it anyway because he was worried people might think of him as “a sissy.” This supremely gifted, 7’1” athlete, who was one of the best players to ever live, was afraid people with none of his ability, none of his grace, none of his accomplishments, would call him a name. So, he chose to be less of a player than he could have been.

Wilt Chamberlain was a smart guy who did a very stupid thing, knowing full well even when he was doing it, that it was wrong.

It’s not just individuals who fall into this trap. Entire organizations do things they know are wrong. There are a plethora of examples in other areas, but let’s stick with sports.

David Romer is an economics professor at the University of California-Berkeley. He’s also a football fan. His gut told him that punting on fourth down was a bad play. But it was just a gut instinct, and most of the history of the NFL disagreed with him. So, he did what economists do. He analyzed the issue using math. As it turned out, his gut was right.

Romer examined the choice to punt, turning the ball over to the opponent, versus going for a first down on all four downs of a team’s possession. What he found was that going for a first down increased the chances of a team winning by between 0.5%-2.1% versus punting on fourth down (The findings are more complicated than this. I’ve provided the dumbed down version.). Yet, even though NFL teams are aware of this study and don’t dispute the results, they still overwhelmingly punt on fourth down, even in short yardage situations. Why is that?

I suspect the reason is that going for it on fourth down and failing is too visible. I almost said “mistake” instead of “too visible,” but is it really a mistake, even if it doesn’t work?

In his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, author Tony Hsieh compares making business decisions to playing poker. He says that successful poker players are those that understand odds and probabilities, and make decisions based on them. For instance, if a player makes a bet based on the probabilities every time she is dealt a certain hand (what poker players refer to as “hole cards”), more times than not, it will be a successful bet. When it is not successful, the decision to bet isn’t a mistake. It’s just part of the process. The moral of Hsieh’s story: Successful people focus on process, not just results.

Likewise, a football coach who goes for it on fourth down isn’t making a mistake when his team fails to make the first down. His decision was right. The result just didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. Even so, the decision will work out more times than not, albeit just slightly more times.

Another economics professor, Richard Thaler from the University of Chicago, analyzed the NFL draft and came to the conclusion that teams value first round picks too highly, and lower round picks not nearly highly enough. He concluded that teams would be much better off trading first round picks for multiple second and third round picks (a common trade exchange rate). For the cost of a first round pick, teams can sign four or five lower round picks and will almost always receive more production from those picks than they would from a single first rounder.

Thaler’s paper caught the attention of the NFL and he has now consulted with multiple teams. Without exception, every team he has consulted with has refused to follow his advice. They knew his opinion when they hired him. They paid him a lot of money to go over the findings of his study and make recommendations. And then they went out and did the exact opposite of what he suggested. They knew they were doing the wrong thing, so why did they do it?

Thaler thinks there are a couple of reasons. One is that fans like the big name, exciting players available in the first round. Teams aren’t in the business of disappointing fans. Even so, wouldn’t winning more games by having lots of good players rather than one great player make fans happy? Maybe, but that’s not the only reason teams ignore Thaler’s advice.

Generally speaking, team owners and team officials like shiny objects. They try to find ways to make that highly-touted quarterback or speedy wide receiver their own, and it rarely matters to them that they can find players almost as good at a fraction of the cost in lower rounds. So, they go for the quick rush of adrenaline, the headline grabber, the short-term high rather than the long-term investment. They know it’s wrong, but they do it anyway.

People, and as an extension, organizations, are interesting creatures. We are weird and wacky and wonderful. And sometimes, even when we know doing something is wrong, we do it anyway. We say we want to win. We say we want to be successful. But mostly, we want to be happy and comfortable and accepted. And the need for these seemingly simple things is apparently much more powerful than our desire for success.

This blog post was inspired by an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent podcast, Revisionist History.

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Democracy or Authoritarianism: What’s It Going To Be?

I have a sinking feeling, a sense of dread that is threatening to consume me. And every day, it seems to get worse.

Although I try to avoid writing about politics these days, I feel the need to express what I’m feeling. Politically, things are not “business as usual” in the United States at the moment. We are as close to losing our democracy as we’ve ever been (even more so than during the Civil War), and each day brings more cause for concern.

We have two political parties in this country; one trying to save democracy and one pushing it toward authoritarianism. The party pushing for authoritarianism is ruthless and shameless and power-hungry. They exist to reclaim power, with little to no interest in actually using that power for the good of the country.

The party trying to save democracy is largely timid and ineffective, often concerned more with process than progress. They seemingly care more about institutional integrity and decorum than they do with stopping the destruction of our form of government and way of life.

The party pushing for authoritarianism is filled with unrepentant liars, aided by a cadre of right-wing media outlets that both create and amplify bigger and more outlandish lies. The lies are often proven false by fact checkers, yet they persist.

The party working to save democracy often ignores the lies, as if they will just go away. They want to investigate corruption and insurrection, but they refuse to do so without the authoritarian party’s permission.

We have a president that, by all accounts, is a decent, honorable man, but he refuses to get caught up in the fray. He presides the way a president from another time would preside. He goes about the job of governing without paying heed to those that would destroy the very country he is governing. He is a man seemingly unequal to the task before him. While his house is being robbed, he makes sure the dishes are put away and the beds are made.

Almost every day since our democracy was attacked and Congress was seized by insurrectionists, new, damning information has come out laying blame for the insurrection at the feet of former President Trump, several high-ranking officials in his administration, and a handful of Congresspeople who insist that there was no insurrection, even as they work to foment another one. Yet, no one in a position of power has been arrested, charged with a crime, or otherwise made to account for their actions.

The party trying to save democracy has proven largely feckless in bringing these people to justice or even conducting an investigation into their behavior. There is reason to believe that members of the House of Representatives—our elected officials—participated in organizing the insurrection, including giving tours of the Capitol to the insurrectionists a day before the insurrection was carried out. Yet, not one of them has been investigated. Not one of them has been charged. Not one of them has been removed from their committee assignments. Not one of them has been censured or removed from office. These people allegedly helped carry out an attempted coup, yet they have not faced any type of meaningful repercussion. Is there any doubt that they’ll try again?

I’m hopeless because the authoritarian party currently has the upper hand. Even as a minority party, they have been successful in obstructing the business of the Congress. And if pundits are correct, the authoritarian party is likely to take over both houses of Congress in 2022. When that happens, it is unlikely that we will ever see our democracy again.

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University and an expert in fascism and rising authoritarianism, wrote this about our present circumstance:

“President Trump tells a big lie that elections are rigged. This authorizes him and others to seek power in extra-democratic ways. The lie is institutionalized by state legislation that suppresses voting, and that gives state legislatures themselves the right to decide how to allocate the electoral vote in presidential elections.  

“The scenario then goes like this. The Republicans win back the House and Senate in 2022, in part thanks to voter suppression. The Republican candidate in 2024 loses the popular vote by several million and the electoral vote by the margin of a few states. State legislatures, claiming fraud, alter the electoral count vote. The House and Senate accept that altered count. The losing candidate becomes the president. We no longer have “democratically elected government.” And people are angry. 

“No one is seeking to hide that this is the plan. It is right there out in the open. The prospective Republican candidates for 2024, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley, are all running on a big lie platform. If your platform is that elections do not work, you are saying that you intend to come to power some other way. The big lie is designed not to win an election, but to discredit one. Any candidate who tells it is alienating most Americans, and preparing a minority for a scenario where fraud is claimed. This is just what Trump tried in 2020, and it led to a coup attempt in January 2021. It will be worse in January 2025.”

There are a thousand reasons I’m feeling dread about the future of our nation. But there’s one reason I am hopeful. I have always believed in the goodness of the American people. We get things wrong a lot, but we usually find a way to make things right. My hope is that most people who support the party of authoritarianism do so out of habit, not out of a wish for authoritarianism. When they see what their party is doing to this nation, how they have been constantly lied to and played for fools, my fervent wish is that these people will come around to the cause of democracy.

My further hope is that the goodness and perseverance of the American people will kickstart a new commitment to democracy, pushing the party of democracy to do whatever is necessary to defeat those that would bring our country to bended knee in service of their proto-fascist agenda.

It’s clear that the authoritarian party is not interested in governing, let alone participating in bipartisan legislation. It’s time for the party of democracy to use their majority to push through programs designed to help the many rather than the few; programs like HR 1 “For The People” Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, designed to restore and strengthen our democracy. Tomorrow may be too late. The time to act is now.

ADDENDUM: After finishing this essay, I remembered a Twitter thread written by Thomas Zimmer, history professor at Georgetown University, that captured my feelings on the democracy vs authoritarian crisis we are facing. It’s worth a read:

“Unless the system is fundamentally democratized, we’ll soon reach the point where it will become impossible to stop America’s slide into authoritarianism through elections. Some thoughts on what is at stake, based on this important piece by @RonBrownstein:

“If democratizing reforms do not come, all the states in which Republicans are in power will soon resemble apartheid South Africa much more than anything that could reasonably be called a functioning multiracial democracy. In about half the states, Republicans will be erecting stable one-party rule and install a system that is best described as a herrenvolk democracy: A system that is fairly democratic if you happen to be a white Christian man – and something entirely different if you are not.

“Does that sound far-fetched? Alarmist? It’s not. In many ways, it would constitute a return to the pre-1960s situation and be much closer to the historical norm in the United States. Remember that until the 1960s, apartheid was the reality in many regions of the country.

“What about the national level? If you combine the current system’s anti-majoritarian distortions with the GOP’s many aggressive anti-democratic initiatives, Republicans are basically guaranteed enough power to obstruct and make functional Democratic governance impossible. The result is definitely not a functioning democracy.

“The question is: Would it even be a sustainable country? @davidmfaris worries about a breakup in this interview – and he’s right! America is already facing a crisis of democratic legitimacy, and it’s only getting worse.

“In a representative democracy, the party that consistently gets significantly fewer votes on all levels of government shouldn’t be able to hold onto power and control the nation’s fate. At some point, this crisis of legitimacy will have to be resolved – one way or another.

“History doesn’t repeat itself. There won’t be another Civil War blue vs. gray – the coming crisis will look different. But the idea that things are definitely going to work out somehow is mainly based on a ‘It can’t happen here’ type of American exceptionalism. And still, ‘It cannot happen here’ seems to be, as @AmandiOnAir puts it in the @RonBrownstein piece, the animating principle for too many Democratic officials and liberals more broadly. American democracy can’t afford this sort of willful ignorance and naivety. 

“We must face the fact that the radicalization of the Republican Party has outpaced what even most critical observers imagined, and we need to grapple with what that should mean for our expectations going forward and start thinking about real worst-case scenarios.

I think @perrybaconjr really captured the situation perfectly in last week’s important column: ‘Perhaps democracy dies faster in darkness. But it could also die slowly in the light, as all of us watched but didn’t do enough to save it.’ 

“Will America become a stable multiracial democracy – or will the history books record multiracial democracy as a fairly short-lived and ultimately aborted experiment, an interlude from the mid-1960s to the 2020s, when the country returned to its previous historical norm?

“I understand the criticism of what @ezraklein calls a “self-fulfilling cycle” in this great conversation with @pastpunditry: By emphasizing how high the stakes are, they get even higher – making it more difficult to solve the situation politically. But I maintain that for journalists, analysts, and scholars, the prime responsibility is to cover, describe, assess, and interpret American politics as objectively, accurately, and adequately as possible. We shouldn’t downplay, appease, play politics.

“I don’t think the situation is all bad, by the way. Reactionary forces are radicalizing because America really has become more liberal, more pluralistic, and is closer to being a truly multi-racial democracy than it’s ever been. But that’s exactly what makes the current moment so acutely dangerous. Reactionaries who define “real America” as a nation dominated by white Christians feel their backs against the wall and are convinced that all measures are justified to defeat an illegitimate opponent.

“I believe this struggle is of world-historic significance. And we are witnessing a very similar conflict in all Western democracies: Is it possible to establish a stable, truly multiracial, truly pluralistic democracy?

“I tried to make this point at the end of this @DinDpodcast, on democracy in Europe and how it compares to the situation in the U.S.: Such a truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy has never been achieved anywhere – it would be a world-historic first.  There have been several stable, fairly liberal democracies – but either they have been culturally and ethnically homogeneous to begin with (think Sweden); or there has always been a pretty clearly defined ruling group, or “herrenvolk.” A truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which an individual’s status was not determined to a significant degree by race, gender, or religion? I don’t think that’s ever been achieved anywhere.

“The U.S. is in many ways the most advanced, most acute test case: Will it become a stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy – or remain a white Christian nation, defined by white Christianism, in which white Christians dominate socially, politically, and culturally? It’s an open question, one of enormous significance for all of us, all democracies around the world. Which is why the stakes, right now, are enormously high. We must hope that Democratic elected officials understand the situation – and are willing to act accordingly.

“Democrats will have to accept the challenge that accompanies the recognition that they will act alone to protect democracy, or it won’t happen at all.’ This here, from @ThePlumLineGS, goes right to the heart of the matter. So the question is: Will they? “

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Tulsa Was Just the Tip of the Iceberg

I was watching 60 Minutes recently and saw a story about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. It was an amazing story, made all the more amazing by the fact that the massacre occurred 100 years ago, yet I had never heard of it. I wasn’t alone. The 60 Minutes crew interviewed a man who was born and educated in Tulsa, but he had never heard of the massacre either.

In case you’ve never heard of the Tulsa Massacre, here’s what the Zinn Education Project has to say about it:

“One of the most violent episodes of dispossession in U.S. history began on May 31, 1921 in Greenwood, a thriving Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From May 31 through June 1, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 Black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.”

Learning about the Tulsa Massacre made me wonder if there were other events in our country’s history where blacks were terrorized and killed by white mobs. I suspected there were others, so I decided to dig into it. What I found stunned me.

U.S. history is replete with massacres of minority and marginalized people, including Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and LGBTQ people. In addition, Italians, Irish, and Jews have been the target of violence, along with laborers of various ethnicities.

Because of the facts of the Tulsa Massacre, my main focus was violence against blacks. I found thirty-four different incidents where multiple black people were killed or injured by violence. I find it amazing that I was unaware of almost every one of these massacres, including one that happened near where I grew up.

Why don’t we know more about these violent events? Why aren’t they routinely taught in history classes. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that most school districts prefer to whitewash history rather than deal with the truth head-on. In the U.S., we tend to only want to remember the good parts of our history. But we can only grow and reach our potential as a nation if we acknowledge our entire history and learn from it.

That’s a conversation for another day. For now, here are the thirty-four black massacres I found, along with links if you’d like to learn more.

New York City Draft Riots  (New York, NY — July 11- July 16, 1863)

Massacre at Fort Pillow  ( Ft. Pillow, TN —  April 12, 1864)

Ebenezer Creek Massacre   (Near Savannah, GA —  December 9, 1864)

Memphis Riots of 1866   (Memphis, TN —  May 1-May 3, 1866)

New Orleans Massacre of 1866 (New Orleans, LA — July 30, 1866)

Camilla Massacre  (Camilla, GA — September 19, 1868)

Opelousas Massacre  (Opelousas, LA — September 28, 1868)

St. Bernard Parish Massacre  (St. Bernard Parish, LA — October 25, 1868)

Colfax Massacre  (Colfax, LA  —  April 13, 1873)

Elaine Massacre (Elaine, AR —  Sept 30-Oct 1, 1874)

Election Riot of 1874  (Eufaula, AL — November 3, 1874)

Vicksburg Massacre  (Vicksburg, MS — December 7, 1874)

The Clinton Riot  (Clinton, MS  — September 4, 1875)

Hamburg Massacre  (Hamburg, SC — July 8, 1876)

Danville Riot  (Danville, VA — November 3, 1883)

Thibadoux Massacre (Thibadoux, LA — November 21-23, 1887)

Polk County Massacre  (Polk County, AR — August 5, 1896)

Wilmington Massacre (Coup) (Wilmington, NC — November 10, 1898)

Atlanta Massacre of 1906  (Atlanta, GA  — Sept 22-24, 1906)

Springfield Race Riots of 1908 (Springfield, IL — August 14, 1908)

Slocum Massacre  (Slocum, TX  —  July 29-30, 1910)

East St. Louis Riots   (East St. Louis, IL — May 28-July 3, 1917)

Washington Race Riot of 1919  (Washington, DC — July 19-24, 1919)

The Red Summer of 1919  (Chicago, IL  — July 27-August 3, 1919)

Bogalusa Labor Massacre (Bogalusa, LA  —  November 22, 1919)

Ocoee Massacre      (Ocoee, FL — November 2, 1920)

Tulsa Race Massacre  (Tulsa, OK  —  May 31-June 1, 1921)

Rosewood Massacre   (Rosewood, FL  — January 1-7, 1923)

Catcher Race Riot  (Catcher, AR  —  December 29, 1923)

Detroit Race Riot 1943  (Detroit, MI  — June 20-June 22, 1943)

Orangeburg Massacre   (Orangeburg, SC  —  February 8, 1968)

Greensboro Massacre (Greensboro, NC —  November 3, 1979)

The MOVE Bombing (Philadelphia, PA  — May 13, 1985)

Charleston Church Massacre  (Charleston, SC  — June 17, 2015)

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The Best Places to Live (2021 Edition)

I like living in the United States. Sure, I’ve never lived anywhere else, but I think we have a pretty good quality of life here. We have freedom, and opportunity, and at least in general, civic pride. True, the United States is not perfect. Our healthcare system is among the worst in the free world (It’s the most expensive with some of the worst outcomes), we imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other country on earth, and we don’t do a particularly good job of taking care of the least among us. Even so, most people in the United States enjoy a high standard of living when compared to other countries.

Or so I thought…

I recently went down a rabbit hole trying to determine the best country in which to live. I, like a lot of Americans, take it for granted that the United States is the best place to live. But in recent years, I’ve started seeing more and more evidence that things in the United States are not as good as I’ve previously believed.

Before I get into the meat of this essay, let me state for the record that I still like living in the United States. This is where I was born, where my friends and family live. At least in theory, I can live anywhere I want, and I choose to stay in the United States. My purpose in writing this essay is not to besmirch the United States. But I do think it is valuable to see where our shortcomings might be so we can address them, making the country even better than it already is.

American Exceptionalism would have us believe that the United States is the greatest country on earth, and questioning that notion not only denies what many Americans believe, but is considered unpatriotic. I’ve traveled the world enough to know that people in almost every country feel that their country is the best. But unlike Americans, they don’t trot out the idea of [Fill in the Country] Exceptionalism to actively promote the concept the way we do in the United States. We use it as a sword and a shield. Most other countries simply hold the idea, if they hold it at all, quietly in their hearts. My hope is that this essay, and the data contained herein, will help dispel the corrosiveness of American Exceptionalism and will show us that, while we are great, we still have some work to do.

Background

In 2009, Mladen Adamovic, a former Google software engineer from Serbia started Numbeo to collect data from around the world to determine worldwide consumer prices, crime rates, quality of life indices, healthcare data, etc. Each year, Numbeo post reports comparing countries based on their collected data.

In 2021, Numbeo published a Quality of Life Index that took purchasing power, safety, healthcare, cost of living, property prices, traffic commute time, pollution, and climate into their equation. Initially, I thought this index would tell me which countries were considered the best, and I was interested to find out where the United States finished. But as I studied the list, I started to think that the methodology used for the list didn’t correspond with what I thought should be included in a ranking of quality of life.

Here are the top 20 countries on the Numbeo Quality of Life Index:

  1. Switzerland
  2. Denmark
  3. Netherlands
  4. Finland
  5. Austria
  6. Australia
  7. Iceland
  8. Germany
  9. New Zealand
  10. Norway
  11. Estonia
  12. Oman
  13. Sweden
  14. Slovenia
  15. United States
  16. Spain
  17. Japan
  18. Portugal
  19. Lithuania
  20. Canada

I suspected that many of these countries would make any list of the top quality-of-life countries, but there were a few surprises. Most obviously, Oman seems to be an outlier on the list. Slovenia is another country I didn’t expect to see in the top 20. I was also surprised that countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Italy weren’t in the top 20. I decided to put my own list together.

Methodology

I have no doubt that, based on the data they used, the Numbeo list is accurate. The problem I have with the list is, I don’t think, at least for my purposes, they’re using the correct data. Of course, using different data makes my list different, but not necessary better. I admit that. What I wanted to do is rank countries based on the happiness of its citizens, by the amount of freedom they enjoy, and by the relative cost of living in the country. These were the things I felt were the most important when analyzing a country’s quality of life.

Having said that, I’m not ignoring crime rates, healthcare, pollution, etc. These things are baked into the happiness experienced by its citizens. I suspected that the freer a citizenry is, the happier they will be, but I wasn’t sure. So, I turned to the Human Freedom Index published annually by the Cato Institute, and factored in their data. And to round out the data set, I used Numbeo’s Cost of Living index. Utopia may exist, but if it’s unaffordable, I don’t want it on the list.

Equal weight was given to each of World Happiness Report (from World Population Review) rankings and Human Freedom Index rankings, and the countries that made up the resulting list were then ranked based on cost of living. The top 30 countries on the World Happiness Report and the top 30 on the Human Freedom Index made up the final list of 39 countries. Those countries were then viewed in isolation to determine their relative cost of living ranking.

Here’s what each of the individual indexes has to say about their methodology:

World Happiness Report

Founded in 2011 by Shane Fulmer, World Population Review is a website dedicated to global population data and trends. According to Fulmer, “Most demographic data is hidden in spreadsheets, behind complex APIs, or inside cumbersome tools. World Population Review’s goal is to make this data more accessible through graphs, charts, analysis, and visualizations.” World Population Review monitors world population with real census and UN data, as well as real-time estimates based on birth and death rates.

“The World Happiness Report looks at countries with respect to their performance of six particular variables:

  • Gross domestic product per capita
  • Social support
  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Freedom to make your own life choices
  • Generosity of the general population
  • Perceptions of internal and external corruption levels”

Human Freedom Index

The 2021 Human Freedom Index was authored and compiled by Ian Vasquez and Fred McMahon of the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, DC. The following was taken directly from the report.

“The Human Freedom Index (HFI) presents a broad measure of human freedom, understood as the absence of coercive constraint. This sixth annual index uses 76 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom in the following areas:

  • Rule of Law
  • Security and Safety
  • Movement
  • Religion
  • Association, Assembly, and Civil Society
  • Expression and Information
  • Identity and Relationships
  • Size of Government
  • Legal System and Property Rights
  • Access to Sound Money
  • Freedom to Trade Internationally
  • Regulation of Credit, Labor, and Business

“The HFI is the most comprehensive freedom index so far created for a globally meaningful set of countries representing 94 percent of the world’s population. The HFI covers 162 countries for 2018, the most recent year for which sufficient data are available. The index ranks countries beginning in 2008, the earliest year for which a robust enough index could be produced.

“The findings in the HFI suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being, and they offer opportunities for further research into the complex ways in which freedom influences, and can be influenced by, political regimes, economic development, and the whole range of indicators of human well-being.”

Cost of Living Index

The following was taken from the Numbeo website:

“To collect data Numbeo relies on user inputs and manually collected data from authoritative sources (websites of supermarkets, taxi company websites, governmental institutions, newspaper articles, other surveys, etc.). Manually collected data from established sources are entered twice per year.

“We perform automatic and semi-automatic filters to filter out noise data. We utilize user behavior and previous data for the city/country to determine likelihood of a certain input whether it is considered as spam. There are more than 30 sophisticated filters which in use. The performance rate of the filter is enhanced once more inputs are included.

“One of the advanced filters tries to eliminate bad training data. It digs into discarded data (spam data) and if it notices irregularities, it moves them back into the calculation. The algorithm which determines irregular spam data uses the following filter: if for a single item in a city exists a high number of classified spam data with a relatively small standard deviance from users that have more positive inputs, that means these data are misclassified and the algorithm fix it to the proper classification.

“To summarize our filters, Numbeo uses heuristic technology to get the data quality. Using the existing data Numbeo periodically discards data which are most likely incorrect statistically.

“Numbeo also archives the values of old data (our default data deprecation policy is 12 months, although we use data up to 18 months old when we do not have fresh data and indicators are suggesting that inflation is low in a particular country). The values of old data are preserved to be used for historical purposes.

“To aggregate data for a country, we use all entries (for all cities) to calculate average country data. Note that it is different from the aggregating calculated data for all cities in that country. So, in calculations for the country, we are weighting a city by the number of contributors. Since there are higher number of inputs for a country than for a city, aggregate data showed on a country level consists, in general, much more data points.”

Surprises

As I mentioned earlier, I was surprised to see Oman and Slovenia on the ranking of the top 20 countries for quality of life. For instance, Oman ranked 133rd on the Human Freedom Index, and wasn’t listed at all on the World Happiness Report. It’s hard to imagine that the cost of living or level of crime or pollution could make up for the lack of relative freedom or happiness in Oman.

On the other hand, I was wrong about Slovenia, which was formerly a part of Yugoslavia. Slovenia ranks 33rd on the World Happiness Report, as well as 33rd on the Human Freedom index. Both rankings eliminated Slovenia from this list of best countries to live, but it was much closer than I anticipated.

I was also surprised that other countries I expected to make the ranking of best countries to live didn’t make the top 30 on the World Happiness Report or Human Freedom Index. These Countries include Greece (77th on WHR, 56th on HFI), Brazil (32nd on WHR, 88th on HFI), Colombia (44th on WHR, 86th on HFI), Argentina (55th on WHR, 70th on HFI), and South Africa (109th on WHR, 68th on HFI).

And then there’s Panama…

Many years ago, I questioned where I would move if for some reason I had to leave the United States. I considered several places and was influenced heavily by International Living, a publication targeted at American ex-pats and ex-pat wannabes. It was through International Living that I became interested in Panama. They seemed to have everything: a democratically elected government, low cost of living, tropical location, the Panamanian dollar was tied to the American dollar, and there were a lot of English speakers among the country’s population. Panama seemed great. Yet, they were only 36th on the WHR and 40th on the HFI. Sorry, Panama. Close, but no cigars.

A Quick Caveat

You’ll note that Hong Kong made the list of best places to live. They finished 78th on the World Happiness Report, 3rd on the World Freedom Index, and 27th on the Cost of Living Index, placing them 35th on my Best Places to Live List. However, most of the data used for the 2021 editions of the three resource lists are from 2018, the most recent year that complete data is available.

Things have changed for the worse in Hong Kong since 2018. China has clamped down on Hong Kong, limiting citizens’ rights and implementing more restrictive regulations. As a result, Hong Kong most assuredly will not appear as high on future lists.

Also, both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia made the Best Places to Live List. UAE was 38th and Saudi Arabia 39th. They are on the list because they met the requirement of being in the top 30 on one of the resource lists. In both cases, they were top 30 on the World Happiness Report. However, both countries were ranked so poorly on the Human Freedom Index that I would never seriously consider either country to be one of the best places to live. Their people seem to be pretty happy, but they are both among the least free countries in the world.

The Results

And the best place to live in the whole wide world is:

Canada?

I assumed Canada would be on the list, but I didn’t expect them to take the top spot. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is great. I just didn’t think it was this great.

Canada didn’t lead either the World Happiness Report of the Human Freedom Index, but it did very well in both. They were 11th on the World Happiness Report and 6th on the Human Freedom Index. And among the finalist countries, they were 15th in cost of living. In the end, they were good enough in each category to earn the top spot.

Following close behind were Finland and New Zealand. Finland took the top spot on the World Happiness Report, and New Zealand did the same on the Human Freedom Index.  Their results, when coupled with their cost-of-living rankings (22nd and 25th respectively) propelled Finland and New Zealand to a tie for second on the Best Places to Live List.

The Netherlands was alone in fourth position, finishing 6th in the World Happiness Report, and tied with Finland for 11th on the Human Freedom Index. 

Tied for 5th on the Best Places to Live List were Denmark and Germany. Although they were tied, they went about it very differently. Denmark did great in both the World Happiness Report and the Human Freedom Index, finishing 2nd in the WHR and 4th on the HFI. Germany was 17th in the World Happiness Report and 9th on the Human Freedom Index. So, how did they tie? It came down to the cost-of-living. Denmark was 24th out of the 39 countries on the list, while Germany was 16th.

Here is the entire Best Places to Live List:

# Country Happiness Index Freedom Index Cost of Living Combined Total
1 Canada 11 6 15 32
2 Finland 1 11 22 34
2 New Zealand 8 1 25 34
4 Netherlands 6 11 24 41
5 Denmark 2 4 36 42
5 Germany 17 9 16 42
5 Sweden 7 9 26 42
8 Switzerland 3 2 39 44
9 Austria 9 15 21 45
10 Czech Republic 19 24 4 47
10 United Kingdom 13 17 17 47
12 Australia 12 5 31 48
13 Ireland 16 7 30 53
13 United States 18 17 18 53
15 Luxembourg 10 11 35 56
16 Norway 5 15 38 58
16 Taiwan 25 19 14 58
18 Iceland 4 20 37 61
19 Costa Rica 15 42 7 64
20 Lithuania 41 21 3 65
20 Malta 22 23 20 65
22 Belgium 20 25 23 68
23 Spain 28 29 12 69
24 Estonia 51 8 11 70
25 Chile 39 30 5 71
26 Uruguay 26 38 8 72
27 Italy 30 31 19 80
28 France 23 33 28 84
29 Latvia 57 22 9 88
30 Singapore 31 28 32 91
31 Guatemala 29 63 2 94
32 Portugal 59 26 10 95
33 Israel 14 53 33 100
34 Japan 62 11 34 107
35 Hong Kong 78 3 27 108
36 Mexico 24 86 1 111
37 Korean Republic 61 26 29 116
38 United Arab Emirates 21 124 13 158
39 Saudi Arabia 27 151 6 194

What We Can Learn From The List

The United States came in a middling 13th place on the Best Places to Live List, tied with Ireland. In fact, the people of Ireland are, on average, happier than Americans, and enjoy more freedom than we do in the United States. The only reason we ended up tied with Ireland was because of the comparatively lower cost-of-living in the United States (18th) when compared to Ireland (30th).

We in the United States have a skewed view of the world. We are confident that one of the things that make us great is our relatively low taxes. Sure, we don’t have some of the nice things other countries have—like universal healthcare and no-cost college—but we have lower tax rates. We get to keep more of the money we earn, and that makes us happy.

Not so fast.

The countries at the top of the World Happiness Report are generally happier than people in the United States. According to Investopedia, the United States ranks 24th in the world for single tax-payer rate, and 25th for married couple rate. Yet, we are only 18th on the World Happiness Report. The vast majority of the countries ahead of us on the WHR have a higher personal income tax rate than we do. Do high taxes lead to happiness? Probably not, but the services those taxes pay for likely do.

Likewise, most of the countries ahead of us on the Human Freedom Index also have higher taxes than the United States. I think a lot of Americans conflate low taxes with high freedom, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way. Many high tax countries seem to enjoy more individual freedom than we do in the United States.

What About Guns?

One freedom that Americans enjoy more than any other country in the world is the freedom to purchase and possess firearms. It is very easy to obtain a permit to carry a firearm in public, and despite a plague of mass shootings, legislators in many states are trying to make it easier, rather than harder, for citizens to carry loaded firearms in public.

Here’s why I bring this up: Not too long ago I was having a conversation with a friend about the whole concept of freedom. COVID-19 and the need to wear a mask in public started the conversation, but it quickly broadened into the larger topic of freedom. I mentioned that New Zealand, along with several other countries, enjoyed more freedom that we do in the United States, yet, in many of those countries, citizens had willingly worn masks. They didn’t complain about having their “freedom” taken away from them, and as a result, their countries and their economies had recovered, while ours continued to suffer.

“Can people in these other countries buy guns with little or no restriction?” he asked.

I admitted that in most other countries, firearms were not nearly as easy to obtain as in the United States.

“Then they’re not really free, are they?”

That stopped me cold. It’s hard to have a conversation with an irrational person. If he equates “easy access to guns” with “freedom,” there’s not much I can tell him that he’s going to listen to and accept. I can’t explain to him how our societal happiness decreases in part because of easy access to guns. I can’t tell him that one of the reasons our overall freedom suffers is because we sacrifice those freedoms in favor of widespread gun availability. He simply would not hear of it. To him, ability to purchase guns equals freedom.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not in favor of a ban on gun sales. The 2nd Amendment is one of our country’s most cherished Constitutional rights.  Even so, I do think there are common sense steps we can take to make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them, and I think it’s time we address the gun culture in this country. The power of the gun lobby and the sway it has over our elected officials makes the United States a less good place to live.

Final Thoughts

I have no intention of moving out of the United States. This is my home and I’m not looking to make a change. However, I think we in the United States can learn a lot from other countries, particularly countries that enjoy more happiness and freedom than we do.

Too many people in the United States have been made to believe, through the concept of American Exceptionalism, that the United States is better than any other country. We’re good, but we’re not the freest and we’re not the happiest. In fact, we’re not even in the top 10 in either category. That might surprise a lot of Americans, but until we recognize that we’re not the best, it’s much harder to make the commitment to become better.

The Biden Administration, along with most Democrats in Congress, seem committed to strengthening the social safety net and rebuilding the infrastructure in the United States. There’s also a push for universal healthcare, two-years of no-cost college, and perhaps student loan forgiveness. There has even been talk of universal basic income for adults, free or subsidized childcare, and other programs designed to help low- and middle-income families.

Even if you are opposed to these programs, it is important to recognize that they are similar to programs already in place in several countries that enjoy more happiness and freedom than we do in the United States. If these programs could increase the happiness of most Americans and would provide us with ever greater freedoms, would they be worth the additional taxes required to pay for them? I don’t know the answer, but people in countries with more happiness and more freedom almost universally believe the better lifestyle they enjoy is well worth the cost.

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