Tag Archives: competition

Shoveling… it

I had an ironically beautiful day on Saturday with a bunch of my more religious friends. A friend from church has a hobby farm of sorts, leaning towards the basic ideals of more “sustainable living” and all, but him being about my age, in part due to the aches and pains that come with the aging process, he has been unable to keep up with all of the different spring cleaning issues that have to be dealt with there. As he has done a number of random favors for many of us, and as he has the sort of warm smile that everyone likes to help bring out, the church arranged for about 20 of us to spend the day at his place helping out with some basic chores.

evans farm view

Much of the work I did was, together with others, (carefully) moving old logs and scrap wood around into new piles, burning off some of it, and scything down the weeds that had been growing around where the old wood piles were. Eventually though it came time for me to join the proud teams doing the “real work”: cleaning out the mostly composted sheep manure, thoroughly intermingled with the sheep’s straw bedding, which in a few different sections of the barns and sheds had built up over the course of a couple of years to about waist-high. It had got to the point where that job couldn’t be procrastinated any further because the animals were starting to bang their heads on the ceiling rafters!

By the time I picked up the pitchfork and started to help break up and remove this mass of …it, there was already a strong sense of gung-ho teamwork going among the guys who had spent the whole morning on that task. In fact there were two teams not so subtly trying to out-do each other in the poop scooping process. One team was using a fleet of wheelbarrows; the other, an old trailer of the sort my car can pull. Each team had a de facto self-appointed leader who was barking out instructions. (I was thankful to join into this particular task late especially so as not to slip into that sort of role!) And the leaders were each trying to psych up their teams over how they were doing better than those on the other side.

evans manure dump

Without going into any more personal detail regarding the social dynamics of the day than that, it was just fascinating to watch as religious people got more and more excited and competitive about their capacities to shovel… it.

As this was just a one day gig, with no particular pay or bonuses or long-term status factors riding on it, and as it therefore required a certain sort of odd sense of humor and non-standard set of motivational strategies to get the job done, it seemed that these guys were letting their most primitive competitive instincts, and at the same time their most basic male bonding instincts, run rather wild. I admit, this invites all sorts of comparison with what we religious people tend to do together and why under more “normal” circumstances as well, but I’ll leave that to the reader to contemplate.

In any case, this experience also brought to mind my discussions last week with my cousin in the agriculture industry, who in spite of being an otherwise very decent and respectable sort of guy, has happened to drift into the circles of rural white working class Trump supporters. Suffice to say, he’s spent his life surrounded by more manure than most people can imagine, both literally and figuratively, to the point where he seems to have lost his sensitivity to both. In some ways I can deeply respect him for that very reason, and I feel it would be rather crude and insensitive for me to even try to get him out of all that …it, but on the other hand I hope I can enable him to see the difference between it and non-it again, especially when it comes to the way …it piles up in politics.

Anyway, one huge part of the political mentality my dear cousin is part of is to say that socialism is wrong because it takes away the sense of satisfaction that people get by accomplishing things and thus earning things for themselves.  Or in my cousin’s own words, “Do you not feel better about achieving your own success on your own watch, rather than getting something just because you have a hot breath? I am free to fail and free to succeed every day. That is the beauty of this country.”

When I replied to that by saying that I don’t feel better about achieving things on “my own watch” rather than getting things as a matter of right because I happen to be a living, breathing human being, it seems that my cousin and I hit something of a cultural disconnect. I don’t think he was able to relate to what I was saying. But then watching, and taking part in, all of the …it shoveling on Saturday brought his perspectives to mind again, both in terms of the motivation/reward structure for work and in terms of the pride of accomplishment side of things. So I thought it might be worth writing something here to see if I can bring in some sense of mutual understanding on these issues.

Evans workers

One of the biggest questions in politics and economics is, how can you convince people to work together with each other for the common good – so that everyone comes out better through their cooperation with each other? There are two extremes which we can say really don’t work. One extreme is to split up all proceeds of every joint effort even-Steven, which then, in order to motivate people to do their fair share, requires finding ways to seriously threaten and punish those who don’t do what they’re told. At the other extreme we have radical competition where those who compete most ruthlessly and aggressively can hoard as much of the benefits of the system as they can grab for themselves, leaving both the lazy and those who are simply playing along and taking part on a basic level hurting, with little or nothing to show for it. The former is the risk involved in politics going too far to the left; the latter, when politics drift too far to the right.

Right-wing politicians tend to try to threaten people, like my cousin, with the idea that if those damned “leftists” take charge it will lead to a loss of choice in how much of what sort of work each person has to do. The argument goes that if people are otherwise guaranteed enough to get by on safely, the only way to get them to work harder and cooperate with others in general will be to beat them over the head with various things or throw them in jail if they don’t follow the rules set by some abstract, far away authority figures who are not to be trusted. Beyond that there are those lower class individuals who are not to be trusted because rather than working together with everyone else they’d probably just like to glean the benefits of the system without contributing anything. So we need to find ways of keeping them on a particularly short leash. Let’s just say that in terms of constructing pictures of Marxist monsters and lazy sleaze balls to scare people into voting for them, right-wing populists have proven themselves capable of shoveling an impressive amount of …it.

Left-wing politicians have been far less effective, particularly in the United States, at constructing a fear of imaginary “bad hombres” on the other side. The basic narrative is that those who get to a certain point of privilege — whether or not they got there by playing fair (and usually they haven’t got there by playing fair) — tend to lose track of how the cooperation has to work in practice among those down there picking up the poop with the pitchforks. In order to keep these characters at the top economically from becoming fat, lazy, disconnected and abusive, they need to be required to stay in contact with those on the lower end of society, and to give something back to the others, whose own hard work made their success possible, as well as to those who haven’t been able to properly participate in societal production systems (yet). Part of the government’s basic job is to keep people working together, and that requires keeping those bastards at the top from isolating themselves too far from the rest of society. The true bad guys, according to this narrative, are those who, once they are at the top, refuse to care about or have anything to do with those they “defeated” in the process of getting there. This type of …it can be piled just as high as the right-wing sort, but we haven’t seen that done in quite a while; in US politics probably not since the time of George McGovern.

Between these extremes though there is a broad range of ideological and practical alternatives to consider in terms of how to get the necessary piles of …it properly moved about: how can we positively motivate people to pick up the pitchforks, and how to negatively motivate them in terms of how much of their basic safety and well-being can/should be made contingent on the amount of …it they get shoveled? My cousin’s mileage may differ on these matters, but I strongly believe that in keeping with basic human dignity people should not threatened into shoveling …it, either as the consequence of extreme left or extreme right wing political structures. Human innovation and cooperation have progressed to the point where we can make enough for everyone to live relatively safely and securely, so there isn’t any valid reason to let people and/or their children suffer and die if they can’t prove that they’ve shoveled their fair share of …it.

How do we pay to keep people taken care of? That part can be negotiated, but the important thing is to remember that money is nothing but a complicated set of human agreements by which we find ways of continuing to work together. If monetary systems cease to serve that purpose, they inevitably collapse. So if we want to keep any particular kind of money worth anything, we have to make sure that it serves as a functional, responsible means of distributing the fruits of our collective labors, and that would include demonstrating a collective respect for the human dignity of other people in general. The rest is details.

evans grill

In terms of positive motivations, there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to compete with each other if that’s what they’re into. There’s also a lot to be said for giving people who accomplish more than others extra rewards in terms of finer food or nicer stuff to show off to their friends if they’re so inclined. That being said, going back to the example of our little pitchfork party on Saturday, the lunch, dinner and sauna time afterwards were available to everyone, regardless of how much of …it they forked out of the sheds as we went. Things could have been arranged in such a way that only those who had moved more than X number of barrow loads of …it would be entitled to the finer pieces of meat on the grill, or the nicer cakes for desert, or whatever. It could be argued that such a distribution system would have felt better and would have been more encouraging for those who got the most work done, and would have ensured that they would do an even better job next time. I would disagree. I think it just would have reduced the satisfaction we all experienced in working together and knowing we were doing something good for a dear friend. I don’t think the bratwurst and fruit salad would have tasted any better to me if they would have been a special prize for the amount of …it I shoveled, and frankly I think that those who would have wanted that sort of prize system are probably just a bit childish in that respect.

Evans house

I realize that there’s a difference between professional efforts and weekend volunteer work, but in terms of how we are motivated overall — and in terms of where, if anywhere, threats should figure into the process – I think this is more of a difference in degree rather than a difference in type. The political and economic structure which best enables freedom, which brings out the best in workers, and which most enables people to trust each other in working together is not likely to be the one which has the biggest stick to beat people with if they don’t do as they are told. How masters can get the most mechanical labor out of their slaves for the least investment is a different question, but shifting the form of the question in that direction should in itself show that there is something wrong with that form of thinking. Would you agree, Cuz?


Anyway, this also sort of brings me to the matter that, when it comes to this blog, I haven’t really bothered to shovel much …it here in the past couple years – maybe in part because no one pays me for it, maybe because I’m not so sure how much good my shoveling efforts here do for anyone, maybe because of the limits of my own capacities for shoveling such these days. Whatever the case, once in a while it feels good to get a barrow load or two of …it out into the blogosphere for everyone else to be able to enjoy the smell together with me. If anyone has anything to say about how it might be more effectively shifted or spread around, I’d be happy to hear from you.


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Filed under Economics, Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics

KE, part 2 (Evaluating Happiness by Comparison)

I have promised a few people that I would come back to the project of re-editing my and re-blogging my old series from elsewhere serializing the digest version of the manuscript I have written over the years providing ethical instruction to my younger son, Kristian. I started this a month ago, and having now got a bit of political and theoretical reaction to what I see as silly ideologies out of my system, it’s time to continue with this –– setting aside my problems with what others believe and systematically laying out some basics of what I believe in myself.

I basically believe that personal happiness is a goal all of the best ethicists (as well as some of the worst ethicists) since Aristotle have been concerned with, but few have seriously worked through the psychological and practical implications and applications of what it takes to make us happy even as far as Aristotle himself did it. So in doing my part to try and fill this gap I’ve formulated the 5 Cs (comparison, comfort, control, confidence and connection) mentioned in the intro last month. I believe that each of these really deserves an essay unto itself.

So I start out here looking at the item which represents the weak end of the scale –– the thing we turn to for happiness that in the end provides us with the least satisfactory results: happiness by way of comparison. We all have a semi-controllable urge to match ourselves up against others to see who is tallest, fastest, richest, strongest, prettiest, smartest, funniest, most coordinated or whatever else. This is in some ways one of our most infantile and yet most enduring forms of motivation in life. It begins with our inborn instinctive urge to imitate others. As I wrote for Kris years ago:

…a common sight in daycare center play rooms is a toddler who doesn’t talk very well yet sitting alone, miserable and bored in a room full of toys. He cheers up some though when another child, perhaps a slightly older one, comes along and starts to play with one of the toys there––let’s say for example a toy fire truck. The first kid, who had no interest the thing a moment before, suddenly realizes that the most important thing in his little world at that moment is the fire truck that the other kid has. He might look for a similar one for himself from the toy box so as to play together, but the more likely reaction is for him to do everything in his power to get that truck away from the child that is playing with it. What this kid who has just turned aggressor isn’t capable of realizing though is that what makes the little fire truck so interesting to him is not so much its bright color, its exciting motion or the different sounds that it can make, but simply the fact that the other child is playing with it! If he wins, once the other child is no longer playing with it the fire truck will cease to be so important. If it was any other way the first kid would have already been playing with it before the newcomer’s arrival.


We’ve all witnessed the same sort of behavior with children of both genders and all ages: wanting something just because we see others with the same. A recent study conducted by a Finnish newspaper concluded that the most reliable indicator of what sort of car a person is likely to buy is what they see their neighbors driving on a day to day basis. This is basically the same motivational force in play. And though these examples are stereotypically male ones, the comparison urge is, if anything, even stronger among the females of our species.

This drive to compare ourselves with others generally takes two primary forms: 1) striving for equality: the need to similar to or to be as important as, or have as much as the next guy; and 2) striving for excellence: pushing ourselves to be better than the next guy at something at least. In fact as a teacher I use both as means of motivating students. Sometimes I will say things like, “I know you aren’t that interested in this stuff, Peter, but if everyone else can sit still for 10 minutes, you can too.” Or then I will have contests to see which team within the class can remember the most from the previous month’s lessons. As comparison is such an integral part of students’ psyches, why not at least use it to some practical advantage?

So what’s wrong with basing our happiness on comparison with others then? Well, plenty.

First of all there are all the stupid things that kids do, particularly in their early adolescence, as part of trying to “fit in”: trying to impress their friends by ignorantly experimenting with beginners’ versions of sex and drugs and rock and roll––smoking, drinking, seeing how much nasty language they can get away with, and ignoring basic safety rules their parents taught them as part of an unofficial competition to show how bold and daring they can be. As anyone over 16 probably knows already, these are not reliable ways of finding long-term happiness in life. Yet in spite of knowing that these things don’t work as means of staying happy, many people never manage to outgrow this sort of behavior.

Then there is the sheer misery of what Americans used to call “keeping up with the Joneses.” People live in slavery to having the same sorts of toys that the neighbors have, even if they have no practical use for them, just as a matter of fitting in.

Sprint cheaters anonymous… when winning isn’t the main thing, but the only thing.

Then, when it comes to being “a winner” the problem is that the glory never lasts. In the 90s Carl Lewis was the world’s best sprinter and a sporting legend, taking the moral high ground after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson became the first Olympian stripped of a gold medal for doping. But now Lewis himself has been stripped of his medals for the same offences Johnson committed, and since Usein Bolt has come along the public has pretty much forgotten that Lewis ever existed. The ancient Greeks gave their champions laurel leaves rather than gold or silver to symbolize this very fact: the glory and joy that go with victory are very fleeting.

Beyond this, as a Christian I have a particular respect for the teachings of Jesus, but even for non-believers the moral lessons he taught in story form deserve special consideration for their moral wisdom and historical influence on Western thought. One of these stories in particular is specifically about the problems of comparison. It’s commonly called “the parable of the workers in the vineyard,” recorded in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 20. In my own paraphrased version it goes something like this:

During his peak season, a local wine producer went into town early one morning and recruited some temporary workers to put in a long, hard twelve-hour day on his estate picking grapes. He promised them a wage that was somewhat above what they could normally have expected, and they gladly hopped into his wagon and went on out to work for him.

During the course of that day the vineyard owner made four more trips into town, and –– more out of concern for the local unemployment problem than for his actual labor needs it seems –– he hired on a few more extras each time, right up until one hour before quitting time. At the end of the day then, this employer told his paymaster to line the men up, and starting with the most recent arrivals and working down to the first comers, to pay them all the same wage promised to those who he had picked up first.

Well, the fellows at the end of the line got rather upset about this arrangement, and like any modern trade union would do, they started yelling, “No fair!  Those newcomers are getting over ten times as much pay as us for the amount of work that they did!  If you can afford to throw away money like that then we deserve a bonus!”

They made such a fuss that eventually the owner had to come out to quiet them down.  “Look,” he said, “this morning you agreed that I was paying you a more than reasonable wage. Now if I want to be generous to those who I hired on at the last minute what right do you have to try and stop me?  It’s really none of your business how much they get. Just take your own money and enjoy it!”

Can we get rid of all competition and comparison as elements of human psychology? Of course not!  Nor certainly should we. I can’t even write this sort of essay without littering it with terms of comparison!Beyond that, I’m all for such forms of entertainment as watching a good ball game and screaming at my lungs out in support of my favored team. What I’m saying is that we need to recognize that this doesn’t work as a primary source of happiness in life.

Those who base their lives trying to pick out winners and losers, so as to be able to identify themselves more closely with the winners, ironically end up being the world’s biggest losers, regardless of what form of competition they peg this to. Those who spend their lives making sure no one gets more than anyone else, if they have any success in this fool’s errand, inevitably end up holding everyone back and making everyone miserable in the process. While using comparison as a tool for gaining greater efficiency and as a source of extra spice and excitement in life, we also need to live beyond this level of satisfaction. There needs to be more in life than just being the same as or trying to be better than everyone else.

It should also be pointed out that those who destroy their bodies in trying to prove how much faster or stronger they can be than the next guy aren’t the only ones whose lives get destroyed by competition. Particularly destructive to the world we live in these days are those who need to prove to themselves and each other that they can make more money than the next guy. This abstract form of competition leads to the destruction and hoarding of natural resources that are in limited supply, and that we all need in order to survive, just so some guy can try to prove to competitors at his country club, or in his alumni association, or on the Forbes 100 list, how successful he is. There are millions of people around the world today suffering and dying as a direct result of the comparison games western millionaires feel compelled to play with each other.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with financial success per se. To claim that all millionaires are crooks is not true either, and to be motivated by envy of millionaires while condemning them for being motivated by comparison would be the height of hypocrisy. As we will see in future installments in this series, money can serve many other functions than enabling comparison. Those other forms of happiness can be far less destructive and provide far more lasting happiness than continuous personal competition for attention.

There is also something to be said for the sort of competition which requires someone to be the best they can be in order to get a particular job or sell a particular service. At that sort of moderate level competition within society brings out the best in all of us and enables us to provide each of us to acquire higher quality goods and services than we would if we lived in a purely command based economy. This does not, however, justify children dying of starvation and preventable diseases, families going bankrupt from medical expenses and school teachers being laid off due to budget cuts so that billionaires can pay 30% less taxes. There is no justification for someone who makes more than a thousand times more money than most honest workers within the economy to complain about contributing to meeting the very basic needs of others, even if they are forced to do so. If an addiction to competition keeps people from seeing that point, it really is time to tone down the competition by a notch or two.

Of course if someone out there has a better idea of how to base your happiness on competition… I’d be willing to listen.



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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Philosophy, Priorities, Sustainability