Monday, October 17, 2011

Debating the Philippine Reproductive Health Bill: A Commentary

By Son of Bastiat

 “I humbly submit that the struggle for an RH bill to protect the health and quality of life of the mother and child in the context of unspeakable poverty is part of liberation theology” adding that Vatican II taught the "primacy of conscience." (Philippines Sen. Santiago’s remarks in a Sun Star 8/2/11 interview)

There is enough hard evidence in other countries that followed the same path of population control, which shows that a contraceptive mentality inevitably leads to a significant rise in abortion, divorce, single mothers and mentally unbalanced adolescents”. (Dr. Villegas, Philippines’ economist in “Little Chance for RH Bill”, 10/15/11)

Like the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ shouts reverberating 3.5 miles away from where this essay is being written, the above quotes read as if their respective positions are clear and sufficiently “joined” as to make a reasoned debate possible. In fact, that is far from being the case, if only because these quotes occurred at two different times and media sources (an online column and interview) and juxtaposed in a contrived debate to highlight the essence of two diametrically opposed positions on the RH Bill. They represent two radical opposed worldviews, neither one effectively articulated by their advocates. Is it due to the RH Bill’s intrinsic complexity, modern man’s intransigence, his pride? Or all of it combined?     


Begin with the Senator’s views, which her quote above succinctly summarizes:

a). Due to unspeakable poverty, an RH Bill will protect the health and quality of mother and child. She makes no reference to the widespread view that overpopulation promotes poverty, only that controlling it promotes human welfare. 

In claiming that an RH Bill will protect the health and quality of life of families, she sidesteps but does not avoid making the conclusion that overpopulation is a major cause of poverty. As a legislator she is no doubt aware that much of the government’s budget is appropriated for poverty amelioration; AND that scarce national resources (land, oceans, etc.) are preempted for basic survival by a predominantly poor and underproductive population. These factors are deemed to reduce the amount of resources that can be used to “grow the pie” or improve its quality. With fewer people, resources and income per capita are much higher. The correlation between population size, per capita income, quality of life and wellbeing in neighboring countries is cited “as proof” of the wisdom of population control policy. 

Bernie Villegas’ comments suggest that while he agrees with this view in the short term, it is fraught with major problems in the long run. He refrains from zeroing in on Santiago’s (and RH Bill advocates) views that overpopulation reduces future growth potential, by citing past research done by Clarke and more recently by Nobelist Gary Becker, to the effect that this redirection of resources from future to current use accounts for a much smaller impact on permanent growth than is being claimed based on “commonsensical observations” drawn from experience which are almost always biased. Assuming that it is huge, China’s situation should serve as a useful reminder of this one-dimensional fallacy: even if its “One-Child-Per Family” had allowed it to amass resources to bankroll its growth, how efficiently they were used, what they brought China’s poor in exchange and where the policies they encouraged are leading China today are far more important than the simplistic resource mobilization issue it addressed.  

These statements ought to caution those inclined towards casual empiricism (i.e., analyses drawn from random experiences) from extending their individual conclusions into the realm of aggregate and multi-generational policy making. This knowledge domain error (see le Compte de Nouy) is more fatal than many RH Bill advocates realize and yet is not pointed out to them by RH Bill opponents. It illustrates the incompleteness of the debate. But why be surprised when the more basic limitations of population-vs-growth models have not been recognized, despite the known shortcomings of statistical analyses when set against the broader context of scientific truth validation and theory of knowledge?    
Score this round for the Senator, but not because she out-argues Villegas on this false economic issue but for the latter’s hedging, in hopes that RH Bill advocates will see that short term tradeoffs between growth and population are not only spurious (“Even assuming, without granting, that population control can help in the important task of eradicating poverty. . .”) but nonsensical especially in the long run when more factors other than economic growth matter. But that’s going ahead of our essay.   

Let’s then go to her second argument:

b). “Liberation Theology” and Vatican II have struck at the roots of social inequality that an RH Bill is designed to mitigate, and the Church has a “mission that includes the struggle on behalf of justice, peace, and human rights." Humanae Vitae the encyclical on which the Church bases its opposition to birth control was based on a “minority’ view, adding that 80% of US Catholics do not follow it.

Let’s dispose of the easier part of her position – that the real reason the encyclical Humane Vitae got adopted by the Church despite being held or accepted only by a “minority” of Catholics, is that electors were railroaded into passing it during the feverish route to Vatican II.  Asserting that some encyclicals are passed over the wishes of the “majority” is mainly a case of verification but the more meaningful question is: can most matters of core importance to a Faith be vetted by its followers? If it is the way a faith’s central tenets are decided, then the crucial element of its unquestioned acceptance disappears; belief by consensus simply means an absence of Faith. The fact that 80 % of members profess to not follow a faith is not to be held against it; that simply means that such Faith does not exist no matter what its members believe. To see why this not solipsism or sophistry, consider what happened when Socialists began to deviate from the strict principles laid down by Marx and Lenin. In due time the socialist camp splintered into factions that ultimately got co-opted by their adversaries (China’s “market socialism” being the best example). The only reason Islam escaped this fate is because its coherence depends less on doctrinal homogeneity and more on coercion. Even so, it is split into two feuding sects. 

Because the Church would not countenance the temporal and totalitarian impulses that drive Socialism and Islam, that existential risk is more serious in the Church’s case since its doctrinal integrity depends on the acceptance of all individual tenets; reject one and the entire edifice falls flat on its face. Absence of members’ coherence, rather than a radical change in one or more core tenets, explains Santiago’s claim that “the absolute authority of the Church has grown weaker over the years”.     

This brings the second, major fallacy in the Senator’s position: Liberation Theology. Santiago claims that the RH Bill draws its legitimacy from the Church’ mission to help the poor but as a Theology specialist, does she believe this? Is it the Church’s stated central mission or merely one of the many avenues that it pursues while carrying out its primary mission (of saving souls)? It surely cannot be the primary one, if only because the Church is a transcendental institution that finds it must minister to the temporal needs of its members. For the Church to involve itself beyond this, even if not at the expense of its spiritual one, would be to risk diluting its primary mission, with all the potential for errors that involvement in social causes lead to. If this is not obvious to a theology scholar, all she has to do is to review the Church’ mixed record of advocating for social causes (e.g., the US bishops’ 70s disastrous position on economic equality or of Archbishop H. Camara’s amateurish dabbling in Latin American development). Suffice it to mention that some of the most spectacular welfare and social justice program failures began as well-meaning religious initiatives to help the poor. If in this fairly straightforward temporal area the Church did a less than fully creditable job, what more with complex, transcendental issues like birth control?    

To put it bluntly the Church has no excuse in involving itself in these debates for social justice reasons. Villegas did not highlight this in his article at all, but again this omission, just like the first above, is why RH Bill advocates, especially those carrying religious baggage end up losing sight of, and getting more confused about their primary position. I would score this at 0-0 as neither side floors the other down.

And finally their third bone of contention:

c). Conscience is what matters above all, being “inviolable” and that a Catholic has a right to follow her own conscience “even when it is erroneous” (ie., meaning it goes against some “objective” standard).

Of all the Senator’s quotes, this one is the most perplexing, both in point of logic and origin, coming as it does from someone educated in theology and law. In the first place, an erroneous conscience presupposes the existence of some kind of moral reference for otherwise there would be no basis for assessing blame, which is the rationale for that claim. But in using the term “erroneous” the Senator explicitly declares that the Church’ tenets are not the only standard by which to base such judgment. It leads her straight to the pre-modern era traps of infallibility and relativism, which have been argued, fought, warred over and resolved since medieval times, resulting in the outcome now known as the Great Separation (not between Church and State but between Man and his Creator).     

Here is where Villegas delivers the knock-out punch. Briefly, the debate between the RH Bill advocates revolves around whether Man’s wishes will prevail over God’s. Santiago herself starkly states it: “In the past, Catholics simply obeyed the bishops. But now, many Catholics are no longer willing to give blind obedience to the Church”. But as pointed earlier, real faith not being a matter of consensus, continued membership in it is a tacit admission that it speaks for God (unless believers are schizophrenic dualists who by definition are deniers of one truth). Villegas’ arguments center around the subtle point that going against God’s will would in the long run be dangerous for Man, even if man refuses to accept it as such. No Nobel economists are needed to prop this position up because it indeed is what happens when man denies accountability to an entity other than himself, regardless of whether it involves faith or not. It was the ultimate (but never admitted) cause of the recent financial crisis. It is the reason why the EU is now imploding into pieces, followed in due course by China. It is what will happen to the Philippines if the RH Bill is passed into law and the contraceptive mentality takes hold. Here’s what UK Prime Minister Cameron attributed the recent rioting in London and nearby cities to: “Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if our choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort”. (The Financial Times, 8/16/11). These are the RH Bill’s longer term and secondary effects that one side ignores and another sidesteps hoping it will just sink in. But it won’t.

What Villegas says is that passing the RH Bill will perpetuate a cultural dependency and moral weakness that abets all the ills that afflict contemporary Philippine society, with zero assurance that the resources freed by controlling population growth can be turned into material, let alone intangible benefits. It is the existential risk, not the temporary trade-offs that make RH Bill’s passage disastrous. It is just amazing that an ancient debate that has long been clarified, manages to emerge in sophisticated raiment, revealing again that man’s pride doesn’t let him learn from the wisdom that has been learned for ages. The theologian Barth said. “Look around you. . .all you see is chaos, irrationality and downright perversity of the world man has made for himself. What was the mad carnage of the Great War but the predictable result of humanism, which modern theologians celebrated rather than judged? They have wished to experience the known god of this world”, Barth said, “Well! They have experienced him”.


This essay closes by quoting the final paragraph of an essay that the author wrote assessing J. Burnham’s classic 1964 book “The Suicide of the West” (Gateway Editions):

How Western Societies Really Die
What they are saying to us today is that if you want to keep the Federal government open you have to throw women under the bus” is how Sen. P. Murray (D., Wash) depicted the contentious budget debates among Republicans and Democrats in which funding for Planned Parenthood (a pro-abortion group) came close to shutting down the US government. The terrible fact is that the economic future of the US is held hostage by an issue that doesn’t even represent 0.15 % of a budget that liberals have larded with entitlements so that 1-2 % cuts are “draconian” and sufficient to derail compromise. If the US economy implodes it will not be from wars or invasions but from decisions that made killing unborn babies kosher.

Far from stimulating the economy in the way it supposedly did for its neighbors, the RH Bill will unleash destructive values that will keep the Philippine economy from taking off. But don’t count on “modern” RH Bill advocates to supply the antidote, because their self-absorption and pride are too weak to detect it. Writing in Perspectives in Political Science, Summer 2009 Volume 8 Issue 3, Ralph Hancock cited Hans Blumenberg’s view “that the modern age emerged from a movement not of reason but of self-assertion, although the purity of this self-assertion was obscured by attempts to respond to now meaningless questions left over from the challenge of an essentially Gnostic nominalism”.  Understanding the RH Bill’s dangers calls for mastery of a difficult philosophical issue and tempering man’s exaggerated view of the self.   

 [Copyrights VRR@NYC2011, see for the rest of the other blogs]

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"The Suicide of the West" by James Burnham

A Commentary by Son of Bastiat

Its author maintains that western suicidal tendencies lie not so much in the lack of resources or military power, but through an erosion of intellectual, moral and spiritual factors abundant in modern western society and the mainstay of liberal psychology”   

[James Burnham’s 1964classic, SUICIDE OF THE WEST, remains a startling account on the nature of the modern era. It offers a profound, in depth analysis of what is happening in the world today by putting into focus the intangible, often vague doctrine of American liberalism. It parallels the loosely defined liberal ideology rampant in American government and institutions, with the ebb, flow, growth and climax and the eventual decline and death of both ancient and modern civilizations. Gateway Editions Review].

This essay, the second on the author’s research into societal decline and self-annihilation, expands the themes that were explored in his first essay on America’s welfare state catastrophe (“America’s Suicide Attempt by Paul Johnson”}. It broadens their application beyond America to include entire societies as well (“Suicide of the West by J. Burnham”). Why be preoccupied with morbid topics such as societies in decline? Answer: Because it turns out that a common theme permeates the largely unconscious act of terminating country and societal existence: moral cowardice and inner rot. The implosion of the Welfare State and the decay of Western societies are phenomena with deep moral roots. This essay argues that the RH Bill is but another manifestation of this deeply seated death wish that leads to societal suicide.    
Population Control as a Systems Error Tragedy 

Controlling population growth is societal suicide? But wait, aren’t the methods of population control (from contraception to abortion all the way down to euthanasia) precisely used to keep society from “eating its seed” in order to ensure its survival and progress, which is the antithesis of self-destruction? It isn’t paradoxical for a society to ensure survival by killing its own. Like the neutron bomb that can kill people while keeping their homes and buildings intact, survival decisions premised on resource intake and outgo calculations are based on a cynical and depraved view of human nature. What looks rational among non-living ecologies such as factories or cities does not apply to human populations and similar self-aware organisms which are at root, complex, dynamic and adaptive. This tragedy that lies at the root of all Malthusian-type analysis is also based on a flawed conceptual understanding of systems.

Complex systems are usually analyzed by simplifying their underlying structure, a process of successive reduction by taking away parts or relationships and variables that a systems analyst considers irrelevant to the goal at hand (in the case of population, some decision rule that maximizes utility under a resource constraint). There is nothing odd with organisms limiting the scope of their efforts to make sense of the complex world, if simplification is done to conserve energy. Where complications arise is when the basic reductive impulse comes from outside so that values external to the system primarily determine which factors are ”extraneous” or which variables are “irrelevant” to a goal that may not be compatible with the system’s own. Known as “the outside observer problem”, such arbitrary exclusions result in models wherein observers’ biases and not members’ values drive the system’s observed behavior. While all representations of reality reflect both the conscious or subconscious biases of their observers, models that are deliberately tweaked by policy incentives in specified directions will tend to reflect less perfect correspondence between internal behavior and external perceptions. The trouble arises when such flawed models are claimed to “objectively represent” reality and employed as basis for policy decisions, here a policy to control population. Few call out such travesty for the intellectual dishonesty that it is. 

Far from being mere intellectual dross, the “verifiability” of claims is the stuff of debate between logical positivists (extreme empiricists for whom naked claims that cannot be verified are meaningless); and the modern philosophers of science such as Kuhn (for whom scientific methods cannot verify the truth due to the observer bias and the fact that cultural and institutional factors influence perceptions of what is claimed as truth). Replace “scientific method” with “statistical tests” and one can grasp the enormity of this policy depravity that in the US now snuffs out the life of an unborn child every 100 seconds, at which rate an entire society turns over in less than five years. Ironically a policy promulgated to keep society from “wasting its seed” is self-annihilating itself.  

The Harmful Effects of Erroneous Policies 

If this is correct then propositions like “reducing population growth is a requisite of economic progress” or positive claims such as “population increases consumption and hence retards growth by reducing capital accumulation”; or “artificial methods of reproduction such as sterilization allows families to raise better quality offspring” all the way to the most sophisticated demographic models that are the basis of official population control policies have to be seen for what they are in essence – incomplete, inaccurate and simplistic expressions of very complex relationships that mostly reflect the biases of their advocates. They produce misleading conclusions about the impacts of population control policies on societies by exaggerating their positive effects on economic variables while underestimating or even omitting their negative long run influences on intangible factors crucial to societal balance and growth.  

If this is not devastating enough, the coup de grace is delivered by nonlinear dynamical systems theory: the fact is that statistical correlations are little more than exercises in ferreting out significant (p<0.05) reduced form relationships from historically sampled data. But live systems like human populations are not only dynamically reactive but anticipatory, meaning that they are capable of purposeful adjustment to varying stimulus in un-anticipatable (or even contrarian) ways that are rarely reflected in historical data used by correlation models. It is this adaptive behavior of dynamic living systems, especially their unpredictable non-linear responses to stimuli, that makes statistical models so woefully inadequate in establishing cause and effect relationships. The effects show up in “irrational” and “outlier” behaviors that are filtered out as atypical data: savings-poor families that find ways to send all children to school, rich taxpayers that bust up revenue forecasts as marginal tax rates rise; countries whose GDPs increase as their informal sectors expand, welfare programs that nurture low productivity and anti-social values. It is these “atypical” system behaviors caused by the arbitrary exclusion of unknown factors that renders ludicrous the claimed power of population control policy failures in explaining the relative disparities in economic performance between the Philippines and its neighbors; such simplistic models could never have foreseen the grave disaster that aggressive population control could have brought the Philippines to if 30 years later it had no skilled labor to export. Policy technicians are better served by reading less econometric books and more philosophical tracts by philosophers such as Popper who believed that rational methods cannot validate the truth value of models and propositions involving human beings whose decisions are intertwined with reason and motivations that can never be satisfactorily captured by such weak models. [Incidentally Popper also offered the same “falsifiability” thesis as basis for claim testing which econometrics deals poorly with, being about hypothesis testing but not about decisions].

The Ideology that Underpins this Intellectual Error   

Statistical methods that do not adequately capture the irrational quirks of dynamically adaptive systems merely probabilistically model traits that dispose individuals towards potential behavioral tendencies; as such they capture traits that dispose, but not sufficiently explain why they actualize specific behaviors. The set of beliefs, philosophies and world views that prime such observed behaviors is at its core an ideology that traces its roots to a fundamental way of thinking about reality that descended from Post Renaissance thought. It goes by the term Rationalism, and its modern offspring called Liberalism.  

In contrast to the traditional (Aristotelian/Thomistic/Augustinian) view of human nature which had a permanent and unchanging essence; where man is corrupt and limited in potential, so that his fate is tragic unless saved by Divine Intervention, Rationalism/Liberalism, (to quote Burnham) – “holds that there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of man that makes it impossible for human society to achieve the goals of peace, freedom, justice and well-being which liberals define as (the accoutrements) of a “good society”. Burnham elaborates on Liberalism by quoting Oakeshott – “Liberalism is confident that reason and rational science, without appeal to revelation, faith, custom or intuition can both comprehend the world and solve its problems”. . . “free from obligations to any authority save for the authority of reason . . He is at once skeptical (because there is almost no opinion, habit, belief, nothing so firmly rooted and so widely held that he hesitates to question; and optimistic (because the rationalist never doubts the power of his reason to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or propriety of an action”.

What follows from such a mistaken view of human nature is obvious (again quoting Burnham) – “the peaceful, just, free, virtuous, prosperous society is inevitable or scheduled to come on condition that human beings behave rationally by accepting the liberal ideology, program and leadership” (emphasis and italics supplied by the author). Policies to keep population in check, whether through preventing conception, abortion, passive deprivation or euthanasia, are examples of programs that liberals want to impose on societies (especially its vulnerable members) as way to achieve the “good society” outcome. As explained above such conclusions are both methodologically flawed but epistemologically unsound, and now are shown to be the product of an ideology that seeks to remake societies in its own vision regardless of what the consequences to overall society are. Such is the death wish that ideology buys.    

How Western Societies Really Die

What they are saying to us today is that if you want to keep the Federal government open you have to throw women under the bus” is how Sen. P. Murray (D., Wash) depicted the contentious budget debates among Republicans and Democrats in which funding for Planned Parenthood (a pro-abortion group) came close to shutting down the US government. The terrible fact is that the economic future of the US is held hostage by a flawed issue that doesn’t even represent 0.15 % of a budget that liberal policies have larded with entitlements so that cuts of 1-2 % are now called “draconian”. If the US economy does implode it will not be from wars or alien invasions, it will be from a tragic decision to kill unborn babies. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Fate of Rational Men: The Enigma that was Steven Jobs

By Son of Bastiat
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish” – Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford

The above quote that Steve Jobs ended his 2005 Stanford U commencement address with, (and could well have served as his motto if he had one), comes as an admonition and final sentence in “The Whole Earth Catalogue” a book that in a NY Times 10/06/11 obituary Jobs said “had influenced him greatly as a young man”, adds a final touch of mystery to the enigmatic life that ended yesterday. In the coming days, as the world pays its deep respects to his memory, accolades like “iconic”, “visionary” and “genius” will be heaped on him; he will be compared to Edison, Ford, Rockefeller and Walton, all rolled into one. 

When it comes to lexicon, there is no doubt that Jobs was every word and every lofty idea that embody them. Do these terms describe him? More frankly: Who is the Steven Jobs who passed away yesterday?

The Fables of Successful Enterprise

Begin with the romantic stories, likely to be mythical, of how supermen come to the world of ordinary men. Months after Steve’s birth his short family life ends with his mother giving him up for adoption, because her father wouldn’t abide having a Syrian for a son-in-law. In the annals of enterprise, drastic early life experiences such as a divorce, adoption, abandonment (or in Gates’ case a latchkey childhood) always mark the tipping point separating mortal from immortal. Circumstances like extreme penury or, in Jobs case his family’s lack of means to send him to college, help reinforce the romantic narrative of outsiders rising, phoenix-like, from nothingness to rarefied heights reserved exclusively for the anointed. 

Recent articles have regaled readers with probably apocryphal tales of Jobs retrieving empty soda cans and turning them in for cash; and walking 7 miles across the Reed College campus (Portland, OR) in order to save on fare so he could partake of low cost meals at a Krishna temple. One who can get admitted to Reed cannot be that mendicant. The height of all this icon-buffing, of course, are stories of dropping out of college (he left after a semester) “in order not to deplete my parents’ savings” that if true, catapults its object of devotion into the realms of iconic dropouts who not only left school because they found it a waste of time, but out of love for their struggling parents. A common enough story in the Third World, it is something so rare and edifying and coveted that another drop out (Gates) could only perhaps fantasize about. Those stories can only enhance the image of a spare, disciplined and concerned upbringing, fitting right in with the classical narratives of success so dear to historians of enterprise.    

The Truth Value of Hard Facts

In a class by themselves are the fables that inspire awe and bestow on their tellers the status of “entrepreneurs par excellence”. There is the “Tale of the Garage” where things as novel and as earthshaking as digital personal computers see the first light of day in a place as decrepit and dingy as where the family car is towed at night. Only the fact that this event did not happen centuries ago keeps a manger full of braying horses and donkeys from being used as the backdrop to such a historical event.  Instead it turns out that most stories about incubating ventures in garages are a load of c_ _p; the most likely places, in declining order of frequency are: the kitchen table (for convenient access to the coffeepot); followed by the tool shack for easier reach of tools and parts; and last at the local library most incubators are likely to be mental than physical at least at the onset. It is possible that Jobs briefly stored his PC parts in his family garage, but he also rented an office in town. 

Next come “The Bootstrap” narratives, where the hero always manages to come up with the key insight, the dramatic solution to the problem that had bugged all before that fateful moment. In Jobs’ case, this consisted in stories of how the first personal computer was put together in trial and error experiments using parts and ideas learned in countless sessions with fellow members of the Homebrew Computer Club, an association of electronic hobbyists based in Menlo Park. The reality about the first PC is far from that; a few years previously, the Altos, the first working PC was invented in, of all places, Albuquerque, New Mexico and kits came into the hands of and were assembled by Jobs and his putative partner Steve Wozniack. With Apple’s startup capital placed at all of $ 1,300, their tinkering could not have been of a kind sufficient to radically redesign an existing and working personal computer. So much, then, for the appellation “father of the personal computer” that has been attached to Jobs’ name.

Even more dramatic exaggerations are tales of how Apple II (in its advanced models) revolutionized the personal computer with its incorporation (“adaptation”) of the GUI (graphic user interface) and mouse, two of the most crucial innovations that along with Visicalc, accelerated the use of personal computers. Again, unfortunately both were invented somewhere else, in Palo Alto’s XEROX Parc, then a leading technology company in Silicon Valley and in the Northeast, where it was originally based. Jobs himself acknowledged this in an interview, remarking how “apocalyptic” an experience it was to watch the Altos PC being controlled by a mouse from commands displayed in a graphical medium and not by typing statements or codes the way IBM PC and other computers did. So much again, for “bold pioneering”.    

In fact Jobs was neither an expert in computer technology (Wozniack was the hardware guy) nor in its programming; for some reason he failed to foresee the possibilities in what would later on become the world wide web – now a much bigger field than personal computing itself and which could prove to be its ultimate Nemesis. This technology was created by Tim Berners Lee, who worked as a programmer at NEXT. 

Jobs’ unique talent was not in technology development but in envisioning its social interface and application. This proves that there are few payoffs in high technology per se; what is prized and truly creates value is technology that addresses a need, in the PC’s case, needs without customers or that present ones fail to see. In creating the IPhone, IPod and IPad Jobs deserved to be called a true visionary.

Stunning Success, but at what price? 

All the foregoing stellar accomplishments, even when corrected, would have been more than enough to fill in ten lifetimes for an ordinary man; but as Steve Jobs was not an ordinary man, it is only fair to also look at their antitheses, exceptional not being synonymous with perfect.

The most telling of Jobs’ known failings was his aloofness, his brash, almost tyrannical style especially in the early years. Whereas outsiders to his world were led to believe that he was “charismatic, altruistic and genial” when dealing with others, in the company of his closest friends and associates he was far from such especially early on. In private he was perfunctory, formal and even cold especially about personal things, except when he was inquiring about the status of projects or matters related to work in general. He was suave and even charming with customers, but those who observed, felt and experienced his stern lashings knew that Jobs’ primary concerns were functional, sometimes to the point of being harsh if expectations were not met. 

Jobs’ demands from his associates and subordinates were so total that Apple’s culture was for a while sublimated to it; many have pointed out how his successor Tim Cook  has taken on Jobs’ appearance and mannerisms, a sign of how loyalty to a man can take on blind emulation. Personality cults are commonplace among CEOs, but egoistic values can be devastating during successions, and while Jobs did not seem to indulge it, he did not discourage it either.       

As if that was not bad enough, this lack of warmth extended even to his relationships with close kin, to the point of meeting a sister only late in adulthood, who wrote a novel that portrayed him in an unflattering light. About his immediate family made up of a wife and three children (and a child from a former sweetheart) little is known; Jobs himself was aware of how remote he was to his children. Many successful men are driven to the extremes of limiting family interactions or keeping such affairs private.

In this regard, Jobs was a stereotype, but one can question its wisdom when used to rebuff his 80 year old biological father’s request, expressed in calls and emails, for a brief chance to meet him before it was all over. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable with digging up the painful memories of his abandonment; perhaps he wanted to avoid legal issues that could ensue, something which his old man disavowed the slightest interest in, saying: “All I wanted was to have a cup of coffee with my son”. Today that one chance in a trillion is gone forever because of Steve’s hard stonewalling. Such is the lot of people who are too rational – they give up the few opportunities to be happy with those who are close to them.         

Why a Rational Life Means Bearing with Unhappiness

A clue to this enigma is seen in his interior life: except for a youthful dalliance with Buddhism Jobs has never affiliated with any formal worship or faith. Spare in his lifestyle, he was not a materialist, let alone a hedonist. At the same time he was never big on philanthropy, once setting up a humanitarian foundation only to disband and divert its funds to acquire PIXAR. At a pledging session held for wealthy businessmen, he was among those who did not commit to donate, and Apple today is a rare American company that has no formal corporate giving program or philanthropic endeavors. If it has, it is nominal.  

Stay hungry. Stay foolish. What could Steve Jobs have had in mind when he cited this quote in his 2005 commencement address? It means simply this: that total devotion to one’s calling means keeping away (staying hungry) from the pleasures of material success, family, personal relations and even faith. In this he was a cold, unsentimental and rational being, finding the greatest meaning in achievement. At the same time he felt that accolades or ties ultimately amounted to nothing, fleeting as they are in life, and counting for nothing after death. This is why he believed that quests for fame or relationships are ultimately foolish. 

One will never be able to know exactly what thoughts played inside Jobs’ head as he lived his final days, but if Freud’s insights on un-reconciled death are of any use, one can deduce that he probably was in great sorrow, despite it being said that he died peacefully. This is why to the end he resisted exchanging a few words with his expectant father; the rational side of him knew that there was no use. 

It is life’s ultimate paradox: he who knows least is the happiest; he who knows the most, suffers.         

Copyrights by V. Ricasio, NYC 2011