Do trade wars really put America first?
President Trump has placed retaliatory tariffs on the U.S.’s closest allies. His justification for this policy is national security and the protection of America’s businesses. But history has shown us that trade wars don’t put America first.
From the campaign trail to the presidency, President Donald Trump has stated time and again that his administration's goal is to put America first. “The first duty of our government is to serve its citizens, many of whom have been forgotten," the president said on the subject of national security. “But they are not forgotten anymore. With every decision and every action, we are now putting America first."
To keep that promise, President Trump announced tariffs on several imports this year under the justification of national security. In January, the administration imposed tariffs on solar panels and washing machines. Then in March, Trump said he would foist heavy tariffs on steel and aluminum. American allies Canada, Mexico, and the EU were originally exempt, but on May 31, they too found themselves subject to the policy.
President Trump's stated goal for these actions is to protect American industries, which he believes have been unfairly treated by bad deals on the global market. “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win," the President tweeted.
In a survey of the CNBC Global CFO Council, nearly two-thirds said the tariffs would negatively affect their company and 86.9 percent believed it would negatively affect the U.S. and Chinese economies, calling U.S. trade policy “the biggest risk their companies [face]."
"Let me be clear: These tariffs are totally unacceptable," Trudeau said. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
And as Canadian president Justin Trudeau told NBC's Meet the Press, “The idea that we are somehow a national security threat to the United States is, quite frankly, insulting and unacceptable," noting that the American-Canadian alliance is one of the most successful in the modern world.
Who's right? Do trade wars put America first or do they push the U.S. further back? History suggests the answer is the latter.
The trade war of the 1930s
At the start of the Great Depression, politicians were naturally in a protectionist mood, and Congress, led by Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley, spearheaded an effort to raise retaliatory tariffs that would protect American businesses from foreign markets.
Despite a petition signed by more than a thousand U.S. economists and countless critical editorials, President Hoover signed the Tariff Act of 1930 (commonly known as the Smoot-Willies Tariff) into law on March 3 of that year. The act increased American import duties on hundreds of goods with the costliest rates since the protective Tariff of Abominations (1828).
The results were as expected—if you were one of the petitioning economists. The United States saw a precipitous reduction in exports and imports, as other countries instituted retaliatory tariffs. Worldwide trade plunged from $4.9 billion in January 1930 to $1.8 billion by January 1933.
According to The Economist, the act “poison[ed] the emptying well of global trade" and stained foreign relations for years:
Smoot-Hawley did most harm by souring trade relations with other countries. The League of Nations, of which America was not a member, had talked of a 'tariff truce'; the Tariff Act helped to undermine that idea. By September 1929 the Hoover administration had already noted protests from 23 trading partners at the prospect of higher tariffs. But the threat of retaliation was ignored: America's tariffs were America's Business.
Sound familiar? The idea that tariffs are good for American businesses and that retaliation is a nonissue match up perfectly with Trump's rhetoric on his contemporary policy.
It is certainly a stretch to say that the Smoot-Willies Tariff caused the Great Depression, and the Great Depression is responsible for the myriad of difficulties in the 1930s. History, like the universe, goes by indirection. Straight lines need not apply.
However, it is not difficult to see how the economic isolationism that propelled the Tariff Act of 1930 would also take root alongside the era's political isolationism and collective narcissism, ideologies that harmed America and led it to exit the world stage when it was needed most.
A capitalist peace?
In contrast, the second half of the 20th century shows the value trade brings for all parties. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker dedicates a chapter to what he terms “the Long Peace." Starting in the decades after World War II, this period saw a steep decline in wars fought between states. Between developed states, the practice is almost extinct.*
Again, history does not exist in a straight line, and Pinker argues that there are many reasons for the Long Peace, from the proliferation of democracy to a widespread adoption of humanist ideals. But one of the reasons he provides is that globalization and freer international trade correlate with peace.
Citing the work of Bruce Russett, John R. Oneal, among others, Pinker shows that countries depending on trade are less likely to militarize or solve disputes with displays of military force.
“[These data invite] a more expansive version of the theory of gentle commerce," Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature. “The pacifying effects of commerce in this broad sense appear to be even more robust than the pacifying effects of democracy. A democratic peace strongly kicks in only when both members of a pair of countries are democratic, but the effects of commerce are demonstrable when either member of the pair has a market economy [emphasis Pinker's]."
In short, an openness to a global economy has a pacifying effect on countries and their citizens, as it moves financial and political incentives away from war and toward cooperation.
Make trade, not war
Trade pacifies countries because it changes the nature of international relationships—from a zero-sum mindset to nonzero-sum one.
A zero-sum mindset sees the international stage as one where one country's losses are another country's gains, and this mindset pushed much of the international relationships of the first half of the 20th century. Proponents for the Smoot-Willies Tariff believed the loss of foreign business would be a net gain for American companies. They were wrong. Proponents of nationalism saw the losses of one country as a means to expand the prestige and legacy of their home country. They were also wrong.
The second half of the 20th century shows us that trade can, and should, be nonzero-sum. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations: “If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it from them with some part of the produce of our own industry employed in a way in which we have some advantages."
Of course, there will be times when communities will have to make concessions to the global market, and just because a country is open to a nonzero-sum mindset doesn't mean there won't be bad actors. However, an openness to international alliances and trade can help countries develop the treaties and agreements necessary to support those disenfranchised communities and punish the bad actors.
As Michael Forman, a lead trade negotiator in the Obama administration, told Vox: “[W]e're hitting our closest allies and partners with a set of tariffs under the justification of national security, while the administration is making it more difficult for those allies and partners to work with us jointly to put pressure on China to reduce its excess capacity."
'No, you go first.' US President Donald Trump (L) gestures next to China's President Xi Jinping during a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
The reason why trade wars are bad, both for the economy and national security, is because they replace the advantages of international trade—that is, everybody wins to a degree—with all the disadvantages of a militaristic, winner-take-all outlook—that is, one country wins at the expense of others.
Unfortunately, President Trump's view the world appears to be zero-sum. Underneath its populist sheen, “America first" is really “America alone." And as history has shown us, the countries that don't stand together, fall together.
*See Max Roser's “War and Peace" entry at Our World in Data for more on the decline of war in the 20th century.
Starling flocks, schools of fish, and clouds of insects all agree.
- Scientists discover that active articles take a pass on Newton's Second Law.
- Active particles exist in a "swirlonic" state of matter.
- Swirlonic behavior explains some of the more dazzling natural phenomena such as starling swarms and shape-shifting schools of fish.
Lawbreakers<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcwMzc5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NTExNzM4Nn0.HI6HiDo4WitAWTCUr1KPULnvRHCGoZcxvaI9viBM2v4/img.jpg?width=980" id="4f3ec" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1a5d7f236b8371c99d7a4414160ff74d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1000" data-height="967" />
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Big Think<p>According to <a href="https://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-3/Newton-s-Second-Law" target="_blank">Newton's Second Law</a>, the acceleration of an object depends on both the force acting upon it and the object's mass. Its acceleration increases in accordance with the force being exerted, and as its mass increases, the object's acceleration decreases. These things don't happen wth swirlons.</p><p>It appears that the Second Law relates only to passive, non-living objects at small and large scales. Swirlons, however, are comprised of active, living matter that moves courtesy of its own internal force. In this context, individual starlings are analogous to self-propelled particles within the larger swirlonic object, their flock.</p>
Spotting swirlonic motion<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcwMzgyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MDM2MDgzMX0.KrEacUm8yaSsZciDVItiO_UTqzbDYd_y0Gj2qXxNbFg/img.jpg?width=980" id="ce03e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b9f876eede09e4952b8d32a80c44f80a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: Johnny Chen/Unsplash<p>The scientists at Leicester, led by mathematician <a href="https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/mathematics/extranet/staff-material/staff-profiles/nb144" target="_blank">Nikolai Brilliantov</a>, came upon swirlonic matter as they developed computer models of self-propelled particles similar to simple bacteria or nanoparticles. They were interested in better understanding the movement of human crowds evacuating a crowded space, and these particles served as human stand-ins.</p><p>The word "swirlonic" comes from the circular direction in which the scientists witnessed their particles milling about in clusters that operated together as larger quasi-particles.</p><p>"We were completely baffled," <a href="https://le.ac.uk/news/2021/february/swirlonic" target="_blank">says</a> Brilliantov, "to witness how these quasi-particles swirl within active matter, behaving like individual super-particles with surprising properties including not moving with acceleration when force is applied, and coalescing upon collision to form swirlons of a larger mass."</p><p>Brilliantov tells <a href="https://www.livescience.com/swirlonic-matter-unusual-behavor.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "[They] just move with a constant velocity, which is absolutely surprising."</p><p>It's not the first time such behavior has been seen, but the first time it's been identified as a distinct state of matter. Says Brilliantov, "These patterns have previously been observed for animals at different evolution stages, ranging from plant-animal worms and insects to fish, but rather as singular structures, not as a phase which borders other phases, resembling gaseous and liquid phases of 'normal' matter."</p><p>The researchers also saw that swirlonic particles operate on a sort of "one for all, all for one" basis. With passive particles such as, for example, water, different individual particles can exist in different states: some may evaporate into gas as others remain as liquid. The models of active particles, on the other hand, stuck together in the same state as either a liquid, solid, or gas.</p>
Moving forward, and back, or up, or down together<p>Brilliantov and his colleagues hope to explore swirlons further, moving beyond their simulation into real-world investigations and experiments.</p><p>The researchers are also developing more sophisticated models that mimic the behavior of swirlonic animals such as starlings, fish, and insects. In these models, the active particles will have information-processing capabilities that allow them to make movement decisions as living creatures presumably do. They hope these models will reveal some of the secrets behind flocking, schooling, and swarming.</p><p>Another future possibility is creating man-made active particles that can self-assemble. Other Leicester experts agree that this is reason alone to continue researching swirlons.</p><p>In any event, say study co-author <a href="https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/mathematics/extranet/staff-material/staff-profiles/it37" target="_blank">Ivan Tyukin</a>, "It is always exciting to consider deepening our understanding of novel phenomena and their guiding physical principles. What we know to date is so much less than what there is to know. The phenomenon of the 'swirlon' is part of the tip of the iceberg of hidden knowledge. It leaves us with the eternal question: 'what else don't we know'?"</p>
One bill hopes to repeal the crime of selling sex and expand social services; the other would legalize the entire sex trade.
The Equality Model asks, criminal or victim?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcwMzY3OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTUxNjE3M30.g5Ln46h9dqAFsymzKPhZ22-euuhjzAqLcreFKC2oOn0/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C896%2C0%2C-1&height=700" id="06827" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ef934a819b529e8ec5ba6412bf332cfb" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Advocates stand outside a courthouse to protest Ghislaine Maxwell, former girlfriend to Jeffrey Epstein, for her role in his sex-trafficking ring.
Credit: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images<p>The most recent of the two is the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act. Set to be introduced by Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, the law would repeal the crime of prostitution in the state but would maintain punitive measures against buyers and pimps. The penalty for buying sex, for example, would be a sliding-scale fine based on income.<strong> </strong>The bill also aims to strengthen laws against trafficking and eliminate the so-called <a href="http://ypdcrime.com/penal.law/article230.htm#p230.03" target="_blank">ignorance defense</a>, which affords buyers legal cover if they did not have "reasonable grounds" to assume their victim was underage.</p><p>The Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act is based on <a href="https://www.equalitymodelus.org/why-the-equality-model/" target="_blank">the Equality Model</a>, first introduced in Sweden in 1999. Under the Swedish Sex Purchase Act, the country decriminalized prostitution and began targeting buyers and suppliers with the goal of lowering demand. As demand decreased, the thinking went, Sweden would witness a subsequent reduction in violence, trafficking, and the trauma associated so strongly with the illicit sex trade. And <a href="https://www.government.se/4a4908/contentassets/8f0c2ccaa84e455f8bd2b7e9c557ff3e/english-summary-of-sou-2010-49.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a 2008 report</a> did find that the strategy manifested some of those goals. </p><p>After the law's introduction, costs increased, fewer men sought to purchase sex, and the number of women in street prostitution halved—though the burgeoning internet scene likely influenced that metric as much as the law. </p><p>As for Sweden's prostituted population, the report was mixed. Fears of the law driving prostitution further underground weren't realized, nor did the risks of physical abuse or dangerous living conditions increase. However, while people who sought to leave the life favored the law, those who wished to stay in the trade denigrated it for hyping the social stigma. </p><p>After the report's release, countries such as Norway, Iceland, Canada, and Israel adopted the Equality Model, and today, many U.S. advocacy groups champion for states to institute similar laws.</p><p>"We who have been in the human-trafficking policy movement for a long time have been advocating for years that people in prostitution should not be criminalized for their exploitation," Alexi Meyers, director of anti-trafficking policy at <a href="https://sanctuaryforfamilies.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sanctuary for Families</a>, told Big Think in an interview discussing the New York bill. "It's the only law where the victim is arrested. Instead of handcuffs, [people in prostitution] need services, need housing, need support."</p><p>Critically, the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act does more than decriminalize prostitution. It also bolsters social services such as housing, job training, and mental health care. To help finance these services, money collected by the aforementioned buyer fine will go into a victim-compensation fund. The bill also expands protections for minors arrested under safe harbor and would vacate victims' prior convictions so they could more easily find jobs. </p><p>"When someone has had no family support, have been abused their entire lives, and they haven't gotten the services they need, at the age of 18, they haven't magically transformed from a victim of trafficking into a prostitute," Jayne Bigelsen, vice president of advocacy for Covenant House, New York, said in our interview.</p><p>Bigelsen grants that not everyone engaged in the commercial sex trade may view themselves as a victim, but she notes that a large portion of the population remains vulnerable nonetheless. To treat such people as criminals, as so many contemporary laws do, does no one any favors. The fear of arrest <a href="http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/pdf/Prostitutionin9Countries.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">actively discourages</a> victims from seeking an "off-ramp" to the life and strengthens the coercive hold their pimps and traffickers maintain on them.</p><p>"[The law helps] reframe the understanding that this is not a crime. It is a form of gender-based violence and exploitation. I think, over time, people will have a greater understanding of that," Bigelsen adds.</p>
Prostitution, an occupation like any other?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcwMzY1My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MTc3NjkzNX0.M_8OftwQ5yaGs4YyUPLIRNUAU7Ip-np2cNNdtEl8gLE/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C565%2C0%2C5&height=700" id="0b146" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6027492cc1cb2a2168dc65154aed7845" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Sex workers in Amsterdam's famous red-light district, where window prostitution is permitted.
Credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images<p>But critics of the Equality Model believe it's disguised paternalism that robs women of the right to choose. Worse, they argue, it further stigmatizes sex workers within society and drives the sex trade further underground, where exploitation and violence can continue to fester from prying eyes.</p><p><a href="https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/s6419#:~:text=S6419%20(ACTIVE)%20%2D%20Sponsor%20Memo&text=Part%20B%20repeals%20and%20amends,are%20repealed%20under%20this%20bill." target="_blank">A second New York Senate bill</a>, currently in committee, would decriminalize the entire sex trade within the state. Called the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, the bill would keep penal laws related to minors and sex trafficking but would make sex work between consenting adults a legal, regulated trade.</p><p>"Sex work is work and should not be criminalized by the state," Senator Julia Salazar, who introduced the bill, stated in <a href="https://www.decrimny.org/post/for-immediate-release-decrim-ny-legislators-intro-first-statewide-bill-to-decriminalize-sex-work" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a press release</a>. "Our current policies only empower traffickers and others who benefit from keeping sex work in the shadows. New York State needs to listen to sex workers and make these common-sense reforms to keep sex workers safe and empower sex workers in their workplaces."</p><p>Like the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act, Salazar's bill draws inspiration from European laws, namely those from the Netherlands and Germany. Both countries legalized the sex trade a few years after Sweden introduced its Equality Model—though laws and regulations vary between the countries and even districts within them. For example, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/germany-introduces-unpopular-prostitution-law/a-39511761" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Germany has passed a law</a> that requires any business offering sex services to apply for a permit "that will only be granted if health, hygiene and room requirements are met," while <a href="https://www.amsterdam.nl/en/policy/policy-health-care/policy-prostitution/#:~:text=In%20Amsterdam%2C%20prostitution%20in%20private,supplying%20locations%20for%20illegal%20prostitution." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Amsterdam limits</a> window prostitution to specific city zones.</p><p>Full-decriminalization advocates hope such laws will facilitate freedom of choice, access to social services, improved health and working conditions, and the decoupling of the occupation from criminal enterprises. They also argue that full decriminalization closes the unintended consequences created by the Equality Model.</p><p>An <a href="https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/05/amnesty-international-publishes-policy-and-research-on-protection-of-sex-workers-rights/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Amnesty International</a> report notes that in Norway, sex workers are routinely evicted from their homes because landlords fear rental agreements will expose them to prosecution for promoting sex. Similar liability concerns deter third parties, such as security, from working with sex workers, too. As a result, sex workers themselves may not be prosecuted but their lives are no less secure nor more firmly established within society.</p><p>"What we have isn't working. The current model of criminalizing sex work traps sex workers and trafficking survivors in cycles of violence. The new proposed legislation referred to as the 'Equality Model' conflates sex work with sex trafficking, using the logic of broken windows policing to address trafficking by targeting sex workers," <a href="https://www.decrimny.org/post/the-equality-model-is-criminalization-by-another-name-pass-the-stop-violence-in-the-sex-trades-act" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">writes the advocacy group Decrim NY</a>.</p>
New York State to lead decriminalization<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="28c828b962f38fcf2605aa8ed21553e4"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jMji-YE1qVA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Of course, Equality Model advocates have their arguments against full decriminalization. Even in countries that have legalized prostitution, the sex trade retains <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46919294" target="_blank">strong ties to criminal activities</a>. Prostituted women continue to be viewed as pariah—or, in the case of Amsterdam, tourist attractions. And like the legal sex trades of the ancient world, contemporary examples have witnessed a surge in human trafficking to meet the demand. More often than not, poor women from poor countries.</p><p>"If you decriminalize people who buy sex, you're removing any legal barriers or social barriers, and the number of people who buy sex will exponentially increase, and you'll have to fill that new, legal demand with supply. And that supply is human bodies, and there aren't enough willing participants to fulfill that need. That's when trafficking occurs," Alexi Myers said.</p><p><a href="https://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/federal_government_report_of_the_impact_of_the_act_regulating_the_legal_situation_of_prostitutes_2007_en_1.pdf" target="_blank">A report commissioned</a> by Germany's Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth looked into the effects of the country's 2001 law. It found the intended impacts to be lacking. According to the report, the Prostitution Act did not create measurable improvements on social protection, working conditions, reduced crime, or the means for leaving the business. The report did assuage some fears, however, by finding that legalization did not make it more difficult to prosecute sex traffickers or related violence when they occurred.</p><p>All told, data will never point to a perfect solution to this or any social concern. In the case of prostitution, emotions and moral instinct run at the redline. Often, the solution one proposes comes down to one's answer of this question: What is prostitution? Is it a violation of another human's rights and dignity? An occupation like any other? Or a moral offense old as the law itself? </p><p>Whatever your answer, you'll likely find current U.S. law lacking. It's for this reason that <a href="https://www.governing.com/archive/more-states-separate-prostitution-sex-trafficking.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">many states are reanalyzing and revamping their prostitution laws</a> to protect victims, usually with more robust safe harbor laws. Whichever law New York State chooses, its successes and failures will likely serve as a bellwether for the United States moving forward.</p>
And if they could, would they care? asks philosopher John Gray in his new book.
- In Feline Philosophy, philosopher John Gray argues that self-awareness isn't the epitome of evolution—and it leads to suffering.
- Gray investigates Pascal, Spinoza, and Lao Tzu to understand why humans are so uncomfortable with themselves.
- Whether or not humans aspire to become like cats, Gray says nature teaches us the lessons felines inherently know.
John Gray: Cats, Humans and the Good Life<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f867f099313c71c325aeb006a2aaee4a"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/er_TwUbvpmI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Cats, like humans and all other animals, do have goals: food, sex, shelter. Certainly not existential distress. Gray notes that the technological fervor dreamed up by transhumanists in their quest for disembodied consciousness is nothing more than a Theosophical fever dream. We haven't really traveled as far forward as our self-appointed credit pretends. </p><p>Humans are not designed to understand the complexities of the universe, nor even of our own biology. Even the notion of morality, as often marketed by religious traditions, is a farce, since people are only really "expressing their emotions." The only recourse we have for discussing emotions—physiological changes that disrupt homeostasis and warrant explanation—is language, and language is a powerful but limited mechanism for discussing reality. </p><p>And what is reality again? </p><p>She turns onto her back to expose her belly to the sunlight. </p><p>Metacognition, often championed as the great divine upgrade elevating humans above the pack (instead of, say, opposable thumbs, group fitness, or an incomprehensible ability to inflict violence), is actually the "chief obstacles to a good life," as Taoists phrase it. </p><p>Gray leans heavily on a number of thinkers—Aristotle, Hume—but the minds of Pascal and Spinoza prove most feline. Pascal knew sitting silently in a room is harrowing—pre-smartphone! We need diversions, he knew, endless entertainment and amusements to distract a mind as uncomfortably matched to its environment as our own. </p><p>Spinoza is the most Taoist of Western thinkers. Gray finds solidarity between Lao Tzu and ol' Benedict in the latter's notion of <em>conatus</em>, "the tendency of living things to preserve and enhance their activity in the world." Sadly, our enhancements cost the weight of the world. Despite what we believe, other animals don't aim to become more human-like, nor did evolution finalize its process with us. Other species have little problem becoming what they are. That's a uniquely human deficiency. </p><p>Humans, Gray writes, find actual fulfillment by applying a "Spinozist-Taoist ethic." We <em>can</em> actually be happy by being ourselves. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A good life is not shaped by their feelings. Their feelings are shaped by how well they have realized their nature." </p>
Photo: ViRusian / Adobe Stock<p>In the end, we become like cats thanks to an indifferent world. Only humans invent stories that reflect reality not whatsoever. Our brains chronically fill in knowledge gaps; those gaps often offer incorrect assessments. Existence is conditional to our environment regardless of how we try to manipulate it in our favor. You can only exploit nature for so long before she grows bored or angered by our tinkering—but there we go assigning human traits to a process that will never play by our rules. </p><p>This the cat knows—by not knowing, or caring, at all. </p><p>Despite the persistent myth, cats display affection; they can learn to love their human roommates. Do our three cats climb into bed with my wife and me every night out of comfort or simply to keep warm? Irrelevant. Humans are conditional animals too. At least cats don't confuse pragmatism with emotion. They're content with what comes. We are not.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If cats could understand the human search for meaning they would purr with delight at its absurdity. Life as the cat they happen to be is meaning enough for them. Humans, on the other hand, cannot help looking for meaning beyond their lives." </p><p>Gray offers a prescription for our duress. His ten feline commandments are ultimately for us; cats would use the pages for litter if given the opportunity. Consider the following three cliff notes for the anxious animals that we are. The irony: to achieve them you need to stop trying to achieve them—another paradox cats have no issue embodying. </p><ul><li>Do not become attached to your suffering, and avoid those who do.</li><li>Forget about pursuing happiness, and you may find it.</li><li>Beware anyone who offers to make you happy.</li></ul><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
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