I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. - Albert Schweitzer

The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and you will trust me more than you do now. And we can trust each other. ... I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous – and people are not yet willing to pay it. - James Baldwin

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Let Them Eat Seed Corn

The other night I tuned into Chris Matthew's show and caught some low-level Heritage Foundation apparatchik defending the notion that unemployment insurance is reducing the incentive for people to find work. Chris and his other guest were doing a pretty fair job of pinning this guys ears back, but I really wanted in on the fight. This same talking point is really making the rounds.

They won't come right out and say it, but they keep implying that the long-term unemployed are simply malingerers who are using their weekly check to hide from the new realities of the job market. Maybe they think getting this line out there will help them defend the ridiculous string of votes that the Republicans have taken on this issue. This guy, James Sherk on Matthew's show kept insisting that “science” shows that with unemployment benefits “workers spend more time unemployed and take longer to find work.” He goes on to say that it encourages people to look for better jobs that pay better wages.  I don't doubt it, but more to the point, so the hell what?

I don't need a study to know that a population experiencing a famine is less likely to consume the seed corn that they need for the next year's planting if they are getting some sort of emergency food relief. I guess if the Heritage Foundation were to analyze that phenomenon, they would conclude that people suffering through a famine would rather just sit there with their hand out than rely on the resources that they already have.

I've got a friend who is an architect. He is one of the finest men I know. He's not a great self-promoter, but he is the ultimate team player. He has been out of work for about 18 months and he has just lost his jobless benefits. I imagine that if he had really hustled from day one, he could have, in fact, managed to find a job as a stock clerk or fast food cook by now, but the way things are that's hardly a sure thing. Instead, he has been actively networking with everyone he knows in the building trades. He has taken community college classes to upgrade his drafting skills to the latest software. He has gotten his LEED accreditation in the use of green technologies. He has resumed work on his Masters degree. Those are all the right moves. Snatching up the first paper-hat job he could find is not. The seventeen years that my friend has invested in his career as an architect, represent not just the seed corn of his own life, but multiplied by the millions, they represent the seed corn for our entire nation.

I know something about the cost of aiming low out of expediency from my own life. When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we moved from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City to take up a new job just as winter was closing in. Two days before I was supposed to start, my new company filed for Chapter 11 and informed me that there was no job. I have had the experience of sitting across from one hiring manager after another and trying to convince them that I really was a talented programmer who just happened to be driving a taxi to make ends meet. It is not an easy sell. You are damaged goods. I was very, very lucky that I was able to rebuild my career from that point, and though I worked very hard at it, hard work was not nearly enough. It set us back for years. It is just a fact that if we push a substantial number of our fellow citizens down that path, some of them will never recover and we will be the poorer for it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How Have We Become So Poor?

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with my wife and daughter in a small sandwich shop. At the next table there was a man about my age. He looked to be pretty well-heeled. His appearance and behavior were not that unusual, but for some reason he has stuck in my mind. He was droning on and on about government spending and taxes and deficits. Mostly I just tried to tune him out but I kept getting drawn back in. At the end of about every third sentence he would earnestly close with the same phrase almost as if it were punctuation, “We just can't afford it anymore.” And on and on and on it went. Then the conversation shifted and he started to go on at great length about his ongoing quest for the perfect bottle of Merlot, and I thought to myself that perhaps he could afford a little more than he realized.

Contrast that with this quote from Abdul Rashid Kahn out of Greg Mortenson's wonderful book Stones Into Schools.

"All I really want for my people is a school so that we can provide education for our children. ... To achieve that, I am willing to give up all of my wealth—all of my sheep, all of my camels, all of my yaks—everything I have, if only Allah will grant this one request."
Abdul Rashid Khan is the leader of the Kirghiz tribesmen in one the most remote regions in the mountains of Afghanistan. Perhaps we could lobby to get him an appoint to Sloan School so that he could teach a new generation of business leaders about the nature of true wealth and true poverty.

There is a wonderful scene near the end of Schindler's List where Schindler is looking around at his car and his jewelry and agonizing that each one of his little indulgences represent a life that could have been saved but was not. If you take that sort of thinking too far you can make yourself crazy. Life is for living and we need comedians and artists every bit as much as we need welders and computer programmers. We need some ease and some comfort and some joy. But there is some limit to the value of self-indulgence. It may be hard to define with precision, but it is there nonetheless.

How many bottles of Merlot would you trade to leave the next generation a better world?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Independence Day

It is a day to celebrate, to remember, to reflect.

We all like to feel that we are noble and nothing makes us feel more noble than invoking high-minded ideals. It is always a trap. None of us are ever as noble as our aspirations, but our aspirations protect us from self-examination better than they protect our fellows from our own critical eye.

Today we celebrate the declaration of our liberty by a man who felt himself at liberty to enslave others and enrich himself from their labor. I do not mean that as an attack on Jefferson's character. In his time, Frederick Douglass would write quite eloquently about how, even as a child, he was aware of the terrible effects of the institution of slavery on the mind and soul of the slaveholder. But I wish to use the fact of Jefferson's slave holdings as a point of departure for thinking about the Declaration of Independence and its present value for us.

1776 is impossibly remote for us. We can read all of the history that we like, but it is not really possible for us to comprehend the reality of a world in which a slaveholder could publicly champion universal human rights and be taken seriously. It was a world where women could not own property and had few civil rights. Travel and communication were glacial. My point is that when we idealize our founding moment we strip away much of the utility that it holds for us. It is easy to imagine some bright shining moment in our past when we were clearer of purpose and more visionary. If only we could recapture the spirit of that moment, all of our troubles would find solutions. No such moment has ever existed. It is only because those times are so remote from our own that we can imagine that it did. We are a nation founded as much on contradiction as on principle and both have shaped our history.

I find it enormously freeing to remember that our present times are not so different from our past. It is easy to imagine Thomas Jefferson, cloistered in a sweaty garret in Philadelphia, struggling to find the words to express the intentions of the Congress and the broader aspirations of the citizenry. We all know the words. They form a litany in our heads, but they roll far too easily off of the tongue. The words have become a convenient semaphore for our core beliefs, whatever those core beliefs may be, but we no longer struggle to find our own words or to get to the heart of every matter for ourselves. Those men were committing treason against the most powerful nation on earth. In so doing, they ceded to themselves the authority to live by their own lights. They recognized that claiming that authority was, by its very nature, a sober and sobering business. Whatever their flaws, they were serious about their business, and as their heirs, we do well to remember and honor them.

But as we struggle to live the freedoms they struggled to establish, we are heirs also to the sober business they took upon themselves. It is a mistake to rely too heavily on their guidance. We also must live by our own lights. They cannot see for us the world in which we must live. They cannot identify the opportunities before us nor evaluate the perils that we face. We can, however, remember what they taught us: It is up to us find our way. It is our right and our responsibility.

Only those things which cannot be changed are beyond the bounds of our judgment. We cannot abolish gravity or mortality and we cannot change any of the immutable failings of our nature. But what is immutable in the human character? If you consider the variety and range of human society across the globe through all of history, you would be hard pressed to define a constant more in evidence than our seemingly unlimited adaptability. What are the limits of humans to create a set of social arrangements which support Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness? It is too soon to tell. It may always be too soon to tell, but there is no rule of political or economic life to which we are bound by any force stronger than our own reason. Let us not be too quick to accept the notion that experience defines the natural limits of the possible. Things which make no sense are not our masters.

Contradiction hides too easily behind principle. Standing on principle has become very fashionable, but it degrades our internal dialog as a nation. If you believe that smaller government, lower taxes, and market forces will solve all our problems, you don't need to think seriously about the problems left unsolved or exacerbated by lower taxes, smaller government, and market forces. Believing that we should use the government to achieve universal health care, alternative energy, and the eradication of poverty does not resolve the issues of waste and misdirected resource inherent in the administration of huge powerful bureaucracies nor does it account for how the required resources will be produced. There is no magic formula for establishing a prosperous, harmonious civil society. Like a good marriage it is the product of constant effort, honesty, compromise, and commitment.

The government is not merely a particular set of institutions chartered by particular documents. It is all of the forms by which power is distributed and controlled in our society. It is law and it is convention. It is the power of monopoly and the power of wealth. It is the power of intimidation and the tyranny of misinformation. All of these forces govern our lives and we can never escape the pull of them, yet the Declaration reminds us that they are all subject to our consent and our judgment. We are the sovereigns here. We have the power to act wisely and the power to be foolish, to succeed or to fail. It is up to us, but we are working without a net.

I am not such a fool as to think that there are easy answers to our present difficulties. If there is an end to human history it will not be a pleasant or triumphal one. But there are things that are worth believing in even if they are not true1. I choose to believe that we can do this. Everything else is negotiable.

Stolen shamelessly from “Secondhand Lions”