Friday, April 4, 2014

The Invisible Hand Reaches Out to Help

Imagine you work for a company that pays you not for the profit you produce but for the good you do. The more poor children you feed, the more money you make. The more old people you get to their doctors' appointments, the more money you make. The more graffiti and trash cleaned up in a bad neighborhood, the more money you make.

Nice, you say. But fugetaboutit. Who's going to pay for that?

The answer is: The same people who are now covering the costs of not doing those good deeds. Hospital emergency rooms. Health care insurers. Prison systems. Fire and theft insurers. Governments at all levels.

As a society, we're gradually coming around to the view that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Annual physical exams, vaccinations and cancer screenings are now free under the Affordable Care Act. Auto insurers give lower rates to drivers with no accidents. Home insurers give premium discounts for homes with alarm systems.

Still, so much that we could do to prevent predictable (and expensive) future problems remains undone. I believe this is because we lack a coherent and well-adapted infrastructure to incubate new approaches to solving persistent social problems. Government now shoulders much of the load, but government is notoriously inefficient and, even when well-intentioned, frequently not very expert.

There is an alternative to government, though. A tried-and-true model we can pull right off the shelf. One we have used with tremendous success throughout our nation's history. One that many argue is the only model that has ever been or can ever be successful. What is this holy grail, this ideal approach to problem solving? It is greed. Or, as it's known by its polite name, capitalism.

Here's what we might do. First, we set up companies--let's call them FutureFunds--to address specific societal needs that are underserved. Then we identify the institutions that bear the long-term costs of not meeting those needs, and we offer them this deal: Pay us now to save you more (maybe much more) later.

Each new FutureFund would establish its own plan to attack the problem it is addressing: health emergencies, home fires, gang violence, teen pregnancy, crime, incarceration. The FutureFund pays its workers to get the results it has promised--reducing the costs of poverty, bad health, poor education, etc., etc.--and, Voila! Everybody's a winner.

There is a company in Nashville, Tennessee that is doing this in the healthcare area. It takes payments from health insurers of a set amount for each patient insured and promises to reduce health claims by at least the amount of the total payments. If it does not, it refunds the money it didn't save. If it does better, it and the health insurer split the savings. The way it reduces claims is by getting close to patients and helping them keep their doctors' appointments, take their medications, go to their exercise therapy. The work is labor intensive, but the company has a well-trained patient-outreach staff supported by good data systems. It's too early to tell how successful it will be, but it's in its third round of funding. And it's no charity case. It's doing this all on its own, within the incentive structure of free enterprise.

The Tennessee healthcare entrepreneur is betting that if people follow their doctors’ advice, they will have better health outcomes. This seems intuitively correct. But sometimes cause-and-effect connections that seem obvious turn out not to exist. Two things can happen at the same time—that is, be positively correlated—without one necessarily causing the other. They may both be caused by a third thing, for example. Breakfast eaters may be less likely to be obese, but is that because they eat breakfast, or is it because they are physically active, which both makes them hungry in the morning and less likely to be overweight? (Thanks for the example, Kahn Academy.)

Perhaps the foremost challenge to creating a workable model for making money by doing good is establishing cause and effect. To attract support, a FutureFund will have to make a sound, empirical case that what it plans to do will produce the desired cost-saving benefit. The good news is that we have never been better equipped to tackle this challenge. All fields of study--medicine, social sciences, economics--are getting better at sniffing out the root causes of our most persistent problems. In the past, sometimes we just haven't had enough information to know what to do. Big data, crowd-sourcing, learning software, and an overall higher level of connectedness are allowing us to peel back the layers of causality. Relatively new disciplines like behavioral economics are intersecting with psychology and sociology to help us better understand what makes us act the way we do. As we come to better understand the causes of our persistent problems, we will be able to design better solutions.

The second big challenge is patience. Even assuming we are correct in our belief that better childhood education provides long-term benefits—in health, achievement and productivity—the economic effect of those benefits for a particular child will not be realized for decades. Indeed, they will not be fully realized except over the person's lifetime. Who can we expect to make an investment with a payoff that is so deferred? The obvious answer has been government (local, state or federal). Government is the primary beneficiary of many social investments—through lower poverty rates and higher future tax revenues, for example—and it has the capital and, election-year politics aside, the necessary long-term strategic horizon. Up until now, when these kinds of strategic social investments have been made, they have, for the most part, been made by government.

I hate to say it, but the problem with government spearheading any investment is that often it’s not very good at it. We all know about the $150 hammers and the $300 toilet seats the Department of Defense buys. Private enterprise is generally better (that is to say, more disciplined) at successfully structuring and monitoring the deployment of capital and labor. The role government can usefully play is facilitator. This is an accustomed role. The tax code, for example, has long been used to encourage various kinds of investments. (Okay, I’ll admit that, given the Swiss cheese of loopholes and ill-advised tax expenditures that make up the current tax code, that may seem like a bad idea; but it’s something we can do while we’re waiting for tax reform, which seems to be hiding out with the Abominable Snowman and Santa Claus).

Government could help our private FutureFunds by funding research into cause and effect and by providing incentives like lower taxes on returns on investments in FutureFunds. FutureFunds could be non-profits, thereby making them attractive for donors wishing to support their research and operations.

But while government could give FutureFunds a leg up, the burden of financing them can and should fall to private capital. Managing risk is not new, but managing risk for profit on a contract basis is more novel. The rewards would be long term, so the capital best-suited to a FutureFund enterprise would be from investors seeking moderate but steady returns, as opposed to, say, the sky-high returns required to attract capital to new commercial technologies. There would have to be a break-in period where FutureFunds proved they could produce results, but once they had done that, the underwriters of societal risks, both private and public, would likely line up as customers. And private investors, once they are convinced of the long-term stability of the business model, would open their wallets.

Think of the fun we could have working for a FutureFund. The satisfaction. I dare say such a company would have no trouble attracting an enthusiastic workforce to the positive energy of doing something that was doing good. Half of us might line up to be on the front lines of operations and the other half might hunker down over the statistics and regressions needed to find out which solution worked and which didn't.

Would it be only do-gooders who wanted to work at a FutureFund? Most of us like doing good, but we've got families to feed and kids to support, so we need to get more out of these jobs than feeling good about ourselves. I don't see why compensation at a FutureFund couldn't rival that of any traditional business. Executives could make big bucks--perhaps not Wall-Street big bucks, but solid compensation--and workers could be paid well. The idea is not that the business would be run on the cheap, like a volunteer soup kitchen, but that it would not be making profits for shareholders. It would pay its salaries and other operating costs, it would repay it's lenders and investors, whose investment returns would be fixed to levels more like bonds and preferred stocks, rather than having the unlimited upside of common stock. There would still be plenty of other commercial enterprises for investors who wanted risky returns. But for those seeking stable, patient yields, FutureFunds would be attractive.

Think of it. No more frustrating waiting for Congress to decide whether to fund a project. No more political battles over whether a project was worthwhile. If you had solid research supporting your plan, you could attract investors and customers. If not, back to the drawing board. But you would be the master of your destiny. Not some politician. Not some shareholder who only wanted a bigger corporate jet. You. And me.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hollow Days

Have you ever wanted to help someone and not been able to? Sometimes they need money you don't have. Or connections you don't have. Sometimes you don't know what they need. Those are the tough ones.

Let's say your mom's hands shake too much to pay her bills. That's the kind of problem I like. I can write her checks for her to sign. Problem solved. But what if she's lonely and bored. Maybe dying. Not dying tomorrow or next week, or even next month, just gradually slipping away. You can't be there three times a day to help her with her eye drops. You can't come over at three in the morning to search her blankets for the little portable radio she keeps in her bed, near her hand, so she can listen to NPR in those long dark hours when she can't sleep. And when she does slip away, you don't tell yourself you did everything anyone could, you only remember the times she was frightened and you weren't there.

Or maybe it's your grown child who has hit a rough spot. When she fell from the monkey bars and gashed her chin, you rushed her in for stitches. Problem solved. There's nothing like the way a child's cuts heal. Fast. Scars so faint they're almost attractive, like badges of a brave and adventurous spirit. But what about when that brave and adventurous spirit gets driven off, frightened away by demons you can't see and, even when they're described to you, you have trouble understanding. These are not the sharp objects and traffic-filled streets you spent your life protecting her from. These are daggers of the mind that cut away emotional defenses and resilience and open the way for fear and doubt.

Like your mother in her last years, your adult child has good days and bad days. On good ones, she's her old self: bright, talented, perceptive, amazing. You think: She's fine. She's going to be fine. Then the clouds come. The days of not leaving home, of crying. The irrational fears. Wounds that can't be stitched up, that need help you can't provide. All you can do is hope for the good days to return; and hope nothing disastrous happens before they do. This person is not a child. You can't cosset her in her childhood bedroom. It won't do any good to sit on her doorstep. She doesn't want you there. It's not as simple as finding her radio for her in the night, and even that wasn't so simple.

When you're thinking about people you love who are suffering, people you are accustomed to helping, people whose problems, some of them anyway, you've been able in the past to fix, doing nothing is almost unbearable. Even though you know these are problems you can't solve, you can't shake the notion that you should be trying harder, that you should be rushing to the rescue, not going to a movie or sitting in a park somewhere in a faraway city while she can't leave her apartment. 

On your own bad days, your desire to fix the problem, and your inability to do so, sucks the life out of you. You feel guilty for your own good fortune. You would gladly give up your health or sanity so that she may have hers. But it doesn't work that way. And it leaves you feeling a little like you imagine she does: hollowed out. 

Perhaps there is some awful comfort in that. Some feeling that by your own pain you may somehow share her burden. Some hope that by confronting your own guilt and doubt you may find within yourself something that will help you both.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What If

Fiction writers are “what-iffers." What if the hero falls into a pit of despair. What if he falls in love? What if he falls and breaks a leg? You come to a place in a story where you're stuck about what should happen next and the what-iffing begins. When a story is boring, it’s usually because there hasn't been enough what-iffing.

So also a life. When you don't know how to get out of a rut, that's the time for some what-iffing. What if I go somewhere where no one knows me? What if I ask his name? What if I sell everything, grab a backpack and hit the road.

When we’re very young, we have powerful imaginations. I remember a recurring dream in which I could fly. For a long time, I thought maybe I really could. Flying becomes winning at some sport or getting into the college you want, maybe landing a particular job. I'm not saying those aren't good things hope for, but they're a long way from flying. Over time, life coaxes us off that childhood height where we stood with our arms spread to the wind and, as Louise put it to Thelma, we get what we settle for.

Meg (one of my dreams that did come true) particularly likes a bit of writing advice the novelist Tim O’Brien gave her: “Have people behave in extraordinary ways to illuminate ordinary emotions.” When you come down to it, most of what we want is pretty ordinary. How bold we are in pursuing it is what makes the difference.

We are, each of us, the authors of our own stories. When we feel the plot dragging, it may be time step back and ask "what if.” There are reasons to be reticent about taking some daring leap in life—money, time, other commitments—but often as not, if our lives are boring, our biggest failure may be one of imagination.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Letting Go

I was eating a burrito at a restaurant patio table on beautiful day when I decided to let go. Of my money. Some of it. A dollar. There was a modest older man at a nearby table who was politely asking passersby if they could spare a little change so he could get something to eat. I was writing, sort of, mostly letting my mind float free, and his quiet and respectful request floated in and out of my thoughts and eventually took hold of them. I went back into the restaurant, broke the twenty in my wallet and took him a dollar. I said it didn't look like he was having much luck. He said he was mighty hungry. He wasn’t thin or scruffy. His clothes were worn but he wore them carefully. His mustache was neatly trimmed. He didn’t look like a drunk. In that moment, I didn’t care whether he was. I didn’t care what he did with the dollar, I just wanted to give it to him.

I've seen a lot of homeless people over the years. I wrote here about one who became a family friend, a chess-playing street musician in Santa Barbara named Mason B. Mason. Mason was in and out of jail, but he played chess with my sons Chris and Nick and we all liked him and were sad when he died of cancer unexpectedly. There was a woman in our local park in Palo Alto who I saw so often I always spoke to her. She never replied, but that was okay. She died a few weeks ago of hypothermia. Her middle-aged daughter had been trying for years to get her off the street. She'd been a good mother when she was younger, her daughter said.

Most of the homeless people I see are anonymous. Sometimes I give them a little something, but I don't carry small bills, so I rarely reach into my pocket for someone I pass on a sidewalk.

I see them, though. I see them watch me as I say, "Sorry man," or as I just look the other way, pretending not to notice them. I feel ashamed when I do that. They'll just buy booze with it, I might think, to make myself feel better. Or I remind myself that Meg and I give money to Second Harvest, which feeds the homeless, and to homeless shelters like The Opportunity Center, which offers housing and life and job counseling. They're on the street because they want to be. You hear that so often you begin to believe it. Or you want to believe it. If it's their choice, it's not your fault.

I suppose some of my rationalizations are rooted in truth, but I don't like myself for thinking about people that way. I want to let go of that habit, that reflex. I want to let go of the cliches and stereotypes. I want to let go of my need to shape my worldview to accommodate my desire not to have small change jangling in my pocket. What do I know about those people? One of them might be another Mason B. Mason, a friend to my sons. One of them might have been a good mother to her daughter when she was young, a daughter who cannot understand what happened to her mother, why she sits all day on her bench saying hardly a word.

Homelessness is a dreadful state of existence. It is also a terrifying mirror held up to us, reflecting our inability to help one another sometimes, even our indifference to their suffering. When I gave a dollar to that man on the restaurant patio, I resolved from then on to carry a pocketful of dollars to give to others like him. Without judgement. Without fear. I don't know what they’ll do with the money. When you make a gift it’s no longer yours to control. A dollar isn't going to change anyone's life, but perhaps the daily giving will change mine. All I know for sure is that I can no longer look away.

When he was ready to leave, the man I'd given the dollar folded his newspaper, slipped on his jacket and stood and smoothed his clothes. He came over to me and said thanks again. He walked away a few steps and turned back to me, glanced up at the sky, where clouds were gathering, and said, "Stay dry."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Downton Days

I admit it: I love Lady Mary. And Mrs. Patmore. And Daisy. And Bates. Let’s see, that’s three to one in favor of downstairs. I don’t think I have a soft spot for servants, but the characters who appeal to me seem to be the ones with problems ranked lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I worry more about the struggle to make a living than the quandary over which gown to wear to the ball.

As entertaining as it is, watching Downton Abbey is beginning to annoy me; or perhaps I should say discourage me. Why are we so fascinated with the aristocracy? Why do we care about them at all? Sure, they’re people; they have problems like we all do. Sort of. It’s too bad for Lady Edith that she went from ugly duckling to pregnant pariah without ever passing through the swan stage. But she’s not going to have to work two jobs or queue up for food stamps to get by as a single mother. She’ll board the wee bairn on the estate and go back to afternoon tea served by Carson and that conniving Thomas we all love to hate.

There have always been classes. Some societies—notably Britain and India—formalized them. They didn’t just tolerate them, they maintained that one person’s dominion over another was a natural right. It is less popular these days to codify superiority, but as part of the human condition class is sticky. Even when nations have violently thrown off the shackles of caste—as in Bolshevik Russia and Red China—the ensuing totalitarianism ushered in not an egalitarian utopia but rather a concentration of power and privilege on a lofty peak overlooking a thickening fog of paucity and suffering. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about a capitalist “democracy” like ours is that at least there is no dictator.

It seems odd to me, if perhaps historically inevitable, that a country like the United States, which was founded by hearty individualists breaking free of their feudal fates, has come to look more like nineteenth-century England’s realm of landed gentry than a wide-open new world of prairie schooners and gold rushes. We’ve run out of easily accessible opportunity—land and natural resources—and we are stratifying. Our economic institutions (and, through them, our political structures) are becoming the domain of a plutocracy that is consolidating power and building deregulated walls and untaxed moats to defend it.

I’m not foolish enough to wish for Marxism. I’ve read what Stalin did in Russia. I saw the newspaper accounts of Mao’s purge of China’s intellectuals in his cultural revolution. But still it pains me to see Bates putting on Lord Grantham’s cufflinks. It doesn’t seem right that one group should be subordinate to another. I know how it happens; I understand the driving economic and cultural forces behind it, the apparent inevitability of our tendency to rank ourselves (and our universities) one against the other, but it doesn’t seem right.

Utopia germinates in revolution but always seems to end up being bastardized by political or economic bullies. I suppose I think that, among large pluralistic cultures, the United States still offers the best hope for us to live together in comparative equality. There’s no getting around the privilege of money, but I hope we can avoid the snobbish entitlement that baronies and duchies carried with them in the run-up to Downton Abbey, when a lady of the manor falling for a chauffeur was an epic scandal.

There is an insulation that goes with economic privilege that dehumanizes those of lower classes. They become takers and parasites. Mitt Romney’s forty seven percent. Unworthy even to participate in governance, at least by the reckoning of the rich venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who recently proposed that only the rich should vote. When we look upon one another that way, utopia seems a long way off.

There have always been rich snobs, and will ever be. What I fear now, as we return politically and economically to something like the Gilded Age, is that we are losing sight of the notion that a rich snob is not a good thing to be.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Habit of Achievement

Two of my grandchildren (I know, it's shocking to me too) are competitive swimmers. They swam this past weekend in the Georgia State Championships and did well. I was talking to my son Grant, their dad, and saying how great it was, and he said it was nothing compared to the news that same day from one of my other sons about his grad school plans. Grant was just being generous, and modest, but it struck me that what he said wasn’t true. What his little swimmers were doing in that noisy pool, among the excitement and commotion of parents and peers, was as important as anything they would ever do. They were laying a cornerstone in the foundation of character: the habit of achievement.

The next day I was talking to my oldest son, whose children are budding musicians, one a pianist the other a violinist. He said his daughter’s violin teacher has a patient way of emphasizing a step-by-step approach. It made me think of something a recent Olympic gold medalists (Mikella Shiffrin, as I recall) said about her approach to slalom racing: she focuses on the process, each movement, step and turn. The cumulative result takes care of itself.

I read a piece in The New York Times recently that, in the old debate over nature vs. nurture, came down on the side of nature. Recent studies suggest genes are destiny. Which leaves me with mixed feelings: oh, good, I couldn't have screwed them up too badly by denying them video games and dispensing occasional ranting lectures; vs., what was the point of all that diligent parenting, anyway?

Well, it was fun. That's one thing. I know that because I miss them. And when they achieve something cool, I, like presidents and governors, always give myself a lot of credit, even though I know I don't deserve it. I know this because I never even did their homework for them. But now I've come up with something to hang onto, something that, now that I consider it, I wish I had thought more about before: my pack-mule role in helping my children develop.

Achievement is up to the child, but enabling and facilitating a habit of achievement is something a parent can do. It's something we do out of love and perhaps some kind of instinct, like a mama lion teaching her cub to hunt for food. We get up early to take them to swim practice; we hang around soccer fields and chess tournaments; we go to their plays and concerts; we remind them to practice; we tell them not to give up when they get discouraged. We help them get started, and we help them persevere. Sometimes it takes a while for them to find the thing that lights their fire, but we keep taking them back to the metaphorical activity store. We rent pianos and saxophones, we buy balls and rackets of all types, we hire coaches and senseis.

Do you remember the feeling of realizing for the first time that you were good at something? Anything. It doesn't matter. Sports. Spelling bees. Magic tricks. Do you remember how empowering it was? Hey, I can do something, and do it well. It makes you proud. It makes you confident. It makes you willing to try other things. It makes you willing to take risks.

DNA may be the car, but it needs a driver. It's not going to go far with one who is too cautious, too unconfident. And it's likely to crash with one who lurches from point to point without mastering driving skills along the way. That's what achievements are: driving skills. Although, I kind of hate to think of it that way when I remember my moments terror as I taught them actual driving skills and tromped on the brake that did not exist on the passenger side of the car.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Why Learn?

My grandfather was one of the smartest men I ever knew. He was an academic with a photographic memory. He lived to be ninety eight, and I remember thinking when he died that his death was a waste of a lot of knowledge and wisdom. My father was a doctor. He was a restless man and a restless learner. He did the first intrauterine fetal transfusion in the South, to save babies whose blood cells were being attached by their mother’s antibodies. He died at fifty. All his skill in saving babies, all he had learned about a possible cure, went with him.

So it goes. Collectively, we pass along our knowledge, but individually each one of us more or less has to start over. We are born clean slates, waiting to be marked on. For a while, it is others who draw our lines, but it isn't long before we take over the effort ourselves. At that point, our life-long quest for things we want to know begins.

We build skills. We build understanding and reasoning. We go out into the world and use what we have learned to make money, make love, make art, make bridges and mobile apps. In our prime, we are machine learners, applying our CPUs to the task of learning what we need to know to do what we want to do; doing it, learning more, refining our skills, learning still more, becoming accomplished.

At some point we slow down. We make enough money. We tire of a passion and get antsy for change. We move on. We learn again. We do again, or maybe we just keep learning, not altogether certain what to do with the knowledge we are gaining, yet still as thirsty for it as one too long in a wasteland.

I found a new science feed for Flipboard, and you would have thought I discovered electricity. I'm not going to be a scientist—I suppose I have to finally admit that—but wow, is there ever a lot of cool stuff out there. The great thing about being a writer is that I can rationalize that anything I learn might be useful to my writing. I'm no longer limited in time or interest to “useful knowledge,” like the corporate tax and securities laws I had to study back in the day. Anything I want to know now, however arcane, is fair game.

Of course, I made better use of my narrower field of inquiry when I was a lawyer. Everything I learned had a purpose. I was like a giant processing machine: laws and regulations in the hopper, loopholes and evasions in the output tray. It was obvious to me why I was learning then. But why now?

I don't know the answer to that. This isn't one of those essays with an answer. The question is more or less its own answer I suppose. Or is that just the lawyer in me peeking out, offering a clever but meaningless aphorism?

I seem to need to learn in the same way I need to exercise. In both cases, I feel crappy if I don't. In both, the effort is exhilarating and frustrating. Too late to be a Nobel scientist. Too late for the Olympics. But still I love the effort. I even like the frustration. When I can't run as far as I want to, it just makes me want to try harder. When I see a policy issue that I think is getting mangled, it makes me want to write an essay. I'm not racing anyone but myself at this point, but still I put in the miles.

We're a curious lot, we humans. Both figuratively and literally. We're capable of great kindness and cruelty, great art and ugliness, great discovery and, now and then, especially when we don’t like what we hear, stubborn ignorance. It is our curiosity, though, that has gotten us where we are. It propels us. It is our heart. It keeps pumping until we die. And the parts of us we pass along to our children pump in them, fueling the unbroken quest that is our humanity.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hooking Up the Freight Trains

Meg and I have these friends in Santa Barbara who are like Russian nesting dolls: you keep opening them up and finding more surprises inside. Melodie is a successful mystery writer, but in another life she was a dazzling actress. She even starred with my hero (as a cowboy, not a politico) Clint Eastwood. He was a little stiff, she said (no doubt struck speechless by her beauty); she told her husband, Bones, she didn’t think Clint would make it as an actor.

Bones is a drummer for occasional gigs in Santa Barbara, but in those days he was a renowned music producer. At their house his gold records are hung inconspicuously in a hallway, but his Grammy for producing the Fifth Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” is in the living room. He said it isn’t the original Grammy; that one was made of pot metal that fell apart, so they replaced it for him. It’s not that big, about the size of a water pitcher, but it is stunning. I asked him to tell me the story of how the song was made.
He was working with the Fifth Dimension at the time, and they told him they wanted to record “The Age of Aquarius,” from the rock opera “Hair.” He went to see the show, but when he heard “Aquarius” his reaction was that it was only half a song. He didn’t see how it could work. The play went on, and after a while a guy swings out over the audience on a rope (probably naked, like most of the cast was), singing the opening of “Failures of the Flesh,” which ended with the repeating chorus of “Let the Sunshine In.”
That chorus stuck with him, and after the show he got the idea to make it the missing second half of “Aquarius.” How can you fade them together? someone asked. “I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I’m going to hook them up like freight trains.”
They recorded in several cities, including Las Vegas, where the Fifth Dimension was opening for Frank Sinatra. The studio was near the train tracks, and their session was interrupted by an actual freight train. While they waited for it to pass, singer Billy Davis Jr. started riffing over “Let The Sunshine In.” “Save that,” Bones told him. “We’ll add it in later.” And he did.
The record company, when they heard the song, said, “This is going to be number one.” Bones told them he’d been around long enough to not make that kind of prediction. He said he just did his best on each song and whatever happened happened.
The song was Billboard’s number one for six weeks, won a Grammy for Song of the year and is, by Billboard’s reckoning, the 57th greatest song of all time.
I love this story because of its glimpse into the craft, creativity and serendipity behind artistic success. “Hair” was a transformative musical. The Fifth Dimension was a wonderful group. Bones married them for the ages. “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” defines the era of my wannabe-but-too-conventional-to-take-a-chance bohemian youth.
We had dinner with Melodie and Bones that night. Melodie had offered beef stew or coq au vin. We said the chicken sounded great, but that we’re a tad allergic to tomatoes. The dish was delicious, but Melodie teased us all night about how lame it was without tomatoes. When I wrote her afterwards to thank her for a lovely evening, and to ask if Bones would mind if I posted the photo I had taken of his Grammy, she said he would consent “only if you put a tomato in the horn.”

And so I did. Who am I to argue with creative genius? As much as his talent, I admire Bones’s advice for making art: Do your best every time and whatever happens happens.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Not Ready For That

My son Chris, who is studying to become an economist, recently gave me a book by Joseph Stiglitz called The Price of Inequality. A few years ago he gave me John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Last year it was The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, who was pretty much at the opposite end of the capitalism/socialism spectrum from Stiglitz and Galbraith. My sympathies tend toward Stiglitz and Galbraith, but then again I’ve never lived under the kind of totalitarian political regime that shaped Hayek’s thinking. One thing I’ve learned from my economics tutorial is that the more I know the more I realize how much I still have to learn.

I wonder sometimes what kind of man I would be if I’d lived in an informationless age. The printing press wasn’t invented until 1439. The telegraph didn’t go into service in America until about 1840. The first commercial radio broadcast here was in 1920, television in 1928. In the last hundred years--and really only in the last hundred years--information has begun to flow like water. Our thirsty minds have drunk it up.
In the early years, and for a long while, what was broadcast on national radio and television was, broadly speaking, the truth. The networks prided themselves on communicating the facts. Newspapers have always had a more local flavor, with political biases frequently on display. I suppose you could say that local newspapers, with their pluralistic perspectives, were the true progenitors to the Internet, where today every opinion is available for easy consumption. Indeed, every version of the facts.
For millennia people were ignorant because they could not get information. Now, with information ubiquitous, we are ignorant because we choose to be. I’ll admit it can be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, but it seems to me that too many of us aren’t trying very hard. It would be understandable if, overwhelmed by conflicting opinions and data, we just threw up our hands and said, “Who knows?” But that’s not how we’re acting. We’re acting like we know. In fact, we’re acting like we’re damned certain.
This is especially true in politics, which deals with questions that intimately impact us. The taxes, regulations and impositions on personal liberty that so irritate libertarians. Or food stamps and health care for the poor, which are, depending on your perspective, either our humane duty to one another or takings from hardworking citizens to subsidize freeloaders. There are opinions out there to support almost any point of view. Facts too, it seems.
Not all facts are created equal, though. Some come from scientists who’ve made finding the truth their lives’ work. They’re not always right, but they give us the best knowledge they have at the time. Then there are facts that come from those who have an agenda. These famously include studies funded by tobacco companies to show that smoking was neither addictive nor harmful. More recently, there is the dubious climate science funded by coal and oil companies. Or data supporting the bedrock Tea Party doctrine that the worst thing we can do for the poor is enable their laziness by extending unemployment benefits.
You would think that “facts” sponsored by people and organizations with obvious axes to grind would be viewed skeptically. But often we embrace them; we chose them. I suspect that what we are doing is choosing among competing narratives, competing ways of telling ourselves the story of how we are living on the planet and with one another.
Many things can cause us to be predisposed to a particular point of view. How and where we are raised. The tenets of our faith. Despite the fact that scientists view the theory of evolution as incontrovertible, it is not accepted by many who have been raised on the belief that their god created heaven and earth in six days a mere six thousand years ago.
These predispositions are part of us. Over long periods of time we may change our views, but we tend to turn away from knowledge that comes at us too fast, especially if it is disruptive. The severity of climate change, and mankind’s contribution to it, are, as Al Gore famously put it, inconvenient truths. According to Nicholas Kristof, more people believe there is evidence of aliens having visited the earth (77%) than that man is responsible for global warming (44%).
There are whole branches of psychology, anthropology and cognitive and social science devoted to why we resist change. Businesses cling to the commercial environment in which they have historically made money. Individuals hang onto ways of living and thinking that have served them well in the past, that are comfortable and seem safe. This made sense when our habits developed slowly and organically out of our interactions with one another. What worked was kept; what didn’t was left behind.
We are programmed, it seems, to go slowly with change to protect the species from hastily made bad decisions. But now the opposite is happening. We are changing our habitat and social order so fast, and on such a large scale, that the risk of harm is now less from taking imprudent risks than from failing to understand and respond to the consequences of our habitual ways of doing things.
We are not entirely to blame. Not only are we hardwired to be skeptical of change, the growing fog of obfuscation makes what is actually happening harder to detect. It hasn’t been that long since, at least as to existential risks, we knew what was happening. If your village was attacked, the threat was clear and immediate. You fought as well as you could, and if you lost you adapted to survive. Today, with risks like global warming and the increasing gap between rich and poor, we are more like frogs in the proverbial slowly heating pot of water. The changes are accretive, and the consequences seem unreal, or at least far off. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Enjoy the warm water.
We all know the story of how Microsoft developed the dominant computer operating system and, when we were all using it, employed every trick in the book to keep us from changing to another. When threatened by Netscape’s Internet browser, Microsoft, to raise fears of system incompatibility, programmed random error messages to pop up on any computer with Netscape installed. “FUD,” Joseph Stiglitz calls the strategy: fear, uncertainty and doubt. In so many policy areas today--taxes, food stamps, ethanol subsidies--there are committed legions out there flashing error messages.

When the Catholic Church jailed Copernicus for his heretical view that the earth orbited the sun, rather than the other way around, all that happened was that Copernicus had a bad few years in prison and human knowledge had to wait for the truth. Waiting didn’t matter. What we thought or did wouldn’t change the natural order things. But what we think and do matters now. We are changing the natural order of things by warming the planet and creating billions of economic refugees. And while we dither and rationalize, the water is heating up.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Son, Go Out There And Be A ...

When I was eight, I sold Christmas ribbons and cards door to door. Then I had a newspaper route. A couple of years later I bought an old trailer for my even older car and towed around lawn mowers to cut yards. Finally I graduated to a real job: the graveyard shift at a printing plant setting up stacks of magazine sections for a long line of women who dropped them onto a moving clothesline, one section after another, to make up the magazine.

Wait, don’t stop reading. This isn’t going to be one of those stories about the virtues of hard work. I didn’t care about virtue in those days (except for being pretty interested in losing my own). What I cared about was gas money and the freedom it gave me. I tell the story of my industrious youth solely as a kind of CV for thinking about a question that has been on my mind lately. If I hadn’t gone to college, if I hadn’t left that printing plant, or the department store sales job that came after it, and if I had a son who wanted to follow in my footsteps, who wanted to be like his old man, what kind of work would I tell him to seek?
Of course I’d say, “Don’t be like me, go to college, raise yourself up,” but what if he didn’t want to? Or what if, for one reason or another, he couldn’t? He’d want to make gas money, then he’d want to make enough to have a family, maybe buy a little house, put something aside so his kids might go to college. In today’s economy, how could he do that?
Time was when you could follow your dad to the factory floor and make out okay. No more. Those jobs aren’t completely gone, but they are much less plentiful and many require advanced training. It’s not like when the country was growing like a strapping young man and all you had to do was show up and work hard.
Everyone says we’re becoming a service economy. Is that because we’re richer and can afford to purchase more services? Some of us are, but not most. Is it because we’re getting older and need more help with day to day life? Certainly the boomer bulge is aging. But here’s the question I have: if we’re seeking employment in the service sector, as opposed to making things to sell around the world, aren’t we sort of chasing our tails? I’ll come to your restaurant if you come to mine.
Technology is increasing productivity faster than ever. Unfortunately for those who want to work, the way it does that is by eliminating jobs. That frees up a lot of workers to go into services, but I’m not clear about where the money to consume those services will come from. It feels a bit like a ponzi scheme.
I suppose what I’d tell my son who didn’t or couldn’t go to college (and, increasingly, the one who was a liberal arts major) is that he should develop a skill that’s in demand. Be a nurse. Be a healthcare IT worker. Do something that not just anyone can do. Differentiate yourself. Education is one way to do that, but a skilled trade is another. If he said he just planned to knock around and see what turned up, do this and that, I’d have to tell him that wouldn’t be good enough anymore. There will be too much competition for unskilled jobs. You can’t make it in Christmas ribbons and paper routes anymore.

Friday, December 13, 2013

On Being Part of Something That Does Not Depend on Me

I’m starting to be able to see the world without me. No one thinks he will live forever, but the idea--no, not the idea, the feeling--of the world going on without me is new to me. For all my life the past has been laid out behind me. I could look back and see the road I had traveled and I could read about and imagine all the roads others traveled to lead to that moment. I could imagine the future, in a sci-fi kind of way--space ships and landings on Mars--but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t feel it. That didn’t surprise me. Why should I be able to see the future? No one can.

But that’s not true. I can see it now. It is, broadly speaking, more of the same. There will be changes, but unless we extinct ourselves (always a possibility), they will be incremental. There will be advances in science and probably even in democracy, but humanity is like water: it always fills in the low places. The day-to-day human struggles of a century ago look, overall, remarkably like those of today. In another hundred years, they will look the same.
I don’t remember ever considering what I was doing. I don’t mean ordinary things, like what to eat, whom to ask out, where to go to school. Broadly, though, from the beginning of my memory, I have put one foot in front of the other on a path that seemed to be one I should walk, the one laid down for me by the gods who ordain such things. There was no one else on my path (which is how I got a false sense of uniqueness). I didn’t even think about whether others had their own paths. I might have thought they were just wandering around. I was, at a minimum, pretty egocentric.
When I looked ahead, it was mainly to be careful of my footing or wary of the dangers that might lurk behind a nearby bush. It wasn’t that I didn’t have goals. As Rummy liked to say, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. And what I didn’t know was that I was never looking very far into the future, the real future, not some fantasy concoction. One thing seemed to lead inexorably to another: school to work to marriage to children. When you live that way, before you know it you’ve lived a lot of your life without wondering why.
Now one thing has not led to another. The path is no longer laid out before me. I’m looking up for the first time, as if from a trance, and wondering where I’m going.
Let me just say, it was a lot easier doing it the other way. I’m not sure I know how to make my own path. The problem is that I don’t know where I want to go. My life now isn’t about success or money or children. So what is it about? What am I about? When you look up from where your next footstep will fall, you can get dizzy. It’s disorienting. On a boat you watch the horizon to keep from getting seasick. For me, just now anyway, looking up at the horizon of life has the opposite effect. It makes me feel queasy. It makes me want to look back down. It’s almost enough to make me want to go back to practicing law. Now that was a time when I hardly ever looked up.
The horizon of life. What is that anyway? I can see all of humanity as if we were a great herd. I can see the dust boiling up from the savannas we have crossed and the lands ahead where we will go together. I can see myself in the herd, part of it the way a single blood cell is part of the flow in an artery, and I know that although I am part of it, it does not depend on me.

I’m trapped in a college dorm room discussion with myself about the meaning of life. We all woke up in the morning after those and nothing was any different, not even us. I don’t want to be cynical, though. That’s too easy. I want to figure out my place in things, even if it’s just to occupy my space in the great march. I’m sorry I didn’t think more about it before, but it’s probably just as well. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have gotten much done.