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.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lucky Us

I met a tech pioneer on the sidewalk in Palo Alto today. We commiserated over our distaste for a gas leaf blower that was wailing nearby. He gave me his email address to stay in touch. Maybe we’ll see each other again. Maybe he’ll become a friend, like my friend who makes atomic clocks or the one who writes code for new startups or the one who after a career in tech is getting a masters degree in philosophy from Stanford. I have to admit that there are times when I feel a little underpowered for the neighborhood, an intellectual impostor hoping not to be found out. But living here is like being a kid in a candy store of ideas.

It wasn’t long after we moved to Palo Alto that my son Nicholas met a boy in middle school whose father, an engineer, got together a group of kids to compete in a robotics competition sponsored by the Tech Museum in San Jose. That was the match that lit Nick’s fire: he’s now finishing college as CS/EE major and programming for a startup. Because the Palo Alto school district lets kids go as fast as they want in math, even to Stanford to take advanced classes, my son Chris developed a love of math that led to his career in economics, which relies heavily on math.
Nick and Chris might have found their passions anywhere, and I might have smart, stimulating friends anywhere, but it sure is easy here. As easy as a pick-up ball game was in my youth. Palo Alto is like a nuclear reactor with plenty of fuel rods. High energy particles are constantly racing around and colliding with one another, forming and reforming, creating energy.
There are other places like Palo Alto. Places rich in the fuel that feeds a particular endeavor: New York for musical theatre and (for as long as it lasts) publishing; Santa Fe for artists; Austin for musicians; Cambridge for intellectual omnivores. There are many other such places. Incubators, I would call them.
Often when I feel I have something others don’t, I wonder why. I used to think it was because I was so brilliant (in the days when one of the things I did not have that others did was humility), but now I realize I was just lucky to have been in the right places at the right times. I took advantage of opportunities, but they were low-hanging fruit. I didn’t have to be brilliant to pick them, only mildly hungry.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the vastly different circumstances in which we, rich and poor, find ourselves. I think about how we, as a people, bound together by a political system, can help those in need; and inevitably, as part of that, I think about the causes of deprivation. As the wealth gap widens, I have also been thinking a lot about how the rich get rich. What is their secret? Can we share it with others?
I’m not the first to note this, but it is increasingly apparent to me that those of us who do well are by and large just lucky: lucky where we are born and to whom. Birth luck is hard to share. I don’t know what that means for my desire broadly to improve living standards and opportunity, but here are a few thoughts:
1. Think about the advantages you’ve had. How important have they been to your success? Have many others had them?
2. Does having been born with advantages make you anything more than lucky? Does it give you any responsibility to those who not only may not have had low-hanging fruit to pick but who might have grown up in a barren orchard?
3. If you feel any twinge of such responsibility, what can you do about it? There’s always private charity, of course, and that is a good thing. But it is not sufficient. It does not reach all in need.
4. So what is the alternative? Nation by nation, the answer has been the government. In successful socialist countries (largely small, homogeneous Scandinavian states), most people enjoy an acceptable standard of living. Socialism is tough to scale up (in tech speak), though; and cultural diversity can weaken the commitment to one another that is a necessary predicate.
5. The great fiscal debate in the United States today boils down, it seems to me, to one thing: do we care about helping one another, or do we only care about producing the best environment for business. Business drives the economy, but it does not care for those cut out of the herd or left behind. It is up to us to support politicians and programs that have compassion for those who by birth or circumstance have been unlucky. We thrive on free markets, but they are not free.

Our luck neither ennobles nor anoints us, it burdens us. We are Sisyphus. The rock is heavy, it falls back time and again, but we must keep pushing.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Golden States

When I moved to California in 1971, it was the Golden State. Having been raised in the Bible Belt, I knew the streets of heaven were paved in gold, and California was heaven to me. It’s a beautiful place, but it was the openness and possibility it offered that appealed to me most--okay, that and the fantastic weather. I arrived with three small children in tow, and I had no doubt they would get a first-rate public education. In the decade before, Clark Kerr, the first head of the California higher education system, had put the finishing touches on a visionary education infrastructure of major research universities, state universities and community colleges that promised a nearly free college education for all who wanted it.

I suppose Ronald Reagan's firing of Clark Kerr for being too liberal (eg, too soft on the Berkeley Free Speech protesters), on evidence trumped up by J. Edgar Hoover, should have been a warning to me that even gold can tarnish. But I was young and optimistic. I hadn’t yet learned that progress could be slowed, or even stopped. I hadn’t learned that sometimes it’s one step forward and two back.
We did take a few steps back here in California, and sideways. Proposition 13 in 1978 starved our schools financially; Proposition 187 in 1994 laid bare a fearful cruelty toward illegal immigrants. For decades we had legislative gridlock too tough for even the Terminator to break through. Only two or three years ago many were saying our state government was politically broken and fiscally bankrupt.
But we’re back, baby. We nudged up taxes and cut spending, and now we have a budget surplus. We’re permitting undocumented children to pay in-state-resident college tuition and giving them and their parents drivers licenses and protections against abusive deportation threats by employers. After years of neglect, we’re pumping our new budget surpluses back into our schools. Under the Affordable Care Act we’ve expanded Medicaid and established one of the nation’s best health insurance exchanges (no small feat, as the federal government has demonstrated).
Our fiscal comeback, and what strikes me as our renewed commitment to progressivism, has got me wondering how we do it, and why we do it. The healthcare debate has been on my mind lately because of what I think it says about who we are. I can’t for the life of me, for instance, understand why twenty-five states have refused to expand Medicaid, even though they have to pay only a tiny fraction of the cost. They’re denying better health care to their poorest citizens for what seems to be no reason. Or a reason that could only be described as spiteful and cruel. Oh, I know what they say, that down the road they will have to pay more, but when you take into account the high cost of providing emergency-room care to the uninsured, most economists say they are just wrong. The states that expand Medicaid coverage should actually save money; and their citizens will get better health care. Why wouldn’t every state do that?
We’re a country of libertarians. All of us. It’s deep in our DNA, passed on from the Mayflower to the prairie schooners. We’re restless questers. When we don’t like the way things are going, we move on. That’s the urge that settled our country. But it’s a selfish urge. Just ask the Native Americans we shoved aside to get what we wanted. When we go questing, we do it for ourselves. We’re seeking something better for ourselves and our families. We aren’t really thinking of others.
Eventually, though, we run out of new places to explore. On the East Coast, where those who crossed the Atlantic settled, and the West Coast, journey’s end for those who traversed the continent, we’re piled up on one another. Even the most steadfast libertarian learns soon enough that living close together requires learning to get along. It’s no longer enough to look after yourself and your family, you have to look after your neighbor too. Because you know you need him to be looking after you.
This is the reason, I think, that our big coastal cities are our laboratories of progressivism. These are the places where we see what it means to live together. Where we can’t run away from one another. Where daily we witness the cost to others, and to ourselves, of neglect.
I don’t know how to explain the persistence of a social Darwinist conservative philosophy in the face of its manifest failure to provide for the commonweal. Pope Francis wrote recently: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
I understand the fear of the welfare state. I understand the fear of big government. A big part of me is as libertarian as anyone. But I don’t understand turning our backs on one another. I don’t understand the myth of self-reliance. I don’t understand the fear that keeping a child from starving, or giving her early education and health care, will create a culture of dependency that will suck the life force out of our republic. It is a hope we all have that we can be anything we set our minds to and work hard for, but most of us know it is a hope that is in the same category as world peace or universally likable relatives. Eventually we learn to settle for what we can get. And for too many, what they can get is too little?
Why should we help them? I suppose that is the central question. Human decency (morality) is one reason. And for many, it is reason enough. Self-interest is the other. Even if you don’t give a damn what happens to others, you’re wise to take their needs into account purely as a matter of your own self-interest. The French Revolution and the Arab Spring remind us of that. Our own country was settled by colonists fleeing persecution and forged into a nation in a revolt against oppressive control by the English aristocracy.
I’d like to think that morality compels most of us, but I don’t believe it. I think the vast majority of us act out of self-interest. The difficulty in recognizing our self-interest in helping others is that, like global warming, it can be hard to see that the current threat is great enough to warrant any meaningful sacrifice.
The mandate of self-interest is easier to appreciate in large cities, where we are jammed together. In the sparser towns and communities across the country, it is less apparent, and therefore more deniable. Like climate change deniers, poverty deniers may not themselves suffer for their lack of vision, for their tenacious grip on the status quo, but their progeny will. Theirs and ours.
What does that mean for those of us who welcome the renaissance of the Golden State? Perhaps the greatest service we can do for those in need here in California and across the land is to make our progressive experiment work. To keep open our hearts and minds while at the same time maintaining a firm enough grip on our wallets to be certain that what we spend is for investment in the future--in health, safety, education--and not wasted. The country is watching, or will be. What we do here will matter.