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.