Out-and-out liars or Outliers?
Often heard in our modern tale of triumph, like Perseus slaying Medusa, is the glossy version of a business person who has beat all odds to become the most successful, most imitated, and ultimately, the most wealthy in their field. Heavy books are written about them—can you go into a bookstore without having Steve Jobs stare you down? The almighty business heroes comprise the bulk of our mythos that feed the global capitalist imagination. Warren Buffet. Oprah. Bill Gates. They don’t even need a full sentence because you already know their stories.
There are many lesser-known heroes of this sort, but the story usually goes: He began life poor, but was resilient and worked hard to follow his passion, and now he’s made something of himself. Because of his relentless efforts, he is rewarded with lavish trips, and has the world at his fingertips. That could be you if you just tried hard enough! The story rarely highlights any crisis in conscience he may have had, nor the decision that was made to resolve that feeling of moral uncertainty. Did he take credit for others’ work to advance himself? Did he treat others fairly along the way? Did he outsource production to evade inconvenient environmental and human rights regulations? Did he fund an expensive marketing campaign to manipulate people’s understanding of their needs? Was a price point set that is reasonable, or do only some people have enough purchasing power to get those goods? Did he cut benefits for employees to increase shareholder satisfaction?
Those issues of conscience are largely ignored because they don’t add up to numbers and cents. It is only when the hero flouts all sense of social accountability and the abuses are egregious that people take notice.
I have two friends who have been effortful and unwavering in their individual career paths. They both have a deep interest in what they do to earn a living. With decades of study and professional practice, the services they provide exceed standards of excellence. They certainly exceed market standards, yet in this marketplace, they find themselves constantly struggling. Earning a living has been no small feat. They have mostly adapted to their impecunious lifestyles, but as their friend, I notice the small ways in which their freedom is held in check. There is a pervasive sense of caution about how they spend money, which circumscribes their socializing, leisure outings, and personal effects. Luckily, they haven’t suffered from the kind of poverty that deprives many people from food or housing. They have been able to get by.
These are two very bright, conscientious, and diligent people! Their inability to “make it” is not from a lack of capacity, hard work, or passion. If these were the factors that created the magical recipe of social success, what explains their unsavory and skimpy rewards? Their work produces a net benefit to society by helping individuals to be healthier. It is not for a lack of “need” in society that their work doesn’t earn them much of a living. There is plenty of need, but not enough market demand. They don’t have the resources to stimulate demand in the market economy, even though I’d argue that the world would be a better place if people lined up for days to grab their services instead of the new iPhone.
What about all those people with passion and a good idea who put in double-time and their life-savings that no one hears about? We don’t like to talk much about them either. Not as inspiring.
If you leave a pot of cold water out on the counter for days, you’ll see that the water level gradually reduces. Why? As the H2O and air molecules smash into each other passing energy along, eventually some of the molecules gather enough energy to escape their liquid form. The water turns from liquid to gas. But! This is not from what we call boiling. To say, “molecule A escaped its liquid burden” is true, but it is not a fair representation of the state of the whole. Similarly, I could say that person A never smoked a day in his life and he got lung cancer, while person B smoked religiously for four decades and had clear lungs. Would it be accurate to say that smoking prevents lung cancer based on these examples? I just saw a story in which a woman eats French fries and no fresh fruit or vegetables, and her cholesterol is around 170. Should we now recommend that diet to reduce the incidence of heart disease?1
With the sheer size of the human population, we will always be able to find outliers that seem to bolster an idea or belief. We may have to go digging to find those examples, but they are out there. The problem is that we end up lying to ourselves, and our policies reflect this distortion of reality. Social planning is not an optional policy that we can either have or not have. Some people believe as Dave Hinnaland does: “Let us have the means and options to chart our own path. Don’t hamstring us with rules and regulations. And let people that are willing to go out to work take a chance; let them have the opportunity to do it. We don’t need a big hand hovering over our head telling us what we can and cannot do.”2
To do any kind of project requires some kind of planning, even when you work alone. What will you do first? What resources do you need? How much time will each step take? When you work on large-scale projects such as highways, vertical farms, hadron colliders, and hospitals, you need lots of planning, and lots of collaboration. Rules help facilitate the process. And whenever someone “takes a chance” there is the possibility of failure—-that’s why it’s called a “chance” instead of a certainty. What Dave probably isn’t aware of is what he really wants. He wants the freedom to pursue his goals. (Whether those goals are perverse or not are another matter and not the topic addressed here.) Despite the known illusion of free will, we like to feel as though we have a sense of control. Exercising a sense of autonomy promotes our feelings of wellness. So, does having a market system lubricated by the controlled-scarcity of money meet this need? Do less planning, less coordination, more competition, and more insecurity really help us achieve this goal? If so, where is the evidence? In the few outliers, our heroes? It certainly cannot be found in the colossal gap in income, where the richest 20 percent have 75 percent of the world’s income. Is our only fix to this problem to “get people” to be more heroic? Is that really the best we can come up with? Will my friends be better off if I repeat over and over: “work harder!” If I yell it, “WORK HARDER!!” does that help?
Is it possible that more intelligent planning, with a more comprehensive view of life systems and their closely knitted ecosystems could yield better results? Truly, we don’t have a lot to lose by making a more concerted and savvy effort using the latest findings in research. We are already losing now, by a huge margin. Every life ravaged by poverty is a needless death of talent, passion, and intelligence. Poverty is not natural nor is it immutable. We need a fundamental system change to resolve this growing problem. We need a stable infrastructure in which life insecurity is not the constant worry of far too many people. To go back to my water analogy: we need to find a new heating element that energizes the whole pot of water. It may be quite different from what we’ve been trying, but we have now some amazingly sophisticated tools and knowledge to bring forth a more sustainable and healthy society. Let us repurpose them from money maximization to wellness maximization. Just because you cannot put a face to our global market system (as I tried to do in a recent blog post) does not mean it is not dangerous. Hitler is reviled by the Western world, but if we compared who was the worst evil, the market system would crush Hitler by magnitudes beyond comprehension. We need to remove the cultural blinders that are stitched together by these fairy tale outliers, and see the danger for what it is because it is fundamentally incompatible with a prosperous and sustainable culture.