23 October 2010

Smooth the Jagged Edges of Fate

I recognize, and mindfully champion, the enormous role luck has played in my good fortune:
  • a spouse who's my best friend,
  • sensitive and intelligent children who exceed my expectations,
  • a comfortable house in a civilized city,
  • a viable small business,
  • and so on.
More precisely, I recognize the role of dumb luck. Dumb luck because I am ignorant of what spring-loaded fate awaits my arrival.

Most of us embrace the notion that we're hard workers, so I don't belittle hard work.
The harder I work, the luckier I get.
~ Samuel Goldwyn
And I don't give short shrift diligence and persistence.
Diligence is the mother of good luck.
~ Benjamin Franklin
I am not yet willing to dismiss the influence that hard work, diligence, and persistence might have, however negligible, in realizing good fortune.

But lady luck is lady luck. Most individual achievements are traceable to chance.
Impressive as a corporate titan may appear, his success is truly testament to a thousand variables far outside his control. Good genes and attentive parents and a smart peer group and a legacy admission to Yale and perfect timing and much else.
~ Ezra Klein
We know empirically that pure chance is a significant determinant of material reward.

In his post The Argument Over Inequality, Ezra Klein suggests the myth of individual exceptionalism undermines society. I agree. American exceptionalism romanticizes the notion that we are a nation of individuals.

Tacit in the notion of a nation of individuals is that responsibility for organizations are preordained to be individualized (e.g., the buck stops here), and as a consequence run from a top-down structure.
A top-down hierarchy is inherently unstable - it assumes the ethical and operational infallblity of those at the top.
A pope is as corruptible as a pauper, if not more susceptible. A top-down hierarchy allows for an intellectually lazy, disengaged underclass. Further, it nurtures self-serving behavior in those in charge (e.g., see Enron scandal).

Klein retells the story of iconic inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his lesser known, would-be competitor, Elisha Gray.
On Feb. 14, 1876, Elisha Gray entered the U.S. Patent Office. Like Bell, he meant to patent a device for "transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically." Unlike Bell, the device in his patent actually worked. But Gray was a few hours too late. Bell's representative had come earlier in the morning to assert Bell's claim. In the log books, Bell is the fifth applicant that day and Gray is the 39th. And so it is Bell's name we remember. Meanwhile, Antonio Meucci, an Italian stage technician, had applied for a "caveat" -- a placeholder patent -- five years before either Gray or Bell. But lacking the $10 necessary to pay the patent office, his claim lapsed.

The recognition that luck plays a dominant role in an individual's fortune, or in a country's fortune, or in a society's fortune, or in an institution's fortune, deflates the insidious notion of exceptionalism.
Exceptionalism The perception that a country, society, institution, movement, or time period is "exceptional" (i.e., unusual or extraordinary) in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules or general principles.
source: Wikipedia.
Individuals and institutions are limited in the influence they have on their good fortune.

Like Klein, I believe that public policy should, as a matter of fairness, smooth the jagged edges of fate.

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