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Survivor Guilt

Can we dispense with one thing up front? It's not the "magic of the marketplace." There's no magic. There was never any magic.

The free -- or freeish -- market is the best way we've found so far to ensure that more people are eating than are starving. It works. But it doesn't work pretty. It's crude. It's messy. It works like a 20 year-old Compaq with a frayed power cord. It gets the job done, but magic? No. So don't make a religion out of it. Don't pray to it. It's not Jesus. It's not Jehovah. It's not the Buddha. It's not even Harry Potter.

The marketplace is devoid of morality. It doesn't reward the good and punish the bad. It doesn't even reward the hard working. Or the smart. Or the capable. It shoves a bunch of money into the pockets of people who may, taken as a group, be somewhat more capable than those who aren't getting the cash, but that in no way suggests that any blessed individual is deserving or any screwed individual is undeserving.

It's hit or miss. It's not a smart bomb, it's a World War 2 era 1000-pounder falling from a meandering prop plane: it means to hit a target, but mostly it misses, and when it does blow up a target it tends to blow up a few houses next door. And a church. Maybe an orphanage. Crudely effective, not magic.

A drunk usually manages to drive himself home without hitting anyone, but that doesn't make the drunk a wizard.

But talk about the marketplace this way, as the leeches and enemas of economic systems, and people get very pissy. See, people need magic. They need faith in something perfect. So they need to believe that the economic system is somehow akin to God. They need the system to be benign and rational and moral.

The winners need to believe they deserve what they get, and the losers need to believe that all they really need to do is try again and they, too, will be winners. It's about 75% bullshit. Because as much as people hate to hear it, success or failure is, like all of life, affected by more than free will and positive thinking. DNA, environment and pure luck all have a role in your life. And the magic of the marketplace doesn't somehow exert its magical magitude and reshuffle that deck.

It looks right now as if 2009 will be a good year for me, marketplace-wise. You know why? Because some wad of gray goo in a corner of my brain was formed by DNA and environment into a tiny, slimy little plot machine. And luck led me to my wife, and put me in an English-speaking country at a time when those facts can be translated into income. If bad luck blows a hole in an artery tomorrow, guess what? Suddenly that wad of gray goo dies and I'm bagging groceries for minimum wage.

That's scary. It's scary to think that all you have, all you are, is a consequence of some kind of alchemy between DNA, environment, random chance and free will -- four factors that are each part of the other -- but that's the reality. And given what we've seen of the billionaire masters of the universe lately, isn't it time, finally, to admit the truth? There's no magic here. No morality. Assholes win, good people lose. Idiots win and geniuses lose. And other times the reverse. And the system we have isn't wonderful, it stinks. It's just the best we've come up with so far.

“Survivor Guilt”

  1. Blogger Burt Likko Says:

    Bitter much? What you say is true, but in saying it you minimize the role of hard work. The bit of slimy gray goo in your skull that produces plots and words did not magically spring forth however many umpteen novels and stories you've written; hard work, training, and (if you're like me) humbling lessons learned at the hands of others (adversarial lawyers in my case, probably editors and publishers in yours) have played a part, too. Yes, circumstances beyond your control are often overwhelming and those of us with good fortune would do well to recognize this and be humble enough to attribute to luck. But there is also a substantial part of one's personal lot in life of which one truly is the architect, and that will be more true in a place with some kind of free(ish) market system than in a command economy.

    Which is a long way for me to halfway agree with you -- sure, the free market isn't perfect, but it's a damn sight better than any of the alternatives out there.

  2. Blogger kreiz1 Says:

    Off topic, MR- saw that you commented over on Moran's blog:

    If your party hadn’t been so staggeringly incompetent we wouldn’t now have to dedicate our party to cleaning up the mess. Next time try not screwing the pooch quite so spectacularly.

    Tried to come up with a cogent response but I couldn't think of one. As usual, you pretty much nailed it. Don't see Barack as trying to institute a command economy- he's trying to salvage the burning remains of capitalism ala Dresden, 1945.

  3. Blogger Tom Strong Says:

    I'm at an odd point in my life on this topic. For the first time, I'm making a salary well over the median wage; I'm also working on a issue I really care about, which is how to make profit-seeking firms more responsive to the needs of poor workers absent government intervention.

    It's a strange moment to be working on this issue. From what I can see, most of the people involved with double or triple bottom line business are liberals who support increased intervention in the markets. And yet I can't help but see such intervention as a problem for this movement. If the goal is to prove that companies can improve the environment and the lives of the poor while making (or even increasing) their profits, then it seems we should want to keep the government out of it as much as possible.

  4. Blogger amba Says:

    Whatever -- just glad to hear it's going to be a good year for you. I even finally have time to read the forthcoming GONE 2 and find out what it's all about.