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May 23, 2010

An Upright Man

Let's try a little gedankenexperiment:

Let us pretend that you are Joe Smith, a doughty yeoman of Geary, Oklahoma.

Joe runs a farm-implement-grain-and-feed business, and is the third of his ancestral line to do so. He is a member in good standing of the Better Business Bureau, the Rotary Club, and the Jaycees. He has attended the same church since he was baptized there as an infant. He is still married to the woman he married right out of high school; he has three kids, the oldest of whom has just turned twelve. He owns a house, two cars, a fishing boat. His bankbook shows the usual American middle-class balance sheet. He doesn't lose much sleep over whether he's a good person or a bad person, though if pressed he'd say that he was a good person. He doesn't think of himself as happy, necessarily, but he is; he is satisfied with his lot in life. He's done his best. An upright man.


Things start to go wrong. The economy starts to go sour, for reasons Joe only vaguely understands. All he knows is that for all his hard work, for all his prudent investing and managing of his business, he is in real danger of going bankrupt. And a middle-aged man in Geary, Oklahoma with no job is in dire straits. There is no other way to put it. It is very late in life to start over, to retrain. And anyway: his wife's family lives in town, his children's friends, his friends, the schools, his church. The town is home. His family has lived here for a hundred years. The idea of being without support, without a livelihood, in so familiar and beloved a place is terrifying. The idea of having to uproot and move elsewhere is terrifying, almost impossible to contemplate. Yet in the longest hours of the night when he lies sleepless next to his wife, he must contemplate it.

Then a man comes by his place of business one day, a well-dressed man driving up in a late-model sedan with government plates. He steps up to the counter with a wink and a smile and asks you how Joe's doing. Joe says things are okay, becaus even though it's a lie he was taught to keep his personal problems to himself. The man shows an official-looking ID: Government Bureau of Wealth-Redistribution. Joe has never heard of such a thing, but the ID seems real enough.

The government man tells Joe that he understands Joe's troubles, and wishes to help. The government, he says, is simply taking over distressed properties, nationwide. Why, he'll even keep Joe on as the manager! Nothing would be any different! Joe would get paid the prevailing industry wage, as calculated by the statistics wonks in Washington D.C.; and get the same benefits as others who have been bought out. The government will handle all the inventory, all the returns, all the service calls, all the forecasting, all the profit and loss. All Joe needs to do is stand behind the counter and smile at his customers and pretend nothing has changed.

The government man lays a contract on the countertop and holds out a pen, smiling expectantly. The Faustian overtones of what is transpiring are not lost on Joe.

We will stop our gedankenexperiment here for the time being, with the government man holding out the pen and Joe Smith looking at it. It is a moment of decision, an axle upon which many things will turn.

What decision will Joe Smith make? We know his history, his background, and his situation. We know that many pressures weigh on Joe.

His family, first and foremost: his wife and children depend on him for both financial and physical support. Joe, of old Midwestern stock, still maintains the old-fashioned belief that a man is the head of the family and is responsible for their welfare. If he is without a job, he cannot provide for them. The house would have to be sold, and the boat, and one of the cars. The kids wouldn't get any spending money, and would get their schoolclothes from the donations box at the church instead of the J.C. Penney in Oklahoma City. It means pitying looks from the neighbors. It means, perhaps, leaving Geary altogether for a different town.

His employees: those who depend on him for their own livelihoods, and their own families. Some are friends, people he has known for many years. They have families and children just as he has; his choices burden them just as they do him.

The town: Geary is very small, and if his business fails, it might deal the town a mortal blow.

So. Does Joe sign?

We cannot look into the future any further than this suspended moment when the government man holds the pen out. Nothing is certain, no outcome is guaranteed. Catastrophe may follow either path, as may salvation. Regardless of the signature on the paper, the business might fail; or it might succeed. There is no way of telling.

We are left with only this moment in time.

The gedankenexperiment ends with Joe's decision, not with any later events. Everything important that's going to happen, will happen when the pen is accepted and the paper is signed; or when the pen is refused.

If I am to choose the outcome of this gedankenexperiment, I would tell the government man to take his pen and get the hell off the premises.

I choose to wager on my own ability, my own ingenuity, and my own effort. Mine, and that of my family and employees. I choose to shoulder the burden because I do not want charity from others -- sought or unsought. It might come to that, but not yet. To give in now would be an admission not of failure, but of fear.

Failure is not certain, but it is a possibility. Risk is a property of life, and only a fool thinks that risk can be banished entirely.

And even failure is not the end of the world. Perhaps the business simply is not viable any more. To prop it up with public money would be to admit that the whole thing is a sham, welfare money disguised as wages.

A man who fails is not necessarily a man defeated. Failure often begets strength and ingenuity. A successful man risks, in other words; he pits his own talents against the blind forces of fate, and wins more often than he loses. But it takes a strong man -- physically and morally -- to risk his own family along with himself.

Those who risk nothing gain nothing, but there are those for whom a zero-sum life is attractive. The timid man is just as afraid of success as he is of failure -- perhaps even more so. If failure is expected, if it is looked for, it becomes rather comforting to fail. No one expects any better, no one hopes for more. There is no pressure.

But a man who succeeds!

A successful man is always a target, a bright color in a monochrome world. A successful man is noticed. He causes the timid man to feel his limitations more acutely. A successful man in a roomful of mediocrities breeds resentment and fear rather than admiration.

A market-driven economy cannot function without people willing to risk failure, and to accept the consequences of those failures. Failure is just as essential to the process as success -- economists call it "creative destruction". If this process of creative destruction is choked off, the deadwood keeps building up until nothing new can grow.

If the gedankenexperiment seems too contrived, perhaps we can recontextualize it. Instead of a farm-implement-feed-and-grain company, let's say...oh...let's say that Joe Smith is the head of a major American auto-maker.

Does he sign?

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posted by Monty at 08:55 AM

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