Fact and Story

Then and Now

Story is as old as language. The ancient bards sang the stories of heroes. Oral tradition mirrored the world to our ancestors, allowing them to find meaning in their rough and difficult lives. The written word was in the future.

Fact in those days was immediate, personal, and deadly. I slew the beast. I slew the aggressor. I am slain.

Today what passes for fact is omnipresent. The internet gives us access to a store of data that is growing exponentially. It follows us around on our smartphones. There is, it seems, no escaping all this. But is it fact?

Books

The Gutenberg Bible was the internet of its day, enabling a rapid expansion of knowledge, both fact and fiction. But printing presses are slower than the net. Scholarship and education grew along with libraries and the number of books. A critical intelligence questioned: Who is the author? Is this a story? History? Science? Philosophy? Fact? What is fact, anyway?

The Net

The internet is not yet a generation old. It followed fast in the footsteps of television. The written word is, one could argue, only a minor part of today’s vast trove of accessible data. Photos, audio and video, often edited for maximum punch, saturate our perception and shorten our attention span. We search for data that corroborates our worldview. Critical intelligence is rare. There is a new oxymoron: reality TV.

Worldview

Every human being has a worldview. Consciously or not, we apply meaning to our lives. It is a human skill that is necessary for survival. We tell a story about ourselves.

But the rub is this: we expand our story to embrace the world we know. We assign good guys and bad guys and even suppose that conspiracies are the reason behind this and that. Then we are surprised when others have different views. We feel threatened and go to the internet to find “proof” for our theories. Is it any wonder our politics has become dysfunctional?

OK,  So . . .

I am as guilty as the next person. I feel road rage. I harbour a grudge. I am rude, sometimes without meaning to be. Sometimes I rage (usually inwardly, but not always) against someone’s convictions which I think are JUST WRONG!

On the other hand, I love my friends and family, warts and all. Their shortcomings/eccentricities/weaknesses are part of who they are, just as mine are. How do I square love  with intolerance?

Story

I have known my friends and loved ones long enough to know their story. Not the story of their lives – their story. The one they tell themselves, as I tell myself mine. And since we are alive, these stories are evolving. Like the songs of old, they change subtly with each telling.

We could do worse than to listen.

Work is Dead

Hello, Grandmas and Grandpas. Ever wonder why your kids are living at home? Or why, when they do make money, it’s one-shot, scavenger deals that pick away at the edge of the economy? Our kids – gleaners, snatching the crumbs?

For an answer, take a look at the corporate executive. No, not the entrepreneur, still in charge of the company he founded twenty years ago. No, not even that new political god, the small business owner – he (or she) is so busy with cash flow that there is no time for vision. I am talking of the CEO of a publicly traded company, hired by the Board of Directors and responsible to the shareholders.

The job of this CEO is to systematically devalue work.

Why, you ask? Remember – the time horizon for a CEO is the next quarterly report, which is never more than three months away. He could spend his time dreaming a vision for the future. But – especially in these hard, competitive times – he doesn’t dare. The bottom line has to look better three months hence and his only choice is to cut costs. So he merges, divests, moves work offshore, and fights unions. He cuts costs, because that seems to be the only way he can protect the shareholders.

But work, and workers, are more than just a cost to the company. They are also its most important asset. A generation ago workers were loyal, dedicating their life’s work to the company that kept a roof over their heads and food on the family table. That loyalty is long gone. Today every worker is stressed as his salary and benefits suffer the Death of a Thousand Cuts. He can’t quite voice it, but he knows his company thinks he is replaceable and essentially worthless.

So we have the Occupy movement and We are the 99%. We have to do something to stop this race to the bottom. But what?

We might start by asking Who are the Shareholders?

As I wrote March 18, the shareholder is most likely a hedge fund, which owns a stock, on average, for twenty-two seconds. The decision to buy and sell the stock is made by a computer algorithm.

So the Board exercises its fiduciary duty and hires a CEO, who in turn exercises his duty to the shareholder, who turns out to be no one, a chimera, a moving target.

Our work, our careers, are being devalued by an algorithm, for the profit of a very few. Sadly, no one else is in control.

Reductio ad Absurdum

Thank you economists! The power couple has spoken! (Life as taught by a Power Couple: The New York Times, Sunday, February 12, 2012)

Right there in the Business Section, the Dismal Science speaks to the great unwashed, enlightening us about the important stuff. You see, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes had it wrong. Markets don’t just control trade and commerce. They control everything!

Forget free will. Forget intelligence and reason. Forget philosophy, art and literature, morality, religion and emotion. Forget even reason, once it has inevitably taken us under the sway of the Almighty Market. For (especially if we are special) The Market will tell us how to spend our gifts for the benefit of humanity.

If, for example, an immigrant can be persuaded to rake our leaves for a modest stipend, why not hire him? If his wife will clean the house and do the laundry, better yet. It leaves us more time to do what we do best: working out how The Market actually applies to everything, even to life! L’chaim!

But what about 2 1/2 year-old Matilda?

The Market says that an unemployed twenty-something teacher can be had for $50K/year. Hire her, schedule her M-F 8AM to 7PM. The problem of Matilda’s upbringing is solved. And of course, by executive decree, Matilda eats no meat or sugar and attends art classes. Like all children, she is above average.

What, though, about Mom and Dad when they are my age? For at their age I too was doing what I thought was important: putting bread on the table and keeping a roof over our heads. Now, a generation later, my perspective has shifted. Sure, the basics have to be there. The roof, the bread. The luckiest among us will also the able earn that roof and bread doing something we love. But in retrospect and approaching the end of life nothing even comes close in importance to what we do for those we love, our children first and foremost.

Does The Market know that?

Taut Strings

I have spent the last twenty-four hours in the company of my opposites, troche reading about good people whose point of view is at odds with my own. It has been enlightening and sometimes frightening to find that there are areas where we agree.

Peter Thiel (No Death, No Taxes) is rich, libertarian, Christian, and gay. While each of these epithets suggest ideology, the combination does not. Who is he?

Kate Bolick (Single for Life?) is nearly forty and unmarried. She thinks she might stay that way, whether or not she has children. Why?

Elizabeth Badinter (Against Nature) is rich, privileged, intellectual, and French. She thinks motherhood is overrated, but she is a doting grandmother.

I think Ayn Rand is selfish, elitist, and flat-out wrong. (Even boring). I am a doting father and grandfather still married to my first wife and grateful to be a member of a surviving family. Nevertheless I am aware that more women are postponing kids until they are beyond childbearing age, and that disproportionally men are dropping out of education, losing their jobs, and generally disengaging themselves from the system.

Where is the meaning here?

Buddhist philosophy speaks of the journey. Perhaps the takeaway here is that the meaning is in the tension, the taut string that keeps motherhood and womanhood from flying apart.

Perhaps, too, men are disengaging because we are adventurers, and humanity is on the threshold of a new age of discovery. In our case the taut string prevents individual invention and leadership from being submerged in practicality and the essential collective interest.

Taut strings make music. Whether we serve as tuning pegs, nuts, or bridges, we are all essential if the songs are to reach the sounding board.