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Life’s losers and making our own beds, part II

Continued from yesterday …

Moi

As I was saying, we all have ways in which other people can look at our lives and say, “Why can’t she see how obviously she’s messing up?” I have mine.

One of them is doing things to keep myself from making much money. Although I deeply admire people who’ve accumulated a pragmatic amount of wealth and can be happy, prudent, and generous with it, I have a top beyond which I’m not comfortable going. It’s my ceiling. And it’s low.

I do things like give away my highest-paying gigs on an issue of principle. Or orneriness or whatever less charitable names you want to call it (last year leaving J.P.F.O., earlier this year, handing my S.W.A.T. column off to Kurt Hofmann, formerly of J.P.F.O.)

One faithful correspondent chided me for the S.W.A.T. swap. But he thinks I did it for Kurt, which isn’t true. I was glad to see a rising talent and nice guy like Kurt get the gig, but I did it for me.

And I started down this road because I believed I’d rather be poor and marginal than finance the tyranny of the federal government. Even once I “came in from the cold” I kept income low so I’d pay only minimally. That’s where I remain.

However, if I have a low ceiling beyond which I don’t rise, I also have a floor beneath which I labor pretty hard not to fall.

I don’t have much, but with a lot of help from my friends I have more than many other people of similar backgrounds and equivalent follies. I’ve always been careful — and lucky! — not to tumble into the kind of pit T. and the Car Guy seem headed into.

Both friends and luck play big roles. The edge is uncomfortably close sometimes.

But having a personality and a skill helps. Brains help, too. Tiny qualities can save or doom you. But OTOH you can be a genius and spend your life reclusively examining streetcar transfers.

Imagining Sidis

William James Sidis (go check him out at the above link if you don’t already know about him) had a brain as big as a football field and a life as tiny as a mousetrap.

Yet he appeared happy with it — for the short while it lasted. He died at 46. Before that, his life had a kind of John Galtish quality to it. He was clearly “on strike” from a world he felt didn’t treat him properly. He never gave his best efforts to the world — and he had abilities in vast areas. He worked at menial jobs. But he enjoyed his own private obsessions. And those who knew him cherished him in those later years.

So while most people would consider his choices unfortunate and his life tragically misspent, maybe it was just right. Who knows?

The bed you make or the bed you’re tossed and tied up in?

If you’re tempted to feel sorry for T., whose stooped status started this ramble yesterday, think on this.

For several years in the early oughts, every time I saw T. he would talk to me about this community college computer science program he was in. This program had him spending long days taking classes, including ones he had to commute quite a disantance to. This seemed very un-T.-like, but I accepted that he really wanted to better himself.

My neighbor up the road was in this same program and I believe they sometimes commuted together. Now, from what I knew of her, her only interest was in drugs, booze, and neglecting her dogs and horses. But maybe she wanted to better herself, too.

I quickly got to wondering about T. Two years into the program, I tried to talk with him about things computerish. Couldn’t. He didn’t know anything. For instance, he’d never heard of Linux. In fact, he had no idea what an operating system was. He couldn’t conceive that Windows, for one, was a user interface for an underlying OS. He repeatedly mispronounced the names of common apps and their makers and often seemed to have no idea what they did.

In his third year, he told me that his personal email program — the then-common Eudora — had gone down and he’d had to wait for his sister to come reinstall it for him. Whuttt…?

It was shortly after that I learned that a government program was paying every dime of T.’s school costs, including a generous mileage allowance for all that commuting — and paying him an $800 a month stipend, besides.

Shortly after that I discovered T. in a mild-mannered fury. After accumulating four years worth of credits in the nominally two-year community college program, he’d been kicked out. The ‘crats had done an audit and discovered that some unknown number of students, including both T. and my boozy neighbor, were cruising along earning themselves $800 a month as long as they could.

And … boot!

“We were SCREWWWWWWWWWED!” T. lamented.

—–

The eternal question remains: How much do we make our own fates and how much is just the bed we were destined to lie in — genetically, environmentally, psychologically, chemically, physiologically … whatever?

The Car Guy insisted that his family had a history of doing stupid things and that he was going to do better himself. He just had to have a brand new car to do it. Many people pointed out how poorly this would work out, and why. But I don’t think anyone yielded to the temptation to note, “And you’re perpetuating the ‘stupid things’ legacy.”

Could T. have learned computer science and ended up not so stooped, so doomed to labor beyond his body’s capability? Who knows? Was he another willful product of the entitlement age, more interested in scamming the system than embracing the amazing chance to be paid to learn a deskwork skill? OTOH, what if he was merely born dumb, born impractical?

Could The Car Guy have ever been able to listen to all those voices of reason, or was there just something wrong with the wiring in his brain?

Could Sidis have discovered a new mathematical theory, solved an astronomical mystery, or cured a nasty disease? Or did some bug in his upbringing or his genes foreordain that one of the greatest potential geniuses who ever lived would become a collector of steetcar transfers?

Could I have forgotten stubborn principle and lived an ordinary middle- or working-class existence? Hahahahaha. Maybe if somebody hit me on the head in just the right spot.

But other than the Case of Me, which is obvious (I was born this way, and raised to be more this way, and made myself more this way), who knows?

In some ways it seems wrong to criticize T. for abusing the taxpayers’ trust. Maybe he just isn’t smart enough to get it. Maybe desperation drove him. But the fact that he really, really believed he was entitled to that $800 a month forever while learning absolutely nothing indicates such a fundamental level of malfunction, perhaps he can’t seriously be held accountable for it.

Same with The Car Guy. He might be an ass who is ruining his own future as we speak. He might be the epitome of entitlement, imagining that We the Suckers (who he probably never thinks of) would buy him a new car. But obviously something’s wrong deep within and how much power does he have to do change it?

Free will? I believe in it. But I think sometimes we (including I) hold the concept of free will as a talisman against chaos. When some hippie folksinger croons “There but for fortune go you or I …” we say, “Oh hell, no!” Because we need to be better than that. We need civilization to be better than that. With disease and war and earthquake and volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes and unknown terrors all around us, we need to know that we choose to bring order, and that the order we bring calms the storms and shields us from the raw, savage world. Shields us, too, from decadence and collapse, once society becomes too complacent about what are, in the cosmic sense, the rare privileges of comfort and stability. We need to know that our choices can change the world.

And of course, concepts like free will have changed the world. Western civilization was built by the belief — proved oh so right — that we can, though good choices, transcend random fate and nature’s brutality.

It’s true on a personal level, too. IF Car Guy could just for one moment let voices of experience guide him, his whole life might turn toward a different course. IF T. could just recognize that it’s wise to pay attention he might not be facing an old age of heavy labor. They have these choices.

But how much control do they have over whether or not they take these choices?

Well, indeed, Who knows?

We hold them responsible for the traits that doom them. We hold ourselves out as being better or at least smarter and more sensible than they. And contributors are better than takers (until, of course, that pre-Galtish point where the contributors enable the takers to drag the world down). I’m not stooping yet to “There but for fortune …”

And while I don’t know about the car guy, T. still contributes in his own way (since they stopped him from being a taker) — terrible brute labor that helps a lot of local people, even as it cripples his not-very-robust self.

Whatever the answer to the question, of course, our main job here in real life is not to enable unhealthy choices. Unfortunately, this has limited effect when so much of the enabling is done by government.

But it’s certainly worth asking (and worth answering with words more complex than “education!” or “discipline!” or “personal accountability!” or “throw ’em in the military!” or “let ’em starve if they won’t stand on their own two feet!”) whether — and how — the T.’s and Car Guys of the world could be inspired to make wiser choices.

And how would all that affect those of us who reached our not-quite-so-low estate more by deliberate, but not perceptibly prudent, choices?

31 Comments

  1. Joel
    Joel October 1, 2015 7:05 am

    Stupid people have always existed, probably will always exist, and if there’s an answer to the question of their existence it has remained stubbornly hidden from sight. Within two generations of my own family I can think of three individuals I know well who could easily outdo both T and Car Guy for terrifying levels of stupidity, and all three remained absolutely immune to good council until their deaths or long-term imprisonment. They were raised right next to siblings with the same parents and genes who turned out … if not perfectly normal, at least not destructively stupid.

    I think – this thought is respectfully submitted and worth exactly what you paid for it – that it’s a mistake to equate self-destructively stupid people with people who have consciously and thoughtfully chosen to back out of the rat race and live by a different standard. Whether that involves streetcar transfers is a question I’m not equipped to judge.

  2. Mark Laythorpe
    Mark Laythorpe October 1, 2015 7:32 am

    “And I started down this road because I believed I’d rather be poor and marginal than finance the tyranny of the federal government.” My sentiments, exactly…

  3. Jim Bovard
    Jim Bovard October 1, 2015 7:34 am

    Perhaps the ideal is for a system that helps those who bona fide cannot help themselves while avoiding creating incentives for dependency for those who could move forward in life on their own. That’s a platitude – perhaps someone else has expressed the same notion far more lucidly & penetratingly

  4. Claire
    Claire October 1, 2015 7:37 am

    “it’s a mistake to equate self-destructively stupid people with people who have consciously and thoughtfully chosen to back out of the rat race and live by a different standard”

    As your fellow back-out-of-the-rat-racer, I concur. I’m plenty aware, however, that in the eyes of many “normal” people you and I are just as maddeningly foolish as T. and the Car Guy. Perhaps I’m especially sensitive about this because through my formative years I took a lot of sh*t about my choices from my conventional and success-driven older sister. But it’s a fact: while you and I see that our choices are conscious, principled ones, others may see us as just another couple of dumb-choice life’s losers.

  5. Claire
    Claire October 1, 2015 7:42 am

    “My sentiments, exactly…”

    Kudos. And I suspect that around here we have some like-minded company.

    There are also quite a few financially successful people in the Living Freedom Commentariat, but even they make a lot of choices designed to keep themselves as far apart as possible from the fedgov (e.g. moving to obscure places, refusing to take government contracts, etc.).

  6. Claire
    Claire October 1, 2015 7:45 am

    “Perhaps the ideal is for a system that helps those who bona fide cannot help themselves while avoiding creating incentives for dependency for those who could move forward in life on their own.”

    Yup. Good thought. I can’t envision what such a system would look like. It would need to be private and personal, I think, not governmental and one-size-fits all. Beyond that, I can’t see it.

    Thanks also for the compliment on the screed. Bit rambly, I’m afraid. Should I ever compile it into anything, serious editing will be in order.

  7. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal October 1, 2015 7:47 am

    I believe it has been made too safe to be stupid. Consequences are deferred and those who probably shouldn’t survive, do.

    Of course, my life may look to observers like Car Guy’s or T’s life. I was always lectured about my “potential” and scolded for my lack of “motivation”. But I have no interest in wasting my life doing what some people think I should do with my potential, and am mostly motivated to avoid such.

    To me, the fact that just about everyone in my family works for kinderprisons (“public schools”) seems a huge waste of potential- even if they make lots of money and seem respectable to “the community”. And one relative actually works as a teacher in a prison, which I find completely horrifying. But their choices are not my responsibility.

  8. LarryA
    LarryA October 1, 2015 7:55 am

    After accumulating four years worth of credits in the nominally two-year community college program, he’d been kicked out. The ‘crats had done an audit and discovered that some unknown number of students, including both T. and my boozy neighbor, were cruising along earning themselves $800 a month as long as they could.

    And I’ll bet the college administrators, who had been giving T credit for accumulating those credits (without learning anything) for four years, reacted the same way T did. “How can the government cut off our cash cow?”

    Just like I’ll bet the ‘crats who finally had to clean up their act were probably angry their program got cut.

    OTOH T, the college administrators, and the ‘crats aren’t the stupid ones in this picture. Which might be why Claire doesn’t want to fund the process.

  9. Claire
    Claire October 1, 2015 7:59 am

    Of course, my life may look to observers like Car Guy’s or T’s life. I was always lectured about my “potential” and scolded for my lack of “motivation”.

    Bingo.

    I also agree that it’s been made too easy to be genuinely, irresponsibly foolish.

    Perhaps the main difference between us and them (even if more conventional people might not see it) is that we understand that our choices have consequences, while people like T. and The Car Guy don’t.

  10. Claire
    Claire October 1, 2015 8:17 am

    “And I’ll bet the college administrators, who had been giving T credit for accumulating those credits (without learning anything) for four years, reacted the same way T did. ‘How can the government cut off our cash cow?’”

    I’ve wondered about that, too. Clearly a lot of people benefited from this colossal waste of funds. I never learned the name of the program T. was scamming and I don’t even know whether it was state or federal (though we all know the feds have a long and non-illustrious history of ineffective “job training” programs in which this seems to have fit). I always wondered why there was never a media scandal over it. I never heard a word about it, except from an indignant T. himself.

  11. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau October 1, 2015 9:20 am

    [When some hippie folksinger croons “There but for fortune go you or I …” we say, “Oh hell, no!”]

    Exactly. There may not *appear* to be much difference between someone poor via poor choices, and someone poor via principle, but there is all the difference in the world. There is no shame in the latter, but in normal times there is shame in the former – even if that shame appears to have dissipated in recent years. The difference will again become very visible when the whole rickety structure of our government-infested existence comes crashing down. The parasites of the world will not last long.

    In the end, the only thing we really own is our life. It doesn’t matter what shallow observers think about it; it matters what we (and perhaps a very few close associates) think about it.

  12. Ellendra
    Ellendra October 1, 2015 9:49 am

    “Perhaps the main difference between us and them (even if more conventional people might not see it) is that we understand that our choices have consequences, while people like T. and The Car Guy don’t.”

    I was about to ask.

    I mentioned back during the “Poverty vs. Poverty” discussion that some people act like passive observers to their own lives, where others are active participants. I’ve made note since then of the fact that those who see life as a result of their choices, tend to be more open to sound advice, tend to plan more carefully, and take responsibility for themselves. Whereas those who see life as happening to them independant of their choices, tend to disregard advice and keep making the same bad choices, while blaming the consequences on anybody they can.

    Thus, T gets angry because his funding got cut off, when he could have made more by learning the material. If he honestly has no aptitude for computers, then maybe landscaping or some other subject. Instead, because his view if that he’s just along for the ride, things happen that he thinks he had no control over.

    I think it starts young. People learn that if they blame someone else, they won’t be held accountable, and the pattern gets ingrained. Others get taught that they are in control of their own actions, and that trying to point the finger makes the punishment worse, so they stop pointing.

    The only way to break the pattern is if the individual chooses to. And breaking a lifelong pattern is not an easy thing!

    But, if a person sees life as being separate from their choices, how would they ever choose to change that?

  13. Jim Bovard
    Jim Bovard October 1, 2015 9:56 am

    Claire wrote: ” Should I ever compile it into anything, serious editing will be in order.”

    Maybe, but don’t poke your prose too hard.

  14. Claire
    Claire October 1, 2015 11:29 am

    “But, if a person sees life as being separate from their choices, how would they ever choose to change that?”

    Precisely put.

    I also rather suspect that even if you somehow could get T. or The Car Guy to see that they had both choices and the responsibility for them, the first time something went poorly and they couldn’t blame it on somebody else, they’d take the, “Every time I try, everything turns to sh*t, so there’s no point” approach.

    Your experiences in QA give you an interesting perspective.

  15. david
    david October 1, 2015 1:58 pm

    All the reasons that ‘justify’ a stupid life are valid, and it’s even tempting to buy into them. But then I remember – even a plant has the sense to move toward the sun. And then the reasons seem to me more like excuses. Or am I just stupid too?

  16. mary in Texas
    mary in Texas October 1, 2015 2:52 pm

    Just a few days ago I heard about a guy who aced all of his college classes and compiled a great resume for job interviews. He was offered job after job and turned them all down because they would cause him to move out of the house where he had grown up (located in the town where the college was). I think that would be described as a serious case of inertia. He earns his living sacking groceries and lives in the all-important house of his childhood. I guess it all depends on whether you are happy with your choices. Among my own acquaintances are two who dropped out of doctoral programs after finishing their dissertations but not even presenting them for review when those who had seen them classified them as “winners” and “sure things”. They seem happy with their current lower-level employments. Maybe they have the right idea.

  17. Shel
    Shel October 1, 2015 6:12 pm

    I think you should get a good deal of credit for being able first to decide what you want and then for being able to do it, contrary to prevailing influences. You have insured that you will not belong to the majority who, as Thoreau so aptly noted, “live lives of quiet desperation.” The only real downside that comes to my mind is an absence of protection against a costly medical condition, but that may well be a Ben Franklin-style trade off of liberty vs. security; and you surely have thought it through.

    T and especially the Car Guy have heard it all; CG may even be trying at this point to spite his relatives. As you say, who knows.

    Values definitely have changed. The old Disney cartoons wouldn’t cut it anymore. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wM1DgihKHVI

    Wonder if CG even has an imagination: (contaminated by William Shatner) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UE6iAjEv9dQ

  18. LarryA
    LarryA October 1, 2015 6:40 pm

    I also rather suspect that even if you somehow could get T. or The Car Guy to see that they had both choices and the responsibility for them, the first time something went poorly and they couldn’t blame it on somebody else, they’d take the, “Every time I try, everything turns to sh*t, so there’s no point” approach.

    The thing is, they’ve made choices. It had to have taken T serious effort to sit in class forfour years and avoid learning anything.

    Maybe one of the reasons it’s hard for us to understand T and The Car Guy is because we find it impossible not to learn something from everything, even from a class we totally disagree with.

  19. M Mindenhauer
    M Mindenhauer October 1, 2015 10:44 pm

    1) You don’t need a “hit on the head in just the right spot,” you need a good swift kick in the … well, you know. This going on strike against the system is sort of a romantic notion, but I prefer a non-empty bank account with enough cash for foreseeable emergencies, and maybe enough for some of the other kind. On the one hand, I don’t object to your choice. On the other hand, I do object to being the safety net for all those who never saved a nickel.

    2) Willful stupidity is found all around us, and in us. Everybody has some excuse for doing something that is basically dumb, expensive, or self destructive. Drug addicts, alcoholics, smokers, stoners, are just the most obvious examples. What about the broke student who HAS to have a soda at mealtime, (Water is a fine drink, and free.) or cable TV, or whatever luxury he can’t “just can’t live” without? These folks you talk about who have decided to mooch off the system are also engaged in self-destructive behavior. Getting money that you haven’t earned is corrosive (look at lottery winners). It destroys any pride of achievement or self worth that they might have attained, had they been sincere participants. Eventually they are convinced that they can’t learn, or earn anything, and are ENTITLED to their meal ticket.

  20. Claire
    Claire October 2, 2015 6:25 am

    “On the one hand, I don’t object to your choice. On the other hand, I do object to being the safety net for all those who never saved a nickel.”

    You’re not my safety net.

    But if you think I deserve a swift kick, then you clearly DO object to my choices, despite your words.

    I think, though, that you don’t understand the ramifications of my choice to earn less money. My choice means, for instance, that I drive a $1,000 car, not a $25,000 one. It means I buy an old house and fix it up, with as much DIY as possible. It means I don’t go out on the town or go on cruises or attend concerts. It means I buy my clothes at thrift stores instead of Nordstroms. It means I often need to get creative in order to get something done. It means I’m extra careful with my nutrition in an effort to avoid medical dependence. All of which actually helps to keep me healthy, grounded, and (generally) independent. I’m also fortunate to have earned the support of friends.

    It doesn’t mean I have no safety cushion, no emergency preparations. It certainly doesn’t mean I expect the unwilling to finance my lifestyle.

  21. Laird
    Laird October 2, 2015 8:22 am

    Claire, I celebrate your choice, and in some respects envy it, just as in some respects I envy those who have managed to go off the grid and are almost completely self-sufficient. I couldn’t live that way, however. I am reasonably frugal, but still have certain creature comforts I don’t want to give up. So I remain in the “normal” economy (self-employed, so I do retain some control!) and, yes, I do my bit to “finance the tyranny of the federal government”). As long as we’re self-supporting no one should criticize our choices if they make up happy.

    Shel, why the dig against Shatner? That’s a cute video, and I think he adds a lot to it. Sure, his acting can be a bit over the top, but that’s part of his charm. Have you ever seen the movie “Free Enterprise” (in which he plays himself with arrogant panache)? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0141105/ It’s quite funny, especially if you’re a SF aficionado and “get” all the in jokes.

  22. Claire
    Claire October 2, 2015 9:04 am

    Be of good cheer, Jim B. While I know large numbers of those people are really without work and on government (or family) assistance, I’m equally sure millions of them are hard at work in the free (underground) economy.

  23. Claire
    Claire October 2, 2015 9:07 am

    “As long as we’re self-supporting no one should criticize our choices if they make up happy.”

    Amen, Bruthah Laird. I’m amazed at the number of people who knee-jerkingly assume that adopting one lifestyle implies condemning all others. They’ve never heard of “to each his own”? Not to mention that many seemingly opposite choices may actually be symbiotic.

  24. Jim B.
    Jim B. October 2, 2015 9:31 am

    I believe you’re right. Otherwise those people would’ve rioted on D.C. a long time ago, just on the immigration issue alone if nothing else.

  25. Shel
    Shel October 2, 2015 2:22 pm

    Laird, without looking back into it, I got a very negative impression of Shatner from the incident of the 911 call about his wife. While I understand that an actor really isn’t the person he portays, Shatner’s demeanor at the time and in the aftermath was so drastically different from that depicted in Star Trek (which I did like) that I just lost respect for him. Perhaps if I had bothered to look into the incident in more detail, I might have reached a different conclusion.

  26. Dana
    Dana October 2, 2015 6:17 pm

    This reminds me of tabloid fodder — see, for example, Jewel Shuping and Laura.

  27. Jim B.
    Jim B. October 2, 2015 7:26 pm

    Laird and Shel,

    Shatner had always had a negative taint to me ever since I heard of him ripping into the Star Trek fans and telling them to “Get a Life!”. All subsequent events afterward only confirmed my impressions about him. So much so that I’ve quickly learned to appreciate the characters apart from the actors who plays them. Hitchcock may be right about them.

  28. Claire
    Claire October 2, 2015 8:43 pm

    Dana — Yikes, what a pair of sicko stories. Those women and their enablers make T. and The Car Guy sound like members of Beaver Cleaver’s family. Ugh.

  29. Mark Call
    Mark Call October 5, 2015 6:25 am

    Please allow me to suggest (as one who’s late to the party in several ways, having just now caught up on my reading, it being the week of Sukkot, or ‘Feast of Tabernacles — and also one who left the Rat Race and went off-grid only a few years back) —

    that’s there’s another perspective on this that I must point out.

    IFF there’s a Creator, and IFF He gave us “free will,” and IFF the whole story of the Exodus, and the “two wives” of Israel and Judah getting repeatedly “kicked out” for idoltary (think of it as choosing the Welfare State God instead of Him 😉 and exiled, and IFF the rest of the story too fits as well, then it’s the same statement of the ‘human condition’.

    A remnant will recognize who we are, and the majority, arguably the far larger majority, will choose “other gods”, which ultimately all amount to the same deception. And inevitably lead to the Biggest Brother (or pick any of a bunch of names, from history, Scripture, or Dystopia) that you can imagine.

    (And, Claire — I reject the 501c3, State-chartered, tax-exempt Faith-Based Churches of Another God, too. Idolatry by another name, and part of the same deception. You need a “Church Guy” element in the story. 😉

  30. Laird
    Laird October 6, 2015 11:20 am

    I know it’s a little late for this thread (so I don’t know how many people will actually see it), but here is a nice essay posted on The Libertarian Enterprise which I think has some bearing on this discussion thread: http://ncc-1776.org/tle2015/tle841-20151004-04.html

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