Archive for November, 2009

Basic assumptions are rarely questioned.  One has to be pretty astute to even understand what the basic assumptions behind something are.  If you don’t know; you can’t question.  Even if you do, you have to be inclined to care.

I’d like to question two basic assumptions today:

Assumption 1: Kids should go to college:

I disagree.  Some kids should go to college (by college, I mean a 4 year degree).  For most it is a gigantic waste of time/money and they should stop being misled into attempting it.

So which kids should go?  Speaking practically, the ones that should go are the ones that are currently getting something out of it, as in the ones, at a minimum, who are graduating (never mind whether the degree is useful).

If you are in the bottom half of your high school class…don’t go to college.  About two thirds of you never graduate.   70% of high school graduates now go to college.  Those numbers don’t add up.  Why go?  It leaves you in debt, and out of the workforce (a year of good work experience is worth far more than 1 year of random classes).  It is a waste of time.

With our battery of endless aptitude tests and 12 years of high school grades, we know with a high degree of accuracy which students will do well in college.  Quit misleading the others into thinking it is worth their time to go.  It is dishonest if high school kids aren’t told that college isn’t always a good idea.  It is simply avoiding reality.

That being said, people should always be able to bet on themselves.  If you want to go to college anyway, and beat the odds….please do.  Life is full of people beating the odds; however, make no mistake:   the reason we like those stories so much, and why they stick in our mind, is because they are exceptional, because they are out of the ordinary.  We all want to believe we can beat the odds; it makes us feel good.

However…..We can’t all be above average.  That is a fact.  We are not all future managers, CEOs, sports stars, rappers, singers, etc.  Those at the top of their profession are compulsively dedicated and often very talented.  Most of us are just not willing to work that hard and often don’t have the natural talent; accept it.  Also, from a statistical point of view, we just can’t all be at the top of the pyramid.  It is numerically impossible.

I’m not going to post here (lack of time) on what we do about it…the fact that inequality of all kinds simply exists, and it must exist, whether it is politically correct to say so.  I’ll simply say that if you want to be above average, you need to be aware enough of your position to realize that you can only be so because others are below average (you depend on them).  Be thankful they exist, and treat them well; tomorrow you may be one of them.

UPDATE 6/10/2010:  Someone else (NY Times) had the same idea I did.

Assumption 2:  Economic growth is good:

On average the US economy grows about 3% a year.  That seems good, right?

Yeah, its good in many ways.  Would 6% growth be better?  Sure.

No one really questions whether growth is good.  “A rising tide lifts all boats” right?  Uh…maybe.  Or a rising tide sinks those without boats.

Anyway, I’m not even going to broach that subject here.  Let’s take a step back…even further…way further…to the concept of 3% growth itself.  Is it even possible to grow at 3% forever?


People are quite poor at understanding exponential growth.  We tend to conceptualize growth as linear; its a good rule of thumb that applies in most situations.

Does 3% growth look like this?

No.  That’s linear.

Here is 3% growth in a series of 150.  Think of it as a series of 150 years (but it is simply units, could be days, or miles, or whatever).

That’s a neat upward curve. Perhaps we think it would be good to grow like that?  The fact is that we do grow like that for the most part.

Here is 3% growth in a series of 350.

Here is where we start to see the issue.  It plods along at almost nothing for majority of the series and then towards the very end, it shoots off the chart (no pun intended).

That’s not sustainable.  All systems like this eventually collapse. A good analogy is bacterial growth.  It looks like this as well, and then, when it is about to shoot off the chart and grow out of the petri dish…it exhausts its food in a fit of growth, and the colony dies….quite quickly.

Growth requires input….we are growing something (the economy), and we need raw materials to make that happen.  Those raw materials MUST eventually deplete, as does the food in the petri dish.

Even if you give the bacteria more food or a bigger petri dish, it doesn’t matter.  The growth curve will eventually catch you.  You won’t be able to shovel in inputs faster than the growth.

I’m not being all environmental. I’m saying it is simply impossible, under any set of circumstances, to maintain 3% growth indefinitely.  We need to accept that reality and plan for it.

Speaking of reality:  The concept isn’t “Save the Planet”.  Trust me; the planet isn’t going anywhere.  We’re not even trying to save life on this planet.  Life is pretty resilient; it survives.  “Save the Planet for Humans” is a more accurate.  I guess that doesn’t fit as well on a bumper sticker?

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If we are to believe science, we are an accident of the cosmos, which is itself an accident.  That’s a pretty big happenstance.

If we are to believe religion, the entire cosmos exists so that we can pass a few years on a lonely planet in a common galaxy in an unimaginably large universe….trying to prove that we believe that some guy who lived only 2,000 years ago was at the same time human and the son of a supreme being.

Neither is particularly plausible; though one improves our life, while the other causes as many problems as it solves.

“Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”  “You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die… By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heavens knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”  — Charlotte’s Web

We’re born, we live a little while, we die.

If you never read anything else, but understood that…I think it would be enough.  Children’s books are funny like that.

As we get older, we always think we understand things better than we did before, and we do….for what it is worth.  And I think it is worth not much.

When I was younger I enjoyed my lack of understanding, and I never could’ve born the weight of my life now (not that it is that bad).  Youth is good.

I am older and though youth leaves me, my ability to deal with my current life is a great skill.  Age is good.

So there.

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.”  — Ecclesiastes 9:11

I have come to an agreement with life that allows me to bear it:

Life promises me nothing. My very best efforts may well lead to failure.  I could betray my family, my friends could hate me, my marriage could fail, I could beat small, cute animals….there is always some set of circumstance that will make you do what you didn’t think you would.  Judge if you’d like; today it is someone else, tomorrow it is you.  “….time and chance happens to them all”

Should I complain that my parents don’t like each other, that I don’t get along with my dad, that I work most weekends, that I have a freak injury that keeps me from playing a sport that is one of my sole stress releases, that my best friends all live relatively far away, that my mother complains to me about her crappy life, my sister (bless her heart) borders on histrionic, the family I’m marrying into has its own set of problems (which I now inherit), that my dog is dead (long live the Wizard!), my grandparents don’t even know who I am anymore, and I spend most of my free time attempting to learn about home repair so I can avoid paying some high school drop out more money per hour than I make with an MBA?

No.  I shouldn’t.  I am fucking thankful.


We’re born, we live a little while, we die.

Time and chance happens to them all.

We, my friends, are the winners (believe it or not).  The loser are all dead.  Be thankful.


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