“There but for the grace of God” is a simple phrase expressing a profound truth. As an atheist I might wish to reword it, but it has a certain elegance and dignity with which I will not tamper. There is recognition in it that purity of heart, strength of will, and enormity of talent are not enough, that misfortune might still befall you. There is luck loose in the world, good luck for life’s winners, and bad for the others. The phrase doesn’t claim that God picked the speaker on merit, but recognizes that the deity’s inscrutable power might have rejected him on a whim.


I play backgammon. There is an interesting psychological dynamic at work there. Backgammon is a game of skill, but also of chance. A player may choose his moves wisely, but his choices are restricted to the numbers that turned up when he threw the dice. In the long run the better players win, but how long is long? Invariably over the short run, all players are convinced that if they have won, it was because they played well, and if they lost, it was because they were unlucky. Their minds almost always recognize the one, and ignore the other.


Life is much like backgammon. The rules are more complicated, but the psychology is the same. Once upon a time it was easy to spot luck at work. If everyone else stayed in the cave, and only you stuck your head out to investigate the rumbling, just in time to greet the avalanche, you were not one of fortune’s favored few. Then, around the end of the last ice age people began to farm, and luck got harder to figure out. Did your crops fail because you simply didn’t hoe hard enough, or because the soil in your plot wasn’t quite as fertile as your neighbors? While you were scratching your head, trying to work out the answer to that one, another neighbor realized that if he grew olives instead of wheat he could trade them for someone else’s wheat. Not only that, the land he needed to grow enough olives to swap for the wheat, was less than the land he would have needed to grow the wheat himself. In other words, he had olives left over. After feeding his family he could use the extra olives to buy luxuries – a goat, a pot of fermented malt from the local microbrewery, maybe even the vacation trip to the Red Sea he had promised the missus. Wealth had been invented.


Skipping over the next 8 millennia, since not much of interest happened; we’ll look in on a group of tailors living in New York City around the beginning of the 19th Century. Little had changed for them since the early middle ages. A youth was apprenticed to a master. The apprentice would provide the master with his labor, and the master would provide the apprentice with all of life’s necessities, and also with training in the skills of the trade. An apprentice, as he grew and learned, would eventually become a journeyman, basically a freelancer who might continue to work for the same master, or might move to another. Unlike apprentices, journeymen received wages that would permit them to obtain whatever necessities were not provided by their masters. The most diligent and skillful journeymen would eventually become master tailors themselves, opening their own shop, staffed with their own journeymen employees, and their own apprentices in training. Masters were wealthier than journeymen, but the general standard of living was not enormously different.


Two hundred years ago there were technological developments that permitted masters to mechanize some of the tasks within their shops. Many things happened as a consequence. The masters were able to greatly expand their operations, and became much wealthier than they had been a generation earlier. At the same time they shifted the wages they paid from salary to piece-rate. The workers, to obtain the same money they had made before, had to work many more hours, albeit the work they did now sometimes required less skill. Skill, in fact, was becoming an undesirable commodity. The masters found they were better off with unskilled workers, who passed through the shops with a high turnover. The masters no longer needed (and of course no longer wanted) to provide food, housing, or training. (With a limited labor pool they might not have gotten away with this, but the boats were bringing new immigrants into New York’s harbors every day.)


With all the new wealth flowing to the masters, they were able to spend that much more, enriching others, shopkeepers, home builders, etc. One of the consequences of this growth was inflation – prices went up. Prices went up, but the journeymen, who were now working much harder, were making no more than before, perhaps even less. Overall, New York was richer for the changes, but the benefits had gone to the few, and misery to the many.


It cannot be denied that the masters were more skillful than the others (especially after the change, when fewer of those skills were being transmitted), so one might say that they were deserving of their success. At the same time the journeymen who were caught in the downdraft had done nothing wrong, they were simply born one generation too late. All that separated them from the masters was timing.


The dilemma of the journeymen is a model for thinking about the sorts of problems that arise in a “civilized” economy, as forces like industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, work their magic. For several hundred years man has wrestled with the question of how to permit wealth to grow without the growth coming at the expense of others – to get as many as possible aboard the wagon of progress, with few or none being crushed beneath its wheels.


Almost all solutions have involved redistributing the wealth, taking some from those who have it (as Willie Sutton pointed out, you have to go where the money is), and giving it, or spending it for the benefit of, those who do not. Conflicts arise, since while the mass of mankind senses a moral duty on the part of the fortunate to contribute to the betterment of the society that spawned their fortune, those being asked to unburden themselves of a part of their fortune either wish to ignore their obligation (“I won this game by skill!”), or at least would prefer to haggle over the amount.


The last several decades have seen successive administrations that have done an admirable job of promoting an enormous expansion of wealth – for the few. Compared to the world of our parents and grandparents, the rich pay far less in taxes, and much less is spent on social welfare programs. Now, the economy is sinking, and it is quite likely that within the next decade there will be a strong push for new safety nets – for health, for housing, for education, for food. When that time comes, guess who will be presented with the bill? If you are fortunate enough to be among the dunned (and I hope you are - by definition you will be among those NOT worried about health care, housing, or food – mazel tov!), remind yourself that maybe not ALL of your own good fortune came to you through pure merit, maybe the undeserving poor are at least a LITTLE BIT deserving. There but for the grace of God.


The Parable of Bill, Michael, and Ugluk


Here is the parable of Bill, Michael, and Ugluk. Bill (Gates), Michael (Jordan) and Ugluk (n.a.) are three of life’s winners, all blessed with both genetic gifts and great motivation to succeed. Through the good offices of your omnipotent narrator the three heroes were transported back to 10,000 B.C. After the proper introductions (certain palms were greased), the local tribe of hunter/gatherers agreed to take them on.


Bill quickly realized that when it came to big game, his SAT (Spear Attack Test) scores would not get him into the PhD (Prehistoric Dinner) program. So, he quickly invented a very nifty bow and arrow. Unfortunately, he personally couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with it. In fact, there weren’t even any barns yet for him to try to hit. His dismal results failed to persuade the others to switch from their trusty spears. For wasting time when he could have been helping the tribe hunt, they used him as saber-toothed tiger bait.


Michael picked up the spear slinging quickly. When the tiger chomped down on Bill, Michael outran the other hunters, and slam dunked his spear right into the beast’s haunches. Unfortunately, saber-toothed tigers are too big for lone spears; it really is a team effort. The angry tiger had Michael for dessert before the rest of the tribe caught up and finished it off.


Ugluk was our lone success story. HE had the one really valuable skill. Ugluk could give the ground one sniff and cry: “Bulubug wssss urik ikik!” (“A wooly mammoth pissed here four days ago.”) Yes, the tribe needed a great sniffer, and Ugluk was rewarded with double portions, and the hand of the comely Bleelee in marriage.


Where was the luck in all this? Maybe it was timing. Bill and Michael had to travel 10,000 years, but Ugluk’s journey was a mere 150 years backwards. Perhaps he had less jet-lag. To square things up, I’ll move Ugluk forward 10,000 years, and Bill and Michael back 150.


Bill is certain that he’ll be a success this time, just as soon as he gets Babbage’s calculating machine to work. Unfortunately, he will be 143 before certain parts become available. Michael, well let’s just say that Michael was not very happy when he woke up in his native North Carolina, in 1852. You would figure that a hairy aborigine with a large proboscis would fare the worst, especially in the big city. In fact, “Ugluk the Missing Link” is the headliner at Barnum’s Museum. He has a table reserved for him at Delmonico’s, and is dating the lovely Lily, one of John Jacob Astor’s great-grandchildren, though her aunt has still not invited them to tea.