Lucky You

You’re lucky. So am I.

I’ve written in previous blogs that believing we’re lucky is a helpful attitude:

  • It makes us happier because we look for the good in situations.
  • It helps us achieve because we see problems as opportunities to do something constructive.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about luck that even the most pessimistic people would consider lucky.

Sure, we worked hard to get what we have and become what we are. No doubt about it.

But our work built on our luck. For example, readers of this blog are highly educated and intelligent. We are well adapted to live in a society that values and rewards those qualities.

In large measure, it’s because we got lucky. Intelligence is mostly hereditary, so we got it from our parents. We didn’t have to work for it. We did work, of course, but even our work ethic now seems to be partly genetic.

If we lived in a savage region where success depended on amorality and violence, many of us wouldn’t last a week. Even if we did, we’d be at the bottom of the social order.

Our luck gave us advantages and disadvantages in life. The question is what, if anything, we should do to help people who are especially disadvantaged. Such a question only occurs to good people in good societies. Like Americans. In the United States.

Those musings are prompted by Andrew Yang’s new book The War on Normal People. Yang is a tech investor who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. His signature proposal is a “universal basic income” to help people whose jobs are wiped out by automation. Other headline proposals are “Medicare for all” and “human-centered capitalism.”

Most conservatives think those are absolutely terrible ideas. I think that:

  • The ideas involve tradeoffs, costs, and benefits;
  • It makes a lot of difference how the ideas are implemented; but
  • Implementing them in a multicultural, multi-ethnic society of warring groups that hate each other would be very difficult.

The first thing I did with the book was to check the index. I wanted to see if Yang was going to be honest about the history of his proposal. And he was. The same or similar proposals were made not only by Bernie Sanders in 2014 and Barack Obama in 2016, but also by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1969 and Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman in 1980. You might think that basic historical honesty is a low standard to meet, but politicians and academics very often fail to meet it.

By the way, books by political figures are usually ghost-written. When I worked on Capitol Hill, I did a little bit of ghost writing, mostly speeches and op-eds. My initial reaction to Yang’s book is that he wrote at least the rough draft himself. An editor tweaked the style and gave him the kind of feedback every writer needs: “Add more documentation here,” “I’m not sure what you mean by this,” and so forth. Yang revised. That’s normal for any author. He might have had an assistant, but I think the work is basically his own.

I just started the book, so I don’t know all the details of what he proposes. But so far, I’m impressed. More next time.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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