Thursday, September 10, 2009

Outliers: We Stand On Guard For Thee

I did something embarrassing this past summer. I bought and read the (then) #1 non-fiction best seller: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. I expected the usual Gladwell, smart, off-beat, the distiller of academic psychological data for people responsible for judging (and perhaps marketing to) the rest of us. What I found was a profoundly humane grasp of ordinary fate. Consider reading Outliers in the silence induced by President Obama's closing words to Congress last night.

Gladwell purports to write about what makes unusual people successful. But it's the negative space that stays with you: the things we all need to catch a break. I mean the luck to be born at the right time and place. The luck to have local ways to develop ones' talents. The luck to be born to a family that assumes you will indeed have talents to develop and then demands the rigor to master difficult tasks. The luck to be born to a culture that allows you to fail and continue learning, or (what is often the same thing) to speak your mind without undue discouragement from hierarchy.

The luck, in short, to be born, if not a Kennedy, then (as Gladwell and I were ) a Canadian. For you add up the lucks and what you have is really something quite predictable: the benefits of a welfare state--or what I like to call (since this is a knowledge economy) a mentor state.

Everybody born in today's America was born at the right time and place. But how to develop talents without good schools, universities and clinics that don't bankrupt you--or a community that correspondingly assumes discipline as well as the obvious freedoms?

I suspect that readers of this post do not need much convincing. But, for the record, Canada allowed me to go all the way for a PhD without debt. My child, when I was studying in the 1970s, went to nearly free day-care. I never worried about health insurance. Our public television and radio hosts never had to become wood-peckers three times a year. Libel and hate-speech laws required you to actually have some evidence for your claims against someone. I have since put three children through the University of Toronto, also without debt.

Call it luck, if you want. But Gladwell, like Obama last night, might just as well have called it commonwealth. The healthcare debate is just the beginning.


Anonymous said...

To call it free education, free day care and free healthcare is not intellectually honest though. The beneficiaries of those services might not have paid for them, but others did pay for them with their taxes and resources. Who were the "others", it is not difficult to determine if we look at the political developments in Western Canada for the past 20 years.
As Mr. Greenspan once said, even if in a different context, "The free lunch has yet to be invented." For obvious reasons though the beneficiaries of "free lunch" tend to appreciate the freebies much more than those who actually end-up paying for them.
Oh, and the great Canadian healthcare system ranks 30th in the world, behind such powerhouses as: Greece, Morocco, Columbia (not British), and Iceland. Truth to be told, USA ranks 36th, which seems to be just enough to give the ever modest Canadians enough bragging rights.

Kerrick said...

Anonymous, private corporations are more efficient than the government is--at bankrupting the people who pay them. We Americans are already paying for a system that does nothing for us. We pay our healthcare premiums, which have been rising at 4 times the rate of our wages, AND we still have to pay about a $1000 a year each because of people who can't afford their medical care ANYWAY. These are often folks who can't afford insurance, so they never see doctors, until their medical conditions are so severe that it costs millions of dollars to care for them. We pay this mostly through our increased healthcare costs to make up their unpaid debts. Studies strongly show that if when people have insurance they see doctors sooner and prevent catastrophic illness, so their care costs less.

And even though we pay for our health insurance--more to private companies than we would pay in increased taxes for a public system--because we're paying a corporation with no motivation but profit, we risk getting dropped at any excuse so they can keep all our money and leave us to die. Which would you rather do, lose $10,000 at blackjack, or pay $100 for a decent mutual fund?

It is obvious that public health care is more cost effective than this for-profit system. For one thing, no government employee can be paid more than the President, and the CEO of Blue Cross/Blue Shield made almost 10 times Mr. Obama's wages last year. I'd rather pay for it in taxes than in premiums that are increasingly out of my reach. It's two of one and two dozen of the other.

Yam Erez said...

Well said, Kerrick. Unfortunately there seem to be about five of us who think as you do. Bernard, wonderful post. Glad we met.

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