There’s an old joke in which a man inherits a dusty old violin and an aged oil painting from a dearly departed distant relative. Disinterested in these objects for their intrinsic or nostalgic value, he decides to get them appraised by a reputable auction house, with a view to monetising his windfall. The appraiser delivers his evaluation thus: “Sir, what you have here is a very rare Stradivarius and a little-known Rembrandt.” Suddenly enlivened at the prospect of raising an unspeakable return at auction, he timidly asks the appraiser, a renown expert in these matters, what he thinks they might be worth. “Unfortunately,” he responds with deepest regret, “Stradivarius was a lousy painter and Rembrandt couldn’t make a violin to save himself.”
What this story highlights is that, were it not for happenstance, both of these acknowledged masters may have found themselves in occupations that didn’t bring forth their greatest talents. Rembrandt may have had to take a job maintaining web sites, to pay the rent. Stradivarius might have been forced to work as an actuary, leaving his instrument making to his spare time, as a hobby. If this had been their fate, the world would have never had Rembrandt’s fine paintings and Stradivarius’ remarkable instruments. Our culture would have been so much the poorer for it.
A recent article in the New York Times by David Leonhardt, reporting on Stanford University professor Raj Chetty’s work on equality of opportunity, entitled “Lost Einsteins”, outlined the cost to humanity of innovations that never blossomed, due to lack of trust in and support for their innovators. Either these inventors were from a minority group, or grew up in the wrong environment, or were women. In every case, nobody backed their genius and so their ideas, hugely beneficial to humanity, were stillborn. Often, the innovators think their chances of succeeding are so unlikely, they don’t even try to get backing. There is a vacuum of encouragement.
The loss may sound unfortunate, but inconsequential. However, ideas and innovations underpin improvements in humanity’s quality of life. They help us to thrive and enjoy better standards of living. In short, they improve our lot, in life. In the study, researchers concluded that if all the so-called lost Einsteins had been able to bring their inventions to fruition, there would be roughly four times the innovation we benefit from collectively today. Put another way, we are harvesting the benefits of only a quarter of the brilliant ideas and improvements we could be. That represents a tremendous waste of opportunity.
That got me thinking about what else we lose, as a culture, when musicians, artists and assorted visionaries have to ignore their vocation, in order to earn enough to survive in an economy that you must fight tooth and claw within, for your very existence. When the prevailing economic system makes no investment in you at all, but is instead set up to prey upon you, forcing you to earn and pay your way on your own, or die, what else gets killed in the process?
What is the value of the collateral damage? How much does misemployment and underemployment take away from us all, so that a privileged few may appear to win at the current economic game? Why do we pursue a system that, in net terms, impoverishes everybody, so that the inequality between the winners and losers can be accelerated?
This being the run up toward Christmas, it’s interesting to contemplate the message in Charles Dickens’ tale “A Christmas Carol”. In truth, we, as a society, behave like Scrooge, when it comes to backing human potential, especially if the lost Einstein, Mozart, Picasso or Nikola Tesla has the wrong coloured skin, lives in the wrong place, is female, comes from the wrong background, didn’t go to the right schools or otherwise hasn’t networked with and been accepted by the privileged. We woefully underinvest in people with great potential, if they don’t fit the arbitrary criteria. And they know it.
Our collective attitude to those with a spark of artistic or creative originality is one of jealousy and mistrust. We fear losses and begrudge their abilities and chances of success. We feel diminished by their presence and fiercely protective of what we have earned, to date, for fear of losing even a small part of it, in a dog-eat-dog system where failure to pay your way means you perish. Every attitude manifests a desire to elbow competitors aside, to secure a larger slice of the pie, rather than encouraging and supporting others to bake a pie four times as big as the one we so covetously guard. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Our miserly, penny-pinching approach to investing in clever, capable people denies us the opportunity to enjoy much better, enriched lives.
This Scroogely cast of mind is baked into the very fabric of capitalism, which will happily eat the geese that lay the golden eggs, if there’s a quick buck in it. It’s hard-wired into the axiomatic rules of the game. To change it will require proven ideas, like universal basic incomes, to become widespread. People will need to realise that fiercely and selfishly guarding your pile guarantees that your pile is much smaller than it could be, as is everybody else’s. For now, our behaviour is evidence of supreme collective stupidity.
Inequality of opportunity and outcomes is damned expensive and needlessly so.