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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Luck and Desert 

Matt Miller, who in a "just" world would replace the intolerably trivial Maureen Dowd, writes about the role of luck in life's successes and failures. If any of you dear readers ever have had the "pleasure"* of hearing me harangue about our almost completely undeserved positions in life, you'll know that I'm even more radical about the limits of desert in moral life than Miller.

Miller's column is nicely timed with the NYT's coverage of class in America that Miguel referred to the other day. This summer I am getting an object lesson in the role of class and luck in distributing goods. The firm I work for is good at what it does. Highly-educated, hard-working and clever lawyers make lots of money providing legal services to rich clients, mostly corporations since they're who can afford the fees.

And to recruit new lawyers, the firm pays law students ungodly sums and treats us really well, i.e. paying for fancy lunches and drinks, in hopes that the perks of the life will entice us to do work that isn't spiritually or morally very satisfying. Not that it's immoral what they do, but it's hard to be motivated by helping other people (corporations) make more money. So I am having a very pleasant summer being treated as rich (but not wealthy, see Chris Rock for the distinction) while some of my friends are teaching poor kids in Newark or defending indigent defendants in San Francisco and Seattle for little remuneration (although I hope the psychic rewards and the ability feel superior to folks like me, seriously, does compensate a bit). These different choices are where individual preferences and choices are most clearly not the result of luck, but are more or less as freely chosen as choices get.**

The real bullshit is how I and the aforementioned friends have the freedom to choose how to live well while so many people's opportunities are radically restricted by economic deprivation. Sure, many of my friends grew up lower/working class and made it through a combination of native intelligence, hard work, luck, supportive families, etc... But the scandal is how deeply contingent our successes have been. If friend A hadn't gotten a scholarship that was the only way to go to college or if friend B's mom hadn't been so unusually dedicated to her child's education, their current success would've have happened.

A trivial point: if things had been different, things would be different. Yes, of course. But the role of luck (lack of desert) in determining class position is so much larger than it should be. We don't have to be dependent on luck to provide decent lives; we as a society could secure a modicum of well-being for all, regardless of native ability. But that'd mean redistribution and god forbid we redistribute the power and privileges that we, ummm... don't deserve!

Class and privilege today is justified by the false ideology of desert--that those who succeed deserved to and vice versa. And this false ideology is propagated because it's in the interests of those who can take the Lincoln Towncars back to their fancy-pants apartment at 2am on the firm's dime to think that's they way it ought to be. It'd be damn hard to take the privileges given to the lucky if you knew you didn't deserve them AND you knew how poorly so many people live.

And yet I do...

*read: "misfortune"
**I'm not going to claim that I "had" to do the firm because of debts or whatever, I could've gotten by either way.

-Ziggy Stardust  15:17 EST | |

About us:

This weblog is an ongoing, if periodic, effort by several friends to stay in touch, in reading material, and in ideas.

Lucky Luciano is a former Italian Stallion real estate hustler and Benedict Arnold CEO turned shady lawyer-to-be. He lives in Denver.

Ben is a Paramedic and would-be philantropist who lives in Denver. He knows everything about nothing.

Fuzzy Dunlop lives in Manhattan. He is more than capable of standing up to the stresses of a high crime urban environment.

Jess is a teacher. But have YOU given her an apple? No, you haven't. You should be ashamed of yourself. This crazy feminist currently rests her copy of Awakening in Jersey City.

Matt is a pariah, iconoclast, and professor of gambling living in Oakland.

Miguel Sanchez is not Lionel Hutz.

Daddy Brooklyn lives in Brooklyn. He hates Republicans, though he wouldn't mind being ensconced in the landed elite of New York City.

Paul just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette.

Ziggy Stardust has no past.

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