Almost since the start of the pandemic, anti-lockdowners have called for the Covid equivalent of The Wire or The Grapes of Wrath, i.e., an epic fictional account that helps people to feel what has been done to them. Maps, graphs, and game theory are great but only go so far. People need art, poetry, or a compelling story to share that which would otherwise remain ineffable.
A new book called The Great Covid Panic: What Happened, Why, and What to Do Next by Gigi Foster, Paul Frijters, and Michael Baker takes a stab at the narrative approach to knowing by following the lockdown stories of three fictional composite characters, Jane (a sheep if there ever was one), James (Tony Fauci, et al), and Jasmine (an anti-lockdowner). It’s interesting, but the book’s real strength is in its very AIER-esque interdisciplinary social scientific analyses of incentives, the irrationality of crowds, public choice, and so forth, not its fictional vignettes.
Undoubtedly due to a recent Rick and Morty binge and the encroaching Autumn season, I’ve begun to think in terms of parallel universes and Frost-y roads not taken. Unfortunately, though I’ve read Bob McKee’s classic Story, but I haven’t the skill to write a novel or screenplay following a character in both the world as-it-is, and the world as-it-could-have-been had not some mysterious X(s) led to lockdowns and the disintegration of rule of law.
But I can imagine writing, and have written, two letters of advice to my two sons upon their graduations from high school and college, the first if the trajectory of February 2020 had continued and the second given what has actually transpired since. The lesson is in the juxtaposition of the two in terms of tone and content. See if you can recognize the subtle differences:
Parallel Universe Letter:
Dear Xander and Teejbo,
You’ve turned your tassel, earned your baccalaureate degree, and attended a celebration or two. You might believe your next career milestone will be retirement, but few people spend even the bulk of their working lives, much less their entire careers, at one company anymore. From ages 18 to 54, Americans born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 12.4 jobs. That number will likely increase for people born more recently. You will likely stay employed by the same company longer as you age and gain experience, but there is no place to hide and “ride it out” anymore, as even tenured professors are increasingly easily ousted. Unless you hit the lottery, your life will be buffeted by decisions made by others responding to impersonal market forces.
“Betsy” (BETC, which is short for business, economic, and technological change) is responsible for the long, materially rich lives that most people in developed nations like the United States now lead. But, like everything else, Betsy comes at the cost of a certain future. Like Simon from the game “Simon Says,” Betsy pretty much gets her way, and may even try to trick you along the way. But that doesn’t mean that you are powerless. You can still set your personal priorities in a resilient way.
Setting priorities in an organizational setting is extremely complex, because decision makers must weigh the goals of a variety of stakeholders, including owners, customers, suppliers, and employees. Setting personal priorities is easier, but by no means easy, especially if the wishes of family members, like your mother, must be considered. The process starts by making a list of major goals across the full spectrum of life: aesthetic, economic, hedonistic, political, relationship, religious, and social.
But one should not end with a simple list because goals inevitably conflict. Time and other resources are scarce, so human beings necessarily face tradeoffs, usually between work and leisure time or some money today and more money tomorrow. You cannot spend more time at work, for example, without giving up something: evenings with friends and family, days on vacation, studying for an advanced degree, or the quality of your health due to loss of sleep or exercise.
Setting priorities means ranking major life goals from most to least important, so that when conflicts inevitably arise, you have a basis for deciding between alternatives. Once you establish priorities, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly, goals aligned with major life goals can be established. Achieving clear steppingstone goals increases subjective well-being by providing meaning and direction in a chaotic world ruthlessly ruled by Betsy.
More concretely, if your most important priority is to be the best in your field by age 30, then you should spend more time at work, or practice while pursuing a graduate degree or other advanced training, even if that means not dating much, giving up fantasy football, and cutting your GTA playing time. If your top goal is to start a family of your own by age 30, then you should concentrate on steppingstones likely to lead to encounters with potential spouses, which may mean taking classes, regularly hitting the gym, or attending more church activities.
Establishing and then prioritizing your major life goals is not a “one and done and then go have fun” mental exercise. You have already done it in a serious way when you decided to go to college, picked one, and then chose, and changed, a major. Priorities must remain dynamic because Betsy is changing the world, you are developing as a person, and you regularly receive feedback about how likely you are to achieve your goals.
Unless your top priority is to spend your life wondering “What if?,” aim high and dream big! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But if the real world repeatedly tells you that you are never going to play professional baseball or join a research team at a top lab, you will be happier and live longer if you reassess your life goals, re-prioritize, and adjust your steppingstone goals accordingly. By aiming instead to become a baseball coach or a high school science teacher, for example, you will free up the time and money to buy and care for a dog, spend more time with your aging grandmother, volunteer at the local equine autism therapy nonprofit, or achieve other goals.
Only one percent of us can make the top one percent. If you achieve such success, great for you! (Please save me time and just make out the checks to your mother.) But if you find yourself in the bottom 99 percent with the rest of us, you need not be miserable. Finding the closest match between our priorities and the world-as-it-is can be joyful, especially if you bear in mind that Betsy will likely dramatically reshuffle the deck before you retire. History is rife, for example, with instances when new technologies and laws transformed the music and theatrical industries, turning stars into nobodies, and vice versa, almost overnight.
Do not be shocked by such shocks. BETC will ruin the best laid career plans. So don’t plan your career. Instead prioritize, establish clear steppingstone goals carefully aligned with your priorities, and remain flexible.
Actual World Letter:
Gentlemen (I hope!),
Increasingly powerful politicians increasingly try to make themselves our absolute rulers by creating new unconstitutional states, turning millions of foreigners into voters by dismantling century-old secret balloting procedures, ruining the dollar by overspending on pet social transformation projects now labelled “infrastructure,” packing the Supreme Court with their minions, lying about gun rights and freedom of expression, and making preparations to ensure that inevitable tax increases cannot be avoided by simple folk like us. They’ve co-opted powerful corporations to ensure that peaceful resistance will fail with help from rampant dismisinfoganda and a virulent cancel culture.
Congrats on your graduations, but much of what you were told in school was junk or bunk. Try to bone up on the hunting, fishing, and foraging skills that I tried to teach you because you may very well need them to survive. Listen to “A Country Boy Can Survive” as often as you can before the electricity goes out, maybe for good. Watch some Mad Max movies too for, you know, business ideas. If you have been following what is going on in Australia right now, that isn’t so far fetched.
It is not quite time to run for the hills, but double check the completeness of your bug out bags, because your mother sometimes raids them instead of going to the store. If you don’t have the money or space for all the items, prioritize.
I love you both dearly and as recently as February 2020 thought that I would be writing you a very different sort of letter about setting flexible priorities. Boring dad stuff. Alas, that is not the world we currently inhabit.
Best of luck,
Your Old Man
This article, A Tale of Two Letters, was originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research and appears here with permission. Please support their efforts.