Life Review in Seattle
We were in Seattle for a meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society. It’s a group within the American Political Science Association, probably the only such group that considers spiritual factors in its efforts to understand history. It’s nondogmatic, not at all narrow, and, interestingly, one of the fastest growing branches of the APSA! The people who participate are extremely nice, professionally well-prepared but not pompous or self-important. (I’ll leave undrawn any contrast with the usual academic person.) Anyway, the meetings were fully as thought-provoking and truth-seeking as I’d hoped, but I was also there for another purpose. My only life-long, since-high-school woman friend lives in Seattle. It was a rare chance for us to meet again.
After cordial greetings, Jerry tactfully withdrew to her late husband’s office, shutting the door to “review his notes” for a panel the next day, thus clearing the way for the two women friends to really get at it.
The shortest way to the inner life is to begin with objective matters. As I told her, I was very struck by Seattle. The city is booming, its skyline punctuated by robust, gleeful, self-congratulatory towers of steel and glass. It’s fun to look at and softened by evergreen trees at every turn. My friend, who’s an accomplished painter, gave me her own verbal sketch of present-day Seattle. It’s a city whose direction comes from its geniuses — men like Bill Gates and Elon Musk. They give the desirable jobs to their “brilliant” employees – worker bees who put in 16-18 hour days and “must” move on to another desirable job within two years, possibly to show that their talents are still saleable.
Gawd. If you’ve got a good job in Seattle, you’ve got no time to die!
Meanwhile, Elon Musk has now got the three most pressing global concerns covered. With PayPal, he’s reinvented money as a non-thing; with his electric car, he’s addressed the main source of planetary pollution; with his SpaceX pilot project gigantic rocket ship, he’s constructed a way to exit our doomed planet and get human life established on Mars.
Hmm. I thought about Elon Musk, who has got it all covered. I gather he’s a guy who enjoys his own life greatly. With regard to PayPal, if it’s been billed as solving the world’s financial problems, I don’t think it will. Money’s been a non-thing, a promissory note, since at least the seventeenth century. The thing-or-nonthing question about money was one addressed by Sir Isaac Newton. He decided that it’s not a thing with intrinsic value like silver coin. Money is a promise. And societies need such promises if new ventures are to be backed. Plus laws protecting investors by transferring liability to a “legal person”: the corporation. But these financial instruments, which make new enterprises feasible, have become so complex that only the humble accountants, buried deep in the basements, can explain with assurance whether they track down to real goods and services or are ponzi schemes. So financial boom-and-bust may be inbuilt in a modern economy, or — if it’s not inbuilt — vastly unequal rewards are. Boom towns like Seattle will have inequality, risk and some degree of unavoidable nontransparency. As long as the going is good, people won’t care that much.
The milder economic alternatives — say Sweden’s or Israel’s kibbutzim — depend for their success on people who look alike, share values, and are partly supported by a market economy anyway.
The drastic alternative, a top-down controlled economy, destroys incentive and incentivizes corruption. Since the ensuring scarcity isn’t persuasive to the people who actually live under those systems, they must be enforced by ideological fictions and terror.
Ergo, the human economic predicament has no long-term solution, only provisional political adjustments. As to Elon Musk’s other two efforts to solve the major problems of life on earth: scientific research will eventually produce an eco-friendly fuel so we won’t have to leave the planet. Earth will stay habitable. Mars will stay uninhabitable. Next techie question?
Finally, we got down to what we’d actually come together to discuss: life and romance and how we’d each played the hand of cards we’d been dealt. They’d been quite different hands. Nobody gets it all and our fulfillments had been quite different too. But they accorded with what had been desirable and feasible in each of our lives. We looked back down the years, marking out our starting places, making clearer what threats and hurdles we’d met. I marveled at the precision with which she’d recognized what was best and highest among her options. She underscored a fact of which I’m often unaware: from each near-eclipse of my life efforts, I’d managed somehow to extract benefit. We’d both avoided cynicism and had the sense
to keep our friendship
alive and well.