There’s an old-Hollywood restaurant called the Formosa. It’s a movie star itself ‘- it’s where ‘Lana Turner’ slapped Guy Pierce in LA Confidential. I was sitting at that exact table one Friday night with five friends. It was late November, 1999.
We’d all spent the previous three months working across the street on a TV show called IZ.com. The show was a really hip, magazine-type half-hour, designed to drive people to the website where they would buy tons and tons of stuff. We were sitting there celebrating the fact that the IZ stock we had been offered as employees and elected to buy -‘ at about $4,500 -‘ would vest on the following Monday: for $88,600 dollars. We’d all be multiple thousandaires.
How could such lunacy be possible?
Well, we were experiencing the last few microseconds of the tech bubble, a time when the paper value of Yahoo! exceeded the GNP of New Zealand. Did this make sense to me? No, it did not. Did this contradiction bring me to my senses?
No, it did not.
See, we were a dot-com, vanguard of a new economy. We sold hip t-shirts and hats and boom boxes online. And by mutual agreement, everyone knew that from now on, no one would ever leave the house to go shopping again. All of those old-economy ‘stores’ might as well have been chained shut.
So there we sat, our little rainbow club of producers and editors, drinking heavily in the Formosa, and talking about what we were going to buy when the brokerage houses opened on Monday and we greedily traded in our precious, precioussss dot-com shares for real cash. A new black VW Beetle, a house down payment’one idiot seemed determined to buy an airplane.
We talked politics, too. The 2000 race was down to Bradley, Gore, McCain and Bush. I had made my first-ever campaign contribution to McCain. We managed to agree that as long as it came down to Bradley or McCain the country would probably be alright. And my black, and Asian, and Jewish friends once again told me how amazed they were that I could be a Republican -‘ I seemed like such a nice guy, most of the time. So unlike that spoiled, silver-spooned moron cowboy from Texas, who, we all agreed, would be an unmitigated disaster. Anyway, it was a happy night, full of promise. I picked up the tab — $124.65 -‘ because that was literally going to be pocket money come Monday.
Monday came. A small (fatal) error had been made. It turned out our shares did not actually vest until the following September, as we had originally been told. Disappointing, to be sure. But we figured we could wait the ten months. If our $4,600 investment was worth $88,600 today, imagine what it would be worth then!
Well, we didn’t have to imagine. We watched it every day.
A few weeks before the company disbanded, I was working late one night, when the president came in looking a little worse for wear. This was one of the absolute geniuses of the tech stock world, a guy everybody wanted, and who’d put millions into this ground-breaking endeavor. I asked him how things were going. Not well, he said. Our TV show had driven vast numbers to the web site, many times more than they had hoped for. With the number of hits we had given them, they had expected, based on their projections, some 45,000 sales.
How many sales had there actually been?
‘You mean eight thousand?’
No, he meant eight. Eight sales! One of those had been a hat that my co-worker’s dad had bought as a souvenir.
He didn’t understand it. Did I have any ideas?
I did. I asked him why someone would spend $260 on a boom box at our website, sight unseen, and wait 2 weeks for it to show up when they could go to Fry’s or Best Buy and get the same item for forty dollars less and walk out with it right away.
Oh, and ditto for shirts.
And this internet genius, this multi-millionaire, this architect of the new economy, looked at me with this blank stare. And I realized, to my horror, that this man, who had committed millions of dollars, months of work, and the lives of over a hundred of the best people in both entertainment and computing had never thought of this.
The business plan must have read something like this:
1. Hire top computer programmers to develop a robust website.
2. Purchase wholesale a wide variety of goods of interest to the 17-25 year old demographic.
3. Secure reliable and scalable fulfillment personnel to deliver products directly to the home.
4. Hire talented TV professionals and graphic designers to create a hip TV show featuring said products in order to drive customers to the web site.
5. And then a miracle occurs and people will no longer want to try on clothes or listen to boom boxes, but will wait weeks to buy them online at higher price because of the convenience.
6. Hire fleet of semi trucks to haul money to the bank.
7. Purchase New Zealand and retire to Middle Earth.
I learned a lesson that night -‘ many lessons in fact. And to all you conspiracy buffs out there, who see the dark machinations of the Leaders of Industry pulling Hidden Levers in Corporate Boardrooms, I say simply this: never attribute to Malice what can be adequately explained by Stupidity.
There was a time, an age ago, where the differences between what we call the Left and the Right seemed more or less academic; maybe the distance from one high-rise tower to its twin -‘ close enough to see the coffee mugs and family photos on the other side’s desk.
Then something happened.
Now we peer across a divide so wide that we can no longer see the other side; where the residents of the opposing camps are not seen as having a difference of opinion so much as being considered insane.
Two worldviews this opposed cannot both be right (although they could both be wrong.) I was about to write that one of them must be closer to the truth, but I stopped myself, for often people will define truth as conforming to their ideology, rather than the reverse. But surely one of these positions, widely called ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ must conform better to reality, to the evidence, for anyone with an open mind to see?
Which one? And how do we tell?
We live in dangerous times. We no longer have the luxury, as I did in 2000, of voting against my ideology for the man who seemed ‘nicer’ and letting that be the end of it.
No, this is an age of consequences. Votes matter now. I imagine both sides believe it is no exaggeration to say that civilization hangs on how Americans vote in these next 10 years or so. Both sides desperately want to do what they think is right. People of good will on both sides value peace and freedom, yet we have diverging choices to make, and we have to make them: now. We have to chart our course, a course for our country, and ultimately, a course for the entire world. Never in history has so much power -‘ so much consequence — been in the hands and deeds of common people like ourselves.
We need a map. Several are for sale. How do we choose?
Well, it seems like a good idea to choose the map that best conforms to the coastline we see unveiling before us. We choose the map that best fits the territory. We choose the map that best matches reality -‘ the objective, external, indisputable reality of bays and promontories, capes and gulfs and rivers and shoals.
We can, indeed, lay out competing philosophies on the table, and see where each conforms to reality and where it does not. No maps are without distortions; none of these are likely to be, either. And one map may conform perfectly to the coastline in one area, and be dreadfully amiss in another. We can cut and paste them as we wish. This is too important for us to be arguing about who is right -‘ all our energies must go to getting it right.
And before we start, we must agree to one thing, and one thing only: we will never be so full of arrogance and blinded by pride that we dare confront a place where the map does not match the coastline, and proclaim that the coastline must be wrong.
Navigation by means of reason and logic, taking sightings from historical landmarks and always keeping the firm hand of common sense on the wheel, can steer us clear of these dangerous and confusing times. This sort of thinking, what is essentially scientific thinking, is a new tool, relatively speaking. It is a powerful tool, one that makes powerful demands of us, asking us to forgo pride and ego and preconception. It asks us, as blind men and women in the darkness of the present, to walk into the future not by closing our eyes and glibly imagining a map that is to our liking, but rather to learn to navigate like bats and dolphins, pinging our surroundings, interrogating nature and history at every turn, finding fixed points of reference that we can use to triangulate where we are and where we are headed.
And we will know when we hit the reefs of reality, because when we do we will find ourselves more and more adding the step ‘and then a miracle occurs’ in order to make our coastline fit our map.
Can we test our navigational theory to see if such a method actually works?
For example, let’s say we want a collective farm where everyone shares everything, and, therefore, nobody owns anything. Can such an ideology exist without ‘and then a miracle occurs?”
This is not an impossible thing to figure out. It’s not like it hasn’t been tried. We don’t have to guess at human nature -‘ we are human nature, and all of us know the kind of people that it takes to make such a system work -‘ and there are such people in abundance. Good natured, honest, compassionate, hard-working people, with a sense of noble purpose and a willingness to self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, we also know the kind of people that will destroy such a system: venal, lazy, power-hungry louts, intellectuals who perceive thinking to be more valuable than manual labor, bullies, snitches, goldbrickers and all the rest. We don’t need to look very far back to see the mechanism of why these things fail. Rather, all we need to spot is where the miracle needs to occur in order for it to succeed.
We will set up a society where all people work and share equally —
and then a miracle occurs. And all the laziness, deception, hoarding, cheating and stealing that marks human, primate, mammalian and lower animal behavior ceases to exist because the map says so.
We will create a system that takes from each according to his ability, and gives to each according to his needs — and then a miracle occurs. And when the communal cow that nobody owns gets lost in the snow at 4:00 am, everybody will take their fair share to go look for it, even the liars, the cheats, the bullies and the goldbrickers.
We will devise an economic system where no matter how hard or little you work, no matter how talented or energetic you are or are not, all people will receive the same, fair, and equal reward — and then a miracle occurs. And I will put in 40 hours of overtime a week, and deprive myself of time spent with friends and family while everyone else goes home to make sure that all 150 million of us live just a little bit better.
And our motto shall be all animals are created equal! — and then a miracle occurs. And no longer will the ruthless, the brutal, and the savage intimidate the good, decent folk into thinking that some are more equal than others.
Was that just rhetoric on my part? Or have these things actually happened? Does it make sense to you? You have seen both the best and worst of human behavior. Does the map fit the coastline here, or am I just trying to win you over to a position with an argument that doesn’t hold water? Test it against what you know of human nature. Test it against history repeated many times in many places. Don’t take nobody’s word for nuthin’!
It’d be nice if such mental gymnastics were applied only to horrors like communism. But my shares of tech stock testify that all of us can fall into these traps. If we smugly assume that such delusions cannot affect bright folks like ourselves, then we are on the reefs already.
But even in the darkness of self-deception, a little light may shine. Even while many of my friends were becoming angry, then bitter, I began to ask myself whether or not my four months of employment were, in fact, really worth the eighty-some thousand dollars my little stock gift said I was entitled to. I had, after all, received a pretty decent salary, as well. So as that stock plummeted to zero, and was eventually de-listed, I beat myself up all right: but only for believing what I wanted to hear. Yahoo! is not worth New Zealand.
Sometimes, you really do need to just crack open a window and get a little air. You know what I mean?
Miracles, are, by definition, freakish occurrences. No society can long survive if it is predicated on the routine and reliable apparition of the miraculous. And neither can any honest worldview, either -‘ not to a person with enough integrity to see the world around them as it is, and not as they wish it to be. Some people will never reach this point. To hell with them. They do not deserve to be correct. They are cowards, bound up in ego, boxed in narcissism and wrapped in bitterness and failure.
We are better than that. We will, together, try our best to see the world with open eyes, and where we find our maps in error we will tear them up, scatter them upon the waves and redraw them. We Americans must discover the courage to do this -‘ now. Today.
We have such courage; it is bred in our bones. It comes from generations of people who have given up old maps and set sail for new lands, people willing to reinvent themselves, to make themselves new again, forever. We are those people, and history, hard work and genius has placed in our everyday hands power and responsibility unseen since the world began.
So, together, let us look at the world around us, a world filled with shouting experts and mounds of moldering philosophies. Let us combine our experiences, argue and debate and find the solid granite that can support great structures. Let us use the razor of reason and logic and history to cut the Gordian knots of conflicting ideologies, assertions and opinions.
And then, let us all, as we all must, make up our own minds about what to think in a world that depends on us, now more than ever, to give up what we wish to be true in exchange for that which is true.
To the regulars: This is just the opening chapter of a new collection. Up next (I think) IT’S A TRAP!