There was a choice moment the other night during the presidential debate when, I think, we were able to get a good sense of Herman Cain’s worldview. (For background on Cain see here; photo from here). Anderson Cooper (who I thought looked a little clumsy at times) at one point asked Cain if he’d like to comment on remarks he had previously made about the people currently occupying Wall Street. He went on to say not only was it their fault they didn’t have jobs, but that anyone in America who isn’t rich is to blame for their not being rich (you can watch it here). While, granted, I’m something of a conservative at heart (and believe we alone are responsible for our decisions), I can easily empathize with those currently suffering from unemployment or unrichedness. First, and obviously, if it’s the individual’s fault that they don’t currently don't have a job, then why were most of these people employed just ~3 years ago? Is it the individual’s fault that the unemployment rate has gone from ~5-9%?
In terms of people being at fault for not being rich, I think that it shows a great lack of appreciation and humility for what Cain’s been able to achieve. Talent will get you far in life and ambition will take you even further, but the thoughtful among us will quickly realize just how much luck has played into our success. Hear me out. First, imagine being born to a single mother, who’s not able to read to you or help you do well in school. Imagine being raised in a neighborhood where it’s not common for people to go to college. Imagine being around colleagues and siblings who don’t love to learn or provide any sort of example as to just what’s possible when one makes a concerted effort at something. As I grow older I become more and more amazed at how much our idea of what’s possible is influenced by those we interact with and observe.
Many of us will also recognize the breaks that have fallen our way since we were adults. Yes, most of it comes from hard work (and luck favors those who are prepared), but in any life there are turning points which result from being in the right place, or running into the right person, or saying the right thing at the right time. In short, yes, the successful have worked hard, but it’d do us well to think how tenuous some of the turning points in our route to success have been.
Which brings me to another point. The universe is a chaotic place. I don’t really believe in destiny because I think one can be happy with any of the various paths one’s life could take. If we were supposed to marry a certain person, then, I think, the randomness of life would make it unworkable. Think about how much your life (or if your spouse) could have been different if you had taken a different class, job, bus, or chosen not to go to that certain social event. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think of all the alternative life paths one could have lived out.
I was going to address Cain’s weaknesses in the policy arena, but this type of remark makes that unnecessary. They say that one of the overall benefits of education is that it teaches us empathy, and I don’t think that's too much to ask for in a leader.