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Outcomes can’t be legislated

Of all the lessons we learn as children, perhaps the most important is that life is often unfair.

Life’s randomness is reenacted every spring, when tornadoes snake down atop American farmhouses and, suddenly, it’s “moving day.” We can face misfortune with resoluteness and optimism ” and many storm survivors do ” or we can wail about our plight and blame government for its slow response.

It might seem perverse, but I like living in a world where I need to bounce on my toes and dodge punches. Life in this valley deals us chipped windshields one day and double rainbows the next.



Less prosaically, my best friend ” and wife of 33 years ” had a brush with serious illness last May. This random vortex arrived like an unscheduled train in the dead of night, sucked her up and deposited her, via life-flight, in Denver’s University Hospital.

A year has passed, and she has battled back, but our routine has been unalterably changed ” in almost all ways for the better. Calamity kicks complacency in the ass. It made us take stock and shuffle priorities. It also made sage smell sweeter, our valley rivers more beautiful and our tree swallows more riveting than Obama’s latest church renunciation.



Mathematicians have expressed life’s vagaries with statistical modeling called Chaos Theory: No matter how tall or well-electrified the fence, inevitably ” given enough time ” the Tyrannosaur will escape and make somebody his lunch.

Probably the most famous pioneer of chaos theory was Edward Lorenze. In the early ’60s, while modeling weather systems with room-sized computers, he discovered that it wasn’t possible to predict weather behaviors more than a week in advance.

The tiniest mathematical variable, introduced early enough into any system, produces incalculably large deviations downwind. In the vernacular of Hollywood film, this phenomenon was reintroduced to moviegoers a few years ago as “The Butterfly Effect.” If this paisley-winged insect flaps its wings just so today, a tornado might visit you tomorrow.

Similarly, if Al Gore’s computer modeling of a 21st century global meltdown is an atom’s width awry, then the Styrofoam ice floes that he borrowed from Hollywood for his film “Inconvenient Truth” can be safely remolded into coffee cups.

Accepting, then, the unpredictability of life ” and the fact political wizardry is still mostly about pulling levers behind a curtains and scaring the gullible into ranks on Election Day ” we should regard our political doomsayers with a jaundiced eye.

We should look again at America’s founders ” those imperfect, slave-holding, women’s rights-denying, Native American-bullying bastards ” and wonder whether they didn’t get at least one thing right: Americans are individuals, first, and our freedoms flow from our Creator, not government.

We are not millipedes with single heads ” a “Barack head” or a “McCain head” ” and lots of syncopated feet for well-choreographed marching. We are free agents, and not indentured to any political party. I’m affiliated with one group only: my family.

Walt Whitman said, “There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.” He added, “The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single individual.”

Our Constitution ” particularly the amendments of the past century ” attempts to enshrine equality of opportunity in America. But we can’t legislate equality of outcome, no matter how desperately we try. Life makes the rules ” not politicians ” and life is a daily storm of uncertainty.

The ideological impulse to level outcomes with a government bulldozer has been a disaster, everywhere. In grade school, it has ruined the impulse to race for a finish line or match wits against a dodge ball aggressor. In the workplace, it has discouraged innovation, encouraged pettiness and gender wars, and heightened the wrongheaded belief that the pursuit of career success is synonymous with greed and selfishness.

Kids learn vital lessons from lost contests and scraped knees. They learn resilience. They learn that their egos are unbreakable. They learn that endurance and character can trump speed and over-confidence. They learn that losing isn’t really losing; it’s postponed winning.

Today’s playground failures presage tomorrow’s business successes.

Unless we handcuff Michael Jordan to a grand piano, he’s going to bruise my self-esteem on a basketball court, every time. And Stephen Hawking, the inspired physicist, will continue to paint contrails against the blue frontiers of human knowledge, while I’m squinting upward in befuddlement.

We should celebrate people’s unequal talents with excitement: Our superachievers illuminate the path to smaller successes for the rest of us, so we should accept life’s unequal outcomes with grace. We should be inspired by ” not resentful of ” people faster, smarter and more successful than we are.

But for the proceeds from their bicycle business, Orville and Wilbur Wright would never have flown their engine-powered box kite at Kitty Hawk. Business success spawned history’s greatest innovation.

I worry about the anti-individual, anti-success, anti-achievement rhetoric of today’s political hucksters. Will the imperative to raise taxes and impose investment penalties ” further burdening America’s innovators and entrepreneurs ” potentially eliminate the garage floor invention that solves our energy crisis?

I think it might.

Government can’t protect us from life’s hurts and disappointments. Our success as a people lies in the resilience of the human spirit and in the inspired flashes borne of individual insight.


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