By Lex, on August 13, 2010
Something called McSweeney’s Internet Tendency has put up a post so clever by half that it has broken the signal to noise ratio at Memerorandum.com:
I’d like to start by saying that I don’t get into belligerent shouting matches at the playground very often. The Tot Lot, by its very nature, can be an extremely volatile place—a veritable powder keg of different and sometimes contradictory parenting styles—and this fact alone is usually enough to keep everyone, parents and tots alike, acting as courteous and deferential as possible. The argument we had earlier today didn’t need to happen, and I want you to know, above all else, that I’m deeply sorry that things got so wildly, publicly out of hand.
Now let me explain why your son was wrong.
When little Aiden toddled up our daughter Johanna and asked to play with her Elmo ball, he was, admittedly, very sweet and polite. I think his exact words were, “Have a ball, peas [sic]?” And I’m sure you were very proud of him for using his manners.
To be sure, I was equally proud when Johanna yelled, “No! Looter!” right in his looter face, and then only marginally less proud when she sort of shoved him.
The thing is, in this family we take the philosophies of Ayn Rand seriously. We conspicuously reward ourselves for our own hard work, we never give to charity, and we only pay our taxes very, very begrudgingly.
It goes on and on in the same tendentious and self-congratulatory form.
Let us assume a normal distribution of human capital on the playground, where native talent, environment, ambition, risk tolerance and drive are sorted in a population where n=100.
Let us assume that little Johanna, whether because of her talent or because she was cleverly raised – more likely some combination of the two – occupies the thin right tail of that distribution. She works hard, gets a good education, applies herself and manages through her efforts to garner for herself a ball. It’s a lovely ball, and she thinks that two balls would be even better.
So she goes to a bank and mortgages her ball, risking her precious possession on the wherewithal to create a second. Little Aiden, meanwhile, draws aimless scribbles in the sand, admiring the way that his diaper is ripening in the growing heat of the day.
Johanna’s risk pays off! The capital loaned her from the bank allows her to invest in the capacity to make additional balls, and now she is rewarded with two, and then three. The bank, meanwhile, profits from Johanna’s endeavors through interest payments which allow it to reward its own employees and expand its toy making outreach to other Johannapreneurs.
Johanna sells her third ball on the open market to a Frisbee maker who also occupies the thin right tail of our normal distribution, and who believes her offering price is fair, considering that he would prefer to fabricate and sell his own Frisbees rather than invest in ball making, the ins and outs of which he is inexpert at. The Frisbee maker packages his Frisbee and Johanna’s ball into an offering for a street side vendor, who sells the combination to an eager bank employee, resulting in a mutually rewarding experience. The bank employee gets his toys, and street side vendor achieves a tidy little profit, which he is free to spend on balls, Frisbee or even Popsicles, should the whim for a Popsicle strike him. Aiden glances over, but finds nothing in their transactions that appeal to him. Apart from Johanna’s ball. Which really is quite lovely.
Johanna performs a brief market survey and recognizes that there is a unanswered need for playground balls which she has the expertise to create at prices which would justify the hiring of new employees. She re-mortgages her two balls, using the leverage for material improvements, helping not only the bank to increase its payout to its own employees, but rewarding the ball making equipment vendors and their laborers who develop quality ball making gear at fair market prices. Everybody wins, apart from Aiden. Who just wants someone else’s ball.
Johanna’s ball making enterprise grows and grows, until the point where she feels justified adding management staff to supervise the efforts of the industrious ball making workers on the line. The sandbox is a very attractive place to other kids, who see all of the toymaking and come over to join in the fun, swiftly diving into the effort. Soon the population grows to 200, and then a thousand, and then mirabile dictu! – 10,000 kids! Everyone gets the chance to sell their labor in the marketplace in order to create a mutual exchange of value, and some of the cleverer and harder working managers learn enough at Johanna’s side to eventually branch out and seek their own toy making opportunities. Everyone but Aiden, who sadly lacks the sense or ambition to go out and acquire his own ball.
Aiden grows envious.
At 10,000 kids, rules have to be made, or otherwise the place will become one big diaper bag. The kids form together to select a governance board to make sure that the sand lot is not despoiled, that the free exchange of labor for balls (or Frisbees or Popsicles) is conducted fairly, and that none of the bigger kids plays the bully and snatches someone’s ball. It’s as close as you can get to a paradise on this side of the veil.
Governance requires enforcement, so the board hires some of the bigger kids to help enforce the rules and prevent chaos. It’s not an easy job, and those kids won’t work for free, so the board imposes a tax on other peoples’ toys to pay them. Skimming a little off the top seems a fair exchange for the Johannas of the world and her employees. It keeps things regular: No break ins, and no kids from other playgrounds coming over to raid the store, taking the fruits of their labor with them.
Most of the kids on the left hand side of the curve are satisfied, they’re getting paid what they’re due, and through industry and careful savings, if not risk tolerance, they move steadily up a different normal distribution, this one of wealth. In time, an uneven distribution of the wealth may occur. Some of the risk-taking kids are getting proportionally more balls than others, although everyone gets more than their parents had, and the ball-rich are investing their proceeds in such a way that the banks can lend to new and innovative toy makers. Of course, many of the risk-taking kids crash and burn, but no one really wants to talk about that – it’s sad.
But some kids don’t want to work for their own balls. Some aren’t clever enough to and some don’t see why they should have to, what with Johanna over there holding three of them.
Not everyone on the board agrees with the unequal distribution of playground toys. Some think that the board should get more involved in the redistribution of balls. They go out and tell Aidan that he’s getting the shaft. They get some kids from the very right end of the distribution, kids who are long on theory but short on personal experience, to agree with them. The more people like Aidan they can get on side, the more power their faction wields. Some people on the right hand side of the curve – barely – feel guilty about their relative success compared to Aidan, and they’re a little uncertain about their own position on the wealth curve. They kind of agree that Aiden is getting the shaft, and if it could happen to him it could happen to anybody. They all bond together, the Aidens, the elite, the guilty, the frightened, and the non-producing intellectuals to convince almost all of the left hand side of the curve that Aidan is getting the shaft. Now the left hand side of the curve is angry. By making them angry, certain board members get to vault to political pre-eminence. The new board majority is giddy with its new found power, which only increases its members’ hunger for even more. One way to do so is to frighten people or make them angry. The power to tax being the power to destroy, Johanna mostly keeps quiet, and maybe sends a few balls to the board members under the table, just to keep them off her back.
The balls thus supplied to the board should have gone to answer a market need, but now they are written off. With profits reduced, and with those profits the incentive to take additional risk, some ball making employees have become redundant and are let go. The board will take care of them.
Aiden can’t make a living in the marketplace, so he gets a nice, safe job with the Ball Redistribution Agency. And when he finally wanders over to Johanna and asks for a ball, he doesn’t say, “Have a ball, peas?” he says, “I’ll be taking those balls, missus.” On on either flank, he will have a couple of bigger kids with sticks, thumping them in their palms menacingly.
Johanna was a clever kid, and she saw this coming some weeks before. She has stashed a supply of balls in the Caymans, and when Aidan comes and takes all her balls but one, she picks up that ball and goes to her new home in the islands. Her workers are thrown out on the streets, her factory is shuttered, the board loses access to the taxes their output and wages once yielded and is forced to take care of the laid off workers, spending money that the board doesn’t have. The kids in the playground see all this and grow restless. Now they don’t know who to trust.
Now running at a significant deficit relative to predictions, the board turns its eyes to the Frisbee maker…