"I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape."
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
“I told him not to take her back,” said Calvin.
Calvin was our first boss. We went to work at 16. In 1964. He was a painter, who loved to talk, joke, sing... It was a pleasure to work for him. He knew everyone. And everyone’s business. And he had his own code of conduct, which he was happy to share.
“I told him not to take her back. When a woman runs off one time, she’ll do it again. Besides, if you have a woman you have to worry about, you don’t have a woman worth worrying about.”
It was a no-nonsense judgment. Probably a good one.
“So what happened?’
“She ran off again. With the same guy.”
“Oh, so then what did he do... ”
Tommy, her husband, took a philosophical approach.
“Oh, Tommy told me that he didn’t take it personally. She was just that kind of woman. You couldn’t trust her.”
Tommy may have learned something valuable from the experience, or not. But that’s what life does to you. You live. And learn. Or not. You can make a mess of things. You can learn a valuable lesson. You go on...
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On his own, a man’s errors usually go little further than his own family. His errors are ‘corrected’ by life. He is bent, but usually into a better shape. Or he is broken. We learn by trial and error. We try something; if it doesn’t work, we feel the sting of our mistake. We lose money. We lose a friend. Our business or career takes a hit.
But if we don’t try and don’t make errors, we get nowhere and learn nothing.
Suppose, we never suffer from our own mistakes. Suppose someone else does. We put our hand in the fire and feel no pain. But someone in West Virginia gets a blister. We invest recklessly and someone in New York loses money. We moon the mayor at her next press conference and someone in Seattle gets arrested.
What would we learn from that?
We have a line we use in our rare speeches that usually draws a laugh: "You can make a mess of things on your own, but if you really want a huge disaster you need government support."
Let’s think about it. Is it true?
The government is the biggest institution on the planet. Talk about large-scale catastrophes and you are necessarily talking about government in action.
But is there any reason to think that governments mess up more often than private businesses or households? Are government mistakes any larger than they should be, proportionally?
Oddly, these questions have never been addressed in any serious way that we know of.
Modern ‘conservatives’ assume that government is prone to error – unless it is kicking someone’s butt at home or overseas.
Modern ‘liberals’ think government ought to do more butt kicking – at home. They want it to put the boot to big business and the rich and to anyone who isn’t green enough.
But why do you need government to pull off a major catastrophe? Is it only because it is big and it kicks butt?
Not exactly. But almost. Smaller, more civilised, institutions – including individuals themselves – make plenty of errors. But their mistakes are usually corrected before they become major disasters.
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