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  Ishmael Community: Thoughts on Dialogue

On Investments

An Address to the Minnesota Social Investment Forum delivered 6/7/1993

    Many of the biggest and most far-reaching investments we make in our lives are investments that have little or nothing to do with money. In fact, the things I'm thinking of are things that most people don't think of as investments at all, though I'd like to have a look at two or three of them from that point of view here today. All of them are of the "all our eggs in one basket" variety of investment, which makes them especially interesting--and especially risky.

    One of these is our investment in the so-called War on Drugs. Combating the sale and use of drugs has become our sole strategy for dealing with a national problem of disastrous proportions, and we spend billions on it. We spend more than billions. We spend millions of lives on it as well. Because of our single-minded and wrong-headed approach to this problem, we have made the sale of drugs to our children a tremendously lucrative industry--probably the hottest growth industry around.

    An alternative investment has been suggested to us, of course. We've all heard about it: Legalize drugs. This is another all-eggs-in-one-basket investment.

    We all know the benefits that would come to us with this investment. With a single stroke of the pen, we would put an end to the illegal drug trade. With a single stroke of the pen, we would put an end to an immensely costly war that appears to be unwinnable. What we don't know about this investment is what it would cost in terms of human lives. With drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin decriminalized, would our problems increase or decrease? We could conceivably find ourselves worse off than we are right now.

    Both sides offer compelling arguments, but both sides insist that we have to put all our eggs in one basket. We either have to make drugs legal or keep them illegal.

    Those of you who have read Ishmael know that I never take sides in controversies framed in these terms. Either/or is a trap, and my approach is always to walk around it. My approach is always to avoid putting all eggs in one basket.

    The investment I'd like to propose to you is a simple one and an obvious one,

    though, to the best of my knowledge, no one else in the world has thought of it. Here it is: Legalize drugs temporarily --for three years, let's say. You frame a law that has a self-destruct clause written into it. In other words, you don't end the war on drugs, you just declare a three-year truce and see what happens.

    This strategy would, I believe, offer the best of both sides of the argument. In three years, the international drug trade would have dried up and blown away. The kingpins of the trade would still be there --they're billionaires, after all. But all the hundreds of thousands of low-level links would have been forced to seek other forms of occupation. Similarly, in three years, the growers around the world who currently supply our appetite for drugs would have been forced into other activities.

    So: we have three years to study the effects of legalizing drugs. Does the problem get worse, get better, or stay the same? If the problem seems to be getting better, all we have to do is extend the truce for three more years. If the problem gets worse, we don't have to do anything: at the end of the three years, the truce lapses automatically.

    And note this: the investment made in this plan wouldn't represent a total loss even if we ultimately decided to let the truce lapse. This is because we'd be able to resume the war on drugs on a more favorable footing than we have right now. If we decided to let the truce lapse, then of course drug manufacture in this country would cease . . . but it would take some considerable time to restart it elsewhere in the world. The international drug trade would have to be reinvented almost from scratch --and this time we'd be ready for it.

    I don't intend to promote this investment to you in detail. I present it to you in outline, to be taken away and thought about and talked about. If it came to be known as the Quinn Plan, that would please me. Otherwise, I expect nothing from it.

    I learned my first great lesson in all-eggs-in-one-basket investing during the 1960s, when I was working on the Greater Cleveland Mathematics Program, one of the first, best, and most ambitious New Math projects. The whole New Math movement was intended to flush down the drain the old-fashioned rote-learned mathematics that I'd grown up with.

    The idea was that the old math was okay for farmers and sales clerks, but if you wanted to produce mathematicians and scientists, you needed to teach math in a way that made sense to the kids who were learning it. As far as I was concerned, this was a terrific idea. Kids brought up on the New Math were obviously going to be vastly better prepared for the modern world than the kids of my generation, who were mostly mathematically illiterate--and rather smug about it as well.

    It turned out, however, that there was a fundamental flaw in this idea. As expected, a lot of kids really thrived on the New Math (as I would have done, as a child), but an equally large number of kids were just being left in the dark by it. They were neither making sense out of it nor learning it by rote (since it wasn't being taught by rote), so they basically weren't learning anything at all. So the New Math ultimately went on the trash heap of discarded ideas.

    What people failed to consider was that, just as there are two fundamentally different ways to teach math, there are two fundamentally different kinds of kids trying to learn it. But no, you can't have two different ways, our educational system won't accommodate that: all eggs have to be in one basket or the other. So the New Math was tossed out, the good with the bad, and the Old Math was brought back to do the same bad job it's been doing for centuries.

    One of the biggest investments we make as a people is in our schools. Investing in our schools is almost universally considered not so much a sacred duty as a sacred privilege. The school system isn't just a basket, it's a holy basket, and no one questions the fact that it deserves to carry all our eggs--no one but me!

    Our schools are much like our prisons: they disappoint us because they only do what they're designed to do, and it annoys us that they don't do something else!

    Our prisons are designed to make criminals miserable for as long as they're there--and their success rate at this is 100 percent! But we don't see why they can't make good citizens of their charges while they're at it. Why not make criminals miserable and rehabilitate them at the same time?

    Our schools are designed to produce graduates who are ready to step onto the lowest rung of the work force. The lowest rung. Why do I stress the lowest rung? Because, consider this. Suppose one year the schools were to make a huge advancement over the past. Suppose one year the schools turned out a graduating class that was ready to step up onto the third rung of the work force.

    Suppose this class was so well trained and knew so much that, on graduation, they were immediately hired to supervise their older brothers and sisters-- maybe even their own mothers and fathers!--and naturally at a higher rate of pay! What would you have? Would you expect to hear cheers? I don't think so! You'd have an uproar, to say the least. You'd have a revolution on your hands! After all, how would you like to have an 18-year-old knowing as much as you, as competent as you--walk into your office and start calling the shots?

    Not to worry. This is never, ever going to happen--so long as we continue to keep all our eggs in the school basket--because the schools do their job just the way the prisons do. They have close to a 100% success rate. Almost never is a school graduate ready to start anywhere but at the the very bottom of the work force.

    But year after year we go on griping about the schools the same way we gripe about the prisons. We gripe about the prisons because they don't turn criminals into model citizens, and we gripe about the schools because they don't teach kids more.

    People don't really know what they want from their investment in the schools. They imagine that they want the schools to do a better job of preparing kids for life in our society, but if they actually did a better job of preparing kids for life in our society, what would we do with those kids?

    Schooling is not the last idea in the world, yet it's treated as though it was handed down to us by God himself as the one and only way in which children can be educated. If people ever decide they really want something better than schooling for their children, alternatives will present themselves very readily. This may be hard to believe, but I think you'll see it happen . . . if people every decide they really want something better than schooling for their children.

    Finally, I'd like to talk about another sort of investment entirely.

    During the second World War the people of Germany invested heavily in a secret plan. This plan was so secret that many Germans managed to keep it a secret even from themselves. Except in the highest military and political circles, the plan was never discussed AT ALL. And even when it was discussed in high circles, it was discussed in a veiled way, in a sort of code.

    Everyone knew the plan to some extent, though some, as I say, managed to close their eyes to it, managed to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.

    The plan I'm talking about was, of course, the plan to rid the world of the Jewish race. Although exterminating the Jews was one of Hitler's manias, it wasn't his mania exclusively. Not at all. Though many of them liked to remain silent about it, the people of Germany were on the whole behind Hitler in his ambition to rid the world of Jews. They invested a LOT in this secret plan. They invested their consciences. They invested their place among the family of nations. They invested their self-respect.

    They invested these things not only for themselves but for their children as well.

    Well, as we all know, the secret plan failed-- and the German people lost their investment. They lost an incredible amount--they and their children, and indeed their children's children. They're still paying off their losses for this dreadfully bad investment.

    The people of our culture in general are also investing heavily in a secret plan today. When I say "our culture," I mean the people of the developed world, the people of the technologically advanced "First World" nations. I mean US. And of course I mean the people in this room.

    We have a secret plan that is never discussed openly AT ALL. Someday perhaps we'll know whether it's discussed at the highest political levels and whether it's discussed in code or in plain. We don't teach our children this plan, but they know all about it by the time they reach midschool. Courting couples don't discuss the plan to see if they're in agreement on it. It's THE PLAN. It's there in place, and we're investing everything we have in it. We're investing our future in it, our children's future in it--for generations to come. We may actually be investing the future of the human race itself in this plan.

    The Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews was a shameful plan, and this is why it was kept secret. This is also why our plan is kept secret. It too is shameful and we all know it.

    Our secret plan is this: We're going to go on consuming the world until there's no more to consume. This does not preclude consuming it "wisely" or consuming it as slowly as possibly. It doesn't preclude supporting every conceivable conservation initiative. It doesn't preclude supporting every conceivable means of recycling. We're going to recycle, we're going to conserve-- but we're also going to go on consuming until there's no more to consume.

    We don't know when it will all be gone. We don't WANT to know--just as the people of Germany didn't want to know what happened to their Jewish neighbors when the Gestapo carried them away.

    One thing we DO know, however: It won't happen in OUR lifetime. It probably won't happen in our children's lifetime. It may not even happen in our grand-children's lifetime.

    So it's really all right, we feel, to invest in this secret plan. Goodness, just think how much we're investing in it! The German investment in the Final Solution was negligible compared to the investment we're making in consuming the world.

    I hope no one will think I'm speaking in a self-righteous or condemnatory vein here. Back home in Austin, I have a Subaru Legacy, runs on super unleaded. We run two computers, two printers, all sorts of electronic equipment chock full of non-renewable resources. God, we just bought a CD player and tape duplicating equipment!

    My point is not at all to make you feel guilty. What I'm proposing is that it's important for us to begin to bring the plan out into the open for a change. I'll tell you one reason why.

    When the people of the world finally understood the tremendous effort that the people of Germany had put into slaughtering Jews--and Gypsies and the physically and mentally handicapped--they said to themselves, "My God, what kind of monsters WERE these people?"

    If we continue to pursue our plan to consume the world until there's no more to consume, then there's going to come a day, sure as hell, when our children or their children or their children's children are going to look back on us--on you and me-- and say to themselves, "My God, what kind of monsters WERE these people?"

    This is an idea that doesn't appeal to me at all. In view of the fact that you're here at this gathering, I have to assume that it doesn't appeal to you either. If I were addressing the Greed Is Good club, I'd have to take a different approach!

    When the Germans of Hitler's era saw their neighbors being marched off at gunpoint, they knew perfectly well that these people weren't headed for picnics in the Black Forest. They knew what was going on--and were SILENT. And this (in part) is what makes them look like monsters to us. And if you're like me and would like to avoid looking like monsters to your grandchildren, then I suggest you stop being silent about our plan to go on consuming the world until there simply isn't any more there to consume.

    A few of you may be wondering why I haven't said anything about my book, Ishmael. I'll say a word or two about it now, if I may. Ishmael is, in a sense, a study of the origins of the secret plan I've been talking about here today. The roots of this plan go back a long time, and they go deep--and no one talks about them. In Ishmael it was my intention to speak the unspeakable.

    What readers have told me about their experience with Ishmael is: "You have shattered my beliefs--and I thank you for it." What they've told me is: "I'm not the same person after reading your book." What they've told me is: "You've changed the way I see the world."

    I see that we still have a few minutes. I'd like to read you a brief fable I wrote for an early version of the book that ultimately became Ishmael. Ishmael was the eighth version, this fable was written for the fourth version. It's called:

    A Crisis Too Urgent for Wisdom

    It happened once that a certain Thomas Abbens, or Abbena, reputed to be the wisest man in Europe at that time, was summoned to the court of a young Walachian prince. "I'm in need of a shrewd advisor," the prince informed him. "My subjects are unruly, my enemies ambitious, my sons disobedient, and my wife deceitful. Yet it may be that I will master them all, with your help."

    "I'll gladly help you," Abbens replied, "but as a teacher, not as an advisor. We must review your education and remedy its manifest deficiencies."

    But the prince sent the wise man away, saying, "It's not my education that troubles me but rather my subjects, my enemies, my sons, and my wife."

    A score of years passed before the prince once again summoned Abbens to his side. "I bitterly regret," he said, "that I declined the proposal you made to me, but there's no time to accept it now, for the situation is desperate. My subjects plot against me, my enemies encroach at will upon our lands, my sons defy me before their friends, and my wife contrives to alienate what few allies I have left. Guide me through this crisis with your wisdom, then there'll be time to remedy the deficiencies you perceive in my education."

    The wise man shook his head and replied, "What you're asking is that I become prince to your subjects, warrior to your enemies, father to your sons, and husband to your wife. How can this possibly save you? You must learn to become these things yourself, and even a feeble beginning is better than none at all."

    But the prince sent Abbens away a second time, saying, "If you won't help me in this hour of crisis, then I must seek one who will."

    When Abbens next met the prince, a decade later, he was a prince no longer but only a beggar in the streets of Budapest.

    "It happened a year ago," the former prince explained. "Because my subjects were in open rebellion, my sons conspired to seize the throne. And my enemies, informed of the conspiracy by my treacherous wife, chose this opportunity to fall upon us. But perhaps some good may yet come of these calamities, for, if you will share it with me, I am at least now free to avail myself of the wisdom I formerly rejected."

    But Abbens replied: "The catastrophe that wisdom might have averted has already befallen you. Of what use is wisdom to you now?"

    This fable stood as an introduction to Part Two of The Book of Nahash. The decade that has passed since its writing has served to exemplify and underscore its moral. Like the prince's crisis, the environmental crisis that we were facing in 1981 has deepened by now--and will continue to deepen for as long as people would rather endure any catastrophe than give up the right to live catastrophically.


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