Friday, November 14, 2008

Rampant Immaturity and the Enabling Thereof

Looking for a way to piss someone off? Say "Fail" when they've made a mistake or otherwise achieved an undesirable outcome. This little word, although increasingly frequently being used facetiously, carries with it a lifetime of baggage. Throughout the twentieth century and now proceeding to the twenty first, is overarching and rampant de-maturation of society, observable in how we react to failure and unfortunate situations. The ability to put one's self in Fail's way and to cope with the results is a pinnacle of maturity.

A recent Psychology Today article put forth an examination of the "social experiment" of the notion of adolescence. This article references the creation of a new demographic in the twentieth century. These teenagers, who would have enjoyed adult independence and responsibilities just 150 years ago are now confined to a school system until they are passed their peak. The chief impetus for legislation stunting the growth of young adults was to reduce child labor and increase education. While these laws effectively met their goals, they also stunt the emotional growth of our youth. Nearly doubling the incubation period of children has served to instill a fear of failure and reactive societal enabling attempting to prevent failure.

Among individuals, enabling failure has taken the form of our social security system, programs similar to MIT's pass/fail system, and the time honored tradition of keeping people's retirement investments from tanking. I'm in favor of both social security (retirement, unemployed, welfare, and disability benefits) and MIT's pass/fail system. It is a social responsibility to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. It is also mutually beneficial, as caring for them reduces homelessness and crime everywhere. However, one must acknowledge that they are enabling failure by providing a safety net for these people.

Lately, we have been seeing far more insidious activity occurring when it comes to the prospect of failure. When the banks started slipping into worse and worse financial straits, the government acted first with inaction (denial) and then with its bailout (enabling). This bailout seems rational--the banks provide such central and fundamental services to the economy that if they were to fold, the economic fallout would be extreme. Liquidity would dry up, 401ks would be devalued, and the stock market might have crawled to a halt. Now that the electorate has been desensitized to the concept of multi-billion dollar bailouts, however, the proposition of bailing out the Detroit auto companies seems somehow legitimate. It is not. This bailout would be a reward for those who have failed. The profound losses shown by Ford, GM, and Chrysler are not entirely dependent on the recession. These are companies that have been showing declines in profit for years, that have been devastatingly mismanaged and have clearly erroneously misjudged their consumer base. Any bailout of Detroit would be enabling their failure. It would set a dangerous precedent for other large corporations.

Failure is harsh. When large companies fail, real people are faced with unemployment and everybody feels the pain. When individuals fail, they have to come to terms with their own shortcomings and inadequacies. Failure is necessary though. The best way to learn is to try and fail. The best way to make money is to risk failure. The best way to grow up is to learn how to deal with failure and to fail constantly, but succeed the majority of the time.

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