I’ve been listening to a bunch of Commonwealth Club podcasts: Joel Brinkley on Israel, Eric Ries on “lean startups”, Gavin Newsom on the state of the state, and then this panel on public-private partnerships to boost jobs. By the time I got to the panel, I’d been completely primed to be thinking about structural change. Mr. Newsom mentioned that unemployment in the central valley is up near 30% and contrasted that with the statewide number of just over 12%, as an illustration of why it’d be a good thing for politicians to get out of their comfortable cities and go meet with people who really need their help. Mr. Ries was talking about how entrepeneurs really need to think scientifically about their businesses – a point of view that seems very natural to me and probably feels familiar to many folks who’ve been doing startups for a while, but which does go against the conventional wisdom about how to run a business. Mr. Brinkley made the excellent point that people who criticize the president of the United States or who criticize the foreign policy of the United States are not necessarily un-American nor anti-American, and that the same standard really ought to apply to any state, including Israel.
So here I am, all primed to think about structural problems in the California economy, my excitement at making a difference momentarily rekindled, and what does the panel start up with? Each panelist got to start out talking about how he or she saw the economy right now. Understandably, Nicole Levine, Executive Director for the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment for San Francisco and the Bay Area, talked about unemployment just for women — and then sliced it further into unemployment for various segments of non-white women. And then I started getting frustrated.
What that kind of segmentation says, to me, is that the person doing the segmenting doesn’t believe that the segments can or should be held to the same standards. One has got to be very careful about this kind of thinking; it’s one thing to look at all the demographic and economic data and say, “Gosh, we’ve got x% unemployment, and of people who’ve been unemployed and then started a business, y% of them fail within M months. Maybe we should see what’s going on with them versus the ones who don’t fail and see if there’s an opportunity to help them out.” It’s quite another thing to say, “You know, there’s unemployment, and there are people who try to start their own businesses, but I only care about the black and latina women and what’s up with their businesses.” And sure, that’s fine — there will always be more people who need help than there are resources to go around, so one has to target those resources. But it just struck me as…short sighted. What a weird way to segment things. Of course, any black or latina woman in San Francisco who wants to start a business would be a fool not to take advantage of those resources. I know that if I do decide to come out of retirement and start a company I am totally going to have my latina wife be the owner so it can get that kind of boost.
But I just don’t see that kind of segmentation as being a productive way to think about solving what is, fundamentally, a structural problem. The problem in California is not that black women don’t have jobs, it’s that Californians don’t have jobs. Many people are pointing out that big companies don’t create jobs, they eliminate them. Job growth comes from small businesses, so our attention ought to be on coming up with ways to make it easier for small businesses to get started and to succeed. To the extent that Women’s Initiative for Self Employment for San Francisco and the Bay Area is concerned with getting small businesses started up and running, they’re part of the solution and I think that’s awesome. But how much should a human who is not in San Francisco nor the Bay Area, or who is not a woman, care?
What’s this “-ism trap” I refer to in the title? It’s particularism; thinking that women, or Jews, or blacks, or white men with blue eyes are somehow fundamentally different from all other human beings and that businesses or states run by these people must therefore be subject to different rules than those that apply to every other human being. It’s thinking that, if I point out that gravity does too affect them the way it affects everyone else, that means that I must necessarily be anti-woman, anti-Jew, anti-black, or anti-white-blue-eyed-man.
In a time when everyone is having trouble, this particularism feels to me like a weird sort of inverted contest where the challenge is to be the most victimized segment. What good does that do? How does that make our world better? “Victim” is a powerless position. People who define themselves as victims are defining themselves as powerless. That’s not a position of hope, that’s a position of despair. I’ve had my own struggles with despair and I don’t want to get sucked into that trap. The only way out of victimhood is to stop being a victim. And once you stop being a victim, you join the rest of humanity in trying to solve our problems, not just the problems of some particular demographic segment.