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Go forth & earn it

| Tuesday, May 31, 2011

No graduating class has ever asked me to speak at its commencement. That's wise, because a sound rule of thumb is that an economist is more likely to lull an audience to sleep than to inspire listeners to go forth and do great deeds.

So during this graduation season, I must be content to daydream about what I would say were some desperate college undergraduates reduced to inviting me to address them at commencement. Here goes:

"Dear class of 2011:

"Congratulations! Thank you for giving me the honor of addressing you today. The one thing that I can promise you is that your life outside these ivied walls will be an adventure filled with unanticipated twists and turns and ups and downs. If you think you know today, at the age of 22, what you'll be working on, building on and passionate about 25 years from now, think again.

"That's a good thing. How dreary would your life be if its full course were already set and you knew your future with as much clarity as you know your past• No surprises. No 'Aha!' moments. No discoveries. No creativity.

"Of course, you'd also suffer no disappointments or failures. You can't be disappointed when something disagreeable occurs if you've known for years that that disagreeable thing would happen. Nor can you fail if your future is predetermined. After all, you'd have no control over that future.

"So be happy that disappointments await you. Be pleased that you can fail.

"Hopefully, these obstructions along your life's road will be more like pebbles than like boulders. But even with the possibility that a veritable Gibraltar will one day block your way to fulfilling your dreams, do recognize that you would not truly be living if you could immunize yourself today from disappointment and failure.

"You'd be playing a role in some drama or comedy, but your experiences in that oh-so-safe world would not in any way be created by you .

"The society that you're about to enter as a working adult is dynamic, commercial and entrepreneurial. Sure, it's polluted with plenty of misguided man-made imperfections. It could be better. But it's still great -- in large part because it is open-ended, unpredictable, a work in progress, able to turn this way or that depending upon what you and others like you choose to do.

"Here's a basic rule of that society: It owes you nothing, for it is nothing more (or less) than an astonishingly complicated web of interactions among billions of individuals. And only an individual can owe anything to anyone.

"Unless you identify a flesh-and-blood person who received something from you in return for that person's promise to give you something in exchange, no one owes you anything.

"You, as an adult, are owed only what you earn from other individuals. Just as the love and kindness that you give to family and friends returns to you as love and kindness that you receive, the more goods and services that you make available to strangers, the more goods and services that will return to you in the form of income that you earn.

"This earning, not only of the love you enjoy from people close to you, but of material stuff from the countless strangers that you'll deal with in market exchanges throughout your life, is an achievement much larger than can ever be recorded in your financial portfolio.

"Mostly, you'll earn self-respect and a sense of accomplishment.

"Your life will be a creative endeavor -- one that would yield exactly zero sense of accomplishment if you 'got' simply because some abstraction -- 'society' -- paid off to you some imaginary debt that it 'owed' to you.

"Your sense of accomplishment will be real only if you exercise your creative faculties and work to be worthy of the love and friendship you receive from those who are close to you -- and only if you exercise your creative faculties and work to be worthy of whatever income you receive in exchange for whatever you produce.

"I cannot imagine a more nauseating feeling than the one I would suffer if I found myself lavished with a prince's ransom of material goods and luxuries, yet knew that I did nothing to earn that bounty.

"I'd feel poor because the part of me that matters most, my soul, would in fact be poor.

"No need to check your programs. I am indeed an economist who just suggested that your soul is more important than your wallet.

"When I continue my conversation with you following a short break, I hope to further surprise you with advice that you don't expect to hear on graduation day from an economist."

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