Archives for September 2009

Sayonara, California

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

Some people say California is one day going to break off and sink into the Pacific. In the literal sense, this is a myth. Figuratively speaking, however, it is an apt metaphor.

The state is known for its high taxes and myriad regulations. And with a budget passed in February that jacks up the top tax income rate to 10.56% and the sales tax to 8.5% (among numerous other taxes and surcharges), that reputation got driven home even further.

The inevitable result? Businesses will flee the state even faster. Fewer businesses will want to move there. And entrepreneurs won’t want to set up shop there.

California’s economy is larger than that of most countries of the world. But California is only a state, not a country. That makes it unable to get away with what countries can get away with. When the latter enact far-reaching social welfare measures, businesses grumble but almost all of them stay put; it is exceedingly difficult to relocate to another country. But if a U.S. state acts the same way, companies can move to another state with relative ease.

People and businesses vote with their feet – they pack up and move out. Given this reality, taxes and regulations have to be treated with even more delicacy at the state level than at the national level.

California’s social welfare measures are too numerous to mention here, but I’ll mention just a few. You’ve heard of family leave; California has paid family leave. Premiums that businesses pay for workers’ compensation have increased, as have unemployment insurance costs. And the statute of limitations for personal injury claims has been extended.

The state’s business-unfriendliness is borne out in surveys. Of all the states in the union, California’s business climate ranks dead last, according to a survey of 287 senior-level executives, conducted by Development Counsellors International. In the Small Business Survival Committee’s 2008 index, California ranks a dismal 49 out of 50.

The Census Bureau evidently does not keep figures on the rate of business out-migration, but one can get an idea of the trend by looking at net out-migration figures of U.S.-born people. More than 2 million of them left California during the 1990s, primarily resettling in neighboring states where the business climate is more favorable.

From 1997 to 2007, more than 1.4 million more Americans left the state than entered it, according the American Legislative Exchange Council. (This doesn’t include immigrants, who presumably view California’s quality of life as superior to the third-world country that most of them came from. But for how long?)

Of course, business out-migration is just fine with some Californians. Profit, in their eyes, is evil. As far as they’re concerned, the fewer businesses in the state, the better. Other more moderate Californians understand the benefits of having businesses around, but think their state’s quality of life will be enhanced by more generous social welfare benefits.

But what generally happens when businesses flee an area and/or fewer of them get established is the quality of life declines. Jobs get less abundant and incomes get lower (or at least don’t rise as quickly), and infrastructure tends to weaken. The environment may suffer as there is less money available to clean it up. The crime rate usually rises as well.

California won’t go downhill overnight. The perverse effects of excessive taxation and regulation typically manifest themselves over years or decades. To be sure, other things are keeping people and businesses in the state – e.g. a large market, good universities, beautiful landscapes, good weather – but more and more of them are deciding such attractions just aren’t worth it.

The state is caught in a vicious circle. Constituencies sympathetic to businesses are leaving California in increasing numbers. Meanwhile the state’s generous social welfare programs pull in lower-income people – both from the within and outside the United States. And they typically vote against the interests of businesses.

With fewer pro-business and more anti-business voters (i.e. fewer Republicans and more Democrats), the result is even more regulations and higher taxes, driving even more businesses out, and so on.

Californians have slipped from having the 3rd highest per capita income in the country in 1959, to the 13th highest now. What’s their solution to reverse the trend? Measures to make the state business-friendly again? No. Most of the state’s elected representatives are trying to remedy the situation with more tax increases; part of the vicious circle.

Occasionally, thanks to a quirk in California’s legislative process that enables a one-third minority to veto the majority’s wishes, the pro-business forces hold the line, such as this past summer when a budget was passed that cut spending and didn’t raise taxes. But it passed by the skin of its teeth.

It could be worse. California is one of only three states that require a two-thirds supermajority to pass tax laws. Were its constitution like that of most states which lack such a provision, taxes would be even higher, and businesses fewer.

Other states should take heed from California’s experience. It shows what happens when a U.S. state transforms itself into a welfare state.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.

Envy Management

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

The top 1 percent. Tax cuts for the rich. Wealth and privilege. Those are powerful phrases. Powerful because they appeal to one of the most prevalent and universal of all human emotions: envy.

The politics of class warfare will always be with us because envy will always be with us. Though no one ever admits it, this emotion is undoubtedly a factor behind some people’s support for higher taxes on the rich. Taken to extremes, it in large part gave rise to degenerative ideologies such as communism and even anti-Semitism. It is also the basis of many wrongs, small and large, that people commit in their everyday lives.

Where did envy come from in the evolutionary scheme of things? My initial conjecture was that it is so prevalent today because humans are not biologically “programmed” for industrialized societies, in which specialization and the division of labor necessitate differences in incomes. Millions of years of evolution designed us to live in hunter-gather societies, where everyone generally was in the same boat economically.

But that conjecture was wrong. Helmut Schoeck’s classic Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior makes clear that unchecked envy was actually far more common in pre-affluent societies. There are plenty of things other than economic status to get envious about, such as someone’s leadership position, hunting skills, social skills, or access to members of the opposite sex.

And in fact, envy based on economic differences was very pronounced in such societies. Small differences in incomes rather than large ones actually are more often a cause of envy. Within a given group, whenever someone accumulated a disproportionate amount of assets based on skill or hard work (or luck), that person often would be ostracized and/or his possessions confiscated. It is one reason why primitive societies stayed primitive; no one was permitted to get ahead economically. “No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off,” writes Schoeck. “Innovations are unlikely. Agricultural methods remain traditional and primitive, to the detriment of the whole village, because every deviation from previous practice comes up against the limitations set by envy.”

Among the Mambwe, an African tribe, achieving success brought accusations of sorcery. Villagers were convinced that that if someone regularly produced a better crop than his neighbors, it was not the result of better cultivation methods, but of sorcery. Successful people were looked upon as sinister, supernatural, and dangerous.

Sound familiar? In our society, those who become rich through working hard and producing things of value are often suspected of getting where they are through devious means.

A comment by the actor Ethan Hawke, brought up by a “socially conscious” mother, is telling: “I was raised to have a general mistrust of anybody who was wealthy,” he told an interviewer.

Only in societies where enough people hold their envy in check can economic advancement take place. Ours is one such society. In fact, I would venture to guess that envy is less prevalent in the United States than in any other society, which is one reason why we’ve been so economically successful.

Of course, Americans are still subject to the same laws of human emotion as everyone else, so one does not have to look hard to find manifestations of envy. Politicians exploit that emotion all the time. Notable was Al Gore’s “top 1 percent” mantra during his presidential campaign, presidential candidate John Edwards and his “two Americas” rhetoric – “one privileged, the other burdened,” and President Barrack Obama’s plans to raise taxes on the top five percent.

One may ask, how could Gore, Edwards, and Obama, who are wealthy themselves, be envious?

First, they may not be, but exploit the fact that plenty of other people are. Second, maybe it’s guilt. Many wealthy people engage in class-warfare-style thinking because they feel ashamed about their possessions, or don’t want to be the object of envy, according to Schoeck. Third, the rich can be envious of those who are even richer. A Fortune magazine cover a few years ago playfully betrayed this sentiment. It featured business magnate Richard Branson with the sub-headline: “The Money. The Family. The Island. (Damn him.)”

The great conundrum is how the emotion of envy ever got programmed into our brains during the course of evolution. “What adaptive value could envy have had in the prehistoric past?” asks author and psychiatrist Willard Gaylin. “None that I can imagine, for it never brings gratification.” Envy represents a vicious and hateful resentment of people, he writes, that is independent of their actual encroachment on one’s pleasures.

Thoughtfulness and reason can do much to counter the emotion of envy. It is useful to realize, for example, that rich people are the ones responsible for providing most of the rest of us with jobs, products, and (through their savings) loan money to buy a house or go to college.

Those feeling the pangs of envy coming on should ignore it. Laugh it off. Lie down until the feeling goes away. Recognize it as a useless emotion that never produces any benefits, and that causes untold woes.

Envy Management

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

The top 1 percent. Tax cuts for the rich. Wealth and privilege. Those are powerful phrases. Powerful because they appeal to one of the most prevalent and universal of all human emotions: envy.

The politics of class warfare will always be with us because envy will always be with us. Though no one ever admits it, this emotion is undoubtedly a factor behind some people’s support for higher taxes on the rich. Taken to extremes, it in large part gave rise to degenerative ideologies such as communism and even anti-Semitism. It is also the basis of many wrongs, small and large, that people commit in their everyday lives.

Where did envy come from in the evolutionary scheme of things? My initial conjecture was that it is so prevalent today because humans are not biologically “programmed” for industrialized societies, in which specialization and the division of labor necessitate differences in incomes. Millions of years of evolution designed us to live in hunter-gather societies, where everyone generally was in the same boat economically.

But that conjecture was wrong. Helmut Schoeck’s classic Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior makes clear that unchecked envy was actually far more common in pre-affluent societies. There are plenty of things other than economic status to get envious about, such as someone’s leadership position, hunting skills, social skills, or access to members of the opposite sex.

And in fact, envy based on economic differences was very pronounced in such societies. Small differences in incomes rather than large ones actually are more often a cause of envy. Within a given group, whenever someone accumulated a disproportionate amount of assets based on skill or hard work (or luck), that person often would be ostracized and/or his possessions confiscated. It is one reason why primitive societies stayed primitive; no one was permitted to get ahead economically. “No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off,” writes Schoeck. “Innovations are unlikely. Agricultural methods remain traditional and primitive, to the detriment of the whole village, because every deviation from previous practice comes up against the limitations set by envy.”

Among the Mambwe, an African tribe, achieving success brought accusations of sorcery. Villagers were convinced that that if someone regularly produced a better crop than his neighbors, it was not the result of better cultivation methods, but of sorcery. Successful people were looked upon as sinister, supernatural, and dangerous.

Sound familiar? In our society, those who become rich through working hard and producing things of value are often suspected of getting where they are through devious means.

A comment by the actor Ethan Hawke, brought up by a “socially conscious” mother, is telling: “I was raised to have a general mistrust of anybody who was wealthy,” he told an interviewer.

Only in societies where enough people hold their envy in check can economic advancement take place. Ours is one such society. In fact, I would venture to guess that envy is less prevalent in the United States than in any other society, which is one reason why we’ve been so economically successful.

Of course, Americans are still subject to the same laws of human emotion as everyone else, so one does not have to look hard to find manifestations of envy. Politicians exploit that emotion all the time. Notable was Al Gore’s “top 1 percent” mantra during his presidential campaign, presidential candidate John Edwards and his “two Americas” rhetoric – “one privileged, the other burdened,” and President Barrack Obama’s plans to raise taxes on the top five percent.

One may ask, how could Gore, Edwards, and Obama, who are wealthy themselves, be envious?

First, they may not be, but exploit the fact that plenty of other people are. Second, maybe it’s guilt. Many wealthy people engage in class-warfare-style thinking because they feel ashamed about their possessions, or don’t want to be the object of envy, according to Schoeck. Third, the rich can be envious of those who are even richer. A Fortune magazine cover a few years ago playfully betrayed this sentiment. It featured business magnate Richard Branson with the sub-headline: “The Money. The Family. The Island. (Damn him.)”

The great conundrum is how the emotion of envy ever got programmed into our brains during the course of evolution. “What adaptive value could envy have had in the prehistoric past?” asks author and psychiatrist Willard Gaylin. “None that I can imagine, for it never brings gratification.” Envy represents a vicious and hateful resentment of people, he writes, that is independent of their actual encroachment on one’s pleasures.

Thoughtfulness and reason can do much to counter the emotion of envy. It is useful to realize, for example, that rich people are the ones responsible for providing most of the rest of us with jobs, products, and (through their savings) loan money to buy a house or go to college.

Those feeling the pangs of envy coming on should ignore it. Laugh it off. Lie down until the feeling goes away. Recognize it as a useless emotion that never produces any benefits, and that causes untold woes.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.

 

Protect Our Electronics Against EMP Attack

(A previous version of this article appeared in USA Today.)

The saturation of society with modern electronics, while certainly a good thing overall, gives us an Achilles heel. The more dependent we become on such electronics, the more vulnerable we are to societal chaos if a substantial portion of them fail simultaneously. It is said that an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, could cause such a failure.

An EMP is generated by a nuclear explosion, or by a smaller-scale “e-bomb.” If a terrorist or rogue nation detonated a nuclear bomb a few hundred miles above the United States, the resulting shock wave could damage or disrupt electronic components throughout the country. The consequences could be catastrophic. Our life-sustaining critical infrastructure such as communications networks, energy networks, and food and water distribution networks could all break down.

EMP was a prominent concern during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. That concern is rearing its head again, now that it appears we are headed toward cold wars with Iran, North Korea, and other third-world regimes bent on acquiring nuclear weapons such as Venezuela. The possibility of terrorist groups getting a hold of nuclear missiles adds to the danger.

Some of the literature on EMP gives the impression that such an event would fry every computer in the country, that planes would fall out of the sky, and that society would be thrust back into 19th century technological backwardness. Such claims may be far fetched, but EMP is nevertheless a deadly serious issue.

Fortunately, protecting electronics and critical infrastructure against EMP is doable. It involves enclosing every electronic component with a metallic cage that blocks out electromagnetic waves.

Sound impossible? Actually, electronic components already enjoy some form of shielding against electromagnetic interference. Federal Communications Commission standards require it. Such shielding is designed to prevent everyday electromagnetic radiation from entering and/or exiting the device. Your computer contains this shielding, from metal housings down to the little metal coverings soldered to your motherboard, to electrically conductive gaskets that seal openings. There even are housings the size of rooms or buildings that protect sensitive equipment inside. Without electromagnetic shielding, many electronic devices would not work properly.

However, most existing shielding may not be enough to protect against EMP. While U.S. military standards often require electronic components to be protected against EMP, commercial standards do not. And while our power grid is shielded against things such as lighting strikes, it is not tested for protection against EMP.

Upgrading to shield against EMP would entail using more robust shielding materials, especially for the cords, cables and/or wires that connect devices to external entities such as power supplies or networks. Cables and wires act as antennas through which an EMP travels directly into a device.

To what extent would an EMP destroy electronics in their current configurations? Certainly not 100 percent. Not all electronics are connected to cables or wires. And many of those that are connected may only temporarily be disrupted or not be disrupted at all, thanks to the existing shielding against electromagnetic interference. But an EMP that is powerful enough or that is close enough could ruin many electronic devices such as computers.

Unlike what was depicted in the 1983 movie The Day After, automobiles may keep functioning after an EMP attack. The electronics within automobiles enjoy robust shielding because of the harsh electromagnetic environment on existing roadways. Aircraft have even stronger electromagnetic shielding, so they likely would not fall out of the sky. “Some of the (aircraft’s) equipment may not work, but the propulsion and control system usually is pretty robust,” said Dr. William A. Radasky, president of Metatech Corp.

Radasky, one of the world’s few experts on protecting electronics against EMP, thinks that most electronics would undergo only a temporary disruption in the event of EMP. “You may just have to restart the computer and everything would be fine,” said Radasky. But a temporary shutdown of a control system for a critical infrastructure system, he said, would be “troublesome.” And if just 1 percent of all electronics failed, havoc could ensue. “Just think about the power outage in August of ’03 when a couple of wires hit a tree,” observed Radasky. “That was a single failure, propagated over a huge area. Now imagine, at the speed of light every place in the United States, some portion of electronics failing. Now you have a very widespread problem.”

The only way to know the extent to which an EMP would knock out electronics is to conduct testing with EMP simulators.

Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, most EMP simulators in the United States have been closed, according to Radasky. And the few that remain open are for military use, not civilian use.

The Department of Homeland Security should set up civilian EMP simulators, and encourage – or require – those in charge of our critical infrastructure to upgrade their facilities and conduct tests to assess EMP vulnerability.

It would be wise to follow Switzerland’s lead. According to Radasky, that country during the Cold War hardened some of its critical infrastructure against EMP, such as water works. “They felt that if there was high-altitude burst over Europe, they were going to be affected whether they were a combatant or not.”

It is a thorny question as to whether the FCC should revise its standards to require electronics manufacturers to build in EMP protection. This could be prohibitively expensive for the manufacture of individual components. But businesses and government agencies should install EMP protection at the system level. (This also would provide protection against other electromagnetic disturbances such as lightning.)

One positive development is the increasing use of fiber optic cables. Most of them do not contain metal, so they are invulnerable to EMP, according to Radasky. The more common they become, the less exposed systems are to EMP.

But the Achilles heel remains. Our dependence on electronics grows larger as a new era of nuclear cold war draws closer. It behooves us to protect our electronics against EMP.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.

Pinch Yourself. You Made the Ultimate Cut.

(A shorter version of this article appeared in Personal Excellence magazine.)

Imagine being the one among 6 ½ billion living persons to hold the most powerful office on earth. Barack Obama as well as past presidents must have figuratively or literally pinched themselves at some point to make sure what’s happened to them was for real. Or imagine being among the fortunate few who have traveled to space. Or who’ve won the lottery. Or who’ve made the cut for the NBA. Or who have achieved any elite, exclusive designation.

Well you can start pinching yourself. Every day. That’s because the chances of you ever living were less than one in a trillion. In fact, you’re infinitely lucky to have a life.

You’re lucky because of the remote chances of your forbearers ever being born, still more luck in that your parents happened to meet each other (of all the potential mates), lucky because they conceived during the short, two or three-day window when the spermazoa from which you originated were alive, and lucky because the two unique cells carrying your genetic code happened to combine out of the billion possible cell combinations.

Flash back to your very beginnings – way back, when you were conceived. During the time of conception, out of about a hundred million sperm cells released, about 1 in 10, or 10 million, were capable of fertilizing an ovum, according to biologists. And 1 of about 100 of the latter were released. That means the chances of any two particular sex cells joining at that particular time were about one in a billion.

There was a frenzied struggle of millions of sperm cells vying to find a single egg cell. Of the 10 million, about a million made it into the uterus. Only a few thousand of those happened to swim to the entrance of the Fallopian tubes. A few hundred of those wandered to the right place: the immediate vicinity of the egg. Just one – the one carrying half the genetic blueprint of you – penetrated the egg.

Had any other sex cell made contact, someone genetically similar to you would have been born, but it wouldn’t have been you.

And that’s just during the short, two-day time period during which the sperm from which you originated were alive, or during the month that the egg from which you originated was released. Had your parents conceived a few days earlier or later, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Had any of your grandparents, great-grandparents or preceding generations conceived a few days earlier or later, you likewise wouldn’t be reading this.

To take it further, start from a point 200 years before you were born. What was the probability of you coming onto the scene two centuries later?

Two-hundred years is about eight generations. That works out to 256 great (x8) grandparents. (Four grandparents, eight great grandparents, 16 great-great grandparents, etc.) Had none of those 256 been born, you wouldn’t have either. Assume very conservatively that each of them had a one-in-a-billion chance of being born; to arrive at the chances of you being here, you’d multiply a billion by a billion 256 times. So the probability is about 1 in 1,000,000,000 to the power of 256. That’s 2,304 zeros. Essentially, infinitely remote.

(Update from blogger: I wrote this article when I was religiously lukewarm, almost agnostic. I’ve subsequently realized that The Creator probably planned you all along. Had your parents not conceived you, you may have been born to other parents or to your existing parents at another time. In any event, read on. If you’re an agnostic or an atheist, this should convey to you how special and important a life – anyone’s life – is from your perspective. That includes pre-born lives.)

Savoring Life

What to make of the fact that amid all this, it was you who made the cut?

For starters it should give you a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. Savor your incredible achievement. Every day. Think about it: You were the only one among billions – nay trillions – of potential humans who ended up having a life. Whether you believe that happened out of chance, fate, or predestination, you truly are exceptional. Just as a winner of an Olympic gold medal should relish that accomplishment every day of his or her life, so should you for the accomplishment of making it here.

This says a lot about other people, too. The infinitely low likelihood of any one particular human being born should make you to look upon every other person you come across (except, of course, troublemakers) with a certain reverence. From the youngest newborn to the oldest senior citizen, from your next-door neighbor to the tribesman in the remote depths of Africa, each person overcame the unimaginably negative odds of ever coming into this world. We all made it into a tremendously elite, exclusive club here in this tiny corner of the universe. And we all should regard each other with the dignity and respect that comes with such exclusivity.

Most of us are awed upon first seeing a newborn, just by virtue of the fact that he or she is a newborn. But there’s another reason to be awed. This is “The One”. This is the baby who overcame the mother of all obstacle courses to make it to the delivery room. This is the baby who beat out billions of other wanna-be humans vying to become one of us. The baby doesn’t yet know how truly exceptional and extraordinary he or she is, but we do.

It’s so easy to take the things in this world for granted. But knowing that your chances of ever experiencing them were so low, savor every moment. Feast your eyes on the sky, the grass, the trees, the animals, the people. Listen to the sounds of nature. Feel the breeze on your skin. Or the warmth of the sun. Do it knowing that you were so extremely close to never experiencing any of it at all.

We’ve all heard stories of people having a close brush with death, who subsequently have a new appreciation for life and live every day with newfound vigor. As you had a close brush with never existing at all, that’s the way you should live your life as well.

Such an attitude makes the ordinary become extraordinary. Mundane, routine things of life like waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, looking out your window, or driving down your street take on a whole new meaning with the realization that it was only you among billions of potential humans who ever got to experience such things.

Viewing life in this way also could help to cope with an early loss. A person may die young, but the key thing is that he or she lived. Having the opportunity to live at all, even if it’s only for a short time, is an extraordinary phenomenon.

This mindset also helps us accept ourselves as we are: our genetically determined traits that we may not be happy about, be they related to physical appearance, mental ability, predisposition for a certain disease, or other condition. If you had a different genetic make-up – i.e. if, during conception, there was a different mix of genes and therefore different sex cells joined to form the embryo – then you wouldn’t have been you. A different person would have been born in your place, and you wouldn’t have existed. So what would you prefer? Life with all of its flaws, or no life at all?

While we all should strive to rise to the top, be it in our careers or other endeavors, not all of us will get there. But don’t get too distressed about it. You already prevailed in one of the most intensely random and intensely competitive struggles known to nature: conception. The reward: the opportunity to commingle with the other winners on this ultra-fascinating planet. And at the top of the food chain to boot.

It’s akin to the professional football player who may never be on a team that wins the Super Bowl. Despite that, after all is said and done, for the rest of his life he can hold his head high that he was one of the elite few ever to have made it to the NFL.

Eyewitness to the World

As one of the fortunate few to be born into this universe, learn about and experience as much of it as you can. Read books or watch shows about the geologic wonders of our home, the earth. Get a telescope to eyewitness the vast marvels beyond our earth. Get a microscope to observe the universe of phenomena too small for the naked eye to see.

Or just perch yourself anywhere and observe the sights and sounds around you whatever they may be, marveling at this incredible place. Whether it be a natural wonder of the world or your neighborhood street, everything is extraordinary if you think about it hard enough.

And be thankful that you were born into this day and age. Apart from living more comfortably than any time in history, so much more is known about the world and universe than ever before; each of us made it into an incredibly multifaceted place about which there is an endless reservoir of information thanks to the efforts of scientists, researchers, and teachers who’ve come before us. Being lucky enough to be born into such an amazing place and not learning about and experiencing as much of it as you possibly can would be a tragedy indeed.

The natural and animal worlds are extraordinary enough. But just focusing on the continuing saga of humankind is a riveting, action-packed, non-stop adventure in and of itself. Crack open any history book for such an account. Check your favorite news outlet for the latest installments. And stick around to find out what happens next.

Thank An Asteroid

All other things being equal, without any particular one of us making life’s cut, there still would be people galore, just not us. But what if other things weren’t equal – what if a few things had been a little different in earth’s geologic history? Then, the human race likely would not have existed at all.

Scientists say the dinosaurs’ demise paved the way for the rise of mammals and the eventual evolution of humans. But what if the asteroid that allegedly led to the dinosaurs’ extinction had taken just a slightly different course and missed earth? Evolution would have taken a whole new trajectory. Intelligent life still may have evolved, but maybe not in the form of humans, so certainly not any of us.

There were plenty of other near-misses throughout geologic time as well. For example during the birth of our solar system, even a microscopic change in the original motion or mass of the components would have lead to massive changes in the final composition of the size and position of the sun and planets, according to astrophysicist Neil Comins, author of What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? With such changes, earth may never have supported life. Even if it did, the evolution of life likely would have taken a much different course, and none of us would have been here.

The Mother of All Lotteries

So not only were your chances of being here ultra low from a biologic perspective, but from a geologic perspective as well.

It’s like winning the lottery among a billion entrants, and then going on to win another lottery with another billion entrants. The odds are minuscule that any of us would do so. But when it came to life on earth, we all beat those odds.

You were given the ultimate gift, and there’s no way you should ever take it for granted. So celebrate life. Relish it. Marvel at it. Give thanks every day for your life. Go out and take advantage of all life has to offer. Never pass up an opportunity to get the most out of life as you possibly can. Look around right now and contemplate how close you came to never witnessing any of it.

Above all, treat other people with the respect and dignity that come with knowing that they, too, made the ultimate cut.

 

SIDEBAR:

The Winners’ Circle

Imagine that on an unannounced date sometime during the next 60 years, a lottery is going to be held. The prize: life. You have to be present to win, but you only can be present for two days of those 60 years. Not only that, but even in the highly unlikely event that you did show up on the right day, you’d be competing against a billion other entrants for the single prize. Winner take all. (Albeit a slight chance of two winners.)

So you don’t get your hopes up.

But guess what. As luck would have it, out of all of those 60 years or 21,900 days, you happen to show up on the very day of the lottery.

You’re stunned. But you still don’t get your hopes up, given the billion other entrants who showed up on the right day.

They carry out the drawing. And the winner is … you! You’re granted a life on earth as a human. You absolutely can’t believe your luck. Whether it was blind chance or divine intervention, you give profuse thanks to whoever or whatever gave rise to your extraordinary fate.

The life you’re granted has some flaws, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy a full lifespan. But who cares? You’re just ecstatic that you earned a life at all, given the gargantuan deck that was stacked against you. You really feel special, like you’re sitting on the top of the world, amid that vast and endless field of competitors you beat out. You were given the ultimate gift, and there’s no way you’ll ever take it for granted. You’re going to get the most out of it that you possibly can, do the most good that you possibly can, treat the prize with as much reverence and humility that you possibly can, and never forget where you came from.

Being granted the privilege of walking the earth, you look around and see lots of winners of other lotteries. Each of them happened to be present on the right day, too, and also beat out a billion other entrants to get here. You really feel a kinship with them, knowing that all of them, like you, overcame incredible odds to make it onto this highly exclusive planet. So you look upon them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Of course, the 60 years represents the length of time that your father’s body was producing sperm cells. Over a lifetime the average male produces anywhere from a half trillion to a trillion spermazoa. Each one is genetically unique. They only live for a few days at most. Your dad happened to pick the day that the sperm carrying half of your genetic code happened to be alive.

The average female meanwhile produces and releases about 400 egg cells over her lifetime. A new egg is released about once a month. The egg that contained the other half of your genetic code happened to be released shortly before your parents conceived you. As with the sperm cell, had any other another egg cell been released, the baby born on or around your birthday would not have been you.