Today is March 8 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you recognize the unpredictability of external factors?” Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well involves learning how to deal with external factors out of your control. No one escapes this. Everyone must realize they are unable to control almost everything in life. The only exceptions are your work ethic (physical dimension), your attitude (mental dimension), and your response (emotional dimension). Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well involve learning how to balance and leverage the physical, mental, and emotional dimensions available to you. Doing so can help you respond appropriately to the unpredictability of external factors.
In a January 18, 2021 Psyche article "The mathematical case against blaming people for their misfortune” David Kinney highlights the role of complexity science, specifically, computational complexity theory, in explaining the misfortunes that befall some people. Putting aside any political, social, moral, or economic reasoning, Kinney concluded “mathematically that there are hard limits on our capacity to make accurate and precise calculations of risk. Since it is often impossible to get a reasonable sense of what will happen in the future, it is unfair to blame people with good intentions who end up worse off because of unforeseen circumstances. This leads to the conclusion that compassion, not blame, is the appropriate attitude towards those who act in good faith but whose bets in life don’t pay off.” A brief glimpse into four external factors - industry leaders, governmental officials, competition, and market response - can shed some much-needed light.
· Industry leaders: For more than a decade, New York taxi industry leaders got rich by creating a bubble in the market for the city permits, known as medallions, that allow people to own and operate cabs.
· Government officials: An investigation by The New York Times found that government officials stood by as industry leaders artificially inflated medallion prices and channeled immigrant drivers into loans they could not afford to purchase the permits. The leaders reaped hundreds of millions of dollars before the bubble burst, wiping out thousands of buyers mired in debt.
· Competition: Though New York City caps the number of yellow cabs at just over 13,600, it does not limit the number of drivers for Uber, Lyft, or other services. (It does, unlike most US cities, require that ride-share drivers be licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.) The lack of regulation led to rapid growth as the number of cars available via ride share mobile apps skyrocketed from 105 in 2011, to 20,000 in 2015, and over 60,000 in 2018.
· Market response: With the number of medallions fixed, prices generally rose, peaking in 2014 at over $1 million—well outside the budget of many drivers, but good news for medallion owners who sometimes borrowed against them. Since then, though, prices have fallen sharply, as competition from ride-hailing services intensified. In January, seven medallions sold for under $200,000 each. Many drivers are deeply in debt—and a long way from the stable lifestyle they once expected.
Now let us pause for a moment and note the nuance involved. In other Navigate the Chaos posts the theme of creating one’s circumstances is discussed as a strategy. That is indeed true and people who often navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well do indeed figure out a way to create their circumstances amidst the unpredictability of external factors. This entire series, however, allows us the opportunity to pause and reflect for a few moments each day. As we consider today’s question, we should also reflect upon the nuance involved. For today, the nuance involves the recognition that while some people can indeed handle the unpredictability of external events, there are situations when those factors are simply too much for any one person to manage. In 2018 the unpredictability of external factors was so overwhelming for six New York City taxi drivers that they committed suicide. For those six individuals, and the countless other taxi drivers who suffer from mental health issues related to the unpredictability of these external factors today’s reflection challenges us to realize that people in poverty are not always responsible for their bad luck.
As Kinney noted “The limits of our ability to infer the complex causal structure of the social world, and the external factors involved, lead directly to the conclusion that blaming someone for their poverty is inappropriate. No matter how smart we think we are, there is a hard limit on what we can know, and we could easily end up on the losing end of a big bet. Despair thrives where empathy is missing; right now, our lack of compassion for one another is killing us. We owe it to ourselves, and others, to build a more compassionate world.” How often do you recognize the unpredictability of external factors? How do you react, or what do you think, when you encounter a poor person? Do you blame them? Are you really that sure of their life situation that you can blame their poverty all on them? Or, do you demonstrate compassion towards those less fortunate? The choice is yours.