I’m doing updated plans and budgets for Pajamas this weekend, and one thing I’m doing (which I typically do) is adding a line for “contingency.” For something relatively inchoate, I’ll typically budget 35% above expenses for contingency; as the projects mature and we get more control over what’s going on, I’ll lower it to 15 – 20%.
Sometimes it’s enough.
But the fact that I do that, and that that’s an intelligent thing to do in most cases, is a reflection that we all understand the contingency of things – that futures depend on present-day events that we don’t completely control.Some of those things are just outside our imagination and control – “unknown unknowns” as they say. The outside world doesn’t often behave as we expect it to, and so we build in reserves of various kinds to cope. Some of those things are things we expect, but hope to avoid. Employees will misbehave, projects will fail, critical vendors will demand payment early and critical customers will make payments late.
I’ve been fairly successful in many of the projects I’ve run because I expect these things to happen, and budget for them. That doesn’t mean I want them to happen, or that I don’t spend lots of energy working to keep them from happening. But I expect to fail sometimes in my efforts.
No one who succeeds in the world, after all, expects perfection in the real things they do. Good systems and good people who operate them are good exactly because they expect imperfection, and can compensate for it and still achieve the goals they set.
There’s a broader point here…
In the Sunday LA Times, Niall Ferguson, author of “Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire,” treats us to his view of World War II:
V-E Day — a Soiled Victory; A look at the WWII Allies’ moral shortcuts.
His litany is a familiar one to anyone familiar with World War II history: strategic bombing, the killing of innocents, the compromises with bloody Stalin to check bloody Hitler. But his conclusions are surprising – or ought to be, and sadly, are not.
None of this is intended to detract from the valor of the millions of Allied service personnel who lost or risked their lives in World War II. Nor is it to deny that the war had to be fought to rid the world of two of the most evil empires in all history. There is a moral difference between Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The Axis cities would never have been bombed if the Axis powers had not launched their war of aggression. And the Axis powers would have killed even more innocent people had it not been for the determination of the Allied powers to prevail.
Nevertheless, we would do well, this V-E Day, to face some harsh realities about the nature of the Allied victory — if only to remind ourselves about the nature of all wars. To win World War II, we joined forces with a despot who was every bit as brutal a tyrant as Hitler; we adopted tactics that we ourselves had said were depraved; and we left too many of those we set out to liberate firmly in the grip of totalitarianism.
For all these reasons, the victory we commemorate needs to understood for what it was: a tainted triumph.
The notion that it is ‘tainted’ – that we have acted throughout our history less than perfectly, sometimes awfully and therefore our history is tainted – underscores much of the thinking that I criticize in looking at ‘Bad Philosophy.’ It suffers from two defects in particular: it fails to ask tainted as compared to what? and it searches for and emphasizes commonality between the bad and the good by abstracting to a high level.
The first question – as compared to what? – is a critical one. I genuinely think that some people somehow believe that the world is a lab where perfect wars can be fought, or perfect legal cases made – or perfect businesses run, or perfect marriages maintained, or children can be perfectly raised. And if you can’t – if in retrospect, your parents damaged you, or the business execution was clumsy, or if a war was fought by soldiers who were on occasion brutal or if decisions were made in weakness, fear or anger that were – again in light of historical omniscience, bad – then the whole enterprise is certainly subject to question and certainly shouldn’t be celebrated.
Sadly, the legitimacy and social cohesion that societies need to ‘work’ come in some part from celebrations of their history, as awful and imperfect as it may be.
Ferguson may not care about social adhesion for this society; he may view it as beyond redemption and look forward to its collapse. He may not understand the role of history, particularly in a society like ours where ‘blood and land’ are not the roots of our self-understanding.
I do understand the role of history, and have no romantic notions about wiping our culture from the planet.
I’m not blind to the errors made and acts that can’t today be justified in World War II. But I understand them differently. I see men and women who were fallible, afraid, exhausted, enraged, and who did the best they could and whose best was thankfully damn good. I look at their mistakes as opportunities, not to criticize them from the safety of my position of retrospection, but to try and learn how we can – as we fumble through our own fallible, contingent history – learn.