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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Eggs or Mercedes - it's only a matter of degree

From page 465 of my copy of Vasilly Grossman's Life and Faith:
The canteen had six different menus: one for doctors of science, one for research directors, one for research assistants, one for senior laboratory assistants, one for technicians and one for service personnel. The fiercest passions were generated by the two highest-grade menus, which differed only in their desserts - stewed fruit or a jelly made from powder. Emotions also ran high over the food parcels delivered to the houses of doctors and research directors.

Savostyanov remarked that, in all probability, these parcels had stirred more passions than the theory of Copernicus.

Sometimes it seemed as though higher, more mysterious powers were involved in the arcana of rations allocation; that it did not depend merely on the Party committee and the administrators of the Institute.

`You know your parcel came today,' Lyudmila announced one evening. `What I can't understand is why Svechin, a nonentity in the scientific world, should get two dozen eggs, while you, for some reason, only get fifteen. I checked it on the list. You and Sokolov each get fifteen.'

`God knows what it all means,' said Viktor. `As you are aware, there are various classes of scientists: very great, great, famous, talented and - finally - very old. Since the very great and the great are no longer with us, they don't need eggs. The other receive varying quantity of egg, semolina and cabbage according to rank. But then everything gets confused by other questions. Are you active in society? Do you give seminars in Marxism? Are you close to the directors? And it comes out quite crazy. The man in charge of the Academy garage gets the same as Zelinsky - twenty-five eggs....

He tried to laugh at himself, but he couldn't get rid of his pathetic sense of irritation. He was more upset at being given the same s Sokolov than at being given less than Svechin. With Svechin everything was clear enough; he was a member of the Party bureau. This was something Viktor could accept. But with Sokolov it was a matter of relative scientific standing. That was something he couldn't ignore. He felt quite tormented; his indignation sprang from the very depths of his soul. What an absurd way for the authorities to show their appreciation of people! But what could he do?There are times when everyone behaves pathetically.

This passage made me think of how our tax system (past, current, and proposed) invokes similar thoughts of frustration and disgust among (some) people. Certain people are granted more in terms of dispensation from paying taxes than others, even if they are at the same income level because of the vagaries of the authorities in Congress or the Statehouse. The current political season is bristling with more calls for distribution from above rather than distribution based upon talent.

In Grossman's story the character Viktor is a physicist who has developed a theory that is called by some as `genius.' Upon Viktor's return from Kazan to war-time Moscow, Viktor hoped to be greeted by his colleagues and contemporaries with some form of appreciation. Mainly it seems he seeks intellectual appreciation. However, this passage indicates that he is willing to trade the intellectual appreciation for a signal of appreciation from those who dole out the eggs. In the end, the society in which he lives (Stalinist Russia) doesn't allow for intellectual appreciation, because of the risk of being denounced, and disincentivizes the bureaucracy to provide the latter.

It is a matter of degree - eggs versus Mercedes - yet the sense of frustration that would accompany even more drastic income redistribution that some promise would eventually translate into less incentive to exhibit talent and success.

Is there any lesson to be learned from Life and Faith, Atlas Shrugged, Anthem, We the Living, First Circle, 1984, Brave New World, Animal Farm? For some, but evidently not for others.

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I'm reading America's Great Depression. I recommend it. I will start on Brave New World after I finish.
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